I want to thank everyone at Vaidyagrama for making it a magical place. You, truly, made the waters part when it comes to demonstrating how peace should be created and maintained. Each one of you, from my doctor to the woman who cleaned my room, was an inspiration for this blog.
Coimbatore, India – Twenty-five-year-old Hari meets me at the airport on a dry, sweltering monsoon afternoon in July. He will drive me 50 kilometers southwest to Vaidyagrama, an Ayurvedic healing center in South India’s heartland.
I am spending two weeks there because, clichéd and cheesey as it may sound, I want to find myself. Lately, I look around and think, “Is this it? Is this all there is to life?” Some call it midlife crisis but I know it isn’t that; it is that my life has been reduced to deadlines, milestones, and goals and happiness has become an external thing dependent on material and emotional acquisition rather than spiritual progression. I am going to spend two weeks detoxing – body, mind, and spirit – with Ayurveda, a native science documented in 5,000 B.C.E.
Asphalt smoke rises from the city’s sidewalks but we soon leave it behind, entering an arid landscape. The pictures of Vaidyagrama show a lush, green place and I wonder if they were photo-shopped to attract a lost, vulnerable clientele that will buy spirituality in a bottle if presented with the option. My eyes move upwards to the monsoon cloud-capped peaks of the gigantic Western Ghats; I see their vibrant, flourishing beauty and, smiling, settle back into my seat.
I open my eyes only when we start bumping along on a dirt road. It turned green outside as I dozed; from the deepest recesses of my mind I summon the plant names I learned in my undergraduate botany class. The pink and white blossoms of nerium, the red of hibiscus, the yellow of marigold, the polished green leaves of rubber. A color collage that distracts me from my apprehensions about the place I am headed to.
Hari drops me off at the Vaidyagrama’s front door – an archway guarded on either side by the monkey deity, Hanuman. I hesitate, turning around frantically to make sure the taxi driver, I have known for all of two hours, is still there if I need to escape. But he has disappeared leaving my bags in the foyer.
And I take a small step in, right foot first as my grandmother taught me.
Turns out it is the biggest step I have taken in my life, yet. I am transported from chaos to peace and stand like a fool, stunned, until two young women hustle me to a chair.
“Are you tired?” one asks.
“Herbal tea,” the other one says shoving a cup of warm, dark liquid into my hands. I sip it; the sharpness of ginger, peppercorn and basil is muted by the subtle aroma of cumin and coriander, the sweetness of jaggery.
I complete my registration and the two women walk me along several wide, covered pathways flanked by thick vegetation, to my room. There are 36 rooms in the ashram divided into nine blocks of four grouped around a central courtyard.
We pass other guests wearing long pants, their upper torsos covered in thin shawls. No one meets my gaze. I’ve read people come here for many reasons – from allergies to cancer to detox and de-stress. I understand silence is important to begin my journey into myself and believe I am prepared for it.
I am not.
My room is in an especially quiet block assigned to me, perhaps, because I asked for silence. I look longingly at the closed door after my two junior and one senior Ayurvedic doctors leave, instructing me to relax, remain in solitude.
First I unpack all my clothes into the single cupboard. Then I rearrange my clothes. I go and sit on my porch where bamboo shades keep the sun and the people out. I gaze at the plants outside. I look at my cell phone. There is no reception. I pick up the landline to call my children; it is dead.
I am jetlagged but I can’t sleep. I walk up and down my suite, from my small sitting area to my room and porch, then back again. The silence is deafening and I can’t do this for two more minutes let alone two whole weeks. I would like to leave but that would mean failure and I don’t like to fail.
It was my ego that prevented me from leaving the ashram right away and I thank it now because if it had not been for my egoistic self I would never have started on my journey to self-realization.
It occurs to me that I live in a world where everyone tells me to love myself and I think I do but I actually don’t because if I did I wouldn’t hate my own company so much. I would embrace solitude. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, forcing myself to sit in silence.
It is the first time I hear the ticking of my six-year-old wristwatch. It is the first time I hear the music of rustling leaves as a distant storm approaches. It is the first time I smell the earth that went into making the soil stabilized bricks the ashram is built with. When I open my eyes I see fleeting images in the candle flame burning in my room.
A gentleness drifts into me, settles in.
Within two hours of entering the ashram I wanted to flee; within three hours, I know I am in the right place. The perfect space.
The silence and solitude of the first few days taught me to watch with my ears, see with my nose, smell with my eyes. I can summon any memory, image and story at will but I can’t let it go and I am here to learn how. People think I am super-driven but I am not; I keep myself busy so I don’t have to think, analyze, ponder the past.
My life here is austere. My room is simple with no air conditioning, television or fridge, but clean and very well ventilated. My food, my schedule, even my solitude are simple. No one wears make-up, fancy clothes or jewelry. We don’t play music or watch movies. I wake up at 5.30 a.m. and go to bed at 9 p.m. I eat by myself and spend most of the day alone. Everyone is here to heal in some way or the other.
Ayurveda believes that all problems can be treated by cleansing the body, mind, and spirit. Cleansing the body is easy; all I have to do is surrender it to the three doctors and three therapists who will monitor my food, my medicinal herb-intake and treatments (there are dozens including herbal baths and oil massages). They will direct all the toxins to my alimentary canal, then purge them out.
But what about cleansing my mind and spirit so I can find the force that drives the universe, find out who I am and where I fit? There are no instructions for that. We call this force different things and fight over names but it isn’t Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or Jehovah. This force doesn’t divide, it unites. It is a positive force that requires no belief in god or religion. It exists unconditionally.
Life, I am told, is a journey finding this force, the one truth, but I don’t know how to start. Practices like meditation help and I have done it for years without much success. I don’t feel lighter, cleaner and my mind buzzes with questions. No one seems to have answers to these questions. Certainly no one in the United States, but it was built after destroying a native culture that contained more wisdom and philosophy than the present country ever will. My questions aren’t answered in the cities of India, either, where chaos, corruption and money rule. That is why I am here; and I am still lost.
Day three my feet carry me to a discourse underway in the ashram’s central hall. A man sits cross-legged on the floor answering questions posed by those on chairs. I walk in out of curiosity, doubtful this young-looking person has the wisdom to answer my substantial, esoteric queries. I leave amazed at his depth of knowledge and wisdom, the humor that sneaks in unexpectedly. Later, I discover he is Dr. Ramkumar Kutty, the founder of the ashram. I go back the next day armed with a notebook, pen, and ten questions.
For everything I ask he has an answer that invites ten more questions. To him I owe the insights that have gone into writing this story. I’ve taken his knowledge and made sense of it with my words. My understanding may not be right but my intentions are.
My life, I realize, has been largely purposeless, a ship adrift. On the surface it seems I have achieved everything. A great education, a successful marriage, a fulfilling career, wonderful children, a beautiful home and the means to do what I love most – travel. But all my achievements have been about me. An “I” that almost never was a “We.” Even when I gave, I did it to feel good about myself.
Which means I am not that much more evolved than an animal. I have a list of needs that I go about fulfilling. Except I am neither content nor happy when I tick another thing off my “To-Do” list. I want more. More work, more travel, more love. Is that all I am? A product of all my achievements.
I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend. I am a reporter, a writer, a thinker, a challenger. I am flesh, bones, blood. I am brown hair, brown skin, brown eyes. I am Indian, Anglicized Indian, US-American. I am loving, angry, hateful, kind. I am all this and much more but without all of this am I nothing?
It occurs to me in that solitude that I can be nothing despite all these labels and I can be everything without any labels. I still don’t know who I am but I have begun the journey. Dr. Ramkumar tells me I will find out when I focus on the journey and forget the goal. When I stop playing victim and take responsibility for everything from burnt toast to Trump’s presidency. When every act is from good intent, irrespective of the result.
Hard to do in a result-oriented society where success is measured not by who you are but what you are. But it is good intent that will make healers of doctors, saints of preachers, philanthropists of businessmen, saviors of lawyers and truth-seekers of reporters. Something utterly lacking in today’s world where we simply put one foot after another, always thinking practically and only of ourselves. (A good attitude to have if you live in drudgery but few people I know are).
So I strive on. I have no answers, just a few tools to work with and, finally, a sense of how small “I” am and how vast “We” are. My decision to enter the ashram was a subconscious one, my resolution to carry it within me is a conscious one. I will always think of myself as, “Me before Vaidyagrama,” and “Me after Vaidyagrama.”
Now when the selfishness, narrow-mindedness and injustice of the world angers and confuses me, I can close my eyes and think of a happy place where I can hear my wristwatch ticking. Where peacocks wake me and cicadas chirp me to sleep and people walk barefoot so they can feel the soil beneath their feet.
At Kripalu, the holistic healing center in Stockbridge, MA, I use Qigong to harness nature’s energy for nourishing my soul; I discover Metta Meditation; I learn to say Om the correct way; I understand the basics of Ayurveda. Yet, no matter what class I take and how much I love it, my feet always carry me to the Meditation Labyrinth, a twisted, circular path flanked by daises, lupins and conifers, leading to a central stone alter.
I first did the Meditation Labyrinth as a group exercise with a teacher. “Release,” as you walk towards the altar, the teacher said. Let go, become open. Be ready to “Receive” at the altar. “Return” back to your lives unburdened, open, free.
That didn’t happen to me. The labyrinth led me down a path I hadn’t expected, making me acutely aware of the imbalance in my life. I refer to it now as Life’s Labyrinth.
My eyes never left the altar on that first group-walk. I wanted to get there as fast as I could believing that was where my happiness lay. I passed others walking more slowly, singularly focused on the three stone slabs in the center, two vertical and the third resting horizontally forming a table. Two Bodhisattva statues held guard with their laughing faces. I hurried but just as I began thinking I was almost at the altar, a twist in the path led me away from it. This happened several times and I grew increasingly frustrated.
A brown, immigrant woman’s fears, insecurities, and musings on the eve of an election that will decide the future of not just the United States of America but the entire world.
It is an evening like any other in our suburban U.S. home. Yet it is different. The Fall wind screeches through the trees, Halloween cobwebs lie in the yard crumpled by the rain, and the front door-path is buried in leaves and overgrown plants.
“It looks like a haunted house,” my son notes at dinner. I am irritable, third day into writers’ block, and snap a reply. The children are startled, my husband tactfully suggests, “Why not go to Bela’s house? Take a break, have a drink, sleep there if you want.”
My friend Bela, Indian-born and raised like me, lives down the street. An UN economist who travels all the time, she still manages to keep an immaculate house while raising two lovely children. I could show up at her place, unannounced, demanding a drink and a bed.
I am tempted to go but I don’t and, instead, go to my own bed and dream I go over to Bela’s house that night.
When I wake up in the morning I am not in my house or Bela’s. The walls of the spacious room I am in are whitewashed. The windows are open letting in the morning October sun and the sound of twittering sparrows. The teak door and window frames are elaborately carved. I know I am in an upper-class Indian home. Panicking, I run downstairs towards the kitchen where I hear voices. I see Bela there but she isn’t the Bela I know. This woman is dressed in an orange silk sari, diamonds flash in her ears and nose, her neat bun is decorated with jasmine flowers. She is supervising breakfast for her husband, children, and in-laws. I call to her but she doesn’t hear. Neither does anyone else in the kitchen. It occurs to me, then, that I have become invisible, a ghost from the future – I have landed in 1920s India.
Desperate to get home I run out the open front door almost knocking over a servant girl coming in. She looks down angrily at the high wood threshold.
Outside, I expect to see Indians in saris, dhotis and turbans but the streets are crowded with white people in coats walking under a cold, steady drizzle. It is dark though the steeple clock reads only four in the afternoon. I recognize this place, too. It is 1920’s London and I have no idea how I have traveled, within a few hours, from a 21st century U.S. suburb to a 1920s India and England. I need to get home to my children, I despair. I spot a young Indian man, dressed in a smart dark suit, hurrying along the pavement and I follow him through an unlocked door into a modest two-storied house.
“Any hot curry for dinner,” he calls and a man’s voice from the living room, in Indian-accented English, replies, “Yes, Miss Patterson has made us potato curry. Not as good as home, I assure you, but it is vegetarian.”
“It had better be,” the man I have followed says as he walks into the living room. “We are in one of the few “Vegetarian Boarding Houses” in London that will have Indians.”
He sits down on a sofa opposite the man he’s been talking to and, for the first time, I look at them both closely. Chills run up my spine when I recognize them. They are my two grandfathers-in-law who have traveled by ship from India to come to England to study. They will die before I meet their grandson and marry him, but I already know their future. One will return to India with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. The other will become a chartered accountant and set up successful practices in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. They will get married, father happy, worldly, smart children.
Now, I am excited to be here and live my version of, “Back Into The Future,” even if it might all be a dream. So I stay and watch the two men with curiosity and grateful love.
They both work hard ignoring prejudices, subtle and obvious. Britain’s humanity, then, stank in its ranks. People look at them from afar often with disdain. They think my grandfathers-in-law smell of coconut oil and curry powder (curry powder, incidentally, is a British invention https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2014/07/08/once-hard-find-curries-are-now-menus-everywhere/8CsBnAkvlefjQfM6KWAyZL/story.html). Few British know that Indians bathe every day and smell of sandalwood and incense. Or that their teeth, because of their vegetarian diet, are sparkling white.
One day I see my grandfathers-in-law walking down the street with another young Indian friend, his new bride by his side. A drunk sailor leers at the young woman and I notice her lowering her eyes, holding her husband’s arm tight. It doesn’t matter that she is married, she is brown and it is acceptable to ogle her. I rush towards the sailor but a whisper in my ear stops me.
“But wait and see what we will do, my darling,” a familiar, tender woman’s voice says. Is it my great grandmother, a widow in the 1920s, who ruled a small kingdom in India? I’ve seen her holding court, passing sentences on men, keeping her authority intact in a male-dominated society until she died (I was five then). Or is it the voice one of my grandmothers (one is still alive)? They always told me it was irrelevant whether I married, had kids, made money. It is important to swim upstream, they always said, and change things that are wrong.
I don’t know but I am, by now, used to being shuttled from country to country, century to century and hardly surprised when I end up in 1970s India.
Grim games have overtaken India. The British left in 1947 “uniting” all of the subcontinent’s kingdoms, each with its own language and culture, into one country forcing people to live together as “India.” (Would Britain ever dare to unite all the countries of Europe, I wonder?).
India’s kingdoms, its “states,” are at odds with each other. Hindu-majority India is at odds with Muslim-majority Pakistan (also created by the colonists). Within India, liberalists are trying to abolish the caste system by reserving seats for the lower castes in schools and universities and helping them monetarily. The upper-caste Brahmins responsible for keeping the caste system alive begin leaving the country but that doesn’t really change anything. The next highest caste comes into power and the caste system is simply re-established on different terms.
I am born then, when India’s politics and policies are changing furiously. My life is sheltered, filled with high ideals and thoughts. But I am not happy because I want to experience the world and go to England in the 1990s. How different England is then! Seventy years ago, a sailor felt free to ogle a woman because she was brown. Now, an Indian woman is revered as something exotic, a remnant of the British Raj. Men want to be seen with Indian girls on their arms and I get asked out often. At first I am flattered and wondrous – men are asking me out? The scrawny, flat-chested, short-haired ME? Then anger and indignation set in. I don’t want to be asked out because of my race or culture. I want to blend in, not be suppressed nor revered.
England’s classism disillusions me and I pack my bags, once again, to come to the United States. I am told it is a land of “equal opportunity.” I discover, however, that things are equal only superficially. There is an underlying xenophobia that prevents most people from embracing foreign things – culture, food, ideas. I am glad I am in the Boston-area which has many world-traveled, intellectual people and I become friends with them.
