A Writer Writes
Gigi Grover -York (India 1964-66)
Despite the half century and the thousands of miles that separate my Oregon home from the Gundi ashram, I still retrace my way over the distant but familiar earthen path that led from the ashram to the train station at the village of Gundi, perched on the edge of the Kutch Desert in western India. That narrow raised track, no more than a meter wide and half a meter high, ran south from its tether at the broad wooden gate that breached the ashram’s thick whitewashed walls.
I never thought much about who built the path. It was a constant like the air and sky. Surely someone maintained it but I never observed them. It lay there when I came and had changed not at all upon my departure.
The powder fine dust of the path had been deposited and recycled for millennia by sun, wind and rain, and the land’s inhabitants. Their decomposed bones, clothes, clay pots, cows, mud and dung houses were mixed with dust which had sifted south through the centuries, lifted high on air currents across the mountains and driven across the open plain by the dry Himalayan winds. In the late spring the returning southerly winds, heavy with moisture laden clouds gathered from the Indian Ocean, reversed the direction of the dust’s journey.
The path served a meager local economy. Along its course rolled the wheels of an occasional vegetable vendor. Discarded five gallon gasoline tins and tattered sacks, filled with rice or wheat also came, balanced on the heads of housewives as they swayed over the path to the jingle of their silver ankle bracelets.
Another of the path’s sounds, the bicycle bell of the wheeled travelers, omitted a cheap, harsh and tinny signal. Through overuse it became a toy, an entertainment, an irritant. Each cyclist practiced his art, repeating his favorite rhythm, over and over and over, until the cycle’s greater speed mercifully carried it out of hearing of my pedestrian ears.
It seemed to me, since I lived at the ashram, that the path began there. Usually accompanied by Vashtye, my Peace Corps housemate and steadfast friend ever since, I would start my journeys to the train station through the red wooden gates on our porch. All the whitewashed houses, classrooms and the prayer hall faced inward, in the fashion of the Spanish plaza. Circling the tree lined plaza, usually green with vegetable gardens, we passed the two water taps crowded with neighbors who inquired, “Where are you going?” Their curious eyes closely tracked our passage until we disappeared beyond the main gate.
At the outside corner of the ashram, where the path turned and headed toward the station, stood a tree anchored deeply at the edge of the path. The bark clung like a well worn cloak, rough and faded. The leaves remained on the tree throughout the year. The tree’s shadow offered the only taste of shade during the hot trek to and from the station.
The path provided us an escape route we often needed but seldom took. On occasion our feet sped over this beaten path, scenery a blur, as we rushed to catch the train. Usually we headed west to visit friends stationed at other remote Gujarati postings. On the rare cool days when time permitted we’d amble along, joking and laughing. The ground felt soft and smooth and the distance sailed swiftly beneath our steps.
At other times we escaped northeast to Ahmedabad, the Gujarat state capital, and its air conditioned restaurants that served amazing treats like iced coffees and meat dishes. The meagerness of our Peace Corps pay safeguarded us from frequent indulgences in such luxuries. When we did visit the city, we’d usually go by the early train departing Gundi Station at about 7:00 a.m. The station and the residents of Gundi would just be getting up. The air was full of morning sounds, brushing of teeth and lots of spitting, rattling tea cups, and roaring Primis stoves. The distant, labored, sounds of the train’s steam engine roused anticipation on the platform. Passengers prepared for the rush, a muddled shoving queue awaited the smoking iron horse and prime seating on the train. Tardy passengers would be scurrying down the path. Tragically, one morning a local goat was crushed beneath the train’s wheels which generated a second flurry of activity and accompanying sounds. After four sooty, crowded, hot hours to Ahmedabad, four hot, dusty, crowded hours of collecting pleasure and supplies, we’d dash by horse cart or motor rickshaw for the much longer four hour afternoon train ride home.
