In her cosy New England kitchen, my grandmother is serving me a cup of green tea. She then sits in front of me, staring. Finally, she asks the question that must have been on her mind for quite some time. “Why do the two of you keep going to India every year?” Dear Grandma has never left the United States and India must have been the least of her concerns until her granddaughter and her artist husband started to travel there repetitively.
The first time we went, ten years ago, we accepted Raju’s invitation for his wedding in Kolkata and as he jokingly said, we entered India through that door, and never found one to leave from. Since then, we have been planning a three-week journey every year and we have always come back enriched, enlightened, enamoured. “Yes Grandma, India made us fall in love with her peculiar ways, with her warmth and her elegance, her simplicity and her grace.” “But Jess, Mrs Weaver said that there is a lot of poverty and a lot of dust in India.” “I bet your Mrs Weaver has never travelled a hundred miles away from here, has she?” I retort.
Travel is about suspending your judgment and embracing the reality you are encountering. Travel makes you realise that your way is not the only way. Travel challenges your notion of what is good and what is bad. When I first saw a young boy walking barefoot in the monsoon rain in Dhar, whistling away happily, I realised that having shoes does not make one rich and that wealth and poverty are relative to one’s perception of them. “And dust, Grandma, is not everywhere, every time! India is a huge country, not just made of deserts.” “Yes, but the world is far bigger and you keep going back there, I still don’t understand why.” “I agree, it might seem that we are obsessed, but we have met many travellers who keep choosing India over other destinations. India is vast and extremely varied with an outstanding and warm-hearted population.
In a small village in Ladakh, we met women dressed in woollen coats and peraks, traditional turquoise studded headgear, who invited us to drink chang, the local beer, at their home. In Maheshwar, on the banks of a sacred river, an old widow wanted to share her ratio of sugar with us. In Kerala, total strangers invited us to a wedding and made us feel like guests of honour. Such spontaneous sharing, born from the Indians’ curiosity of foreigners and their trust in a fellow human being is very endearing and particularly surprising for the westerners that we are.”
My grandmother and I share a very special bond and I have always felt that she understands me, therefore I am really eager to convince her that India is fantastic. I resort to the images of our latest journey to the lower Himalayas. “Look, Grandma, let me show you,” I tell her while opening my laptop, “This beautiful place is called Haridwar, which means the gateway to God. It is a very important pilgrimage place on the banks of the Ganges, the sacred river of the Hindus. They believe that it is here that the legendary bird Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, spilt the elixir of immortality, the amrita. See, this is the spot where the nectar has fallen; it is called Har-ki-Pauddi, the footsteps of the Lord. And guess what? Practising Hindus perform a pilgrimage there to bring the ashes of their departed family members, hoping for their salvation. They do so following the example of a legendary king who they believe had brought the river Ganga down from heaven to rescue all his ancestors.
"Our guide, Tushar, who has become a dear friend, has also explained to us that in his family, when someone felt tired and battered by life’s events, they were sent to Haridwar to recover their joie de vivre. With him, we were able to visit several centres of learning, among which a very interesting gurukul, a school of traditional learning. We even met a renowned ayurvedic doctor who has managed to find a cure for Allen’s persistent headache!
"Look at this, I took this picture in the evening when we reached the town. Those fierce sadhus, men who have renounced the world, bathed in a golden light gave the tone to our visit to a very special place. And see this holy man meditating in his beautifully decorated tent, oblivious to the world passing by. Allen and I were both humbled and in awe of such a mysterious way of living. While we busy ourselves with time, they deal with eternity. I don’t know who is right, but I am happy to discover different ways. We were lucky to arrive in time for the evening aarti, prayers that are performed on the banks of the river. Here, you can see the young priest offering prayers with symbolic elements, the fire, the coconut, the incense. All those around are immersed in contemplation. After a short night, we went again to the riverbanks before sunrise to witness the fervour of the devotes who greet the giver of light and who revere Goddess Ganga.
The ambience at the river that morning was unforgettable. The light, the costumes, the chanting, the authenticity of the moment in which we completely forgot that we were strangers, everything contributed to a great joy that pasted a smile on our faces.
We were happy to be there, we felt special. Look at this woman in the blue sari, look how beautiful her wrinkles are!” “My girl, you are a good photographer, maybe if you’d take a portrait of me I would look that pretty too… I love the picture of the little girl with ponytails, doesn’t she feel cold in the river?” Grandma seems fascinated by my pictures, she keeps asking questions about Hinduism and its belief in reincarnation. She even says that it seems an interesting theory. “See here," I carry on, "They are all saluting the Ganges, I love the way the crowd can become one body in India, moved by the same intention. And look at those priests dressed in white and golden dhotis, those wrapped skirts, you might say, aren’t they impressive?”
By the time I show her my last picture, I know I have convinced her. My enthusiasm is infectious and my grandmother’s trust in me legendary. She looks at those women with their colourful saris draped over their heads, their bony hands joined in prayer and she says: “Maybe next time you can take me there, would you mind?” I jump up from my chair and hug her tight, “Of course I will! I will ask Dheeraj from kamalan to craft a beautiful itinerary for us. We will travel at a slow pace and you will truly understand, why the dust of India is so endearing!”