and the personality form a cup.
You meet someone, and something is poured in.”
Three years ago, on the afternoon before school started, my wife and I (before we were married, before we were anything but same-aged colleagues to each other) happened to visit a prominent temple. It almost didn’t happen. We’d made plans to go to the new mall, but when we met at the end of the day, the mall was the last place either of us wanted to go. I don’t remember who suggested Kapaleeswarar Temple, but we agreed quickly and hopped in a tuk-tuk together. We had a lovely time that night. Each of us was struck by the unfamiliar appeal of the temple and the people in it. We didn’t get together as a couple for another seven months, and once we did that evening at the temple suddenly held much more meaning. At the end of the school year we went again, and I remember feeling compelled to propose to her there. We have come back to this place at the start of each year — tonight marks the fourth school-eve trip. While the temple itself is not a mystery to us in the same way, I found myself thinking on the way there tonight how strange it is that a visit here three years ago, that was not planned and nearly did not happen, could take on such meaning.
It’s a day full of meaning on other levels, too. It’s my brother’s birthday. I have not lived near my brother for more than 15 years now, but I’ve usually been around for his birthday. I typically timed my trips home to coincide with his celebrations. This year, I’m feeling especially nostalgic. I remember the day he was born quite vividly, and a couple days later when I met him for the first time. Except for his wife, I consider myself his biggest fan (and there are a lot of his fans). I know that my sentimentality is intensified by the fact that less than a month ago he and his wife had a baby — my first nephew on my side of my family. Luckily, I was there for that birthday, and I spent some quality time holding that little guy, getting my baby whispering in before I had to return to India. When I left I felt, for the first time, that I would certainly be missing something while I was gone. So I’m wrapped up in a lot tonight — remembering my brother and his new family, cherishing the newness in my own life that already feels so familiar that it is difficult to remember when it wasn’t here. These are blessed times.
Additionally, I start a new job tomorrow. Technically, I have been working for nearly three weeks in the new position, but tomorrow is my first day of school with real-live students everywhere. It’s actually two new positions — an entry-level leadership position and a teaching role that is new to me. These are the third and fourth different positions that I’ve had in the three years I have been here. In the context of my life back in the U.S., that sounds withering and untenable, but here, in a world so full of extremes, it just feels right.
It just feels right . . . the first visit to the temple, my connection to my wife, holding my baby nephew as he slept through his first days of life, sitting in presence with my little brother who is now a dad, moving into new roles at my school — so much, so fast, and it all just feels right. Living so far away from my familiar places is a challenge, but since I have moved here my cup has been filled with nourishment.
One of the fun parts of living in Chennai is developing an understanding of the various holidays. Mid-January brings Pongal, the celebration of the sun, a winter harvest festival, and a day of giving thanks for agriculture. There’s some ceremony around the year’s first rice crop, and the first batch of cooked rice is eaten auspiciously from a special Pongal jar. Sugar cane is also important — kids are seen chewing it all day long, and people are carrying long stalks of it on their motor bikes and cars off to different celebrations. Pongal-eve, called Bhogi, also is a special day of clearing out and cleaning. Typically old possessions are burned in order to create space for new acquisitions in the new year. Two indicators of these important days are the thick smoke throughout the city in the morning on Bhogi — a demonstration of how much is being burned before dawn — and the multitude of kollams, or elaborate chalk drawings, that women create outside their door steps the morning of Pongal.
There are a lot of festive holidays in Tamil Nadu, all of which offer just as many opportunities to reflect and start anew. This is my third year and my third Pongal, but it is perhaps the first time I’ve understood why we’ve had the day off school and what’s being observed. I’ve come to enjoy the firecracker-filled days of celebration and observance here (whether canonized or not, firecrackers are definitely a part of every Indian holiday), and feel the natural opportunity to reflect. It’s been quite a year.
Last year on Pongol, Susannah & I hosted our first guests as a couple. We were newly married and excited to welcome visitors together. The year was filled with visitors by family and friends alike. All of our parents, save one (we have seven parents and step-parents between us) came to see us in 2015. It’s wonderful to have guests visit our lives here. I’ve learned that a distinct bond develops between me and those who come to see what our lives in Chennai is all about. Visitors develop a visceral comprehension of life here, and the shared experience is so strong that it continues even when the guests return home. The result is a special kind of richness that I feel between me and those who have experienced my life here. It’s not something I ever could have anticipated before I arrived in India, but it’s something I value most about being here.
