Namaste

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“My soul honours your soul. I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honour the light, love, truth, beauty & peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things we are united, we are the same, we are one.”

Having lived in New Delhi as a foreigner, not that I often felt that way but still, functioning in a city that is a living breathing monument of its heritage and cultural heartbeat I guess we expat’s stand out. Though we may wear the clothes, soak up the festivities, get our feet dusty wearing chappals* all year round and sampling the street food, unless you’re one of those fortunate souls who can thoroughly imbibe the deep seated culture, you’re still somewhat of a surface dweller, enjoying all the wonderful offerings that India has to give, but still replying under your laughter “thora-thora” (“little by little”) when someone asks if you can speak Hindi. The truth is that not only do foreigners mostly never grasp the language, it’s thora-thora to most things about the Indian culture that many will never truly understand.

And so we float along with our very western identities trying oh so hard to fit in; after some time we can even recommend suitable high-tea venues and share drivers but even so, we can’t mask our tendencies. And in any case, why should we. As westerners we’re a robust band of travellers who love absorbing the duality and richness that so many destinations afford. We love it because we so often feel that these experiences in age old rituals and family customs etched in local language fill a cultural void that is lost in the West. And so it is no surprise when foreigners come to live in Australia or any western country, that their tendencies, social connections and even their language are never far behind.When you live overseas, especially one marked by a tapestry thousands of years in the making, the best you can really do is to absorb the first and most one dimensional of layers, every layer resting beneath will be your own fabric of social conditioning, familiarity and perspective and you naturally take that with you wherever you go. How funny anyone could ever think this could be entirely discarded.

When you travel, each country becomes another weave in your shawl of experience and as you wrap it tightly around your shoulders these experiences give you the warmth of treasured moments, joyous discoveries and a new depth of companionship with the people you’re lucky enough to traverse the journey with. Each of these new senses seep under your skin, gradually shaping and changing you until you blossom with the idea of who you are ultimately meant to become. Perhaps my own experience has been somewhat topsy-turvy because living in Delhi I didn’t hold on to my western ways, not overtly anyway and now that I’m in Australia, it is easier for me to preserve my Indian habits. And mostly the world is pretty okay with this kind of blended identity. Some years ago I found myself in a vortex of Indian culture with a social circle made up almost entirely of friends who were determined to create the Punjab on the Northern Beaches, we would literally go to the beach in the height of an Australian summer and start cooking channa and roti on gas fuelled hot plates, the ultimate in mixing cultures and we loved it.

We all have a longing to be accepted for who we are, we all have the right to be our true selves no matter where we travel or live and yet we still have so far to go in terms of affording each other the same liberties we hold as sacred. Until I lived overseas I questioned why people held on to their beliefs so vehemently, dressed in a saree or kaftan downtown, only ate hokkien noodles or why people clustered together even while others made comments about their inability to integrate. To be fair, they’ve probably integrated enough, probably stretched out of their comfort zone with all their strength and so these outward customs help them share their identity and tell their story. They are the links that bind.

I am reminded of the philosophy of so many Indian Mystics who impart to us that all of these outward customs and expressions are not in any way a reflection of our true selves. They are the masks we wear, the stories we chronicle, the lives we build. But we are radiant beneath the shadows, collective beneath the boundaries and joy beneath the misery. And when we find this, realise this and see it in each other we see our true identities for what they really are.

*chappals translates to sandals in Hindi.

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Pondy with a cherry on top

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For a brief moment you would be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped outside of India; what with it’s French street signs “Rue law de Lauriston”, Soho inspired street side cafes, bohemian stores fashioned from high ceiling white washed houses selling handmade treasures and trinkets, but then the searing heat, the roaming Sadgurus loosely clad in faded orange fabric smeared with incense powder and the auto rickshaws zipping along the broad streets reminds you that you are well and truly within the cultural vibe of one of India’s most darling of destinations, three hours drive south of Chennai in pretty, paradisal Pondicherry.

From the moment we drove into the outskirts of town, the landscape was vastly different from that of Delhi, for starters, you could see the sky, stretched wide across the tropical panorama of lush banana plantations and dense green clusters of oversized palms all the way to the sea. This was the first time in India that I had seen the ocean and knowing that Pondicherry is perched alongside the Bay of Bengal and that we would cycle along its promenade was truly exciting. Apart from the signature dusty roadsides, the feel was completely different from the North; where Delhi is built up, the approach to Pondicherry is far more sparse, dotted with thatched roofs reminiscent of Thailand. Women, all of them, in bright cheerful sari’s, men wearing the traditional Lungi’s (long checkered skirts) knotted above their knees with their spindly legs poking out. And then as the walls of the houses and villages change from neutral to turquoise blue, peppermint green, pink and the yellow of fresh cut mango you find yourself in the heart of Pondicherry.

