Letters from India

This chapter first appeared in Imported Breads Literature of Cultural Exchange, edited by Phillip Sterling and published by Mammoth Press, Inc. of DuBois, PA. Each writer told of experience as a Fulbright scholar somewhere in the world. For six weeks of 1988, I had joined eleven women faculty and students from the University of New Mexico to research “Women, the Family and Social Change in India.” We traveled to nine Indian cities to meet women and their organizations. Imported Breads appeared in 2003 to the memory of J. William Fulbright, statesman and visionary.
Observing what prevails and what is performed

India is noted for both rich arts and diverse religions. The two often engage each other as they spawn beauty or prompt solitude. When first a guest in India, I was drawn to the pervasive quality of living religions. Complex Hindu thought and rituals both confused and attracted me. The array of crafts available ranged from bold décor for walls to delicate etchings on a tin prayer wheel. Wild orchids opened near hillside paths during a monsoon season complemented by fern fronds sprouting from damp tree trunks. An aura of reverence blessed these aspects at each entrance into a temple or mosque, as surely as holy ground surrounded an elderly Muslim reader who leaned over his sacred text at dusk.

In India for the summer of 1967, features of living in the central city of Jabalpur revealed their depth later. My husband taught at a National Science Foundation Institute for math and science teachers. In a country pulsing with sacred symbols, we absorbed the interplay of culture and religion. During weekly meals in a restaurant marked by tawdry posters of Hindu gods, staff conversation often included themes of religion. Chunks of cheese melted in the warm minestrone soup as views merged or remained distinct. One Hindu professor and I pondered how my direct faith in a personal relationship with God differed from his profound concept of darsan—“seeing and being seen by God”—or if it mattered. At our final dinner, a Mr. Ahmad gave me a gift: Muhammad Asad’s Islam at the Crossroads. I felt honored; he smiled, delighted to give. The book described a Christian’s shift of loyalty to the Muslim faith. From that brief moment of ‘being evangelized’ by a person convinced of his ‘better way,’ I felt neither defensive nor offended. I trusted the One God to receive and engage each of us on our chosen spiritual journeys.

Once, on entering a state emporium in Delhi to purchase a tablecloth, I paused. On prominent display were large symbols of three major religions. The four arms and multiple legs of a brass, Hindu god form stood posed to ‘offer’ support for varied needs. A rotund Buddha form made of heavy metal sat ‘absorbed’ in contemplation. And a wooden, inlaid portrayal of the Lord’s Supper hung boldly; the Jesus figure linked a common meal with personal covenant. En route to choose a table cover—to compare color and shapes, to touch woven threads, to ponder an artist’s craft—I stopped, there being no choice. Crafts, as with all of life, exude spiritual content and purpose. Germane to selecting a cloth to enjoy with rich curries, I faced faith. I recalled that the spiritual and the practical provide context for each other within Hinduism. Not an intrusion, what prevailed summoned my attention. Not present to cast judgment, symbols prompted me to affirm the God of all nations.

Indian women also synthesize culture with art. One distinct feature is outdoor wall or ground painting. Frequently, the purpose for creating designs is spiritual. Therein the gods are invoked. Paintings become messages as women pray for health or protection. As artists, they draw the deity’s attention to personal wellbeing or good fortune. They may celebrate a special festival through mud bas-reliefs. Or, they might make vows. They might pledge or bargain to undergo a demanding ritual in exchange for having a request granted. They might agree to fast or do penance or regularly write sacred designs on a wall. And they expect the Divine to notice a person’s good actions. Indian women trust their floor writing—whether symbols linked to Lakshmi or decorative images from everyday life—to influence divine Presence.

Designs or messages are ephemeral, not intended to last. Art is transitory, so the present beauty is enjoyed. The moment of creation, or the intent of the heart of the creator in the process of ‘writing,’ gives value to the result. Some designs reflect daily ritual, finished before sunrise. Walking to work in Chennai, I daily stepped around one household’s ‘message’ rather than smudge the sacred effort. Through the woman’s private act, I renewed my own ties to God. And I imagined her process of worship. She likely held a white rice paste—made from ground, parboiled rice—in a small metal bowl with one hand, while the other deftly dipped a finger or a small cloth that she used to create an outline of dots. She would then have connected those dots with curved or straight lines until completing the design in her mind’s eye. Perhaps she considers rice powder to have magical or spiritual powers, to either scare away evil spirits or to bestow distinct power within her. Then too, she might just love to express her artistic gift—a divine gift.

