New Friends from Unlikely Places 7/15/2016, by Tomer Gev
Walking back to my guesthouse in the slight drizzle of Dharamsala, an animal screeching noise assaulted my ears. A small family of wild monkeys perched atop a rubbish pile on the side of the road, scavenging for bits of discarded food. Halting in my tracks to observe the peculiar spectacle, a man’s voice to my left announced: “Monkeys, they are everywhere in India! Always eating the trash!”
Taking out my headphones, I turned to the stranger, “Yes, indeed.” I casually responded.
“My name is Vinod, and this is my brother Sadhu.” the young Indian man informed me as I waved to his smiling brother.
“He cannot hear, so he only uses sign language to speak,” Vinod stated as he discretely gestured toward his brother. As I nodded with understanding, Vinod continued, “You drink chai? In my home with my brother and me?”
Caught off guard by the generous offer, I froze. I just met these two individuals no more than two minutes ago. Could I really “trust” them enough to accept the invitation for a warm respite from the chill outside? Assessing the situation, in an unconscious blink of an eye, my response radiated naturally from my lips: “Yes.”
Following the two flip-flop-clad brothers to their abode, I was speechless when I laid eyes on their place of residence. Their “home” was no more than a tiny one-room metal shack.
Unlocking the door, Vinod invited me in. With a cautious step, I ventured inside. A small sleeping mat occupied half the floor space, with the other half dedicated to a stove-powered gas burner with a pot, a couple of plates, and a few cups beside the brother’s kitchen area. A wooden crate with the words “polish” painted in bright orange at the foot of a thin mat on the floor.
Vinod then made some hand signals to his brother, Sadhu, and ran out of the confined space. “He cannot hear or talk,” Vinod informed me again. Of course, I took this proclamation with a grain of salt. Right off the back, I suspected these poor young Indians might want some “charity” in return for the hospitality they were showering upon me. Showing me their home and playing this charade of deafness was all a part of the grand performance they were orchestrating for me. Only one of my suspicions would turn out to be true.
Sadhu came back moments later with supplies to make chai. Vinod rapidly pressed a leaver to pump gas through the ancient gas burner. Expertly flicking a match and placing it near the pumped gas, the burner sprang to life with fire whipping up flames a foot up in the air. Vinod gingerly placed his hands in the fire. “Dharamsala always rain. Rain every day here during monsoon season,” he said as his hands hovered above the heat source. I could only imagine their frigid plight by glancing back at their flip-flops beside my Columbia waterproof boots.
As Vinod was making the chai, we exchanged the usual pleasantries. Where are you from, how long will you be in India, what do you do for work, etc. Once I began having a normal conversation with my new friend, I settled into my new environment. And, of course, a hot cup of chai didn’t hurt.
“You stay for dinner?” Vinod suddenly asked me. Before I started my adventures aboard, my good friend, Willy, gave me one piece of advice: “Never turn down free food.”
“Dinner sounds great!” I excitedly responded to my host. Vinod smiled, and with a quick succession of sign language towards his brother, I witnessed Sadhu turn to me and bestow me with an ear-to-ear grin.
The brother’s hospitality aroused in me both awestruck reverence and suspension. On the one hand, these poor individuals who barely had anything treated me to chai and dinner. Yet, I still had a lingering feeling that their kind offerings came at a price.
As these thoughts were racing through my head, Sadhu kneeled next to the gas burner and began rapidly pumping the stove, the same way his brother did with the chai. “I make the chai, and my brother is the cooker!” Vinod said as his brother swiftly cut up some vegetables. While cracking some eggs into the pot, Sadhu began to pound dough for the chapattis. He kneaded the dough, and at the same time, he threw the cut vegetables into the egg-laid pot. Simultaneously stirring and pounding, my silent companion looked like a man possessed. Once the egg mixture was complete Sadhu began to form the dough into circular balls and flatten them into large flat circles. He then placed these flattened objects atop the stove, and we all watched the dough rise to form crisp, fluffy chapattis. Sadhu could have been the next Gordon Ramsey as far as I was concerned.
Gently laughing, I said, “Your brother is the chef in the family!” Vinod inquisitively asked, “Chef? What does this word mean?” with a scratch of his head and a tiny purse to his lips. “It’s someone who makes food. What you called a cooker!” Recognition illuminated his features as a smile brightened his face.
