Monday, August 15, 2011

My second trip to India

After going to South Africa [I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia at the time of writing…] to visit in December 2009 (mainly for aunt’s 70th birthday party), I decided that I will NOT go back home for the following holiday, despite missing home dearly.

So, even though I really wanted to go back to South Africa, I thought it better to use the opportunity to go back to India – I had always planned to go back, and still plan to go again at least a few more times. Well, we’ll see about that. Nevertheless, I was blessed with the opportunity of returning to India in February 2010.

I decided to go to Calcutta this time, and spend more time doing something more in keeping with my desire for spiritual edification. During my first trip to India, I only went to Calcutta because I wanted to see this alternative medicine university which I wanted to enroll with; upon going there I discovered that the great saint Ramakrishna was from the same city. After going to his Dakshineshwar temple then, I felt rather silly for not also going to Belur Math, founded by the great Swami Vivekananda. For this reason, I booked my place right at the ashram’s guesthouse.

However, I couldn’t go straight there. They were fully booked for the first few days of my trip because it happened to coincide with the birthday of Sri Ramakrishna, which meant that pilgrims … flooded the place. So, upon the advice from the swami in charge of Belur Math, I went to the ashram in Kamarpukur first, famous for being the birthplace of Sri Ramakrishna. They were able to accommodate me for a few days before I proceeded to Belur Math.

Upon arrival in Calcutta, the first thing I did was actually go to the alternative medicine university, and register for my graduation. I registered for a course at this place when I was there in February 2009, and a year later I completed it and was lucky enough to HAPPEN to be there for the graduation! The graduation was scheduled for a day after I was meant to depart, so I decided to delay my return and attend the graduation. Anyway, the reason I had to go there was to register my name, and pay the relevant fees for the gown and the conference (yes, it was a conference-cum-graduation thingy). Those poor people saw me after I had been travelling for about three days, so I was not very… presentable, as the first few seconds of this video attests to:

The dude in charge always appears in such pomp and glamour, and it’s always such an effort to get to his office (fill in the form, state your reason, etc. – though I must say it WAS a rather smart office!), that I was glad I looked the way I did, just to be different. I did apologise though. The university’s driver, Sujeet, also came to fetch me from the airport, but after waiting for about three hours decided to leave. Flight was delayed, and he assumed I’d be coming to the international airport – I didn’t; I came to Calcutta on a connecting flight via Bombay. Oops. Kinda forgot to mention that. I apologized for that too.

Anyway, after registering I went to the same hotel I stayed in the last time I was there, on the famous Sadar Street; famous for being the place tourists go to. Very nostalgic. It was good to be back, and I missed my old friend JJ, who by now would have been dragging me down to the pub to have a few beers. Alas, I had to drag MYSELF down there this time.

I had to make an offering at the ancient Kalighat temple, which entailed getting a red and gold sari for the Mother, as well as three others for charity. The dear Dr Suresh Agarlal, head of the Indian Board of Alternative Medicines, advised me that the temple was not very far from where we were, and Sujeet showed me where to get the sari from. So I went off to find my saris, and was pleased to have found exactly what I had been looking for. I rushed back to my hotel to get ready for the temple.

I was very excited about going to this particular temple. This is a very ancient temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali, with whom I have always been intrigued. Also, this is one of the oldest temples in the world, having been alluded to in the most ancient of scriptures. There is also a famous story in Hindu mythology of the goddess Sati, consort of Lord Shiva. In brief: Sati’s father was having a feast, and he didn’t invite his daughter because he disapproved of her union to the Lord Shiva, primarily due to his being a celibate recluse. Lord Shiva, being the… Zeus of Hinduism, was offended by this insult, and his consort calmed him down and promised to go to papa and get an explanation. However, when she went there she was shunned and treated as an outsider. She was so grieved by this that she killed herself (goddesses do have these weird powers), so she wouldn’t have to face her Lord’s wrath.

When Lord Shiva discovered this (now Lord Shiva is one god you DON’T wanna mess with, if you know anything at all about him… – he IS the Lord of destruction, after all) he was really REALLY … upset, to say the least. So after beheading his father-in-law (but not before replacing his head with that of a goat’s, and reviving him), he began his notorious dance of destruction, which would have annihilated the entire universe, had Lord Vishnu (the Lord of preservation) not intervened. First, he flung his discus at the corpse of Sati, cutting her body to pieces, which fell to various places on earth. Then, he manifested himself as a beautiful female and lied down in front of Lord Shiva, in the hope that he will see the beautiful form and stop. Anyway, there are various versions of what happened next; some say this didn’t work, and the goddess Kali had to come down to stop him.

Anyway, my point here is that the toes from the goddess Sati’s right foot fell on the location where Kalighat temple is now built. This is one of about fifty one places where her body fell. These are referred to as “places of great power” (Shakti Peethas, in Sanskrit). As perverse/macabre as this sounds, I must say, I would love to visit her other body parts sometime in the future.

Non-Hindus are wont to mock the mythological/allegorical aspect of the religion, due to ignorance of course, because the derelict nature of the mono-theistic religions is not only simpler to understand, but it’s the only thing many people are exposed to – so something like this seems exotic, quaint, backwards, primitive. I’m rather tired of explaining the existence of these myths, and the fact that we go to these temples with a sense of awe and reverence due in part to its association with such stories. Spiritual evolution proceeds in stages, just as education does. As a young child, you are taught moral lessons in story form; it’s not a coincidence that children’s fairy-tales end with a “and the moral of story is…”. After you mature intellectually, you can learn the same lessons directly by instruction, and then you tailor/adjust your moral principles according to your life’s circumstances. Likewise, in spiritual practice, stories are meant to grab your attention, and to be understood on different levels, according to your spiritual and intellectual level. The characters in the Bhagavad Gita, for example, are meant to be understood allegorically: Arjuna represents the individual soul; Lord Krishna representing the Divine Soul (God); the five horses pulling the chariot represents the five senses; the chariot itself represents the human body, and so on. It can be interpreted like this on different levels, metaphorically, symbolically, etc. Hence, it doesn’t actually MATTER if Lord Krishna was a historical figure, and whether the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas actually took place.

