A Childhood Dream

There is a tale of a boy who was raised by wolves in India and later tried to reintigrate himself into human society. His name was Mowgli and he was born out of the creative imagination of Rudyard Kipling.  Children today may be more familiar with Disney's animated version of the story than Kipling's wonderful book.  I personally grew up on both but also on a third version, the 1994 film version starring Jason Scott Lee and Cary Elwes.  All the information my brain contained about India came solely from these three sources.

Exotic.  Wild.  Mysterious.  Adventurous.  Beautiful.  Alluring.  Images of people riding on top of elephants flooded my mind.  Fears of tigers kept my adrenaline pumping.  Comedic monkeys endeared themselves to my heart.  Deadly serpents could be subdued by music if a player was skilled enough.  Barefooted men walked on live coals.  What a strange and fascinating place!  Oh, how I longed to go there!  

But it was only a dream in the heart of a child.  Only a dream.  It also was not the only country which captivated me.  I was obsessed as well with Spanish-speaking countries and made an enormous effort, beginning from the age of eight, to learn Spanish as my second language.  I went to Mexico three times and Guatemala City once.  Each time, the Spanish-speaking world captured my heart and I considered the possibility of living in such a country long-term.  Nevertheless, my childhood interest in India would now and then resurface mysteriously.

College Life

It was not until college that I actually met real people from the real India.  They were international students studying in the United States, earning their master's degrees in various kinds of engineering. They were very respectful, kind, funny, and all of them had Indian accents except for one, who had trained himself to speak in an American accent.  I asked them many questions about the exotic land from which they had come.  I asked them to teach me phrases from their language, which was Tamil.

One by one, my international student friends moved out of my city for job offers in other parts of the U.S.  Sometimes they returned to India to get married or find work there.  One of my Indian friends suddenly died of leukemia just as he was finishing up his master's degree.  His parents flew in from Tamil Nadu and got to see him before he passed away.

Two-Year Immersion

It was not until considering marriage to an Indian friend of mine that traveling to India began to become a reality instead of a mere dream.  My friend preferred to live in India, but doubted Americans could easily adjust to life there. I took his words as a challenge and sought to prove him wrong.  I did this by joining an Indian Christian church, where I was heavily involved for two years.  I did not learn much about the mainstream religion, Hinduism, but I learned how to drape a sari, make chai tea and chicken curry over the stove top.  I began bobbing my head when people spoke to me, as though to say, "Okay."  I studied Telugu for much of that time and Hindi for part of that time, as it turned out that every state spoke a different language.

I learned to take off my shoes when I entered anyone's home.  I learned to not eat beforehand because food would almost be forced upon me regardless of how many times I said no.  I could not leave after an hour or two or three, for they would always plead for me to stay longer.  I learned about their mindsets on a wide variety of topics.  Indian women covered their legs down to the very ankles, for example.  They believed dating was absurd, and kept asking how I was supposed to find a husband since I had no parents to arrange a marriage for me.

I never did marry the Indian friend.  Yet, I stayed with my Indian church for two full years - long after my friend had married someone else.  I stayed there, learning the culture and the language.  The hospitable nature of Indian culture was something I had only once ever experienced among Americans.  It was very difficult to find this type of community among Americans, especially for someone as shy as I was.  This was how the Indians became my family.  After exactly two years, I left the church to rejoin my own culture.  In my enthusiasm for Indian culture, I had left my own behind and suffered burn-out and exhaustion.  I have learned the hard way to not be fully immersed in a foreign culture without maintaining regular contact with my own culture.

भारत में

Many people warned me not to go to India.  Many people, mostly Indians, said it would not be what I expected.  They said I would not like it.  Even some Americans were worried.  So much fear surrounded me that at one point I wished I could cancel my plane ticket.  I had so much fear of going.  

Through an unexpected supernatural vision, I regained the confidence needed to go there without fear.  I learned that even the most well-meaning and loving friends can be a hindrance, coming between myself and God's perfect plans for my life.  If ever human wisdom and God's wisdom clash, I need to obey God rather than humans.  (Not to say that I shouldn't listen to wise counsel - but wise counsel and fearful friends are not always identical.)

My confidence renewed, I boarded the plane, wearing an Indian dress, and flew all the way to India with joy and thankfulness filling my heart.  When I stepped out of the airport, it was pitch black.  The concrete at the airport was cracked in several places.  Taxis were everywhere, as was noise and dirt.  Yet, what surprised me most of all was the moisture in the air.  Though not at all cold, it was very humid.  In my part of the U.S., I had only ever known a dry heat.  Moisture only came with the cold weather, not the hot weather.  So this wet heat was a new thing for me to experience.

In many ways, India was the same a the Spanish-speaking countries I had visited in the past, as far as crowdedness and street vending.  Yet, in many ways it was different.  It was India.  The language was different.  People's skin color was different.  The head bobbing was unique only to India.  Mexico and Guatemala had been filled with statues of Catholic saints, while India was filled with statues of Hindu gods.  I will never forget the startling life-sized idol encased in a glass box at a station where our bus stopped during a 12-hour drive from Delhi to Jammu City.  Though it was nighttime, the statue was visible because it was lit up blue.  Solemn, staring straight ahead, blue, glowing. The spirit whom the statue represented seemed to be looking out through the eyes of the idol.

I had the honor of meeting all kinds of people on the train stations, on the streets, in the temples, at universities, at museums and in villages.  I saw many famous sights and places.  I was treated to meals and snacks by many people who wanted the honor of being hospitable to a guest in their country.  My friends from the U.S. stayed for two weeks, and I stayed back a third week with a family I knew.  They ate a lot of potatoes and flatbread.  Having spent two years with people from South India, I was more accustomed to rice than to roti.  Since they frequently asked me what they could do to make me comfortable, I eventually told them I would like rice. It took me a long time to tell them this, because they were already doing so much for me by hosting me in the first place.  The mother of the home was washing  and drying all my clothes by hand.  The hospitality was so extreme.  I was gifted saris and churidars and leggings of all colors.

When they took me to see the Taj Mahal, we stayed the night at the home of relatives in a city on the way to Agra.  In the home, there were not enough beds for everyone, so the largest bed was given to the guests (myself and the mother who had traveled with me), while the family who lived in the home slept on the floor.  This was a small child and a pregnant woman!  The men were sleeping in a separate room.  I was so upset that the pregnant woman and child were sleeping on the concrete floor that I was unable to sleep myself. Their generosity was so extreme!

Beyond the food, the beautiful silk saris, the elephants and monkeys.  Beyond the noise, the crowded streets, the adventurous auto rickshaw rides.  Beyond the chai tea, cardimums, cloves, ginger, and curry.

Are the people.  The people of India - more than anything else in India - have stolen my heart.  The children are precious, the teenagers respectful, the beggars curious.  People are everywhere, but there is a uniqueness about Indian people that I find to be special.  They are a people always close to my heart and hidden inside my heart.  I am thankful for the privilege of knowing Indians, both in India and here in my country.  I am thankful for the chance to see that country with my own eyes, and I pray that I may one day go back there.

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Sarah works at a high school as an instructional aide and is also earning her BA in English.  In her spare time, she fights the sex trafficking of children and offers hope to survivors and those who work with survivors through her blog Restoring Wings.  She writes books to raise funds for her training to work among child victims of sex trafficking.

Published by Sarah R.W.