One week into Sangam House

I have been at Sangam House for a week now, and since I am avoiding Facebook updates for this time, I thought a blog post was due. It feels like so much longer than a week, though — not in the "this is all so slow and boring" sense, but rather in the "you mean I haven't known these people all my life?" sense. Everything about being here — the place, the people, the food, the dogs — has been magic. I came here feeling completely daunted by the task of pulling together any sort of manuscript... one week in, I have already completed two solid drafts of my manuscript, figured out a lot of the hardest stuff around sectioning and organizing, and come to a clear sense of what my next steps are — for this manuscript, and for at least 2 other writing projects. Just as importantly, it has been a week of so much laughter, so many stories, so much incredible conversation, and so many new friendships that it is hard to believe it has only been a week. Turns out the Sangam House isn't only what my writing needed; it's what my life needed just now.

I will admit, though, that today is an odd day to be here. I awoke this morning to the realization that today is December 2nd — less than a week away from the wedding (in Delhi) of one of my closest friends from high school. It would be odd enough to be here rather than there for that wedding. But it's so much odder because, as the universe would have it, he is getting married on the death anniversary of one of my closest friends from college. December 8 on my calendar is a day of quiet, of remembering. I don't know how to process it also as a day of the celebration and the noise that is an Indian wedding. I simply can't seem to reconcile the two. And how much odder still to be here, on this gorgeous little island away from all of the rest of my life, surrounded by people I thoroughly enjoy but who are unfamiliar with both of those parts of my life, during this week. I can sense I'm going to learn something important over the next few days, but I'm not yet sure what that will be.

In happier news, I was able to bake brownies for everyone in a pressure cooker yesterday! Move over, ovens, a whole new world just opened up to me! :)

Reflections from a Train Window

After another couple of months being MIA, I’m sitting here at the ant cafe in Bangalore, desperately trying to feel like a writer again before I start my residency at Sangam House tomorrow. It has been a strange few weeks, the kind that disappear on you without a trace, since I finished my last round of workshops in the beginning of October. I was traveling for a few weeks, and sick for the rest, and then hosting one of my closest friends on a 10 day layover in Delhi on her way to Afghanistan. Somewhere in the middle, I was facilitating research writing and reflective writing workshops, tutoring, and doing research towards a dream consultancy project that I will begin in January. All wonderful stuff (except the being sick!), but all time consuming enough for me not to find enough time for the blog, or for writing in general. So I opted to take the train rather than fly into Bangalore. Over the 36 hours, I slept a lot and read a lot. I also stared out of the window a lot (and I have to say, as ways to spend a day go, staring out of windows is grossly underrated!). Somewhere in the middle of all that, i started returning to a space inside me that is quieter than the hecticness of the last few months, and I reached Bangalore equally exhausted and refreshed.

I spent the day today at the home of my oldest friend; after a quick morning chat and breakfast, he left for work, and I slept in, ate lunch, slept some more -- pretty much until I got out here to read and write. Every time I meet friends like him, I am struck with joy and gratitude at the effortlessness of these old friendships... at the way in which we can make each other’s homes our own, at the fact that time away doesn’t matter.

While staring out of the train window, I was thinking similarly about another friend from long ago. Over 12-13 years of our friendship, he’s grown into more and more of a close friend, and on that train ride, as I recalled a joke another friend made recently about this friendship, I grew suddenly, intensely grateful. Somehow, who knows how, over more than a decade of not living in the same city or, for the most part, even in the same country, we have become such solid presences in each other’s life. Somehow our love for each other has grown absolute and dependable in such a way that I don’t know who I am without that friendship.

The more I think about one person in my life in all these ways, the more people come to mind who are just as special in different ways. And the more my heart fills with appreciation for all of them.

Here’s the funny thing: this year is the first year in the last decade when I haven’t been aware of the date for Thanksgiving in the USA. I used to have a mish-mash of holiday calendars from around the world that I commemorated because those individual rituals and moments with friends had come to mean something to me that went beyond their historical of cultural significance... this has been the first year that Thanksgiving slipped off that calendar (partly because of the craziness, but mostly because I guess that part of my life has slipped off my immediate radar). And yet, this year is the one where I organically slipped into a sense of deep gratitude at approximately the same time that my friends across the world were carving their Turkeys or Tofurkeys and saying their prayers of gratitude. Maybe that part of my life has only slipped off my conscious radar.

So, going into the 3 intense weeks or writers’ residency to come, I’m grateful. For this opportunity to become the writer I haven’t yet been able to be. And more than that, for a beautiful, strong, and loving community that I know is mine regardless of the writer, or anything else, that I am.