Likewise, the story of Sati may or not be taken literally, but the multiplicity of interpretations allows each person to take what he wants from it, and to draw inspiration from it in his own way. On one level, the collective belief in this story adds a kind of energy to the associated places, and that in itself makes it special. One needs only to GO THERE and FEEL the energy pulsating throughout the place.

So back to my story. I went to the hotel, freshened up, and packed my saris. I was meant to give the red and gold sari to the temple priest, and ask him to dress the image of Mother Kali with it on a Friday. Thereafter, I was meant to find three elderly women, and give them the other three saris. I was a bit worried about accomplishing the latter task, because India is FULL of beggars, and as soon as you give even one person something, you are usually surrounded by dozens of others, all shouting for food, money, anything; can be quite daunting, especially since I’m never QUITE sure what they are saying! (And they are rather quite sure I DO, given my Indian phenotype). Anyway, I thought I’d work on that after actually going to the temple first.

Off I went then to a taxi, with my saris in my backpack. After finding out that I’m a foreigner (since I didn’t speak Hindi or Bengali), the driver charged me about ten times what would normally be charged. After arriving, I felt a strange sense of excitement as I approached the temple grounds. My bubble was soon burst when I was surrounded by weird people, claiming to be Brahman priests, and insisting on helping me for a fee. One guy just wouldn’t leave me alone, and followed me all the way to the altar. After I took out the red and gold sari, which looked rather expensive, I also took out a 500 rupee note to put into the box as donation; before I knew it, both items were grabbed, money gone (taken by the creep who followed me – place was too crowded to do anything), and the sari was passed on to the priest and placed right on the Mother’s head. Hundreds of saris were given and thrown to the ground. For some reason, mine was chosen, though there were literally hundreds of others from all over the place. The priest did say that Mother has chosen my sari, and I was quite charmed that she did.

The priest picked me out of the crowd, and asked me to come down to the image. I had to climb down using a rope to get there. The image of the Divine Mother Kali was absolutely breath-taking. Much bigger than I expected; almost as big as I am. From pictures of the image I’ve seen elsewhere, I imagined it to be no bigger than 30cm’s in height. This particular image is unique to Kalighat, I think. She is made of touchstone, with a huge tongue made of gold, and three large eyes (one on the forehead). It felt as if She was looking right into my soul when I stood before Her. I can still close my eyes and feel the energy, the vibrance, emanating from Her. I drank the water poured onto Her tongue (after putting the first round on my hair, much to the priest’s chagrin), and bowed before Her Majesty, chanting the relevant mantras. With the hundreds of people behind me, I felt a bit weird, so I started to make my way out, but the priest stopped me asked for a donation of something ridiculous like 5001 rupees. I explained that I didn’t have that kind of money to spare, and that I quite sure the Divine Mother understands. On that note, I left. (I did wonder at various points what my Muslim brothers back in Saudi Arabia would say about all this. lol).

When I was almost back at the hotel, I realized that I had forgotten to hand out the other three saris. I thought I’d go back after lunch.

I found a familiar restaurant (which I’d been to a year before that), where I enjoyed a nice curry, and went back to the hotel to rest a bit.

It was early evening when I made my way back to the Kalighat temple. As I was walking, I asked my dear Mother Kali where on earth I would find three elderly women to give these saris to, and after about five minutes of wandering around the stalls in the market of Kalighat Road, I found three women, all elderly, all wearing almost exactly the same thing, sitting next to each other on the side of the road, holding identical begging bowls in their hands.


Anyway, I took out the saris and gave them each one. Mission accomplished. I then made my way back to the hotel, after buying a few things from the market, one of which was a replica of the Mother’s image in the temple.

I packed my bags, and went out for supper to another restaurant up the road.

The next day I was to leave for Kamarpukur.

Early in the morning, I set out to the train station, where strangely enough, no one even heard of this place! Well, maybe they just didn’t understand me. Because I looked like a native, they kept trying to speak to me either in Hindi or Bengali (the regional language of Bengal), and assumed I was kind of being pompous by speaking only English. At the train station, there was a book store which sold books published by the Ramakrishna Centre, so I thought I’d ask there since he MUST know, as I was going to the Ramakrishna Centre, famous for being the birthplace of the great Sri Ramakrishna. Alas, the dude at the counter could not speak English. One of the customers browsing advised me on which train to take, but his advice was rather confusing; and he was a bit confused about why I was not asking for help from the ‘Information’ counter.

After a few hours of trying to find the relevant train at the station, the crowds, the shouting, the filth, etc. just got to me. Aside from being clueless, I know that it’s normal for a train to be at least a few hours delayed in India. Hence, I decided to take my bags and find a taxi.

As I left, I was hounded by dozens of taxi drivers, each shouting that he will take me wherever I wanted for the best price. The pre-paid taxis are run by the relevant authority, and the generally charge fairly, so I tried to go to their counter and inquire. However, before I got there, I had to wrestle through a crowd of protestors who kept telling me they knew where I was going and would take me there for the best price I could imagine. Of course, all the prices were ridiculously high, so I told them to bugger off.

Just before I could reach the counter outside the train station, a taxi driver grabbed my bag and told me that he will take me there for just a thousand rupees. This was a reasonable price, I thought, so I agreed. When he packed my bags though, I discovered that he had no idea where I was even going!

So after making inquiries about this place in Kamarpukur (on the phone, shouting across the road to arbitrary people, etc.), he eventually said that he can’t take me there for that price. I had no idea what exactly he was saying, but I did get that he told them I couldn’t speak Hindi or Bengali because I am from South India – which made them look at me with a wry smile, like I was some quaint zoo animal.

Then when I said I’ll take my bags and find another person who DOES know, he quickly said that he will take me there for a thousand five hundred rupees. I agreed, so off we went.

The trip took about eight hours all together, and we had to change taxis en route.

I reached the ashram in Kamarpukur around midnight. This was Shivaratri night, so I was happy I could be there. No one was really available to see to my accommodation, since everyone was at the satsang hall involved with the prayer. After going back and forth between the guest house and the main ashram, I was eventually seen to. Relieved, I left my bags in the room and was able to attend the satsang.

Though exhausted, I felt very blessed to be at such a holy place during this auspicious time. The weather was perfect, despite the fact that mosquitoes were rife. Everyone was so happy, content. The music was mellifluous, and I loved every second of it.

