The first few days of living outside the Sri Ramanasramam at our new apartment felt a bit like I’d been pushed out of the nest or kicked out of heaven and rudely thrown back into regular life despite my wishes. Immediately on reconnecting to my clients I learned that two of my projects had gone into a bit of a crisis mode that’ll keep me working heavily at the computer through most of December, cutting back drastically on my available time for meditation, self-inquiry, blogging, and exploring Tiruvannamalai. And nice and new as our apartment is, a new construction site popped up a stone’s throw away where a week ago there’d been none; our first afternoon, I was stuck waiting for the air conditioner repairmen to come and go from our place while workers were cutting rebar just outside the window; my internet connection was too hopelessly unreliable to do anything useful. I began to despair.
But things looked a little better the next day; I got a wifi dongle with better reception, the construction (which had been ramped up to try to get some things done before the Deepam holiday) settled down a little, and I actually got into a good work groove. The first evening, after work, I skulked into the ashram feeling “aw why can’t I be here all the time waaah I’m such an outsider now”. The next evening, it was a complete reversal, and I marvelled as I sat, thinking “How many kinds of amazing is it that after a full day of work, I can just stroll up the street and come to the ashram?! How fortunate is THAT?” And the weight of the work was lifted, at least for now.
Visiting the old stomping grounds
In January 2016, we stayed in an apartment further from the ashram, about a five-minute scooter ride out of town. It was a beautiful and spacious place surrounded by rice fields, and we certainly considered staying there again, but wanted to be walking distance this time. But I had wanted to go visit, partly to see if anything had changed in the area, but mostly to visit some of our neighbours, both human and canine.
I had sworn I wouldn’t touch any of the feral dogs in India when I first came, but I’m just too much of a dog person to long resist a dog who gives me a friendly look. A week or two into our stay, I tossed a single treat to the semi-feral dog who hung out near our building, and from that point on became his bestest friend ever in the whole wide world. We’d come down the road on the scooter and he’d be three rice fields away and would spot me and come galloping joyfully towards us, tongue lolling, dancing and prancing all around, a big goofball. If I walked around anywhere he’d greet me and accompany me. We had to discourage him trying to come inside. I dubbed him Buddy Dog since I didn’t want to give him a real name and I kept referring to him as “buddy” anyway. Since returning to Canada, I’d often wondered about his fate. He was in great shape, healthy and enthusiastic, but didn’t belong to anyone and wasn’t getting much in the way of care from the locals.
There also were a few neighbouring concrete huts for the families who worked the rice fields. One of the girls, Suguna, was bold and brave and would come up to practice her English on me, declaring “Hi how are you!” with her shy brothers and sisters giggling nervously in tow. I was standoffish at first, but she won me over eventually, and we’d have awkward conversations with the very little words we had in common. I bought her an English-Tamil dictionary and some notebooks for the five kids. When we left, I wrote her a letter in English, hoping with her initiative and curiousity that she would use the dictionary to translate it. I’d wondered in the meantime how things had gone for her and her siblings as well, whether the drought in Tamil Nadu had destroyed their livelihood, whether she was still in school or would be married off, what her future would hold.
So this Saturday we drove back out to our old place, and everything was more or less the same as we’d left it, same fields, same houses. I saw an unfamiliar dog in Buddy Dog’s usual place, and wondered if he had died. Then we rounded the corner and I saw him at one of the other families’ huts. As we stopped the scooter, Buddy Dog leapt up howling and barking and cringing and putting as much distance between us and him as he could while still sounding the alarm, tail tucked between his legs, body curled inwards. He was limping badly and could barely put weight on his right front paw. The way he reacted to us was with such fear and distress that made it clear he’s been abused over the past two years. I tried to approach him later and spoke to him and finally his tail started wagging harder and his ears relaxed down in a friendly gesture, but he still cringed and wouldn’t come near. He would tolerate the neighbour girls and boys but if Matthew so much as took a gentle step toward him he would flee again; it’s probably been an adult male mistreating him.
