Words by Austin Flynn
At first glance, India is a lot of things - too many things as a matter of fact. It's messy, busy, dusty, loud, sometimes rude and always in your face; but it's also aromatic, lively, vivid, pristine in some spots and sacred in others. It's a beautiful disaster all at once and doesn't often let up in its persistence of itself, its authenticity. But one time when it did - when the days and people slowed down - it showed us only the good. It opened up to bless us with a genuine serenity and friendliness we won't soon come to forget.
A two-hour drive from Jaipur took us to the village of Sawarda where the streets are still dusty, but they're cozy and filled with giggling children. The town is small when compared to bigger cities like Jaipur and Agra, but still houses around 5,000, a number that shocked us after initial impressions driving through what we thought were back alleys. The incessant car horn symphony and streams of people were nowhere to be found. Just the occasional work truck or person making their way across town back from school or work. The silence struck us after days in places like a New Delhi bazaar or the Amber Fort, and just as quickly as our National Geographic tour group was introduced to our hotel fortress overlooking the city, we were back out into the small streets, introducing ourselves to whomever or whatever would have us, and it didn't take much walking to find a friendly group.
Ten or more children pattered bare feet across a concrete porch after we turned a corner in Sawarda. For a moment, our pace slowed and so did theirs. We examined each other and some of the kids stopped what they were doing altogether before Darren took himself and his camera over to greet them. He asked a girl studying biology if he could snap a photograph and before he knew it, pairs were lining up hand in hand to have their picture taken. They'd straighten up, pose and then rush over to see the results. Upon seeing themselves in the digital display, they would burst out in laughter and the next pair would be ready for their turn. This went on for a good 30 minutes with myself joining in. My curiosity got the better of me and their snickering kept me coming back for more.
An older woman with a bag of cotton and cup of milk walked up and began expertly rolling cotton balls between her fingers keeping the material in a bulbous shape with the help of the milk. Our trip guide Raghu would later inform us that they used the balls as candle wicks. The woman pulled out a puff of cotton with a dark, calloused hand and passed it to me smiling. I think she knew how bad I would be at it. With the faces of huddled kids peering over my shoulders, I worked the soft mass as best as possible and shooed away 20 flies to wet my fingers with milk. A Frankenstein of a cotton ball emerged from the palm of my hand and yet another crack of laughter echoed off of walls with peeling paint. We couldn't help but smile and neither could they.
"Gokeldam society - we are the Gokeldam society," an older boy proudly said as he swirled his hand over the giggly group. Lazing water buffalo watched over us from the middle of the road and the kids all repeated their group's name as they went every which way on the porch.
In what felt like the time of a handshake, we had spent two hours there talking, writing our names in homework notebooks and always laughing in the little village. We had to part ways with the spirited group, turning around and waving goodbye as we walked away from the 15 grinning children and back toward our hotel.
I sat up at the top of the fort and watched the sun go down as I listened to Sawarda's heartbeat, thinking about the connections we made and how village life must be. Before the sun could slip behind the horizon of squat buildings, a man called to me from within a small temple below.
"Friend, come down here. Let me show you." He signaled into the temple and I couldn't resist. I walked down a flight of sandstone stairs and into his sanctuary after, of course, removing my shoes. He explained the gods Raama, Seeta, Hanuman and Shiva and went on to talk about his family. Dimly lit candles kept the small space lit and illuminated the smiling faces of the framed deities. It was quaint, but it was a powerful place filled with incense smoke and silver trays. As I admired the cracked white walls, he invited me to visit again at 6 AM. With the promise of a few additional friends, I agreed to meet him, his family and the rising sun in the morning.
A cool dawn rolled around and within a matter of 20 minutes, I had helped my new friend with a ceremony by constantly ringing a gong. I would hit the metal circle twice with the heavy end of a stick and then stop, listening to the echoes scatter across the sleepy town, hit it twice again and so on and so forth until he said it was enough. We ate white ceremonial candies and each of the five people in our group knelt down in front of the altar and bowed their head. Once the brief custom finished, he invited us to his house to meet his family which included his mom, dad, son, daughter and wife. We agreed without hesitation. He led us down a few alleys where we spotted a pair of wild peacocks, plenty of old men reading the morning newspaper and workers and school kids alike walking to where they needed to be. It was busy, but manageably so. It was a peaceful hustle, a charming stroll that showed everyone casually rubbing sleep out of their eyes - a far cry from the roar and struggles we'd seen from city life.
At our host's, Manmohan Sharma's, house, he wasted no time happily introducing us to his family. He picked up his son who was getting ready for school and then his toddler daughter as they examined us. His wife distributed masala chai tea in thimble-like cups and his mother rested on the bed behind us. Lastly, his father kneeled at the front door and meekly nodded to us one by one as we walked in. It was a solemn and quick visit, but it was special. We flipped through baby pictures, got the grand tour of their house and just spent time together. It was low stress and therapeutic in all the ways an early morning visit to a friend should be, and mostly, it was simple happiness.
Manmohan kept saying that while his house wasn't much, he was happy. They had a roof looking out over the village, a precious albino rabbit for the kids to play with and they had family. It sounds cheesy and it probably is, but it's real in a way that just exudes an air of confident authenticity. It makes you sit back and think about how simple things can be and how complicated we've become as people.
The walk back from Manmohan's house was a quiet one with our group smiling and taking in everything that we could. At the fort's entrance we split up back into our own rooms and on my bed, I appreciated Sawarda for what it was.
It might not carry the overwhelming spiritual weight of the Taj Mahal or rattle you like lines of infinite tuk-tuks all honking towards endless destinations, but it's a silently gentle village housing simple happiness and joyful camaraderie, and it's a part of India that made me feel something no other place could. Something simple and instinctual. Something totally human that I think many of us have lost touch with.