Yesterday I took a walk to Ram Jhula. It was one of those days when everything looks particularly lovely. I was seeing everything through rose-colored lenses, because I am in love with India, so despite her many flaws, I find this country extraordinarily beautiful.
Beggars lined the road, and in my mind, I began to call that two mile stretch of road, ‘Beggars Lane.’ They were mostly men, wearing orange, or white, or yellow turbans on their heads. They were barefoot and often shirtless, and they extended their hands or held out silver tins that looked like lunch pails. They didn’t have the nagging quality of beggars back home, only silently asked with their eyes, and then let it go as soon as you had passed. I didn’t give these people money, but I gave them smiles. There are too many.
I stopped at one point to take pictures. The sun was slanting through the trees, yellow light on the winding, dusty road. The my left, the hills rose up and away, dotted by what looked like ancient orchards that had overgrown and become wild. To the right, through more groves of trees, I could hear the river Ganges. Stone benches lined the side of the curving road, placed intermittently, I supposed, for walkers like me. I sat down on one of these and began taking pictures. I wanted to capture the old fashioned cars that rolled down the road, the women in saris with bags of rice on their heads, the ponies galloping along with no master in sight.
I was snapping away, when I noticed the dark silhouette of a boy growing larger and larger in every frame. He was jumping from one stone bench to the next, skipping his way towards me. When he reached my bench, I put the camera down. We looked at each other, and I smiled. A brief, brilliant smile flashed across his face before he quickly looked down. He was about seven. I showed him my camera. He didn’t speak a lick of English, nor I of Bengali, but I showed him how to take a picture, how to zoom in and out. He took the camera from my hands shyly, and snapped a few shots, handing it back to me quickly and dropping his head.
I returned to taking pictures, and he walked in a semicircle around me, his arms behind his back, kicking up dust. He was incredibly shy, but he couldn’t resist flashing me frequent smiles. The moment I would say something to him, he would step closer to me, his eyes wide, that smile twitching at his lips. Then he would look down and sigh, his hands behind his back, as if he was experiencing the most wonderful pleasure and confusion all at once. If he’d been a teenager, he would have been flirting madly, but as it was, he was just a child being a child.
We took some more pictures together, and then he pulled a small wooden bracelet off his wrist and offered it to me. Even on my scrawny wrist, it was tight. I took it gratefully, though, and pressing my palms together before my heart, thanked him profusely. “Shukriyah,” I said, beaming at him. “Shukriyah.” He could hardly contain himself now. My appreciation sent him in small circles, kicking up dust and murmuring something like, “Gabazee, gabazee.” When he would get the courage to look in my eyes, he would say it again- “Gabazee”- and then dissolve anew, sighing in sheer joy, unable to contain his emotion.
Eventually I decided to ask him a question. I was on a short stretch of road between the only two towns for many miles, Ram Jhula to the south, and Lakshman Jhula to the north. I knew exactly where I was going, but I decided to ask my buddy anyway. “Ram Jhula?” I asked him, my eyes huge. I lifted my hands as though I was uncertain, and looked both ways at the road. He quickly straightened up and pointed south. “Ram Jhula,” he announced proudly. Then his white buck teeth emerged as he smiled. “And Lakshman Jhula?” I said, spreading my hands wide like it was a big question. His back straight, just as proud, he pointed in the other direction. “Lakshman Jhula,” he said with certainty, pointing one small, skinny arm.
I bowed again and thanked him, pointed to my bracelet. “Shukriyah,” I said, very seriously. He giggled, and twisted his arms before him in a self-conscious gesture, then dissolved into giggles. He murmured that word again and again- “Gabazee”- and I took my leave, the sun warming the road, and the bracelet tight on my wrist.