Specular Reflections
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Thoughts on Life, Science, Writing and the Universe at Large

Tuesday, May 13, 2003
Two Near-Drowning Experiences

Once I nearly drowned. My near-death experience took place many years ago in the Tangipahoa river in northern Louisiana, where eleven of us Indian graduate students had decided to go canoeing. I remember at first I hesitated because I did not know (then) how to swim, but my friend’s boyfriend assured me blithely that with ten other people around there was no way I could drown. So I went.

It was a lovely afternoon, I remember, and the Tangipahoa was small and surprisingly swift. We got canoes from some kind of rental place and I found myself in a two-seater with the aforementioned friend’s boyfriend. I think they had had a spat and she walked off with some other guy, and since I was the odd one out and the only non-swimmer, I ended up with What’s His Name and a cooler filled with beer bottles. At first the going was smooth and exhilarating, and we sped swiftly between tall banks overgrown with wildflowers and mossy earth. Taking a swift turn around a bend, we did not see the tree branch that hung low over the water. It neatly knocked us off the canoe.

As I went down I saw the beer cooler floating away and What’s His Name swimming frantically after it. The next thing I knew, the water had closed over my head and I was being carried by the current. Time slowed; I willed myself not to breathe. In my terror, as I went down, I saw, in the clear depths, the pebbly bottom of the river. When my feet touched bottom I used all my strength to push off, so that my head cleared the surface; I breathed. I saw the river’s surface at eye-level just for an instant before going down again. I glimpsed the sweep of the water, a low, sandy beach on the opposite side, and a high bank not far from me. I used this technique of bouncing off the river-bed --- and flailing my arms --- until I reached the bank, where I held on desperately to shrubs growing on the vertical rise. The river gurgled and breathed, chuckling to itself with its watery tongues, as I waited for rescue.

They eventually remembered me and rescued me. The guys formed a chain across the river and helped me across to the sandy beach, cracking jokes and trying to reassure me that I was all right. But I no longer trusted canoes. Having acquired this unexpected intimacy with the river, I chose to sit in the middle of a tire and go tubing down the river. And for the rest of that trip there were no more mishaps. But I was taking no chances after that experience. I signed on for a swimming course as soon as I could, and although I don’t swim particularly well, the water is no longer an enemy.

I had another drowning experience recently, which recalled the earlier one, except that the element in question was not water but… words. It was some weeks ago. We were indulging in our usual vice of browsing in our favorite bookstore. A warm, familiar place, with a pleasant café area. I was standing in one of these aisles --- the shelves towered above me, the spines of the books hinting at the worlds inside them --- and I felt myself being slowly submerged in a great tidal wave of Johns and Marys, Garys and Gertrudes, and they seemed to be chattering away about their lives, their adulterous couplings in American suburbia, their wanderings on far planets where they sipped their martinis and dreamed of New New York, their adventures, their emptiness, their fulfillments. They muttered and laughed and enunciated their particular varieties of English --- Roman letters came tumbling out of the pages of their books, swooping at me like paper planes, gathering like clouds before a storm, breaking over my head, mating in mid-air to form sentences that hovered around my face. English. English names, idioms, thoughts, ideas. The first thing that came to my mind as I stood there, drowning, was Alice in Wonderland, the scene at the end where the cards are coming down around her like rain, and she opens her eyes to find leaves falling on her face. I remembered Alice, not Anamika. I thought, stupidly, where is she, Anamika? Where is her voice? Where are the Rams and Jyotis and Raghunathans and Kabirs and Mallikas? Where are the syllables and scripts of Hindi and Tamil and Urdu, where are they?

And I thought: yes, I want to hear about the Alices and Josephs and Laurens of this world, and yes, I love English, the language that I mostly write in, now, but must I do so at the expense of all those other ways of expressing being human? I am in a country where they speak English, a language that is no stranger to me --- I learned it as a child only a year or two after I learned Hindi --- and I am drowning in a sea of words and ideas that are essentially English or at least Western. How do I tell someone, in affectionate exasperation, dhat, teri ki jai ho? There is no translation that can do it justice, no equivalent in a Western language.

