Sunday, December 20, 2009

What song shall I sing ... (reprise)

Most curious of all, as I lay in bed this morning in that strange world between sleep and wakefulness, I was running over an aria in my head, "But who may abide" (from Handel's Messiah). It slowly dawned on me that the ornaments I was adding in the cadenzas were in the style of a Carnatic classical free raga exploration, the alapana (or ragam) ... and it all worked beautifully! Where did that come from?

Home at last!

Okay, so there’s no such thing as “final thoughts.” This is likely to be my final entry, though. Nothing so profound here as in the previous entry, but this one does get me back home with a few insights into the aftermath. Here goes …

The last two days at MCC were filled with worries about packing. How on earth was I going to get all those books shipped and pack everything else into two suitcases and a carry-on? Once upon a time (including summer 2008) you could send things via sea-mail. It took a few months, but it was relatively inexpensive—but that’s no longer available. After checking out the speedy delivery options (very expensive!) and the postal service (perversely, even more expensive—30+ kilograms at 575 rupees/kilo gets into hundreds of dollars in a hurry). So … turns out the least expensive option was to check an additional bag at the airport, for only $150. After hearing such high prices for the other options, that suddenly sounded awfully good! Of course, they didn’t all fit into just one bag, and that made it difficult to get everything else in, but once I figured out, hey, I’m coming back soon, I decided to leave a carry-on bag (with a few clothes, umbrella, Tevas, etc.) behind with Joseph. Then it was no problem to fit in the rest of the stuff. Gabriel was able to pick up the final order from the tailor, but there wasn’t quite time to get the order from the jeweler at Spencer Plaza. And as it always happens, once I was all packed I received a very large gift from the college! Ah, well …

Outside of packing there were things to do on campus. Suri arranged a lovely farewell party in my honor with a few good friends—Jubi, Vimal, and the gang. Saturday was the Seshagopalan concert. Sunday I had lunch with Dr. Kingsley and his family, and Sunday night was the Anderson Hall Carol Service with dinner to follow. As usual, Kingsley was the magnanimous host. Whether it’s a group of J-Term students or just a single guest, he wants to be sure you eat well and are well entertained, and boy, did I overeat! On top of that, it was a great chance to catch up on the news, talk a bit about a possible short-term residency (maybe January 2011?) at University of Madras, and share the news from back home at Elmhurst College (where Kingsley was visiting professor about ten years back). After lunch it was back to the guest house for more packing until Mike and Anne showed up to go to the carol service. Talk about a long program! It’s customary for the college principal to give the sermon at the Anderson Hall (all-college) carol service, and that ran the usual length. What took the time was the music. There were three things listed in the program, but by the time were done, we had heard another three or four things—and they were all good! I would not have minded so much if I were not so eager to hear the choir at the end! The program listed the students in the Sunday School and the Campus School kids (who are always good—well trained by the music master there!). Then we had a faculty choir led by Principal Alex on guitar (the man does everything!), several numbers by students in the Student Christian Movement (a duet, a solo, and the very fine male a cappella sextet we heard in Martin Hall), and another repeat—the truly beautiful candle dance by the Martinians. Finally the choir! I was sitting only a few rows back on the center aisle, and Vimal stood in the aisle just in front of me. It was all I could do to resist the temptation to sneak up behind and give him rabbit ears or horns or something. I decided the solemnity of the occasion demanded a bit more decorum … and if the choir totally lost it laughing before they sang, well, that could be good or bad. Anyway, in spite of Vimal’s warnings to have no expectations, the choir sounded really good! It was a nice mix of contemporary and traditional, they were well prepared, and the choral sound was lovely. A charming end to the service! And dinner was nice, too. Finally had a chance to sit with Dr. Cherian and his wife. Then it was off with Mike and Anne to see their place at the social work department guest house. They really have it nice there! Beautiful tiled floors, a spacious common room with plenty of lounge chairs and a fridge, and a roomy guest room with A/C—even a small kitchen! Worth considering for a future visit, though it is way off the beaten track with some water problems … and no internet! It was a good chance to sit with Mike and Anne in their place, talk some more about St. Olaf and MCC, and say our farewells. Ended up staying pretty late—we all wanted to savor the moments.

After a late night finishing the worst of the packing, it was my last morning at MCC. Jubi and Vimal joined me at breakfast time to say farewell—always hard to know just what to say at times like these, but I was very glad to see them. Then off to a farewell reception hosted by Principal Alex. It was almost intimidating sitting in the room with MCC’s “power elite”—the principal, bursar Soundaraj (the number two man on campus), several deans, and many department chairs. Thankfully, many are now friends, and Mike and Anne showed up, too! Now that I’m so well acquainted with Indian ceremony, I had some idea what to expect, and it was actually quite lovely! The principal thanked me for my service and talked about my visit and the MOU with Elmhurst that is at long last being finalized (now that I’m done and gone!). Dr. Gabriel talked about the specifics of my visiting professorship and all that had been accomplished. I was invited to speak (I should have expected this!) and managed to say the most important things (even with my lack of a good night’s sleep). And finally Alex invited anyone in the room to say something. Several people added their thanks and reflections, including kind words from Dr. William (dean of international studies), Dr. Joshua (philosophy), and others. It was a nice affirmation that my time at MCC had been well-spent. They sent me off with a lovely (large!) gift along with cards and letters for me and for the Elmhurst president … and I was ready with an Elmhurst College tie for Dr. Alex (something every well-dressed MCC principal should have!).

Then it was back to the guest house to relax, have lunch, take care of a few odds and ends (including gifts for the IGH staff), and wait for my afternoon departure. Suri came by during the noon hour to say good-bye—one of many small gestures that were greatly appreciated. Gabriel showed up with the car a bit early, and after a few farewells at the guest house, he took me and my bags to the airport. As we said our own farewells at the airport entrance, I was suddenly a bit choked up and had to tell him I was feeling sad to leave. He was surprised at that, and I had to clarify that I was more than happy to go home to Virginia and family and Christmas celebrations. But as I’ve reported here, four months of my life can’t be ignored, and it was not easy to take leave of those who were such good friends and took such good care of me—my Angel Gabriel and my good Saint Joseph. After exchanging heartfelt Christmas wishes (for each of our families, too!), we said farewell and I went inside.

It was to be a 7:25 pm flight, but we were on the road before 4:00. I didn’t want to be late with worries about the extra bag and all, and it’s nice to have some un-pressured leisure time at the airport. So I checked in, waited to pay for the extra bag at a second counter, went back for the boarding pass at the first counter, sauntered over to the men’s room and then through the security check, took a short walk around the waiting area, and sat down to figure out what to do for a few hours. I happened to look at the sign on my gate and saw that a flight to Delhi was boarding. That prompted me to look again at my boarding pass to check my flight number … and I noticed it was the same as the flight that was boarding! Another quick glance at the boarding pass and I saw I had misread the boarding time (16:25, not 6:25, d’oh!). At the check-in counter I had mentioned that American kept changing my Chennai departure time and that I didn’t care which flight he put me on as long as I got to Delhi and then to Chicago, but I didn’t realize he had put me on the earlier flight!! So I jumped up and presented my boarding pass at the gate. As I walked through the door to take the bus to the plane, wondering what would have happened if I had not double-checked my boarding pass … here’s an announcement over the intercom, “Will Mark Harbold please report to the gate for immediate boarding.” I would have been taken care of either way!!

Frankly, I was glad to take the earlier flight. The 7:25 flight would have put me in Delhi at 10:05, leaving less than three hours to figure out how to transport myself (and possibly my checked luggage) from the domestic to the international terminal, several kilometers apart. I was very relieved to have nearly 5 hours. Now the clerk at the desk in Chennai said he would check my bags through to Chicago, but that I would still have to pick them up at the carousel, transport them to international, and re-check them there (presenting my receipt for the additional baggage charge). Thinking that seemed really cumbersome, I asked the help desk at Delhi domestic terminal if that’s the way it worked. They said no, just go to international terminal—they’ll have your bags there and you only need to identify them. Well, as good as that sounded, I thought I’d better hang out at the baggage carousel for a short while just to make sure. Danged if I didn’t see one of my bags almost immediately! So I grabbed a cart, collected all three bags, and wheeled down to the transfer desk (at least the helpdesk gave good directions for that!). Ten minutes later my bags and I were on a free (yay!) shuttle bus to international. It’s a surprisingly long bus ride. You never leave the airport, but you have to go all the way around the runways. I got off, put my bags on an available cart, took the elevator up, and proceeded into the terminal to check in. There were the usual 20 questions going through line (did you receive anything from anyone, have the bags been in your possession, etc.)—but they mix that up with unexpected questions, to throw you off guard, I think (what electronics are you carrying, how long have you owned them!?). In my tired state, I don’t know that my answers sounded very confident, but they waved me through, re-checked all three bags without further charge (I had my receipt!), and handed me my boarding pass. Then it was on through immigration and the security checkpoint.

I still had nearly three hours to kill, but was glad for the extra time. Since there had been no time for last minute Christmas shopping in Madras, I bought a few things in the duty free shop for once: a couple of CDs, a T-shirt, and a small plastic tuk-tuk (that’s what they call them in Delhi, anyway, the three-wheeled motor rickshaws that are so darned convenient & inexpensive for short jogs). We can keep that around the house for the grandkids or Virginia’s students to play with. I also decided to be the first to wish Virginia a happy birthday—on her birthday! At the stroke of midnight, Delhi time (half past noon in Chicago, where it was still the day before her birthday!), I called both our home phone and her cell phone. She wasn’t available to answer, but I sang happy birthday on her voicemail. (Five days later, she still hasn’t deleted the message on her cell phone!) Then it was time to go home—the looong 15 and a half hour direct flight to Chicago. I sat next to an older Sikh gentleman who was heading back to Indianapolis after a visit to the Punjab. His children had all moved to the States some time back, and when he retired he and his wife had to choose between staying home alone or moving to the U.S. to stay with family. They chose family, and he’s lived in the U.S. for awhile now. He was bemoaning the lack of close family ties in U.S. culture and the alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Knowing the often devastating effects when young mothers are not yet adults themselves, I could not help but agree. I slept as much as possible, but could not manage more than two hours at a time. It would have been less if I wasn’t wearing a nice sweater and my warm wool Nehru jacket (from a previous trip to Delhi)—those planes can get chilly at high altitude! I passed my time eating, sleeping, stretching, and watching TV shows or the flight path on the monitor … and finally we were in Chicago, landing at 5:15 a.m. on Virginia’s birthday! Sitting near the very back of the plane, I was one of the last ones off, so it didn’t take long to march through immigration, claim my bags, hand in my customs declaration, and go out to the lobby. And waiting there for me with a nice warm winter coat was …….. Virginia!!! Hallelujah!!!! The long separation over at last. We went straight home, had a wonderful home-cooked breakfast, opened up my bags to show her my treasures and her birthday presents … and then I went straight to sleep, in my very own bed.

