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?"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Day India Stood Still

Yesterday was the Cricket World Cup Semi-Finals.  India and Pakistan were up against each other.  This made it practically a public holiday in India.

I was in Kolkata for a third and final attempt (this trip, anyway) to see a bit of the sights in the big City of Joy.  Chandana had some business that took her in, so she dragged me along, quite willingly, on the Tuesday afternoon train, so that I could get to know the city she loves.  She'd hired a car and made arrangements for us to stay at Dr. Ganguly's daughter's flat in South Kolkata.  Rai Ganguly hosted us with all the charm of her 25 years and chatted eagerly with the most perfectly beautiful Indian-English accent, which is rather like a constant enchanting song.

Due to a staggering variety of obstacles, however, I saw, once again, relatively little of Kolkata.   It started off rather successfully as soon as we disembarked from the train, with a trip to Kolkata's first mall, New Market, which was built sometime around 1856 and which is still a wonderfully labyrinthine hive of small stalls that sell everything and anything a person could want.  There's even livestock, or should I say, soon-to-be-dead stock of various kinds.  We only managed a few minutes in this part as the smell of blood and guts was absolutely nauseating.

After New Market, Chandana and I went straight to a modern mecca of Kolkattan Commerce: fabIndia, a clothing emporium that specializes in organic cotton Indian style shirts and pants built for everyone, including foreigners with broad shoulders and big hips.  I updated my wardrobe so that I could retire the three outfits I've been wearing in constant rotation for three months.

By the time we got to Rai's my Shantiniketan hostess and I were exhausted, so our Kolkata hostess went in search of food to bring in and we sat on the floor and played scrabble and ate kabob and chocolate fudge, feeling ever so slightly guilty not to be going to the rehearsal for a play that we'd been invited to sit in on.  Sometimes I am the most ambivalent theater person I know.

Yesterday morning started out fresh and vibrant.  Rai insisted on making us breakfast, though she didn't really know how to make the eggs she wanted to offer us, so I gave her a little tutorial and then she, a very quick learner, made the rest to perfection.  It was a morning preceded by an evening that felt like family all hanging out on a really good vacation.  Chandana was the smart and able big sister, Rai was the funny and beautiful little sister, brilliant in living, with small, quirky holes in her knowledge base that just make her that much more lovable.  I said to Chandana as we waited for our "little sister" to cook breakfast, "This might go down as one of my favorite times in India!"

By 8:30 Chandana and Rai were out the door to go off and do their respective business and I got ready to see Victoria Memorial, a huge Raj era monument built in the the early 1900's which houses a museum and which is surrounded by lush, well-kept, clean gardens.  Set to meet up with the other gals by 12:30 or One, I figured it was the perfectly sized tourist trap to get caught in for a few hours.

Here's where things started to go pear shaped.  At first the auto-rickshaws wouldn't take me to Victoria Memorial.  One guy even started to take me, then stopped and basically kicked me out to get a fare he liked the look of better.  Or so it felt.  Later I realized that auto-rickshaws were nowhere to be seen around Victoria Memorial, so he simply couldn't take me and it had been a few moments into the ride before he'd processed fully my request.  He didn't have any English to speak of, so he simply chucked me out. So, I went to a taxi driver who just refused my fare, then, after calling Chandana and bugging her in her meeting to see if Victoria Memorial could possibly go by some other name that I needed to tell the taxi drivers which, of course, it doesn't, I got a cab to take me for double of what it probably should have cost.

After listening to the driver clear his throat then spit repeatedly and watching him pick his nose for the 20 minute ride, it was fun to get out of the cab at the end of the large elegant walk and stroll up to the huge edifice that fronts the Victoria Memorial.

I imagined for a few minutes what it might have been like when it was first built.  All the English Officers in uniform and the wives all dressed in white linen.  Everything and everyone oozing sophistication and cleanliness and decorum.   Maybe elephants decked out in colored blankets with large feathered head dress decorating the walks.....

The front doors shattered any illusions of being transported to a bygone era.  Armed guards with very large and imposing rifles manned security desks and metal detectors, though I must have looked harmless because I was ushered inside without so much as a sideways glance.

Inside, there was a peculiar exhibit in a very large rotunda of photographs depicting Sister Theresa's life.  They are very strict in the museum about which way you walk and so you follow arrows even though you are in a large open room, so as I went in the proper clock-wise direction I saw photo's of Mother Theresa which were nice enough, though mounted on poster board with little typed signs that reminded me a bit of some strange science art project that a kid might put together for the middle school science/history fair.

What made it really odd, was that every 10 feet or so, there was a break in the temporary Mother Theresa exhibit and then the regular exhibit would be on display for several feet.  This older collection was encased in glass and looked much more like it belonged in a proper museum.  It was an assortment of bayonets and other deadly weapons of war and mass destruction.  So, as I circumnavigated the Victoria Memorial rotunda I was inundated for 10 feet by PEACE and LOVE, then bombarded with HATE and FEAR, PEACE and LOVE, HATE and FEAR, and so on.  It was actually a very typical Indian experience in that it contained so strongly the one thing, PEACE AND LOVE, and equally held it's opposite, HATE AND FEAR, with no sense of contradiction whatsoever.

After an hour of looking at the Calcutta Gallery which told the history of the city from the time the first English trader staked his claim on the area through to partition, I was completely embarrassed that I'd ever daydreamed about the elegant and grand days of English rule in India.  How completely disgusting it all was. Though not without some benefit to a handful of native inhabitants, which is why I imagine the British influence is still palpable and strangely well-respected even to this day.

With an hour or so to wait for Chandana and Rai, I decided to find a cool and comfy spot under a tree to sit and write in my journal.  After a few minutes of lovely solitude, a young man plopped himself down next to me and started asking me who I was and why I was in India.  He told me that due to the big cricket match that was happening in the afternoon, no one had showed up at his office so he was having a leisurely stroll before heading home to watch the game.  He seemed nice enough, so I chatted for a few minutes, keeping an open mind that he was not going to be a jerk.  I am, it turns out, perpetually naive.

Soon he started trying to touch me, first catching a big ant that was on my shoulder...fair enough...but then he just reached out and touched my arm for no reason, while saying he was going to the planetarium and did I want to join.  Hmmmm....go somewhere dark with this  I got up and explained that I had to meet my friends and walked away.  He followed.  It was a very open space with lots of people around, so I knew I was in no danger as long as I stayed there, but I'd "gone to meet friends" who wouldn't actually be there yet.  So I pulled out my phone and pretended to call Chandana.  Eventually the guy took the hint and went on to the planetarium without me.

I sat on a bench and breathed a sigh of relief.  Chandana would be calling for real any minute and the car would whisk me away to adventure in a short while.  But the phone was not ringing. Another man sat on the bench next to me, so I got up and moved along.  I'd seen a big imposing church across the grounds and thought about checking it out while I waited for my phone to ring.

When I got to the intersection that I needed to cross to get to the church it happened to be where the planetarium was....shoot, what if the creep was there and what if he saw me.....after hemming and hawing I decided I had to cross in front of the Planetarium and take my chances.  I did. I was safe.  But the Church was closed.  So was the museum next door.  So was the film complex down the road.

I asked for directions to Park Street, the place I'd hung out the last two trips to Kolkata and therefore know and feel safe in, from a guy who spoke good English.  Turns out, I found out later, that he gave me directions for the cab route and I thought it was the walking route and I got utterly lost trying to get there on my own steam.  I should have known.  He told me to go straight, then take a left, then take another left.

So I asked him, "If I take a left and then another left, couldn't I just turn around right here and walk in the opposite direction of where you are telling me to go without turning at all?"

He said no.

Sometimes a common language is not enough for mutual understanding.

I was in seedy streets and tired of cabs refusing my fare and wary of stopping to try and sit for fear of being hit on and now it was well past the time I thought Chandana would be picking me up.  So I walked and walked and walked without finding anywhere stoppable.  I saw a posh looking mall, but it was across a street that was impossible to cross, which was for the best as I really didn't want to go to a mall that could be just like any mall anywhere in the world.

