Piercing the Surface in India
As we move from youth to adulthood, we can be all too eager to grow out of our innocence, shedding it like the faded band T-shirts of our youth. Then, in moments of unexpected grace, fate will offer us back our childlike purity once more. India has done this for me time and time again. It alchemizes the order of my everyday existence into a heady mix of chaos and wonder that leaves me intoxicated, questioning, cracked open to my very core.
Rounding the corner on my usual route home I was greeted by the familiar sight of a beautiful young Indian woman standing barefoot in the dust. Her naked infant son was perched high on her slender hip, while her free hand beckoned me over to her, waving wildly in the afternoon sun.
I had been living in the tiny fishing cove of Colomb in southern Goa, India, for the past four months, renting a humble one-story house nestled quietly in the curve of the bay. Chickens scratched in the dirt outside my doorway, a stray dog had claimed the front porch as his own, and a neighborhood cat had birthed her three kittens in the spare bedroom. A stubborn white bull known as Elvis barged his way into my backyard most afternoons, where he waited with rock star-like expectancy for my melon and papaya rinds.
The woman continued to signal my approach until I stepped close enough for us to embrace. Her name was Meera, though she introduced herself to most people as Emma. “It’s easier for the tourists to remember,” she’d explained. When I’d asked her what her real name was, she reached into her bag and rummaged for a few moments, finally holding up a little piece of mirror edged with leather. “Meeeeraaaa,” she said, drawing out each syllable with a smile, “like this.” She was just 19 years old, yet possessed an uncanny level of wisdom and wit that often made me feel I was talking with a woman three times her age.
Meera placed her smiling baby son, Gonal, into my sand-dusted arms and motioned for me to sit. All around us hung brightly colored harem pants and dresses as we nestled in the shade of her little stall. Built from nothing more than bamboo canes wrapped with blue tarpaulin and a scrap metal roof, the stall stood directly outside my home. It served as more than just a business for Meera; she and Gonal, along with her husband, Manju, lived there too, sleeping on the ground between rows of her precious merchandise.
Though we were not exactly friends, our lives had become delicately enmeshed by our proximity to one another. At night I would lie in my bed and hear Gonal’s cries from where he lay with his parents just beyond my gate. In the morning I would wake to the sounds of Meera washing her metal pans at the well in the front yard, or Manju brushing his teeth outside my window. We were neighbors, living side by side, yet it felt like we inhabited different worlds.
As we sat there in the cool of Meera’s stall, the conversation turned to her family, who had remained in her village a day’s journey inland to Karnataka. She planned to travel there by bus the next day, and asked me to join her. Her kind smile and enthusiasm for her home state were intoxicating, and I accepted without hesitation.
The Journey to Karnataka
Stepping down from the stench-filled bus which had tossed us around for the past eight hours, I gratefully breathed in the dry, arid heat of the Karnatakan highlands. Though I was covered in sweat and dirt from the long journey, I found myself instantly embraced by the raucous collective bosom of the women of Jalligeri, who awaited our arrival. Meera had referred to Jalligeri as “a village,” but I quickly ascertained that in truth it is little more than a hamlet, nestled among sprawling fields and mountain peaks.
The women engulfed us in their mass, lifting baby Gonal from his mother’s arms and fussing around us like giggling teenagers. They pushed forward in turns to touch my long blonde hair and pale skin, encouraging their hesitant children to do the same. Swept along in the tide of excitement, I couldn’t help but smile as I surrendered to their prodding and pulling.
As the sea of saris continued to surge, I caught sight of a short, stocky woman marching heavily towards us. The crowd parted, and a strong, calloused hand thrust itself in mine. Meera introduced me to her mother-in-law, Poopy, a stern-faced matriarch in traditional Karnatakan dress with betel nut-stained teeth that matched the color of her henna-streaked hair. Poopy’s eyes softened as I spoke to her in a language she didn’t understand, and she welcomed me with open arms, straight into the heart of rural life.
Author and Poopy
Poopy led us to a small, whitewashed mud house with crumbling walls and a corrugated metal roof. A young calf tugged on his tether in the neatly swept yard, and a mewling black cat wove among our legs as I left my flip-flops outside the doorway and stepped inside. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, I found myself in a sparse two-roomed abode, serving as home to eleven family members, the attention-seeking black cat, and three dogs.
Curling tendrils of sweet incense smoked their way out through the open doorway, and Poopy ushered me to sit down on the only piece of furniture in the room, a metal bed that Meera explained had been a gift to her and her husband, Manju, following their arranged marriage. Meera beamed with pride as she pointed out faded family photos and framed depictions of Hindu Gods, translating as best she could for Poopy, who spoke only the local language of Kannada. I watched Meera come to life in the warmth of her family home, changing from the dust-strewn clothes she had travelled in, to a traditional Karnatakan housedress, leaving her shoes haphazardly tossed in the corner and letting her soft hair fall around her delicate shoulders.
Poopy disappeared into the next room and returned carrying tiny cups of chai for us all; they were the first of many I would be offered throughout my stay, each one so sweet I could barely stand to swallow it. As we drank I studied Poopy’s intricate dress, hand-stitched with small reflective discs of recycled mirror, some still bearing the warning “Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.”
