& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Song of India

“People don’t go to India to experience India; they go to experience themselves in India,” says Mariellen Ward in her Song of India, a collection of travelogues. 

Her blog breathedreamgo features interesting India-themed stories, and has a huge following.

Mariellen first visited India in 2005, after a series of tragedies, but India transformed her. She discovered a new purpose in life. 

“My life revolved around sharing what I discovered there – the beauty of India, the transformative power of travel and the magic of mystery.”

She is a consummate travel writer, combining a keen sense of observation, lucid description, interviewing the right people, extracting the right information or opinion from them, providing a perspective, and writing with empathy. 

Perhaps more important in the Indian context, she’s unafraid of the heat, dust, dirt, smells, chaos, too many people – features about India that intimidate Indians returning to India after a long stay in North America.  

This slim collection has essays about her travel to Delhi, Varanasi, Dharamsala, Rishikesh, Bengaluru (yes, she doesn't call it Bangalore), Jaisalmer. 

During her several visits to India, Mariellen lives in ashrams, practices yoga (which she learnt in Toronto many years before her India visit), takes a boat ride across the Ganga to see the awesome Ganaga arti at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, meets the Art of Living guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, visits the Maha Kumbh and discovers herself.

In my humble opinion, the most poignant piece in the collection is her essay On the bus. On her third trip to India, and a combined stay of over nine months, Mariellen finally muster enough courage to take a bus ride. The short ride brings her face to face with the Indian reality – grinding poverty.

Here’s a passage from that essay:

“The women kept smiling and talking to me in a language I didn’t understand, the girl kept trying to get as close as possible and the bus kept getting hotter under the noonday sun (she’s on a bus from Pushkar to Roopanghar) and it was all very interesting for about the first hour. Eventually, I was starting to feel suffocated, and wondering if the last hour of the trip was going to be an endurance test, when the young girl handed me a candy.

These were poor people; people who didn’t have very much, nor much hope of ever having very much. I was moved by her generosity and as I took the candy I felt the bittersweet tug of genuine humility. A little while later, she gave me another.

Rooting around in my purse, I found a little beaded bag I bought in Rishikesh and handed it to her. She dutifully handed it to her mother and grandmother, who looked it over and approved. Then they smiled at me with real warmth and the little girl hugged me, and I noticed how beautiful she was. She had huge eyes and delicate features and long fawn-like limbs.

I turned away to look out of the window at the dry desert landscape, baking under the scorching sun, and dotted with mud huts and women walking with huge bundles of twigs and branches on their heads, or almost as equally large jugs of water. My eyes filled with tears as I realized the real reason I had avoided taking the bus.”

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