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Happy Pongal!

Last weekend was Pongal, the annual harvest festival. It is similar to our Thanksgiving – they give thanks for the harvest and for the generosity of the earth. It also marks the transition between early winter and late winter (they recognize six discrete seasons here). It is the only Hindu festival that is observed on a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar – most Hindu festivals are determined by the lunar calendar, so the actual date changes every year, but Pongal is always celebrated around Jan. 14. Some theorize that back when Pongal was first celebrated however many millennia ago, it was a winter solstice celebration and now, due to the tilt of the earth’s axis, the solstice has gradually migrated a few weeks earlier. So Pongal is like Thanksgiving and winter solstice wrapped up in one. The Pongal celebrations span about four or five days – we heard music and drums wafting over the trees from the nearby village for several mornings.

Different pujas or ceremonies are conducted on each day of Pongal to honor different aspects of the harvest. On Saturday morning, several of the staff conducted a small puja at the entrance to the building complex. They built a fire under a tripod of sugar canes and heated milk in a new clay pot that was tied with the leaves and roots of a turmeric plant. The intention is to boil the milk until it runs over the edge of the pot (a recurring theme, we’ve learned) and then cook a sweet rice pudding.

One of the male doctors (Dr. Om – that’s really his name!) created a line drawing on the ground using white rice flour, and he explained that usually the women and girls do these designs, but for some reason, today there were only men setting up the puja. After the milk had been on the fire for quite some time and was decidedly not boiling, they got Indu, one of the women, to come attend to the fire. Someone got the idea to use the offering platter as a lid, so they removed all the offerings, put the platter on the pot, and indeed, the milk boiled over. Quickly they put the offerings back on the platter and raised it in the air and everyone cheered, “Pongala Pongal!” and that was that.

The next day, we had another puja specifically to honor the cows. The cows were decorated with colors and are not worked that day, given a vacation in honor of all they provide us. Again, we had a fire with the sugar cane tripod, but the big difference, of course, was the cows. They brought two of them up on to the tile pathway, climbing up four steps to get them by the fire. At the direction of the priest, the two head physicians, Dr. Ramdas and Dr. Ramkumar, each honored one of the cows by chanting and placing flowers on them. Then each person in turn passed by the cow and threw flowers, and some of us even got to feed them a banana treat. They eat them peels and all.

I was struck by the realization that in all my years of drinking milk and eating yogurt, I had never touched a cow. I had never actually said thank you to a cow, face to face. Their hair is stiff and oily and warm, and their eyes are deep and sweet. Standing next to these particular cows, such well-loved members of this community, you could feel how such celebrations come about – it just makes perfect sense to honor the cow.

That evening, our group of three grew to four – but in an unexpected way. After Lynn and Ras and I arrived at Vaidyagrama last week, we learned that a woman whom none of us knew was joining us. Meera had inquired about studying at the Institute in October, but it was too late to join the first year class. Somehow she heard that a small group of us was going to India to study so she got in touch with Vaidyagrama. Originally from Canada but with family roots in India, Meera had studied Ayurveda for some time and felt she was up to the task of jumping in and catching up as we went along. So we have lost one and gained one before we even started classes.

The next day, Monday, an hour in to our first class, our dear friend Emily arrived straight from the airport after flying for over 30 hours to get here from Brazil after two months of traveling there. Now our group is nearly complete, but our last member has been delayed. Ursula, our classmate from Switzerland, has had a last minute passport issue and is not going to be able to join us until Feb. 9.

Now our first week of classes is drawing to a close, and our time with Dr. Ramdas has been illuminating in so many senses of the word. More details will have to wait – my bed is calling me.

Pongala pongal!

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This trip came about because of Sanjay, a classmate of mine at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque and a truly remarkable man. He is an allopathic physician, an ophthalmologist, born and raised in India and currently living in Holland.  He trained in India specializing in eye surgery, and decided to work in the foothills of the Himalayas caring for villagers. He even fashioned his own surgical instruments so they could run off of a car battery, sometimes the only reliable source of power in a remote area. He went to England and Holland for additional training, met his wife there and stayed. As his interest in Ayurveda grew, he came to Albuquerque to study, which meant being away from his wife. They were trying to sell their house in Holland before our program started, but the house didn’t sell so she stayed behind. Exceedingly humble, Sanjay would occasionally drop a snippet of information or ask a question in class that revealed a glimpse into his deep storehouse of knowledge and experience.

