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Archive for July, 2012

Last night, I started re-reading The Little Princess. I had finished The Wind in the Willows and My Antonia, and have a stack of library books, but was just falling asleep and wanted something softer. As in A Secret Garden, Hodgson Burnett’s young heroine is returning to her parents’ England after an early childhood in India. The narrator captured some of what I’m feeling as she mused, in her eight-year-old brain:

“Principally, she was thinking of what a queer thing it was that one time one was in India in the blazing sun, and then in the middle of the ocean, and then driving in a strange vehicle through strange streets where the day was as dark as the night.”

In cool Ontario, I read, swim, drink wine, and generally partake of the luxuries of a green, lush, well-tended and underpopulated world. Already it is hard to remember what was so daily and striking only last week.

*

I am tired of talking about the Burning Place. When people want to know, I now want to say, “Here is something I wrote about it once.” I don’t want to try and describe it, I don’t want to hear the “Gross,” or “Real bodies?” or “That’s so unreal.” I don’t want to try and use up the memories to help others understand; I fear that the more words I try to use to describe, the more actual pieces of the memory will disappear. The experience becomes what I say; I don’t want to forget the heat, the dry ashes as they fell, the torn garland in the water, the gravity of all around.

You know how if you talk about a memory, repeatedly, the memory itself becomes what you have said about it, and not what you actually experienced.

If you think about your high school prom, for example, you will remember the things you’ve talked about while talking about it all these years. The smaller things—the pollen from the stamen of your lilies falling onto the dusty velour of the car seat between you and your date, the awkwardness of seeing your gym teacher’s bra strap in her dress-up dress, the strangeness of driving to school as the sun sets, and parking in a familiar place, but in utterly unfamiliar clothes…

If I keep trying to talk about the Burning Place, I will lose the actual impressions. Like wet tissue paper pages—once color-saturated, they will dry up and leave me with rasping slips of brittle blank paper.

*

I kind of like being sunburned. Not on the tender parts, like my shoulder and that soft doughy bit between my swimsuit strap and my torso—that’s too much pain. But my legs, my feet. I like feeling the discomfort, the constant reminder, as I move my feet inside the sheets. It’s like: I can still be reached by the sun, even all this way away.

*

I still find myself working to keep water out of my mouth when I swim or wash my face. I keep forgetting that the water here—all of the water, every drop of it—is safe and will not make me sick. This is incredible.

I went to church last Sunday, an Anglican parish in small town Canada. It was an outside, casual service, the kind I hate. Lawn chairs, a jocular sermon, kids wearing baseball caps. No processions.

And even still, I needed it and loved it. The great thing about the BCP is that even in a lackluster service, you hear these prayers and phrases that gild the whole thing. It’s like seeing a red thread that you’ve previously only seen against green velvet, and here it is against denim: look how red and strong it is. Feel how inspiring and comforting the words. And so once again, I received the Body and Blood, and tried to use the tiny sliver of silence during the Prayers of the People—I have so many prayers. Of thanksgiving, of names of all those I wish to remember, to be thankful for, to send God’s Grace and Presence and Care to, for forgiveness (for privileges known and unknown, privileges seen and unseen.)

Bells from all over town are background for the readings. I keep my hands open, as if to receive, as I did so many times in India, and pray that I might keep my posture of openness just a little bit longer.

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Getting to the Golden Temple is impossible. Like truly: impossible.

The streets and pathways of Varanasi, up the steps from the river towards main roads, are labyrinthine and full. More steps lead up to temples, and dozens–countless–tiny, personal idol grottos are carved into the walls. Someone–many anonymous someones, probably–keep the idols freshly painted and anointed, and bedecked with blossoms.

Merchants: bangles, flowers, dry goods, water and soda, sweets, breads, idols, garlands, perfumes, oils, scarves, fabric, bamboo stretchers, tea, spices, pipes, incense. Children, both naked and clothed, buy and sell, run and play, beg and scamper.