It’s been strange to readjust to life back home. Not difficult at my age—it’s easy to slip right back into old habits—but this time I notice ALL of the little differences. I’m probably driving Virginia crazy with my incessant comparisons and observations! Can’t be helped! I thought I’d try to adjust sleep patterns as little as possible to ease the re-transition to India, but the long flight totally threw me off my schedule, and it’s proven virtually impossible to go to sleep as the sun comes up. So I’ll just have to adjust all over again when I go over with my students. Oh, well! In the past few days I dropped in on my department chair for an update on the past four months, I met with Lynn to make last minute plans for the India J-Term, had a lovely reunion with my middle sister who drove down from Wisconsin to visit, and attended Lyric Opera’s production of Merry Widow (but no Murugan’s idlis afterward—darn!). I don’t have much Christmas shopping to do, did most of it in India, so I’m trying to relax, keep up on my sleep, and make sure I take care of everything necessary for J-Term travels. (Did I mention it's seems really cold here?)

Looking ahead, I’ve got Christmas celebrations with family (can’t wait!), 26 days in India with the students in my Indian Art & Music course, and then a sabbatical to come home to and a revised version of my monster instructor’s resource manual for Bedford/St. Martin’s Press to get cracking on. Still hard to believe I’ll be away from Elmhurst College for an entire year! At some point I’ll have to work up a slide show and short talk to give for students and faculty colleagues, maybe this spring. I’ve had the title picked out for quite awhile. It’ll be “I Was America, and So Can You!”—a paraphrase of the title from Stephen Colbert’s first book. For my Indian friends, I WAS the face of America. Many of them have had experience abroad and know that Americans are just as varied in their ideas and world-view as Indians are, but I remained the easiest person to consult since I was there, and there were precious few other Americans around. And the “So Can You” part will be a pitch for more Elmhurst faculty to take advantage of the faculty exchange program, now that it is in full swing! I was the guinea pig, as Joseph was fond of pointing out, but I think we’ve got a really good thing going, and it’s time to pass the torch to someone else.

So, to all of you who have followed the blog, whether family, friends, students, colleagues, or others, whether back home or in India: thanks for reading along, and I hope you enjoyed it. I hope the occasional (frequent?) blow-by-blow descriptions were not too tedious, and I hope at least some of my insights were of interest. And since I had no way to monitor who was logging on, it was especially nice to hear from some of you that you WERE reading and enjoying. That made for a special kind of connection both with friends in India and with friends and family back home, and it helped ease the occasional loneliness. Concerning the loneliness, I decided part way through my stay that a certain amount of it was inevitable for anyone attempting to do what I have done. Joseph confirmed this in conversations, reflecting on his own visiting professorship at Elmhurst ten years back. But if you stay lonely, it’s your own fault! Wherever in the world you are, you’re still responsible for your own happiness, and with so many warm, friendly people around inviting you to drop in anytime (even though I’m never totally comfortable with that), you can always find points of connection. Doesn’t take care of homesickness, but it sure helps.

Well, that’s it for now. Thanks for sharing the journey. Please accept all of my wishes for your health and happiness, and have a wonderful holiday and a blessed new year … and please convey my best wishes and season’s greetings to your family as well! Cheers!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Final Thoughts (Is there such a thing?)

One of my greatest fears lately has been that I may have worn out my welcome here. In the U.S. we have a saying that guests, like fish, after three days, stink! Well, it hasn’t been three days, it’s been closer to four months, long enough to tax anyone’s sense of hospitality. I worry that I may have taken Gabriel (my “boss” and trouble-shooter for any problem I experience here) or Mathivanan (my rasika friend and guide to Carnatic classical music) away from family or work obligations once (or thrice!) too often. If the Indian tradition is to treat a guest as a god in your midst, well … I suspect there are times when even gods can become insufferable with their demands on one’s time and patience! Still, if the burdens I placed on them were unreasonable, they have never shown it. They have been unfailingly kind, patient, helpful, and generous. I find this incredibly humbling. This is the nature of the hospitality I have experienced at MCC since my very first visit, when I quickly realized that we Americans don’t do hospitality very well. Knowing that many of my American colleagues really don’t understand this about Indians, I have made a point of helping out in any way I can when Wally Lagerwey, Elmhurst’s director of international education, sends a note asking for help with guests from MCC. As I mentioned on this page way back in August, MCC visitors have noticed my efforts to be welcoming back home, and they continue to make reference to it when I’m introduced to one group or another here at MCC! And while I know I’ve received much more than I’ve given, it’s nice to think that I’ve learned enough about Indian-style hospitality that even the Indians notice. But again I am in their debt—this too I have learned from the wise gurus at MCC!

Yes, the December Season is finally here, and while it’s wonderful to experience it, it’s bittersweet because it means it’s nearly time to go home. This is perhaps the biggest surprise right now. In previous, shorter visits I have enjoyed each and every moment of the trip, but whether it was a two-week stay or a one-month stay, I was good and ready to go home on the final day or two. In 2005 and 2007 I was pretty well worn out by the hectic pace of the January course in which I was participating. In 2006 and 2008 it was mostly the July heat in Jaipur and Delhi (respectively) that did me in at the end. So I am surprised, well, more than surprised, but not really shocked … I am amazed to find that I feel very differently this time about my impending departure. It’s not that I don’t want to go home; I have many reasons to go back. I am more than eager to see Virginia again. I’ve often remarked here that this has been a long and difficult separation. I am also anxious to see my family. Worries about my father with his M.S. and my sister with her amyloidosis have weighed heavily on me during this long stay, and I want to see for myself how they are managing. Our children have been moving on with life, and four months away from my three grandkids has meant missing a lot of growth and change in their lives. Things change soooo fast when they are so young. On top of all that, I’m going home for Christmas. Christmas with the Harbold family has always been an incredible love-feast, and I can’t wait to relish their presence (and presents) and do a ton of catching up with brother and sisters, significant others, nieces and nephews, and so on. As joyous as the occasion will be, it will also be bittersweet. There’s a good chance this will be my father’s last Christmas on earth. He’s been in hospice care since late last spring, and in some ways it’s a miracle he hasn’t gone yet. Yet … he’s been perking up a bit over the past few months (without me around to worry about?).

My heart tells me it’s time to go, but my heart also tells me that I am going to miss India more than ever. Unlike previous visits, this time I came to live here for nearly four months, to be part of the MCC family, to involve myself in the musical community here in the Madras area, and to explore more and more of this extraordinary place called South India. Compared with back home, life here has been simpler and more spartan, and there have been some hardships. The heat was often oppressive for the first couple of months, and the rains and the mold created many difficulties once the monsoons came, but it seems a shame to be leaving just when it’s drying out again and the weather has become quite delightful! And without the climate obstacle, I’m (finally!) just now achieving a degree of independence here in Chennai! I feel no hesitation about getting out and about, and there is a great sense of freedom and relief to just go for a long walk or hop the train to go see something, anything! It’s almost a shame to be going home just when everything is getting good around here … but that’s not what’s causing the emotions I’m feeling right now. I survived the heat, I survived the monsoon, I managed to avoid malaria, swine flu, and other nastiness, and except for some discomfort the first couple of weeks (I won’t name it here for the sake of my daughters and their acute sensibilities, but you know why if you’ve been following my blog!), I survived the food and water, so I suppose there’s an element of satisfaction and perhaps even triumph knowing that I made it to the end without major incident. But even that doesn’t explain what I’m feeling.

While I can’t put a finger on it yet (osmosis happens very slowly), I think I have learned something important about what it means to live in India. As I pointed out while making cross-cultural comparisons in my lecture for Public Administration students, four months in India does not make me any kind of an expert, but I have learned and experienced a great deal. I have spent time in Indian cities and villages (and LOTS of time in the greenery and serenity of the MCC campus), and I have seen how people live, what’s important to them, and what they think about the world they live in. I have glimpsed how the caste system affects what people do (and won’t do!), even right here on the MCC campus, both in terms of occupation and appropriate daily tasks. I have seen the religious devotion of many Indians, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or other. It could be the stripes on the forward that denote Shaivite or Vaishnavite Hindus, it could be pilgrims in the temple in a state approaching ecstasy as they approach the idol for a darshan, it could be a pair of Muslims kneeling and praying on the overnight train’s bench seats because they’re not near a mosque or their own prayer mat, or it could be a group of Christian students gathering on a Friday night for Bible study and to sing contemporary praise songs around the electronic keyboard.

The richness and diversity of Indian life is amazing, and it is quite frankly impossible to generalize about the Indian people or Indian society. Most Americans know this to be true of the U.S., but the contrasts in India are much sharper than back in the States. South India alone has four states, four main languages, and thousands of dialects and other languages. Each region has its own history and a unique personality and identity forged long before there was such a thing as the Indian nation. Opinions about politics, religion, and everything else run the gamut from very conservative to very liberal. If I were to make one generalization about Christians here, it would be this—there are very few half-hearted Christians here in India. Christianity is very clearly a minority religion here (as many as 10% Christian in Kerala, but only 2 to 4% in India as a whole). It would be the easiest thing in the world to go with the flow and be a good practicing Hindu, but if you’re going to be a Christian, you need to have a very clear sense WHY you are Christian and not a Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, and so on. There may be cultural Hindus here, but unlike the U.S., there are very few “cultural Christians” in India. Still, even looking only at Christians, there are many different denominations and worship styles and many different ways of reading and interpreting the Bible.

Some things you don’t learn until you come to India and stay awhile. After her first visit to India, my friend and colleague Lynn Hill talked about learning things she didn’t know she didn’t know. As a for instance, I have had some notion of the monsoon for a long time, but I had to spend four months in India to find out that I didn’t really understand the seasonal cycle here. Every time I come to India, Indians joke about their three kinds of weather (hot, hotter, and hottest), and given the absence of snow in most parts of India, it would be easy to think they don’t have seasons here. It’s certainly true that they don’t have the same four seasons we have back home, but there’s a definite seasonal rhythm to life in India, and the monsoon is the linchpin for understanding it. I can report that the monsoon season is no longer an abstract concept for me. Even for Indians, the summer heat is oppressive and seemingly never-ending. The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated rains bring climatological, physical, emotional, psychic, and spiritual relief (and I experienced it on EVERY level). Indian history, Indian lore, and even Indian music and art reflect the importance of the monsoon. The Indian concept of raga is much richer than the Western notion of a musical scale. In music appreciation courses in the West we often talk about using the major scale for happy feelings and the minor scale for sadness. Indians also link their scales (ragas) to particular emotions (rasas), but where we have only two primary scales, South Indian classical theory lays out 72 ragas in the melakarta system (with more theoretically possible)! Each raga is linked to a particular emotion, but historically ragas have long been associated with particular times of day (morning, evening, late night, etc.) and even particular seasons of the year. According to Indian lore, the raga Megh has the power to bring rain. Among the seasonal ragas, some are appropriate for monsoon season! But even all of these learnings do not explain what I’m feeling.

What I am experiencing are the first twinges of a sense of loss, the beginnings of withdrawal symptoms, if you will. This has been my life for nearly four months. I have made many new friends and contacts, I have developed my own daily habits and routines, and I have found many pleasures, large and small, in my everyday life here. In short, I am going to miss all of this when I go back home. It may have been a lonely place at times (though I’d nearly forgotten that since the Furman students arrived!), but I will miss sitting on the porch at the guest house. That was restricted to early morning and late afternoon during the first month or two, but by late November it was easy to sit for hours with the Furmanians! The guest house yard really is lovely, and it can be a very peaceful experience to watch the clouds pass by and listen to the birds and animals (and traffic noises and the mosque’s call to prayer and the church’s hourly chime and the air force base’s planes and choppers and …). I will miss walking around the campus. I will miss hanging out with faculty colleagues in the staff room at break time. I will miss the rhythms of spoken Tamil, even though I don’t understand much of it! I will miss the sprawl and bustle of Chennai city. I will miss the occasional visits to the ocean. When I go shopping, I will miss thinking how much I am “saving” due to the extremely favorable (for me) exchange rate. I will miss easy access to Carnatic classical concerts and musicians. I will miss the sense of the ancient that lurks around every corner. I will miss … India. This has been MY life for the past nearly four months, and I will miss this part of my life very much.

