Me and India, India and Me.

An impression from a country that became close to my heart.

It is one of those cold weekends when it is not advisable to go outside due to heavy snowfalls and a danger of strong freezing wind that leave the trees, buildings and even people bent and prone to go in one direction faster than in the other. It is a freezing cold weekend in a small country which is situated in the middle of Europe and which was called, after its separation to two nations in 1993, the Czech Republic. It is winter 2004 and I am again home, in the Czech Republic. I am again sitting in my small room in my home town Valašské Meziříčí, trying to write about my impressions from the trip to India, the trip to a country that became close to my heart.

I was leaving the Czech Republic in early November 2003. I had almost no idea where I was going to, what the place was like, what the people were like, what the culture was like, what role the religion had, what customs and habits I was about to face. I only remembered a few facts about this country from my high school. The subject of Geography was compulsory at that time and we were given only a slight idea of what India was about. Luckily enough, I got to know a little bit more from my Indian friend Sheel whose family I was about to visit and stay with, and whose name, as I got to know much later, means in fact a ‘character’.  It was autumn in my home country at that time, the leaves were changing their colours, the nights were getting colder and people were not likely to leave their homes without wearing warm sweaters or jackets on chilly mornings when leaving for their work. On one such morning, the plane to Mumbai, to India, took off from Prague’s main airport Ruzyně (nowadays Vaclav Havel Airport).  I was on the board. I was about to face completely different world. In spite of having little fear in my heart, I was full of enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, full of keenness and curiosity, full of questions and expectations. I never thought, however, that India will become that close to me, to my heart.

The plane is flying above Mumbai, above heads of 23 millions of its citizens. It is flying now at the height of 14 miles. It is about to land. It is dark outside. However, not completely. Through the small window of the plane I can see lights. I can even recognize highways, roads, and streets. I can recognize the border of the coast. I can feel the nearness of a different continent, a different country, a different place. I am both excited and scared.

“Can I see your passport, Madam?”

“This way, Madam?”

“This is the way out of the airport, Madam.”

“Hi, how are you, Martina?”

I can recognize Sheel and I am happy. There is a feeling of recognition coming to me, to my heart. I am meeting not only Sheel, an Indian friend that I met at Beloit College in Wisconsin in United States while studying there, but also his Dad who seems to be a very respectful and experienced man, and his cousin Parthiv who seems to be friendly, open-minded, and understanding young man. All of us are getting on the car and heading towards Sheel’s home. I feel a little bit tired after such a long flight. However, I am excited, I am getting to know completely different place. I am getting to know the place that  I have never even dreamt of visiting. I feel the atmosphere of old traditions and habits. I feel the atmosphere of deep religious roots. I feel the atmosphere of long ago. I feel the atmosphere of being so far, but still so close. I feel the atmosphere of openness and eagerness to share. I feel the atmosphere of warmness. I feel that I will never forget this stay in India in my life. I am right. I will never forget.


It is 10 o’clock in the morning. My body and face are covered in the blanket. My right eye cannot resist and opens. It cannot ‘not’ notice the time. It is 10 o’clock, already 10 o’clock in the morning. Nobody rushes anywhere today. It is time to relax and still celebrate. It is a day after Sheel’s brother’s wedding. Even the bell did not ring today to wake us up. And it’s been already three unbelievable weeks in India. I feel a little bit cold. So, I cover the rest of my face with the blanket and let my body and mind find their balance in the unforgettable world of innocent sleep.


Sheel’s brother name is Neel. At first sight, he seems to be an ordinary Indian man. At second, third or even fourth sight, you will find and notice qualities that make him different and being far from an ordinary Indian man. He has unbelievable strength and willingness to explain, to understand, to ask, to suggest, to contradict, to help, to support to give a smile when needed. He is one of those who have the ability to speak while being silent and be silent while speaking. He is the one who introduced India to me from a different perspective, from a perspective of non-material world, from a perspective of religious believes, from a perspective of philosophical ideas, from a perspective making India much closer to my small world of being. 


At the time when I was coming to India, preparations for Neel‘s wedding were in full swing. So many details had to be discussed, so many things had to be prepared and organized. Everybody was impatiently waiting for that big occasion in silence while working night and day. Neel‘s wedding was a big experience for me. The chance to go deeply into old traditions that go thousands and thousands years back, the chance to be the part of the family for a moment, the chance to pray for Neel, his future wife and their life, the chance to touch the immortal passage of life through the union of two people were unbelievable and unforgettable for me. They made India, Indian people, Indian habits, Indian traditions, Indian religion, Indian way of living much closer to me, to my heart. I had a chance to see a different face of India.


