The last six weeks in India were the most fantastic six weeks of my life. But not for the reasons you may imagine. A volunteer from one of the organisations I was working with turned to me in my last week and asked if I had any recommendations for things she should do while she was in India. Despite loving my time in India into the ground (I can only describe my elation to people by falling to the ground, holding my heart and crying out because words cannot describe it), I could not come up with many recommendations for her because when I look back at my time I realise that I really didn’t do many of the ‘top things to do in Delhi‘ far less in India.
I travelled to Old Delhi to visit the spice market and the Red Fort but the market was closed and we never made it to the Red Fort because we were summoned by a random guy to follow him up many winding stairs, coloured by the footprints and excrements of rats, the dark lines of years of dirt uncleaned, the stains of dirty water leakages and the smells of nature rotting. Finally we emerged at the top of the building which looked like a wreckage but actually was simply unfinished and never tamed. This ‘guide’ walked us around this concrete site where first we walked past two young boys, one which asked if I wanted drugs (he only knew how to say the word ‘drugs’). We looked out onto a tall red-brick, cylindrical tower where an eagle rested on its tip, and onto the stacks of flats surrounding the building, all made of concrete, all littered with colourful clothing left to dry, all with the markings of the dust and winds and rains running down the walls. A dog was perched on one of the highest points of the building and when I positioned my camera in a specific way it looked, through the lens, as though he was flying (see picture above). We climbed on bricks to avoid a large puddle of water, walked around the hills of cement waiting to be used, saw the same India we saw from the street but higher up and then were forced to hurry back downstairs because wild monkeys, climbing from roof to roof, approached us. Our ‘tour’ ended with a cup of chai in a dark, dirt-matted corner of this building. I left Old Delhi thankful for the randomness that took me into such a wretched but beautiful place.
I haven’t seen the Taj Mahal or the insides of any museum or historical building for that matter, I came close to entering the Elephanta Caves on the island of Elephanta Island in Mumbai but chose to go the other route, sign-posted with the words ’10 minutes to beautiful sight seen’. There I walked alongside more wild monkeys and looked out onto the vast, polluted seas washing the impressive skyline of Mumbai and enjoyed listening to the Marathi children’s songs sung by the adorably mischievous children on the one-hour ferry back, looking at the youth couples party that was taking strictly posed selfies all the way and the seagulls which danced and dove to the entertainment of the ferry riders who threw them curry-flavoured crisps, all coloured by the setting sun, a dark red circle behind the blur of sulphur and carbon dioxide.
I only ate in a fancy restaurant once, where the food costed more than £2. Instead I ate often at Haldiram’s, the hang out of the average Indian, where delights such as raj kachori, gulam jamun and bhujia were sold in abundance. There I shared a meal with a new friend, 18-years old, who took me on a cycle rickshaw through her town on the outskirts of Delhi, where the roads were narrow and unpaved and the shops lined every road and corner, selling saris, street food, household goods, Indian sweets, stationary, cooking ware, curtains, and everything else, luring all the residents onto the streets, making it hard for the rickshaw cycler to weave through them. We laughed away my friend’s teenage boy troubles as I tried panee puri and other things I can’t quite recall the name of. The night fell over our rickshaw and I felt the danger arrive with it, but together we were safer and the night was thrilling. On our way back we passed through a Sikh festival where free food was being given to anyone who cared to eat and had the intestinal resistance to bear it. We turned left quickly to avoid the crowd, carrying with them shrines, coloured by yellow flowers and other decorations. I stayed the night with this friend and in the morning her mother cooked the very best aloo parantha I have ever tasted and gave me such a love and a welcome that I forgot that I wasn’t born in India and that I wasn’t her daughter. Many more trips to Haldiram’s were accompanied with shared stories of new friends, newly discovered words in Hindi and laughter over many a dosa dipped in the most delectable coconut chutney.
