Monday, September 14, 2009

Taking An Inch

I think I’ve found the Starbucks of Majnu ka Tilla. A rat that looked half-digested scurried across my path moments before I stumbled upon this oasis of fresh carrot juice and climate control, and the beggar waving his smooth shiny stump at me from the street outside reminds me that India is just one inch of glass away.

We’ve spent the last three days in the Tibetan Quarter of New Delhi, with the Yamuna River at flood heights unseen since the 1920’s roiling by just yards from the rear balcony of our guest house. We leave today for the Tibetan community of Mcleod Ganj in upper Dharamsala, and I’m practically panting with excitement at the thought of the long hikes, amazing encounters (including my third Dalai Llama date since last fall), and steaming bowls of thenthuk that await. We’ve booked ourselves onto what sounds like the swankiest form of wheeled transport I’ve ever taken in India, or so the ticket prices imply. If she’s sound, stays on the road, and free of random livestock poop salvos from overhead bins, I’ll count it a triumph.

The reluctantly departing monsoon has kept skies overcast and the daily high temps in the low nineties, which has been a blessed reprieve from the salwar-soaking oppression I recall from last September. We’ve let our charges loose on Delhi with little more than food per diem and tattered maps to bring them back to us safely at the end of the day, and despite the offers of hashish, “special” services from oily touts, and sacrum-shattering rickshaw rides, our group of fledgling adventurers remains thus far intact.

The tentative hope that we will not only make it through, but that I may actually be doing a service to India by bringing these people here is taking root, though every superstitious bone in my body has me wanting to spit twice while hopping over a broom backwards to ward off the evil eye such auspicious beginnings surely attract. I watch the students engage with the poverty, injustice, and food security that impact the vast majority of India’s population on a profound and daily basis, and they are not turning away or trying to change the channel. They’re registering the shock, the sadness, the guilt, even the disgust, and still staying curious about the problems and the solutions. The inexorably swelling Yamuna, as it slowly consumes the villages on its banks, has forced all of us to witness a drama of destruction and helplessness in the face of overwhelming force from our privileged perch, and I’m fairly clear that it is this potent presence that’s giving the students their first real lesson in India.

I know that India, like the Yamuna, will be swallowing and digesting our wandering village of fifteen in the next ten weeks in her own inevitable way. It feels like we are suspended in that moment just after something tremendous swallows you up, and just before it starts to work you between its molars like a cow with its cud. In the interim, I submit to the whir of frothing lattes, the embrace of what might be the most comfortable chair in India, and the cool comfort of one inch of glass.

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