Whilst having a chat outside the main prayer hall around the bonfire, I made some friends. One of which was Santanu, who was a tremendous help to me. They could not believe that I was there all the way from South Africa; of course I had to explain the usual story of how/why I’m not actually Indian. Sigh.

Around 3.00am I felt very tired, and decided to go and get some rest. I was disappointed in myself, but I suppose I could have put my fatigue aside if not for the thousands of mozzies attacking me. When I found the gates locked, I thought Lord Shiva must be trying to get me to stay, so I stayed for another hour or so. At about this time, I went to make an offering of milk, honey, etc. at the Siva Linga, and I was told that I’m not allowed to since I was wearing pants. I thought… how ironic given Vivekananda’s and Ramakrishna’s stance on these things. And I would have pointed it out too, were I not so tired, and if I thought they might actually understand me, so I just sat down quietly, closed my eyes, and prayed. Then a few minutes later, I was called and asked to make the offering regardless.

After a while, one of the locals told me that I am indeed looking exhausted, and offered to show me the way back to my room – and help find the gatekeeper to open the gate. So he showed me to the gate, and after shouting for Arjun, the gatekeeper, got the gate opened for me.

As I was walking down the road, I saw some guy with a torch shouting at me. It was very dark, being a rural area with no street lights, and I could hear him calling some friends of his. I tried to ask him if he spoke English, and he just kept walking towards me, shouting at both me and his friends, presumably in Bengali. As they approached, I noticed that they were carrying sticks, which took me back to Goa 2009 – not a very nice flashback…
I was thinking about just letting them approach and beating them up (lol), but thought about things like: damaging my phone, and the fact that no matter what, I can’t escape unscathed. So I retreated quickly, found the entrance to the ashram, and went back inside.

Was that Lord Shiva again getting me to stay up for Shivaratri? I wonder…

By now it was almost daybreak, and Santanu explained that it was the night watchmen. He explained that the Congress Party has recently taken over from the CPIM (COMMUNIST PARTY OF INDIA – MARXIST). In fact, en route to Kamarpukur, I saw a rather ineffectual march by some protestors carrying red flags with the ‘hammer and sickle’ logo on it. I wondered what they were up to then, but now I was told that the locals were often tormented by the CPIM for not stopping the Congress from taking over.

Anyway, he came with me and met the guard, whom he knew quite well. After explaining that I was a guest at the ashram from South Africa (who doesn’t speak Bengali or Hindi), he apologized and shook my hand. Luckily Santanu studied to be an English teacher, so I could communicate with him.

Then I finally proceeded to my room, where I was glad to get some rest.

A few hours later something interesting happened…
I was meant to meet with Swami Sastravidananda, who is in charge of the guest house, at about nine o’clock. Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear my alarm go off as I was in deep sleep. At exactly nine o’clock, I felt someone touching my left arm; I was sleeping on my right hand side. I opened my eyes, and thought it odd since we cover the beds with mosquito nets, and I saw that the net was unmoved. More confused than frightened, I slowly turned my head to see what/who was touching my arm, and I there I saw an image of Sri Ramakrishna! (I was wide awake at this point, so whether you believe this or not, it was not a dream). As I looked at him he broke out into a gentle smile, and then suddenly disappeared. As he did so, I felt this quaint surge of something like static electricity running through my body, and I closed my eyes again. When I did so, I saw bursts of purple light in my field of vision, and as the colours faded, so did this surge of energy which permeated my body.

You reckon that was lack of sleep?

Anyway, I got up and looked at my phone – it was nine o’ clock exactly.

I got dressed, and rushed off to meet the swami.

After booking my room for the remainder of my stay, he told me that I’m lucky because if I came few minutes later, he would have had to give the room to someone else, since people were arriving in large numbers from out of town for Sri Ramakrishna’s birthday celebration; I happened to be in a room containing four beds…

Over the next two days I enjoyed seeing the place.

There’s a large pond in the centre of the village, and I’m told by our friend Santanu that the local word for ‘pond’ is ‘pukur’. The word ‘kamar’ refers to the caste of people who used to live there. So… that is the etymology of the name Kamarpukur.

Sri Ramakrishna was married at the wish of his parents, primarily his mother, when he was very young. Ramakrishna did not object to this. It must be said that they never actually lived as husband and wife, and actually lived separately except for a brief period when Ramakrishna was ill. Anyway, Sarada Ma, affectionately known as the Holy Mother, was from a neighbouring village called Joyrambati. At her birthplace, stands a beautiful ashram which I visited twice during my stay. The room in which she lived is preserved as it was when she lived there.

Nearby Joyrambati, there’s Vivekananda Math; a beautiful structure overlooking the village.

Behind the Ramakrishna Math there’s a collection of life-size murtis depicting various portions of the Hindu epics. I was most taken aback by the image of Krishna-Kali, which is literally half of Lord Krishna, and half of Mother Kali (at 10 seconds):

Suppose it’s meant to symbolize something like the ying-yang emblem. What startled me a bit though was that the Kali half of the image was very… nubile, and the pairing of Mother Kali with Lord Krishna I found a tad quaint as well (cf. 0:45

I liked it though, and fancied having something like that in my backyard one day!

In addition to other ancient temples in the area, I also saw the ancestral home of Sitanath Pyne, who hosted a function where a play was staged starring… Gadadhar (which was Ramakrishna’s birth name). There was a stage in the front yard, which is still there. In this play, Gadadhar played the role of Lord Shiva, and even at that young age was drawn into a state of Samadhi whilst still on stage. In front of this is to be found the ruins of an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. I kinda forgot that, so when Santanu was explaining the history of the place to me, I stepped on the foundation of the temple with my shoes, eliciting looks of horror from them (the descendants of Sitanath Pyne still reside in the house, so one of them was there with Santanu – hence the ‘them’). Oops. I did apologise, of course.

Sri Ramakrishna never had a formal education, though he did attend some classes in his very young days. After a few lessons, he merely pointed out that all this worldly education is empty and pointless, and that all he wants to do is dedicate his life to God. I was taken to the site where this took place.