Writing and Community

  A few months ago, I blogged about my Spiti adventures and what I learned there about the my own relationship to both solitude and community — about learning that the two aren't really opposite ends of a spectrum. Over the last week or two, I've been thinking again about the relationship between the two, but this time in the context of writing.

Two years ago, while I was in graduate school, I would have laughed at anyone who told me I would miss the MFA community. Not because I didn't like that community, don't get me wrong, but simply because I had been so saturated with poets and poetry that I was craving something else, anything else. In moving out of Bronxville and into NYC, then throwing myself into my various jobs in the more social change-y space there, but still going up to college two or three times a week for poems, I found a balance. But yes, I admit I prized college more for craft-based learning and the conversations with professors (especially my super-awesome thesis advisor) than for the rest of the MFA community. Maybe prized is the wrong word; maybe it's simply that I took the writing community aspect for granted because it was everywhere.

Also because I never fully felt like I belonged in it — I still struggle to identify myself as a "poet" (because it's only one of so many things I am, and because people read more weirdness into that than I ever intended to pack into it!). Consciously or unconsciously, so much about who I am becoming is about breaking out of categories and boxes — just when you think you've finally wrapped your mind around who I am and what i care about, I want to spring out of that box and surprise you...  just when I think I've finally wrapped my mind around who I am and what i care about, I want to spring out of that box and surprise myself. That's become the most fun part of being who I am!

And recently, I have surprised myself by how much I miss having a community of writers. I don't mean a critique group — I do still exchange and critique manuscripts with friends from various writerly spaces, and while it would be lovely to have more of that in physical proximity, right now, I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about being part of a community of writers. About a group of people who care about, work with and enjoy talking about words — a group of people alongside whom I can read and laugh and spend hours talking about a favorite poem or about the etymology of my favorite word or about a metaphor I just used but don't fully understand myself. A group of people who understand the frustration of a misplaced comma and the exhilaration of getting into the backseat of a character's life and letting that character drive you wherever they choose. it isn't so much about what we give each other's writing as it is about being able to share this thing that we love so much — perhaps so differently, but still so much. Whatever else my MFA community was or wasn't, this it was, and this I miss about it.

Which is part of why I'm very excited to announce that I will be spending three weeks in residence with five other writers from around the world at Sangam House this winter. I'm looking forward to the focused time to write and edit and pull together a manuscript from all the disparate poems lying in various online folders and paper scraps (yes, I said it. I'm working on pulling together a manuscript. Eek). But perhaps even more than that, I'm looking forward to three weeks of being part of a community of writers again... of early morning walks and late evening conversations about words, our love for them, and the ways in which we tame them and are tamed by them.

I've never fully bought that whole "solitary profession" thing people are always saying about the work of the writer, and now, I'm looking forward to conversations and cross-linkages that breathe new life into my words. You shall hear more about all of that in a few months, and perhaps about some other kinds of interesting writing-and-community things in the offing before that.

For now, I just remember what K. Srilata told me about her experience of Sangam House: "For once, I felt like I was walking on the right side of the road." As statements about the role of a writing community go, that pretty much sums up everything I'm hoping for.

 

India and Feminism

A few months ago, in one of those random encounters where you happen to be sharing a bench with a stranger while waiting for something and end up talking, I met a guy from the USA who had been living in India for a year, and before that Turkey for another year, and before that many other places around the world. He was here as a fellow for the one of those bog money foundations, and I met him in an NGO context, but he definitely wasn't your stereotypical "NGO dude." He was a lot of fun to talk to — don't get me wrong — and I think he pretended to be less compassionate than he was when he talked about rural life, and perhaps he didn't really mean it when he told me he was cutting short his work here and returning home to the USA because he needed to eat lots of beef and pick up women at bars (Then again, maybe he did mean it — the organization he was working with was really not a great or very meaningful workplace at all, and when you have nothing in particular holding you to a place, a really random thing like that can be your pull away from the place... and who am I to judge what people miss?) At any rate, that isn't the point. As we were chatting, he told me "I was never a feminist growing up. Turkey made me a feminist. India is making me a stark raving feminist." In particular, he told me how he couldn't get over the fact that he had drunk hundreds of cups of tea made by women whose faces he would never be allowed to see, and in general, we talked about Delhi and how difficult it could be for his female colleagues and also for him because of how women in the city generally imagine and respond to strange men. It was a conversation I've had many times, in many contexts, and with many people. But that thought in particular "I was never a feminist... India is making me a stark raving feminist" stood out and stayed with me.

