Here's an excerpt from This Longing for Radiance--a compendium of memories, observations, thoughts, laughter, wonderment, from my experiences working in bookstores, teaching English in Japan, teaching classical Indian dance to schoolchildren, riding a train in South India, standing underneath a sky simply overflowing with light...

Prologue---The Windy City. The Winds of Time. And a Winsome Talisman

I can’t believe I’ve spent $50 on a scarf.

It is May 2012. I’ve been walking along Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, in the eclectic Wicker Park neighborhood, with my friend Cathy. Cathy is one of the most elegant women I’ve ever met; always dressed in impeccably tailored clothing in the earth tones she favors, she hails from the hamlet of Sikeston, Missouri. I met her while I worked at the now-defunct Borders in St. Louis. She currently lives in Chicago, steps away from the Double Door, where the Stones once showed up unannounced. The place was packed in seconds. Needless to say, Cathy moved here for the music. (Although she prefers Radiohead over the Rolling Stones).  No better reason.

Chicago holds a lot of memories for me; I first came here as a child with my family, and still remember my scientist-father gazing in awe at the names of the great scientists embossed upon the ceiling of the Museum of Science & Industry. And what did I, in third grade, gaze at in awe in the Museum? The magnificently exquisite, jeweled, magical, Fairy-Tale Palace, created by silent-film star, Colleen Moore, in the 1930’s.  Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, all came awake and enchantingly alive in this wondrous world. Fairy-tales are real, I was certain.

Now, I’m here to see Cathy. I’ve visited her a couple of times. I love her neighborhood. Clothing stores are just divine. And the food? Delectable. I’ve never eaten as well anywhere on earth as I’ve eaten in Chicago. Food is plentiful, a sumptuous variety of vegetarian meals (Mana Food Bar in the same neighborhood is paradise for vegetarians) and the creativity in cuisine (the elegant dining in the minimalist Rodan comes to mind) just can’t be beat. We always go to the Bongo Room when I’m in Chicago, and there’s always a line out the door. I remember having some kind of orange-stuffed French toast when I was there the first time. With a side of potatoes. And coffee, of course. Mmm.

We’ve just finished lunch at the Bongo Room, and are now wandering alongside the shops.

I see the sign Free People, and Jennifer Aniston appears in my mind. I think I’ve read somewhere that she loves their jeans. (Or is it Joe’s Jeans?)  I don’t follow Jen’s life at all, but I got to know her during the Ross-and-Rachel years on Friends, and have to admit there is something strangely fascinating about her. I think she’d be fun to hang out with.

I step inside. Flowery décor. Lovely clothing—that romantic, Indian-inspired, flowing stuff.  If I had Jen’s income, maybe I’d consider buying something---                                                                                                                

then I see the scarf in a wicker basket. I pick it up. I finger the cotton carefully. The pattern is exquisite. It seems to represent my entire life succinctly, perfectly---and all with a touch of fashion. On top of all that it is a perfect symbol of the event that occurred on the day my mother first set foot in the United States.  The scarf feels like a talisman to me, although I don’t yet know why.

My name is Nartana. (Nur-thu-na, “r” with the slightest of trills, accent on the first syllable). It is Sanskrit, and means “dance”---I am a classical Indian dancer.  I was born in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississippi river-town that was once much bigger than Chicago (until the rails came in, and overrode the river). My family is from India---Bangalore, in South India, to be exact.

I think I have a fairly unique story to tell (that is up to you to decide, of course), as there are only a handful of Indian women my age born in the US of A. Or, should I say, only a handful of American-born women my age of Indian ethnicity?

For I was born in 1968. A firecracker of a year.  The year an assassin silenced Martin Luther King’s message of peaceful revolution, while yet another assassin killed JFK’s little brother. Kevin Herbert, a 91-year old professor of mine from Washington University and WWII vet (whom you’ll meet in this book) wrote me recently, “I concluded that if Robert Kennedy had lived he would have been a greater figure than JFK.  The fate of RFK reminds me that we are all residents here on borrowed time.” And so, 1968 became the year Nixon was elected. Which is why memories of my childhood are filled with images of a watchtower over water---the way I interpreted the term “Watergate” which I’d hear on the news my dad watched or listened to on CBS radio.

Then there were the horrors of Vietnam. The abominably brutal massacre at Mai Lai. The massive battle and loss of human life at Khe Sanh.

And of course, there were the humdrum events---which seem to carry much more meaning now. The price of sending a first-class letter---those emotional, artistic artifacts which I loved writing and receiving, and which I miss with all my heart-- jumped from a nickel to six cents!  The first interracial kiss was kissed on network television---between Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lt. Uluru. That kiss seems exquisitely innocent now.

There was pure magic as well. The first Boeing 747 rolled out of the factory. How astonishing that must have been!

Life Magazine proclaimed Jimi Hendrix, “The most spectacular guitarist in the world.” I would’ve loved to have seen him play. Astronomers announced the discovery of the very first pulsar---“an entirely novel kind of star.”! When I look at images of these phenomenally radiant rotating neutron stars, I can’t help but I feel I am watching the heartbeat of the universe.

Across the Atlantic, 100,000 students nearly brought France---a country in which I lived for some time--- to its knees. As a good friend of mine, Rakhee, an art historian who has studied the situation says, “For those who lived the events, May '68 was a moment of glory: a brief seizure of power and a stand against the endless despair of bureaucratic oppression.” The riots of May ’68 in Paris found its voice in the fervid graffiti of restless youth. One of my favorites?

We want nothing of a world in which the certainty of not dying from hunger comes in exchange for the risk of dying from boredom.

And another one? Be realistic. Ask for the impossible.

Wow.

I ask you for the impossible now:  Join me on the ride of my life, as I try to make sense of this dizzying, vibrant, bewildering ride of being American while being Indian at the same time. We’ll visit France, Japan, and England as well---I spent a fair amount of time in all those countries. And please, throw your daily notions of time out the window. They are wrong anyway. (Ask any physicist). We’ll start off with the heated tale of that magnificent, yet exceedingly ordinary star above which lights the day belonging to each and every one of us. After that, I ask you to trust me, and to follow the train of my thought, which travels not through time, but through the hinterland of memory, dream, and association.

Every tale I tell is true. Of course, when I quote people I have met, I cannot quote them exactly---but the essence of their story is 100% true. (When I quote emails, letters, and journals, they are indeed 100% true). Names are all real, except in two cases where I clearly state they are not. A few people didn’t wish to be named.

I just had an idea---I’ll spread my Free People scarf out, and you can hop on it. You see? We have a magic carpet now.

And wouldn’t you know it? A song I adore, Steppenwolf’s Magic Carpet Ride, was born in 1968 as well. “Well, you don’t know what, we can find…why don’t you come with me, dear reader, on a magic carpet ride…”  At the end of our journey, I hope we have together experienced some of the pure pulsating radiance of this absolutely wondrous world and of the magnificently ordinary people who inhabit it.

And, if you stick with me, I’ll tell you the secret of the scarf.

So let’s go.

1—This Storied Sun

Every story starts with the sun.

The light illuminating the page you are reading began its journey over 100,000 years ago.

After being created in the core of this star which has mastered the dance of transforming mass into energy (four million tons of mass shifts into energy at every second),  a photon travels for 100,000 years at the speed of light---so stunningly fast it is still---through a zone of plasma so radiant it’s called the radiative zone.

After negotiating its way through this thick miasma of sparkling particles, it speeds through the more limpid connective zone for a mere month until it skims the roiling skin of the burning star.

Eight minutes later, it illuminates your page, whether in a book of sensuous paper and ink, or on an electronic reader, slick in its metallic sleekness.

Just think—the light embracing you now was created at a time when homo sapiens were just beginning to explore the bracing, frightening, dazzling phenomenon of this world.

And yet, as light travels at light-speed, it is ageless.

Ancient, ageless light.

Eternally young in its infinite patience.

As if it’s always been waiting, for you.

 

2--The Looking-Back Buddha

I have been waiting for you.

Kyoto. 1082.

