A love of youth Chapter 12
I discovered a different world when landing at Delhi airport. I felt lost among the crowd of busy people who hardly left me enough place to circulate. Obviously, after making my path in the human wave, I found a taxi in which I took place while sighing with relief. I had to bend over backwards for explaining to the driver where I wanted to go. He didn't understand a word of French. I crossed several areas that struck me by the disastrous aspects of the human nature. The streets of the village where I was going were so narrow and the circulation so dense that I preferred to pursue my way using other means of transportation to reach my destination before night falls. I climbed on a rickshaw and finally arrived in the area indicated on the telegram. It was the city of the poorhouse where the grinding poverty ruled everywhere. As soon as I put a foot on the ground, a crowd got around me begging while calling me “Sahiba, Sahiba.” Fortunately, a pujari who passed by there came to my rescue and disperse them. He wanted to know what a girl like me was doing in this area. He told me it was not prudent to put myself at risk in the streets like this. In truth, people milled about almost everywhere with a frightening appearance. The sidewalks were full of homeless that slept with their children in the arms all night long. The pujari hardly understood French, but I succeeded in discussing with him. I gave him the address where I had to go. He approached several people while we walked in the streets and took some directions that, I supposed, had to lead us to the address we were looking. Then when night began we were in front of an old crumbled home whose door was closed with a rusty padlock. It was my destination. I had to wait the following day to get the first information. Therefore that evening, I didn't have the choice but to find me a room in the center of the city. The pujari left me in the hands of an Indian youngster I could trust. His name was Soubash, the guide who would drive me to a hotel. I took place in his rickshaw and we crossed to at top speed several narrow streets before reaching my destination. It was an astonishing race that we made. I sighed of relief when reaching a dilapidated hotel situated in a noisy street. After dinner, I went to my room. From my window, I looked at a woman who was performing classical dances in a big room. Even when I was in my bed, I heard this music of Ravi Shankar that accompanied me until the morning.
The Indian Soubash came to see me to help me to find my friend Devika. The pujari had sent him to me because he knew the area very well since his very young age. He succeeded in exchanging some words in French. He was around forty years but appeared to be a lot more. He was married to a woman older than him and who had given him fifteen children, the oldest was not yet twenty years. He had never stopped working hard to feed his wife and children.
He took me to a house situated in the suburb that was surrounded with a wall constructed probably long ago by the former inhabitants to protect themselves against the flooding. The house was constructed with bamboos and the gaps were stopped up with cowpats and whitewashed. The roof was covered with straws and foliage. Pieces of decayed metal sheet, surely collected in rubbish helped to hide the openings that could harm in the rainy time. The courtyard was big enough to allow the children to play during the day. They preferred to regroup under the soft shadow of the trees. The sun was burning and spread a torrid heat. Some women were waiting around a well and talking loudly while looking at the fields where men were working. Some hens cackled on the left side of the courtyard and to the rear, far from the house, cows mooed in a cow-shed that gave off a sickening smell. The other houses were far and hidden behind the clump. Soubash’s wife welcomed me and got me into a bare but clean room. It was the only appropriate place to receive me. A bed was at the bottom, next to the window. She invited me to sit. I was just installed that some children entered the house to admire me. They spoke together while looking at me and bursting out laughing. Soubash chased them away and said they thought I looked like an actress they knew. Soubash’s wife was called Shanti. She brought me a cup of very hot tea and sat next to me to chat. But she didn't understand a word of French. Her friends had come to see her to inquire who I was. My presence had excited their curiosity. Shanti knew that I was searching for a friend who was in danger. She explained the women while dragging them in the room. I stayed all alone to think about the kind of life that women led in this region. They seemed satisfied and maybe a little overcome by hard and exhausting work. Shanti seemed older than she was. Soubash had asked me to wait for him while he went to see a friend. Shanti made me visit the house. Portraits of Gods were hung up on the walls and in the corner there was a statue of Vishnu surrounded with the offerings and lamps. It was there that Shanti made her prayers every morning. I found no mirror. Shanti hardly worried about her beauty. The worries of life didn't allow her to take care of herself. She couldn’t afford fantasies. The children wore dirty and torn up clothes. They played all day in the dust. The women used to go to the river to wash the dirty linen. It was a joy for the children to accompany the groups of women that walked along the trails, the bags on their head. The region was never sure. The louts, the thieves, people without scruples, those hunted by the society hid somewhere in nature to attack the weak. They wounded and killed men and raped women and girls. The justice was made by force by a fighting between adversaries. The strongest always defined the laws.
