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June 9, 2003 - Seattle, Washington, USA
I know, I know. I’ve been promising this for weeks now. I’m finally ready to do it. I will begin with now, June 8th, in the US, and then back up and write about my last month in India.
I am currently in Seattle, visiting a lot with my daughter, Jan, but staying with Sharon Lampkin and Tex Buxton. Sharon e-mailed me after reading the book a few months ago and we’ve become friends.
I left Delhi on the 15th of May at 12:45 AM. That’s the flight, I was warned, that a lot of people miss because 12:45 the 15th really happens the night of the 14th. I was happy for the warning since I am certainly a good candidate for that kind of confusion.
Bandana, the librarian at the American Embassy School and now a good friend, and I had dinner that last night in Delhi; and then she sent me off to the airport in the school car since the school had originally promised airport return. It was just a few months later than the usual week or two return of most visiting authors. The school was wonderful to me and the night before I left I gave a big thank you party for 30 people (catered by the school’s talented Vivek Ahluwalia), most of them in the school community. Everyone there had all played a role in my India experience and I’d stayed in the homes and apartments of quite a few of the guests. One of my new friends commented that I had certainly slept around a lot in Delhi!
The flight to the US went through Paris. My bags, filled with some fantastic Indian crafts such as sculptures and fabrics, were booked through to Atlanta, but I still had to go through security in Paris with my carry-ons. When I got to Melissa and Mitch’s house in Atlanta, I realized that I had taken my computer out of my back pack during the security check and I never retrieved it. My computer was still in CDG airport!
Except it wasn’t. I called Lars in France and asked him to call CDG security for me. (I don’t speak French.) He called. More than once. But they never found the computer. Actually, it was ready to be replaced, so that wasn’t a major loss……..but I lost all the information I had stored. The most precious information was the many addresses I had stored in Outlook and the thousands of e-mails and invitations from all over the world that I had stored in folders in Outlook Express. If you are one of the lost invitations (anything before February, 2003) and still would like to be on the possibility list (especially those of you in Australia and Alaska), please send me another e-mail. Put “Australia (or wherever)—Information or Invitation” in the subject line and I’ll store you again, on my new computer (This time I will back it up in a separate place.)
I’m especially eager to have all those aboriginal contacts in both Alaska and Australia, but I don’t want to lose any of you. I love meeting all the great people who have e-mailed me over the last two years and I hope at least some of you check this site from time to time. Please, if you do, e-mail me again. If there are thousands of you, please don’t expect an answer………but I promise I will save your information just in case I happen to be passing by your part of the world. Also, all of you that I have met and stayed with are gone from my files as well. Please remind me where and who you are. Thanks.
OK. Now to finish my tales of India. Before you read this, you might want to read through the last journal entry which covers the first part of my India story.
For a week now I’ve been sitting here in Seattle trying to focus on India and none of the details are coming into my head. Only the big pictures. So that’s where I’ll begin.
It’s a cliché, I know. Western tourist goes to India and visits an ashram. Like the Beatles in the 60’s. But I love yoga (especially “having done it”) and I would really like to make it something I do into my 70’s and 80’s. So I bought into the cliché. I signed up for a retreat which I knew would be filled with mostly westerners. (Apparently, Indian people go to ashrams mostly for the meditation and not for the physical learning and practice of yoga postures.)
After about 8 or so hours on the train/jeep trip, we (I was traveling with an English woman, a German woman and two French women), finally arrived at the ashram……after the twenty-five or so other guests had already eaten dinner. But the kitchen people were waiting for us, so we had a private dinner. We sat on a mat on the floor and were each given a metal tray with compartments. The compartments were then filled with dal (a liquidy dish made with split dried mung beans), a chapati (cross between a flour tortilla and a pita bread made with whole flour), and vegetables in a mild curry sauce, and white rice.
We ate with our fingers, which wasn’t easy with the liquidy dal. You sort of had to help it across the barrier that separated the rice and dal and then eat the dal-flavored rice.
I have eaten with my fingers before (especially in Bali), so I didn’t have much of a problem. My problem was the cross-legged floor position. My groin couldn’t do it. It’s the position of the place………..you sit cross-legged to eat and to meditate and to chant, all twice-daily activities. I was always the only one whose legs were stretched out. But after ten days, I was finally able to sit through a meal with my legs folded in front of me.
The other guests were all western: from England, Germany, France, a ton from Israel…..so many that I thought I might regain some of the Hebrew I once knew). There were a few Americans, an Australian, a Spanish man from Morocco and his son, and others. Nice people, but no Indian guests. So here I was in India, sitting there eating with my fingers with all those westerners who, in their other lives, ate with forks and spoons; it seemed a bit odd. Not the same as being with a Balinese family who simply ate that way.
I was by far the oldest and certainly the least practiced as far as yoga postures were concerned. Most of the others were in their twenties and thirties, many were yoga teachers in their countries and they had come to this holy place to honor their guru.
The bell rang at 5:30 AM. The meditation and chanting started at 6. At 7 there was chai (tea). At eight began an hour-and-a half of yoga that always started with breathing (pranayama) and finished with everyone lying on our backs, eyes closed, fading into the floor, totally relaxed. I love that part!
At ten we had one of the two meals of the day, pretty much the same as the meal we had had upon arrival. Sometimes there was raita (a mix of yogurt and vegetables) and chopped salad, often the vegetables changed, some meals had rice and some did not. Twice in ten days there was rice pudding as well as the meal. The early meal was bigger than the evening meal. All the meals were vegetarian; we ate them all with our fingers; and we (make that “they”) always sat in a cross-legged position.
