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2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — Finalist

India: Finding Roots in a Foreign Land

Our two jeeps tumble through the narrow, curvy, dusty, pothole-filled streets, lined with the afternoon rush hour’s swarm of road-side vendors, children dressed in rags playing tag in the alleyways, elderly men sitting in circles on mats and chatting, workers transporting petrol in heavy tanks fixed onto flimsy bicycles and women preparing lunch on outdoor skillets. Traditional folk music bellows from the car stereo while the Sikh driver, wearing a black turban and sporting an unkempt, lengthy beard, honks at goats blocking traffic. Twelve students, including me, two teachers, and our pudgy cook, are on our way to Raamghar, a tiny, poverty-stricken Indian village of 1,000. Raamghar is nestled near the Garhwal mountain range, minutes from the Doon School, where I am taking part in an exchange program from Deerfield Academy. Our team is participating in a community service project in Raamghar, aiding in the construction of a school for the village children. 

We steer right into the entrance leading to our campsite, our shelter for the next four days. The village school is five kilometers down the road. Our jeeps swivel into the side street, full of jagged rocks threatening to burst a hole in our tires and tree limbs that hug our vehicles and spit leaves at our windows as we inch slowly down the path. More than once, our driver has to step out and remove a piece of the “road” to save the exterior of his jeep. In the area around our secluded living quarters sit three nearby huts and a farm, home to cows, chickens and goats.

Our campsite consists of four buildings positioned squarely around a tiled courtyard: a kitchen, sleeping quarters for the students, a separate one for the teachers and an outhouse.  For washing dishes and cleaning our hands, we utilize a slender, rusty water pump. After unloading all the food packed for our trip, oil, eggs, vegetables and flour, each of us receives a 7 by 2½ feet foam sleeping mat. Our room, no bigger than a one-car garage, is strikingly bare except for a small rug that does not cover the entire floor, a flimsy door to keep out the mosquitoes at night, and a window. We all fight to secure our mats on the most comfortable part of the stark floor, the section with the carpet. By the time I get settled in, I have managed to eke out a pathetic corner closest to the creaky door, with no rug beneath me. In our group, five are Doon School students and the rest, like me, are exchange students hailing from Germany, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. I am the only American. One of the Doon School students advises me not to reveal to anyone in Raamghar that I live in the U.S or that my family is originally from Pakistan. “Some people here are crazy fanatics,” he warns, patting me on the back. “Just say you’re from Delhi or Goa. Then you’re safe.”  

After everyone settles down, we change into rugged, ripped clothes and head off to begin work on the village school. Mr. Joshi and Mr. Nayer, our two chaperones, lead us to the bus stop along the main road. The ride to Raamghar is an unforgettable experience. The clunky, beat-up bus pauses at a stop at the sound of the attendant’s whistle. With the exception of the elderly and those with children, passengers only have a few seconds before the driver hits the gas. Every bus on the route has a colorful sign posted in both Hindi and English on the side of the vehicle: “I Love My India.” When I leap on the bus headed for the school, the spasmodic lurch forward of the battered old vehicle hurls me into an empty seat. The serrated dirt road ahead filled with dips and curves at odd intervals causes the surprisingly agile bus to bounce up and down to the beat of jumpy Hindi dance music playing from the radio. Some passengers sing along or tap their feet to the rhythm. Along with us for the ride that day are workers traveling to their jobs, students heading off to school and old women visiting friends in neighboring villages too far away to walk.

Soon, the school’s white dome comes into view. About forty students, the oldest among them twelve years old, sit in a circle outside a shrine to the Hindu God Shiva, decorated with yellow flags and banners. As we approach, they all respectfully stand up, place their palms together and in unison greet us, “Namaste!” Their manners impress me deeply. I could never imagine witnessing such a warm salutation upon visiting my old elementary school back in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

The unfinished classrooms await us behind the temple. Mr. Nayer assigns me a menial task—fishing out murky water from the nearby creek to transport in buckets to the building site for making plaster. Two eager boys volunteer to skip class and help me collect the water. While we squat at the arroyo, I try making conversation with my assistants, asking them their names and giving them encouragement. I speak in Hindi, but neither child seems to understand me. Mr. Nayer later tells me that although Raamghar is only ½ hour from DehraDun, a Hindi-speaking town, people in this village converse in a different dialect. This rich linguistic diversity prevails throughout India where dialects differ, sometimes radically, from town to town. 

After working for three hours straight, our exhausted crew takes a tour of Raamghar, a village without electricity or plumbing. People dwell in small huts and own a few farm animals but in general, live in dire poverty. The unpaved, uneven main street parallel the sewage that flows through open gutters along the roadside. Hornets, mosquitoes and flies make their nests in the thatched rooftops and swarm over trash thrown along the path. On the day before we leave Raamghar, I bring 3 pairs of T-shirts and pants to give away to families. Growing up, I remember stuffing old clothes into plastic bags and tossing them into Salvation Army canisters at the Thrift Store. Thus, I felt awkward donating the clothes directly and seeing the villager’s expressions as I hand over a pair of jeans. “Too big,” the father grumbles. Anxious, wide-eyed children crowd around him. He does not smile. His weary features focus on the article of clothing in his hands—his eyes refuse to meet mine. My cheeks turn a bright crimson and my eyes bow down—I am making a fool of myself, handing out clothes to complete strangers. After my encounter with this man and my two assistants at the elementary school, I cannot help but feel like a farangi, a foreigner, a culturally-naïve American tourist trying to make friends with poverty-stricken Indian villagers and then returning home to the luxurious living standards at Deerfield Academy that I take for granted. Although this man lives in a tiny, poor village, not even on a map, I admire his dignity that pushes him to feel embarrassed at accepting my donation. 

