When Were You Most Happy?

Journal and letter excerpts from early 2005
I am part of a small team that is working with 11 women from rural Andhra Pradesh who were selected to undergo a one-month training program. Their ages range from 22 to 49. Most are in their mid-twenties. Ten of the eleven were all married before the age of fifteen.

Over the last week we have taught them the basics of how to plan and shoot for a basic news program. The idea is for these women to bring out a monthly video series that will be screened across all the villages in the district through the existing government network. Each month’s program will have a special theme and will be broken up into different segments (song/drama/short documentary/health tips/people’s opinions etc). The women will select themes that they feel are important and relevant to their communities and will then decide what kind of action they’d like to bring about in their villages through
their program.

This month the theme they’ve decided to tackle is child marriage. Much to share about different aspects of the training and the other people we are working with to make it happen, the translators and technical support staff, the children from the orphanage/school next door who climb up the walls and throw fistfuls of roses through the windows while we’re teaching, R– the woman who serves us tea whose husband told her to sit in on our classes so she could learn how to use the camera too. N, our driver who now knows the difference between a long shot, close shot, a pan and tilt-up…

***

The Deccan is full of rocks. They are grey and harsh. There is no water in the reservoir. Even the greens in this landscape are grey. Or is it just my mood?

***

We are in a government office. Tea and the stench of too many cigarettes in the air. Someday I will stop being polite and say something.

***

Training office in the middle of nowhere. The women with their shy smiles, giggle fits, glass bangles. They are so young in years and so old in life. Married at 13, 14, 15. Two children or three. Husbands who desert them, in-laws who do not help. That they are here with such joy, pride and enthusiasm shining in their eyes…their individual stories so inspiring. I have been talking about the power of stories to change the world—these women have been living it. “Reporters.” I love the way they say the word. They wear it like a badge of honor.

***

Such a late night but I am awake early. The same emptiness rolls into wakefulness beside me. I am growing accustomed to, if not particularly fond of it. I walk into a dark explosion of birdsong. Tea in a warm mug sitting on a cool slab. Emotion says Tolle (Eckhart) is the meeting point of body and mind. In the middle of the morning I realize in a random moment how blessed I am. And for that short space the emptiness curls around me with the comfort of a hug.

***

Today was a little hard. N wasn’t here. Or M or Y. And the cameras aren’t here either. I can deal with all of this. The part that gets to me sometimes is that I’m not here. There is a tree outside the window, tall, wide-branched, leafy. It makes me feel better at different points during the day. At night I fall asleep. Dreamless. Deep.

***

Absolutely Clear

Don’t surrender your loneliness 
So quickly. 
Let it cut more deep. 

Let it ferment and season you 
As few human 
Or even divine ingredients can. 

Something missing in my heart tonight 
Has made my eyes so soft, 
My voice 
So tender, 

My need of God 
Absolutely 
Clear. 

 

-Hafiz
__________________

Found Hafiz in the weeks before Hyderabad and wondered where he’d been
hiding so long…he says such simple straight from the heart things…

But back to the opening theme of loneliness for which the outskirts of Hyderabad are the perfect backdrop. Uncompromising stretches of rocky red hills, unlikely ballerina boulders balancing impossibly on tiptoe one on top of another, one breath of wind and it seems like they would all rumbleroar towards the vast emptiness of the Deccan plateau- there can be such a deathdreariness to this landscape- the dry reservoir bed where white cranes flock by the hundreds, dotted with the thorny ‘mad acacia’- that bramblebush tree, that steals everything from the soil, that unwelcome invader that has taken over so much of the Indian
countryside (as a child every time I saw the army of it from a train window unaccountably I would feel the urge to cry). Even the greens in this landscape are grey-tinged. No comforting hint of lushness anywhere. In the far distance the ghostly, imposing silhouette of Golconda Fort. Its wide walls, high towers, secret tunnels reminding you of cold-blooded conspiracy, and an age riddled with fear, hatred and war. A harsh, heated landscape drawn with hard lines. It does not
pretend to be friendly or charming. Its hostility can hurt a little if you let it. And I let it. Not very long or very much, and I still can’t quite comprehend why it happened the way it did…but I got there and within half a day felt such a sinking in my soul that it surprised me deeply. […]

