It was a beautiful spring day, late morning as the shadows told. We were winding our way on a very old public transport bus to the village if Simla, then a tiny if capital city of Himachal Pradesh in the north of India, backed up against the the foothills of the Himalayas. The elevation in this small town went from hundreds to many thousands of meters. The British Raj summered there to get away from the oppressive Rajasthan heat, but that’s another time and another story.
This day was crystal and the sky was clear. I saw through the front window a woman making her way up the road with a huge bundle of sticks on her head. I jumped forward and told the driver in my broken Hindi to pull over and pick this woman up. The next village was a mile further up this climb and we could take her that distance. A short argument ensued but with my assurance of payment he pulled over and we climbed out of the bus and greeted this woman.
I was astonished by her face. It was old. Ancient, in fact, with lines like the crevasses of these many canyons. She was casual, even as she stood under this pile of wood, stacked three-quarters again as tall as her height. The smile on this face was effervescent. She was glowing out to a couple of feet, and I was stunned by the stillness that surrounded her.
With my best Hindi and the driver’s best whatever-it-was-he-was-was-speaking, we managed to get her to understand our offer of a ride to her village.
In a very sing-song voice that came from everywhere she laughed and garbled a response that embraced me. She nodded as she spoke and we knew that an agreement had been made. We all walked to the back of the bus and she casually set her sticks on the ground.
I directed the driver to climb the ladder up the back of the bus, explaining that I would hand the sticks up to him and he would lash them to the luggage rack with the other baggage. Up he went, while Madonna looked on with her incredible smile and crinkly eyes.
God, she was lovely.
He was in place and I took a grip on the bindings of this bundle and gave it my best weight-lifter’s move. I probably tore every muscle in my body and cracked a few bones. For sure I pushed out a hemorrhoid. The pile did not BUDGE off the ground.
I recoiled from this simple assignment in astonishment. I thought I had simply gotten hung up on the bus’ bumper, and thus could not budge the load. I looked and did not see the binding spot. Nevertheless, certain that my explanation was the most obvious and therefore correct reason for the problem, and not willing to deal with the notion that I could not handle with ease a bundle that this tiny woman had carried for miles, I took another grip and gave it a heave.
I saw stars. I had now a family of hemorrhoids. I was confused. I looked over at this five-foot-nothing granny and she smiled back, completely unconcerned with my incompetence or my frustration. I told the driver to come down and hand the bundle up to me. Down he scrambled, and up I went.
He got a grip, and with an impressive grunt and his neck thick with bulging veins and quivering muscles, he actually managed the herculean accomplishment of raising the bundle off the ground for a shaky two seconds. He dropped the sticks and stood back and spewed a few expletives with which my Hindi could not keep pace.
The Madonna stood forward and calmly motioned the driver up the bus. She leaned over and grabbed the straps on the bundle and handed it up to us like yesterday’s laundry. We were stunned at first and just looked at each other, and then reached down to grab it by it’s ropes. We were powerless to move it – both of us together pulling with all our might.
Madonna climbed on to the rear bumper and climbed the ladder, holding on with one hand and pushing the bundle with her other.
Once on top, the driver lashed it down – an unnecessary precaution as I’m sure the dent it was causing on the roof was sufficient indication that it was going nowhere. We scurried down and ushered Madonna inside.
The smile never left her face. Her sing-song voice never stopped its happy serenade, and we rolled up to her village in wonder. We got out and went back on top of the bus and rolled it to the edge. She caught it with one hand and walked down the ladder supporting the bundle until her feet touched the ground when she effortlessly shifted the load to her head and walked casually away in to the morning.
The driver refused payment for her fare.