Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The story doesn't end here

If you enjoyed reading Indian Bells, follow the story at my new blog Feathers, Bells and Country Smells. See you over there!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Back where I belong

This is my final blog post, it's long overdue but as they say, better late that never. I'm back in England now living a life considerably different to one I was living just a month ago in Laporiya. For a start it's pretty cold here, with temperatures hitting a maximum of 1 degree over Christmas. I've been appreciating the small things- enjoying baths, carpeted floors, cheese, wine, being able to have conversations with my family around the house and understanding much more of what's going on that I ever did in India. But I've also noticed the similarities - I live in the countryside, I can see cows from my kitchen window, I have a dog, we use open fires to keep warm, I live with my parents (biological this time) and right now I have a lot of time to myself. Another amusing similarity is that without a car I'm very dependant on my parents for transport, although it doesn't seem so bad having experienced isolation much more extremely in Laporiya. I'd say in many ways I feel more content, appreciating what I've got.

Saying a final goodbye to my Indian family was emotional, with a small crowd of GVNML staff and family members waving me off from the fort, having plastered my forehead with red tilaks for a safe journey. Once my aunty starting crying I couldn't help shedding a few tears. All they kept asking were "When are you coming back?". Laporiya is part of my future now, and I expect I'll return in a couple of years when my sister Suman gets married.

So now all my attention is focussed on finding employment, but I'm hoping I won't have to settle for just any job. My sights are set on a marketing role within an International Development charity where I can continue to build on my experience, and for the moment it's the bright lights of London for me so that I can take advantage of the best opportunities.

Before I go there's something I must mention, the highlight of the entire 9 months I spent in India. My Mum, Dad and sister came to visit me in November and as well as taking them on a little tour of Rajasthan, we all attended my Indian sister Ratan's wedding in Laporiya. The coming together of two families allowed me to piece the whole experience together, to let my real family see where and how I had been living, and to meet the family who had taken me in. Seeing Mama welcome Mum with a big hug and puja ceremony was a joyful moment. I'd kitted Mum and Gabi, my sister, out in traditional Rajasthani party wear and Dad wore a kurta and pyjama combo made my a village tailor, along with an 8ft long turban tied by my Indian cousins.

The first day of the wedding saw around 3,000 villagers come to our house to be fed and enjoy music and dancing, which we were encouraged to join in with. And if you've ever wondered how to cook for 3,000 people take a look at a the huge pan of dahl in the photo. The party begun late on the following day and at around 10pm the groom and his entourage were welcomed into the fort on an elephant paraded by dancing horses, camels and musicians. Various ceremonies ensued and we were honoured with prime viewing positions. The actual marriage ceremony had to take place at the time set by the priest which happened to be 4.52am the following morning. We were allowed special access into the men's tent at the front of the house to enjoy some beer and whiskey and got a few hours sleep before the 4 hour service which finished with the circling of fire for the bride and groom and officially they could be pronounced man and wife.

My parents especially left overwhelmed by the whole experience, but appreciative of how lucky they were to have the opportunity to be so closely involved in a traditional Indian family wedding. In a family of only one man (and more importantly in Indian culture, no sons!), what struck us most was the segregation between men and women- often we had to leave my Dad outside because it was inappropriate for Mum, Gabi and I to go outside or for him to go inside where the women celebrated. I later found out that no women from the groom's family even attended the wedding- they had to stay at their own houses while their husbands and sons enjoyed the party.

How lucky I feel to be let inside a family, to have been so close to a culture so different to mine. I feel truly blessed that I had the chance but it's good to be back in England, with my real family where I truly belong. Sometimes I think I was living on pause in India but now life hurtles forward.

Where I'm living now...