I meet my future husband, an Indian-American, whose parents imigrated here in the 1960s. I discover that my husband’s aunts, uncles, cousins when they first came here were allowed to only use restrooms for “colored” people. Certain jobs were out of their reach – finance, law, real estate – because that required relentless networking and people-pleasing and they found it hard to do that with their perfect, Indian-accented English smelling of sandalwood and incense. (With their sparkling teeth, don’t forget). They were all highly qualified – engineers, doctors, scientists, and academicians and it was those professions they pushed their children towards. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States)
While you, the immigrants who were “settled” here by then, felt it right to create separate restrooms and public places for us, maintain your all-white clubs, my lot struggled to succeed in a prejudiced society. While you, my friends, were taking vacations, doing and watching sports, my lot were pushing their children academically because they understood that only education would make them indispensable to society. They were done being slaves and underlings.
So we excelled as researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and thinkers. It gave us some ownership of our future. Often Indians are criticized for pushing their children, making them work hard. But we do it because we know that knowledge is power and a sound knowledge of the world will give us an advantage. (I also want to point out that the Indians who came here in the 1960s were from affluent, highly-educated families and were simply getting away from India that was ruined by 150 years of British rule and plunder).
At that point, even in my surreal dream, I began to appreciate all the work it has taken for generations so I can now have a comfortable life in an U.S. suburb. My children can attend the same school as the white kids, use the same restrooms, eat at the same table (though there have been incidents where my brown children have been racially discriminated against. My first reaction was anger; my second was to arm with enough knowledge so they could talk their abuser down). I begin feeling ashamed at having been irritable in my cozy, happy life.
Even as regret overtakes me, I find I am back on my street. I run towards my house, throw the door open and find a family gathering underway – siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews gathered in my living room. Most of the children in that room are mixed race. I hug my beautiful, smart, mongrel nieces and nephews knowing they are the future, a testimony of people evolved enough to cross color and culture boundaries and intermarry. The future is one race.
“You forgot the ice,” my husband accuses me.
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” I say cheerfully. “But I am home.”
These elections, though, have shaken my faith in the United States. Trump may lose but he has still given voice and validation to racism and prejudice and that isn’t going away in a hurry. I don’t know where we will go from here but we have worked very hard, all of us, to make this an equal country. This isn’t just my story; it is the story of all those people who came here and succeeded, especially political refugees. Please don’t forget that most countries in turmoil now are those colonized and manipulated by the west. The future lies with us – immigrants who have crossed racial boundaries, adopted Christmas and July 4th, and created mongrel children who will own the future.
I hope you all find it in your hearts to forget your race and culture and vote for a peaceful future.
Every summer I spend six weeks in India where I was born and raised. I cherish the time with family and friends but by the end of my stay, I am ready to leave – the chaos, the disorder, the noise and the unpredictability of India get to me. I return home to the United States relieved to be in order and predictability.
Except, this summer, for the first time in more than a decade, I returned to my perfect suburban home in Newton, MA, my mind in complete disarray. I had left behind the external chaos of India but I carried within me a chaos, a confusion, which simply won’t go away. Of course, the political climate, the increasing violence and the racial prejudices of the United States bother me. But my internal chaos comes from a deeper, darker place – while adopting the American way of life I have simply stopped evolving.
It took a single incident to make me realize this.
I was visiting a very busy, loud and dirty part of Pune city to see a craftsman I have known for years. There is a temple right by the craftsman’s shop and I decided to go in though I don’t believe God resides in any particular place and is, instead, something indescribable for whom we still don’t have the vocabulary.
As I was leaving the temple I noticed a mirror on the wall by the door. I stopped to straighten my hair and clothes since I was going to dinner right afterwards. As I was looking at my reflection I noticed a little girl also looking in the mirror, not at herself, but at me. I turned around and smiled.
“Who are you?” she asked, staring at me unblinkingly.
“Sena, that’s my name,” I answered used to the open curiosity of Indian children and their lack of hesitation in asking strangers questions.
“Yes, but who are you?” she persisted, stressing on the “are.”
“I am a writer and journalist and I live in the United Sates, though I grew up here. I am visiting India with my husband and children. In fact, my son who is almost 11 might be your age.”
The girl in the flower-printed, frothy dress and neatly braided hair shrugged. “I am 13.”
“So who are you?” I asked in a joking tone.
