Sky dancing, early on a Friday evening, from Singapore to Bali. Six days after the second Bali bombings in October 2005.
The aircraft has a 2-3-2 configuration. There are three Indians sitting behind me, to my right. A couple. Tiny, wizened, wrinkled like walnuts and the same colour. By the looks they are old in years, yet somehow young at heart with the wisdom of many lives in their auras. Eyes the colour of charcoal sparkling like diamonds in the sun. Scarlet bindis on their third eyes. Pearly white teeth smiling endlessly. Next to them, their new friend. A taller gentleman. In his sixties or so with snow white hair, beautiful golden brown skin and a gentle smile. Handsome.
In true, glorious Indian style these three have not stopped talking since they boarded the aircraft thirty minutes ago. They are bartering and bantering words, back and forth, playing conversational tennis. it’s wonderful. They have already established common bonds in Madras, Melbourne and Singapore. I can’t help but eavesdrop. They are talking with such verve and passion and focus. Real three-dimensional communication coming straight from the heart. It reminds me of so many of my train and bus journeys in India. The concept of space and privacy does not exist in the over-crowded landscape that is that country. In that vast land of open spaces, expansive deserts, soaring mountains and humid forests you always seem to be in a crowd even if there is only one other person around. It is really quite extraordinary. I suspect we British are very aware of this personal closeness because we are naturally so aloof. So distant. So private. Generally speaking, of course. India soon puts paid to that. Within minutes of someone settling themselves next to you, you will know their name, where they are from, how old they are, what job they do, how much they earn, whether they are married or not and if they are, how many boy children they have. And once this information has been volunteered they will look at you in the eye, do that wonderful oh-so-Indian side-to-side rocking of the head with one eyebrow cocked. Expectant. Waiting for you to provide the same information. It is not being nosey. This exchange is an essential element in the process of placing one another in society’s hierarchy, like it or not it, an inevitable part of life in India. Unavoidable. Not just in India but in many Asian countries. Once this is done more intimate conversation can progress. ‘More intimate!’ I can hear you saying.
Yes. more intimate and you can only begin to imagine the length and breadth of conversation that unfolds over a journey lasting thirty six hours on an overcrowded train or bus with no means of escape. By the end of the trip you will have broken bread, or should I more accurately say shared rice together, five or six times. You will know more about this ‘stranger’ than you do about your mother or father. You will have heard them laugh, heard them burp, seen them cry and watched them sleep. A most intimate togetherness of strangers borne of a common journey and a willingness to be open.
I have to be honest and say that there have been times in my travels around the sub-continent when I have been screaming inside for peace and quiet. But never for long. In the onslaught that is India you can never resist anything for long. It is simply too hard. Too tiring. Thankfully. As frustrating as it can sometimes be I have never viewed any of these conversations as an invasion of privacy. I surrender myself to them. Into the comforting embrace of temporary friendship and the wealth of treasures that brings.
Like most Indians, I have a stack of photos that travel with me wherever I go. Pictures of Africa and England and Thailand and the Maldives and countless other countries. Of people and places and weather and buildings and plants and animals. They are covered with thumb prints and are well worn around the edges. They have made for very many wonderful conversations. In return, I have been privileged to hold countless pictures of mothers and fathers and weddings and wives and children and houses and rice fields. Photographs that become doorways into each other’s lives.
We live in an ever-increasingly isolationist world in the 21st century made worse by war, terrorist bombings and hatred across cultures and faiths. The future for mankind is not rosy if we continue as a race to embrace this way of living. There are boundless possibilities for joy and laughter, friendship and sharing if we simply take down our barriers and open ourselves to the wonders that await beyond the walls of our internal self. To be, to trust in the goodness and presence of others.
Update: May 2020
I am compiling an anthology of my essays to self-publish and I find myself reading this story. I'm pondering even more now the enforced isolation we find ourselves in brought about by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is sweeping across the globe changing our lives, not just for now but, some say forever.
Our Government in the UK has just announced that in 48 hours we will be able to meet 1 person at a time, in an open space, who is not from our household as long as we maintain 2m social distancing. We are going to be connecting this way and through our screens in video calls for the foreseeable future. The way we are interacting has changed so much this year. Thank goodness for technology that allows us to do this but the energy, the connection we have is not the same. We have barriers between us when we talk digitally so now is the time we need to find a way to keep our barriers down whilst navigating life with them. Something I, for one, am still figuring out.
How to stay connected, truly connected, when we can't be together?