A Christmas Birthday Celebration in India
In December 1993, I had been up for an hour on Christmas morning before I realized, Today’s my birthday. I was in Bikaner, a desert town in northern India. Without the usual holiday clues such as decorated trees and twinkling lights, I had forgotten it. As I rode in a motorized tri-shaw, relaxed into a trance by the desert images speeding past me, I remembered. Months earlier, I had arranged to distinguish my birthday with a camel safari.
My guide, Vijay, and I rode for hours as men waved and children ran alongside yelling, “Hello!” At one stop, the children pointed to my head and giggled, fascinated by the kinky texture of my hair. I moved toward them and bent down so they could touch it. They backed away squealing with laughter until one brave youth edged toward me, his index finger extended ET-style.
Other than vocabulary such as “lunch” and “bathroom, madam?” Vijay and I did not exchange words. He spoke Hindi and Urdu, and I spoke English. Yet we engaged a lexicon of smiles, shared silences and international charades. When Vijay made two fists then drew them sharply toward his collar bone, that meant “hold onto the camel reins;” when I rubbed my belly, that showed my appreciation for the amazing lunch cooked by two women who seemed to appear from nowhere, in the middle of the desert, hauling pots and pans.
At the end of the safari, Vijay treated me to a tour of his home – four sandstone dwellings with straw roofs. An area he called “room” was bare except for one straw cot covered with a spread and accented with decorative fabric overhead. Two adjacent walls held pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses, maharajahs and a black and white military group photo in which Vijay pointed to a younger version of himself.
As I waited for the tri-shaw that would take me back to my hotel, the children in Vijay’s family gathered around me. They lifted the camera that hung around my neck toward my face and said, “You click! You click!” then scrambled to assemble themselves opposite the lens in a tableau of farewell.
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Even when words fail us, our intent to understand and be understood spurs
us to speak through the expanse of our senses and the integrity of our hearts.
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P.S. Happy Birthday
Beatin’ The Celebration Cheatin’ Christmas Baby Blues
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