“My family lives behind this temple,” she said pointing to the rear door. “We are Brahmins and my father says I am very bright. But I don’t know who I am.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, my physics teacher at school tells me that even if we are all solid, we are made of atoms and spaces. Which means we are all the same inside. But, then, my grandmother tells me that we are all different, not because of our external achievements but because we all have varying capabilities to look inside ourselves, understand who we truly are.”
“Does she really?” I asked flabbergasted at the child’s knowledge. “What else does she say?”
“She says people who don’t spend time thinking about who they are and the world around them are superficial. They are the ones who cause it the most harm.”
“I am amazed at how much you know of these things at such a young age,” I replied trying not to look stupid.
She shrugged again. “I don’t know. So many Americans like yourself come here and you all seem so confident. You seem to know exactly who you are. Ok, I should go now. My parents will be waiting and I talk too much.”
I watched her flower-printed dress disappearing in the crowd and I will probably never see her again. Later, I even wondered if that incident had really happened or if I had imagined it just as I imagine scenes and people when I am writing a story. Whatever it is, that conversation stayed with me and I returned to the United States wondering exactly what the girl was wondering – who was I?
The external order of the United States stopped reassuring me. Sure, we are technologically advanced, our infrastructure is impeccable and things, by and large, work as they should. But are we truly a progressive and evolved nation because of all this? Our lives are so mechanical, like programmed robots we go from weekday to weekend from birth to death doing more or less what everyone else does. I haven’t seen many Americans (even very educated ones) question customs, habits, traditions. Fewer still are interested in the culture and people of the world outside except when someone foreign attacks them or causes them damage. This attitude worked so far but it isn’t working anymore – while we measure progress on the basis of what we can own, buy, possess, dominate, the rest of the world is evolving in a different way – with their minds.
The rest of the world simply cannot adopt our model of happiness based on materialism and consumption. Since we use the most resources of any country on the planet there just isn’t enough to go around. In the absence of material distractions people in poor countries tend to look inwards more, be more introspective. They find happiness within themselves. They fill those empty spaces inside with humility and acceptance and merge seamlessly with the world around them. That, to me, is true evolution. And power.
So how can we call ourselves a progressive society? We reject ancient knowledge, we hardly know anything about the past, we think we know everything and we are least inclined to learn from the mistakes of many great people who existed before us. Because there is hardly any internal peace in us, we are one of the most stressed-out societies. We need coffee to wake us up, sleeping pills to put us to sleep. Buying a new car, a Prada bag, or a piece of jewelry makes us happy. We are at that precarious stage where we have lost our capacity to look inwards; instead we rely on all manner of material things to fill the emptiness of our lives.
We are at that tipping point where we are willing to make dictators of brutes, princes of drunks, and presidents of charlatans. We deserve Trump. Sure, many don’t support him but not all of Iraq supported Saddam and not all of Germany supported Hitler. Trump is simply a culmination of all our self-serving, ruthless foreign policies and politics. He represents the true self-centeredness and money-mindedness of our country. If he loses, I am sure the next candidate will be far worse. Remember when we thought Bush was a disaster? Now he looks like a scholar compared to Trump!
After the debate of a few nights ago, I neither felt anger nor frustration. I felt a deep sadness at how we have successfully cultivated a support base for people like him. We are self-destructing and these are some of the scenes of the future I see.
The courthouse is old and beautiful. People trickle out at the end of the day, glad to escape the winter chill seeping into the stone walls making the heating system useless. They all look forward to going home, even if some don’t have families. There isn’t much to do. The nightclubs and pubs have been closed by the religious extremists and the only thing you can watch on television are preachers who will tell you how you will go to hell if you don’t follow Jesus.
But just as the crowd is filing out, armed men in uniform surround them.
“Walk in single file,” they command. Hearts race, stop, grow faint but no one screams. By now, they are used to these mass abductions and following instructions without questioning.
The crowd is led to a large hall, all metal and high ceilings, and divided into groups.
Each group is shown a map of the world.
“Group 1,” an armed official barks. “This is the area of the world you are responsible for. 504.” He points to a region, glowing fluorescent green. “If you don’t follow our instructions here we can detonate this region, destroy it completely without even stepping out of this place.”
The people in the group stare at the fluorescent spot. They all have family living in that region.
