Friend of the Cobra

HEAR THE POEM READ ALOUD….

For whom does this chimera pipe his silent tune?
The cobra, whose neck he so calmly holds with his left hand?
Or for me, the current audience?

Bronze Snake Charmer Figurine from India

In what key does he play?
Is it a traditional tune?
Or something a little more sexy?

I bought this copper casting at the government store in Mahabalipuram.
The agent said tribal people made these figurines, and this one was probably three hundred years old.
“The people of the younger generation
don’t care about their ancestors’ art.
They’d rather have the money.”
Sadness and uncertainty lurk in my mind.
I too have lost many of my parents’ customs.

On arriving home, I ask my new friend
“Who are you?”
I discover that his pipe,
with a mid-length bulge,
pours forth music, not smoke.

Charmer’s features look African.
Charmer’s bracelets and necklaces
call “Royalty!” and “Ancient Near East.”
But the cobra itself and the exotic flute cry “India! India!”

The melody reaches my ears after all!
That’s must be why I knew he was coming home with me
the minute
I saw him.

***

Now, it’s only the cast copper charmer’s chant that soothes the cobra.
The human snake charmers in India have been silenced by people
who find it cruel to keep a snake in a basket and make it dance on demand.
As if the cobra doesn’t have a way to make known its own displeasure.

***

Whose mind does the charmer’s melody mollify?
Could the eternal enemy become a friend?
Millions of years ago, our primate predecessors
had already made up a word for
“enemy from below,” and it was “snake.”

But wait! What about the viper in The Little Prince?
Or the Snake in the Garden of Eden?
Charmed, Snake refrained from striking
beautiful Eve, and taught her to
exercise free will, a very difficult task,
efficiently carried out, in a dialogue
only a few sentences long.
A doctorate in Psychology, in a minute.
A gift for a lifetime of life-lines.

The END!

But wait! My Pakistani friend says that there are still live snake charmers in Karachi!

Acts of God

The woman could not keep from crying. Between tears, she told me that she was returning home to Bengaluru, India, with her young son. Her    father had died.

“Was it unexpected?” I asked.

“Yes. Totally,” she replied, breaking into tears again. “I talked to him by Skype just two days ago. He was fine. No illness, no disability.”

We were on an Emirates Air flight from Texas to Dubai. From there, we had a connection to Chennai (formerly Madras), India.

I had worried extensively about having to go through customs in a Arab country, and fretted about contributing to the coffers of the repressive royal family. Though my funny bone was tickled when I found out that Emirates Air will serve you a Kosher meal, I still didn’t like the idea of flying on this airline. The flight was a non-negotiable consequence of going with my tour group.

“Why are you on Emirates Air?” I asked the tearful woman. “It was the best flight I could get on such short notice.” And the tears continued to stream down her face. I have to say that her five year old was more composed. Maybe, having lived far from Grandpa, he wasn’t as distraught. At this point, we had already established that she was from south India, which was also where I was heading. I assumed she’d be on the same connecting flight to Chennai.

“No, I’m going directly to Bengaluru.”

That was a surprise to me. That there were so many people going to south India through Dubai on a given day that there were regularly scheduled flights to multiple cities.

Little did I then suspect that my return trip would be moved up a week, due to a sudden and soon fatal injury to my own mother. It’s funny how the world has a way of telling us that events were already in the making, sometimes long before the actual event. Of course, we humans are pattern making animals, and see patterns, even where they don’t exist. So I am not saying that there aren’t other interpretations of these events. I’m reporting how they felt to me.

About 10 years ago, there was a fire at the building where I had my business. In the months or weeks leading up to that event, someone burned the plastic mail box in front of our house. No other boxes on our street were damaged. And then, one day as I sat down at my desk on entering the office, I noticed an arc coming from the electric plug for my aquarium pump. There was a burn mark, so it was not my imagination. After the main fire, we ended up having to sell the building, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was very traumatic and stressful.