Eventually, I would walk to the nearest intersection and cross the street and make a u-turn to get to that mall just to try and go into an air-conditioned haven.  But, Ganesha was clearly off removing obstacles for some other more deserving soul because just as I was about to step inside the mall, my phone finally rang and Chandana and I proceeded to attempt to connect about where she was and where I was and how we could make ourselves be in the same place.

However, once again, a common language was not enough.  What I heard, instead of intelligible words and thoughts, sounded like Charlie Brown's mother was calling and yelling at me very loudly on the phone: WAHHHH WAH WAH WAH WAHN,  with an understandable word thrown in every once in a while, CAR, WAHH, WHAN WAH, WHA, GET YOU, WHAN WAH WAH WHAH, NEED TO UNDERSTAND WHERE YOU ARE WHAN WHA WAH WAHN WAH GO TO WHA WHN WAH PARK STREET WHAH WA WHAN WAH WA......

Between my feet hurting, feeling like I was a strange refuge roaming the streets of Calcutta who had no control over whether I would be displaced or find a safe haven, and the intense need to pee, I was not in a good space to be talking to anyone on the phone, especially someone who seemed to be yelling at me (she wasn't, of course, it was the phone acting up) and who wanted me to try and walk to Park Street which was effectively dead to me ever since I had tried to find it an hour earlier.

Finally I told Chandana that I wasn't going anywhere.  I was going into the mall to get a pedicure and I would have the salesgirl call Chandana and tell her where I was and the car could come there.

I was shown into the spa by the doorman (you rarely get to open a door in any establishment in India, either because there are no doors to open or close, or because a doorman is in charge of your door for you).  I approached the pretty lady behind the counter and looked at the two young men idly waiting for customers sitting next to her.  I asked if I could get a pedicure.

The girl said, "Oh, no m'am, I am so sorry.  But he has gone home.  Something wrong."  Here she patted her stomach and squinched up her face and tilted her head just so, all to indicate that the poor pedicurist had taken tragically ill quite suddenly with a stomach ailment.

I was in no mood.  I looked right at her and said, "Don't fib to me.  He's gone to watch cricket."

The two boys laughed.  The salesgirl looked stunned to be called out on her lie.  And I walked out.

A block away I found a cafe and realized that I'd heard the name of the cafe in some abstract form in Chandana's phone call," WAH WAHHHN WAH WHAN HENDUMANS CAFE WAH WAHN FOOD WAH WHAN WEHN RELAX."  I texted Chandana to tell her exactly where I was.

I went in.  It was packed.  The Cricket match was about to start and tv's were on.  I managed to get some food and a table.  I ate.  Thinking Chandana's arrival was imminent I opened a text to find out that she was making another stop and would be another half hour.

I had to give up my table.  I found another table in the sweet shop next door and ate a piece of cake.  Then I got kicked out of there.  I asked for more directions from a gal with impeccable English and headed, once more, intrepidly and fortified with sugar, in what I hoped was truly the direction of Park Street and the Oxford Bookshop.

On Camac street, another big shopping and tourist area that would lead me, I was told, to Park, a large group of men had gathered outside an electronics shop and was watching the beginning of the India-Pakistan match on tv's on display inside of the front window.  I'd never seen anything like it except in movies about when Kennedy was shot; of course, in the movies everyone stood in silence weeping, here everyone was full of electric anticipation and hope.

Shortly after stopping to take pictures of the crowd, I found another spa and took a chance that someone might actually be working.  They where.  All the hair stations were fitted up with their own individual tv's and the game was playing in 10 tiny boxes in a row down the length of the salon.  So I could be pampered while Rajesh and Naim, who made my hands and feet look pretty, got to listen to the game along with the rest of their countrymen.  Walking in sandals for 2 months is brutal on a persons feet so I did not envy my pedicurist his task.  Rajesh even asked me if this was my first pedicure.  I couldn't blame him.  My feet didn't look like they'd ever been pretty in their life.  I was glad the game was on.  No one should have to scrap my feet clean AND miss the cricket game of the century.

Almost three hours after I thought Chandana and I would be starting our tour of Calcutta, she had arrived and we were leaving to do something.  It was four o'clock in the afternoon.  This is, I'm afraid, a rather typical Indian kind of a day, so I wasn't really that surprised and the pedicure, and the added manicure that I'd decided to indulge in as well, had cheered me up.

We went visiting a cousin of Chandana and then, instead of going to see the Kali Temple, as planned, I chickened out on doing what promised to be one of the most intense experiences I could go to in India and decided that we would go to a movie at a mall.  It, too, was also planned, but as we started out so late, something had to get eliminated from the itinerary.  I needed a break from India, from wandering, from heat, from the unpredictable and I wanted to go somewhere familiar and safe, a nice air-conditioned, dark movie theater where I could get lost in a good story for a couple of hours.  Besides Chandana had had a very eventful and fraught morning herself; I suspected she was emotionally nearing her personal edge, exacerbated by the fact, perhaps, that she was still graciously trying to accomodate and make this fussy and exhausted traveler happy.

I was surprised as we were driven up to the mall to see people walking in. I thought every self respecting Indian who was not playing tour-guide to the likes of me, was glued to the match on tv.  Rai certainly was, which is why she wasn't with us.  But the mystery was cleared up when we went into the mall and found hundreds and hundreds of people cheering for some great cricket moment that had just been shown on the massive tv screen hanging in the atrium of the mall.

I kind of liked the idea that Chandana and I were going to escape the madness, yet not be too far away, like the safety of falling asleep in a peaceful room while you can hear the party your parents are throwing downstairs.  Indeed, in quiet moments of the movie, I could hear cheering from the multitude two stories away.

Going to a movie in India is supposed to be a treat.  So many people back home told me to do it.  I think they meant a real Bollywood movie which would be packed and filled with hoots and hollers and people dancing.  Instead, Chandanda and I went to a quiet family drama about an Indian family living in London.

The movie theater was as posh as any I've been in.  There were only about 12 people in the theater.  These two points were a plus.

But then the movie started without the foreplay of coming attractions which is criminal, if you ask me.  On top of that, the volume was so loud that the voices were actually distorted.  I had to plug my ears in order not to be in actual, acute, physical pain.  Then, everyone but me was TEXTING.  CONSTANTLY.  Obviously this is a culturally acceptable phenomenon.  Even Chandana, who is as respectful as a person gets, was texting.  At least people weren't talking.  Or maybe they were, I couldn't possibly have heard them over the volume of the movie.

Believe it or not, and there of those of you who know me who will really be challenged to believe it, but I actually made my peace with ALL that, as I became more and more engrossed in the family drama.  I told myself that this was how movies are enjoyed in India and that I needed to chillax and I tried narrowing my focus and tilting my head to just the right angle that the four people whose phones I could see light up every 6 minutes were not quite in my line of vision.

Things really got good and going in the film; I was thoroughly engaged.  The father and his favorite daughter finally had THE talk we'd been dreading and waiting for.  The daughter had run out, the father looked like he might explode, AND........ the lights popped on and a sign came on the screen that said, "Interval."

Remember when I said that maybe we needed less one-act plays and more intermissions to absorb a story?  I take it back.  I think this is bullshit, especially in a quiet family movie that was not made to be broken in half!

I was teetering on the edge of sanity.  The day had felt like a series of false starts and now in the safety of a dark movie theater, a sanctuary I am long familiar with, I was pulled right out of my comfort zone, which I was really working hard to stay in, onto foreign and shaky ground.  Chandana was excited because Indian movie intervals mean popcorn.  I bought some from the bloke roaming the aisles like peanut hawkers at baseball games while the texts were flying from every other movie goer to someone or other in the outside world and I felt like an alien on a planet that looked like a planet I had lived on once, but all the rules had changed.  I tried to accept that this was my problem, my hang-up, my immense pet-peeve.  I was glad that Chandana was having a good time and took a deep breath and tried to be grateful for the experience as it was and not how I longed for it to be.

When the interval was over, I took another deep breath and plugged my ears and re-submerged myself in the second half of the movie, which I'm sure would probably have moved me to great emotional depths if I'd been able to just let go and be in the present and accept the way things were instead of judging and needing and whining in my monkey brained head.  By the time we left I was convinced for the first time since I'd come to West Bengal that I was actually an American at heart and not a Bengali misplaced at birth.  I was legitimately homesick for the good old USA.

