Departures (Or the Mysore Mind F**K)

Hmm…. so a few words on my experience of nearly 5 months in Mysore…

…..5 months without edible cheese, horns and horns and horns, cows, and men climbing up palm trees with their bare hands, and half lizards falling from the sky, and cows, and yellow and pink cows, and horses walking across a deserted road at 3am, and fluorescent cows jumping through fire, and decapitated chickens, and people spitting on you and children urinating on you, and taking a shit on a mountain, and men groping your breast, and sweat in places you didn’t even know had pores, and men pinching your thigh, and yoga students with stupid Om necklaces, and yoga students with stupider Om tattoos and sanskrit tattoos and sanskrit shawls and really bad chanting in sanskrit and buying Ganesh statues because they’re ‘cute’, and vegan food and people at breakfast with plastic containers of home made health drinks of flax seed and vomit, and scarily thin people, and aggressive adjustments in supta kurmasana, and Marichy D envy, and wishing you didn’t eat so you could do Marichy D and cursing your breasts for preventing you from doing Marichy D, and wishing you weren’t so attached to Marichy D, and tall people invading your yoga mat, and tall, blonde people stealing your spot in the shala, and monkeys stealing your yoga mat, and ‘One more!’, and dogs, and dogs barking, and dogs barking all night, and dogs running after you, and dogs encircling you in the deserted street at 3am, and hungry looking dogs, and ugly-looking dogs who stare at you while drinking chai, and chai, chai, chai, chai to infinity!!!!!! and idli :(, and dosa 😦 😦 , and huge cones of dosa 😦 😦 :(, and mosquitoes biting you in the ass even when you’re fully clothed, and ‘Chatvari jump back!’, and bruises everywhere, and smoothies in a bowl with plastic spoons, and coconuts, and ‘Let’s meet at the coconut stand!!’, and ‘Oh no the coconut stand is getting closed down by the police! Gokulam will never be the same again!! It is sooooo devastating!!!!!’, and ‘Oh crisis averted the coconut stand is still there, no need for our planned sit in!!’, and endless trips to the supermarket, and buying crap, and buying plastic pieces of crap, and getting ripped off by rickshaw drivers, and being semi-molested by rickshaw drivers, and staring into space, and staring at walls, at the sky, at the lake, at deserted wasteland, at the Green Hotel at sunset, at the ceiling, at the fan whirring round and round, and ‘Samasthi’, and tears, and sleeping away the days, and dust, and uncompromising heat, and burning plastic, and burning leaves, and cricket with a tennis ball, and geckos in the bed, and ants in the kettle, and boiled ants in my tea, and no bloody hot water again!, and no bloody electricity again!, and listening to old Hindi film tunes, and red toe nails, and ‘Utpluthi, lift up……………………………………………one………….two……((collapse))…………………………..lift up!!’, and too much ghee, and too much banana and carrot cake, and too much almond butter, and unexplained petals in the hair, and the led practice race into the shala, and elbowing yogis, and yoga mat spot fixation, and bollocks I’m in the changing room again, and bollocks I got the front left corner spot near the men’s changing room, and bollocks I’m on a ridge, no two ridges!!, and bollocks I am in the doorway and everyone is staring at me, and paper lantern dristhi, and glaring strip light destroying dristhi, and people who roll their mat out from front to back, and rolling to the side in chakrasana, and feeling the wrath of hatred from your neighbour when you roll sideways in chakrasana, and ‘Catching?’, and falling in love with Sharath, and developing KPJAYI shala smugness, and lineage, and ‘Happy Moon day!’, and no bandhas, where art thou mula bandha?????, and bucket baths, and waiting half an hour for the trickle of hot water to fill the bucket, and needing five buckets to wash your hair, and hand-washing clothes in a bucket, and destroying clothes from hand-washing them in a bucket, and spending stupid amounts of money at FabIndia, and giving away all FabIndia outfits after seeing other yoga students in the same ensembles, and ‘Happy Shivaratri!’, and superficial conversations at breakfast, and people reading Norman Peale Walsch unironically, and shiva, shiva, shiva, bhoh, and chakras, and yoga students in hideous “fisherman’s” pants, and ‘kirtans’ with white people playing tabla really badly, and mispronunciation of indian food items, and every yogi supplementing their income by thai massage/reiki/healing stuff, and street seller’s yelling out cucumbers/minature lemons/other crap, and humungous dead rats in the road, and sunburn, and sandals set alight by firecrackers, and child labour, and strangers telling you your face is full of pimples/you need size XL pants/your hair is dry, and being laughed at by locals, and being looked at with disgust by indian women, and no vegetables in a predominately vegetarian country, and Mirinda the grossest beverage ever, and squat toilets, and toilets with the water spray thing, and boys in flares, and a hundred spoons and ten plates for one meal, and a new napkin for each chai, and crafting a napkin into the perfect holder for the burning glass of chai, and clogged pores, and scrubbing feet over and over but never getting clean, and losing your mind, and sitting in padmasana in restaurants, and pashmina overload, and having to cover all your flesh in unbearable heat, and stripping off to your underwear as soon as you get in to the privacy of your room, and Hindu’s doing the whirly-whirly thing with a candle in front of a picture of Ganesh, and tired all the time, and waking up at 3am, and no sleep, and watching Eastenders on youtube, and searching for the ultimate shala tune, and goodbyes to friends, and the oceanic feeling in the shala, and ‘I want to go home now!!!’, and the most amazing yoga practices ever, and falling more in love with Sharath, and vowing life-long dedication to Ashtanga, and letting your life revolve around your yoga practice, and castor oil baths, and dreams of sushi, and stillness, and a deep sensation of internal silence, and faith, and reading the Bhagavadgita, and changing the beliefs of a lifetime, and understanding the divine, and climbing a mountain, and embracing fears, and no more crying in headstand, and grieving, and laughing, and learning how to simply be with one’s self, and never being the same again, and being stuck in the relentless emptiness of the present, and the vacancy of purpose in life, and no escape, and every day is the same, and it never ends, and everything getting destroyed, and hopes and dreams born and ruined in the same day, and living in the haphazard, and pain everywhere, and feeling like a child, and feeling a little bit of freedom, and waiting for transformation, and waiting for an epiphany, and remembering – there are no epiphanies, it just happens. Yoga happens.

