Stares and Smiles

May 22, 2005

I'm a missionary today. I have decided to convert stares into smiles.

It's 4:50AM. A man on bicycle, riding hands-free, is singing devotional songs; I feel a current of positive vibrations as he passes. I smile. A bit later, four guys jogging -- two of them without shoes -- at a 10 kilometer/hour clip; they are easy converts and smile back at my smile. Then, a cow stares. So I smile, fold my hands and do a half bow. Unfortunately, the cow keeps staring. :)

Inviting stares, threatening stares, i-am-confused stares, get-lost stares ... it doesn't matter. I'm going in, head first, to do my job.

Candidate number 17, probably: a semi-toothless man standing outside a Hanuman temple at 6:35AM. I match his stare with a rock solid smile. But he's a tough one to crack. He keeps staring. So I pull out other tricks up my sleeve."Kaka, how are you?" I ask him. Still no response. He nods his head, as if too lazy to speak. I wave. Still nada.

Ok, time to pull out all the stops -- "Is this is the right way to Madhi?" Three others are far in front of me by now, and it's a straight road, so it's a really stupid question. But what the heck. Still staring, the old man in his kurta and pajama finally makes a sound, "Hmmmmmmmm."

I smile real big -- and I mean real big -- do a half bow to him and start walking. "I guess you can't win 'em all," I say to myself. But this is good business, because in the worst case, you are left with a smile on your own face.

You see, In India, people love to stare at anything that is remotely different. Partially, it's people's dissatisfaction with the present that creates that curiosity; partially it's the non-stressed life that allows them to look around; and partially it's their inclusive spirit that compels them to make everything their business. In America, you can live for decades without knowing your neighbors, but in India, no one will let you pass their street without getting to know you.

We keep walking in a single file line. A couple more candidates here and there and I'm feelin' good about the 90-percent conversion rate this morning.

After about 30 minutes, I hear a car honking from behind. It's an old, grey fiat (the kind they don't make anymore). Outside of cricket and Bollywood, honking the horn is India's third favorite past time. I instinctively move to mud pavement, to make way.

But then the car stops. It's that same old man in the car, I think with some tobacco in his mouth this time. He motions his hand to call me towards the car. I cross the road and greet him, "Kaka, how are you?" This time, he smiles half way. He puts his hand in the left pocket of his kurta and takes out a couple of things.

Noticing a small notebook, I think to myself, "Wow, this kind wants my phone number? That is really something."

"Where are you going?" he asks while fumbling with a few pieces of paper falling outside his notebook. I'm just happy he is speaking and I respond energetically, "Technically, we're heading South without a destination but because no one understands that, you can say that we are going towards Shirdi."

"Oh, Shirdi? Ok, good take this and do something good with it," he says while placing a 50 rupee note from his notebook into my right hand.

I am stunned. I mean, we've been offered 500 rupees by Swami Satchiananda, we have found a hundred rupee on the streets, but no one has just dropped a 50 on us. Let alone a non-smiling old man, who drives in his car to fulfill a missed opportunity.

"Kaka, what is this? Are you sure?" I ask, not knowing what else to say. "Yeah, yeah, take it. Go have some tea or anything. Keep walking. Go, go" he says. With a big ol' smile on my face, I start walking again as he zooms off.

It's one thing to earn fifty bucks, and do something nice with it. But it's quite another to walk diligently until the universe warrants you to be an instrument of service. That 50 rupee note was burning a hole in my pocket, as I am itching to pay-forward the blessings of a smile-less old man.

Up ahead, Veena wants her fruit-fix for the day. Watermelons. We go to a small room looking place, which appeared to be a melon distribution house, and I ask for one; he offers it to us and gives us a knife, "I don't have any fingers, but here, take the knife and help yourself." We do.

The watermelon seller is a good guy. When I notice almost hundred alcohol bottles on the right, I ask him: "Kaka, you seem to drink a whole lot?" He cracks up and says, "No, no, I don't drink. It's just a side business of recyling bottles when the melon sales are slow."

When it comes time to pay, as expected, he doesn't take any money. He's figured out that we're pilgrims, about three of his friends are in heated debate about which is shortest path for us to walk to Vedchi, and there's no way he's gonna accept our money. I go to the back of his shop to find him and place the 50 rupee note in his finger-less hand. He immediately tries to push me and my 50 away but after I tell him that I'm just paying-it-forward, he somewhat accepts it.

Four of us wave our goodbyes and walk out. Behind us, we hear more mumbles. The watermelon seller is running at us with another watermelon. "Take this with you, take this with you, one for the road," he says as if pushing the watermelon in his left hand towards us. "Kaka, no, it's too heavy to carry. Can you just make sure you feed someone else with this watermelon?" I suggest with a what-a-good-guy smile.

After a few futile attempts, I see that he just wants to give something more. I attempt to bow down to touch his feet and say, "Kaka, give me your blessings." Moving back with humility, "Who am I to give you blessings. God will give you his blessings." We thank each other and part ways.

Smiles or stares, all human beings unfailingly respond to love.

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