“Aquarium accessories are a common cause of house fires,” my friend the fire investigator said. “Be sure the plug is not at the low point of the cord, to avoid collecting condensate.” That was news to me. I’d had aquariums for most of 40 years. I immediately made sure to take his advice. The main fire started at a different location. After the big fire, my friend the Spiritualist Minister, Reverend Dan, had a different explanation. “The two small, inconsequential fires were pre-cursor events.”

“Huh?” I asked. “They happened so you would know, after the fact, that the fire was a part of God’s plan.”

I finally understood. That moment was truly the end of linear time for me. We are eternal creatures. We are a result of an infinite web of interconnected events. As the Buddha reportedly explained, the world we experience is a result of dependent arising. There’s no single cause for any event. If I had gone on a different airline, God would have found some other way to let me know that my mother’s pain was coming to an end.

Two small fires preceded a traumatic one. The tears of a woman unknown to me made it clear that God had planned to end my mother’s profound fear of the relentless onset of total blindness.

The tears of the stranger also revealed, in hindsight, that the scheduling problem that kept me from meeting my colleagues in Pune, India, which would have interfered with my being with my father for the funeral, was also an act of God. A kindness in this case, although experienced as a disappointment. It would have been painful to have had to cancel a professional engagement, or do a speaking tour, knowing that my mother was terminally injured. As it worked out, I had only to cut short my vacation.

 

Hiring a Saint

“I took the liberty,” Dharmendra said, “of asking a saint to come with us.” I must have looked a little confused. “A saint?” I asked. “Yes, he’s a saint. I asked him to come so he can do a ritual for your mom.”

We were on our way to a thousand year old temple in the Kumaun  (click for some maps), a division of the State of Uttarakhand, on the Indian side of the borders of Tibet and Nepal. I had already traveled twice to the Kumaun, and always found myself wishing I used some type of prescription tranquilizer as the taxi travels along the narrow roads, along the edges of nearly vertical mountain slopes. Dharmendra has been my guide all three times. We’ve never actually gone to the peaks of any of the tallest Himalayan mountains. Only the foothills. But the views are fantastic.

During the last trip to India, in 2008, which was a birthday gift from my parents, my mother, who was born in West Virginia, and could not wait to move away to a big city, but who always loved mountains, turned to me at one point, and said “I see why you wanted to come back.”

My mother was quite an impressive woman. She passed the CPA exam in 1956, and the Maryland and DC bars in 1967. There were not very many women lawyers at that time. In any case, she certainly impressed Dharmendra on that trip. He informed me that MAYBE my mother was as good as packing suitcases as he was. But he seemed to acknowledge that she was going to get what she thought was her due, and he learned some skills in that vein from her. I had gotten the news that she had fallen, and was unlikely to survive, a few days before I was to leave Chennai and head to north India, for the “vacation” part of my trip to the sub-continent. There was nothing I could do for my mother at that point, by going home right away. So I continued my trip, with modifications in case I had to cut the trip short, which I did.

An Indian engineering colleague had a question for me at the time I was planning the 2008 trip. “Is it wise to use Dharmendra’s services? Is he accredited by the Government of India?” I said no, but I couldn’t let myself worry. Dharmendra’s tour guide service is no ordinary tour guide service.

Dharmendra is going to give his clients an experience to remember. It’s never mediocre. Apparently, as I found out on this trip, it includes the services of a saint to pray for your mother’s soul, should the need arise. Dharmendra arranged for me to do what he would have done had it been his own mother near death.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda, I found out the next day, really is considered a saint.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda at Shangrila Resort, holding a children’s book in English, that someone had left behind. The Swami doesn’t read English.

After spending twenty years in a cave, he decided to rejoin society. He loves to talk. Making up for lost time, he’s extremely cheerful and active for 70. He is a self appointed concrete inspector. If he sees the wrong mix of sand and cement, he complains to the authorities. Apparently, a large construction in Rishakesh was redone after the contractors were caught cheating by the Swami.

