I first met Josi over the phone. She teaches at Penn State’s New Kensington campus in Southwest Pennsylvania, USA. Her full name’s Dr. Jyotsna M. Kalavar and she’s Indian, from Bangalore.
I’d called her several months back because she’s a former Fulbrighter and I wanted to ask her some questions relating to my upcoming trip to India. She was gracious and helpful and we promised to get together at her place in Monroeville or ours in Ligonier before I left so we could have a good natter face-to-face. But time quickly passed and the best we could do was a brief exchange of emails prior to my departure.
Very soon after I arrived in Tirupati, Dr. Jamunah, Professor of Psychology at Sri Venkateswara University and my Fulbright “Facilitator,” came by to meet with me at my university guest house. In the course of conversation she asked me if I’d like to accompany her, and a team of students and professors, to Bhuvaneshwar in Orissa State, for a conference on Ageing. She mentioned that Dr. Jotsnya would be coming from the United States.
I got the go-ahead from my Vice-Chancellor and the Dean of the School of Education and informed Dr. Jamunah that I’d be on board. She took care of all the preparations; all I had to do was show up. That’s how it’s been since I landed in India. I’ve been simply overwhelmed by the generosity and solicitousness of everyone—and I mean everyone.
One of the things Josi had told me when I first talked with her on the phone was that in India I would be treated as a revered guest. She was right. The people I’ve met in India are beautiful; so many of them have been angels to me. From the well-off to the poorest of the poor there’s a dignity about them all that’s difficult to define and they’re the reason why I’m falling in love with this country.
So off we go to Bhuvaneshwar. The trip by train took 24 hours, more or less. I arrived at my guest house accommodations at about 10:00 pm. Josi was already fast asleep in her room across the hallway from mine. I crashed for the night, exhausted from the trip.
The next morning, after completing my ablutions and dressing for the day, I emerged from my room to find Josi there waiting to greet me. It wasn’t long before we were comfortable together, like old friends. Because we were the only members of the team staying at this particular guest house, we spent a great deal of time together over the next four days.
We had a ball! Josi’s sense of humor is infectious. She laughed at all my jokes, even the pathetic ones, and we quickly developed a rapport which transcended words, where we seemed to see India through each other’s eyes. She constantly anticipated my thoughts and reactions to things going on around us, commenting sensitively to help me “see” things as they are, rather than as I thought them to be.
I got to see India through her eyes, when she took me shopping in the Bhuvaneshwar bazaars, and to the Sun Temple at Konark, where she worshipped as I watched her pray for good fortune for her family at the Sun Temple’s Nine Planet’s Shrine, and where I was blessed by the priest with a spot of red powder on my forehead. She took me to the beach at Chandrabagha. When I hesitated to go for a ride on the one lonesome camel waiting with its driver by the ocean’s edge, she encouraged me to “Go for it!” and I did. And I’m glad I did, because it was quite an experience, and I’d come a long way…
She took me to Puri, where we’d been briefly the night before with the group attending the conference, but she’d wanted to go back and spend time worshipping at the temple. I wasn’t allowed in because I’m not Hindu, so I wandered around the bustling market place outside, chatting with groups of people here and there. I bought a brass replica of one of the famous Konark wheels.
Josi taught me to count from 1 to 10 in Hindi. She took me to church on Christmas Day, while she went off to worship at another temple in town. After church, we went around to the other Guest house where the rest of our group was staying and, for my benefit, we celebrated Christmas together. I got a huge card signed by everyone, and a gift, and cake, and Josi led us all in an interesting rendition of “Jingle Bells.”
After lunch at a restaurant where I absent-mindedly left behind my floppy white hat, I went with Josi to the airport to see her safely on her way to Mombai and thence to Pittsburgh, where I know we’ll meet again.
Meanwhile, there’s a man in Bhuvaneshwar just now who’s wearing my hat. Fortunately I have a spare.