Monks and female religions wind through the alleyways. Every so often, you hear chanting and a family of men carry the body of a loved one past. You scrunch up against a damp stone wall to let them pass.

The Golden Temple is a major pilgrimage site, a major attraction, of Varanasi. I have been there, but I haven’t actually seen it, inside or out. The passageways are so heavily built up around the Temple, and so narrow, that you can never see it when you’re approaching it. Suddenly, everyone walking in one direction comes to a stop. A walking traffic jam. Police presence increases.

I notice that all of the women and men are carrying something. Either small containers of water, or containers of food and flowers, or bigger baskets with bigger quantities.

Foreigners, or non-Hindus (I’m not sure which) are not allowed in. A few police guards asked if we had our passports. We did not. Matt bought me a leaf-bowl of flower offering to take in, and I went ahead and stood in one of the lines winding towards an entrance. Over the stone wall, I could see carved spires. I could hear amplified chanting prayers, and voices. Through an open gate I caught a glimpse of women in a line, and movement around a circular center.

I had hoped one of the guards at the gate would let us in, but they did not. We were talking about it earlier, imagining how we would feel in the following scenario: We are going to pilgrimage to the Cathedral in St. Louis. Only 1,000 people will get a bit of the Host. We have been driving for days, from Montana. We are hot, and exhausted. I have promised a dying relative I will take the Host and pray for her. The area around the Cathedral is impossible to navigate. We stand in line for hours waiting, waiting.

I’m okay with the fact that tourists aren’t allowed into the Temple. There is only so much space, and only so many feet can pass within. Hundreds of thousands of faithful come long distances, every day, to get a glimpse of the linga of Shiva within.

Near the Temple, somewhere (again, I passed it, I saw it, I have no idea where it is) is a mosque. Again: people are waiting in line, heavy police presence guards the opening. I think I am one of the least-threatening looking people I know, but when I tried to stop walking and peer through a chain link fence at the mosque (I just wanted to glimpse it!) the guard blocked me with his body. I said, “I just want to see,” and he moved closer to the opening, ready (I think) to move me along if need be. It’s hard to understand; I’ve never experiences community violence or religious violence. Some places of worship in NYC have armed guards, but I’m still allowed inside.

So instead, I took my offering down to the Ganges. We stood on a step, I said a prayer, and then set it afloat. Prayers always look so small and insubstantial alone, untethered, in the water. You just have to let them go.

*

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The course is over; my classmates left yesterday, and I left PV to go to the guesthouse where Matt and I will stay for the next week. I still haven’t really processed the fact that our six-week journey is over, so I’m trying to articulate a very small bit of it here, in photos.

A treat, a refreshment, a small icon of our days: Mango Sip.

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Garland with hand-hammered ornaments in a temple.

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A small statue in the terra cotta museum. Will forever remind me of my visit to the Lanka Police Station.

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The Lok, the physical representation of the Jain cosmology. Hellish beings at the bottom, we’re all in the middle, heavenly beings in the top level before they reach moksha and ascend. This is in Jumpudweep, the strange Jain “creationist Disneyland” we visited. You can go up in this Lok in an elevator.

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Mother Matiji, at Jumbudweep.

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We pay homage to Mother Matiji with dance.

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A tirtankara, in Hastinapur.

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Silver plates and cooking utensils, left out to dry in the sun.

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A heavily decorated temple in Hastinapur. My kind of decorating: more is more.

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Hand-carved bells.

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On the bus to the Taj, singing.

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At the Taj.

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A fantastic hotel in Jaipur. We had a wonderful tea service here.

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Lovely baby at the Fort, in Jaipur.

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The Fort and Palace grounds.

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Strange dolls for sale near the Fort.

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One of the elephants.

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Street food.

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During the taping of the Indian talent competition.

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At the Indian wedding.

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Naan at the wedding.

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Ganesh at the Monkey Temple.

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One of the temple priests, preparing to anoint us.

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An open air temple, under Jaipur sky.

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Street food: fried spicy patty, with yogurt. Delicious.

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Chai at the most famous chai house in Jaipur.

