India always holds a special place in my heart. When Sarah, one of our regular Nordic walkers, told me she was going to spend 3 months there teaching art to local children, I was fascinated to hear about her experience. She has kindly agreed to share her captivating reflections with us here on the blog. Over to Sarah:
‘Listen for the small bird singing.’
‘Life shrinks or expands in proportion to ones courage.’
I spent 6 weeks in India earlier this year, teaching English and drawing in a small rural village called Nanpur in Odisha. I felt cut off from all my known anchor points. My compass bearings. I washed in a pink bucket, slept on a thin mattress in a blue room with a mouse as a companion. In Hindu tradition the mouse carries Ganesh the elephant God, who overcomes obstacles. Mice are sacred. It was a challenging experience.
The environmental crisis was evident in the village. An unfinished railway line begun 10 years ago and a major highway cuts the village into three sections. There is a brick kiln works in the next door field that spews out coal dust. The river that the whole village depends on for fish, for swimming and washing is polluted.
I walked each morning with a young girl called Manisa who knew I liked a morning walk. Manisa loves her village and is so proud of it and all that it offers. She asked me if I swam in the river in London. She noticed each flower, each tree, each altar to a God. A candle is lit at the base of special trees each evening.
Santi looked after the house and school where I was staying. She taught me a great deal. She was kind, warm and even though she spoke little English there was an unspoken communication between us which moved me.
Here is a letter I wrote to my youngest daughter Saskia.
25th January, Nanpur, Orissa
On being a bird
Ear ache twinge in the night time.
Read about the virus in China.
Your beautiful e-mail challenged me. Thank you for taking the time to write to me. You asked some important questions. What am I searching for? Why am I here?
Does the man walking back from the river ask himself what he is doing? He is walking back from the river. Do the ladies in their red saris walking past the house in the early morning ask themselves where they are going? They are going home.
When I see Santi each morning I ask her how she is, she looks a little perplexed. I am fine. I am fine, thank you. It is not a question she asks.
She gets up at five to pour huge amounts of water down the central stairwell. She washes the floor bent over with the flourish of a large rag.
I am sitting on the veranda as she brings me tea. Tea with sugar that we both like. It’s the first time she has bought her tea to drink with me. She has the black and white striped mug that she acknowledges is the one that I like and sits down facing the flower bed. My tea is in a daintier earthenware mug with a thin handle which sits well in the hand. I am sitting at a right angle to her and looking at the banyan tree and the men walking back from their early morning swim. In the silence we hear the birds singing, playing, conversing and calling out.
I say I like the sound of the birds and Santi flaps her arms and pretends to fly and makes me laugh. I get up and stretch out my arms and we flap about the veranda together swooping and turning round and around. We stretch up and do some yoga exercises. She can touch her toes. I am 18 inches away from mine. She does a backwards crab, looks to the left and right to see if anyone is coming and does a shoulder stand. She gets all tangled up in her sari and we start laughing again. Then she does a funny walk as if she has no bones and we giggle again. Fun,
playful, childlike. Is. It is. We are. I am.
I was trying to teach this bewildering grammar to two of the children last night as we waited for the late night supper. Maybe it’s me I’m teaching this to. They already are.
The squirrel has taken up a defensive position by the rice on the wall. The birds outnumber him.
The smoke continues to belch out from the brick kiln, the wind carrying its foul smoke across to the other side of the village. Santis’ sari blows in the morning breeze. The birds congregate for meagre pickings from the ashes in the outdoor stove. The squirrel has assumed a top spot on the wall and even though he is considerably smaller than the fat noisy birds he is quietly and quickly gathering in the mornings offering. His colour matching the stone and the branches.
There is an ongoing daily narrative here. A cycle of actions, tasks, activities. A rhythm. An easy uncomplicated series of steps. One step. Then the next. It is physical. It is just done. It is. I am.
Beautiful words. Here’s a few more of Sarah’s stunning photos and the memories they evoke: