Moments of Glory in India

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After giving a talk at the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, India 2007

I really didn’t want to do it. I was on a three-week vacation, after all, and didn’t want to do anything that resembled work.

But I couldn’t say no to my dear friend Rengasamy when he asked me to give some public programs during my visit to Madurai, India in 2007. We knew each other from when I was a college student in Madurai in 1974-75, when he assisted the American students there for study.

On my return visit, I had scheduled just a few days in Madurai, and had hoped to wander the busy streets, visit old friends, and walk around the famous Meenakshi Temple.

But Rengasamy thought I should offer my vast wisdom and experience as an American to the people of Madurai. After years as a professor of economics at Madurai University, Rengasamy was now director of the Gandhi Museum, a post that gave him much satisfaction. He was respected by many. And here he was trying to honor me by asking me to share my perspectives and knowledge.

He wanted me to give an illustrated talk at the Gandhi Museum for the staff and some local college students, which required me to search the internet for photographs for a PowerPoint program. He also wanted me to talk to teachers and students at a local school. Just a small talk, he said.

But he had informed me about these talks just a few days before the planned events.

I agreed to do it. He and another official at the museum discussed with me possibilities for the talks. They assured me it was no big deal. Just a few interested people would attend. They wanted me to talk about my work as a park ranger, national parks, preservation and such. Okay, I could do that—at least for the Gandhi Museum talk.

But the school talk puzzled me. I would be speaking with a group of teachers about my work. I envisioned sitting around a small table with a dozen or so teachers, having a cozy chat for 15 minutes or so, and a question and answer session. I could be informal. But then I would do a presentation to the students. Eegads, what would I say to them?

Rengasamy’s daughter suggested I talk about life for teenagers in America. Great idea. I had two teenage sons. I could draw from my experiences of being a mom and the students would find it fascinating, or so I thought.

The fateful day arrived for the school talks. I was driven to a local secondary school and fed a delicious traditional lunch. The founder and head mistress of the school ate with me in a small room and she commented on how little I ate. That’s because I don’t usually eat three cups of rice as most Indians in the south do for lunch. I remember there was a curried eggplant with the meal. I assumed the teachers would file into the room after lunch and we’d have our cozy chat. Nope. She led me out of the small room down some hallways and through a door.

Into an auditorium. With hundreds of chairs lined up. There were at least 60 teachers watching me enter. Mostly women, sari-clad, with dark faces and white teeth flashing. A podium with a microphone was in front of the audience, and a vase of flowers sat on a table nearby.

My worst nightmare had just materialized–my recurring dream of walking onstage in front of an audience naked, or showing up to an examination not knowing what I would be tested on.

I could feel the sweat dampening my armpits. And it was probably running down my temples, too.

The head mistress introduced me and I greeted everyone.

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

“Oh, an hour,” she said.

I’m usually good at this type of thing. That is, standing in front of an audience and saying something intelligible. But at that moment I was seriously doubting my abilities. I had not prepared an hour talk for 60 teachers, I had prepared a talk for some teenagers and nothing for my cozy brief chat for a handful of teachers.

My mind whirred. I probably swallowed. I probably smiled. I probably looked composed. The adrenaline was flowing and they were all looking at me.

I launched into a talk, of sorts. I wandered from one topic to the next, following my intuition on what to say. My job, historic sites, preservation, the importance of places of the past, a range of topics. Somehow, somehow, most of it made sense, (I think), and the teachers were warm in return.

At the end, teachers approached me and asked me to spend a few minutes talking with a class about tropical rainforests, another about patriotism. Hmm, patriotism. I would encourage the students to not blindly accept what their country does, but question always, and voice their objections. I briefly entertained a patriotism talk, then declined, explaining I had a tight schedule.

As I recall, I had a bit of a break before the next talk. But my armpits were still dripping. Soon the students filed in, girls on the left, boys on the right, crisply uniformed and all looking nearly identical. They filled the auditorium.