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A BBQ joint “our” tuk-tuk driver, Rishi, recommended.

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Block-printing by hand at the textile factory.

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Our first open-mic night. Tarot card reading, singing, recitations, two ghost stories, journal sharing, and a sing along.

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The Holy Ganges, before a Puja.

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One of the card catalogues at the library at VP.

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Nelda with a giant savory, crispy, pancake filled with a spicy potato mixture.

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“When the Meadows on the Body Turn Gray,” by Hafiz.

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The view from Open Hand, one of our luxurious haunts, with good coffee and AC.

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Me, at Open Hand.

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The view from my berth before I left for Delhi.

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A strange wind storm sweeps over the ghats.

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Sunset in Varanasi, our final night together.

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I devised a system for our last open-mic: we all wrote a sentiment, thought, or note to each classmate on slips of paper, and put the slips in corresponding envelopes. I handed them out right before our departure; we’re to open them on our own, when the time is right.

*

He’s carrying my luggage through the market place and to the guesthouse. I’m on my own for the time being, for one day until my love arrives.

 

 

 

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detailing inside a tuk-tuk…like our own personal fortune for the ride

All is well.

The head chef/driver took me to Varanasi Railway Station last Sunday afternoon. It had been raining; not only was there no electricity in the station, or in the trains, but the station was flooded. I followed him through the dark, through the crowds, through ankle deep water into the waiting room.

He doesn’t speak enough English for us to talk, so he just sat with me, in silent solidarity, while we waited for my train. I am finishing _Anne of Green Gables_ on my Nook/iPhone, which I probably haven’t read in twenty years. As I sat next to him in the crazy waiting room, uncertain what the next day–trip to Delhi to try and get a new passport and visa–would hold, I read the part where Matthew dies. He has been so good to Anne, and done the best he could in his taciturn way.

I was struck by this man, a near-stranger to me, and the fact that he prepares all of our food. Every morning, he comes up to the rooms and says, “Breakfast,” to wake us up. He is proud to show us when there are special treats, or sweet.  He sat with me for more than an hour. I felt tears come to my eye and I couldn’t tell if it was from the book, or from being helped.

When my train came, he used his phone as a flashlight on the dark train, taking me through the cars to my seat. He gave me his phone number, and tried to explain that he would pick me up on Tuesday morning. We said good-bye. I was in an un-AC car, so my window was open. A few minutes later, his face appeared in the window. He stayed until my train departed.

***

In Delhi the following morning, I was met by Prof. Rahul, who also made himself known by appearing in my window. I guess they just walk down the length of the train cars until they see my white, blonde head. Rahul took me to the Embassy, and then worried when they wouldn’t let him in. I told him I would be fine.

The Embassy was a marvelous place, full of American accents, strong AC, peanut M&Ms, and kind helpfulness. I actually had a new passport (an “emergency passport”) within the hour.

The Indian Foreigners’ Registry Office as trickier. Much more chaotic, fewer computers (I saw none), and many more desks heaped with paper files. I had little hope that I’d have a new visa before my night train back to Varanasi left.

And yet– everyone was kind, helpful. I had to get a new passport-sized photo for the visa application, and found a pack of school boys running a soda and tobacco stand with a sign that said “photo stat.” I had no idea how they were going to take a passport photo; even when they whipped out the digital camera I doubted. They had me climb over the stone wall into their hole-in-the-wall shop, and sit in front of the soda cooler. Then they produced a white piece of board, and placed it behind me. Voila! I laughed, and primped and tossed my hair for the photo, and gathered quite a crowd of children. They used a small digital printer, and four four rupees, I had four small photos.

My number one travel tip is to have a copy of your passport and visa– that battered photocopy of my original visa was like gold; it proved that I had had a valid visa, and gave the IFRO a starting place to trace me back to the airline, and verify I was legal.

After four hours, and many vague reassurances, I finally got called back to the official desk. The gentleman stamped once, stamped twice, filled in the stamped squares, and used a tiny piece of string to “staple” my papers together. Then he handed my my stamped passport. I said, “My visa? I have? I can leave okay?” He said, “yes, yes, this is your new visa. You are okay.”

