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It has been wonderful to have our friend Amar with us on our trip to Rishikesh. He has helped us get to know the area, showing us to the landmarks in the local physical and spiritual landscape. He has been another point of contact with the culture for us, answering questions for us that we wouldn’t have even known to ask. And, of course, in traveling with him, we have been able to get to know him better.
We were a little worried, at first, about how it might seem for us to be traveling with an Indian boy as a peer. White people and brown people generally run on parallel tracks in India. On Main Bazaar occasionally ran into trouble just trying to eat together: some restaurants apparently have a “Tourists Only” policy. When we spent time together, Amar and Nicky were always looking over their shoulder, worried that the police might decide we were spending too much time together and give them trouble.
“If anyone asks you about him,” the tour agent advised us, “Tell them that he is the son of a family friend. Unless they think you go long ways back, they may get jealous of your friendship, and make problems.” Fortunately, however, it doesn’t seem to have been an issue.
Besides this, there is the educational, cultural, and financial gap between us. Can we truly be friends when there are so many barriers between us? And what role would Amar have traveling in our company? Our guide? Our student? Our servant? Our beneficiary?
But these problems, like many issues that are too grand for us to contemplate, we left in the hands of the Lord, and departed for Rishikesh, with our friend Amar.
Amar and the Night Bus
Without Amar, I don’t even know if we would have made it to Rishikesh. The ride here was an adventure, to say the least. We took the night bus out of Delhi, which, though it had a scheduled departure time of 9 pm, didn’t actually get out of Delhi until around 11.30. And, of course, between 9 and 11.30, there was a change of busses, much loud and angry Hindi exchanged between passengers and bus staff.
But Amar was with us. I sat back, and let go of things. “If there’s something really important we need to know, Amar will tell us.” We were the first people to get on our second bus. Amar spent about an hour leaning against it before being given one of the least desirable seats.
Not that ours were very desirable. They must have specifically engineered the seats on that bus to maximize discomfort. It made me lust for the cramped seating environment of a budget airline. To think we paid an extra 250 rupees a ticket for the reclining seats! When we took our pit stop in the middle of the night, I looked over into the humbler bus with a sigh of regret. The plastic bucket seats looked considerably more comfortable.
We also had the peculiar honor of sitting behind the angriest and loudest of the passengers who had made a fuss before our departure. They quieted down once they got their seats, but they also immediately and forcefully pushed their seatbacks as far into the reclined position as they could go. Their seatbacks, in turn, pushed our knees about as far into our chests as they could go. They also couldn’t sleep unless the window was open (and blowing cold, sewage-scented air into our faces at forty miles per hour).
But Amar was with us. So at least we knew we were on the right bus. At least we knew we would end up in Rishikesh, not Goa or Calcutta or Mumbai. That was the only scrap of comfort I had to hold onto. I wrapped it around myself like a blanket, and miraculously managed to snag an hour or two of sleep.
At our pit stop at two in the morning, Amar brought us chocolate and chai. It was a poor consolation prize for a good night’s sleep, but a thoughtful and touching gesture.
Amar and the Indian Machine
Construction is going on everywhere in India, and where there is construction, there are huge piles of rubble. For a while, I thought maybe they just left the rubble lying on the road, or outside of the building (or wherever it landed) until there was another use for it. I hadn’t seen anyone interacting with the rubble in Delhi, besides walking around it.
But in Rishikesh, we learned what really happens. As we ate breakfast on our first morning at Green Hills Cottage, the jingling bells and clomping hooves rose over the shrubberies. Sarah and I stood up to see what was going on. A pack of mules was ambling down the hill in a very orderly clump, each with a large bushel of rubble on its back.
“I’ve never seen anything like it!” I remarked. “In America, we move our rubble with giant machines.”
I wasn’t sure if Amar was listening, or if he had grasped what I said. But then he looked up, nodded in the direction of the mule train. “India machine,” he said.
Amar has a wonderful grin: his face is on the on the small side, and his mouth on the wide side. When I looked over at him, it was fully unfurled, stretching practically from one ear to the other.
Poor Amar! I have no idea how he feels about sleeping in the same room as a couple from another country. He graciously hasn’t said anything about it, but perhaps it is a lack of English vocabulary. I know I would feel a little awkward about it.
Amar seems to be fine on the little couch/cot that came in our hotel room. Every night he wraps himself up in a blanket from head to toe, and he stays tightly wound through the night.
Awake, Amar is a confident boy. He fills his small stature with strength, vitality, and pride, and it makes him seem a lot bigger than he really is. But asleep, he is vulnerable, like the rest of us. And he is tiny.