Perhaps because I'm feeling a little bit of that myself and discovering it everywhere around me lately. I'm not going to get into a rant about safety and molestation ont he streets and things like that — all of that is important, and you've probably heard all of that already. But I do want to share this absurd and incredibly scary day in court for a victim of domestic violence, seeing as the news simply doesn't seem to be covering this enough (I'm still trying to figure out why this didn't get the kind of mad news coverage that the Tehelka expose on the cops did — is it because he is a judge? Or is it more?).

A victim of domestic violence approached the Karnataka High Court seeking divorce, and the judge told her:

“Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman. Yesterday, there was a techie couple who reconciled for the sake of their child. Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you. Why are you still talking about his beatings?" 

The article goes on:

"The woman, who had come with her younger son, stuck to her stand of not going with her husband. Upon this, Justice Bhaktavatsala told the man to take his her and their son out for lunch. “Take them and eat Davanagere benne dose. Everything will be alright,” he advised. The court asked the woman if her parents were present, at which her father walked up to the bench. The judge remarked, “Ask your father if he has never beaten your mother!” When the woman said her husband would beat her in the open, in front of everyone, Justice Bhaktavatsala remarked that it was she who was bringing it out in the open. The court was told that the husband would beat her in the middle of the night and had thrown her out of the house. Justice Indrakala said their child was in court and should not have to hear about it."
And on. You can read the rest of it at this link
I don't know what to say about any of this. I cannot put words to the anger and outrage and plain old bewilderment. Really? Go eat dosa and everything will be all right? Really?
But today, even as I am thinking about this kind of blatant injustice and violence that women in my country and city deal with on an everyday basis, I am also thinking about all of the feminist spaces I have encountered in Delhi over the last few years. Spaces like the Zubaan Talkies are, of course, statedly feminist and completely wonderful, but there are also so many others. Many of these aren't activist spaces in the traditional sense of the word, simply spaces that women are creating — with or without the support of male allies — and using to create community, support voice, and come together as strong and independent individuals. I have, even just in the last year, met several wonderful and inspiring women in their 40s and 50s, with whom I've felt an instant connection and a sense of reassurance... a sense that I can veer off the traditional womanly paths and roles, or stay within them, or take a more midway stance in that spectrum, and still build a beautiful and meaningful personal and professional life.
Women's groups have stood up to fight for justice for this survivor of violence. My thoughts and prayers and petition signing will always be with them, and with her, and I hope that we can figure out a mechanism to make our judiciary accountable and responsible in such situations.
But just as importantly, the amazing women whom I am getting a chance to talk to and work with and learn from are showing me that while protests and lobbying for specific legislations are an important part of feminism, they are not its only face... that we, as women, can challenge patriarchy daily through using our voices, following our dreams and working in solidarity. That we can challenge oppression with our laughter.I'm curious to see where the next few decades take our cities and country... which way this balance tips.

The grass is pretty darn green on my side of the fence

As the annual deadline for the Rayaprol prize rolls around, I can’t help but think back to a year ago and marvel at how far my life has come in a short amount of time. Even 8 months ago, I was home after a couple of years away, in the midst of several painful surgeries and scary moments of wondering how much of my eyesight was coming back to me, in shock and mourning too many sudden deaths, and unemployed thanks to said surgeries. I hadn’t yet published a single poem, and while this wasn’t disturbing to me (it couldn’t be -- i hadn’t yet sent out any poems for publication!), it definitely didn’t help in terms of feeling part of any writing community in India. In general, I was rootless and community-less in Delhi, unsure where to begin the process of rebuilding, and frankly, too exhausted to try. Today, I cannot believe how recent that was. Today, I have more work than I can take on, 14 poems published or soon-to-be-published, and at least a few close friends and several new acquaintances in Delhi. I can see again, perhaps better than ever. I am starting to feel part of a real writing community as well as several other communities in Delhi. I am discovering worlds within worlds in my city and falling in love with it, over and over. I have a beautiful home, garden, and home-office. I have the freedom to work from home most of the time, do work I absolutely love (even when I hate it!), and the freedom to set my own schedules and take off for a month of travel when I feel like it.

So, when I was recently in a group where someone remarked (someone always remarks) that everyone thinks the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, I was only a little surprised to find myself telling her, “actually, I love my side of the fence -- this grass is as green as I could ask for.” My surprise wasn’t about the fact that I felt this way, just about the fact that I was saying it out loud. In their uncomfortable laughs that followed, I realized that we have somehow built a world where someone admitting to loving and feeling grateful for her life comes across as arrogant or boastful -- if you’re complaining, you’re humble and we are all in the same boat, but if you’re grateful, you’re boasting. For me, this was not a boast. It was simply a shout of gratitude to the universe for all the amazing things that have happened for me over this past year. When did gratitude become so unfashionable?