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Lighting up Laporiya during Diwali

Yesterday was Diwali, or the Festival of Light, India's biggest festival. It's a 3 day holiday in India, much like Christmas with lots of Happy Diwali phone calls, texts and emails. Living with my family in Laporiya, I had the opportunity to witness the whole process. It started a couple of weeks ago when all rooms had to be thoroughly cleaned, our office was repainted and new bed covers and carpets were bought for each bedroom. This was all to please Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and yesterday was given over to her worship. We invited her into our house, lighting small earthen butter lamps or diyas to illuminate her way and painting footprints before each doorway so that she would know which rooms to enter. Apparently Laxmi likes cleanliness, so will enter the cleanest rooms first.

During the day we had a special breakfast which included keer (delicious, sweet rice pudding), and puri (deep fried flaky roti) and prepared plates for puja (offerings). Half the family went to the nearest city to buy sweets and other items to help make the offerings.

As night fall approached, the small butter candles were placed all over the house, on the edge of each step and on every windowsill. Climbing to a high point in the building we could look out over the village during a regular powercut to see hundreds of flickering candles shining out of the darkness. The priests had given the designated time of 6.30pm to 8pm to make our Lakshmi puja, so each family assembled in their own living quarters to present spices, grains, sweets, incense and holy thread to the goddess, hoping she would bring wealth and happiness in the coming year. The puja ended with a special devotional song to Lakshmi then touching the feet of elderly family members as a mark of respect.

After attending puja with my boss' family, then in my father's study to his cheque books and money, it was time for a brief makeshift session in my room. I didn't have a picture of the right god, but luckily my sister had bought a spare one for me. My father wished me peace, happiness and money for the future and pressed a tilak to my forehead as the room filled with incense. This was one night where the lights in every room were left on to welcome Lakshmi.

Crackers and sparklers followed and afterwards I sat quietly at the front of the house, drinking my evening milk and watching the bright explosions over the village. Quietly contemplative and somewhat missing my family during this time of togetherness.

Today everyone is wearing new clothes, and according to tradition, all the villagers came to our house to offer sweets and say Happy Diwali. More puja was made, this time to Lord Krishna, who is the cow herder. This involved the women of the house gathering around a large cow pat while a lady Brahmin priest mixed it with curd and sweets and other goodies while singing praises to the god. I've been told vehicles will also be worshipped today.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

More photos of the village

Inspired by the success of my previous wander around Laporiya, I ventured out again, this time at dusk began to set in and homes were busy with activity before nightfall. Along the way I met a Grandma, saw a buffalo being milked, was pestered by children to take their photo, invited into a house for chai and introduced to a wrinkly day old baby.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

A walk around Laporiya

Celia, another VSO Volunteer came to visit me in Laporiya this weekend and this morning we did something I've rarely done before- we went for a walk around the village.

Here are some of the sights we saw on the way...

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

One step closer to enlightenment

I approached the gates of Dhamma Thali Vipassana Meditation Centre on the outskirts of Jaipur with feelings of trepidation, having committed myself to learning an ancient meditation technique for 10 days in complete silence. The rules were extensive, aiming to create the best possible environment for students and enabling us to live like nuns to concentrate on purifying ourselves. Noble silence meant silence of body, speech and mind so no speaking, eye contact, gestures, writing or reading. We could talk briefly to the management if we had problems, and ask the teacher questions during set time periods, but without entering into long discussions. Easier to follow were the 5 precepts- no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or use of intoxicants. Men and women were segregated with different residential quarters, dining halls and walking areas. Even married couples had to abstain from all contact. There were around 80 people on my course, 50 men and the rest women, with only a handful of foreigners. The timetable was strict and involved 10.5 hours of meditation per day, starting at 4.30am and finishing at 9pm.

