Sky dancing. Singapore to Bali. Early one Sunday evening. On board a plane much fuller than in recent times. A welcome change.
There are three Indians sitting behind me, to the right. A couple. Tiny. Wizened. Wrinkled like walnuts and much the same colour. Old in years but looking young at heart and carrying the wisdom of many lives in their auras. Their eyes are the colour of charcoal and they sparkle like diamonds in the noonday sun. The lady’s hair is thickly oiled and braided through with a fragrant strand of jasmine. Next to them is their new friend. A taller gentleman in his sixties wearing a kurtha pyjama suit in the same shade of blue as a clear summer sky. Snow white hair and a gentle smile set in a handsome face.
In true, glorious, Indian style these three have not stopped talking since they got on the plane thirty minutes ago. They are bartering and bantering words. Back and forth… conversational tennis. They have already established common bonds in Madras, Melbourne and Singapore. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help but eavesdrop as they are talking with such verve and passion and focus. Real three-dimensional communication straight from the heart.
Listening to them reminds me of many train and bus journeys I’ve taken over the years in India. The concept of space and privacy does not exist in the over-crowded landscape that is that country. In this vast land of open spaces, expansive deserts, soaring mountains and humid forests you always seem to be in a crowd. Even if there is only one other person around. It is really quite extraordinary.
I suspect we British are very aware of this personal closeness because we are naturally so aloof. So distant. So private. Generally speaking, that is. India soon puts paid to that. Within minutes of someone settling themselves next to you, you will know their name, where they are from, how old they are, what job they do, how much they earn, whether they are married or not and if they are, how many boy children they have. And once this information has been volunteered they will look at you in the eye and do that wonderful oh-so-Indian side-to-side rocking of the head, one eyebrow cocked. Waiting. Expectant. For you to provide the same information. It is not being nosey. This exchange is an essential element in the process of placing one another in society’s hierarchy; like it or not it, an inevitable part of life in India. Unavoidable. Not just in India but in many other Asian countries too.
Once this is done more intimate conversation can progress. And you can only begin to imagine the length and breadth of conversation that unfolds over a journey lasting thirty-six hours on an overcrowded train or bus with no means of escape. By the end of the trip you will have shared rice together five or six times. You will likely know more about this ‘stranger’ than you do about your mother or father. You will have heard them laugh and listened to them burp; seen them cry and watched them sleep. A most intimate togetherness of strangers. Borne of a common journey and a willingness to be open.
I have to be honest and say that there have been times in my travels around the sub-continent when I have silently screamed for peace and quiet, but never for long. In the onslaught that is India you can never resist anything for long. It is simply too hard… thankfully.
I guess you could view these endless conversations as an invasion of privacy but as with everything in life it’s a matter of perception. I choose to surrender myself to them. Into the comforting embrace of temporary friendship and the wealth of treasures that brings.
Like many people, I have a stack of photos that travel with me wherever I go. Pictures of Africa and England, Thailand and the Maldives and many other countries. Of people and places and weather, buildings and plants and animals. They are covered with thumbprints, are well worn around the edges and have made for many wonderful conversations with new-found travelling companions over the years. In return, I have been privileged to hold countless pictures of mothers and fathers and weddings and wives and children and houses and rice fields. Images that become doorways into each other’s lives.
We live in an ever-increasingly isolationist world in the 21st century. Made worse by war, terrorist bombings and intolerance across cultures and faiths. The future for mankind is not rosy if we continue as a race to embrace this way of living.
There are boundless possibilities for joy and laughter, friendship and sharing if we simply take down our barriers and open ourselves to the wonders that wait beyond the walls of our internal selves.
To trust. To be. In the goodness and presence of others.
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© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2007
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