Saturday, October 6, 2012

From London to Chennai: when comparisons are impossible

‘How does Pakkam compare to London?’ the young professor at Hindu College asked me. We were walking over a bridge in Pakkam, which means ‘garden’ in Tamil. In the night darkness a small light lit the outline of a reed-hut beneath a large tree on the edge of the river below us. Like most of the rivers around the city,  a sharp smell of urine and shit rose to greet us.  I had a flash of a walk across River Ouse in Lewes, the small town which housed me for over three years in England.  I sighed.


‘You can not compare the two,’ I said.


‘It must be much better where you are from, right? Cleaner.’  As we walked we moved into the centre of the road to avoid the uneven pavement of the sidewalk. 


‘Cleaner, yes,’ I said. At this point my feet automatically step around the cow dung, random sandals that are no longer useful and general garbage – small paper cups once used for tea, bits of paper, plastic bags, and the rest of the debris that most of London puts in trash cans that are, in general, removed by garbage collectors. 


‘But not better.’ His mother had just fed me. A friend had noted that I hadn’t had dinner. He gave me three choices. Later I realized that each of these choices was related to a different house in the area – he happened to know what each of them were having for dinner – and based on my selection (dosa) we went to the small house in Pakkam, a 10 minute walk from the Farm.  His mother had welcomed me with a large smile and a small laugh, brought me one of the few chairs in the house and fed and watered me; her chief concern was for me.


‘Can you compare an apple and an orange?” I asked him. ‘Sometimes you might want an orange, and sometimes an apple. But you can’t compare them. So it is with Chennai and London; Lewes and Pakkam.’


Indeed, I am increasingly moving away from comparisons that might have any notation of ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It is simply different.  The history of Chennai and its surrounding areas is so different from that of London and its surrounding areas  that I almost don’t want to do any kind of comparison at all. Let them each exist: separate and equal and interconnected.


And yet comparisons are intrinsic to the human mind. During the beginning stages of the development of consciousness they are probably impossible to escape from. We say ‘oh yes this is familiar, this is different’.  In some ways yes, in some ways no.  We seek patterns to gain understanding and to respond appropriately.


So: what is the best use of our inherent capacity to compare?  Comparing to the past  brings with it the risk of assuming that what was is what will be. And that, I am daily reminded, is inherently inaccurate.  Climate change is only the latest aspect that requires intense awareness to a continually changing environment (including people). I think of the ideal state as being poised, waiting even while moving, fully awake and alert. The martial arts master who is ready for anything even as he is still; the daoist master whose action never disturbs his meditation.


Pattern recognition remains important – more so now, perhaps, than ever. Pattern recognition arises, in part, from comparisons. So what is the appropriate use of comparisons? And without comparing, what can I say? Well what’s the point of my writing?


I write to an American, English, European, Indian, Asian and African friendship group. I write to give images and questions and something that resembles answers to the questions that you keep asking me about my life –what is it like out there, on the other side of the world? I can offer images between these cultures, strung together like a many different colored beads, or like suras, mixing and matching patterns, in hopes that something beautiful may arise.


Here people string their laundry on strings between palmtrees; sit on benches painted blue under trees at train stations,  look bored as they wait for their train – the great british train system that runs across this hot sub-continent   is, unquestionably, one of the better reminants of the Empire. (Though had the brits not come, perhaps they would nowhave the high speed rail systems that are popular in Hong Kong and Shanghai, cities that, I am told,  make San Francisco look old and falling apart.)


‘It’s quieter there’, the young professor said.


 I remembered my first complaints about Chennai: the incredible noise. Even in my hotel room the  honking and beeping and talking and  engines  of the city never was quiet. In the farm, you can still hear the highway and the honking and the motorcycles. It does not have the deep quiet that Lewes did. Even so, most nights the crickets, bats, small foxes and misquitos can easily be heard in an area that still resembles ‘rural’.  Yes, I said. It is quieter there.


But we humans can get used to almost anything, for better or for worse, from traffic noise to debris to colorful saris to composting (what do you mean you don’t compost, I asked someone recently, then shook my head in self-amusement – she lived on a college campus in the city) to corruption.  Our capacity for habit is both one of our saving graces (I don’t have to think about how to eat with my hands anymore – at least not most of the time), one of the major defining aspects of any culture (the habit of putting on the bindi, the habit of harvesting rain water, the habit of driving a car, the habit of waking early enough to do meditation), and one of our greatest challenges in being fully alive in the world.