At 11, there was karma yoga. Doing chores, like cleaning bathrooms, washing floors, sweeping pathways, shaking out rugs, etc. I have to say that here was where my age served me well. As the oldest, I was given chores like piling up the pillows neatly and pouring the tea. I did not complain about the unequal treatment. Most of the time I was achy from the yoga and happy to be pouring tea while the others were scrubbing toilets.
Sometimes there was a talk at two…..about breathing, the meaning of karma (destiny), yoga philosophy, and other ashramy topics.
There was tea again in the afternoon, and breathing and yoga positions for another hour and a half, and later, meditation and chanting. I was always ready for bed by 9:30.
I have to admit that I did not do all the postures. I don’t stand on my head; and even when I was more limber, I didn’t do the plough (legs straight behind the head, touching the floor). I had to climb the wall to do a shoulder stand. And I redesigned the sun salute so that I didn’t have to leap my feet forward from the downward dog. I just dropped my knees. But I did love the discipline and my body felt great when my ten days were up.
By the time I got back to Delhi, I was sure I would do yoga every day for the rest of my life. I did it five times, well, maybe eight if you count the half-times. But the routine that I wanted to establish never happened. I need an enforcer.
Probably the most meaningful experience for me in India was getting to know the kids in the jhuggie (I’m not sure about the spelling) across from the school. You can’t miss it if you enter the American Embassy School through the guarded Gate Three (all the gates are guarded); it’s right across the street. A jhuggie is basically a slum encampment. People who live in houses that are made of corrugated metal, often rusted, some cement, some wood and whatever else they could find. Most of the houses were built by the people who live in them. The house is an 8 x 10 foot room. Sometimes there is a family of eight that shares the room. The next house may be three feet away.
There are a lot of jhuggies in India; this one is special because of its location. The juxtaposition is dramatic. The kids who go to the school are mostly dropped off by the family driver. Sometimes the driver is the kids’ driver and he waits all day there while the kids are in school (the drivers play cards, hang around in groups, talk………….I never saw any reading or writing). Other times the drivers come with the ayahs (child care employees) who take the kids to the gate (they can’t go in). I don’t know what goes through the minds of the jhuggie families when they watch the school’s kids coming and going.
There are a couple of school programs that involve the kids in the jhuggie…..for example, on Thursday afternoon, the high school has an “outreach” program where the kids from the jhuggie come through the gate and participate in music, games, sports, dancing and other activities that are run by the high schoolers. There is also a program run by the middle-school kids. But there are no jhuggie kids on scholarship at the school.(Some of the fathers have jobs there, but apparently not too many.)
After I had been in the school for a while I discovered that one of the teachers, Carol Lemley, was deeply involved with the jhuggie kids. She teaches them English (the school lets her use her classroom), goes with them to a local park on weekend mornings (at 5:30!), tutors some and plays cricket with others (the kids are the cricket and Hindi teachers). She also helps maintain a small children’s library that has come about through the school association. The library is a big wooden shed about six by six. It opens into a 12-foot wide display of books.
I discovered Carol’s involvement and the library when she told me that she’d bought some of my books to put into the library and asked if I would come meet some of the kids. Yes. Yes. Absolutely.
So I met a group of kids and I even went one day to play cricket with them (I arrived late!). I asked them to take me for a tour of their jhuggie and their homes. And I fell in love. The kids were fantastic, polite and eager to show me where they lived. The houses were clean, the mothers were welcoming. Some of the mothers cooked snacks for me, others (none spoke English) just watched, proud of their children. Looking at a jhuggie from the outside elicits some heavy duty emotions revolving around how-can-they-live-that-way. But entering their world turned so many preconceived notions upside down. I really love those kids….not as objects but as people.
Before I left India, I went to Carol’s final English class. Carol taught the boys; Mary Bagnato (another AES teacher) taught a girls’ class. We had an end-of-the-year pizza (yes, pizza!) party and all the kids, boys and girls, partied together.
I got permission from the teachers to talk to the kids about a project. I told them that I wanted to try to write a children’s book set in the jhuggie but that I didn’t know enough about their lives. I asked them to write me about their homes and their lives, what they liked and what they didn’t like, what made them happy and what made them sad. I told them to write in Hindi so they wouldn’t be intimidated by trying to writing in English.
I also told them that if I were able to come up with an idea for a book (fiction) I would put their names in the book and I would donate any money I earned to the jhuggie. Then I promised to meet them at 9 at their library the following Sunday to collect their writings.
Before I go further, let me introduce you to Lal Singh. He’s in his early 20’s and lives with his family in the jhuggie. Through his own determination, a former teacher named Jim who is no longer at the school, and Carol, Lal Singh has mastered English. Now he’s studying computer technology. He’s a delight………….and a fabulous role model for the younger kids. Lal Singh translated my request, and I asked him to follow through with the kids during the week. I also gave him three disposable cameras to give to three of the kids. My only instructions were that I wanted to see life, not lined-up smiling faces.
On Sunday morning Lal Singh handed me a stack of pictures and already-translated writings………lots of them. I joked with him that he must have held a gun to their heads and demanded words. I’m sure he pressured them. And then he spent hours and hours (so did Carol) translating the Hindi. And now………….I have this stack of information and a promise, and I’m determined to do a book about the jhuggie. That’s my project for the next month or two.
I also promised myself that I would try to learn some Hindi. I have books and tapes. I really want to talk to those kids and their moms when I go back to Delhi in October.
So now you are nearly caught up. I’ve been back for almost three weeks and I’m nearly ready to focus on my jhuggie story. I just have to do my 2002 taxes and take care of a couple of more undone chores, like finish 8 months of mail that went to my p.o. box here in Seattle. Just a few days more and I’ll begin to think about the jhuggie storie. I’m also hoping to do some yoga and meditation which I think will help me with the jhuggie story. Wish me luck.