India morning commute

India morning commute

It was barely 8 a.m. when I rounded the bend into Barmasia to begin my morning commute. My eyes were immediately drawn to the bobbing sea of umbrellas as pedestrians moved through the (already) stifling, dusty street. Of course, I recognized that the umbrellas were being used as sun-shades, and I smiled in agreement – if I could think of a way to fasten an umbrella to my bike to shield me for the next half hour, I surely would.

The road through Barmasia took me further, sending me past the “milk man” who waved from his small blue and white hut. Next, the young boy at the stall where I buy yogurt smiled and waved as I passed, as he does each morning. Then, I made a quick stop at the “cycle shop” to fill my tires… having become quite fond of the shop owner’s friendly face, and his 10 year old son who runs around performing his tasks with a “work ethic” that seems entirely out of place. Finally, after I paid the 1 Rupee to the small boy, I boarded my bike and exited Barmasia.

At about this point, (fascinated as I am by the passage of “time”) the thought struck me suddenly that all these sensory experiences to which I am becoming accustomed here, will – one day very soon – be a distant memory. So, in an effort to pass the time, I decided to focus my senses on all those things that I usually work hard to ignore during my daily commute…

Immediately I am aware of the dusty, cavernous road beneath my bike… it grates, buckles and shakes my tires, so that my bones and teeth seem to rattle as I steer with determination to those small expanses of roadway which promise some stability. My sandaled feet are already swollen, and feel as though they pedal underwater, through the heat that’s rising in waves from the dusty road. My exposed skin rebels the tight, angry sensation of the direct sun, and I think for the trillionth time, “I am turning into leather”.

My ears are in constant assault of horns – from rickshaws, motorcycles, 5-ton lorries and fellow cyclists – everyone fighting for millimeters of space in the moving tide. Sometimes as I approach an intersection and I watch the flow of riders into which I intend to join, I fight the immediate impulse to jump off my bike. I know that the only way in is to keep moving into the seemingly impenetrable group. Somehow, the “perfect space” always opens, and I feel the satisfaction of having managed a monumental task, all while blinking desperately through the clouds of dust that fill my eyes, nose and mouth.

As I edge my way out of Deoghar’s core, the auditory assault becomes balanced by the olfactory… In particular, there is a pervasive, combined smell: of sweat, frying oil, rotting food, and shit (of cows, goats, dogs and humans). In fact, the cows and goats are as much a part of the scenery here as are the people, and as I make my way through the dusty roads, I am veering around (and carefully avoiding collision with) their slow, ambling bodies as much as I am avoiding traffic and travelers!

Of course, all of this, as intense a sensory experience as it is, doesn’t match the visual tapestry that I witness with each ride through town. From as early as Barmasia, there are road-side vendors and street-side shops of all varieties in full swing… brightly colored displays of watermelon, oranges, grapes, tomatoes, spinach, cucumbers, onions and squash are selling their produce to women planning the family’s menu for the day. Men with unbearably thin arms and legs are already lifting, hammering and working with items of iron and metal, as well as dubious looking pieces of farm machinery. Clay shops are turning out volumes of goddess sculptures, some life-sized, some drying in the sun, and some in the careful hands of a painter bringing the figure to life. At the same time, countless locals are simply sitting in spots of shade along the roadway, or in odd looking “tea huts”, simply reading the paper and watching the passers-by.

The local water taps along my route are busy each morning too. Children laugh and play and splash each other… and I always marvel at their ability to be unaware of wanting things to be any other way. Women are also crouched at the water taps, either bathing, minding the children, or vigorously slapping laundry items against the stone under the running stream. The men who are nearby to the taps are either pumping water, or simply waiting their turn, while using some unknown “branch” or “twig” as a makeshift toothbrush.

Eventually, before long, I have arrived at the “Jha & Thakur Petrol Pump”, a curious “nowhere” sort of place where there always seems to be a distraught lorry with half of its mammoth load of hay bales turned onto the road – and the weight of the spill is pulling the lorry at a dangerous angle. It’s here that I turn right into a narrow alley between buildings. I’m in the home stretch to the office now, which requires that I take a “back way” over an open field and through a public dump site to make it to Chetna Vikas’ front gate.

This dump site always looms as the “final frontier” in my morning commute. It is a stark, sensory reminder to me each day that India’s physical landscape is bearing the burden of its population. The population is creating a need for sanitation and garbage systems at a rate that is simply not being met. And so, the garbage accumulates daily, and my tires pass silently over the plastic bags and debris that have blown away from the dump site’s core.

By the time I’ve reached the office and am opening the front gate, maneuvering my cycle inside the compound, I am always grateful… first, to have successfully reached the office in one piece (again), and secondly, for this ongoing opportunity to experience a very different way of life. By allowing myself to be (very realistically and alternately) irritated, fascinated, overwhelmed and inspired by the reality of life in Deoghar, I am slowly absorbing with senses and with spirit something that will surely develop and have meaning for years to come.

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[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on April 11, 2008.]

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