Part I: kausalyA-suprajA-rAma
Growing up in India and watching my inner workings, the fears that came with them worked to keep many different parts of my life separate. The intellectual, the spiritual, the emotional, the physical, the psychological, … the head, the heart, the brain … were all neatly, rigidly, fearfully, compartmentalized.
Little boy Shekhar (for that was the part of my name by which I was called) used to finish his morning bath, put on laundered clothes, dab the small dot of vibhUti on the forehead, and get ready for the morning prayers. My uncle had borrowed a friends’ Grundig spool tape player on which was mounted a tape containing the venkatesha suprabhAtam sung by M.S. (Subbulakshmi). He had even taught me to operate it fully by the time I was seven.
Tamizh was my second language at school and I could read it quite well by second standard. He always spoke to me in English — “he must learn to communicate well in English.” — instantly correcting grammar, usage, etc. He even made me do copywriting daily — which I never forgave him for. (With a vengence, I still scrawl!)
Amma had a book in which the whole of the suprabhAtam was printed in nAgarI script with tamizh translation and transliteration.
MS’s voice captivated me. The suprabhAtam sounded melodious for its language as well for the voice in which she sang it.
I asked amma: “What is this language here?”
“Samskrtam”, she replied.
“I want to learn samskrtam, amma.
“You can learn it when you come to high school”, she said.
I did not know what she was talking about. I didn’t know what the suprabhAtam’s words meant. Here and there I figured out, reading the tamizh portions, “…. forgive, forgive, o jewel of the sheSha hill …”, “… a blessed morning be to Thee …”
I memorized the whole thing, completely enjoying it, and initially, thoroughly butchering the beautiful samskrtam.
Every morning this ritual continued.
For years and years. I scarcely tried to really understand any of it.
All I knew was: “I want to learn samskrtam.” It was my big obsession. I could hardly wait for high school (I figured out that it meant “when I come to 8th standard”).
Come 3rd standard, the neighbor, headmaster at the school where I would later enroll, suggested: “He lives in Karnataka. He must learn kannaDa.” Promptly, my second language was switched to kannaDa ( I still don’t know how I ever managed to catch up on two years of kannaDa ).
* * *
Meanwhile, there were these urges. These attractions. The fancies. These were to remain hidden. That boy told me, “Shhhh, be careful, people might find out about us.” He was one year older to me.
There was no emotion with any of this. Just plain curiosity. I didn’t know, nor did I care to inquire, what it meant. Just like with my suprabhAtam effort.
* * *
I will never forget that first class in samskrtam poetry. vidvAn bhaTTrAchAr’s loud voice *sang* out:
bhAShAsu mukhyA madhurA divyA gIrvANabhAratI …
“Among the languages, she is important, sweet, divine, the language of the gods …”
I was in love with her!
* * *
I will also never forget that night in the state-wide boy scout camp for which he and I were among the four selected. I had SUCH a crush on him!!! He knew it too.
He asked for permission to join my patrol, an exception to the rule that no patrol will have more than one scout from a given school. The camp Big Wig, I can still see him sitting, scrawny, trying to look stern, but not quite making it, asking him why he wanted to move to my patrol. He stammered audibly — something he did when speaking to authority figures and the reason I was there upon his insistence to step in and talk if he got too tongue-tied.
I can clearly hear his answer to the Big Wig: “S-s-sir, sir, because we are very close and we can’t bear to be separate.”
Such music, the words were to my ears!!
The Big Wig finally said, “Yes, but don’t tell everyone to come and ask for re-assignment.”
We were peremptorily dismissed.
We ran like hell, all agog. He raced to his tent, picked up his belongings and raced over to my tent. Soon, it was time for lights out. The Big Wig made his rounds with a multi-batteried torch and generally told us all to cheese it, and get some sleep because tomorrow we had a long day ahead of us. And, he went to the guest house to sleep in the comfy bed there.
That night was The Night.
* * *
Throughout high school, I learned many samskrtam verses.