But most of all, I will miss my friends. It’s not possible to spend so much time in a place without growing close to some of the people. I have nothing but profound thanks and gratitude for all who have taken time to befriend me, knowing full well that I would be leaving in a few months. I will not attempt to name them all here, but Joseph, Gabriel, Joshua, Mathivanan, and the rest of the Philosophy Department have been and remain good friends, and it has been a joy to spend so much time getting to know Gabriel and Mathivanan. Brief but intense encounters with professional musicians like Dr. Kausalya (my new sister!), Dr. Havaldar (my new brother!), Dr. Premeela, or Srini have been deeply rewarding. The instant bond with new American friends has also enriched my experience here. Getting to know wonderful folks like Claude, Veena, their Furman University students, and now Mike and Anne from St. Olaf, has provided a great way to stay connected with home and at the same time to compare notes on the incredible experiences we are having in India. I have learned much from these encounters. And the guys in and around the choir—Vimal, Jubi, Anand, James, and Danny, with Suri as ring-leader—have been fantastic. I have treasured our evenings full of conversation, music, and lots of conversation about music! Yes, no question about it, most of all I will miss my friends …

So with all of these things in my heart, bubbling up, jostling each other, and seeking my attention, I will go home. And I will convey all of the good wishes my friends have asked me to express to my family. Some of them know Virginia, and some don’t, but knowing me is enough, it seems, and many have asked me to convey their heartfelt Christmas greetings, starting with Dr. Kausalya way back in September, and most recently Mathivanan just last night. I will carry these messages, along with a letter from MCC Principal Alex (to Elmhurst president Alan Ray) and a treasure trove of incredible experiences and adventures, new ideas and perspectives, and friendships new and old. I know I will never come to India for such a long stay ever again, not without Virginia, at least. And except for my upcoming January course, I have no idea when I will come back. But I know that when I return, I can pick up where I left off. I will never again have to start from scratch in south India. I can look forward to building on the friendships I now have, and to deeper, richer experiences as a result. This is an end, but this is also a beginning. It’s a big world out there, bigger than I knew, and I am curious (and eager!) to see what will happen next.

Last talks

I gave one final guest lecture last Friday at Satya Nilayam Academy, a Jesuit seminary associated with Madras's Loyola University, one of the most prestigious colleges in India. Dr. Gabriel, my "boss" while I'm here, has contacts there and was able to set something up. My talk was on Music and Expression: An Esthetic Perspective, and the students (all future Jesuit priests) had all kinds of good questions and comments in the Q&A that followed! The free lunch that often follows my off-campus give talks provides extra opportunities to get to know some interesting people. My host, Father Dr. George, was familiar with the Baptist missions in northeast India and in Bengal-Orissa that I’ve been hearing about since I was a young P.K. attending the Missions Nights my dad sponsored every Sunday night in February at the church in LaCrosse! Apparently a good number of students at the seminary are tribals (India's equivalent to our native Americans), since historically these groups were more responsive to the Christianity than the upper-caste Hindus (who had much more to lose)! Anyway, the students had lots of good questions and comments in the Q&A time that followed my talk.

And this past Wednesday was my final day of official duties at MCC. I started with a morning lecture on U.S. Presidential Elections in the Political Science department. I don’t think I said a word about music this time, and it was fun to talk about the election process and especially about the 2008 election, which was so exciting and historic in so many ways! I’m no political scientist, but I’ve been following presidential election campaigns and political conventions since I was 9 year olds, which finally paid some dividends! My final “gig” was to give the meditation for the carol service at Martin Hall, the main women’s residence here at MCC. I’d attended several hall festivals in September and October, and I saw how seriously they took those events, but I didn’t stop to think this might be an equally big deal … and it was! As I came down the drive to the hall entrance, I saw Christmas lights all over the place, and the yard was mobbed with people hanging out, talking up a storm, and enjoying snacks. I was recognized at the entrance (surprise, surprise), and ushered in past the activity to a room in the back, decorated with balloons and lined with chairs. My host said, “You’re right on time!”— which in India usually means I was the very first one to arrive. As others were ushered in, former principal Dr. Philip, chaplain Spurgeon, senior administrator Soundaraj, Anne from St. Olaf, and so on, I realized this was the VIP reception room. We were all served snacks and cakes and tea, and then it was time to move to the auditorium for the carol service itself. Just as I saw with the hall festivals a few months back, it takes a long time to square away the technical details, do the sound checks and light checks, make sure all of the participants are present and accounted for, etc. What an elaborate program they prepared! There were congregational carols, carols in various Indian languages, two very lovely dance numbers, and a Christmas play written and produced by the Martinians themselves. My meditation came nearer the beginning, and I decided to use a favorite Christmas song, “I Wonder as I Wander,” as the theme for the talk. I sang all four verses, but with breaks in between for three reflections on the words and the meanings implicit in the song. The Christmas play that followed my talk was an absolute stitch! The hall residents were dressed up as angels and sheep and and a shepherd and Mary and Jospeh and three kings and two camels (who could not begin to see where they were going under those sheets!), with some nicely penciled-in beards and moustaches for the male roles. The rambunctious group of angels and the noisy flock of sheep were very cleverly done, and the play pointed up some of the same incongruities I had just described in my talk. What fun! I think my meditation came off well enough. I got lots of positive feedback afterwards, including Anne’s comment that I had picked one of her very favorite songs! I also got some very lovely compliments from Jubi when some of “the guys” got together last night for an impromptu farewell celebration. Hard to believe everything is wrapping up so quickly now! Will I have enough time to do the things that need to be wrapped up before I go … and finish packing, too?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

December Season!

At long last, 'tis the Season! When I originally set the schedule for my time in India, I thought I would try to come for most of MCC’s first semester, arriving in July and heading back home in November. Several things encouraged me to move things later. First, Nirmal Selvamony pointed out that his course on music and literature was taught only in the second semester. Then I stopped to think how bloody hot July and August can be in Chennai. And I really didn’t want to give up the mid-August week Virginia and I often spend on the north shore of Lake Superior—one of the most beautiful places I know. But the thing that clinched it was the possibility of staying just long enough to catch a good number of December Season concerts in Chennai. And now that Dr. Nirmal has accepted a position with the newly formed Central University in Tiruvarur (did I get that right?), it means even more time free to “do the Season”! This is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, with something like 50 concerts going on every day during the last weeks of December. In this second week of December there have “only” been 20-some concerts a days, but still plenty to choose from, and more than I could possibly catch if I wanted to. For rasikas (fans and connoisseurs of Carnatic classical music), this festival is heaven on earth, and I didn’t want to come so far for so long and miss out completely!

So, the Season is finally here! From Sunday to Tuesday, Mathivanan and I took in four-and-a-half concerts in three days, and we’ll attend one more on Saturday night. If I didn’t have packing to worry about, I might just move into the city for a few days and do nothing but concerts. Still, I’m getting in just enough to say I’ve had the experience, and I’m seeing a nice variety of things, too. Mike, Anne, Mathivanan, and I went in Sunday night to hear Sudha Ragunathan on the concert series at Meenakshi College for Women. We arrived over an hour early and I was thinking we might have time to go out for tea before the performance. But when we saw the huge crowd already gathered (turns out it was a free concert!), we were very lucky to find four seats together in the second row. By the time the show started, the area between the seats and the stage was packed with fans seated right on the floor, and it was standing room only in the back with crowds clustered around every entrance hoping to hear something. Mathivanan pointed to the floor-sitters and called them the real rasikas, and noting Sudha’s interactions with the audience (and their response!), Mike and Anne commented that she was like a rock star! Mike and Anne had wanted to see at least one December Season concert, and I figured we couldn’t do better than Sudha, so I invited them to this one, and Mathivanan had absolutely no objection to my bringing friends along (“That’s beautiful, Mark!”). Sudha more than lived up to expectations. She is a beautiful person with a beautiful voice who sings with all the depth of expression she learned from her guru, M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV for short), one of the most famous Carnatic singers of the past 50 years. As the concert began I could not help but remember my reaction at my very first Carnatic concert in Chennai in 2005 (Gayathri Girish)—this is where this music lives! Sudha confirmed over and over again what I love so deeply about this music, and at one point I found a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Such expressive music! Afterwards, Mathivanan took us for the obligatory tiffin at Murugan’s Idli Shop (they loved the masala dosa—yum!) and then to the train, and Mike, Anne, and I spent the whole train ride home buzzing about the concert. They even brought it up a couple of times over the next few days, so Sudha was definitely a good choice for a first experience. I myself am still basking in the afterglow of such wonderful music-making!

The next evening we went to hear Dr. Premeela from the University of Madras. This was the first Carnatic concert I have ever attended where they handed out a program—a really nice touch! As someone learning my way into the style, it would be REALLY helpful to have one at every concert. I said to Mathivanan, “She must be an educator!” As we laughed heartily, the woman in the row in front of us turned around and scowled. She didn’t know we were both educators ourselves, and I expect she thought I was being snide. Anyway, it was a lovely concert with especially sensitive exploration of the raga in the ragam-tanam-pallavi, and the musicians who accompanied her were outstanding (these were some of the fellows who regularly work with Premeela’s doctoral student, Sowmya, already a distinguished artist in her own right). Tuesday morning it was back to Meenakshi College to hear Geetha Bennett on veena. Sadly, you don’t hear many veena players these days, even at December Season-time, but she is a virtuoso and gave an outstanding concert. Her father was an revered musician and teacher, and even though she married an American and lives in L.A., she has clearly kept up her skills and does her father proud. With the plucked string sound’s quick decay time, the performer has to work harder to convey the same expressiveness that comes easily for a singer. This made her performance all the more remarkable. As Mathivanan pointed out after T.M. Krishna’s concert that evening (they had both performed one song in common on their programs), Geetha had offered the more expressive, soulful rendition … and Krishna is no slouch! After lunch we headed over to Narada Gana Sabha for Krishna’s concert only to find that main floor tickets were completely sold out! Fortunately, we could still get general admission tickets in the balcony. So we grabbed a couple of seats in the middle of Abhishek Raghuram’s concert, but we didn’t dare leave them (at the same time) for fear of losing them before Krishna’s program began. If the main floor was sold out so far ahead, we couldn’t take the chance. We heard half of Abhishek’s concert, which was nice enough. He possesses a very pleasant tenor voice and plenty of virtuoso skill, but he is a junior artist who still lacks the depth and variety of expression one hears from mature artists like Sudha or Sanjay or Aruna or Krishna. I’ve heard T.M. Krishna’s name for some time, but this was my first chance to hear him in concert. He’s a very gifted, very expressive singer, if a bit uneven on occasion. One of the first numbers on the program was incredibly virtuosic, the kind of thing you might save for near the end! With his very physical hand and arm gestures, I turned to Mathivanan after this song and said, “He’s a wild man!” The ragam-tanam-pallavi was extraordinary, and the tension he built in his final extended solo was staggering—it kept growing and growing until it was almost unbearable. A masterful performance! I could not help but compare Krishna with Sanjay Subrahmanian. Sanjay is also very effective at building tension in his performances, but there is always a sly playfulness about it. With Krishna, music-making and artistic expression is a very serious matter! Interesting to see how their personalities emerge in the music. Sadly, one of the shorter numbers nearly the end (the same one Geetha played in the morning), lacked expressive depth. Still, it was easy to see Krishna’s great artistry, and it was no fluke that he sang to a full house!

