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?"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Home is.....?

I'm sitting on the veranda looking out onto the dirt road that I temporarily live on.  There are houses to my left and right and straight ahead.  There's also a surprising number of trees for such a dry and dusty climate: palm, eucalyptus, mango, and several that I cannot identify.  In the yard across the road is the tallest tree on my block.  It doesn't have any leaves, but it has lots of bright red blossoms that are keeping several small birds occupied at the moment.

On Thursday morning the tree was twice as heavy with flowers.  Chandana had joined Barbara, Eva and me for a last leisurely breakfast.  While we sat chatting, there was a terrible ruckus across the way.  Several of the leafy trees were swaying violently as if they were in some kind of cartoon storm where a single cloud wreaks havoc in the isolated area of it's shadow.  Then, one by one, 10 large monkeys emerged out of the lower vegetation and began climbing the red flowered tree.  It's branches began to sway and buckle and jump, red petals dropped like violent snow.

Most of the monkeys were happy to stay up in the high branches.

One giant critter, however, decided to get a closer look at us, so he came down and sat on the fence across the way.

"This," I remarked, "is something that would never ever happen back home!"

Yesterday, when my friends went off to Calcutta and left me to my peace and quiet, I relished the simple pleasure of making my own schedule and not having to account for my time to anyone, a pleasure I've happily abandoned in favor of good company and many exciting adventures over the last 6 weeks.

Today, however, facing another whole day to myself, I awoke with a familiar disquietness.

As we all know by now, you can leave a place behind, but you can never leave yourself behind.

Over the years I've struggled with deep feelings of loneliness which is something not many people can see or accept about me because I've become so adept at presenting a happy exterior.  I also work really hard at finding the good even in the bad, so when I am going through hard times I legitimately tend to fare better than some other people might in similar situations.  But that doesn't mean I don't feel pain, hurt, sadness, as completely as other people do.  I've come to process all that on my own, though, away from almost everyone who doesn't know me really really well.

I've also done a lot of soul searching and unearthing of experiences, memories, emotional firestorms that formed an underground river of self-doubt and grief.  This has created a sort of see-saw effect during the last couple of years.  Through the excavation of that hidden valley, I've come to know myself as a truly strong, independent woman, who knows what is lovable, worthy, valuable about herself and her life, but I've also been stopped in my tracks by geysers of existential despair that have bubbled up, unexpectedly crumpling me, giving me real moments of pause about what it is that makes walking on this planet worthwhile especially when faced with global warming, deniers, Sarah Palin, birthers, oil spills, tea-partiers, greedy politicians, health care opponents, etc. etc. etc.....

The really lovely thing about these periods of angst is that all the soul-searching has paid off in one amazing shift in consciousness: I can quickly diffuse the old voices that try to convince me that I'm the problem, that I'm not good enough, thin enough, talented enough, strong enough, beautiful enough, lovable enough and that's why I'm unhappy, why I don't work more in theater, and why I'm single and know all those demon thoughts that can barrage a person when they are feeling down.  We've all got our own particular favorites.  But I've developed a good grasp on why I'm pretty great just the way I am....for example, being single allows me the space to be on this trip, having spent so much of the last ten years single has given me the courage to do it on my own .

By learning to diffuse the really destructive thoughts, and after weeding out all the fear and anger I share with so many of you about the state of our country and our planet, I am left with one nagging threat to my personal happiness:  I almost always feel on the outside of things, separate, slightly alien, even from my family, my friends, and the theater community I've worked in for 14 years.  I often find myself saying, even as I sit in my own living room in Seattle, "I want to go home."  I have no idea where this "home" is that I want to go to,  just that I haven't found it yet, that place where I belong.  Dr. Kumar said in the hills of Kerala, "You are the  most peculiar kind."  I feel that.  And I know that keeps me a little removed, a perception that is enhanced, I realize, by turning my back on my regular life and traipsing off to India for 3 and a half months alone.

It might be too late to convince you that this isn't a post about feeling depressed.  You might already have me pegged with a "Poor Me" sign floating above my head.  It's not true.  I'm not depressed; I feel pretty darn lucky right now.  It's just that I awoke feeling like seedlings of depression were taking root and I wanted to investigate where they came from before the "Poor Me" tears started to flow, making the blues grow into towering trees of doom.

It has to do with those monkeys and Thursday, that's when the seeds got tossed and tilled into the soul, I mean, soil.  The time I'd spent so far in Santiniketan had me feeling like that red flowered tree across the street, like I'd erupted in flames of blossoms.  Barbara, Eva, Chandana and I had all been working and living well together, discussing ways to help this small part of the world be a little stronger, while also letting it teach us how to be stronger, healthier. I was feeling part of a team, part of a plan, part of a town in a way I rarely feel "part of" anything.  I'd begun using my skills in a way that had me vibrating with usefulness.  I wasn't fighting to put put my skills to use, auditioning, proving myself, begging for work the way actors do in the states.  I said to Eva back in Fort Cochin, "I'm an actress and a writer....well, a storyteller."  And she said, "Oh, my God, you should come with us.  We could really use you."  She didn't look at me skeptically, ask me to get up and do a monologue to earn admission to the team.  All I had to do was say, "Yes.  Ok.  Thanks.  I'll come."

Thursday afternoon, Chandana took Barbara and me on a walking tour of the Santiniketan campus which felt like a ghost town at 2:30.  That's something I'm only starting to get used to here.  Everything closes up and hides itself away from one till 5, including the people.  It's too hot to be out and about.  It was still very disconcerting to be on a college campus where 5 to 6 thousand people are meant to be studying and to see, at most, 15 people wandering on the grounds.  I began to wonder if I'd made a dreadful mistake committing to staying here for a month.  What if there ended up being nothing to do or to see, no one to meet.  What if, after Barbara and Eva left, I was stuck in a sort of limbo, alone, useless, adventurless, like that campus mid-afternoon?

Everything changed when we arrived at a cluster of buildings that house various sections of the art school.  Nothing was particularly remarkable about them with the exception of some sculptures and frescoes that made them stand out from the sand colored buildings and roads that make the rest of the campus seem like an endless, people-less expanse of light brown dirt and dust.  But, honest to goodness, the energy shifted.  There was a life force that bubbled up from the ground.  I had to fight back tears.

I said, "Oh, dear, I feel like I'm going to cry."

Chandana said, "That's because you know you are coming home."

Isn't that something?  What a powerful and bold thing to say to someone halfway around the world from where she normally lives.  Chandanda didn't hesitate.  She just looked at me and said it.

She was right.

Oh, heck.  I don't know how she was right, just that she was speaking the truth.

Is it Santiniketan that is home?  India?  Is it simply being amongst artists that brings me home?  When I am doing a play, I hardly ever feel lost or alone.  In Fort Cochin, I was aware of a peace that enveloped me at the Kathakali shows....I was amongst my people.