At the ashram grounds itself, a temple is built at the exact location where Sri Ramakrishna was born, with a murti of him erected there as well. On the ashram grounds is to be found the room in which he resided, as well as a tree which he planted. These places pulsate with a very subtle, powerful yet ineffable energy force. I often sat for long periods of time outside what was Ramakrishna’s room, closed my eyes (‘meditated’ would be too grand a word) and bathed in the effulgence…

Having arrived there on Shivaratri night, I was also blessed to be there for Ramakrishna’s birthday celebration. I had to leave the ashram guest house the day before the birthday since there were throngs of people streaming in from all over the country. Our friend Santanu found me a place to stay in a private guest house. Not very comfortable, but as Santanu said, “I think you’ll adapt”. The lock for the door seemed to be from the days of King Arthur. The door was smaller than me, and the bed was rock hard. Water had to be heated separately, and had to be pumped into a bucket from the well outside. The ‘bathroom’ was also outside, which made bathing at night a bad idea…

These are not COMPLAINTS. It was actually quite nice living like a local! The place also reminded me of my grandparents house in Tongaat (now my father’s, technically), or at least, what it was like when we used to visit when I was younger. In fact, since I also grew up on a farm in the south of Johannesburg, it also reminded me a bit of what life was like there in the 80’s – the windmill pumping water from the borehole, the bucket baths, etc.; filled me with a wistful sense of nostalgia.

One of the days, I had an interesting experience at the lunch table in the ashram. Whilst eating, they bring a variety of curries every few minutes. On this particular day, a few minutes after serving the dhal, came a guy with a huge pot of fish curry! I was very surprised that they would serve fish at an ashram, though I know full well that Swami Vivekananda himself ate meat, and that Sri Ramakrishna did not forbid it outright; it depends on your temperament, and your mode of worship. Furthermore, the Manu Smriti allows for the consumption of meat, including beef; and most of you would know that Kali worshippers, and TANTRIC practitioners especially, have no problem with meat-eating. All this I fully understand, but I was still very surprised to see fish curry being served at a monastic institution. My look of shock/surprise when they were trying to serve me must have made me look like a complete moron!

Anyway, the next day was the celebration, starting with a march around the ashram premises at 6am; but I overslept and went late, despite Santanu admonishing me not to. It was a whole day affair, consisting of dances, prayers, kirtan, talks, etc.

At the end of the day, I felt very grateful and very blessed to have the good fortune of being there for such an auspicious event.

The next day I was to leave for Belur Math, and the current headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, founded by Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda spent his last days on those very premises, and his room is kept exactly as it was when he occupied it; the calendar in his room still reads “4 July 1902”, the day he shed his mortal coil.

Anyway, back to my story: since I was leaving the next day, I had to arrange a taxi with the person in charge, who gladly assisted me. He told me to come in the morning, and he’ll call a taxi for me.

That night, I was approached by one of the female satsangees, and asked something in Bengali. I had no idea what she was saying, but I figured that her name was Nivedita, named after Sister Nivedita, the celebrated disciple of Vivekananda, who dedicated her life to women’s education in India. I felt really bad, since she really tried and tried to tell me what seemed to be oh so important. When it was time to call it a night after the evening arati, I managed to fathom something she said: that she is leaving now, but hopes to say goodbye to me in the morning before I leave, and will wait for me at the temple at eight o’ clock. I agreed.

That night, Santanu invited me for supper to his house, and came to fetch me at nine o’clock from my room, since it was dark and I didn’t know the way. It was an interesting experience. His aunt (late father’s sister) and an elderly friend of her’s were there too; they came for the function, and stayed in the room next to mine. I met them earlier, and found them most pleasant. We were served by Santanu’s mother, and two other young females. I thought it might be rude to ask who they were. We sat on the stoep outside, and were served a hearty meal of rice and a variety of curries, followed by dessert.

The lights went out earlier that day, but that certainly didn’t spoil the evening. We spoke about South Africa, Indian politics, and Swami Vivekananda.

What touched me most about the people of India in general, and my friends at Kamarpukur in particular, is the fact that they are very content with their lives, and never utter a word of complaint, despite living in veritable poverty. The teacher, the doctor, the clerk, the cleaner and housewife all sit at the same table. The concomitant sense of humility they espouse really moved me, and made me think about our Westernised society, where everything is a fierce competition, and everyone is trying to prove themselves to be better, more successful than the next person. Brothers are prepared to kill brothers simply for land and money (literally, in my case!), and this individualistic mind-set gets worse with each succeeding generation. In India, the sense of community is still there. There is no distinction between the individual’s success, and the family’s prosperity; and “family” is not restricted to the immediate family. What little they have, they share it.

Santanu is unable to get a job, despite having a degree. His mother is a housewife, and his father died of throat cancer a while back. To make ends meet, Santanu does private tuition, teaching English; they grow a few crops on their not-so-large land. Yet they are always SMILING, helping each other. And during my evening there, I heard NOT A SINGLE negative thing, not a word of gossip. We discussed philosophy, religion, politics, and I was humbled by how much these people knew, despite their lack of formal education.

What a contrast to an evening with my friends/family back in South Africa!

Anyway, after supper I thanked them most sincerely and went back to my room.

I was sad to leave Kamarpukur, but very excited about going to Belur Math. I have read dozens of books by and about Vivekananda, and the very thought to going there filled me with the kind of excitement you feel when… you’re a teenager in love. (Or what I’d imagine it to be, since my teen years were rather sterile in that regard…) What a weird simile, but I hope you get the point.

They were kind enough to help me arrange a taxi from Kamarpukur to Belur Math, and told me that I should inform in the morning about ten minutes before I wish to leave so they can make the arrangements, which I duly did. However, I was asked very nicely by
Nivedita to meet her at the Ramakrishna Temple at the entrance at eight o’clock; actually, to be more precise, she couldn’t speak English very well, and simply told me in very broken English that she’ll wait for me at eight o’ clock at the said temple. I agreed, and left it at that.

The next morning there she was, waiting. She dragged me by the hand to the temple to offer obeisance, and then insisted I come with her (all signaled by hand). She did say “Joyrambati, Joyrambati –”, which I evenually figured meant that I cannot leave the region without visiting the domicile of the Holy Mother. I couldn’t explain to her that I’ll be late if I left after going there, or that I HAVE actually been there; she didn’t speak English. So… I just had to go along. I didn’t really mind going again though, except for the fact that Belur Math is closed at certain times during the day, which means that if I arrived later I might not find anyone there to assist (though it turned out alright in the end – the Math WAS closed, but the residence I stayed at, Vivekananda Kutir, was actually still open).
Be that as it may, she enthusiastically showed me around Joyrambati, as well as some other places I didn’t see the first time round, like Vivekananda Math, which was nice.