Of course, this is not to say that everything is a cakewalk. It isn’t. Over this past week, more than once, I’ve felt utterly swamped and overwhelmed with all the things I’m juggling right now, both in terms of things to do and in terms of ideas and possibilities. Today, I got so tired of not doing enough work at home that I came to a cafe to spend a straight 6-7 hours sitting at my computer and hopefully ploughing through enough of this workload to feel better about the next few weeks. Not all of that work is fun -- some is, and some is utterly boring.

But when the woman I mentioned made that remark about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, I realized that I couldn’t imagine or ask for a greener pasture than what I have. Even green pastures need tending and maintaining and effort, and sometimes more tending and effort than one feels ready to put in, but that doesn’t make them less green. I love challenge, and I love that this pasture currently needs more tending than I am capable of; it isn’t easy, but I’m enjoying pushing my limits to accommodate its needs, and also the process of learning what is worth accommodating and which portions I’m okay with allowing to grow wild.

Every time I have sat down to chant over the last several days, even when I think I’m sitting down feeling overwhelmed, I find my only prayer is a prayer of gratitude. I’m not going to apologize for that, and I’m certainly not going to pretend to hate my life when I love it deeply. If that makes me unfashionable, then hey, I walk around everywhere in bright orange slippers -- I can deal with unfashionable! ;)

I'm going to be the most eclectic 40 year old you know

Now that I have been out of school for a year (again), and now that I have managed a work schedule that leaves me a fair bit of time for a life, I'm discovering something about myself. I really love learning. And my life feels like a real drag when I'm not learning something new. Until May, I had my Spanish diploma exam to study for, but now that that's done too (did I mention I now have a Nivel C1 diploma from the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Education?), I needed to find something new to learn. Last week, I actually browsed listings of random classes in Delhi, looking for something new I could learn. And while the classes led me nowhere (either not interesting enough or far too expensive!), I realized in the process how many things I'm starting to pick up during this almost-but-not-quite gap year.

(Seriously, Aditi? Gap Year? Time to start thinking of yourself as a professional at the start of a real career, rather than someone "in between things"... no?)

No. I don't want to become stodgy. And in order not to do that, I need to stay a student, in addition to whatever else I'm doing. Plus, between an awesome LIberal Arts education (that teaches you, above all, how to learn), 3 library memberships, and the incredible tool called the internet, learning's become so easy that it's kinda irresistible!

In any case, this whole entrepreneurial thing is demanding some serious learning. Did I mention that, as a freelancer, I need to figure out double bookkeeping? Fortunately, my mother is a whiz with all things financial, and as I start doing it, I realize it's easier than I'd anticipated. But Step 2 and 3 of this Mom's teaching, apparently, involve understanding mutual funds and dividends — I'm sure I can figure this out eventually, but who'd have thought that deciding to teach writing freelance would also mean learning accounts?

Speaking of things I've picked up by-the-way, along-the-way on this whole writing workshop thing: baking! I'd never baked anything since the cake that failed when I was twelve, and then I decided that my workshops needed homemade brownies, and so I started baking brownies, and that gave me the confidence to do a chocolate cake and a banana walnut loaf, and then a friend came home and taught me how to bake a basic wholewheat bread, and then I decided to try a focaccia... and can you see where this is going?

Gardening, of course. That's been on a bit of a hold over this summer (sorry, I love plants, but not enough to stand outside in the Delhi summer a minute longer than I absolutely have to!), but my basil and lemongrass are just doing such amazing things on my herb spiral (did I mention that one basil sapling has become 5 full grown plants and another couple of saplings?!) that I'm inspired to return to the garden just as soon as this heat dies down a little.

And then there are the other things. Photography, I already mentioned (I finally invested in a good camera, and I'm really enjoying playing with aperture and shutter speeds and looking forward to start learning about post-processing as well!). And as soon as the repair work and re-plumbing in our courtyard/ driveway is done, hopefully by October or so, I am still planning on getting my own pottery wheel and continuing that learning journey with my absolute favorite non-verbal art form.

But my newest, favoritest hobby is my city, Delhi. I've always loved the history and layers of this city, and now that I feel pretty comfortable with the basic Hauz Khas village, Jama Masjid/ Old Delhi, Lodhi gardens etc tourist tracks, I'm getting excited about venturing further and deeper into this city. Partly, this may be coming from the fact that I'm reading City of Djinns (and have 3 other books about Delhi's history lined up for when I finish this one!), but largely, it's coming from a sense of grounding and joy that I find in walking about and getting to know this city that is mine and not mine at the same time... that is so many cities rolled into one.

