You may think of India as a tranquil place, where you might go to learn yoga, meditate, or perhaps participate in a mission trip. But, in any 'middle class' [what is that??] neighborhood in town, outside your air conditioned hotel, you would find a lot of living going on, in full color and, as likely as not, at full volume. Take this mid-morning in Guntur, a city of a million, more or less, about forty miles from the Bay of Bengal, just under the 'bump' that juts out from the center of the east coast of India.
Simply navigating what my fatherinlaw would call 'the morning needful' involves a series of interpersonal encounters which, while not unexpected, nevertheless challenge this writer's slow-wakening brain to pay attention or be left behind. Someone, thankfully my brotherinlaw, needs to turn on (and off) an outdoor pump for an hour between three and five a.m., in order to fill the rooftop tank for the day's household water supply. An hour or more of silence, before the crow of a rooster, the neighbor's motorcycle revving up, the chirp of sparrow and throb of nightingale, and the cry of the first vegetable vendor of the day are heard in the lane.
Then it's unlock the padlock on the gate, pick up newspapers ("Saakshi" ['truth'] in Telugu, "Deccan Chronicle" in English) from the sidewalk, let the moaning dog out for a morning run, open the kitchen door to let the cook in, make a cup or wait for her to make the morning chai, and be available when it is served, fill vessel to heat bathwater on the same two-burner gas stove(others might have 'geysers,' overhead water heaters, in their bathrooms), decide who will have their bucket-mug pour-bath first, confer with the cook over what to have for breakfast, make sure water is heated for the next person's bath, sort clothes for the laundry, separating those to wash personally, by hand, while in the bath, bathe, soaping and rinsing one limb at time, dress, eat breakfast which the cook has now gotten ready, notice that the 20 liter container of purified water is nearing empty and leave twenty rupees on the kitchen table for its delivery later today, send someone with clothes washed yesterday to the ironing man, who plies a giant, brass, charcoal-filled iron at his cart on the other end of the block, all the while paying attention to paired doors of the interconnected kitchen/bedroom/bathroom areas for privacy for whoever's turn it is, at whichever task.
By now it's mid-morning, and I have some time to think about the day ahead, my thoughts leaning into the surround-sound of the neighborhood. As I start writing this, I can hear rapidfire news, movie songs, a woman shrieking, all on tv in the next room where my brotherinlaw flips channels (evidently a universal male activity). My husband rolls up his grass exercise mat with a faint swish. With the rasping buzz of his idling motorcycle, a cyclist plays an echo game with a mockingbird, until the cyclist gives one long rasp and the mocking bird falls silent. The motorcycle rumbles away. A large Indian crow in the widespreading gulmohar tree shading the front gate breaks into hoarse laughter, haww, haww, haww, haww.
You can almost feel the hammers rebound as a team of carpenters pounds away at doors and windows in an apartment building under construction a few feet beyond our back compound wall. (Window and door frames are the only wooden parts of houses and walls in this city of concrete, brick and stone; even homes with air conditioning will open shutters and doors to fresh air during most or all of the day; so every little sound is amplified to some extent.) Childish voices nearby vie with their mothers' matter-of-fact tones as they negotiate the time and space between getting up and getting ready for the school bus due to putter by a few minutes later.
Each car backing out of its parking space and every cell phone has its own unique, repeating ringtone. Beeps, hums, bumbling black-canopied automobile rickshaws, fathers' motorcycles, and small yellow buses with school names emblazoned on the sides compete for ear and road space. Blue and white uniformed students, bowing under the weight of bulging book bags, walk seriously by, intent on their way to early morning tuition at the crumbling English Medium School at the near end of the block. Two college girls speed by on a smaller motorcycle, headed in the opposite direction.
Metal vessels grate against stone as the neighbor's helper washes last night's dishes in the outdoor laundry/water area in a corner of their verandah. Water splashes from the single, cold, water faucet.
At appointed times you might hear the lonely call of a muezzin from a nearby neighborhood mosque, or, during their festival, life-change, and auspicious times, the voice of a priest reciting a mantra or invoking the names of their Gods at the home altar of a Hindu neighbor. Except for a periodic rise, fall and full-stop of his voice, it evokes the atmosphere of a busily humming beehive.
Then there are the ubiquitous ceiling fans, the inevitable caller who drops in to deliver an invitation, then sit and chat, and share a cup of tea, and, today, the whoosh of the washing machine (yes, the electronics industry here is booming). At the end of the cycle, the machine spins out a cheery version of an apt and familiar hymn: "There shall be showers of blessing..."
It's easy to understand why a friend here rises at 4 a.m. in search of a quiet time for scripture and prayer, or to imagine why Jesus so frequently sought quite times and places to pray alone or with his disciples: to avoid such daily cacophony! But, as another friend said, describing the movement of people and traffic on Indian city streets, this is probably the only way you could move so many through such a limited space in a short period. Quiet time, meditation, emptying the mind and agendae: It seems like we have to do it however, wherever, whenever we can, no matter how interrupted or full our days become. It's a daily blessing to be alive, so why complain about the interruptions and noise? India is teaching, nay, requiring me to learn to say, like St. Paul, "I have learned in whatever situation I find myself, to be content."
And Amen to that!