Just one more concert on Saturday night, this time by the distinguished artist, T.N. Seshagopalan. It was my first time hearing him. He’s giving something like 18 concerts during the season, at different sabhas throughout the city. That’s a lot, even for seasoned veterans like Seshagopalan. Rumor has it he was taxing his voice so much with lessons and performances in one recent Season that his voice gave out part way through the concert. No evidence of that last night, even though he had a bit of a cold, and as if to prove it was not a problem, he sang for over three hours (more than the 2 and a half hour limit strictly enforced at the Music Academy!). This is a younger sabha, however, and one of the upcoming concerts they are advertising will be a real marathon performance, so they may be encouraging older practices as a way of garnering an audience. For a prime-time concert by an established artist, the hall was no where near full, however—maybe people were staying home because of the cyclonic storm predicted to roar in from the ocean (and about an hour in, the rains did start coming down heavily!). That’s a shame, because this was a very fine concert. TNS has an incredibly wide range, and he uses a much greater variety of vocal timbres than some of the other artists I’ve heard, ranging from humming to ooh-ing to full throated song. The virtuosity I’ve heard in other artists was there in full force, but he always used it in the service of expression. If Sudha was a fitting way to begin my December Season forays, TNS was a good way to end.

Though we considered snacking at the Sabha’s own canteen, we decided against it when there was no masala dosa to be had. And since Mudhra is right on North Usman Rd. in T. Nagar, it was only a few blocks down the street to enjoy Murugan’s idlis for one last time before going home. I told Mathivan it would be very difficult to find such good idlis and dosas in Chicago, and he said that was good, that I should have something to look forward to when I come back. I told him I would miss a great many things! And then the short trip back up the street to Kodambakkam station and the suburban train back to Tambaram and MCC. (Note to self—Mudhra is a good place for future concerts when staying at MCC; easy access on foot to sabha and Murugan’s from train!) As we drove and then waited for the train, I thanked Mathivan profusely for being such a wonderful, guide, companion, and friend—and for taking time to show me so many concerts. He said he had always noticed foreigners attending December Season concerts and thought he would enjoy taking one of them around and showing them the ropes. I told him I was glad he found me and not someone else! One last bit of conversation on the platform, a quick hug and back-slap, and then a train ride through the rain. I’ll see him again in January and probably not before, but this is the way I’d like to remember him.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


While I was happy to be away from the east coast monsoon rains over in Karnataka, I came home from Mysore and Bangalore to discover that my room had become Mold Central! The odor poured out as I opened the door, and it didn’t take long to discover that leather was especially susceptible. One pair of sandals and a leather belt were covered in mildew, so I took them out to the guest house porch and started wiping it off. Benjamin sees what I’m up to and rushes over, “Sir! Sir! No!!” He takes the sandal out of my hands along with the 2nd sandal and belt and goes off to take care of it himself. A few hours later he brings them back, thoroughly cleaned off (better than I would have done) and baked in the sun for good measure! I’m not sure if this is a service/hospitality thing or a caste thing. I know the drums made of animal hides in many villages can only be handled, tuned, and played by dalits, the “outcasts” (literally, out of the caste system). Benjamin always seems to be the one to do the “dirty work” around the guest house. Back home my immediate reaction would be to say, “Thanks, but no thanks, I can do this for myself.” But if you maintain that attitude in India, you’re putting someone out of work, and work is really important here. If you’ve got it, you work hard to keep it! In the meantime, I’ve set the A/C in “Dry” mode to keep the humidity down as much as possible, and I’ll throw open the door to let the air through when the weather is warm and sunny! As much as the rain is needed here, I’ll be glad to see it end so things can dry out again.

Due to the rains, 2nd semester got delayed two more days, and my Physics lecture (on the physics of sound—acoustics!) got postponed from Wednesday to Thursday, same day as my Public Administration lecture for MCC’s dean of international studies! Not so easy to do two on the same day. I had finished the Physics lecture a couple of days ahead of time, so there were no worries there, but the Public Admin lecture was the source of some anxiety, especially since I didn’t get the topic request till the day before—first time that’s happened! He asked for a session on “Cross-Cultural Analysis.” In the world of music scholarship, analysis is a detailed, formal scholarly exercise, and since I’m not a social scientist and haven’t been in India so very long (in the grand scheme of things), I had to stew a bit to figure out what to do. Turns out he really just wanted my informal reactions to India and comparisons with the U.S., which, thankfully, is what I decided to do!

And finally it was Thanksgiving! Of course, they don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving here in India, so we decided to have our own celebration. At first there was talk of everybody pitching in and cooking, but while I was away in Karnataka, they decided to ask the cooking staff to prepare a special meal for us … probably a wise move! Since Thursday was a working day for me and for Mike and Anne, and since a group of St. Olaf students doing a semester in India could join us at the guest house on Friday night, we celebrated Thanksgiving at dinner time on Friday. What a crowd! There were something like eight St. Olaf students who came in from Pondichery, Auroville, and the Nilgiris (in the Western Ghats). Add to that Mike and Anne, the 16 students and two faculty from Furman University, their faculty coordinators Suri and Jubi, and myself, and we had quite a crowd! It was a lot of fun. The Oles and the Furman students talked and mingled like long lost cousins while Suri kept the tunes spinning on the stereo system. Pravin had decorated the dining room with towels wrapped up to look like a swan and a couple of elephants! And the meal was wonderful. There weren’t enough mashed potatoes, and the roast chicken wasn’t really roast chicken (they don’t have ovens here, as a rule!), the sweet potatoes were sweetened white potatoes, and they didn’t understand that cranberry sauce isn’t really a sauce, but none of that mattered! It was a wonderful time, and we all had plenty to eat. I must say, though, that I didn’t eat nearly as much as I would have back home. It didn’t seem right, somehow. Growing up, American parents always tell their kids to think of all the starving kids in Asia or Africa and eat everything on their plate. It never works that way, but I think that’s supposed to guilt the kids into feeling grateful they have something to eat (even if it’s a dish they don’t especially like). But when you’re actually here in Asia, it’s hard to avoid thinking about all the people who could eat for days on the food we consumed in one evening. The few times anyone in our group of 30-plus thought to complain about one dish or another, someone else would gently challenge them on it! And without parents to lay it on thick, we were indeed grateful for everything we had to eat, but perhaps most grateful of all to be celebrating Thanksgiving with American friends new and old.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mike and Anne took me into the city to see a textiles exposition featuring organic dyes. And finally … I took the train! I’ve wanted to take the train in for some time now, largely to feel a greater sense of freedom, but I’ve been enough of a chicken that I waited for someone to go with so I could see how it all works. We left early in the morning to go to St. Andrew’s Church (the Kirk). I went there in October, but since Mike and Anne wanted to go, it was worth it to go again so I could see Arul and Anna Siromoney. After church we stayed to chat with the Siromoneys and with Mike and Anne’s friend Moses, who helps coordinate India programs for St. Olaf College. Then it was off to the exposition. Some really lovely and unusual stuff was on display, and there were artisans on hand to sell their work, much of it done using traditional methods and organic materials—sustainability at work! I often walk right by such booths, but this was really lovely stuff, and we all bought things to take home. Then we walked to lunch (north Indian-style tali meals) at a place Mike and Anne knew from previous stays in the neighborhood off Pantheon Rd. From there we walked to Spencer Plaza. Anne got a really beautiful salwar chameez at a clothing place on the ground floor, and one level up at the Landmark we all found books and supplies. About a kilometer up Mount Rd., we made one more stop at Higginbotham’s. Not only did they have some good scholarly books on Indian music, I finally found something I’d been seeking for weeks! I wanted to find some nice Indian children’s books to take home as Christmas presents for my grandkids, but all I could find were generic books—ABCs, Rapunzel, books about fuzzy worms, etc. I searched shelf after shelf, and found nothing that was distinctively Indian in its stories and illustrations … until I got to Higginbotham’s! There I found three beautiful books created by Indian authors and illustrators using handmade paper, no less! Skiaya, Kele-De, and Tannas may be too small to fully appreciate them now, but there is much to appreciate at any age. While they look nothing like Maurice Sendak’s work, they are equally imaginative! I can’t wait to get home and share these with the family!! And after a rickshaw ride that was more of an adventure than we bargained for (it kept stalling out after he took several potholes too fast and jarred a wire loose!), we took the train home. Once I got back I wondered why it had taken so long to use the train, but then it all came back to me. Only a few weeks earlier, it had still been beastly hot! The commuter trains are definitely NOT air-conditioned, and the city was even hotter than the MCC campus. And once the torrential monsoon rains came, a car seemed by far the better option. But now that the weather has cooled down and the rains have slowed, now is a great time to take the train! In fact, I’m all ready to take the train in for some December Season concerts! Bring them on!!!

Mar Thoma Church

I wanted to include this when it happened, but it was at the beginning of that very busy week before leaving for Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Mysore, and Bangalore. Better late than never. Went on a Sunday morning with the Furman group to a church right near the edge of the MCC campus. It was the Mar Thoma Church, associated with a denomination known as the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church. Both this group and the Syrian Orthodox Church were formed in Kerala, and they both trace their origins right back to the churches founded by St. Thomas (“Doubting” Thomas) when he came to India’s west coast (a chapter my sister Janice might be interested in!!). In the last years of his life Thomas ended up here in the region later known as Madras, and the place where he lived, died (martyred), and was buried (three in all) are still pilgrimage destinations for Christians here. Whether Thomas was really here or not is still a matter of speculation for some, but there is no question that Christianity arrived here not long after Christ’s life on earth. This is, of course, a matter of great pride for Indian Christians, and it is crucial for them to be able to say that Christianity was definitely NOT a British import, though the British certainly put their own stamp on Protestant Christianity here in India. C.S.I. (Church of South India) worship services follow the Anglican rite very closely (some more rigidly than others!).

