By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
My early memories, or rather perceptions, of India were entirely influenced by Bollywood movies. I actually fell in love with India when I was in secondary school in the late 80s and early 90s, through popular movies such as Sholay, Ghazaab, Yaadonki Baraat, Love Story, Disco Dancer, Yeh Vadaah Raha, Nagin (The Snake Girl), The Burning Training and actors such as Dhamendra, Amitabh Bachan, Jeetendra, Amjad Khan, Ranjeet, Mithun Chakraborty, Govinda, Amrish Puri, Hema Malini, Rekha, Rena Roy, Zenat Arman and many more.
I would skip classes at St. Edward’s Secondary School at Kingtom, Freetown to watch matinee at Globe Cinema on Syke Street. On some weekends I would sell my day’s meal and use the money to buy tickets into Starco Cinema on Kissy Road/Savage Square. Other times, our uncle who used to manage the bar and restaurant at Strand Cinema on Waterloo Street, would give us matinee tickets and we would spend the whole weekends watching Indian movies. At some point I even kept a small book where I listed all Indian movies I watched, and they were running into a thousand or more.
The images of India I formed during that period were a nation that communicates well through their unique culture and tradition of singing and dancing for every occasion and worshipers of idols as symbolized by the deity Krishna and other objects such as trees, mostly shown in their movies. And then the popular Hollywood movie featuring Anil Kapoor, ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ in recent times, gave me another perspective of India all-together- a nation caught between the cities of paradise and the slums of the earth.
However, as Euro-Western influences begun to show strongly in Indian movies due probably to the influx of the new generation of actors born and raised in Europe and the US into Bollywood, my interest diminished gradually. Nonetheless, the nostalgia for the old movies is still there as once in a while I would sneak into YouTube and watched my old favourites, and the memories of the cinema- which just vanished one morning in my country- would come back.
So when I got the invitation from the Government and People of India through their Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to attend the Kumbh Mehla 2019, I felt excited about the prospect of stepping on Indian soil. Moreover, the prospect of having lunch and a group photo with Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes it all the more enticing.
The Kumbh (meaning confluence or gathering) is undeniably the largest human gathering where people from all walks of life across the world come to partake and experience India’s age-old culture and tradition which celebrate diversity and promote peace and unity. For the one month (February-March 2019) cultural and spiritual festival, the Kumbh hosts more than 230 million people of all socio-political stratifications.
And there I was, at the Lemon Tree Hotel in Delhi on the morning of 21 February, 2019, joining other delegates from around 186 countries across the world. So right there at the hotel the Kumbh started, with delegates trying to acquaint with one another and learning about each other’s country and culture. You can learn about nations, their people and culture on the Internet, but to hear all of it and even more from the citizens themselves is quite a different enlightenment all-together.
Similarly, of course, enough has been documented by the Ministry of External Relations and the ICCR in the forms of brochures, flyers, posters, banners, photos, books, video documentaries and films but nothing compared to witnessing and experiencing the Kumbh personally. The experience of feasting on a panoramic view of the breathtaking landscape hosting the Kumbh pilgrims dotted with stretches of tents, canoes mobile and wash rooms; the experience of seeing firsthand the good, bad and ugly of the second most populated nation on earth; the experience of embracing the sacred fig tree (Ashayvat) and kissing it many times in an effort to get a piece of its immortality; the experience of the breathtaking site of Sangam Nose, the confluence of river Ganga, Yamuna and the mystical river Saraswati; the experience of appreciating and respecting every living thing as an important creation of God; the experience of witnessing the pleasant but strict security alertness of the Indian Police…
My climax is not the meeting with Prime Minister Modi, but the experience of taking a holy dip at the sacred waters of the river Ganga. Though hesitant at first, I find myself voluntarily and gently stepping into the mystical waters and taking a long purposeful dip. Stepping out of the water after a bath, the feeling was refreshing. I felt some kind of inner peace and control, and a strange sense of selflessness. And the life-long question dawned on me: who am I actually? In the midst of such diversity and a very strong connection to mother Nature as displayed at the Kumbh, I realized I was not as important as my ego had led me to believe all this while. I realized that my importance as a person is just as important as the importance of any other living thing- from the smallest of ants to the gigantic fig tree or the highest of mountains- to the existence of the Universe. I felt the renewal of my mind and the broadening of my horizons to include all things I once looked low upon or taken for granted. To live a life of fulfillment is to live not for the self but for the general good of all living things, including the environment.
So I take away with me a new impression of India- a nation proud of the diversity of its culture, tradition and people; a nation with an open heart- ready to learn and share their experiences to the rest of the world; a nation that believes in democracy in every aspect of its national life; a nation with a deep sense of belief in the purpose of this life: service unto others.
My only disappointment was not seeing or meeting the famous Indian actors during the Kumbh. With a program as unique and important as the Kumbh heritage, what better ambassadors can this nation get other than the popular Bollywood actors who had long forged (and continue to) a connection between the great nation of India and the rest of the world?
Note: The author is a journalist from Sierra Leone and was with the Saraswati group during Kumbh Mehla 2019.