Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

India....the world within

I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within. ~Lillian Smith.

I'm going to India in a few weeks.  Of course, if you know me at all, this is old news....because it's all I've been talking about for weeks. Months.  Well, years.  In fact, this trip will be the realization of a very long-standing dream. 

It seems wrong to start off talking about my love affair with India by mentioning my love affair with England, or at least English history, but that is probably the way it began.  Like most young girls I went through my princess phase.  I loved books about castles and pomp and circumstance and gilded life.  King Arthur and Camelot took up a lot of room in my imagination to be sure, but also the more concrete and recent true life tales of the Elizabethan court, Queen Victoria and her Empire, the Wallis Simpson scandal, Elizabeth the Second, her kids and, of course, Diana.  But I also just loved the simpler England of small country homes and cottages with ordered little gardens, cobble-stoned streets that twisted and turned and, in my mind, were filled with Jane Austen characters and Pip from Great Expectations.

This love for everything English rippled from my reading life into my movie watching life, and this, I think, is where India started to come into the picture.  All the way back in my young girl-hood I was utterly captivated by The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, two stories about lonely English girls who don't fit into the upper class English world.  In the tough times that plagued them, both girls drew upon their earliest memories, happy memories, rich and colorful memories which happened to be in India, an India ruled and ordered by the English colonialists who governed it. When I was younger I thought the civility of the English was somehow romantic, the white cotton dresses perfectly pressed, their unflagging order in the chaos of a "heathen" nation; it was probably the sort of order that I yearned for in my own chaotic childhood. 

So many tales told about England that have captured my imagination are rooted in India where behind all the orchestrated pageantry of the English living abroad lurked the beauty and unfathomable kaleidoscope of India which seemed to be part of the life blood of any British character in any story of that ilk.....Jewel in the Crown, A Passage to India, and my favorite, Heat and Dust.  If you haven't seen it, Heat and Dust came out in 1983 when I was 14.  The movie follows two women, a young English officer's wife who arrives in India in the waning days of English rule and her niece who comes to India 50 or so years later to find out more about her aunt who was led astray by an Indian prince.  It seems the longer a character stays in India, the more in danger they are of eventually abandoning their ordered English lives forever because they fall completely in love with the visceral, sensual heartbeat of India itself.  

Over the years I have morphed into a woman who has come to realize that she, also, does not seem destined to live an ordered life and I often feel as if I don't fit in with the expectations of my society.  Looking back at my younger self, I wonder if I loved those tales not because of how very British the British were, but because I secretly yearned to abandon my fears of not fitting in, of not ever really being capable of living an ordered life.  And now it has become a calling, this need to go to India.  There is, somewhere deep inside me, a voice that says, "I must go to India", the way people are called to be artists or doctors or politicians.  Crazy, perhaps, but like with artists, politicians, doctors it feels connected to my work in this world, whatever that may be in the years to come.  And as vague and unsupported as that may sound to you, it is only slightly less vague and unsupported to me...and only because I hear this voice so clearly.  

But just because the voice is clear, doesn't mean I'm not put off by the utter mysteriousness of the quest.  In fact, I decided that I would go to India three years ago and set the goal of going when I was 40 and told everyone who would listen that I was spending part of that year in India....but didn't.  On September 6th, 2010 I turned 41, and I knew it was time to stop saying I WOULD go to India and actually go.

But buying the ticket was hard.  Very hard.  Scary even.  It's not just that the ticket is a hefty chunk of change, but the idea of committing to India itself is terrifying.  Over the last several months I've been wrestling both with terror and apathy.  Of course the apathy is just a cover up for the terror, a way to divorce myself from unadulterated fear so it doesn't take hold of me completely.

Ok.  I'm exaggerating.

But only a little.

You see, India is a big country.  I feel daunted by the sheer size of it.  Even though I am going for 3 1/2 months (yes, you read that right, MONTHS) I know I can only scratch the surface.  I want so much to soak all of it in, to understand exactly why I'm called to go there.  While I was reading my giant guide-book for ALL of INDIA it was like trying to pin-point which stars in the Milky way were the absolute best.  India is far away, in more ways than one and reading about it only made it feel more alien, more foreign, more immense and unknowable.  I began to feel like I could only miss out on most things instead of really soaking in a few things.  I guess, I began to get scared that my grand adventure would be marred by the nagging feeling that I wasn't seeing what I was supposed to see.  That there was no way to fulfill my mysterious quest because the territory I have to cover is just too vast.

Then there are the rules plastered all over the books: cover my shoulders and my knees, don't drink in public, don't touch any person for fear of being disrespectful or misunderstood, any animal for fear of rabies, any food that hasn't been disinfected with lysol for fear of life-long digestive problems.  Don't look any man in the eyes, don't ever be alone with a man, including taxi drivers, don't go out after dark unless you take a taxi which are driven by men...hey, wait a minute....

Add to that the poverty, the smells, the thievery, the....well, the list could go on and on depending on what I read and who I talk to....

So I had to do something.  Something that would help me find my India mojo.  The first thing I did was narrow down my itinerary to two states: Kerala and Rajasthan.  Kerala because that's where the ouija board in my heart tells me I have to go.  And Rajasthan because where Kerala is South and green and wet and lush, Rajasthan is north and dry and deserty, and I like the idea of immersing myself in two obviously contrasting parts of a giant and probably unfathomable country.  Added to those two states are side trips to Varanasi, Darjeeling, and, of course, Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

Once I'd narrowed down those specifics I found a hotel room in Mumbai for the first week after my arrival, booked two weeks in a little town in Kerala called Fort Cochin and then I put down the guide-book.  The rest of the trip...well, the rest of the trip is just going to have to unfold as it goes.

I realized that for me to go to India I have to let India reveal itself to me as I go.  I have to see it and smell it and discover how I move in it, how I own and govern myself in such a foreign landscape.  I have to meet India first before I decide how we are going to understand each other best.

I feel certain I will stumble a few times, that India and I will have a few quarrels along the way, quarrels that might be avoided or softened if I go in with more information, armed a little more with a sense of what I want from India off the bat...but that seems a little too English for me at this stage in my life.  And as my departure date gets closer and closer I find myself less scared and more excited by the impending adventure that promises to be anything but clean and neatly pressed, and, more likely, will be full of messy, sensual, incomprehensible challenges and delights.  Perhaps this is why I need to go to India now, to fall in love with the visceral, sensual heartbeat of myself.

Heat and Dust Trailer

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