And the problem is not one of a stranger in a strange land, because in New Delhi, India, there are, I suspect, more English-language bookstores than Hindi. Let English propagate, I have no quarrel with that --- but must it plow over Hindi to do that? I am not a Hindi fanatic --- every language, after all, is a powerful and different way of holding a mirror up to the world --- what I want is a multiplicity of tongues. Not a Darwinian, imperialistic sweeping aside of cultures and languages, but old women chattering in backyards, learning words from each other, spawning new idioms and expressions, keeping their languages alive by speaking them in the fertile soil of a true and diverse cultural congress.

In India I didn’t feel I was drowning, despite the prevalence of English in the big cities and in the lives of the middle class intelligentsia. I went to an English medium school, too. But Hindi was everywhere. We spoke it at home, along with English, and we spoke it to the vegetable seller and the milkman and the cook. There were Hindi movies, and there were visits to relatives in small towns, and there was music, and myth, and the vastness and variety of one of the world’s most ancient cultures. Language reflected culture reflected language. When I was a child we used to go every summer to Bihar, our home state in Eastern India, to stay with my grandparents. We would take the train from New Delhi Railway Station, a cavernous, cacophonous place where everything and everyone was in a hurry. Sitting in the train compartment, at last, breathing sighs of relief, we would buy cups of fragrant sweet chai from vendors. The cups were earthen ones that you threw out of the window when you were done, returning earth to earth. The tea inside them was pale brown and smoky with the tang of clay. Chai Garam! The shouts of the vendors echoed on the train platforms, the train began to slide out of the station, and we left behind the earthy, Punjabi-influenced accents of Delhi Hindi. Going east, the accents of the people on the platform would become softer and more sing-song. By the time we got to Eastern Uttar Pradesh, as twilight fell, we could hear the tender accents of Bhojpuri, the native dialect of my parents. The language is so sweet to the ear that it needs no words like “please.” I used to understand some Bhojpuri once, but now all I remember are the songs my mother taught us. Paak Gailay khetva, jaran laage retva, sung at about the same rhythm as the swaying beat of the train. In the early morning I would be woken by a strange stillness; the train would be at some small station in Bihar, and the chai garam calls of the vendors, the smell of coal dust and hot, sweet, milky tea would rouse me from my bunk. Here morning was no longer subah but bhore and “why” wasn’t the snappy kyoon but the more relaxed, multi-tonal kaahe. By the time we reached our destination, Patna, it would seem almost as though Time itself had slowed. People on the platform seemed less rushed, the train would have acquired some of the languor of the air, and speech would have become melody. We would all lean precariously out of the doorway as the train drew in, searching the sea of faces for my grandfather, who would be somewhere at the back of the crowd, straight-backed and smiling benignly. Outside, amid the confusion of car horns and dust and rickshaws pulled by turbaned men with lean brown bodies, we would find my grandparents’ grey Fiat, a car they had owned for some twenty years or more. End of journey, beginning of summer. Time to argue over which variety of mango was superior, the pale, narrow, firm-fleshed dashehri we got in Delhi or the huge, golden digha malda, King of Mangoes, grown only in a few groves in Bihar. Time for lassi and nimbu pani and other cooling drinks churned at home by cooks or chattering aunts.

The irony of bemoaning in English the loss of my connection with native tongues is only too apparent to me. It is something I am constantly aware of; yet it was only after that surreal experience at the bookstore that I realized the extent of the loss. I went home and brooded on this for a few days. Then my music teacher mentioned a house concert, where a renowned exponent of North Indian Classical music, touring from India, was going to sing. We went.

The long room at our host’s house had been cleared of all furniture, and was covered by rugs. Panditji sat at one end, with his flock of accompanists and a cluster of microphones. I could hear at least three different languages --- not including English --- being spoken. Women in bright saris or salwaar kameez, men in crisp kurta-pajamas, sat on the rugs facing the master, while small children played in the next room or came in to sit on their parents’ laps for a moment. When the music started, a slow, gorgeous piece in raag bageshri, I felt like a fish that has been tossed back into its river. It was pure enchantment. The syllables, rendered effortlessly by the master, flowed around us, reverberated in the long room, made the children pause in their play. I sat next to my teacher and one of her other students, and we listened the way thirsty people drink water. For me the crowning moment came later, when the singer sang a piece in raag desh that I had once learned from my sister: a description of monsoon clouds that gather to provide succor after a long, scorching summer, and the call of the papiha, the koel-bird that sits in the deepest arboreal grottos and sings its heart out. Meha re, went the song, meha re, ban ban, daar daar, murla bole... Then a slow, melodious enunciation of the word meha, the cloud, drawing out the syllables toward the higher notes with such passion that it brought tears to the eyes. I could almost hear the rain pattering outside the window.