But it is more than that, I sense.  It is entwined with a feeling of purpose, of usefulness, even though I don't know what the plan is yet for my work here now that Barbara and Eva are gone.

Since Friday I've felt like that tree after the monkeys came and jumped all over the branches, a little thread bare, sparse, waiting for the leaves to grow.  I have no idea why this place I'd never heard of a month ago has suddenly become so very important to me, potentially to my very well-being.  I don't know what kinds of fruits the other seeds I'm learning to harvest and cultivate will grow, but I'd like to learn.  I'm tired of chopping down the tangled trees of depression.  Thankfully, today, the seedlings have been stunted before they got too big to handle.

Tomorrow I'm going to Kolkata for a few days to see Nicole so that Chandana can have some space to organize our project with the village gals.

On Tuesday I come back to Santiniketan, which means"peaceful abode" and continue my studies in Coming Home.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I've been taking the day off.  Lounging around my little apartment in Santiniketan.  Eva and Barbara left today, so I have the place all to myself.

I now have a little modem that hooks up to my computer like a pen-drive.  It's not running at full speed yet. In India, the guy at the wireless shop comes to your house, checks that the modem technology will work with your computer (if you have a mac, that is), then lets you use his 2g sim card while he goes back to the shop to do the paperwork that will get you the 3g sim card, which, in my case,  he will deliver in the morning.  AT&T could learn a thing or two from this guy.

Lunch and dinner were delivered to me from Chandana's house.  Fresh vegetarian cooking, hot and ready to eat, twice a day.  I drank lime sodas and caught up on the Huffington Post.  I deliberately decided that I wouldn't write until tomorrow.  I figured a day off needed to be a complete day of rest.

But then I got a call from Nicole.  A friend of hers is staying at Leelu's and this friend called to say that Udayan, Leelu and Roy's "Boy", died today.

I was joking the other day with Barbara, Eva, and Chandana that when I was Indian, in a past life, that I must have been "working" class, which is a nice way of saying that if I really was Indian in a past life, I was probably a poor, low caste, servant.  I've come to this conclusion because all of the "help" at Leelu's, Mathew's, and now, here, have taken a particular shine to me.  So much so, that I've wondered if they recognize me as one of their own.  Chompa, the lady who lives behind the house here in Santiniketan, hugged me several times when she discovered that I was staying on.  That's kind of a bold move.  I don't imagine she takes those kind of liberties with all the people who stay here.  Randa, the cleaning lady at Leelu's, offered to let me stay at her house when she found out that I was leaving....she thought Leelu and Roy were kicking me out.  Appayan, the cook at Mathew's, wanted my address so that his daughters could write to me.

I cherish each of these honors.

Udayan liked me, too, I hope, but not in a particularly special way.  I thought he was great.  Udayan had been the house-boy, gardener, cook, dog-walker/groomer, late-night door answerer for Leelu and Roy for over 25 years.  He must have been a teenager when he started.  A slight, very quiet, warm-hearted soul, he plugged away day after day after day taking care of a family that wasn't his.  He must have sent money to his wife and three daughters who lived a couple of hours away.  He saw them a few weeks ago, during my first stay in Fort Cochin.  He went home to go to a family wedding.  Leelu and Roy had to make the eggs in the morning for two days.  It wasn't the same.  But then Udayan returned to his kitchen and resumed cooking, gardening, washing the dog, and sleeping in the pantry on a mat.  I noticed one day that there was an old discarded stool next to his rolled up bed.  On the stool were a razor and an ancient radio.  There were a few shirts folded nearby.  Other than that, there was nothing that spoke of him or his needs or his existence.

I made him smile a few times.  The first was when Roy taught me how to say, "Udayan, annekay oru kuppi venam vellum."  Or, "Udayan, I would like one bottle of water."  It was my first full sentence of Malayalam and Udayan was suitably impressed and surprised.  He did, of course, refill my water bottle.

The second time, I had gone into the pantry late in the evening to fill up my own water bottle.  I'd called out to Udayan to make sure he wasn't in the pantry or the kitchen.  I didn't want to disturb him.  He wasn't there, so I went in.  After my bottle was filled, I stepped out of the pantry just as Udayan was coming into the kitchen and we both jumped.  Then we both laughed.  Even before the news today, it was one of my favorite moments in Fort Cochin because it was so human, a shared unguarded encounter that left me feeling glad to be alive.

Lastly, when I left Leelu's the first time, I bought treats at the bakery for Udayan and Randa, the cleaning lady.  Randa wasn't there, so I gave both pastries to Udayan.  He looked in the bag and only sort of smiled.

I said, "Do you like those?"

He nodded vigorously and then really smiled.

Roy and Leelu were taking a nap when my car came to take me to Alleppy and the backwater tour.  Udayan was sitting in a chair by the front door.  I said, "I'm going."  Even though I'd given him sweets, the language barrier was such that he hadn't understood that they were a farewell gift.  So, he said, "Ohhhh," and shook his head a little sadly.  He ceremoniously got up from his chair and offered his hand.  I took it.  We shook hands.  It was as touching as a hug.

When I returned for those few days after staying in the hills, Udayan was not feeling well.  He wasn't smiling at anything, though he was by no means unpleasant.  I found out that his finger was bothering him and he'd been to the doctor.  Leelu had had to chop all the vegetables for her cooking class the night before, so her back was bothering her.  Roy was going back to Dubai where he works much of the year.  The whole house was discombobulated.  I tried to keep to myself and didn't really mingle with the household on the second leg of my Fort Cochin stay.

But, I remember wondering what would make Udayan's finger hurt so badly that he had to go to the doctor.  There was no cut.  I asked him what was wrong and he indicated that it was something like a hangnail.

I have no idea if what was wrong with Udayan's hand is related to his death.  It seems he was feeling so unwell yesterday that he went to the hospital, but they could find nothing wrong and sent him back to Leelu and Roy's.

It is a strange and complicated set of feelings I have right now as I try to articulate something of this man I hardly knew.  My affection for him is wrapped up in the jumble of emotions about class and caste, poverty and wealth that I struggle to understand every day in India.  It is impossible not to think about the softness of my days and the hardness of his.

I can joke about why it is that I've been so blessed with the kindnesses of the people who have been waiting on me, working to make my days so gentle and well tended.  "I must have been like them in a past life.  Poor girl makes good in the next life...."  But even if that was true, and we will never know, the fact is, in this lifetime Udayan never knew the kind of relaxed day I had today and that makes me sad.

My sadness is nothing compared to the utter shock and devastation his wife and children must feel, and his other family of Leelu, Roy and their three sons.  So, I hope you will send a little love to them today.

