Touching Feet

Bonnie and Nipun

Nipun and I walked together down a brick path at the retreat center.

“See that man over there making brooms?” Nipun said.

I saw an elderly gentleman with greying hair and kind eyes.  He was dressed in white as he sat with other craftsmen.  Slightly stooped, this man worked slowly yet confidently.  There was a stillness to him that seemed to infiltrate the brooms he crafted.

I nodded yes.

“That man lived in the slums for years,” Nipun said.  “His home was a public toilet.”

I’ve been in a public toilet in the slums.  I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to sleep there, to eat there, to live there.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

Kanchan-mama,” Nipun replied.  “’Mama’ is like ‘uncle’ in India.”

In a flash, I heard the gospel for the first time.  The part where Jesus says, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  (Matt 19:30).   I ached into our shared humanity and how we often shame people with mortifying lives.  I saw how we shame people when in fact they deserve celebration and respect.

I saw myself, a privileged girl from the suburbs.

Could I ever endure living in a latrine?  Did I have even half of the dignity and resilience so evident in Kanchan-mama?  Probably not.

“I want to meet him,” I said.  “Will you translate for me?  Is there a way I can show my respect?”

“Touch his feet,” Nipun said.

“Show me.”

Nipun brought me to Kanchan-mama.  He knelt and touched the elder’s feet and then introduced me.  I too knelt and touched his feet.  Then with Nipun’s translation I said something – something inadequate like “You are magnificent.  I love your brooms.  I have tremendous respect for you.”

It wasn’t enough.  Although the foot touching seemed to help.

Because I’m American and I get carried away, I decided to touch other peoples’ feet to express my appreciation.  There was a shop woman who gave me free wind chimes.  There was Jayeshbhai after a deep conversation about dogs.  There was Parag, just because.  Oddly, all these people hopped and leapt away and/or tried to touch my feet in response.

Nipun eventually took me aside and gently said, “We tend to reserve the foot-touching for elders.”

“Is that because they’re too old to run away?” I asked….

So I got over my need to touch everyone’s feet.   But I continue to ponder Kanchan-mama, and each time I do, I grow in awe.

Yes, Kanchan-mama lived in a toilet.  He transcended the odds of extreme poverty.  Now he rises up and makes brooms.  He also unknowingly inspires me as I use his story to inspire others through the impossible ripples of mere words.

In the mere-ness of my words, perhaps we can wonder, “Is it ever appropriate to consciously or unconsciously label someone untouchable?

I don’t think so.

There’s only one way “untouchable” applies.  The greatness of those who transcend unspeakable conditions cannot be touched.  They are first and I am last.  The only thing I can do is touch someone’s feet and write about it.  I do the best I can but it will never repay the debt of grace and gratitude I owe.  And although I touch the feet, I will never touch the mystical blend of humility and heroism I see in Kanchan-mama.

One more thing – I’m not one to criticize people for their political beliefs because I know good people all over the spectrum.  I don’t even criticize world leaders because I know it’s an impossible job.  But I do pause, when I hear comments about not wanting people from sh*t-hole countries to come to America.

Maybe they say this because they haven’t met Kanchan-mama.  Maybe they haven’t had the pleasure of touching, no cherishing, his feet.

How do you express reverence for others?  How might you symbolically touch the feet of someone who against all odds has transcended into humble greatness?  How might you recognize your own humble greatness?   How do you make sense of “the first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

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One of the Gandhi 3.0 volunteers smiled, waved and welcomed me like a best friend.  His face glowed with delight as he looked at me.

I was happy to see him too, although I was a little nervous because I couldn’t remember his name.  I smiled back, waved, and then clenched my jaw and muttered like a ventriloquist to Jerry, or Mandy, or Khush, “What’s that guy’s name again?”

“Kishan,” one of them would stage-whisper.

I’d say to myself, “Okay, remember it Bonnie, KISHAN.  It’s like ‘cushion with a key’ – Key-shan, KISHAN.

Eventually I got it.

The thing about Kishan, was that even as I was struggling to learn his name, he knew my dog’s name.  Seriously.  Granted her name is Saraswati, a Hindu Goddess.  Granted I showed him a memorable picture of my dog dressed up as a nun.  But not only did Kishan know my dog’s name, he celebrated it.

In our wanderings through Ahmedabad, occasionally we would encounter an image of Saraswati, the goddess.  Kishan would point and say “Saraswati!” like he had discovered gold.  Then he’d ask me to pose for a picture.