I was so surprised, and so grateful, that my eyes filled up. I hope and pray that government offices in my homeland treat foreigners as well as I was treated. I did the traditional show of respect I’ve seen Jain and Hindu scholars and supplicants do for their gurus and teachers– I kissed my fingers and touched the ground in front of their desk. They laughed and clapped their hands in their surprise.

I said, “Thank you so much! I wish I could back you a cake.” The head gentleman said, “Your affection and gratitude are thanks enough.”

I paid $135 for the new passport, the visa was free, and my train tickets were bought by another professor here because I had no debit cards at the time.

Rahul was catching the same train back up to Varanasi, and so made sure I was settled in my car before we departed. An elderly Indian, retired from British airlines, told me about the books he is writing–on the eight wonders of the world he’s seen, and on India threw his own eyes–during the first part of the train ride. Then, I climbed up into the top berth, right underneath the AC, under a clean sheet and wool blanket laundered by hands I’ll never see, my new passport safely in my backpack under my head, and fell deeply asleep.

***

The next morning, the chef/driver picked us up (in the car! what a treat!) and drove us back to PV. When we parked on campus, he turned to me and said, “Breakfast?” He was not satisfied with my only taking tea, and insisted I take two bananas.

Today, we had our last day. Yesterday I finished my paper (really a four-week curriculum and full teachers’ guide, with resources) on a Jain-based–emphasizing compassion and perspective-taking–for secondary school students.) Today I presented my project, and we had our last lunch. Our last mangoes! We’re about to venture out onto the ghats… tomorrow my classmates will leave. I’ve planned another “open mic” for tonight on the roof, a chance to share moments that have struck and stayed with us at some point during the trip. I can’t wait to hear what we’ve all found.

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prayer beads, hanging in a temple

I’ve been groped, I passed out from the heat, and my passport was either lost or stolen. Seven weeks in a very different county, perhaps it’s to be expected that there would be some bumpier bits. The only thing that tinges of regret is that I think I know better, and I hate having made a misstep.

We, men and women, get looks and stares wherever we go. Our orientation materials reminded us women especially not to be too effusive with language and gesture, to not touch or stand too close to members of the opposite sex—even within our own group, as it can give a wrong impression. We noticed that in the Bollywood movie we saw, there was never even any kissing—despite the fact that it was a love story and featured at least one wedding. In contrast, in Spiderman, the two stars—ostensibly high school students–kiss passionately and the female protagonist—a teenager—dresses provocatively. If the only images you have of Western women are from Hollywood, your ideas about what we do and are will be flawed.

In Jaipur, five of us went up to the Monkey Temple. We had taken a tuk-tuk there, but it was kind of a remote place, and it was harder to get a tuk-tuk back. Four young men offered to give us a ride in their car, back down to the main part of town, where we could get a tuk-tuk to campus. We were in a large group, we had a guy with us, and it was the middle of the day—I certainly felt safe, and no alarm bells rang.

However, nine people in a compact car are a tight squeeze. We tried to be smart about how we sat—I sat in the front passenger seat with another girl in my lap, the two other women sat the same way against one of the rear doors, and we had the guy in our group sit between them and the other two men. Using the men in our group as “buffers” in transport and in restaurants and movies is one of our common strategies.

At a certain point in the ride down the mountain, I noticed the man behind me had his hand on my arm. It was a bumpy ride, and we were really crammed in, so I figured he was trying to adjust how he was sitting. He ended up groping my breast for a few moments, while asking me if he could, “Just one time.” I said, loudly, “No, no times. No times at all.” Only the girl in my lap realized something was awry, but couldn’t tell what—the backseat was too full of conversation and noise for anyone to notice anything. After he was finished, the man said, “I’m sorry,” as if that helped.

