INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO
O Devayani, it's hard to remember the pain. You can remember the heat, the dryness, the glorious, riotous blue sky, you can remember that a single rain drop fell all the time you sat on the roof, the dusty roof of the ashram,
stitching, stitching, stitching in the parching heat, stitching, stitching, stitching the hems of the lungis and cholis stitching, stitching, stitching the orange, the silk, the cotton, the wool, in the amazing heat, to the chanting, to instruments you may have never heard before --
crying through the heat of an Indian December when, by Indian standards, it wasn't even very hot. The heat evaporating the tears, the salt drying on your cheeks, crying, crying, crying, and stitching, stitching, stitching, mending up your life, sewing your heart, broken by men -- a man -- broken by the effort you had made, the conscientious effort you had made to be part of humanity.
The Vedic chanting, monotonous mono-tone-ous over the loud speaker, continuous, announcing lunch in the vast, unadorned stone hall where grain sacks were piled at one end, where birds flew through the stone lattice, the glassless windows. They hovered near the coffered ceiling, plummeted to pick up grains, chirped on the sacks and waited to join you on the thin runner of red carpet that cushioned the stone floor, friendly, accepting the rice or chappati scraps you spilled from your leaf plate.
The Vedic chanting continuing, continuing, continuing, continuing, stitching, stitching, stitching.
O Devayani, on the roof you sat on a step leaning back against a wall, pushing hard to absorb the minimal shade, as you sweated and burned in the sun of India.
You came to India from despair, out of curiosity, intrigued, charmed by the exotic, with a love for chanting in your heart.
The Guru was dead, "Long live the Guru."
You came, you sat, you stitched, stitched, stitched. It was your seva, your work for the ashram, your self-less work for the Guru, who had died in October -- the night you dreamed of walking the white peacock through the forest.
You had, at that time, recently walked a white peacock five miles through a forest. And that night, as the guru died -- Guru Om Guru Om -- you dreamed of a white peacock, of flying, flying right over the turnstile without paying into the subway that night, the night the Guru died.
Today, you sit in bed stitching, in another world, listening to the Vedic chants on an old tape, a very old tape. Thirteen years ago you heard those chants on the loudspeaker as you sat on the roof stitching in the heat, crying enough to dehydrate your soul, crying until you could -- in a bucketful of your tears -- rinse out the world and your thoughts, hang them, along with your purple dress, to dry in the heat, where they crackled in the ferocity of the ninety-nine point nine degree temperature.
Crying until you could begin -- new rinsed, new washed, bathed in your own tears, cleansed with your own despair -- could begin again in the sun, in the heat. The music came up from the courtyard engulfing your heart: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti-i.
O Devayani it's hard to describe the pain, the pain of trying to remember that burning time, that desert time, that arid time in your life, in the ashram, hoping against hope you could change cultures, hoping, if you cried enough, that things would be different, longing, longing to live "bodiless."
"Bodiless compassion" -- even then, thirteen years ago, though you could not name it, you sought "bodiless compassion,"
not because you minded sweating in the heat or eating strange food that made your stomach feel odd, if not sick. You loved the heat, the stones, the desert the asham where they assigned you to stitch, and let you sit on a low roof in the sun listening to the music, the dryness, the dust,
listening to the dust motes twist in the air, listening to the noise and the music from the almost daily parades, celebrations that took place in the dust of the streets, which you could see only by twisting your body, only by moving to look, really look, from a distant corner of the roof.
Look! Really look, O Devayani, stand, hear the music, look!
But, O Devayani, you weren't interested in parades. You didn't look. You heard the horns and the drums, the chanting, the gaiety that shared the colossal dryness with the Vedic chants, coming, monotonous, over the loud speaker.
You kept sitting and stitching and crying in the enervating heat, in the dust. In the dining hall you sat with the birds, with the devotees, cross-legged, along the sides of the red runners not talking, piously eating the food, which was delicious.
O Devayani, remember your favorite time in the morning, remember the darkness at 3:00 in the morning when the wrapped figures began to move across the dark, in the warmth, before the heat,
when the women with colored powders created the filigree designs on the stones at the ashram's entrance.
At times, you could have been first to step on the beauty of the design, first to slide your sandal across the intricate design wrought with intemperate concentration, with devotion, with talent, with love.
But invariably you stepped aside -- shocked! -- at the thought of treading on beauty, on pattern, on design, on the exquisite work of the women, the love, the devotion.
You stepped aside, unable to honor custom in a land where they know that beauty dies,
that beauty is born to die, that music, the language of God, is played each day, and never heard twice.
The veiled figures moved through the dark to begin their meditation, their chanting, at three o'clock, the sacred time of the morning.
