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?"

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Panic Room

When you are in the midst of a grand adventure, in the throes of change, both internal and external, it is absolutely impossible to know what your life will be like when things go back to "normal".

Nicole left last night and for the first time since coming to Santiniketan I am really here on my own.  I'm not counting those few days last weekend, which were more like a holiday from company.  I'm completely moved into my new space which looks, as my spaces always do, as if I have lived here for years.  I can see the next month of mornings beginning with the routine of getting up and making coffee and toast and sitting outside to marvel at the exotic birds filling the gardens with sound.  I'm sure that I'll go to Calcutta and Darjeeling to break that routine, but it will become my routine, none-the-less, a new normal in this extra-ordinary Indian life that I'm temporarily leading.

Every once in a while over the last few days I've found myself wondering what it will be like to go home to Seattle.  I keep thinking of this time when I was a teenager and I went to stay for several weeks with a family on the Outer Banks.  When my mom came to pick me up and take me home, I didn't want to go.  I was at that terrible age when it seems impossible to believe that anyone can understand you, especially your parents.  I know that I hurt my Mom's feelings very much by telling her that I didn't want to go because the family I was staying with understood me better.  In my memory, though I 'm finding it hard to trust, I remember locking myself in a bedroom and outright refusing to go.  I can feel the turmoil in the pit of my stomach, the pain, the fear of losing whatever it is that I'd thought I'd found.

There are whispers of that same kind of despair calling me from the near future, like voices from some prophetic day dream.  I can even see the emotions floating in ghostly, wispy, foggy strands from the cave of the unknown that always lurks just up ahead on the path, drawing me towards the inevitable grief I'll have when I must pack up and move on from Santiniketan and, even more horribly resolute, from India.

On the other hand, I also harbor immense curiosity about what it will be like to return to my beautiful home and my amazing friends carrying everything I've gathered and will continue to gather on this journey.  I wonder if my "old" life will have changed, because I have changed.   Will I be able to see it with fresh eyes and find new wonders in it?  Will it feel confining after the expanse of India?  Will I simply return to life "as usual" circa December 2010?  These questions are difficult to write because I know so many people who I love and miss are bound to read them and I do not want them to feel like my poor Mother must have felt on the other side of my locked door all those years ago.  Come to think of it, I don't want my blog reading Mother to ever again feel like she did on the other side of that door!

But I know my mother who shares part of her heart with me and I with her, would probably understand my current swirling sea of mixed emotions and complicated musings more than anyone else.  If only she could have been here in Santiniketan last night I would never have to say a word to her for her to know my feelings.

Two friends of Chandana's, Aditya and Mridula Mukerjee, came to town from New Delhi to do some lectures at the university; they stayed across the living room for the weekend.  Both Aditya and Mridula are leading historians who head various departments at Jawaharial Nehru University.   They both carry with them a confidence that speaks of countless hours lecturing to thousands of students, who once upon a time included our hostess.  But for lofty academics, the Mukerjees walk solidly, grounded.  They carry themselves openly, their arms at their side, not crossed in a manner that suggests that they know more.  They have none of the bombast that some folks who have become experts in certain areas can wield, throwing themselves around like human bumper cars.  Instead, upon meeting them, I was struck by their playful curiosity for everything around them, their implicit invitation to engage in conversation with the kind of candor you might use with an old friend and their deep, sweet, devotion to each other.

Nicole and I were invited across the garden to Chandana's bungalow for evening drinks the first night, an unexpected delight in these parts.  There was a lot of catching up between Chandana and her friends and then, too, with Dr. Gangluy when he arrived.  Every one was in good spirits, a house full of warmth and bursting with intellect, tempered with a an unusually large dollop of humor.  At one point Aditya, who was mixing the drinks, asked if I "wanted ice served from the hands of a Brahman?"  Nicole and I both laughed out loud.  It was the first time we'd heard anyone in India poke fun at themselves and this crazy country with such ease.

