Katabahal is a tiny little village in Orissa, nestled on the east coast of India.
The land is abundant with rice fields stretching for miles and miles, green and pregnant with grain.
I was invited to this village by a master teacher I affectionately called ‘Guruji’.
He had been teaching me the classical Indian dance ‘Odissi’ for the past two years. This was his native village, and the resting place where he still returned, after touring the country, performing and teaching.
I was shocked by how rural the village truly was. Virtually all of the villagers were living in the most basic of mud brick shacks, with no taps, toilets or electrivity. Despite this obvious poverty, the villagers revealed their richness in the abundant radiance of their spirit. Their healthy bodies are toned from working in the fields and eating organic food and they have smiles like a perfect cup of chai tea, a blend of sweetness and sauciness that triggers the palate of my soul right to the core of me.
Here, you see pearly whites (or yellow) of all kinds. The faultless ones sitting side by side like perfectly placed sets of white tiles, the yellow jagged ones that look like broken twigs, the crimson-stained pecimens of a betel nut addict. Whatever the shape, colour or size, they all affect the heart in such a significant way, as if God invented them with the sole(and soul) function of lessening the distance between human beings.
Tonight I return to the land of options after spending two months here, my heart and eyes more open than ever before. I walk past a short stocky lady wearing a bright pink sari, holding a rope tied around the neck of her goat.
Gulima, a feisty old grandmother, with a big smile and three teeth, starts chatting enthusiastically to me, even though she knows I don’t understand Oriya, the local language.
A scrawny dog with a broken left paw that I had been feeding, hobbles towards me, its mouth salivating. I feed it some cookies and continue walking past the bulls lining both sides of the dirt road.
When I arrive at Pooja’s family compound, the children climb on me, clinging to my limbs like monkeys. They keep repeating ‘hello’ over and over again as
if its repetition could somehow, transform the ‘hello-s’ into a secret language, understandable only by us.
I met Pooja one afternoon while she was ‘walking’ her dragonfly, the way one would walk their dog. She had somehow tied a tiny string around the dragonfly and from a little distance away, it looked like the string was dancing in the air, like a marionette.
The first time I picked her up, I could feel her tiny heart pounding away in her chest cavity beneath my palms. I felt her little body contract under my touch.
She came from a lower caste family and was not used to being touched by strangers.
Four-year-old Pooja had pimples all over her tiny face, with match-stick
legs supporting her round belly. When we played, I would put her on my lap simulating a horse ride, or a police car on a mad speed chase, and she would laugh in seismorphic eruptions, tiny pearls of sweat forming underneath her cute nose.
I picked up her and lifted her eyes to meet mine. Her smile that always greeted me didn’t come. She just looked at me, expressionless.
“ I got to go little friend…’ I told her, not knowing if she understood, hugging her close to my chest.
The tears I had tried to hold back burst forth like an uncontrollable force.
In a way, I am really glad that I couldn’t understand their language. Without shared words, we rely on our intuition to find a deeper level of connection to others.
Two nights ago, I renounced Guruji as my teacher and made preparations to leave Katabahal. He had told me that I couldn’t invite Pooja and her family to a dance recital I was performing, because they were from a lower caste.
My stomach churned in disgust at his words and his ignorance. That ignorance lurks around like a ghost from the past because no one with power is willing to exorcise himself out of his own greed for wealth and self- importance. The people in power fear that empowering others will somehow diminish theirs. So they perpetuate the injustice and carry on waving their incense, praying to their biased Gods. They keep using religion to justify their actions, manipulating the Hindu belief of karma to justify the collective acceptance of appalling social injustices.
The women from Pooja’s family come out to hug me. My eyes speak for me, “ I will miss you. Thank you for teaching me about true wealth and friendship”.
I don’t know who started crying first, but tears flood like the life-giving river. Each tear shed giving birth to a greater understanding of the capacity of the human heart to love.
The air is still, comforting the silent tears. Two words keep ringing in my ear, over and over, like a mantra.
“ Never Forget.”