Rituals and Traditions in Jalligeri
The lifestyle in Jalligeri had an almost tribal atmosphere, with just enough modernity to switch the electricity on for a few short hours each night. Owners of the only television set in Jalligeri, Poopy’s family enjoyed Bollywood soap operas and WWF wrestling with friends, their house filling as the shows began. I leaned against the cool mud wall at the back of the room and watched as the screen lit the laughing faces before me, the whites of their eyes and teeth gleaming like stars. I felt as though I sat among kings and queens, their every need met in that moment, all of them alive with joy.
When the darkness resumed, Meera took an oil lamp and led me behind the house to use the toilet, where I was forced to relinquish my English sensibilities as we squatted side by side in the mud, relieving ourselves among stinking piles of communal mess. I then wearily climbed into bed beside Meera and baby Gonal, whilst Poopy and the other women spread out on the floor around us, and the men of the family lay on woven sacks beneath the stars.
I woke the next day stiff from the rock hard mattress, my clothes damp from Gonal’s pee. A large bucket of water had already been heated on the fire for me, and Poopy invited me to take a bath. The bath was in fact nothing more than a raised stone platform in the corner of the kitchen, where I was encouraged to strip off and wash while Poopy and the women of the house sat before me cooking chapattis. I stood there naked beneath the spiders and corrugated metal roof, trying to wash away my Western insecurities that proved as stubborn as the grime beneath my fingernails.
Over a steady stream of morning chai, Meera explained that she and Poopy were taking baby Gonal to have his ear pierced in a neighboring village, an act she believed would “drive out the bad in him.” I was unsure of how much bad a beautiful nine-month-old baby could contain, but I nodded and smiled, happy to be included and intrigued to learn more about the impending ritual.
In the heart of Shirhatti on market day, I followed Poopy and Meera as they carried a smiling Gonal through the busy, narrow streets, straight into the path of a festival procession led by an enormous elephant. The village was a hive of new sounds and smells, and I grappled to take it all in as an unfazed Poopy urged us onward, weaving her way past the brightly painted pachyderm to a quaint little ochre-colored house decorated with strings of laundry drying in the sun.
The house belonged to the local shaman, who would carry out Gonal’s ear piercing. Poopy and Meera stood chatting with him in the cool of the small living room, while his family took it in turns to peer at me and laugh from an adjacent doorway. A handful of money was exchanged, then the shaman ushered us out into the blinding sun, as we followed him back down the street into a maze of alleyways. I assumed we were heading to a temple to perform the ceremony, but was surprised when the shaman stopped abruptly on the edge of a shit-strewn sidewalk and motioned for us to gather around. I watched in bemusement as he squatted down among piles of trash, lit two incense sticks, and then wedged them in the dirt as he wafted the musky wisps up to his face.
My eyes widened with increasing horror as he took a small square of paper from his pocket, carefully unfolding it to reveal a coiled strip of copper wire. His dirty fingertips worked quickly to straighten the wire, and he tugged on Meera’s dress for her to crouch down beside him.
Baby Gonal erupted in a fit of panic, and Meera struggled to hold him. Poopy and I were forced to help, each one of us taking a tiny arm, as he grew more and more fearful. My eyes welled with tears and I struggled to blink them away, confused by what was happening but not wanting my naivety to cause offense. My stomach surged and my body stiffened as the unsterilized, blunt piece of wire was forced through the top of Gonal’s right ear. He let out a heart-shattering scream that brought Meera to her knees, silent tears streaming down her face. Gonal’s cries ricocheted off the high, narrow walls around us, and I fought to suppress my rising nausea.
Before Meera could comfort him, Gonal was stripped of all his clothing and bangles, which the shaman tossed on the ground amongst the other trash. It was only then that I noticed it wasn’t actually trash after all; it was piles of previously discarded clothing and jewelry, abandoned after what must have been dozens of rituals just like this one. The shaman then performed a short blessing over Gonal, before placing him back in Meera’s trembling arms, naked and screaming with pain. Tears rolled down my flushed cheeks as the shaman walked away. It was over.
We turned and followed Poopy back down the street to a tiny open-fronted goldsmith’s studio. As Meera continued to weep, Gonal was laid across the glass display counter, and a young boy stood over him with a pair of tiny pliers. Without the faintest glimmer of shock, he deftly twisted together the rough ends of copper wire in Gonal’s ear to make a smooth loop. Gonal lay there bravely resigned to what was happening, his lips tightly pursed and his tiny chest heaving with emotion as I struggled to contain my own.
That night I lay sleepless in bed, trying to process my thoughts on a belief system I struggled to comprehend. My mind was a mass of questions I longed to ask, but I knew the answers would likely yield little understanding. Gonal rolled over onto his ear and let out yet another agonizing cry, and my heart melted with empathy for him. Torn between my own Western standards and a desire to bridge the gap between our worlds, I did the only thing I knew to do in that moment: I reached out through the darkness and stroked his little hand, feeling his hot fingers wrap themselves around mine.
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Hannah Loaring is a world-traveling writer and designer originally from England. She has successfully managed to merge her passion for words, art, and exploration into a flourishing portable career as she house-sits her way from country to country. Her website, FurtherBound.com, chronicles her journey both geographically and personally, and is also home to her graphic design business.
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