The history of the City of Pondicherry is recorded only after the arrival of Dutch, Portuguese, British and French colonialists. A marketplace named Poduke or Poduca is recorded as a Roman trading destination from the mid 1st century. The Cholas of Thanjavur held it from the 10th to 13th centuries, only to be replaced by the Pandya Kingdom in the 13th century. The Vijayanagar Empire took control of almost all the South of India in the 14th century and maintained control until 1638 when they were supplanted by the Sultan of Bijapur. The French acquired Pondicherry in 1674 and held it, with an occasional interruption by the British or Dutch, until 1954 when it was incorporated into the Indian Union along with the rest of French India. This rich European history coupled with its prominent Indian heritage create an eclectic mix of cultural drama, touristy vibe and laid back coastal living (don’t even think about shopping anytime after lunch until evening, they’re sleeping behind the counters).

No matter where your feet carry you in India, the undercurrent of spirituality resonates everywhere and with Temples, Cathedrals and Ashrams standing harmoniously side by side, Pondicherry wears its Holiness well. One of the most influential Parisian’s in Pondicherry was the earnestly seeking and accomplished Pianist and Writer, affectionately called The Mother who in 1914 met her spiritual guide Sri Aurobindo and went on to create the Sri Aurobindo Ashram which blossomed under her guidance. Her influence lives not only in the educational centre but more fervently in the colourful garden where she lovingly attributed character traits and endearing personal qualities to over 800 flowers. Beyond the Ashram, her next vision was the concept of Auroville – a somewhat idealistic township devoted to an experiment in human unity and a place where everyone can live side by side, above all religion, politics and culture. In the mid 1960s the Sri Aurobindo Society in Pondicherry proposed to her that such a township should be started and with a nod of assent, she gave her blessings. The best description I’ve read about Auroville is that it belongs to nobody in particular but to humanity as a whole.

To reach the Matrimandir, the spiritual soul of Auroville, the pathway is punctuated with slabs of sandstone decorated with hand-painted flowers and their spiritual attributes described below. Though I’m sure someone has strategically placed “courage” and “tenacity” to help keep your mojo going as you walk the main path because it’s absolutely scorching heading through the bush, “how are these women still keeping it together in a sari?” our clothes are sticking to us and I feel like a soggy paratha. It was one of many bemusing sights that kept us laughing. After seeing the Matrimandir or Meditation Temple which rises from the dust in the form of a golden sphere and is really quite spectacular, we went in search of a bus, actually by this stage a rickshaw would have done, but then along came an old yellow bus bumping along the uneven road and scores of exhausted women, grabbing and falling over each other in search of a seat. I think being the only foreigners (this includes my friend from Delhi) we managed to get a seat and became the object of curiosity for the entire non air conditioned ride. You see, there is no mistaking if someone comes from the North or South of India, their looks are so distinctive and I noticed often how many people looked at my friend. I could almost see them thinking “is she one of us?”. Many times people stopped to ask her if she was Indian, even asking if she was South American. What a relief! Never mind the real foreigner! Finally, we arrived back at the main centre, parched and on the brink of doing anything for an ice cold drink only to discover that the bordering-on-hippie township is actually a flagship for eco-tourism so no ice, no soft-drinks, no anything that could cool us down. Luckily for us, our auto rickshaw driver on the way back to the hotel was able to swerve into a local dhaba where we went into the back storage area to retrieve a cold bottle of coke and drank it with the zeal of the last supper.

In the centre of Pondicherry stands a Temple in dedication to Ganesh, the God of New Beginnings. With its pastel painted carved fresco’s towering over the charcoal cobblestone narrow streets, spilling forward with fat pink lotuses and strings of fragranced flowers, split coconuts and fresh fruit brimming at each successive stall, the main entrance to the Temple is an enclave of beauty, aroma and invitation. Its interior of gold walls and adorned Gods and Goddesses set into the walled cavities set a gentle humbling lull into the incense filled smoky air. With oil diya’s burning, broken petals and crimson dust scattered at the feet of the statues it was the first time I’d had a chance to experience this side of Indian life. In fact, a visit to Pondicherry in the South is a complete contrast to the India I’d experienced so far and a haven that like the beautiful temple offerings, is itself an offering of wonder, happiness and promise.