At 8:30 we emerged from the cinema back into the greater South City mall to the sound of thunderous screaming and applause.  The cricket match was on it's sixth hour and going strong.  In fact it had two more hours to go.  Chandana and I went to a lovely Spanish place a floor down from the movie theater and had dinner and watched the end of the game.

Facing different directions at the table, I could see a large screen and Chandana could see a slightly smaller one.  I understand nothing of cricket so I was really watching the fans in the restaurant to understand when something good or something bad was happening.  From what I could see the people in the restaurant were geniuses.  They seemed to be able to tell even as the the ball was leaving the bowler's hand whether it was going to be an out or not.  He would throw and the restaurant would erupt in screaming, then the batsman would hit and his ball would be caught and he would be out.  It took an hour before I turned around and saw Chandana's tv to realize that there was almost a 30 second delay on my tv.  All the other screens were in real time.  The fans were looking, I now realized, at the smaller screens, screaming, then I would see what they had already seen on the larger screen.

Eventually the game came to an end.  I can't really tell you why or how or why they didn't actually call it an hour earlier since that's when it became clear that the losers had no choice but to remain losers and that the winners had already won.  But at some point there was a pitch and the game was over and INDIA HAD BEAT PAKISTAN!!!!!!

I was in San Francisco when The Giants won the World Series.  That was crazy.  When India beat Pakistan in the semi-finals yesterday, it was lunacy.  Our restaurant crowd was fairly restrained, but you could hear mayhem on the streets outside.  Charmingly, our waiters all turned into 7 year old boys and jumped and hugged and beamed the sweetest smiles any child whoever got their greatest wish has ever beamed.  One smartly dressed Indian woman caught my eye and playfully gave me a thumbs up, then a few minutes later while on her way out to join the revelers she stopped and blew me a kiss.  I blew her one back, then she blew me two, I reciprocated, she blew four...and so on till she'd made it out of my line of sight.

The bill was paid at our table and we headed out into the streets for a 5 minute walk back to Rai's place.  The streets were full of people screaming.  Motorcycles were buzzing down the road with 3 or four men at a time on them, often one guy in the middle would be standing up on the seat holding an Indian flag that was streaming behind him.  Fireworks were erupting over the city in patchwork explosions.

Chandana and I only had to cross one intersection.  It was the only time I felt at all physically frightened for my life.  Chandana was being a real mama bear, though, and that was a great comfort.  People were idiotically throwing fire crackers into the maze of electrical wires that criss crossed the wide boulevard.  I became increasingly nervous that one of the lines would come undone and we would be fried right there on the spot.  It didn't help that the sound created by the impact of the firecracker and the electrical wire was what I can only imagine is identical to gun fire at a very close range.  It was mayhem!

Sitting on the balcony of Rai's apartment listening, a short while later, to marching bands and fireworks and partiers from a safe distance, I felt on the outside, unable to understand this unfathomable, loud, crazy country where people can be absolutely glued to the tv for 10 hours straight, bringing traffic and commerce to a stand-still, all for a Cricket match while sitting through a two hour movie without texting this, that and the other person is unthinkable.  I get that it was an historic game, two rivals, the semi-finals, Big Drama happening for real.  But I have a feeling the people texting in the movie were getting scores and staying clued into the game while they sort of watched a movie.  I was thinking about Mathew at Mundax and all our talks on mindfulness and being in the present.  I was thinking about the opportunity both arts and sports offers us to slow down, to leave our life behind and to BE HERE NOW.  It became clear to me that sports have become the more successful purveyors of escapism.  Maybe it's the adrenaline of rooting and hoping and fearing that comes from watching your favorite team battle for scores and prestige that captures the hearts.  The real-life theater of it all.....

While I pondered that, I heard the sound of a person hitting pavement on the road below.  I looked down and saw that a man had fallen over on his bike.  The road is under construction and there are big areas where the top layer of concrete has been removed leaving old cobbles and large potholes and a very uneven driving surface.  There also wasn't much light.

Oh, and, the guy on the bike was obviously completely wasted with the drink.

Drunk Guy laid on his side for quite a while and I wondered whether I should go down and check on him.  Just as I decided to get up, a man approached Drunk Guy and helped him get to his feet.  Once up, I could tell the man who'd fallen was trying to convince the other guy, Sober Guy,  that he was ok and he just needed a hand getting back on the bike.  Sober Guy wasn't hearing any of that and was obviously trying to get Drunk Guy to walk home.  They argued, though relatively quietly for two Bengali's.  Eventually Sober Guy walked away, seemingly resigned to the fact that he couldn't help someone who didn't want to be helped.  Drunk Guy stood for several minutes in the street, leaning precariously on the seat of his bike, trying, when the odd headlight would illuminate him, to appear as if he wasn't using every ounce of his strength to simply remain upright.

What happened next, simply knocked me for a loop.  Sober Guy suddenly re-appeared with a bicycle rickshaw....he was the driver.  He pulled up to Drunk Guy and convinced him to let go of his bike and to hold onto the back of the rickshaw wagon while Sober Guy hoisted Drunk Guy's bike onto the rickshaw.  Then Sober Guy hoisted Drunk Guy onto the seat, made sure bike and man were secure, then Sober Guy rode off into the darkness, presumably to take Drunk Guy somewhere safe to sleep it off for the night.

I don't know why this act of kindness so astonished me.  I've seen so much generosity of spirit in Santiniketan over the last six weeks, so much love and care on so many people's parts to make the lives of whole villages better.  Chandanda has been nothing but loving kindness to this wayfaring stranger.

Perhaps it's the extreme poverty of Kolkata, combined with the dog eat dog energy of Mumbai, the big city I've really gotten to know in India, that gives this outsider the illusion that human life is somewhat expendable in these parts.  This illusion was heightened, I suppose, by the Russian Roulette so many people were playing on the walk home, the throwing of tiny, but live, explosives into the electrical wires while several total strangers, Chandanda and myself included, frantically navigated home in the direct path of potential flailing live wires.

I don't know for  sure, I just felt like in watching Sober Guy rescue Drunk Guy that I was witnessing a pure moment of love for one human being from another, two strangers who might never know each other's names.  After a day of so many personal experiences of missed connections or interactions gone awry, while the country stopped to glue itself to the tv, I was touched that in a nation of over a billion souls, one man took the time to get another man safely home.  Maybe it was the spirit of the shared victory that opened Sober Guy's heart to aid his fellow Indian.   Maybe he would have done the same on any other night.

Either way, it was my favorite piece of theater I'd seen all day, purer than Cricket, or sitting in the dark of a movie auditorium.  No one went home a loser, like Pakistan whose team will most likely have to lock themselves in their houses for a few weeks to avoid getting beaten by an angry mob, and no one checked out to text someone about something completely unrelated to the moment that was being lived.

At the end of the day, after all our foibles, our naivetes, our missed opportunities and awkward attempts at connection, we are all just humans doing the best we can to get home on uneven ground.  Isn't it all we want, should we stumble and fall, to be lucky enough to have someone care enough to stop, pick us up and treat us with kindness, helping us to get to a safe place where we can rest till we are able to start moving again on our own? 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Soul Food

Somedays it's simply hard to get out of a funk.  Despite the fact that today was cool, thanks to the extended thunderstorms that swept through the area late into last night, I couldn't shake a certain sadness for the life of me.

Actually, I think it was the weather that set me off.

I know, I know....geez, what makes this girl happy?  She gets edgy and cranky in the hot weather, she is sad in cool weather.....

Today was perfect weather.  It was Seattle in August weather.  It was gentle and just the right amount of warm.  It made me slightly homesick.  But mostly, it made me feel the conflict I have about leaving Santiniketan (and eventually India) even more acutely.

Traveling is soul food for me.  I get that.  I learn the most and feel most alive when I am out in the wide world soaking in new adventures.  But, I am also a nester.  I need a home-base, a place to to return to.  So, even though I crave travel and getting out and exploring the planet and different cultures, I've always known and felt drawn to eventually return to my cozy spot in Seattle.

