Sunday, January 1, 2012

Burial of the Dead

This will be my last post on this particular blog.

The year 2011 is behind me now, and so is my trip to India. It is now within me and will forever influence everything that I do. And with it, much has died, though from the death of flowers, come new ones again.

Nothing shall be the same for me:

How I look at the World around me.

How I contemplate what is meaningful in my own life.

The complexity of the Beautiful and the Grotesque in a single moment.

India is an experience that penetrated my Soul at the core of my Be-ing, but ultimately, it was not India that did that.

There is a saying in Zen Buddhism, “When you meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.”

And so, I did.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Death in Kolkutta

When I look at the world’s headlines, sometimes I am moved to stop, other times not because it feels so foreign or so flippant, or too much to bear. Sometimes, I can’t see what others around the world see, when I look at the world.

However, now, having been to India, when I see a headline about it, things are indeed different. I have new perspectives and new experiences, new pairs of glasses to view the world.

When I saw the headline about the fire in Kolkutta, this was such a case. Six months ago, before I had been to India, this headline would have been just another case of many people dying in a country that I could not fathom, nor imagine, even in my wildest attempts.

I remember going to listen to Noam Chomsky speak at The University of Texas at Austin many years ago, and he brought in an example of the floods in Bangladesh from years before where some 400,000 people perished. We saw those headlines, but what did that mean, 400,000 corpses, bloated and bobbing in the waters of Southeast Asia? It meant nothing to me then, really. And, that was Chomsky’s point, the detachment that we have on a global level when it does not affect us directly, no matter how much we hear about it.

As I have posted earlier, I visited the site of the Indian Ocean tsunami where thousands upon thousands of people had literally vanished under the Earth’s watery wrath, being sucked out to sea, children ripped from the hands of mothers and fathers, never to be seen again. I remember reading about that, seeing pictures, but it did not “move me.” However, when I was just there, even though Kanniyakumari is completely rebuilt and life does go on, I felt more just thinking abou that event as my friend Handel described the scene when he and his mother visited just hours after the waters receded with their human sacrifices.

It changed me, at least as far as the headlines go when they are about India. For, although I did not go to Kolkutta, when I read about it and see the images, I can only imagine all to well what it looked like, the Chaos that would have reigned supreme, the catastrophe at hand.

Does this make me a better person than before? To be more attuned to what is happening in India? In a word, No.

I’m not sure what it does in all honesty, something that I am trying to puzzle through, inter alia, of the things that I left behind  and those that I brought back with me, and those that I may yet to learn I always had . Do we have to know the victims for it to be a human tragedy? If 400,000 people drown and nobody hears them scream, does it make a sound?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Things We Don't Leave Behind

It has been just slightly over three weeks since I left India, and I am still not sure that it actually happened.

I look at the pictures, I watch my videos, I see the sundry items in my apartment that I brought back for myself, my daughter, and for others. They are physical, tangible objects, so how could it not be real? Right?

But, what really of India is left for me?

What of anything of my life, prior to writing this sentence is left? One could say the obvious, that is, memories, but that doesn’t seem to cut it for me any longer. Memories are transparent, fleeting, and can easily be manipulated if I put even a modicum of effort into deluding myself that one thing was better or worse than it actually was. Our most convincing lies are usually to ourselves.

I made my favorite dish from India, or at least my comfort food dish, that being Chili Parotha (there are about 50 ways to spell this word...), which is a doughy pancake, made with a swirl of dough, looking much like a cinnamon roll, at least the Tamil version, as each region does it differently. Then, the parotha is torn up into little pieces and stewed with a tomato-based chili sauce.

I found a store here in Antwerp that is run by Tamil Nadu people, so I am able to get all of the “right” ingredients for my dish. But, as anyone knows, it just ain’t the same when you do it at home as compared to in situ. Don’t get me wrong, my vindaloo-level chili sauce was spot on for comfort and the parothas, despite being deep-frozen, were surpisingly good, and, yet...

