Return to India, Part 2: Pain beneath the fan, a sprawling tree, monkey on a string; those I would soon join on a train ride; the garland
Pain brought me to India this time, and pain traveled with me from the moment I stepped off the arriving plane to the moment I stepped into the departing one. Not physical pain, but pain born by the spirit, the bitter pain of sorrow and anguish.
Yet, I did enjoy this trip to India. I smiled often, laughed a lot and the smiles and laughs were true and genuine - manifestations of the joy and pleasure I felt to be there. I had fun in India. The company I kept was good. The people I stayed and traveled with were generous, warm, loving and often made me smile. I made them smile. We all smiled together, laughed together. Yet, underlying everything, at every moment, was pain - not only for me, but for them, too. We had suffered a common and bitter loss: an individual bound to them by love, blood, and spirit, to me by love and spirit, but still family, the bond deep and strong.
The pain struck me the most, close to unbearable, when I would lie beneath a whirling fan as its blades sliced the air, forcing it to flow over me and cool me. There were many fans, over all of the various beds I slept in, be they in the homes of my hosts or the hotels they took me to. The quietest times I experienced in India took place beneath these fans - the times when I would lie down upon a bed for the night, or when jet lag would force me to try to nap in the afternoon. Even in the barber's chair, above, my heart was pierced by the whirling of the fan as it blended with the metalic squeak of scissors clipping.
It never seems to get truly quiet in India the way it does in Alaska, particularly in the winter. There are always a variety of birds - some of them loud - chirping, squawking, mocking and singing -sometimes joined by monkeys who throw their voices into the mix. Street dogs bark. Merchants walk the streets and shout out ads for the goods they sell. Hindu priests and their accolytes pass by, banging drums, chanting, singing as they make oblations to their Gods. Sometimes, the Muslim call to prayer can also be heard.
Yet, under the fan, alone with my own mind, these other sounds all seemed to recede. It was the sound of the fan that stood out as it sliced, beat and pushed the air that swept over me and pulled away the heat of India. In the quiet beneath the fan, the pain within me crept out.
At times, I did not think I could bear it.
Twenty-five hours lapsed from the time I boarded my first flight in Phoenix until I exited the last in Bangalore. I had intended to read a book on the plane and to sleep if I could, but my head was not into reading and sleep seldom comes easily to me. I got a little, but not much, so I watched movies, beginning with Puss and Boots. Sometimes, I just held my eyes closed to see what kind of images and stories would play out on the back of my eye lids.
Sometimes, one of the three purposes of my trip would press heavily down upon me and I would feel my eyes start to water just a bit. This was okay, because I could turn my head into the corner of my chair and my pillow and no one would know.
I resolved that once I got off the plane to join those with whom I would be staying and traveling, I would not lose a tear in their presence - except with Suji. We had a mission to undertake together, a mission that by its nature was bound to draw tears out of both us. Other than the planned excursion with her, I would keep my tears to myself.
Murthy, Vasanthi, and Ganesh met me at the airport. They came in Ganesh's cute little car, his $4000 Tata, billed as the cheapest car in the world. As soon as we got in, Ganesh announced that he was driving on empty and that we must go straight to the nearest gas station, before he ran out of gas altogether.
Right after we left the airport, we passed by this statue of Lord Hanuman the Monkey God. I thought of the last time I had been on this road - in a cab going to the airport to return home with Melanie following the wedding of Soundarya and Anil. Anil and Buddy had ridden in front, behind, and alongside us on Anil's motorbike, Soundarya, her parents and aunt and uncle in the car with us. She would lean forward to the front passenger seat where I sat to rest her hand, sometimes her head, upon my shoulder.
In India, only ticketed passengers are allowed to enter the terminal. After we parked at the airport, she inter-twined her arm with mine, took my hand in hers, walked me to the door and then gripped my hand as I passed through the door into the terminal until finally the stretch became too great and our hands slipped apart.
