India: Mumbai blog

15th Jan. The Old Bombay Club

My friend Shama who I’m seeing after some 20 years invites me for lunch at the Willingdon Club: spacious, gracious and privileged. In the hall hang portraits of British colonials in whose days of course Indians were not allowed anywhere near the club.

We sit in the closed veranda overlooking beautiful gardens as Shama orders Chinese lunch and tells me of the various summersaults and hoops she had to go through to become a member some 40 years earlier.

Someone ambles over to join us, ‘Ah here’s another actor. Leena is also in the same line of work’ He pulls up a chair. ‘You know of course that Salman Rushdie in town for the casting of Midnights Children.’

‘Yes yes I know. Have they seen you for anything?’

‘No they haven’t but you know I’m in it. I’m in the book. We used to go to school together.’

Later as we part, Shama says, ‘You know Leena. India is good for the soul. Try and come back if you can. I did it.’

17th Jan – The ‘Vipassana’ Global Pagoda.

It is the day of the gathering and in the morning I tie my sari perfectly as I was taught to do by my cousin Anjali when I was fifteen years old, and become an Indian lady. As I cross the courtyard to join the others for morning tea I reflect on how much our family’s aim, aspiration, goal was to return to India and not achieving it was a kind of failure. I am disconcerted when I join the party and someone asks me where I have come from. But as it turns out she does not doubt my Indian ness just wanting to know how far I have travelled.

‘ You’ve come all the way from London for the gathering?’

‘Yes. Well actually I have two gatherings. The next one is in Goa of childhood friends from my Krishnamurti school in South India.’

‘ Krishnamurti. I have been reading Krishnamurti since I was 18 years old. And you were in his school. Did you meet him?’

‘Well yes. He would come to the school and stay for a month. We called him Krishnaji. I was very sad I had to leave the school.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘Well it was a very small school and I’d come from England and my maths was way below standard.’

‘And after that you went back to England to school?

‘ No. I went to Paris and then to England and I didn’t go to school after that. I don’t know. It was all a long time ago now. Maybe it was all Karma.’

I realise that I am upsetting myself with this remembering of my endless partitions and am grateful to move on to breakfast although I do not manage to move on quite so easily in my head.

The Vipassana Global Pagoda is, huge colossal. I am given a badge labelled Special Invitee, with my name on it and helpers turn up with other badges to help me find my way.

I am seated in an enclosure in the second row next to a Burmese gentleman who turns out to be the son of U Ba Khim, Goenkaji’s teacher in whose memory this great Pagoda, the biggest dome in the world, capable of accommodating 8000 meditators has been built as a debt of gratitude.

I look up and in the centre of the dome is the charka, the wheel of dharma, like on the Indian national flag taken where it has been taken from the Ashokan pillar. Ashoka, the great humanitarian monarch of the third century B.C. who had embraced the teachings of Gautama the Buddha, renounced aggressive warfare, espoused the cause of non-violence and erected rock edicts stating the same, throughout the length and breadth of India. Of course for centuries no one knew what the writing said until a British scholar in the 19th century deciphered it and gave us back a lost chapter of our history. So, I muse, when the nascent republic adopted the symbol of the wheel of Dharma, there wasn’t much ‘ ‘Buddhism’ in India. The Dalai Lama was still in Tibet and Vipassana was an unknown word.

I am seated next to the ramp, which leads to the central podium and so, I am able to see Goenkaji and Mataji from as close as is possible as they are brought in their wheelchairs for the function. He looks the same, and I am moved to see him.

Once on the Podium he recounts his journey to fulfil the mission entrusted upon him by his teacher: – to bring back to India, the teaching of Gautama the Buddha, Vipassana, in its pure form as kept alive in Burma these last 2500 years. U Ba Khim’s debt of gratitude for the teaching and his own debt of gratitude to his teacher and then his debt of gratitude to all those who enabled the Dhamma to take root and grow in the land where it first came into being – India. One by one people stand up and Goenkaji tells the assembly of their contribution and thanks them. Some of them I know from various courses here and there and I am deeply moved by this great army of devoted unpaid volunteers, paying their debts of gratitude by helping to materialise Goenkaji’s vision to this final great global pagoda built in Burmese style in honour of his Burmese teacher and the land of his birth which preserved the original teaching of the Buddha.

What can I say? Forty years on from when Goenkaji arrived from Burma with his mission and a first course of five people, one million have now sat Vipassana courses and there are 150 centres around the world. Layers and layers and layers of gratitude.

20th Jan. Dhammagiri, Igatpuri.

After the function we have a dusty bumpy four-hour bus ride to the meditation centre at Igatpuri where I sleep for nearly two days to finally knock out the jetlag. In my waking moments I take in beauty and peace of the place. It was the first centre to be built in Goenkaji’s big project. I think about my parents whose projects did not get really fulfilled, whose efforts were constantly being thwarted, whose perfect universe eluded them and it makes me sad and even though I know that I am creating suffering for myself with these thoughts, I find myself am unable to dispel them. I try and do what we learn to do in Vipassana: to simply observe without valuation. Not easy.

Tomorrow the course will start. In three days it will be six months since my mother passed away from this world. It is the first time since that I have a bit of space and time to digest it all. Those last days I would lie with her on the bed and we would talk, ‘You know ma, I wish you could bequeath me your capacities of discipline and non-judgementalism.’ I’d said once. What about her capacity for unconditional love! In her last days she just emanated it – peace and love. So why does the memory make me cry and feel so so sad.

Most important thing of all is to pray that love and light should fill your heart and overflow from you to all…

Every letter from my mother ended with that injunction. Other regular ones were to eat five almonds with honey every day and splash my eyes with cold water. We lived so much of our family life through letters. Words on paper trying to reach out, to express what words can’t always say.

If you look at the word Alone, you will see that it means All-One.’

I remember Krishnaji saying that when I’d gone to Brockwood Park one year to see if I could take my daughter to study in Rishi Valley.

The gong rings, deep, resonant and comforting. It is time for tea. From tomorrow only the gong will break the silence of meditation.

‘…You see my darling, it is all an inner journey.’ wrote my father said in one of his letters.

Dear Mama, dear Papa, I suppose inasmuch as the Universality of Indian Spirituality was so central to your Perfect Universe and the one you carried with you and tried to impart to me – then I’m in it aren’t I? The Inner Journey.

As Michael Wood put it in his series on the legacies of different civilizations- India: The Empire of the Spirit.

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