More recent memories of gifts of the gods through concerts or stage events also surface. From a flamboyant flautist creative with a bamboo flute to a concert of fifty violins to mark India’s Golden Jubilee of Independence, the city of Chennai welcomes and honors national or visiting artists. Appearing in the Museum Theatre’s stately concert hall, Galina Heifetz stood to perform. Russian-born but now of the U.S., she exuded senior vigor near her youthful accompanist. Heifetz offered a stage presence of extraordinary power and boundless technique, her feet firmly planted. With the violin’s rounded base tucked near her chin, her left fingering arm extended away from and to the left of her face. Indian violinists, by contrast, often position the violin in front of them. Seated on the floor, players extend the instrument from the chin down, its narrow neck shielded near bare feet.

A German pianist performing at The Music Academy’s hall began with a request—that all machines, including air conditioner, be turned off. Never mind the day’s heat of a hundred degrees. He wanted us to hear each note crystal clearly. “He needed the sound of silence.” And what a pleasant shock the resounding silence created compared to T.T.K. Road outside. Mr. Ocker expressed Chopin’s Scherzo through rich, refined color and subtleties, yet without excess. He performed Schumann’s Carnival—its twenty-one sections descriptively named—with both polish and charm.

Yet, fewer Indians resonate with the sound and scales from the instrument westerners call ‘grand.’ Indians long for intimacy, like warmth conveyed when an artist nestles the tabla or mridangam (drums) near his knees. Although a stringed instrument, the piano fails to offer the plucked, haunting sound of a sitar’s seasoned gourd or the stringed sarangi played with a bow. No pedal provides the constancy of drone like that from the stringed tanpura. For many Hindus, those sacred vibrations of the gods add verve to inner being. The person free to cross cultures strives to discern those deeper quivers.

With an invitation in hand to “Search for my Tongue,” we waited with the growing crowd packed onto the outer, circular walkway of the Museum Theatre. Sujata Bhatt’s poem stood at the heart of the production—focusing the quandary of a bilingual background. The unique set included short, stark trees with mounds and scattered clumps of autumn leaves. The dance scene opened with puffs of early morning, gray smoke. Dancers gracefully swept dry leaves together. Suddenly, an arm followed by its stealthy body stretched and danced out from the largest pile of leaves.

Daksha Sheth and her ‘chorus’ of six performers combined abstract images with silent, ‘spoken’ messages. I loved the syncretism of roles. Patterns made by dancers gliding across the stage enamored me. Indians saw the noises of their Motherland and heard its color. Memories of torrential rains zoomed in as tenacious thoughts of Rajastan’s parched, northwestern desert blew off the stage. Although a foreigner, I still sensed the vim of childhood games and ‘heard’ the hawkers on cornered streets plus the incessant, barking, nighttime hounds. Dancers gracefully conveyed energy. Leaps seemed barely to touch ground before rising again, to higher heights. “The mood of the moment in movement,” if ever I’ve known it. As South Indian classical dance speaks ancient wisdom, so this event expressed vibrant modernity. Each conveys its tempered beauty and sacred thought.

The bilingual dilemma faces many Asian youth raised in the west and caught between two cultures. Their search for identity includes the search for a mother tongue left dormant. Or, for resident Indians it more generally grapples with culture in transition. Feeling dislocated, people can neither return to nor be freed from the “womb of the past.” Bhatt’s poem pleads:

…what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth,
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other, the foreign tongue?

The plea haunts an audience alert to crossing cultures, whether in Chennai or Goshen.

Monsoon Mist

During a memorable trip out of Kashmir’s lush scenery, in a dilapidated, over-stowed bus, I thought I might not live to tell about it. Crammed into space not intended for a seat, my legs bent around the hot, metal, motor cover. As the driver’s ‘helper ji’ funneled a paltry supply of water into a near-by, black hose, steam hissed. My own thermos had little more of the sacred commodity, certainly none to spare. What remained had to last for hours.

Mind-over-matter shifted into gear as my mouth grew drier from the blasts of heat spewed with each hill’s climb. ‘Don’t even think about drinking, not even sipping water.’ A night of last year’s monsoon deluge flashed before me. A juicy orange came to mind. But I had eaten the last one from my shoulder bag along with the final, krackel Cadbury bar with biscuits. Those biscuits had gone stale from our night in the tent at Pahlgaum when conversation gave way to pouring rain. Already overdue at the next bus stop, I settled for gratitude that the wheels rotated.

To merely mention the monsoon avoids justice to its role in sustaining life—human and other. Crops to feed India’s billion depend on the monsoon. Failed rains prompt other economic loss. Even worship depends on water and its sacred symbolism. A stream-of-consciousness flit through memory unravels details. Welcome the first cloud burst across the Himalayan foothills, after a month of dust and threats of fire from brittle twigs on parched hills. Let Shiva, Yahweh, and Allah—different names for the One God—be thanked in whatever language or dialect. For, streams of a monsoon season, beginning from a trickle, meander, then surge uncontrollably in a prolonged attack. Weeks later, duly honor the sun as it again convincingly shares its gifts of warmth and light.