A short, slim Buddhist priest circles an altar bearing Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, in a temple in the forested hills of Kyoto. Outside, a wintry sun circles the temple.

The star shaping the hopes of this day illuminates this eternally rotating world with its rays of gold.

But something else does as well:  the human mind.

“Nembutsu nembutsu,” the priest chants, repeatedly, focusing his mind on the name of the enlightened one, while emptying it of all the weariness of this world.

One day, this temple will be named for him. But he has no idea of this now. The idea that his name will live forever—it is too much for a quiet, holy man to comprehend.

For now, he simply prays.

The temple is fragrant with smoky sandalwood and camphor. His mind is still, focusing entirely on his mantra.

The weather outside is clear, cold. It is only February. A long time until Kyoto is adorned in the koyo—the cinnamon and gold glimmers of autumn. The koyo enhances the transcendent nature of Buddhist teachings--- the shimmering certainty of incessant, imperceptible, change. 

He walks. One step after another. One step after another.

One step—

the priest stops.

Amidha Buddha stands in front of him. The idol has made the leap of faith into life.

“You are slow,” the Buddha says.

The priest stares into the golden eyes of the resplendent one. He does not move. He is not certain if he still breathes.

Am I dreaming? the priest asks himself, as the Buddha motions the stunned man to follow him, and turns.

The humble devotee takes one step. And another.

The Buddha turns his head around, to ascertain whether the priest is still following him. In that instant, a legend is born, although the priest doesn’t know it. He does not know that a golden statue of the Looking-Back Buddha will be honored in the temple of Eikan-do, in Kyoto for the next thousand years to come.

Does the priest, Eikan, really follow the Buddha? Is he dreaming? Or is the Buddha dreaming of him?

The only certainty he possesses is this: he has entered a state of a greater consciousness, more radiant than he ever could have imagined.

The deity has taken the leap of faith into life.  Even if Eikan only imagines it, which he is certain he doesn’t, then at the very least his thoughts are nearly impossibly alive, for he sees Amida in front of him, walking steadily.

And in that instant, he understands: ‘This is why I have followed in the feet of the Buddha my entire life.’  He feels afloat, as he slowly grasps the reason for his entire existence. ‘This is why I have followed in the feet of the Buddha my entire life. This longing for radiance.’

I imagine Eikan’s thoughts, one chilly evening in November in 2011, amidst the many lit shrines of the Eikan-do temple complex in Kyoto, just off the Tetsugako-no-michi, or Philosopher’s Path. Many people wander the complex, snapping pictures with assorted varieties of cameras. It is the first illumination of the season; and in the golden light of lanterns, goddesses—such as Kannon, the deity of compassion—as well as gods are blissfully alive.

A small green dragon roars upon a well. And inside an ornate chocolate-and-gold colored temple, the Looking-Back Buddha, well, looks back.

He wants to make certain we follow him. As I leave, I look back. Japanese devotees clasp their hands in front of the Buddha, close their eyes. I lived for one year in Yokohama, in the early 1990’s, teaching English in companies such as Mitsubishi, Hitachi, or lesser-known ones, such as Makino Frice. My students always told me, “Japanese people have no religion. We are just Japanese.”

Very practical attitude. “Shinto for happy occasions. Buddhist for sad,” one middle-aged man told me in Hitachi.

Perhaps. But watching the devotion of hundreds of devotees, it is hard to fall into the snare of such cynicism.

Even if we do, I reflect among floating streams of fluid, honeyed light, the Buddha sees through us all.

“Come,” he whispers, “Follow me.”

3—The Great Escape. Into a Great Romance.

“I am not following you!” one desperate voice whispers to another rapidly in French, “Are you crazy?”

Midnight, June 1940. Somewhere in the Belgian countryside, a train slowly stops.

It is a Nazi train, full of POW’s fresh from the Battle at Dunkirk. The Nazis have ravaged Europe---their next destination the English Channel, and finally, Britain.  Allied soldiers—French and British-- have fought hard to defend the coast, but have now had to flee. The evacuation is a success--the battle will soon be known as the miracle at Dunkirk, as over 300,000 Allied soldiers are liberated by small ships and ferries ferrying fighting men over the English Channel back into Britain.

But not everyone is rescued.

In the Belgian countryside, the night holds its breath in expectation; something dazzling and daring is happening on that train.

A young French soldier, whose hair is as dark as the terror of war, whispers to a group of fellow French prisoners: “Now.  We need to go now. Do you realize if we don’t go now we will be prisoners of war until this whole mess has finished? God knows how long that will be. We need to go now.”

Furious, soft frightened responses:  “I told you you are crazy. We will be shot.”

Louis whispers back rapidly: “If you don’t come with me now, I will tell everyone in France that you were cowards.”

Several men stare at the first. They cannot see the latter’s eyes; it is too dark. The pressure of the group of frightened men too intense.

“Louis,” one man mutters in frustration. How can I follow him? he thinks. The Nazis will shoot us…

Louis, the soldier, the man, whose determination radiates the irrepressible strength of the sun, turns, right hand pressed against the door of the train. No guard in immediate sight.

Behind him, the security of prison.

In front of him, the uncertainty of freedom.

For Louis, there is no choice.

Suddenly one man speaks. Charles. “I will come with you. We will escape.”

Louis nods, relieved. It is nice not to have to do this alone. He takes a deep breath, jumps, his comrade following behind. They hit the earth hard, roll down a hill.

What to do now?

Louis thinks only one thought:

Our clothes. We need to change our clothes.

 

4--Wild Rose

“He and Charles changed out of their clothes,” Louis’ widow tells me, in her apartment in Tours, the largest city in the chateau-sprinkled Loire Valley. “They rolled down a hill, found a farmhouse, where the people there gave them civilian clothes. Then they got bicycles, and managed to find their way back to Croix, near Lille, in the north of France. And then we got married.”

What a tale. Too romantic to be true. (But, as I will find out later from Louis’ son, there is another, extraordinarily romantic aspect to this tale that his widow has not told me. I will share that with you later.)

But it is true. Five children, innumerable grand-children, and many years later, it is much too real to be a fairy-tale.

I met Madame Eglantine Menget when chance—or rather, from the hindsight of two decades, destiny—brought us together in 1988. I spent my junior year abroad in France, as I was majoring in French. But before my fellow students and I hit the big city of Paris, we spent one month in Tours, to prepare our French, and to prepare ourselves.

We were randomly placed with willing families. Madame Menget’s husband Louis had just died the previous year, and she started taking in American students not simply for the company, but because she had too much energy to spend only on herself.  One young Afghan student by the name of Ibrahim already lived in a room above her garage, in her spacious wartime jewel of a residence. The home was situated in a suburb of Tours that had a name as poetic as the French language itself: St. Cyr-sur-Loire.

And the heart of this jewel? The garden. Where Madame grew tomates, champignons, aubergines. Courgettes, piments, laitue. (Zucchini, peppers, lettuce). Each day a freshly-grown vegetable found its place in the lunches she prepared for me, which I’d slowly relish upon returning from class.

Le dejeuner always began with a sliced grapefruit. We would sit at the dining-table, watch the news, and I would listen as she lamented upon the assorted miseries in the world. “Oh là là’’,” she would say, “Le chomage, la guerre,”---unemployment, war—“Oh là là,”.

A centerpiece of lunch, of course, was le fromage. Being a South Indian Brahmin vegetarian, I had never eaten cheese with such formality. Madame taught me how to slice the fromage-whether Camembert, Brie, or a variety of regional flavors-- just right. A light dessert ended the repast—usually un petit yaourt ( yogurt), but sometimes a fragrant tarte aux amandes, or  tarte aux pommes.

Not only is Madame a radiantly dynamic grandmother, she worked for Amnesty International for years, finally stopping only when her declining eyesight forced her. I last visited her in September 2012.

Once, upon my departure from France, she gave me a French soap, scented Eglantine.  “Eglantine,” she said, giggling, “It means le rose sauvage.” 

Wild Rose.  No other name could suit her better.

