We left Orchha early in the morning. Suresh, the cook, had promised he would get up and make us breakfast. But he was still fast asleep on the foyer floor when we were ready to go. An Indian family had arrived at 2 am with a baby but no milk for it, and the baby cried the rest of the night. But nineteen year old Suresh staggered out for us and made parathas and chai. When Gerard gave him a small tip he suddenly embraced him, exclaiming “I love you!” Then he said the same thing to me, and in the saddest, thickly-accented English, “I’m not going to like it when you’re gone.” It was such a poignant loving farewell, that for a minute I didn’t want to go either – despite the relief of escaping the bone chilling cold and damp.
We’d bought our train tickets over a month ago and one of the tickets was waitlisted. At the time that didn’t make us nervous – so many people make multiple reservations these days and only keep one if any of them. Wait list #3 seemed certain to materialize into a confirmation. Or so I thought! Gerard who never assumes anything was more apprehensive but could do nothing about it because these wait list confirmations are not posted until 4 hours before departure. In my usual complacency that everything would work out I had chided Gerard for continually checking for the list on the computer that morning, impatient for it to be posted. But it wasn’t until we were just about to board the train that we realized we still only had one confirmed seat – and an upper berth at that! For nineteen hours we would have to share the narrow space – even narrower than the lower berth below. We tried to grease the palm of the ticket collector to get us a spare seat, but he shrugged indifferently. “The train is full” – and indeed it was. There wasn’t a single empty berth in 2AC. Our berth was in a compartment with a middle aged couple and a single woman. Quite unusually, no one spoke a word to us the whole trip, in fact they barely acknowledged our presence – they did not make room for us to sit on the lower berth as is customary during the day or acknowledge our difficulty in squeezing into our skinny berth at night. Not that there was anything they could do, it would just have been nice to have a little sympathy. Gerard wanted to tell them when we all embarked at 4 am in Mumbai that they were the least friendly people we had ever traveled with on a train in India! They were such a contrast to the usual camaraderie we experience.
But we survived, and at Mumbai our host had arranged for us to be met by his driver. After a long night of squirming around trying to get comfortable, the spacious back seats of the car seemed positively luxurious. We’d come to Mumbai to attend a five-day meditation retreat that is held annually, though it was our first time. It is organized by people who follow the same meditation practice as us and was in remembrance of the spiritual teacher we visited frequently in Rajasthan before he passed away in 1997. We arrived one day before the retreat began and were given accommodation in an empty flat below our friends, the organizers. Held at a nearby public hall, the numbers at the retreat swelled from two hundred on the first day to over a thousand by the weekend. Some came from close by, some from afar. A wide spectrum of people, from a Mumbai businessman who was brought by his driver in a new Mercedes to a farmer from a remote village in Rajasthan. Families traveling a long distance stayed in dormitories above the hall where we followed a schedule of mediation and talks during the day. Delicious, simple food were prepared three times a day in the large kitchen area behind the hall and served by an army of volunteers to us as we sat in long lines on the floor.
Everything ran amazingly smoothly, due to careful organization and the endless efforts of a large team of volunteers. The family we stayed with took especially good care of us even though their flat was full to over flowing with visitors also attending the retreat. As more kept coming, furniture was moved out into the hallway outside the flat to make more space for sleeping! Despite the inconveniences everyone was very jolly. Before we went to the meditation hall in the early morning, we were requested to join them upstairs tea and biscuits. Everyone was trying to get ready gracefully coordinating with each other around two small bathrooms. But the mood was lighthearted. Our host’s elderly mother, positioned at the dining table, observed the activities with humour and a contagious deep belly laugh as she threw out a comical remark from time to time. The fact we couldn’t understand what she said didn’t matter!
We were the only westerners attending the retreat, very few people spoke English and there was no translation of the talks. And according to custom, men and women sat separately. This meant that it was not a social event. But the Indians often demonstrated how happy they were for us to join them and by the end of the retreat women in saris of every color of the rainbow would crowd around me jabbering in Hindi that I could not understand. “Nain Hindi!” was all I could say, chiding myself for leaving off my feeble attempts to learn the language last year. I hadn’t then anticipated that I would be spending five days with such sweet people who could not speak English. Gerard, meanwhile, sat in companionable semi-silence sharing a few words with the Sikh gentlemen from the Punjab, dignified in their white kurtas, and pink or blue turbans.
The five days passed surprisingly quickly. Once again, we cut the strings of attachment to the lovely people we had met and continued on our way.