I’m going to go ahead and say that I’m not a very spiritual person. Not by intention really- I’m just a non-practicing believer in things being the way they are simply because they are. But these past few days I’ve had my dad’s words, spoken just before I left for India, ringing in my ears: “It must have been written.”
My dad was born in Delhi where he spent the first few years of his life before moving to the UK, but my grandparents moved back to India sometime after his schooling. When I first found out I’d been accepted to CASI’s internship to work here at Chirag in the Nainital district, my grandmother mentioned offhand that she and my grandfather used to vacation around this area when my father was a child. As my preparations furthered, it became apparent that I would be stationed very close to a valley village called Talla Ramgarh. This is when my dad realized that I would be a stone’s throw away from acres- and decades-worth of family history, stories and memories that I’m only just beginning to unravel now.
In the 1940’s my grandmother’s extended family (the Kauls) bought some land in Talla Ramgarh and built a simple house that they named Sadasukh, “ever happy”. It became the family’s summer retreat, an escape from the Delhi heat. When my grandmother had a family of her own, she and my grandfather would bring her three sons (one of which is my father) to Ramgarh for at least a month in the summer, sharing the house with cousins and their families. The cook and caretaker was a man named Heeravallabh, and their families developed a warm connection. One of his sons, Kishan, was sent to an ashram in Delhi, and soon after he began working for my grandparents as their live-in help. Kishan has been working for them for 9 years now and he returns to Ramgarh during the summers to be with his wife, his two-year-old daughter, and extended family. Most of the land once owned by my grandmother’s family was bought by Qurban Saheb, a follower of Aurobindo philosophy, which is why an Aurobindo ashram stands there today.
The Reasons for Going
Of course there were many reasons for me to go. The family connections to the valley town were so strong that I knew I had to find my way there at some point. Even now my grandmother still makes frequent summer trips to Ramgarh and stays at the ashram. I was also looking forward to seeing Kishan, my grandparents’ help in Delhi who would be visiting his family in Ramgarh during June and July. I’d just seen him a few weeks ago when I was in Delhi and he was a familiar figure of my memories there, and once we realized how close I’d be to his hometown he insisted I come meet his family.
Another major reason for me wanting to go was the knowledge that Ramgarh held special memories for my grandparents. My grandfather passed away five years ago, and I’ve spent these years missing Dada at every turn in my life, momentous and minor. My memories of him are rich, happy, and sensory- his booming laugh, his distinctive gait, his love of good conversation, good food, and good people. I wanted to visit Ramgarh to see and experience this place he loved for much of his life.
It was overwhelming in many ways. Lucia and I arrived at the ashram after a mere 20 minute drive and were welcomed by Maneesh, a friendly and helpful man who speaks perfect English, knew my grandparents well, and oversees the ashram. To my surprise and delight, I met my grandmother’s cousin’s brother-in law Jolly Bhai who, at the age of 92, still makes his summer visits to stay at the ashram. In the evening, Lucia and I took a long walk to explore the area. Life in the valley was wonderfully different from our uphill home- even though the river was dried up in dire need of monsoon rains it was clear that flat land completely changes the ecosystem. The view overlooking the valley was magnificent, and we were lucky enough to catch it in both evening and early morning light.
The next morning we visited Kishan’s family, and I was touched by the warmth of his hospitality. As soon as we arrived, a flurry of family members swam around us, emerging with coffee and biscuits and all sorts of snacky things. Very quick and informal introductions. Kishan took me through the house excitedly, explaining away each room in the snippets of Hindi and English we were able to exchange. He was beaming. I must have been too. I looked around from the family’s peach trees to their newly built house to the sweet face of Kishan’s shy two-year-old daughter and felt a longing to share it all with Dada. So naturally I whipped out my camera. I took pictures of the whole family and left a few polaroids behind along with promises to return again soon.
In the past few days I met many people in the area who knew my grandfather for the happy, warm-hearted, big-hearted person he was. It’s been rather emotional for me discovering just how big his heart really was and how many people he affected with that loving, equalizing, and decidedly human outlook he had on the world. I wish he was around to weigh in at times like this.
Why and how, out of all the places I could have been this summer, am I here in this village, so close to the family house in Ramgarh? If I can do good here at Chirag by working on a project and providing research where needed I’ll certainly call it a productive summer, but if I can begin to understand the people and the land and what about them drew my grandfather back time and time again I’ll value it as a personal success, one further step in understanding my own duty to this NGO’s mission and how to orient myself in this all-too-small world.