- The everyday folks that you meet in India are the true unsung heroes and enlightened saints that we need to learn from. If they can smile through their tragedies and hope for a better tomorrow, what is our excuse?
I recently visited India after a long gap of three years. More specifically, I spent a month in the southern part of India, Chennai, which is my home town. I was so nostalgic for my country and my people and it had been too long. Since my return, I have been reflecting on my trip and the many beautiful memories. One such glaring realization was that in the past three years, due to the pandemic, I have felt even more isolated than usual and have been living cocooned in my small bubble, trying hard to survive the external chaos of the world we live in today.
What I noticed in stark contrast, during my stay in India, is how people thrive in chaos, how well they navigate a multidimensional universe both inside and out, how quickly they adapt to ever-changing circumstances, how they learn to appreciate the simple moments of everyday miracles in their often challenging lives. This blog is a tribute to many such unsung heroes that I had the honor of meeting during my month-long cultural immersion in my hometown.
Anyone who has visited India can understand what I mean when I say that as soon as you land there, your senses are bombarded with a million sounds, smells, flavors, sensations, and colors. You descend into chaos where everything is on full display. To a western mind and eyes, it is too much to take in all at once. One can feel overwhelmed by the intensity of it all. But for those of us who grew up there, it is business as usual. Despite leaving my country of origin more than three decades ago, it only takes me a few minutes to slide right back in. There is an instant feeling of reconnection and belonging. I guess that is why we call it “motherland.” For many of us, it is that sense of belonging that we will never feel anywhere else in the world.
One such instant connection that I felt was with our housemaid Rani (meaning queen) who took care of my mom and our beautiful coastal home. Rani greeted me my first morning back, dressed impeccably in a gorgeous saree. She was fully decked in beautiful jewelry but her best feature was her beatific smile which reached her twinkling eyes. This was the first time I was meeting her, since I had not been back home in three years and she was hired about two years ago. However, she greeted me with the familiarity and loving enthusiasm of someone who might have raised me as a child. There was so much affection in her lilting voice as she greeted me with a “namaste or in Tamil — vanakkam.” I took an instant liking to her. Her smile and cheerful demeanor were infectious and even though I was jet-lagged after a grueling 24 hours of travel, I felt uplifted by her love.
Rani spent the next several hours mopping, cleaning, and washing the clothes all with the same enthusiasm despite my mom’s constant nagging and instructing. ☹I was ready to submit her application to the Pope for sainthood for putting up with this constant barrage of demands from my mom, with a smile. Later, my mom told me her story. Rani is a converted Christian woman in her late 50s. She was a widow, the second wife to a man who loved her very much and took good care of her. Widowed at quite a young age, she single-handedly raised her three children all of whom were now grown up and well-employed. However, none of the grown-up children wanted to take care of her. Instead, they abandoned her and also wanted her money.
With my mom’s help and support, Rani stood up to her children and chose to remain financially independent and live a life of dignity. My mom told me that despite taunts and snide remarks from her neighbors, she chose to dress up well each morning to honor her husband, and to live her life cheerfully with a smile. During my stay there, whatever clothes, jewelry, and candy I gave Rani, she made sure to share with her entire neighborhood — with the same neighbors who often criticized her. To me, Rani truly represents the spirit of the true Indian heart.
Meet Kumar — the neighborhood’s only “Ironman.” Kumar is the one who irons everybody’s clothes in our neighborhood. His work is so impeccable that he has a monopoly over the entire affluent neighborhood. Kumar’s setup is very modest. He had his mobile ironing cart with a makeshift tarp to shelter him from the sweltering heat of Chennai. You can find him parked under a particular tree promptly at about 8 a.m. each morning. Lifting the heavy iron, which probably weighed about ten pounds, he worked tirelessly all day long, standing on his feet, until about 10 pm at night. I learned from him that he had three children. Two daughters and a son.