That was what saved me from drowning: a song about the watery abundance of the monsoons. Life is full of the most unexpected connections.

posted by Vandana 2:21 PM
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Thursday, May 08, 2003
On Ideology

Today I was idly leafing through one of my favorite book of essays, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Language of the Night,” when I found a paragraph I had read before without really noting its significance. This time it struck me, because I had been thinking the same thing in a nebulous, back-of-the-mind way for some time.

It is from an essay called “The Book is What is Real,” and she’s talking in the context of writing. She says:

“It’s one thing to sacrifice fulfillment in the service of an ideal; it’s another to suppress clear thinking and honest feeling in the service of an ideology. An ideology is valuable only insofar as it is used to intensify clarity and honesty of thought and feeling.”

I read this and immediately thought: yes! This is what I have been feeling for a long time. This is the source of my discomfort with groups and movements that are not broad-based in their outlook. This is why I do not call myself a capitalist, an anarchist, a leftist, a communist or some other socio-political-ist. I may accept and appreciate some aspects of these various ideologies, but I don’t buy them in their entirety, and I certainly don’t identify myself through any of these labels.

One of the things I have learned about the natural world through my years as a student of physics is that there are very few universal laws. I suspect that this observation may also be true of human affairs. Make a statement about society or politics, and more often than not there is a long list of qualifiers and exceptions. The fact is, human beings and society --- reality itself --- is too vast to be embraced by mere ideology.

This notion can be understood in the following manner. A scientist, when constructing a theory, is essentially building a model of nature. In physics we have the so-called Standard Model that is supposed to explain much of sub-atomic physics. Some physicists jokingly refer to it as the sub-standard model, because although it is very successful in some areas, in others it is flawed and incomplete. No scientist worth the name would mistake the model for the real world of sub-microscopic phenomena. We are all only too aware that our schema, our model, is just that: a model, an analogy --- in other words a simplification --- that illuminates and explains some aspect of that vast and mysterious entity we call Nature.

What struck me when I re-read that paragraph in Ursula K. Le Guin’s book was that ideologies are also models. They illuminate or explain certain aspects of socio-political reality, but essentially they, too, are simplifications. Simplifications are very useful, but when you equate Simplification with Truth, you are in trouble. You are then like the scientist that selects or fudges data so that they will fit the theory or the model, instead of changing the model to fit the facts. You are then like the person who confuses analogy or metaphor with the real thing.

Perhaps something Godelian is at work here. Take that many-limbed insect, Reality, and try to capture it in a cup or cage, but always there are limbs wiggling outside the box, or a head or two peering sorrowfully at you. Push in one end, and there are others oozing out. It is a difficult (if not impossible) task. We can get a lot of understanding out of trying to fit Reality in various boxes, but if we are wise we will not assume that we have captured all of it. (In ancient India, six blind men made that mistake when trying to understand what an elephant was.) And while we theorize we would also gain some insight into Reality by observing it without trying to intellectualize too much, and by recognizing that we are a part of it after all.

This Godelian nature of Reality leads quite naturally to the corollary that if we can’t completely cage Reality through logic or reason (important tools of any intellectual endeavor) then we must allow room for doubt, for creativity and for a diversity of viewpoints.

Diversity… Again dipping into science for inspiration, for analogy, we have the fact of biological diversity. A farmer planting a variety of crops insures herself against starvation should any one crop succumb to pests. Diversity in Nature reflects the interdependence of all life. I suspect that socio-cultural diversity is as important for the human spirit as bio-diversity is for our physical survival. You may be saved by Japanese Zen or by Community Supported Agriculture. Who knows?

