A Brightonian Abroad – Four interesting people I met in India

By Ruth Hazard

Amma, The Hugging Guru

To stay overnight at Amma’s Ashram in Kerala I had to surrender my passport, swathe myself in white tunics and sign up to a vow of silence and strict celibacy agreement (there were contracts).

Amma is on a mission to save the world through hugs and she travels not just the country, but the entire globe offering her embrace to those who’ll accept. The current figure of the ‘hugged by Amma’ stands at an impressive 26 million. She works every single day of the year so that no person will be left un-hugged.

The ashram has been built on the site in which she grew up and began her cuddling career, calling people to receive the blessing in her father’s cattle shed.

When I say ‘met’, we didn’t say hello or even shake hands, we just hugged.

Priya, The Unofficial City Guide

I didn’t have much choice over whether I wanted to meet Priya or not. She was selling hair slides on the streets in Kolkatta and was determined that I would be the one to buy them. I eventually agreed to purchase the most expensive hair accessories of my life after which she decided she would befriend me and show me the city.

Priya was everything you might expect from a street child in one of the country’s poorest cities: she lived in the slum dwellings on the edge of Kalkotta, her clothes were too small, full of holes and dirt from a thousand or more wears and her body was badly scarred from where her father had drunkenly poured hot cooking oil on her when she was asleep.

Yet what I didn’t expect was that Priya was unbelievably clever. She didn’t go to school and could barely read, but as well as English and Bengali, she was fluent in French, Italian and German and could converse well in three other languages too.

Selling her wares to tourists had made her ambitious; she knew that hair slides were never going to get her enough money to survive and so she had learnt to talk. For a small fee she showed us Kolkatta inside out and knew more about its history than any guide book.

San, The Tibetan Exile

San taught us how to make momo dumplings in his icy cold kitchen during the bitter winter in Dharamsala. He was living in exile in the Indian Mountain of Himachal Pradesh having escaped from Tibet after the Chinese occupation of his homeland.

San had been part of a Nomadic farming family and grew up milking Yaks and making cheese. The Chinese had forced his family into homelessness when they had taken over their land, when his father protested he had been tortured and killed.

San was unable to work as he did not speak Chinese Mandarin, which had been made the national language. He was told he must renounce the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and he saw friends and family disappear as they refused.

Chinese control Tibetan borders so San could not leave by legitimate means. Instead he had to journey through the Himalayas during the darkest, coldest days of the year. He had worn no better clothes than the T-shirt and jacket he was wearing, no better shoes than the trainers he had on his feet. The area was so glacier filled they couldn’t find water and it was too cold to light a fire for warmth.

As he pressed momo pastry into moon-shaped crescents, we saw frostbitten stubs where his fingers had once been. He told he was one of the lucky ones. He was free.

The Backstreet Tea Dealer

Whilst in the hills of Darjeeling on a tour of the Harrods tea plantation, an arm reached out from behind a hut door and pulled me inside. As I peered through the dark a weathered seventy-year-old face stared back at me and pressed her finger to my lips. “Do you want some tea?”

Harrods will sell you 100g of Darjeeling leaves for £22 but it turned out this enterprising tea picker had kept some of the wares for herself and was offering a cut rate price.

She seemed rather desperate in her tiny kitchen-cum-bedroom littered with battered tin pots and a dirty mattress. I agreed, mainly because I wasn’t sure how not to, and then watched as she whipped out a sack of leaves from a hole in the ground. She weighed out the produce ensuring I checked the scales: “There’s no scam here!”

As she handed me the tea she told me to hide it in my trousers, before pushing me back out in to the world outside, not entirely sure what had just happened.

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