As part of this adventure, I took a group of friends/ friends of friends for an iftar walk through Old Delhi last weekend. I had done an organized street food walk during Ramazan last year, and then gone on another one with my mother and brother during which we explored a little further — add to that some quick articles on the internet, and suddenly there's more places to visit and eat awesome street food than you can do justice to!

My favorite part about this walk, though, was the hour or so we spent at Jama Masjid before the call for iftar, just hanging around, sitting amongst all the families who were there waiting for sunset. As we were getting up and getting ready to leave, a young man, probably in his early twenties, walked up to me and said something that I didn't quite understand. I'm not proud to say that I ignored him at first (sorry, guys, but as a woman growing up in Delhi, that becomes your instinct when a man you don't know comes up to you and makes a remark you don't fully hear). In a moment, though, something told me I had misunderstood, and I turned to face and smile at him. He was holding out two bananas, wearing a smile that was mostly welcoming and slightly apologetic — "it's all I can offer you all," he told me. It took half a moment for me to realize what was going on — he had seen us enjoying the masjid (rather than just rushing through it after clicking some photos, like many tourists do), and he was offering us a part of the meal his family had brought for iftar. My smile widened and I thanked him deeply; he smiled back and left to go join his family again.

In that brief moment, in that brief action, this stranger welcomed me into a world that I find beautiful but don't feel like I belong in. It was one of those classic moments that our silly "unity in diversity" textbook chapters would have loved — he knew I wasn't from his world, and he knew that I may never be part of his world, but in the moment that we were sharing, he wanted me to know I was welcome.

I'm going to treat that as a working definition of a great teacher — that ability to welcome people into worlds that aren't theirs, to give from the world that is yours. And I hope it's going to keep me exploring and learning and giving.

Let's talk in a decade or so and see where all this takes me! ;)

Blogging about blogging

This week, I attended a wonderful talk at The Attic by Ritu Menon, co-founder of India's first feminist publishing house, and a wonderful writer and speaker in her own right. This talk was called Who Am I? Autobiography, Memoir, Blog -- and How Women Write Them, and dealt mostly with issues of concealment and revelation and how various women writers have navigated that tricky public-private line. It was a great talk at many levels, and I don't feel equipped to go into all of them here, but the sections on the blog in particular were fascinating. Specifically, the talk introduced me to two blogs I intend to spend a lot more time on over the next few months — Baghdad Burning and Gaza Mom. The former was written by an anonymous Iraqi woman (well, she refers to herself as a "girl" on the blog, so probably an anonymous young Iraqi woman), who went by the name of riverbend and blogged through the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She disappeared off the blogging map in 2007, and apparently never even encashed the royalty cheques for her book, so no one knows where she is, or even whether she's dead or alive. The latter is a blog by a Gazan mother, blogging about what it means to raise a child while living in the Occupied territories of Palestine. Both blogs are beautifully written and very powerful in very different ways, and the conversation they create goes far beyond either of them.

Having grown up in the Internet generation, I think I'm expected to be fairly blase about the amount and variety of information available to me without my even leaving my desk. I can't be. It blows my mind that I can sit here and access the stories of women living such different lives, through their joy and their pain. Equally that women living those lives are able to reach out to others around the world and share not just their stories but their worldview — advocate, in a sense, for a particular way of looking at the world. The power in there, the potential power of a good writer in these times, is enormous.

And these political blogs are only one kind of blog, of course. While I think that political blogs perform an incredibly important function, I don't think that they are necessarily the most important kind of blog — I think there's just as much value in a lot of other stories, a lot of other moments from different lives, being allowed to interact with each other. That's a new possibility for interaction that has opened up to my generation of writers, and I'm curious to see what we do with it.

Equally, I'm curious about how history will look back at blogs. We know that memoir and autobiographies are part of the staple diet of historians, but suddenly, a whole other level of richness gets added to what future historians can access through blog archives — if the archives survive long enough, of course! Can you imagine running into pages and pages of writing, however poorly written or edited, by a nurse in the American Civil War, or a homemaker and mother during the Indian independence movement, or soldier returning from the first battle of the Ruse-Japanese war? 22nd century historians could have hundreds and thousands of such resources, such glimpses into our everyday lives. The idea gives me goosebumps.