I took a glimpse back into her moistened eyes, then walked away to check my bags, find Melanie and head to my gate. That glimpse was my last of Soundarya - forever; or at least for all of this life. Beyond this life, I really don't know. A lot of people tell me that they know, and they have many different ideas and concepts about it. I just don't know.
Now, as Ganesh drove the Tata about on fumes, looking for a gas station, I looked at the road I had traversed with Sandy in the day and remembered, even at night. I could not altogether suppress the tears. I did my best to restrain and hide them. Perhaps I did hide them from Murthy and Vasanthi, who sat in the back seat, but Ganesh reached over and gave my right forearm a squeeze.
In his eyes tears also appeared.
We had not left the airport until after 2:00 AM and every gas station we went to was closed - I think it might have been a holiday - India is a country of many holidays. We had gone out of our way to get to a couple of those stations and had burned up that much more gas. Yet, after we drove for an hour without finding an open station, Ganesh pulled up to Murthy and Vasanthi's house.
Murthy and Vasanthi insisted that I sleep in their room on their bed and they slept in another room on a smaller, less comfortable, bed. They did the same thing last time I was here.
In the morning, Vasanthi cooked breakfast. Being Hindu and vegetarian, she never cooks a shred of meat, but she is a superb cook and when I eat in her house, in the heat of India, I never miss the meat. I like to joke with her, to plead with her to move to Anchorage and start her own South Indian restaurant. I tell her she could grow rich - because that's how good her food is and there is nothing like it to be found in any Anchorage restaurant I have ever been in.
I joke, yes - but I mean it, too. I would like it if she did, but I know it will never happen. Vasanthi is a true woman of India; She loves her country. She is proud to be Indian. She treasures her religion and prizes the beauty in her culture. She enjoyed her visit to Alaska in 2008 and wants to visit again - but India is her home. She is not going to make a restaurant in Anchorage, no matter how much I would enjoy it if she did.
After breakfast, I walked over to the banyan tree that grows on the grounds of an agricultural college not far from Murthy and Vasanthi's house. Along with the greatest giants of the redwoods, it is among the most amazing trees I have ever seen. It keeps extending its branches outward and as the branches grow fat and heavy, they sprout tendrils which reach down to the ground, dig their way in to form a new trunk and to grow new roots, which then intertwine and merge with the existing root system.
The tree looks like it is many trees, all wrestling reach other for the same patch of earth and sunlight - but it is just one tree. As grand as this one is, I hear and read about others even more grand - some have diameters greater in width than the length of two football fields, with a multitude of trunks. The oldest banyan trees predate the birth of Christ.
Such a tree looks like a mini forest, but it is just one tree with system of trunks, branches and roots that all reach back into one common point of origin. I grew up with Sunday School diagrams of my family tree. To me, the banyan tree is a family tree to represent all of humanity - we, who all began together, then reached out and expanded into other lands and continents to lay down new trunks and new roots, yet, even if most of the time we forget it, we all tie together, our roots intertwined, spreading out from and reaching back to a common point of origin.
Although she is gone, Soundarya was everywhere - present in all the little things she had left behind, including this stuffed monkey toy that hung above the bed in which I slept. She had gotten it while out somewhere with Anil and had given it to Murthy and Vasanthi. As I wrote in the first post I made after I arrived in India this trip, I had come with three purposes in mind.
Even though I had an intellectual knowledge of Soundarya's death, emotionally I had never accepted it. I had not seen her body, I had attended no funeral service, I had not been present at her cremation or for the release of her ashes into the sacred waters. Inside me, there has been a stubborn streak that has refused to accept her death as permanent - even in the mortal sense.
For almost 15 months, against all logic and evidence, this stubborn streak had continued to tell me she would somehow reconstitute herself and we would return to our regular exchange of emails and chats. She would still come to Alaska to visit Margie and me and we would yet ride bicycles together through Denali Park and she could bungee jump off a certain bridge that spans the Copper River and paraglide off the Chugach. These were things she wanted to do.