To feel so confused was-confusing. All of a sudden I couldn’t understand beyond a very surface level what I was doing here in this whole other state with these whole Other people. And I was suddenly homesick not for home but for- of all places- the quiet courtyard of the meditation center in Madras, where you walk one foot-in-front-of-the-other, try not to step on ants and hold a special kind of stillness in both hands. It has been so long since I have felt this kind of—uprooting– this sense of bewilderment at my surroundings, this kind of desolation– and with so little reason too!

We are staying in a government hostel in the midst of a rambling ramshackle government compound full of faded buildings, long, grey tree-lined walkways and a funny little dining room staffed by ten cheerfully incompetent boys who all looked about fifteen years old and who were always bringing you flasks of soverysweet tea. I remember walking up the stairs to the terrace of our building thinking- I really need to find some small space to sit in- and I remember the relief of reaching the top and finding a beautiful place up there between the water tank and the pipes and the dried fallen leaves from the neem trees all around. And I could see the sun from there struggling palely to extricate itself from gently clinging branches. And suddenly things were tugged-in-the-direction-of (if not pulled completely into) perspective. So each morning of most of my time here this is where I’d go before the day ‘officially’ began. My space for yoga, sitting- and reading (finally) The Power of Now […]

And while this was happening to encounter the spirit of a dozen young women each with a story of such humble courage, each with such a strong presence of love and burning enthusiasm […] So much learned about so much in those weeks. G knows rural India with a difficult, hard earned intimacy that made me so often remember something you said in Pondicherry to N (and which made me smile and think– here is the only person I know in the world who could and would manage to work a sentiment like that into ordinary after dinner cafe conversation and not sound pretentious). You said: I don’t care to see things in a positive way. I care to see them in a real way.

I think I have always believed that the real is positive– or at least– not negative. But I can see how naive idealism can blindfold. And how you have to wholly accept the painful, ugly, and sordid before you can comprehend the essence of beauty, of love, at the core of all things…not something I have been called on very often to do–surrounded as I am with such wholesomeness so much of the time…which is why times like this one are a test.

One of the most valuable things about being away was what it showed me about the hidden biases in my own heart, the subtle setting apart that sometimes happens in situations like this…and then the pointing of a precise finger at all the areas where work (and much of it) remains to be done within…when you see mud in the world it is because there is mud inside you said a wise woman once…so this then was my moment of mudgazing…

To touch with inward compassion certain kinds of unwholesomenesses that cross my path does not always come easy to me. I cringe or run or sink into unhappy desolation effectively cutting myself off from any kind of comprehension and clarity. But this time was so different. To learn the history of pain and degradation of some of these women, to witness the dignity and grace with which they have salvaged their stories. To see the reflection of one person’s story in another and another…to feel and sense the causeless gratitude surrounding and leaning on my own presence there, to see how we each connected to the other with an intricate logic beyond explanation, to understand in a dim, glad, unarticulated way why we were all inhabitants of this particular time and space…Then somehow each day began to unfold itself with the mysterious perfection of a flower blooming. Each moment its own wordless fulfilled reason for being.

The first day and a half spent (on an internal level) focused on a fierce awareness of being not so much alone as only. A concentration on everything that was missing. When you are staring so hard and so selfishly at what is absent it is very hard to be present. And on the happy flip side of that– the more present you are the harder it is to feel absence. Not sure if that makes as much sense in words as it does inside. But oh well. The point is that the transformation when it happens is so slight and so tremendous. And suddenly yesterday’s dreary drive down the gray landscape of onliness turns into one of breathtaking beauty and fullness…I almost could not believe the unsummoned sense of loveliness that came and settled in the same places that had first filled me with such a dramatic sense of darkness…This is such a truly beautiful place- with gray blue sky brick red earth olive green trees with explosive magenta interruptions of bougainvillea trees, an orange insolence of flame-of-the-forest defying the austere tri-color palette of the rest. Something enduring and solid and heroic about this terrain– like the face of a very old person.

