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We all have pre conceived expectations misunderstandings of any new place or experience. I admit to a certain amt of fear of arriving in Kolkata, India at 1 AM. Purse well zipped, money under my shirt. The reality was/is much different.
One has to smile at the need to have 5 young men sitting at the official taxi booth in a fairly empty airport this late. I question their price to take us to Dakshineswar, a suburb that’s barely a 15 minute drive, when a well-dressed business man steps up to be our advocate. After much haggling, questioning, negotiating an discussing (none of which we can understand), he assures David and I that we will do better somewhere else. He walks us to the next business, we discuss where we are going, look at google map. Another four young men sit munching their snack as “the boss” writes us a ticket on a piece of paper smaller than a 3×5 card. Ten minutes later he says, “Little more patience, madam”. I look over the counter and make a motion of putting a little of their food in my mouth. The guys look confused and then David pretends he might take a nap on the counter. They all flash those radiant Indian smiles. Finally “the boss man” takes us out to the road where taxi is waiting – more discussing and negotiating while luggage is loaded into a beat up Toyota with a trunk that doesn’t close properly. We cheer and finally leave the airport. This is India!
I had forgotten that in India everyone is overly helpful, full of advice, eager to please, and proud of their integrity. For the most part, quite charming. Different from most of the world’s expectatios. The real danger is losing one’s patience and sense of humor.
We wake the next morning to the swish swishing sounds of sweeping fallen leaves from the walkways of the ashram. Mist hangs over the Ganges. Retreatants gather on the portico for morning exercises as a bevy of birds dart in the trees overhead. The ferry putt putts across the river carrying people to work leaving a scent of propane in its wake. The noise, pollution, and busyness of India is outside, this is the eye of the hurricane.
Somehow I stand taller here, do my exercises with more intention. There’s more air in my cells, more lightness in my mind. And my heart is filling up and spilling over. David and I feel like this is our home away from home.
Hello All; We have arrived and are settling in. Last night I was able to sleep until about 2:30, and then was awake the rest of the night. There were 3 nights in a row when we didn’t sleep before leaving so body can’t yet figure out if it’s night or day. Yesterday was Sunday. David and I slept after service. Ashram has grown so much –people sitting out along the building on nice rug/blankets that the ashram puts out.
I tried to go to the 3 hour meditation yesterday afternoon. This one monk whom we’ve seen before was leading the meditation. He oozes with love and devotion when he chants tho I can’t say I had a deep meditation–I was outside on the portico with a few other women so I didn’t make a nuisance of myself nodding off on a regular basis. Finally had to give up and go back to bed. But today it feels more normal. We love living in an ashram!!!!!!
Sunday there were so many people – more and more Indians coming. And a large Sunday School. Early in the AM there are new birds singing and chattering, a whoopa whoopa whoopa” bird and lots of noisy crows. The ferry on the Ganges putt putts across the river sounding like the old Evinrude motor on my dad’s fishing boat. It prb is just as old as that. This morning was misty and moisty but I could still see out across the Ganges.We are so happy here! Content and at peace—nothing to do but read, meditate and walk. Health is fine
Our bags are almost packed, but too many details remain. On one level it seems crazy to be returning to India, but Mother India tugs on my heart strings from 7000 miles away. To many Americans yoga is primarily focused on relaxing and perfecting the body. But yoga is also about calming, expanding the mind and opening the heart; and what better way, except for meditation, than launching oneself into a totally new environment. In India the curtain that separates the physical from the ethereal is much more transparent if you are receptive to it.
I’m looking forward to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha received enlightenment and the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. I look forward to being responsible for absolutely nothing except reading, meditating, meeting new faces, and of course, getting to the train on time. Believe it or not, I look forward to seeing my favorite driver in Kolkata. I have to ask him to repeat whatever he says at least three times before I can understand his English. I’ve known him as a young man and now as a father and husband. He, like many other folks we meet, doesn’t need meditation or yoga. He is one hundred percent present with David and I and so empathetic. Being of service is not so much about a bigger tip but a part of every fiber of his being.
I fondly remember our driver and guide through the Himalayas near Rishikesh (three years ago). I took one look at where he thought I was going to hike and said, “I’ll go part way and then come back and sit in the car.” David was already on the trail walking at his own pace (not wanting to listen to my complaints). Our guide didn’t accept my wimpy attitude. He took my hand, and we climbed and climbed. What really kept me going besides the incredible landscape was our conversation and a sense of a deep soul connection. This man lived half way around the world in a very different culture. Yet our thoughts, concerns, hopes and dreams were the same.