I have grown used to the noise.  When I get down at the Central Train Station in Chennai – a great red colonial building with white trimmings and the perpetual tea stands that sell bottled water, cheap coffee laden with sugar and small packets of tobacco, fried food and sweets, I can’t help but smile as I enter the hoards of people exiting the station and the immense perpetual traffic jam outside of the building.  Dusty crowded buses, bright yellow autos (small 3 wheel cars that we don’t have the likes of in the States or the UK) that offer me tourist deals designed to take my money and leave me in some dark tourist shop,  hundereds of two-wheelers driven by bulky men in button down shirts, black pants and, sometimes, helmets, women dressed in perfectly pressed, brightly colored saris and churies, hair adorned with white jasmine; faces with gold earings and nose rings and bindis.  


In the past two months that I’ve been living in India, I’ve been in Delhi, Andrah Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Pune – that’s four states and multiple cities. I’ve stayed in hotels and apartments, YWCA and village huts, houses in town and, of course, the farm. I’ve taken tea in roadside huts with massive lorries streaming past and at the home of a rich politician. My favorite tea, though, isn’t tea at all, but herbal drinks - mixtures of ginger, lemon grass, garlic and lemonjuice. Mostly I watch, listen and absorb, filing what I see and hear away for some unknown purpose.


At the moment I am based on the farm. It was nearly 7 months ago that I first discovered the joy of living on the farm – working in the morning, going to the office where I did intellectual work, coming back in the evening and having philosophical discussion with a new-found group of friends.  I had never had such a beautiful experience of living fully since I was 21, living at Quaker Centre, serving my faith community.  (Yup, that was a comparison! With some judgement!) Some similarities: a life of service to the earth and the community, working with my body in touch with the earth, having a strong sense of fellowship with other people, doing work that tested my mind and deepened my spiritual skills, and constantly feeling that my life was an unfolding adventurous locus flower.


The farm ‘house’ is, I feel, a farm platform. A large open room greets me. At night the bats fly through chasing misquitos (for which I am endlessly grateful – the misquitos seem to prefer me to everyone else).  There are three rooms: a kitchen that doubles as a library and a bedroom for a small family; a meditation room; and an office/sleeping space/meeting room which is slightly more protected from misquitos than the rest of the place. Upstairs is a small ‘hut’ and an open roof where I occaisionally go to make private calls or enjoy the moon. Sometimes after a day in the office, the roof of the farm, where one can almost always hear somebody’s stereo playing music that sounds bollywoodish to me, feels like several lifetimes away, though in reality the commute is less than 2 hours.


‘How long will you stay’, the professor asks.  It is a question I am asked often.  I give different answers. I explain I have a 1 year work permit. Sometimes I admit I would like to stay for 3-5 years; 1 year is too short.  Sometimes I say that really, once India has taken hold of one’s soul, there is no going back.  To him I say, ‘As long as I’m still learning, and still needed here more than elsewhere.’ Which is another way of saying – I really don’t know.


‘You are most welcome.’ He said in response. My uncertainty did not bother him. Life is uncertain.


Yes, I thought, I know.

 Here, in this country where I speak the language of the colonizer, I am most welcome.  In writing that I am tempted to compare. Did I feel welcomed in England? Tolerated, sometimes with amusement. But welcomed? On occasion – but not with the generosity and honesty that I experience here.  This hot, sticky sub-continent, with its (over?) dependency on rice and far more complicated power divisions than I  understand and flute music that sings to my soul, this country is endlessly welcoming.

I nod my head and smile. We don't say anything for a while. Sometimes, regardless of what country one is in, there just is no need to say anything at all.

Eating, Giving


It’s one of the first phrases I have come to understand, probably because it is asked to me all the time.

Have you eaten?  

The look in their eyes is always the same: great concern. Let me feed you. Here, let me give you all that I have to offer. And then I will somehow find more to give to you. They call me by my name: stranger, friend, sister, auntie, daughter. You are most welcome here. Eat.

This morning it was a woman who works on the Farm where I currently sleep (and occaisionally work myself). She dresses in a bright yellow sari with silver flowers, her hair twisted into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, her eyes bright as if she is always laughing at the twists and turns of the world. This morning I was running late and had not eaten, figuring I’d grab something on the way, but her eyes compelled me to sit, stay, eat. She gave me rice and a bit of (spicy!) onion-gravy that passed for samba. Tonight, I ended up going to her place, a little house with three rooms and a kitchen, all painted green.  She gave me dosa – fresh, hot, thick dosa - and bananas.