Opened my eyes in the middle of meditation one morning and found a squirrel a whisper away from me. He was drinking from a small pool of spilt water on the ground. So close I could see the glugglug in his throat, could feel with sharp intensity his throbbing, bright-eyed aliveness. When our eyes met, mine held more apprehension. His were unconcerned. In inexplicable moments like that maybe is where the quest ends. For reasons. For purpose. For meaning.

And none of this even begins to touch upon the details of what we were doing and what we did there. But no matter- all this is just to say (in my usual incredibly convoluted way) something very ordinary– reading Tolle on the roof one morning I crossed a line where he is pointing out that the role of relationships is not tied to making us happy but to making us more conscious. And I was filled with such deep peace hearing the truth in that– and acknowledging it to be in accord with my own experience… seemed like Tolle was just rephrasing Hafiz with simple prose in place of wildflower poetry…and everything at least for the moment was–

Absolutely Clear.

***

Dhyanam? Says M. They want to sit in silence awhile this morning. I had them start the workshop this way yesterday. It surprises me—the sweet sincerity with which they ask to continue the practice. They sit in cross-legged concentration. Hands folded, eyes closed. Their simple good-heartedness makes them glow a little in this clear morning light.

***

Little Ruki who is so shy and sweet shows me the scratch on her finger from the thorns on the rose she plucked for me.

***

In 7 of their 10 villages people of certain castes are not allowed into the main temple.

L says it’s because they steal coconuts from the priest. ID says its because they are not clean and never bathe. PD speaks up then unexpectedly, asks a question in a voice that is quiet but firm: If the body is clean and the heart impure what reward will that prayer have?

***

L’s dead-on imitations of all the other women, and each of the facilitators. When she’s imitating me she sits the way I did most of this morning. One knee bent at right angles to the floor, the other tucked under me. All odd angles. My chin on the bent knee, my half-smile. She does all of this to perfection. Nailing my expressions, my posture with rib-tickling perfection. Such a sharp eye for caricature this slender girl has. With her snapping vitality, sharp features and quick smile—she has the group rolling with laughter. At the end of her impromptu performance she says, I have so many difficulties—but being able to make all of you laugh like this makes me feel better.

***

Today we bring out the cameras. Such excitement in the air. It hits me again, the incredibly arresting power of moving pictures. And to see these girl-women with their silver anklets and work-roughened hands, to see them step behind the tripod trembling a little with the thrill of it all, to see them squinting with comical eyepiece, to see their expressions of intense concentration, apprehension, delight is – Beautiful.

***

When I walk in this morning a murmuripple of approval runs through the room. My green and white cotton handloom sari they like. My unruly hair not so much. M has me sit down and combs it with her fingers, braids it and twists it into a knot under P’s supervision. Someone brings out hairpins and a rose. When she is done everyone is happy.

***

N, the driver is a sweetheart. A gruff, broad shouldered, bearded man with lovely eyes and an air of warm, straight-forward capability. The women receive phone calls from their homes on his mobile, and yesterday he bought a small bag of mango-flavored candies for all of us.

***

We are feeling the uniqueness of this space, and the need to spend more non-classroom time with the women. We decide to stay overnight with them at the training center the next day.

***

It takes a few days for them to stop calling us Madam and Sir. At first they are very resistant to using just our names. But we insist. Then later on they turn to blackmail. Madam if you dance for us then we will call you Pavithra.

***

In the evening they drag me in to dance. Rollicking Telegu film music. Nothing to do but tuck the end of my sari in at the waist and get to it. They won’t let me stop until the tape hits the end. They want to know where I learned those moves – I think it’s funny that they think I’m good when I’m this bad.

***

D forty-something invites me to spin with her in a corner of the room. L rushes to get the camera, we cross our arms and take hold of each others’ hands, then turn, turn and turn together. A girlish game that they still play and why would you want to stop them? Let them even at this late date inhabit moments of the girlhood snatched away from them so soon.

***

Handclapping games. I teach three of the women. And the next day they all know how it goes.