This trip is different.  For the first time I don't know what it is that I am going home to.

Wait.  Wait.  Don't get me house, my friends, my family, ALL are just as rich in soul nutrients as traveling and I miss so many incredible people that I cannot wait to see in just over a month.

It's just that, today anyway, the reality that at 41 I don't have a family of my own, a partner waiting for me, a career that is sitting patiently but anxiously counting the days till I come home, has really hit me in the gut.

Here, in India, in this town I'd never even heard of 6 weeks ago, in a part of the country I'd vowed not to go near, I can see a need, a purpose for being here.  There are people, like Chandana, that I could work with to help other people live better, healthier lives.

But could I really leave the safety and security of my beautiful house and my network of friends and family so far away?  Could I abandon the opportunity to act in Seattle on a more regular basis with a community that I respect and look forward to playing with whenever the chances arrive?  I have, after all, spent almost 15 years paving that particular road.  Could I handle the upheaval that moving to the other side of the globe would entail?  Would I want to, even if I could?

These questions started to consume me today, so I did the only sensible thing: I took a nap.  With the sense of an impending spiral into depression still looming when I awoke, I decided to go for a bike ride.  Once on the bike, I made up my mind to cross the safety barrier of the Santiniketan wall  and to go into the village just on the other side.

Here I was almost consumed by something else entirely: joy.  Everyone wanted to say hello.  I even ran into a few students of Antaranga School who live over there.  I pulled the camera out and was virtually mobbed.

People started coming out of the woodwork and fairly demanding that I take their pictures, though you'd think I'd forced them to stand still and pose based on the expression they offered to the camera.

Parents insisted that I take their children's photos.  Things were happening so fast and I was surrounded by so many people, hands everywhere...on me...on my and out of the frame...that looking at the pictures I am struck by how many other interesting things ALMOST got captured on the camera, like the kid with his hands on his hips in this one.

I wish I knew the Bengali word for "goofball."

And, below, is my all time favorite kid portrait, ever.  I take no credit.  Like I said, things were happing so fast, people were in and out of my field of vision in a flash.  This was completely the luck of the draw.

It was also pure chance that the last house on the village road turned out to belong to one of my favorite kids from the evening school at Antaranga and he was home and his family invited me onto the porch for tea. They gave me the seat of honor, which is to say, they gave me the only chair and the extended family and friends from all around came and sat on a mat on the floor.  It was just sunset, so too dark to take pictures.  So, just imagine a very small space with 4 or 5 women with 6 or seven toddlers, the young man from the school, and in the only other chair that appeared out of nowhere, a woman who had to be 200 years old if she was a day.  Ok, she only looked it, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Just inside the door to their one room house I could see an elevated bed covered with clothes and below the bed a fresh crop of potatoes were being stored.  On the edge of the porch a woman lit a fire using dried leaves on the concrete floor and made tea which she thankfully got good and boiling before pouring it into cups.  I was offered the only serving with powdered milk and a large plate with more than my share of crackers.

Conversation was initially aimed in my direction.  Questions about wether I had children and if I was married came my way.  When they found out the answer to both inquiries was "No," they all gasped and decided that I would be a very good wife and mother.  A high compliment coming from that group.  Eventually, the women turned to village gossip or news and I was left to play with the kids, both human and goat, that ran around my feet.

At one point, my Antaranga student's grandmother, who was one of the most striking and elegant women I've ever seen with her long flowy grey hair and lithe limbs and natural ease in a sari, noticed my arm tattoos.  In fact, she was the second or third lady that day who had grabbed my arms and made pleased noises to find them tattooed.  It's a tribal custom here for the ladies to tattoo their forearms.  I think finding my arms to be tattooed helped me to be less foreign.

The tattoos are of identical design, the one on the left arm says, in french, "I am the gift", the one on the right says, again in french, "You are the gift."  I was struck by the admiration of the tattoos coming today of all days, because sitting on the porch of that tiny village hut, I no longer worried about my aimless feeling life, my singleness, my childlessness.  These women and children, this afternoon, was....IS.....ARE....the gift(s).

As much as having tattoos on my forearms is a crazy thing to do as an actress, I really love them, because even with the messages permanently written on my body, in plain sight, I forget them sometimes.  When I do, some angel leans over and grabs my arm and points and reminds me why they are there.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Palm Wrapped In A Plum

Tensions are rising here in India.  Storms are brewing.  Lightening is flashing and thunder is rolling.  The skies above Santiniketan let loose today, rain was followed by hail.  For several minutes the temperature plummeted and I got the tiniest taste of shivery winter, which was quickly followed by a spike in humidity and the moodiness of the skies rolled through the classroom I was teaching in; Chandana and I bickered and no one seemed to want to focus, least of all me.

This morning I went to look at a piece of land that is owned, in part, by a friend of Chandana's named Konika.  Out in the middle of nowhere, the large parcel is dotted with palm and mango trees.  While we surveyed, a very large monkey galloped across the plain and for a split moment I felt like I was on a savanna in Africa which, now that I've been in India so long, feels just that much more exotic.  Konika is a very slight woman who comes across as shy, but she can surprise a person with sudden bursts of quiet laughter and strong declarations about this or that.  We shared a rickshaw last night and she got in and embraced me full on to break the tension that comes from trying to share a teeny tiny seat with a total stranger.

Konkia lives in Kolkata and makes a living doing some kind of social work.  She also comes to Santinketan regularly to help Chandana and her crew develop new recipes for their line of organic food products.  She is a busy, single by choice, nearing middle age lady who longs to live on the land, farming, using solar power and building a model village for the next phase of planetary development.  Out on her land, Konika fairly shone.

When I came home, Nicole called from Bodhgaya where she is learning to meditate.  I don't know if she is sitting under Buddha's Tree of Enlightenment, but she could.  It's there.  It also sounds like she could use a little peace of mind.  She was sounding a little bitter about India.  After swimming with the dead cows in Varanasi, I think she is a little travel worn, tired, hating the constant adjusting that it takes to live day in and day out in a country that is so foreign, a place where even the beds can piss a person off.  I can sympathize with her there.  Beds are very hard here in India.  Though I find that it doesn't bother me so much anymore.

After the phone call, I came down with a splitting headache and had to go to sleep.  Maybe I was channeling Nicole's angst.  Maybe it was leaving the house at seven to go riding in a rickshaw, which is hard on a body.  I don't know.

Later still, I made a pile of stuff to send home.  I'm cleaning house of all the clothes I won't need for the next month, as well as a pile of gifts.  But it feels itchy and dumb and even slightly hateful in that 14 year-old, "I HATE THIS!" kind of way.  My room is looking less like I live here and more like I'm just staying here for a few more days.

As of two minutes ago, I am typing in the dark.  The electricity has gone out.  Hows that for a metaphor?  I feel I don't even need to elaborate on the correlation there....oh, ok....instead of feeling plugged into this place....I'm all out of juice....or something like that.

And, just like that, the lights come back on.  Ah, sweet rejuvenation.

Walking with Konika today I wondered if I was subtly being wooed to buy into her land.  Out of the original 9 investors, only a few are even slightly pro-active about building, and only one other person is truly gung-ho.  I walked with an open heart, inviting myself to really consider the option.

Tonight I find myself caught somewhere between Konika in her village of the future and Nicole feeling so far from the familiar comforts of home.  I could see myself living out on the land here in India.  I could see going to work everyday at Antaranga or the cyber cafe I've daydreamed with Chandana about starting; I can see my friends here being my friends for life.  I can also picture my friends and family and house back in Seattle and I wonder what kind of lunatic gives up all that sweet comfort for the heat and dust and madness of a place like India.

I suspect there's some kind of hybrid possibility.  I dont' know what to even picture when I say that.  It's not like India is right around the corner from Seattle.  But maybe there's a way to have it all....???  

I can't get these trees I saw today out of my mind.   They were out on Konika's land.  There was a plum tree wrapped around a coconut palm.  I can't get over the beauty of the two disparate earthly creatures, utterly entwined with each other.  Plums in my mind speak of warm, but moderate, climates.  They are delicate, feminine somehow.   They produce fruit that is sweet and juicy and fleshy.  Coconut palms scream HEAT and radiate masculinity and sturdiness and a real survivor mentality.  They make fruit that is hard, seemingly impenetrable, difficult to eat, but the water of a coconut has healing powers.