All the seasons were not good for the inhabitants. The scourges that disrupted the existence of people were the monsoon, the flooding and the drought. It was not the only enemies of the population. The epidemics, the illnesses, the conflicts between communities killed a great number of people. But people still walked in the streets. The beggars pestered the tourists. Since the rising of the day, people have gone out every corner to occupy the smallest free place. This wave of people in continuous movement was frightening. If rushing into it, we had no luck to escape. All kinds of people were living in the middle of this tumult. The pickpocketers, the drug dealers, the criminals the justice could never lay a hand on the swindlers, the highwaymen, the impostors, all those who search for a way or another to live off the others. Only those who knew the risks and the dangers never exposed themselves to it. Among them of course are the big traders, the rich, and the famous and distinguished people.
After having drunk a cup of tea, I decided to go for a walk in the neighborhood. Whereas I walked on a potholed trail, accompanied by the children who got used to me, I saw a hut hidden behind a grove. While approaching it, I heard the voices of the children who were repeating what their professor taught them. I got round the stone wall where I saw some children were sitting on the floor in the shadow of the hundred-years-old trees. It was their school.
The professor was old and wore white mustaches. His head was covered with a white turban. He wore a djellaba, a dark gray overcoat and a dhoti. His face was tanned; his eyes expressed tiredness. When seeing me, he hurried to me. He knew I was a stranger and wanted to talk to me in English. He didn't understand a word of French. My English was bad. It was with a lot of sadness and regret that we separated.
The heat was oppressive. To escape the ardor of the sun, I entered a narrow trail to take advantage of the shadow projected by the big trees. I noticed several huts in which many people were living. I was surprised with the condition of life of these people. They had no perspective for the future. I wondered if it was really the country where Devika came to live. But when you are happy, no matter where you live, it is a paradise. You just have to accept the life with an open heart and satisfy yourself with the few pleasures you get from it. In any case, everybody is used to his world. It would be useless for me to feel sorry for the others. Their existence could be better than mine in a certain way.
The children came to announce me that their father was back. I quickly returned to the house. Soubash was there in the company of a man from Pondichéry who spoke French very well. He was called Joseph because it was said that he had been sold by his brothers. A short time ago he came to live with his aunt who took care of him. His great-grandfather was a slave from Africa who died of a heart attack when he learned that slavery was abolished. His children were sold and went to serve families in other countries. Those who stayed could never take advantage of their freedom. The colonists always continued to exploit the workers. The proletariat replaced the word “slavery” and the exploitation of the human energy continued with more discretion. The laws promulgated for the protection of workers, the decrees were procedures that a lot of colonists ignored. They run their empire their own way before the union representatives came to make some problems. The generations followed each other until the rich became even richer and the poor even poorer. When Joseph was still living in Pondichéri with his disabled father, his mother was sick; his brothers and sisters were still young; he had kept an indelible memory of this period of which he spoke to me as we sat in a cart that took us to the village.
"I had three older brothers," he said, "I had to accompany them to Europe. When arriving on the embankment, they left me to the care of Arabs and told me that I had to follow them. Then they go through immigration and went up the stairs of the big ship. I looked at them while imagining that I had to join them. The two Arabs caught me by the arms and took me to a car. I knew that my brothers had sold me and had snapped up the money to pay for their tickets. In the evening, whereas we were laid down in a clearing and that the fire of the bivouac was lit to frighten animals, I escaped. I hid in the bush and continued my way in the woods. After several days of hooky, like me and are as ignorant as I am.
During the summer, when we regrouped outside in the oppressive heat of the night, we looked like a tribe of Africa. Our faces gleamed at the gleam of a bivouac fire we lit to hunt the mosquitoes. The neighbors came to join us and keep company until late. The children played and made a din. The adults spoke about the gossips of the city. I slept out on a straw mattress. I wasted time in deep reflections. I saw my dark future. I had no education and couldn’t do much.
I was very young and was around sixteen years when, while turning home one afternoon I found my mother in tears. I wanted to know why she was in such a state. She told me that my father had been knocked down by a bus and was seriously wounded. Not only he lost his leg in this accident, he also lost his tiny salary that a dishonest and unscrupulous person had surely stolen.
