the night in the slums of dharamshala that changed my life


a new perspective

Every day in India alters me in some way, teaches me something new and stirs my spirit. But despite all of the beauty, intensity and adventure that has occurred no experience has impacted me quite so deeply as when I was invited to stay at a friends’ house in the slums of Dharamshala…

Reita and Rimpal are an Indian couple who own a meditation and yoga studio in McLeod Ganj.

I first met Reita and her nine-month-old baby, Shagun, when I moved into my little “home” at the bottom of the hill. We were immediately drawn to each other and quickly became friends.

She is 26 years old, teaches Hindi and is trained in acupressure. Her husband is five years older and teaches yoga and meditation.

After my daily yoga class, Reita meets me as usual and we go into the meditation hall to talk about life and spirituality.

She asks if I have ever spent time in an Indian household and when I shake my head, she invites me over for dinner and a sleepover the following night. She is overjoyed as I accept the offer but warns, “Please know that we are very poor and live in only one very small room with plastic for a roof.”

I assure her that this doesn’t matter to me and that I am very grateful for the invitation. Elated, she and Rimpal then ask what my favorite Indian food is, which I happily share: Palek Paneer (spinach with cheese) and Raita (yogurt with cucumber and tomato). With that, we make a plan to meet at 7pm the following evening.

Transportation for many Indians is by motorcycle and that is how my friends travel back and forth from McLeod Ganj to their home in lower Dharamshala every day with their nine-month-old baby.

The roads are steep, quite dangerous and despite her fear, most days Reita hops happily onto their bike. Today, however, she is thrilled that I am her guest and that we will be travelling by taxi.

When we arrive, I am surprised by how nice it feels despite that it is small, the walls are crumbling and the roof is in fact made out of black plastic. I quickly scan the spartan room… their bed is the central feature, they do not have a wardrobe or closet, just a plank table where small, neatly folded piles of clothing are situated next to four toys that belong to Shagun.

There is no kitchen, only a tiny stove that sits on the floor in front of the bed. There is no refrigerator and no running water. When I ask what they do about storing their food, they tell me they only purchase enough food for their daily meals.

Any leftovers are handed out to animals living in the street (cows, dogs, goats, birds, etc.) The bathroom, located in a little room across from their house, consists of a toilet (again, no running water and no shower) and there is a large water receptacle that needs filling once a week.

I am invited to sit on their bed, which startles me initially because there is no mattress, only wood planks covered by very thin fabric.

Shagun and I begin to play on the bed as her parents prepare dinner. Reita deftly rolls dough for Chapati (traditional Indian wheat bread) and Rimpal begins work on the Palek Paneer and Raita. I am touched that they are making my favorite dishes and watch in awe as they do all of this on the floor with no formal kitchenware or supplies.

Within the hour, mouth-watering smells fill the small space, the food is ready, and we are all excited to eat.

Newspaper is spread out on the bed and metal plates filled with food are placed on top. Everything is delicious and I am amazed by the skill with which they have prepared our meal.

We begin to talk about life and I have a million questions for them. Rimpal only charges 50 Rupees per yoga class in McLeod Ganj, which is way below average with a typical class costing 100 to 250 rupees. I know he is a wonderful teacher and I don’t understand why he charges so little. He tells me that, “money is not important to us.

As long as we have enough to pay our rent and can feed ourselves and our baby then we are happy. Too much money confuses people and brings grief to the heart.”

I tell him that while I admire his outlook, money is necessary if they want to come visit me in the US. He says, “we are always provided for. If we are meant to travel, then we will find a way.

We are simple people who do not require much and are blissfully happy. We don’t want to be weighed down by things. If we wish to move, we want to be able to so effortlessly. Life can be challenging as it is. We choose simplicity.”

I began to think about my life back home in Los Angeles. When I gave up my home to come here, I sold many of my belongings at a yard sale and was still able to fill a fairly large storage unit with the remaining stuff. I wish I had gotten rid of more and I will probably do so upon my return.

In the West, we are encouraged to consume and purchase more and more stuff with the promise that these things will make us happy. A bigger home, a newer car, fancy clothes.

But are we really and truly happy? I wonder how we might feel if we stopped accumulating and started simplifying.

I ask Rimpal what he feels is the key to happiness. He says “Meditation and faith in the Divine. These are the only ways.”

I believe him. Being around him makes you feel at peace. He is always smiling and laughing. He tells me that he is always happy. Reita agrees. Even their baby is happy. She rarely cries and is always smiling.

At about 11:30pm, we all climb into their bed to sleep. The bed is very uncomfortable (again, we are sleeping on wood planks) and I am surprised by how quickly they fall asleep.

I toss and turn for hours. It’s hot. There is no air circulation. The fan is still because the electricity is not working. I finally fall asleep only to be woken a short while later by Reita holding a cup of chai tea.

She says, “I clean. You drink your tea and play with Shagun outside.”

Pushing aside the slight delirium of sleep deprivation, I get up and take the baby outside to play while Reita sweeps her home, bathes and chants in front of her alter.

Later, she tells me that I am welcome in their home anytime and I can even come and live with them if I want. I ask her if my two dogs are welcome too and she says, “Of course! You are all welcome.”

The thought of this makes me smile and my heart is filled with gratitude for their selfless generosity and genuine kindness.

The experience was a gift that opened my eyes and shifted my perspective about life. I know now not to take anything for granted: running water, a comfortable bed, electricity, my ability to travel, but most importantly the love of my family and friends.

I am struck by how fortunate I am and how little it takes to truly be content and happy.

Reita and her family are evidence of that fact. Since this experience, my sense of gratitude and faith in the Divine have grown each and every day.

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