May 29, 2010
City of Mosques and Lakes
I arrived in Bhopal at 7:15 am on Thursday morning. I only knew I arrived because the family with whom I shared the compartment happened to also be getting off in Bhopal. Thankfully I had been pesky enough to this poor family with my touristy questions that they woke me up when we had arrived. How they knew it was Bhopal is still a mystery to me.
It took about 5 seconds at the train station to realize things were different here. First sign: there were no signs in English. Second: lthough I hadn't thought it possible, the staring I received from others intensified to surppass levels I experienced in Delhi. Of course it did not help that I was betraying my foreigness not just by my western clothing, but by walking back and forth trying to identify the exit.
As I lugged my bags over the uneven ground, signs numbers 3 and 4 greeted me immediately. Sign 3: it was horribly hot, hotter in fact than any point during my stay in Dehli, and it was only 7 am. Sign 4 (and this was the most shocking): there were women in abayas (long black dresses often worn in the Gulf countries of the Middle East) and even niqabs (face coverings) here. Not just one or two, but many. My rough estimate is half. Half!! I saw only one hijab in Delhi and that was at the airport.
I put aside my shock to hire an auto-rickshaw, a whole crowd of drivers gathered. “Sambhavana clinic”, I said. They all stared at me and a couple shook their heads. “Sambhavna charitable aaspital” I said, shamelessly inserting an Indian accent. “Haan Haan” one said knowingly. “100 Rupees” he added. “50?” I said, recalling having been told by the volunteer section of Sambhavna’s website that this was the appropriate price for the distance. “100”. I shrugged and got inside. (That interaction summarizes my price negotiation skills.)
As my rickshaw driver zoomed through the streets, I fell in love with Bhopal. It’s rolling hills offered rare glimpses of whole patches of the bright city. The streets were lined with small shops and stands, and towering over it’s largely 2-4 story buildings were minarets. Some emerged awkwardly out of one-room square mosques and some hovered over large, beautiful structures typical of classical Islamic architecture.
I had read that Bhopal was a “City of Lakes” and in another instance a “City of Mosques”. As we drove in, I could clearly see, to my delight, that it was a city of both.
After about 20 minutes of navigating wide, crowded main roads, my rickshaw driver made a sudden right turn into what seemed like an alley. He maneuvered through narrow lanes lined with brick and mud one-room homes and unfinished buildings. I stared outside the auto as it bumped past old men and women who sat outside their one homes on plastic chairs, children on bikes and a few goats, one of whom seemed incredibly pregnant. Just as I was thinking this was probably some strange, cross-city shortcut to the clinic, which in pictures had appeared to me surrounded by openness, we whirred through a gate revealing a magnificent structure consisting of two towers of red brick with shuttered roofs. The towers were connected by a courtyard with a fountain and sitting area of wooden benches. There were already several families of patients sitting around waiting for the doctors and staff to arrive. Sambhavna felt like an oasis of architectural beauty and structured repose, in the midst of a desert of incomplete housing and half-paved roads. It’s feng shui-like style provoked a sense of the traditional, organic therapies in which the clinic's founders so ardently believed. It was at once ascetically appealing and soothing.
After being shown to my room, I explored the clinic on my own as the clinic’s staff filtered in for the 8:30-3 work day. Seeing that I could barely open my eyes or formulate a complete sentence, Shehnez, the volunteer coordinator told me to take some rest and come back to speak with her about my research and volunteer work at Sambhavna. Back in the volunteer dorm, I struggled to sleep through the 110-degree weather.
At 1:34 I awoke to a vaguely familiar sound. “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” a voice in the distance called. As I listened in awe to the Muezzin make his way through the supplications of the call to prayer, I instinctively repeated the words after him just as I had been taught to do since childhood. In his slow and rhythmic repetitions was the peaceful collision of this world with my own. The familiar asserted its self loudly in the foreground to an unfamiliar setting and place. I was at once comforted and exhilirated. In that moment, it dawned on me that if I let it, Bhopal would offer me a different experience than the largely academic one I had anticipated.
Posted by eta at May 29, 2010 05:43 AM
missy, bhopal sounds incredible. i'm so glad you're blogging - it's great to know what's going on with you. you're a beautiful writer, thanks for bringing us along on your travels in this way!
Posted by: rjillian at June 8, 2010 02:35 PMLogin to leave a comment. Create a new account.