I enjoyed the melody, the rhythm, the silky smooth, curvaceous flow of the words. The lovely rhymes, the wonderful flowery ways of putting things. The observations about human nature, life, the importance of friendship, the importance of humility, the superiority of learning over material wealth, the superiority of charity over hoarding, … The *WORDS* captivated, the meanings were planted, but they remained hidden for a long long time.
* * *
Part II: ranga-pura-vihAra
At home, amma’s influence kept relentlessly on: Unity. Ultimately,
Unity. Humankind, religions, the common good of humanity, the importance of trying to cultivate love for even one’s enemy all went towards that theme of Unity. “emmadamum sammadam” any religion is acceptable. This one thought she kept on about. That one thought has revolutionized my life.
I was always fascinated by the commonalities among religions. I wasfascinated by the relevance of ritual to life, by the social meanings of adages, … It continued. Still, I never did quite grasp the SIGNIFICANCE of it all. I heard the words, I enjoyed them. I saw the superficial argument in them, I was fascinated. But they remained separate from my own life. They were all, ALL of them, pitted against one important thing in me.
* * *
The strange feelings, the “wrongness” of it all, the alienation of that part of me from the rest of me was so wide a chasm that there was no bridging it. There was the spiritual me and the other me. The twain were unable to meet.
The early awareness of sexuality, and of sexual urges. Acting upon them. These were guilty things. Leading up to the enactment, there was the anticipation. The enactment was utterly enjoyable. Following the enactment came, in varying measures, guilt, revulsion, and sadness that I had “fallen”, that I had yielded to temptation.
* * *
rAmanavami is an important music season in Bangalore. There are concerts all over the place, many of them free. One day, appa and I were walking home from somewhere. At the shrI rAma temple not too far from home, there was to be a concert by some lady by the name of D.K. Pattammal. Appa said, “You go on home. I am going to the concert and I’ll come home later.”
Suddenly, for the first time, I was curious. Just what is a concert like? I had heard some records here and there in the passing. Some on “AkAshavANI, bengaLUru, bhadrAvatI, dhAravADa, mattu gulbarga.” I had heard M.S. singing “rangapura-vihAra” an all-time favorite song to this day. It evoked a sense of the place, shrI rangam, on the banks of the kAveri, years before I actually visited the temple.
I said to appa, “I’ll just linger for a few minutes and then head home.” It was almost time for the concert when we walked into the yard of the temple. From a room to the side, this very nice-looking “aiyer maami” (a lady of the aiyer caste), dressed in exactly the fashion of sari which amma always wore (nine yards, special wrapping technique and everything, all very elegant) walked out. In tow were her accompanists, all men.
She walks on to stage. A namaskAram, a slight bow, a smile. Then they all sat down. A minute or two to tune the instruments to her pitch. And she hummed the beginnings of some rAga or other. I was transfixed. A maami was in charge of this whole thing. She led and the others followed. Yet, I could easily also see her in the kitchen cooking and doing the very heavy work of family care. Why, this could well be amma!!! To this day, I cannot fully fathom what really impacted on my mind and heart that evening. It will always be etched as fresh as if it were yesterday.
The few minutes went beyond few. Suddenly, a brief humming, and then, yes, “rannnnnga-pura-vihAAAAAAra …” WOW!! I sat down. Only a few more minutes and I’ll leave after this song. Next thing I know, she is singing this most lovely song by purandaradAsa “ikO namma svAmi …” (lo, here is our Lord). After that, how long I stayed and what else she sang is forever lost from my memory.
I started pestering appa day in and day out: “Teach me carnatic music.” He was very reluctant. Something for which I still harbor a great deal of anger at him. Although, I now understand that he was probably concerned that I might neglect my studies ( I was in Pre-University then) if I take up music. Still, at some point, he relented and started teaching me.
I was never really good at it, but, by golly I TRIED. Soon, he was teaching me some songs. The jokes abounded at home among my brothers. (None of them is interested in carnatic music, you know.)