And the chai! Ah, the chai, the sweet chai in the dark dining hall, with early morning birds flying close to the ceiling, disturbed by the humans, though everyone was silent, withdrawn into robes, shrouded in shawls, facing the golden shrine, drinking hot tea from metal glasses, warming their hands as they drank the hot, sweet chai, drinking silently, drinking long, returning to the line for more.
More, always more. O Devayani, you drank as much as you could -- turning the sickly sweetness of the spiced chai to salt tears. That was your occupation, Devayani: to turn sweet chai to salt tears.
You had been given a human body to turn sweet chai to salt tears, to stitch on the roof in the sun, to smell the hot tar as the Adavasi women climbed in their beautiful saris, with flowers in their hair -- sweet jasmine and lilies in their hair, earrings dancing at their throats -- as they climbed the stone stairs, (four flights) with basins of grit on their heads. They climbed in their tiny bodies of infinite grace, smiling from time to time, to the roof with the grit on their heads to mix with the tar on the roof. From an inferno in a barrel below, dripping cans of tar were hoisted, halting, creaking gyrating in space, pulleyed high, high to the high roofs, far higher than the roof on which you sat. O Devayani, the smell! the hot smell of the tar in the hot sun, in the dust, in the heat -- watching the women work not minding that they couldn't speak your language nor you theirs, for there was nothing to say but the work and the mending, the beauty, the grace, the music, the heat -- while your heart mended. O Devayani, could you smell your heart mending? O Devayani, today, in another world, as you sit stitching, stiching, stitching to the music, stitching the patterns of the music, making the music visible in color, pattern, rhythms, concretizing the evanescent patterns of the drum, stitching, stitching, stitching, you listen to the Vedic chants and you remember. You remember the Tejase river, the "River of Light," the river of emerald grass, white herons, parched banks, black stones in the dust where the river vanishes. You remember the banyan trees, their roots hanging like curtains. You remember Shiva in the banyan tree, in his ornaments, with his smile, come to speak with you, more beautifully filigreed than the design before the door, than the design before the door of your heart. "Do nothing," he said. You remember so much, so much you recall as the pain in your heart dissolved into India. A land that is not your own, and yet, surely, as you study the drums, the tabla, as you study the music today, Nada Brahma, and stitch, you perceive clearly that you were once from India. Long ago, in another form you came from the heat and the dust. You came -- dust and ashes -- you came with Shiva's stripes on your brow. O Devayani, even today you do not know how to live in two cultures. You have studied the world, you have stitched designs in Sanskrit and Chinese, in knots from Peru, in symbols of the Navajo, Egyptians, Tibetans, Japanese, from Europe, Asia, the Americas. You have created a world in your head of oneness, of Indra's pearls, each pearl, precious, unique, reflecting the whole. And yet you are homeless in a world that you do not understand in which you do not take part. You live on streets paved with concrete, made ugly with gas stations where you buy gas, drip oil. You travel thousands of miles, miles, miles, miles, day after day though the desolation of hideous buildings built for money to make more money to buy beauty that must be guarded by watch dogs and fences, hoarded, defended. You move through the world at jet speed, answering phones, driving here, running there, being on your toes and being on tap, getting this repair done and that form filled, re-arranging appointments, getting to meetings -- and your heart breaks, O Devayani, for you know that Shiva put you here in this life this life, this life, to know, to remember, to understand, to work out your karma, to learn unmistakably where the notes of music dwell. Only for a moment did you live in paradise on the roof, in the heat, in the dust, in India, crying, turning sweet chai to salt tears, to sweat, that evaporated from your skin leaving a scourge for your wounds, leaving salt to rub into your wounds in the heat. And the chanting goes on and on and on and on and on minor-key, monotonous mono-tone-ous O Devayani, you cannot remember the pain, but you remember paradise. O Devayani, the image is instant, the poem is long. Life is instant, and living takes so very very long. Today, the rangoli at the ashram door in America -- the filigree design made to be walked on in India -- is guarded with ugly orange highway cones. Don't step. Don't touch. The utilitarian ugliness of our civilization guards the beauty invented for evanescence, honored for its temporariness, the beauty to be remembered whole only in a heart that rose before the heat before the dawn in India at 3:00 A.M. It is impossible to remember the pain. Only the beauty remains, the music, the stitching.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: email@example.com
TRAVEL STORIES ABOUT INDIA
The Wedding in Mahabaleshwar
Passing Through Bodh Gaya.
XX Kaida, Tabla Covers
XXI Tukra, Tabla Covers
XXIII The Ten Thats
INTRODUCTION + HAAG'S BIO