It was my second trip to India, and I had started out very sick. The week before I had departed on this pilgrimage to Varanasi, to watch the burning of the dead bodies, and then go help build the school in Rishikesh, I had suffered away in a lover’s Cow Hollow apartment in San Francisco with strep throat. My fever had been so high I was hallucinating that he was an assassin sent by a FORMER boyfriend to kill me, but that’s a different story than what happened in Varanasi, and by the time I arrived at this gorgeous city dubbed “Venice of the East,” I was free of strep throat, probably, thanks to antibiotics, but still feverish and unable to eat, vomiting green bile.
I stayed at a hotel right on the Ganges River, listening every night to the boatmen sing, watching stray puppies chase after the children. Holy men in loin clothes strolled past the steps of our hotel, and only a few hundred yards away, the families of India burned their dead.
Sometimes, I hear my fellow western friends talk of India with horror at the poverty, the trash, the illness. They point out things like rape culture and the caste system. Controversially, I don’t see much difference between India and the US in those regards, but perhaps that’s because I live in a huge city overrun with its own problems of homelessness and violence. A lot of it depends on what you’re looking at, I suppose.
I was in Varanasi with a spiritual group that was working with a self-proclaimed guru. He’s pretty famous. I don’t know. He was angry on this trip. Because I was so sick, I missed most of the group outings and teachings. I was confined to my hotel, watching the river slumber by.
But every day, a little boy came to visit. His name was Ahmed, and he was a Muslim boy. I know because he came to sing the Qu’ran to me. Then he would offer to show me the finest shops. I would explain I was sick, and he would tilt his head left, then right, then left again, very quickly.
“I am sorry, madam,” he would say. “I will be back tomorrow.”
I loved that lilting cadence in his face. I would go back to my room and watch Bollywood movies, breathe heavily, drink flat Pepsi.
Finally, after a few days, I felt well enough to want to leave the Villa-turned-hotel and as I stepped out into the bright sun, Ahmed rushed up to meet me.
“Madam!” he cried. “Would you like to see an old fort?”
I looked into his big brown eyes and felt a small warm hand slipping into my own.
“Yes,” I said, against my better, urban, Western judgment. “Yes, I would.”
We hurried down along the river for a few minutes, maybe ten or so, until we reached an abandoned villa looming over the foamy water. We climbed up the hill and Ahmed passed easily through a hole in a fence that I could barely shimmy through. Then, he took my hand again and led me through what seemed like an empty palace: a large veranda over the front, looking over the river… a center square in a large property with crumbling pillars and mosaics along the walls and floors. Empty rooms, a place void of any humans, at least dwelling there.
“Madam,” said Ahmed. “Would you like to see some parakeets?”
I looked at the excitement on his face, like a kid at Disneyland or something.
“Yes!” I cried.
Ahmed nodded. He took my hand in his and we ran to the back of the house. There was a large, lonely willow tree reaching up over the high red walls. Ahmed put his fingers to his lips as we crept toward the willow. Then, he breathed in and raised his hands like a conductor about to instruct an orchestra. He brought his hands together in applause: clap, clap, clap, clap, and –
FLUTTER FLUTTER FLUTTER FLUTTER FLUTTER FLUTTER
Scores of little green birds bolted from the weeping willow tree, an exodus of rustling and flapping in every direction!
I laughed with sheer delight and felt a breath of life enter my body.
Then I looked at Ahmed and he looked at me. My heart burst open with a million little tingles of pleasure, and I wanted to cry. I fell in love at that moment with this sweet little boy. Not romantically. Just. Like. A mother. Like Mother India herself.
hmed,” I said, “how old are you?”
“Madam, I am eight years old.”
“And how do you speak English so well?” I asked. He tilted his head left and right a few moments, considering the question. “From the tourists such as yourself,” he responded.
And then, I took the risk. “And do you have a mother?” I asked.
Now I wonder why I even could ask such a question, but I did. I already had the fantasy in my mind’s eye. I could adopt him. I could bring him back to America with me and we could live together as mother and son. I could give him all sorts of opportunities. He could visit my parents in Minnesota with me.
“Of course, Madam!” he chuckled.
My heart began to fall.
“Oh, and… um… where is she?” I asked.
He opened his hands, explaining the obvious.
“At home, Madam!” he responded.
“I see. And… would you ever… would you like to visit America?” I asked. A last-ditch effort.
A horrified look crossed his face.
“No, Madam,” he said. “Oh, no. My mother says I must never go to America. No, no. It is a wicked, violent place!”
I paused for a moment. It was, but it wasn’t. So was India. So was the world. So had the world been in so many ways since the dawn of… since the dawn of opposition, whenever that was.
I let my heart suffer these slings and arrows. I let my heart love him, knowing that I would never see him again. I marveled that I had fallen in love, not romantically, but as a mother. And then, I smiled and nodded.
“Shall we go back to the hotel?” I asked. The world was spinning. My fever was returning.
“Alright,” he said, taking my hand and leading me out of the abandoned building. “And if you like, I can show you some nice shops along the way.”
I didn’t want to go to the shops, but I heard my voice murmur, “sure.”
I didn’t look back at that fresh, clean, green place where no people lived, only birds and trees. We stepped out onto the dusty streets where bicycles zoomed past and poor women reached their hands out in need. I looked up into the firmament of sky, as open and blue as my heart.
Erin Muir is a Spiritual Advisor at 12Listen.com.