Darkness settled on the three of us as Sadhu neared completing the chapattis for dinner. My new friends’ home had no electricity, so we couldn’t just “flick a switch.” Placing a large white candle in the middle of the space, Vinod flicked a match, lighting the homely corridor. Bathed in the candle’s light, I learned more of the brother’s story.
“Our mother has no money. No money… BIG problem. My father… He was a no-good man. He drink and fight my mother. He no give us any money. At ten year old, I start working. I waited food at a restaurant, making very little money. You know GTA vice city?”
The question momentarily stunned me. I asked, “You mean Grand Theft Auto?” “Yes, brother! You do know this game! When I lived in Punjab, I used to play at a video store. Five rupees 30 minutes. Much, MUCH fun!”
The childish statement hit me faster than a runaway train. I thought, Working from such a young age didn’t take away his child-like humanity. He was still just a kid willing to spend 5 rupees (the equivalent to about 7 cents) of his meager wages for an escape from his downtrodden circumstances.
“When I was 14 years old, I went to live in Manali with my brother. In Manali, I became a cobbler.” Pointing at the box in the corner with an orange painted polish emblazed on its side.
All touristy areas in Northern India are saturated with cobblers. These bottom of the totem pole members of society crawl around the tourist-populated cityscape, peddling their services of cleaning and fixing shoes or backpacks to the Western travelers. As I ventured around these urban landscapes, I usually ignored these people when they would come up and offer their services to me. “I will think twice about doing that in the future.” I silently thought to myself.
“Now, I am 21 year old and my brother is 22 year old. Our sister go to school. She is a student and work very very hard in her studies. Me and my brother send money back home to pay fees for her studies.”
As Vinod was finishing up his story, he rapidly made hand gestures to his brother. The chapati making was taking a long time. The transformation of the grounded dough to magnificent chapati takes time. One doesn’t snap their fingers, and bread magically rises from the dough. It takes patience, and Sadhu has it.
Vinod placed two chapatis Sadhu had finished making and a bowl of the vegetable-egg mix. “You eat. We eat after chapati done.” Vinod said as he pointed towards me and then his brother, the chef.
I said, “Have you ever heard the English expression: you only eat when the chef’s finished with his work.”
Sparks of illumination fluttered across Vinod’s facial features. Smilingly, he turned to his brother and communicated my message with a flash of movements. The same smile formulated on the chef’s quiet face an instant later.
As Sadhu was finishing preparing our feast, curiosity overtook me, and I asked: “Were you able to go to school like your sister?” Vinod shrugged his shoulders and said, ” My friend, no money, no school.”
“Do you know how to read and write in Hindi?” I asked before I took a breath and paused to ponder if the question might be offensive to him. Again, with a shrug of his shoulders, “No school, no read or write.” he responded nonchalantly. Curiosity still coursing through my veins, I continued to inquire, “How many languages do you know how to speak?”
“Four: Hindi, Punjabi, and Rajasthani 100%, English 50%,” he told me.
“How can you speak Punjabi and Rajasthani?!” I asked, perplexed by his grasp of multiple languages combined with his inability to read or write.
“I grew up in Punjab state in India and live for a little time in Rajasthan.”
“How did you learn English if you couldn’t write?”
“When I work in Manali I talk with tourist, and when I hear a word I no know, I remember word and ask friend who can speak English later.”
Just like when I first laid eyes on the small shack, I stared back at my new friend dumbfounded.
“I can also speak little of many languages,” Vinod said proudly. He then spat out a barrage of phrases in Spanish, French, Korean, and Hebrew in rapid-fire succession.
“Incredible.” I thought to myself. It’s a tragic irony of being able to communicate in so many different languages yet, not being able to put his thoughts into words on the page.
Most of the time, the immensity of my ability to put words on the page is as unnoticed as the very air keeping me alive. However, when I stop to contemplate the conundrum of Vinod’s lack of reading/writing ability, I have newfound gratitude for the act I am performing right now.
Picking up some discarded newspapers from the corner of the shack, Sadhu flattened out the disheveled pieces of print to use as a poor man’s table. Sitting cross-legged, Sadhu placed his masterpiece of butter-coated chapati and the vegetable-egg concoction in front of us. We all dug into the feast.
The only noise heard from our huddled group during the feast was the sounds of chewing and pleasant groans emanating from our eating cavities. Dinner was absolutely fantastic!
