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a letter from india

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Bill Metz is a retired nuclear physicist and science writer. We worked and lived together at the monastery a while back and have the same birth date. Bill’s appears to be travelling in India and sent this letter:

Before I left for India, someone said the thing he most wished I would find out was this: with so much poverty, breaking work, sickness, congestion, how did the people hold such a deep cheerfulness?   

traffic indiaI’m not knowing the answer, but am experiencing deeply moving clues that could lead to his answer. Everyone is always aware of everyone. [Nobel Laureate] V.S. Naipaul has an image in one of his books of a young boy going up to the hill above his village at night and listening: The buzz he hears is “the sound of India talking.” The buzz I hear is the waking of my village before dawn, the motoring of the fishing boats out to sea. On the roads, vehicles move with startling audacity to fill every empty niche, no matter the lane speed danger or direction. And they are always swinging back just in time, augmenting the flow, just like a school but now of fishes. 

After six weeks I am so confident that the fishes will always pair up smoothly that I enjoy watching the perfect hand-offs and catches, as if huge lorries, buses, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, and walking people were all dancers performing a perfect choreography. For three weeks now, I have been taking the Indian everyman’s bus to get from my lodgings to Pondicherry thirty minutes away.

buses indiaIt is huge and crowded:  a door for men and one for women, an olive-uniformed conductor always yelling in Tamil: nagagaddada,gadanaggaga, collecting 3 Rupees from young and old, male and female, firm and infirm. Extra grab bars needed because most hours of the day standing room is PACKED. People sit in the front window, on the driver’s lap, hang out the doors (15 year-old boys especially enjoy this). And somehow, no one’s feet get stepped upon.

Very old men usually need to be helped into the bus. Rail-thin, in a western shirt, and wrapping cloth at the waist, bare legs, weak from little food, many don’t speak. This morning a very elegant old man, with clean shirt, got on shakily. He seemed too frail to stand, but couldn’t see any seats. I caught his eye and pointed toward the front window. Three other people noticed, and one stood for him. You could feel a concerted, euphoric movement. Without any questioning gaze, he settled knowingly, calmly into his space. 

geckoThe gecko caught my eye this evening.  He was in the bottom of a meter-deep dry cistern with smooth straight sides. It was nearing sunset; I was boiling potatoes at the guesthouse and measuring the time by doing a walking meditation: walk, pause, turn, slowly walk. It was at a pause and turn I noticed the gecko. He leaped and fell back. Finding a longish stick, I laid it into the cistern from center to top. And kept walking. A few passes later the gecko moved toward the stick and froze. I never saw him climb the stick. But about the time the potatoes were done, the stick was still there and the gecko was gone.


One response »

  1. What a lovely description of his time in India.
    “How do the people hold such a deep cheerfulness” in spite of their hardships……this reminds me of my recent time in Mexico. It came to me while riding the local buses and observing the ordinary Mexicans riding with me, that they are happy in spite of their suffering. We in North America seem to seek comfort and security first, while in Mexico and many other parts of the world, the family comes first.


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