Mar Thoma Church (and I assume also the Syrian Orthodox Church) is a different matter, however. Their worship style is much closer to Eastern Orthodox practice and has few of the elements one expects from either Catholic or Protestant services (western European Christianity). In fact, it was different enough that Portuguese (and other) missionaries did their darndest to “convert” these Syriac Christians to the one true faith! (Jan, is this John vs. Thomas all over again?) Nonetheless, this was one of the most beautiful worship services I have attended in many years. Fortunately, we were there on the one Sunday of the month when they worship in English, so I could follow along easily! It was a very liturgical service, but unlike C.S.I. services where the liturgy is spoken, here it was sung almost all the way through. Mostly it was chanted on just one or two pitches with an extra note or two for cadence formulas, though there were also full-blown hymns. (Curiously, the hymns were mostly Western style Protestant hymns!) The liturgy itself placed great emphasis on asking God’s mercy and forgiveness, on a sense of our frailty and weakness in the presence of the divinity. In most Catholic and Protestant services, we get the penitence, confession, and words of forgiveness out of the way early on, but here it was a theme throughout. Added to that was an element of real drama. The altar itself was behind a screen, and the opening liturgy took place in front of the screen. About 20 minutes in, with music and incense (another Eastern Orthodox feature) going, the curtain opened to reveal the priest and the altar, and it was like the sun coming out—magical! And at the very end, the final prayer was for God’s mercy on the priest himself. The last thing you saw as the curtain closed was the priest on his knees leaning all of his weight against the altar as if he needed it to support his very life. Many, many years ago I attended a service at the Milwaukee Greek Orthodox Church designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and while there were a few common elements, this one made a much deeper impression. Perhaps it was due to my deeper knowledge of worship styles (hard to teach music history for 20-plus years and not learn a lot), perhaps this really was a very different service, or perhaps it was the intimacy and the sense of shared experience in this rather small church. Whichever it was, I’m glad I went.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bangalore & the Havaldars

Thursday I took an afternoon train to Bangalore to visit with Dr. Nagarajrao Havaldar, the Hindustani classical singer I met last fall in Chicago. Havaldar had very kindly arranged for a hotel room near his home, and his son picked me up at the train to take me there. After a nice visit with son Omkarnath, we went off to Havaldar’s place for dinner. After some conversation, his younger son gave a wonderful demo on the tables, and then Havaldar offered the use of his “Magic Jack” (an internet phone) to talk to Virginia back home! Dinner was strictly vegetarian, but the food was all made from scratch with fresh ingredients by his wife, Sudha. I was very glad to have had some practice eating rasam rice and curd rice with Dr. Kausalya! While I didn’t embarrass myself too badly, they did kindly provide a spoon for future meals!!

On Friday, Omkar picked me up for some morning shopping. We started by browsing at an electronic musical instrument shop they often use—and I saw an electric veena for the first time in my life! I got a new flash memory card for the camera and went looking for some good books, but didn’t find much. We stopped at a really good shop for CDs and DVDs, though, and Omkar helped me pick out some good Hindustani classical recordings, since I don’t know the artists for the northern stuff as well as for the Carnatic music. Even though Bangalore is in south India, it is unusual in this regard—the Mysore maharajahs encouraged both Hindustani and Carnatic styles. Where most of India favors one or the other, both continue to be practiced here. Then it was back to Havaldar’s place for lunch and more talk. I asked him to tell me how he came to study with his gurus, and he gave me the whole story of his life as a musicians. It was wonderful! Havaldar is not only a gifted and knowledgeable practitioner, he is also a historian and storyteller at heart (with advanced degrees in both history and music!), and he knows countless stories about his gurus and all of the great Hindustani artists. He keeps talking about putting these in book form, and I can’t wait till he does! After watching a video of a performance by one of his gurus, it was back to the hotel for a rest. That evening I went back as a guest at a group lessons given by Omkar for some younger students. Virginia is dying to see the video recording of this; she is very curious to see how their work with younger students compares with Suzuki method! The room was full with four young students and their parents! The lesson proceeds in the traditional manner—the guru sings a phrase and the students answer. If they don’t quite get it, the teacher repeats it. If they’re way off, the teacher breaks the phrase into smaller chunks and students repeat those till they get it. Gradually they put together longer and longer sections. Part of the focus is on learning the melodic figures associated with a given raga, part is on learning actual tunes. After a nice home-cooked potluck dinner with the assembled parents and students (men in one room, women in another, and children who knows where!), it was back to the hotel where I stayed up too late watching TV movies!

Saturday morning Havaldar picked me up after breakfast for a driving tour of Bangalore. Once known as the “Garden City,” Bangalore has become a very busy, crowded city whose formerly-tree-lined streets have given way to the influx of people from all over India looking for work in the burgeoning IT industry (and cooler weather!). We stood still in traffic at several spots trying to get into the heart of the city to see Cubbon Park with its many government buildings, including the Karnataka state house and High Court buildings. Then it was off to one of the most unique concert halls I’ve ever seen—Chowdiah Hall (named for a great local musician) is build in the shape of a violin lying on its back! The hollow body houses the auditorium, surrounded by glassed-in hallways on all sides. There are side entrances with small courtyards at the waist of the instrument (between the upper and lower bouts), and the neck and fingerboard (there are even strings and pegs!) shelter a walkway that leads from a drive-up/drop-off spot (under the scroll) to the main entrance (where the neck is attached to the body). Just inside the entrance is a big picture of Chowdiah himself with a painting of the trinity or Carnatic music (Tyagaraja, Sastri, Dikshitar) displayed prominently nearby. Omkar will be giving the lead-off concert at their annual music festival in just a few days! Then it was home for lunch and more conversation, this time peppered with recordings and talk about some of Havaldar’s favorite movie songs (before going to college, he used to sing a lot of those songs for family and friends)! After taking some rest at the hotel it was back to see a lesson with a senior student, a fellow who is working full time at a very good job, but who is passionate about music. This time I got to see Havaldar himself at work with a student. Very enlightening! Dinner this night was my favorite of all. There was a really delicious dal dish, and we also had a small variety of eggplant that was very tasty. Good stuff!

Sunday was my last day in Bangalore, and it was a fitting finale! Havaldar picked me up again and we visited a book shop with a better selection of scholarly books than Omkar and I had found at Sapna. From there we went to see the work of a local painter who has worked closely with Havaldar, G. Jagadish. He does lovely work in several genres, including nature, religious themes, Rajasthani folk, and even abstract. He is also interested in interdisciplinary work, and has frequently been the guest artist at concerts, where he draws at his easel while the music plays! By an auspicious coincidence (again!?), we came in while Dr. Aralumallige Parthasarathy was visiting the studio. Havaldar had just loaned me a copy of this man’s biography of Purandara Dasaru, perhaps the greatest of south Indian composer-musician-saints, and the one who is often said to have “created” Carnatic classical music. Parthasarathy is especially interested in the spiritual side of his subject, and as a parting gift he presented me a copy of his latest book, an explanation and interpretation of the thousand names of Vishnu. No surprise that these three, artist, literary scholar, and musician have found each other—they all shar a common interest in art as a spiritual discipline! Then home for a tour of the new flat they are buying. Their flat just isn’t big enough for three practicing musicians to teach and rehearse, so they’re just now completing the paperwork to purchase a place that opened up in their building for use as a studio for their foundation. This will give much-needed flexibility, and even a guest room for people like me—next time! They dropped me off at the lovely Lalbagh gardens, a huge green-space built by Tipu Sultan and later expanded by the Brits. It was a lovely place to hang out on a Sunday afternoon, and it was just a ten-minute walk from there to the hotel. I rested, packed my bags, checked out, and waited for my ride to the concert. We must have traveled to the far northeast side of town to a small hall in one of the suburbs. They concretize about once a week, and they like to perform in various locations around town. It was a superb concert! Havaldar is a master, and his maturity and depth of expression were evident throughout! Omkar took the role of his backup vocalist. It is a difficult role. Even when you would like to shine, you have to stay in the background and make the lead vocalist sound good (though Havaldar needed no help with that!). It’s like being the guy on the volleyball team who sets up the ball so someone else can smash it. After the concert we had to pay respects to a family Havaldar hasn’t seen for awhile, and then off to dinner at the concert host’s home. Very nice time, but before I knew it, Havaldar said it was time to head for the train. He gave me a hug and paid a porter to make sure I (and my bags) got safely on the train.

If I have a new sister in Dr. Kausalya, I have a new brother in Dr. Havaldar. His generosity continues to amaze me. At one point during my visit he asked if it would be possible to do some kind of residency at Elmhurst College during one of his annual visits to Chicago. It didn’t take long to figure out how that might work! I teach a special topics course in music history every other year, and I’ve been threatening for some time to make Indian music the topic some year. That course comes up next in fall of 2011, and to do that course with an artist like Dr. Havaldar in residence would be phenomenal. He could talk about the great musicians and their music, he could explain raga and tala and other theoretical concepts, he could discuss the history and traditions of his music, and he could give singing lessons to the group and to individuals. What would have been an interesting course now looks to become a phenomenal experience for Elmhurst music majors! I am again humbled and amazed to be one the receiving end of such generosity, especially when (as I see it) I am giving so little in return. Still, this is a relationship I am growing to cherish more and more, and I sense once again the depth of our mutual understanding of music. We use different words and understand theoretical concepts in different ways, but when it comes to grasping deep musical expression and the depth of spirituality inherent in music, we are very much on the same page. I can’t wait to see him again next October and to begin making plans for 2011!!


After so many night trains, it’s always nice to take one in the daylight. As you get into northwestern Tamil-Nadu and cross the line into Karnataka, there are progressively more hills to see, some of them big, bald rocks jutting skyward out of the plain. Shatabdhi trains are very nice—you have A/C, they bring you a newspaper, some tea, and even a meal! There was a long stop in Bangalore, where it seemed like EVERYbody got off the train, and very few got back on. Bangalore certainly seems to be THE major destination for many travelers to this reason, especially the business types, as I might have guessed if I had stopped to think about it. So it was a nice quiet ride from there to Mysore, where I was immediately struck by the city’s beauty. The heavy traffic I’ve become accustomed to in Chennai was non-existent. The streets are lovely and tree-lined, and they do a nice job of keeping the place cleaned up (still not to Western standards, but sparkling compared to most places I’ve been in India).

I checked into the Green Hotel, an eco-friendly place that has converted a former palace (albeit a small one!) into a very nice hotel. There are only half a dozen (rather expensive) rooms in the “palace” itself, but there are plenty more in the adjacent garden house, a large, modern concrete structure. Rooms were simpler than I expected, but comfortable enough. No A/C, but it’s cooler in Mysore (thankfully!) and I never needed it. Spent Tuesday seeing the sights in Mysore, including the Jaganmohan Palace art gallery, the Maharajah’s Palace, St. Philomena Church, and Chamundi Hill with its temple, views of the city, and huge nandi. I also decided to splurge and have lunch at another former palace, built by the Maharajahs for the viceroy. It’s now a luxury hotel, and it was worth the splurge (expensive meal!) to see the inside of the place. They even had live musicians in the dining room! Best of all was the Maharajah’s palace, a very extensive, lavishly gaudy set of buildings in the middle of a large, walled campus with temples, shops, and a large central square. As with many tourist sites in India, foreigners pay a hefty admission fee, but there are occasional benefits. I was glad I turned down the guide who asked if I wanted assistance when I got to the palace itself and discovered that audio tours were free for foreigners! It was similar to the device we used at Westminster Abbey last March—put on the headset, punch in the number for each stop on the tour, and the device tells you all about it … in a very stiff British accent (maybe the same fellow who narrated the Westminster Abbey audio tour!). Some of the rooms inside the palace are really spectacular, the wedding hall, for instance, and the 30-odd murals that line many walls depict the Dassara festival that takes place every September/October (I couldn’t go because I was giving that paper in Tiruchi). Sadly, no pictures were allowed inside the palace buildings, but I was able to take a lot of photos out on the palace grounds.