Am I excited about traveling yet? Nope, I’m usually anxious until that moment when the seat belt clicks and the wheels of the plane lift off. Then the dream of my life fades into the blue sky and a new one begins. Besides, in India every day is an adventure, filled with intricately flavored foods, and, more importantly, a great cup of masala chai.
If you’d like to join me on this journey, just click “follow” at the bottom of the page. I have some beautiful photos and stories to share. Not about the dirt, noise, pollution and poverty that is, for many Americans, the preconceived ideas we hold of India. I’ll write to you about the deep spiritual heritage that Mother India brings to our world.
Oh Susannah! Won’t You Cook for Me?
My husband, David, and I are the guests at the home/guesthouse of Mrs. Bhola Singh. She is about 75 years old– a remarkable woman– independent and deeply devotional– a long time member of the Yogoda Satsanga Society here in Ranchi. Under the direction of Indira Gandhi in the late 50’s, she brought a group of young Indian dancers to the United States on a cultural exchange. “In those days we had to prove to the world that not everyone in India was a snake charmer,” she told me.
Her husband passed away ten years ago, and her loyal servants have been with her for 25 years. As a Westerner traveling in India, the concept of servants is difficult for me to accept though it is not my place, as a guest, to judge.
Susannah cooks and her husband, Kailash, manages the house and gardens. They live in a small cabin on this beautiful estate, eat well, and Mrs. Singh also pays for their teenage son’s education. The growing prosperity in India rarely reaches the lower classes. For most, life is harsh beyond our imaginations—in comparison Susannah and Kailash live well.
Susannah explodes in embarrassed giggling. I sense that my friendliness crosses a few subtly drawn social lines, but we have fun together. (despite her serious attitude when it comes to taking a photo) Our attempts to understand each other begin and end with a great many “Thank yous!” One of the few words she knows in English and the only one I know in Hindi. I can’t say that we converse, but we definitely communicate.
One evening I didn’t eat all the food she gave me. Her gestures asked why not, so I blew out my cheeks and walked like an elephant trying to show her how fat I’d become if I did. She laughed and laughed, but soon she walked to the table and asked sweetly, “Not good?” I reassured her with more pantomiming about how delicious the food was.
I love this woman. Susanah teaches me more than just cooking. She sings quietly while she works and always smiles. She’s humble and does her work even when her employer or the guests are impatient, grouchy or just getting older and harder to please. She understands the concept of surrender/of the joy of serving others more than this independent, don’t tell me what to do American woman ever will.
For 50 years, advertising in the West encouraged women to get out of the kitchen as fast as possible. Sometimes we see cooking as drudge work to avoid. Today in India, marketing is geared to the growing affluent generation of modern Indian women. It sounds exactly the same as what we and our mothers, in the 1950’s, were indoctrinated with. “Serve this pre-made soup in a box. It will make your children smarter and you will be a happy mother.” And the trend begins again. More profitable, packaged, processed foods for India.
Susannah’s love and attention are physical ingredients in the food she prepares. That’s one of the things I admire about her. Serving others is her duty. She accepts that, and it actually makes her happy! What could be more important to do in life than to feed the ones we love?
Dal is a standard dish in many regions of northern India usually served with rice, curries, and other vegetable dishes. It’s sort of the fried chicken of India. Every family/region prepares it differently.
Susannah’s explanation to me for making dal went something like this.
“Kshish! RRRR!! Kshish RRRR!” Four fingers shoot up in the air meaning the pressure cooker lets off steam and makes this sound four times before the dal is cooked.
With knife in hand and pointing to the onions, garlic, and ginger; she says in English, “Cut, cut, cut, cut!” Circling the spoon in the air over the fry pan means sautéing them in the butter or ghee.
I don’t have a pressure cooker so here is my Americanized version of how to make this delicious staple. Serve it with rice and raita which is a dish of yogurt with grated cucumbers and a dash of cumin and cayenne. In India dal is prepared in larger quantities to be used for several days, but this recipe is a smaller one for a first try. Enjoy!
One and half cups yellow split peas *
One teaspoon salt
Three cups vegetable stock or water
Two tablespoons oil
One tablespoon black mustard seeds*
Two cloves garlic, minced
One teaspoon turmeric powder*
One half teaspoon curry powder*
Juice of half a lemon
Add the rinsed split peas to the boiling water or stock. Cover and turn heat to simmer, about 30 minutes. Cook until tender but not so long that they lose their shape. They should have the texture of mashed potatoes.
Chop the garlic.
