It was my last day in Jodhpur, and I was determined to explore the Old City properly. I had been enjoying conversing with the residents of Jodhpur so much that I was hoping to have some casual chats with people and maybe buy a few things from the local shops.
At one point, I was saying something to a woman on a balcony, and a bunch of children came up to examine me more closely. One boy, clearly the leader of the pack, introduced himself in very proper English: “I am Irfan. I speak six languages!” and then proceeded to explain to me how various things were said in Hindi, English, French, Italian and Spanish. He spoke with authority and decisiveness even though he was only 12, and I was immediately fascinated by him. I realized that by speaking to him in English, I was helping him practice just as people from Europe must have come through and taught him the other languages. I switched back to English, and we began to talk.
After a few minutes he said in English, “Excuse me! Sister! Please come and meet my family!” And I thought, you know, why not? This is exactly the experience I want to have today.
He led me up a little alleyway on a steep incline, and through a few cracking stairwells, and up to a balcony which led to his home, a modest but very well-kept little place, where he lived with his parents and three siblings, all older than him. They were all very happy to see me, and not at all surprised. Irfan must bring home foreigners with some regularity.
They got me a chair and made me a cup of tea. I talked with them for more than an hour about so many different things. I spoke mostly in apologetic Hindi so that his mother would understand what I was saying, but every so often, I would get tripped up and Irfan would pitch in a few words, the proud translator. They asked me to show them pictures of my home, and I found a random assortment of pictures on my phone of some of my friends, my students, some photos from the Boston Aquarium, and even a video of Sur et Veritaal singing Ghanana Ghanana (which they all recognized instantly!).
I explained a photo of Thanksgiving at Omar and Heather’s place last year, asking him if he knew what a turkey was. He explained that though he hadn’t eaten a turkey, he was Muslim so, “It would be possible for me. Is it possible for you?” He was surprised that though I have a Muslim last name, eating a turkey was not possible for me (I’m vegetarian by choice). I showed him a picture of my favorite teacup that Crystal had given me, and he was amazed at the size – I explained that where I’m from, one of our teacups could fit five of their cups of tea, but one cup of Indian chai was probably stronger.
We talked about America. Irfan’s mother said to me in Hindi, “He wants to go to America. Just take him with you when you go back!” I said that, though I would love to, it is so hard for Indian citizens to get visas to the US these days. Irfan said in Hindi, “No, I have an idea: you’re going to be in India till June, right? Well, then while you’re here, just give me your passport, and I’ll go and come back by June!” I explained that unfortunately we don’t look enough alike for that to be a possibility.
I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to be a chartered accountant! And his sister wants to be a doctor. They seemed like earnest and hard working people, and if Irfan is already this outgoing and knowledge-thirsty at twelve years old, I’m pretty sure he will make things happen for himself.
As he showed me out of his home, and asked me where I was going next, a bunch of children started to follow us, probably fascinated by Irfan’s most recent Resident Foreigner. He was incredibly sweet and “protected” me – as the children begged me to take pictures and then wanted to see them on my camera, Irfan yelled at them authoritatively, “Don’t touch her camera! This is a very expensive instrument, and it will break! Just look, but don’t touch!” And when he saw the hairclips I had attached to the outside of my bag, he took them off and put them in my hand, closing my hand around them and saying, “Reena Didi, some people here are thieves. They might steal these. You should keep them safe.”
On the way out, we met his grandmother, who lived nearby, and who was also going to Delhi the next day to try to get a visa to visit Pakistan. Half of their family lives here in India, and half in Karachi – something that is also true for me. I empathized with how difficult it was to make a journey between the two countries. Irfan promised me that if I came again, we would all go to Pakistan together: no visa problems. Aaram se jayenge. (we will go with ease.)
He left me at the road to the clock tower and pointed me in the right direction. As I walked down the street humming to myself softly enough to not attract attention, I thought, “I should be thinking What can I give this incredible young person? What can I do to improve his life?” And yet those were not my thoughts. Mostly, I was just touched and grateful. In an hour, these people had shown me more love and kindness than most westerners would show in a year, myself included. I can’t think of how I would ever experience anything like this in my daily life in America. I had been telling Irfan and his family that even though America seems glistening and beautiful from the outside, we don’t have a lot of the things they do: sometimes the pace of life moves very fast and people don’t have time for their families like they do in India, and that a lot of people see psychologists because they are unhappy and don’t know why. The minute I stepped into their home, I could tell that these were things they would never know: this was the home of happy people who knew no other way to succeed than with the help and support of one another.
What can I give them? I can only learn and be inspired. And maybe bring a box of sweets next time I come.