Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Saturday in Mumbai

Bal Thackeray died in Mumbai at 3:30pm on 17 November.  A dozen kilometers north, Swami Kriyananda's discourse began at 5:00.  It made for an interesting combination.  

Bal Thackeray was 86 years old and had been the
"Godfather" of Mumbai politics for forty years, and though unelected to any office, he held Mumbai in his hand.  He was the city's uncrowned king, able to shut it down on a whim, the person to whom politicians, movie moguls, and tycoons paid homage.  Because of him, Bombay became Mumbai and it was he who inflamed nativist anger against "outsiders" coming to the city to "steal" jobs from the sons of Maharashtra.   He aimed his anger first at the Gujaratis and of late, against the Biharis.  In between, it was the Muslims, contributing to the vicious riots in the 1990's.  It was he who pointed the way for his loyal Shiv Sena (army) to follow and do his bidding.  He went unchallenged until Yama came calling.  

Last March upon leaving India, Swami Kriyananda indicated his wish to return later in the year to do a series of lectures in India's major cities.  He had done a very successful one in Mumbai the previous December and it was natural for us to put Mumbai high on the list of places where he would speak.  Working with local Sangha members, we booked Bhaidas Hall, a nice auditorium of 1100 seats for an early evening event on 17 November.  The JW Marriott, a very nice hotel in which Swami could stay, was close by in the Juhu district.  

Filling a big hall is no small undertaking.  Lots of promotion and preliminary classes are needed to attract students, flyers must be printed, buses organized, a stage decorated, audio and video must be coordinated, and all sorts of other logistics attended to.  Over the months leading up to the event, local Sangha members worked extremely hard, doing a fantastic job organizing all the details. Our budget was far less this year than last and we had to make every rupee count if we wanted a crowd to come.  Almost always, there is a bit of chaos at the end as loose ends are tied, but by and large, everything went great and all was ready for Swami's discourse on Saturday.

A group of us drove Swami to Mumbai on Thursday, arriving in the afternoon. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message telling me of a rumor going around the city that Bal Thackeray had died.  Oh oh!  If true, the city would shut down on Friday and possibly for the weekend.  For us, that would be a disaster.  There is a tradition to close up shop when a "big man" like Thackeray goes and it was certain the Shiv Sena would force every shop, vendor and wallah in the city to suspend business, including Bhaidas Hall.  

I immediately checked the internet and started asking if the rumors were true.  The word came, "No, the rumors of his passing are not true!"  The officials who said he had died retracted their statements and claimed he was only gravely ill but getting better, but the text messages continued, saying he had actually died and the government wanted to delay announcing his passing so as not to stop business until the weekend.  Money comes first in Mumbai. It was conspiracy theory at its best.  Whatever the case, we breathed a sigh of relief and prayed for Mr. Thackeray to hang on a little longer if he hadn't already taken his leave.  

Saturday came and by two o'clock, Bhaidas Hall was buzzing. Our preparation team was decorating, setting up tables and arranging displays.  By 4:00 pm, the hall began to fill and the program started on time at 4:30 with a kirtan, fifteen minutes before Swami's arrival. Little did we know that one hour before,  Bal Thackeray's had died and by the time our program began, the news was flashing across a city at a lightning pace.

Swami began speaking at 5:00 pm to an audience of about 750 - 800 people.  I was surprised we hadn't filled the hall but knew from experience that people are often late in India, so I figured it would soon be packed.  Instead, one by one, three or four dozen people slipped out of their seats and left.  The "beep-beep-beep" of incoming text messages was a clue that something was happening.  The audience was distracted and the feeling was flat. Swami gave a great talk but he too could sense something wasn't right and cut his talk short, speaking for only 45 minutes when he almost always goes for an hour.  

What was happening?  When word of Thackeray's death began to circulate, everyone knew the city would close and transportation come to a stop.  Rickshaws would refuse to pick up passengers. Those who received text messages left to catch a ride home as soon as possible to avoid being stranded.  Those who had heard prior to reaching the hall turned home and never came and those who were late, couldn't get into the hall.

As feared, soon after Thackeray's death, members of the Shiv Sena came, demanding of the hall manager he stop the program.  Courageously, he refused, telling the Sena thugs that a spiritual program was in process.  After a bit of haggling, a compromise was reached. In exchange for pulling in the registration tables and closing the gates to late comers, the Sena men didn't interrupt Swami's discourse.  Afterward, Swami was wondering why the audience was so unresponsive and when it was explained to him what had happened he remarked how it was a wonder that so many people had actually come in spite of the situation.  

That evening, after the program, the DGP (Director General of Police) for Mumbai (the top guy in the city) came to meet Swami and offered to personally escort him out of the city the next morning to avoid  any trouble.  True to his word, he came the next day and with red lights flashing, gave Swamiji a police escort to the city's border.  Nayaswami Dhyana and I were scheduled to conduct a followup satsang later that Sunday afternoon but we soon learned it was canceled and we too departed for Pune.  As we exited the city, all streets were deserted and the shops closed. It was the fastest trip across the city I had ever taken. Late Sunday afternoon we reached Pune and it too was completely closed.  