“Don’t get any ideas to run away,” the man warns. “Your thoughts are now connected to sensors and even the slightest hint of dissension can be seen by us.”
The group, then, trains itself to think like its aggressors. They believe in them, follow them and, at one point, they forget they are doing it for their families living in region 504.
The school bell rings but the children don’t run out. They walk in single file through the doors, subdued. Teachers, carrying guns, accompany them to the door from where armed police lead them to buses whose drivers are also carrying weapons. The children must be taken safely home, protected from possible shooters. The children are used to this by now; they don’t know what an unarmed society looks like. They are told guns are bad but their mothers and fathers also have guns in their homes. “We all have to protect ourselves,” the adults say.
The NRA has won. It has kept its children safe surrounded by guns, rifles, assault weapons. But the mental security and stability of the future generations has been sacrificed at the altar of physical safety.
Brides, all dressed in white even though that is the color of death for some, walk through the graveyards. Every grave belongs to a woman, there are no graves of men. The men never came home. They became martyrs, reduced to ashes fighting for their ideals, their beliefs, their political aspirations. The women have no one left to marry and they roam the graves in their white bridal dresses. They have become mere instruments to carry a man’s idea of a woman forward. They have to wear white because that is the color of purity and that is what the men want of their women. But the young girls dressed in white are looking for one man, just one, who doesn’t want anything more than to stay home, love, and have a family. The women squabble amongst themselves but they know they won’t go to war. The few women who did go returned having lost all the tolerance and sensitivity of the female mind.
This is exactly how a society that has stopped evolving looks like. There is still a semblance of order in these surrealistic scenes. But what of the chaos and fear in the minds of the people in these situations?
I’ve disliked team sports since I was a child. I enjoyed playing them to a degree but watching was always painful. I wondered why I couldn’t have fun as others did; it even bothered me a little. Was is that I didn’t like being around people? Or was it that I was too ambitious and couldn’t work with a team? As I got older, though, I understood that neither of these reasons was true – I love being around people and I’ve never had conflicts with even the most difficult co-workers and bosses.
I simply don’t see eye to eye with the idea of team spirit. I extend the idea of “sticking together” to the world in general and feel it confines me. We stick with “our team,” remain loyal to it even if its ideals clash with ours just because we don’t want to seem disloyal, be perceived as defectors. I’ve seen too much of unevolved, raw human emotion at games – unbridled, untamed, primitive. There are obvious winners and losers, there are no mergers. The world today doesn’t need winners and losers, it needs mergers.
This occurred to me at a game we attended last year. As usual, I turned around to watch the cheering, booing crowd and missed the entire game.
In the expressions of the masses surrounding me I saw triumph and disappointment. I saw glee, heard raucous laughter, felt nerve-wracking hope, sensed the fear of loss. I had seen these exact expressions, a thousand times exaggerated and malignant, many times before. As a reporter I had seen them in the eyes of rioters and mobs-gone-crazy. As a human rights writer I had seen them on the faces of sex offenders, fanatics, terrorists. They had all stood by their beliefs, ideals, religions, and cultures. They had all believed they were right and should win. The basic thought was no different from what I was witnessing at this benign game.
And just like that, I imagined no one was watching the game. Their backs were turned to the field and each one was watching a private screen, conjured by their minds, a person they idolized, loved, followed unquestioningly. The game on the field became irrelevant. What was riveting was seeing how every person in the audience cheered for their own person. I saw Tom Brady, Kapil Dev, John McEnroe. I saw Donald Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. President Erdogan shook his fist on one screen, Saddam Hussein looked like a joke and harmless compared to Pol Pot. Mahatma Gandhi’s voice was hoarse (he must be still fasting in heaven to save the earth) and Martin Luther King whispered helplessly.
I saw the ripple effects of this mindless support, this “team spirit” – it divided people in the stadium, the city outside, the state, the country, the world. I wondered how, in this day and age, we can define “our team?” What are the limits and boundaries? Are they physical, ideological, personal? What happens when your personal beliefs clash with your team’s? Do we even have beliefs and values anymore that we can call our own? When the world has gotten so small, when cultures, people, and religions are constantly clashing, when the reasons for war are undefined, the battle lines obscure, what do I support?