After the feast, I looked up into the faces of my gracious hospitable hosts. They were lounging back on their thin mattress, smoking the Indian man’s number one choice in tobacco products, the famous beedi. A beedi is a thin cigarette of tobacco rolled in a dried leaf. A pack of 20 only costs 15 rupees (about 20 cents).
The whole evening they were smoking the “poor man’s fix” nonstop. Their every movement in the small space was punctuated with the lighting or passing of a beedi. Somehow, even in such a small space, they always managed to misplace the pack of beedis. Curiously checking their pockets, they would stare at each other, believing the other brother had the craving-fulfilling beedi. Then they would start frantically looking in every imaginable spot in the tiny hut for the cherished beedis. Usually, it was in the shirt pocket of one of the brothers. Smiling at each other, they would light up another one.
“How long have you been smoking beedis?” I asked Vinod as he was lounging back after dinner. “15 year old.”
Holding my gaze with him, he continued speaking with no prompting from my end.
“My head no stop thinking: ‘What I going to do? How I make money?’ Beedis help stop my mind from talking too much. I can relax when I smoke the beedi.”
Even with my stance against smoking tobacco, I could 100% understand where Vinod was coming from. Whether rich or poor, tobacco affects you in the same way, and Vinod desperately needed any escape from his current predicament. Beedis and GTA Vice City were some of his only cherished outlets of escape.
“Money, big problem for me and brother… Need money for food, sister school fees, and rent for home. Rent 1500 rupees a month!” He exclaimed, motioning his hands around him, indicating that he was speaking about their place. The guesthouse my dad and I were staying in was 1900 rupees a night. 1500 rupees is equivalent to about $23.
“Will you help my sister my friend?” Vinod asked as he stared directly into my eyes. At that moment, my suspicion became a reality. However, understanding swept through my body rather than feeling angered by the solicitation. I didn’t just see how this young man lived. I experienced it. I sat in his hut for the last 5 hours, talking, eating, and laughing with these two young men who were not that much different from me. I wanted to help them.
I only had 60 rupees in my pocket. Nowhere near the amount I wanted to give them. “How about we meet up tomorrow, and you clean my shoes up, and I will pay you for the excellent service I know you will provide!” I am not one to give out money. I wanted them to earn my charity. This flawed sense of righteousness goes in the face of the true definition of charity. Jesus wouldn’t be too proud.
“I clean your shoes for free brother. No pay for clean shoe. Remember brother, money is for sister school fee, not for us.”
I smiled. This is India. This is how the charity of business is conducted. I went along with my friend’s proclamations, and we planned to meet the next day.
I met up with my two friends around noon the next day. As I took a seat in their small home, I took out my phone to share some of the YouTube videos I had downloaded the night before. I downloaded cartoons whose stories were told via visual means so that Sadhu could understand the story. I downloaded some Hindi music for Vinod and some pictures from Facebook of myself.
“Want to see some magic?” Vinod asked me with an enormous smile on his face as he wrapped up looking at the downloaded material I provided. Nodding my head, Sadhu grabbed the phone from Vinods hands as Vinod sat with my two litter plastic water bottle between his legs. Sadhu gave him the thumbs up and waved his hands like Houdini performing one of his legendary tricks. Vinod eventually placed the palm of his hand on the top of my enormous water bottle. My phone’s video camera light then flicked off, and Sadhu took the water bottle away from Vinod’s magically placed palm. Positioning himself back to his original spot with my phone camera in hand, he pressed a few buttons on the touch screen, and the camera’s light flicked back on. Vinod then acted stunned when he discovered the water bottle “magically” disappeared. We then performed this trick countless more times with various objects and even placing myself in the camera, only to miraculously disappear. We laughed uproariously watching the low-quality made videos.
“This is good fun! GOOD FUN!” Vinod proclaimed as his brother smiled.
Despite their challenging circumstances, they both still knew how to have a good time, and we laughed the afternoon away.
“I am hungry. Let’s eat! Lunch is on me.” I suddenly pronounced. “No, no. We eat here. Sadhu can make food.”
“Nonsense. You and your brother treated me yesterday, and today it’s my turn! Plus, I know a restaurant with wifi where we can look up Michael Jackson videos!”