These restrictions seemed a small price to pay for the promise of a step closer to enlightenment and liberation from suffering. After all, Vipassana is the same technique that enlightened Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago. Although it has its roots in India, it spread throughout Asia and over the years the practice was gradually corrupted. Burma kept the technique alive in its purest form, and that’s where our teacher, Goenka-Ji learnt it. As a wealthy but stressed businessman afflicted with intense migraines, he had consulted the finest doctors in the Western world and was prescribed morphine but knew he had to find another way to ease the pain. When a friend recommended Vipassana, Goenka sceptically underwent teaching to cure the headaches, but cured much more than that. When his parents moved to India and his mother’s health deteriorated, Goenka got a visa to stay in India and teach her the technique. Gradually more and more people saw the impressive results and asked for teaching and his visa was extended and extended. Now there are Vipassana Meditation Centres all over India and in many other countries, training hundreds of thousands of students. It’s worth noting that Vippassana is not sectarian, it does not try and convert students to Buddhism, although I did notice certain expected beliefs in karma and reincarnation.

In Dhamma Thali the teachings are given via tape, with every meditation session beginning and ended with Goenka’s chanting or guidance. In the evenings video discourses explained the theory behind the technique, illustrated with stories passed down from the time of Buddha. For the first 3.5 days we practised Anapam meditation, focusing on the incoming and outgoing breath and honing all our attention on the sensations we felt in the small triangle underneath the nose and above the upper lip. Sitting crossed legged for so long brought deep pain at first especially in my back and feet, and my mind fluttered around past events and events that might happen in the future. Like Goenka says, so often our thoughts are in the past or the future, we live in the present so rarely.

The afternoon of Day 4 was the first teaching of Vipassana and Goenka guided us to feel sensations in every part of our body, moving from head to feet with the aim of seeing things as they really are. The first time I experienced this was extreme, intoxicated with the power of my mind, feeling the pressure inside my skull about to explode. I was aware of every muscle as I moved over my face, I could feel what it feels like to be an elbow. The mind was truly alert and sensitive to the thousands of subtle sensations moving all around us. As we practised more and more in the forthcoming days, I experienced ‘free flow’, sensations moving seamlessly through my arms and legs like electricity. Where there were intense blocks of very strong sensations, such as the right hand side of my back, free flow was impossible, but we worked to disperse the pain. So what was the purpose of all this? The sensations are chemical reactions illustrating perfectly the law of nature that all things are impermanent, in time all will pass. So any negative thoughts, anger, hatred will in time pass, just like good times will pass too. We have to learn how to cope with the ups and downs of life. And how does the technique teach us to do this? By observing the sensations objectively without reacting to them, without creating aversions to the pain, or cravings for the free flow. These two emotions only lead to suffering when unwanted things happen and wanted things don’t happen. Vipassana relies on a belief of sankharas- negative habit patterns that we keep hidden inside ourselves and reinforce every time we get angry. By not generating any new sankharas (not reacting), we rid ourselves of our misery without planting any new seeds and gradually become lighter. Once they are all gone, liberation and the final goal comes.

On Day 7 we graduated to being allocated ‘cells’ in the pagoda. Tiny sparse rooms with port hole windows and nothing but a cushion on the floor. On Day 10 we learnt Metta meditation, which is a way to spread love and compassion for all beings, to feel peace and harmony. Then it was time to speak to prepare us for life outside the centre the following morning. What exactly do you say to people you’ve been sitting next to, eating with and experiencing overwhelming feelings but haven’t yet said a word to? The first thing I did after collecting my mobile from the safe was phone my Mum and check all was well with the family. One of the fears that had come out was that something would happen to me or my loved ones and I’d never make it back to England, never see them again. Luckily, as my teacher had reassured me on day 8, they were all safe. And the last day was fun. Less time for meditating and more time getting to know people, trying to make sense of what happened and making the gradual transition into the real world.

So was it worth it? I definitely found the course very tough at times, especially the four hour block of meditation every afternoon. It felt like being confined in a cross between a monastery and a mental asylum. I did lose focus towards the end and wasn’t observing sensations for the entire time. By day 10 I’d planned almost every future major life event and relived some of the past key moments. It was hard not having contact with Rob and added to the sense of isolation I already felt being in Laporiya. But, I got through it, I’ve got a changed sense of perspective on life and I came out feeling more positive with a greater idea of what was important to me. And it was peaceful living in a forest area, living so close to monkeys and peacocks and without laptops, mobile phones and books. In many ways it’s easy not having to talk to people, it seems to take a lot of stress out of life!