And I hope you will hold the Udayans of your life a little closer, those souls who make life more comfortable for others while asking for so little for themselves.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dynamically Static

I’ve decided to stay in Santiniketan for a while, probably much of March.  I’m excited about working with the women from the Santal Villages (I was writing “Santal” as “Chantal” in earlier posts because that’s how it’s pronounced, but now I know how to properly spell it!) as well as doing some projects with the students at the Antaranga School.  I had hoped to find someplace to really settle into when I got to India, a place where I could know more about what it’s like to live here rather than visit here.  That’s the way I prefer to travel.  So, it feels very serendipitous that I’ve found this funny little arts community.

On Sunday, all of my Santiniketan acquaintances loaded into two cars and drove out into Santal land for the annual showcase of the Suchana group.  Started by a British woman and her Bengali husband, Suchana is an after-school arts program for village children.  I don’t know exactly how many people are involved, but I’d guess they had about 200 students from the ages of 4 to 18 participating in the 3-hour event.  There were modern dances, classical dances, three short plays, a magic show, songs, and a gymnastic event to round it all off.  On top of all that, there were sculptures, needle works, paintings, masks and puppets on display.

Over the last 20 years I’ve taught a lot of kids and been involved in a lot of “sharings” where parents get to see what their children have been doing, this was one of the most exciting, partly because of the sheer size of the event and partly because of it’s utter unexpectedness..  400 people were sitting on the ground on a cool Indian evening, completely mesmerized.  I was blown away by the modern dance numbers which were self-choreographed because the teacher up and disappeared (“That happens in India”).  The dance numbers were as tight and focused as anything I’ve seen at Seattle Children’s Theater, but instead of there being one boy and 10 girls, there were as many boys as girls and the boys were the ones really rocking the stage.  To get an idea of the style, think Michael Jackson meets Bollywood.  You’ve got to remember this is a very macho society, so the amount of self-confidence and guts it took for those kids, especially the boys, to get up and pull out those dance moves was unbelievable.

There was also a “domestic drama” that involved a drunken husband and a mother who had to hold the family together.  All the actors were 14 years or younger.  They were performing for their parents, many of whom are certainly living this scenario in their real daily lives.

The gymnastics number was put on by a young Santali gym teacher who had come up through Suchana himself; He is now teaching students to tumble and build human pyramids and do handstands.
Afterwards our little entourage went to Santiniketan College to listen to a group of kids from Nepal who were giving a classical music concert.  The songs were fantastic, as was the venue: a stage in a grove of trees in which were hung brightly colored cutout Sanskrit versions of “Do ray mi fa so la ti do,” At least that’s what I think they were, since I haven’t learned how to read Sanskrit yet.

I suspect you are beginning to understand why I might want to hang around here for a while.

But in case I need to paint the picture a little more, here are some other things I like about this little town:
There are very few cars and a lot of bicycles.  The sound of bike bells is everywhere.  Women and families ride behind the man “driving” the bike the way women and families ride behind the men driving mopeds in the cities.

Shops are closed on Tuesdays because Tagore didn’t want people in Santiniketan to have a normal weekend.  It’s just so illogical that I find it charming.

Many shops at night are lit by old-fashioned kerosene lamps, so going down the road in the evening often feels like going back in time.  The air is thick with darkness, broken by the deep golden glow of flames which illuminate deeply wrinkled brows of men hunched over sewing machines or bicycle wheels or teakettles.
I ride my bike everywhere, often having to swerve to avoid running into a cow or dog who might be eating, sleeping, or roaming right in the middle of the path.

There might also be a great gust of lemon verbena scented breezes.

Monkeys could also show up at anytime.

Men and women wrap themselves up in long woolen blankets of various colors and designs, then ride their bikes down the road looking like nomads from another era plopped on two-wheels instead of camels.
The town doctor sings Tagore songs when he operates.  I know this because he came over to our house last night bringing with him a bottle of rum to go with Eva’s bottle of beer.  We closed the doors and shutters so no one would know that we had alcohol.

There is music everywhere.  The birds in the trees, the monkeys calling, bicycle wheels on the dirt road, the call of various wallas as they pitch their goods while walking down the lane, dogs barking, radios strapped to handle bars wafting tunes as people ride by, all of these contribute to the daily soundtrack. For several days I thought a musician nearby was warming up his trumpet and then I realized it was the sound of a horn on a rickshaw.  Instead of a steady note, this horn plays a little tune. 

To illustrate my point, a flock of Indian Sparrows, which resemble gray turtle doves more than the sparrows I’m used to back home, have just set down in the yard next door and, boy, are they chattering up a storm.  There are squeaks and chirps and cheep-cheep-cheeps and rat-a-tat-tats.  Barbara and Eva are on the veranda chatting away in German, Chompa, our care-taker lady, is yelling at someone in the back yard, a dog is barking, a bike is being ridden, the bell is being rung, a motor-bike is zooming past.

Like that tootling rickshaw horn, life in India is never static.  Maybe that’s why I’m happy to remain in one place for a little while.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Last night I had my first really great dream since being in India.  Normally, I dream epics on a regular basis, so the dearth has been significant.

I was in a boat of some size.  It felt tugboatish in shape, but not in aesthetic design.  There were several of us living on this boat.  We were in the Pacific Ocean, which in dreamland began where the locks empty from Lake Union into Puget Sound.  There was a giant wave coming toward us, towering over us.  I knew it wouldn’t break on us.  Instead our boat was carried back into Lake Union.  The captain, who was also my husband, took us, then, even further up stream and found a place to anchor our boat where the rising tides of the ocean would be less volatile and dangerous to us.  There were so many boats doing the same thing that we became a boat island.

The Captain became ill from exhaustion.  So we lived in the boat village for a while until he recovered.
Eventually we had to venture onto land to search for something.  In the dream, I did not know what we were looking for, only that we were a party sent ahead to search.

We walked through empty residential streets.  No one was living on the land.  The only signs of life that we encountered were solar lights that were shinning very brightly in the yards, even in daytime.  The sun was strong; the air was thick with smog.

Suddenly, in a yard where there were trees we caught sight of children playing.  When they saw us, the kids hid.  We went into the yard, into the grove of trees.  I realized then that these were the first trees I’d seen in a long time.  The children slowly came out.   We asked them what they were doing here, how they were managing to live where no one else could.

They said, “It’s our forest.  It’s the redwoods.”

Then their father, played by Aiden Quinn in my dream (of course), came out of a house.  He was obviously nervous about people discovering that he had managed to keep the redwoods growing and was even cultivating new ones.  I looked around and saw all the baby trees.  The grove had grown into a dark, thick expanse of trees.  On the ground was a sort of by-product of the tree bark that was edible…it fed the family and it fed the Earth.

