Sweet Sugar Cane Juice

Mar 15, 2005

"Hey, hey, hey," he yelled. Viral, Ish and Ami turn around and see a man coming at them with sugar cane juice. "Here, have some fresh juice," he declares.

It was an act of business that is welcome on any hot summer day. Except that this was an act of kindness. They tried to pay for it, but he wouldn't listen. So they eventually parted ways, with big smiles.

Next time Viral saw him, he treated him to tea. Not to be outdone, the "juice man" takes the next opportunity to bring a dozen glasses of sugar cane juice for a whole bunch of us, sitting under the Kabir banyan tree.

Viral gives me a look. Such kindness from a guy who made $2 today?!? It was time for us to step it up.I go up to him with the intention of dropping a 100 ruppee note on him. "How are you, Maheshbhai?" I ask him to start the conversation. Shortly thereafter, we become friends and we are talking about the spirit of service.

It was pretty clear that this wasn't a 100 ruppee kind of guy. We would have to work a lot harder to make his day.

"I'm going home at 5PM today. Do you want to join me? I have my own boat and I can drop you back by night time and we'll have a great time doing sat-sang," Maheshbhai tells me, getting excited about his own idea. "Umm, yeah, ok," I speak while wondering if I should abandon the rest of the crew. "Can you fit two people in your boat?" I counter. "Oh yeah, just come, it'll be no problem," Maheshbhai spoke, as if still under the intoxication of his invitation.

Within a couple of minutes, Viral and I get ready to go. With four-five of his other vendor buddies, we load up the non-motorized, wooden boat. On the ride up, one kid is responsible just for taking out the water that enters the boat through a leak.

With a crate of Thumbs-up and Limica in our hands, I get off with Viral and follow Maheshbhai and the crew. We make it to his simple yet clean house and insist on sitting on the cow-dung based floor that they are used to. Soon enough, all his neighbors and family come visit us with genuine warmth.

"How long have you been here?" I ask innocently. They all laugh as Maheshbhai says, "All my life. I was born here and I don't intend to go anywhere. I'm happy."

One story after another, conversations are lively ... probably because we met in the spirit of service. Before long, I gaffle down eight of the most awesome tasting 'bateka wada' (potato dumplings) with some very-sweet tea made from their own neighborhood buffalo milk. Maheshbhai shares stories of how he met his guru, while serving sugar cane juice at Kabirwad; how his younger brothers make fresh flower garlands and sell them for 5 Rupees each; and how his oldest brother died when a truck ran his over as he was selling those same garlands.

"Who is your God?" Maheshbhai ask Viral and I. "Everyone is God, isn't it?" I say. "Well, that's true but everyone has their favorites. For instance, I believe that my first God is my mother. And my Dad, although he's drunk all the time, is my second God." Wow.

Soon, it's time for prayers at a local temple.

Many from the neighborhood gather for the prayer and sit around the temple site. Since we are new, people start asking us what we are doing. "About twenty of us are at Kabirwad; we just cleaned it all up yesterday. We are on a pad-yatra (pilgrimage on foot) and your Kabirwad is our first stop. The universe has given us so much, so we want to give something back and do some seva," I say.

It's generally a challenge to connect with the context of random people, but these people were in tune with us. "Yeah, I saw you guys on the road the other day," one young kid says. "You guys should come and stay with us. We would love to host you," another offers. "Twenty people's food? That's no problem for us," a third person brainstorms. By the end, they were all pumped-up to host us. All in the spirit of service, no strings attached. Unfortunately, I had to tell them, "We are honored to hear of your hospitality. If God wills it, we'll come. There's twenty of us on the other side, so I'll have to talk to them before committing."

As we leave the temple, Maheshbhai takes us back inside and shows us a secret spot, a spot where water keeps on flowing from the ground. For them, it's a sign of God.

On the way out, I ram my head into the low-ceilinged temple bell. Dinnnnnggg! "Even unknowingly, I'm ringing the bell of God's door," I silently communicated with Viral. We both smiled.

At Maheshbhai's home, we talk a bit more. They talk about all the aspects of life, openly and without restraints. At one point, they even show us their cute family piggy bank where they put in a couple of saved rupees, here and there. I asked to see it and snuck in the hundred ruppee note that was destined for them. They didn't really know how much it was, and they never will.

When we left town, a bunch of ladies gather around us. I hear anonymous yells in the background: "Tomorrow night is here, tomorrow night is definitely here."

Five homies from the village come to drop us off in the boat. By this time, it is pitch dark in the river, especially with scarce electricity. With bright stars, a beautifully crescented moon, the sounds of the boat oars creating mini waves in a holy river, and the company of not-really-strangers, we arrive on the other shore.

We didn't end up going there the next night, but my guess is that if our paths ever cross again, we'll recognize each other instantly. After all, they helped us go from one shore to another.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

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