This is yet another reason to oppose so-called Globalization. Quite apart from the economic aspects of Globalization, it is also a movement for conformity and homogeneity. The mega-corporations would like us to be all the same: consume the same things and think the same way (which is to say, not think at all). The fact that these corporations are products of Western Capitalism means that only those aspects of other cultures that they can exploit will be allowed to survive. This Globalization is not cultural exchange, which occurs between equals, but Cultural Imperialism. Arrow brand shirts sell in New Delhi because Americans wear them, and obviously Americans are better, otherwise why emulate them?

Somewhere in the emerald depths of Silent Valley in Kerala, in South India, is a cure for a disease. Perhaps it is a currently prevalent disease like AIDS, or perhaps it is yet to come. Wipe out Silent Valley’s incredibly rich ecosystem because you want a hydro-electric power project, and you don’t even know what you have lost. Wipe out the last Arawak Indian (as Columbus and his successors did) and you don’t even know what you have lost.

When I talk about respect for diversity, though, I don’t mean tolerance for such things as sexism, or racism, or homophobia. I’m all for elimination of the horrible practice of Sati (a medieval custom observed by upper-class Rajput widows of certain areas, whereby widows immolated themselves on the husband’s funeral pyre) but eliminate, at the same time, the festival of Holi (in its original innocence) and I think you have lost something. The area where tolerance and human rights meet is sometimes very gray and fuzzy and painful, but it cannot be ignored.

Let us have a different kind of Globalization. Imagine a world where people across the globe are aware of each other and can connect with each other as equals. Imagine an exchange which respects local customs around the world and does not impose one viewpoint on another. Imagine change taking place in society (as it must) where new ideas are adapted to the unique context of that particular culture rather than being transplanted unchanged --- and where this is initiated not by global corporations, but by local people themselves. Now that is the kind of Globalization I want.

I’ve wandered quite a bit today, from observations of Reality and the limited nature of ideology to the whys and wherefores of diversity and the evils of Globalization corporate-style. But sometimes the point of meandering is simply to take the view, not to get somewhere. Which can also be a valuable way of learning.

posted by Vandana 4:09 PM
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Friday, May 02, 2003
On Sustaining the Spirit

Imagine: An expanse of green fields, combed with brown furrows that extend towards distant woods. Sunlight, warm air, and the fragrance of moist, composted earth. Behind the woods blue hills rise into the vastness of the sky. I have to blink a couple of times to convince myself that this is real, that my daughter and I are at the farm where we have recently become members. We walk up to the edge of a field, where the farmer, a tall, competent, no-nonsense elderly woman, is instructing a group of nervous-looking people. So we are not the only ones new to farm work.

In a very short time we are sitting in the shade of the greenhouse with three other women, re-potting tomato seedlings. The seedlings are tiny and delicate, with white roots as thin as hairs. They have grown up in seed trays like siblings, their roots entangled together, and now we must separate them into individual pots, each to its own two square inches of earth. The farmer gives us precise instructions. The roots must not be touched for fear of breakage or disease. I had no idea that baby tomato plants could be so vulnerable. We pull apart the siblings, holding them by the leaves (so as to be more gentle, as the farmer says) wincing as we sense a root break --- then we dig a hole in each new pot as though it were a womb, and deposit the seedling gently into it. Each plant is so tiny that the leaves are just beginning to develop the serrations that characterize the adult leaf; the stems are pale and delicately furred.

The women talk with the casual ease that comes naturally to Americans. I am still learning the language beneath the language, the invisible rules of engagement that determine what should be said, and when, and how, so mostly I just listen, with occasional interjections. These women are beautiful in their t-shirts and raggedy jeans, their hair tied back into ponytails, their faces mostly smooth but wrinkling readily with laughter and the passage of time. They talk about their children, about a memorable trip to Thailand. One of them hopes, like me, to acquire a green thumb with this exercise so she can stop killing her houseplants. There is rueful laughter about husbands and housework. I would like to get to know them better, but a strange enchantment is working its way into my bones: I feel no rush. The repetitive, rhythmic nature of the work, the perfect beauty of each individual plant, the pleasantness of the surroundings, the relaxed purposelessness of the conversation is weaving a spell of contentment, such as I have not experienced for a long time. We fill trays of the little pots; my daughter is the one who sprays them with a fine mist --- she’s bursting with pride to be given such a responsibility. I ask the farmer’s assistant if I should transplant this seedling --- it is so much tinier than the others, will it live? She says: check its roots. If they are intact it will be fine. It just needs water and a spell in the shade to recover from the shock. I think to myself, it only it were that simple for human beings…