Half of the year a trace of light remained when our train wheezed into Gundi. We were glad to see the path and quit the train. We’d mount the path, thirsty, weary, and covered with layers of soot and dust. Burdened with our booty, stuffed into shoulder bags and boxes tied with string, we began the last of the journey. The straps of my over stuffed bags and the strings that bound my packages burrowed into my numb shoulders and stiff fingers. We transported paper for our India X newsletter, school supplies for our young students, and canned food for our larder. We lugged our supplies over the seemingly endless path in the dark, aided by scraps of light from our torches (a left over British term, flashlights of course). The front gate of the ashram and small glow of wick lanterns on porches were welcome sites. We plodded up the steps and finally through our blue doors, happy to lay down our burdens and be home.
We watched the seasons transform the land. The ground lay cracked and thirsting as the summer approached. The dry monsoon winds swept up dust that masked the sun. Finally in late May or by early June the winds shifted and the long awaited smell of rain would blow across the path, though sometimes the moisture stubbornly refused to fall. Then at night the young and old, men and women, built and danced barefoot around a great bonfire. They seemed fueled by the harmony of repetitive chants, beating drums, clapping hands, and clacking rhythm sticks, and the farmers voiced their pleas. The tuneful chants and sparks drifted upward, entreating the reluctant gods to send the rains. Singing voices and sitar continued on into the night. Shadows and the hoop of dancing figures spun around the fire, a human prayer wheel.
The prayers were heard, the blessing granted, the magic worked those year I was there. The rains came.
The path became a bridge between the ashram and the train station during the monsoon rains. Small waves lapped at its shoulders and a new sea reached out to the horizon, replacing the barren cracked fields of yesterday. Only the railroad grade on its narrow ridge, and our solitary strand of path, stood above the flooded land. The nearby villages and the ashram only hoped to retain their altitude above the monsoon sea.
Going to the train or Gundi during the daily rains, I’d meet large black umbrellas perched on the shoulders of scurrying students and neighbors. Dark eyes beamed beneath the cloth shelters, “Namesta” or “hello sister” drifted out as greeters hurriedly splashed onward. In the heavy dark of night during the rains, pins of light bobbed along the path, solitary guides in this land without electricity.
I remember one particularly stormy night when a bobbing lantern rushed down the slippery path toward me. A kind neighbor had sent her teenage son out to meet the late train to usher me safely home through the torrential rain and the cobras that sometime sought refuge on the path. The cobras presented a special problem because the local doctor did not believe in interceding in nature by treating snake bites.
We relished the hours when the rains stopped and the sun appeared. We had a brief respite from our confinement and the monsoon’s siege. The ashram’s plaza vibrated with the activity of the community’s reunion. Children splashed in the puddles and raced over the water soaked earth celebrating their temporary freedom. The air smelled so fresh and clean.
The lull filled with the clank of metal and ceramic dishes and the dull thuds of the wide wooden laundry paddles employed at the water taps. Women gathered at the taps, chatting as they labored over the backlog of washing and other domestic chores. The cactus fences blossomed with freshly washed garments.
Men in groups and singly hurried to attend to their undone tasks and overdue business. The blue-white of kadi pajamas worn by the teachers glowed in the clean silvery light as they passed along the path. The fields full of promise, showed tender new green rice plants, supported in the shimmering soft silky-brown water, all framed below the vast blue desert sky.
So many years and so many miles, I think back so fondly of it now. At just twenty, two years immersed in a foreign culture under such spartan conditions was a stiff challenge. Vashtye’s companionship and the warm generous people I came to love (and the mangoes!) were the best of those seasons. I became part of that cycle of the winds which carried the rain to the desert, soaking it and turning it green with the crops of the people. Then once again the land returns to a hard barren wasteland along the path from the ashram to the train.
Gigi York (aka RPCV Georgia Ann Grover) resides in Medford, Oregon, but who knows for how much longer. She is a wondering and wandering spirit who has made numerous moves during her life, and it is probable that she is not done yet. Gigi is a semi-retired archaeologist/museum specialist, multi-media artist, and writer. Her current passion is poetry. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Photo by:Vashtye Ferguson, used by her permission)