Coping with rain takes different strategies. The dhobi struggles to get customers’ laundry dry within a week. Perhaps his child makes a bed of underclothes, using the impact of body heat. Or when desperate, the bed sheets may just be re-ironed, without engaging the cool, mountain stream or flat stones. On the open bookshelf, mold forms wherever glue hides. A thin layer of scum gathers on shoes left in the almirah, despite a small-wattage bulb left lighted between the wooden closet’s hanging shirts. The camera bag is stored there too. One night we moved the bed twice, to avoid the drips that soaked through the roof. Thirteen inches of rain in one night, most of it within four hours’ time, played havoc with a bucket, hooked near the ceiling. To refinish the walnut coffee table from Kashmir became essential.

Valleys, temporarily lost in mystery, fill with low-lying clouds then once again re-veal their paths as the mist rolls on or rises to evaporate. That same mist surrounds the campus. With walls on two sides, the gym’s cement floor gets too slippery for worn sneakers. Gullies and drains overflow. Diverted rubble washes down from points higher and the khud’s supporting layers of stone give way below. The athletic field takes the squeeze as the track’s staggered starts lose their standard measure. Uprooted trees, soaked soil, and rock slides block former paths. Even cottages lose their ‘footing.’ Wired communication gets cut off or delayed; shouts of “Hello, Hello,” fail to resurrect dead phones. With major slides of debris across the ghat road, passengers depart one bus to crawl over the uneven rubble and then board another public carrier to finish the ride. The steep incline and hairpin curves remain constant, however.

How the Woodstock students brag during monsoon days about hiking along dense paths. They attract as many as fifty innocent-looking bits of twig that attach to skin—blood-sucking leeches. Trained to never break one off lest the sucking continue through the connected end, each kid finds a packet of salt in the depth of a pocket. Dropping that which preserves food directly onto the leech makes it drop like a water-logged tennis ball, bulged and thick. Hiking on, students note floral mysteries opened overnight—miniature, lavender orchids and wild dahlias made wilder through orange and reds. Those in biology class gather specimens of fern—one hundred types at most—from shaggy, stubby oak trees. With a population explosion distinct, ferns stretch out eight to ten inches from the shiny bark, producing a shaded beauty.

No season is complete without a few soaking hikes. Mid-monsoon, the principal announced one bright morning a day off from classes—a “clear day holiday.” Get out and enjoy the sun. Being ‘matron’ of the junior high girls’ dorm, I with thirty eager kids headed out the winding Tehri Road. To scan the horizon, a portion of India’s plains with a meandering riverbed stretched miles below, was a sight even Kodak could not replicate. We had barely finished our sack lunches several miles out when the umbrellas went up. Two heads under one ‘umbie’ produced one wet left side and one wet right side of friendship. Once soaked, umbrellas turned into walking sticks, for steeper grades. Slushy tennis shoes bubbled, revealing latent laundry soap not totally rinsed. Favorite songs (“With a pack on my back, there is nothing I lack”) added life to hills. Laughter resounded as clusters of giggling girls enjoyed each other’s antics. What if a cloth shoulder bag became damp; soggy sao (the Indian version of LaChoy noodles) was better than no sao.

From Dehra Dun to Delhi – late November 1964

As the train slowly backed along the station platform, J joined the stampeding Indians toward the third-class cars. Originating at the bottom of the Himalayan foothills, the Mussoorie Express engulfed the onrush, in spite of locked doors. Through open windows, bodies scrambled, the momentary contortion preceding each squatter’s claim to territory inside.

Dusk approached. The December air lost its crispness among the pulsing mob. Standing on the loaded metal trunk, her legs touching suitcases on either side, D laughed as J’s feet disappeared after dangling over the window’s edge. Through the train car’s ten other windows went bare feet, rope-fastened baskets and bedding bisters, plus stacked tiffin carriers full of rice and curry. Trunks angled and slid through the openings, revealing cushioned heads above red, floppy shirts on coolies.

“D!” The shout from inside called her away from the spectacle outside. Our designated porter shuttled the luggage in to J who, with the smallest bag and one unrolled sleeping bag, reserved the two luggage racks of one six-foot compartment. With each piece accounted for, J dropped out through the window.

“O.K., D, you’re next!” With his shoulder leaning against the train, J braced his feet and formed a step with his cupped hands. Into that cup went D’s one foot, her arms reaching for the window ledge above. Pulling herself up, with cooperation from a firm push on her bottom, the needed weight balanced on the sill before twisting and swinging in.