I think we start out assuming blogs to be more transient than books, but I wonder if they may not be more permanent in some ways... books go out of print pretty quickly, but maybe these words will stick around?

A Prayer for Bodoland

If you're in India and cast even a cursory glance at the news, you know that Assam — specifically, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) in Assam — has witnessed a sudden explosion of violence, with some 40 death and over a lakh people displaced over the course of just a few days. There's a lot of back and forth about the exact cause for this outbreak, which is of course only the most recent outbreak in a protracted conflict spanning decades. A quick Google-news search for "Bodoland" will throw up lots of articles and opinion pieces: this article in this morning's paper moved me to tears and this piece, Violence in Assam Has Deep Roots, on the NY times blog seems to me like a good summary of what came before. I'm not going to say a more about causes and effects and possible solutions because, frankly, I don't know enough. I am trying to take the time to read and listen and learn, but until I know more, I'll stay clear of commenting on all that. And if you are reading this and do know more about the Bodo conflict and feel that this post is one-sided or misinformed, I apologize. I'm writing only from my brief firsthand experience of this part of the country and from the stories I heard there. This is not a journalistic account; it is a personal one.

More personally, though, the news has been breaking my heart, over and over. I spent a week in Bodoland three years ago, and while that isn't much, it was enough to gain this part of the world a very special place in my heart. I have believed for some time that we fall in love with certain places not for the place itself as much as for who we are in that place. Some of this has to do with the people one shares that place with, and some with what we learn there. In April 2009, my visit to Bodoland became the most memorable span of time I have spent in rural India. Weavers at Aagor, the women's cooperative supported by the ant

I was visiting the ant, a grassroots organization run by a wonderful couple who have been working in the area on issues of health, livelihoods, women's empowerment, and improving access to government schemes such as NREGA, the rural health mission, etc. I was there to plan for teenagers in the North East, which I was coordinating on behalf of my former workplace, in partnership with the ant and another organization in Assam. During the few days I spent there, I met with local schoolteachers, talked to young people leading peace initiatives, sat in on a training meeting of various organizations from all over NE India, chatted a little with women from the weaver's cooperative supported by the ant, spent a lot of time talking to Jenny (the half of aforementioned wonderful couple) and playing with her daughter, and visited outlying villages that have no access to electricity, piped water, or even roads during the rainy season. I remember those 4-5 days as being filled with fun and learning in equal parts.

In the span of this blog post, I can only briefly tell you about some of the things that have stayed with me from that trip, and I'll start with what had taken me there — the program for teenagers. In short, the program we were working on sought to recognize and celebrate young people (13-19) across the NE who were leading their own social change initiatives. Despite circulating the application form to many schools and organizations, we hadn't received a single application from the Bodo region, and we decided that the only way to find out why was to go talk to the schools. The teachers we spoke to began with what most teachers I have met (unfortunately!) begin with — telling us that their students don't engage with the world. Once we penetrated that layer of apathy, though, I was given a brief, quick, and all-important lesson in context.

In an outlying villageOne teacher told me that he strongly discouraged children from taking part in such activities or doing anything that would develop what we in the cities would call "leadership qualities." His reasoning was simple: if a child in this region is seen as a leader, he or she will immediately become the target of recruitment by the extremist groups in the region, and simultaneously the target of suspicion by the security forces. In their own best own interest, students are encouraged to keep a low profile.

It made perfect sense, and it shook me deeply. It brought the basic assumptions of the program I was organizing into question, pushed us to re-evaluate and rebuild from the ground up (not simply "contextualize" as a cosmetic measure). It was my first experience taking a program designed in one context into another, radically different one, and its lessons will stay with me always.

There were other new learnings, things I had never thought about. Like, for example, what years of protracted conflict do to a community's art and literature. At some point during the Bodo movement — I've forgotten the exact date, but let's say in the 80s — the Assamese script, in which the Bodo language was until then written, was ejected and replaced by the Devnagri (Hindi) script (and, apparently, the missionaries in the region often used the Roman script, which I saw some students writing in as well). It sounds like a small change, but think what that does to all Bodo literature (and there was a fair amount of it!). Suddenly, the children growing up in the region cannot access the stories or books written by the previous generation, and chunks of their culture become alien to them. There is very little reading material other than school textbooks, and again, you can imagine what that does to the already poor educational systems. As a writer, and as someone fascinated by oral history, this singular aspect of the Bodo crisis has stayed with me most deeply. At some point in my life, I want to go back there and do oral history work... in a region where a question as simple as "what games did you play in your childhood?" has become a political question, the recording of soon-unreadable stories will be crucial.

