Since returning home from Himachal Pradesh in late March, and having travelled only two days later to Sawai Madhopur with Lea, I’ve been extremely exhausted. Plus my allergies have really been taking over due to the change in season. It is extremely hot in Gajner now, literally every single day. With plus 40-degree weather, and an amazing Wizard of Oz-like storm here and there, you can tell the monsoon season is ahead (and it should reach here by mid to late June).
In the last two weeks, I’ve been working on expanding our cluster and developing more long-term goals and objectives for the projects we are currently working on including the after-school program, young women’s association and overall waste management project. Last week Lea and I went for a stroll over to the neighboring village, Chandasar, where Manoj lives, to help us conjure up new project ideas and goals for the expansion of the Bikaner cluster. We took the shortcut, passing by the beautiful pink temple that can be seen from our rooftop, and continued walking along the sandy road that separates both villages with the Brick Kiln in-between. Chandasar is just beyond the small railway station that sits at the border of the village. There are two main streets, a handful of shops (but lots of closed down commercial space unfortunately) and hundreds of children. It’s like every family had ten kids to help populate the two-kilometer wide village. We walked slowly, chatting and taking in the sights of the dusty and quiet streets. As we approached a school just on the outskirts of the village, a slew of children came following behind us. Asking us dozens of questions per minute, we answered as best we could and then accepted an invitation for chai at young girls home. Her name is Jashoda. She was still in her school uniform as she guided us to her house; a light blue, collared short t-shirt and a long blue skirt in a darker shade that started from her belly button and finishing just above her ankles. She has a cute little round face with a few freckles, wide smiling eyes and a mouth filled with a mix of adult and baby teeth. As we followed, more and more children seemed to appear, walking behind us giggling. It looked as if a parade was occurring. As we entered the boundary of her home, women and men from the surrounding area noticed us and shrieked in excitement, running toward us at alarming speeds with babies, goats and bundles of vegetables still in hand. We sat with the children and let them greet us with sandalwood paint on our foreheads, new bracelets around our wrists, chai and Parle tea biscuits. We met Jashoda’s four other sisters, her very sweet father and raspy voiced mother who can understand a little bit of English but struggles with stringing sentences together. We sat for an hour or so then caught a ride back into Gajner. We arrived home with huge smiles spread across our faces, overjoyed to tell the others about our visit. We promised we would visit the family again the following Monday and we kept our promise, arriving just after 4 pm to find all the girls patiently awaiting our arrival. Manoj joined us this time so we could introduce him to the family. We sat with the girls and other children from the village while making friendship bracelets and getting to know more names. Apparently the children had been waiting all day for 4pm to arrive, filled with excitement in the hopes of seeing our faces again. It did became a little overwhelming near the end of our visit though as more and more people tried to squish into the small room where we were sitting, hoping to get a glimpse of us and to shout out their hundreds of questions (which are all the same – what is your name, what is your country, what is your fathers name). Although I was sincerely enjoying myself, my exhaustion took over. “Manojbhai! Choti kamra, bahut parivar!” Manoj brother! Small room, too much family! We said our goodbyes to everyone and promised to return the next day for a sleepover with the girls. We thought this to be a great opportunity for community development in the neighbouring village and for possibly involving the family in our eco-homestay project as well as generally being an asset to the future centre we are hoping to setup in Chandasar. And of course, we didn’t really want to admit it at first, but both Lea and I completely fell in love with these little girls and the amazing men and women living in the houses nearby. We were thrilled that the girls had invited us to visit again.
Our sleepover the following night was a late one filled with food, dozens of chai and dancing until two in the morning. Myself, Jashoda and her two sisters Sita and Bhindia danced and danced while Lea jumped in and out struggling with the food coma they had put her in. Sita is a hilarious and very tiny 16-year-old with the energy of a 10-year-old, and boy can she dance! Bhindia is about 8-years-old and the most beautiful little girl I’ve ever seen. She wore a pretty blue skirt and tank top ensemble for our sleepover that was completely covered in sparkles. She even slept in it like a princess. She has beautiful lightly tanned skin, the colour of coffee with a little too much cream poured into the glass, beautiful brown eyes and golden coloured hair. Her face is of a Bollywood star and her smile stretches from ear to ear every time she catches your eye. Although the family insisted Lea and I sleep together in the single cot they offered us, I let Lea take it (especially since we share a queen size bed in our own home – it’s nice to have some distance sometimes) and opted for sleeping beside the giggling girls on layers and layers of blankets on the floor. It was a hot night and I was exhausted but I couldn’t help but open my eyes every few seconds and smile at the three of them who were still filled with excitement and joy even in the wee hours of the morning.