His materials engineering skills don’t interfere with his regular swami activities. He taught me a few Vedic mantras on the way to the mountain temple. He was impressed with my Sanskrit pronunciation, which I had learned at the beginning of my trip at a chanting yoga retreat.

After driving for 5 hours, to get to the town with the nearby temple, we got out of the car, bought around 150 pounds of rice, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, etc., and called the temple priest to send down people to carry the food up the 3.5 km switch backed, gravel, rock, and tree root covered, steep path. I only had to carry myself and my purse. The taxi driver carried my sleeping bag and knapsack, along with his own stuff. As I looked up, and reminded my dear friend and tour guide that there was a reason I brought a cane with me, and that there was a difference between 3.5 km horizontal and 3.5 km vertical, he assured me it wasn’t strictly vertical. I made it. Slowly. The Swami beat me. Easily. Here’s the view from the “guest house,” at the 3.5 km mark. A mere half km from the top of the mountain, where the actual temple is. It was worth it.

Hopefully there will be a photo of the guest house itself in a later post, but for now I will say that we took the room that did not smell like burned plastic. The rest of the amenities? A concrete floor and a metal door, and two small windows with metal shutters. They were nice. They gave the spoiled American 3 extra blankets.

The resident priest made dinner for us. The most delicious dahl (spiced lentils) I have ever had. Dharmendra claimed it was because it was cooked on a wood fire. Despite the hot meal, I had never really warmed up after breaking into a sweat on the hike up. The mountain air was cold.

“No, Dharmendra,” I said. “Narendra (our driver) is not sleeping in a different room. He’s sleeping with us, to add his hot breath and heat radiations to the three of us.”

I asked if I had been snoring when we all woke up, and an affirmative answer let me realize that I did probably sleep for a few hours. Morning light at 7 meant time for me to eat the chapati that the priest had made specially for me so I could take my pain meds before walking up the last half km to the temple.

The last part of the climb to a mountain temple is reliably steeper than the rest. Getting to a mountain top temple is most of the prayer. As one of my companions on the earlier part of the trip, the yoga retreat, said, “The Indians With Disabilities Act has two words: Tough Shit.”

But with the cane, I made it. And the Swami performed the healing ritual for my mom. It turns out that she started breathing on her own, right around that time.

Never underestimate the power of prayer, whether it is from your own tradition or not.

Ultimately, as I already knew would be the case, my mom did not survive. But because she was breathing on her own, they were able to remove the ventilator mask, and my dad got to see her face, and kiss her face, and that meant a lot to him at the time.

Seeing her face, he was able to see that “she” was gone from the physical shell that had housed his wife of 59.5 years. It was still hard to let her go, but I think easier than it would have been otherwise.

Back at the guest house, the priest and Dharmendra had a little disagreement. Turns out that the Swami really is considered a saint, and the priest did not think that we should pay if we brought the Swami with us to bless his facility. Dharmendra had to clandestinely leave the money to pay for our accommodations.

Back at the bottom of the trail, as we got in back in the car, Dharmendra told me “Now you realize you are stronger than you thought you were.”

Dharmendra at
http://www.exotic-himalayas.com/

Miraculously, my arthritis pain was greatly reduced the day I got off the plane in India. Still, after two years of severe inflammation, my fitness condition wasn’t great. Back in the US for a month now, the arthritis pain continues at a much lower level than it was before I left. Maybe this is part of why old people go south for the winter. And probably why this wasn’t my last trip to India, even though I had said before I left that it was my bucket trip.

It was supposed to be MY bucket trip, not my  mom’s.

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritually Attached to India

“She won’t like it here,” the good professor wrote. “Westerners never do. There’s no room service, and the food in the cafeteria is all South Indian style.”

“She’s spiritually attached to India. She speaks fluent Hindi. This isn’t her first trip. She’ll be fine.”