Yet, what? Why was it not as good? I bought the same ingredients as I would have if I had been in Madurai, cooked it the same way, and my taste buds are the same, but what is missing?

The full-on assault of the other senses in the case of India, at least. The power of the environment is an impressive force upon our consciousness and it does seem to impede us from enjoying the moment at times when that nagging voice says, “yeah, but...” The “yeah, but...” is a deadly phase, not lethal in that sense, but can kill a perfectly good moment or event when the naysayers begin to chant that mantra.

Had I never been to India, there would have been absolutely nothing wrong with my dinner. On the contrary, I may have thought it was one of the best things that I made. Instead, my mind wandered to the various places that I had my beloved Chili Parotha: at Eliot’s Beach in Chennai after visiting the Theosophical Society Grounds ; in a small roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere-ville, Tamil Nadu, with the Bishop Sargent crew after a 14-hour day of shooting; with my good friend Tess and Handel in Tirunelveli; or, on the rooftop terrace alone at the Park Plaza Hotel, overlooking the Meenakshi Temple complex in Madurai on the last night of my placement.

My life has been forever enriched by the experiences that I had in India, and they come back in moments, as dramatic flashes even, or sometimes as prolonged, patient sonnets of imagination in my solitary thoughts.

My life turned a corner in India.

There are things we leave behind in life.

There are people in my life that I may never see again, for various reasons, from various parts of my various lives. I know that once I turned that corner. In turning that corner, there is much that I leave behind. And, there is much that I have brought back with me, puzzling through which I am recomposing my life, with a view towards which I have edged, on the turning away. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

India Abides

I don’t think it is any stretch of the imagination to be fairly confident that at least one person from my past has uttered such a sentence in the past year. I can think of a few in particular in writing the following:

“Robert, yeah, great guy, love him to death, but ya know, he always seemed like kind of a lost soul...and now, going off to India...”

I personally don’t believe in the concept of “Lost Souls,” however, so I have been thinking about my experience in India, in both anticipation of such questions and/or statements, or just as mere reflections now that I have been back in Antwerp for a week.

What is it that I learned while in India? Was it worth it? Did I find myself?

Instead of responding to such meaningless questions, I rather am un-asking the question. Too often such situations are the proverbial, “so, are you still beating your wife?” scenario. There is no possible answer that does not implicate the person’s innocence or guilt, regardless of the situation. These are loaded questions that serve no purpose in arriving at anything resembling even an approximation of the Truth.

Instead of answering questions, I have come up with a few statements about how I feel now, having been back from India for a week, allowing the experience some Time to digest, to ferment in my Mind’s Eye, to see what I have in my life.

 India complemented me.

Does this mean that I was lacking? No, again, I’m un-asking the loaded question. The “It” of what I got from India was always in me, it just needed to have a face put on it, to complement what was already there, not to add something or to fill a void. I don’t believe that I have ever been “lost,” though have lost sight of the path, as I did when I swam out too far once in the Ocean, but there is quite a difference. As such, to discover something about one’s Self is literally to dis-cover, or to remove what is blocking the view towards which one is moving. In Dutch, for example, the literal equivalent is te ont-dekken, likewise, meaning to remove an obstacle, or a cover in order to see what was already there.

There was no “God-shaped hole” in my life.

In fact, there was no hole in my life, (despite my joking about there being a “hole in my culture” elsewhere). How many of us are walking around with either the thought that “if only I had x, then my life would be perfect” or “thank God, I have y in my life to make me complete.” And, what if in the former, the x never comes, or in the later, the y is lost? Then what? Forever incomplete in the first case, broken or damaged or scarred in the second? One situation is despair, the other in constant fear of losing what you have. Neither is complete. Both are lacking in some respect, either in expectation or anticipation. There has never been a lacking of a God/Higher Power/Atman/fill-in-the-blank in my life, but rather a breach in correct perception and gratitude at Times, nothing more. I believe that the Universe has more important things to be doing than to bother with making my life difficult at times. That is sheer delusions of grandiosity to think as such.

