the unknown face

It smelled of sandalwood.  Curls of smoke rose above the stacks of wood.  “Let’s go,” Chad urged me, moving away from the smoke that was now enveloping us.  I stayed rooted in my spot, watching as six Indian men torched the wooden case on the banks of the Ganga.  Only the feet were still visible inside the massive wooden crate.

Death is visible here.  A permanent reminder of our impermanence.  The smoke from burning bodies mingles with the heavenly smell of cooking chapatis at a nearby street cart.  A group of rafters setting sail right next to the funereal pyre catch my attention.  I watch them launch into the river from the steps where we sit.

I feel closer to the source here in Rishikesh.  Perhaps it is the spiritual music that echoes in this windy valley between two mountain peaks.  Or my own meditation practice at a nearby ashram.  Or, maybe it’s the monks dressed in orange bathing in the Ganga who bring me closer.  They sit on the river bank reciting mantras, counting each chant with a string of mala beads.

“It’s funny,” Chad told me, “how the freest people here wear orange and in the states it’s the exact opposite.”

Prison.  I hadn’t even thought about it.

It must be strange for him.  To see a  bunch of men dressed in orange wandering the streets here, I thought.  Despite the stories he told me about his former life and time spent behind bars, it was still impossible to imagine my travel companion as a felon with multiple convictions.

Chad and I had traveled to Rishikesh with our philosophy professor, Benu, from our yoga training course.  Benu had left us now, but we still talked about our conversations with him, reviewing the videos I had taken where he describes his life in the upper Himalayas, living in caves.  His six-month vow of silence.  Twenty years on a spiritual quest, and now he wants to get married.

Benu wears a white dhoti and white t-shirt, tucked inside.  His long black hair and beard certainly make him look like a spiritual guru or cave-dwelling monk.  He’s working on a new website called reachingnowhere.com.  A bit of cynicism, perhaps.  Mostly reality.

Yoga for Benu is meditation and chanting and has absolutely nothing to do with the physical practice we know as yoga in the west.    “Asana means posture,” Benu would tell us.  “Any movement we make or position in which we sit or stand is an asana.”

Through meditation, we engage in more of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga that Patanjali describes in the ancient Yoga Sutras than we would through asana practice alone.  Meditation is both asana practice (albeit one asana–sitting), pranayama (a practice in breath control and expansion of prana, the vital energy in our bodies), and pratyahara, or withdrawal of our senses from the outside world.  It allows us to transcend our physical bodies and connect our consciousness with universal consciousness.  Something that knows no change or death.

Impermanence.  We tend to think of this word as describing a going away of something, a disappearing of something that once was.  But, what if we think, instead, of impermanence as illumination?  As a coming into the world just as much as a going out?  The way a burning log disappears as the flame from a fire simultaneously gets brighter, more radiant.

I watched as the crowd surrounding the burning wooden crate containing the dead body began to disperse.  The smoke continued to rise.  We got up to leave, but my mind was still on the fire.  And faces.

We had just gotten back from a five day trek in the Himalayas, and I was thinking about one face in particular.  We had hiked through villages carved into the sides of the mountains–villages only traversable via foot or donkey.  No cars could drive there.  The people from Pana knew the people from Jhinjhi–twenty to thirty kilometers across the valley and over the hilltop.  The drums that beat sounded marriage.  Sheep herders called to each other from peak to peak.  Voice is still important there–that emanation whose very existence is indebted to its going out of existence.

But visual recognition is something we all desire.  I could hear them speaking, but I could not see his face in the shadows.  I was sitting on a stone by the fire after a twenty kilometer trek.  Rohit, our friend and guide through these remote areas, sat next to me.  Mahender was squatting opposite me, talking to a man whose face I could not make out.

“They just found out that they’re related,” Rohit told me.  “From villages several days’ journey away from each other.”

I wanted to see his face to put an image with the voice–the unfamiliar tongue–that spoke.  Suddenly, a log rolled from the pile, causing a flame to illuminate the unknown man’s face.  It was lined–the sharp creases across the cheekbones added to the strength of his jaw.  If I hadn’t already learned the ages of the porters, I would have guessed him to be in his seventies.  Knowing this, I put him at fifty.  But he was probably forty-five.

It was nearly impossible to tell age here.  The men and women looked old, much older than they were.  And the children?  Well, they were small and slight and appeared much younger than our hormone-fed children in the west.

My mind wandered to our drive back from the mountains.  To that split second where I could have felt involved in the death of someone else.

Our driver had screeched to a stop, narrowly missing the eighty-five year old woman blindly walking in the middle of the road barefoot with two canes.  We got out and offered her a ride.  She refused us.  As we drove away, I watched as the car behind us veered to the left to avoid hitting the woman.

