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.