Now I can have fun, I thought. This should be a breeze, talking about things I’ve personally experienced. Raising my two sons.

I was familiar with the typical life path for a child in India. Work hard in school, memorize examination material, earn “top marks” in order to enter university, study a subject chosen or approved of by the parents, perform well in order to get an outstanding job, earn financial stability and achieve material wealth to attract an appropriate marriage partner—usually chosen by the parents, get married and have a child within a year. The “issue” would repeat the cycle.

My sons were not following that path. As I talked that day, I didn’t hold back much. I talked about how my older son dropped out of school at age 16, and went to work as a welder. Although a brilliant child, he just didn’t thrive in the school system. My younger one was still slogging away in school, however. I noted a few troubled looks on the students’ faces, and the teachers still hanging around probably didn’t know whether to stop me or applaud.

My sons were both on the wrestling team, a sport that has a long tradition in India but is not as popular as other sports such as cricket and soccer. I told them my son’s first match was with a girl. There was an audible gasp from the students and many covered their mouths in shock.

Then I talked about kicking my son out of the house when things were getting a bit tense from some problems. That’s when those proper Indian teenagers with their predictable lives really looked troubled. Mouths were hanging open. Someone asked a political question about President George Bush to change the topic.

Not all of my banter was so scandalous, however. I’m sure I covered mundane topics about raising my two sons. But I think the students were relieved when we moved to the question and answer session.

Then it happened. A girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you sing your national anthem?” Other students were smirking, wondering what I would do. I was trapped.

And stunned. The Star-Spangled Banner? Everyone knows that song is nearly impossible to sing. And it’s about fighting and killing and so depressing. But how could I refuse to sing my country’s national anthem?

The one thing I knew was I had to start on a low note so I could hit the high note later. Into that microphone I began singing the national anthem. Or at least my version of it. Just me and that auditorium full of students and teachers. I sang it loud and I sang it proud. But wait, are the ramparts gleaming or streaming? Who knows, I mumbled something and kept going at a lively pace so I could get it over with. I even inspired myself at the end when I was acutely aware that all eyes were on me. I had to end with a bang, so I leaned into the microphone.

“…Or the land of the freeeeeee, (big pause….) and the home (pause) of the (pause) brave!”

Yee-haa, I did it. A lone student started clapping, he was so moved by my rendition.

A student from the audience stood up and said, “Well, we have had such an unusual speaker today. We would like to thank her for her warmth and honesty.”

The students clapped and I was feeling good. Or maybe I was just relieved it was over.

Rengasamy had not attended, but he picked me up from the school.

I described my singing and the unusual twists in my talk.

“I will NEVER forget this day, Rengasamy, NEVER!” All Rengasamy could do was giggle.

The talk at the Gandhi Museum the next day seemed rather anti-climactic. Somehow, I muddled through, and I was again asked to sing the national anthem. Rengasamy laughed and laughed at the side of the room and stared at me as I mentally smacked my forehead. Not again! But I could not refuse, so I sang. And I still didn’t know whether the ramparts were gleaming or streaming.

Grandmother

I don’t know why I pulled away. I had tried to get the old woman’s photo the day before, and the day before that. Right then was the perfect opportunity. She was practically inviting me to snap her portrait. “Vanga!” creaked her voice.

But I acted as though I didn’t understand her welcome. Everyone watching knew I understood. With the bowl of hot pongal in my hand, I just smiled at her and walked away, and people at the small Kali temple in the Madurai neighborhood kept looking at me. They all knew. They all knew I understood the old woman, and yet I walked away.

 She was curled up on top of her cart. Unlike the previous day, when I saw her sprawled on the doorsteps asleep, she was awake and vibrant, noticing everything around her. Including me. Her lips were drawn around her toothless gums, and her wrinkled arms waved in the air.

 One of her neighbors had told me all she did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep. That meant that her neighbors fed her, noticed her, looked after her. The old woman.

 “How old is she?” I asked at least three people. The first flashed all her fingers many times, open closed, open closed. I couldn’t count.