The entire week was just phenomenal. So many great things are happening for our projects and so many new memories are being stored in the vault of my fantastic life experiences. God, I am the luckiest girl in the world. I also had quite an experience with the Kumari’s this week, Rekha’s family. Monday in the early afternoon, I bounced along the main road heading back from Indra Colony, the migrant community, excited for my daily visit with “my family” where I know their routine for the day and exactly what to expect upon arrival: hugs, kisses from little Harseet, pani, lunch (which is usually forced fed because I’m never hungry by 12:00pm), followed up a family chat session, chai and then I usually stroll on home to finish up paper work that I always schedule for the hottest part of the day. The middle sister, Jashoda (it’s a popular name), finally moved back home from Sri Ganganagar, a village sitting right at the border of Rajasthan and Punjab, where she has been taking care of her Dadiji, grandmother, for the past few months while she has been ill. She’s been back in Gajner for a few weeks now and even though we only met for the first time in mid-March, it’s like we’ve known each other our whole lives. It’s kind of like that with the whole Kumari family. They treat me like their own daughter and shower me with love, affection, and respect, even gifts!
As Rekha drew beautiful mahindi designs on the side of Lea’s foot, I chased Harseet around the house as he giggled away. Every time Lea and I play with Harseet we start a hilarious discussion of how much we want babies. Specifically Indian babies, which Lea has expressed to her very French and very white boyfriend Jerome – hilarious! Mama glanced at us over her glasses, which sit at the edge of her nose when she is sewing. Watching me chase the little one around the house, she smiled with adoration in her eyes while continuing her work. She began to say something in Hindi. I understood a little of it and asked Rekha to explain. Before Mangilal was born, the eldest son, mama had lost a baby girl about six months after her birth. She looked at me with tears behind her eyes as Rekha told us of the misfortunate mataji and papaji had lived through. Mama counted us out, pointing to Jashoda, Rekha, mentioning Mangilal, Rajesh and Anju who were not present at the moment and then pointed to me. “It’s okay because I have Jashoda, Rekha, Anju, the boys and you now”. It caught me off guard when she mentioned it. I love them all to death and I know they truly do love me and accept me as a family member, even Harseet has called me aunty bua before, but something about her smile made me think of the beautiful belief that Hindu’s have: reincarnation and the chance to live a second life, or more. After death, your soul is placed within another human or animal form and you live on through that physical. Am I the daughter mataji lost? Her soul reincarnated? It would definitely explain why I have always been so fascinated by this beautiful country, even at a young age. Is it fate that I was sent to them and that I some how found them on a random sunny day while looking for a tailor? Maybe there is more to my Indian-like first name other than the fact that my father was a jazz pianist. My mind raced with crazy thoughts. These are things that would have never crossed my mind at home in Canada but here, where I’m surrounded by this fantastic spiritual and religiously-bound community, I seem to wonder and ask myself such crazy questions. “I have her soul within me, mama” I finally replied, with my hand on hers. Then she smiled that smile. You know, the one your mother gives you when you tell her something that will be in her heart forever? That smile. She’s probably given you that smile a thousand times but you’ve never thought to let the image settle in your memory for you to pull out and visualize when you are far from her. Well, I’ll always remember that smile on both Santosh’s, mataji's, and my own mother’s face.
Something about mataji reminds me of my own mother, on the other side of the world. A little bit of sass and attitude, an overwhelming need to mother and cherish everything around her. A very hard worker, a knowledgeable woman with a strong opinion, a confident stance and one of the biggest hearts ever given to the human race. That’s my mother, both of them, Santosh and Katherine.
I am still questioning if I truly do believe in reincarnation or not, but I do believe there is more to who we are than what is portrayed in this life - in this “time around”. It’s a fascinating topic and it truly does blow my mind that a whole community within a religion believes in it with so much heart. Even when you say goodbye to someone you say phir milenge which translates to see you again either in this life or the next.
I am so surrounded by love here. How could I ever imagine going back to a world filled with stressed out, overworked, miserable zombies who don’t take enough time to appreciate their loved ones and the amazing people that surround them? I should take this time to send a shout out to my fantastic friends at home and my amazing family who always supports me. And to my dear mother, thank you for that smile. I visualize it every time I do something that I know would make you proud.
…but I definitely didn’t visualize it when I got that stupid mouth piercing in Pushkar last month… (you’ll see it next week in Mumbai…it’s actually pretty cool)…