5--Shortbread, Coffee, and South Indian Idli

The Shatabadi Express. No other name could sound so romantic.

It evoked The Raj, a pre-technological India when trains steamed up lushly forested inclines, to arrive at British hill stations. Ootacamund. Simla. Or when trains crossed creaking bridges to arrive at coastal villages, locales fresh with catches of silvery fish and golden flashes of bangles underneath peppermint and coconut-colored cotton saris.

The Shatabadi express traveled the rails from Madras—now Chennai-- to Bangalore. It was December 1998, and I planned to stare out the window during the entire trip, luxuriating in the scenes of rural India I loved so much. Graceful palm trees sheltering men in checked shirts and chappalis (flip-flops) strolling with hands crossed behind their backs. Incessantly working women dressed in radiant gold, magenta, orange, sweeping, hawking vegetables, hoisting children and pots of water against their lithe, sari-lined bodies.

I didn’t know I would be interrupted.

Not by a garrulous neighbor. Not by a crying child.

By the food.

First, a cup of steaming, milky South Indian coffee. As aromatic, smooth, strong, and sweet as liquid chocolate.

Perfect. Now I could just relax and stare out the window.

But no. Biscuits arrived next, served by a lean lanky young man. Sweet and salty pseudo-shortbread.

Perfect. Now I could just relax and stare—

Idli next. The steamed rice and lentil cakes, a ubiquitous South Indian breakfast specialty. I never actually liked idlis much, but here on the Shatabadi Express, they were warmly satisfying, native sustenance from the subcontinent which crafted the skin organs and flesh of my body.

My stomach smiled. Certainly now I could—

one more cup of coffee. 

I fell into a dream, a sleepy collage of creamy coffee and richly spiced life in the lyrical land of my being. 

How could I be anything but Indian?

6—The Eternally Resplendent, Universal Pot

I know what the Taiwanese gentleman is thinking: You Americans think we are all the same!

 “We do not celebrate the Chinese New Year,” he says politely, “We are from Taiwan. We celebrate the Lunar New Year.”

I blush under my rouged cheeks, curve my deeply red lips into a smile.  “I’m so sorry,” I say, in a very apologetic tone, “It’s just that last week I danced at the Chinese Buddhist temple for the Chinese New Year. I meant to say, Thank you for inviting us to perform at your Lunar New Year celebration.”

The gentleman nods. But doesn’t say anything.

We—Dances of India, my mom’s classical Indian dance company, celebrating its 36th season in 2013—had been invited to perform at the Taiwanese Cultural Center in a church in St. Louis in 2010 for their Lunar New Year. And, as I had mentioned to the Taiwanese gentleman, I had just performed the week before in a refurbished church in a northern suburb of St. Louis which was now a Chinese Buddhist temple. For the first time in my life, I performed a classical Indian dance piece---on Avalokitesvara, the Tibetan Buddhist deity of compassion---for an audience that was 99% Chinese. I never even knew such a large Chinese Buddhist population existed in St. Louis.

Talk about multiculturalism. The Buddha now peacefully sat where once the Virgin Mary, or perhaps Christ himself, gazed meditatively at the faithful.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, complete with vegetarian Chinese take-away meals.

But I was a little concerned about this show--how would it go, in a Taiwanese Church, when I’d started off by making such a politically incorrect mistake?

Political correctness is for impolite simpletons. Was I in for a surprise.

The Taiwanese—most of whom spoke no English---whooped it up for a South Indian folk dance I performed. It’s true, the rhythms were intoxicating, but I like to think the story of the piece helped set the audience on fire. Sung in Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka, the dance described a pot. This pot was a miraculous pot. If you cleaned it---or even if you didn’t--- it shone. It didn’t matter if it was brass, silver, or copper. It still shone. So what’s the story behind this pot?

The pot represents the human soul. The piece was written by a Muslim villager living in a Hindu village.

The audience loved it. One of them even asked in broken English the meaning of the refrain, which she then mouthed in pulverized Kannada. A Taiwanese Christian speaking a Kannada sentence written by a Muslim villager to a Hindu from St. Louis?

Such is the radiance of America.

6--A Tale of Nothing But Trees. The Magnum Opus of Minerals. And Awakening to All that is Beautiful in this World.

And America is radiant. 

A coworker of mine from Borders once told me, “Can you imagine? There were once so many trees in America that a squirrel could cross the whole country without ever setting foot on the ground.” I love that image. She’d heard it as a child in school. (Of course it would have to be one mighty athletic super-squirrel! Like a Speedy Gonzalez (“Andale! Andale!”) of squirrels.)

When I think of the many road-trips my family took when I was a kid, I think of trees upon trees. The many woods---hickory, oak, sumac, maple--- of Missouri as we’d travel to Silver Dollar City in the Ozark Mountains, or Meramec Caverns---huge inky-black caves where the outlaw Jesse James once hid from the eyes of the law in complete darkness.  The hilly forests of buckeye, sassafras, honey locust in Pennsylvania, on the way to the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh. (At the time, that was the only major Hindu temple in the U.S.)  Tropical red mangroves in Florida along the sea-green spring-fed Weeki Wachee River. Firs, witchhazels, and Kentucky Coffeetrees shrouded in clouds in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where we visited the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville and the quaint town of Chatanooga. (I remember my grandma in her sari seemed so incredibly foreign in the Opry that a tour guide asked me loudly, “Does she speak English?” My grandma’s English---which is so very British grammatically ---was probably better than hers! )

The Great Smoky Mountains are indeed smoky. I remember my dad and uncle Ajit navigating us carefully through threatening ogres of hungry fog. And I recall, driving through Pennsylvania, how I’d suddenly spot a lonely cabin or home high atop a wooded hill. And I’d just dream, and dream, of what it would be like to live there.

To wake up to nothing but a world of trees.

The oaks and bald cypresses in Louisiana draped in Spanish Moss felt like royal phantoms to me, ghosts of long-ago gorgeous queens come back to experience the world as arboreal beauties crowned in smoky flushed grace. They appeared aged, all-knowing goddesses against elegant plantation homes stained with the pain of slavery. I drove to New Orleans in college with three friends, and then on to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. All I really remember are snapshots: sweetgum and tulip trees framing black families sitting on porches in Mississippi, watching the road (what fiery history they have survived), lush magnolia trees heralding the early spring of Tennessee, slender, cool, longleaf pines in Birmingham outside my friend Gayle’s home which surprised me with their height. (I didn’t expect so many pine trees in Birmingham.)

Maples and oaks sped past me as I raced along the backroads of Wisconsin outside Racine on my friend-from-high-school Wendy’s husband’s motorcycle. I’d been on scooters in India—which I always loved—but had never ridden a motorcycle in the States. And it was amazing. (I didn’t drive! A little too nervous for that.)  Wendy’s husband —a full-blooded Native American, from the Ho-Chunk tribe---told me at one point we were doing 80 miles an hour! (While I loved the drive, I was deeply saddened by the poisonous plastic bags I saw floating through treetops—apparently, a landfill wasn’t too far away. I don’t know how we can keep up our “speedy technological progress” unless we stop trashing the earth! I don’t understand it at all.) The Ho-Chunk, by the way, are also known as the Winnebago, and apparently first made contact with the white man—a French explorer-- in 1634. Ho-Chunk itself means “People of the Big Voice.”

One of my favorite things to dream about while driving anywhere in the US is the Native American relationship with the land. (“Missouri” is a term French colonialists adapted for the tribe along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers---it means “One who has a dugout canoe.”) This continent must have been hypnotically beautiful; I can only imagine awakening each day to nothing but skies, rock, water, and trees. And bison---millions and millions of these humpbacked bulky creatures grazing on the land. I don’t deny that life was difficult then---disease and war existed, of course---but I do think endless technological distraction has robbed us of the great treasure of the Native American worldview:  intimacy with the great mystery in which we live.