On Wednesday it was off to Srirangapatna to see the sites related to time of Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, Muslim rulers who displaced the Mysore maharajahs for 20-odd years in the late 1700s, and who provided perhaps the only serious resistance to the British in that century. They won quite a few battles against the Brits, forcing big concessions from them until Tipu Sultan was defeated himself (and killed in battle). Their island fortress in the middle of the Kaveri River stands in ruins now with remnants of the walls standing along many river banks. Within the fort walls you can see the mosque they built, the old Hindu temple, the water gate where the British managed to sneak into the fort undetected, and a couple of old prisons. Outside the walls are the tomb Tipu Sultan built for his father and mother (and where he himself is buried) and a little shrine at the southwesternmost tip of the island where the river is reunited and flows on through Tamil-Nadu (and Thanjavur!) to the Bay of Bengal. Most interesting of all is Tipu Sultan’s summer palace, where painted murals depict several battles and their defeat of the British! One in particular shows the British completely surrounded by the Indians (and French!). The Brits have looks of fear in their eyes, the British commander is sitting in a palanquin biting his nails, and even the horses look fearful! After a reasonably priced buffet lunch at another nice hotel, the Metropole (where they were playing Shostakovich in the background—who’d a thunk!?!), I took in a little-known museum on the Mysore University campus. It’s a museum of folk art, the Jayalakshmi Vilas, and it has an incredibly extensive collection of things from all over Karnataka and beyond. Since it’s a university collection, however, there’s not a lot of funding to provide museum-quality displays. Some things are very well labeled and/or very well displayed—the leather shadow puppets that are mounted and backlit to reveal an incredible riot of colors and patterns, for instance—but most of the signage was in the Kannada language only, and in many rooms, display items were clustered together right out in the middle of the floor, and many unframed paintings were lined up along a wall and resting on the floor. In spite of that, this is one of the very best collections of folk art I’ve seen in south India. Good stuff. Too bad nobody seems to know about it; judging by the guest book, I was the first visitor in the last 5 or 6 days!

I also did some shopping and vowed to visit only the government-run shops, but I ran into trouble with a driver who wanted to take me to every place but the one I really wanted to see (especially since they get a cut if you buy from certain shops). There’s a government emporium called Cauvery Arts & Crafts, but he took me to a place called Kauvery. It seemed like it was in the wrong part of town, so I asked if this was Sayyaji Rao Rd. He said he thought it was, and the doorman at the shop was happy to lie and say it was. I saw a sign inside that said something about the government of Karnataka, so I stopped being so suspicious and looked around. I should have continued to be suspicious, since the service was waaay too attentive for a government shop. The driver then took me to a couple of other locations of the same shop around town (none of which were on Sayyaji Rao Rd.). I ended up with a souvenir and a couple of souvenirs Christmas gifts, but it wasn’t till the end of the second day that we crossed the real Sayyaji Rao Rd., and there in big letters was the sign for the real Cauvery Emporium! The driver sheepishly asked if I wanted to stop, but by then I had to get to the university museum or not see it at all. Oh, well … grrr! At least he managed to find me a really good bookstore with Indian classical CDs and DVDs!!

Outside lectures, Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry

Looks like the time between blog entries has been increasing. If I wait this long again before my next entry, I’ll be home again with nothing but cold weather and good times with family to report!

So I made some mention earlier of long empty spaces filling in. Well .,, things got sooooo busy I’ve hardly had time to think about a blog! The lecture at University of Madras went very well. There were so many questions from students (and from Dr. Premeela herself) that I only got halfway through my talk, but since it was on the history of jazz, it was not hard to find a good stopping point. And the visit at A.R. Rahman’s K.M. Music Conservatory also went well. We met Dr. Jyothi and the managing director, Dr. Srinivasan, an interesting and very able fellow who spends half of his time in the U.S. as director of Miami University’s (Ohio) world music program and doing artist-in-residence spots at University of North Texas and other schools. Before I knew it, I had an invitation to lecture at KM as well—on American minimalism! Rahman is looking to build up a base of trained musicians right here in Chennai, folks who know Western, Indian, and world musics with equal fluency, and Srini has done a great job of bulking up the curriculum to accomplish that. The place was really buzzing with activity, students practicing, etc., reminiscent of music schools back home! That lecture also went very well with lots of questions and interaction with students. I was lucky I even had a video clip to play! Srini didn’t tell me till afterwards that Philip Glass is a friend! Probably just as well—I would have worried about it otherwise. Sounds like Srini is willing to give a nice talk to our students in January with lots of video of his work with Rahman. Should be very good!

The next day it was off to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. I’ve been to Mahablipuram many times, so I assumed there wasn’t much new to see, but we ended up seeing 2 or 3 cave temples I had not visited previously, and it was a gloriously sunny day after so much monsoon rain. The only problem came when one of the group leaders, a woman, told one of the hawkers, a man, to buzz off. He took such offence that he followed us for 20+ minutes, shouting at the leader and even telling Suri he shouldn’t be guiding our group! Very awkward, and a shame Suri was not able to reach any of his friends on the local police force. Got to see the Shore Temple as the sun was going down. The light was quite lovely! Our hotel’s main virtue was its proximity to the Shore Temple, but the bed was very uncomfortable and the remote control did nothing to keep the A/C from making the room colder and colder and colder. I had to manually get up and turn the unit on or off when it got to hot or too cold! An early morning walk to the beach to watch the waves helped a bit!

Then it was off to Pondicherry. As a former French colony, it’s a “union territory,” and you need a special permit to enter. The drivers had not told Suri that they did not already possess the necessary permits, so we waited on the roadside outside Pondi while they drove off to purchase them. As a result we were late for our visit to the Sri Aurobindo Society’s beach facility, but they were able to accommodate our late schedule. After a brief talk about the society’s aims (with lots of leading questions for the students), we had a simple but nutritious lunch at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a large, fairly modern facility equipped to feed hundreds and hundreds of followers of Aurobindo and “the Mother.” If I was expecting something akin to the Beatles’ experience at Rishikesh, this was not it! After lunch we checked in at the beachfront hotel run by the Aurobindo Society, a clean, comfortable, and VERY inexpensive place to stay. Suri had a fourth floor room with no A/C but a spectacular view of the ocean. I was on the first floor with A/C and a view of the garden. Hmmm … who got the better deal? While the group went off and pursued their own afternoon agenda, Suri and Juby and I went off to see Pondi. Stopped at a very nice Fabindia, had afternoon tea at a nice little coffee shop, and then found a few more shops in the business district. After a rest at the guest house, Suri and I were going to find a nice French restaurant, but by the time we were ready to go, the rain was coming down in sheets from the direction of the ocean. We found just enough of a break to walk over to Le Club, only to find a gi-normous puddle covering half the street in front of the entrance. We debated wading through the puddle, but on noticing that the puddle was likely flowing down the steps into the restaurant entrance (a few steps below street level), we decided to hail a motor rickshaw and find another place nearby … as the rains whipped in with renewed energy. The place nearby was not French, but the food was good enough, and we were happy to be out of the rain.

Next morning one of Suri’s friends took me to Auroville, the utopian community founded by “the Mother” and her followers around 1970 or so. This fellow lives there, and he took me on a driving tour followed by a stop at the visitor’s center where we were also able to check out some shops and have a spot of tea. We ran into the Furman group again at the shops, and after meeting their Auroville host (a musician!), my guide took me back to Pondi to a place where we could get a nice French meal. There may be more authentic French places in Pondi, but this was “close enough for jazz,” and we had a nice time. Then it was back to MCC by car (the Furman group was staying an extra day) so I could catch an early morning train to Mysore. I repacked my bags, found a bit of mold on some leather items (the monsoon was not over yet!), got part of a night’s sleep, drove into the city, and boarded the Shatabdhi Express to Mysore.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Which way to the internet?

For over two months I’ve been waiting for the monsoon rains and the cooler temperatures they would bring. I was eager to experience a monsoon here in India, much as Indians coming to the U.S. are eager to experience snow. I imagined that with cooler weather I could extend my daily walks and visit West Tambaram’s shopping district on more regular basis, or just plain spend more time outdoors again. Somewhere in the midst of these longings lurked a suspicion that the monsoon would not be as simple as all that, but the romance of the monsoon swept away any such doubts. Well … the monsoon is here. If there were any questions about it last week when we got two days of rain followed by a couple of days of sun, they have now been answered. It rains off and on during the daylight hours, sometimes a hard rain, sometimes a drizzle (with or without sunshine!), and sometimes a dry spell (again with or without sunshine!). During the night the rain is continuous, and strong enough that I can hear the patter outside even with the A/C running. Indians often describe the temperatures here as hot, hotter, and hottest; for the past week it’s been rainy, rainier, and rainiest!

Has the monsoon lived up to my expectations? Yes and no. Though delayed by a week or two, it seems to be a good strong monsoon so far. Some of the local reservoirs are filling up again, and the local fauna is certainly reviving. This is the water this region will need for a whole year, so they need a lot of it. It’s certainly fascinating to watch the effects of the rains—how the campus animals respond, some of the new insects that have appeared, and the frequent disruptions to traffic due to “waterlogging,” the deep puddles that cover most of a street when drains are clogged or it’s just plain raining faster than the drains can carry it away. But I suspect the fascination may wear off long before the rains stop. If I was a prisoner to the heat in my first two months, now I am a prisoner to the rain. I can certainly get out and around in the breaks between rains, but I really don’t want to get caught in the midst of a drenching rain, where even the umbrella provides little protection when the wind whips the rain in every direction. That might have felt good when it was 95+ outside, but with daytime temperatures now running in the low to mid 80s, that doesn’t sound so appealing. Curiously, this feels quite cool, and I am sometimes tempted to put on another layer. Back in the U.S., temps in the mid-80s would be feeling a bit hot to me, but I realize I have gradually been adjusting to India’s heat. I’ve noticed that I’ve been notching the A/C up a degree every few weeks or so. But where I welcomed the cool breeze that accompanied the occasional strong storm in September or October, now it almost feels too cool (though not nearly so cool as Ooty!!).

Then there’s the humidity. It’s actually cool enough that I wouldn’t need to run the A/C regularly, but I leave it on anyway to take some of the humidity out of the air. Between the rain and the humidity, laundry has also become a problem. The dhobi can wash the clothes no problem, but finding a dry spell long enough to dry them out is a real problem, and for the last couple of days things never seem to dry out completely. The bath towel that was always dry the next morning is now damp, so I’m alternating towels and turning on the ceiling fan to help dry them and my hand wash items faster. (I hope the dhobi can do some of my laundry today again!) And then there’s the internet. With the few rainstorms we had earlier this fall (is it still fall? it’s certainly not winter here!), I noticed that internet service was often disrupted. With the monsoons, amplify that disruption by tenfold at the very least. Day before last it went out mid-afternoon and stayed out for the rest of the day. Yesterday I had internet for 20 minutes late in the afternoon, and it hasn’t been back on since (though there may also be some problem with the wireless router compounding the service interruptions!). I have come to rely on the internet here, whether for lecture preparation or to check the news back home or to look something up or whatever. When it’s not working, I quickly run out of things to do here! You can only read the newspaper or do puzzles for so long. So when one of the visiting scholars (from St. Olaf!) called yesterday to ask if I was busy, I told her the internet was down and I was a bit stir-crazy—come on over!