Despite the cultural conditioning in India, Kumar has educated all his three children. His oldest daughter had double majored in computer science and mathematics. She was working for an IT company. His other daughter was studying to become a teacher and his son had just joined a local engineering college. My mom described Kumar as a terror to his children. His children both loved and respected him. They were also terrified of him. He expected impeccable work ethic and unlike the other neighborhood kids, you could never find Kumar’s children loitering on the streets, playing on the phone, or indulging in idle gossip.
Kumar was always dressed very neatly in a freshly washed, pressed dhothi and shirt. He always wore the traditional holy ash on his forehead and had a cheerful smile on his face. Nobody in the neighborhood dared to bargain with Kumar regarding his charges. He was a very proud man who would not hesitate to drop you as a customer if you irritated him too much. He was very fond of my mother however and gave her special discounts. Kumar credited my mom for always encouraging him to educate his children and to have big dreams for them. “Hard work is my mantra Madam,” reflected Kumar when I asked him what his secret was. “Work, work, and more work. This is how I have lived my life. My children have learned the value of hard work and a good work ethic from me. Between their studies, if they have free time, they come here and help me out. My wife runs an impeccable home and raises them with good values,” he proudly responded to my inquiry. Despite his humble origins, Kumar is a man who carries himself like a successful entrepreneur, with pride, dignity and honor. His intelligent face shines with hope for his children’s bright future.
Since I was visiting after a long gap of three years, I was yearning to shop and replenish my wardrobe. On one such outing, we were visiting the old part of Chennai, the temple town of Mylapore, which is always bustling with activity. The ancient temple there is active throughout the year with myriad festivities. An entire economy had developed around the temple and there were thousands of shops displaying clothes, jewelry, varieties of eateries, worship materials for the rituals, fruit vendors, vegetable vendors, and so on. It is such a sensual treat to walk down these bustling streets. My mom loved this town and knew many of the street vendors as she had developed a relationship with them over many decades.
One such vendor was an old woman who was selling color powder on a cart. Having only a pile of stones for a seat, she sat there all day selling “rangoli powder”, a multi-colored powder that people used to draw mandala patterns outside their houses each morning. During December, this was especially popular in the south of India, as homes vied with each other in brilliant displays of mandala patterns with colored powder, outside their front yards. There was fierce competition among the women in who made the fanciest of the patterns. Again, a simple joy of everyday life, that has long been forgotten by those of us who moved away to other countries.
So, that afternoon, in the midday heat, we were standing in front of this old woman’s cart buying color powder. Since she knew my mother well, the old woman requested my mom. She told my mom to take whatever she wanted and to give the money to her friend who was selling fruit in her neighboring cart. “Throw the tarp and close my shop after you are done mother”, she instructed my mom. When my mom asked her why she was in such a hurry to leave, the old woman told us the following story. This woman was in her late sixties, widowed, childless, and lived alone. She said that recently a stray, pregnant cat had wandered into her home and had given birth to kittens a couple of days ago. So, she wanted to go home to check on the new mother and her babies and to feed them some milk. “These poor creatures cannot speak. The cat is orphaned just like me. If I don’t feed her, who will look after her? We keep each other company now”, she said, giving us a sweet smile through her stained teeth.
There were many such incidents and stories sprinkled throughout my stay there. In this day and age, of never-ending petty desires, constant feelings of emptiness, and continuous posturing on social media, these simple-minded folk were happy despite their poverty and very challenging life circumstances. To my astonishment, they were not just striving or surviving, they were thriving in chaos. Life in India is anything but a bed of roses. Everyday challenges can overwhelm even the most competent of us. Patriarchy, misogyny, corruption, and cruelty is in abundance but so is generosity, compassion, hope, resilience, faith, and cooperation. India reset me and burst my bubble. It inspired me to meet life in its entirety and embrace all of it with an open mind and a compassionate heart. These everyday folks that you meet in India are the true unsung heroes and enlightened saints that we need to learn from. If they can smile through their tragedies and hope for a better tomorrow, what is our excuse? Happy New Year.
Vinutha Mohan is a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma. Prior to her Avatar as a therapist, she spent over fifteen years in the corporate world.