“You really think she was trying to kill herself?” I repeated to Chad later, wanting to hear a different answer.  “Why else would she be walking in the middle of the road, late at night, with no shoes or socks on, twelve kilometers from the nearest village?”  Chad muttered.

He was probably right.  Even Rohit nodded along.

Impermanence.  Conditioned.  Constructed by our own reality.  One of the three tenants of existence in Buddhism.  Yet, there is some part of us that is unfabricated, unconditioned.  That knows no change or death.

That pain is as impermanent

as shadows on the hills,

And that nirvana’s blessedness

will cure all mortal ills?  (John Stoddard)

I knew we must come down from the mountains.  Down from the villages that seemed unchanged by the modern world.  Down from the mountaintops where merging with that universal thing seemed within reach.

Down to where the elderly woman was charging down the mountain road to her own death.

For

No man is an island entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were,

as  well as any manner of thy friends or of thine  own were;

any man’s death diminishes me,  because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee (John Donne).

Mysore Beginnings

Coconuts are on my mind.  Not the small, brown kind you can find in Kroger next to the imported pineapple and green bananas.  But the huge, green coconuts that are young enough to contain mostly water but still have a white, fleshy center that slips out of your hand when you take your first bite.

First, you have to drink all of the coconut water before you can eat the white meat.  Sometimes, there might be more water and a softer center, and other times, there might be less water and a firmer center.  The second kind is my favorite.  But you can’t pick and choose your coconuts.  You get the next one off the truck after the coconut man hacks it with a huge machete.

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I sip mine slowly after practice, feeling the water rehydrate my body and refresh those parts of me that seem always to be sore these days.  Tracy slurps hers down, already eating the meat while I am still floating in a coconut sea.  Her practice is like that too–fast, hurried, as if she wants it to be over.  She’s usually already in virabhadrasana, hands shooting toward the ceiling while I’m breathing slowly in adho mukha svanasana.

There are no Indians in my class.  They practice in the afternoon when teachers offer separate classes for locals; sometimes these classes are even in a different shala.  At the big shala where Saraswathi and Sharath teach (descendents of Sri K. Patthabi Jois), westerners and Indians are not even allowed in the same class.  They say it is because the Indian men “cannot control” themselves when they practice yoga in a room with women wearing form fitting clothes.

But yoga is also different here.  Women practice in their saris and men in their dhotis.  The rigor and discipline that westerners seek is not really desired by locals.

On my way to the shala in the morning, I walk past a slum where fifty or more families are living in tents and small shacks until the government housing promised to them has been built.  I am among the people, cows, scooters, rickshaws, buses, and cars moving through the streets in the early morning.  The pace is slow but the movements are swift.  A scooter honks and pulls out in front of me.  A rickshaw slides between a bus and a car to turn at the next corner.  And a man pushing a cart wails “papaya, papaya” in a slow, mournful tone.

Maybe his voice sounds sad to me because he speaks in an unfamiliar language.  Maybe he is sad because his cart is heavy with fruit and no one is buying.

Perhaps, my western ears hear sadness when there is none.

But ears can adjust.  Mine have learned to ignore the retching at the house next door during morning asana practice.  They say that people stick their toothbrushes down their throats until they gag–the hacking just part of a morning routine.

When I step outside of practice and see the elderly man kneeling over his stoop coughing, I hear sickness.  The air is always dusty with a lingering smell of carbon.

Everywhere things are burning.  The chai burns my tongue and the metal cup, my hands.  I sweat as I drink it, knowing the milk is hot enough–safe enough–to drink.  The deserted lots burn rubbish.  Female integrity burns there too.  Women shouldn’t go out at night.  Burns at the touch of groping hands that find them there alone.

I met a man married to his girlfriend’s sister.  Her parents wouldn’t let him marry the daughter he loved.  They said, “She is too valuable.  You can have the ugly daughter.”

There are more police officers in Mysore, keeping watch during the nighttime hours to protect the women who protect so much during the day.  At a town meeting a few weeks ago, a group of women, led by Anu, a woman from Northern India with closely cropped hair and impeccable English, demanded more protection against assault.  Several more police officers have been dispatched to keep watch in Gokulam during the night and the early morning hours when yogis are walking to the shalas for practice.  A few of them just walk up and down 2nd Main outside Anu’s house, proving their presence.

Anu’s tone was bitter when she told me this last part.  Like a masala with too much turmeric and coriander.  I was at her house, learning how to make chenna masala and to dry roast herbs.

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No, the police officers are for the western women who come here to practice yoga. The women who are groped by men who see them with exposed shoulders and bare legs.