In the days following, thousands of hoardings (billboards) with Thackeray's picture displayed sprang up across the city, one every hundred meters on the main roadways, many of them three or four meters wide.  I imagine they'll stay for some time as who will dare take them down. Thackeray began his career as a political cartoonist and ended up as the most powerful man in Mumbai. Now his son and nephew will fight for control of his political dynasty but I imagine an era has passed and neither will ever rival the power and influence the patriarch once wielded.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A flight from Chennai

Last July I flew from Sacramento to Long Beach, California to visit my brother before catching a flight  to Delhi.  After a one-hour ride, we landed, taxied to the terminal, and the seat belt sign switched off.  A half dozen passengers leisurely stood to retrieve their bags from overhead while the rest of us remained seated, waiting for the door to open. When it did, we exited by rows. I grabbed my things when my turn came and followed the folks ahead of me to the terminal. All very normal; just another summer day in California.

Last week, I wrapped up a workshop in Chennai and flew home to Pune. After a little over an hour flight, the plane landed, taxied to the terminal, stopped, and before the seat belt sign switched off, fifteen of the passengers where on their feet opening the luggage bins.  Moments later, the aisle was packed, shoulder to shoulder, with passengers surging forward, anxiously awaiting the opening of the plane’s door.

I was in a middle seat so I simply waited; the aisle was full but I could feel the fellow by the window next to me getting antsy.  The door was still closed yet he could hardly contain himself and began to crawl over me to force his way into the crowd.  I blocked him with my arm and simply said with a smile, “Let’s all wait for our turn. OK?”  He sheepishly sat back down.  As the seats ahead emptied, we were able to stand and go.  My seatmate, right behind me, hurried to the baggage carousel, there to await the eventual arrival of his luggage.   

I’ve seen this scene played out again and again and never stop wondering, “Why?”  Where does the compulsion to hurry and push from one spot to the next come from, especially when one must simply wait some more at the next place.  There is a rush to get off the plane only to stand and wait for a bus to the terminal, jostling to get on the bus and then a rush to the baggage claim to wait some more.  I could understand if one had a need to catch a connecting flight, maybe meet someone waiting outside or if by pushing ahead, something useful is accomplished, but ninety nine times out a hundred, there is no good reason.  It’s just a habit and makes no sense to me.

I was at the Newark airport a few years ago awaiting a flight to Delhi.  Arriving early, I had already watched flights leave for Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Istanbul.  As these flights were called, passengers assembled and boarded in an orderly fashion.  Before my flight, airport personnel came with stanchions and cordoning for crowd management, knowing Indians’ tendency to push to the front and ignore boarding instructions.

I’ve pondered over this for years because it relates to driving, behavior in queues, getting on and off the Metro or being anywhere groups gather.  Indians want to get ahead and maybe this accounts for their success when abroad. They are willing to work very hard and are highly intelligent, but they also seem, to my eye, stressed and anxious.  Maybe it's because they are forced to wait for so many things in life--government services, traffic, the repairman who always comes late, the fellow who says he will "definitely be there" but never is. Of course, maybe none of this is true and I'm just seeing things through my laid-back Californian eyes.  

I suspect Indians have learned that waiting one’s turn is not a good strategy when resources are tight and when others are willing to push you aside to get their share (and yours) first.   With so many, many people, standing politely aside simply isn’t a reasonable option. “Yield” signs on the highways don’t exist; they are a foreign concept.  I’ve asked my Indian friends to explain this to me but have yet to hear a satisfying answer. They just laugh and maybe that’s the best approach.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mango Season

June is when the monsoon arrives along the Kerala coast, kids get vacation breaks, families head for the hills or their ancestral villages, and the mangos are ripe in Pune. The "King of Fruit" dominates the fruit stands for an all-too-short month or two from late May into July with dozens of varieties, shapes and sizes to please every palate. India just wouldn't be the same without them.

Every region has its favorite variety and there is much debate about which is best. Pune is in the heart of "mango country" with the variety of choice here being the Afus or Alfonso. At our ashram we have about a dozen trees evenly split between these and the local Pyree variety. Much like avacados, mangos don't grow true from seed and the best varieties are grafted onto local root stock, making it common to find a wide array of ungrafted, less favored trees in the countryside. Although not as tasty, they are fine for cooking, jams and pickle.

Last week we harvested this year's crop and now have hundreds of mangos ripening in beds of straw with one of our offices now serving as a ripening room. As you can imagine, mango is on the menu every day. Laxmi has been preparing a delicious mango soup for lunch. She cooks the mangos in a pot of mango juice, adding spices and seasoning to give the final product, served hot, both a sweet and savory flavor. Anand, our cook has a delightful way of cutting off the top of each mango and extracting the seed, leaving the most of the fruit inside to be eaten with a spoon. It's easy to eat three or four of these at a sitting.

