Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Snake City

     Nagpur is in the dead center of India, with hot weather, few tourist attractions, and much more of the feel of a city than Nasik. During my exchange year I stayed there for a month with another exchange student from Portland and her host family. She is now one of my very closest friends, and no one else knows my experience in both countries as exactly as Hannah. This time again I stayed with her host family, parents and two brothers around my age. I don't know if there is a family that has ever made me laugh as much as the Sachanis, each of them is such a great character.
     Her father (I still think of them in relation to Hannah so you'll have to humor me) owns a wheat and rice factory as well as a petrol pump. He speaks only Sindhi and Hindi I couldn't understand so our interactions were limited, but he would always check to make sure I had enough food and change the channel to an English movie whenever I was watching, and show me the metal bangle Hannah gave him as a gift that he's worn since she left. Her mother is one of the sweetest women in the world, always laughing and tirelessly working through my awful Hindi and her bit of English (both aided by copious hand gestures). Often Hannah's grandfather would come in and instruct me to say the Hare Krishna mantra and chant om and tell me about a golden temple that's in America. This conversation would be repeated so frequently that it became almost comedic and exasperating while still staying just as inspiring and endearing. He has bright orange hair, the result of henna dye on white hair which many older people sport. His low-off tone mantra could be heard for hours on end, over the blaring TV and shouting and conversations.
      In India, nights still belong to men and street dogs, but having a family of boys meant I was entitled to the privilege of going out at night. Even small walks around the neighborhood after dinner were welcome, and rides on the back of a motorcycle even better. Riding two wheelers, as they are called here, is probably one of my favorite things in the world. There is absolutely nothing that matches that freedom and exhilaration. Praveen, the younger brother took me all around the city. We went to lots of Sikh and Hindu temples. At one of them below there was a place to feed fish in one of Nagpur's lakes. We sat on the crumbling steps leading down to the water throwing in bits of bread, with only tiny fish coming through the trash and sludge to nibble on the crumbs. Poisonous water snakes would swim by and in the distance the mass of Ganpati idols that had been immersed a few days ago were floating. I let go of my aversion to further polluting the lake, (sometimes in India putting up a fight just isn't worth it) and I hope I'll be forgiven for the pieces of pav sitting at the bottom now. It was still a lovely memory, although I don't know how to describe the loveliness of it, it was quiet(ish) and the water and temple were still beautiful in their own way, but also it was lovely because of the ridiculousness of it. Praveen and I had lots of good conversations while riding around and sitting wondering where to go next. He is itching to go to the Western world as I head the other way, but immigration is hard on his demographic, and he's been denied a visa multiple times without any reason. Many people I know here say that India has to develop. If that means less social inequality and corruption and indifference to problems, I could get behind it. But development is often tied in with the idea of the Western world, and many of the "more developed" areas of India are missing the charm of the traditional culture. I don't know how this country will change in the next few years or decades, but change it will.
     During my short time there I also took a day trip to Wardha, a few hours away and visited the Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi (known as Gandhiji or Bappu) lived and developed many of his ideas. It is so inspiring to see such an important place in person. Somehow to see his mud floored house and bathtub and labelled spot where he sunbathed was just as meaningful as understanding the history of his life. The independence movement is still relatively recent, with far less than a century behind it. Understanding Gandhiji and the work and thoughts of all the freedom fighters is essential to understanding India.
     I had to leave too early. I wish I could have spent just a few more days there, it woke up a piece of joy in me. Perhaps it was to be in a place I didn't know as well as Nasik, perhaps it was all of the two wheeler rides, perhaps it was just the time with this family who has welcomed me more graciously and completely than I can express. I wont forget those four days, there are lots of little memories I have tucked away. I already miss them all. I hate not knowing how many years it will be before I'll see someone again, but it's the trade off I made when I went on exchange and worth it beyond all doubt.

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