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

Saturday, July 22, 2006
Meandering reflections on a Saturday Morning

I don't usually use this blog to post personal material but I can't resist saying this: that I have a new niece! The entire family is ecstatic, and in fact there is a big party going on at my parents' home in Delhi as I type. My joy is not unmixed with sadness that I am not there. Along with the little Guest of Honour there are aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews, including cousins with whom I grew up, whom I haven't seen in a very long time. Since we seem to have more than our fair share of musically gifted people, family gatherings end up being musical events as well, impromtu mehfils, and when I think back on such times I also hear the strains of the songs that are family favorites. It turns out (not surprisingly) that my niece is very responsive to music as well, so everybody is having a wonderful time.

End of Personal News Byte.

Now, some thoughts on picking blueberries in the rain.

Yesterday I was at the community farm where we have a share. It was a pleasant, cloudy afternoon, not as humid as it has been lately, and also not too warm. I picked some snow peas and drifted over to the blueberry patch. The vast fields around me --- tomato and pepper and pumpkin, cucumber and lettuce and squash --- were all dotted with people. I met blueberry shrubs for the first time in my life, and discovered the joys of finding the just-ripe berry hidden among the deep green leaves: dark blue, nearly black, with a purple blush. Squatting on my haunches and peering into the leaves, I found some treasures that hadn't been noticed by other avid pickers, and m little container started to fill. Then I felt a drop of rain on my back, and another, and another, until the skies opened up. I stood, half-blinded by the rain splattering on my glasses. The car was a distant speck, and there was no shelter nearby, not even a tree. The rain drops hit hard but they were cool, not cold. I gave in to the inevitable and allowed myself to get drenched.

Since it was hard to see blueberries with the rain falling on my glasses (how I wished they had windshield wipers!) I went over to the fields of greens and picked chard. It was quite a sensation, getting soaked to the skin, something I had not experienced in years. My shoes squelched, my shirt clung to me and my jeans felt as though they were made of lead. There was something elemental the experience; it occured to me that before humans began living in artificial, indoor environments, this soaking in the rain, this being part of the storm, the rumble of thunder, the neon-flash of lightning, must have been a common experience --- as was, perhaps, the strange, breathless exhilaration that filled me. I can't explain that feeling, just that it was there, and it was good. I knew that the hot bath at home, later, would be good too, but this was good in a way that I had not experienced in a long time.

In the rain, the blueberries tasted sweet and tart, and I stood by the car in no hurry to get in, talking with a young farm worker, who is also a student at the college where I teach. My life is divided up into boundaries that don't often dissolve, but this was a moment when they did: when I was simultaneously Dr. Singh the professor and me, the wild, blueberry-picking, mud-spattered, rain-blinded creature, and me, the mother suddenly in a hurry to get home to child and dog.

Epic Musings

I wrote a story some time last summer that I hope to tinker with and get into shape before this summer is out. It is quite a short story set in the far future, and part of the background canvas of the story is the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. I can't remember when I first heard the Ramayana --- I must have been very small --- but I heard it repeatedly (with variations) from my mother and grandmother while growing up --- and I heard it long before I read the story in a book, or in an Amar Chitra Katha comic. (That is all part of the good old oral tradition that has flourished in India since about 5000 years ago or more. I passed on the tradition to my daughter when she was about four --- one night, when she was ill and could not sleep, I spent most of the night telling the Ramayana). Also among my early readings (when I was about 8 or 9) were these lurid Hindi imaginative stories, published as tiny books you could enfold in your hand. I remember wild tales about fairies and underwater palaces, and people who could fly, and evil sorcerers and the like. Somehow, when I started to write my own story last year, the lurid Hindi heroic tales and the Ramayana came together to produce something I hadn't anticipated. Even more strangely the story began from a line of a poem by the incomparable Pablo Neruda: Perhaps, perhaps Oblivion...

The quote is no longer in the new version of the story, but Oblivion became a planet and the world of the story became a human-habited galaxy, and the protagonist... well, I am still not sure what the protagonist became. But the Ramayana is in this story.

Our epics run through us like psychological bloodstreams, affecting the way we look at the world. There's the story of Sita from the Ramayana that has come up in modern Indian literary works and art -- consider the movie Fire, and more recently, Ashok Banker's ambitious retelling. And long before Fire, the great retelling of the Ramayana from the point of view of Sita, written by the courtesan Mulla, banned by the British colonialists for its overt erotic content. Then, of course, there is the Mahabharata, mother of epics, story within story around story. One of its ten thousand sub-stories appears unexpectedly in one of my own tales, which is a science fictional account of an Indian twelve-year-old girl on Mars (hopefully to be published in an anthology of children's stories in India).

I hear there is an anthology just out, here in the U.S. called Twenty Epics. It has a really impressive line-up of writers, and I imagine that the stories are various takes on various world epics. I wonder if there is anything there that draws on the Ramayana or Mahabharata. The anthology is on my book wish-list.

