Rishikesh: Hindi Classes and Swiss Students [en]

In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.

Fresh foreigners in Delhi

After a few hours rest and a meal I went to the airport with Nicola to pick up our fellow students. They had arrived safely, all but one who had stayed stuck in Frankfurt – plane delay – and joined us 24 hours later. He got to spend a night in a very good hotel over there…

Seeing them all clean and fresh and bewildered reminded me of my own arrival in India over a month ago. In the space of a few hours I suddenly realized how much I had learnt and how well I had got accustomed to this new country. I was no longer lost and ignorant. I knew my way through town and public transports, hotels and restaurants. I had acquired much more knowledge than what I was aware of. It was quite a soothing feeling to be the one “who knows” – even though, of course, I don’t know that much.

For the next day we had hired a French-speaking guide and a mini-van (AC). The guide knew his job, which also consisted of taking us into a “silks” shop he knew – slight disappointment that he hid reasonably well, because we didn’t buy anything – and taking us to a restaurant which was a bit more expensive than what we wanted (but the meal was delicious).

In addition to some of the monuments I had seen the day before, we visited Jamma Masjid (very impressive) and the Jain Temple with its bird hospital. The inside of the Jain Temple was beautiful, miniature-like paintings all over the walls. We were lucky: had we arrived ten minutes later, we wouldn’t even have been allowed into the temple.

We got back to the hotel and I had but one desire: to lie down underneath a fan and doze off (a recurring kind of desire those days – running around Connaught Place in scorching Delhi while still convalescent was killing me).

I had a small nap and a nightmarish wake-up (the kind you have when you open your eyes, have no idea where you are, what time it is and what was this important thing you had to wake up for).

I then took the two other girls of the party to Connaught Place by rickshaw (the boys had set off some time earlier). I deftly negotiated the price of the ride upwards: “Connaught Place, how much?” – “What you want”. Disbelieving, I suggested ten rupees. “Ten rupees, fifteen rupees, what you like.” – “OK, fifteen!” said I, glad to get out of the bargaining so easily (I hate bargaining…). I must add that this guy was our “favourite” rickshawallah, and maybe I was feeling thankful I bumped into him at this crucial moment.

We had a nice (and cheap!) South Indian dinner ending with a mitha paan. Half our party simply swallowed it up. I chewed at mine conscientiously but I didn’t really enjoy it that much. Too many strange tastes mixed up together. So I spat it out on the pavement a bit prematurely.

The journey back to the hotel was fun. In the end we decided to use our feet, but at one point we considered hiring two or three rickshaws. Poor Nicola found himself trying to negotiate in the midst of about fifteen to twenty rickshawallahs! Utterly hopeless situation.

After a well-deserved AC night and a final YWCA breakfast (I had almost started liking them!) we set off for Rishikesh.

Journey to Rishikesh

We got to the bus station without too much trouble (a cramped and sweaty journey in jeep and rickshaw with luggage piled up on top of us). I mentioned earlier that we had booked our journey with a private company. You shall now learn why we regretted it…

It had all seemed too perfect. When we had got back to Delhi after our speedy Deluxe ride from Rishikesh, Nicola and I had asked the driver if there were any similar busses for our journey two days later. He told us the only Deluxe busses to Rishikesh left at 8 and 9 a.m. (too early for us). We found ourselves talking with a guy who could hire places for us in a bus better than this one, at the time we wanted, from where and to where we wanted – and at a fair price.

Half-aware we might be stepping into a tourist-cheater trap, we climbed into the rickshaw to go to the booking office. We fixed a few more details, the price rose a bit as the initial misunderstandings were cleared (yes, we wanted to go to Rishikesh, not Haridwar!) and finally bought the tickets.

Obviously the two guys who had touted us got quite a comfortable commission – they almost refused the ten rupees we had arranged to pay for our rickshaw ride!

We had silenced our doubts until the departure. We were in any case relieved to see that there was indeed a bus, although it had neither fans nor music and the seats were somewhat plainer than what we expected. Only problem: the bus would leave when it was full. One by one we saw some other passengers arrive. Finally we left by quarter past twelve (instead of eleven, not too bad).

At mid-ride Nicola went to check that they would drop us at our hotel and not at Rishikesh bus station. We learnt the chauffeur intended to leave us at Haridwar and put is in two Vikrams for Rishikesh (was he going to pay them?)… arrangement which we politely but firmly refused. At Haridwar and again a little later the driver tried to pressurize us (especially our Hindi teacher, as he “spoke no English”) to get out of the bus. We did not give in but all the same, we had to finish the last few kilometres of our journey by jeep.

Needless to say we learnt a good lesson from this. I think that in future both Nicola and I will stick to the government-financed transport – unless we have a very good reason not to do so.