Thereafter she took me back to Kamarpukur, where I got to say good-bye to Santanu and co., and arranged for the taxi. He was not really impressed that I was gone touring with Nivedita and delayed my departure; his tone and body language said so, though he tried not to show it. Mmmm. Anyway –

The journey to Belur Math was not as long as I expected it to be, and we even had time to stop and have lunch at some dodgy venue. Food was good though! Don’t think I had too much of a choice on whether to stop or not though. Passed some beautiful green plantations en route.

Upon arrival, we went to the famous Belur Math, and indeed found that the gates were closed. Luckily, when I showed the driver the address of the place I’d arranged to stay at, it was actually on the next street, and the person in charge was there, so I was able to check in to my room upon arrival.

After leaving my bags I took a walk around the town, and bumped into a quaint lady outside who asked for my name. I discovered later that she was also a guest at Belur Math, and encouraging conversation on that day was the biggest mistake I made on that leg of my journey! Her name was Majusree Jana, and she rather troublesome – I initially assumed that she was just friendly, but then her questions became more and more creepy with every conversation, especially after chewing on that horrible-tasting tobacco stuff that Indians chew to get high. I don’t really think it’s very fruitful to go into details there, so let’s see how this story develops…

Though I was very enamoured to be in Vivekananda’s city, I was taken by the poverty and squalor of the place and people. Once again, details are not relevant, so I’d rather not go into the morbid details there. I was once told by someone in South Africa that if you set foot in Belur Math, “you’ll never say you’re in India”. Never knew what that meant, until you see the contrast – inside the Math grounds, the place is absolutely spotless. No spitting, no littering, etc. The moment you LEAVE the place, you’re surrounded by squalor…

When the Math was about to open, I very excitedly made my way there. I noticed two universities bordering the Math, which I hoped to visit later. Walking through the gates, my heart-beat began to increase, and all those stories I’ve read of the great Vivekananda came flooding through my being. It was so very exhilarating. I walked as slowly as possible, taking in every moment I could. I had no idea what was where, but I noticed a very interesting building a few meters in. As I ambled closer and closer, I noticed that it was the Ramakrishna Museum. With a sense of awe, I ascended the staircase.

The dude at the door said something to me in Hindi, then repeated in what HE thought was English when he saw my look of confusion. Then I was ‘fortunate’ enough to get a ‘translation’ from that to slightly less worse English – I was to pay a five rupee entrance fee, refrain from taking photos, and switch my phone off. I was disappointed about not being able to take any photos, since this was not really a temple. Most holy places in India prohibit photography, especially temples, since they believe that by photographing the images, buildings, etc. you diminish the spiritual power of the place – you take a part of it with you.

As you can see, I was still able to illicitly take pictures in many places; in the museum, it was not an option as there were watch-men all over the place, at every corner, leering at you.

Of course, the contents of the museum more than compensated for that. Having the opportunity of seeing cool things like the famous ‘red’ overcoat we see Vivekananda often pictured with; the original, hand-written letters he wrote (his writing does bear an uncanny resemblance to mine!); his dishes, the suitcase he used when he first travelled to the States…

If one knows the stories behind these things, it’s like a jolt down memory lane. It made the stories I read about so avidly REAL, like I was re-living experiences I’ve actually been through.

As an aside: if you don’t actually know who Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda were, you wouldn’t quite appreciate the import of these things. Like I say to my students, a Google search would be a good STARTING point…

Well, after the museum it was getting late so I didn’t have time to see much else. As I left, I met a rather pleasant Irish woman who asked me if I was joining the arati – having not known until that point that there was one, I was glad to find out.

An arati involves the waving of lamps in honour of a particular deity, together with the chanting of various prayers. It often marks the culmination of a service, but is also a typical ritual done every morning, midday and evening, as these are times conducive to spiritual edification.

But I digress:
The arati takes at Belur Math place every evening, and they sing the most mellifluous arati: it was composed by Swami Vivekananda in honour of his guru Sri Ramakrishna. It’s the most amazing feeling listening to the Ramakrishna Arati, knowing the relationship the two had, and knowing even vaguely the meaning. As far as I know, this particular arati seems to be sung only in West Bengal, probably because it’s composed in Vivekananda’s native language, Bengali. (Though I have on one occasion heard it being sung at the Ramakrishna Dham in Johannesburg, South Africa...)

I was very impressed with the number of people in attendance of the arati. It created a very special atmosphere, and despite the seemingly thousands of mosquitoes around, I really enjoyed the feeling of spiritual elevation that came with being there – I don’t often have this problem, but sitting in my car writing this, I’m battling terribly with the words
to even describe what it was like being there...

For the remaining days, I took my dhoti to the temple and covered myself with it to protect from the mosquitoes.

Anyway, after attending my first arati, I ambled back to “Vivekananda Kutir” where I was staying. On the way I bought something to eat from a local place that seemed to be comfortable calling themselves a RESTAURANT.

Belur Math was built in Ramakrishna’s memory, and dedicated to the promulgation of his teachings. The Ramakrishna temple is one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen, and houses some his relics at what is now a shrine with a beautiful marble statue of him; see at 2.00 minutes:

Vivekananda initiated the project, but the building was only completed after his death...

The next day I went early enough to see most of the places I wanted to see, including
the temple where Swami Vivekananda’s ashes are housed and the room in which he stayed and entered into mahasamadhi (during his last few years). His room is kept exactly as it was the day he died. As I sit here and relive my visit to this most hallowed grounds, I feel a sense of feeble inadequacy as I know my words can never come close to capturing the mood, the feeling, the awesome surge of energy one feels upon walking through the Math grounds. I recalled the various images conjured up from my readings of and about Vivekananda, his antics, his witty comments to disciples and friends...

My remaining days were spent like that. Often I would sit outside Vivekananda’s temple (to avoid the steady stream of visitors), or inside the Ramakrishna temple. There was certainly no dearth of things to see, but I chose not to walk around too much and spend my time sitting quietly at one place.