***

That night I ask V what moment in her life does she remember being happiest in. She says after a reflective pause, and with a matter-of-factness that saddens me, Mada—Pavithra–there is no happiness in my life now…but when I was a child I used to play kabadi. That was the happiest time. Then when I was 13 I got married and my childhood and happiness ended there.

***

It is Sunday and in the evening “Ice-Cream Uncle” cycles up to the front gate. All the children are waving sticks of coldsweetdelight. S runs up to give one to me—I am so reluctant to rob her of it, but know I have to. I take a bite and the whole crowd of children laughs, claps and cheers—such a gleeful generosity theirs. S comes out and buys up the whole cart for them.

***

M’s horrific story. Some things are beyond imagination. I look at her calm, impassive face, her sturdy manner, and wonder at the cost of her composure.

***

Sitting on the steps of the school. A sudden shower of rose petals over me. They do so much these young ones to try and make me feel special. Being the recipient of such grand, unwarranted gestures makes me feel spectacularly silly. They make me laugh and want to hug them all.

***

R has a pouting girlishness about her, a harmlessly flirtatious femininity that lends her an air of coquettish confidence. She loves dancing. So does her 9-year-old daughter. There is no television, radio or cassette player in their home. The only time they can listen to music is when the temple plays songs over the loudspeaker. They live near the temple, and at the first beat of music everyone in the house stops to dance. R says sometimes her daughter will come into the kitchen while R is chopping vegetables and, to the beat of the chopchopchop—she’ll dance.

***

I am refastening the clip in my hair. One of the children darts forward and then exclaims—Shampoo! In the next half second there are 20 kids sniffing my hair, shouting out lout and gleeful—Shampoo!

***

Today N, S, and R from the orphanage school climb up the wall of the classroom and throw fistfuls of pink roses through the window while I’m teaching. What to do with these adorable angels?

***

Green parrot screeches on the top branches of a gently swaying tree before flying away. What a world of wonders…

***

The stories that spill and splash on the flower, running with blood and tears. There is such an outpour that it stuns you –the commonplaceness with which the outrageous can occur.

***

Kadha Kadhu Nijam.

Stories of abuse, murder, attempted rape, stories of suicide, adultery. Sordid stories. Chilling, stomach-turning, insides-churning stories. You want so much to believe these stories are not true. But they are and you realize what a complex animal man is. How much inhuman-ness there is in human nature.

How much compassion do we need for this to change?

***

Today we sent them out on a Vox pop assignment. To ask the people two things:

  1. What’s the right age for a girl to get married?
  2. What can we do to stop child marriages from happening?

To see the bunch of them—with their bangles and toe-rings, the kumkum on their foreheads, holding cameras, microphones, tripods, headsets, setting out with these undreamt of tools of technology to question the very systems that played them false—these once-upon-a-time child-brides who have suffered so much for so long, standing up now and daring to look for different answers.

***

They are so funny, each time we send them out to shoot they insist on shaking hands all around, gathering good luck and good wishes like schoolchildren setting out for the board exams.

***

The schoolchildren here have all learned it by heart – that ridiculous song that I don’t even remember learning and feel like I’ve known forever. It has been such a hit with this group. There is something very catchy in its nonsensical lyrics. They sing it now in hushed gigglesome whispers when I walk by, hoping I will pick up their cue. When I do, the clouds lift a little as their voices hit the sky.

***

ID who has wide, wide eyes three girls and very callused hands. She was married at 11, delivered her first child at 12 or 13. So much girlishness in her manner. How is it again that she is the mother of 3? She seems the happiest of all the women here. When she talks of her husband her face lights up. He takes such good care of me she says with her shy giggle. What makes her happiest? The question stumps her as it does most of these women. “My life is my home, my children, and husband,” she says. Happiness as a concept has no space here. Who does she admire and look up to for inspiration? “The women who go to work in offices. If I’d studied I too could go places here and there,” she says wistfully. What do you do when you’re sad? “Sit quietly.” When you’re angry? “I don’t get angry. I’m too small to get angry.”