I did not find Religion in India.

I wasn’t looking for Religion, nor did I “find” it. I saw a great deal of reverence and devotion on a cultural scale that I doubt I will ever see in any other place, but it was not part of my personal experience. I did not go to learn how to "pray," I know quite well how to do that. I did not go to seek a form of a God that was pleasing, foreign, or exotic, I have an image that suits me just fine. One would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind as Tommy to not bump headfirst into Religion in India at every turn, so the thought of going there and finding it is ludicrous. Going to an Ashram in India surrounded by other white people makes as much sense to me as buying deep-frozen pasta in Bologna.

I did not “find myself” in India.

In order to find something, once again, it has to be lost or missing. I was never lost. The pathways that I have taken in life have not always been the straightest and at times, some might say that I “wandered” off of the traditional pathways, and would be correct in saying so, but was never lost. Perhaps, lost my way, but not lost. I re-learned what was important to me in my life, and re-connected with some very important aspects of my life, but did I find a new me? Hardly. More like the same old me...again. Funny how that can happen.

Most of all, I re-confirmed the need for Gratitude in my Life, and for all that I have, and not grieving for what I do not.

India gives boundlessly and selfishlessly.

India Abides, and one learns in turn there how to Abide.

Monday, October 31, 2011

You May Leave if You Wish

It’s Time to go. On the way out of the hotel to meet Hapiz for my final trip into town, one of my sandals broke and I had to go back to my room to put on my shoes again. I have only worn closed shoes twice since here in India as well as on the set for the film. It is Time.

The concept of Liminality was coined by Arnold von Gennep in his 1909 book, “Rights of Passage.”

For Gennep, the liminal space was the most essential part of a passage from one stage to another. The initiate had to literally both physically and spiritually be removed from the normal status of life and thrown into an other “world,” in which he or she would endure a rite of passage, being made into a new person, and then re-integrated into society. The re-integration is crucial, for otherwise, an initiate can remain stuck in a terminal space of liminality, in perpetual limbo. Paralyzed from action.

Yesterday marked the nominal count of 7 billion people as the “official” census of the world’s population.

One in six of those people live in India. That is not a difficult concept for me to grasp having been here now for ten weeks. There are a lot of people.

India herself is in a liminal stage. The country is squarely between the First World of undeveloped and the Third World of “developed.” Like everything else in India, it takes the Second World to the extreme. There are many internal debates raging here. Is India the mythical, spiritual land of superstition and magic of ancient tribal religions, or is the next stop on the IT Superhighway? The answer is “Mu.” Neither and both at the same time.

Mu is a Japanese term for “no, but not no.” A negation and a negation of that negation at the same time, an infinite loop of negation, rendering the question null and void. India is a land that just took on F-1 with a new multi-million dollar race circuit while half the population is below the world poverty line. India is the land of Temples gopalums and Supercomputer towers. It is Bollywood millionaires and the slumdogs of Mumbai. Perhaps you saw that just this past week, a real “slumdog” won India’s millionaire show, a coincidence that is so common in India that they can no longer be called coincidences.

In the universities, protests are springing up all over India with manifestations against and for dress codes, keeping castes separate or breaking them down, racial profiling against non-vegetarians and Hindus, language divisions and barriers. In one major university in Delhi, book banning of “blasphemous” books has begun, sparking outrage and support at the same time.

In Forester’s “A Passage to India,” he divides the books into sections showing the intricate fabric of India’s major religions: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain, and their even further convolution with Christianity and Western beliefs and customs. India is all of this and much, much more.

It has the largest Identity Crisis of any country I have ever seen, and yet, simultaneously, I have never been in a country that was so certain of who it is. India knows that it is India. Make no mistake about that.