Indians have a love affair with mangos and I can see why. At the market, you will easily find half a dozen varieties on display, the varieties changing as the season progresses. It's heresy to contest the supremecy of the Afus, but I've grown fond of some of the other varieties too. I especially like the Kesar, a small, green fruit with an orange flesh similar to the Alphonso. The big, yellow mangos like the Badami, which are usually cheaper, are juicy but not as flavorful, in my opinion, but they are very good for shakes and smoothies. The same goes for the Totapuri. The variety typically found in American markets comes from Latin America and is OK but its flavor is less intense than the mangos found in India. The fruit here is sweeter here and more aromatic, though I've heard a few Westerners say they can be too sweet. Imagine.

I remember some years ago flying into Delhi from Mumbai in late May. As I was awaiting my luggage, I watched box after box of mangos moving along the bbaggage carousel. Half those flying were bringing home mangos for friends and family. Last Wednesday I brought bags of them to Mumbai for Sangha friends at a Gita class. It's just what you do.

I love mangos but I'd like to mention a couple of other wonderful fruits that ripen about now. One is the chickoo, a fruit very similar in shape and color to the kiwi but with a brown flesh that I can best describe as tasting something like a combination of a date and a pear. I really like them although Sadhana Devi doesn't. There is no accounting for taste. Chickoo shakes are fantastic and you can get a really tasty chickoo ice cream at "Naturals", arguably the best ice cream chain in the world. They make, on site, all natural ingredient ice cream, using fruits in season. Really! I had jalum berry ice cream the last time I stopped by one of their shops. Some of the shops will even pack their tubs, for an extra charge, in dry ice so the ice cream won't melt by the time you get it home. As far as I know, Naturals only has shops in Maharashtra but I predict it won't be long before they are countrywide.

Another fruit now in season is the lichi. This is a red, round, spikey fruit about one inch in diameter. The flesh is similar in texture to a peeled grape but the taste is unique. Again, I like them but others don't. I think the slippery texture of the flesh puts some people off. Oh well, to each his own. I mentioned jamun berries as an ice cream flavor but they can also be eaten fresh though the taste is a bit astringent. We have a couple of these trees at the community and when made into a cold jamun-ade, they are fantastic. And, let me tell you about the grapes--some of the very best grapes are found here, much better than in the USA.

 Two other fruits which some rave about but leave me unmoved are the sitaphal and the jackfruit. Sitaphals are also known as custard apples and they have a pleasant, very mild taste. The problem with them is that they are a bit of a hassle to eat with too many seeds. As for jackfruit, we have a huge tree at the Pune community giving dozens of immense fruits, some weighing almost twenty pounds. The fruit is sickly sweet with a very unique flavor. It's a love or hate thing with jackfruit. Our cooks fix it into all sorts of dishes and I like it better that way. In fact, some say it can be used as a vegetarian substitute for beef because it looks just like it when cooked.

Soon the mango season will pass and we'll have to wait another year for their return. In Pune we are lucky because of the great variety of fresh produce grown locally but it's not like in America where you can get imports throughout the year. In India, fruits and vegetables are available by season, which perhaps makes them more appreciated when their time comes.

 Happy mango season.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Community in the Making

I include below a short photo essay by Maitreyi Cooper of building progress at our community in the countryside outside of Pune, India. Nayaswami Maitreyi and husband Michael are devotees from the UK, who left their families to live in Ananda's Kriya Yogashram, last September. Michael has taken on the role of Maintenance Manager for the community's varied projects, incuding overseeing the building of the new temple. Maitreyi's duties are also diverse, ranging from housekeeping, community nursing, healing, and writing blogs and ashram event promotion. Maitreyi is also a spiritual author. About two dozen flats are under construction and should ready by April or May.

As future residents, Michael and I have keenly watched the progression of the building of the residential flats since the groundwork began last March.

We cannot pretend that there have been many times of frustration at deadlines being missed. We have had to learn that, in India, work goes at a pace not seen or accepted in the West. We have had to evaluate, in our minds, the real mission of being here in India, which is to fulfil Master’s dream, and not to be hung up on the building of our home. Home is where the heart is, after all!

The build is now moving on a pace. We have watched the flats tentatively, rising brick by brick. The site now looks like a small village has sprung from the hillside as the dwellings cling elegantly to the steep slopes of the valley. A community in the making!

Buildings, of course, do not make a community, but the graceful design that has incorporated the ideals of community living will make it easier for the residents to bond and forge the friendships that are so vital for community survival. The residences will all face on to an ample communal area which will allow for meditation gardens, Yoga pavilion, children’s play area, or whatever we, the residents, would like to fill the space. This has yet to be decided.
It is going to be so wonderful having neighbours who share the same ideals as Michael and I, who we know will be always happy to give a helping hand when needed. It will be exciting to be Uncle and Aunty to all the children and to know what it is to have an extended family.
We are hoping to move into our new home by the end of April, this year. What a joyous, and monumental occasion that will be, and we invite all who are able to come to bless our new home.

Jai Guru!
God bless
Nayaswami Maitreyi and Michael