While I muse on metaphors and get dirt under my fingernails, time passes unnoticed. One woman gets up to chop a zucchini squash that she has brought for the stone soup for lunch. Everyone has brought something except for us --- we can’t stay that long. A pity, because I have never tasted stone soup. The story behind it is lovely, though. I don’t remember the details but it goes something like this. A traveler comes into a village where the people are mean and poor, and tells them he can make soup from stone. They come out of their houses to watch while he fills the pot with water and sets it over the fire. He puts in a stone and says, well, anyone got a bit of parsley for flavor? Someone comes grudgingly forward. How about a potato? Here’s one. An onion would add a real zing. Someone finds an onion. And so on. The villagers pool their small hoard of vegetables, and finally a great big pot of delicious soup is bubbling away, enough to feed them all. A gem of a story, and a marvelous metaphor for the kind of work that goes on at this farm.

This farm is a CSA --- Community Supported Agriculture, part of a movement that is bringing not only fresh, organic food but farming back to the community. We pay a sum to join the farm, put in a fairly nominal amount of labor, and get bushels of gorgeous vegetables every week in the summer through late fall. Not to mention the intangible benefits of time spent in the open air, doing worthwhile work with other people. I watch my daughter run across the green spaces like something elfin that has at last been freed from the confinement of walls and enclosures. I have heard and read about the need we all have to connect with Nature and our roots --- roots! there’s that metaphor again --- in order to heal ourselves from the estrangement and atomism of our daily lives. But it has been a very long time since I experienced this connection. It is hard work --- my back is beginning to ache --- but I am immeasurably glad we came. Why don’t we, as a society, know that this is one way to find our center? For weeks or months I have been plagued with a need to hurry --- things that need to be done keep piling up, and I am filled with dread at what looms ahead for the world. So much so that I am paralyzed into inaction. I have gone through daily life in a mad whirl, just getting the most basic responsibilities taken care of, unable to do anything with deliberation, let alone fulfill my responsibilities as a citizen of the world. I have been running on empty, as they say. For the first time in all this time I am freed of that dreadful urgency. And I know I will never look upon a tomato the same way again.

When it is time to go the car feels awkward and alien. We roll the windows down and drive slowly over the winding country roads. I have never been more content with 20 miles an hour --- it seems almost as if time itself has slowed. Later, I know the day will catch up with me, and that there will be places to get to, and errands to run. But for now we have this moment of clarity, of unhurried calm.

In the evening I feel like that again, if only for a moment. (Maybe it takes practice). I am out with my dog in the backyard and although dark is falling the sky is still quite light. Above me a bird flits and darts about strangely. I look with care and find that it is no bird, but a small bat. I can see the silhouette of the bones that hold the stretched skin of the wings, the outline of the little, furry head, and small, neat ears. The bat is chamgaadar in Hindi, a word I find pleasant to revisit after too long a time. In German the word translates to flittermouse, a most appropriate description. While the dog snuffles interestedly in the bushes, I enjoy the little bat’s aerial ballet.

To sustain the spirit is no easy task, especially in these challenging times. In America it is even harder. Mainstream America is not an easy place for someone who is “from somewhere else,” especially at a time when jingoistic, neo-fascist tendencies are on the rise. Even my American friends who are dissenters feel as though an invisible hand is clamping down over their mouths. But there is life beyond the mainstream after all. The fringes are the most interesting places, astonishingly diverse, where you don’t have to go with the flow. There are eddies and pools and subcultures that sometimes spawn enough momentum to affect the flow of the river as a whole. So instead of going to a normal marketplace where the vegetables are enormous, perfect and tasteless, “fresh from the crate,” (I swear, I have actually seen a sign saying that) we work at a farm where we are on first name terms with the farmer, not to mention several dozen tomato plants. Instead of blindly supporting the warmongering of government and corporate-owned mass media, we look for alternative news sources, go to protest marches (where there may be 2500 or 25,000 of us) and think and work and plan for a different world. The shores of the mainstream are the most interesting places, where you can still question basic assumptions, where you can ask of the river: where are you going? And why? And you can choose, if you wish, to follow a different course.

posted by Vandana 10:07 PM
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