Sunday, June 11, 2006

"So tell me, Mr. David, what do you think about love?"

"So tell me, Mr. David, what do you think about love?" Acharya, a ravishing Indian woman from Calcutta asked me softly, her eyes moist and her head tilted to one side. She spoke like she would to a lover, and it might have been romantic, but we were on the porch of a trekking hut, and she was sitting next to her husband. He seemed at least tolerant of the question, if not as interested in my answer. I started talking about the meditation retreat, but she cut me off. "I'm not talking about that kind of love." I was afraid of that. I wasn't sure where the conversation was going, but I was sure that I was uncomfortable with the form of the attention. And thrilled by it.

Four of us had come to the Himalayan foothills with uncertain plans of trekking to a glacier. On one of the four nights at the first trekker's hut, where it seemed no one had ever stayed beyond a single night, we met Acharya and her husband. She was a dreamy romantic, singing beautiful Hindi and Bengali songs and gazing longingly towards the great snow-capped peaks in the distance. Her husband was anything but dreamy or romantic - a pragmatic cricket coach who seemed to grind his wife with his every action. They told us of their arranged marriage 27 years before, and how they'd not met until that day. When we referred to it as a celebration, she said quietly and sadly, and without elaborating, "It was not a celebration."

She made no secret of the disdain she felt for her husband, so when she turned her attention to me, it made all of us uncomfortable. For reasons about which we could only speculate endlessly, the husband didn't seem the least bit uncomfortable. In fact, he later spoke glowingly about me; how I was so polite, how I carried myself, even how I held my hands in the namaste, or prayer, position when we met.

"Mr. David, what is the meaning of life?" she asked later, making me wish I'd thought more about it before, so I'd have something clever to say.

We saw them one more time, about 10 days later, higher up the mountain and not far from the glacier. When her husband wasn't there, she said, "You're welcome to come visit me in my room whenever you want." We all agreed that she didn't mean it the way it sounded, given who she shared her room with. And when we said our final goodbyes, she held my hand for the longest time as she gazed into my eyes. Her husband was standing right next to us; I was squirming, and they were both calm.

It was so confusing for us easily confused travelers that we were forced to make our own guesses about what was happening. One speculation was that he'd been caught in an affair, and she was making him pay. One was that she WASN'T looking at me like a lover, which was hard to support when you saw how she was looking at me. My final speculation was this: I had no idea what was going on. But I liked it.

Love, love, non-romantic love,

There are 9 pictures below:

Love 1:

This beautiful woman was working at a weaving cooperative:

Most of the women in this village had this coloring on their faces. A red line along the part of the hair indicates a married woman. Beyond that, I don't know!:

Love 2:

The view from the first trekking hut in Loharket, where we spent the four nights:

Love 3:

Love 4:

A shepherd standing in front of a stone flour mill that's powered by the river:

Love 5:

(The End)