My own relationship to Indian epics is too deep and personal for me to completely comprehend. I am not talking about the religious aspect of these epics (I'm not conventionally religious [whatever that means in India where variations on the theme are the theme], and consider myself to be simultaneously Hindu and an agnostic). To us Indians (of whatever religion) these are living epics, part of the flesh and blood of who we are. I don't mean that we necessarily take these stories as literal truth --- we Indians tend to be heavy on symbol and metaphor, and there are truths, and there are truths. But I am interested in seeing how a non-Indian would render these epics in a story, compared to an Indian. I imagine that there would be different points of emphasis. While urban cultures all over the world tend to be (pathologically, in my opinion) demythologized, this is true in particular of Western cultures, where there is perhaps a greater distancing between the average person and the oldest stories of their culture. (Biblical stories for the religious Christians may be an exception).

I can still recite parts of the Tulsi Ramayana, and when I do it I hear my grandmother's voice:

bhaya prakata kripala
deena dayala
Kaushalya hitakari...

During the October Dussehra holidays the Ramayana is still enacted in cities and villages, and I've been in crowds as a child where we watched giant effigies (maybe 5 storeys high?) of the demon Raavan being demolished by Rama loosing a flaming arrow into his navel. The effigies are filled with firecrackers and the resulting series of explosions is really something. I don't know if this is still done on a big scale in modern times, in the age of terrorist threats and the like, but this is something I vividly remember from my childhood.

posted by Vandana 11:26 AM
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Sunday, July 16, 2006
Sufi and Bhakti

India Currents magaine,
http://www.indiacurrents.com/news/ published from California for the Indian-American community, has a lead article on the Pakistani fusion group Junoon (http://www.junoon.com). I believe Junoon has played in Boston --- a concert I would have loved to attend. The interesting thing about this group is that their inspiration is the liberal-mystic Islamic tradition. One of the songs they quote in the article is from the great, irreverent Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah:

Destroy the mosque
Tear down the temple
Break all that can be broken
But don't ever break anyone's heart
That's the true house of God...

There is an interesting site devoted to Bulleh Shah at http://www.apnaorg.com/poetry/bullahn/. But for me he comes alive in the voice of the Sufi singer Abida Parveen,

Behold the Great Mystery of the Universe
That only a Lover can comprehend...

(my translation, not word for word, and quite inadequate)

and also in the young popular Punjabi singer Rabbi's hit song

Bulleh... who knows who I am.

(Another inadequate translation of Bulla ki jana mein kaun).

There was a story I'd been wanting to write for a long time, and I started it two years ago. I wrote fragments totalling perhaps three pages, then I got stuck. The story hadn't sat in my head for long enough. So I let it sit, while Abida Parveen sang Bulleh Shah's words, which, for some reason, transported me to the courtyard of the house where my protagonist lived, and made his life come alive. He turned out to be an elderly Muslim man in an Indian small town, a teacher of mathematics. Two years after starting the story, the magic of the music bore its fruit. I wrote the story down in two days. It is called Infinities. I haven't sent it anywhere yet, but I owe old Bulleh Shah one.

In India the Sufi movement among the Muslims took place alongside the Bhakti movement among Hindus (starting around 800 A.D. I believe), and the two interacted and enriched each other. Both shared the key idea that the path to the divine was not via priests or any kind of religious hierarchy but through direct personal devotion to God, often expressed through song and dance. Among Hindus one of the greatest poets was Mirabai, whose songs we learned as kids. Married to a wealthy Rajput noble, she rejected her husband and finally left him, wandering with other devotees, singing and playing her veena. Her true love, she declared in several passionate verses, was the God Krishna. I can still sing the song that translates to:

Mine is the Lord Krishna, there is nobody else
I left brother and kinsman, I left everyone behind
I watered the Vine of Love with my tears...

My own translation makes me cringe because the original is so beautiful... oh well.

posted by Vandana 11:13 AM
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Wednesday, July 05, 2006
The terrorist bomb blasts in Mumbai have left me feeling sick and disgusted. The death toll is in the 200's now. But one remarkable thing seems to be happening: instead of dividing the Mumbaikars into two warring communities, Hindu and Muslim, the event has brought people together against hatred --- according to this report:

Each time I hear about some act of terrorism like this (and last time something like this happened was in my home city of Delhi) I am reminded of 1984, gazing out at the Delhi skyline from our rooftop terrace, seeing smoke rise from everywhere.

Scrawled on a wall somewhere, some time that I don't remember, was the message in Hindi:

Mandir Masjid gurudware mei
Baat diya bhagwan ko
dharti baati, saagar baata
mat baato insaan ko

which, when translated, loses its rhythm and depth, but means something like:

We divided God between temple and mosque and gurudwara
We divided land and sea
Let us not divide humanity...

In Mumbai I only have a few relatives and they all seem to be fine. Thank goodness. But one can imagine the plight of the families who have lost loved ones due to this senseless violence. The city itself seems to have picked itself up and is moving on.

posted by Vandana 10:04 PM
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