I was expecting Street Wisdom in a village outside Delhi to be extraordinary. But I am a stranger, looking at India though an outsider’s eyes. It’s hard not see even the most mundane Indian street as cinematic and exotic. But what about the wonderful group of professional coaches and facilitators I was introducing to the experience for the first time? They are from India. Would they find their own backyard so magical?
I certainly felt like a stranger, leading the tune up phase in front of some lock up garages on the roadside at Karnki. A temple on the left, cars and trucks beeping madly and a cow ambling past. (Thanks to you Sriram and Abhi for helping me with the facilitation. You’re natural street wizards!)
It turned out my Indian colleagues also felt like outsiders. This is a poor area where the challenges of daily life are hard to imagine. Truly, I think we all felt like strangers. And what made the experience extraordinary to so many was how welcome the residents, shopkeepers and street sweepers made everyone feel. In the sharing, participants swapped stories of how initial reserve (“are you from the government?…are you doing a survey?”) gave way to welcome, generosity and genuine conversations. They sat us down, gave us chai, invited us into their shops and dwellings. Curiosity begets curiosity it seems.
Everyone had their own answers to their personal questions, of course, but there was a shared theme of gratitude for the many small ways the locals had made us feel at home. There was also a shared desire to connect like this with our fellow humans more often.
And for me? I didn’t officially go on Street Wisdom. But it had come to me. Remember those garages where I chose – quite by chance – to do the tune up? While I was standing there, waiting for the explorers to return, an old man appeared. He rolled a rickety office chair up to me and gestured for me to sit. I smiled and mimed ‘no thank you’, thinking it would be an imposition. He mimed “a cup of chai?”. Again, I did the polite thing, the Englishman not wanting to outstay my welcome. He looked directly into my eyes for a long time, smiled and bowed. Before he cycled off with his rickshaw piled high with rice bags, he said something incomprehensible to Abdi in the local dialect. I did pick up one word – raj – which didn’t make me feel any more at home. Colonial memories, I thought. Ouch.
But it wasn’t until we returned to the hotel for the Sharing that I understood. The old man had told Abhi that centuries ago, in a previous life, the tall man with the umbrella (me) had been the king – the Raja – of this district. That’s why he was offering me a throne and some refreshment. The Raja had returned and he wanted to welcome me home. A profound quiet settled on the room. I was lost for words.
So, not such a stranger after all…