Another great moment was when I visited a new friend whose mother I was interviewing about her amazing journey of faith. It was already night by the time I got there and I was living more than an hour away so they invited me to spend the night. For dinner she lavished my plate with the tastiest tomato chutney and piled on the dosas like pancakes, unwitting to the fact that dosas were my favourite. I had my first Indian toilet, no toilet paper, stooping experience and I was grateful for it. Her story was fascinating, after which we all went to sleep in the same room, in the room where they all sleep, mother, father and daughter. I was invited to sleep where her father, who was travelling, usually slept. Without a blink of an eye I was given this privilege. I couldn’t help but wish that my family did the same, all sleeping in one room, sharing our lives in such closeness.
There are countless amazing moments but the very very best thing about my time in India was that everything I did was purposeful and not a day passed where I was not feeling more human than I ever did before. This is because I discovered in India that we are made for serving others, just like cars are made for driving and cheese graters are made for grating. And as a result of my doing what exactly I was made for, serving others with all my heart, I felt so real, so true, so comfortable, so beautiful, all the time. This experience has changed my life and I hope that this blog will touch you too. I was telling someone about my experience and realised that I have spent the majority of my life thus far doing what I was not made to do, like a car being used to mow the law — it can push the grass down but it will never cut it, eventually damaging the ground and killing the grass. Most of my life I was serving myself, feeding my own intellect, building my CV, doing things to make people respect me, building my self up, working on myself, caring about myself, thinking only about my future and bulldozing everyone who got in the way. But I grew increasingly uncomfortable in doing these things, noticing and becoming depressed by the site of the browning, soggy grass, broken apart by my tires of ambition and devoid of life because of the heaviness of my pride upon it.
This trip to India is the first time that I was fully performing the function I was made to perform, fully giving my time and energy to serve others. While in India I ran a three-day camp for teenagers in a poorer area which I called The International Camp of Awesome, teaching them football, drawing, exercise, dance, music and storytelling as well as the importance of hope and the brightness of their future. I stayed in an orphanage and collected stories and formed team of writers among them for a new newspaper I am developing for one of the top NGOs in Delhi, Udayan Care, and was able to speak to the girls about the important things in life, about faith and about the importance of integrity and determination. I coached football and taught English in a village in Nagpur for Slum Soccer, riding helmet-less through the plains of Nagpur and sharing life and encouragement with people who lived in one-room homes made from galvanise, or concrete (if they were lucky). I delved into the life of a small but thriving church in the heart of Delhi, Dwaar Church, where the young people have a burning desire to turn the ‘Rape Capital’ of Delhi into a city of love, turn it over into God’s hands. Finally, the most exhilarating experience was teaching in a slum school where the kids, often vigorously scratching at their heads, climbed all over me, cried and fought around me, recited and learnt the English I taught them, laughed at the faces I made when they got it wrong, and smiled at me in ways that made me forget who I was and where I was from.
The day before I left I was in the park with the slum kids playing games. I took one kid’s hands in mine and started to swing her around in a circle until her feet were well off the ground. This started a frenzy of children begging me to do it for them. I was so very dizzy, but not just because I was spinning in a circle for over an hour, but because I was so elated that they were begging for me to play with them rather than for money at a traffic light. One sweet girl who stole my heart held onto my hands and I started to swing her around. Suddenly the entire world became a blur around us as I swung her faster and faster. All I could see was her face and all she could see was mine. She was afraid but thrilled, worried but trusting. Her life will be full of scary things but once she is in the hands of someone who loves her and is devoted to her safety and care, she will laugh and grow and be beautiful, undamaged. She, and so many others, need people in their lives to be ‘safe hands’. Being that for her for the short time felt like being crowned Queen of England. I was so privilege to have been given that role.
I sorely miss India but I am so excited to live my purpose wherever I am. For now that is in London. In there years… who knows. I know that the future is full of hope.
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Phil 2:5-7
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24