Tag Archives: India


Nandri is “thank you” in Tamil and I’m thanking Sindhu for giving me these blog awards. nandri, nandri, nandri, Sindhu! hugs to you, my Indian sister! I think you know how I love Tamil Nadu!

Please check out Sindhu’s other blogs, especially Flower Girl’s Rural India and Flowergirl’s Recipes (for all you Indian food lovers.)

Sindhu honored me by asking if I would write something about my Indian adventures so mine was the first post in her Travelogue section of her blog. anytime I feel “homesick” for India (although I’ve only been to Tamil Nadu three times I consider it my second home), I go to Sindhu’s Rural India blog. my most wonderful experiences have been in rural Tamil Nadu, and I’ll tell you a secret: my dream is to open a yoga shala in Kumbakonam, teaching western visitors and helping the locals with therapeutic yoga. sigh…if only…hey, there’s a donation button in the sidebar, hint, hint…maybe I’ll get an anonymous benefactor…sigh….

People talk about wanting to go to India to see the “real India” — people think that the “real India” is all about naked sadhus, spirituality, yoga, and temple incense. but all of India is the “real India” — from the $200 a night hotel rooms to the rich Bollywood movie stars to the street beggars to the naked slum children using garbage for their toys. one of the things that I love about India is that nothing is hidden, everything is in your face 24/7, life and death on the streets. that can be very hard for westerners to get used to, if they ever do, but for me, it is liberation.

you either love or hate India, there is no in between. as soon as I put my feet down on Indian soil, I feel as if I have come home.

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Gandhi: the movie

For those of you who loved the movie Gandhi — or those of you who have never seen it — there is a 25th anniversary special edition DVD. it came out in 2007 but I just found out about it! the 2-disc set has interviews about filming in India, about finding the right actors, along with archival footage, plus the picture and sound have been digitally remastered.

from the reviewing website:

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a labor of love that took nearly 20 years to make it to the screen, is one of the last true epics that spans decades yet keeps you tied to an emotional, human anchor. That anchor would be Gandhi himself, Mohandas Gandhi or Mahatma “Great soul” Gandhi as he was referred to later on in his life by the people of India.

Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture (1982), Best Director (Attenborough) and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley as Gandhi), Gandhi has been released for a second time on DVD, this time however as a glorious 2 disc set celebrating its 25th anniversary that has to be one of the best DVDs released in 2007.

The film chronicles the leader of the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. It opens with an appropriate statement from Attenborough stating, “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling…least of all Gandhi’s….”

I have never been to north India where Gandhi spent most of his life. but what many people don’t know is that he also spent time in Tamil Nadu, the state that I travel to in India. I have been to Madurai twice, the last time just this past January, and I always make time for the Gandhi Museum. It is a place where I find peace in the riotous city of Madurai. the exhibits tell the story of Gandhi’s life in south India and how important Tamil Nadu was in the India’s struggle for independence. the last exhibit is in a room that is painted black — it is a glass case that contains the dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated and it still contains his blood stains.

I can not describe how much I love spending time at the museum, just walking around the grounds, visiting the bookstore, buying chai from the chai seller, who can’t speak English but always has a big smile for me when he gives me free pictures of Gandhi.

During my 2006 trip, on the train ride back to Chennai from Rameswaram (a 17 hour ride), my compartment mate was a businessman who started a conversation with me when he saw me reading Gandhi’s autobiography that I had bought in Madurai. It was the first time that I heard about how some Indians hate Gandhi. It really surprised me. I asked him why and he said that many Indians blame Gandhi for the Partition: “The partition of India left both India and Pakistan devastated. The process of partition had claimed many lives in the riots. Many others were raped and looted. Women, especially, were used as instruments of power by the Hindus and the Muslims; “ghost trains” full of severed breasts of women would arrive in each of the newly-born countries from across the borders.”