India is hyper-progressive, ultra-conservative, eternally stuck in the past, but with greater visions for the future than the rest of the world. It is the most complex and challenging place I can imagine being in.

It has challenged me. It has humbled me beyond measure and words. It has stripped me down of prejudices and preconceptions that serve no purpose.

Because of the sheer numbers of people, I have heard many times that India does not place a value on human life. I disagree. Nowhere else have I been that every single action revolves around “Being Human,” as the t-shirts say.

I am not so naïve as to think that every person is walking around chanting Sanskrit, contemplating the cycle of life, just as not all Europeans are sitting in cafes, drinking strong coffee and discussing politics and philosophy, nor do all Americans have picnics celebrating freedom, eating hotdogs and grilling hamburgers. And yet, they are. Like or not stereotypes exist for a reason, and each of these stereoptypes do exist and they are part of those countries. And, each one is part of me. I feel a kindred spirit to each one of these elements and they are what make me me.

Hapiz, my faithful Muslim Tuk-Tuk driver and guide says often, almost mantra-like, “Varanasi has three parts: one part Hindu, one part Muslim, one part Buddhist.” And, like the trimurti of Shiva that is one of many faces of India, each face has an infinite manifestations of avatars reflected in each one of us.

Like Indra’s Net, each of our lives are individual gems, infinitely reflecting all lives in our own. It is was connects us, even if we are so very distant, estranged, or in conflict.

This trip to India came at a crucial juncture in my life, a threshold to a new one, leaving behind and old one. India taught me not just how to be a human, but more importantly, like the third metamorphosis of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, it taught me to view the world with the wonder of a child again, to be a child again.

Having just been to the so-called Monkey Temple (due to a plethora of monkeys in it), my last stop in Varanasi, and consequently India, I sat watching people from all walks of life file in and out of the temple, ringing the bell after the darshana, wafting the incense in their faces, listening to the chants in the background. Men, women, and children from all socio-economic levels filing past, one after another.

I could have stayed for a lifetime, but, I can’t. I am not from here. I am not Hindu and I am not Indian, and never can be in this lifetime. India was indeed a passage for me, a liminal Space and Time in which I learned again what is most important to me. I have been “alone” for 10 weeks, but never have I felt more full.

And, so, I left.

Fair Enough, Varanasi

It is amazing the difference that one person can make sometimes. My experience of Varanasi has taken on so many twists and turns now with Hapiz and he has shown me an entirely different city. He is a kind man and helps others constantly during our little city excursions and he has taken me to parts of the city I would have never gone alone, much less known they existed. Because of him, Varanasi has emerged for me, through the filth, the grime, the pollution and the incredible amount of people packed into a very small space.

Today, the highlights that I have pictures of below were Pilgrim's Bookstore which had an amazing selection of Sanskrit and Buddhist texts that I was able to find some real gems at next to nothing. For me, that's geeking pretty hard, and it was great.

We also went into the Moghul Muslim neighborhood, which was yet another interminable maze of side streets that Hapiz went bobbing ahead of me as I was tripping over myself (and cows, kids, goats, scooters, chickens...) to keep up with him.

Here, the entire process of the world-famous Varanasi silk brocade work is done, from boiling the silk to punching out unique design templates to the weaving and dyeing itself. The whole quarter was echoing with the clanging of the looms, sounding very much like a chorus of old-fashioned printing presses, which is what I thought the noise was when we first came upon them. And, of course, the showroom, which I then got to see the "private" collection as these prints are not exported, only sold in Varanasi.

And, later, to end the day, I went back with Hapiz to the evening Pooja celebration on the banks of the Ganges. This time from the front and not the boat's viewpoint. Each evening, every day of the year, they say good night to the Ganges with an elaborate display of fire, incense, and of course, noise. Lots of noise. Bells, horns, conches, tablas, chanting, and just general background noise create a surreal ceremony to the great River Goddess Ganga transforming the smelly muddy waters into an incense-filled delight of sights, sounds, and smells. Again, India responds.