Heat oil in a medium size pan with a good lid. Add mustard seed to hot oil and cover. Allow to brown but not burn—just a couple minutes on a low flame. Open the lid very carefully as the seeds tend to jump like popcorn. Stir in turmeric, curry powder and garlic. Sauté until garlic is softened and then add the peas along with the lemon juice. Makes about 6 servings.
*All of these ingredients can be purchased in bulk (in smaller quantities) at a natural foods store.
Now that we are home from India and settled, I have more stories and pictures to share with you all. And I’d better get writing before the rains stop. Spring and the gardens will lure me away from writing.
Many folks think we are out of our minds for returning to India again and again. But India isn’t about the mind, she tugs at my heart strings from 6000 miles away.
We live in such a violent culture, and we project that onto other places in the world which are more peaceful than our own. I am always amazed at the amount of fear that people have about travel. Fear from our news media projects so much negativity, and we believe it. Of course, I’m not saying that one doesn’t need to have razor sharp discrimination when traveling but that’s true everywhere all the time.
Not once, in any of our trips to India, was I ever in danger, not even when crammed into an antique Toyota van with seven women and two thin fleshed drivers careening around one lane roads in the Himalayas. I’ll never forget the door flying open every few miles. Without hardly noticing, the driver just pulled it closed again. Now that’s was a lesson in non-attachment.
The greatest difficulty I experienced was that I often couldn’t remember who I was in my life when I was not in India. I was pleasantly disconnected from everything back home that I take for granted. There’s a certain freedom in travel that allows one to be more in the moment.
In one of the last posts I mentioned my favorite Kolkata driver, Prodeep. I’ve known him since 2007 and watched him grow from a gangly young man into a father and a husband. One day he came to the Yogoda Satsanga Society ashram. It’s located in Dakshineswar which used to be a village near Kolkata and is now what we might call a suburb. This is where one of our main ashrams are for the Yogoda Satsanga Society, the Indian division of Self Realization Fellowship. Our plan for the day was to drive to a computer shop and Mother Theresa’s house. I also wanted to visit the New Market. It’s underground in the center of Kolkata with rows of stalls of Indian art, silks, and crafts. After all, Christmas was coming and why not buy treasures from India?
David chose to stay in the car, but I convinced Prodeep to accompany me. In India, men and women don’t touch each other in public, but he was kind enough to let me hold his hand as we weaved our way through streets and crowds. And, I needed him to fight off the hawkers and touts at this market that are over-the-top aggressive especially when you’re a Western woman with shopping on her mind. A tout is a young man who gets a little kick back if he directs you to a particular stall or hotel or restaurant.
I am proud of David, my 75 year old travel companion. At home he misplaces at least three things a week. But travel has made him much more mindful and better organized (and me too). For the most part, I no longer get upset when his hat, his gloves, his billfold seem to disappear for a few hours or days. We both love living out of a suitcase. Life is much simpler with fewer possessions to weigh you down.
About 3 PM, Prodeep and I returned from the market. David was panicking. He didn’t have his ATM card which he used that morning. Prodeep, his milk chocolate eyes filled with compassion, was totally present with him, listening and thinking through where we had stopped during the day. “Let’s pull the seats out of the car,” he suggested, “maybe it fell from your pocket.”
We drove back to the ATM counter in Dakshineswar, where we had stopped that morning. David was upset with himself. Sitting beside him was like being with a crazed cat in heat. Once we arrived, the two men emptied the waste basket and searched the entire ATM enclosure. I was still feeling a little disappointed in how the day was turning out. Fighting back the urge to be annoyed and impatient, I kept myself in the background allowing the two men to work this through.
A young man came into the ATM center and asked if he could help, “Why don’t you go next door and talk to the statue maker?”
It was only a few steps so we walked over. By this time it was early evening and the whole family was in their home/studio which was open to the street. Several teens and grown people hanging out. The wife was rolling out chapattis, and a seemingly disabled daughter sat by a window. David explained the situation and Prodeep translated what they didn’t understand. One son said, “Sit down, my father’s in the shower, but I think he might have something.”
A still dripping man came out of a back room in a dhoti that barely covered his big belly and asked, “What was it you lost?”
“My ATM card,” David answered somewhat sheepishly.
With typical Indian officialness, the old man asked, “What was the name on it?”
“What color was it?”
“Blue.” Then, like a magic trick, he pulled out the card and handed it over. David overflowed with effusive gratitude. The whole family was laughing and breathing a sigh of relief.
“Please, can I pay you something or give you something?” David pleaded, but the old man was a little taken aback by this. Watching the body language from my edge of the room, Prodeep shook his head at David to let him know it was not appropriate or necessary.
