So I have run away from the searing dry heat of the Indian plains summer in Ahmedabad for a fortnight and find myself, not in the Himalayan foothills as planned, but back in South Goa, in Palolem to be exact. It’s a holidaymaker’s dream, a curving bay lined with bars, restaurants, and bamboo hut accommodation, and I have lashed right out and rented a hut on the beach. I slept last night to the sound of the Arabian Sea crashing on the shore, and awoke at daybreak refreshed instead of bathed in perspiration. The air is fresh, clean, and salty, but heavy and humid at the same time with the promise of monsoon. I have walked along the shore to the northern headland this morning as the sun climbed over the densely wooded hills behind the bay, and watched fishermen rolling their outrigger canoes into the water on sections of coconut palm trunk as I imagine they have done for time immemorial – because it works. Lots of dogs, happy dogs. I’ve come back and eaten delicious bread, the kind I have been missing in Ahmedabad; European bread, soft centred with a satisfyingly chewy crust.
I was the first guest to arrive for breakfast, and I’m sitting in a corner of the bamboo and coir matting restaurant overlooking an almost empty beach, sipping tea and watching other people emerge from their rooms and cabins. Not many, it’s the tail end of the season; this place closes down and begins getting dismantled on Monday before the rains arrive. There’s an Indian family, a couple of French girls, what has to be an Australian couple. Rag pickers in colourful wraps are cleaning up debris from the sand with twig brooms and open weave baskets, it’s overcast and pleasantly cool, with a gentle onshore breeze; apart from a soft background hum of conversation, the only sound is the rolling surf.
Sounds wonderful? It is… but there is a tinge, just a tiny one mind you, of guilt, which will only be assuaged by a few hours dedication to work each day! Even though it’s off-season, and I have negotiated a better rate for my hut, in five days I will have spent more than twice the entire monthly income of one of the families we are trying to assist to put their children through school, and that’s just my accommodation. I’m not planning to dwell on this, because as my son Tom rightly said, I need to look after me in order to help them, but it certainly gives one pause for thought, again. Most often recently I’ve found myself pondering why Indians smile so much more often than we do, even the ones who have so much less in material terms. I’ve found one reason, I think.
Despite the poverty, there’s one thing India has got so right that it puts the West to shame, for me at least. I believe it’s what’s made this a civilisation that has lasted six thousand years, it’s the beating heart of the country, its what makes India so different and so special, and its really so very simple – family. These people don’t often divorce or separate, they don’t put their elderly mothers into care homes, or hand their babies over to others to rear while they work, (don’t be offended please working Mum’s, people with parents in care homes, or divorcees – I’ve done two out of the three myself). They may do many things that we in the West regard as curious, even wrong; but in the overall scheme of things, their attitude towards and relationships with their immediate and extended families is their incredible strength. And I admire it immensely.
We may imagine that they too would put dotty old Grandma with her osteo and incontinence into care if they could, but truthfully, they simply seem to spread the burdens of caring for her between them, not questioning it or saying it isn’t fair, but taking pleasure in being able to care for her as she did them. They understand the whole Lion King Circle of Life thing brilliantly, even if they never pause to think about it. I sat on a plane with a large family party including seven sisters and ‘cousin-sisters’ with their babies, husbands, brothers and parents all off to a family wedding yesterday and envied them their closeness, their familiarity with each other, the security of having shared their entire lives together, not just this experience. I’m so grateful that my children are like that. I love the terms ‘cousin-sister’ and ‘cousin-brother’. I wish I had grown up surrounded by a pack of them.
Of course the basis of family is, for want of a better word, marriage, and arranged marriages come to mind immediately. I have had various conversations on the topic, interestingly all initiated by Indians, not me. In the first one, I remember saying, “Well, if my religion was Hindu, and so I had to arrange marriages for my children, I love them and I want them to be happy so of course I would find someone perfect for them”. What we tend to hear about more in the West are the arranged marriages where something’s awry; marriage as a trade of some sort, the 15 year old married off to an old wealthy man which was possibly seen as the only way to ensure the family as a whole could survive a crisis like drought and famine – one member had to be sacrificed? It would be a harsh decision to have to make if that’s the case. Some of the Westernised children of migrants from countries where arranged marriages are the norm rebel against the system, saying they want to marry for love. They’ve seen the ‘personal freedom’ we cherish so dearly in the West, and they want it too. Here, they know it exists, but I honestly feel it almost scares them, and having given it a lot of thought I don’t blame them one bit.
Millions of Indians have been contented with the partners arranged for them by their families, carefully assessed and eventually selected with the greatest possible care for their futures. Kindly notice my choice of the word ‘contented’, not ‘happy’ – as I grow older myself, I have become increasingly aware of how much more important it is to find great contentment within your life than great happiness, and the similarities and differences between them. Children grow up surrounded by love, attention, lessons, and remonstrances from all their peers and elders, not just their immediate family. Their parents have an endless support network of extended family and family friends through their working lives. The older generations are secure in the knowledge that they have ‘done the hard yards’, and will now be nourished within the looping coils and networks of the family, as they age and their knowledge, love, and experience, become of more value than their labours. Burdens as well as blessings are shared – everyone contributes, everyone receives. I do realise this is a massive over-simplification, but it’s a start. I sometimes think we should pay more attention to the workings of a successful ant colony if we want to truly understand ourselves.
Hindu’s believe they have one shot at marriage, the way we used to, and they don’t leap into it lightly. There are ‘love’ marriages, but the couple in question may have had to wait for years, ‘proving’ their attachment, before the family allows it. Frequently, it seems to be a caste issue, but that’s another whole thingumajig I’m still thinking on. Like the families. Who’s to judge right from wrong? We may follow a different path, but it’s the same journey in the end whoever we are and whatever we believe in.
So… I might go for a swim now because I can. I’ll walk through the village later, and maybe have a snooze in the hammock after lunch, but I will also do some lesson planning and preparation this evening, and you will be happy to know I am contented. 🙂