Aerial Roots

22 Oct

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.

What’s with the pole in this cab? I have a hundred questions.

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.

A relatively mellow street near my aunt’s home. It’s the navrata season where the various aspects of the goddess are honored.

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.

Complexity everywhere.

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”




14 Responses to “Aerial Roots”

  1. David Natale October 22, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    You’re blog is inspirational. Love taking the trip with you. Hang in there!

  2. Ricardo October 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm #

    I wouldn’t call you white, but I wouldn’t call you brown either. I’d call you una cafecita con leche–just with a lotta cream. And honey. Or sugar. Or agave. Or whatevah sweet thang you be liking.

    I’m doing a show this weekend and I’m using the ceiba tree as the central symbolic figure of my Puerto Rican roots. Similar to the banyan, the ceiba grows in such a way that its roots create a bundle of ropes and tangles above the ground that make for difficult walking and climbing, but interesting sitting and resting.

    I think both of our trees epitomize exactly what we are trying to do: find our truth in the maze and haze of pain, despair, isolation, hope, fear, excitement, wonder, awe, challenge and disparity.

    I’ll light a candle. I think it may help you see the branch you’re reaching for in the dark.



  3. juliacsmith October 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    I love and appreciate that you put the questions about being lost vs. being rootless into words. Thank you, as always, for sharing your journey in this space.

  4. Carol Scott October 22, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Your reflection is very calming. I appreciate the faith you have in the direction your roots are reaching. I can easily feel as though I’m throwing my arms out to catch on to anything nearby, anything to steady my balance. It’s grounding (ha!) to think of instinctively reaching down towards the earth, to a deep, solid anchor. Thank you.

    Wishing you equilibrium and wonder.


  5. Noush October 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    You so eloquently articulate our human condition ❤

  6. Norma Markley October 23, 2012 at 7:19 am #

    Such visual writing.

  7. shireen October 23, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    hi,kayhan-u have written a very meaningful blog-..and am sure glad you reached delhi safely-may you have a successful and safe trip there..need anything,please let me know-love you…all the best-shireen

  8. Jasjit Singh October 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Dear friend,

    You are so eloquent, I love the way your words flow so effortlessly while you convey such depth. Farzana loved your article also…… not spoilt just very candid and factual. It can be rather disorienting & intimidating, I still feel uncomfortable with a lot of things because attitudes are so different here. I am glad your cousin is coming plus his friend sounds very nice, would love to meet her sometime. Don’t react, just take things as they come……you have such a happy attitude on the surface but you are always observing/questioning & analyzing which is natural. Here it’s simpler to detach oneself because everything is so frenzied.

    I am sorry I cannot spend as much time with you as I’d like to, zero control over things here. Please come whenever you are free for lunch, we can go to the club. Shall try to pick you up and check out the Khandelwal food, will take you to the Ashram shop which is in the Aurobindo complex – it’s run by Oriyas, very calm and clean. The ‘Santushti’ shopping centre opposite the Ashoka is an oasis of calm, there’s a restaurant called ‘Basil & Thyme’ which was done by Field Marshal Maneckshaw’s wife. You’ll like it. No definite dates, shall check with you and do whatever works best. Stay calm, hope we can set up a food delivery for you whenever you are home so that you don’t have to eat out. Looking forward to your posts……….love and hugs, goodnight

  9. shireen kharas October 29, 2012 at 8:25 am #

    kayhan-love reading your blog…spend 4 days with me when you return to mumbai and i will make you a true-blue mumbaiya-love..keep writing your beautiful thoughts

  10. Lee October 29, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    Dear Kayhan – I trust that your openness to the journey and innate wisdom will guide you. Hang in there. Lots of love, Lee

  11. AP October 31, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    “I am learning to see what I am looking at and not to make snap judgments.” Ah yes. Took me back to the time I was living in Bombay, constantly surprised, taken back, and finding humanity in the most unexpected places. Keep this as a guiding light, you never know who will become a kindred soul. Look forward to hearing more reflections. You’re escaping a mighty storm back home, so know that you’re in the right place! Amy (your neighbor at the Berk)

  12. Katrina Davis August 10, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    Hello! I wanted to know the origin of the man and the banyan tree image. 🙂

    • kayhanartivista August 16, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      I found it through Google images but I can’t find the original when I do a search … 😦

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