By Dipika Kohli
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
My aunt told me that it might be a good idea to sit for a while outside, in the park. Enjoy the ambient sounds of kids playing cricket. So I sat for a bit on a bench on our block East of Kailash. Two older gentlemen sat together and I heard one pull a quote from the air, “Give things away. Give everything away,” he said. “Only then can you be happy.”
Zen in the park in India. Spinning above is the polluted city sky. I’m remembering the last time I was here, 13 years ago, with the oldest person in my family who’s long since died. But at the time, breathing in the same airspace, feeling the same breeze, feet sinking in the same brown, dark, and littered earth of India. Of Delhi, which was at once, in my eyes then, squalid, yet still mystic.
My grandfather used to put one hand to his walking cane and stretch out the other one, palm upwards, toward me, letting me lead the way.
Would he have agreed with these gentlemen speaking? Probably. R.L. Kohli used to say that you only need a handful of pairs of pants, and why were his American-born grandkids running around with 20? Maybe it’s the familiar birds or the kids laughing in the school across this park near his family’s home, but for a second, I imagine I can hear my father’s father saying, “I have four trousers. Why should I need more?”
Come to think of it, he even might have known these people, wearing their kurta-pajama suits of white, with winter-use sweater vests pulled over. A strong possibility. Pitaji, as we all called my granddad, tended to hang out in places like this, and even after he lost his sight, he would still find his way with a cane and slow steps to the drawing rooms of good friends for chai and conversation. What I recall most about him was his healthy, happy laugh.
Now, bells from the ISKCON mandhir a temple for Lord Krishna send notes to us across a million rooftops, huts, makeshift sleeping places next to bricks and stalls, where people wash or iron, girls oil and braid their hair, and school kids dress in uniform. In the neighborhood blocks of East of Kailash, hawkers announce cauliflowers, peppers, and onions to the second-floor balcony dwellers. They ring the bells of first-floor doors, carting their goods on flat wood, hoisted on giant wheels.
Looking around idly, the other man on the bench spoke up, jolting me back to the present. “The giving away is where the gift is.”
Four months in India and one month in Nepal, and this bit of eavesdropping is the first philosophizing I’ve heard in public that has nothing to do with political races, what the neighbor’s daughters are up to, how so-and-so cooks subji, or what a certain young graduate’s marriage plans might be.
I have only a couple hundred rupees left, that’s maybe 10 or 12 dollars, and that’s going to have to last me until my husband, our son, and I fly away from Delhi. Soon. I’ve been lucky to reconnect, at least a little, with my extended family here. But without Pitaji to give me time and share his stories, it feels emptier than before. I seriously wonder if this is going to be my last visit. Given the expense and the cooler welcome, I imagine it is. India will probably not miss me very much. I have too many independent, feminist ideas about things. But it’s OK. I won’t miss it too much, either, I don’t think, now that all of my grandparents are gone.
It’s been 13 years since I was last here and the only reason I came back was to start work at a school in Gangtok, which is in Sikkim, a state of India very few people I know in Delhi have been to. But that didn’t pan out. Sometimes, you get your hopes hitched to a thing and it’s not what you imagined it would be. When that happens, you have only one choice. You improvise.
The idea that you can know anything for sure when you’re at the start of the road is a myth anyway. It’s all driving in the fog, with the lights on, catching the drift a little at a time. At least that’s what I’ve found. Or rather, that’s the thought that found me.
Next stop, Bangkok. Next month, I’ll tell you how it looks from there. (end)
Dipika Kohli (@dipikakohli) writes a monthly e-letter at http://kismuth.wordpress.com.