Three years on

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Today marks 3 years since we moved away to India. It’s hard to believe it’s only been three years, it seems like a lifetime ago and borderline crazy that such a relatively short time could have had such a huge impact on life. But I guess it only takes a moment for things to change; one chance meeting, one stroke of karma’s brush, one moment when someone walks into your life, just one day and nothing is ever the same again. We arrived late at night and the very next day I acclimatised to India in the only way possible, by donning a red sari and attending a wedding. I don’t remember being jet lagged though walking into a 5 acre garden of trees garlanded in pink fabric and orange marigolds I certainly knew I was a long way from Sydney. Almost as soon as I arrived I was introduced to someone who would almost instantly share so much of my Indian journey with and become a wonderful friend. I’ve walked into other such connections like that in India and simply picked up from where karma left off. So in just one day I know that everything can change.

I was never the kind of person, or so I thought, to take such a leap of faith and try something so vast, so wide, so liberating and unsettling as living overseas. I’d recommend it to everyone. When I was growing up, I think I wanted to be everything from a make-up artist to Archaeologist but somehow never found the focus to be either. I spent many years of my corporate career completely invested in my professional development, acceleration and legacy and just as many years telling myself, especially when I was unhappy, that it wasn’t always about me, perhaps it was also about the individuals in my teams and how I could help them. And when I think about it, what these people gave me in return was tenfold in terms of support, trust and dedication. I loved managing teams and watching individuals prosper. When I put my career on hold to move to India, I felt like I was ready to let it go. Ready to close the corporate chapter and see what life had in store. And though I never worked in a conventional sense there, I fell very comfortably into the harmonious, if not complex position of daughter in law in India with ease. That was full time, there was no time to work and no sense of vacancy, so I idly and gratefully enjoyed my masala chai in the midst of my whirling social life in Delhi, not giving a KPI or a weekly review a second thought.

That was until I came back and reconnected to my former career. “Here’s your login to the online system they said. It will be easy they said.” And showed me where I could access the manual. Is this where all the good L & D roles have evaporated over the years? Bundled up into a self starter kit somewhat akin to Ikea furniture where if you want the seat (or the job) you better build it yourself. But fortunately toggling between pages on my Mac book and downloading a few files from the clouds has been relatively straightforward. I have a great sense of appreciation for the generosity I’ve been shown to have a wonderful job here that fits in perfectly with life. I know wholeheartedly how lucky I am. But I also have an overwhelming sense of “ok, now that I’m back is this what I’m really meant to be doing?” Not much has changed on the work landscape but clearly I have and now I yearn to do something that resonates with who I am now, because the corporate gig just doesn’t have the same glow that it used to. That and housework. I can’t say I missed that either. I have laughed occasionally that in India looking after an Australian home would be the work of 2 domestics, a driver, 4 gardeners, a sweeper, an office manger, a few call centre operators and a chaiwalla.

So in the very least life is different here. What the quiet order of the West can be replaced with in India is extreme; colour, chaos, confusion, energy, vitality, noise and a hum of life that you hear even in the silence and in turn life here gives you the uncomplicated ease that anything is possible. Three years on, I think I’ve grown and outgrown myself in a myriad of different ways, on different levels. I’ve written about it all, the ramblings of an emotional traveller mostly, trying to pen and capture it all; consigning it to my mind and paper to reflect all that was new and different.

In Australia there’s so much natural beauty, so much to see and do and hardly any time. In India all you have is time. Of course it just gives credence to the anecdote that no where is perfect and in the end all we have is the ability to make our own happiness, wherever our destiny carries us, for however long. And in three years from now… who knows…

Kismat connection

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I miss India every day. Something each day reminds me of the life I stepped away from and I catch myself reflecting on what it is that has so captured me. No where is perfect, the struggle always is to find yourself swimming in a sea of discomfort and find your lifeboat. I don’t miss the mess, I don’t hanker for some of the complexities that life in India dishes out and though some of the superficial musings of family and food are among the things I crave, like the splinters of a broken relationship, I miss mostly how India made me feel. That and the cultural depth of the living history marked in the print of a sari, or the occasion of a gathering or the saffron robes that seem totally at home outside a shopping mall.

