By Henry Kuhlman
By rank and file, they waited. The doors opened, a hundred entered and knelt. Ten thousand more followed that day. Ten thousand the next day and the next. It had been this way for over a hundred years.
Narji, my teacher, made the arrangement. I followed through hallways and low arches to a large room. Long poles stirred rice, sabji, and ghee dal in metal cookers two meters across. Nearby, I kneel alongside dozens of volunteers on both sides of a low table.
“Here, take this roller. Punch the dough with your fist. Roll it from the middle out. Make round chapatis like those people,” Nari instructed. An hour passed. My knees hurt. My back ached from bending. I didn’t care. I wanted to stay forever.
Narji grabbed my shoulder. “Come, we must go. People, rich and poor, come here to feed others. Wealthy people eat here with poor to accept kindness from others. It feels good to help others, expecting nothing in return. Do you agree?”
The three-wheeled tuk-tuk, adorned in garlands and statues of gods, jockeyed for position in a vast river of transports. Drivers communicated with their horns. We stopped for a traffic light. In the front row, I saw five carts, mopeds, cars, trucks, and bicycles on my left. Five more on my right.
The moped next to us holds a family of five. A red dot on her forehead, a cute baby swung from her mother’s hip in a sling. Between his father’s legs, a small boy stood behind the handlebars. Only the father wore a helmet.
Drivers revved engines, anticipating the green light. A blue fog of exhaust rose as we waited. Greenlight–our driver jumped out front, then turned hard left into a side alley. I shot across the slick plastic seat into Narji. He laughed.
We got out next to a cow lying on the road’s edge. People walked around another one on the sidewalk.
I didn’t know where we were.
“I need to buy a sari for my niece. It’s her Ritu Kala Samskara (coming of age). Stay close, the bazaar is crowded and confusing.”
By the entrance, Narji stopped to give coins to a beggar. The woman sat on a square board with caster wheels, like a furniture dolly. She had no legs and scooted around by her hands on the dirt sidewalk. Narji thanks her for accepting his money.
“We must help those less fortunate. The woman helped me to fulfill my responsibility. Therefore, I thanked her.”
My teacher, tall, fit, and strikingly handsome, zigzagged like a gazelle through the bazaar, a maze of narrow aisles the size of a soccer field.
Narji carried an air, not arrogant or aggressive, but a sense of entitlement, befitting his high caste, Kshatriya – the warriors.
At the third shop, he asked to open a sari. Two shopkeepers unfolded it. It was embroidered saffron and orange silk pleats, seven meters long and one meter wide. Narji haggled over the price. The shop owner came and insisted Narji wait a minute. A girl came from the back room. The owner’s gorgeous daughter was wearing the sari. Her beauty took my breath away.
“That’s the one, buy it Narji.”
On the train from Delhi to Agra, Narji brought up the sari.
“You cost me 2,000 rupees with your interruption.”
“Narji, haggling more, would insult his daughter and hurt her feelings.”
“That’s good, I think you are beginning to understand my beloved India,” Narji said.
On the way, we saw burning funeral pyres, weddings of 1,000 guests, rotting carcasses, hundreds of pampered cows, garbage piles feeding wild pigs. Saucers of fuel, cow manure dried on roofs.
We saw terrible suffering and intense happiness. We did not see hunger, fighting, or disrespect.
Our final destination was a ‘Monument of Love,’ the most beautiful place in the world.
Mughal Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to honor his deceased wife, Queen Mahal.
Exquisite and flawless white marble, inlaid with gemstones, the beauty is unmatched anywhere.
In Narji’s world, ideology collides with reality. Harmony sleeps with contradiction. Destiny overrules opportunity.
His culture, a bane and a blessing.
Hank, born a Nebraska farm kid in 1948, escaped the prairie after college. His occupations have spanned Air Force fighter pilot, an international airline captain, a corporate executive, a farmer, rancher, mobile home park owner, Miami condo president, failed businesses, environmental activism. He has an MA in management. Hank writes for an aviation journal.
In addition to writing, Hank loves wings of all kinds—hang gliding, paragliding, sky diving, ultralight flying. Yet nothing compares to the wings of birds. Humans cannot match their grace, efficiency, or complexity. Hank thinks birds are the most beautiful animals. His specialty is photographing wings at work, doing what all wings do, overcoming gravity.