I was aware then that the air in this stand of trees was pristine, almost pure oxygen.  It was so cooling, soothing and restorative.  The captain told “Aiden Quinn” that we would not tell the other people back on the boats about the forest, not yet.  We would change our route on the map (now there was a map being drawn by one of our search party) so no one would come that way and the trees could grow.

I woke up with the feel of fresh. clean air in my lungs, a feeling I haven’t known since I came to India. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Peaceful, Easy Feeling

When Eva suggested that I come to Santiniketan, she said that it’s a very different experience to be living and working in India rather than being a tourist, even if you are only working for a few weeks.

I haven’t really been working all that much in the last week. But I have a purpose, a job that is making itself up as I go along. In addition to going to the village to meet the women who I’ll be creating a short Tagore piece with, I helped Eva do two art workshops at the Antaranga School.

As the chief fundraiser for the Antaranga School, Eva has planned an exhibition in Switzerland of artwork created by the students. On Friday morning we worked with 20 of the younger kids. I started off the class with an acting excersise designed to get the kids thinking about different environments. The students were divided into 5 groups; each team was assigned a place: The Sea, Jungle, Desert, Outer Space, The Circus. Members of the “Sea” group came up one at a time and created a frozen picture of the Ocean by announcing what they wanted to be and striking a pose of that thing: wave, fish, whale, shark. Once they were in place, I had the non-sea kids count to three, at which time our “ocean” would come to life. It’s a simple, but very effective way to get kids moving creatively.

After they got their imaginations going, each team used thick finger paint to create large paintings of their environment. The paintings were great; but ended up being more specific than Eva had anticipated. She had hoped the students might work a little more abstractly so that in the second half of the workshop, which takes place on Monday, the young artists could be freshly inspired by the backdrops to imagine a new environment into which they could introduce the appropriate animals. We needed more paintings.

I thought quickly. I had all the kids gather the paint in the center of the room, then I had us all sit in a clump around the paint. I told the adults to put paper all around our circle. With Nandu translating into Bengali, I told the kids to listen to my voice and to move their hands in the air to the music I would make. If the music was fast, they were to move their hands fast. If the music was very melodic, the fingers would become softer, more flowy. The kids were really listening and adjusting accordingly, so I made the next leap.

I said, “Ok, now I want you to choose one color. Dip your hands in that color and go to a piece of paper. Don’t touch the paper till you hear my voice, then paint to the sound of my voice.” I hoped all that would get through in Bengali.

The kids coated their hands, got to their paper. I started singing, slowly. The kids started pounding the paper indiscriminately with paint. I said, “Stop! Listen to my voice.” I tried again with a very rhythmic sound. The kids just pounded at their own pace again. I said, “Stop. Nandu, tell them to watch me.” I demonstrated.

The kids got poised to paint again. I started to sing.

You could feel the coin drop. Suddenly the students were really listening and painting to the sound of my voice. Several times I told them to freeze and I would change the feel of the music and they would change their tempo, their hands would get softer or harder accordingly. It was really thrilling. I asked another volunteer, Kristin’s daughter, Michaela to sing a song. She started into Castle on a Cloud. The students basically danced with their hands on their canvases. When we were done we had a room full of backdrops for Monday’s class, a huge mess of paint on the floor, and I had a green face.

Part of what made both activities so fun was that the teachers at Antaranga were so tickled by them. The teachers at Seattle Children’s Theatre have been using the first “environment” game for years, but it was totally new here in India. I was so happy to be opening up doors in thinking for both the young kids and their mentors; they all repayed me a million-fold with wide-open faces and hearts. Because of their trust, I felt so free and creative that that second exercise just fell out of my mind. I wasn’t stressed about whether it would work, or about proving myself to anyone. I followed my instinct and everyone went with me. Of course it helped that Eva had thought so long and hard about what she wanted out of the workshop and Nandu and the other teachers were so good at their jobs. I certainly wasn’t the only one working. It was a true collaborative effort, with each soul in the room doing their part, teachers and students alike.

The evening workshop with the older kids was very much Eva’s baby. She did a stellar job. Barbara and I facilitated along with Nandu and two other teachers. I got to be the hard-nosed teacher who ran around saying, “10 more minutes!” “Five more minutes!” “Two more minutes!”

I learned how to say that last one in Bengali. It’s really hard: Du minute!

When time was up, I learned how to say, “Cess!” (Stop!) I would go to one group and say, “Cess!” then dance to the next group singing, “I’m learning Bengali-eeee!!!” Then say in my mock hard-ass voice, “CESS!” to the next group.

Today, Saturday, the school is closed so Eva, Barbara, and I had the day off. I needed to get my sandals fixed, so I took a rickshaw to the cobblers. The two shoe fixing guys work on a platform at the base of a banyon tree on the main Santinikitan drag. I sat and watched while the younger of the two guys went set about matching the purple leather of my sandel, reglueing, sewing, and pounding my shoe back to life. The older guy then cleaned both shoes. The whole process took 15 minutes and cost 50 cents.

This afternoon Eva took Barbara and I to the Saturday Hut, a market for artists to sell their wares that is held in a large field on the outskirts of town. I almost didn’t go because I was super tired after a two hour bike ride yesterday afternoon and I didn’t really feel up to another ride out of town.

I’m glad I went.

The Saturday Hut was a dusty affair, accompanied by the music of several musicians playing traditional Bengali drums and stringed instruments called Ektas. The arts and crafts were pretty fantastic, but not as amazing as the faces of the folks who made them. Soul, that’s what they all had, depth and soul. The people who were buying the goods also seemed like pretty neat folks. I wanted to talk to everyone, to know their stories. But I contented myself with basking in the whole atmosphere of the Hut which was a thick soup of heat, dust, and melody with an undercurrent of creative energy that seemed to swell from the earth itself.

I think I’m beginning to get a handle on that enigmatic shift that I noticed when I came North. In the Kerala, the people lived ON the Planet. In Santiniketan, the people feel OF the planet.

Who knows, maybe it’s just that I’m more grounded.

When Eva, Barbara and I cycled home from the market, I stopped on the dirt road to take a picture while the two German ladies went on ahead. It was dusk and the road was crowded with rickshaws, bikes, motorbikes, trucks and cars headed home from the Hut. I clicked my photo then started off again on my own. A few feet away a package fell out of the basket on my bike. I had to jump off the cycle and run to get the package before it was run over by a group of guys on motorbikes. I got back on my bike and started off again. A few feet later my scarf got caught in the wheel of my bike. I stopped again. When I took off, I only made it a yard or two before a truck ran me off the road. Then, I got back onto the road only to be caught behind a mini-van spewing exhaust. To cap it all off, after I finally got up some speed I was bumped off the road again and my shoe fell off! It was like I Love Lucy, but not quite as funny.