I also met a group of young people — mostly in their late 20s, although no one was sure of their ages — there who had just started playing traditional Bodo music. They told me about how their music had completely died during the decade of violence, about how none of them even knew how to make the traditional instruments any longer. They told me about finding one older person who did remember those instruments and was willing to teach the younger boys how to make and play them... about founding their own band and starting to play their community's music again. In that year's Bihu festival, there was going to be live music in the villages after more than a decade. The thought still gives me goosebumps.

There are other stories too — stories I'd rather not tell, or stories that I will not tell out of respect for the privacy and safety of the people who told them to me. Besides, those are the stories you're hearing in the news anyway... this blog post is only my small way of expanding the stories you hear and the picture you create of this beautiful, troubled part of the country. It is only an attempt to say, "look, and then there is this."

As the region lapses back into what hopefully will not become another protracted violent conflict, and as their society undergoes another major upheaval and refugee crisis, do spare a thought or a prayer for the wonderful, warm-hearted people behind the statistics the newspaper will throw at you.

An Alternative Guide to Tabo

If the monastery at Tabo is a checkmark on your to-do list, listen to the guides, and go there at 9 AM, when the gods are ready to meet the tourists. If you want to catch the gods when they are more at ease, ignore your guide, and go there at sunset. The temples will be locked, sure, but the gods are around, relaxing after a long day of meeting with pilgrims and tourists. They have time to chat.

It doesn’t matter if this is your first day in Tabo; you can’t not find the gorgeous mud structures. There is no way not to notice the piles of engraved rocks — no way not to know that this spot, with its broken wall and open gate, is sacred.

Once inside, close your eyes. Listen to the river gurgling in the distance, the birds who know to keep their chatter to a respectful volume. Open your eyes, and watch the mud temples and walls against the crystal sky. Watch the sky tracing the outlines of the larger mud walls, the mountains in the distance. Breathe in the prayers of a millennium.

That might be the most important thing — breathe deeply. You will need that air later.

If you are there to ask the gods for favors, I won’t promise that they will answer. They are off duty (would you pick up a client’s call at midnight?). But if you are there for conversation, there to listen to the secrets they have been keeping for a thousand years, there for friendship rather than for favors, I’m willing to bet you will not be disappointed.

The locals tell me that one must walk clockwise through this monastery. I trust them on that — you probably should too. All the same, the first time I went in, no one had told me yet to move clockwise, and so I didn’t. I moved from structure to structure, as they called out to me, beckoned me over. I ran my hands over the engravings on the doors, and I sat down to write outside the temple of the mother goddess. I had my back to her, and I wondered briefly how she felt about that, but ultimately, she didn’t seem to care. She knew I meant no disrespect. I was there for love, for friendship, and I think she understood that. I think that meant more to her than did the direction in which I walked or faced.

As you walk out, stop by the shops. The shopkeepers, who have been just as busy with tourists all day as the gods have been, have time to talk in the evening. Let them tell you about what brought them to this town — or what leads them away from this town every winter and brings them back every spring. Let them tell you about another god and where you can meet him, April to October, for a week at a time (it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to meet him — it’s good to know anyway). Let one of them invite you home for tea or sell you a scarf for your mother. Let them explain to you the flags that tourists will buy. Let them give you the stories that cannot be bought.

Walk to the river. Get lost. Let a farmer tell you which way to go, allow you a shortcut through her fields. Let yourself get more lost in those fields when she disappears before you’ve found your way. Accept the slosh of your shoes wading through just-irrigated fields. Stretch your arms into a T, learn to balance on the narrow raised ledges crisscrossing through the fields. Find your way through the barbed wire, back at the mud structures.

Go into the monastery one more time. If you’re lucky, it is now dark enough for the stars. If you’re really lucky, there is no moon, and the stars have free reign of this particular night. Walk through the monastery again, this time by starlight. Walk silently — the gods are probably asleep, and so is most of the town.

Relish being awake and alive amongst resting gods. It may be the closest you ever come to godness.

What the last three years taught me about grief

When I finished my MFA around this time last year and was getting ready to leave New York, one of my closest friends from graduate school said something to me to this effect: "I just realized, for the entire time that I have known you, you have been grieving. I don't know who you are when you are not grieving. What a couple of years, huh?" And he was right — I lost my grandfather during my first couple of weeks of graduate school, lost one of my closest friends in my third semester, and lost my uncle a few weeks before graduation. And there were a bunch of almost-losses thrown in there too... moments when the doctors gave up on someone I loved, and then that person miraculously made a comeback a month later... that kind of thing, not deaths (not at that moment anyway) but still fairly traumatic. I had lost my other grandfather a couple of years before, and I have lost one grandmother and had to put my dog to sleep since. It's been... a lot, shall we say? During this same period, a lot of people around me were also dealing with the loss of people close to them (or maybe I was more tuned into those that were because of my own experiences). In struggling to make sense of my, and their, experiences, I did what I often do in such situations —I read, and I wrote.

