Long Walks On Leafy Streets

2/13/2022 Rock Creek Park, Washington, DC    
Thoughts about India -- part 5.

We are still in winter in Washington, DC, and spring is at least a few weeks away. Since I wrote last, about six weeks ago, we have had a good amount of snow here. Prashant got to play in the snow a little bit, although after the initial thrill he has become somewhat unenthusiastic about it. He has just discovered video games and along with the TV shows he already was watching it is getting harder to make him do other things. We try to budget his screen time and also involve him in other activities. Yesterday he went to art class. He really enjoys painting and drawing. After that we went on a little hike in Burnt Mills park and he enjoyed climbing on rocks and trees and throwing stones into the creek.

It is snowing this morning, albeit very lightly. I was watering the Tulsi plants that have been inside the house since the start of winter. It started with one plant we got from the temple.
The seeds from that plant have grown up now and I am hoping they will make it through the winter. Apart from being sacred and medicinal, they are also my connection to my life in India. Like me, they are trying to survive in new soil, in different circumstances.

I often wonder if America is the right place for me. Perhaps I could have helped India better by staying home. On the other hand I am able to donate a good amount of money to the Association for India's Development among other things. America does not have the same spiritual and cultural environment as India, at least in the mainstream. But then I am beginning to see, more and more clearly, the problems we have in India as well. Those of us who grew up middle class and upper caste are so worried about our family's success and prosperity that it is hard for us to understand the privileged position we enjoy and the hardship and oppression faced by many Indians. Life in India is getting better, but it is still a scramble to attain a decent standard of living, for everyone. I understand why many people from my background support the current government, and I can only hope that I would have done differently. It is hard to know what my life and my social and political views might have been had I stayed.

Having said all that, it is not useful to worry about what could have been or how things should be. I believe that whatever happens in life happens for a purpose and that all we can do is to make the best of the present moment. In fact, I believe that both of my grandfathers would be proud of me and happy with how I am living. It is important for a society to disperse its seeds and let some of them grow far away, mingle with fresh air and soil and develop new characteristics. There is this famous line from Nathaniel Hawthorne that I first read in "The Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri: "Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

I believe they would be proud of me because that is the kind of men they were. My paternal grandfather, who I am named after, worked as a clerk most of his life at the Coir factory in the small coastal town of Alleppey in Kerala. He was a very disciplined, hard-working man. He was quiet on the outside but full of inner strength. I remember him worshipping every day with his small set of idols of Gods and reading from the scriptures. I have heard from my father that he was always trying out new things, like writing articles for magazines, etc., My maternal grandfather was different but very lovable in his own way. He was very mystical and I remember him talking about his visions of Lord Venkateswara. This made him a bit absent-minded, and it is a trait I share with many of my male maternal cousins, sometimes coming across as aloofness or inattentiveness. He also worked hard at his job of teaching typewriting and stenography in the two room Institute he ran on Broadway in Ernakulam, also in coastal Kerala. My mother talks to me about his kindness and devotion to her, how he would buy books for her and cared about her studies, although my grandmother was more traditional as far as the schooling of girls was concerned.

I am blessed to have had such wonderful ancestors, and they were my biological as well as spiritual ancestors. I am so grateful for the time I got to spend with them in Alleppey and Ernakulam. Although both of them had passed away before I finished high school, those memories will always comfort and guide me.

On January 22, Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk about whom I have written much in these pages, passed away. I consider him a spiritual ancestor. For a long time in my life I scoffed at the idea of spiritual teacher. I wanted to figure out life by myself. Then I started meditating with the Washington Mindfulness Community, a group of followers of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (means Teacher in Vietnamese). Over time I found his teachings to be really helpful to me, especially during a difficult time in my life when I was trying to get myself situated in society and find a partner. His teachings also were very much aligned with my own views and feelings, and had much in common with the Advaita philosophy I grew up with. I found myself constantly referring to his words while dealing with different questions in life and it felt quite natural to think of him as my teacher.

Thay has a wonderful way of explaining the deepest insights of the Buddha. Similar concepts have been taught by many other teachers, from different traditions, from Shamans in America to Sufis in Asia. He compares our existence to that of a cloud. The cloud can transition from vapor to water or to ice and then back to vapor, so it never dies. It is part of the ocean at the same time that it is part of the atmosphere. Similarly we are a part of the ocean of being, and we will always exist in one form or the other. Our physical body is just one manifestation. While it is still difficult to experience this in one's being, I can feel Thay's presence in me, just as I feel the presence of my grandfathers. They will always be part of me and I will be a part of them. As Jesus said in John 14: 20, "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you."

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