The man who handed me his water // Merel Kooij
I eagerly looked out the window while the wheels of the plane were ready to kiss the ground and celebrate another safe flight around the world. I felt ready. Ready to leave the plane and thereby enter one of the most interesting countries on earth. My first step in India was confident and full of curiosity. I started this journey with my eyes wide open and without any mental carefulness. Before I could consciously realize, India had already swallowed me up like a pill.
My trip through India began in Delhi, the second most populated city in the world. With my head still full of western thoughts and concerns, I wandered through the streets of this overwhelming city. The more steps I took, the more sweat rolled down my body, I felt as if my brain was putting every part of me in perspective. What are my little luxury issues in life worth if people here do not even know if they will be able to feed their children? India overstimulated all my senses. It was not only the 104 degrees with the sun covered in grey clouds, the highest humidity and the very intruding smell that hit me, but there was also no way to escape reality. Covering my ears did not stop the continuous horn sound vehicles made while trying to plow through the unorganized traffic. Pinching my nose shut did not help me to ignore the smell of stench from garbage and urine, mixed with strong aromas of spices and incense. And most importantly closing my eyes did not help me forget the images burned onto my retinas. Most vividly I remember a little boy sitting in the middle of the street. He was naked, thinned and all alone. He tried to keep his head up to show he was still full of hope, but he failed miserably. What affected me most was the way traffic went around this little boy as if it was their usual business to deal with. And maybe that was what I realized that day; it is their everyday business.
Although India is developing really fast, it is still one of the poorest countries where a majority of the people have no future other than finding a meal for tomorrow. This was not my idea of exploring the world; this was a slap in the face. I wondered if there was a bright side in this country where the sun did not seem to shine. My whole life I had been able to take basic needs such as food and shelter for granted which enabled me to experience and to develop myself spiritually. However, the little boy I saw in the middle of the street will never be able to do so as long as his only priority is providing these basic needs. This realization made me question whether it is a western privilege that enables me to try to achieve a state of happiness.
When travelling this Eastern world, I already had learned the hard way that entering an Indian city unprepared would affect me and my western-raised mind drastically. Now this time I protected myself against being swallowed up once again by reading The Lonely Planet, a travel guide that provides information about the city and its culture, in advance. I got off the train much more careful than before and I was ready to close my eyes if needed. I had arrived in one of the oldest cities in the world and the religious capital of India, Varanasi.
If life is a journey and every step taken represents a lesson, my journey started as soon as I got off the train. The destination of this journey was the holy Ganges. To get closer to this river, I walked through narrow alleys full of people, all dressed in orange and walking in the same direction. Even though the maximum capacity of people fitting in these small streets was well exceeded, no one pushed one another or tried to walk faster than what the average pace was. The little boy on his mother’s hand, the young beautiful woman all by herself, the old man and the woman who missed a leg were all constantly adjusting to each other’s pace. I saw how during this journey, made by a population of united people, terms such as old, poor, rich, weak and wise were made meaningless by the color orange. It felt as if I had entered another world, a place where energy was released by solidarity rather than the individual approach of life in the hectic, big streets of the cities. A place where I had faith that happiness can be found. Being a part of this crowd made me feel even smaller than the little streets I was in. Overwhelmed, but still full of self-esteem, I peacefully walked on.
Suddenly, I was brought back to reality by six men screaming while finding their fastest way possible through the crowd. While they passed me, their eyes revealed a mix of emotions. These men were determined, powerful, and angry. On their shoulders they carried a body covered in an orange dress and decorated with flowers. Without even questioning the situation I walked on until I eventually reached the most religious spot for Hindi, which also happened to be the most contaminated river in the world. From a distance the Ganges did not seem anything more than brown water contrasted by people wearing orange washing themselves. To get to the river I had to walk down steps, also called ghats, to reach the waterfront. The people I shared this journey with consisted of Hindi who were walking to the ghats to wash themselves in the holy river as their everyday ritual. When the old lady in front of me arrived at the ghats, I realized it was too late to turn around. Each step I took brought me closer to what is the source of hope for so many people. A river that consistently allows and reminds people to have faith in their lives. To keep dedicating their minds to this higher power and to never lose their faith no matter what situation they find themselves. I realized that happiness does not discriminate; it can be achieved everywhere and by everyone who is willing to have faith.
Once I reached the waterfront the smell of smoke intruded on my sense of smell. All the admiration and unicity I had felt before sank to the bottom of the river when I saw the fires. I caught the eyes of someone I had seen before, eyes that expressed determination and power. It was one of the six men who earlier passed me by on my way to the river. The man was washing the body covered in orange cloths and decorated with flowers. Behind him on the riverfront lay four similar bodies which were ready to be thrown into one of the fires as soon as they dried up. I do not know how long I stood there watching the bodies feeding the fires. It was as if I was not really there; I did not feel the warm tears rolling down my face and I did not feel the smoke I breathed in. As I became one with my absurd surroundings, I started witnessing rather than I was consciously thinking. The only thing I was aware of was my presence in that moment. This place where the death was so real made me experience how pure it feels to be alive. Suddenly I understood why this river is the hope of so many people: this river is the symbol of life. The Ganges does not exclude, yet it offers people a lifelong guarantee of being embraced by its warm water. Water that consists of everything living people decide to wash off and eventually of what they leave behind when it is time for their minds to escape their bodies.
After I left the ghats to settle down in one of the narrow aisles, I leaned on a stall that sold bottles of water. The man who owned the stall touched my shoulder to get my attention. Long hair was growing out of his eyebrows, his lips looked cracked and his clothes hung widely around his body. Suspiciously, I looked at him wondering what he wanted from me. However, the man did not want anything. On the contrary, he showed me what happiness is when he handed me a free bottle of his water. As I tasted the water several thoughts flashed through my mind. My first image was one of the dehydrated boy, laying on the street, begging with all of his ability to get some water. In the background I could still hear the people splashing the holy water of their river. This man, who does not have anything more than a stall to sell water, was able to give me something so valuable without wanting anything in return. This small act of kindness taught me more in five seconds than what others wish to learn in years. Happiness is achieved when you are not scared to believe. The Hindi who are not scared to put their faith in a river and are not scared to believe in following their everyday ritual. The man who trusts the fire to be the best place for his loved one who has passed away. As well as the man who gave me the water bottle because he believed it was the right thing to do. Those people know what the true value of happiness is really about. Believing in something without being scared to lose what you have, that is what will make you happy in life.
Merel is a freshman from Rockanje, the Netherlands. Her majors are biology and chemistry. Next to her passion for soccer and tennis, she loves reading and writing.
Tani is a Senior year double major in Religious Studies and Studio Art. She explores photography, photographic alternative processes, encaustic, and various sculpture mediums.
I’m Melissa Gillette, a junior studying Elementary Art Education and Studio Art. I enjoy music, art, writing, hiking, rock climbing, archery, knife throwing, and hanging out with friends.