Somehow, that is the life I want, the life I imagine for myself, a coconut palm wrapped in a plum tree kind of a life.  Or maybe that's just me.  Maybe I am a plum tree wrapped around a coconut palm. 

Maybe both statements are true.

The lights just went out again, which seems like a sign.  No answers are coming tonight.  The storm has left it's mark and we are just going to have to sit in the dark and wait for the lights to come back on or the sun to rise....which ever comes first.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Simple Pleasures

Well, the rain did come yesterday.  Somewhere.  We only got a few drops in Santiniketan though, but the storm did its job without local precipitation and lowered the temperatures so dramatically that I was able to sit last night for several hours without turning on the fan.  Even today, it remained cool enough to take a nice nap and then a sunset bike ride.

I have been hard at work making a website for the homestay I'm living in and another for Ahimsa, the NGO that Chandana works for.  I've been teaching kids how to do stage slaps and getting other kids to write a book of poetry.  Finally, I've ironed out some of my remaining travel plans.  I'll go up to Darjeeling for a week on April 4th, where the air at the moment is a little too cool at 37 degrees F.  After that, I will come down from the mountains to the Ganges and the holy city of Varanasi.  I've still got two weeks at the end of my trip to pin down, but it  looks like I might be going to Jaipur in Rajasthan after all.

Shifting my focus, even in the planning stages, to leaving Santiniketan has left me feeling unfocused.  I've tried to write several blog posts on things like the kids at Antaranga or the women in the Chitra group who all have stories worthy of their own best-selling memoirs.  I am so much IN it here now, in the world of this little town, into a routine, nestled into my house and alone time when need be, socializing and checking in with Chandana about work and life and gossip when the mood strikes that I'm finding it nigh on impossible to step out long enough to write from here.

I've thought once or twice over the last few days that I could easily be back in Seattle I feel so acclimated, so used to being here.  But now, in buying train and plane tickets for the next legs of my Indian adventure, I am reminded that I am only a visitor to this little town on temporary leave from my "normal" life.

It is a temptation to start to disengage and pull away from my new friends so the actual parting will be less painful, but, so far, I've managed to curb that impulse.

But the emotions are getting a bit jammed up and, like I said, I haven't been able to write.  It seems like all my thoughts and feelings and stories are now crowded in a small room, such a confined space that I can't make out any individual thread clearly enough to untangle it and put it down in clear, bright words.  It's like if every story I want to write for you were a person, they would be packed like commuters on a Mumbai train, pinned against one another, packed like the proverbial sardines, immovable.

Maybe I have to imagine all those stories at a train stop and wonder which one would get off now and which ones are still waiting to get off further down the line.

Hmmm.... Ok.

What would the first stop be called?  Let's try "Simple Pleasures."

The image that steps out of the train first is of two little girls, each 13 but small for their age who go to the night school at Antaranga.

I don't know their names.  I should.  They have told me.  But Bengali names and I have a little bit of difficulty understanding each other.  Plus, I don't work with the night school kids more than a few evenings a week.  We have been making a book of poetry.  I sent the students out to observe their lives and then asked them to come in and write short pieces in Bengali about something that made them happy.  Actually, I asked them to write about something that affected them, moved them in some way, and they all chose to things that made them happy.  Then we translated the poems into English, after which they wrote the two versions of their poem side by side and illustrated them.  As several kids were absent after the revelry of Holi, this process has been drawn out and students have been finishing in stages.

Last night I waited for the last 4 kids to translate and illustrate, which left me pretty much hanging out with the other 15 kids while they did any homework from their day school, the government school, where class sizes of a 100 students or more make it impossible for anyone to get individual attention.   As I sat against the wall on the floor, one of the 13 year old girls nudged her way to sitting on my right side, the other girl scooted in to sit on my left.  The girl on the right plopped her English book on my lap and started reading from it.  It was a lesson in the Past Tense of verbs.  The girl on my left leaned in and started to read out loud with the girl on my right who was sitting now with her elbow resting on my leg.  As they continued to reach deep into their brains to put sound to what they were seeing on the type-written page, their little heads leaned in and the three of us were almost forehead to forehead to forehead.  I would correct them, if needed, and they would try again.  It was the simplest of teaching moments, and one of my favorite ever.

When they were tired of reading, the two girls took to trying on my rings and generally being goofy and trying to tickle me.  The boys who were half-way working on the other side of the room started posing and asking for me to take "one picture please."

From an adjacent classroom, a gal of 14 or 15 was basically playing peek-a-boo with me, going so far as to sometimes get up and run in to my room and then run back out.

One of the two older girls who was still illustrating her poem, paused to tell me all nine of her names, this included her English name, Anita, and her nickname, Honey.  I loved that this girl, who I must admit is one of my favorites, had the same nickname as my big sister.  The Indian Honey caught my eye right off when Eva was here doing her art workshop.  Honey is a girl just on the line of becoming a woman, with a serious maturity that hints at great sadness which makes me love her.  I sense that she is fighting to become herself in a place that doesn't make much room for girls to own their power and their independence.  I have tried, as best I can without making it obvious to everyone else that she is one of my favorites, to instill in her my belief that she is someone special.

It's really unfair to say that Honey is one of my favorites, because when my mind wanders over all the faces from the night school at Antaranga, I feel such love for each one.  It's a group full of character and light.  And last night, as I sat there on the dirty and dusty floor, mosquitoes buzzing, I couldn't imagine any place on earth that was more wonderful.

There are so many simple pleasures here in Santiniketan.

The way rickshaw drivers sit in their rickshaws waiting for customers never ceases to please me.  They do it in such a way that it feels like they arranged themselves deliberately in the most beautiful and artistic way possible.

The way ticky tiks, or geckos, are constantly flitting across the walls tickles me daily.  Once I learned that geckos were called ticky tiks in Bengali they became even more fun.

The absolutely brilliant nimbu panis that Munglie, the cook here, makes for me every day.  It's a special lime juice that is calibrated to be just the right amount of salty and sweet as to be thirst quenching and utterly delicious all at the same time.

Seeing Saris drying on the lawn, simply stretched out on the grass.  It's delightfully colorful and completely practical.

The fact that tiny little food shacks that still operate much as they must have 100 years ago can be entirely covered in chalk drawn murals such as this....

....makes me want to literally jump for joy.

I could go on and on.  As my days here dwindle, I'm going to have to be diligent about soaking all these pleasures in without holding onto them too tightly.  Maybe finding out what other stops my writing train needs to stop at to let some of these pent up stories out will help.

I'll think on that while I climb into my mosquito-net tented bed, another simple pleasure that affords me a moment everyday of indulging in the sense of adventure that comes from going to sleep in a place that requires a mosquito net to cover the bed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rain Dance

The sky over Santiniketan has turned grey and a yellow heaviness has filled the yard outside my window.  One minute a slight breeze comes through, the next I feel the humidity spike and I start to sweat, then relief descends again.

Thunder has just begun to rumble and it seems almost certain now that a downpour is imminent.

This morning at Antaranga I made machines with my class three kids.  Using their imaginations and their bodies, this group of 7 year olds first made a bicycle, working out all the intricate parts that come together to make the whole.

Next, I took a leap and wondered if they could make a machine to make rain, blessed rain, rain that my heat soaked body craves with each additional degree on the thermometer.  I asked the students what parts we would need for such a contraption.   One girl cottoned onto the idea right away and raised her hand and volunteered to be the water.  Next, two girls decided to be the bowl that held the water,  this was followed by a gal who was the wood that made the fire that heated the water.  Of course,  vapor made by the heated water followed,  then two boys stood on a chair and started booming like thunder-clouds and, finally, the last two girls stood up and magically transformed into rain dancing on the ground.

I don't want to get ahead of myself here and I don't take any credit, but if it starts to rain today, then tomorrow I'm asking those genies at Antaranga to become a machine that makes cool breezes, and peace, and an anti-nuclear meltdown reactor, and vast green fields of rice and mustard seed and whatever else the villagers around here need to build robust and healthy lives, and, just for fun, a transporter so I can pop over and see my Mom and then get a margarita with all my friends in Seattle, then see my niece in NYC, then come back here and finish my trip.