This rich connection to family and friends became even more important as the past year was highly challenging. Most recently, the epic rain and flooding of Chennai reached a level of intensity I had not lived through previously. In the end, Susannah and I were fine — the roof of our house leaked in a dozen places and the power was out for several days, but some of our colleagues lost everything they owned, or everything on the first floor of their homes. Some evacuated temporarily until repairs could be made; others can never return to where they called home before the storm. Outside of our school community, the monsoon and the human decisions before, during, and after it were devastating. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were displaced from their homes. Some of the news reports I saw reminded me very acutely of the incompetent aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We got lucky by virtue of not living directly in a floodplain, and it’s not like we had that in mind when we were deciding where we might want to live a year ago. We dodged a flood just by dumb luck. I’m grateful for that everyday.
We’ve been unlucky, too — the past year brought to our lives the emotional turmoil of two pregnancies and two miscarriages. I’ve since learned that miscarriage is quite common among couples who want to get pregnant. Fortunately, the friends I have who are part of that club offered counsel and wisdom far beyond my own reasoning just when I needed it most. I also learned that even the most challenging experience a newly-married couple can have was not insurmountable for Susannah & I to cope with — yet more for which to be grateful.
When I look back at my work from the last year — or even the entire time I’ve been here, which is not that much longer — I’m quieted by the number of different things I’ve had the chance to work on. In 2.5 years, the range and depth of initiatives and challenges that have come my way might take a decade or longer to experience in the U.S. My learning curve has been steep — perhaps greater than even the first year of my teaching career — as I’ve tried to keep up with the elusive task of developing new ideas and strategies for teaching such a diverse population of students in a progressive education model. More immediately, I’ve been neck-deep in the question, ‘Why should 8th graders from Korea, Japan, India, and Europe care about American history?’ Some days I have a clear answer; others days I’m much less certain.
Happy Pongal, and, what a year. I’ll worship the sun, as is the custom, for it rises each day over the Bay of Bengal here, offering the nutrients the crops need to thrive. In writing this I recognize that the western calendar has New Year’s as a natural time for reflection. For some reason, I wasn’t ready then. We were traveling then, and perhaps being away from India for that holiday distanced my thinking from my life here. So I’ve taken Pongal’s invitation for reflection, and I’m even grateful for that, too. I’ve accepted a new position at my school that starts in July; part of the deal was I agreed to stay here through 2018. Even though I know we’ll be here another 2.5 years, I’m aware that there will be a time when I don’t live in India any more. It’s strange to think that right now because when you’re in India, it consumes you. It’s hard for me to imagine not living here most of the time. But today, Pongal, has offered me a chance to savor my life here. It’s wonderful. My special Pongal cup is full, not of celebratory rice, but of gratitude.
Social media tells me that back in the U.S. school is starting back up. I just wrapped up the third week of classes here, and for the first time since I have been in India — and, maybe in my career — I was ready for the students to arrive when they walked in the door. At the start of every other year, the time available to get ready and the number of things to do were so great that the first days of school were manic for me.
My Head of School had a lot to do with this: he changed the schedule so we had 40% more days to prep than we did last year, but something else is going on, too. My experience in international education has been synonymous with Great Change — I changed countries, subjects taught (twice), schools (high school to middle school), changed co-teachers three times, and, of course, met my partner, got engaged, and then married. Sheesh . . . that’s an entire career for some — that’s been 23 months for me.
Almost everything I have to say about India to those who do not live here is about the rapid change that exists in this place, and the extreme contrasts that are so abundant. I came here because I wanted a change, and I knew enough about my new home before I arrived to anticipate the contrasts. I did not have an idea, however, of how vivid and personal that change would be, and I certainly did not anticipate ever feeling — dare I say it — comfortable in this maelstrom.
The change itself is not an easy thing to precisely describe or even identify. I know I do not know all there is to know about the kind of instruction we are doing now, or the material I am charged with presenting to my students. I don’t have all the answers to any of the questions that come my way. Despite this, I feel like I know something, yet not everything. The something matters, even if I can’t quite articulate it.
There’s a Cormac McCarthy novel in which a character says that he didn’t realize how heavy one of his burdens was until he finally put it down. I find it difficult precisely to say what it was that I set down, but I know intimately the relief and recognition that the character is describing. Setting something down, feeling the relief of not expending so much energy, and also welcoming in such gratitude at the new-found freedom from that release.
