Eternal India: counting minutes across the distance

YOU wait a lot in India; you can't avoid it. Waiting becomes part of your body like eating, sleeping, breathing, and talking. I waited as the train rolled up the east coast from Madras to Calcutta. I journeyed to see Chakra, an Indian I had met on the ship from Marseille to Bombay. The train arrived at Howrah Station about noon. Then I took a No. 8 bus to the end of the line and hired a rickshaw. The driver could not find 1/4 CR Colony Road, and whenever he paused for directions, a crowd gathered. We went down a lane, past a pond, and stopped. This was it and there was no Chakra.

I waited. A crowd gathered. The family expected me, only no Westerner had ever visited their home, and they shied at making their appearance. Finally, Chakra's wife appeared. She said Chakra was not home. I was shown where to bathe and offered food.

At last Chakra arrived. Two sisters were introduced. They nodded and fled. Chakra took me for a walk. I felt like a new car being driven around the neighborhood.

The community resembled a vast home, with my room two hundred feet down a narrow hall between many other rooms. I shared my room, a palm leaf and bamboo hut, with Chakra's youngest brother, Ashoke.

I crawled under the mosquito netting to sleep, the bed, a mattress upon ropes tied across a wood frame. The noises of the night - Bengali music, people in nearby rooms, barking dogs - led me into a restless sleep.

Chakra's voice outside my room awoke me. We ate a breakfast of puffed rice, fried coconut, butter oil (ghee), and sugar. The women did not eat with us. Neither did Chakra's father, who knew I was a guest - everyone knew of the European in their midst. Being Brahman, he could not take food with me.

On the third evening it was Ashoke's turn to take me for a walk. Upon our return, we saw his grandfather working by the light of a kerosene lantern. We entered his room. He lay on a raised platform, on his side, his head resting on a pillow. He resembled Chakra, but his hair and mustache were white. He told me to sit on a stool before him.

At the edge of the lantern light sat the younger daughter. Off in the shadows sat her sister. Grandfather ordered his pipe, and in a minute grandmother brought it. The pipe, resembled a snake charmer's flute.

He appeared magical, lying there, upon the dais: the shadows filled with the wide haunting eyes of the young women; the old man, wrapped in a white dhoti; the slow gurgle of the pipe; the serpentine rise of the smoke.

His English came in bits and pieces, and Ashoke translated. Grandfather began: ``It's new for one like you to visit our poor home.'' He said: ``We are poor people and don't have much, but we are well educated.''

He told me he was three times my age. He warned me of the dangers of travel. He spoke of his wife's complete devotion to him and how the family had lost everything when they fled East Bengal.

Then he asked about my family, about our marriage customs. These were the important things to him: family and marriage. There he lay, this old man, godlike, surrounded by sons, daughters, wife, and grandchildren.

I told him about the climate where I came from in Minnesota. My words were filled with snow and ice and deep, silent cold. I told him how this affects our material life. He laughed and said: ``You must think of us as naked wild men.''

When our talk ended, he said he would not be here next time I came.

On my last day, while I rested in my room, grandfather came by to draw water from a well by my hut. He said that he felt for me as his son and that he would think of me.

Chakra came to say food was ready, that we must hurry. I took my final meal of rice, vegetables, and fish. We took pictures. The whole family arranged itself. The women giggled.

I said goodbye to grandfather, grandmother, wife, sons, son-in-law, daughters, and grandchildren. The family followed me down the path along the pond. The neighborhood joined the procession. Ashoke carried my bedroll to the rickshaw. There he gave me his picture.

At Howrah, Chakra went to buy a platform ticket; I ran for the train. I battled through the crowd to my seat, piled my things on it, then joined Chakra on the platform. I thanked Chakra, but my words failed to express my feelings. I tried to convey them in my handshake. The whistle blew; I jumped on the train.

I hung out the window. Small Chakra turned and bumped his nose into the shoulder of the man next to him. He looked up at me and smiled. I waved to him. The train pulled out, and I began the wait to Delhi.

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