Arrival at the hotel – the feeling of being treated as VIPs was even stronger than the time before. Nice meal “a volonte” and another good night’s sleep.

Rishikesh; August 30

More thoughts and stealing monkeys

After two days of “rest” I am starting to get over my Delhi tiredness, and my appetite has become monstrous. I guess I’m compensating for my consecutive illnesses.

Hindi lessons have started and I feel a surge of motivation for languages – I want to finish polishing up my English really seriously, catch up my German before it runs away, learn more languages.

So little time and so much to do in life… one thing at a time!

I’m reading “India – A Million Mutinies Now” by V S Naipaul. It is fascinating to receive answers to many of my unasked questions – mainly about the slums, the Dalits, and everyday life for a good part of the Indian middle-class during the last decades.

As I read, I realize that a couple of the things that have moved me the most have not been mentioned here. Of course, I can’t talk about everything. I already have the impression that a good part of this “logbook” must be a bit boring.

One image I cannot chase from my head is that of a small boy who came running after us at the Lal Qila in Delhi. Another beggar, like so many you see in the city. This little boy – how old was he, six, seven? – was carrying a tiny baby, thin and either sleeping or unconscious (though his thinness seemed to indicate the latter), his head lolling from side to side as the young boy ran. Maybe another set-up for cabbage-hearted people. Maybe not.

I have seen so many miserable people, especially in the centre of Delhi. And yet I have probably not seen the worst. The sick and the injured lying in the streets, those hands eaten by leprosy stretched out before me… What can I do for them? Will a rupee or two save them? I feel helpless but also a little uneasy. Is all this misery genuine? I have the feeling that some of these people may actually be dying there, before my eyes. And I do nothing. I retreat into my shell, shut my heart and walk straight through. All this human suffering would simply tear me apart if I let it in. Raw helplessness.

Rishikesh; August 31

There is also Manoj, the girl from the slums who works for our Hindi teachers. She lives with them and helps in the house, looking after their little daughter Ekta.

She must be about 16 and her father wants to marry her – it is already late for a girl of her caste, I am told. That will probably mean the end of the decent life her “host” family is now offering her.

They avoid leaving her too long in her real family, for not only does she work there like a slave, but another Indian could come along, offer more than them to her father, and they would lose her. And who knows how she would be treated in her new home, either.

The father was reluctant to let her come with us to Rishikesh. He feared our teacher might sell her there.

For her this journey is quite an adventure. Probably her first big journey, I am guessing. She is amazed by the mountains that surround us – “how do people get up there?” – and afraid to sleep alone in a room of her own. What we call “privacy” and treasure so much in the west is unknown to many people – and I can easily imagine it can be terrifying if you have never been alone.

Nicola told me that what astonished her the most was the fact that he actually filtered the tap-water before drinking it. For her tap-water is already such a miracle.

She has never gone to school, “of course”. Our teachers tried to teach her how to write. She painfully learnt the letters, but putting them together to make the words was beyond her.

Apart from the domestic work that she does, her life seems to revolve around TV and dreaming about her wedding: life will be like a Hindi movie…

As I was writing this, an army of creamy-brown, short-tailed and red-bottomed monkeys (bandar) of all sizes were taking possession of the hotel garden. About half an hour before, I had chased one of them, which was about to enter an open room. My room was open too, but I was in it – it didn’t seem “dangerous”. In fact, one of those cheeky beasts entered this very room and stole a lime from the table next to me. Barely a metre away. I didn’t even see him.

Stealing monkeys are far from uncommon. A few hours later I saw another one deftly grab two packed sandwiches from a shop and retreat just out of reach to enjoy them under the shopkeeper’s eyes. He knew what he was taking – it wasn’t washing powder or toilet paper.

My Hindi teacher also told me of monkeys in Agra that will tug at your trousers begging for food, and others (I can’t remember where) who would steal washing and give it back in exchange for food.

Rishikesh; September 1

Life in Rishikesh

Today is the third day of intensive Hindi. I can see my progress already. Our teacher is drilling us without mercy – my head is full or girls and chairs and tables all dancing around together.

The weather is nice; sunny, but the heat is bearable – apart when the hotel people switch off the electricity because they are cutting down trees. No electricity means no fans – it is then that you realize a little breeze makes life so much nicer over here. Power failures are common – in Pune and Delhi too, though they are usually short there.

This afternoon we went out to Rishikesh bazaar – our practical Hindi lesson consisted in asking prices for fruit and vegetables.

Rishikesh; September 4

The end of the week went on just as it had started. Lots of Hindi, lots of laughs at the dinner table and a couple of expeditions in town.

I found some edible chocolate, bought a lungi to wear while bathing in the Ganga and started to understand still a bit more about the Indian way of thinking – mainly following a couple of conversations with my religions teacher from Lausanne.