For those who don’t know, Belur Math is situated right on the banks of Mother Ganga. Just standing there watching it flow is itself an experience which cannot be described in words. I pretty sure anyone who stood there would understand what I mean, be he Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan, Druid, agnostic or whatever. I also had the opportunity of bathing in the Ganges as well, which was really cool, since I didn’t get down to doing that last time round. Won’t bother trying to describe what that was like – an early morning bath in the Ganges, facing Surya Devi, with Vivekananda’s Temple just behind me...

The last time I was in India, I visited Dakshineshwar, but did not go to Belur Math, which was only a boat-ride away – didn’t know that at the time. I was glad to discover that I could take a boat to Dakshineshwar as well, which I did many times during my stay.

I also took this clip upon arrival – got into a bit of trouble at the end…:

You can see more pictures from 2.45 in the following clip:

I was going through a very traumatic emotional experience in my life at the time, and I shed tears of agony outside Ramakrishna’s Temple in Dakshineshwar. I banged my head over and over again on the staircase overlooked by the Mother; I begged her help me, to give me the strength and fortitude required to cope. I bought a stack of prescription tablets a few days back, with the express intention of ... taking them. At once. WHAT exactly I was going through, and why, is not relevant. Suffice to say I was filled with a sense of shame, self-hate, and most of all, a sublime sense of emptiness. I needed it to end there, and I have always had this sense that my life was not meant to have passed 30. Alas, it did, but the point here is that I really wanted it to be over. So I never actually intended leaving Belur Math. I prepared myself to die right there, in the holiest place on earth, on the banks of the holiest river in all the three worlds. I decided what would be done with what little money I had, my belongings, etc. I wrote little letters to a few people, explaining my intentions and wishes.

I recalled Sri Ramakrishna crying in a similar manner to the Mother, on a few occasions at least wanting to end His earthly sojourn; I mean in over and above the famous occasion whereby he grabbed the sacrificial tool and threatened to kill Himself then and there should the Divine Mother not reveal Herself...
Not that I would dare compare myself to Him, but I also knew that the Mother would not discriminate, for we are all Her children.

I did indeed behave like a crazy individual. I spoke to Her, I scolded Her, fought with Her, swore at Her. WHY ARE YOU NOT PROTECTING ME? WHY ARE YOU CAUSING THIS? YOU HAVE ALL THE POWER IN THE WORLD, YET YOU LET ME SUFFER IN YOUR HANDS! My earthly mother is fallible, and therefore her behaviour towards me ought to be condoned and forgiven; what excuse does the Divine Mother have? After placing my love and my trust in Her, after giving Her my heart, She was allowing me to suffer; She had the power to save the earth from destruction, surely She can help me now in my time of need...

As the sun set, I felt a strange sense of peace pervading my being, and a feeling like that of swirling static electricity right in the centre of my forehead.

I still felt down, scared and anxious, but I sensed that Mother Kali heard me. I know this sounds schizoid, and as an academic it is rather quaint that I would write in this manner, but... there are some things just beyond logico-deductive reasoning...

Regardless, as darkness descended on the horizon, I felt a concomitant darkness descending around my soul. I had to leave to return to Belur Math, where I was staying, or I would have been stuck there – the last boat was about to leave.

The boat ride to and from is itself quite an experience. If one of those boats happened to topple, or if someone fell overboard, there would be absolutely NO CHANCE of a rescue. The river is gigantic, and the current very powerful (excuse the singing; I was inspired…):

Luckily, nothing of the sort happened. Not that I would have not minded (!?mound?!) dying, but drowning would not be my first choice – gotta be the worst way to go, second to burning, of course...

Sigh. How macabre.

Upon returning to Belur Math, I passed the tea lady, and bought a cup of tea in those lovely little clay cups which I later discovered were made from the clay found on the river bed – rather eco-friendly as when they are thrown back into the river, they simply melt away...

By now, the Math was closed, and all that was left was to get dinner and retire to bed.

I got my dinner from the same place every evening – a little restaurant which happened to be en route to the guest house.

I would try to be up as early as possible, so as to spend as much time as possible at the Math.

For the entire week I would go to Belur Math, and just spend time imbibing the ambience. I would sit around on the banks of the Ganges...go to Swamiji’s room, recall the hours He would have spent sauntering around that very land...browse the books for sale... etc.
When the time came for my departure, I arranged a taxi with the Math, who charged a rather exorbitant fee I thought...

I had to be back in Calcutta on that day as I had a graduation to attend that evening – I regrettably was unable to attend a function at Belur Math happening on that day as well...

I left with an extremely heavy heart, as I was about to lose something (someone, actually) very very dear to me; I would have done anything to reverse this feeling and this situation, but I knew I was to blame to a large extent and that this situation may not be reversible.

Regardless, I was blessed to receive a phone call before leaving from the only person who could make me feel better at the time; aside from the situation, the conversation was also strained because of the incessant hooting.

I stayed in a hotel familiar to me, since I stayed there before on my previous trip. This time, our friend Sujeet arranged the accommodation.

Since I was there in the wee hours of the morning, around 6am, the room was not vacant as yet; I had to hang around for about three hours before my room was available. They were kind enough to give me a temporary waiting room after about an hour though...

During my stay there I have never been more depressed in my life. I was about to lose someone very dear to me, and I did not know how to handle it, hence the allusion earlier. I tried to take solace in the fact that I was graduating from a course I worked fairly hard for. Of course, having had to attend a graduation ceremony all alone in a foreign country was not ideal, and added to the sense of loss and isolation I already felt:

One of the most interesting people I met at the conference was a yoga therapist from New York who was nearly a hundred years old – can be seen at 2.26 and again at 2.40 in the above clip. She was so very lively and full of life. Embarrassingly so. She gave an interesting talk on living in the spirit, and guided us into meditation.

The person you see just after her in the video (at 2.45) was another one of the guests of honour, and gave a keynote address. When I asked about the white mouth-covering, I was always told that “He’s a Jain”, as if that was suppose to answer my question. I eventually found out that the Jains take the whole Eastern philosophy of non-injury to other living being very literally, to the point where they cover their mouths to prevent breathing in bacilli, etc., and therefore not kill them! He delivered his entire speech with the mouth thingy on. Needless to say, I understood nothing. Yes, all the speeches were in English. The others had no trouble understanding though.

