By Ryhana Dawood
Voices grow louder in the room beside me as the nuns begin to partake in their devotional prayers. I stick my head under my pillow in an attempt to drown out the noise and fall back asleep. After several attempts, I realize I would have no such luck. I toss and turn in my bed and finally decide to turn and face my friend who is wide awake in the bed beside me. She tells me she is ready to go and join the nuns in prayer. I give her a blank stare. She laughs, grabs a small package from her suitcase and hands it over to me.
"I'm sorry," she says with a smile. "Go back to sleep."
I open it up and I so am relieved. Ear plugs have never looked so good to me.
In the summer of 2012, I spent a few weeks in Bangalore trying to help local street girls. I was a young Muslim woman, living with Catholic nuns. Before arriving in Bangalore, many of my friends and family were wary about me traveling alone to India. They had heard of the recent sexual assault incidents which naturally made them wary, but mainly they were afraid of the unknown. I assured them this would be an amazing opportunity for me to share some of my skills with others and would be a wonderful opportunity for personal development. Thus, I embarked on the trip of a lifetime.
I spent about two months traveling around India - from north to south and east to west- learning more about the people and rich culture. I sampled delicious vada in the South, kebab and dhaal in the North, momos, a type of dumpling, in Darjeeling overlooking the Himalayas and fresh fruits and Portuguese-inspired cuisine on the West coast. The food in India is even better than it is often described. As I sampled many of the flavourful vegetarian dishes, I kept recounting to myself that if I was to ever become a vegetarian, I would move to India and not even miss meat for a second.
As good as the food was, the people were even better. Although I had to deal with my share of hagglers - one even had the audacity to sit in my rickshaw and refuse to let the driver go until I bought something - the relationships I formed in India will stay with me forever.
The old woman in Udyavara was by far my favourite person. When I first met her she was so quiet, unassuming and deferred all my questions to her daughter. They told me she was fifty but I found that extremely hard to believe - the wrinkles lining her face and the wisdom in her eyes indicated to me that the woman was a lot older. After speaking to them about their water system and evaluating their property, a project I had to complete for my Master's degree, I sat down with the family and wanted to learn more. I wasn't blessed with the opportunity to meet and learn from my own grandparents so I always find myself jumping at the chance to converse with the elderly. At the end of our visit I asked to take a photo with the family, and managed to get one solely of myself and the old woman. In an attempt to explain her reticence, her daughter told me her mother had never taken a photograph before, let alone seen her own image. This was evident to me after printing off the photos - the old woman wasn't even looking at the camera! In my subsequent visits to the village, the woman made it a point to greet me and a few times even requested to take more photos with me!
As my work in the village drew to a close, I knew that I wanted to do something for my new friend in Udyavara. So, I printed off a copy of one of the photos we had taken and decided to give it, along with some fruits, to her as a parting gift. The next day, I went back to the village and went to her home but I couldn't find her. Her family told me she had gone to do laundry and they didn't know when she would be back. I was so disappointed. My bus was leaving almost immediately so I had to make my way back to the main road. I left the photograph and fruits with her family and started walking back to the bus.
I had just turned around the last corner on the path to the main road when I felt someone grab my hand. I was startled and turned around to see who it was. To my surprise, it was my friend! She had a huge smile on her face and was holding the photograph to her chest. She put her hands on my face and gave me a big kiss on the cheek followed by a big hug. She clung onto my arm as I said goodbye and climbed onto the bus. Although we couldn't converse in words, we were able to communicate with our eyes. I turned back to give her one last smile, knowing that I would most likely never see her again but that we had each changed each other lives for the better.
Meeting the vendor in Fatehpur Sikri showed me how industrious and resilient the people of India can be. While traveling through India, I would always be on the lookout for little souvenirs to buy my niece who would be 6 months old when I returned to Canada. I bought a lovely pair of ruby red, hand-made sandals in Jaipur and thought I would complete the set by buying her a bracelet. I realized that it would be pretty difficult to find a beaded bracelet that would fit her, but I thought I would still give it a try.