This past summer, Sanjay returned to India and came to Vaidyagrama on the recommendation of one of our teachers. He spoke with the lead physicians and staff and saw the grounds and felt it would be a wonderful place to study and learn more. He outlined what we had covered in our program at the Institute and what he was hoping to learn next, and with the staff they arranged a three-month syllabus accordingly.  The five of us who decided to join Sanjay in this adventure felt it was a rare opportunity, partly because we’d have the benefit of Sanjay’s shepherding presence with us.

So, it came as a shock when, a few days ago, we received an email from Sanjay stating that he is not coming. After two years on the market, they just received an offer on their house, and at the same time they found a rare, ideal apartment to buy. The timing was such that he had to jump now to make it happen. He sent his regrets.

I was floored. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I had been counting on Sanjay’s presence. I had been enjoying such a sense of security and comfort knowing he would be here – that he could serve as an intermediary with the staff at Vaidyagrama, that he could provide guidance on Indian customs, that he could speak at least one of the local languages, that he could even take care of me if I were to become ill. As I sat reading his email message in a small apartment in the middle of enormous, cacophonous Mumbai, which suddenly felt VERY far from home, I thought, “Oh my God, I’m on my own.” And I was scared.

I believe that events unfold according to a greater design than we can see, that there is something to be learned or gained from every situation, even (or especially) the difficult or “bad” situations. Since getting that email a few days ago, I am now relating to this whole trip in a different way. I feel like more of a participant in creating my experience here. Rather than turning to Sanjay if I have a question, I will turn directly to my teacher to ask for what I need. Rather than hanging back and letting Sanjay do the talking out in the countryside, I will step forward. I can’t foresee all the ways that Sanjay not being here will change my experience, but apparently this is the experience I am meant to have.

I have Sanjay to thank for getting me here; it was his negotiation with Vaidyagrama that made the program happen, and it was the promise of his presence that made me feel confident enough to get on that plane back in Albuquerque. He got me to Mumbai, and I guess that was as far as I needed him. Now I’m in India’s hands.

Om namah shivaya….

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Turns out I know even more people in this enormous, anonymous city than I thought. Sunday afternoon I took a taxi from Daniel’s apartment in to Mumbai proper, about a 45 minute drive south, to meet up with my friend Aditya’s parents. As my 18 month old niece Koruna says, I felt like a Big Girl, heading off by myself into this roiling mass of activity. Daniel had prepared me well for the taxi: “The meter is on the outside of the cab, on the passenger side, so the driver will reach over to the outside of the car to turn it on. When you get to your destination, the meter will say a number and the driver will hand you a card with a grid that shows all the numbers and the fares that match up so you can see the appropriate fare- unless it’s an electric meter, and then it will just say the fare. And there is no tipping.” Got it.

Miraculously, I managed the taxi on my own and found the right flat. Aditya’s parents Rohini and Shekhar were waiting for me with lunch on the table – the most scrumptious meal of green pepper, onion and spices, peas and potatoes, and roti (thin bread cooked on the stove top), followed by rice and yogurt. Rohini explained the finer points of using your hands instead of utensils, a lesson well needed.

Gandhi's room at Mani Bhavan

After lunch, Shekhar took me to a very conveniently located tourist attraction – Mani Bhavan, the home of Mahatma Gandhi when he was in Bombay, is literally across the street from their flat. The three story house now holds a library, many historically significant letters and documents, and a sweet little display of figurines depicting important moments in Gandhi’s life. It felt right to pay homage to Gandhi during my first days in this country, and fortuitous that such a site emerged in my path without me even seeking it out.

When we returned, Aditya’s brother’s wife Heetal had arrived.  I liked  her instantly. She took me with her to buy some candles a few blocks away. It is fun being someplace so different (and being in an open enough state) that a simple errand becomes an exciting field trip, an opportunity to simply see things around you. On our way back, we passed what looked like a nondescript office building with a small crowd at the entrance, and I could hear chanting inside. When I asked, Heetal said it was a temple. “Do you want to go in?” she asked. I hesitated, nervous about looking out of place, but realized this was only the first of many times that that feeling would arise in the coming weeks. “Absolutely,” I said.