The Partition is still a very sensitive subject for many Indians. my compartment mate told me that many Indians hate Gandhi the same way that many Americans hate George Bush. those of us who know how much Martin Luther King, Jr. admired Gandhi will find this sentiment shocking.

some photos of the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India….

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"you are all Gandhis"

Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January. India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu. it is a harvest festival and I had read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year. wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me “Happy Pongal!”

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around —

a stolen necklace in Chennai…
a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy Tamil videos from the ’70s played at full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way…
an Indian cop who wanted to take my swiss army knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side —

something wondrous happened. that’s what always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with a regular rickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river. somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places that tourists usually don’t go.

We drove past a small school where I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes. the little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo. of course, as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me. some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was. I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone. I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said “no problem, madam” and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them. he said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside. I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I’m not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted. I had planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps. I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces. I was stunned, and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress. I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did. they introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words. I was still in shock so I mumbled something about “stay in school and get a good education” and that got a huge round of applause.

it is the Pongal custom to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year. as the Pongal pot of rice was boiling, the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift — a towel that they draped over my shoulders. the price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

as the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them. there are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. one of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me. when he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture — a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over. serendipity.

finally, the teachers wanted me to say some last words to the kids. by this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent. I spoke and it was translated into Tamil….

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude. after wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted. I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be. I told them, “you are all Gandhis, never forget that.”

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them. I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don’t want to know, how the rest of the world lives. here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them. all things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

a teacher then told the kids how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today. I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger. The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them…and that’s when I started to cry.

the principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was being served to the children. we went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world. I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school. before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything. the principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day. you have to travel in india to know the significance of the question “one pen, madam?”, so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

the principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return. I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live. I got back outside and into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me. the driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

this is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.

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the new official transportation of this blog

Back in October I wrote a post about what the official transportation of Linda’s Yoga Journey is, i.e., the ubiquitous Indian autorickshaw. here is the post so you can read all about it.

However, since returning from my third trip the rick has been replaced by the lovely bullock cart. yes, friends, I am in love with bullocks and the carts that they pull.

(view from atop a bullock cart)

(bullock decorated for a Pongal celebration)

(proud bullock owner)

I attended a village’s Pongal celebration (Pongal being a holiday like our Thanksgiving, which I will write about later) and I had the great fortune to be given a ride to the village on top of a bullock cart.

You see working bullocks all over Tamil Nadu and for the most part they are placid creatures. Their eyes always seem to say that this is their lot in life so why get upset about anything.

The ride on the cart was very relaxing but I was very tempted to tell the driver “faster, faster!” so I could experience a run-away bullock cart. I wanted to pretend I was on a run-away stagecoach like in an old Western movie. what can I say? ever since I was a girl I always wanted to push the envelope. But it was a slow, easy ride where these kids were my bullock cart partners:

this was one of my wonderful tamil nadu days that I so achingly miss right now as I look out my window and watch the snow come down. we are supposed to get a foot of snow here in chicagoland and ever since I returned on January 23, this weather has been a total shock to my system after being in south india for a month!

When I returned from india so ill, I told myself that I would give india a break in 2009. but the missing is palpable and it is like an ache in my heart.

oh well….to paraphrase Louis Armstrong about jazz, if I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.

the dichotomy that is India

“In some ways, India is like another home. There’s a familiarity of myself here. It’s the rawness of life that resonates with me, in its myriad forms – beautiful, grotesque, otherworldly. The systematic stripping away of distractions and compulsions; attachments that keep us from being fully present.”

This is what Barbara Raisbeck has to say about India in her blogs The Daughters of India and India in Stories. Go to her blogs to read the rest of the above post and her other powerful stories. When I got her email with this post the above words resonated with me very much because I feel the same way. I’ve said before that as soon as I put my foot on Indian soil in 2005 I felt like I had come home.

Barbara is another woman I’ve come to know online through the website IndiaMike.com although we’ve never met. She is in India again right now doing research for a book on dowry brides.