I would sit, of an evening, practicing with my tambUrA. In would walk one or other and one-liners would fly:
“Hey, are you OK?” (with exaggerated concern and volume!)
“What? Is your stomach hurting or something?”
“Why is this twerp constantly crying? Why don’t you give him what he wants?” (this addressed to amma, who generally just glared back!)
“Hey, the dhobi is complaining. He asked me to beg of you to cease. His donkeys are rebelling and he has extra loads of laundry to take to the lake tomorrow.”
🙂 At the time I didn’t care for these comments. Now, I look back on them with much mirth and nostalgia.
* * *
Part III: kanaka-shaila-vihAriNi
Among the songs appa taught me, were three which I most loved. One was on krShNa, set in the temple at guruvAyUr in keraLa. krShNa, the eternal child was always a favorite of mine. The stories of his pranks gave a sweetness to children’s pranks which made them even more delectable. His loyalty as a friend, I admired. krShNa as a lover, I truly loved. I still do. The sweetness of his relationships, the strength, the profundity of his ability to touch his lovers’ souls, …
These made him my favorite deity in almost all ways. He was this innocent, cutie pie baby full of unbridled energy and mischief, the playfulness that only the guileless child knows. He was also the master manipulator, the master politician, the lover, the director, … Yes, all of these were held and given from that song. “shrI krShNam bhaja mAnasa…” (adore the blessed krShNa, o mind). The slow, mellifluous tempo, the choice of the grand and majestic toDi rAga for this song, the beautiful words and the even more beautiful myth, metaphor, and imagery they evoked. To the extent I knew how and to the extent I could, I would immerse myself in this song when I sang it.
Then there was the one on mInAkShI, set in the temple at madurai, in tamizhnADu. “mInAkShi me mudam dehi …” (mInAkShi, bestow love upon me). The grand mother goddess, the epitome of the entire cosmos, the Unitive Principle personified (“mAna mAtru meye”: “the measurement, the measurer, and the measuree” She is the action, the actor, and the acted- upon, all three, i.e., she is Unity) — this last was enough to forever make me a slave to this song. But, at an emotional level, it also gave me an avenue plaintive in prayer. This last was something I often needed. There were times when I needed a full blast of begging for love, compassion, and ultimately, UNDERSTANDING. Understanding of what was going on within me, what was going on with him, and what was going on without. “kanaka-shaila vihAriNi…” (o, Ye who dwellest on the Golden Hill) in prayer to kAmAkShi (kAnchIpuram, tamizhnADu). The line that says “nurture me, who has sought refuge in Thee, consort of shankara, the virtuous and great beauty of the three worlds.”
* * *
The tensions often overcame. The love I felt for him was not understandable. I could think only of him day and night and this was, somehow, not right. He didn’t seem to reciprocate the FEELINGS. We did have the physicality. What is all this? Every day, every waking moment, was torture to be away from him. I could barely wait to get to campus so I could see him, be with him, touch his lovely hand. Enjoy the surreptitious caressing of hands we would sneak in, right in the middle of a group conversation with the rest of the gang. They were so utterly clueless! The thrill of the danger of discovery!! On those occasions when we could sneak away to his place or, later, to his room in the on-campus hostel where he stayed for a couple of years. Such passion. Unbridled passion.
* * *
Afterwards, the emptiness. What is all this? Why DO I feel this emptiness? A gaping inner void demanding attention. Guilt dancing on the edge of this chasm. Taunting me now, anon threatening me. What am I to do? He is the only one who knows that I even have these urges, but I am too afraid to tell him how I FEEL about him. In his company, I am afraid to say those things for some reason. I focus, instead, on intensely enjoying every moment of that time. To this day, I can feel the summer heat, see the exact color of the shirt I wore on a given occasion, the dust, the smells, the feel of the white crepe-cotton shirt with large blue polka dots he wore, the hands which held mine when we finally were alone …
I can also vividly re-live the emptiness after we parted. The afternoon hours would DRAG on so slowly. My mind would be a whirl, unable to eat or drink, unable to hold a coherent thought or conversation, irritable with the rest of the world which didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t UNDERSTAND. What am I to do?