So yeah… see you next year?

Lokha Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

The Burning Bush

The end is finally near, the exit from Mysore in clear view and I await ambivalently the chance to hopefully once again reinstate a degree of objectivity in my thinking and dispel the haze in my mind that has descended in the past meandering months in Mysore. Fatigue, heat and the relentless, unchanging routine of life here in Mysore has served to produce a lethargic disposition never before experienced. Though it is true the monotony is stablising and has provoked a certain calmness to flourish, a stillness of mind that allows trivial matters to wash over.

All in all I have never had an experience quite like this, and I feel eager to re-enter the realities of the world I left if only to comprehend all that has occurred. In the midst of this bubble my vision is blurring all the edges. This blurriness is no doubt worsened by the fact my actual eyesight itself is perpetually blurry as I refuse to wear my glasses. Wearing my glasses makes everything so precise again, there is no mystery left. For most of the time I am half-expecting to wake up as though my stint in Mysore never happened – another of my bizarre (if over-extended) dreams.

And yet I fear the change as the time has come again to shed the safety I have created in this place. And then to deal with the losses: the loss of practicing yoga every morning in the shala, the loss of Sharath as my teacher, the loss of the little bit of freedom I have found here.

Yesterday sat in another mundane, unspectacular yet oddly comforting spot of wasteland in Mysore a man decided to set alight some nearby bushes (it was unclear as to whether he was allocated this task or not). What started as a moderate blaze quickly spread out, the dry grass and land becoming enflamed and clouds of smoke torrented upward and taken by the breeze. At one point the blaze devoured a vulnerable bush in a matter of moments. Soon all that was left of the bush was a pool of black ashes.

It was then a ‘friendly’ local decided to clarify the reason for this seemingly random act of arson. We need to burn them, he said, before the rains come, when the rains come new life will grow (it was more incoherent than this but that was the general gist). It seemed strange to destroy something that was already alive in order to make it grow again, no doubt only to be burnt again next year.

Though as I contemplated this process, I thought the burning bush was like many other Indian customs that seem totally mindless on first encounter but somehow manage to make their own sense once you grasp their very own particular meaning-making structure. Burning always feels such a final and brutal act – it signals ending, death, and death in such an absolute way, a death that leaves no trace or evidence of life. Though life does not occur in a linear way – at least not in India. Life exists in circles, reincarnation means nothing ends in definite terms. So while it may be that anything that begins must eventually come to an end, endings are always the foundation of another beginning.