On the other hand, when the internet works, it allows many good things to happen. One of the highlights this week was my second grandchild’s third birthday. I had to get up early in the morning to Skype her, but the connection was working fine that day. I got to help them sing happy birthday and watch Kele-De blow out the candles on her cake. Not quite the same as being there, but pretty darn good! It’s not everyday you get to attend a birthday party from halfway around the world!! Kele-De’s older sister, Skiaya (now all of four years old!), is getting the hang of the daytime here/nighttime there thing, but I didn’t even try to explain that I was calling them the morning after Kele-De’s birthday! Gives a whole new meaning to belated birthday greetings!

I may yet reach some kind of personal truce with the monsoon, but I’m starting to feel somewhat frustrated and hampered by the limits it places on me. Long walks to West Tambaram may yet happen ... once the monsoon rains finish up ... whenever that will be! But it looks like it’s not going to slow things down too much. After Virginia left, I was starting to wonder what I would do with myself in an empty guest house with three weeks of break between MCC’s two semesters (they’re taking exams this week, on days when the exams don’t get postponed due to the heavy rains!). Well … I’m not wondering anymore. I finally scheduled my travel to Mysore and Bangalore, the most important cities in the southern state of Karnataka. That will eat up the final week of my break. Then my long-lost friend Kingsley showed up on Sunday and invited me to come to the University of Madras for a visit to the Music Department. Arrangements were made, and Mathivanan took me there Wednesday on the way to a concert. I got to meet the department chair, Dr. Premeela, a lovely person, and she brought me in to meet briefly with the students of her department. I talked a bit about Elmhurst College and we had tea back in Premeela’s office. She wants me to come down this Monday to give a lecture on American music, with emphasis on jazz, and there is also talk of a dance performance on Wednesday, a possible Saturday workshop for her students, her upcoming concert (she is a vocalist), and a scholarly conference at the tail end of December. I even got to meet Sowmya, who is now working on a doctorate at Madras University. I heard her sing in the U.S., and in 2007 we saw one of her concerts and took our students for a group voice lesson and tour at the Carnatica Foundation she helps to run. Unless I hear otherwise, the lecture is all arranged. It will fit perfectly into the trip Mathivan and I were already planning for Monday to visit A.R. Rahman’s school and studio. So we’ll start with the lecture, visit Rahman’s place, and then go hear an evening concert by Aruna Sairam. We’ve been trying to set up a visit to the university for some time, but it can be difficult to engineer such things from way out in the suburbs. I’m glad it’s finally happening; it’s always good to make contact with musicians in Chennai!

Two more pieces to help fill in the schedule—Sunday night, I’ll join some choir people, including Suri, Vimal, Juby, and Anand, along with Mike and Anne from St. Olaf, and we’ll go hear Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt. I met the director when I visited Emmanuel Methodist Church a month or so ago, and they’ll be doing it with orchestra, a real rarity here in Chennai. I’ll be fascinated to hear what they do with it! Strange to think of this kind of performance here in India, but if it’s anything like the choral performances I hear at Emmanuel, this should be a very good performance. Can’t wait! And Suri had a brilliant idea. For two month, he’s been planning to take me down to Pondicherry some weekend, but things have been busy for all of us. Finally he says, Why don’t you come down with the Furman group next weekend? We checked it out with Claude and Veena, so it’s all set. I’ll ride down with them, spend a night in Mahabalipuram, spend the next night in Pondicherry, and then return by car on Sunday (earlier than the group) since I have to leave for Mysore very early Monday morning. Should be good!

So I thought I’d have long, dull stretches with the occasional trip into the city to break the monotony. Now it looks like I’ll be so busy for the next few weeks that I’ll be looking for breaks to catch some rest! I think I worried for naught. And once I get back to town, there will be 2nd semester lectures to give, December Season concerts to attend … and I guess I’ll even need to think about packing for the trip home. Yikes!


To say that life at the guest house has changed completely would be a huge understatement. The group from Furman University (South Carolina) arrived last Sunday morning, and the guest house is now full—of people, activity, and a kind of constant hum. There are two Furman faculty members here with a group of sixteen students, exactly the same sized group Lynn and I will bring in January. I can’t help but think ahead to the experience we will have, and it’s good to see that this size group fits very nicely into the guest house with room to spare. Somehow they’ve managed to get all sixteen into the upstairs apartments, but since we’ll have more men (six, they have only one!), I think we’ll want to put some of our group in the double-room suite on the ground floor. Either way, this will be a big improvement over the group of 23 students we brought in 2007. With 16, there’s room for everybody to stay in the guest house, and there’s room for everybody to eat in the dining room. It’s also much easier for everybody to get to know each other!

What a transformation! I have occasionally grumbled about feelings of loneliness here at the guest house, especially at meal times, but I have plenty of company at meal times and ample opportunity for conversations on the porch or in the dining room at odd hours of day or evening. These are really nice people, and it’s been especially good to get to know the group leaders, Claude and Veena. But wait, it gets better! Nowadays, whenever there’s a group here, they bring in a chef and a couple of assistants from one of the local hotels (Taj Connemara, I believe). The food from the canteen has been quite good, on the whole, far better than many college cafeteria meals I’ve had back in the states. But the cooks for the Furman group are really wonderful. The flavors, the preparation, and the variety of dishes at every meal are great. I am going to get fat if I don’t watch out! And since the same team will be here in January, our students are in for a treat! Nice to have such a pleasant surprise.

The other night I was sitting on the porch reading my newspaper when a pair of Americans walked in to chat with the Furman faculty and some students. Part way into the conversation I began to hear frequent references to St. Olaf. Finally my curiosity got the better of me and I said, Did I hear you say St. Olaf? I’m an Ole! Well, first Mike and then Anne came over to introduce themselves and chat a bit. They are both professors in the Biology department at St. Olaf, and they are here as Fulbright scholars to teach at MCC for the second semester and to travel, make contacts with Indian scientists, and so on—similar to what I’ve been doing. They went back to the Furman group, so after a short while I pulled up a chair to join the conversation, and we had a lovely time. Talk about a “small world.” As I thought back on it, I realize that somebody some time back had mentioned a visit by St. Olaf faculty, but there was no context, and at that point it was a ways off. Now that they’re here, it will be really nice to have such tangible contact with an important part of my life back home. They also know Dr. Gabriel, since he was a visiting Kierkegaard Scholar at St. Olaf just three years ago, so we’ve got a regular St. Olaf club being established here at MCC. What fun! We’re heading into Chennai Sunday evening for a concert (Handel’s Israel in Egypt … with an orchestra!), and it looks like we’ll even have a Thanksgiving dinner together, something I didn’t think I’d be able to celebrate here! Juby commented the other day that it was good to see me looking so happy. I guess it’s good to have people around; I’m more of a social being than I give myself credit for. I think I’m going to like the next few weeks very much … very much indeed!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Virginia's Visit

I haven’t blogged for two weeks now, but I have a really good excuse. Virginia’s been here since late on the 14th of October … forgive me, but I haven’t given the rest of you much thought! She left last night for Copenhagen (boo!), and I’ve got lots of time on my hands again, so here’s the news, and lots of it. To paraphrase a Virginia-ism, after her, you come first!

We had a wonderful two weeks. Virginia had a touch of flu two weeks before she arrived here, so between that and jet lag, she was still a bit under the weather with a sore throat. But with lots of room for rest around the edges, we managed to do quite a bit. During the first few days we stayed close to the MCC campus. Had a lovely lunch with Joseph, a trip with my favorite rasika Mathivanan into Madras for khadi (and a mandatory stop for lunch at Murugan’s Idli Shop—yum!), a wonderful evening and dinner with Suri and friends, daily walks around the campus, and a good visit and lunch with Gabriel and family. All of this happened as preparations were underway for Diwali, the Festival of Lights. It’s a bit like Christmas and Fourth of July rolled into one—Christmas for the lights and the exchange of gifts (usually sweets!), and Fourth of July for the “crackers.” My goodness, they love their firecrackers here! Starting the day before, there was a steady crescendo of bangs and pops, and by the time we reached Diwali Eve, there was so much noise from all directions that it sounded like a war zone! This continued through the night and all of the next day. When the car came after dinner on Diwali to take us to our overnight train, we got to see what we had been hearing for the past 36 hours—people were all over the streets, especially the narrow lanes, lighting all kinds of firecrackers. Our driver had to dodge people and explosions as we took a short-cut through the neighborhoods. Once we got to the main street into the city, we got to see fireworks as well. Wow! Lest you think I am exaggerating, as we were eating breakfast middle of the next week in Cochin, we heard bangs and pops in the distance. Virginia asked Rayson, our travel companion, if people were still celebrating Diwali. He said, no, that was the sound of military exercises being conducted at the naval base nearby!

So with Rayson Alex along for the ride we boarded the Allepey Express on Saturday night and took it all the way to … Allepey! Rayson did a wonderful job of making arrangements for our time in Kerala (and Ooty), and he was along as a companion and guide to make sure we got where we needed to go, but we especially enjoyed getting to know him better in several long conversations. He finished his doctoral thesis about eight months, but here in India there is an interminable wait for an outside reader (usually in England!?) to approve (or reject) it. Rayson has already been waiting 8 months, but 6 months to a year is pretty standard. Yikes!

Allepey is right in the heart of the backwaters region of the south Indian state Kerala, a place locals like to call God’s Own Country! Since I grew up in God’s Country (LaCrosse, Wisconsin), I had to see for myself. It’s nothing like LaCrosse, of course (surprise, surprise!), but it is a lush, tropical paradise. The Western Ghats, a mountain range that borders the eastern edge of the state, catch all of the moisture coming off of the Arabian Sea, and the frequent rains keep it green and beautiful. The town of Allepey is situated between the seacoast and the backwaters, a huge web of canals and lakes that span a distance of 75 km. from Cochin in the north to Kollam in the south. One of the big attractions for tourists is a backwaters cruise on a kettu vallam, an old commercial barge converted into a houseboat with thatched walls and roof and a covered deck from which you can watch the scenery on all sides.

Our train arrived mid-morning in Allepey, and we went straight to our boat for a two-night cruise! (This was our splurge!) Virginia and I were surprised to discover that Rayson would be spending time with friends during our cruise, but we were delighted at the prospect of some private time after two months apart! After leaving the dock, we putted out into the large lake just north of Allepey. Lovely enough, but we were far from shore, and there wasn’t much to see but water, distant palm trees, and the occasional water bird or flower. I started to think that two days of this might get tedious, but as we entered narrower and narrower canals and gradually became attuned to the rhythm and variety of life in the backwaters, it became a fascinating voyage of discovery. On many canals there is only a thin strip of land between the canal and a large field of rice paddies. Residents build their houses right on these narrow strips; some homes are simple thatched huts, some much more luxurious. Either way, there’s no place to hide from the boats on the canal, and as we cruised up and down the waterways, we got to see people as they lived their lives, did their chores, and carried on with their daily work. Our daily routine was simple: cruise for awhile, then dock in a shady spot for lunch and maybe a nap (lots of naps—A/C could only be used overnight, and the temperatures weren’t that much cooler than in Chennai!), cruise some more, then dock for dinner and the night (sunset at around 6 p.m. down here). Our first night we docked on one of those thin strips next to the home of the sister of one of our three boatmen. After a wonderful fish curry dinner we watched a movie they got just for us! It was The Last Samurai, and we’ve seen it before, but we really enjoy it, but there was some problem with the audio track, so we watched it with English subtitles! Halfway through it was time to close up the boat and go to bed, so we retreated to our A/C cabin and slept very soundly with the gentle rocking of the boat.