* * *
It is evening. 6:30ish. Amma has finished her daily chores. Sis-in-law takes over the preparation of dinner. Amma has washed her face, her feet, refreshed herself, lit the lamp in front of the shrine, and now she is in relaxing and reposing mood. She evokes the image of a lakShmI. Appa, if not out on his walk, has just returned from one. Amma says to me: “Why don’t freshen up, wash your feet, put vibhUti on your forehead, prostrate to God and sing some songs?” I was planning to, anyway.
As for the dhobi’s donkeys: damn them.
A couple of songs to “get settled in” as it were. The depression has been so intense all afternoon long, the emptiness so oppressive. This is the evening when kanaka-shaila-vihAriNi comes out with the most feeling, the most plaintive prayer, …
Will SHE listen to what I am going through inside? Will she help?
Help me understand what is going on, what I am doing, what I SHOULD be doing… Help me win his heart forever and ever and have him by my side and in my heart for the rest of my life… Will she bring him to me? Will she get us together? Rid me of my guilt, my confusion, …
“dark-hued Mother, aid to crossing the ocean of life…
“granter of desired boons, kAmAkShi, witness to the whole world.”
“Witness to the wole world” — SHE would know, wouldn’t she?
* * *
PART IV: AkAshAt patitam toyam yathA gachChati sAgaram
One of the verses I had learned in eighth standard samskrtam class went like this:
“Just as the water falling from the sky goes to the ocean Worship offered to all deities go toward keshava.”
Again, it appealed. Amma would have taught me just this shloka if she had known it. What a great idea it is!! I LOVED the translation the teacher gave us. It was explained briefly, then dictated, I wrote it down faithfully. That evening when I was studying, I shared this with amma. I was memorizing it, and then told her, “Listen to this …” She was so pleased. “Yes, it is true. God is one.” Fairly undramatic as statements go. But, I can never lose the impact it has had.
* * *
Coming to America. Over the years, a sense of the the loss of roots. No morning pUjA, no sandhyAvandanam, … What a load of crap all that was!! Just done to hide from others that’s all. But, I should still be careful, lest I be found out. “So, Chandra, are you religious?” “Well, yes, and no, …”
The thread is long gone. The prayers are long gone. I drift.
The mighty push begins to build. I have no choice but to confront the inner workings again. There is talk in the air, talk of marriage to a woman. Uh-oh!! Things will be fine. Once I get married I’ll be fine… No, I should never get married … What if …? “No, I don’t want to get married yet, I have to finish school…”
And then, came the moment of confrontation. 1988. No, this WAS it. Things are not subject to change. I should not go through with this. But, NOW what?
Chandra missed Shekhar, he of the prayer, of the heart-felt songs, of the lovely unitive thoughts … Where WAS he? No longer obsessing about that love of his life from high school days. But, facing even larger, more pressing questions. And he didn’t have a prayer.
The arduous journey had begun. That first conversation with Maria, on that torrential October night in 1989. “Maria, I don’t know what to DO!!” The tears, her soothing touch, that hug, that gentle reassuring kiss on the cheek, “Shhhh shhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay. Let it all out. Just let it all out, sweetie.”
Every day, every chance she got, she would talk to me. Give me a hug. Reassure me. “One step at a time, Chandra, you HAVE to go through this … WHATEVER you want me to do for you, just ask … I will be with you. Don’t lose faith in yourself…”
The sweet roommate, Martha, unable to figure out what was causing all this moodiness, all this withdrawn silence, sudden ebullience followed by equally sudden moroseness… Can I tell her? Will she understand? I shouldn’t burden her … Burdening one is enough …
If I could also find some Indian friends I could talk to … Surely they must be around somewhere, but how I am ever to find them??