There were a few major learning points for me. An enforced sense that attachment only leads to misery, attachment to money, possessions, or a strong attachment to another person without realising that you are 100% responsible for your own happiness. By getting angry at situations and letting negative thoughts take over you are only reinforcing your own behaviour patterns, even when times are tough we have to stay positive and balanced to be able to cope, knowing that change is inevitable and things will get better. I learnt one technique to control craving and aversion and am consciously trying to make an effort to stay equanimous. And it’s not about avoiding all pleasure, life is to be enjoyed but they teach us to enjoy it in a balanced way. I’m still not convinced by this and can’t help feeling that to have intense feelings of joy is worth painful sensations. I aim to feel compassion for all, to go out of my way to be nice to people, to feel at peace. As they said to us on Metta day, “May all beings be happy”.

Image (c) www.chopra.com

Friday, 1 October 2010

A long trip east

India is a big country, the scale of which you can barely contemplate without having experienced it. Back home in the UK just about the longest journey we consider in the south is the 14 hour drive to Scotland and even that is almost unbearable for my Mother, much to the dismay of Father who considers the highlands his spiritual home. India is 13 times the size of the UK and in the last 10 days I've spent 74 hours on three trains and at least 10 hours on buses. It took a mammoth 37 hour train journey to reach the state of Orissa, in the south east of India. It’s often said that there is no other country as diverse as India, with so many religions, cultures and traditions. Each state could be a different country. I’d gone from the roti eating, dry, semi-arid north to a land I didn’t quite understand where rice is the staple and you have to eat it with your fingers, humidity overwhelms and dinner is eaten off a banana leaf and regularly includes meat.
I visited the jungle town of Brahamphur to observe an Advocacy Workshop for People Living with HIV & AIDS (PLHA) facilitated by a fellow VSO Volunteer. Using what I learnt during the two day workshop, I'll go on to document GVNML's Advocacy efforts in Child Rights and Reproductive Health. By a happy coincidence, Brahamphur also happens to be where Ashley and Richard live, who I had my Country Orientation with for a month in Delhi. I had the opportunity to catch up and see their flat and life in placement. On my second evening there, Richard’s organisation, PREM, hosted a birthday party for a friend of theirs. During the party we were treated to cake, cultural performances filled with energetic street dancing combined with traditional moves and a delicious South Indian dinner. Jacob, PREM’s Director, set up the NGO to support tribal children through education where none was available in their villages. Now they work in 5,000 villages with 47 hostels looking after the children for 10 months of the year while they go to English medium schools in the towns and develop into some of the most well-mannered young people I’ve ever met.

Brahamphur is a mere 10 hours from Kolkata by train so after the workshop I paid a trip to the cultural capital of India to see two more VSO friends, and the leftovers of Calcutta’s colonial past. It’s a remarkable city- a bursting metropolis with lush greenery, wide roads, taxis with metres, pavements good for strolling, malls, huge parks and restaurants serving all manner of food. We ate delicious Bengali sweets and Bengali fish curry, we shopped, we drank coffee and we saw the sights including the Victoria Memorial which the Britishers left behind and wouldn’t look out of place in Georgian Bath.
An exhausting, sociable trip that left me with a bad cold from the climatic changes but a greater understanding of India and the vast differences between east and west, north and south. The best bit was catching up with friends again after 6 months and seeing what other people’s placements were like.

Photos (top to bottom)- The group from our Advocacy Workshop; a typical South Indian meal; some of the PREM children; taking our place as ‘esteemed guests’ at the front; Ashley outside her flat; Debs with Tim outside her house in Kolkata; the Victoria Memorial building.