In praise of small moments: A love affair with India in pictures.
“[My latest collection] was a kind of commitment to the worth and value of a small moment, one otherwise lost if not attended to.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Lower Dharamsala and I’m waiting at a bus stop, the sun beating down with an impossible strength at this altitude.
I’ve just spent the last two hours sprinting downhill in the march for Tibetan Uprising Day, and the breakfast of chai and bread omelets we had before the morning’s ceremonies now feels like a distant memory. I turn to a small shop just next to the bus stop and buy a Sprite and chips.
The total is 45 rupees and I hand the shop owner a hundred-rupee note.
“No change?” he asks, just like every other shop owner and restaurant manager and bus conductor and train food seller always asks in India.
“No change,” I say, and as a result I’m handed a fifty-rupee note and five little mint candies that are each worth one rupee.
It isn’t the first time this has happened – sometimes it’s five candies, sometimes it’s a five-rupee bag of moong dal or another snack – but just like every time before, all I can do is smile.
* * *
Anyone who has been to India will understand what a big problem small change can be.
Small denominations are to be guarded like golden tickets – denominations of ten, twenty, and especially the ever-elusive five-rupee note. Whenever I get one, I hang onto it as long as possible, and when I finally use it, I do so with a tremendous sense of satisfaction. (Yes, I’m aware of how sad this is…)
On the other hand, I try to get rid of the big ones as quickly as possible. One hundred-rupee notes don’t normally cause too much fuss, but I cringe whenever I have to pay with a five-hundred rupee note, knowing what a problem I’m causing. Hand over a thousand-rupee note (equivalent to about $18) and the shop owner will look at it with an expression almost like disdain, as though money were actually more of an inconvenience than it’s worth.
It’s a system I’ve gotten used to, and a system I’ve come to love.
And so I tuck those five little mint candies into my bag as the bus back to Upper Dharamsala arrives. I find a seat and wait for the conductor to find me and collect my fare.
“Two rupees,” he says, which seems like quite the bargain.
Even still – as you’ll recall – I have no change, and can only offer him the fifty-rupee note.
A man sitting behind me offers to cover both his fare and mine. I thank him, and he jokingly says, “Bus very expensive.”
A few seconds later I remember the mint candies and pull them out, offering one to both the man and his friend as repayment. But it turns out there are five of them traveling together, and they all lean forward, asking if I have any more.
Which – because of a certain small change problem – I just so happen to have.
I turn back around in my seat and silently watch the hills of Dharamsala roll by outside my window, but inside, I am unexplainably happy. This entire little chain of events – the lack of change from the shop owner, the one-rupee candies, the man who paid my fare, the five candies for the five friends – it all added up, but I didn’t quite yet know what it meant.
It was a small moment to be sure, but one that, if I’m perfectly honest, I will remember for the rest of my life.
* * *
Why? I asked myself on the bus to Dharamsala – why did that moment mean so much? I didn’t understand it right away, but over the next few days, I realized that little chain of events actually encompassed everything I love most about India.
The small scale on which so much of life operates here, the fact that a bus ride can cost two rupees (or just four cents) and a tiny candy only one.
The imperfections of the system, the fact that rules can be bent and that candy can sometimes be given – and accepted – as change.
And the openness, the willingness of a stranger to help you out, and accept help in return, the way it feels we’re all in this together.
There have been other such moments – extraordinarily small moments that I can’t necessarily do a lot with. When someone asks why I love India or what they should do here, I can’t very well say, “Well there was this time I didn’t have enough change…you should try it, too.”
But it is, and they should – for it is the small moments that have come to define my love for India. I was just telling my friend Kim this the other day, that as far as I have found, a love for India isn’t wrapped up in any one city or any one experience.
Instead, it’s a thousand little things that have slowly folded into each other, into one overwhelming love for this fascinating and sometimes frustrating country.
And yet even as I typed that to Kim, I realized that what I was saying can really be said of our love for any place. We don’t love India for the Taj Mahal anymore than we love France for the Eiffel Tower or Cambodia for Angkor Wat – we love India and France and Cambodia for all the small moments in between the big highlights, because it’s the small moments that are expressly ours, moments that could never happen to anyone else anywhere else in exactly the same way.
I leave India on Friday, when I’ll then be embarking on a sketching trip around Southeast Asia and Japan, but before I go, I want to share a few other small moments with you, mainly in pictures. I’ve been storing these photos up for the last seven months now, waiting for the right chance to share them with you – and well, I’m starting to get a little concerned that chance will never come.
I know that as soon as I step foot on Singaporean soil on Friday, I will be caught up in the sights and sounds of a new place, and so before I leave, before I wish you all a final Namaste, I want to honor my time here in India, I want to honor the thousand little gifts she has so graciously given me and the people she gave them to me through. With that being said, here goes:
I will never forget the three months I had a base in Delhi, and for the chance to go below the surface of an oft-disliked city – to witness a newborn puja ceremony on a Friday afternoon, women keeping a kalash pot full of mango leaves balanced on the new mother’s head as they moved down the street.
I will never forget the man who cut my keys in Delhi by hand, and the shoe walla who fixed my sandals for ten rupees, cutting a piece of leather right there on the spot, and the iron wallas whose tables line the streets, smoke from the hot coals that fill their ancient irons rising in the air.
I will never forget a man named Chotelal, the flower seller of Kishangarh – the neighborhood I lived in in Delhi. I will never forget how I stumbled across his street-side shop, its beautiful wares so incongruous among the evening traffic, and the care with which he wrapped my bouquet, which cost me exactly one dollar.
I will never forget the nearly 350 hours I have clocked on Indian trains over the last eight months – if I’ll be leaving my heart in India, which undoubtedly will be the case, I’ve left a large part of it in the sleeper class, where families share their meals and welcome me into the fold, where it’s enough to spend an afternoon staring out the window.
I will never forget the simple meals, the five-rupee cups of chai, the lunches of pav bhaji sandwiches and 7-Up at a Mumbai tea shop, the fresh lime sodas so wonderfully thirst-quenching, and the chai wallas on wheels, arriving at the Rickshaw Run finish line in Cochin with hot tea and coffee strapped to their bikes.
I will never forget my three trips to Jaisalmer, how at home I felt in the desert, how fun it was to wish the camels outside my guesthouse good morning every day, and how welcomed I felt by the women who lived around me, how I wish I could’ve stayed longer and accepted their invitation for a cup of chai.
I will never forget the women I met in Orissa, one of India’s poorest and most backward states – how resilient they are, forming themselves into self-help groups; how moving it was to see one woman’s hand resting on another’s knee; and how the children’s eyes danced with a light I won’t soon forget.
I will never forget when my friend Erin visited me in Delhi in November, and the pilgrimage we made to Agra – the children we met, passing time before going to the Taj, the families we walked with, and those we met once we were inside. Agra was a lesson in the power of connection.
I will never forget the tiny shops of Udaipur, nothing but a little triangle of space cut out of a wall, the way the shop owners open their doors every morning and how they keep their shoes balanced on the tiniest shelf beneath their equally minute shop.
I will never forget how it feels to see these three words, how something inside me almost leaps every time – and how much I can’t wait to see them again one day…even if I don’t quite know when that will be.