I experienced a haunting aspect of this great mystery in Arizona. I’ve driven through Arizona and New Mexico a couple of times with my family, and have fallen in love with the land there. It’s so completely different---stoic, sharply-protected cacti declaring their solitary truth to the world, sandy outcrops of earth varnished in iridescent cinnamon, hills littered with so many motionless rocks you feel you’re in an alien world. (How did all those rocks fall on these earthen mounds? Did it, one day, rain not water, but rocks?) And the skies! The skies captivated me with their effulgence of racing fresh ribbons of light.

I think the Petrified Forest in Arizona ties with Niagara Falls for the most breathtaking natural formation I’ve ever seen. Niagara is a monster of wild, unrestrained water; it frightens, to stand so close to it, yet it also elicits in you a longing, to let everything go and dissolve into the cataract, to instantly melt into the molecules of liquid that sustain nearly all life on this earth.

The Petrified Forest, however is wild, unrestrained, stillness. This forest is crafted not of living, breathing, trees, but of their dismembered limbs which, at 225 million years old, have fossilized into radiant rock. I remember sitting on one of the huge fallen tree trunks, staring out into ochre, bronze, and beige brushstrokes of the Painted Desert, stunned, as I gazed into a masterwork of rocks composed of color-rich compounds of iron and manganese. (What else is a rock but the magnum opus of minerals, thousands of which sparkle upon and within this earth?)  How has so much time passed upon this earth, how in the world am I experiencing the fruits, of the art of infinite patience? For these shining gems of rock were created, slowly, in a natural, unimaginably long dance of wind, earth, and volcanic energy.

The composition of these petrified trees---the species is now extinct---began before the decomposition of their bodies. Their gentle, gradual, waltz into quartz began when the trees were buried in sediment splashed with volcanic ash. Earthen water filtered silica from the ash, which found a home in the many hermitic cells of the trees. Slowly, ever so slowly, the silica crystallized into quartz, scattering the Painted Desert with jewels no human could create.

I try my hardest to imagine the giant amphibians, crocodile-like reptiles, and myriads of small dinosaurs that once ran, swam, walked, through the very spot of earth on which I sit.

Rivers once ran through here, alongside forests with a tropical feel, as the land that is Arizona was once so much closer to the equator. I long to make that prehistory my own history; to understand the life-story of this earth upon which my own life passes.

It is a longing of great length; for no matter how hard I try to stretch my imagination, to visualize the undeniable reality of aeons of geologic and animal life untouched by human thought, it is difficult. Our minds are so small.

Which is why, I suppose, one of the tackiest tourist towns I’ve seen is in Niagara. As if we can only handle a momentary particle of the sublime; give us the ridiculous reality we can understand, please!

And I do love the tackiness of Americana. Whether it’s the endless signs for Adult Videos and Adult Toys in Wisconsin (I guess you have to do something when the cows come home! It’s so awful you have to laugh!), 24-hour fireworks stores (who needs sparklers at 2 a.m. on a Thursday?) and  billboards for Vasectomy Reversals! (Yikes! Honey changed my mind I want me a kid!) in Missouri or a corn palace or sudden appearance of a huge statue of a  moose along the highway (I can’t remember where, but I’ve seen them), I do have a soft spot for the absurd. To laugh is one of the most radiant things we can do; it alters your mood (and perception) immediately.

Something else that is supposed to alter your mood is a mantra. And I learned one of my first mantras in a family trip along the East Coast. It was 1979; I was ten-and-three quarters years old, and sitting in the back seat of the car next to my grandma when we visited Virginia, Washington D.C., Delaware, and Boston.  She taught me a few verses of the Venkateshwara  Suprabhatam (meaning “auspicious dawn” dedicated to Vishnu, one of the Hindu trinity) in the car---a 15th-century poem that seeks to awaken the deity at the beginning of a new day ---while we drove from the White House to Boston Harbor. I love the idea of awakening the divine---an idea that originated amongst 14th-century Tamil saints. Perhaps, as we awaken a deity, what we are really doing is awakening ourselves to the beauty and mystery in the world that is so much larger than us…

Outside the car, I experience the quintessentially American tale of the Boston Tea Party’s thrilling rebellion against the Brits, waking the foreign power up to their own identity; inside the car, I listen to the quintessentially Hindu mantra about devotion to God, while consciously awakening ourselves.

Inside one of many, many roadside Howard Johnson’s (those orange-roofed iconic diners founded in the 1920’s and nearly all gone now!) in which we stop for a bite, I order strawberry shortcake (my favorite!) or milkshakes. (I remember I would always have a grilled cheese sandwich or baked beans as a meal before dessert. Only vegetarian options available.)  Outside in parks, we picnic on typical Iyengar more sadhu (rice, yogurt, garnished with curry leaves, black mustard, asafetida), some kind of vegetable curry (our curries are more like slim stir-fries, not the heavy dishes you find in most Indian restaurants), and potato chips…

Outside and inside; American and Indian. Inside and outside; American and Indian.

That’s who I am.

8—Lost Stories of the Sky (and Upon the Ground). Or,  History and Heartbreak in Delhi

Indians—in India—know you’re American, even though your skin is as brown as South Indian coffee, and you’re wearing a salvar kameeze, a sari, or a long Indian skirt.

They instinctively recognize you as hailing from the US of A. Maybe it’s the way we smile. Anyone who’s been abroad knows that Americans smile a lot.

The Delhi City Tour bus driver knew I was American, even before I opened my mouth. Skinny, wearing shades, the bus driver—who called himself Jess—took every chance he could to chat me up. He was sweet rather than sinister; the tour bus was filled with families from all over India. I didn’t feel threatened at all.

In the Delhi heat of June 2007 the air-conditioned bus tour took us through all the marvels of an ancient city multilayered with myth, sultanates, and the mighty dynasty of the Mughals. (Babur was the first Mughal emperor; a Muslim descendant of both the Turkic Timur and the Mongol Genghis Khan, he and his followers hailed from present-day Uzbekistan, and entered Delhi when they won the Battle of Panipat in 1526 against the reigning sultan Ibrahim Lodi.) We visited the 18th-century Jantar Mantar—an astronomical center, complete with sundial, built by the Maharajah of Jaipur  to study the lost stories of the sky, the 13th century Qutub Minar ( a five-story tower; at its base is the first mosque built in India), the 17th century Lal Quila, or Red Fort, built by Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame, the 16th-century tomb of Shah Jahan’s great-grandfather Humayun (Humayun, which means “fortunate” was considered an unlucky emperor in his lifetime for various reasons, including the fact he died from a fall as he was climbing the stairs to his library, but he earned a very romantic, rose-hued resting place for his afterlife, built by his senior widow), and Rajghat, the cremation site and memorial of Mahatma Gandhi.

Every time I got back on the bus a little early, the bus driver slid into the seat next to me, and chatted. “My father is a landowner in Punjab. And my sister is in the U.K,” he said.

“Where in the UK?” I asked, telling him I lived in London for a while.

“London,” he said. “Southall.”

“Southall is all Punjabi,” I responded. “Hardly any English.” He nodded, laughed. We’re everywhere his laugh seemed to say.  Suddenly, a Hindi film song burst out of nowhere—his ringtone.

He’d take the call, finish up quickly, and kept talking to me until all the tourists would amble back on the bus.

“I drive people to other places around Delhi too,” he said. “I take tourists for day drives.”

I suddenly remembered a place I’d always wanted to see. The summer capital of British India, of which I’d read and seen dreamy 19th-century prints…Simla. “I’d love to see Simla,” I said.

What he said next broke my heart. “Simla is ruined,” he said matter-of-factly, “Too much building.”

I sighed, stared out the window. I loved those nineteenth-century prints; I’d bought some, of Fatehpur Sikri (citadel of Humayun’s son Akbar the Great, which you’ll soon visit with me) at a shop in Oxford. Those British artists brought the storied citadel to life, in simple black and white-- within enigmatic, dreamy whirls of pencil they created a world of kings, villagers, and the eternal, romantic longing for beauty.

