MY LIFE is made up of fragments I pick up on my journeys. These fragments are conversations with fellow travellers — most of whom leave while a select few stay. When I look back in time, their words evolve and add value to the meaning of life.
One such memory is from Himachal Pradesh. I wandered away from my group of friends into the forests above McLeodganj. After an hour or so of directionless walking, I realised I was lost. A few metres away, I saw a stranger walking downhill and approached him hurriedly. In a matter of minutes, I understood we did not speak a common language.
He gestured to follow him and I did without any hesitation. Soon we arrived at a thatched-roof hut, where he introduced me to his wife. To my relief, she spoke Hindi and translated my query to her husband. After a cup of tea at their hut, we walked to town where he waited until I regrouped with
I wonder how that morning would have panned out had I not given his kindness a chance.
That was one of the first instances when it occurred to me that travelling is just another way of witnessing how prevalent kindness is in the world.
In Joypur, a town in Bankura, West Bengal, I saw residents of Duttapara locality reach out in support as we worked on a project in the wee hours. West Bengal’s infamous humidity and heat had dehydrated us as we tiptoed towards noon. I stood in front of a 300-year-old temple, documenting it, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Annapurnadi, who lives in the vicinity, handed me a two-litre water bottle (“filtered,” she emphasised). I looked around and saw other residents of Duttapara offer Rasna and water to my teammates. At that point, I felt blessed.
As I had felt, about 7,000 km away from India, on another continent. As I dragged my suitcase on snow (and sometimes on ice) across three cities in Germany on the last leg of my journey, I tried to remain patient. That day, I had to change four trains from Saxony to Bavaria, with a total travel time of six hours. I waited to alight at a station where I would change for a third train, when a grouchy, stout man spoke to me in German, pointing at my bag. After broken translations by fellow passengers, I understood he was telling me that there were no lifts or escalators at the forthcoming station. I nodded my head to acknowledge his concern and bowed with a danke (thanks), signalling that I will manage.
No sooner we alighted at the platform, he lifted my enormous bag. In a matter of few seconds, he swiftly carried my bag from one deserted platform to another — across two flight of stairs. All I found myself doing was running behind him saying, “Bitte nicht (please, do not)!”
I thanked him profusely and smiled by myself once he left, on that cold winter evening. That is what kindness does. It makes us fuzzy till we melt.
This takes me back to a conversation a friend and I had on a warm autumn day as we walked in the forest behind the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.
In our short meeting, we focussed on my trip to Beral (also spelt at Brall and Baraal), a small village about four hours from Shimla. Among many things that brought the place alive for me, nothing compared to the compassion and curiosity of the local residents. This I tried to put in words, quite ineffectively, to my friend that afternoon.
“What do you think makes them kind?” he asked me, in a reflective tone. After some thought, I answered, “Perhaps that is the way they are.” “Maybe it is a choice they make,” he said with a smile.
I reflected on our conversation many times after, yet I was not sure if compassion is a choice. I only had to wait for a few months to know that he was right.
The Japanese can teach lessons one too many in compassion. It is a way of life. People, from different cultural backgrounds, from all over the world, fill this island’s geography and yet nothing disturbs its peace and balance of life. These practitioners of minimalism will make do with little space themselves, but will ensure that others are not in discomfort. These are values that tourists take back home.
Almost every traditional religion there teaches empathy and tolerance. Among others, I could see the influence of Shinto, the religion originating in the land, a belief that focusses on the way of kami (mystical or divine spirits). The believers respect every living and non-living being. Its original rituals are still preserved and practised across generations.
This I understood as I spoke with my guide Ikuko Iwasaki, while exploring Miyajima, a sacred island near Hiroshima.
I asked if she followed Shintoism. In many words, she said that it was less of a religion and more spiritual for her. “It is a faith. A belief in the divine power. We respect everyone, everything. That is just the way we are.”
Perhaps, it is not for me to decipher if this is a choice or ingrained in us. Maybe, as a traveller, I am expected to remember and speak the language of compassion that I have learnt from these diverse cultures and conversations. The charm of compassion can be intoxicating.
Amrita Das is a travel blogger and freelance travel writer, currently based in Kolkata.
Things To Remember
* Greet locals in their language and gestures
* Ask before photographing people
* Smile, maintain eye contact and a soft tone, and understand non-verbal cues from body language
* Be a responsible traveller by not littering, supporting community livelihood programmes and travelling sustainably
* Give back the kindness you receive from people
* Be sensitive to cultural norms