It was 2 am, and the night couldn’t have been more darker. It had been a new moon just 2 days back and I could see the faint silver bow in the sky, which they call Chanda Mama (Uncle Moon) in the part of the world I was in. The 12 hour bus ride from Jaipur to Surat in the hot Rajasthan state of Western India had been pretty much boring with kids crying, women puking, men smoking beedis (Indian cigarettes), fight over seats, and flat tires. Usual stuff.
I woke up suddenly when the bus stopped with a jerk and my head bang into the open iron seat in front of me. “The bus is here for the next 20 mins; take a leak and eat before we leave, next stop won’t be until 8 o’clock”, the conductor announced lazily, still playing Angry Birds on his phone. I got down off the bus, rubbing my forehead, to stretch my legs and get some biscuits at the Dhaba, the famous Indian highway restaurants.
The smallest dhaba I had ever seen was in the middle of nowhere, with no signs to tell me where I was. There were no streetlights and the light of 2 yellow bulbs was trying its best to reach the long stretched highway roads and the plains beyond, which were full of knee length bushes and sand. The peacocks were cooing in the distance and I hopefully looked around to see where their voices are coming from. ‘Too dark to find your own hand’, someone told his friend sitting at the table next to me.
A car pulled into the dhaba, much to the dismay of people, whose hands flew straight in the front of their eyes at the speed of light, because of the bright headlights. Three men wearing colorful turbans, slightly dirty white shirts and dhotis, walked out of the car, and the driver, wearing the same outfit, reversed and parked the car right in front of us. They were not wearing shoes and I saw the weirdest thing ever.
The back of the car was open and there was a big lamp burning inside the car, illuminating all the objects near it, and some more, with its warm glow. There were some red and purple clothes next to it with vermillion sprinkled around it. The flame from the lamp was teasing the ceiling and sides of the car. The men pulled up 2 chairs and sat next to the car.
What? Why? Where? Who? A million questions arose in my head. But I was scared in approaching them, due to the obvious reasons. But after 15 mins, when I couldn’t control my curiosity, I ignored my mother’s voice in the head (Don’t talk to random strangers!), and asked the oldest looking man in the group,”Excuse me Uncleji, what is that?”
He scanned me from top to bottom, intriguingly inspecting my western attire, and after confirming that I am just another ordinary kid, he replied,”A soul”.
What? “A soul?”, I asked!
“Yes”, he said coolly, taking two puffs from his beedi.
After what seemed like eternity, he looked at my clueless face as Einstein would have looked at his audience when he gave his first lecture on Special Relativity.
“Someone died in our house and we are taking his soul to inundate in the water”. He said before going back to his beedi.
Firstly, how is this a soul and why are they going to inundate it? “Why?”, I asked respectfully, hiding my curiosity, as to not hurt their sentiments.
He sensed my eagerness. You cannot hide anything from the old! “See, when someone dies in our family, we light a lamp for them, in which the soul of the person rests. Then we help the soul in taking its first step in its journey of the afterlife, by immersing it in the holy water, where we are heading for now.”
I asked my second why.
“Because if we do not do it, they can return back from the dead.”
I was stunned. The old man started humming an old song and the person sitting next to him passed me a smile. I smiled back sheepishly, managed a quick, respectful nod and returned back to my bus seat (the conductor yelled at me!).
I didn’t sleep the whole night.
Cultures around the world are so different and have so many different beliefs of their own. True or not, the least we can do is respect each other without judging them, and before you know you will start appreciating the beauty and variety of the world! In all my curiosity and hurry, I forgot to ask them who they were or where they are from but this awesome encounter in an unknown location with strange, yet friendly, strangers will always be etched in my mind.
Do you know who they are? Or have you met some interesting cultures before? Share in the comments!