***

Our first day off in Varanasi was during the hottest part of the week. Undeteterred, Ashleigh, Nelda, Andrew, and Matthew and I headed for Asi Ghat, with plans to walk along the river north, to see the ghats and perhaps end up at the famed Brown Bread Bakery. Oh, it was hot. Not a cloud in the gray, heavy sky and the sun shining directly on us as we climbed the stone and concrete steps, up and down along the water.

I don’t actually remember passing out. I remember feeling faint, and realizing I probably needed a drink of water, and asking Ashleigh for some of her water. Next thing I know, I’m seated in an alley. Ashleigh had poured water down the back of my shirt and Matt had wet his handkerchief with cold water and put it on my head. Kids, cows, and merchants were talking to my classmates about me and making recommendations about what they should do.

I was quite out of it; even when we got to the restaurant I didn’t feel sure of anything. All I knew was that I was very cold, and very tired. I borrowed Nelda’s scarf to wrap around me and wished they would let me lie down and sleep. We ordered food, but in the meantime Ashleigh made me eat salt, and drink water, and eat sugar, and drink water. Bread came that I did not want, apparently I was a bit of a brat to Ashleigh about eating it—I was so cold and weary! She told me she knew it was hard, and that I was doing a good job, and just to have a bite.

I drank a mango lassi, and kept drinking all the water they kept giving me, and after an hour or so finally felt hungry. After I ate, and after another hour, I realized it was actually quite hot out and was no longer cold. All was well that ended well. But I’ve been even more obsessive of late about water, and embarrassingly grateful whenever I have two full containers and as much as I want or need. I’m also embarrassingly grateful for friends and community.

***

Finally, my passport. It was a perfect storm of little things that added up. I rode a bicycle rickshaw home alone. The driver was confused—or feigned confusion—about how far we had to come, and wanted more than we had agreed upon. This has occasionally happened—our compound is pretty far away from the town center, and at the far end of the BHU campus. It’s hard to explain to drivers, and they want to take us as a fare even if they don’t understand where we’re going.

I had just been to the ATM, which had given me Rs 1000 bills. I didn’t want the driver to see my entire wallet full of money. When we got to the compound gate, there was already the awkwardness that he wanted more money than we had agreed upon, it was starting to get dark, and it began to rain.

Usually, all of my money is in a small felt wallet. This wallet, with my passport, IDs, and debit cards, goes in a small Vera Bradley purse that I can wear cross-body. I took the wallet out of the purse, and thought I put the purse in my red backpack, which was sitting on the rickshaw seat. I turned my back to the driver, both to guard the money in my wallet, and so that I could see how much money I was taking out in the light from the gate.

Then, it was raining. I wanted to be done with the transaction and get away from the driver and back inside. I kept my wallet in my hand, zipped up my red backpack (thinking my purse was inside), and came into the classroom. As soon as I sat down, I unzipped the backpack to put the wallet back into my purse…and my purse was gone.

I said, “My purse. My passport. I left it…” Ashleigh and I ran back outside, Matt got on his bike to try and chase the driver down. Ashleigh and I walked up and down the road in the rain, using her phone as a flashlight, looking and hoping to see if the purse had just fallen off the rickshaw. Matt rode all the way back to the café, and back, in the rain, looking for a driver who looked like mine. To no avail.

It’s not the worst thing that could happen in a foreign country. It’s not even the end of the world. Ashleigh and the librarian and the campus driver/chef took me to the police station, which was itself a strange and interesting experience. I had to fill out a report and they gave me a stamped report to take with me to the Embassy. I went with Nelda and one of the workers today to see the Station Master at the Varanasi Rail Station, to ensure that I had permission to ride without an ID. (The written note I took with me, under instruction from one of the professors, asked that he “…please kindly confirm [my] berth and oblige…under Discretionary Quota.”) I feel like I’ve been in some dream concocted by Kafka and Wes Anderson. Tomorrow I ride the train back down to Delhi, to visit the Embassy. Apparently, if all goes well, I’ll have another passport (delivered via diplomatic pouch) in seven to nine days…in time to fly home with Matt and still go to Canada. Fingers crossed and hopeful prayers.