All through this crazy ride, I just kept smiling…really smiling. As frustrating as it was trying to get down the road, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. My body was sore and tired from all the cycling, my lungs were filled with dirt and fumes. On top of all that, men were staring at me in a way that would have unnerved me just weeks ago, but now it doesn’t bother me in the least. After every setback and through all the attention, I just kept getting back on my bike, my heart full of gladness, to continue the journey home.

When I was able to just ride for a bit, I wondered why it was that I was feeling so different, so content, peaceful and easy about all the obstacles that I was encountering. “Is it the magic of Santiniketin? Is Santiniketin even that magical? Am I just acclimated, finally, to India? Is it the yoga, the exersice? Is it going to work and being of use? Is it all of the above?”

Ultimately, I don’t suppose the reason matters. But I also don’t imagine that I’m going to stop trying to figure it out.

(More pictures will be added later to all the Santineketan posts, the internet is extremely slow in these parts....)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bengali Stories


Early evening, Eva, Barbara and I were going down the dirt road to Chandana’s house to pick up a book that had been left behind.  Eva left Barbara and I at the gate.  While we stood there, a young girl of 18 or 19 turned the corner onto “our” street, jumped off her bike, dropping her purse, shoes, books, and started running in our direction.

From around the same corner a young man of 20 or 21, came running on foot behind her.  Just as the girl might have reached Barbara and I, she turned instead into an empty lot and began clawing her way into heavily thorned brush. The girl was screaming; the man pursued her into the bushes.  The girl grabbed onto a tree trunk and held on fast.  The man wrapped his arms around her waist and tried to pull her back out into the lot.  He was talking now.  Of course, they were both speaking in Bengali, so Barbara and I didn’t know what was happening.

Stunned, at first, we finally looked at each other and said, “What’s going on?”

A man on a motorbike appeared from the other end of the road.  He saw the man and woman struggling.  He stopped, got off his bike, and approached the couple.  The older man started to interrogate the younger man, who continued to grapple with the woman.

An older woman had appeared from around the corner where the couple had emerged.  She began picking up the girl’s belongings and silently approached the scene.

Barbara and I decided that Chandana was needed.  We had no idea what was happening to the poor girl who was obviously terrified of the young man.  Barbara went off to fetch Chandana just as the young man and the older man both got a hold of the young girl who was suddenly no longer struggling.  The two men carried the young woman out of the brush.  She was not moving.  Her eyes were not open.  They laid her on the ground and started talking in raised voices.  The older woman knelt by the young woman.

Chandana, Eva and Barbara came rushing from the house.  Chandana immediately took charge in as calm yet authoritative a way as I’ve ever witnessed a person behave in a stressful situation.  Barbara and I explained quickly what we had seen.  We said the older man had just stopped to help; it was the younger man who was chasing the young woman.  Chandana spoke to each of the other players in turn, while Barbara and Eva in a wonderfully Germanic way, took charge of the young woman who was still not moving and had fallen into a deep sleep.  Barbara put the woman’s head in her own lap.  Eva raised the girl’s feet to make sure blood was flowing.  Water was fetched.

It was soon determined that the girl had lapsed into a diabetic coma.  The young man, her husband, said that he was trying to help his wife who had not eaten all day because she was distraught over a fight they’d had the night before.  He said that his wife was headed to the train tracks to kill herself.  The older man was the young girl’s father.  The older woman, who still had not spoken, was her mother.

Chandana called a doctor who said that the girl must be taken immediately to the hospital.  A bicycle rickshaw was called.  The mother climbed into the rickshaw.  The husband picked up his wife and awkwardly deposited his wife into the arms and lap of his mother-in-law whose silence was possessed by such a deep sadness I could not help but weep for her as they lumbered off towards the hospital.


Barbara related this story of a man she studied cooking with in Germany:

There was an Indian man who lived happily with his wife and baby daughter until, one day, his wife suddenly disappeared taking their daughter with her.  He had no idea why.  He had no clue where they had gone.  His wife’s absence was confusing and sad, but the loss of his daughter was devastating.  He became completely distraught.  He spent weeks, months, a few years searching for his daughter. He was becoming more and more sick with worry; his friends feared for his health.

He decided that he needed to get out of India before he went crazy.  The man was a chef.  His specialty was Bavarian Cream Pie.  He decided he would go to Bavaria where he also had some relations.

After he arrived in Germany, his despair did not lessen.  He continued to get sick.  Soon he was on the verge of death.  While in the hospital he had an epiphany.  He knew there was nothing he could; he had to give up on seeing his daughter again and return to living his life.  He knew, that in time, his daughter might choose to find him, but he could not hold on even to that.

He began to get well.  He got a job cooking for a convent of nuns who lived on an island in the middle of a large lake.  The years passed.  He made a peace garden that he dedicated to his daughter.  More years passed.  He began giving cooking lessons.  Barbara came to his lessons and met the tiny Indian man with the “very large aura” who shared the story of his daughter and how he had found the way to peace through letting go of his anger and despair and choosing to live in the reality of his life with an open heart.
A few more years passed.

Barbara returned to the island for another cooking class.  This time she learned that the daughter, after 25 years had found her father on the island in Bavaria.
Nandu, the principal of Antaranga School, married a woman from a lower caste, Bhatika, for love.  15 months ago they became the parents of a beautiful baby daughter.

While we were discussing what story to work with at the school, Nandu told us a very “well known and important” Bengali tale of a man from Kabul who left his wife and daughter to make money in Calcutta.  A nut-walla, he roamed the streets in his large turban, carrying big bags of nuts and dried fruits.  While passing a house, a young girl the age of his daughter, yelled over the gate a greeting.  The nut-walla returned to the house and opened its gate.  The girl saw the great man with his turban and bags and became frightened and shy and ran into the house.  The nut-walla saw the girl’s father sitting on the porch and asked him if he might just say hello to the little girl.  The father said, “yes.”  But the girls’ mother who was listening came outside and said, “No.”

There was an argument, but eventually the girl was coaxed out and the nut-walla gave the girl some nuts, free of charge.  After that, the nut-walla would stop everyday to see the girl.  Much to her mother’s disapproval, the girl and the nut-walla became friends.

Several months later, the man got into a fight with another man for some reason.  Tempers flared and the nut-walla ended up stabbing and killing the other man.  The girl’s father tried to intervene on the man’s behalf, but was unsuccessful.  The nut-walla was sentenced to prison.

The prison guards liked the nut-walla and let him sit in the gardens reserved for the warden and 7 years later the man was released since he was obviously not dangerous.

The nut-walla resumed selling nuts and fruits and went as soon as possible to see the little girl who’d befriended him so many years before.  When he arrived at the house it was awash in color and decoration.  The nut-walla went into the courtyard and met the girl’s father who did not recognize the nut-walla who was much changed after his prison sentence.