And though when I’m there I’m always the stranger, it was my heart and soul who found comfort. I once wrote that simply there is joy in my feet when I’m there, it’s as if I feel connected to the dusty ground where so many times before I have felt the parched earth underfoot and my skirts swish their imprints behind me. Perhaps when you push the boundaries far enough you edge out the vague discomforts that define you and create a clearer picture of who you really are. In many ways, it’s having the opportunity for this fresh start that I’m most grateful for. I think my only regret now is that I let myself slip into a daily routine of a life I thought would go on for longer, not taking every opportunity to experience more of India. And now that I’m not there, with all the pangs that absence brings, I can’t wait to explore so much more. I can’t wait to sip tea in the so called Happy Valley Tea Estate located in the Mahabharat Range’s lush plantations of Darjeeling, or float along the backwaters of Kerala alongside the Arabian Sea or cycle through the charming romance of 17th century France in Pondicherry.

I think when you’ve been away you change in so many accelerated ways that returning home can make you feel like you’re stepping back into a former world that you have moved so far away from. It can seem a little surreal, a little still and it’s a tussle of sorts trying to reconcile the person you’ve become with the life you stepped away from. Not that I want to overthink that though because vacillating between places is a sign of a happy healthy life, a sort of double happiness if you know how to meander and adjust and I’m completely aware of the vibrancy that each life brings. But we are each a reflection of our histories and our most recent experiences and many of the realisations that I felt in India, though they stung and I keenly felt the consequences of reshuffling my thoughts and views, they settled in a place of comfort. I see how much I’ve changed and know that much of how I see the world is a reflection of the one I’ve just come from and on so many levels can’t wait to get back to and share in; the energy that comes from so many celebrations of a large family, the serenity and completeness of a deep sense of spiritual belonging and the movement, music and colour of a vivacious people.

Sometimes I feel I’ve betrayed a deep part of myself, my soul’s self, for not being there everyday because on many levels it’s where I know I’m meant to be. This is a very personal and deep seated truth that I don’t expect others to understand. I remember many times standing on my balcony in Delhi looking across at the chalky windswept landscape beyond the make-shift villages, over to the brittle tree-lines along the horizon and I would be so glad that it was on India that my eyes were resting. And somehow that felt right because in the end when all is said and done India just made me feel at home.

The heart of the Sangeet

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I’ve never attended an Indian Wedding Celebration that wasn’t just a little over the top. I’ve been to the first of a series of engagement parties with the dining room full of rustic white pergola’s dripping with roses and the tables adorned in layers of pearls and rosebuds resembling a scene from the court of Marie Antoinette. I’ve seen the bride ride in on a gold elephant surrounded by Nubian courtiers mimicking the Halls of Cleopatra and I’ve seen the Canals of Venice recreated to transport the happy couple into their new life together. You’ve really got to hope they get on. So with all the glitter and sparkle, it was so refreshing to recently host my Brother-in-law’s Sangeet at our rural farm, north of Delhi where the sparkle came from the fun and festivity of a genuinely happy couple surrounded by family.

In North Indian style, the Sangeet or musical celebration of the wedding is a bustling, festive and emotional evening held a few days before the wedding. It’s origins take place from the cultural custom of the female family and friends of the bride celebrating her nuptials with all the blessings and happiness that this uplifting celebration can bring. I imagine women of all ages gathering in the bride’s village home, young girls full of hope, grandmothers filled with the wisdom of years, sitting together cross-legged on the clay coloured dry ground, falling into familiar folk songs, enchanting laughter, eyes filled with tears at both the separation and coming together and enjoying the sisterhood of this sacred occasion. In real life, certainly in Delhi, it’s another flamboyant affair with all the trimmings of Christmas, and loads of fun.

Our celebration at home recently had plenty of the old world charm and that’s what made it all the more special. And though I’d tied 1,000 metres of gold and fuchsia bows on the main wall, it had all the heart of the folk songs rising on the night sky and the bride’s sisters teary in anticipation of her departure. We hosted about 60 of our closest family for three days and in the spirit of love and gratitude of the occasion, our house had turned into a flurry of dedicated activity for the weeks leading up. Rugs cleaned, walls painted, plumbing fixed, lights repaired, quilts plumped and sown, playlists selected and the menu practiced and tested many times over, all to deliver a seamless and easy few days of being together.

