In the afternoons at Brahma Vida Ashram, I am free to rest, read, and reflect. I spend my time speaking with the older sisters, the ones who have been at the ashram for decades. This post is a compilation of two interviews with a particular lady in her eighties. She is devout, informed, and dedicated. May I share her words well.
“’I, me, mine,’” the elderly sister tells me, leaning forward from her pillow in earnest, “that has created all the problems.”
Her simple room near the ashram’s gardens is dark and cool in the afternoon heat. She sits on her bed next a table stuffed with books, an alarm clock, a radio, and bits of paper. Her gray and white hair is cut short, a radical style for India; sometimes she takes a deep breath as she speaks, wind in her chest emphasizing her most important points. “A calm state of mind is essential, all the time observing your breath,” I am told. She squints slightly at me, serious but kind. Sometimes she augments our conversation with a book pulled down from the shelves behind her – something on Vinoba, the ashram’s founder, or various aspects of life. The conversation flows from her travels in America to questions about my work. At this particular moment, we are discussing the future of humanity.
“From the moon, there are no lines on Earth. […] The identity of “I” is fake, it has no meaning. When we get rid of the I-ness, I am nothing, I am an instrument in the hands of a power, I want to keep links with that power.” Her eyes are calm but grave. “These wars, the bloodshed, exploitation, trying to find some place for myself, I depend on this person — I don’t depend on any person, I am empty.”
She tells me stories: how she gave away her inheritance after keeping just enough for her needs, how Gandhi was careful to take no more than his share, Vinoba’s simple way of life. Producing a pair of pink pants made from thick, handmade cotton, her hands perform the movements of sewing a patch — for twenty-two years. She owns a summer outfit and a winter outfit. Waving at the things on the table beside her, she tells me, “Objects are here with me temporarily, they will move on,” her hand flings out and I imagine the books speeding away from her. “We have to use objects to their ultimate end, you can’t use and then throw away.” Counting on her fingers, she explains that mass production and consumption mean mass waste.
Our conversation turns to India, its problems and heritage. “India is a land of unity in diversity,” she explains, her voice soft but her words railing against corporate systems, the dangers of globalization, the monopolization of seeds and that variety will be finished, that regular folk won’t be able to get seeds from the fields, as they always have. Vinoba’s peace walk for land reform floats up from my memory; I hear the vital role of agriculture in her words, echoing the man who started the ashram seventy years ago.
Thinking about role of giant corporations in America’s government and economy, I ask the question I’ve carried with me for the Gandhians: how can young people have hope?
“When we see positive and negative things in this world, we get confused. But there is — positivity is in a bigger number than the negativity. And the whole world is standing on some harmony. In human society, negativity is in bigger number than positivity. But because God has created this whole universe, Divinity will be more successful… there is a survival instinct in human beings, in insects and everything. Through violence, we cannot survive, we need nonviolent means. The language of love need not be learnt, any individual animal or insect understands the language of love. […] So our mission of life is to give love, to everyone who comes into your life flow — serve them with a compassionate and loving heart. If I can do that, then my life is worthwhile. You will be so much happy, and so much enjoy. On a certain level, that’s how the Divine power works. People catch our vibrations, and it becomes something magical.”
I scribble notes and promise to write something that my university community back home could read.
When we say our goodbyes, she hands me a book of poetry on nature’s beauty, and takes my hand. “I have realized the significance of your name. Bridget. You build bridges between people.”
Remembering Chicago, the interfaith community, and their nickname for me, I know it is not a great leap to make but I still stagger away from her room in awe of the experience.
This time at the Sikh temple, the baby was awake and crawling.
I was welcomed back, offered chai, and ushered to sit down. It’s still October 14th and I’ve only been away from Delhi for a week, but it feels like much, much longer between the newness stretching out days, and the harassment piling heavily on my skin.
I wave and smile at the baby, who is slowly encouraged to sit in my foreign lap. Something in the kitchen pulls the women away, and I am left to prove myself with the child. What if she hates me, and I am the failed woman from a foreign country? Who cares if I reject normative definitions and roles, right now I am here and I want to communicate. And I so desperately need to belong somewhere, even if just for a few hours.
Seeing my chunky brown stone bracelet, I pull it off and hand it over. She stares at it and sticks it in her mouth.
Now I must prevent the child from choking on my ingenious plan. “Nahi, nahi, nahi” remembering Hindi and gently prying it away from her slippery fingers, I keep it close enough to entertain but not enough to threaten.
They return and laugh at the strangeness of an Indian baby in a white girl’s arms; sitting again, stories flutter up as well as they can with differing languages. Giving status, defining our relationships and place in the world, are the easiest points to communicate. I try to bend my story into simpler terms, sacrificing accuracy for connection, queerness in its many forms for cross-cultural commonality. I wonder at the ethics of this, the compromising for acceptance, the self-performance modifications to offer a cohesive, acceptable, and comprehensible narrative.
The baby pulls at my prayer beads around my neck, working to get them closer to her mouth, and I gently unwrap her fingers. She calmly explores my face, tugs my scarf a little, grabs my nose piercing with tiny fingers, and puts her fingers in my mouth — none of this bothers me. Except the nose, that hurts. I think children should be affirmed as much as possible, and I make a silent sacrifice of my health as the baby’s fingers pull my bottom lip way out to see what shape I make. Just another moment of “if I get sick, this was it.”
My companions gently laugh, and I can tell that they enjoy how comfortable the child is. My crossed legs take turns propping her up, depending on which way she is wiggling, and my ability to have a split focus means her curious tugging at various bits of my face does not disrupt our conversation.
Trading the child for vegetables and an awkwardly long knife, I slowly and carefully slice onions with my disproportionate blade to the others’ amusement. Sitting on the floor, navigating a basket and my knees, I think about how startled my family would be if I prepared vegetables like this back in the States. Soon we are up, the main lady and I, pulling pots and spices out for the evening meal. I am taught the rice to water ratio — four hand scoops to two scoops of water — and I remember my father carefully aligning his eyes with the measuring cup for an accurate read. I would be scolded if I lifted up the lid before it was done, as once was sufficient and more would destroy it. And she is estimating with a scoop.
Our freshly-cut vegetables sizzle in oil, and I take over the stirring, because I know how to do that. The construction of the spicy curry is basically a standard approach: onions and whatnot first, adding spices, building up the vegetables, soaked lentils, water…I try to communicate how similar an approach it is, but I think that fails to transfer.
Back sitting on the floor, waiting for the curry to cook, the baby reaches for me and crawls across the small space between us and up into my lap — I am delighted. Seeing her first smile and laugh of the afternoon (a very serious girl) filled me with a simple joy, and when she first clutched me in a hug, resting her head against my shoulder, I felt accepted in a fundamental way, with a simplicity that only children can offer. Racial and cultural divides faded away for her, and I was just another one in the family.
But it was when she fell asleep on my shoulder that the acceptance truly settled into my heart.
Her grandmother, my co-cook and main conversation partner, slips a silver bangle onto my right wrist and communicates that I should not remove it. It was one of hers, a Sikh-identifying symbol (there are six). I wave and fold my hands into namaste and attempt to thank her.
I take my turn eating and serving our spicy meal, and then she invites me to rest as the others disperse. We stretch out on thin blankets where we have been sitting, the baby nestled into one fold, then the grandmother, and a freshly-bangled me, grateful for a new normal in space that is supposed to be radically different.