The nut-walla said, “Don’t you remember me, I am the nut-walla.  I would just like to say hello to your daughter, to tell her how much her friendship means to me.”

The father said today was not a good day.  The nut-walla would have to come back.
The nut-walla gave the father some nuts and fruit for the girl.  The father began to pay the nut-walla.
This made the nut-walla very sad.  He said, “This is for my friend.  I do not want any money, this is a gift.”

The girl heard this and came out of the house dressed in her wedding dress, for it was her wedding day.

The nut-walla took in the sight of the woman who used to be a young child and he started to cry.  He thought about his own daughter and he knew she too must also be a young woman now.

This is where Nandu ended the story.

Barbara asked, “Why is this story so special to the Bengalis?  Is about class?  Is it about race because the Nut-walla is from Kabul?”

“No,” Nandu said.  “It is because this girl was his friend.  It is because he had a daughter himself.  It is about fathers and daughters.  This is why it is so special to the Bengalis.”


Today I went to a little village outside of Santiniketan and had my heart blown wide open.

Chandana has been working for the last 15 years with several groups of Chantal tribes people to improve their nutritional/living conditions, educational outlook and gender equality.  So, I was going to meet with a group of young women between 13 and 27, some of whom were already wives and mothers and some who were, remarkably, still in school at the ripe old age of 17.  Over the next couple of weeks we are going to work on getting a small short story by Tagore up on it’s feet.  Today I just did a little icebreaker and saw the village while another volunteer, Kristen and some of her children, did a lesson with the young kids of the village on personal hygiene and dental health.

This town is made up of roughly 200 souls who still build their houses out of mud walls and thatch roofs and fuel their fires with dung that is dried in patties that are formed and stuck to the outside walls for drying every morning by the women of the village.
Men and women alike were hard at work today harvesting mustard seed.  Alleys and walkways were full of large bundles of freshly cut, vermillion colored mustard grass.  In one yard a man was threshing the seed with a turn style contraption run by a pedal.  In another yard, several family members were simply taking handfuls of grass and whacking it on the ground till all the seed fell out.  Several hours after we had arrived, we walked back out of the village over mounds of seed. This mustard plant is used not only for cooking, but also for fuel, thatch, and fertilizer for other crops.

The townsfolk also grow their own rice which they store in the dried stalk in small silos made out of braided dried grass and thatch.  The ancient design is both beautiful and perfect for this climate, it keeps the rice dry and mold free.

Chandana’s group from Santiniketan has brought in consultants who are teaching the villagers how to grow organically.  Actually, he is re-teaching them how to grow the way they used to plant crops before the big chemical companies came in and told them they were doing it wrong, before the chemical companies killed the soil.  Fortunately, this consultant also taught the town to harvest soil from the small lake they live on.  The minerals from the lake soil are bringing the farm plots back to life.  As long as the planet doesn’t get too hot and they can eek out enough rain for the season, this village can sustain itself all year long.  Granted, that’s a big “if.”

When Chandana took some of us on the tour, we were greeted by men and women who were all so very proud of their homes and gardens and the village.  The love and respect they have for Chandana was shinning in every face we met.  It was so inspiring to see how this woman could make a whole village smile, not just because she is a lovely person, but because they understood how much she has improved the self-esteem of their village folk and the self-sustainability of their culture and way of life.

Along the way, I started to take pictures of the townsfolk.

Rather quickly, word spread and other people started appearing around corners who were searching me out to take portraits.  Everyone was full of glee and pride.  They beamed as brightly as the green grass and the full moon that now hangs over Santiniketan when I showed them their pictures.

All through the afternoon I was aware of an electricity that ran through the village that fueled the people in their work, in the classes we taught, in how they interacted with all us volunteers.  It created a real sense of not just equality, but mutual respect.  Unlike other parts of India where I have felt catered to, or elevated because of my white skin, in this small village we were all souls learning and living and making whatever strides we can to improve our lives and our planet.

Early in the day I was hanging out on the outskirts of the school and a woman holding a very young baby walked closely by.  I reached out to just tickle the baby’s arm and found myself being handed the child.  While Kristen’s class got going, I cooed and comforted the little one.  Village mother’s checked in from afar, but no one was worried.  I was just as good a candidate for looking after this newborn as anyone else.  Unlike with Santosh and his family back in Fort Cochin, these people were not looking for anything from me.  They were sharing their way of life and briefly inviting me to participate, which I gladly did until the baby decided to pee on me; that seemed as good a time as any to hand her off to someone else.

Towards the end of the afternoon, I was taking pictures of Kristen’s class.  One man asked me to take his son’s picture, then their picture together.

Afterwards he seemed really keen to learn something about the camera.  He was studying it.  He kept pointing towards an empty stall in the yard and for some reason I thought he was trying to understand how the camera zoomed and wanted me to show him by aiming the camera in that direction.  I tried handing him the camera so he could try it out, but he declined the invitation.

During my class, which I held shortly afterward in the courtyard next to the same stalls, we had to stop for the cows to come home for the night.  The man then came up to me again, pulled on my arm and drew me over to the stalls which were now occupied by his livestock.  All along he’d been trying to tell me that he had 4 cows and 5 goats and he was trying to tell me that he wanted me to take their picture when they came in for the night.  He was showing off and sharing his life with me.  WITH ME!  I felt so honored to be able to take the picture for him, to know something more about this man’s life.

I was a person capable of capturing the pictures of his family and livelihood.  He is a proud father who keeps cows and goats.  That makes us equal.  Equal.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I felt the difference as soon as I landed in Kolkata.   Bengal is different, from Kerala certainly, but also from Mumbai.

Kerala is slower, more humid.  The people stare with an intensity that is unnerving, a look that feels almost impossible to read unless a smile suddenly appears which, thank goodness, can happen frequently.  The Keralan claim that they are the most literate state in India was not empty.  I didn’t encounter one person who didn’t know at least some basic English and everyone I met could write or read.  They are also a dapper lot.  The men keep their hair short and their mustaches clipped.  The women are always well dressed, their sari’s wrapped with care. 

In both Kerala and Mumbai, and this is something enigmatic that I’m about to explain, so bear with me, the people generally feel as if they are centered toward their heads.  Hmmm?  Yes, let me try again.  If they were trees, they would be thin trees with their branches dancing in the breeze. It is the branches you would notice.
In Bengal, I sense that these “trees” are weighed down by gravity.  The people have a more lived in look, rumpled even.   Where Keralites are the young, eager students who think they know everything, the Bengalis are the experienced intellectuals and they wear their deep minds with the heavy lidded look of the wise old professor.  Sure I still get stares.  But the looks have a heavy dose of indifference thrown in.  I don’t get the feeling that smiles will be quite so forthcoming in this neck of the woods.

