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Postcard From India

If I never come back to India that will be fine with me. This one chance to witness humanity in total disarray will have been enough.

They say that you either love India or hate India and that there is no in between.  I have spent a week trying to peel back the layers of poverty and filth to find the beauty — to glimpse one thing that I can wrap up in my heart and take home with me so that hating India isn’t all I have.

I have found several things that have brought meaning to this adventure, but most days I am too busy trying to stay well, to avoid being run over by a bus or a cart or a cow and to find something I’m not afraid to eat.  There are other travel experiences more worthy of your time, I believe, that don’t require you to clutch your churning stomach on an hourly basis or to feel guilty about your own geographical luck.

But there are moments I sense the underlying magic of this place. In one five-minute drive down a street I saw all of this from a bus window: a camel laying down on a sidewalk, his head resting on a motorcycle seat; three women balancing baskets of laundry on their head and three spider monkeys following close behind; a group of cows grazing on piles of garbage; a family of five occupying one motorcycle; a dog on the side of the road eating unspeakable things; men peeing; one tree flowering red and unnoticed in the chaos.

This is India.

Or perhaps it is only the India I see.

And I see that a two lane road quickly becomes four and that they’re all fair game for any driver of a bus or a car or a cart or a man directing a herd of sheep, no matter which way they’re heading. At any given moment there is a truck coming straight at our bus, which veers out of the way before we are all done for. Tiny motorized taxis and zillions of motorbikes weave in and out of this chaotic mess and everyone is honking, though who is honking directly at us is hard to say.

And I see the sacred cows that wander the city streets, creating traffic jams, eating garbage not fit for a rat. I wonder if they’d be happier in the rolling hills of New York State as I am. To walk the streets here is as overwhelming a thing as I will ever do. To not step in horrible things with your sandals is a lesson in creative focus.

But today we found an oasis of peace in the Calico Textile Museum in Ahmedabad — an old mill that now houses 500 years of cloth and dress and tapestry. It is one of the finest of its kind in the world and the artistic genius of man with a loom or a needle and thread is on display here.

The old woman who showed us around spoke in poetry.

“First there were the stars,” she began, “and then came man to occupy space, and he began to tell stories. These are the stories he tells.”

She holds out her arm as she says this, pointing toward beautifully woven tapestries, silk dresses, cotton blankets embroidered with thousands of individually dyed threads and there are temple hangings and miniature paintings. We breathe in the ancient wood of the mill and the dust of 500 years, the stories on cloth more felt than seen.

The old woman alternates between scolding us and teaching us what artistry really means: “Today’s electronic media cannot tell stories like this,” she says, as she points to a tapestry that once was a map, showing roads and houses and temples and trees.

“This is what we are losing, what we have given up: using beauty to explain the world around us. Artistry no longer tells our stories.”

Sometimes, standing in front of a particularly beautiful piece — a court textile used by the Moghuls — she closes her eyes as if in a trance, so overcome by the meaning of her own words. And then with her bare feet gliding over the marble floor, she scurries to the next room, scolding us to move along.

We drink hot chai at the end of the tour on worn wood benches and when I move to thank her she dismisses me.

I will remember her when I am home. She was a magic lady draped in silk.

And I will remember the little girl I took a picture of several days ago.

With tender little curls covering her head, dirty feet in front of her, a smile like none other I have ever seen, she looked at me with such joy, oblivious to the circumstances of her life — the filthy floor, the one room hut, the garbage piled in small mountains along her street.  She was a vision of tenderness in a scene of despair.

In the end, it’s really the people I remember most when I travel. To me, that is where God’s artistry is best displayed.

The scolding barefoot woman.

The sweetest girl, covered in a layer of dust.

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