India – The Shopkeeper

The gumpa, which was what the meditation hall was called, was nestled in the sixty-foot tall pine trees inhabited by monkeys.  The combination of trees and altitude must have buffered the sounds of the nearby cities, creating a much-needed oasis for my taxed nervous system.   Two days prior I had spent twelve hours on a night bus to escape the intense heat, noise and pollution of Rishikesh.  

Wide concrete steps, littered with flip-flops led to 12-foot high, 5-feet wide red and gold doors. On one side of the doors were shelves filled with sandals.  On the other were several baskets of yoga matts woven out of strands of plastic.  I kicked off my flip- flops, added them to the heap in front of the shelves, and slowly opened the massive doors.  There were about eighty people inside, some sitting in rows on red cushions on the floor, others looking like they were trying to find their spot.  I stepped into the large room with red and gold painted walls, and wooden columns with intricate designs carved into them.  My bare foot touched a wooden floor, the first wooden floor I’d seen in India.  I closed my eyes and slid my other foot across it reveling in the memory of my life as a dancer, my life before the concrete and dirt of India.   A young woman brushed past me and walked quickly towards a pillow.  I looked up and saw a young dark skinned man sitting down on a pillow on a wooden platform in the front of the room.  Behind him were hundreds of gold sculpted Buddhas behind glass cases.  The teacher began to speak and I quickly found a pillow in which to sit upon.  The teacher led us in a mediation called Shamata, where we focused our attention on the tip of our nose.  After about a half an hour I was able to access some sense of stillness, deeper water under the crashing waves of my disoriented state.

After the meditation I walked slowly out of the gumpa, and played where’s Waldo with my flip-flops, with many others playing the same game.  I kept silent though and to myself as I walked towards the hand written sign I had seen earlier, McCloud Gang.  There was an arrow pointing towards the concrete steps that snaked through the forest and down the steep mountainside.  I focused on my breath and steps noticing the lush undergrowth that lined the ground under the tall trees.  Grey monkeys with human features crossed my path.  I could hear birds talking with one another.  At the bottom of the steep decline was a dirt road with people walking up and down it.  Sounds from the city were getting louder.  

The steepness of the path meant that each time my foot came down to the earth, it was met with force.  The downward movement stirred my intestines. Breakfast that morning was iffy, as usual, even though it was as plain as I could get. Porridge and chai tea.   I could feel the churnings in my belly and the need for a toilet.  A motorcycle with three people on it passed me.  I came to a cafe and went in to use their toilet, but a sign on the door said no water.  I left and kept walking. I was starting to feel a sense of urgency.  As the road narrowed and the sounds grew, I found myself at an intersection at the bottom of the hill.  Five streets came together and taxis were bumper-to-bumper honking at one another. People were weaving around the taxis and each other.  I picked a street and, like a video game character, darted between bumpers and people to get to it.  There was a café on the corner.  I went inside and looked all around.  There was no bathroom.  My belly was gurgling.  I went inside two more cafes.  Neither had a toilet.  I started cramping.  All other needs disappeared.  Cars were beeping, and people moved all around me.  Inside of another café I asked the waiter if they had a bathroom.  He handed me a key and pointed to the stairs.  Walking down the steps I heard someone retching.  There were three doors, all with pad locks.  My key opened the first one.  It was a small concrete room with a single dim light bulb.  The floor was wet and had a hole in the middle of it.  It was the squatting kind of toilet.  This was the reason for elastic around the bottoms of pants.  There were two buckets stained with textured brown sitting underneath a fawcett.  I hadn’t yet figured out how to use that system.  I was grateful that I remembered to bring toilet paper, though retrieving it from my backpack, while squatting with baggy pants was an acrobatic feat.

I tipped the waiter who gave me the key, left the café, and walked down the street a little altered. Glancing to my left I saw a man, in what looked like a closet just big enough for him.  His brown fingers glistened with chicken fat, as he pulled the sinew from the blade of the butcher’s knife, leaving a small piece of chicken in his other bare hand.  The blade was firmly rooted in a highly textured and dark, moist tree stump.  A taxi honked right in front of me.  A motorcycle beeped at my heels.