My trip this time was a very mixed bag. As I said previously, one of my teachers told me that on your third trip you become a native, seeing India for what it is, warts and all. Well, I saw plenty of warts, my own included. India is always the country that attracts and repulses you all at the same time. Just when India drop-kicked me in the head, another wonderful moment occurred just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time (I’ll write about it later.)

I read a story before I left about a baby elephant that was rescued. A baby elephant had fallen into a pit in the forest and the mother and the rest of the herd tried to rescue him. After awhile the herd left, but the mother stayed there trying to rescue her baby, with “tears streaming down her face” the article said. The villagers saw this and called the Forestry Department who sent a working elephant and a vet. The mother elephant would not let anyone near her baby, who by this time was not moving, so the working elephant with her mahout kept the mother away while the baby was pulled out of the pit. When the vet treated the baby, it was discovered that the baby had also been stung by a scorpion, that’s why he was not moving. The article said that after treatment the baby would be released back into the forest. Definitely a feel-good story.

Compare that story to the one I read about a Chennai hospital that was being investigated because they threw a patient, still connected to tubes and IV bags and a urine bag, out into the street. Imagine walking along and seeing an old person in hospital clothes still connected to tubes and bags just lying in the street outside a hospital. The article said that the patient was indigent, that no one claimed any responsibility for this person. In other words, the hospital was not going to be paid for treating this person, so they threw the patient literally onto the street. The article said the hospital was being investigated but I noticed there was no mention of what happened to the patient, whether he had been taken to another hospital or what.

Over breakfast one morning I read another story about 13, 14, and 15 year old girls being raped by their husbands. In the Chennai area there are still tsunami camps, refugee camps where people still live despite the tsunami happening in December 2004. Mothers fear for their daughters in these camps so they think if they marry off their daughters, the new husbands will protect them from the unwanted advances of men. However, given that these young girls know almost nothing about sex, they refuse the advances of their new husbands, so their first experience with sex is rape. I read how one young girl was drugged into unconsciousness so her husband could have sex with her. These girls of course become pregnant and have babies at these ages, in a refugee camp. And the cycle continues. Lovely breakfast reading.

For every story like the first one, there are two or three of the other.

There are still people who think India is the land of yoga, incense, and spirituality, some romantic place where one only needs to travel to the Himalayas to find their guru and nirvana and all their problems will be solved. If you read an Indian newspaper every day I can assure you that your rose-colored view of India will change. I am reading a book right now called Children of Kali and the author says that India is very good at exporting spirituality and gurus, but doesn’t have the guts to look at its own problems.

Like anywhere else, India has its angels and its devils. I’ve met the friendliest and kindest and most gracious people in India but I’ve also met the most arrogant and the most rigid. I’ve met people who could not think outside the box to save their own lives.

But the thought of never returning to India kills me. I came back this time sicker than an Indian street dog with the thought that I will take a break from India for a while. But as soon as I started to get my strength back, I started having Tamil Nadu dreams again.

What keeps drawing me back? I can honestly say that I don’t know. Maybe it is the rawness and the grotesqueness that Barbara writes about that keeps bringing me back. Maybe it is those 4 hour bus rides through the Tamil Nadu countryside that I said I would never do again, but that I achingly miss right now. Maybe it’s those fleeting moments of human connection with a total stranger, no words spoken, but completely understood via a smile and hand gestures and the eyes and the head wobbles that have settled deep within my heart.

India has her hooks in me like an old lover — an old lover who you’ve told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever.

You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time. I have no answers, but Barbara comes close….