The next day, Mridula was giving a public talk at the university library that ended up focusing on the differing but equally non-violent approaches of Nehru and Gandhi in quelling separate outbreaks of violence after the Kolkata riot in 1946.  It was fascinating.  Nehru and Gandhi both went into villages where Muslim's and Hindu's were killing each other and both leaders said that they would not leave until peace was restored.  Gandhi stayed for several months, humbling himself more and more until he brought about a tentative and tenuous reconciliation.  Nehru only had to stay for a few weeks in his village.  Though he did not use violence, he made it plain that if anymore bloodshed occurred that he was prepared to use military force.  Nicole and I both felt our jaws drop when Mridula pointed out that both leaders were prepared to stick their ground until the problem was solved.  That's unheard of these days.  I thought about the gulf oil spill and wondered what would be different if Obama had gone to BP, sat in the waiting room of the CEO and said, "I'm not going until you stop the leak AND clean up the damage you've done to the eco-system".

After the talk, Chandana had arranged for a group of Baul singers to perform back at the house, a private concert.  The audience was made up of the Mukherjees, Chandana, Nicole, Dr. Ganguly and his daughter Rai, Jan, a Baul expert who lives upstairs, and the lovely family who take care of the house.  Even for Aditya and Mridula who are born and bred in India this was a "once in a lifetime event."  Baul's are the bards of Santiniketan.  Living on the fringe of society, they eschew materialism in favor of free-love and earth connectedness.  Our group, who sat on the floor surrounded by various odd stringed instruments, bells, drums, and a flute, was led by a young man of 28 who is, I gather from Chandana, quite famous.  He has a broad, dark, open face, longish hair that he wears tucked up in a bun.  Over the traditional saffron robes, he dons a patchwork quilt tunic of many colors.  His father and guru who appeared to be close to 60, but was probably really only in his mid-40s, was also playing and singing.  The older man had hair that was even longer, a similar tunic.  Then there were three apprentice musicians, all wearing shortly cropped hair and plain clothes as if they were in musician boot camp.

For two and a half hours we listened to great music and I even danced a little.  Every once in a while Dr. Ganguly would get up on "stage" and sing with one of the artists.  At the beginning of almost every song, someone would come over and translate the lyrics which, like my favorite poems by the Sufi Hafiz who is an energetic cousin of the Bauls, sound religious, but can be interpreted on many levels.  In other words, they appear to be pious, but they are really very sensual and quite saucy.  At the top of one song, a giggling Dr. Ganguly leaned over and told me that the singer was saying, "Don't waste your love juices in an iron pot".  Chandana snuck by later and gave me a different and totally pg rated version which I sadly can't remember.

I would, upon occasion, catch the eyes of Mridula or Aditya and we exchanged silent exclamations of awe.  I can't tell you how unexpected it is to find oneself in a small audience with two of the top historians of India and to feel like we were all kids in a creative candy shop having been given the run of the place by the wizardess that is Chandana.  Nicole, who had to leave early to catch a night train up into the hills, was bereft.   I would have been too if I'd had to leave in the middle of the bizarrely whimsical evening that had fallen into both of our laps.  I, perhaps, might have locked myself in a room and refused to go.

At dinner, at 11:30 that night, the Mukherjees and Chandana and I talked about the phenomenal music.  Then we talked about life, love, their children, my childhood.  The conversation, like Mridula's talk on Gandhi and Nehru, at times was very academic but could turn abruptly from the arena of the mind to a conversation of the heart in a split second.  Sometimes it was only the metaphorical forest that was visible and then the three of them would be analyzing each leaf on the conversational tree.  The ease with which the whole night had engaged first the mind, then the heart, then the soul, then the senses, then the mind, then the senses, and so on, was boggling.  I felt like I was in a movie watching a scene about life in India that was too wonderful to be real, and truly stranger than fiction.

How does one go back to watching movies on the Hallmark channel after a night like that?  That is, after all, what I might have been doing if I'd been back in Seattle instead of here in India.

This might be the older man from the concert the other night.....

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