I felt fearful. I imagined I left the stadium with my husband and kids because I wanted to go home and be safe. Except, when we stepped out everything had changed. While we were watching the game, parking lots had moved, buildings had disappeared, neighborhoods had been razed to the ground. There was a war and everything was mixed up, in total chaos. Bits of skyscrapers were on fire, just a floor or two. The fire didn’t spread, the people below and above carried on with their daily tasks as if nothing was wrong. Except, when the fire died, it left an ugly, gaping hole.
Humanity thronged the streets. Well-dressed men and women walked next to beggars in rags. Arrogant non-believers blew marijuana smoke and copulated openly in front of conservative temple, mosque, and church-goers. An Indian woman wore torn silk pants and a bright new T-shirt that said, “Go, Donald Trump,” little realizing that he was the reason she was on the streets.
Children shrieked, dogs howled, dead birds littered the pavements. A street vendor from Istanbul made kebabs next to a man selling hot dogs. I held my children close, clapping my hands over their eyes to protect them from the ravaged landscape. I didn’t want them to see the bombed temple, the broken mosque. I didn’t want them to see the church in the background, shining with gold that would soon be stolen by wandering urchins, beggars, and riffraff. Smoke filled the air, the pollution was suffocating. There was no peace to be had.
Paul McCartney crooned in the background, “Once There Was a Way to Get Back Homeward,” and I forced my mind to return to the present, to the sports arena where I was still sitting safely with my family. Everything was normal again. The audience’s back wasn’t turned to the field, the personal screens conjured by each mind were gone. But I could focus on the game even less than before; I had understood something that disturbed me deeply.
“Team spirit” with its defined, known, physical boundaries was what was holding us back. It would prevent my children from becoming world citizens, from leaving their comfort zones to experience and embrace new and strange things. They weren’t children, they were the next generation that would inherit the earth and be responsible for holding it together, in peace. How could they do that if they were taught that they had to stick with the values of the past no matter what? If they were taught that they had to establish their identities in a society that was collapsing and whose products they were raised to depend on? If they had to, always, be part of a team?
The question bothered me. How important was it for my children to belong, to have a self-identity, a home?
The answer presented itself to me, unexpectedly, a few months later in Sillustani, Peru, a pre-Incan burial ground 13,000 feet above sea level. I was gazing at the towering tombs of the 11th century Aymaras. They were reflected in the perfect stillness of the lake, through which a blue sky shone. The gigantic Andes, some snowcapped, cast long evening shadows on the tombs. Sillustani is off the beaten track and there were hardly any tourists. The peace and quiet seemed permanent, it had sunk into every blade of grass and stone.
And, just like that, I felt a sudden thawing, melting of my boundaries, physical and mental. I was one with the universe, not just of today but also of the past and future. I realized how insignificant I was and, yet, I understood that how I merged with the world – harmoniously or acrimoniously – would help determine its future.
I was a subatomic particle which, if it didn’t configure itself correctly to hold the atom together, could be responsible for releasing enough energy to destroy the planet completely.
That thought blew me away. It made nonsense of my self-identity, my wish to belong to a place, a team, a people. It didn’t matter whether I was Indian, Indian-American, Indian-Anglophile. It didn’t matter if I was a reporter, a writer, a mother, wife or daughter. Those were the roles assigned to me by the world so I could be part of it, neatly labeled and stashed away. It made me feel finite and vulnerable because my self-identity was dependent on the world.
My sense of self (that moment I felt at one with the world), on the other hand, did not depend on the world outside. It could stand alone and it could merge effortlessly with everything around it. It was self-contained, independent and infinite. It helped me define WHO I was rather than WHAT I was. WHAT I was seemed impossible to establish in a fast-changing, artificial society. WHO I was gave me a conscience and a consciousness.
This realization laid my worries to rest for a while. If I could teach my children to not get caught up in trying to establish their self-identity, define their place in the world, follow a team and, instead, find their sense of self, a strong sense of conscience and consciousness, they would survive. They didn’t have to belong to a team to play small games and win small wars. They needed to merge with the world to win the biggest war of all – a peaceful earth.