Suguna and one of her younger brothers were at home. Neither she nor I recognized the other at first – I thought she was her younger sister, because she looked younger than I’d remembered, smaller, less outgoing. She remembered me when I said my name, and lit up a little, and invited us inside. We sat awkwardly in their dark hut while they offered us food and water that we couldn’t safely eat or drink, and we had to decline, making all of us uncomfortable. We tried to make conversation, but it seemed like Suguna had also withdrawn since I’d last seen her. She is still in school, but she seemed to have even less English than two years ago. We stared at each other and smiled and mumbled, and tried to bridge the gap as best as we could, even asking questions using Google Translate, but it fizzled out – though we did have fun teaching each other a few words; I can only count to five in Tamil and we got the two kids to teach us to count to ten. We finally accepted some kind of tart fruits from their garden dipped in salt, breaking the “Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it” cardinal rule of food safety in a third-world country, counting the minutes until we could get away and take a Pepto-Bismol tablet to protect our sensitive Western guts. Eventually we made our exit, feeling alien and strange.
Suguna asked us to come back again, and I will at some point while we’re here, but for now I’m still processing the encounters. I’m not naive enough to think that you can give someone a dictionary and walk away and their future will suddenly blossom. But she had had a confidence about her two years ago that seems to have faded now. I don’t know whether this is just a natural side effect of teenagehood in any culture (actually, I’m not sure of her age, I think 15-ish?) or this is the cold reality of what her life as a rice farmer’s daughter will make of her. I know my perspective is incomplete and flawed. Their day-to-day lives are a mystery to me; not much made it through the language barrier, and I am clueless about so much of the world they live in. Maybe she was just having one rough day.
But oh, poor Buddy Dog. No cultural barriers there – his cowering body language was all too clear. I know sometimes travellers get swayed into adopting dogs in far-off lands and bringing them back to Canada, but I never would have wanted that for Buddy Dog because he’d seemed so happy and free and full of life, having all this space to roam, having his own territory and something approaching a dog’s natural life. It wouldn’t have been a kindness to bring him to Canada, and he wouldn’t have adapted well to confined city life and walking on a leash. But it wouldn’t have been overt abuse; he wouldn’t have learned that humans are terrifying and dominating.
I left the kids and the dog feeling heavy, subdued, sober, helpless. It’s not like I had major illusions or expectations, and I was mentally prepared for worse. After all, this is India, and not only are their lives not atypical here, but both the kids and the dog have it better than many; they have solid homes in which to live, and even Buddy Dog was at least well-fed and still had all his fur. But – I did have hopes that over the past few years, things might have gotten better for them all than they had been, and that Suguna’s drive to learn had opened up new possibilities. Hopes and reality don’t always align.
Bowled over by Brahmins
Later, we went to Kanchi Kamakoti Pedam to see a group of Brahmins chanting the Vedas, which I think is part of a special program due to Karthagai Deepam being underway at the moment. At Sri Ramanasramam, Vedas are chanted twice daily: it’s always Taittiriya Upanishad in the mornings and Sri Rudram in the evenings. They’re each about 40-45 minutes, and it’s a group of about a dozen or more boys usually doing the chanting.
This was a group of forty men chanting nonstop for two hours. It was a special kind of marathon and I’ve never seen anything like it before, though ultimately it was like the ashram chanting on a larger scale. I realized that what I had thought of as the boys naturally fidgeting during the Vedas at the ashram is actually what makes it possible for these men to continue this recitation for so long – the effort is shared between them all. There’s sections where different parts go back and forth between one side of the room and the other, and you frequently see some Brahmins quietly sitting out a few lines here and there, resting for a moment, yet the overall volume and feel of the chant doesn’t change at all. As you listen it becomes like this natural, organic flow, the buzzing of bees or the patter of rain on a roof or the sound of hooves. There’s moments where it slows down or speeds up or changes rhythm, but it doesn’t ever stop. And if you watch, you might see conversations happening between individuals, hand signals, smiles and whispered comments, which seem like a level of metadata on top of the recitation that is happening, a conversation happening alongside a lecture, a single mass in multiple forms of communication. It’s nothing like a choral performance where everyone is crisply focused and anyone who steps out of line gets a smackdown from the conductor. It’s just a sound that’s swirling around these men as they gesture for emphasis, pass cups of tea along the rows, shift back and forth. It’s dizzying and enthralling, and you watch your mind flit back and forth between stillness, fascination, boredom, overwhelm, peace. We stayed the whole two hours and left dazed and reeling; there was a fire ceremony about to start as well, but that was enough for us for one day.
The Deepam festival has started but it’ll be ramping up dramatically after today; the town is expecting two million visitors to arrive shortly. It’s going to be nuts. We’re stocked up on some food here so we won’t have to go out to eat if the streets are totally packed, and intend to see some of the festivities from a safe viewing distance, but I’m mostly going to be working on my projects during the day again. Duty calls!