It is so cosy to be covered in a blanket. I am naturally an early bird, but right now I am enjoying the moment of innocent sleep. It is only 10:30 in the morning. I am enjoying my time of relaxation and privacy. I have time to think and levitate in the world of neverending ideas and images. 


India seems to be a country of contrasts, country of the rich and the poor, country of beautiful and outstanding countryside on the one hand, and a country of overcrowded and polluted cities, a country of deep historical roots, as well as a country facing all aspects of modernism, a country of ‘laughter’ and ‘sorrow’, a country of dreams, but also hard reality. It is undefinable mixture and blend of happiness and struggle. Its nature is profoundly settled in an incredible continuity of its traditions, as well as in its battle for survival and future existence.


I had an opportunity that I am grateful for and will always be during my short existence on this planet Earth to meet Sheel’s tennis coach Sir Bushan. Sheel has an unimaginable passion for sports.  He is an excellent tennis player. He gives a soul and thought into his game. His love for sports is something beyond and ordinary person‘s understanding. I myself have always had a secret love for this white sport. My Dad, who used to play tennis actively, took me a few times to tennis courts in my hometown, and being a 7 year old girl I was trying to hit the ball with a racket bigger than me. Nevertheless, I had never had a chance to start ‘hitting the ball’ on regular basis, though I was named after Martina Navratilova and my grandma‘s last name was Graf.


India and Sir Bushan enabled me to grasp the chance of ‘hitting the ball’ quite regularly during my stay. Every second or third day, in the late evenings, when the Sun was going down, Sheel and I were taking  a riksha, a small auto that looks like a tricycle and that is able to go faster than any car in Mumbai, and were going to play tennis to Sir Bushan‘s Academy. I will remember this place my whole life. In spite of the fact that it is situated in the middle of the crowded and noisy Mumbai, it has its own place, its own face, its own atmosphere that hardly anyone can describe. It is located in an almost isolated and lonely area lined only with trees and bushes. It is an area of a few tennis courts and nobody would expect this place to be a professionally oriented tennis center for top tennis players. Sheel and I were usually coming around 5:30 in the evening and were staying late to night. After playing tennis, we had a chance to talk with Sir Bushan about different places, about different people, about different experience, about life and its beauties, challenges, opportunities, as well as downsides and negatives things. These evening talks, sometimes incredibly long, sometimes shorter, brought different views and ideas into my life and not only about tennis, as a game of challenge, happiness, struggle and consciousness, but also about the basic values of life, life itself, its priorities, necessities and routines. I loved these evenings of getting to know more, getting to know more about Sir Bushan, about his life experience, about his views and opinions, getting to know more about Indian history, culture, traditions, habits, stereotypes, getting to know about his family, Sheel‘s family and other people... getting to know more about country that became close to my heart, getting to know more about India. Sir Bushan is a man of an unexceptional personality. He is unbelievably fast and witty in his judgements, he has an incredible quality of understanding other people, he is very open-minded, and seems not to make prejudgments about people and their actions. He is one of those, who, through their life experience, got to know a lot and whose advice can be taken as a valuable tool for future decisions and actions. His character and his personality is one of those that I will not be able to forget.

I have just turned around and a piece of the blanket shifted off. I opened one of my eyes. Sheel and Parthiv are still sleeping. The lock on the wall shows 10:45 in the morning. It is tempting to get up, to take a shower and start a new day. However, it is more tempting to stay in bed, to close the eye that opened, and slowly dive into the world of my innocent sleep. I have chosen the second possibility. I have closed my eye that opened, turned around and covered myself completely in the blanket that I got to like more and more on that long, long morning.


India is a place of unimaginable unity and solidarity. The concept of a family and the game of cricket are two most ‘utmost’ examples of that. The family itself plays a very important role in everybody’s life. The family and its existence is the number one in the hierarchy of priorities. It is an element that Indian society is based on. It might be even the element that enabled India to maintain its religious believes, its traditions, its habits, its ability to always ‘come back, fight and win’. The game of cricket is, nevertheless, almost as important as the concept that has just been mentioned, i.e. the concept of family. The cricket is a national sport. It is a sport that whole India is living with, i.e. waking up with, working with, eating with, enjoying with, arguing with, loving with, going to bed with, and is bringing up a discussion of the day or at least a TV program of the day. No matter, where you are in India, in the city or in a small village, you will have the opportunity to see both small kids and grown-ups to enjoy themselves playing a game of cricket anywhere, anyhow, witch such a devotion and passion. You will never believe, if you do not see. I saw and I believe. It is a national sport of unimaginable unity and solidarity. 


