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Friday, October 2, 2009

The Trip pt. 1: Ballarshah

Due to buying the tickets so late, there was no way we could get a train for Bangalore to Chandigarh for arriving on the 27th. So, we had to mix and match trains, and took a quick detour. To where? The town of Ballarshah in Maharastra.

We stepped onto the train at about 10pm at night, and slept soundly. The journey was supposed to take 19 hours, and we expected to reach Ballarshah (next to Ballarpur) at around 5:30 pm. I woke up that morning dreading the long day ahead. Sitting on a train for so long can bring out any number of emotions - from bored and lethargy, to excitement and interest, anger, sadness, joy, and more. You really never know what to expect.

The further north we got, the more the weather changed. And as the weather changed, the more I wished I was in Bangalore. What I didn't (fully) realize before is that as far south as Bangalore is, it is also much higher in altitude than other Indian cities. So instead of getting cooler as we went north, it grew warmer. Ahem, let me correct myself, hotter.

It's that humid kind of heat that you don't really sweat, but moisture just accumulates on you, and it feels just like sweat. Wipe it away all you want, it comes right back. Gazing into nothing out the window of the train, I noticed a large barn in the distance. The fact that I saw a barn wasn't exactly what was strange, what caught my eye was that it said "BALLARPUR" on the side. I looked at my watch. 2:15pm. But we weren't supposed to reach Ballarpur until almost 5 or later.
"Hey John? That shed just said Ballarpur...."
Confused, he tried to see it, but we had already passed. Then the train slowed down, and came to stop at a station. I jumped off to stretch my legs and look for a sign, but couldn't see anything. As I was walking around I hear, "NORM! This is the stop, we gotta get off!" Before the train could take off again, I rushed on board and grabbed my belongings.

This is where the happiness comes in. Expecting to arrive at a certain time, and really arriving around 3 hours early. We stepped off the train again to the smiling faces of John's cousin Bunty (real name is Prasana) and his Uncle, Prakash. They greeted us with hand shakes and hugs, and offered to take our bags. The heat seemed to disappear.

We left the Ballarshah train station, and entered the small town of Ballarshah. I quickly learned that in this town of Maharastra people often stay indoors or in shade between 11 and 5. For 2:30pm, this was the quietest Indian town I've ever seen. I hope you can try and imagine what the sun must have felt like. For even native people who have lived here, they have to stay inside. As much life as it gives, the sun is one deadly s.o.b.

The rickshaw ride was a short journey to John's grandfather's house. Being such an isolated town with no real tourist attraction, my white skin seemed to attract more stares and glares then has been the standard while here. As an example of how out of place I was, this happened to me a couple days later:

John's aunt from the other side of the family (his Mom's) also lives in this town. So he invited me over to her house to have lunch one afternoon. They spoke even less English than his Dad's side (the people with whom we were staying), and he told me that if I wanted to take off and walk home after lunch, that was cool. So after some delicious chicken, rice, a dal, curd, and a plethora of other Indian foods, I stepped out into the unrelenting sun and began my short journey home. The houses weren't very far away from each other, but I still had to navigate my way through this foreign town - so it could have easily become a long, lost journey.

Upon turning one corner, I was walking up a small hill. To the left, brick walls with smoke stacks behind it, issuing their black, acrid smoke into the air. On the right hand side were some two story houses, one with an alley in between the back of the houses. As I walked past the alley way, a man was simultaneously walking out of the alley. I looked up, he looked up at me, and just as if he saw a ghost (no pun intended), he jumped out of his skin. He took two steps back, eyes wide, and nearly fell on his back. I kept walking calmly, trying not to react to his surprise, but realized he had stopped moving. He was staring me down - and as I turned around to look at him again, the expression on his face was... well how do I describe it. He was in such disbelief - looking at me as if I didn't really exist. I half expected him to walk away scratching his head, torn by thoughts if what he saw was real.

Then I thought - do I look at tourists like this in America? When I am in the states and see a tourist, do I stare at them as they stare at me here? For now, I can't say....

So back track - we arrived at Dada's (Grandpa in Hindi) house. John's aunt was there, and his two cousins Rahel, and Monica. Warm greetings from the family, as usual. Also, the giant water cooler fan in the room wasn't a bad addition to making the atmosphere more tolerable. We sat for a while chatting, half in English, half in Telugu or Hindi, recounting stories of what everyone has been doing.

That day was used for relaxing only. Sitting outside, reading the paper, taking a nap, we had no worries on our mind, and full stomachs to boot. The next part of the story I will recount with something I had written while in Ballarshah (with some stuff added in):