Rishikesh; Thursday, September 8

On Saturday we went to see a movie: Hogi Pyaar ki Jeet. I’m really making progress in Hindi – or is it in Hindi Movie Script Decoding? Even though the movie was supposed to be a flop, I enjoyed it. I’m not a very difficult customer with movies.

The next day we went to Haridwar for the afternoon, by train. We took part in a big (popular) arti there in the evening.

On the way back I stepped into a shop to take a look at a salwaar kameez. The streets were crowded. I got out of the shop after a few seconds but the others were already out of sight. Lost for lost, I stayed a little longer and finally bought the salwaar kameez – a good buy by the way.

I then ran to the railway station, hoping to catch up with the others who were planning to take a Vikram (in fact it seems I overtook them). I wanted to buy a railway timetable. After a while of hectic running around in the crowded station (I forgot to mention that it was quite hot and that as I had run I was dribbling with sweat) I finally found the right counter. Of course there was a queue. I spotted a fellow videshi near the beginning of the queue and managed to have him get the book for me. He didn’t look very fresh.

I then headed for the bus station, tired and sweaty and decided to go straight back to the hotel.

Guess who I bumped into over there?

My lost friends!

We took the bus and arrived at the hotel just in time to have supper (omelette and cheese sandwich).

During that week I had my first conversation classes and noticed again that I had really made some progress. I also started to have the impression that I was finding the correct way to deal with Indians and India – feeling a little bolder, acting a little bolder and getting better results. I began to think about the moment when my Swiss friends would go back and I would find myself “alone” again. But being alone in a country that you are starting to be at ease in is nothing compared to what I went through on my arrival in Pune or Delhi.

Janki Chatti; September 18

Two weeks of intensive study went by in a flash.

I had found a nice place where two girls gave me a rather important number of ayurvedic massages. Life went on quite smoothly, without being boring (too much studying to get bored!).

One day nevertheless, we were going to the other bank of the Ganga (by the Ram Jhula, the bridge that sways with your steps) when we noticed an unusually large gathering on the bridge – and the presence of the police.

Looking down we saw a half-blackened corpse, which seemed to be clinging to the rocks on the river bank. The police were obviously trying to get it out of the water (there was a small cliff at that place). No idea about the background of that corpse. It could be anything. It must have been in the river for some time – the part below water was white, the part above, black.

During the second weekend we went to Nilkanth, a colourful temple about 15 kms from Rishikesh. We wanted to walk there but unfortunately woke up a bit late, so we took a Jeep.

About halfway there we spotted the two girls of our group who had courageously stuck to the initial plan. We stopped the jeep and compressed them in (we were already somewhat tight).

After a few minutes the driver got out and told Nicola to go on the roof (he had been clinging to the back of the vehicle). As there was a second “seat” up there, and as I was also starting to feel a little cramped – no leg space (always that same problem!) and somebody sitting on my knees – I took place next to him.

Riding on the roof is fun, and it also lets you enjoy an incomparable view. People would stare as we drove by – and when it started raining and we huddled under an umbrella with my raincoat over our legs, people started smiling widely.

I had a great time even when jumping off the jeep, my judo reflexes made me begin a backward roll (it was a little higher than what I expected). I stopped just in time – only my bottom landed in the muddy puddle.

We visited the temple and walked about a little in the hills before coming back.

A woman in the jeep had been miserably sick during the whole journey. I had heard – and seen – that in this country it was particularly women who tended to be sick while travelling. It reminded me that in Europe we are car-trained from birth; maybe this woman stepped in a car only once in a blue moon. On the other hand, we are always amazed at how Indians (those who are not sick, I mean) manage to sleep in busses or simply anywhere.

If you look around, you will see very few prams in India. Mothers carry their babies and toddlers around all the time. And of course, they sleep in their arms – while the mothers walk, talk, shop, and do all kinds of activities. Is there a relationship?

During the night, in Rishikesh, I arrived face to face with a couple of oversized insects (by my standards). Five-centimetre-plus cockroaches (two of them: one died under Nicola’s foot and the other under mine), and a spider big like the circle I can make with the thumb and forefinger of both my hands (and I have long fingers). Neither Nicola nor I being very brave in front of eight-legged beasts, we got our Hindi teacher (who was staying in the room next door) to chase it out. That episode made quite an amount of adrenaline flow into my veins.

One day, Nicola and I went for a “check-up” at an ayurvedic doctor’s (the father of the girls who gave the massages). We went there because he claimed to diagnose by taking the pulse, and both of us were quite interested by this technique. If the result seemed quite correct for Nicola, it was less convincing as far as I was concerned (I was supposed to have the same basic problems as him – and I was totally unaware of them!). In any case, we left the shop with a box of tablets each…