I also met a girl at the ceremony named Sasikala. She was also alone, and asked me to take a photo of her as she wanted a souvenir. I gladly did so and emailed the pictures to her afterwards. Aside from graduating, she was also receiving an award of some sort – I didn’t pay attention to what exactly.

I enjoyed talking to her and learning about her work and what she does. See at 0.52 1.30 in the clip above. As a nutritionist she was involved in research on new supplements, some of which she holds patents for. After chatting a little at the graduation, we decided to meet later on that evening to see the streets of Calcutta. She very hesitantly admitted that she was staying at the YWCA hostel not far from where I was, so it was easy to find a mutual meeting place.

She was quite keen to see all the Mother Theresa-related places, since this was the city in which she worked and served. (Sasi was very hesitant to admit that she was Christian, but eventually did. Then it all made sense). However, we had no idea where to start, so we thought we’d ask some of the locals. They were generally uncooperative, because they assumed I’m Indian, and therefore must be able to speak some Indian language, so when I approached them, they would always reply...first in Hindi, then in Bengali, then a few other languages, and eventually, very curtly, in English.

Perhaps that’s an anti-colonial thing. Or perhaps they view pseudo-natives as snobbish if they insist on speaking only English. Very few people would also believe that I’m from South Africa, which also didn’t help.

As a result, I found myself speaking rather loudly, clearly, and concisely when asking anything. Funny that, because we found a gentleman walking across the street and we approached him to inquire: “Hi. Do you know where we can find Mother Theresa’s ... place?”

The reply: “Well sir, Mother Theresa has several places associated with her name all over the city. Which place in particular are you interested in visiting?”

I was so taken aback by the sudden, unexpected burst of eloquence, that I didn’t know what/how to answer!

Sasi mumbled something about the church, which he seemed to gloss over, and duly explained the various places we could visit. However, none of these places were within walking distance, and the public transport routes he explained seemed rather long-winded and confusing. Hence, after some deliberation we decided to drop the Mother Theresa idea. (I saw a rather... ‘interesting’ book about her a while back by Christopher Hitchens called THE MISSIONARY POSITION. How rude.)

After ambling around a bit, I suggested we get something to eat, and I found a place which was somewhat disappointing. Just about everything on the menu was unavailable, including the drinks. Anyway, we eventually found something and duly ordered; not the worst dish I’ve had, I must say.

The one thing I found rather quaint about Sasi was that she spoke almost exactly like my paternal grandmother – who is also of South Indian descent. The accent is so stereotyped here in South Africa (within the Indian community), since succeeding generations have accommodated due to integration at various levels; the accent my grandmother has is thereby viewed as belonging to the older generation. Of course society was much more insular even one generation back, for obvious reasons. My granny speaks what would be referred to as a “basilect” in sociolinguistic circles, which is the most rudimentary form of a language, barring pidgins and creoles of course. I suppose it takes someone with an appreciation of South African Indian English to understand why I was so rather piqued to hear such a young girl speaking with the said accent.

Sasi, being a traditional Indian from the South (of India), asked me about marriage, or such plans in the near future. I explained that I’ve been avoiding that demon since I can remember, and alluded vaguely to a particular challenge I was experiencing relationship-wise. She felt comfortable enough to share something with me which made me realise how lucky I am to NOT live in a society like India (cf. below the story of Jessica Vaas as well: QED). She has a male friend whom she knew from childhood. As the years went by, they grew closer and closer, until he eventually expressed a romantic interest in her. Of course, in India there is a serious stigma attached to such things, so the parents had to be informed. The boy’s mother was not happy with this development, and duly instructed him not to see her anymore, and advised a few months later that another girl has been chosen for him. After numerous altercations, his mother said that if the boy chooses to marry this girl, she (the mother) will commit suicide. The boy then informed Sasi of this. He declared his loyalty, but also pointed out that he cannot allow his mother to be so unhappy. His solution to this quandary was to go through with the arranged marriage, THEN see how to wangle out of it. Perhaps divorce and make Sasi the ‘second’ wife, so to speak. Funnily enough, while she was with me, the boy she was talking about phoned to inquire where she was, what she was doing, etc. Of course, she didn’t reveal that she was in male company, and duly pointed out that she was staying in the (girls only) YWCA hostel. Afterwards, she pointed out that he was “Ornleee scolding scolding and staying soooor much.”

Her resolution was to keep contact with him until his marriage, and then sever all ties. When/if he wants to speak or meet, she will make excuses not to.

She also pointed out that sometimes she cries at night especially until there’s “no water” left in her eyes.

I didn’t know what to say, so I did as little talking as possible, following the classical Rogerian (Rogersian?) model.

All the while I was silently thinking how grateful I should be, and that my situation seemed really bad only a few hours ago – so bad that my world was crumbling to point where all I wanted to do was close my eyes and never open them again. NOW I was re-thinking all that. How many young people in India go through the same thing? I mean, my parents (mother especially) have tried to coerce me into marriage, but I was resistant to the very idea since early boy-hood. They still do not accept my position, but what would I have been subjected to had I been in India?

I shudder to think...

Be that as it may, we went for a walk around the streets of Calcutta after dinner. I found that in many ways she was just as much an outsider in that part of India as I was. Being a Tamilian, she was only able to speak English, India’s lingua franca; Bengali and Hindi being the dominant languages. South Indians are, in many ways, looked down upon by people from the North, and that became more and more blatant as the evening wore on. I myself would often get a derisive look after it was mistakenly said of me (I could roughly understand when it was in Hindi): “He can’t speak Hindi – he’s from South India.” I wouldn’t bother explaining/correcting; too much effort.

I was very impressed with Sasi’s bargaining skills. In most cases, she was able to bring them down by about a FIFTH of the original price!

After we had enough of that, we decided to start calling it a night, but not before getting some pani puri (which means something like “water bread” in Hindi), which Sasi insisted I must try. We found a dude somewhere who was selling it on the street: it’s basically an edible bowl which gets re-filled about four times with a kind of spicy, flavoured soup-like substance – very delicious!

Thereafter, we tried to get back to our respective domiciles, but...realised that we were a bit lost. After walking around for about another hour, we realised we were VERY lost. Sasi started asking people which way the YWCA hostel was, and people would give her this weird, glazed look. Sometimes clearly a look of derision, sometimes confusion, sometimes both. I was never able to figure out why: maybe it was the YWCA reference; maybe it was the accent.