“The only way I can answer is, in suffering, in our own or being a witness to it, there is an opening that occurs. That opening can consume or liberate us. Or both. Consume, then liberate. And just at the moment that we think we’ve been liberated, the consumption starts again. The suffering doesn’t just end, even when we beg it to. But I have learned that to observe it, allow myself to feel it, hold it, accept it, I can then let go of it. Not completely since our wounds leave scars, but enough to help me out of the fire and into the awareness of the lesson, that will, when I am ready, appear and show me a way through to the other side.”

look at this child

this was one of those serendipitous moments when my auto rick stopped and this boy came out from his hovel in the alley to look at me, and then smiled. notice that he is playing with garbage and then think of your own child.

this photo that took all of 3 seconds to shoot says a lot. it was one of those fortunate moments in india. not because I got a perfectly framed shot of a boy living in an alley and a half-hidden girl that in itself makes a statement, but because when you connect eye to eye it changes you forever. and I am grateful for that.

the rickshaw pulled away just as he was about to take 10 rupees from my hand.

two reasons why I love india

because of the kids I meet…

slum children in Madurai…all they asked for was to have their picture taken and then to see it on my camera.

and signs like the one below…

I’ll take one snake, please

how I spent my last day in india

this is how I spent my last day in India (tuesday afternoon), flat on my back from food poisoning. I am still sick and have had “loose motions” and stomach pain since last Friday evening — a long time. as I said in the previous post, I am sporting the fashionable emaciated heroin chic look right now. I weighed myself this morning and have lost almost 10 pounds. I wanted to lose weight in india, but not this way!

I won’t bore you with the gory details but I was stupid and ate a “jam cake” in Fort Cochin, Kerala late at night. I realized at about 3 am early saturday morning when I woke up puking my guts out that the thing had been sitting out all day in the heat. what an asshole I was. I have survived indian street food and drinking chai from street vendors where the chai cups are washed out in who knows what type of germ-infested phlegmy water, and a pastry does me in. am going to rethink drinking street chai for my future trips. chai cups washed in water that sits out all day doesn’t appeal to me. and while I’ll be contributing to India’s worsening garbage problem (like it could get any worse), think I will only drink chai from stalls that use plastic cups from now on.

My friends Nick and Sushi (my thankachi in tamil, i.e., “younger sister”) picked me up Tuesday morning from the 5 star hotel I stayed in for my last two nights in india — where I spent most of my time in bed or on the toilet — and took me to their house. since I was facing two flights totaling 18 hours, Sushi (Nick’s wife) thought it would be a good idea that I go to hospital for an IV. I had thought that on the way home from the airport I was going to tell my husband to stop at an ER for the same thing.

When they took me, I was very sick. I basically had not eaten anything substantial for 5 days and my brain felt like it was in a fog from lack of food. I felt very disoriented.

They took me to the hospital that is admininstered by Sushi’s daughter-in-law’s father. Sushi made the call and they were waiting for us. I was treated by the head doctor and the head nurse — for free. The head nurse is in the pink sari and sushi is in the orange sari, but she is hiding on the left side. I saw Nick taking the picture and said “oh no you don’t!” and put my arm over my ashen face.

They wanted to give me two bottles of glucose and salt but it was already after 6 pm when we left and I had to repack my bags, we had to get back to the house. The hospital director (sushi’s in-law) did not ask for one rupee, but I would not have felt right if I did not give something so before we left I gave him 1000 rupees for my treatment and told him to donate it to a charity if he wants to — 1000 rupees is about $26. The hospital, by the way, is a hospital for leprosy, TB, and AIDS patients. The room I was in was a private room.

This was my third trip and I never got sick before this. my husband said since I got sick I should never go back to india. I looked at him and said, “you know that’s not going to happen…” but he was happy that I told him I decided not to go to sri lanka this year with the buddhist monk whom I sit with because the tamil tiger and sri lankan ceasefire is over, I decided it would not be safe. but I do feel like a big chicken for deciding that.

Thanks to all my Indian friends!

down but not out

whew! I returned from India about 12 hours ago sicker than a mangy Indian street dog. I’ve had food poisoning for the past 6 days from a “jam cake” that I ate in Fort Cochin. I am amazingly svelte — eating nothing but 2 slices of bread, 2 bananas, and water each day for the past 6 days does wonders for the figure, however, my face is very ashen and gaunt. Oh well, it’s that heroin chic Kate Moss look.