* * *
“Chandra, I had a call today from this geographer who is organizing a session at the South Asia Conference in Madison, he wanted to know if I and any of my students had papers to present in that session. Would you like to present a paper on your soil degradation study in India this summer?”
“Yes, I would love to, now that it is certain that I will be going to India for field work. But, I am more interested in trying something else. In cultural geography. I badly want to study the pilgrimages and the sense of place in the works of this one composer in carnatic music whose songs I have heard, some I have learned, and all I have immensely loved…”
Hence, the introduction to the two words which revolutionized my academic thinking “syncretistic motifs.” The discussions, the drafts, the comments, the lighting up of eyes with sudden ideas, … what a grand experience!! All these years, I had enjoyed the songs, the words, the descriptions of places, the evocation of prayer, of insight, … But, NOW, there was SO MUCH more I had never realized I had been given. What a blessing appa has been!! He opened the doors to that world of carnatic music for me. So, I DON’T have to neglect my studies to enjoy it, after all. In fact, I can MAKE them my studies: “Muttusvaami Deekshitar: An Exemplar of Indian Integration and an Agent of Change through Music.”
And my mentor made this possible. Sheer inspiration, that man.
That paper opened vistas which continue to unfold. But the magic of confluence, the “syncretistic motifs” was finally taking a reality which I had never imagined. The songs, the music, the spirituality, the mythology, the place, the rivers, the temples, the shlokas, geography, academe, intellect, spirit, heart, head, … yes, they were all looking at each other with not a little fascination!! Within me.
The Grand Journey had begun.
* * *
Pride Utsav 1995. There is a COMMUNITY of sorts. Others. Just like me!! And, my goodness, what stories they have to tell of what they have gone through, and what they have achieved!! Where the HELL have I been all this time?? WOW…
H’mmm … cultural geography, huh? Why not try to understand who I am, who WE are, where we are, whence we are, whither we are, how we are … Yes, … yessssssss….
* * *
Thanksgiving: for the fact of who I am. For the precious gift of this ‘queerness.’ The spirituality it fostered, the understanding it demanded, the learning it engendered, the vistas it opened, the strengths it gave, the fires in which it purified, the sense of well-being it brought … Finally, FINALLY, I have begun to see how it could all come together. The path is becoming clearer.
Yes, “is”, not “was.”
Surely there is the wavering, the self-doubt, the loneliness, the ups and downs of the spirit, the confidence, the clarity … they all come and go. These are the small episodes where optimism wins out now, and anon the pessimism gains the upper hand. In the thick of the minor episodes, it is easy to lose sight of the larger story, and it happens more often than I care to acknowledge even to myself. But, more and more, the larger story asserts itself in the field of vision. It beckons. It is exciting, exhilarating, and demanding. This is a love not to be taken lightly –like any true love.
The prayer is coming back in the heart, though different. The music is more in the hearing than in the singing. The occasional bhajan meetings in the Indian community, the many conversations with friends who can relate to what I speak of…
The occasional lighting of the brass/bronze lamp which amma had for years and years, for as long as I can remember, which I brought back with me when I went home last December…
Shekhar has come back home it seems. Chandra is happy to see him again. It has been a long separation. They have catching up to do, and they are doing it.
* * *
krShNa is as much my lover in all his manly manifestation as he was of any of the countless gopikAs. He is as much feminine in his nurturing, motherly love, as he was for any of the haridAsas (servants of hari). He is truly able to pull things into resolution into himself. How appropriate that he would be as dark as both the rain-clouds and the profound ocean!!
And, I, from the cloud,
jumping on to this Earth,
joining a small droplet,
then a trickle,
then a brook,
a torrent, and
heading towards the ocean.
Academically, I call it “syncretism.”
Emotionally, I call it “homecoming.”
Intellectually, I call it “integration.”
Spiritually, I call it “Peace” — born of total resolution, balance.
. . . gachChati sAgaram . . .
. . . goes to the ocean . . .
Thanks to Dr.Balachandran for permission to reproduce this autobiographical series that first appeared on the Khush South Asian discussion list in April 1997.