I read about the five stages. I read articles about how different cultures deal with grief. I read poems about death and the dead. I read memoirs about bereavement. I read more than I ever had before about the Buddhist view of death, learned to begin to trust the belief system that means everything to me in life when it came to questions about death.

I wrote my own poems, letters, elegies. I drew mindmaps and memory maps. I wrote and mailed poems to friends who were grieving, even if for someone else, convinced we could help each heal in ways we couldn't do alone (this was before I read some of the cultural stuff about grief, understood how some things that are intrinsically a community experience for me are a deeply individual experience for some of my Western friends, and learned to back off around them).

And I started to find some clarity within my confusion, some acceptance of confusion. I am finally in a place where I can look back... and today, as I learned of someone I love deeply losing someone he loved deeply, I needed to look back.

1.

Grief is circular. The wikipedia version of the five-stages-of-grief theory... I don't buy it. As if one starts at denial and ends at acceptance, and anger, bargaining, depression are steps along the way. Grief isn't linear like that. Grief, as I've known it, tends to bounce around a lot more — anger to denial to acceptance to longing to love to depression to anger to acceptance to forgetting to depression to love. Something like that.

2.

There are other completely different emotions that are part of the experience of grief. Like longing for a particular flavor of coffee that we used to share. Like laughter. Like bewilderment at reaching the first anniversary. Like a fear of forgetting. Like forgetting that the person is actually gone, not-coming-back-kind-of-gone (no, this isn't denial. Long after one knows that the person is gone, one sometimes just forgets it. Maybe this is particularly true of people who weren't an everyday part of one's life anyway, like a close friend who lived in another country — it's easy to forget that, although I haven't heard from several others in a long time too, theirs is because they're bad at keeping in touch, and hers is for a different reason).

3.

Out of everything I read, Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking" made the most sense, resonated the most deeply. Something about its rawness, its honesty, its vulnerability, its disjointedness. Yes, above all, its disjointedness. The absence of order, that made sense as I thought about grief.

4.

Speaking of Joan Didion's memoir, this:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.

In fact the apprehension that our life together will decreasingly become the center of my every day seemed today on Lexington Avenue so distinct a betrayal that I lost all sense of oncoming traffic.” — Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

5.

Every death is sudden

it doesnt matter how many years the person was sick. It doesn’t matter if we’d known there was no hope. it doesn’t matter if they had been unconscious for weeks. Ultimately, that moment — now they’re breathing, now they’re not — is always a moment. It’s always sudden.

6.

People want to avert their eyes not just from death but also from grief. Close friends, who could tell each other everything, suddenly feel a wall. I don’t want to bog them down, I don’t want to remind them. As if they could forget. As if we don’t both know that we both wake up to that knowledge each day.

I learned over the last three years to reach out to people when they were grieving and let them know they were loved and that I was there if they needed anything. And I learned, just as importantly, not to be offended by their refusal to let me be there.

7.

I learned that mourning demands time and energy — a lot of time and energy. Again, Didion talks about this idea, that "grief is passive but mourning — the act of dealing with grief — needs to be active."

Paul taught me that. When I told him about M's death and how none of our mutual friends were in the same city — or even on the same coast — at the time, he pushed me to organize a memorial. When I protested that not everyone would be able to make it, he told me that people would appreciate even the ability to say they can't be there. He told me to take the time to acknowledge that my life had changed in an important, even if invisible at the time, way. When I did organize the memorial along with a couple of other friends at our college alumni reunion 6 months later, I finally understood what  he was talking about

8.

It doesn't end — not really. You think you're at "acceptance" and "moving on," and then a package gets lost in the mail, and the helplessness of losing something suddenly, for some reason, reminds you of the helplessness of losing someone, and you are bawling into your pillow in the middle of the night and not moving on at all.

9.

That bawling into the pillow in the middle of the night? It is part of moving on.

10.

Perhaps most importantly, and only a very recent discovery: it is possible to come back to oneself afterward. In the last three or four months, I have finally come back to myself... not to the self I used to be, of course, but to a new self, a self I recognize and enjoy. It took a while, but I'm there.

Maybe it's time for a reunion with said friend from graduate school:

Here you are, now. This is who I am.