“But you could buy one of our statues,” the old man said. The family gathered around to help Prodeep and David choose several four-inch sandstone statues, then paid for them as everyone waved goodbye.
Another day of adventure and surprises. Time and time again we found the people of India, of course not all, full of integrity, willing to help, and always ready with a light hearted laugh at life.
On American highways we have signs that tell us when to stop, to go,to merge, to beware of a curve ahead, and how fast is acceptable. It’s all safely determined ahead of time. Everyone knows the rules and most of us follow them. There are no pedestrians in or near our roads—in fact, walking as a mode of transportation as opposed to pleasure, is generally an antiquated idea.
Everywhere one goes in India, at least in the cities, there is a tsunami of humanity on the roadways. People, cars, trucks, cows, dogs, oxcarts, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, tuk tuks (motorcycle taxis), school children and occasionally a camel all share the road. Each has as much of an equal right to the road as the other does or so it seems.
There is a kind of logic to their system of traffic though perhaps the word “system” isn’t the right choice nor is the word “logic”. Finally, as I have overcome my shock and fear and, as yet, havent had an apoplexy, I realize there’s a certain choreography to the whole drama. Drivers in India seem to have more of a sense of the whole. Everything in front of them is theirs to dodge or otherwise not collide with. What goes on behind them is the other guy’s job to figure out.
In and out of traffic, darting around trucks three times our size, forty miles an hour when there is enough space to speed and then a precise stop missing the tuk tuk in front of us by an inch. Pass on the right, pass on the left, or squeeze between the cow and the taxi. Pedestrians walk within inches of moving vehicles and step aside for them as if doing a do si do.
A young man on a motorcycle stops next to us. He holds a toddler between his knees. His beautiful wife in a radiantly colored sari sits side saddle and with one hand holds her infant child. “Courage!” It’s the word that stands out in my brain like bold lettering in a BIG font.
As if all this isn’t enough, it’s an orchestra at fortissimo. Trucks grinding, engines burping and groaning. All manner of horns constantly blaring from beeps to elephant wails to deep duck drones. Pollution? Well, that’s another story.
I’ve changed my attitude over the years. I’m not scared any more. It has become quite the entertainment. I feel so much admiration for these drivers . It’s a good profession here in India. They have incredible reflexes and seem to be able to see 180 degrees.
Yesterday was our first day to leave the ashram and explore around Kolkata. Our favorite driver, Prodeep, has eyes that are like melted milk chocolate and full of compassion. He has enough “Hindlish” (English words) to get the message across most of the time and is diligent about repeating until we both understand where we need to go and when. I tell him that he and all the brave Kolkata drivers are reincarnations of the warriors of the Baghavad Gita, India’s great epic poem. He smiles and beams with pride.
His business card reads,
Safar Car Service
All Tipes Vehicles Available
In reality, he owns a mid-size Honda and can, for bigger groups, borrow his brother’s SUV.
“Just because we can’t see angels doesn’t mean they do not exist. You must realize that your realm of experience is just an infinitesimal part of creation. There is an invisible veil that separates us from a more subtle astral world of light, color and energy. Beyond the astral, there are more subtle worlds of joyful thoughts and formless bliss that we cannot see with our senses. Our human consciousness is but a drop of this formless bliss.” Brother Satyananda,
Yogoda Satsanga Retreat
Storm Over the Ganges
As a gardener, I had longed all week to ask permission to water the flowers here at the Dakshineswar ashram. They seemed to yearn for it. The dust covered trees look tired and thirsty. Their leaves have no turgor, but water is a luxury in India. I am a guest here and don’t know what might be appropriate.
All afternoon the clouds dance a slow motion choreography—forming and reforming, billowing into mounds that tease a promise of moisture and relief from the heat. I walk to the small temple off the portico for the 4 PM meditation.
The first time I walked into this temple my body shivered, and I knew I had been here before–the blue carpet and little chairs that fit me perfectly. I love the sincerity of the brahmacharis (monks in training) who conduct our meditations and the very humorous way they pronounce the English language. There is more ceremony and ritual here in India.
Soon, however, the weather pulls my concentration out the windows. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Perhaps it is just more fireworks. There are so many celebrations in India. The breeze coming through the window has more moisture in it, and the thunder is quickly becoming serious. As twilight settles over the Ganges, I can see flashes of lightning through closed eyes. The whole room fills with light.
The next thunderbolt startles me, and I jump two inches out of my seat. I give up. I can’t contain myself any longer. The smell of coming rain and damp dust on the trees lures me outside, and I gather my things and quietly step out of the meditation room.