Amidst the real longings of life on the street, I spotted a little beggar-boy sitting on the ground by the stoplight, in a torn shirt and shorts, listening to some kind of iPod. (Most likely stolen, obviously). I just gazed at him without thought from my high perch inside the bus; suddenly he looked up at me. Immediately he cupped both hands together, in an instinctual gesture for begging. In a flash his expression shifted; whereas he’d been lost to music seconds earlier, he now lost his self to the search for pity.  He had been trained to beg, I knew.

I kept looking at him, from on high, thinking, What is the use of being a romantic in this world?

Jess got back in his driver’s seat, and we drove past the Purana Quila, or Old Fort—which, archaeologists say, is the site of Indraprastha, the capital city of the Pandava Princes, heroes from the ancient Hindu epic, (begun sometime in the 7th century B.C, give or take a hundred years) the Mahabaratha.

My heart lifted at my next thought: if the Pandavas really did live at Purana Quila, Krishna set foot here as well. Krishna, the most beloved of Hindu deities--who many say once really lived---walked, thought, and talked at the Old Fort…his stories still lifted the souls, of so many people in this world. I felt the way Christians, Jews, and Muslims must feel in the Holy Land. Overwhelmed with a longing too radiant for this world.

And longings of such lustrous depth can only truly be expressed in one way---

through silence.

9—The Temple of Silence

Nothing says “miracle” like pure silence.

Especially in India. The country is a symphony of dissonance; between the loud (and melancholy) koo-koo birds, to the incessant honks of scooters rickshaws taxis and buses (not to mention cars!), to the drowningly loud music in an air-conditioned mall in Noida, a suburb of Delhi—where not only the mall played its own soundtrack at rock-concert levels, individual stores did as well—you simply don’t have the quiet space in which to hear your own thoughts, unless you are completely accustomed to incessant chatter, laughter, and a bewildering (and at times, bewitching) range of clatter.

That’s why the Baha’i Lotus temple is such an astonishment. The window-lined white lotus-shaped temple, completed in 1986, is filled with nothing but worshippers, tourists, and silence. Before you enter, signs are posted warning you that you are now setting foot into a silent enclave. As you pass through the doors, workers gently shush you, reminding you that you are entering not a place of empty communication, but of pious contemplation.

Once inside, there is really nothing but silence. You feel your mind take a deep breath, deflate. And yet, at the same time, you are hyper-awake, as not only can you hear your own thoughts—your mind is shocked into only hearing itself-- you are very watchful of not disturbing another’s peace or prayer.

The Baha’i, a sect founded in Persia a hundred-and-fifty years ago, seek the goodness in all religions, believing truth lies in them—in us—all.  You can’t help but wonder, in this clean, quiet, space that radiates peace: Only if the whole world thought that way…

The Lotus temple felt like a dream later that evening, when I had dinner with my uncle and aunt at Haldiram’s. The food was delicious—spicy chaat, bhel puri, pani puri—in the crowded fast-casual establishment, but the noisy nonstop talk wore me out. Syllables of Hindi, English, and a dozen other languages bounced all about the restaurant, until my head pounded with echoing nonsensical sentences.

I ate quietly—I did yell a bit at my aunt and uncle for the sake of conversation, but then got too tired from the effort--, and dreamed of the still Lotus temple.

The lotus-flower is a symbol of spiritual purity, in Hinduism, Buddhism, and I suppose Baha’ism. To find purity in the cacophony of modern India, in the materialistic midst of the modern world, seems a devilishly daunting task.

But this is India—the lively lift of noise surrounds you everywhere you go. And that’s why I love it. Although I would’ve loved to have seen a quieter India, of a few hundred years ago…I started to dream…How did the British find themselves ruling India?  How did the destinies of two such entirely different countries and cultures come into contact with one another?

 

10—Start Me Up---It’s London, Luv! And Who Can Explain Love?

“England had to go and conquer the rest of the world,” my English friend Simon from Essex tells me, “We didn’t have any good food of our own.”

Anyone who’s had very traditional English food can attest to that. We were sitting in an Indian restaurant in London, just off Leicester Square. Simon, a brown-haired clean-cut polite Englishman who’s a football aficionado, loves Weezer, and is a partner in a bank in Dubai is by far my most well-to-do friend. I will never forget his look of pure, joyous, astonishment when I gave him and his infant son matching St. Louis Rams—Superbowl Champs t-shirts in 2000.  Like a gift from heaven, his gaze told me.  I rely on him to keep me up-to-date on St. Louis sports teams as I never follow them myself.

I first met Simon when I studied at the London School of Economics in 1992, right after I’d completed my year teaching in Japan.  I went there to earn a Post-graduate Diploma in International Relations (I thought I’d eventually do my Master’s) but it turned out to be the entirely wrong course for me.  I really can’t stand politics. But I didn’t realize it at the time. LSE has such a cachet with Americans as well as Indians, that when I received my acceptance letter from the esteemed educational institution, all I heard was, “Wow, you’re going to LSE? Smart girl!”  How could I not go? But hey, Mick Jagger also went to LSE (he dropped out) before realizing his fate didn’t rest in seeking to control the world but in rocking its soul. (Can you imagine, CNN Political Analyst Mick Jagger? Or Foreign Minister Jagger meeting President Obama in the Rose Garden?)

London was where I began to very slowly understand that I was a writer, and that my path would be a different one. But the truth dawned on me very slowly, as I tried so hard to “get into” international relations. I should be interested in nation-states and conflict resolution and the endless shenanigans in the Middle East I told myself while trying to get through articles terribly boring, and so unnecessarily replete with deliberately abstruse academic terms.   I recall once looking out the window from my residence-hall room in Islington, a grungy neighborhood at the time but now quite trendy, and staring at workmen repairing a building nearby---St. Paul’s Cathedral a great dreamy dome in the distance. There seemed something so honest and undeniably real about the construction work---while discussing conflict resolution in pure, crystalline academic terms seem so disconnected to the physical world. I recall thinking, How could theories on peace possibly help all those being killed and the hundreds (thousands?) of women being raped in the firestorm of distrust and destruction that is the disintegration of Yugoslavia?

But yet, I received official confirmation on my writing abilities in London. I’ll never forget the exultation I felt when a professor of mine wrote at the bottom my paper on The Growing Relevance of Pluralism in World Politics. (Handwritten paper, by the way! Seems archaic now.), “You are a writer. You have style, eloquence, flow, and clarity.” Wow.

I met some fascinating people at LSE: Ali, a Pakistani whom you’ll soon get to know a bit better. An Italian whose name I’ve forgotten who grew up in New Delhi and spoke English with an Indian accent. A guy named Alan who was British but had a Portuguese grandmother, Italian relatives, had lived in France, Spain, and Japan, and therefore spoke at least six languages. Nanbin, a Chinese guy who taught me one word in Chinese, and then warned me, “If you say it in this tone (he spoke it low), it’s factory. If you say it in this tone, (slightly higher) it means eternal. If you say it in this tone (highest) it means prostitute.” Yikes! That’s one language I’ll stay away from.  (By the way, I’ve forgotten which tone went with which word—indeed while I remember him saying prostitute and factory, I’m not sure about the other word--- so I’m sure a Chinese speaker will find fault with what I’ve just written. I apologize in advance.)

Laurent, a skinny Frenchmen hailing from a noble family who always wore colored corduroy and often invited me and Lauren ( a blind friend of mine whom you’ll soon meet) to his room for hot tea. Sangeeta--whose name means “music”---a rather small, curvy, curmudgeon (yet very sweet) of an Indian woman. I sat and talked with her about my writing on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a Burger King in Leicester Square. She surprised me in two ways:  1) once, when she told me, “I just read about Buddhism. You practice it.” And 2) when she handed me a blank journal, in which she’d inscribed, “May your poems reveal the cosmic dance.” Wow. What a gift crystallizing the meeting of music (Sangeeta) and dance (Me!).

 Uche, a Nigerian who was doing his Ph.D in Accounting & Finance. He’d laugh heartily as he’d tell me “Nigeria is the jungle.” He invited me to his wedding in Lagos, very sincerely, but said, “If you come, please, please, let me know. You need to be met at the airport.” Well, that can send a shiver down your spine.