In our family that comes with its own set of anticipation with all the characters from a Phillipa Gregory court-side novel; there’s the Heiress, the Duchess, the Philosopher, the corporate superstars, the Activist, the Bollywood greats and then there’s the rest of us, brothers and sisters who are always there to celebrate these special moments in time that shape our family identity. During the day we ate all the delights of warm doughy paratha’s, spicy homegrown veggies, gooey sticky sweets and at night we danced into the evening and sang until midnight with lanterns flickering in the trees and candles glowing in the low hanging misty sky. To me it’s magic; though I don’t understand the language and maybe the depth of the songs are lost in translation, it just feels so complete. To have so many people waiting to receive the bride into the family, to feel the energy that such happiness brings and to be a part of a celebration that weaves its way into the fabric of Indian folklore is something to be thankful for.

These days are a reflection of the significance of family in a culture that offers the strength to hang on, often despite the odds. Sometimes it seems that in the West, where we slip away so easily from the family embrace, it’s all to easy to lose the connection and undo the ties that bind. It’s one of the many things I love about India and it all comes to life at a Sangeet; the whirling colours, the songs on the air and the promise of togetherness.

In full flight

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It feels like yesterday I had quite numbly boarded a flight from Delhi. As it happens it’s yesterday plus just a few weeks and I’m back on a flight, en route to India. It feels like I am going home. It feels like despite having spent the last month in the whirlwind of reestablishment with a hundred loose ends still to tie, flying back to our home for the last 3 years is just what I need. I’m well aware that our feelings, like the feather-light flakes in a snow globe, can be shaken and resettle and that we don’t always feel the same. Often I think that we are so changeable that when we finally get what we wanted we’ve shifted yet again and we never quite catch up with our desires. But I’ve also come to that refreshing nonsense-free age where I no longer bother too much with ambiguity and would rather be clear. There’s no end to the justifications people can (and do) give me for the better life that Australia affords but my soul is happy in India. It’s that simple and that complicated.

Of course you vicariously experience Delhi way before you land, in a place where literally the jumble and dissent starts and you catch yourself shaking your head in disbelief at the rule breaking, the pushing, the frenetic chaos; the Boarding Gate to any Indian flight. I’m not being judgemental, it’s just a fact. From the time you line up to go through the security check you are instantly transported; no one lines up, people don’t wait to go through the scanning process in order, no one obeys the hand luggage allowance and I’m sure I’ve seen people bring on more overhead luggage than my entire check-in allowance; there’s Ganesh statues wrapped in newspaper and tape, dozens of screaming toddlers and you’ll see many elderly Indian grandparents escorted in wheelchairs; this of course is testament to the well travelled and open minded philosophy of parents who zig zag the globe visiting their adult kids settled aboard. It could also be, and I have a theory, that Indians race towards old age with a pride only matched by an urgency to enjoy the comfort and respect that being elderly brings. When you get on the plane, it just steps up a notch; chaos in a confined space. Stewardesses curiously asking ” did you just swap seats?”, literally begging swaggering gangs of tall young men to sit in their allocated places. No one listens. I laugh.

I’ve played over in my mind 100 times stepping out of the airport to the early morning light and the sea of men dressed in white and grey, lazily ambling along waiting for their loved ones to come through the gates. And in reality it looked just like that. The soft glow of dull street lights, flickering in the hazy November dawn. The city waking up on the streets with rambling three wheelers and bikes and the heavy grey morning hanging low in the sky. Along with family we were picked up by my driver, wearing a Playboy t-shirt of all things, which though I find disconcerting, reminds me I’m back. As did the fact that he started trying to load our luggage in someone else’s car. Well, it was early to have to remember where he parked.

India washed over me with her rush of love from the moment I stepped outside. I guess it’s the familiarity, the broken down concrete blocks that edge the road, the creamy pistachio sweets piled high like little bricks, the bhatura’s bubbling in hot oil on the roadside with their warm aromas rising over the smells of the street, the lull of domestic life that spills onto the footpath and it seems to fit like worn out shoes. I’m blessed to have two places to call home and two homes to create and shape life. And this one’s certainly about to get a dose of excitement when my brother-in-laws wedding celebration begins with the Sangeet in full swing. Splashes of crimson, saffron and fuchsia swirling, dancing ’til late, harmonious voices carrying songs of love and life…but more on that next time…

Double happiness

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This week I’m a tour guide. It feels nice. It reminds me how much I’ve gotten used to the sights of Delhi and how ingrained in my vision they are. It’s wonderful to have friends here from Australia and to see India through their eyes; to understand the utter shock in response to a single sauntering cow in the middle of the road, or little clusters of foraging pigs scampering through the piles of paper and food scraps, or the burst of laughter seeing a motorcycle zip in front of a truck on its way to cutting you off, or the scrambling for a camera at the sight of 8 people clamouring for space in a Maruti. The sights that my eyes rest upon and take comfort in are the cliched familiarities that newly minted westerners have to reassemble their thoughts to simply understand. I’m so lucky that in the years I’ve been here, I’ve found comfort, humour and even peace in the refuge of these moments.