The breezes are kicking up.

Lightening is striking.

Thunder is rolling.

What is going to happen?  What is going to happen?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The hearts are back.  I noticed them starting up about 10 days ago.  Rocks, cow patties, a large drop of water on the bottom of a cup.  I had begun to think that they weren't going to show themselves in India, that the symbology of this land would be different.  Who knows, maybe the planet was using other words and I wasn't listening so it decided to speak my language.

I haven't been taking pictures, except the one above.  The hearts have been coming so fast now that I'd find walking anywhere difficult if I was stopping to document the hearts along the way.  They actually started up right after Calcutta and my weekend with Martin, which I'd begun to imagine was a sign of things to come in that department.  But since he has moved on, I'll have to trust the hearts are up to something else, up to sending me a message I'll figure out sometime down the road.

My last post brought such love and support from friends far and wide, many of whom reassured me that my mope-fest was looking like a global phenomenon.  Misery loves company, and I did find it soothing to know that I was not alone.  It is yet another sign that some energy links all us crazy humans, animals, the planet itself.

When I got up an hour ago, I went to check my email and found that gmail had decided to bar the door.  While I paid the gate-keeper with my secret password I was overcome with a deep fear that something bad awaited on the other side.  Sure enough, there was an email at the top of my queue from my dear friend Margaret telling me that another friend, an actor named Mark Chamberlin, had quite unexpectedly passed away.  As I understand it, he was in a bike accident on Sunday, but was well enough to be slated for release to recover at home, then he took a turn for the ultimate worst.  I want to write more on this later, when I am not in shock, when so many people are not reeling from the sudden loss of this dynamic, healthy, sometimes difficult, often charming, and quixotically sweet man.

In the meantime, I want to honor the hearts, the connective tissues that weave us all together.  I want to shine light on the subtle signals the Earth throws in our path, the messages that our deepest, intuitive gut-senses whisper to us in a steady stream.  I feel certain that if I keep an eye and an ear out I will discover that there is a thread here in India that when I pull it, tugs at your heart or mind.  I am sure that when you speak into the cosmic tin-can hidden in plain sight in your neck of the woods, that I will hear you all the way over here.

Maybe, eventually, we might also be able to read the signs, to understand what they mean and where they want us to go.  Today, I simply take comfort in noticing them and trusting that establishing contact is enough for the time being.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mope-aholics Anonymous

India is hot.

India has been hot since I arrived, don't misunderstand.  Compared to "my" moderate Seattle and to the parts of the globe that have been ravaged by winter over the last two months, India has kept warm and cozy, at least the parts I've been in.

But sometime in the last week the sun shifted in such a fashion that even the way its rays shine onto the ground have a different, more aggressive slant to them.  The afternoon air turns almost white with glare.  Now, it is more judicial to close the house up entirely around 1 o'clock to keep the fresh heat from making the old heat trapped in the house utterly unbearable.

Sweating is quickly becoming the natural order of things.  Chaffing follows.  Sitting still, if at all possible, ensues.

This is only the beginning.  India will continue to get hotter as the days tick by.  April, I'm told, will be unfathomably hot.  If it is, at the rate I'm going, I shall have to take 19 tiny showers a night just to stay cool enough to sleep.  I'm already up to three 30-second spritzes between 10 when I go to bed and 6 when I get up for the day.

My mood seems to be reflecting, in a distorted fun-house fashion, the change in temperature.  I am irritable, melancholy, quick to judge.  Perhaps this is because the heat is affecting my digestion and for the first time since I arrived in India  I've had a more than fleeting bout of travel related stomach ailments. Maybe it's because Martin has written to say that he has decided to "move on" despite the fact that I "have awakened feelings in" him.

It could just be that my time here in India is growing short.  I find that I am occasionally beset with fits of inner conflict about going back to my life in Seattle.  Certain moments, I simply cannot imagine it.  Other times, especially when people get to talking about the Indian government and the absolutely ass-backwards way that certain programs, health, education, and human services especially, are run, or not run as the case may be, I feel sure that I would go mad if I tried to make a life here.

One small example involves the process of adoption.  If an orphan can be adopted, which isn't always the case for some reason, it takes at least two years for a child to move from the chaotic orphanage to their new home despite the fact that they have been assigned to a couple that has been approved and is waiting to nurture and to love them, not to mention able to relieve the state of the burden of feeding and clothing the child.  I defy anyone to satisfactorily explain to me how this is a good or wise or logical or prudent or humane way to do things.

I told you I was grumpy.

I didn't even go to teach this morning.  My stomach, and my emotional barometer, felt too delicate.  Like the humidity in West Bengal which can rise from 30% to 70% at the drop of a hat or fall just as quickly, my constitution threatened to be just as unstable.  Instead of teaching I fell fast asleep for three hours, sleeping past lunch (no big deal) and awaking in time to feel the sun ramp up its super-powers.  I shut my windows and now am hiding away in my sweltering cave, hiding from the even more oppressive heat outside, my obligations, and anything or anyone that might ask me to be present and accountable.

I could, actually, be moping.  It's been a long time since I have moped, so I'm not sure.  But the permanent pout I've been sporting all afternoon is a pretty good sign.

I talked to Nicole today.  She is in Varanasi hanging out with some boatmen and swimming in the Ganges which, since she told me she just saw a dead cow float by, seems like a rather, well, insane thing to do.  I felt jealous, though, that she is out in the crazy world, taking risks, while I am moping in my dark room.

It got me thinking about that last three weeks in April that I'll have after I leave Santiniketan and before I go back to Seattle.  Whatever shall I do?  As the Celsius rises, I am aware that my ability to move with any speed or even joyful sense of adventure will be severely handicapped.  But, time is running out.

The prudent thing is to do what the English always did at this time of year and disappear into the hills around Darjeeling.  I'll probably do that for a week.  Then I must see Varanasi myself and though I'd like to swim in the Ganges I'd rather do it from farther up stream where dead bodies aren't a regular feature:  Rishikesh, maybe?  I leave from Delhi on the 28th of April, so it is looking like Jaipur will have to be axed from my current itinerary.

People always talk about how big India is and, therefore, how hard it is to see everything.  India is actually not that big, just increasingly hot and always hard to get around in.  The diversity of the country also becomes a looming factor when contemplating the next move: will the next place be more or less conservative than where I am now, will it be primarily Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, will it be hot, cold, dry, humid and do I have the right clothes, can I get there by plane, or do I take an all night train, or must I chance a bus????

I should not be asking these questions today.  They feel like itchy wool sweaters worn on already sensitive, and very hot, skin.

I keep telling myself that the lethargy and the irritability that arise as the temperatures begin to soar are important aspects of being in India; they are part and parcel of the whole experience.  I cannot separate out these lousy days of adjusting to the extreme weather and pretend that they are aberrations.   I must not punish myself for losing time and experiences because I am not out and about every possible moment.  I've only got to find a way to give into the shift in dynamics, to respect the heat, and to discover what smaller worlds are waiting behind shuttered windows in the still realms of this country where extremes of every kind, weather, geography, religion, politics, social status, shape its essential mysterious beauty.

But can I start to do all that tomorrow?  Today, I only feel like moping.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Painted Blessings

There was a brief period when I was a teenager when I thought it would be nice to grow up and have a house that was neat, orderly, and decorated with white walls and furniture.  I can't imagine what possessed me to want that.  All I can think is that my body must have been changing too fast and my parents were separated and my new high school was ten times bigger than my grade school and I thought if everything was just simple and white and put together that I might feel the same way inside.

I grew up to have a house filled instead with chaos and color.  Color on the walls, more color in the many things hung in the Victorian style, which is to say everywhere, on top of the walls.  Multi-hued and many-patterned pieces of cloth drape the furniture and useless beautiful things of every shape and size pollute the shelves and table tops and rob them of their innate purpose which I've always supposed was to organize ones belongings and to keep the environs free of too much physical noise.

