A Full Moon View

Dec 20, 2005

"Hello, CK?" "Speaking. Where are you guys? I've been waiting. All your arrangements are made." "CK, we have a slight change of plans." "What's that?" "We're gonna sleep out on the streets tonight."

A stunned silence.

"Hello, CK?" "Yes," he replies as if he's never heard anything this crazy. He had preponed his flight from Thailand to make it in time to receive us, but now this. "What do you mean?" he asks.

"Well, these guys are saying that they want to know what it feels like to be cold on the streets, before they start putting blankets on cold shoulders. They really want to sleep out there," I explain.

"In this weather? You'll freeze," CK exclaims before sharing the 7 degree Celsius forecast. "And what about the mosquitoes? Come on, don't be silly. Just come directly here. I have made full arrangements. You won't have to worry about a thing." After a few minutes of five-star hospitality reviews and a few more are-you-sure phone calls, CK has no choice but to accept our plans.

Eight of us are on the road. It's the compassion gang, taking off on a trip to reload their ammunition -- blankets for the shivering, clothes for the naked, toys for the young ones, shoes for the bare-footed, you name it. A truck load full of things, to give to people anonymously.

Being the eldest of the gang, I am responsible for making mature decisions. Well, well. :)

On the way here, we were all sharing life stories of each other in the context of service. PN tells us about the faux-scolding he'd get from his mom because he had a bad habit of giving everything away, VJ shares a story of seeing his Dad refuse a 5 lakh rupee cash bribe and how that experience impacts so many of his decisions right now, UP elaborates a story of his most powerful dance performance when "every single person in the hall, including myself" cried. One after another, stories keep flowing through our four hour car ride until at one point, we couldn't hold back the inspiration.

We want to "take it up to the next level" and even right Now isn't soon enough.

"How shall we do this?" I ask the group. We decide to park the car, spilt up into teams of two and head out in four different directions. Our plan is to go out with whatever clothes we have on, and figure out how to sleep outside -- if we find shelter, good; if we sleep outside, good; if we can't sleep, good. It's all good, so long as we attempt to feel the suffering we are hoping to eradicate from the world.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" I repeat the question at least five times being fully aware of the dangers of being hurt, getting sick, etc. etc. Everyone emphatically affirms. "We're just afraid of Guri-didi will say," they joke.

ST puts on three layers of jackets as we get out, BK decides to stay in the car, and rest of us head out with what we have on. VJ takes off his jean-jacket and stick to his only t-shirt idea that he had thunk up earlier.

I walk out in my jeans and Kurta. And it's freezing.

As we head out in our assigned direction, I say in an elderly tone, "Whatever your experience, just remember why exactly you're doing this. Don't forget, otherwise it'll just remain an adventure for you."

I'm paired up with UP. After stumbling around, we finally land up in a deserted factory area. We check out a few old trucks, in which we can park ourselves but UP rightly says, "This is iron. We will become icicles by the morning." We keep walking.

"I've never done anything like this in my life," UP tells me as he's getting a little nervous about spending the night in this weather. "Maybe we should just stay up the whole night?" he proposes.

"No, no," I point to an old wooden bench. "Check out this bench, just sleep here." There was only room for one, so I tell UP to sleep there as I head to a nearby sand pit. UP says, "No, no. I'm tough. I'm going to sleep wherever you sleep."

Right as we're walking up there, a young security guard approaches us with full-on hostility. Within the next hour, he is sitting with us sharing his life story -- Ashvin is an 18 year old who works about 22 hours of the day (10 hours in the night shift, where he is a security guard and also sleeps), 7 days a week, without getting any monetary compensation. "My uncle took care of me since my Dad died on a train when I was 1. He promises to get me married, so I just work for him."

Two dogs approach Ashvin. Ashvin picks up a black cloth bag and takes out four 'rotlis' (bread) to feed them with lots of love. It's such a simple act that boldly communicates his spirit of service -- a guy who doesn't get paid, has four rotlis for a dog. "Yeah, I do this everyday. When I quit my last job, this dog there also quit that job. He followed me here. See, there he is," Ashvin points out to a barking dog in the dark, natureful area.

UP and I are trying to catch some zzz's, as Ashvin is squatting next to us, talking about life. It's past midnight, the full moon is shining brightly on top of our eyes and UP is taking a count of almost a dozen shooting stars he's spotted.

Our sandals serve as our pillows, while our bare feet freeze. UP sneaks his feet into his long pants and both of us are locked in our sleeping positions. Ashvin is still sitting there, sporadically striking up conversation threads. By now, he's really comfortable with us.

Just then, he gets up to go somewhere and comes back with two raggedy, torn pieces of cloth. "Hey guys, keep this. It'll keep you warm," Ashvin tells us. "Ah, there is a God!" UP exclaims. :) One of the rags is short and the other one is tall; I give the long one to UP and I cover my feet with the other one.

Another twenty minutes, and we are freezing even more.

Ashvin gets up to sleep on his bench. Oddly enough, there is part of us that is grateful for this experience. We came with nothing, ready to freeze, and a random stranger provided us warmth. All those people who say -- "Oh, I don't give food to the hungry, because I believe in teaching people how to cook" -- well, they should go sleep on the streets once. It feels like a gift from heaven to receive an unasked-for blanket, even if it is a little smelly and has lots of holes in it.

I tell UP, looking up at the moon: "It's not good enough to just experience this. You must take resolve to give up one of your bad habits." For a couple minutes, he stares up at the sky in silence. UP himself admits to being a "very angry young man" and gets into many fights, over the smallest things. "What do you think?" I remind him. "Nipunbhai, I've decided something today with full moon as our witness. Whenever I do it, I will tell you what it was."

Behind us are some train tracks, behind which is a lake. We can feel the chilly wind. I tell UP, "Man, it sure would be nice to have another blanket. But you know, it's a spiritual principle -- you don't ask for things. Your job is to simply accept whatever comes."

Almost as if it was planned, Ashvin returns with a queen sized blanket and says, "Hey guys, I just found this too." We are absolutely speechless!

Both of us share the big blanket and go to sleep in the silent warmth of kindness that has sustained us for the night.

It's a difficult night. But it's ok.

We wake up to dogs barking in our face at 6AM. Very quickly, we hunt for the others. Two of them stayed up most of the night, trying to run away from the mosquitoes; they found two others at 4AM and lighted up a fire to stay warm. Two of the youngest ones were haggled by some security guy and then the guy was so moved that he got them a bed and three regular (regular, as is in the kind without any holes :)) blankets! For the next couple of hours, all of us share one story after another, all with one conclusion -- "We will never forget this night for the rest of our lives!"

Along the way, we meet a village saint who only meets couple people once a month. He's been in the same room for the last fifty years, he lives only on liquids, and shuns publicity altogether. His message to us -- don't forget that when you think you are helping others, you are actually only helping yourself. Especially for these kids, it hits home like a ton of bricks. The mysterious saint (who made me promise that I won't mention his name anywhere) was a blessing in many subtle ways that only the invisible eye can perceive.

By evening, our truck is reloaded. It will take a day and a half for the ammunition to reach its destination. And rest will be history. :)

The next morning, I meet RG. He's disappointed he didn't get to go on the bus due to an out-of-town workshop he was attending. In response to his frustration, he gave away his shoes to a young, needy fruit seller as he was walking down the street.

Compassion gang, in full effect. Rock on.

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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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