At the same time it is almost surreal that in just over a week it will be me at the airport and rather than excitedly collecting guests, I’ll be walking through the gates to momentarily step away from India. When I anticipate these moments and the empty airport waiting lounge, I almost simply don’t know how I’ll do it. India pushes me away with her complexity, disunity, dysfunction and chaos and yet only karma can explain the joy that I feel here. It is as if the joy is in in my feet. I know that’s a strange line but I’ve thought it many times over the years.

Seeing Delhi today and all her landmarks of grandeur and signposts of history through my friends’ eyes was truly enchanting. It tickled me as I watched these scenes unfold today of three wheelers darting across traffic lanes and families sans helmets overloading motorcycles and mothers laying their washing out on flat patches of dry dusty land that these are the well worn images that I’ve become accustomed to. And though the fresh air, bright colours and gentle ease of Australia brings its own contentment, what it lacks in fracture and discord it loses also in energy and vibe. When people ask me what I will most miss about being here it’s generally this. A sort of ebb and flow, an industrious hum, a sound that resonates in the silence and pushes india forward.

Of course it’s easy to romanticise a place when you’re living on the peripheral in the knowledge that I’ll soon be away. Idealising doesn’t touch on the deeply etched practices that prohibit India’s success or that hamper an individual’s drive to achieve or give credence to the survival of a constitutional culture that gives a government an unjust ability to take from a people who hardly have the means to lose more. So I know why everyone tells me that going at this point in time is the right thing, it’s what they would do if they could. And maybe it’s tied up somewhere in the very essence of having a choice that I question if I’ve made the right one.

The privilege of having two homes, two lives, two cultures to embrace me is a gift that I know to hold humbly and gratefully. If I choose only to see the positive, and shouldn’t we always, then it is equally surreal how truly blessed I am. People to love, places to explore, a circle of comfort reflected across the borders of two incredible countries.

India has taught me both compassion and cynicism, restraint and freedom, to stand up and surrender, all the light and shade of life but ultimately it’s where I’ve learnt to be most comfortable with myself. When you’re out of your comfort zone you find yourself all over again. And so in a more succinct way I’ll be looking forward to seeing how my friends here this week experience being out of their comfort zone while reassigning new boundaries. So far so good, they say they’re experiencing India in a 7-star bubble, but I know that india will reach through the veil and touch them too.

Friends circle

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There are so many wonderful experiences to unfurl themselves around you when you travel, and any one of them could be a tag line for an ad. When I think about about all the experiences I’m carving out living in India, by far the most intimate and meaningful are the connections with the wide circle of people who have come into my life. Of course the history is astounding, the culture enchanting and the everyday passage of life a complete reassembling of your belief system, but still, it’s the people that shape how you feel and that’s one of the most compelling attributes that create your world.

I’m sure I’ve described at length the little bubble of Delhi that we expats float around in; bouncing from one embassy function to another, trying out a new cafe, having our clothes and furniture made, and basically living on an ethereal plane that is probably so far removed from Indian street life we should almost differentiate our country from theirs. Perhaps call it India Part B or something. Of course for us expats it’s the same all around the world and no doubt we bring another dimension to the animation of life. As expats we need each other, some days we cling, other days just knowing someone else is walking in the same footsteps is a relief that doesn’t even need sharing. True, I’ve made some wonderful expat friends, all with amazing histories about where they’ve lived and worked, raising kids in different countries, their struggle and provocation in settling down over and over but each still with their own personalised story. It’s the stories that I love to hear about the most; what it takes to be who and where you are today is never a small effort.

