To be the American friend of Sonu is to be larger-than-life with his family. They were all out to meet us when we arrived at his home in a rural village, a five-hour drive north of New Delhi. I moved amongst them for individual greetings with clapsed hands. And that was just the beginning. I was treated as a true ‘guest of honor’, staying in the best room in the house, and Preet served us meals specially ‘de-seasoned’ for me.
Fifteen family members live off a central courtyard; uncles, cousins and a ninety-something grandmother (no one is exactly sure of her age). All families have their own rooms, and there are five bathrooms. There are washing machines and propane stoves, but much of the clothes washing is done by hand, and they continue to cook over wood and dung outdoors.
The family has a total of 22 acres of farmland, where they grow cash crops of rice, wheat, and sugarcane, and some vegetables and fruit for their own use. Sonu is responsible for the five acres belonging to his immediate family. As landowners, they are of a higher caste, with darker-skinned laborers doing a good deal of the work, especially at harvest time. Another distinction: Sonu and his family ride motorbikes for transportation, while the workers travel by bicycle. The family shares one tractor, which is put to many uses.
‘Homestays’ have become a travel phenomenon, but nothing that Abercrombie and Kent could offer would compare with this experience. The window in my upstairs bedroom looked out across lush green fields lined with poplar trees, and there was constant activity as people worked the land, and traveled a dirt road on foot and with wheels. And bright green parrots, round-eyed owls, and kingfisher birds all perched nearby, while white egrets dotted the fields. Sounds of the morning started first with prayers heard from the nearby Gurudwara (temple), followed by all kinds of birdcalls, and then some barking and mooing.
I rode on the back of Sonu’s motorbike for tour of Saharanpur, the largest town near his village. And in the evening we played Uno. I brought the cards, thinking that might be a good way to bridge the language difference. We laughed and laughed during spirited, fun rounds of the game. And, every one of the 15 selected their color when I passed a bag of Tootsie Roll Pops.
I truly did feel honored by this very warm and loving family. They were kind and respectful, and bared their hearts to me. I’ve had a best friend in India for the last five years, and now I think I have family, too!
Next up, Sonu and I fly to Mumbai. This will be the first time for both of us to explore India’s largest city, which has the third or fourth largest urban population in the world.