Lohri and Birthdays in Delhi

India-and especially Delhi – is now so familiar that we no longer feel we’ve been transported to a different planet – the street sweepers, the beggars, the polluted air – all seem more than familiar.  And yet the fascination remains.  Of course, being adopted by a family that greets us with open arms on our entry, makes it even easier to adjust from one culture to the next.
We persuade Bushan that it’s unnecessary to meet us at the airport now the new metro extends there.  It’s clean, efficient and convenient.  The frequency of the trains makes a mockery of Heathrow’s unreliability.. It feels good to walk the short distance from the station to Bushan’s house. Raynoo who has been cooking and cleaning for them since we first visited is in the kitchen making us breakfast.  It is six years, since she dressed me in a sari for Shruti’s wedding. After she’s fed us, she sits down and eats.  She’s frustrated that I still can’t talk with her in Hindi.  Her few English phrases out match my even fewer Hindi words.  
The relationship of the Indian family with the people who cook, clean, garden, drive for them, fascinates me.  I only have the experience of this family so I can’t generalize.  But there is a give and take – a mutual loyalty and genuine concern for each other.  Bushan loves to tease Raynoo and she is quick to deflect his jest and give it back to him.  Smaller than me, she’s a human dynamo with eyes as black as coal that gleam with a determination you would not want to get in the way of.  But she has a huge grin and buoyancy despite the hand life’s dealt her.  Married at 14, she has a 13 year old daughter and 10 year old son.  Her parents didn’t know the boy they’d chosen for her was mentally inadequate – the boy’s family rushed the marriage to hide the fact. Years later, he went back to live with his mother, who refuses to give Raynoo any financial support. So she works for several families to care for her children and incapacitated parents.
Friendship is important to Bushan and it’s not a huge surprise that he has friends going back to his first day in kindergarten.  He takes us to meet one who is a very successful clothes exporter, selling worldwide to all the major brands, from Walmart to Armani – and in between.  His office is an oasis of calm and elegance on a chaotic Delhistreet. Stylishly dressed young employees wander in and out, carrying armfuls of samples for his review – a myriad of fine fabrics and wonderful colors and patterns.  The exports are private labeled, and eyeing the racks, I see all the familiar retailers represented.  
Tea is served – no earthy chai but a “dip dip” tea bag, the tag delicately hanging over the side of a fine bone china cup. He asks his assistant (her tight black skirt and sweater offset by multi colored leg warmers and scarf) to take me into the back room where there are racks and racks of sample blouses. Pick what you like, she says. I feel like the proverbial kid in a candy store.  I narrow it down to two to try on and then pick one that is too big for me. No problem – she calls in a tailor brandishing a tape measure who delicately takes my measurements as if I might shatter like a glass flower if touched. The altered top will be with the doorman in half an hour…Both the items I first selected are waiting immaculately folded and wrapped in plastic. 
Once again we are in Indiafor a holiday – not a big coincidence since there are so many holidays.  Lohri marks the beginning of harvest – the sowing of crops, and is celebrated with bonfires.  It reminds me of Guy Fawkes day on Nov 5 in England– Just as we used to collect “a penny for the Guy” to buy fireworks – Indian children go door to door collecting firewood to build the fires..  Lohri also happens to be the birthday of Sat Naam, the young boy who works for Swaran (Bushan’s sister-in-law) and the day before Bushan’s birthday. (it is the only Indian festival that is not determined by the lunar calendar). Swaran invites us all for a celebration dinner. After the fire is blazing, we circle, chanting and throwing on offerings of popcorn and sweets. Shruti’s arthritic grandmother struggles out of her room and blesses us with offerings of special Lohri sweets – sesame ladoo balls, while everyone sings Happy Birthday to Sat Naam who bashfully ignores us.
Spending most of our time in country areas and small towns we can forget the immense population problem of India.  But the cities like Delhiare a glaring reminder. It takes us two hours to go across town in the early evening. Returning four hours later, it takes only twenty minutes. The traffic is chaotic and it’s a miracle from our perspective that anyone survives on the roads..  A group of beggar children play in the median, a scene reminiscent of Slum Dog Millionaire. So deprived and yet joyous in their play.  A mother arrives and demands each child in turn to hand over their earnings. The oldest boy refuses – she chases him around the median and cuffs him around the ears.  As the traffic begins to move, a small skinny boy performs cartwheels between the line of vehicles – a precarious act of abandonment and complete lack of caution. 

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