Another acquaintance of mine from LSE—an English guy (rather, bloke!)---once told me, “Paris is made for the French. But I think London is made for the world.” I couldn’t agree with him more.

 I used to sit on a bench and watch all these people walk through the small LSE complex off Houghton Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Waterloo Bridge (from where I’d stare out into the Thames and hear Abba sing in my mind, Waterloo); indeed Simon called it “Nart’s bench.” (Unfortunately, Nart’s bench is no more!)

Simon knew the manager in the Indian restaurant  in Leicester Square (I forget the name—but I think Raj was in the title) but in my mind the food, while fairly good, wasn’t anything unique; the same Palak Paneer, Navratan Korma, Aloo Gobi, that every Indian restaurant outside of India seems to have.

The sauces are extraordinarily heavy; I don’t know of any Indian who actually has a Malai Kofta with such a rich cream sauce at home. Recently, Indian restaurants have flooded my hometown of St. Louis; up until 1994 only one Indian restaurant existed in St. Louis. Now, Indian restaurants have crowded out the city’s native German cuisine. Americans love the buffets slathered with cream and pungent hot sauces; a twenty-something American coworker of mine, Neil, with whom I worked at Borders, called Indian food in America, “spicy American comfort food.” He’s not too off the mark. ( I’ve already spiced my macaroni and cheese with masala of various sorts by the way!)

Upon my arrival in London, I was astounded at the “curry houses” upon seemingly every single corner. And what a variety of cuisines they served—many proclaimed, “Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi cuisine.” In one supper you could supposedly taste the flavors of the entire subcontinent.

London dazzled me; I felt I was falling into a storybook radiant with the language of my childhood. Here were the red double-deckers, there the black cabs. When my parents visited me in 1997, I recall my dad getting sentimental when he saw a Royal Mail truck. He must have been thinking of his youth in India or of a long-ago trip to England. The sun may have set upon the British empire, but instinctual, or I daresay familial links between the two countries still exist, however gossamer.

Sometimes when I watched the iconic red buses and black cabs cross bridges along the Thames as I took long walks through the city I couldn’t help but think they were just bright toys to play with---there was something so lovingly childlike about them. Here was a country where people didn’t push themselves (and each other) onto the subway known as the Tube, as the Japanese had to do in Tokyo. Here was the land of tea, scones, ginger cookies, ginger beer, and walnut cream cake—of which I’d read in Enid Blyton novels while I spent the summers in India as a child.

The perambulations through London were wonders; I recall walking back to my flat in Pimlico (which I shared with a New Zealander named Mary who called the Brits “Poms”) from the West End at 12:30 a.m. It was a long walk, along the Mall, and so full of life—St. James’ Park, Buckingham Palace, Victoria Station flashed in front of me like scenes from a novel. I also loved strolling alongside the Houses of Parliament, and in the neighborhoods of Chelsea, Kensington, Knightsbridge…

And the people you’d meet along the way! I truly think London is the friendliest big city I’ve ever lived in.  I remember once in Hyde Park---one of my favorite spots for a walk---gazing at one, then two, then three rainbows. (You always hear about the rain in London, never the rainbows). I was gazing in awe at the triple spectrum of ribboned light, when a passerby mentioned, “Lovely, isn’t it luv?” and smiled.

Once I got off the Tube, two suitcases in hand, and prepared myself to walk up a flight of stairs at the Finchley Road station, when a young gentleman suddenly ran down the stairs, picked up my bags in a flash, ran them back up the stairs, set them down, asked quickly, “All right?” and then zipped back down to catch his train. I could hardly believe what he’d done.

Another time I was simply standing outside a building off Baker Street, my address book in hand, and a gentleman passed by, glanced briefly inside, and said, “Space in there for my name, luv?”  It was so sweet and clever I had to laugh. He grinned too. Or how about the time I must have been walking with a downcast look on my face, probably worried over money or something, and a homeless bloke in a sleeping bag called out to me and said, “Cheer up luv, it’s not that bad.” I was so touched. I gave him a huge grin.

I often feel that we have lost so much in the US, by not being able to walk through our cities. Aside from the big cities—New York, Boston, sections within L.A., etc.-- you can’t really walk through the cities. No one ever walks in St. Louis---unless it’s a fast-paced walk for exercise!  The distances are too far. (People even strive to get a parking spot as close to a store as possible.) I understand, that America was built for the car, but there is nothing like walking through a city to feel it soak deep down into your bones. (I also think we’d all be a lot more fit if we walked as a part of daily life.)  Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street (Winding your way down on Baker Street) and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s City of Angels (At least I have her love, the city she loves me,) would sometimes play through my mind as I walked. (Although I think that song is about heroin! Which I’m definitely not into.)  And walked.  Granted, those songs were about feeling lonely in a big city, but I never felt lonely in London.

I experienced a different kind of interaction with Londoners when I worked in Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street for a few months, as an assistant to a designer. Selfridge’s is a cross between Macy’s and…Neiman Marcus. I dealt with customers who’d spend 1,000 GBP on a dress without thought! That always amazed me. And I helped many women purchase the right dress to go with the hats they’d bought for the horse-racing at Ascot. I always wondered at that time, Do you know you’re dealing with a Midwestern girl from St. Louie? (As the Brits call St. Louis) Who is wondering why you would buy a hat first before a dress to go with it? Who would be terribly out-of-place at Ascot?  But they trusted my taste, so all was well.

My grandfather—who died in 1998 of Alzheimer’s—was a true Anglophile. An economist by training (he was President of Badrukha College of Commerce in Hyderabad; his name is still on a plaque on the wall there), he’d quote Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Tennyson while I was just a kid and had no idea what he was talking about. But at the same time, he’d tell me tales of the ancient temples in South India; of the famous temple dedicated to Nataraja ( Shiva in his aspect as the cosmic dancer) in Chidambaram in South India, especially. He was born in Mylapore, a suburb of Madras (now Chennai); he spoke Tamil and read the loopy script of the ancient, Dravidian language which is inscribed in the astonishingly old stone walls of so many temples in South India.

He appreciated both the musical language of the English and the mysticism of his Hindu homeland. Perhaps he embodied the strange, indefinable, attraction of the English to the incomprehensible mysteries of India, and of the Indians to their very pale, deeply foreign rulers. I recall my high-school European History teacher in St. Louis saying, “The British ruled many countries in Africa. But they fell in love with India.”

And who can explain love?

 

11—The Most Romantic Culture in the World

“Nartana,” my Pakistani friend Ali told me, “We come from the most romantic culture in the world.” Now I suppose I could spice this scene up and turn it into a love affair, but it was nothing like that. Ali and I were sitting in a school lounge in London, just talking about the differences in Western and Indian culture. He had come to London straight from Karachi, and so this was a new world for him.  And I truly believe he hit upon the most significant difference between Western and Indian (including Pakistani) culture: the utter, complete romanticism of the Indian subcontinent.

I don’t mean just love, which has flowered in Bollywood cinema between singing paramours running amongst blossoming trees on vividly green Swiss Alps, but of the entire way of looking at life. Whether Hindu or Muslim, life is a madly dramatic adventure; jeweled laughter and lush love (oftentimes forbidden) flourish along the incessant, inescapable dance of fate and the passionate fact of death. And this is all spread out on the streets for you to see, touch, even taste. (Although you’d better have a strong stomach before you do the latter).

The colors of the subcontinent reflect the prismatic flash that is this life. Nowhere else on this earth do you experience that entire spectrum of light that is India. I remember once walking towards the Taj Mahal, unable to take my eyes off not the monument in white stone, but the patterned gold and magenta saris—through which shone the radiant rays of the sun-- of two women walking next to one another.

And sari-shops! Many say fewer Indian women are wearing saris, opting instead for the ubiquitous blue jean that supposedly defines the freedom of America (although most jeans are made in China, Vietnam, Honduras…), which is probably true. But in a country of over one billion people, I can guarantee you there are still many saris being worn.