***

CK’s epic story involving the Chocolat-style Mother-Daughter duo, the radical Naxalite who fell off the terrace, the swindling, illegitimate child –“Watch out for the O.Henry/Roald Dahl twist at the end says S—and it comes sure enough, leaving me gaping like a goldfish.

***

J’s home in CK set on the edge of the village where all those of her caste live. She does not seem to resent this clear geographical discrimination. The house is charming. Entire tree branches for beams, a high ceiling, mud and tiles and thatch. Water in a silver chembu. A small square open courtyard in the center, with a tap for washing feet perhaps.

***

ID giggling uncontrollably as she remembers a time when she and her husband lived in a one-room hut with a leaky thatch roof. When it rained water would come pouring in and she would begin to cry because they were so poor and lived so miserably. Her husband to cheer her up would spring into action and place steel tumblers underneath each leak and say to her merrily, “See what a beautiful home we have ID? Is there anyone else with such a special house? And I made it all for you!” Thinking of that young husband putting a tender, humorous, brave face on their poverty makes my heart swell with gratitude. When I cry he makes me laugh she says. He has never felt badly that they we have three daughters and no sons. It’s only me that wishes sometimes that we had a boy. He is so proud of our daughters and has such big plans for them. This one will be an IAS officer, that one will become the Collector…” Again she trails into happy laughter. He insists that the whole family eat together, the daughters, his wife, sometimes he’ll drag his mother in from next door to join them. This young agricultural laborer born into a life of poverty, struggle, injustice and pain—how did he develop these qualities of light and love?

***

All of them with silver anklets, silver toe-rings. So much about their persons that sings—inspite of their sadness.

***

Babul trees, black lace against an evening sky.

***

L’s father performing Shiva puja. The intricate rituals and arcane hand gestures, and the little white flower he tucks behind one ear at the end. Red earth paste smeared on the ground outside the front door, decorated with white ash, vermilion and sandalwood. The bathing corner behind a wall in the kitchen of her house, barely big enough to stand in, and that is where they wash.

***

Walking down the village streets with V –curious neighbors enquire loudly of her, “Who’s she?” No break in stride as she tosses back over her shoulder, “Ma Akka.” (My older sister.)

***

L is 25, a slender, sharp-featured girl with a quick wit and lively intelligence. She was married at 14 to an abusive alcoholic from a neighboring village. Her beautiful two and a half year old son A is the sole streak of sunshine in her existence. “I can forget all my troubles Pavi, just thinking about him”. She left her husband after the birth of her son because she could not bear the thought of him growing up around such a father. When she was six months with child, her husband came home drunk one night. She craving something sweet had asked him for food. He forced her to eat out of the toilet. This story would keep coming back to me over the days as I’d look over at L’s face during our classes, its varying expressions of laughter, sadness, girlish wistfulness, hope, affection and sometimes deep despair. Horrifyingly enough hers isn’t an uncommon story here…but what is uncommon is what L said afterwards– when I asked her what her dreams were now. “I want to stand on my own feet, and earn a better future for my son. I don’t want to depend on my parents.” L lives with her mother and father— sweet-natured people, very pious and very poor…”I want to earn my self-respect and if my husband comes to see me then- I won’t be angry… I’ll feed him.”

Her words are simple, but that last thought blew me away. That this young women robbed of her childhood, treated so inhumanely, that she could reach into her heart and find a dream that throbbed only with love, compassion and forgiveness moved me beyond words.

L isn’t a submissive person- her dream doesn’t stem from lack of strength, or an inability to think for herself. But who educated her in the ways of wisdom? Who taught her to aspire to rise above even the most seemingly justifiable hatred, anger and resentment?

No one. This dream and its wisdom are entirely her own.

Sometimes unexpectedly you trip over the divinity that lies within another human heart. And all you can do is fold your palms and be grateful for the gift of that discovery.

***


One response to “When Were You Most Happy?

  • maranelancheran

    It’s so hard to remember if I’ve ever cried before…not that we haven’t seen unjust things. We are already hardened by too much of that. It is the poignant story of the search for a quiet space by everyone alike but in so many different ways, that’s turning something inside.

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