I race below the portico into the garden where no one can see me behave improperly. Indian women always act in a refined, gracious manner, but I feel insuppressible and can’t stop from twirling and dancing –swept up in the currents of cool refreshing wind.
It’s not my imagination. I can feel the anticipation of the trees and plants. Their leaves shimmy and dance in the wind like playful children.
An electric presence in the air bathes me in, what to call it, “Joy!” Before meditation at the Yogoda Satsanga Society we often sing a chant called “Joy, Joy, Joy.” I’ve sung it for many years, but until this moment “joy” had been just a word to me.
My body feels like it’s ready to burst with this great empathy for the earth and plants. I remembered my five year old daughter. On Christmas morning many years ago, she climbed into bed with us at 4 AM. “There’s a bicycle under the Christmas tree,” she exclaimed with so much exuberance I thought her little body would literally explode.
Could this feeling be contained within the walls of my skin?
It is quickly getting dark. Thunder cracks overhead just above the tree tops. Then, like an overfilled water balloon, the clouds burst and pelt the earth. Winds are swirling around me in gale force ferocity. I am getting soaked.
A young monk comes out of the darkness. With no judgment in his voice and a smile on his face, he says, “You’d better come inside. This could get worse.”
Before leaving Rishikesh we did catch an afternoon aarti on the Ganges. Aarati is devotional singing on the steps (ghats) that lead to the river. The Austrian Ambassador was visiting with a Chamber Orchestra that day. It was a symbolic celebration– kick off to a program blending the waters of the Danube and the Ganges to purify the Ganges, and a blending of the music of East and West. The director of the Vienna Boys Choir was there. He led some of the young students in chanting. The boys in the picture in yellow all came from poor families and the Parmath niketan ashram is providing their education and a place to grow up. In typical Indian style, there was much officious and long winded ceremonies.
Our Lichtenstein friend went with us. We were squeezed together on the steps. She and I admired the sarees of the Hindu ladies behind us (it was also some kind of a ladies day celebration), and then we were all buddies. Language is only one way to communicate– pointing, laughing, pantomime and a lot of thank yous says a heck of a lot. I think they saw me telling Dave what to do,(NO, not me) so they tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the men standing in front of us, blocking our view. Once I stood up and asked the men to sit down, those women were patting my head and hugging me. They wouldnt have dared do that themselves.
Our first evening here David and I took a tuk tuk to walk around the Rambagh Palace which is currently a hotel. Before coming to India I read a book called, A Princess Remembers, by Maharini Gayatri Devi. She was the third wife of the last Maharajah of Jaipur and this was one of the palaces that they lived in. A tourist book told us that if you tell the guards you want to go to the “Polo Bar” for appetizers and possibly have dinner they will let you in the gate. It runs somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to a $800 to spend the night. The guards telephoned ahead, I’m sure, to let the footmen and hostesses know two unregistered guests were walking around. Everywhere we went someone would ask, “May I help you mam? “ Do you need anything?”
It was truly beautiful, but more opulent than anything I’ve ever seen before. I especially liked the smoking room for men—red and gold paneling, velour couches and chairs surrounding a fireplace. As we were leaving, the footman/bellboy asked if we would like to ride out to the gate in the Maharini’s car. It was, as you can see in the photo, a 1937 Ford convertible.
She wasn’t just a glamorous, wealthy woman. She ran for public office, started several girl’s schools, and cataloged much of the treasures to be preserved for the public in her other palace. The Maharajah willingly gave up his kingdom in order to achieve unity for India after independence.
Guess I have some lingering desire for luxury, but I think maybe this cured it. Tee hee
We spent the last days of our visit here at the Diggi Palace Hotel. Smaller palace with lovely garden for breakfasts and lunches. Lots of families and people from all over the world traveling. this 300 year old building is a little run down but has more trees and birds and nature than any other place we’ve been to. Around the ceilings and walls are delicately painted borders. I thought they had to be stencils as they are so precise, but was able to watch one of the painters who was called in to spiff up some of his work. There is an internationally known writers’ conference here once a year.
Also visited the Amber Fort which was the setting for the film, Jodha Akbar. A small textile museum near there is working to maintain the local embroidery, block printing and tie dyeing that families have done in Rajasthan for centuries.
We flew to Kolkata and as we were landing, you could see the fireworks of Divalli lighting up all over the city. Quite spectacular to see them from above. I told you (in previous story) there is a surprise around every corner in India. Also have a mysterious, itchy rash which is not such a pleasant surprise. Tee Hee