And of course, with the wide arms of an extended family here, getting to know the aunts, cousins and kids and their own experiences has been a truly embracing one. I’ve even come to view the element of predictable family dysfunction with a splash of good humour, keeping things light with a little twist of gossip. I’ve seen that it’s this acceptance which holds it all together and the ability to characterise these flaws as simply a part of someones nature is rather liberating. After all we don’t have to dislike anyone, we don’t have to see the negative, who amongst us is perfect anyway? And then comes the quiet forgiveness that even when it all goes pear-shaped, subtly and tactfully keeps the world spinning.

Every now and again I’ve been surprised by the friends I’ve found, people with whom I have little in common or from such diverse lives have wandered in and simply made my day. This is the true joy of travel and I guess it happens because of a far more open mindset that carries with it a spirit of adventure. You’re looking for connections, trying to find your tribe and the beautiful thing about destiny is that even in the middle of a foreign land, somewhere in the middle of an ordinary day the people who are meant to, will drop in and stay. I used to chat often with an expat friend of mine about how we make friends as adults; is it calculated because we know we need that person or their connections? Do we inadvertently create the opportunity hoping to enable new relationships? As we were roaming the playground idly chatting one day, the kids were randomly bumping into each other and next thing sharing an Oreo; maybe it is that simple.

Having a lot of people around is a boisterous and sometimes chaotic experience, it creates a vibrancy that can bring company. Having the right people around can bring harmony and heart, and connects you in such a way that you never feel like a stranger. Lucky for me the ride has been a lovely one, with destiny gifting me an eclectic mix of wonderful, warm, sensitive and generous friends who have given me so much more than I could ever give them.

Balle Balle Punjab!

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Few sights characterise crossing the Punjabi border more than the green expanse of farmlands that stretch out on either side of the long narrow road. As the heartland of Northern India and home of her signature dishes like roti flatbreads, tandoori tikka’s, the famous king of dahl (rajma) and biriyani rice, all of which hail from the Mogul menu, it’s no surprise that agriculture is a huge staple of the economy. That and probably weddings. Over 80% of the Punjab derive a living from farming, making it one of the flatter, greener of India’s States. Though to be fair, the Punjab is famous for many things.

In the 15th century an enlightened soul and preacher, Guru Nanak travelled with his message of one God, love, equality, goodness and virtue setting up a unique spiritual platform based on eternal truth. This was the foundation for the resulting Sikh religion which today is represented as the worlds 5th largest. Though it’s not for me as a non-Sikh to comment on their internal belief system, outwardly they present as a rigorously devout, spiritually courageous and socially enthusiastic band of followers. As Guru Nanak and all ten of the Sikh Gurus had their birthplace in the modern day Punjab (the “new” state of the Punjab was formed at partition in 1948 and was previously a sizeable chunk of Pakistan), it’s a significant place at the heart of the Sikh religions’ festivity, zeal and history. Another outward sign of the proud Sikh people (well, the men anyway) is the Turban. (Actually that’s not entirely true, the Sikh Guru’s made no distinction between men and women and as equal observers of religion, many women also choose to don the turban, but personally I still can’t quite get my head around it.) The customary wearing of a turban is because traditionally Sikhism doesn’t condone cutting hair (enter Kip, The English Patient) so the elegantly tied, 5 metre long beautiful coloured cloth is a regal reflection of its Persian ancestry and a signature of the Punjab’s noble history. And yet concurrent to this, the prime reason all practicing Sikhs wear the turban is out of love and obedience to the wishes of the founders of their faith.

One of the Punjab’s most famous princely states is Patiala and one of its most colourful and well known characters was the Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, who ruled until his death in 1938. Known for his extravagance, love of cricket and as a leader of the Sikhs and masses of the Punjab prior to Independence, his legendary status was also owing to the rumour that he had a harem of over 360 women. If nothing else, apparently even the British were impressed with this. He is said to have sired 88 children whom he recognised not by name but by number. Of course there may be an element of fabrication here enriching Punjabi folklore but without doubt he was a charismatic ruler and a distinct personality, well remembered today.

Another distinct feature of the Punjab, particularly along the roadside are the multiple outlets specialising in and selling ever so tacky art-imitating-life water tanks. These concrete-cast aesthetic blots on the landscape not only come in many shapes and sizes but in numerous unsightly forms such as life size horses (in prancing pose), weightlifters (complete with dumbbells and red loin cloth) or swooping eagles with roughly hand painted faces. These tanks (and by now I’ve almost forgotten they have a purpose) are then neatly placed on the roof peering over the road and miserably personifying the house forever.

