"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Four Years–Yale, India And Enduring Episodes

I lived in India for only four years, but today as I listen to ghazals, I know that no time in my life was so important or so memorable.  Shaam Se Aankh Men reminds me of tea stalls, restaurants on Chandi Chowk, jasmine-scented evenings in Ahmedabad, cold mornings in Pahalgam, and bhel puri on Chowpatti Beach.  I heard Indian music every day – at classical concerts and mehfils; in bazaars, buses, and cattle fairs. It defined my life in India.  I studied sitar and travelled with my teacher to private jugalbandhi and went backstage with him to meet Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, and the Duggar Brothers.  I practiced every day in the cool of the early morning on my barsati overlooking Humayun’s tomb.  I wore a mijrab on my finger, and handmade Kashmiri kurtas designed by my guru. Music was everywhere.  Whenever I hear even a phrase of Indian music today I am taken back forty years to Nizamuddin East, Moti Mahal, Vasant Vihar, and the monsoon.

One day I was invited to hear a young protégée of a well-known patron of the Delhi arts.  The young woman, perhaps no older than 18, had been studying ghazals with one of India’s finest vocalists and Mrs. Nag wanted her debut to be among close friends and music lovers of New Delhi. Her voice was pure and angelic – innocent, sweet, yet confident and mature in phrasing and control.  It soared.  She tempted us with her inviting phrasing – hinting, halting, and moving from one note to the next.  She was beautiful, graceful, and elegant; and her songs were intimate and mournful. I remember her, the breezy Delhi bungalow of Mrs. Nag, and her lilting, transporting songs as if she had performed yesterday.

Many years ago I was living in New York in a small walkup in Chinatown and was friends with an older musician who lived on the Upper West Side. He invited me and my girlfriend for dinner and a musical evening.  When he put on an Indian raga – the first time I had ever heard Indian music – it at first sounded strange, but as the musician played the slow alaap, lingering on notes, teasing out their microtones, caressing each note before moving on to the next, we all stopped what we were doing.  From the interpretive, interior, and almost spiritual first movement to the rhythmic jor of the second to the final ecstatic jhala – an irrepressible duet with the tabla – we were mesmerized and forever changed.  Never had we heard such music, and we doubted we ever would again.

I had no idea then that I would be going to live in India; but as soon as I landed in Bombay and walked along the seawalls of The Gateway of India and heard Indian music coming from the neighborhoods behind the Taj Mahal hotel, I knew that somehow I had come home.

Perhaps because India was my first foreign country, or because I first went in the late full-bore hippy Sixties; because Indian ragas had put their hook into me early on; or because the wild, kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic life of the Bombay streets was exactly what a frustrated, conservative Connecticut Yankee was waiting for; but I took to India like a tiger returned to the wild.

In four years I visited every state in India, learned Hindi, studied sitar, worshipped at Mount Abu, took tea with government civil servants, observed puja at Bombay temples, walked through the great Mughal gardens of Delhi, and ate curry, pan, sabzi, tandoori, and bhel puri. I studied Hinduism, spent a month at a Jain temple in Gujarat, hiked through the last tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh and stayed in monasteries on the high Himalayan Tibetan plateau.  There has been no four-year period in my life to match the excitement, richness, complexity, and beauty of my time in India.

I spent four years at Yale as an undergraduate in the Sixties; and to this day I am a Yalie perhaps more than anything.  Four years and I am a perfect product of old WASP traditionalism, Eastern intellectualism, and confident Ivy League noblesse oblige. My 50th Yale Reunion is coming up this year, and I am looking forward to reconnecting with my classmates – innocent teenagers who looked forward but who have unexpectedly turned into old men who can only look back with nostalgia and regret. Maybe they can help me figure out how to deal with the narrowing future.

Four years.  Only four years, but somehow the most defining and characteristic of all.   I am a father, son, friend, India-wallah, and lover; but above all a Yale graduate.

I am not alone.  I meet people from Harvard and Sewanee who both get misty when they speak of their college years.  Graduates of Grinnell, Ohio State, and Connecticut State University go all soft and vulnerable when they identify their alma mater.  No matter how high- or low-born; no matter what ranking in US News & World Report the college; no matter how well or poorly they did, graduates fly the colors of their  undergraduate years.  Four years.  Four defining, irrevocable, indelible years.

The years between Yale and India and between India and now have been many; and all have been filled with adventure, insight, and meaning.  I cannot imagine life without my two children, my wife, or lovers.  The sum of experiences of these interstitial years is far more than those of India or college, and in many ways far more important.  So why are these periods so important?

I can understand the undergraduate years. Free at last!  A world of ideas never imagined by my first generation parents. Pre-Sixties libertinage. Religion and other adolescent baggage left on the curb.  Friends from Piping Rock, Shaker Heights, and Grosse Point.

I can only guess why India took me hostage and still demands ransom; and I can only wonder if everyone has a cultural terrorist in their past.  Peace Corps volunteers speak of their ‘families’ with the same reverence and nostalgia; but what about James W., graduate of East Mississippi State Community College, formerly of North Aberdeen trailer park, and now second mechanic at Route 62 Repairs?  Does he have a cultural epiphany in his past?  Or has every year in his life been exactly the same. He dated Belinda from East Columbus, then married her, and the subsequent blips on his life’s radar have barely been noticed.

So cultural epiphanies are another benefit of the One Percent.  No economic dogs snapping at our heels, no treacherous financial ravines to cross.  Plenty of latitude to travel in Europe and the Third World, make our own mistakes and learn from them.

Anton Chekhov pondered the same questions – what makes us?  How predetermined are we? Are we influencing the future by our actions, or are we simply oiling the grand perpetual-motion machines of history?  Our lives, he felt, are a result of a past we cannot change and a present which is as shaky as a footbridge with weak planks over a steep ravine.

I suspect that entire lives do not race before our eyes as we lay dying, but only fractions of them.  For some the video will play bits and pieces – baby shoes, drying wash, worn drill bits, holy water.  For others who have lived life in memorable episodes, it will be Yale, Martha’s Vineyard, India.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, India was defining, and I was glad to have shared that time with you & Peggy...Do you still ghazal? I

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  2. May I ask where the fourth pic is? It is so gorgeous.

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