As a child I knew India as ‘Indija Koromandija’, a synonym for “paradise on earth” in the minds of most Slovenians. Symbolically then, India was a promised land, whose “rivers flowed with milk and honey” – not water. And I received God’s gift of spending the best and happiest years of my life there.
Was it really heaven on earth?
I lived in Sabarkantha with the Bhil adivasis, along the state border between Gujarat and Rajasthan. It was hill country, now sadly made barren by deforestation and drought. I lived here 40 years — the longest period of my life, enough time and opportunity to learn and adjust to the situation. I must also add that during those years I made bonds with people from all over India.
This world was vastly different from the people I previously lived with. My world view and my values were also so very different from theirs, so that it required a complete change of heart from me to enter into their world.
What was their world?
It was a feudal, patriarchal world. A world where women were still looked down upon, were illiterate and treated as cheap labour by contractors for roadbuilding and construction, were sexually exploited, were harassed by government babus for the smallest concession – and where women considered themselves of little worth. Their existence was one of survival.
How so many women could smile and survive in these situations is something I have no words to describe, but only a deep appreciation for. My challenge was to build up, not only their economic well-being but their sense of dignity as well, and I did this with their help and support. In turn, they made me see how many of the things I wanted were not really necessary. I simplified my life, I learned to do with less.
The cornerstone of their lives was their deep love for life. For them, life was a gift, be it ever so hard. They were grateful for it, enjoyed it and expressed it in work, smiles, dances and songs!
This led me to see the values of relationship: to take time for each other, to share and know that “everything depends not on what you do, but on who you know”.
But people are unpredictable; so you need to embrace uncertainty. This means that “nothing goes according to plan.
India is a big country, a continent by itself. So lots of travelling is necessary for one who goes there. And travelling in India is difficult and uncomfortable. When you travel, open your mind: India is a sensory overload. You learn a lot by just being there.
Another value is to know how to wait. For us Westerners, this is the most difficult thing. Everything in India moves at a slower pace, like in the stories. To make most of time, lose track of it. Throw away your clock, maybe also your calendar!
Value the family. It’s not a choice, it’s a necessity, a way of life. Lack of commitment to family is not just dishonour; it’s a personal shortcoming.
And yet, paradoxically, I have also learnt very much how to be alone even in the midst of a crowd – alone with oneself and alone with God.
My image of God grew tremendously. Not God in a temple, but the Divine Spirit everywhere, as the adivasis see Her. God accepts each and every one with the same loving care. We are all precious in her eyes. The spirituality we aspire to is so much above the petty piety of externals.
I marvel at the Indian genius for thinking, for inventing, and am puzzled as to why this country is still so poor. There is so much wealth here – the richest man in the world happens to be an Indian; but so is the poorest woman! Such inequality, such discrimination. The most beautiful women in the world reside here (note how many Miss World and Miss Universe competitions we have won), but the ugliest and most polluted cities are also in India. Truly a continent of contradictions!
It was in India that I became a writer. As I said often, I came into myself here, realized my potential, and wrote from my heart . That’s how the stories about my Adivasi women, their children and their men, the people I lived with – better, I walked with – were written. My writings brought our tribal Dungri Garasiya Bhils into Gujarati literature, as a dear writer-friend once told me. But not just Gujarati – into other languages like Marathi, Tamil, Slovene, English and Spanish. Their stories went around the world. I feel so proud of them!
Finally, dream and be hopeful in this land, lit by the warm sunshine, washed by the gentle rain. Why? Because in India we say, “Everything will be all right in the end”. So if things are not all right, it means it’s not yet the end. So there’s still hope!
What I am today is because of what India and its people shaped of me: a happy woman who worked hard, laughed and cried, danced lots, and learnt how to love and enjoy life. I know that I have left my heart here, with my adivasi women among their barren hills. And my home will always be where my heart is.
For this is what “home” truly is, is it not? More than a place on earth, one is truly at home in the hearts of friends, and only there. For there are many who pass in and out of our lives, but we only remember those who leave their footprints in our heart. My mind races back over the years to the faces and voices of Indian friends I shall never forget.
Yes, I am grateful to this great land, where “milk and honey” flow not only in the big rivers and little streams but in the veins of my hands and feet, for I am the daughter whom India took into her home.
Thank you, thank you, aabhara, shukriya, dhanyavaad.
(06.01.2016. Marija Sres, a Slovenian, spent four decades empowering the Bhil adivasis of Gujarat. The views expressed are personal. She now lives in the town of Beltinci in Slovenia in central Europe)