There is nothing like sitting on a stool in a sari-shop while the quiet-spoken clerk dressed in neutrals unfolds sari after sari for you. Emerald greens, peacock-blues, fiery saffron red is spread in a rainbow of silks from Chanderi (silks mixed with cotton),  Kanchipuram (where silken threads are dipped into liquid gold and silver for royally ornate robes), Dharmavaram (brocaded wedding saris). I—and many women I know—could lose ourselves in the artwork, beading, and scenes of idyllic village life woven into the saris. It is nothing less than the height of audacity to dream of dressing yourself in the sparkling shades of myth every day.

Which is why my grandmother—currently 92---finds the current fashion of expensive, ripped jeans rip-roaring. “Why pay good money for torn clothing?” she asks. Coming from a woman who had only a few cotton saris for daily wear—she’d wash them over and over---it’s a damned good question.

And the absolute best thing about saris? Upon which every woman on this earth will agree?

12—The Splendorous Sari. And a Fevered, Fantastically Real Dream

 “Saris are one size-fit-all,” I tell schoolchildren avidly trying to guess how long a sari is.

My mom and I are in a school in St. Louis—we have done Indian culture/dance workshops all over the city and county for years.  The differences in the region are immense—in some schools, the kids know about India; in others, they have no clue.

And you cannot easily guess which school is more culturally aware. In a St. Louis city school---a district full of all kinds of challenges---first-and-second grade students (all African-American) had been studying India and were amongst the most enthusiastic children for whom I’d danced. They actually tried to follow my movements (of their own volition) in a dance I did for them. In a school in South St. Louis county (with only a handful of minority students), the kids watched our workshop with curiosity but they clearly had no idea what India really was. One girl asked me—after our presentation--“What tribe are you from?” I hadn’t received that question in years. (More on that later).

Back in our classroom, the children raise their hands, pleading, “Me, me!” in their attempts to guess the length of the sari. My mom and I stand apart, holding the mustard-colored cotton cloth at each end. The kids are in awe at this lengthy, simple, piece of material. They guess all kinds of numbers, until finally, one yells, “Six yards.”

The average length of a sari is six yards, and can adorn any size woman with elegance and grace. It all depends upon how you pleat it. You pleat the sari at your waist-- you can have as few as eight or as many as fifteen pleats, depending on the width of each pleat—before tucking it inside your petticoat. Of course, modern women rely on safety pins as well; I couldn’t imagine wearing a sari without their steely security!

But Indian women do it all the time. In my aunt Pratima’s apartment in Delhi, in the sweating heat of a sweltering summer, I watched in amazement as her maid mopped the floor (not with a mop; she kneeled on the floor with a rag cloth, dipping it over and over in a bucket) all the while wearing a neat burgundy-colored cotton sari that wrapped snugly around her slender, small frame perfectly. All I could do in Delhi was sit and sweat. And here was a woman hard at work, completely oblivious to the heat of a North Indian summer.

{To briefly depart upon a tangent--this woman was 25, and already had two children. I asked my aunt why poor people have so many children so early. (She will most likely have more). My aunt replied, “Well, they think differently. They think the more kids they have, the greater chance at least one of them will make it, to support them later on.” Incredible, isn’t it? Such a different view on the world, incomprehensible to those of us who have never experienced the soul-strangling poverty of India.}

How hot was it in Delhi? So hot that once, when the power went out—and thus the A.C., which Pratima and my uncle Shankar turned on only at night---my uncle said in frustration, “Let’s take a drive.” So we all three bundled into the air-conditioned car at 11 p.m. and set out. Pratima had driven me through Delhi the previous day; we had the chance to go to the wonderful bazaar of Dili Haat, where you can buy incredibly beautiful, magnificently ornamented long skirts for a few dollars. Driving through Delhi during the day was great, but I hadn’t yet seen it at night.

Well, the city comes more alive at night, if that’s possible. We drove through the ceaseless bustle that is India, until we arrived at India Gate. Designed by Sir Edward Luytens, the British architect who also designed Rashtrapati Bhavan, the residence of the President of India, it was built in 1931 to commemorate the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in World War I. While Luytens said the dome-crowned residence of the President was partly inspired by the Pantheon in Rome (it also, however, is embellished with the quintessentially Indian, temple-inspired feature of bells enclosed in pillars), India Gate was inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. At night, the lit-up monument is a lantern revealing the many-hued multitudes of India.  I felt like I was in a dream, one insignificant drop of color in a radiant, late-night rainbow of life. So what did we do?

 I can still taste the cool pista-flavored sweet treat on my tongue.

 Nothing tops a fevered, fantastically real dream, like ice-cream.

13—This Storied Seine

The sweet cream slides down my throat. Mmm.  Noix de coco—coconut ice-cream.

I chose well.

It is September 2012, and I am partaking of one of the most famous of French delicacies in Paris---ice-cream from La Masion Berthillon situated on the Ile St. Louis. In business since 1954, this purveyor of fresh, chemical-free ice cream draws not just tourists of all stripes but the French themselves--so it must be good.

I stand along the railing of the Seine, lick my petit boule of ice-cream. The Seine was one of my best friends when I studied in Paris. As I truly never felt lonely in London, I never felt lonely in Paris, because of the ever-presence of this river. In between classes, where I’d study Voltaire, Rousseau, or French archaeologists’ writings on Indian art and archaeology (I took a couple of classes at L’Institut Catholique, where I studied Indian art), I would walk alongside the river. Some days, when the sky was so blue, rippling with a sea of golden wind upon which floated an archipelago of creamy-white clouds, I’d just stare in astonishment at the light cascading into the river like water, which reflected it back as a mirror. The river was alive, as alive as foreign words playing their new music on my tongue.

Literature in college never came alive for me like the river; while I got good grades on my papers, I never truly understood the deconstruction and analysis of works of words. I remember once sitting in a French literature class at Washington University. We were discussing Romanticism, but in such dry academic terms, it held no heat for me. Whereas outside, a group of students were playing fiddles on the Quad. Their fiddle-music floated through the open window... and all I was thinking? Romanticism lies in music that is alive!  A book or poem had to capture not simply my intellect but my heart; that is why I never fell in love with poetry or books until I discovered them on my own, and had the time in which to dream about images and meaning. I don’t enjoy reading books quickly; I love language, and if language is significant in a book I like to read a few pages, let it go, and let the images and sound simmer in my mind. I will then pick it up later, and derive more enjoyment from it, because I’ve absorbed its being---not simply zipped through it at the speed of thought.

I am too slow for this world!  I stare into the gentle river, up at the willows alongside it. One weeping willow in particular is my favorite. Its graceful boughs—a sylvan dream of green-- have been sheltering the same small corner of Paris since I studied there in the late 1980’s.

It hasn’t changed. But this city certainly has.

I’ve just had the surprise of my life. Having experienced the terrors of La Conciergerie (the prison whose most famous inmate was Marie-Antoinette) and the 13th-century stained-glass rose windows of La Sainte-Chapelle that morning (through which the radiant, storied grace of Christ still shines)  I wandered over to a small café on the Ile St. Louis where I stop to get a fresh crepe every time I am in Paris.

I am used to people of Arab origin in the creperies. Or African. France has a long history of colonialism in North Africa, after all.

But I am not used to South Asians who speak Tamil, my mother tongue.

I order the crepe in French. The chocolate-colored man in the window responds in French, begins spreading the sizzling dough onto the frying pan. He adds roasted red peppers, tomatoes. Chopped onions. While he is adding a bit of salt, he asks me where I am from. I respond my usual response, “I am from the US. But my family is from India.”

He smiles.  And in Tamil, he tells me, “We have a Tamil girl here.”  I smile, break into laughter. Not just at his smile, but at the absolute, exotic, strangeness of it all: Here I am, in the heart of Paris, upon the very island which the Celtic Parisii tribe settled and begat the journey of this city of fabulous reverie. Here I am at a creperie, ready to take a bite into the most French of lunch-time treats.

And here I am speaking Tamil, the lingua franca of my extended family, a Dravidian language of South India to the cook who’s making my crepe. He’s from Sri Lanka, he tells me.