And similarly to the burning bush, my time in Mysore,- and all its joys, sadness, pains, frustrations and freedoms – is soon to be destroyed; the vitality of the present transformed into ashes of memories. But I would be wise to not fix my gaze there on the ending but to look further – or better to think cyclically – and recognise how the burnt ashes are not merely a devastation of life. Instead the ashes of my Mysore hopes and dreams will set the earth for the coming change of season which will once again rejuvenate life.  In this way, where things can always be reborn, there lies never-ending scope for possibility. The beauty of reincarnation is that it doesn’t close off possibilities; it embraces the haphazard ambiguity of life. From this point we can then pose the questions: in what way will we be reborn? And the most pressing vital concern of all: what’s next?

Belonging

As someone who is relatively well-acquainted with Indian culture and customs, during my time in India I have never felt obligated to take photos of cows walking in the road, or of myself with sindoor on my head, nor have I been bewildered about what daal or parathas are or find Hindi films exotic and fascinating. All the stuff that enamours people to India merely frustrates me and I have always scoffed and rolled my eyes at those who go to India and come back all spiritual, talking about Buddhism and chakras, wearing bindis, and talking about their life changing experiences helping poor people and going to the toilet squatting over a hole.

India – or at least the idea of India  – feels like second nature to me, an identity bestowed to me when fate stole away the life that was intended. The fit between the two identities however certainly hasn’t been an easy one. My ambivalent relationship with India – and my Indian sense of self – has only been confirmed in my time here. This feeling of ambivalence will never change. Even before coming to India, adopting an Indian identity has brought a myriad of challenges. It taught me to accept new cultural norms that were often disagreeable; it taught me to eat more saturated fats; it forced my introverted self to express my emotions and open myself up to others.

I also learnt about the importance of family and how to care and depend on others; I learnt (some) Punjabi; I learnt how great and awful Hindi dramas can be; I learnt how rajma and chawal is the best dish ever (as well as saag); I went to many, many weddings and danced to bhangra until my kameez was soaked with sweat; I did seva in the Gurdwara on many occasions, working alongside the suspicious glances of the elder women in the kitchen who finally accepted a gori as one of their own. I realised how easy it was to win over the hearts of people by simply showing respect – and a white girl understanding Punjabi never fails to amaze – and I learnt to make the best chah (chai) ever.

So the point of this little sentimental babble? (stimulated no doubt from reading Shantaram and relating with the lead character and how he finds his spiritual/emotional home in India). I suppose I have realized how I have been clinging on to discovering a family that doesn’t really exist. I thought I needed the reassurance of biological ties, to look at people who resembled me in order to feel at home. But I have been thinking about belonging all wrong.

Though I know that I do not belong here in India. Perhaps I don’t even belong to the Indian family I know back in England. In some way I will always be the white girl – never quite part of – I will always be expected to leave. I am not their daughter, I will never be fussed over in quite the same way, I will never incur the same protective feelings. And so the price of this freedom – of not being tied – is the absence of phone calls from a worried parent back home; of someone being concerned for me, happy for me, proud of me. The childish desire to fill this absence will always be there. Maybe past life regression (or knitting) could help me overcome my recurring hamster dreams and stop my continual return to a phantom home. Yet my gaze has been too fixated on eradicating this desire (this weakness). And then the other day, in one of those moments that seems like an epiphany in retrospect but at the time was in fact very commonplace, the thought appeared clear in my mind, as clear as the image of my grandmother’s tombstone: ‘I have to let go’. Now letting go is a problematic concept for me (as discussed here) but in this instance it finally made sense. It wasn’t so much letting go of my past – and the ghosts that shape that past – but letting go of the belief in answers, in a timeless essential truth (about my self, about life) from this past.

The search for origins – it all goes back there (and Michel Foucault it seems). This is where the journey all began, the stimulus for escape. And now I look to returning back to the place I fled from a number of months before. Returning in what form? To return, to find one’s home, to belong – these do not have to be definite (or definitive) states, they are not things one accomplishes once and for all. As I change, as others around me change, and as the world changes, so does my sense of belonging, where my home lies, and what the act of returning means. My own life is evidence that home is open to transformation. I have found home in places that society (or the boundaries of my skin colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion) didn’t agree I belonged.

And then today in another retrospective epiphany/in reality commonplace moment I was sat in conference listening to Sharath’s stories and feeling as I do every Sunday, with the very exceptional feeling of knowing that I am in precisely the right place at this particular point in time. And afterwards I sat outside on a bench opposite the front of the shala enjoying how the elevated height of the bench easily allows my legs to swing haphazardly in the air, and in my immature delight at this activity I knew, that eventhough my departure was pending and that everything will change tomorrow, I knew for this moment at least, that I was home. And that was good enough.