I do know this: this has been a great way to start the new school year.
You can’t argue with crazy, and yet I try to. I try to be right – it’s amazing how important that is to me.
I had an interaction with a crazy parent at work last week, and I’m up early processing it this morning. I don’t like that I’m up at 3am, but I’m trying not to judge myself. I often process this way, but on this particular topic I feel like crazy is winning.
What being up at 3am has helped me see is that I have some old energy that’s stuck in situations like this. In my old school, I had a lot of run-ins with this sort of dynamic – so much so that I earned a unenviable nickname from my closest colleagues. “Lighting Rod” is what they called me – for every bolt of craziness I got zapped with was one less they had to potentially encounter from the same source.
The way that I operated was I would choose to interact with this level of craziness, fearing that others would give credit to the crazy side of the argument. I felt that other side might be deemed credible by my unpredictable bosses. In order to protect myself I thought I had to go into the belly of this crazy-go-nuts beast in order to emerge as Right, or justified. I did something different this time, and it was so unfamiliar that even though I’m reassured I did the right thing, I don’t believe it. I don’t trust the new approach yet.
Engaging with crazy is itself an act of craziness. Someone I think is really wise once told me that in the face of crazy, “No” is a complete sentence. I am not a familiar practitioner of the one-word sentence yet. It might be a while before I get there. You see, I still want to be Right! And, to be honest, I think I also want the craziness to know that I’m Right, too. Man, who do I think I am?
I think I might be crazy.
Susannah and I were married two months ago! She wrote about it beautifully here. I’ve got my own thoughts about the day, that I’ve tried to figure out how to frame without my story turning into an epic poem. This is one chapter.
My wedding day was unique because I felt like everyone else.
I recognize that this is a strange thing to say, especially coming from the West, where your wedding is “your special day.” Traditionally the couple is worshiped through all parts of the production, beginning with the engagement and continuing to the honeymoon. Every moment and experience is a treasure.
As far as unique weddings go, it looked like ours would be the only one of its kind. Even how we got to the wedding was special: Susannah and I met each other as new teachers in our first international school posting. We became fast friends immediately, bonding through our similar experiences in our personal lives and in work back in the U.S.; eventually, we each realized there was more to the other than just a really great friend. Once we figured out there was something more there, things moved quickly. We started dating in March, got engaged in July, and were married in December. India has indeed been magical for us both.
Our wedding planning enhanced the idea that we were truly unique – I was told by someone who knows a thing or two about weddings in Chennai that there is no proof of another expat couple marrying in a Hindu ceremony in the history of this city. (And given the bureaucracy, no one is likely to follow in our footsteps). So, in other words, there’s never been, nor will there ever be again, a wedding like ours. Major unique points for us.
We got hitched in a Hindu wedding hall, down the street from Vadapalani Murugan Temple, in Chennai. Our date was chosen for us by the marriage hall officials – which was a surprise to us. They consulted the almanac for auspicious times and dates, and our date, a Saturday, was simply unacceptable to them. But look! – the previous Wednesday was a very auspicious day. So Wednesday it was. We even got the best time according to the almanac: 9:00am. I don’t know of anyone who got married on a Wednesday morning, so I thought this was unique, too.
Wednesday morning turned out to be an original thought for a lot of other wedding planners, too. We arrived at the appointed location ahead of time to find waves of happy people flooding down the street, past where the marriage hall was located, towards the big temple at the end of the block. Streets were blocked off, and from every direction small wedding parties slowly made their way to the same destination. I asked what was happening and I was told that the big temple at the end of the street would conduct ceremonies for fifteen hundred couples throughout the day; just in our little wedding hall there were 20 couples signed up to follow us. Everyone on the street, and on the side streets and allies connecting to it, was there for a wedding. All 1500 couples were there for their unique wedding day. Just like us!
1500 couples is a lot of brides and grooms. It’s even more unusual to see so many other married couples if you are one of them. I was struck by how many other grooms there were, and that despite the fact that we were obviously very different, and would never see each other again, we had this moment of being the same together. I made eye contact with dozens of these other men, and as I met each one’s eyes I felt a moment of recognition. They weren’t all in the same emotional space – there were a few guys who looked panicked, and others who were cool as cucumbers – but it was moving to be having an experience so unexpected and unlike anything I’d heard of, and to be sharing that with a lot of other grooms who were going through the same ceremonies as me on this morning. Instinctively, I knew that I was part of something much larger and important than just me, or me and Susannah. We were unique, just like all these other couples.