When it comes to sleeping comfortably, the big issue for Amar seems to be climate. After a couple of nights in the room, he decided to move the couch out to the balcony, and sleep there. “Room too warm,” he told us.
But after a couple of nights sleeping outside, he didn’t seem to be doing much better. One evening he laid down to rest at 4 pm, and didn’t wake up until the next morning. “Outside very cold,” he told us the next day, as we poked fun at his long night. “Hard sleeping night time.”
He spent one night sleeping somewhere else (“Downside,” he said, we think perhaps the hotel lobby) and then came back the next night with a second blanket. This seems to have solved the problem.
Amar usually gets to bed earlier than us, and wakes up earlier than us. “Good morning,” he chants at us, as he walks out of the room. We’re usually not conscious enough to respond. I’m not sure where he goes in the morning: probably down to the hotel lobby, where he often stops to chat with the staff or watch a little TV. At any rate, his intention is clear: he thoughtfully puts off his morning routine until we emerge fully awake and ready for breakfast.
Amar and the Ganges
Amar has a tendency to disappear. This has been true since we met him on Main Bazaar. We’ll be talking with him, or walking with him, or eating with him, and then—poof—he’s gone. You can almost hear the pop of his disapparation.
This could, of course, pose a significant challenge to his ability to serve as an adequate guide, except that he has an equal tendency to reappear exactly at the moment we need him. “Hey, where’s Am—“ (crack) “Oh, there he is.”
One of his favorite places to disappear to in Rishikesh is the pilgrim ghat under the Laxshman Jhula Bridge. He goes every day to take a dip in the Ganges. He’s taken us with him a couple of times, and shown us how to feed the fish, avoid monkey bites, and, of course, take a dip in the river.
The Ganges isn’t exactly narrow, and isn’t exactly slow. There are cautionary signs along the riverbanks, and ropes for bathing pilgrims to attach themselves to the shoreline, so as not to be whisked away by the raging river.
“Ganga has sixty million sons,” Amar told us. I didn’t exactly follow the course of the legend, but from what I did understand, this sixty million is the number of lives the river god is mythologically supposed to have taken.
Nevertheless, one time when we were with him, Amar swam across the river. Quite without warning, he leapt in and began to make powerful, diagonal strides toward the other shore. I’m not sure what he meant to do. Was he trying to impress us, or entertain us? Was he teasing the river god or worshiping her?
We watched in a combination of awe and fear as his black hair bobbed above the green water, gradually getting smaller and smaller as he approached the far shore and was carried further downstream by the current. But he made it! (And then poofed back to our side of the river about twenty minutes later, completely dry.)
Since Amar shared his sacred rituals with us, we were glad to include him in ours—we took him rafting. After all, in the US, we often celebrate the sacredness of nature with outdoor adventure sporting.
Amar and the Diwali Gift
Diwali is coming up, and Amar thinks we should give him a gift. And I think what he wants most of all is a big wad of cash.
Sarah and I are torn. On the one hand, we believe in giving, we enjoy giving to our friends, and giving a gift at Diwali is an appropriate thing to do culturally. On the other hand, we are a little uncomfortable with how he initiated it, and how any question of giving (particularly when we are asked to give) highlights all the barriers and ambiguities that linger between us and our friend.
We’ve already given gifts to Amar. We’ve given him an all-expense paid vacation. We’ve given him some money to jump-start his shoeshining business. And we’ve been a little suspicious of the way that played out. Sure, he bought the materials he needed: we’ve seen them. But he also hasn’t been working since then—he suddenly has plenty of leisure time. He also seems to have plenty of pocket change and several new items in his wardrobe.
We don’t want to go so far as to accuse Amar of being dishonest. There are certainly differing cultural behaviors surrounding friendship and money, and expectations easily get lost in ambiguity and miscommunicated over the language barrier. In any case, there is no question whatsoever that Amar is a person in need.
But I think this experience has taught us a few things about giving in this context. We’ve known we need to be watchful of who we give to. Perhaps we should also watch how we give.
I think that, on some level, Amar shares our fundamental understanding of friendship. Friendship is fundamentally a sharing of self, expressed (at appropriate moments and in appropriate ways) in sharing of stuff. If Amar hangs out with us long enough, sure, we will give him gifts. But we want to give as friends, not as benefactors. We want to give from our hearts, not just our pockets.
This is another issue that we will leave with God. But I get the sense that He is going to let us wrestle with the burdens and ambiguities of wealth for a while.
In any case, prayer is good. Friendship is a terribly risky adventure, especially when we venture into it with “unsafe” people; people who don’t share our background and pedigree. I can only imagine what Jesus went through.