My soon to be friend Shankar nailed it. I had never thought about it in exactly those words though. I’m spiritually attached to India. It would be my third trip to the subcontinent. The fluent Hindi was a bit of an exaggeration. I had pretty darn good tourist Hindi, maybe a thousand words. Grammatical mistakes in most of my sentences, but I was usually understood, then corrected, proving that they understood what I was trying to say. (My most used sentence on the hair-raising ride on the 1.5 lane wide roads on the sides of the “foothills” of the Himalayas, was -after correction- Nicche na dekko!!- “Don’t look down!”

Scary Road on the way to Rudraprayag

 

sometimes followed by “But Look Down- it’s beautiful!”)

Shankar was correct, but he humored the professor, and asked me if I agreed that the accommodation planned, without room service, would be ok. I assured him that it would, and was very happy to have this new idea of spiritual attachment, and to have had someone who never met me in person realize it was true. I can’t really explain it; maybe I had a past life or three in India.

Really, my main concern about hotels in Asia is that the mattresses  are so hard. Difficult on my arthritic joints. But I had resolved to just take extra pain killer, when I needed it. This was my bucket trip. I was acting on my desire to teach a failure analysis class in India, before the onset of my ultimate, inevitable deterioration. The mattress at the University guesthouse was unlikely to be harder, I reasoned,  than the one at the rural Christian monastery where I was going to be spending the first week and a half in India on the upcoming trip. And the food was unlikely to be more difficult to enjoy than what the monks and nuns ate. And anyway, I had just returned from Japan, where I became convinced that the more expensive the hotel, the harder the mattress.

If I really hated sambar, rasaam, and idly, I probably wouldn’t go to south India. But I had learned to eat, if not love, the first two items, spicy soups, back in the mid 1970’s, when my South Indian ex-boyfriend moved to a town near my parents, who really liked him more than any other boyfriend I had before or after, and proceeded to teach my mother how to do South Indian cooking. I learned to more or less enjoy idly, a somewhat bland lentil flour based sponge, used to sop up the sambar, on my first trip to India, where they served it at the Hindu monastery (ashram) that hosted the meditation retreat that I was attending in 2001.

So I just had to deal with the reality of the hospitality that my hosts, for what was becoming a four day speaking tour in Chennai, were able to provide. I had offered to teach a two day seminar, give a dinner talk to my fellow members of our international engineering society, and a lecture to the engineering students at the local university.  I ended up also giving a longer version of the dinner talk at two private companies, and another presentation to some eleventh graders, entitled “Is a Career in Materials Engineering Right for Me?” I wasn’t charging a speaking or teaching fee, but I thought it was reasonable to ask them to cover my expenses for the four days that I’d be visiting them. They agreed, but were concerned about the budget. It all worked out. I was back to normal food after buying myself four days of temptations at the Radisson Blu buffets.

Back home after a month in India, I feel more spiritually attached to the people and place than ever. After twenty years of trying to get traction exploring new ideas of how engineers can embrace critical and creative thinking, or what I’ve started to call “cultivating clarity,” I am lucky to have developed a small group of local, American people, who appreciate my creative approach to critical thinking. But each of the two Indian companies that invited me to the give the “Thinking Skill Optimization” talk had 85+ people attend. And they participated. And their managers thanked me in unique ways that allowed me to see that they were also paying attention. My new friend Prasad told me “You have gotten pretty close to giving a method for developing intuition.”

Yes, that’s right. And it was very interesting to me that someone who lives in the land of the longest lasting collective consciousness, the very source of intuition, understood that to be a major part of my approach. Of course many engineers would not be attracted to a class on developing their intuition, and even if they were, I imagine they’d have a hard time convincing their bosses to cover the costs to attend. It sure is useful to have a way to calibrate intuition though. When effective, it’s a lot faster and easier than calculations and analysis.

Thinking about it further, I am just realizing how unusual it was that both managers attended the training with their employees. How often does that happen in the USA? Most American managers think that the only thing they need to know how to do is balance a budget.

I think there is more to the success of the contribution of Indian industry to the global economy than low wages.