 I saw the young boys watching porn in cyber cafes.  Learning pale skin there.   

Not all women bare their skin.  But all women bear the burden of being watched.  Eyes linger on my pale hands and feet.  Penetrate the scarf that covers my neck.  And glide up my backside.  I am not to make eye contact, I have read.  How do I see this world with downcast lids?  Dusk comes, and I retreat inside.  Inside to the spinning fan and blue room that bathes me in an artificial sky.

I want to go outside.  Outside, where the dogs are barking, the scooters honking, and life is happening.  I wait for Nico to pick me up by my front gate.

The stoop vibrates from an underground life.  Traditional Indian music blasts from below ground.  I hear the pattering of feet on cement floor.  One week I have lived here, and I have never seen anyone enter or leave the basement.  For three days, I have waited on the stoop at different times during the evening for Nico to come.  It is the fourth day and still no one emerges from below.

Here is what I imagine:  I imagine girls removing their scarves and long saris, dancing to music that enlivens me.  I imagine an older Indian woman–a rebel of sorts–teaching these girls to set themselves free for a few hours from a culture that dictates their movements and decisions.  She counts “one, two, three” in Kannada, and the girls twirl and shake their hips to the beat.  One day, the oldest girl of about twenty is not at practice.  “Where is Anu?” Rashmi inquires.  “She’s getting married today,” one of the younger girls whispers.

I live above a dance studio called “The Next Step,” and this is what I imagine.

***

I swore I would never–could never–drive in India.  How could I?  They drive on the left hand side of the road so my “left, right, left,” forever ingrained in my memory from driving school days would certainly kill me.  And traffic laws seem not to exist here where there are no lanes and you are just as likely to come across a cow wandering through the streets as another human being.

Despite these fears, I decided to rent a scooter.  No, not the razors that many of us had as kids, using our own leg power to propel us down the street.  But the big, motorized kind with a real engine that sounds only a smidge quieter than a motorcycle when you rev it.

On my scooter I am safe.  I glide through the streets at night with ease.  Staying on the left hand side of the road, I follow the stream of traffic and honk my horn at every intersection, declaring my presence.

The second day with the scooter, I ventured to Tina’s Cafe after my evening yoga class.  Ordering a custard and a ginger-lemon- honey tea, I sat at a table and watched.  I watched those who watch me on the streets.  I watched people eat, talk, and laugh.  But mostly I watched a young couple sitting at a table diagonal from me.

She wore straight legged jeans and a black blouse, cropped low enough so that her collar bone was exposed.  Her hair was back, but it wasn’t bound in a tight braid like most of the women wear here.  Her low ponytail swung slightly when she turned her head as she spoke with the boy across from her.  They would exchange subtle signs of affection every now and then.  A sideways glance and bite of the lip.  A small laugh.

A book lay between them.  At one point, she picked it up, turned to a page and gestured to the boy to read where her finger pointed.  He bent in closer, eyes scanning the page.  After a few moments, he looked up, and they began to converse with one another.

They looked to be in their early twenties and not from the Mysore area.  Perhaps they go to school in Mumbai, I thought, the cultural capital of India where language arts are studied.

I had been watching them so intently that my tea was cold when I bent over to sip it.  The fresh sprig of mint bitter against the cool honey that slid down my throat.

 I watched them as they got up to leave.  Slipping the large, black helmet over her head, the girl straddled the scooter as the boy clambered on behind her.  He grabbed her waist and she steered them silently into the night.

***

I was kneeling by the side of the road, taking photos of chickens when they came.  I felt tugging on my tunic, small hands reaching toward my camera lens and voices shouting, “photo, photo, photo!”

Suddenly, a group of eight or more children had gathered around me, demanding their photo to be taken.  I was walking through the slum on the way back from practice and had decided to stop to photograph the animals grazing on the side of the road.

I snapped a few photos with children jumping, making silly faces, and pulling at my camera strap, making it impossible to frame the photos.  Faces squeezing into the frame that no single child stood out more than another.

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 A small girl in the group kept repeating, “me single! me single! me single!”

She wanted a photo by herself.

I bent down and focused the camera while she stood completely still, hands firmly by her side and chin jutting forward.  One little boy kept reaching up my tunic and pulling on my clothes so that the image is a little blurry after all.

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A woman holding a baby lingered in the background near her family’s home.  When she heard the children calling me “Anna,” she called to me too.  She wanted a photo with her baby.  She made me promise I would bring her the photo tomorrow.

Gazing toward the camera with her baby on her hip, she stood there.  Her mother leaned up against the wall, disappearing out of the frame.

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