I delight in my dogs.  My delight became his delight.  His delight became mine as I wondered “Who is this magical person who bellows ‘Saraswati’ just to make me smile?” Feeling seen and heard, my delight became a circle of delight.

Our last evening in India, we had a community night.  We opened the retreat to friends and family.  Kishan showed up with his wife and child. 

I saw the truth, as I realized:  This man has devoted himself to knowing me, to serving me.  I could barely even learn his name.  Now I see clearly.  He has a full life of his own.  He has joys, sorrows, hopes, and plans.  He has a family that depends on him.  Yet he offered weeks of his time to show up in precious delight.  He stood behind a camera and took a thousand pictures of us.  He selflessly celebrated our dogs’ names, the details of our lives, without regard for his own need to be seen and heard.  This is priceless. This is who I want to be. 

I hope I can repay the debt of delight I owe to Kishan by paying it forward, through devotion or attention or delight in others.

I think of Kishan almost every day when I hike in the mountains of Ojai.  My dog runs after a rabbit and I bellow “Saraswati!”  Sometimes, I add a prayer of gratitude by whispering “Kishanji! – I know your name now.  I see you and I hear you.  Thank you for delighting me with your delight.”  And so it is.

What would it be like to spend a day, a week, or a lifetime delighting in the delights of others? 

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I’ve always been cautious.  I save for rainy days.  I drive the speed limit.  Going outside without sunscreen is about as daring as I want to get.  Sometimes when I’m feeling really bold I refuse to floss.

Yet, one day, I found myself climbing roofs in India….

Old town Ahmedabad has narrow streets and close together homes.  In the early days, if there was an attack on the city, people could leap from roof to roof to get away.  Now in modern times they have an annual kite festival there and we were invited.

Rickshaws brought us to a home in old town.   We entered, removed our shoes, knelt at a temple to Shiva.  We sat with the kind residents, took pictures, and had tea.  Then they asked if we wanted to go on the roof to see the kites.  Yes.

We walked barefoot over foul-smelling stairs and halls, with exposed wires, poor lighting,  and rubble.  We stepped onto the roof.  There were people eating, smiling, and enjoying the kites.

But then, we noticed a more compelling roof.  It was a place to perch on a corrugated slope.  If we scaled it, it promised a spectacular view of the city and the kites.

“Let’s go, Bonnie-ji,” they said.

My caution kicked in.  “Thanks, I’m barefoot and I’m not a climber.”

“Okay,” they said, and went up, smiling and waving, encouraging me from the summit.

I went to India with the intention to try everything.  After about 10 minutes, I shouted, “I’m coming up.” 

My companions’ concerns for me were touching.  They took me by the hand and led me up the slope to the top.  I balanced on the edge.  There was a large hole near my left foot.  People kept telling me, “Look out for the hole, we don’t want you to fall through.”

Finally, I said, “Who am I, Tom Thumb?”  I’m not sure if that reference was lost on my local friends, but I stuck my leg down the hole to demonstrate how I was too big to fall through.  I like to think there were people sitting below, having tea, marveling at the phenomenon of an American leg with painted pink toenails dangling from above….

I was happy, I had a new view… but then we noticed an even better roof.

This new roof was happening.

It was a flat roof slightly below our current position.  To get there, we had to scale about seven feet of crumbly wall.  If we could manage the climb, we’d be with women in bright sari’s, dancing like wild butterflies to Indian music.  These women had moves.   We watched, we clapped, and each time we applauded they beckoned us to join them.

When my friends decided to scale the wall, I said yes.

It was so worth it.  On the new roof, where no one spoke English, we communicated with complete strangers in the language of dance.  The women taught us their moves.  I gave away the heart pin I was wearing.  It wasn’t enough, I wanted to give them everything, for in that moment they bewitched me.  How did I end up in a land of unspeakable joy, dancing on a shabby roof in an explosion of color?   What did I do to deserve this?

I said yes.

Caution is a beautiful thing.  But sometimes you have to say yes to climb towards joy.  Once you arrive at the destination, joy expands to more joy with another yes.

That’s what I discovered, dancing on a roof with colorful strangers in old town Ahmedabad.

Now, back in the states, I turn to Pandora’s Greatest Hits from Bollywood to help me remember who I want to be.  The music reconnects me with expansive joy and once again, I am humbled by the greatness of the divine dance.

Where do you deny your yes?  How can you find your yes and climb into expansive joy?     

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