I took it upon myself to start asking, and we eventually were able to get back, piece-meal, to the required place.

I was leaving the next morning for Saudi Arabia, so Sasi asked me come round and say goodbye before departing. I hesitantly agreed, since I was worried about getting late, and would have had to pack and get a earlier start than normal.

Anyway, I stood outside the hostel duly at 8.00am and miss-called her. She came down, we went for tea, and I left.

She thanked me for everything, and asked me to try and look out for a job for her brother, who was struggling a bit. I asked for her to email me his CV, which she did, but alas I was unable to assist. (Anyone out there looking for an IT technician?)

Took the taxi to the airport, and had a few hours to kill before getting the connecting flight to Bombay. I waited for about two hours before the flight before inquiring about where to board, only to find that I was meant to have taken a BUS to the OTHER side of the airport. I was way too late now, and resigned myself to the fact that I was going to miss my flight and be late for work.

Stressed and frantic, I got to the other side of the airport, and got my boarding pass for Bombay to fly about five hours later. From Bombay, the earliest flight was only leaving the next DAY, which meant spending the entire evening and night at the airport, and making sure that I was on time for the flight the next day.

At that moment I felt so down, so broken. I just wanted to curl up and cry.

I found a public phone and called a friend in South Africa. A rather costly affair, I discovered afterwards – the advertised rate was per second, not per MINUTE, as I thought. Anyway: I was relieved to have someone to talk to, even though this particular person was at the time on the brink of severing ties with me for good 

I found it rather magnanimous of her to be there though...

After realising that I was gonna be bankrupt if I phoned her too often, I decided to just find a place to chill for the night. Surprisingly, I did find a nice sleeper-seat type thing. I sat down, leaned back and closed my eyes, grateful that I could finally ‘rest’ – though I was really worried about sleeping through the night and missing the flight again!

After a while two ladies sat next to me and started a rather interesting conversation about yoga and spirituality. After about an hour, the one lady mentioned that she did some yoga classes in South Africa, and mentioned a few places I was familiar with. I took this as an opportunity to give my two cents worth, and I joined the conversation. Rather interesting, as we spoke about the various aspects of yoga, Hinduism and spirituality. This lady’s name was Melissa, and she was from Australia. The other had to leave soon after, so I didn’t quite get her name, etc.

Melissa is an air hostess for one of the Middle Eastern airlines (Emirates, I think), and spoke about how she had to sacrifice a long-term relationship to pursue that dream. She then asked me if I’m married or involved. Sigh.

I explained that I am interested in someone in South Africa, was a bit rocky at the moment. Her advice was that I would never know whether the relationship WAS worth saving or not until I did whatever I could to TRY and save it. Working in Saudi Arabia would not help. If I stay in Saudi Arabia, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life, asking the “WHAT IF...” question. Even if it didn’t work out, and it fell to pieces the moment I arrived back in SA, at least I would KNOW.

Turns out that prediction was sort of true, since it basically started falling apart from the moment I arrived, but that’s another story.

I decided to take her advice, since she reinforced an idea that has been there for a while. I thereafter duly started making arrangements to get a job back in SA. I signed the contract a few months later, and started in July 2010. That too, is another story.

Melissa was not going to get a flight soon, and I had to make my way through by about 4.00am. I got my boarding pass, and checked in my luggage, even though I had about ten hours to kill.

While walking around, I saw a rather friendly looking person at one of the shops, and I struck up a conversation. Her name was Jessica Vaas. I explained the WHOLE story (the shop was very quiet) and she was very sympathetic. She told me that since I’m gonna be stuck there for so long, I must visit whenever I feel bored. I must have done that dozens of times.

I suppose it was inevitable that she would ask me about my wife, and I pointed out that I don’t have one, and that it’s probably best if I avoid marriage. She concurred! I was flabbergasted. After a while, she admitted that she was forced into a marriage even though she had no interest in such things. All she wanted to do was to be by herself, and work to help support the family. However, in India such arrangements are generally made by the elders, usually driven the parents, and the news is given to you ex post facto. By this time, resistance is futile since both sides of the family would have agreed, and arrangements would already be well under way. I must hasten to add that this practice seems to work also, since I’ve met people from India (both married and unmarried) who gladly accept this custom, and would even defend it against our Westernised version, not without justification.

However, for Jessica this was not working: she cut both her wrists when she discovered that the marriage was going to go ahead despite her remonstrations. She was found lying on her bed by her mother, blood everywhere, who only then reneged on this marriage business.

She showed me BOTH her wrists, very badly scarred. A spine-chilling story.

The bridegroom-to-be also cut his wrists a few days later, saying afterwards that if he couldn’t marry her, he wouldn’t marry anybody.

He also sobered up afterwards, but at the time of this conversation was resolute that he will never marry until she does, in case she changes her mind.

She’s adamant that she will remain single forever more.

She did point out that suicide is a sin, and that she’s glad to have another chance since such people might end up in hell. She’s Christian. Even had a picture of Christ on her desk, whom she was fond of kissing every now and then.

I felt so comfortable in her shop that she let me take over when she had to leave for a few minutes. I felt rather important, though at times embarrassed. This shop was one of the last you encounter before the boarding gates, so prices were quite high, resulting in some people turning away in disgust. There are always those desperate few, however, who have to get that one last souvenir or something to eat before leaving.

I’m glad to say I even made a few sales.

Jessica was kind enough to ask if I was hungry, since it’s been so many hours since I’ve been waiting. However, after my phone calls to South Africa I was pretty much broke, and politely pointed out to Jessica that I was alright. Being perspicacious enough, she figured out that I probably was out of money, since I was effectively there for two days more than scheduled, so she took some eats down from the shelf and insisted I take it at no charge! She then got me a cup of tea as well.

I was very grateful for that since I really was famished. Regrettably, such acts can never be repaid – by me, in any event. Luckily, there’s always the whole law of karma thing. In India, even the Christians are subject to it, which works in their favour.

Well, at last after such a long, tedious wait, I was eventually able to board my flight back to Saudi Arabia.

They weren’t TOO upset about my late arrival.

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