The caste system is more ensconced up here than it is down South, as well.  Santiniketan, a small college town filled with artists and thinkers dedicated to making it’s students and inhabitants not only successful in their fields, but better human beings, has actually put a wall up recently to keep the slums and it’s inhabitants clearly on the outside, unless, of course, they are coming to work for those lucky enough to live on the inside of the wall. 

The folks who live where I am staying all have lovely art deco cottages and colorful gardens.  The folks on the outside have thatch houses, dust and dirt.  They don’t speak English, or probably even Hindi, only Bengali.
Unbeknownst to me before I arrived, this is actually the India I had in my imagination.  Even the glimpses of Kolkata which, as you know, I had no intention of seeing, thrilled me to the bone in a way I don’t think Mumbai could.  It’s something to do with the light and the dust which work together to create the exact patina I thought India would be tinged with.  There are very few auto-rickshaws.  Most are powered by bicycles; some are even pulled by men.  The streets have just the right look of sagging elegance, the winding streets fit all the pictures I’d stored in my memory from movies set in India.

On the train to Santiniketan I started to hear accents that were very clipped, round, proper.   It helped that we (Eva, Barbara and I) were in the first-class, air-conditioned car, but absolutely everyone looked like they were off to teach a class in something or other at the university.  One older man was wearing a long white Nehru jacket and I half expected Gandhi to come in and sit next to him.   Another older professor-looking man was sitting, slouched in his chair, reading Agatha Christie in English, his hair longer and more disheveled than anyone in the South of India would even think of letting their hair get.  There was an Indian woman in her late 40s, hair short, make-up done, in a tight t-shirt and jeans, who was very much in charge of her coterie of friends.  She had an air of both efficiency and disdain often getting huffy with the children who would come on the car to sweep and beg, as well as, the older folks who would get sentimental and start singing along to the traditional songs played by musicians who earned a rupee or two by playing in the aisles.

When we arrived in Santiniketan, we were greeted by Nandu, the principal of the Antunranga School.  A tall, thin man with a wide-open face, he greeted his old friend Eva with joy and love, none of the reserve of the South.  He welcomed Barbara and I into the fold, giving Barbra a little more attention, as she is the newly christened volunteer recruiter for the school.

We were shepherded to our cottage, a beautiful 1920’s home we share with a young married couple who are also volunteering with their extended family who is housed on the next block, and our cleaning lady/caretaker, her husband and their 7 year old son who live in a shed out back.

Since Eva and Barbara were kind enough to squeeze me into their quarters, I am on a daybed in the living area but it is my own space at night, cozy and shuttered from the early morning sun. 

We spent the afternoon unpacking and hanging mosquito nets and buzzing around each other.  Eva and Barbara are somewhat new friends, though they’ve known each other a while.  They live in Hamburg and Munich respectively but grew up in the same region of Germany where they spoke a sort of dialect they don’t use all the time in their grown up lives.  So there is a lot of chit chatting in German accented by huge guffaws in laughter when they both use some kind of German slang they haven’t’ been able to use in years and years.
They are very gracious and always try and translate, though after two and half days, I’ve assured them that they don’t have to tell me everything because they get very tired having to negotiate with me as an English speaker and our Bengali help.  But it makes for an interesting dynamic.  I’m temporarily ensconced in their lives, and they in mine, but in order to really be comfortable and to feel at home in our space we have to let language come between us. 

Our first night we were all invited to tea at Chandana’s house.  Chandana is the volunteer co-coordinator, among other things, for several small schools here in Santiniketan.  I would guess she is somewhere in her 50’s.  She has lived in England and Switzerland so has both a Western and Eastern hospitality.  Her party was like something out of a movie.  We sat in the garden outside of her little cottage as the sun set.  Smart Indian men and women mingled with a few Americans, Germans, English visitors and volunteers.  Tea was served in disposable ceramic cups and food was served on plates made of leaves which would also be discarded at the end of the meal.

I spoke with one man, Satish, who was headed to Kerala.  He and his wife are the caretakers of our cottage and also run a shop and cafĂ© in town.  They used to be bankers or something in Mumbai and they have a worldly air.  Satish and I discussed the oddity of being in the keralan backwaters.  I mentioned that it had reminded me of the aliens watching Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.

Satish, “Kurt Vonnegut.  Yes.  It has been a very long time since I have heard anyone discuss Kurt Vonnegut.  He was very popular when I was a student. Yes.”

I talked to a very beautiful and well-worn older woman whose name escapes me.  She is, I’ve since been told, the heart of Santiniketan.  An artist, this woman has lived all over the world, staging protests, and told me she had once been on trial in Seattle in the 1970s for protesting Trident.

Perhaps you are beginning to appreciate a little bit of the shift I’ve experience moving up north, or at least to Santiniketan.  The people here are dug in, rooted into using their minds, into shifting the world, shaping the world.

I find this, obviously, a bit difficult to explain.  The energy of this place has tilted my axis, my own mode of processing.  I feel less in my head and more rooted in my senses.  I am in the midst of some kind of energetic expansion of not only my view of India, but also my view of the world.

I start “work” this afternoon and hope to be in more of a schedule where I can carve time to write, fear not.  But it might take me a few days to find my footing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


I am sitting in a hot and dusty internet cafe in Santiniketan, my new home for at least the next two weeks.

The keyboard is finicky and the heat is frying my brain.  So I will wait till I acquire a mobile modem to write too much more.  That should happens sometime this evening.

Till then, know that I have arrived safely in a little town full of artists, intellectuals, cottages built in the 1920s.  Everyone is slightly rumpled.  There are thought bubbles crowding out the trees.  I am riding around on a bicycle.  Sleeping under a mosquito net and I feel, finally, as if I've arrived in the India I'd expected to see.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Leaving Home


I'm just finishing up my last full day here in Fort Cochin, my last full day in Southern India.  Tomorrow I head up to Kolkata, for less than 12 hours, then I'll settle 2 hours farther north in Santiniketan, a little town that centers around a University founded by India's Nobel Prize winning poet, Radindranath Tagore.

A poetry fiend, I'd like to say that I'd heard of Tagore before last week, but I'd be lying if I said as much.  When Eva and Barbara, the two German ladies I met at Leelu's on my previous stay here, told me about Tagore and I said, "who?" they just about melted from shock.  Apparently he's big news.

Eva has been volunteering at a grade school in Santiniketan for several years.  She fell in love with it her first time there so she went home to Germany and started a non-profit to support the students' educations.  They have an emphasis on storytelling in that part of the world, it being Tagore country, and when I said that I was a storyteller (aren't actors and writers storytellers?), Eva lit up and said, "You should come with us!"