Sheel himself has a very extended family. His family contains of more than 25 people, though, if I was about to count all of the members of his extended family, I would get nearer to a much higher number. His family is an unbelievable example of Indian unity and solidarity. Each and every member cares about the others, is concerned about the others, helps the others, is depended on the others, laughs with the others, works with the others, shares all the happiness and sorrow with the others, is aware of all the good or bad things with the others. If one feels uncomfortable about something, the rest of the family will be uncomfortable, too, if one feels excited and happy about something, the rest of the family will, too, if one looses, the family looses, too, if one wins, the rest of the family wins, too. Nevertheless, the most important thing is that the family is here to support, to give a hand when needed, to be the one who listens and gives a piece of advice when necessary, to guide, to assist, and to encourage. Sheel’s Dad Harish, Sheel’s Mum Rajul, Sheel’s brother Neel and Sheel himself are the greatest examples of that. They always care about the rest of the family. The problems of the rest of the family are their problems, and the happiness, joy, delight, contentment, and satisfaction of the rest family is their happiness, joy, delight, contentment, and satisfaction. I myself am a person who comes from a small family, family that contains of four people, my dad Karel, my mum Marie, my sister Libuse and me. Although we have quite a few relatives, some of them live in different parts of the Czech Republic, some of them live abroad, its very hard for us to gather around regularly, to talk and be concerned about each other’s problems, to share all the successes and losses, to be with each other when needed, when necessary. My family is a typical European family. The European family tends to divide once the kid becomes a grown-up that wants to live his or her own life. Honestly, I have to admit that after coming back to the Czech Republic, I felt that there is something that I miss, that there is something that the typical Czech family lacks, that there is some feeling of coldness and stiffness as the family members are losing the contacts with each other, as they are living their own identical lives without knowing the identity of the rest of the family. This unity and solidarity of an Indian family is an unforgettable experience for me, for a person that was taught, when growing up, to build her own identity, but was forgotten to be taught about getting to know the identity of her own family members.


It is 11 o’clock in the morning. I think that I should wake up soon. Although, it is so comfortable to be covered in a warm blanket and let my mind enjoy the feeling of the innocent sleep, I feel that if I do not wake up I will miss this day, a day in India that might be full of new experience, full of new people coming into my life, full of new knowledg about this place that is becoming very close to my heart.


Only a few days more. I feel sad. There are only a few days more and then I will be leaving this country, I will be leaving India. I feel sad as I am about to leave people, places, habits, traditions, routines... that I got to know very well. I am about to leave the country that became close to my heart.


When I was coming here I never thought that such a strong feeling about  a country and people would come and shape my life, my ideas, and my thoughts. I never thought that India will become part of me and  will be with me everyday in my activities, in my interactions with other people, in my opinions, in my attitude, and in my happiness and happiness of other people. India changed me. There is no doubt about this. It gave me ‘something special’ for the future, something indescribable, something new, something positive, something overwhelming, something unbelievable, something useful, something great, something continuous, something never ending... something forever. Where I am, whatever I do, whenever it is, however I feel, I feel the presence of the ‘something special’ in my life. India shaped my life. India opened my eyes much more than any other country, any place before. It gave me a chance to see things differently, in different lights, shadows, colours, and in different dimensions and shapes, too. I do not know whether I was afraid to open my eyes completely before, but I know that this time I managed to see everything clearly, i.e. people’s opinions, people’s minds, people’s actions, people’s desires, people’s goals, people’ behaviour, people’s activity and actions. I was surprised and glad for the openness, for the honesty, for the happiness, for the smile and for the beauty. India became close to my heart in two months time. It was already in my heart when I was coming here, but it never happened before, in case of any other country, that it would become so close, so close to touch my heart, to touch my thoughts and feelings... to touch me whole.


When I woke up from my long, long morning sleep the day after Neel’s wedding, when I woke up from my deep innocent sleep, when I woke up from my stream of dreams, thoughts and ideas, after I had an unbelievable time in India, a place that touched me ’whole’ and touched my heart.


I am so grateful to Sheel, his family and his friends that they gave me the chance to get to know the country, that they opened my eyes, that they helped me to see things differently, in different lights, shadows, colours, and in different dimensions and shapes, too. Without them, I am sure, my stay would be half of what I got to know, of what I experienced.


“Good bye, Martina. Stay in touch. Don’t forget.”

“I will never forget. I will email you soon. Good-bye, Sheel.”

I feel Sheel’s last big hug, last big hug of India, of a country that became close to my heart. Sheel is disappearing with the crowds. I am following the signs as I am searching for my flight from Mumbai to Prague via Zurich. I am following the signs to leave the country that shaped me during the two months of stay in India. I am leaving for my home country that I know from the day when I was born. I am looking forward to going home and seeing my family, but, at the same moment, I am so, so sad to leave the continent, the country, the town, the house, where, for two months I felt like being at home. Good-bye, India.