Bells of an Ice-cream Cart

May 6, 2005

Behind me, I keep hearing faint bells. Thinking them to be bells around some cow's neck, I don't bother to turn around. Plus, it's kilometer number 32 of 35 at 12:30PM; I could care less where those bells are coming from.

At the next rest stop, four of us find a shady spot to rest for a couple minutes. Everyone is exhausted as Sheetal declares, "I'm now officially tired."

Just then, I see a young man pushing an old ice-cream cart, wiping the sweat off his brow. "Ting, ting, ting," the bells keep ringing from his cart. He pauses momentarily, looks to me as if to say, "Do you want to buy some ice-cream?"
"No, bro, we are on a walking pilgrimage. We can't eat ice-cream," I tell him. He nods and keeps pushing the cart.

Couple of minutes later, all of us start walking again.

As I stand up, I wonder if I can "turn it up". So many times, in my moments of inspiration, I feel incredibly heroic and then I always end up saying to myself, "Yeah, but can you feel this way in your weakest moments?" Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am reminded of that feeling and say to myself, "Here it is. Here's your test." Part of me is anxious, as if I'm about to jump onto a crazy Disneyland ride. Yet a bigger part of me is pumped-up to knock down the fear and laziness.

All of a sudden, I forget about my busted knee, hurting toe, and thirsty throat. Instead, I remember my tennis playing days where you often have to dig deep within to find that extra juice. I reiterate my "put it all on the line" mantra for this pilgrimage.

A gush of energy passes through me and I start walking fast. Incredibly fast.

Pretty soon, I start hearing bells again. This time it's in front of me, the same ice-cream cart that had passed us earlier. As I am walking towards it, I visualize a nice, cold, Indianized Vanilla ice-cream topped with fruity sugar syrup on my parched tongue. Heaven for my sweet-tooth, especially on a hot day.

For so long, perhaps longer than I can remember, my senses have always gotten the best of me. But right now, I'm pumped-up. I'm ready. All bets are off.

I cross the road so I'm right behind the cart. And right in the next moment, I start pushing the cart. The young man pushing the cart looks to me quizzically, as I explain: "It's really hot and you've been pushing this heavy cart for a while. Allow me to push it so you can take a little break." Not knowing what to say, he lets go of one of his hands on the cart and lets me push.

We start chatting. His name is Naginbhai, he has two kids, and lives in a nearby village. By moving his cart for about 12 kilometers everyday, for about 12 hours, he manages to make upto 200 rupees per day.

In the middle of exchanging personal life information, I pop in a weird question: "Naginbhai, do you like ice-cream?" After thinking about it for a while, he says: "Yeah, I like it but I generally don't eat it."

"Do you have good ice-creams? What all do you got?" I ask him as if we're old buddies by now. Perhaps thinking that he's made a customer out of me, he eagerly says, "Oh, oh, lots of them. There's this 1 rupee ice-cream, this mango ice-cream and this 15 rupee chocobar too."

"Naginbhai, today, I want to buy you an ice-cream. Will you eat it?" I catch him off guard. "Um, ummm," he mumbles and rearranges the cap on his head that seems too small for his head. I explain further, "I can't have an ice-cream but it would give me great joy to see you eat an ice-cream. We are brothers, aren't we? So whether you have it or I have it, it would give me the same joy. Go ahead, go ahead and grab your favorite ice-cream."

I stop the cart that I've been pushing. Convinced by my argument, he opens the refrigerated compartment of his cart and grabs one ice-cream. I tell him to pick his absolute favorite one and he exchanges the one in his hand for another one. It's a 5 rupee Raspberry ice-cream.

With a wide smile on his face, he slurps away the ice-cream on this hot day. No one has ever bought him an ice-cream before.

By sharing a simple act of ice-creaming, our conversations take a spiritual turn. None of his hands are holding the cart now; he is busy trying to eat the ice-cream before it melts. I casually place a 5 rupee coin on his cart.

"Do you pray, Naginbhai?" I ask him point blank. Instead of looking up ahead at the road, he turns his head to the right and looks at me squarely in my eyes: "Oh yes. Every single day." In that moment, it was almost as if he silently connected our experience with that part of his being.

My three kilometers are up. Like old tree leaves whose time had come, my physical complaints and ice-cream fantasies fell on the ground, somewhere along the way. The cart rests at an intersection where Naginbhai is to go right, and I am headed left. We part ways.

As the cart departs, I hear the bells jingle once again. This time, the sound is neither behind me nor in front of me. It's within me. I'm so happy to be alive.

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