Back at camp, I gobble up a light supper of rice mixed with gravy—up until the last day of my three-week stay in the largely Hindu, vegetarian country, I never touch meat or chicken and my mother swears that I am starkly thinner when I arrive back at Logan Airport. The other students and I play cards until ten, then fall asleep to the soothing melody of the grasshoppers’ choruses and the sweet aroma of mosquito repellent. That night, I think about how out of place I feel in Raamghar. That word seems imprinted on my forehead for everyone to see—farangi

The next day begins with an after-breakfast game of cricket, a highly popular sport throughout the Asian subcontinent. We rotate our positions during the game—I bat and play outfielder. Whenever the batter misses the pitch, the ball rolls into a grain field behind us and someone must run out to retrieve it. About ten minutes into the game, an old man dressed in a gray traditional shalwar kamiz and topi angrily storms into the makeshift arena, raising his hands and directing trembling fingers at each of us while lamenting in Urdu. Everyone hurries out into the courtyard and Mr. Nayer attempts to calm the villager down, placing his hands on the man’s shoulders and mumbling gentle words, while we all stand like meek trees—none of us dares move a muscle. 

Mr. Nayer finally relates to us the cause for the elder’s outrage—by trampling over the field to retrieve the balls, our game has cost this man 100 rupees of his grain output for the year. The trodden part of his field can no longer be sold in the market. “Muaaf Kijiye.” “Please forgive us,” we plead with the villager. By this time, the man has ceased shouting and waving frantically and, now that he has our attention, goes on to lecture us on the gravity of our actions. He uses the powerful Urdu word nuqsaan, meaning “deep loss,” to describe the consequences our little cricket game has inflicted on his livelihood. A lump forms in my throat—I retrieved balls from the field three times that game and hold partial responsibility for a portion of the loss of this poor, old farmer’s income. The man’s face has the texture of weary leather and his flaming eyes rest below a pyramid of wrinkles. The drama ends after ten minutes—we return to our room and the man, hands clasped behind his back, shuffles back home, half angry and half triumphant—although he has lost his grain, he at least had a chance to deliver his sermon for the day. 

The cool breeze that evening inspires us to continue our cricket game down by the nearby stream next to the large grass field. While Mr. Joshi and the students play and cheer, I abandon my sandals on the shore of the stream and step into the shallow water to cool my nerves and swollen feet. Ahead, the sun is merging into a landscape of tall, snow-covered mountains, dotted with lights from the small human alcoves settled on the majestic creations. Between the mountains and me lies a half-mile expanse of rocks, pebbles and weeds. To my left, a farmer has led his cattle to the river to drink and bathe in the refreshing water after a hard day’s work. Apart from me, the cattle and the boys playing behind me in the field, no other human soul shares this evening’s Shangri-La. I let my mind wander as my eyes gaze at the setting sun—I think of the man in the topi, and the millions of others like him who struggle so hard to get by in India, their homeland and their history. 

I peer over my shoulder—the old farmer has come to observe the cricket game next to Mr. Nayer. I stand up and approach the elderly man. I desperately want to extend my apologies for what happened to him, but my level of Hindi does not permit such an elaborate expression. Mr. Nayer points to the man with the topi and grins, “He’s from Pakistan too, Hassan!” The old man offers a meek twitching of his mouth and my heart lifts. I find out that he migrated from Lahore after partition in 1947 and came to settle in Raamghar. Finally I feel connected to this place in some way.

My eyes glisten as I watch the cricket game with the old man and I cannot help but beam with pride—I think of how these people, my people, overthrew their British oppressors and cast its ruthless occupiers out from this land sixty years ago, when a Pakistani and Indian were one in the same—one nation. Mr. Nayer yells frantically and everyone on the cricket field quickly lies flat on the ground as a swarm of wild bees one-thousand strong flies over us and heads toward the mountains.

As everyone packs up and shuffles back home, I lag behind to watch the sun fade below the horizon and the farmer return home with his content cattle. My heart has roots in this ancient soil. My ancestors settled here a millennia ago along the winding, rhythmic river of the Indus Valley. I slide my feet into my sandals, wave Khuda Hafiz to the old man with the topi and run back to camp, liberated. 


Namaste!: A greeting
Farangi: Foreigner
Shalwar Kamiz: Traditional dress consisting of pants and a long shirt worn down to the knees
Topi: Traditional hat
Muaaf Kijiye: Please forgive (me, us)
Nuqsaan: Deep loss
Khuda Hafiz: May God be with you (equivalent to good-bye)

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