"Hearing "yes brother?" was nice. A good change from hearing mister, or sir. Well, my impression changed when I realized the connection - the reality of why they said brother. (It was still a nice change to hear for a while).
His grandfather, "dada", was the first in the family to switch to Christianity and change the last name to John. Son of a coal miner, he very clearly repeated his father's words to me: "Don't go into the mines." With very few other industries in the area (that were considered 'safe'), I guess becoming a pastor wasn't a bad idea.
When I awoke on the first morning, there were two phrases I had heard. "Good morning Brother" or "Praise the Lord." Or possibly some combination of the two. When his Uncle had awoken from his nap, he looked at me, a wide smile spreading across his face, and only said, "ahhh, praise the lord."
Even upon meeting other family members (whether from John's Mother or Father's side), I did not shake hands with people and hear "nice to meet you". Instead, I shook hands and was told "praise the lord". Even when meeting Christians in America I had never heard that.
Other than that, the way the culture of many Indian families operates closely resembles the culture of Italian families. Or perhaps it's not so much cultural distinctions, but just trademark examples of happy families. How they communicate, how they eat, talk, laugh, hang-out, it all made me quite nostalgic of my family back home and Italy as well. The importance of the family is extremely important in both cultures, and this, to me, was important.
There is one grave distinction though. I say grave, but that's just my western cultural misunderstanding speaking. I'll explain later why it's not grave at all. The women. Oh the women. Women, women, women.
My Mother once told me a story of her only encounter with an Indian family in England. I would always say, "Yeah, yeah that's India" when she told me, but the truth is I just blew it off because I hadn't literally experience it yet. My first trip to India, I must way, was quite a watered down experience. This one, has been a lot more.... involved, I suppose.
This is how it appears from an outsiders view, before any understanding or dialog takes place: Men eat, women cook. Men eat, women wait on men. Men sit, women clean. Men sit, and then women eat. Then everyone sleeps after all the duties are taken care of. One of John's cousins, Rahel, or Pinki for a pet name, is quite a beautiful, intelligent young woman.
At 22, she speaks beautiful English, but stopped going to school after 12th grade. And she is a fantastic cook as well. She is the oldest woman in the household, and therefore does most of the cooking, cleaning, washing etc, along with the help of her younger sister, Moni. After talking to hear briefly, I learned a bit of her past, how she stopped going to school and is now working for the local church ministry and helping children. I can't judge, but I wonder if she realizes the power she has - to get educated, to go abroad, to learn about the world, other cultures, etc etc.
I don't know where I'm going with this, but I think because my background encompasses "free" women, educated women, traveled women of all types, and here I have an experience with a women. Just a women that doesn't fit into that category. So naturally, I wouldn't assume that she is "free". In one aspect, "bound" by the constraints of society and family, performing only her duties at 22, yet still so unbelievably happy and amiable. And still, being able to help people and children in her area. So, who is more free?
Perhaps freedom is more than having the infinite number of choices that so many westerners have... It seems all the choices can cause more problems as well. Insecurity, uncertainty, always wondering, questioning the big "what if?"....
Perhaps freedom is accepting the current state of fate you are in and choosing to be happy. But then again, if you are raised to believe happiness is only the sum of external forces, you will constantly be changing your wold. Constantly searching for that perfect "happiness equation." Yet, through all these variables have you stopped and said, "wait, I can just choose to be happy?" Only you can really answer that.
But back to women.....
Here's the deal: When Uncle comes to ask if I want some tea, and we are all sitting around, I am divided how to answer. Personally, yes, I want tea. It's always delicious, and tasty. In reality, I don't really want to say yes because then he will send one of the women to make tea for us. Even if they are sitting, reading, relaxing or doing nothing. As if they don't have enough work to do....

Now, back to the comment on using "grave" distinctions between families. I can't get over the women situation, that's just how it is. I can only accept it as an old traditional way of thinking, based on a patriarchal society. I've brought it up a couple times how I would feel more comfortable if we all ate together, and it seems unfair that they (both men and women at this point) wait on me hand and foot to make sure I am happy. When I ask about it, there is only one simple response that is so deeply integrated into the Indian mindset, there is no point of trying to change it.

"Treat your guests like they are Gods" or in Sanskrit: "Atithi Devo Bhava" which literally means "The guest is God."

Which means, if you are all eating together, and you want something else, a host can't concentrate all his/her attention on you because they are eating. So if they are not eating, they will be able to easily help you with whatever you need.

All in all, its interesting and a way of thinking that is so removed from a western mindset. I in NO WAY mean removed in a bad way, just something we're not used to. When we have guests, it's important to be a good host, but that means eating together, being communal in food and drink, etc. How you choose to live your life is simply your choice, neither way is more right than the other.

Based off this wonderful hospitality, Uncle was able to show me the open and closed cast mines - one of the major industries in the town. Coming up, part two: The mines!


  1. Extensive scholarly research show that the true origin of the saying that the guest is divine is actually "Kartaara Devo Bhava".

  2. Hi,
    At dinner last night we were discussing your experiences with a group and one of them made a comment I think you will appreciate.(We do that alot, especially when we are with one of your followers)
    He said,"I keep telling people I've been to India, but when I read Norman's Blog I realize I was there just as a tourist and never saw the real India".
    That's the payoff Norm,
    you have the opportunity to see and hopefully understand the real India.

  3. Nice story Norman.
    I'm so happy that you finally,after all these years, understand my experience with Munir's Indian family in London. For me it was even harder because I was the Honored Guest and treated as such even if I was a woman while the other female members of the family were all standing back while all the men and I ate this 20 course dinner.
    Well you should have seen their faces when after the meal I tried to carry my dish into the kitchen. I learned real quick that many times it is very offensive to try to change any of their traditions or even to alter them for a minute. My trying to carry my dish into the kitchen might have seemed not helpful but insulting. So I stopped dead on my tracks because I realized that it was insulting.
    I'm so happy that you are seeing and learning so much, in the end will be an even better person.
    Love Mom