In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn,
the door is there and the key is in your hand.
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India, I come as a pilgrim.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


Today I made chana dal and basmati rice. As I was cooking and appreciating the aromas, I recovered a memory. I noticed that it has always been present when I’ve made dal but, until today, I hadn’t fully acknowledged it.

On my first trip to India, which lasted a couple of months, I had leisure. It was June, the hottest time of the year. After some time in Varanasi and a rest in Delhi, I decided to visit Hyderabad and Bangalore. And, as an adventure, I chose to take the train rather than flying. After all, India is a country where, since it was part of the British Empire, trains have been akin to the country’s circulation system.

I no longer remember why exactly, but I first had to go to an office to get some kind of paper (which by the way, would not have been required had I chosen to fly). What I especially remember were the haphazard mountains of tattered files and papers stacked up and filling the walls behind the desk of the person who – eventually – would give me what I needed. But first, I waited all that day and then was told to come back the next day. Getting required signatures to take the train took three days. That, in and of itself was a ‘wow’ experience. Who could imagine? Seriously.

The train station was overwhelmIng. Very noisy and crowded. Multitudes of people were rushing in all directions. A porter dressed all in white carried my bag on his head and directed me to my train. Finally, I settled into my compartment. The train was old. Probably from the colonial era. Threadbare, tattered, less than clean. I shared the compartment with a young Indian family: Parents and two children under the age of five. (Oh, goody!) We would be companions for the next 24 hours. They spoke no English, I spoke no Hindi. We managed to communicate anyway. 

I have always loved traveling by train since my first trip to Czechoslovakia. I am especially content when I can stand up by a window, watch the world go by, and feel the clack-clack beneath my feet. The biggest difference with this trip was that it was over 100ºF outside and who knows how much hotter it was inside! I stood most of the time and, with appreciation, looked out at a land of contrasts. Just one example we passed was of a nuclear cooling tower in the distance with a man riding a cart pulled by a donkey in the foreground.

In the late afternoon, a boy came through the cars with tin plates, spoons, and two metal pails like the kind Grandpa used for milking the cows. He had chana dal in one pail and basmati rice in the other. He used small tin bowls to scoop rice and dal onto the plates. He handed one to me.

It was not the first dal and rice I enjoyed in India but it was most definitely the best. I will never forget it. It buoyed me up. That simple plate of dal with rice gave me physical and emotional sustenance in the midst of being nowhere-I-knew-on-a-train-with-failed-air-conditioning-where-no-one-spoke-the-same-language-as-I-did-going-to-an-unknown-place. Solo.

If I had flown, I would not have needed to spend three days getting permission, people would have spoken English, and I would have been on an air-conditioned airplane. Instead of 24 hours, the trip would have only taken a couple of hours. On top of that, I probably would have had a western meal. But I could never have replaced the experience of riding a long-distance train in India. Just the encounters with people in the train station and on the train alone – from the bureaucrats to the porter to the family – were so rich. To a one, people were kind. And that plate of dal! That plate of dal was grace beyond measure. 


Photo by Barbara
Scan of a 35mm slide
In a Rajasthani village