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.

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