“Eighty?”

“Hundred,” she said.

 I asked another woman, who had just stepped around the sleeping old woman. “Is she your grandmother?”

“Yes,” she said. Then I realized that a street-dwelling woman that old was everyone’s grandmother.

“How old is she?”

“Hundred,” she said.

 Obviously, no one really knew how old the woman was, therefore she was a hundred. Maybe she really was a hundred years. A century. P1010632

I wanted her photograph, but I thought it would be rude to take it while she was awake. Somehow, it seemed as if I would be taking something from her without her consent, because she probably would not understand what I wanted. It was also rude to take it while she was asleep, but I tried to get the shot anyway, the day before as she was draped on the doorsteps. I just had to make sure no one was watching me; that would somehow make it okay. But everyone noticed me. People emerged from their houses and greeted me. So I slipped my camera back in my bag, and didn’t get the photograph. I instead ended up in her neighbor’s home after being invited for tea.

I could have visited with the old woman that morning as she called her greeting. I could have sat on her cart with her, and held her hand, and listened to her talk to me. She was deaf, someone had said, so I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with her. Maybe that’s what sent me away. Or maybe her age frightened me. I would feel uncomfortable, sitting next to this weathered woman tucked in a worn sari, who had survived all kinds of struggles: having enough to eat, raising children, an absent husband, and life on the streets. 

I could have met her for a little while, and exchanged good feelings with her. But instead, I walked away, feeling a pang inside of me.

Would she be alive tomorrow? Would I see her again, all bright and aware, sitting scrunched up in her cart, watching the world, and calling vanga to passersby? 

As I walked away, I hoped she would be there the next day, awake and alert. I would sit with her awhile, and pass the morning with her, and hold her hand, and smile.

I would meet this ancient woman and honor her. And honor myself.

 

Read more about this Madurai neighborhood and my meeting the Grandmother for the first time on a morning walk at this link to my travel blog.

 

Hello There

My thoughts have been everywhere lately.  Like back in India, where I spent two months recently, just living and discovering the people and their lives in a neighborhood in Madurai. I was pulled by their words, their hands, and their eyes–into their homes with cups of tea and biscuits, and their questions about America, their stories of relationships, decisions, challenges and children and illness and what to buy next with their meager earnings.  Life, that’s what it was; I was witnessing life, and their lives, and they invited me to become a part of them.

“Will you talk to him?” a young woman asked after telling me of her short-lived marriage.

“What should I do?” a mother asked, seeking advice about her daughter.

“I hope you find love.” Those are the words that still pierce my heart.

The young man astonished me, time after time. That I found him seemed to have been predestined. He started calling me “Mother.”

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We sat outside Meenakshi Temple, in view of one of the gopurams.

After meeting and talking several times, we realized we were reflecting one another. We each communicated what the other needed to hear, or see, or know–just at the right moment. It was as if a wiser self buried in me wriggled past the restraints I had wrapped around her and found a voice through him. A twist on an old perspective, an affirmation of something I had written, a nudge I needed in order to escape a stuck belief, and there she was–my reflection. Hello there. In return, I prodded and questioned him, uttered unexpected words, or smiled, or nodded, and that seemed to be what he needed, right then. He knew my words to be his.

We kept coming back for more–long talks over the telephone, a trip to his native village, a visit to the temple. We ate  together–pillows of idli and coconut chutney and spicy podi and sweet pongal. I trusted him, this young/old soul, and he trusted me.

Then he said it. “I hope you find love.” His parting words to me.

My words to me.

And with those words, I had found love. Right there, looking at me, looking at him, there on the noisy street in Madurai.

Sometimes I imagine a sliver of my heart stuck to the cement wall next to us on that street. One of the streets where I became the life in India, and where my life became alive.

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Sacred cow wanders a neighborhood street.

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The young man, Karikalan, dribbling coconut water down his shirt.

Read about visiting Karikalan’s native village at this link to my travel blog: Village Tales.