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Reality Bites

150 million people gathered in Prayagraj for the Kumbh Mela

Last week we took a few days away from Mumbai to travel to Prayagraj, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, to wander among the enormous crowds of pilgrims and Sadhus at the Ardh Kumbh Mela, the largest peaceful gathering of people on earth. Millions of bedraggled families carrying provisions arrived to the Kumbh on crowded trains, overbooked planes and battered state buses, from every part of India to join the Sadhus who leave their caves in the Himalayas to bathe on auspicious bathing dates (according to the Hindu calendar) where the Ganges river meets the Yamuna and the Saraswati rivers. While devoted pilgrims gathered quietly, reverently and peacefully on the banks of the river to wash away sins and seek blessings from the Sadhus, India and Pakistan sought to destroy each other with jet fighters and strong words from both sides.

Photo taken From Kumbh Mela website

Before we left Mumbai there were small protests in the streets near our apartment and elsewhere with raised voices condemning the recent attack in Kashmir on Indian security personnel by a suicide car bomb attributed to a terrorist group operating in Pakistan. Billboards were immediately erected to condemn the violence and honour the fallen soldiers. On some streets, an effigy of the terrorist was burned, surrounded by small crowds and loud chanting. The television news was full of arguing, yelling, confrontational politicians, pundits and soothsayers - their loud opinions only fanned the fear and confusion. To arrive in Prayagraj, where the only reason for being there was to wander among those seeking atonement and peace was a relief from the ongoing, escalating madness we could feel everywhere else.

Pilgrims bathing in the Ganges River during the Ardh Kumbh Mela

We returned to Mumbai a few days ago and we’ve had a chance to gauge the reaction to the tensions between the countries on a personal level with the children in the community. Only the older children have some awareness of the news. If their parents have a television, they’ll continue to hear the news anchors spew forth with rhetoric, truths, lies, and over-the-top reporting on the more mundane issues involved, along with calls to action. The children’s reactions have been to say that Pakistan is bad and India is good. They believe in their government’s actions and question nothing. I reminded them that there are children just like them sitting in tuition classes in Pakistan who would be harmed if a war began. They agreed, with some emotion, that this would be a bad thing and for a moment a cloud of sadness swept the room, but then they shrugged and went back to their studies while trying to keep their friend from borrowing their only pencil. Their world is small, limited by uneducated parents, a very basic understanding of world issues, low-cost primary education, if any at all, so their opinions lack any clear understanding of world events. The focus of the poor is about getting food and sustaining themselves for another day, keeping their pencils safe and their school uniforms mended.

A billboard to honour the fallen soldiers on Saki Naka pipeline road.

Outside of the community, when talking with the educated middle-class, the subject of Pakistan is never divisive even when it’s about a cricket game between the two countries. The conversation is laden with expletives, anger and powerful words. Some people were quiet in their opinions while others were aggressive and eager for more news - they see Pakistan as their enemy. Very few people mentioned a middle ground or had a conversation about humanity and about the effects a war would have on both countries. Online comments about news articles mostly bring out the worst in people who type frightened responses fuelled by arrogance - why shoot last when you can shoot first attitude prevalent in times like these.

Early evening in our neighbourhood in Mumbai - just another day so far.

We don’t have a television and are thankful not to get the screaming updates from enraged news anchors with time to fill on their newscast. We check our phones for updates which recently included an email message from the Canadian Consulate restating the obvious issues and we’re thankful that we registered. On the streets, while all in Mumbai seems relatively normal, it’s hard to tell when and if anything changes - it’s loud here. On any given day there are street processions for religious purposes, firecrackers hissing in the night, plenty of horns to drown out the other noises, bellowing calls to prayer, bell ringing, sporadic mass shuttering of businesses and the smell of burning garbage under our window to keep us awake at night. Life goes on. People living in this overwhelming city tend not to react to everything that surrounds them. How could they? There is traffic to survive, long ragged queues with pushing and shoving and there’s the hustle to get to work on crowded trains and buses. They buy milk and grains, take their children to school, celebrate and get on with their lives. They remain purposeful in their day even when all around them seems to be a kaleidoscope of madness. For us, despite years of coming here, it’s still hard to discern why a crowd is gathering, and I always default to it must be a parade and then I want to follow it. And so it goes for us. We’ll continue to live our lives here, adjusting when it pinches. There’s a dinner party planned for next week at our apartment with a few of the children helping to prepare a meal for Indu and some of their parents. Shobha is excited to teach Todd how to make her fabulous cabbage pakoras. There are serious medical cases to attend to and children’s exams to prepare for. Just like the locals, we’ll focus on the task at hand, celebrate when called for, make grand plans, eat good food, notice the small things, pay more attention to large parades and loud noises and notice the good in the everyday.

The Khumbh Mela, a 55 day event, ended this week without a major incident - 150 million people gathered in peace.

Flower power at the Kumbh Mela

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