When I arrived in Fatehpur Sikri, a few vendors abruptly came up to me asking me to take a look at their stuff. They were a little too aggressive even for a Torontonian. I decided to look for a vendor who was more respectful in his approach. And that's when I came across a man who looked a little down but who was still trying to sell his merchandise. I started talking to him and he told me that times were tough and sometimes he worried he wouldn't make enough that day to feed his young children. Hearing his story convinced me to buy something from him, even if it was small. As soon as I asked him about a bracelet for my baby niece, the man said, "Yes, definitely! Whatever you need, I have."
I naively believed him and was thrilled that I would find the perfect gift. I watched as the vendor looked through his bag. After searching for a few minutes, he came up empty-handed but asked me to hold on telling me that he would return with the bracelet I wanted. He walked away to a larger bag he had placed on the ground and I watched as he rummaged through looking for what he needed.
I got distracted for a while by a little boy trying to sell me pens, all the while walking beside me and repeating things like, "Be careful, ma'am, watch your step."
The man trying to sell me a bracelet returned after a few minutes exclaiming that he had found exactly what I wanted. I was thrilled to see him holding a tiny, multi-coloured bracelet in his hands and held my hands out to take a closer look. At first glance it looked to be the perfect size but as I flipped the bracelet around I realized that he had just knotted a regular-sized bracelet to make it appear to be the size I wanted.
We had to appreciate the effort the man had put in to make a little money and give me what I wanted. Even though the man tried to pull a fast one on me, I bought the bracelet anyway thinking all the while, "Man, I wish I could think that fast on my feet!"
One of my fondest memories of India is the hospitality of the people. I had just had a lovely lunch consisting of rotisserie chicken, naan, dhaal and aloo gobi, topped off with some mango juice and was heading into the main area in Shivajinagar to do a little shopping. I looked around in a few stores and finally found a store with an incredible variety of beautiful saris. I sat down on a rug in the store and the worker patiently brought me all the saris I wanted to look at - piling them on top of me to the point where I was almost entirely covered! I finally selected a few and while completing the purchase the worker asked me if I would like a cup of tea. I was a little thrown off by his offer and looked at him quizzically. Recognizing my confusion, he explained that basically every day around 5 p.m. a man walks through the market from store to store offering the workers tea. If you happen to be in one of the stores at the time the owner of the store will purchase the tea and distribute it to their customers. I was so blown away by this concept and his offer, but he insisted and so I accepted. It was delicious! It was also wonderful to see this tradition continuing even when business was slow. I remember the storekeepers well and their kindness and generosity continues to tug at my heart, beckoning me to return to the streets of Shivajinagar…
Despite being warned of the contrary, the money trader in Shivajinagar proved to me that the majority of trades people in India deal with their customers with integrity. After purchasing a sari and putting in an order for a sari blouse, I asked the worker in the store whether they knew of a place where I could exchange Canadian dollars for Indian rupees. He told me that he knew the perfect person and led me down the streets to the man who would exchange my money. We waited on the crowded street corner while the worker called the man. About five minutes later, a big, burly, intimidating man riding a motorcycle stopped right in front of us. He asked me how much money I wanted to exchange and I told him a couple of hundred dollars, handing him the money in the new plastic $50 bills. The man counted the money and gave me the equivalent amount in Indian rupees. I thanked him and the worker and went back to the tailor to finish up my measurements for the sari blouse.
I was just finishing up with the tailor when I turned around and was surprised to see a man running towards me. I looked a little closer and noticed that it was the worker from the sari store. He told me that there was a mix-up with the money exchanger and that he wanted to see me again. I was pretty scared because I had no idea what the problem was. I was pretty sure I gave him the right amount of money, I mean, he had counted it as well. I made my way back outside all the while thinking about the different scenarios that could transpire. I walked out of the building and saw the money exchanger waiting across the street. I walked over to him and asked him what the problem was.
"I'm pretty sure I gave you four $50 bills," I replied, anxiously awaiting his reply. Was he hinting that I had cheated him out of some money?
