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.
15 thoughts on “Narji”
Good story Hank. Years ago a lady friend married a man from India here and went to meet his family in India.
She heard tales of the country, watched VCR tapes of what to do , where to go and the people.
When she returned to America she said you can never really know a country and the people unless you travel and go there.
It sounds as though you did.
Thank you Ben. Yes I have traveled the north and south of India and Nepal. Covid prevented another trip. One of my favorite countries.
So much beauty in this short story! I felt like I was there on the journey with Narji and Hank – great descriptive writing!
Thank you Terry. I find India raw and emotional. So many contrasts.
A history lesson with heart. This story leaves readers feeling as if Narji is alive and well, waiting for your return visit.
Thank you, Linda.
I would like to go back. As with life, it would not be exactly as I remember. A moment in time.
Hank, this took me back in time to my visit to this remarkable country. It’s impossible to describe because, as you note, it’s full of opposites—no matter where you are or where you look.. All senses are fully engaged all the time. I would return in a heartbeat.
What isn’t impossible to describe is how beautifully you write about your visit, your reaction to what you saw, and your willingness to dig deeper than the obvious. Yes, you had a guide that helped place what you experienced in context, but he had a client who was willing to see beyond just the observable.
Thank you, Marsha.
You are kind, and I suspect of the perfect temperament to appreciate beauty many miss. In one month I travel to Uzbekistan and three other Stan countries for a month. The Silk Road of old went through areas I will visit. I’m excited because I don’t recognize any of the places I’m visiting with ten strangers I have not met.
Nice! I hope you will write stories about your pilot adventures!
Thank you Rebecca. I submitted a flying story for the RPLA contest at Fl Writers Association in Feb.
How refreshing that you came to understanding Narji’s India so intimately and have conveyed it so well.
What a wonderful story! Keep writing!
Thank You, Julie
You brought your wonderful experiences to life for us to share. Thank you!!
You’re welcome. It was fun recalling these unique places and people.