We woke to find a chicken scratching the earth to dig up breakfast for its brood of chicks. We watched a fisherman extracting his catch from the net, and we were even invited into the sister’s home for a brief visit! She had pictures of the wedding of one of her children, but even more prominent was the photo of her one-year-old grandchild! On the second day our cruise took us past several towns and villages and some much more upscale neighborhoods. We saw schools and churches (not many temples … that or we didn’t know what to look for here in Kerala—temple architecture is distinctively different here), pedestrian bridges and a highway bridge, boats of all kinds, high-end and simple resorts, and even the lake where the famous snake-boat races take place every August. Unbeknownst to us, we spent the second night docked back in Allepey where we had first boarded the boat, but we enjoyed getting out and walking along the canal looking at the businesses that lined the walk. We finally got to watch the end of the movie and enjoy another good dinner (food was very good on the boat—except for the first days breakfast of toast and jam only!?). The final morning we took a spin out into the big lake for breakfast, and then back to meet Rayson at the dock. Overall, it was a lovely, relaxing time with lots to look at and enjoy, whether it was the people, the wildlife, the water, or the vegetation. Very peaceful, very serene—just what we needed.

We climbed into the car with Rayson, and the driver took us north to Cochin, one of the old Keralan cities with many evidences of the Portuguese and Dutch who were there. We visited several of the standard tourist spots—the Mattancherry Palace with its elaborate frescoes, the oldest synagogue in India, the Chinese fishing nets, and St. Francis Church, the oldest English church in India. Then we checked in at the Green Woods Bethlehem Homestay, very lovely place surrounded by tall trees and all kinds of flowering plants. We had a very comfortable A/C room, hosts Ashley and Sheeba were very friendly and helpful, and the covered rooftop dining area provided lovely views of the trees that shaded us even two stories up. Then it was off to a long lunch at a place Joseph recommended highly, the Grand Hotel in Ernakulam (the modern city attached to Cochin). Joseph said we had to try the karimeen (a local fish) in moilee sauce … was that ever good! The sauce was mild and somewhat sweet, thanks to the coconut milk (virtually every Keralan dish has some part of the coconut in it!), and we ate every last bite. After a little shopping it was time to go see a program of Kathakali and dances at the Greenix Cultural Center. It was a sampler geared towards tourists that included different south Indian dance genres, including bharatanatyam, mohiniyattam, and theyyam, though we were especially interested in the scene from a kathakali dance-drama. Too bad we couldn’t stay in town long enough to see a longer kathakali performance, but this was a nice introduction. Next time!

Next day, after a lazy morning at Bethlehem, we headed out for lunch at the Fort House, an older, traditional hotel with a restaurant right on the water, shaded by a cluster of huge palm trees. It was a lovely place to sit and watch boats of all sizes (including ocean freighters) go by. To the right you could look towards Ernakulam, to the left the outlet to the sea, and on the far shore you could even see another set of Chinese fishing nets at work. After short visits to the Jain Temple (not open after 12:30!) and the Syrian Orthodox Church (Syriac Christians were the first to come to India, probably within the first century after Christ), we took a rest back at Bethlehem. Rayson left early to catch a bus so he could spend time with his friends at the NGO where he once worked, and after we checked out we took the car to the beach to watch the sunset over the sea. Sadly it was very cloudy to the west, so we didn’t see much color, but it was still nice to watch the ocean waves coming in! Then it was back to the Grand Hotel for dinner, a good choice not only for the food but for its proximity to the train station. A four-hour train ride got us to Coimbatore by about 1:00 a.m., where we had to wait another four hours on the platform. Some larger train stations have retiring rooms or at least A/C lounges where you can rest while you wait, but that’s not Coimbatore! We decided the train platform was comfortable enough, especially in the middle of the night, and it worked fine except for swatting the mosquitoes, especially when a young French traveler sat with us to wait for the same train. A one-hour train ride took us to Mettupalayam, and after a one-hour wait we boarded the “toy train” to Ooty (Udagamandalam … but who has time to say that?), a narrow-gauge cog railway that still uses steam locomotives as it climbs some pretty steep grades up into the mountains. One book called the ride bone-rattling, but I did not find it so. Now it did jolt and lurch its uncomfortable way up those steep grades, managing only 46 km. in a nearly five-hour-long trip, but if it’s bone-rattling you want, take the American Eagle, the old-style wooden roller coaster at Six Flags/Great America. Still, the views were fantastic, and with frequent service stops to let the old steam engine cool a bit and keep it in good operating condition, there was lots of time to look down into the canyon or up at the peaks, grab a snack, or snap pictures of the trees, flowers, tea plantations, monkeys, and mountain peaks. Virginia had a great time watching the Indian families in our compartment, seeing how Indian parents interact with their children.

We arrived in Ooty shortly after noon. Due to its elevation (about 7,500 feet above sea level), this was the place the British escaped to from Chennai during the hottest months of the year (much as they did from Delhi to Shimla in the north), and it still has some vestiges of British heritage. Just like Shimla, they build houses and neighborhoods right up the sides of the mountains, but Ooty is smaller, quieter, and somewhat slower-paced. We took a motor rickshaw up the mountain to our lodgings at King’s Cliff, former home of one of the British nobility with lovely views of the town below and the mountains around it. The building is quaint, and the grounds are immaculately maintained (how do they get that lawn so short and even?), with lots of flowers, shrubs, and trees. After lunch and a nap (more naps!), we took a little walk around the neighborhood and came back to sit in the parlor in front of the fireplace, read the newspaper, and finally get some dinner in their excellent restaurant. Virginia, who is trying to avoid carbs and sugar, had a bit of a run-in with the maitre d’ when he insisted more than once that she order rice or bread with her dinner (she has trouble in general with the frequent over-attentiveness of Indian shop keepers who mistake curiosity for a desire to buy something). There were some ruffled feelings on both sides, but the food was really good. Our room also had a fireplace, which made it a lovely place to retreat to, settle in, and warm up a bit … especially good in a building with no heating! Oh, did I mention that Ooty is delightfully cool due to its altitude? Average temperatures in October range from highs of 65 to 68 to lows of 45 to 50. Given that Chennai has been running at least 25 degrees hotter than that, this was a delightful and much-welcomed change!! I must say, though, that the nights really were on the chilly side. It got down to 58 degrees in our room overnight, and I was glad for the warm blankets and comforter … and my life companion in the bed beside me!

After a lazy morning (and another nap!), we headed into town. Got a few supplies at Charing Cross (very familiar sound to that!?) and had a wonderful veg lunch at the Hotel Nahar. Then we went for a good long walk. Up to the British church first, St. Stephens, then past the old British bank building in the most British looking part of town, then down a long stairway into the bazaar and municipal market, and finally past the train station to the Boat House on a lovely lake. Lots of Indians were there taking rides in motor boats or row boats or paddle boats or kiddie boats (one half of the lake reserved for non-motorized craft). Again, it was nice just to sit and watch the families, enjoy the water, and rest after a long walk. After another motor rickshaw ride up to King’s Cliff, we sat again in the parlor, visited with some other American guests (taking a short holiday from their yoga school in Mysore), and had another lovely dinner. Another fire in the room preceded another gloriously chilly night.

On the second Ooty morning, Virginia had wangled some cushions so she could sit on a chair out on the lawn and watch the dawn. After breakfast and another lazy morning, it was time to check out and make our way back to the train. On the way we stopped for an hour at the Botanical Garden, a lovely place that extends way up the mountain-side. We probably only went half-way up, but there was much to enjoy on a Saturday morning—the flowers, the topiary, the greenhouses, the elaborate displays (one shaped like India itself) … and the families! Then off for lunch at Fernhills Palace, former summer home of the Maharajah of Mysore and now a heritage hotel. Sitting atop a mountain on the other side of Ooty, it also afforded some wonderful views. The building itself is gaudily decorated in a style that owes a lot to the British, and the dining room offered nice views of the gardens in back. Then it was back to the train station for the ride back down the mountains and into the plains. The ride was much smoother and more comfortable on the way back town, taking only 3 and a half hours (partly because we didn’t need to stop so frequently). This time we had seats on the valley side of the train, making it possible to get some of the photos we missed out on coming up! For the final 10 km., the train was really racing along on the flat lands, so much so that our train car in the rear caught up with the engine’s smoke and ash before it could dissipate. In the fading light we could even see the sparks flying down the tracks behind us! Another hour’s wait at Mettupalayam and we boarded the Nilagiri (Blue Mountain) Express train to Chennai Central Station.

It was our third overnight train ride, but this one was going home. We arrived at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning and our car showed up at 5:30. By 6:15 we were back in our room at the MCC guest house, grabbing some more sleep before the day began. After breakfast I spent some time with the college choir talking music history, and then it was off to the Principal’s Residence for a very nice home-cooked lunch with Alex and his wife. After another nap and a quiet dinner at the guest house, we took a long walk around the campus. Monday was another quiet day. We went over to the staff room to see who was there for tea. There was no tea (it’s reading week before final exams), but Nirmal was there with a doctoral student, so we had a lovely long chat that could have gone longer had lunch-time not intervened. It was a good chance for Virginia to catch up with Nirmal after his stay at our home last spring. After lunch it was time to pack and nap (again!), walk over so Virginia could meet Gabriel’s daughter, and then head to West Tambaram with Gabriel to visit the tailor. The khadi fabric we bought before our trip west was now soaked and washed (to get the shrinking done before the tailoring!), and we left instructions for shirts and slacks for Virginia and for two new kurtas for me. I’ll have to carry them all home myself in December, but they should make a nice birthday present for Virginia!

Sadly, we had to drop Virginia at the airport last night (Monday). It was an absolutely lovely couple of weeks that confirmed just how much I left behind to come to India for these four months. We are past the midway point now. Virginia arrived after 8 weeks apart, and two weeks later we are passing the 10th week. With 7 more weeks to go, it all sounds manageable, but now my room, the guest house, and the MCC campus are filled with wonderful memories of Virginia as well. It remains to be seen whether that will make these last (less than) two months easier or harder! Right now I’m very tender.

Virginia hoped to see some rain while she was here, but we saw none at all. Rayson said there had been a shower overnight in Cochin, but it wasn’t much of one. Everyone here in Chennai has been longing for the cooling effect of the monsoon, not the early summer southwest monsoon you always hear about, but the northeast, autumn monsoon that the eastern seaboard relies on for most of its water. With unusually hot temperatures well into October, everyone is especially eager to see the rain. I worried that heavy rains might keep Virginia from flying out on time (though more time with her would not have been a terrible thing!). Well, there was no rain last night to impede Virginia’s departure. After she left I heard thunder in the middle of the night, but no rain here. But today … when I came out for lunch I saw that the sky was unusually dark, and two minutes later, down came the rains, with lots of thunder to boot! It cleared out after about an hour, a mild start to the monsoon, perhaps, but a portent of things to come, with lots more rain in this week’s forecast. The plants need it, the people need it, and we all long for the cooling the rains will bring! And some of us also long for a December trip back home!!