Thursday, December 8, 2011

India, India, India – Part II

The mosque at Fatehpur Sikri (KK)

More first impressions of a complicated country:
  •  Qutb Minar, a 12th century religious complex built around a tall stone minaret, was my first close-up encounter with Indo-Islamic architecture. I found the buildings incredibly beautiful—the proportions, the red and buff colored sandstone, the sweeping calligraphic inscriptions around the gates. Every possible surface was ornately decorated, every object designed to be both beautiful and meaningful. It was pouring rain when we visited, and somehow the hurrying crowds with their bright saris and colorful umbrellas made the experience even more affecting. Their presence in the rain seemed to underline how much the visitors wanted to be there, how important the site was to them.

The Taj Mahal near sunset. (KK)

  • The main road in Dehradun plunged us into our first full-on experience of Indian-style urban anarchy. First we rode in a jerky, black-smoke-belching moto-rickshaw that honked incessantly and jostled for position in a sea of motorbikes, cars and more rickshaws. People drove on whichever side of the road they felt like and narrowly missed each other on blind corners, while cattle, shoppers, vendors and beggars strolled in and among the vehicles. Later, we learned that walking along that road was even worse than driving—it required unflagging alertness lest you be waylaid by a persistant beggar, hit from behind by a motorcycle, sucked into a political procession or tripped into the roadside ditch by an off-kilter slab of cement sidewalk.
  • The Navdanya teaching farm near Dehradun was a quiet, green oasis. At regular intervals, the call to prayer floated through the windows from the mosques nearby, eerie and amplified across the rice fields and mango orchards. Some mornings, we sat on the floor of the seed bank with sari-clad local women and sorted red beans or grains of barley using wide shallow sorting trays made from reeds. One smiling, deft young woman tried and tried to improve my technique, but I never got anywhere near as quick and thorough as she was. At night, when the power failed and tiny frogs explored the concrete floor of our room, we’d lie on our hard beds trying to read as insects swarmed our headlamps and booms resounded through the dark. It turned out the night watchmen were setting off explosives to scare monkeys and wild pigs away from the crops and back into the nearby jungle. 


  • Rie went out walking near Navdanya one day, and a young girl came up to her. “I wanted to meet someone from another country!” she said. They got talking and before Rie knew it, she was invited to meet the girl’s family, to have tea, and to bring me along for another visit the next day. They showed us around their home and their family’s shrine. They introduced us to aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Even the grandmother who didn’t speak English sat with us and smiled. “You’re family friends now,” the girl’s mother told us. “If you come back again, you will stay with us.”


  • I mentioned to one of the employees at the farm that I was having trouble sleeping and he said, “You must meditate before you go to bed. Then you will sleep.” And later he sat with some of us and showed us the basics. I wish I could say my insomnia was cured—it wasn’t—but the matter-of-factness of his advice made me wonder why I’ve never explored Eastern paths to peace. Why act like a Westerner and carry all this stress around?
  • Our train to Allahabad arrived early, and we were out on the platform when I saw my friend Sonjoy coming toward us, dressed in a blue tunic and loose pants, smiling widely and looking much as he did 16 years ago in Baton Rouge. It’s always a tremendous pleasure to see old friends, and in this case that was especially true. Sonjoy and his wife Nandini are warm, welcoming, smart people, and so much fun to be around. Years ago, I witnessed the grace and strength with which they weathered a trauma, and it did my heart good to see that many positive things have happened in their lives since then. Being in their home allowed me to get to know them in a way that was never possible before, and they opened themselves to us generously. They shared family photographs and family stories and introduced us to many of the people in their lives—relatives, friends, former students, current students. They took us out to meet colleagues and to a big, festive party to celebrate the first shaving of a friend's brother's baby boy’s head. They took us to Sarnath to visit temples and an archeological museum and the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. And they took us out on the Ganges at nightfall so we could watch people launch little floral prayer boats at Varanasi. Near the end of our stay, Sonjoy shared poems he’d written, and Nandini impulsively gave me a kurta of hers. I was very touched, not just because I really liked both the poems and the tunic, but because they were in their different ways very personal gifts, and the giving of them the sort of gesture you make only with really close friends. 

  • Our first morning in Allahabad, we all got up very early to go with one of Sonjoy and Nandini’s friends to the Triveni Sangam, the holy confluence where the Yamuna River meets the Ganges and the Sarasvati, the invisible river of myth. It was the day after a festival, and the muddy shore by the fort was packed with people, some just milling about, others under tarps near which were long poles topped with brightly colored flags. Sonjoy hired a wooden boat and the young boatman rowed us out onto the water, which was murky from the monsoon. Whitish, unhealthy looking bubbles floated on the surface, along with coconut shells, plastic bags, bits of tinsel, some dark blobs I didn’t really want to identify, and bundled-straw deities left over from the day before. A rowdy crowd of men splashed and shouted in the water near shore. Further out, though, it was clean and very peaceful, despite all the packed boats headed for the holy spot. In the pale, early morning light, in the clear devotion of people slipping out of their boats to bathe where the waters mixed, you could sense something ancient and sacred and moving and real. That juxtaposition—the rowdiness and the spirituality, the grubbiness and the serenity, the shouting crowd and the deep, quiet pleasure of being with dear friends—stayed with me. It’s impossible to sum up India in one image, but for me this moment comes close.

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