My special day with Susannah was sanctified by the presence of strangers in multitudes, helping me see that I’m part of a human ritual that’s both unique and quite common. India forces you to surrender to its will, and when you want to have things your way it’s really frustrating. My understanding of the power of God is similar, and my wedding day has helped me see this relationship more clearly. When I’ve asserted my own will, I’ve been alone and frustrated. When I’ve listened and surrendered, I’ve received what I needed in great abundance. Seeing all those grooms reminded me of that, and helped me savor a short ceremony at a crowded temple with the woman with whom I stumbled into when I got here, and with whom I’m thrilled to share so much time and love. I may not be the most unique newlywed in Chennai, but I definitely feel like the luckiest.
I recently sat in a beat-up rowboat on the River Ganges, watching the layers of contrasting and connected lives on the shores of Varanasi, thinking of Achilles’ Shield. (Yes, I use Homeric poetry to process intense experiences in my life). While Varanasi is not engulfed in war, it is as close to a real-life reproduction of the complete human experience that Achilles carries on his arm to meet Hector.
In Book 18 of The Iliad, the god Hephaestus forges Achilles a new shield before his fate-changing return to battle against the Trojans. Hephaestus creates a shield worthy of the epic, as it contains the human world and all the contradictions that come with it. Hephaestus captures human nature within the confines of a circle of bronze and leather. Homer uses 130 lines of poetry and the fortunes and destitution of two contrasted cities to show us the ebbs and flows of humanity.
Varanasi is a small city with an epic history. It was once one of the greatest cities in the ancient world. Visitors had to arrive by boat, and the 9 miles of city walls with nearly two dozen dramatic gates introduced a grandeur that it still emits in special moments. An ancient foreign emissary to Varanasi once wrote that this city surpassed all the great cities he’d seen – Athens, Sousa, Rome, Jerusalem.
Time did not treat this once great city favorably. It was destroyed several times by foreign invaders so that much of what exists today is not more than a few hundred years old. I found it to feel like a relatively small town with a big challenge: this city is one of the holiest places in the world. For Hindus, Varanasi is perhaps the most sacred place, and so, millions pilgrimage here each year. Bathing in this river during one’s life, or being cremated here after is believed to help achieve moksha, release from the painful cycle of human reincarnation. Untold numbers of non-Hindus, like me, come to see what the spectacle is all about.
Early mornings bring most pilgrims to the shoreline, and evening offers ritual ceremonies with bells and fire. As a result, dawn and dusk are prime time for boat tour hours. From my boat, I began to see the great divide that occurs in and around this holy water.
The poorest of the poor bathe at the steps in front of the great temples, which are called ghats. These ritualized bathing spots are believed to offer the best chance at achieving moksha. Believers are lined up elbow-to-elbow, and in rows three deep to get in the water. Men in their lungees and women in their bathing saris of varying vibrant colors dunk, splash, and scrub themselves. The bathing movements appear so similar to be routines, but they are done in different speeds, so while out of sync with each other there’s a near-synchronicity to the human actions on the river’s edge. Squeezed in between the bathers is the high-pitched chanting of pilgrims and the heavy brass tones of ringing temple bells. In the end, all the space is filled with movement and the senses are overtaxed with the beautiful chaos.
The worshippers appear to the viewers from the boats against a back drop of the ghats and the walled palaces that belong to the families of the great maharajas of old India. India has only been a single political body for six decades; before that it was a vast land of fiercely competitive kingdoms. The maharajas, or great kings, from across the subcontinent built testaments to their own importance along the shore long ago. Great walls of these mansions jut up vertically from the water line. The walls add to the dramatic flair of the structures, and they serve a critical function. Each monsoon raises the level of the river by about 40 feet or more. The abrupt walls literally keep water out of the palaces, thus keeping a clear distinction between land and water. But there’s another clear divide, too: the walls, with turrets atop and viewing plazas in between also delineate the stark contrast between lives of those at the foot of the walls and those who sit atop them. Perhaps the difference is only 50 feet, but the distance may as well be worlds apart, for the people in each location could never imagine existing in the others’.