So I came to India in the hope I might at last make my whole self come to an understanding of the truth, to find a way to accept that truth and come to terms with it.
I came intent to visit the place where she took her life, the crematorium where her body was returned to ash and dust, and the holy waters into which her ash and dust had been released. It is kind of like when you lose a person you love in a car crash. Even if you weren't there when it happened, you go to the site where it took place. You look at the skid, oil, and maybe burn marks left on the road. Then you go to the junk yard to look at the crumpled car, the blood stains inside it. You go to the funeral home; view the body. You attend the funeral, then stand beside the grave as your loved one is lowered into the ground. None of this is macabre. When you lose someone you love, you just have a human need to know what the full process was that took them from the living person you loved into the grave.
If I could see the places and things that told of her process, I thought, I might finally, wholly, know. I might accept the truth and come to terms with it.
My second purpose was to attend and photograph the formal Hindu wedding of Sujitha, Soundarya's younger sister, 30 on her next birthday, to Manoj Biradar (Manu). As do her brother and all her cousins - my in-laws, Suji calls me "Uncle." I love it when she does. I call her, "Niece." As did Sandy and Anil when they wed, Suji and Manu had broken with custom, had come together by their own choice and across the boundaries of the caste system of old.
Manu had gone to London about two years back to find higher paying work than his skills in technology, management and sales could get him in India. Last June, Sujitha followed and got a job of her own. After flying to Mumbai and then on to Pune, the big city of Manu's home region, where his parents live and where the wedding was scheduled to take place, she returned to Bangalore alone on March 3.
As had I, Suji came in on a flight that arrived in the wee-morning hours. Murthy and Vasanthi live closer to the airport than do Suji's parents, so Ganesh drove us to the airport to pick her up and then we returned here. Natarajan, Vasanthi's 87-year old father, was asleep when she arrived, but he happily awoke to welcome his granddaughter home. Natarajan wears a gold chain around his neck and Suji has always loved that chain.
Whenever she first sees him, she teases him, pretends that she is going to steal the chain away from him. She did so now. This gave us all a good laugh.
I do not know how I would have coped after Soundu's death without Suji Niece, and Bill Uncle played a big role in helping her cope, too. We bore and expressed the pain we felt through countless emails; I took my phone to bed every night and Suji knew I was there, ready to talk, any time, day or night. We did, too.
Amidst the tears, we also discovered things to smile about. Suji fell in love with my grandsons - especially Jobe of the chubby cheeks, shining eyes and effervescent smile. This visit would be dominated by smiles and laughter - yet with the pain of the loss of her Soundu and my Sandy never far below the surface.
Sometimes, even and especially in the happy moment of reunion, this pain would work its way to the surface. As I have already written, the "U" tattooed onto Suji's right arm is the last letter of the word, "Soundu" her pet name for her sister. On the other side of the tattoo is the large letter "A" with the names Anil and Soundu spelled out between. A framed space is reserved for a portrait of the two of them together - once Suji comes up with the funds to finish the tattoo.
Even though I took the photo, it hurts me now to look at it and to see the pain in it. Yet, Suji wants to help me to tell the story of her sister; she wants people to understand what kind of person she was and how she was loved and how terribly badly it hurts to lose someone you love to suicide - even when you know what kind of unbearable pain she had suddenly found thrust upon her. Such a story cannot be told unless the pain is shown.
Even when dealing with the worst pain imaginable, the best choice one has is to grab hold of it, put it in a compartment in one's heart where one can go to retrieve it as needed, then stand up, face this brutal yet magnificent life, grab a smile and continue on.
It helps to receive a blessing and a prayer, as Suji receives from Vasanthi. It is a heartfelt blessing. There is love behind it, power and healing in the love.