I am given so much here. A place to sleep: a mat and blankets on a floor that is, as my host said, always open to me.  Food  - in homes, in villages, in the fields, in offices, constantly people offer me food. Rice, dosa, idli.Water, chai, coffee, sweet milk, baddam-milk. Bananas. Not always ‘rich’ food. Not always food I prefer to eat (I would prefer millets to rice any day – not easy in this part of the world), but hot and fresh and served with love. Friends – a community of change-makers who seek to love one another and society so much through their actions that others are inspired. Even, at times, misquito repellent. To me are given the basics of life: food, water, shelter, friendship-belonging.


I also have what we need to make a difference:  friends with connections, passion, and sharp intellects who will listen to my ideas and refine them and tease them and encourage them and test them against their own experience. And the internet.  And enough money in the bank to do some traveling.


In returning to India, I enter a life filled with gifts.


Every day I walk past people who do not have even the most basics of these things. Every day I encounter more stories of injustice, corruption, violence, death, sickness, depression. Every day I smell polluted waters and severe sanitation issues and cracked pavements that flood with every rainfall and questionable drinking water and women whose wisdom is in danger of dying with them.


For whatever reason, I am given gifts here.My cup overflows. I ask myself: Do I only receive? Am I only a mere consumer – which surely must be the bottom of the pecking order of good living? Or am I also giving?


At work I wonder if I am giving anything back of real value. A friend here asked, so you are doing research. How will your research benefit society? I said, oh, I doubt it will. That was probably said too fast and without enough respect to what Im actually doing. In this particular project, it’s hard to say. Right now the impact feels, at best, minimal – an article in a semi-scholarly journal, a report, a conference that someone else will attend, a seminar in Delhi.  I know all of it is cumulative. I know it is making a ‘contribution’ to the overarching literature, spreading knowledge, giving the voices and perspectives of a group largely under-heard and under-seen health service providers.


But here, surrounded by thousands of people every day, people on two-wheelers spilling dust into my eyes and people pushing coconuts and women selling fish on the side of the road….. ‘contributions to the literature’ in this particular incident feels highly insufficient.


 I am restless.


What am I giving today?


We  (Story of Stuff; QIF; IDS; and many progressive think tanks and action groups) speak of an economy that moves beyond consumption and production and into modes of ‘citizenship’. I am not always sure the ‘citizenship’ model is the one I must adhere to – too many people are not citizens, and the ‘rights’ of citizens - in this country at least - are poorly upheld by courts that barely function. Some people speak of pro-sumers, as ways of integrating the two. Those who take (consume) vs those who make (produce) is a sharper distinction, though of course many of us do both.   But in a situation where I am being freely given all that I need, I ask not about ‘producing’ but about giving.


How am I giving?


I give my gratitude as often as possible. I give my love as freely and generously as I can. I give small gifts – pineapple and sweets to people’s homes, flowers, greens from the farm. I give connections. I write. I tell stories. I sing for people whenever I am asked. I open my address book and give whatever contact I can think of. I listen to people’s stories and their struggles. I listen to peoples dreams. I reflect these back to them. I give them the blessing of a stranger, which can, at times, be more significant than a friend. I do some farm work - weeding, hoeing, harvesting mostly - I give my mind to initiatives I see as worthwhile.  Last night I sat and supported a friend on his business plan for his social enterprise. Tonight I listened to a semi-colleague think through his business plans for his social enterprise. Tomorrow I will listen to a friend who quite his job without knowing what to do next because he could no longer do it with integrity. I buy fruit for my colleagues. Tomorrow I shall bring organic greens to the office. 


People tell me that I have blessed their home. People tell me that because of me they are changing certain parts of their lives. They say I don’t need to give them anything. My mere presence is enough.


In that last one, I struggle to accept. I feel I am not giving enough. This is not enough, these small things. Surely there is more, so much more, that I can be giving back to life here. I feel at times like a cat in a cage, looking for a way out. Let me do something…. Significant…. I have spent too long behind desks and books and computers. Let me use my skills and my talents; my ignorance and my broken heart to give more, more.

But too often - at least recently - the yearning leads to nothing but spinning.

I begin to consider that part of what keeps me spinning is not accepting that actually it is enough just as it is. To slow down the mind long enough to take in what is without trying to change anything, to come into full acceptance of reality and the deeper Presence that is there even though – especially! – when it does not meet my expectations.  The gifts I am being given are being given without expectation. For me to give freely - also without expectation - I must fully accept what is.  Only then can life move freely between us, and the webs of serendipity and love bring us closer together, so that our gifts given by a Spirit to this earth through our finite bodies may come into being.


In a world with so much to do and learn, it seems that I need to slow down just enough so that life itself can work through us and we can be like empty vessels receiving and overflowing. And may that which overflows be even sweeter than that which came in for having swirled around in our imperfect but still beautifully shaped Selves!