Pain and Perspective in Uttarakhand India

by Brooke Bierhaus (United States of America)

Making a local connection India


My Doc Martin boots looked out of place against the dusty trail leading me away from the village of Bageshwar, India. A perfect resemblance of the disharmony I felt inside. With my head down and eyes fixed haphazardly at the steep decline, my mind raced back to the previous night. Images flashed through my mind of the violation inflicted upon me only 15 hours ago. My heart sank deeper into my chest. Describing the event as inappropriate to my new travel companions did not encompass the repulsivity of the situation; and assault felt too heavy a word. These two Hare Krishna men, who were supposed to be safe to stay with at the temple last night, had made me incredulous and untrusting. I felt closed-off. I felt out of tune with myself. I felt alone. The edge of my black boots hit a patch of sliding rocks, and I was brought back to reality by the momentum. Walking ahead of me, the director of the film crew I was working with in Uttarakhand, motioned for me to follow him to the front of a wood paneled house. As I neared closer, I realized the majority of it wasn’t built by wood, but by clay and mud. Panels of faded wood were fixed as shutters against the two windows on either side of the front door. White paint had been used to cover the clay mixture that built the walls of the house. I noticed the tattered and re-stitched blanket hanging on a tree branch in the sun to dry. As I looked off at the overcast mountains in the distance, a soft coughing sound echoed against the clay walls of the home. A welcoming toothless smile greeted me at the door. He leaned against the side of the entryway, labored breathing and fragility struck me at first glance. His khaki pants were two sizes too big, and the sweater he wore over his collared shirt draped his thin frame. In my broken Hindi we greeted each other. My usual warmth seemed a distant memory as I guarded myself from trusting another stranger in this area. He didn’t seem to notice my hesitation, or maybe he sensed that I could use a friend today. Either way, he motioned for me to come inside his house to talk. As a sign of respect for an elderly man, I referred to him as Babuji. In a mixture of broken Hindi, a translator, and miming movements, our conversations grew deeper. Babuji had lost the function of gripping and grasping objects with his hands a few years ago. As he explained his complications to me I took note of his frail arms and inverted wrists laid against his lap. His fingers in a perpetual state of relaxation from lack of movement. He mentioned to us that he was part of the “Dalits” or “untouchables” in the caste system of India. As he saw my eyes drift to his disabled hands, his voiced gained a sense of shame that I hadn’t noticed before. Babuji explained that his wife had left that morning to see the doctor in town. Then he grew silent. All that was audible were his deep labored breaths as I waited patiently for the rest of the story. With his head down, he raised his eyes to look directly into mine. “As a guest I want to offer you a chai, but my wife is the one who makes it...” Again he paused, gaining his breath. With his eyes still connected directly to mine in mutual understanding. He stated, “I cannot give you anything.” Suddenly, I felt the resentment from the previous night recoil. I was a stranger in his country and community who had stumbled upon his house. Instead of viewing me as an intruder, he accepted me as a gift and wanted to offer me a chai as a sign of friendship and hospitality. I reached out my hand to hold his, as I smiled and explained, that he had just given me a greater gift. The gift of perspective.