“I didn’t learn that swivel motion on the trampoline for nothing!” she called.

Within the confining train car walls, the din increased. In the semi-darkness, the swarming travelers stepped on each other’s feet, breathed down each other’s necks, and weakened sensitive eardrums. Any effort left D more exhausted. She had not gone to bed until 4 a.m. because of last-minute projects and packing.

Meanwhile, J tried desperately to get rid of the persistent coolie. Limited Hindi and sprawling gestures helped little to convince the fellow that some foreigners know the standard rates. Throwing what had been paid back at J, the coolie fled across two vacant tracks to join the throng of red-shirt parasites attaching themselves to the Dehra Dun Express, which just then arrived.

In disbelief J slipped his hand into his pocket, glanced toward the men in red, and crawled back in to D. “Did you see what he did? He threw my Rs. back at me and went away mad.”
“Didn’t you pay enough?”
“Sure, I did,” replied J. “But some Indians need to learn that being white and ‘being loaded’ are not synonymous.”

D’s response, “I guess you both managed to humiliate each other,” was lost in the confusion. Through the windows poured thirty-some Nepali laborers, each with his pick or spade and a nondescript, cloth bag slung over his shoulder or clutched with a handle. The chaos mounted as the group filled two benches intended for eight people plus the couple feet between benches and the narrow aisle. J & D climbed onto the wooden slat luggage racks, about three feet from the rounded ceiling, to watch, unable to converse, let alone absorb the total picture.

Then began an exodus. Evidently, a fellow Nepali traveler spotted a more accommodating car. From the open window, each dropped like April hail in mid-July. “Thank goodness,” sighed J, swinging his legs down onto the bench below. “Are you going to stay up there?”
“Yah. This train isn’t scheduled to leave for a half-hour, so I might as well read. I’m eager to start The Possessed.

Just then J noticed an Indian family moving in. The father stowed paraphernalia under the bench opposite J. A few cousin-brothers each shouting orders about how best to store baskets and bisters too unevenly shaped to fit neatly into the space a foot high. Then came Memsahib with three little ones. The father soon started the typical conversation: “You from USA?”
“Yes,” J replied.
“What you do in India?” continued the questioner.
“Teach school in Mussoorie; U.P.; Wood-istock-ischool.”
“Oh, Mussoorie! Very good. Very nice place. You make big salary?”

That was the question. Pondering how to answer without divulging his modest income, J’s attention was diverted.

“Oh, no!” was all that J heard from D as she recognized the Nepali bunch. Evidently, the pastures elsewhere were not so green. During the mean time the doors of the car had been unlocked. But rather than check into that possibility, the troupe scaled the side of the train and fell through the open window. Feeling the pressure of human beings, J put one foot on the disappearing bench and swung his body around and up onto the luggage rack. He read D’s amused lips: “Give up?” as she flitted from and back to Dostoevsky.

“Hey, the train’s moving!” Checking his watch, J added, “Not bad, only fifteen minutes late.”

The ‘speaking-in-tongues’ rose and fell as the Nepalis settled and resettled themselves. With his head propped on his overturned briefcase, J tried to detach himself from the surroundings—through Time. Like expecting a white Christmas in Delhi.

Soon D gave up on The Possessed and unzipped her sleeping bag. ‘Shall I try to get to the toilet around the corner?’ she asked herself. ‘I doubt if it’s worth the effort,’ she concluded with a glance. The entire floor was hidden under the mass of men curled up or hunkered. Burlap bags, knees, and rounded spades served as pillows. ‘Jacob was lucky to have a stone out in the open!’ she decided.

While some Nepalis gawked in wonder, D crawled inside the bag and zipped it part way. She wiggled around to make the spaces between the three-inch wooden slats more comfortable and turned her back toward the overhead light and curious travelers. This being the first night on an Indian train for some months, she reacquainted herself with the security: one chain supported her bed. It angled just above her shoulder, touching her with each rocking, east-west motion of the southbound train.

A partial lull settled over the huddled Nepalis, and the Indian family bedded itself down. A half-hour later and a half-hour late, the Mussoorie Express chugged alongside a village platform where the pulse of India throbbed. In the middle of any night her train stations bustle. With no need for a public address system to announce arrivals or departures, hawkers, through guttural repetitions of “garam chai” penetrate dozing passengers’ consciousness. They pass clay cups of steaming tea through open windows as several Nepalis come to life. As the first gong clangs—clang of imminent leaving—those not yet chewing surge forward for their few paisa’s worth of betel leaf, calcium, lime, and spices folded within a green leaf. From inconspicuous folds or knots in cloth draped over their thin bodies come a few coins.

‘Where but in India could ventures be so rich?’ thought D, her tired eyes blinking.