The famous banyan tree in India has aerial roots. That means small seedlings growing on its branches send down vine-like extensions that upon hitting dirt, take root and anchor the tree. If left unchecked, a single banyan can expand into a maze-like thicket of its own creation. A tree intertwined around another tree, creating shadow trees.
I’m living in a similar metaphoric spiral right now. Thoughts shooting straight downward, leading to confusion, leading to pause, leading to insights, leading to growth.
I’m like the little guy at the bottom of the illustration; feeling my way through, tripping over the bumps.
The people I meet, my family and their friends are like the tree – patient and generous.
At my worst, I feel wholly unprepared to spend the next 8 months here. I feel like everything I brought with me is useless, my miniscule language skills are useless and I stick out no matter where I go. Though when I get that low, something happens to reassure me that I’m fine. Like the two big men who ended up sitting across from me on my 16 hour train ride from Mumbai to New Delhi. I was a little nervous about sharing an overnight train berth surrounded by men so I was sitting there trying to look stoic, listening to my headphones. I soon realized that they weren’t speaking in Hindi and I recognized many of their words. In fact, it sounded like Farsi. So I started speaking to them in broken Farsi. It turns out they are from Kabul, here in India on some business.
One of the guys had traveled all over Iran. In New Delhi, they carried my bags off the train, called my driver to tell him where we were standing and waited with me until he came.
It’s been a roller coaster and my knuckles are white from gripping the bars tight. (On a side note, I was talking to someone and I referred to myself as brown. She said, “No you’re not, you’re very white”. This led me to reply, “Trust me, in America I’m not white”.)
Back to me and the banyan tree and feeling rootless amid a forest of roots. What is the difference between feeling lost and feeling rootless? Does being rootless lead one to be lost? What does being lost lead to? Liberation or nothingness? Why such angst after only a week? I’m not just dislocated, I’m anxious about the fact that I feel dislocated. This coupled with the energy and pace of Bombay can make someone go mad.
To give you an example, getting to a destination on foot means you have to first negotiate the traffic – cars, scooters, motorbikes, pedestrians, dogs, oxen and men with hand carts loaded with goods. You then have to negotiate the rivers of people walking on the sidewalk and spilling on to the gully since the sidewalk is covered with hawkers’ stalls and improvised huts.
When you get close to the location you have to puzzle over an amazing kaleidoscope of signs, old and new in all colors and shapes, attached to the building in all directions to find the place you are looking for.
But good luck finding a place to stand and read the signs because you’re never out of the traffic, you’re always in it, trying to hold on to your own singular desire like a lifebuoy being steadily shaken and drenched by the waves of all the other human beings who want something too.
And the tension is palpable. The middle and upper classes demand things now, quickly, to my liking. The working and poor argue, steal, stall and walk out.
There is a great tension between obligation and freedom; sacrifice and care. Dedicated family members denounce one another when things get hard. Educated women verbally (and physically) abuse servants to get out their resentment. Selflessness and dedication meet control and sadism in strange ways.
Another gift came in the form of a book by my friend and brilliant author Arshia Sattar. “Lost Loves – Exploring Rama’s Anguish” is a reading of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, as a love story. I’ve read the first few chapters and one thing that stood out was the thought that Rama was a god who oftentimes didn’t remember, didn’t recognize that he was a god. He was living as a human, but that didn’t negate his divinity. And so, we are we all in a way. We can’t recognize our own divine light nor the light of others and so we battle on this earth for a little place to stand. A footprint in the sand.
I am learning to see what I am looking at and not to make snap judgments. Just like I learned how to approach an address I will learn how to approach a culture. To see it as it is, not as I think it should be. And like the banyan tree, my roots will continue to grow in many directions.
Here’s an image I created after being inspired by “Lost Loves”