"Oh, well, I think you gave me too much money. There was an extra $50 bill stuck to one of the bills you gave me. Here you go," he said as he handed me back the red plastic note.
I accepted the note and stood there in complete surprise. Did this man, who probably has so little in life, and definitely much less than me, just return to me something that he could have easily kept without me even realizing it? I felt so terrible for being scared of this kind and honest man and thanked him several times. No matter how many people cheated me in India this one man definitely made up for it.
The young girls at the orphanage in Bangalore taught me the most important lesson that I learned while in India - that of resilience and gratitude. Some of these girls had been through the most unimaginable circumstances and yet every time I saw them they had the sweetest smiles on their faces as they rushed to hug me.
Two little girls had been brought to the girl's home by the police after their father shot and killed their mother right in front of them.
Another had a mother who was mentally ill, who sat in the market and wasted away. The little girl would wonder around the market and return to her mother during the night. She was picked up by the police and brought to the home after her mother became violent.
The story of the four sisters touched me the most as it highlighted many of the societal issues that India continues to face. When the sisters were brought to the home, the oldest was eleven and the youngest was four. After their mother had passed away, their father decided to marry another woman. Unfortunately, their stepmother refused to keep them in the house because she was wary of bringing up four girls and feared the day when she would have to give them all in marriage. Their father refused to stand up for them and decided to drop them on a street corner. He kept his son. The eldest girl knew that she had to take care of her sisters so she found a quiet place where they could sleep at night and began looking for work. She eventually found a job at a garment factory and started providing for her sisters. They were finally found by the police and brought to the home after a few months living on the streets
These are only a few of the stories of the little girls who touched my life in a way that I haven't experienced before. We met every day in the morning. I would walk about a block from the convent where I was staying to the school-like building where they lived. Every day without fail, I would be greeted by the gatekeeper and his beautiful kids. I would wait by the chain locked fence, that was put on after one of the girls ran away, for the gatekeeper to come and let me in. I would then play a little football with the gatekeeper's kids before proceeding into the school to work with the girls.
We would start with an English lesson, talking to each other about our days, what are favourite things were and what we planned to do in the future. Despite the language barrier we were able to converse because a few of them spoke Tamil and I could understand the gist of what they were telling me. After chatting a bit we would go outside and I would try to get them a little more active. We would run around the courtyard, do some pushups, jumping jacks, burpees, and to my surprise, suicides, which was by far their favourite warmup exercise!
After everyone was warmed up I would then spend some time teaching them basic self-defence and martial arts techniques. It was so wonderful to see these little girls transform in front of my eyes. Despite their struggles and worries, when they were with me they were focused on the movements, focused on moving on and leaving all of their worries behind.
I was so glad to see leaders slowly begin to emerge from the group. I didn't want this program to stop with my departure and wanted to set something up that would be more long-term. Therefore, I tended to give some of the more enthusiastic girls more responsibilities. I would push them a little harder and encourage them to help out with the younger girls. I tried to teach them simple techniques - things they would remember if they ever had to use it.
In the end, I tried to focus on the most important gift gained from knowledge of the martial arts - the confidence it instills in you. Training in a form of martial arts, even if for a very short period, encourages you to believe and depend on yourself. You need to put in the hard work and be disciplined if you want to see results. At first you may not succeed but perseverance brings you through. Martial arts empowers you by helping you understand that you are able to overcome any hardship, even though it may be an uphill battle and may seem impossible. The fancy moves are just an added bonus.
After the first few lessons, I was thrilled to notice an immediate change in the girls. A lot of them started to come out of their shell and were a lot more confident. They were more willing to try new things and spoke in louder voices. I strongly believe that laughter is cathartic and healing, and I can tell you we sure did laugh a lot! The girls changed in front of our eyes from timid little girls to strong and confident young women. It was a beautiful transformation, and we were privileged to have been a part of it.
They taught me to smile and find comfort in those around you when feeling down and share your joy with others when things are going well. As I was leaving Bangalore I realized that in fact the girls I had worked with were the true teachers. All the while I had just been their student.