October 2015

the market in Shillong

the market in Shillong

I would have missed him if Ray hadn’t stopped and pointed him out.

“How would you like to make your living like that?” he says.

I look down and see him, sitting in a little window-like depression in the wall, half-buried below the road, his knees up under his chin and his head tilted forward. A folded up man; he could have fit into my suitcase. On the ground in front of him are locks and keys, his wares for sale.

My hand finds my phone in my pocket, but I can’t bring myself to pull it out and take a photo. I feel every inch of my white skin, standing there, looking down at him.

I don’t know anything about him. I don’t know the things he thinks or feels, whether he has a family, what he will eat for supper or where he will sleep. I can’t begin to understand his life.

For a half a minute, in the busy Shillong market, I look at a man in a wall like I’d look at an animal in a zoo. I can not bring myself to photograph him. I walk by and on the next block I buy a scarf. This is India.


I have been asked to teach a class to a room full of women. I sit on a chair and smile at them, and they sit around me on chairs and wooden benches, and smile, too.

English? I say.

They look at each other and look at me and we smile at each other some more.

I am teaching a class to women in Lalmati, in the province of Assam, in India, and I do not have a translator.

I tell a small story. I act it out with flapping hands and waving arms and pointing, using all my limited acting skills, and they watch, intense and focused. I know they are not understanding but we try, together.

I pass around pictures of my family and my town. We manage to learn a little about each other, mainly the number of children we each have.

I give each woman a snowflake Christmas ornament. One woman who can speak a tiny bit of English, says, “Flower?”

“Snow,” I say, and I spend fifteen giggling minutes trying to explain snow to women who have never seen it.

Wendy and I bring out plastic beads and gold elastic, and they jump up, eager to each make a bracelet. It seems a cheap thing next to their beautiful saris, but they are excited to make and wear a pretty thing.


I am tired, walking down the mountain at the end of the day. It seems, perhaps, a silly thing, trying to share stories with people to whom I can’t talk. I don’t know their thoughts or impressions or ideas of what we did together. I don’t quite know my own.

We sat in a circle and smiled and struggled to know each other a little and, common language or not, maybe now we do.

Guwahati, Assam from my hotel window

Guwahati, Assam from my hotel window

I haven’t been in India long enough to know much about it, other than first impressions. The things I was told are true. India is loud and the traffic is crazy and the smell is a hot, aromatic stew of spicy food, rotting garbage, and sweating bodies.

It is festival time here in Guwahati, in the province of Assam. India is celebrating Durga Puja, and in the evenings the streets are flowing with people. They trek from temple to temple, accompanied by horns and whistles and noise-makers of all sorts. It’s a headache-making kind of noise, like a junior high school orchestra warming up.

I won’t presume to know anything about anything. I can simply accept the experience as it unfolds. I think I am falling in love with India, but we are at the very beginning of this relationship, and new relationships are always exciting and full of unknown promise and uncertainty.

Mountain view from the classroom window at Bread of Life School

Mountain view from the classroom window at Bread of Life School

Yesterday, my friends and I were the only white people walking along the market street, and people took pictures of us. Today, we drove a ridiculous mountain road to Bread of Life School, where we laughed with children and ate rice with our fingers and watched a brown monkey scamper across a rooftop. The boys climbed to the top of a mountain with a new friend, and I hugged a dozen beautiful, gracious women.

India is a colourful first date right now. I suppose we might disappoint each other at some point, but like any new relationship these beginning days are meant to be exciting and intoxicating, and so they are.