We stayed two days without eating. It left in my mind a strange feeling that accompanied me all my life. My brothers and my sisters cried and uttered screams because they were hungry. It was hard for me to support all this. I decided to leave the house and to return only with the hands full of food. I knocked at doors and went through the streets to search for a job. No one wanted me. My disappointment was big. I was exhausted when the night fell. I implored the Lord to help me and to save my family from sufferings. I leaned against the electricity pole before taking the road, staggering. I walked on the bumpy path, passing sometimes under the reflectors where people had regrouped to speak. I went along the boulevards, hugged the walls of the big buildings thinking about my brothers and sisters who certainly were waiting for me.
When I went through a badly lit area, I heard some hens cackling; I had the awful thought to steal them and bring them home. In a leap I was on the other side of the wall. I held in my hands two very fat hens. I found the course pretty long and even heard voices shouting, “Thief, thief”. My imagination played tricks with me. My night escapades gave me the opportunity to trespass. I burglarized some shops and stole rich people break-in their home as they were absent.
"The very ill-gotten never prosper”. The misfortune came three years later. I was in a district faraway when the bad weather started. There was a strong wind; there were no means to go back home. It was a cyclone that lasted all night long and all day. The country had undergone big damages. The roads were cut; the sills were flooded, the bridges were taken away, hundreds of houses were destroyed; many people died. My parents, brothers and sisters were the victim of this curse. I stayed all alone in the pain. My aunt came one week later in housing." Joseph promised himself not to do a dishonest work again even it was necessary he should starve. Prakash had met it once in the city; he was running after three persons who had stolen his bag. They became good friends.
Since he came to live with his aunt, Joseph felt uncomfortable. He wanted to contribute to the expenses of the house. His uncle had an important position in the administration. The supports he had brought to Mahatma Gandhi before the proclamation of the independence had allowed him to assume high functions he held with compunction and ability. He owned a wonderful colonial house abandoned by the English during the revolt of the cipayes.
Although he was appreciated and was considered by his aunt Irène and his uncle Daram, Joseph preferred to escape the comfort, the security, the insurance that this big home offered him. He went to an area faraway to contemplate from the top of a promontory the vast and immense landscape that spread in front of him. He often admired the tourists who left the inland on the elephants back. It was there that he had the idea to serve the visitors who had the pockets full of money. He could earn his life easily since he knew the region well as he had travelled all over it several times. He often went to the airport to approach foreigners in order to propose his services. He gained the reputation to be one of the best guides thanks to his way he faced the adventures that waited for him every time an agreement was concluded with his customers. He took his new companions in most squalid places to the most fantastic palace. The adventures they lived thanks to their guide marveled them so much that when they left they offered him gifts and gave him a lot of money.
His imagination made him discover the existence of a different and better world far from what he had known. His constant contacts with the tourists allowed him to increase his knowledge and to excite his curiosity. He knew very little from his country. He did once a journey to Calcutta to accompany his aunt to a funeral. This journey in a train jammed with passengers had left him a memory he could not forget.
Joseph had many important problems. In the house where he was living, his cousins were jealous of him. He had his own room and was well considered by his aunt and uncle. So to forget the affronts of his cousins, he preferred to stay a long time outside of the house. He went home very late in the evening. His aunt worried for him. She feared a misfortune might happen to him. His uncle was absorbed in his business to notice it. Joseph had the recognition and gratitude of his uncle; his aunt worked hard for his well-being. He didn’t want to deceive them or hurt them. But he understood that his presence wasted the harmony in the house. He didn't want to destroy the feelings that united a mother and his sons. He knew that he was amiss.
One day he decided to go to live in an old hut at the extremity of the village. The former tenant, an old Muslim priest, had died there in awful conditions. No one wanted to live there. Joseph was afraid of nothing, was not superstitious and was in good term with everybody. He had heard that some Evil spirits were living in the cabin. The neighbors told stories that made hairs stand up.
Joseph used to interfere in arguments between Muslim and Hindu without taking up the cause of one or another. He always lined up with the weakest to defend them. He was respected because of his sense of justice and for his dexterity to fight body to body. Once he fought alone against five well-known criminals who terrorized the villagers. He had learned the art of fighting from an old Chinese master who was living in the mountain.
Prakash was happy to see us talk. I was proud to have been able to find someone to speak. We crossed several narrow and crowded streets before reaching our destination. Devika had left a message to an old pundit. I went to Door-Desh, a village lost in the heart of India and difficult to reach.