Inside, about 25 people were standing in a small room facing a murti (a sculpture of a deity) ensconced in glass in the middle. I stuck close to Heetal’s side as many pairs of eyes followed our movements. At the edge of the group, several women moved together to make room for us and waved us closer so we could view the murti more easily. It was a beautiful goddess, with flowing colors and flower garlands around her neck. I didn’t recognize which form of the goddess it was, and Heetal explained it was Ambe Ma, also known as Ambe Mata. We stayed several minutes, and when Heetal started moving towards the door an older gentleman brought us each a flower from the murti as a blessing from the goddess.

That evening, Aditya’s parents had arranged a dinner party inviting Aditya’s cousin Sanjay, whom I had met at Aditya’s wedding, and a couple I used to know in Boston, Maya and Dunigan, who unbeknownst to me had relocated to Mumbai. Dunigan works at Bain as a consultant and Maya just gave birth to their second child three months ago. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces. We caught up over another delicious meal until my jet lag kicked in and my eyes started closing.

The next morning, Rohini planned to take me to several tourist sites, but their driver had not shown up. Neither Rohini nor Shekhar drive these days (a wise choice, I think, having now seen the Mumbai traffic), so they hire a driver who is on call for them during the workdays. Rohini called her brother and was able to borrow his driver for the morning, so we headed off to the Hanging Gardens, which overlook the Arabian Sea. Next, we drove down to the Gateway of India, a large Arc de Triomphe-style arch on the waterfront built by the British to commemorate the visit of King George V to India in 1911, the only visit of a reigning British monarch to India. Ironically, the last British troops to leave India in 1948 exited through the Gateway too. The Gateway of India is right next to the Taj Palace, the high end hotel where terrorists targeted tourists in the November 2008 bombing. We went into Victoria Terminus train station, drove past the Rajabai Clock Tower and drove down Fashion Street. In honor of my brother Ian’s visit back in 1999, of which Rohini happily recounted many stories, we went into an art gallery that she had sent Ian to.

I am reminded how much energy it takes to simply take in sights, to observe, to feel the movement of countless bodies around you. It is no surprise, then, that with jet lag and visual overload, I thankfully fell into another nap that afternoon. Hopefully by now, I am finally caught up on lost sleep.

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…even in bustling Mumbai!

I arrived last night around midnight, after 26 hours and three flights (Albuquerque to Atlanta, then Amsterdam, and finally Mumbai). I was greeted outside the customs area by my brother’s friend Daniel, who must be the  most hospitable expat in the country.  Turns out he left his own birthday party to come pick me up! He led the way to the auto-rickshaw line, where he engaged in a bit of debate with a small army of  drivers over who would get our business. I was grateful to be the female, entirely ignored, as the obvious decision-maker of our pair was barraged with offers and arguments. We were then whisked into the rushing sounds and sights of Mumbai at midnight. An auto-rickshaw is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle with no doors or windows –  you just hop in and out, and hold on tight on the curves. I knew again (as if reminders are needed at this point)  that so little is in my control in this life!

Daniel has another friend from our high school , Alex, who is visiting right now, so the two of them camped out in the living room, insisting on giving me the bed. With adrenaline still pumping through my veins, we caught up on each other’s lives for a little bit before falling into bed at 3am… only to have my mind jump back to life at about 7:30am, alert and racing.

We have just returned from lunch and a long walk around the neighborhood, where I did indeed get to witness not one, but three cows (and two donkeys) in the road. They really do wander unattended through the middle of the street. Daniel’s neighborhood, Bandra West, is scattered with beautiful tall trees with lacey leaves, and old “bungalow” style houses sandwiched in with modern high-rise apartments. The winding brick roads leading back from major throughways acually have a somewhat European feel.

Tomorrow I will meet up with my friend Aditya’s parents, who live across town. Today, I am grateful for this embracing web of connections – I have landed here in the comfort of relationships whose roots lie halfway across the globe. What a small, vast world!

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