I'd had no intention of going anywhere near Kolkata, but something clicked and I knew I wanted to go and should go.  The fact that everything fell so easily into place, just makes it more synchronistic.  I'm not sure what I'll be doing there, but the volunteer coordinator has been emailing me about workshops for teachers and kids from several different schools.  I guess I'll have to come up with something when I get there.

I'm rather melancholy about leaving the South.  I've come to feel quite at home here.  Happy and settled. It feels like I've been here a lifetime.  I walk down the street in Fort Cochin and tuk's no longer hound me, shopkeepers say hello to me as if I'm an old friend, even the ones I haven't bought anything from.  One young waiter from the restaurant I ate in my first night in Fort Cochin stopped me on the street tonight to tell me again how beautiful I looked in my Sari....last week.

"You looked very young.  So young in that sari.  How old are you?"


"You looked so young, like a young girl.  A girl I like, she wears traditional sari like this that you wore.  It like this very much.  I like her very much.  But another boy also likes her."

"Oh.  That's bad."

"Yes.  Very bad."

Last night I watched the birds at sunset from Leelu's roof.  I think the yoga must have grounded me even more than I realized because the birds were flying so close I thought they might think I was a tree and land on me.  Eagles and kites soared feet above my head, bright yellow and green swallow-like birds called Blue-Tailed Bee-Eaters zipped and zoomed and dove and stopped short right in front of my face.  It was spectacular.

Tonight, after doing yoga on my own, I went to see my last Arabian Sea sunset, well, my last for the foreseeable future.

I watched Jeleel, a street artist, put up his weekly masterpieces.

Walking the Fort Cochin boardwalk on a busy evening has become a sort of litmus test.  The first time stressed me out, the second time I was wearing my Indian clothes and noticing the difference, this third time I could just stroll.  I was simply me, sometimes a little awkward, often smiling too much, especially when an Indian woman or child would smile at me.  I had a conversation with one little girl.

"Hello," I said.

"Hello.  How are you?" she replied.

"I am fine.  How are you?"

"I am fine."

"Have a nice evening."

"Have a nice evening.  Ok."


It's like manna from Heaven these interactions.  What the simple words cannot convey is the glow that emanated from that little girl's face.  Or the pride her mother showed for her bold, English speaking daughter.

I sometimes wonder what it is they see when they talk to me, or any of the tourists that they choose to practice their English on.  Unlike the street vendors and Tuk's who so often see travelers as walking dollar signs, the children rarely want anything from a conversation other than to make a connection, or maybe a pen.  Does it mean anything to them at the end of the day?  Will they remember the funny American lady who took their picture?  Or is it just me who finds their friendliness priceless.

I realized as I sat on the beach wall that I no longer saw all the trash, only the people and the water and the sun dipping into the sea.  Maybe that's why it's so hard for the Indian's to care about the garbage, they are mesmerized by the beauty of each other.

After dinner I strolled home down Princess Street, the main drag of Fort Cochin.  All the signs were lit up lending a festive atmosphere to the evening.  It was a fairly quiet Sunday night.  I stopped to sit and chat with Majeed, a shop guy I'd made friends with.

"You are going North?" Majeed Asks.


"You must come see me at my house in Kashmir.  I will be there at the end of the season."

"You are from Kashmir?"

Astonished: "OF COURSE.  Can't you tell?"

"How would I know you are from Kashmir?"

"Look at my face."  He takes off his glasses.  He looks only slightly less South Indian this way.  But when I look closer, I can see that the shape of his face is different, rounder, softer.  His eyes are lighter.  Maybe this is how a Kashmiri is different from a Keralite.

"I don't think it's safe for me to go to Kashmir."

"Paw.  Of course it's safe.  You come straight to my house.  You stay in my house.  One week.  Two week.  Safe."

Hmmmm.  Safe from other Kashmiris....from Majeed, I'm not sure.

Majeed is actually very sweet, thoughtful. By his own admission he is not very educated ("Only grade nine.)  But he is interested in the people who come to visit.  He asks questions.  He's learned a little bit of French, Italian, German, and quite a bit of English.  He makes jewelry to pass the time in his shop.  It's quite good.  I'd guess he's about 32.  He was very interested in my marital status and asked me what I was looking for in a man.

"The right man."

"Yes. But when God puts a man next to you it is for Him to know if it is the right man."


"Do you think it takes a long time to know."

"I think it takes a long time to get to know someone."

"But it does not take a long time to know.  Only God has to Know.  I think it can happen very quickly."

While we talked, one of the hundreds of stray dogs announced himself by leaning on my leg.  He then laid down on my foot and went to sleep.  I was officially one of the Fort Cochin pack.

Monday Morning

Its becoming quite customary for me to get up at the crack of dawn.  Pre-crack, really.  So, today I thought I'd see what the sea wall was like at sunrise.  I'd been told there might be dolphins playing off shore, but there weren't.  Instead the seawall was populated with lots of men doing yoga, running, or swimming.  A few women were also taking their morning constitutional.

Several folks offered their "Good Mornings."  The day felt clean and fresh.  Men asked me where I was from and if I liked photography, which is kind of a silly question to ask someone snapping photographs.  Their smiles were somehow more open and friendly than the smiles of men in the evening-time.  Maybe it's because their wives were not with them, though I felt nothing shady or inappropriate was going on.

I ran into Barbara, one of the the ladies I'll be working with up North.  She was taking a brisk walk before heading to the airport.  It was comforting to know that there will be people I know waiting for me when I land in Calcutta.  Calcutta seems particularly daunting.  I know I switched spellings there.  It's very Indian, I think, to be torn about the spellings of places.  Most Indians still call Mumbai "Bombay".   

So many people have told me that the North of India is going to be drastically different than the South, harsher, faster, ruder.  I feel remarkably calm about the transition, tho.

Leaving Kerala feels a lot like leaving Mathew's.  The morning I left the hills, Mathew, Ash, Katie and Mathew's friend Thea who'd arrived from Denmark, all came outside to wave me off.  We'd enjoyed our last meal together, laughing and snapping photos.  

Mathew, Thea, Ash and Katie

I haven't said much about Ash and Katie, but they were rather wonderful.  Unlike some couples, they fit perfectly.  They were funny in a way I find hard to translate here, so I haven't even tried.  They were also immensely kind and warm and had deep pools of compassion.  Thea was pretty darn nifty, too, a searcher, like me.  Dr. Kumar would definitely peg her as "Peculiar".  In a way, that table of folks felt like my tribe.  I'd found my India tribe which was astounding and comfortable and grounding.  Yet, I had to move onto Fort Cochin and the sea.  It was time.  But I think once you find members of your tribe, they are always members of your tribe.  We are all stronger now for the discovery of each other.

Like I had to leave my tribe, I have to move onto the north.  Kerala has become like a home to me, and now that I know it is here, I can move away from it, enriched and strengthened by it's existence.

I can always come back.