Imagine my excitement then when I was told that I would be in India for Holi, the Festival of Color and the official arrival of Spring.  I'd seen pictures of Holi before I came and wondered at the faces covered with bright purple, red, yellow, green paints.  After I arrived, when I told people how long I was staying, the first thing they would say was, "Oh, well, you will be here for Holi then."

Holi is a word that always carries a charge.  Indians and foreigners who've been to Holi always light up a bit when they describe the ritual mayhem of painting the whole of India and each other in every color under the springtime sun.  They also always look at my fair skin, my shapely bosoms and follow up their praise of Holi with a caution which essentially, though not in so many words, translates to, "Be Careful.  Men are going to want to 'touch' you."

Yesterday, Holi Eve, as tiny Santiniketan filled quickly with tourists from Calcutta, the color factor on the streets rose precipitously.  Everyone was dressed in their finest Saris and suits and paraded, as best they could amidst the throngs of bodies, through the campus and the village shops.  Gold jewelry and diamond nose rings glittered on the girls and the men looked dashing in their long flowey robes of saffron and white.

Wagons of paint powder appeared on every corner, some loose, some in small plastic bags.  Children were hawking necklaces of red flower blossoms to be worn in the hair.  Stalls selling food and drink shot up out of nowhere and had a full house of patrons in the blink of an eye.  Cars zoomed within inches of children, dogs and each other, honking as if honking could make a hundred humans and fifty cars magically disappear thus clearing the road so that the honker could have the safe and swift passage he, above all others, so obviously deserved.

I had an early bedtime, last night, in order to be bright and bushy tailed for the 6 a.m. departure to the university campus and my first Holi celebration.  Chandana, who was sitting out the early morning festivities, arranged for Minou and Jahor and Rocky to be my bodyguards so that no men could "touch" me.

Rocky was thrilled to have an excuse to miss her daily tutoring sessions, as if Holi wasn't excuse enough.  Minou was, I think, nervous to be in charge of me.  Jahor was, well, something...I can never tell what Jahor is thinking.  I, myself, was a wee bit scared, but mostly of putting on my sari and making it out of the house in time.

When I awoke the sun wasn't up yet and the wind was blowing.  In the night a rainless storm had whipped things up and a large chunk of a tree had landed on the other side of the house from where I sleep bringing the electrical lines down with it.  We were without power and water.  Jahor was already in fix-it mode; he would be lost to me and my security detail.  Minou and Rocky and I, therefore, set about dolling ourselves up.  I should say, that Minou and Rocky set about dolling me up, wrapping and pleating my sari, putting kohl on my eyes, getting my hair just so.  Jahor even took a break from his duties to watch, obviously impressed, or was he amused, at my complete transformation from westerner to West Bengaler.

Chandana came to inspect me, then the house, and then set about calling the electric company while simultaneously prodding us girls to get a move on so that we could get a good seat for whatever lay ahead.  I didn't really understand where we were going and why Chandana wasn't joining till later.

Eventually Minou and Rocky and I set off and discovered that at 6:15 in the morning hundreds of people  in saffron were already streaming in front of us towards the campus.  Rocky took my hand firmly in hers or wrapped her arm through mine depending on how strongly she felt I needed to be minded.  Minou kept hold of me more lightly; sometimes I would feel her gently grasping a fold in my sari, or I would notice a finger tucked into the waist of my skirt.  If things got too crowded too quickly both women would take hold of an arm and try to navigate me through the multitude, often at cross purposes and I would have to gently but firmly tug one of them back, or simply make some noise to let them know that, as amazing as I am, I cannot actually go in two directions at once.

We thread ourselves through the small gate onto the grounds of the university and headed to a large field where a stage was newly set along with a series of fences that prevented most of the spectators from getting anywhere near the main stage.

As we walked, Rocky, arm linked in mine, kept asking and saying and asking again, "You nervous?  You nervous?  I think you nervous.  Why you nervous?  You nervous?"

When I could get a word in edgewise, I admitted that I was a little nervous, but not extremely.  She was not convinced and would start up again, "You nervous.  I know.  Why you nervous?"

We didn't even try to get close to the center action but stood, instead, about ten rows back from the edge of a bamboo fence to the far far far right of the stage.  People were sitting on the ground in front of us; the plan was that eventually we would sit after Minou's sister and brother-in-law found us.  I tried to teach the Indian gals my Seattle dance-floor technique for saving space for a friend who has gone to the bathroom.  But my wide stance was deemed inelegant and we tried to hold our ground firmly but demurely by simply standing.  I was dubious that this technique would work.

Sure enough, after half an hour or so, an old woman with a small grandson pushed her way through the crowds and in front of us and plopped down at our feet, sending my security detail into a tizzy.  Harsh words were exchanged.  The old woman refused to budge.  I was told by Minou and Rocky to sit so that more room wouldn't be lost and so that my legs wouldn't cramp up .  It was already getting to be too tight a squeeze.  A second woman soon muscled her way in and sat to my right in front of Minou and Rocky.  More shouts were exchanged.  This time I was angry and in very clear English, I told the new arrival that she was very very rude.  The interloper pretended not to understand, but I think she did.  Still, she did not move.

The crowd waited some more.  Eventually I had to stand, my poor legs were just not getting the circulation room they needed.  Soon music began to pour out of the loudspeakers surrounding the area and just in front of us and to the right, in the paddocks, a stream of children, dressed in red and gold, started to walk at first towards us then, turning, streamed passed us in profile towards the large center area now well beyond sight, congested as the grounds had become with people.

Before the dancers turned, just as they appeared, I was assaulted with hands and angry voices from spectators behind me and to the left who had decided that I, above all others who were standing, needed to sit in order for the view to be clear.  Considering everyone to my right and behind was standing (and Indian), I thought it was incredibly strange and prejudicial that I was singled out.  That's when I really understood that at 5' 5" I, who am short in America, am almost Amazonian in India.  I knelt long enough for the dancers to clear the turn and thus become visible to all those poor souls who could not see for the first 45 seconds of the show due to my enormous size.

For what seemed like an hour, variously clad school groups danced past us, some clanking sticks in rhythm as is the Tagorian tradition.  Just when I thought I was going to have to push may way out of the pressing crowd to get some space,  the seated folks in front started getting up and we all began moving into the center of the field together.  I sensed the colors might be on their way, but my handlers weren't communicating very well.  In retrospect, I think Minou's stress level was rising; once the color started up, she was going to have to be on her guard.

At first I was seeing no color, people were just generally milling about.  Off in the distant center stage another round of dancing had started up.  Rocky told me to secure my camera away in the plastic bag I'd brought for color protection, giving me a clue that paint was imminent.  I switched my camera for bags of paint that had been waiting patiently in the, now, camera sack, and handed a color pouch to each of my protectoresses, keeping the bright green for myself.

Within minutes I began seeing people with smudges of paint, just a few people and a little paint.  I didn't know what to do, how this thing worked.  I knew I was supposed to only offer color to women, to be on the safe side.  But who was supposed to make the first move?

Minou and Rocky were holding onto me, pulling me again towards some unbeknownst destination; eventually we ran into women they knew.  Here, at last, was Minou's sister and a friend, or daughter, or cousin...?

While we introduced ourselves a woman suddenly appeared at my side and said, "Happy Holi."  She then proceeded to gently stroke my cheeks with her paint powder filled hands.  I had finally been anointed with the color of spring, well one of them.  I can't remember which color came first, but soon I would be good and covered with pink, green, pale blue, dark blue, purple, orange and red powdered paint.  I, in turn, would then say, "Happy Holi," and bless my blessers with my own chartreuse Holi dust.

At first it was just women that came up to me, but once I'd announced, by virtue of my multi-colored head and face, that I was game, men started to approach and ask if they, too, could add to the pallet that was me.  Sometimes 10 or 12 men would appear all at once and Minou would turn lioness and pull me clear, but there was really no need.  Everyone who sought me out kept to the proper painting zone which seemed to be anywhere from the clavicle up.

Since the powder was flying I kept my camera hidden away, but the same could not be said of other folks; I was a favorite photographic subject.  I wasn't too surprised for, in a sea of beautiful brown subjects, I was one of only four white ones that I saw all day.