But rhetoric aside, what truly characterises the Punjab to me is the upbeat echo of the Dhol (drum) and the mix of Punjabi folk songs and western Pop music, which creates a kind of visual sound. I say that because the music itself is brought to life with the Bhangra, a traditional dance of passion that is styled to mimic the harvest moves of the rural plenty, with its above the shoulder movements. The locals call it “Ahmed-ish”, meaning that (I love this description), you dance in a “very flamboyant and happy way.” Actually a lot about the Punjab could be described like that; when you throw words together like Maharaja, Gurus, partition, princely and even paneer, you get a lively concoction of the history, happiness and hum of the Punjab. Balle Balle!

Delhi Heights

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It doesn’t take too long for Delhi to deliver her highs and lows. Within a week there’s enough material to make you think you’d never left, even for a holiday. For starters, I don’t think Delhi can ever really look very different; even with the new corporate buildings and shiny glass facades, there are still enough vacant plots of dry, dusty land with makeshift shelters, vegetable carts and flower sellers nestled in tarpaulins for Delhi’s streets to never be mistaken. Then there’s the scattered piles of concrete bricks where pigs forage for food scraps and men sit outside and play cards using the broken blocks as tables and chairs, the array of floral printed saris of the women riding their bicycles to work, with a tiffin in one hand and holding the corner of their sari or dupatta between their teeth. No matter where you go you see it. I call these the heartwarming cliches of India and they’re a well worn part of the buzz and activity that makes you know India’s alive.

Within a day of arriving back, the toilets at home weren’t working and it took days of escalated complaints to get them looked at, which in the end only took a matter of minutes to fix. Thanks to the upstairs apartment whose constant water problems seem to find their way into our place through leaks, rising damp or in this case drought. Just a minor inconvenience, like driving across town to pick up something from our favourite store only to find it had closed down, or when we dropped our son off to school and thought something was amiss with the security guard parading a hand written sign “School Closed.” I have to say I was bothered and baffled by this. It’s day 2 of the new school year, after a two month break and overnight the Former President sadly passed away and so to honour his life as a distinguished educator, schools closed for the day. Not all schools, just a random few who clearly missed the irony.

Oh well, when in doubt in Delhi, eat. There really is nothing like the food in India and though there is an amazing selection of international cuisine, nothing beats spicy street fare like aloo tikki; a deep fried charred potato patty, crushed open and topped with layers of tamarind sauce, mint chutney and a splash of yoghurt. Our local heavenly food abode is a 1950’s style cafe, bright with fluorescent lights, bench seating and a complicated voucher system, but it certainly delivers on taste (and then some). It’s called Bikanirvala, its namesake being a town in Rajasthan famous for sweets and namkeen treats. I remember staying there once and hunting out the local sweetshop for its milky sugary bite size creamy pistachio ‘dollops of deliciousness’ and I recall it very clearly because it was in Bikanir that I first experienced standing at a railroad crossing next to a cow.

Mid-week we headed for what I call Delhi’s imperial delight; the hotel of the same name and a beautiful treasure trove of India’s majestic British Raj history. The Imperial Hotel is set in Janpath, literally meaning “the people’s path” and is a recluse from the bustling tirade of tourist stalls. Built in 1936 the hotel, with its stately white walls is an architectural mix of Victorian, Art deco and Old colonial and was designed to be one of the finest monuments of Lutyens’ grand vision of the city. Mr Lutyens certainly got it right and it’s now an appealing confluence of a rich history and modern day appreciation, home to many of Delhi’s foreign visitors who wouldn’t stay anywhere else. And while it’s a treat to stay there, even an afternoon tea is a sublime interlude from outside its grand gates. Just lovely!

Delhi is so green this time of year, late July and mid monsoon. The imminent rains make for long hot humid days and the native plants flourish under the promise of heavy clouds. With their overgrown tropical leaves the roadside is filled with lush greenery making such a fresh change from the drier months when they hardly look green at all. Though neither the rains nor the piercing afternoon sun can diminish the enthusiasm of the street kids tapping on the car window or blowing kisses singing “gori gori” (that would be for me, roughly translated as “white”) and literally bouncing through the traffic in a vibrant display of double jointed acrobatics. These kids are truly incredible. They go without so much, their home is the roadside, their education the tough knocks of an unsophisticated life, but I could look into their longing eyes forever. And so by the end of the week India has delivered; where being both at home and a tourist has blended into a full and happy week of Delhi’s heights.