A decade after I left school at sixteen, I was a graduate student studying for a Master of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Remember this, I beseech you, all you boys who are getting into the upper forms. Now is the time in all your lives, probably, when you may have more wide influence for good or evil on the society you live in than you ever can have again.
Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays
I had traveled to India while working on my thesis on the Himalayan Sadhu.
While traveling in India, I stayed in small village communities, lush green tea plantations and splendorous hill stations along the Himalayan foothills.
It appeared that both uncle Salim and I had finally received what we had coveted.
For me, that was to have the opportunity to learn and study in a place that was dynamic and innovative and forward thinking.
For uncle Salim, it was to realize his dream of having what he called his ‘morning manager’, so that he could show up at the shop after lunch at 2pm and then work in the shop until closing time at 9pm. I called him in Southall, London, from a remote Indian village on the banks of the Ganges River and he delighted to tell me about his more relaxed schedule.
“I tell you, papu,” he enthused, “This morning manager Mr. Burbidge, he is too good, I tell you! Too good.”
“Salim Uncle, I am writing my thesis about the sadhu! Do they still call you Sadhu of Southall?”
“Still, still they call me that, papu,” he laughed, “Maybe you should be writing your MIT thesis on this Southall sadhu isn’t it?”
I promised him that after I finished with my thesis and graduated I would come and visit him in London.
“Are you drinking chai from the chaiwalla’s mud cup, papu?”
“Yes, uncle Salim. I’m drinking chai from the chaiwalla’s mud cup!”
The mud cup of the chaiwalla was made by firing earth in a brick kiln in village India. You could faintly taste the earth in the cup. The earth of Mother India.
“Good, good. You see papu, that mud is earth of Mother India, isn’t it? Good for the soul!”
“Yes, uncle Salim.”
“Not like the Britishers’ tea, isn’t it?” continued uncle Salim, “I mean to say, those posh Britishers drink from bone china cups!”
“Yes…” I agreed.
“Bone china, it has no soul, isn’t it? Only dead bones, you see?” he explained.
“I know,” I acknowledged.
“And those tea cozies! Kamal, kamal…”
“What all they are doing? Dressing up the teapot in a woolen sweater, isn’t it? As if teapot is a human being! Now papu, you are to be eating good paratha for your breakfast?”
“Excellent paratha, Salim uncle – topping!”
I added that last word because I knew he was fond of it.
“Topping, yes!” he enthused, “Paratha for breakfast! Not like the Britishers’ toast, eh?”
“No. Much better than the Britishers’ toast, Salim uncle.”
“You see, papu, your morning paratha it is made from wheat fields of Mother India.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“People from villages work in hot sun to harvest wheat so you can eat paratha, no?”
“Yes,” I agreed again.
He was mentally transporting himself to India and living vicariously through my travels in India.
“Also the milk in the chai is from sacred cow of village India so it has special taste, no?”
“Very special, Salim uncle. The milk in the chai is delicious!”
“And chai you are drinking comes from hardworking women who harvest tea, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Salim uncle.”
“Nothing like piping hot chai and piping hot paratha, isn’t it!”
“Yes!” I agreed.
“Now one thing I do not understand, papu, maybe you can explain it to me,” began uncle Salim with a mischievous tone in his voice; he was enjoying himself: “Now you see these Britishers, they to have tea cozy to keep the tea hot and then they have toast rack to keep the toast cold, isn’t it? Now what all kind of logic that is? Can you explain this to me, papu?”
“I can’t explain it, Salim uncle,” I replied, “I understand the tea cozy but not the toast rack.”
“Why you are not writing thesis on Britishers’ toast rack? It is big mystery, isn’t it?” he teased.
“So what is the name of this thesis you are writing on the sadhu?” asked Salim Uncle.
“For Whom The World Stops: The Himalayan Sadhu in a World of Constant Motion,” I replied.
“Kamal, kamal,” he laughed and then he added: “But papu, please to tell me one thing; why you are going all the way to Himalayas when you have already seen the Everest, isn’t it?’
He was referring to my former headmaster at Drayton Manor Grammar School, C.J. Everest.
He laughed at his own joke until the laughter trailed off and he become quietly contemplative.
“You know papu,” he began thoughtfully, “Every morning when I drink my Indian chai, I remember the tea plantations of Darjeeling and Assam; how those hard working women in the villages wake up early and pick the tea leaves for our morning time chai. Then I feel peace, papu. I feel I am at one with Mother India. That is my morning meditation. Also, now I have my morning manager Mr. Burbidge to open up shop I can do longer morning meditation.”
India is the country, fields, fields, hills, jungle, hills and more fields. How can the mind take a hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. India is not a promise, only an appeal.
E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
I was happy to hear that Salim Uncle was having time to relax more and focus on his community service work thanks to this new found morning manager, Mr. Burbidge.
I told my uncle Salim that I would keep my promise to come and visit him in London one day.
I also told him that traveling through India was spiritually cleansing for the soul.
“Mother India, papu,” he said quietly, “that is the source of our love and our learning. It will cleanse your soul to connect with the simple life and the good people. Wash away your pain and your shame from those Britisher skinheads in the waters of the Mother Ganges, papu. Cleanse your soul. Forgive the Hanwell Bootboys. Then, you will see all things to become new. No more good or bad, just peace. From good or bad we learn lessons. What says Upanishads? ‘Learning and Teaching’. ‘Teaching and Learning’. What says Shakespeare about good or bad?”
It was his favorite quote from William Shakespeare. I recited it for him:
“‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’” I replied.
There is nothing either good or bad
but thinking makes it so.
– William Shakespeare