Thanks to my network of friends in India I was taken to a hospital for a “drip” (what they call an IV infusion) of glucose and salt just to help get me on the plane for an 18 hr. flight home. It’s good to be home in my own washroom….:)

what a long strange trip it was! It was a very different trip for me this time physically but especially emotionally. I experienced the beautiful and the terrible of india, but hey, that’s india….both enthralling and repulsive all at the same time.

one of my teachers at the school told me that I’m a native now — that the first time you go to india one is scared and apprehensive; the second time you’re in india, you love it, you want to stay forever, nothing is ever wrong; the third time you begin to see things as a native does, the good, the bad, the horrible, the indifferent, india with its warts and all. what I found amusing this time around was that instead of asking me “what country, madam?”, people asked me, “do you live here, madam?” I’ve arrived.

india never fails to make me rethink this suburban life — if people here only knew what goes on in the rest of the world, maybe they would appreciate what they have. Yes, people have it bad here, but I would rather be dirt poor here in the United States than anywhere else in the world. If you want to live a Hurricane Katrina experience EVERY SINGLE DAY OF YOUR LIFE WITH NO GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE, be a slum dweller in India. so quit your moaning and belly-aching about what you don’t have like those hand-painted yoga pants or the latest yoga book or that eco-conscious yoga mat. I was with slum children in Madurai, India who have nothing compared to many American children, yet they had the biggest smiles for me.

my favorite experiences of the whole trip was my serendipitous visit to a slum school where I was the “guest of honor” and my dancing with tribals at a Pongal (harvest) festival at an Indian village outside of Madurai. I took two train trips and a four hour bus trip through the back roads of tamil nadu where I swear I felt something run across my foot. I discovered that four hours is about my limit on an Indian country bus, especially when one has to listen to cheesy Tamil videos from the 1970s played at full-blast.

but here are some pictures from tracy . You may recall that she was collecting shoes for the street kids of Mysore, India and I sent her three boxes of shoes that I collected at my former yoga studio. I also sent her my own baby shoes from the 1950s and requested that she take a picture of the baby that they went to, so here are the pics:

wow. my baby shoes from the 1950s now worn by an Indian baby. incredible. incredible india. thanks, tracy.

more stories and pictures from India soon…


on the road again

adios, y’all.

this is my last post for 2007. no blogging for almost a month. the new year will dawn for me in chennai, india.

I started this blog in 2005 before my first trip to India. I had been around the sun over 50 times and had never been overseas in my life. I went to India alone, not knowing what to expect but having an open mind to everything. I wanted to chronicle my yoga studies and my travels but as it turned out, it took a long time for my india experiences to marinate me. I returned to india only 6 months later for another training and more travels.

so now this is my third trip for more yoga and more travels to different cities, even to another sea. now people think I’m the well-seasoned india traveler and they tell me they want to go to india with me. a former yoga student of mine and his girlfriend are meeting me there and neither one have ever been to india. frankly, I’m not so sure how the girlfriend is going to handle india, but they both know that I won’t hold anyone’s hand and baby them. I told them that they needed to be independent travelers and go with the flow.

no one babied me in 2005, but that’s the way it’s been most of my life anyway. So far I’ve stood up to what life has thrown at me on my own strengths, so a 17 hour train ride through the Indian countryside doesn’t phase me too much. I like the people I will be with, but I can’t wait to be alone and traveling. as jerry jeff walker sings, fast freights make me wonder and that full moon still drives me wild.

they say that once you’ve been to india you are never the same. india either hardens your heart or opens you up completely. either way, you never look at life, especially your own life, the same way again once you get back. people always ask me about the culture shock of india…my culture shock is when I come back to the US of A.

I know I will have the same experience as I did last year – as I laid in bed tossing and turning in the very early morning when I arrived, I realized what india means to me. it is yin and yang, the Tao, and as I thought about Ma India, I literally felt both halves melting into One, the One that makes me whole.

jai bhagwan