India is an extraordinary country where you get to meet all sorts of unusual people. On a recent visit we had tea with Mary and Don, a fascinating couple, who were born-again Christians from Texas. For over 25 years they had been running a clinic for disabled and handicapped children, caring for the poorest of the poor in Chennai, South India. We found their sincerity and commitment to the suffering that surrounded them powerfully moving.
But we couldn't help wondering how they had coped when confronted with the very different cultures and attitudes of India when they first arrived in the early 1970s, especially as they and their four small children were living in a small hut with no running water.
"During our early days I was visiting a hill station when I [heard] word that I was needed back in Madras, a bus and train journey away," Don told us. "The next morning, riding the bus down the mountain from the station, we unexpectedly came to a halt. A long line of traffic revealed an accident between a truck and a bus, which was now blocking the road.
"I was concerned about catching my train so I began to try and organize a way through, unfortunately forgetting the legacy the English had left in India: a great reverence of authority. There were buses stopped on both sides of the accident. 'Could they not,' I asked, 'exchange their passengers, turn around and go back to where they had come from, taking the passengers that needed to get there?'
"'Oh no, sir,' came the answer, 'The buses are from different companies and so they would not be able to sort out the money for the tickets and we have no permission for this.'
"Then I discovered that the bus on each side was from the same company! 'Could they not exchange passengers?'" I tried again.
"'But no, sir,' said the drivers, 'For then each driver would end up at a destination where they were not meant to be, and there is no permission for this to happen.'
"By now I had joined forces with a Swedish man who had a jeep. Together we worked out that if we could fill in the ditch beside the road then the bus could be moved back off the road on to the bank and there would be enough room for the cars to get past. 'Oh no, sir,' came the reply, 'this is not possible. To fill in the ditch we would need permission and we do not have the permission to do this.'
"While all this had been going on, the various occupants of the many buses and cars now waiting on each side of the accident had spread their dhotis (long pieces of cloth like a sarong) and were sitting or resting quietly in the shade under the trees. Eric and I, getting extremely hot and irritated in the midday sun, were the only ones trying to get anything done. Everyone else was quite happy to let events unfold by themselves.
"By now it was 1 p.m. We decided that if nothing had happened by 2 p.m. then we would fill in the ditch and move the truck ourselves. At 1:30 p.m. the police arrived, assessed the situation and gave the long-awaited permission to have the ditch filled in and the truck moved, and by 2 p.m. we were on our way down the hill. I caught my train with a few minutes to spare."
"So how has India changed you?" we asked.
Don laughed. "If presented with the same circumstances now I would simply spread my dhoti in the shade like everyone else and let the situation take care of itself!"
We are reminded of this story whenever we find ourselves getting worked up about something. It helps us let go and be present in this world of chaos and confusion. Just spread your dhoti is like saying: breathe in, breathe out and chill. As the holiday season can, ironically, be one of the most stressful times going, this is the perfect time to spread your dhoti. Happy Chilled Holidays!
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