I eat my ice-cream, whisper this story to the Seine, which has borne witness to centuries of confidences. 

Why wouldn’t I tell my tale to a river? After all, the human brain is 70% water.  Our blood, 83%.

No one can understand us like a river. 

14—The Mississippi. The Sky Falling Asleep with the Sea. And a Missing Comet

I draw in my breath. All of a sudden, the Mississippi frightens me.

It is 1986. I am on a Washington University freshman Mississippi River cruise, at night. (I received my B.A. in French from Wash U in 1990). We have passed the sparkling lights of downtown St. Louis—including the lit windows atop the strong silvery ribbon of steel that is the Arch--which always remind me of the scene in Huckleberry Finn, when the homespun Huck remarks upon the twinkling lights of St. Louis.

We have passed the Anheuser-Busch brewery, just south of downtown.

And now, it is dark. Absolutely dark.

An ordinary river ruminates alone, at night; the Mississippi seeps history. St. Louis was founded in 1764 as a fur-trading post by Pierre Laclede, who had received a grant of land from the king of France, and his 13-year old scout Auguste Choteau. This parcel of land drew them because of its proximity to the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. They called the new settlement St. Louis, after King Louis IX, whose figure stands glimmering-in-painted-light cascading through stained glass of the 13th-century church of La Sainte Chapelle, in Paris. St. Louis passed into Spanish hands, secretly back into Napoleon’s, and then became part of the Louisiana Purchase---and thus part of a growing America—in 1803. According to legend, on the day the transaction was settled, St. Louis flew the flags of Spain, France, and, for the first time in history, the United States.

Soon after, in 1804, the intrepid duo Meriwether Lewis & William Clark departed from St. Louis to map the Louisiana Territory, according to the direction of President Thomas Jefferson. Their duty? To discover a path of water to the Pacific, and to chart the empty west along the way.  (Jefferson believed they would encounter wooly mammoths and erupting volcanoes. Instead Lewis & Clark found fifty Indian tribes and The Rockies! What a stunning, startling new sight, to greet exploring eyes.)

But the land was hardly empty before their time. Native Americans from the Mississippian culture lived along the powerful, sacred, river from the 9th century on. In the 12th-13th centuries, up to 20,000 residents may have made this site along the Mississippi their home. They have left behind mounds, named Cahokia after a small tribe who lived here in the 18th century.

As we pass Anheuser-Busch (now no longer a St. Louis company but part of Inbev, a Belgian conglomerate), I spot the ghostly remains of the Lemp Brewery. Founded in 1840 by John Lemp of Germany, the brewery became a titan of the beer business by the end of the nineteenth century.  But the Lemp family’s history was as bitter as their beer—a saga soaked in sudden death and a string of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. (Their mansion, built in 1860, is considered one of the top ten spookiest buildings in the world, according to CNN Travel.)

The Lemps stored their beer in natural caves underneath St. Louis streets. One of the most haunting images from their history is this: William J. Lemp awaking in his lovely mansion, then descending underground, to walk to his family’s brewery through the asphyxiating embrace of the earth, out-of-reach from the fresh light of the sun. Perhaps this was one of the reasons he later shot his dog, then himself…

Only this starkly dark river knows the truth. I stare into the water. This river is so wide, ripples with such strength, it is muscular. How did the remarkable cast of fur-traders, Native Americans, drifters, and young fictional boys who created mythic America ride the river in darkness? It would’ve been scary, but at the same time I relish the radiance of untouched nature, nearly impossible to find nowadays.  A river free of dams, locks, barges? One can only dream.

This is the first time I am experiencing such dream-filled darkness while deeply awake. I will experience it twice more, and each time it will overwhelm me.

The second time:  La Jolla, California, 1998.  I am visiting my uncle Ajit and his family in San Diego, and am taking a walk at night near the beach in La Jolla—the Jewel-- a luxurious part of town glittering with designer shops, cafes, and restaurants that is hardly remote.

But suddenly, between lamp-posts, beyond the palm trees, I spot the night sky—

or is that the sea? The sky has fallen asleep with the sea, and I realize I cannot tell where one begins, where the ends.

It terrifies me. Even though silver stars glitter as gems in the black velvety setting of the vast Pacific Sky.

The third time: the countryside in England, 1997. I am staying at a cottage of a friend who lives in Wiltshire, deep in the English countryside.  No distracting electric lights about at all. For a society that revels in the darkest of entertainment, we no longer even know what real darkness is.  It is sensuous, spare, intimate, alien.

I step outside at 9 p.m. to see the stars—

and step back. Never in my life have I seen so many stars. And there—the moon. And over there---like a queen arriving at a ball filled with ladies adorned in their finest—

the comet Hale-Bopp.

The sky pours melted light.  I go back inside, tell this starry tale to my friends. 

But I do not sleep. I step outside once more, at midnight, and experience the shock of my life—the comet is gone. The sky shimmers, burns, glitters, shines, overflows with so many stars, I can no longer tell where the comet is.

I am utterly disoriented, by overpowering, magnificent, ordinary, light.

15—Salman Rushdie, Star Trek, and Tony Blair

“What happened?” my friend Lauren asks, disoriented by sudden bursts of chatter in her world of darkness, “what happened?”

I am sitting with Lauren—who is completely blind—in a curry house in Islington, a northern suburb of London. It is 1992. I live next to her in the LSE dormitory; I have never known a completely blind person before, and it is a privilege to make her acquaintance, for she is without doubt one of the bravest people I have ever met.

In the restaurant, I look around, trying to figure out what’s going on.  “The power suddenly went out,” I say, realizing in that second I am now living in a world that finally approaches the darkness which she inhabits at all moments of her life. I can’t even see the plate of pakora in front of me. (Although I can smell it.)

A few minutes later, the lights come back on. My temporary, ghostly world of darkness vanishes. The waiter brings our vegetable biryani, (hot for her, as she’s Korean and loves very spicy food, medium for me) and mango lassi, and life returns to normal.

Lauren was born with normal vision, but lost her sight due to the measles. I used to watch her in fascination when she was looking for something that she had misplaced. It’s so easy for those of us who can see to find something lost. But for her? She patiently felt around her entire room until she found it. She tells me she still has memories of color, from paintings she liked as a child. She treasures those impressions like jewels, radiant memories of a lit-up world that must now seem no more than a dream to her.

I wrestle with the question: Is it better to never have seen at all--to have never experienced the magnetic dance of life and light that form every single one of our ordinary days? Or is it better to have glimpsed a little bit of that world, before you lost it, so you’d always be familiar with the spectral warmth of color?

I don’t know. But Lauren, blind for decades now, does. “I’m very glad I saw the paintings I did,” she says, “I’m glad I have memories of color.”

Lauren and I spend hours and hours walking through London; I hook my right arm into her left, and the city is ours. Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park on sunny (or at least partly-cloudy) days,  Harrods for fun on rainy days.  (I window-shopped only!) I am touched by how much she trusts me; she loves my descriptions of people, our surroundings, and clothes. If I love the look of a dress, she has confidence in my judgment, and will try it on. But her final decision is always her own. She has long, black, glossy hair, and is always immaculately dressed.  Petite, (a size 2 if not 0 the last time I saw her), she could easily fit into many designer creations.

We once heard then-Prime Minister Tony Blair read from the Bible at a Christmas service at St. Margaret’s Church, near Westminster Abbey, in December 1997.  To our utter surprise, we had to pass through no security to see Mr. Blair at all. (By comparison, I had to wait an hour-and-a-half to see Salman Rushdie speak the previous year at the University of London. I just went to see him out of curiosity---I can’t get into Rushdie’s work at all! Except for Haroun & the Sea of Stories. I feel that’s heresy, as I’m Indian! But it’s the truth.).

But the zaniest experience of London with Lauren? Being chatted up by Klingons.

Lauren loved Star Trek, so we hung out at a Star Trek bar once. And that’s when I discovered that nothing gives a man confidence like a lion’s mane and a weird riverbed of a forehead. I had the time of my life describing those men to her.

Who needs sight when you’ve got imagination?