The brothers loved Michael Jackson. Vinod constantly mentioned the famous pop star’s dance moves, and he even created a sign language symbol to represent the late king of pop to his dear brother. Vinod gave me an accepting grin.
Rapidly turning to his brother, he made quick hand motions of eating, pointing outside, my phone, and finally waving his hands above his head in a circular fashion, the brother’s creative way of representing Mr. Jackson. Sadhu turned to me and gave me a thumbs up. I waved my outstretched hand above my head in a circular fashion, accompanied by a seated jig in imitation of the king. Of course, it was nowhere close to the real thing, but Sahdu still managed to give me one of his genuine magical smiles.
As we sat watching Thriller and then Bad we were all engrossed by Michael’s moves. I looked over at my two new friends as they were locked into the performance on my tiny phone screen. “I hope that they are truly enjoying themselves.” I desperately thought to myself. All I wanted was to provide them with an incredible day.
I ordered two pizzas, one cheese and the other Hawaiian, with pasta on the side. As I took another sip of my chai, I began to feel guilty for taking the brothers to such a “lavish” dinner. Each plate cost around 200 rupees, a little over three dollars. I began to think about all the food they could have purchased with the same amount. They might not have been able to watch Michael moonwalk while eating in their tiny shed of a home, but food is food. I never imagined finding a lunch costing three people a total of ten dollars to be a “luxury.” India changes a person.
As the lunch progressed and the food came, I wiped these negative thoughts clean from my conscious. Feeling guilty for taking my two friends out to a delicious lunch is no way of treating myself for performing a mitzvah. Also, I haven’t had pizza since I began traveling six months prior. I was ready for this cheesy delight.
As we ate our “lavish” lunch, Vinod and Sadhu told me about the city they lived in, Punjab, Jallander. Inspiration struck me like Zeus’s lightning bolt crashing down from the sky, and I grabbed my phone. On Google images, I searched their hometown and let them browse through the search results. They loved looking through the pictures of their childhood home—especially Sadhu, who spent ten extra minutes scrolling through the images on my phone’s screen.
After stuffing ourselves with Italian delicacies, Vinod propped up his head to ask, “Chai? In our home?” my answer came back in the positive.
Sipping on chai and biscuits at what was quickly becoming my new home away from home, Vinod picked up my shoe and inspected it. “You see small break here?” he pointed towards an area of my boots that constantly bent due to walking. I nodded my head. The cobbler continued, “My brother and I fix no problem.” Hands whizzing through the air Sadhu rummaged through the crate emblazed with the orange “polish” on its side to pull out a piece of black thread. Vinod then took the thread and stretched it in front of me. “You see, very strong thread!” Sadhu complemented his brother’s words with a nod and thumbs up. No one had ever shown me the strength of a thread before.
“We will stitch around the shoe with thread. I promise you, my friend, your shoe no break for many year to come! That my promise!!!” Vinod assured me. “Ok, go for it!”
Each took an individual shoe and got to work with a needle and the solid black thread.
“This is no easy work.” Vinod began to explain to me as he worked. “Sometimes sharp needle go in your finger, and I pull out. Not easy work, brother!”
The brothers felt pride in their craft. This was their profession, and even if it was at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, I heard the pride in my friend’s voice when he spoke about the hazards of the job.
Between taking pictures and videos of the brothers working, an epiphany rattled to life in the depths of my mind. “I cannot pity these people.” In the back of my mind, I was subconsciously pitying my new friends for their life circumstances. They were so poor, uneducated, and wearing flip-flops in a place that rained daily. I felt BAD for my new friends.
While Vinod showcased his pride in his profession, I realized I didn’t want to provide these Indians with my “pity.” Instead, I wanted to provide my authenticity in an attempt to establish a meaningful connection with these two individuals who came from a drastically different backgrounds than my own. I hope I was succeeding in this task.
“What makes you happy, Vinod?” I asked him with my revelation whirling in my head. “Anything” was his simple yet profound response. “The road, these shoes, the roof, water, my brother, chai… Anything.” Sometimes the most profound insights into the human condition come from the most unexpected places. “That’s one hell of a good answer, my friend,” I said while warmly placing my hand on his shoulder.
As the Brothers finished their handy work, I took out two 500 rupee notes from my wallet. Handing each brother one of the notes, I gave them 1,000 rupees for their efforts (about 16 dollars). Smiles lit across their faces.