When I was in India, I was too busy and my access to the internet too slow and shaky to do little more than post a fragment or two, but I did get up a couple of posts that are very relevant to the story I am telling now. One happened the night after Suji's return, when she, her parents and brother returned for dinner. Afterward, according to custom, her Aunt Vasanthi presented Suji with her first wedding gift.
After receiving the gift of a new saree, she stands with her Aunt Vasanthi, her father Ravi and mother Bhanu.
The handsome gentleman looking down from the photograph is Murthy's father, Subramaniam Murthy, a photographer who died at the age of 45. In the Hindu way, photos of the deceased are draped with a garland.
None of the many photos Subramaniam took over his career remain in the family.
It hurt me terribly to look at this photo of Soundarya, draped with a garland, a photo-button of her kissing Anil attached just below. The garland delivered the very message I had come to India to grasp and accept, but when I saw it, I fought against it. I did not want to accept the message.
This sat on the mantle in the home of Ravi and Bhanu. I thought it was part of a permanent, living-room memorial to Sandy, but Bhanu told me the family had put it on the mantle, along with mementos Sandy had left behind, so that I could see it when I arrived.
And here is Ganesh, brother to Soundarya and Sujitha. "Gane" is a photographer. He did not know it until he met me, but now he does. He has a natural eye and great potential. He has not yet figured out how to make a living at it, but I am no longer so certain I have, either. I will tell more of this story later, after we board the train.
Ganesh and I have also kept the lines of communcation open and have helped each other. I think the biggest way I helped him was to lead him to his passion - photography. Even in grief, the camera brought out his passion. Passion has carried him through what he did not believe he could be carried through.
Murthy, Suji and Bhanu study coins from the collection Natarajan keeps in the little green boy bank. Murthy knows about money and finances. He recently retired from a career in banking. Don't get the wrong idea - he does not have the kind of huge wealth that we in America tend to associate with bankers, but he is comfortable and is able to take his wife (and me) touring now and then.
He is generous beyond generosity. I have never experienced anything like Murthy's generosity. When he becomes a host, he assumes complete responsibility for his guest. I barely spent a few rupees in India, because Murthy would not let me. Nor would Vasanthi - or, for that matter, Suji, when I would be with her. I'm even talking airplane rides here - which, on IndiGo Air are stunningly affordable, but still - Murthy paid my fare and would not hear of reimbursement.
He would not let me spend a single rupee (about two cents) on my own transportation - or my lodging - or my food - not even my medicine.
Last time he and Vasanthi came to Alaska, I drove them up the haul road to the Arctic Circle and then on to Coldfoot. It was May. South of the Brooks Range, the weather was good but above, a 55-knot blizzard raged, so we could go no further.
Murthy wants to experience Arctic Alaska during the coldest, darkest, time of the year. We agreed that he and Vasanthi should come back in the middle of the winter of 2013-14 and I will take them to Barrow and other points north. I've got to get on top of things by then, so I can buy their tickets, just like he bought mine once I got to India. I can't let him spend anything on travel, food, or lodging.
Murthy never seems to forget anything, ever. Once he gets hold of a fact, he's got it. He can tell you things about Coldfoot that if I ever knew, I have forgotten.
They all definitely teased each other, but I always liked how close the three siblings were - Sandy, Suji and Gane (Gee Iyer on Facebook - he gave himself the name "Gee" because few English speakers could handle Ganesh). I used a picture similar to this in the March 4 post linked above. As I post this series, if I feel I need to use a photo that I already used in the fragments I put up while I was in India, I will.
A week later, I would join all of the people who appear in this post on an 18-hour train ride to Pune to attend Suji and Manu's wedding. The train ride would mark the first phase of my third purpose in coming to India - to learn a little bit more about the country that made Soundarya who she was. I went to places she never got to visit, but still it was her country. She was shaped by its history, landscape, lore and customs. Some she accepted and loved, some she rebelled and fought against.
I've got a few other stories to post before I take readers onto the train. Starting tomorrow, I will try to post at least two stories a day, so I can finish this series up in good time.
I won't promise, but I will try.