***

And yet, I still am kind of in love with this city. The tuk-tuk we rode in today, on the way to the train station, was crowded with seven passengers. Unbelievably crowded. Three adults in the front, three in the back, and one little boy standing between someone’s legs in the back seat. (I gave him a sheet of stickers: turtles, snakes, and frogs.)

The driver played Bollywood music on the stereo as we careened around the city, passing stands selling fruit, flowers, bathroom sinks, statues, umbrellas, garland, fried food, shoes, backpacks, plastic piping, posters featuring the Periodic tables, bangles, tobacco and beedee, chickens…

No one is unoccupied. Digging, selling, slicing, begging, carrying a child or younger sibling, carrying bricks or bowls of dirt or greenery, balancing family members on a bike or motorcycle, bartering, arranging…

Schoolkids fill the streets: some ride on “school bus tuk-tuks,” which are tuk-tuks with a flat truck bed on the back, surrounded by fencing and covered with a tin roof. Like a very small parade float. The small children, all in uniform, sit in rows on two boards, their backpacks hanging from hooks on the back of the truck. Older kids ride bikes—one, two, or three kids to a bike—or occasionally on motorcycles with a mom or dad. I love to see mothers, in saris and helmets, driving their kids around, an older kid on the back and a smaller one in front.

The smells are as endless as the colors: jasmine, cow and dog and human feces, rain water, frying savory food and frying sweet food, spices, tea, body odor and sweat, incense. I still get goosebumps of thrill and joy when I realize where I am, and how lucky I am to see what I see.

I return to the compound, dusty and worn from the train station. It’s going to rain again. The mangoes are over for the season. The dogs greet me, I see little kids running down the brick pathway, and hear bells ringing close by. Later, dozens and dozens of fireflies will light the trees as they escape the rain, and people I don’t know will once again cook me dinner, for which I will be grateful. My friends will make me laugh, and we will probably end up singing, as we do many nights. I will sleep deeply in the monsoon-cooled air. My love is coming to meet me here later this week, and I really don’t want for a single thing.

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discarded flowers on the street

Oh, India. You wait for a moment of lull, and knock us in our hearts, reminding us again and again that expectations are all in vain, and what we are given will always be more than we knew we needed.

On July 4th, only five of us at the breakfast table, we were singing verses from our favorite patriotic songs. “You’re a Grand Old Flag” came brightly into the room, elementary music classes ringing in my ears. I was having my second cup of tea, laughing and trying to imagine the parade we could create for the holiday, when the cook said to us, “Professor P., his father died. They take today, nine o’clock, to the ghat.”

He had to say it twice, to make sure we understood. He added, “Professor P., his father old man, seventy-five, seventy-seven. He die here, is okay, moksha.” He gestured to the heavens with his hands–the man had lived a long life, and had died in Varanasi: instant moksha (nirvana/liberation).

As we were processing this, and finishing our breakfast, the cook suddenly said, “We will go. P. and his family at his house, getting body ready.” He stood up and we stood up; suddenly, just like that, we were going to a funeral.

We walked through the compound, past our classroom and the dorm where our rooms are. To the family house, toward the chanting and crying we had heard upon awakening without knowing what it was.

In the courtyard in front of the small house lay Professor’s father, wrapped first in white, and then in orange and garland, as we had seen at the ghats. A barber was shaving the men’s heads, leaving a small patch of hair, like a tail, on the back of each man’s head. Professor is a Brahmin; this is the tradition. Women sat on the porch, crying and wailing. The oldest woman, the widow, crouched by the body’s head, washing his face, sobbing. Family members threw marigold blossoms on and around the body.

We stood, watching, hands either clasped or held together, as if in prayer. I tried to keep my eyes down; if I made eye contact with a family member, I bowed my head slightly, a silent “namaste.” I thought about how the women would have to remain here, not allowed to go to the ghats. Professor is the oldest son; he will be the one to light the fire at the Burning Place.