The caste system is as vibrantly alive in Varanasi as the color variations and patterns of the elaborate saris for sale in the textile shops. As news of the rituals on display on the river bank spread outside of this region, travelers curious about Hindu rites or India in general, have come here in droves, adding a new caste to the ancient social layers. The short term visitors only stay a few days at a time, but rooms in the guest houses are never empty, and our (for I am clearly one of this horde) omnipresent existence is the source of wealth for a caste of denizens in this town that otherwise would have no options for financial gain. I interacted with dozens of people in my four days in Varanasi who called the city home. Every single one wanted me to buy something, rent something, or make a donation to some worthy cause. Each person was just one making a request like a single musical note, but taken together, each day was a movement by a full orchestra.
My favorite experience was around one of the Burning Ghats, which is where bodies are cremated on funeral pyres that burn for around three hours each. It is possible to walk right up to these ghats, as long as you’re not pointing your camera anywhere near them. In fact, upon arriving there (each time, for we walked past the ghat several times) we were told repeatedly “No photos!” That makes sense to me – I can see how the family of the deceased would want to preserve some privacy. At the same time – and I mean the exact same time – we were asked to donate to the hospice (that doesn’t exist) so many times that by day two I could predict the order of the sales pitch. And in the background, a goat is eating the remnants of a funeral shroud, the water buffaloes are pooping really close to one of the smoldering pyres, and there’s a generator running a water pump to power a water hose for spraying the caked mud off the walk-way that is adjacent to the pyre area.
It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the spectacle of these abrupt contrasts. It’s easy to forget that we are watching people in their most intimate moments. Much of my India is like this – on my morning walk I can see fishermen in the village a mile south of where I live defecating in the morning tide if I want to, and on the same walk I pass a movie-star’s housing compound – but in Varanasi there are no margins. I see people sleeping, begging, pooping & peeing, crying, laughing, hustling, and mourning their deceased loved ones as the funeral pyres burn brightly. And all within a few feet of each other.
The power of Achilles’ Shield is that it contains the fullness of the human experience within the two cities captured together in bronze and leather. Here, too, is the full range of humanity. The sacred and the ordinary, all smashed together.
It’s lovely this time of year. The mornings are cool – today, even, the off-shore breeze gave the water at the beach a glass-textured surface, and the waves broke uncharacteristically beautifully. As I took a break from playing pick-up Ultimate Frisbee yesterday, I noticed the dragonflies, zooming around about twenty feet off the ground. I use to think there were seasons here for dragonflies, and bats. That’s not how it works, as it turns out. The reality is that they each occupy different bits of airspace and during different times of the day. The dragonflies, for example, like it within an hour or two of when the sun is either rising or setting. Bats, of course, like the twilight and later. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats ever even see each other.
There are parts of Chennai I never see. The parts I do see I have grown very fond of in a short amount of time. I live in an apartment with a view of the Bay of Bengal that would make real estate developers’ Pintrest boards go wild. I get to walk down it every morning, engaging in a daily gratitude practice with the woman to whom I’m engaged. I see the beach life in the early part of the day – the dogs just waking up and chasing each other around with their morning friskiness. There are the regular cast of characters: the men doing calisthenics routines you’ve seen in grainy black and white filmstrips of PE classes in small town America, circa 1950. There are groups of gray-headed men who sit on the wall at the edge of the road, laughing together about the things that old men at the beach in the morning laugh about. A little ways down are old Indian ladies in their saris, discussing each other’s business with energy and gusto. My favorite character is a short, wiry guy who digs for crabs in the wet sand of the early morning low tide.
Last weekend was the end of the Ganapathy festival that I wrote about last year in Be Here Now. I knew what to expect this year, and I had a much easier time being present than before, but the event was just as joyous and cacophonous as ever. Hundreds of trucks lined up with their statues of Ganapathy in the cargo hold, waiting to deliver their patron god to his place in the sea. There are rules that govern this event, but Indian customs, as far as I can tell, often place emphasis on having the last word or the loudest word. And almost no one listens. So when everyone is shouting at everyone else, you’re really in India.
Ganapathy season ended last weekend. I imagine there are people who live in this sprawling city who don’t know that this even exists; to those who are present for it, there’s hardly an experience that rivals it. I think I may leave Chennai with this event chiseled into my top three India experiences: it would top number three, the road trip to the end of the continent that I took last spring with my best friend from high school, but be behind number one: meeting Susannah.
India is chaos sometimes, but it’s also lovely. I wonder if the dragonflies and bats feel the epic disorganization and contradictions. I doubt it. They’re probably just thinking, ‘hey, it’s time to eat.’ I can relate. There’s some butter masala paneer waiting for me in the kitchen.