I began to feel a little bit like a sacred cow who is kept around just for the good karma of feeding it, as more and more people went out of their way to come up to me and to add to the growing pile of color stuck to my hair and face.  I don't know if it was simply a novelty to touch a white woman, especially if it was a man doing the touching, or if they actually thought it would be good luck, but I felt like it brought people a particular flavor of joy to put their own seal on my Springtime facade.

I do know that it felt auspicious to me, to be dolloped with color from so many strangers, some of whom also took the time to introduce themselves and to ask where I was from, was this my first Holi, was I having fun.  The strokes of their hands on my face were, for the most part, so careful and loving or so genuinely playful that I never considered being nervous or frightened, especially because as they painted my face or head they were always saying, "Happy Holi" which became a sort of prayer left in the touch and in the color, a prayer and a blessing, one that I returned in kind, if the bestower had not painted and dashed onto the next lucky soul.

Around nine, my security detail, which had grown with the addition of a few class friends of Rocky, shepherded me back towards home.  To get there, we had to pass, again, through the gates of the University.  In order to manage the crowds, someone in their infinite wisdom decided not to open the large gates that block the service road, but instead to funnel thousands of souls through a gap in the fence that is only one person wide.  As we approached the brief passageway, Minou and Rocky had hold of me, one from the front, the other from the back.  Minou made a start through the gate, pulling me, at the same moment a man was pulling his wife in the same direction, and several other people, too, tried to get out while even more tried to get in.  For a minute or so we were all stuck, like a human log jam.  I was pressed against a fence, Minou's arm pressed even harder behind mine into the wall and I thought, "I might actually be crushed here while all these crazy people insist on being in one square foot of earth at the exact same time."

Minou gave up and let go of me and pushed through, the man pulled his wife and I had a split second to try and clear the gate.  Just as I entered the stone walled entry/exit an older woman tried to shove me out of the way in order to come into the grounds.

"Are you nuts," I thought, "there are a hundred people moving in my direction.  You are a salmon swimming upstream!"

Ok, I actually panicked a little, too.  There was no way I was being bullied back into the human traffic jam, so I forced my ample hip out and fought my way to freedom using my Amazonian size to hip-check the crazy old lady.  The woman screamed after me, "Idiot!" as I happily embraced life on the outside of the campus walls.

My security detail.  Minou is leaning on the wall, Rocky is sitting out in front.
When we got home, the electric company was fixing up the house and breakfast was served and Chandana got ready for her foray into Holi.  Around ten, I set off  again into the color zone with my Santiniketan hostess.  She finally explained that the morning show is something everyone should see once, which is why she sent me, but that the locals always wait and go to the university around 9 or 10 when the tourists all think Holi is over.  While the Calcuttans stream out into the town, the Santiniketanites sashay inside where small groups break out into the various schools, music, art, etc., and dance freely, spontaneously, joyously without the pressure of performing for the outside world.  As Chandana and I explored the various schools, more paint was added to my color soaked skin, pictures were snapped, conversations started.

Chandana had not read my blog from last night where I wondered aloud what it would be like to be in a crowd of thousands of suddenly uninhibited Indians who don't allow themselves to frolic the other 364 days of the year.  She said to me as we walked past citizens of all ages, sizes, shapes and religious backgrounds, "It's amazing, isn't it, to see all these people letting lose when they aren't allowed to at any other time?"

Sometimes I think Chandanda and I are sharing the same mind.

Taking the long way home, Chandana and I decided to stop and see and paint everyone I know in Santiniketan.  First there was Dr. Ganguly, then my land-lady from the old house, and finally, we went to see Chompa and Bishar who I hadn't visited since I'd moved out two weeks ago.  I was greeted by Chompa loudly, as you might expect, and with hugs and color.  She enquired after my care taking and told me that she'd been dreaming of me and saying goodbye over and over in her sleep.  Once again I wished I could understand this woman who continues to bless me with her love.

Bishar opened his bag of paint and, smiling broadly, set about making sure that any spots on my head and neck that might have been neglected were now fully saturated and well attended to, Holi-speaking.

Before we left, Chandana made plans to have the family for tea.

At some point in the day it occurred to me that Spring was also arriving back in the states.  I'd actually not put two and two together before that, while the year plowed on in these parts, the seasons were doing their changing of the guard back home as well.  So, egocentric, I know.

"How fun would it be", I thought, "to go around from house to house, from state to state, visiting my friends and family back home and sprinkling them with the colors of Spring, being kissed with color from their loving hands and hearts?"

Tonight the full moon will dip closer to the planet than it has been in 15 years, giving us all an extra dose of lunacy.  Chandana and Jeanne and I will sit on the roof, drink rum and cokes, watch the magical moon sail overhead and leave the mayhem to the streets around us.  It is not without a tinge of sadness that I will keep my distance from the revelers, but I think that my life is so full of color on an average day that I have no need to over-dose on it tonight.  I will, instead, take all the paint strokes of the day, plant them in my soul,  and let the moon-rays nurture a fresh crop of color and love to keep the coming year blooming with joy.

I will, as well, send those seeds home to all of you that I love and miss who are so far away tonight, and to those wonderful few who are reading that I don't yet know.  I wish for you all an early and lasting Spring and dreams of purple, red, yellow, blue, orange and so much more to color your days and nights for years to come.

Mid-morning paint break. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Holi Eve

Sleepy Santiniketan has turned into a mini-Calcutta in the span of a day.  Tomorrow is Holi, or Dol as they call it in West Bengal, the Festival of Color marking the arrival of Spring.  Thousands of people have been streaming into town since this morning, cars are jamming up the roads, tensions are rising.

I feel a little bit like a kid on Christmas Eve who doesn't know what Christmas actually is.  I know there are lights on buildings (like Christmas), stalls with food and arts and crafts have sprung up over night, and people are selling bags of brightly colored paint powder.

It's the paint that has really got me both nervous and excited.  That paint is going to be tossed willy nilly onto anyone and everyone.  Santiniketan favors "dry Holi".  In the farther north parts of the country, they do Holi wet, often with manure mixed into the balls of paint for extra adventure.

I have a red and saffron sari for the occasion and red flowers waiting in the fridge to deck my hair with in the early hours of the day.  We have to leave the house at 6 in order to get to the viewing stands.  Seems there is dancing with some kind of sticks starting at the break of dawn.  After that, all hell breaks loose and the powder starts to fly.  Chandana has arranged for Minou, Jahor and Rocky to be my guardians lest any big city Holi Hooligans decide to get fresh.

On top of all the Holi craziness, the moon will be full.  Not just full, but closer to the Earth than it has been in a loooongggg time and closer than it will be for a long time after.   So, La Luna will be tugging extra hard on all our inner compasses, stretching out the edges of our comfort zones and blurring the lines of right and wrong, black and white, up and down.

Holi seems to have a lot of mythology around it.  My favorite story that I've heard is that Holi was the one day of the year that girls from lower castes were allowed to hastle men from the upper castes, essentially it was pay-back time.

Walking through the streets tonight I could feel the anticipation of fun and frolicking that awaits us all tomorrow.  As the people are streaming in, the walls are coming down.

What must it be like to let loose in a country where letting loose is not really done?  Especially on the full moon when craziness is apt to happen regardless of flying paint and dancing and thousands of unskilled frolickers leaping into their own forbidden zones?

That is what I'm about to find out.

That and what I'd look like if I dyed my hair pink, or blue, or yellow, or purple, or bright red.

Or, all of the above.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


When Gary and Nicole and I were in the Backwaters of Kerala, I encountered a couple of different folks who lit up when I said that my name was Morgan.  Turns out there is a Tamil god whose name is Murugun, which sounds exactly the same as "Morgan" to the untrained ear.

I thought that was pretty cool.

I found out yesterday that Murugan is Ganesha's bachelor brother.  Even cooler.

THEN I found out that there is popular a Tamil character called Quick Gun Murugan.  Super Cool!

Here, my friends, is my Tamil Name Doppleganger:

THEN, when I was searching on YouTube for Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera I discovered that there is also a Tamil doppleganger of that song!  AND a music video from some movie called Pukar.

So, for your further viewing pleasure.  Que Sera Sera, Indian Style!