After a bit, the sons and men lifted up the body on its bamboo stretcher, ready to take it through the town to the river. The crying and wailing got louder, and we moved quickly aside to let the procession through. The women sobbed and held each other and threw flowers. The men walked through the compound and out the gate, carrying the old man away from home.

***

It’s strange that this was more affecting than actually seeing the bodies burning at the ghat. Here was a loss of someone we knew. Here was the family, the widow, the tears. Here I felt more of an intruder than I had at the Burning Place.

The next day, we made a card. I painted a lotus using my watercolor kit, and blank cards that once belonged to Matt’s Grandmother (a fine artist who once told me, when I was struggling to get a flower just right, “Don’t worry about the details. Just paint the flower”). As I used the single brush, and watery pink and red, I thought about all the flowers I’d seen burning, then floating, around the ghat and in the water. Marigold chains at the Indian wedding, garlanding the bride, the groom, the horses. Marigolds heaped on the bodies, turning to ash in the fire. Marigolds and petals thrown onto idols and river at the puja. Flowers floating on tiny candles, all they way down the river, winding away in the darkness.

Inside the card, I wrote the following text from the Bhagvad Gita,

“acche’dyo’yam adhaahyo’yam akle’dhyo’sya eva cha
nithya sarva-gatha sthaanoor achalo’yam sanaathanah.”
 
“Uncleavable is he; he is not burnt; nor be wetted and neither be he dried;
Eternal, all pervading, stable and immovable is he from everlasting time.”

We all signed messages inside. Some of us struggled– was it wrong, or trite, or culturally odd, to write, “I’m sorry for your loss”? How do we connect what we say in times of death, in English, to phrases that are meaningful here? I decided that what was important was that we were writing something, in our own hand, that we were giving our attention and heart.

I tied the card with ribbon and took it to the cook, hoping he would deliver it for me. Both he and the other professor insisted I go. The cook led me back to the family house. I carried the card in front of me on open palms.

When we arrived, the family was still all outside, on the porch and in the courtyard. I didn’t recognize Professor–he had his head shaved and was dressed like a monk, all in white, as he tended the fire. Only when the cook said his name and he came over to me did I realize who he was; I’m used to seeing him in business clothes, in the classroom or his office.

Silently, he held out his hands, open like mine, to me. I placed the card on them, held my hands together, and bowed. Silent “namaste.” He bowed his head, I bowed to the silent family, and the cook and I walked back to the classroom, past the dogs and mango trees.

***

Nelda, my roommate, has a book of Hafiz poems for the year; each calendar day has a poem. She’s been reading the daily poem for us each morning. Here is the poem for July 4th; we thought of the Professor and his father as we read:

“When the Meadows on the Body Turn Gray”

When the meadows on the body begin to turn
gray, let your eye soften toward yourself, and those
who are close.
 
Let anyone, anything, inside who has driven you,
let them retire or move at an easier pace.
 
And where you were once firm, and might have
even said to someone, feel my muscle, or admired it 
yourself,
 
yes, now look at the way you have become, or will 
someday if you live as long as you may want.
 
Many do all they can to not have to face the candle
going out.
 
The wonder of my body aging, dying, is finding
another flame within, a holy eternal
 
sphere, that will never go out and is more beautiful
than all the form you have known–put together.
 
When the fields on your body begin to turn gray
let your hand’s touch upon all, soften. 

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I like to study in a coffee shop called Flavours. It’s owned by a South African man who originally came to Varanasi to teach English. Flavours has great coffee and amazing apple pie. It’s so pleasant to sit at a table, work on my paper, and be brought incredible lattes– the baristas have been topping each other each time I come with the decorations they put in my milk foam.

 

Flavours is on the second floor, and so it’s like being in an urban treehouse, above the street vendors and traffic. Frequently, monkeys come along the tree branches and window sills, and regard us regarding them.

Mama Monkey.

 

Notice she has the little one on her belly, along for the ride. Older sibling monkey follows.

 

While I’m thinking about Jain-based compassion curriculum for secondary school students, Mama Monkey is wondering how to finagle a piece of fruit from the vendor below.

 

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