I walked a few more steps and a young woman dressed in a worn jade green saree, holding a beautiful brown baby, stopped right in front of me, looking into my eyes.

“Food,” she pointed to her child.  “No money.  Food,” she demanded.  

The baby’s head was perfectly round and tender. His deep brown eyes were eternal.  It broke my heart.  My face and posture must have softened.  The mother grabbed my arm and led me into a store.  She grabbed two items from the shelves and put the milk and rice on the counter.  I held out 500 rupees for the shopkeeper.  He punched into his calculator and turned it around to show me the sum.  It said 1070 in red digits.  I shook my 500 rupees a little closer to him.  The mother put the rice back, grabbed the milk and walked out of the shop carrying her precious child.  The storekeeper took my money.  I stood there for a moment confused.  The storekeeper did not look at me.  I left.

Walking away I started converting rupees to dollars.  That milk was very expensive.  Something was off.  I walked further.  Vendors were calling to me to buy their stuff.  I started feeling angry for being ripped off.  As an American I had felt that I’d been charged more than any others. Usually I didn’t mind. I know I’d made more money than most travelers, way more than Indians.  But this time I felt upset.

I went back to the shop.  I told the man that he charged me too much.  He ignored me.  There was another man in the shop, with a long grey beard and white hair.  I continued to insist on the shopkeeper’s attention.  The other man started to talk with him on my behalf.  He translated for the shopkeeper even though the shopkeeper spoke English, “He said that he put change on the counter and the mother took it.”

I looked at the shopkeeper, “Why didn’t you give it to me?”

He ignored me again.  I demanded his attention.  “I was trying to help and you are ripping me off.”  

The white haired man intervened, “That woman makes a business out of being a beggar.  She rents the baby for the day.  She sells back the food and keeps money.”

I was about to cry.  I fussed with the shopkeeper a little more.  

The white haired man asked, “How long have you been in India?”

 I bit my lip and fidgeted, ” Ten days”.

“And you haven’t learned anything?”  I looked up at him, trying not to cry.

“Come with me,” he said, turning to leave the shop.

I followed him like I was puppy who had just been scolded.  He led me to his small shop in the hallway of other shops and invited me to sit on a plastic chair with a bucket of brown water next to it.  He sat in the staircase.

“There are many beggars in Dharmasala.  Those women will make as much money as you do in a day.  They are not mothers.  They have made begging their job.  If you want to help, give money to the temple.  You will see lots of beggars who don’t work.  They just take.  Sadhus and people on the street, they don’t work.  Young Indian boys will be nice to you, show you around, and invite you for chai.  They will make friends with you, then try to get money from you.”

He looked at my shoes.  “You see men on street shining shoes. They cut (gesturing to cut the sole of shoe) then charge you to fix.” I was wearing sneakers. “You don’t need shining.  If someone approaches you, they want something from you.  If you approach someone they will help you.”

I was still teary eyed.  He offered me chai.  “No thank you.”  I wondered what he wanted from me.

I’d already experienced young India boys in Delhi being friendly and offering chai.  I engaged in conversation with them, excited to get to know the culture.  Two of the boys I talked with professed to be Tantra yoga teachers and told me about sculptures of monkey sex somewhere near the Taj Mahal.  They offered to take me there.  Friendliness turned to seduction and persistence.  At the beach in Rishikesh a fifteen-year old boy asked to kiss me, with his two younger brothers and sisters looking at me with great anticipation.

 “My heart hurts,” I said.

“No.  Don’t hurt.  You are paying for an education.  Some people go to university.  You get education here.  Some day you won’t be able to travel. You will need someone to take care of you.  But you have good health now.  You are having experience.  You are paying for experience.”

I was mixed with feelings of gratitude and uncertainty, still wondering if he wanted something from me, still on the edge do tears.  Feeling very young, I asked, “but how do I know who to trust.”

“Trust yourself.”

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