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Understanding Squirrels

I spent the last couple days with Olivia—a small brown and white dog. Her humans are out of town for the holiday so she’s visiting Brooklyn. She is a good dog in the sense that her habits agree with mine. She eats twice a day, she communicates clearly about her needs and she is always happy to see me when I return. Aside from a daily episode in which she eviscerates a toy, she mostly sleeps, which is good because I prefer to spend my time reading and drinking coffee. I enjoy her company even when she’s sleeping, and when it gets too cold at night I put her on my bed, up against my back.

This morning Olivia woke up first, put her paws on my face and licked my cheek until I agreed to take her for a walk. We picked up a coffee at Café Grumpy and went down to McGolrick Park. I have noticed since Livvy has been visiting that she likes some of our walking routes better than others.

She quite enjoys the walk up Greenpoint Ave to Transmitter Park where we are likely to meet the same dogs and owners every day. It is the closest grass to my apartment and she prefers to poop on the grass, so she’ll often hold it until we enter the park. The other perk to this route is that we pass through the rat hunting grounds. On Greenpoint Ave between Franklin and West, in the trash outside Brouwerij Lane, Karcher, In God We Trust, Coco 66 and Paulie Gee’s and in the construction site from there to the corner, there is always a rat.

Sometimes late at night the rat is out in the sidewalk. Sometimes Livvy must persue it under a parked car and sometimes she points a trash can waiting several minutes until the rat emerges. I lived across the street from the corner where this block begins for three years and never noticed the rats until I walked it with Livvy. I also frequent the restaurants whose trash sustains said rats. I have allowed Livvy to sniff trash on all the other blocks in Greenpoint and none is as ripe as this.

I am certain Livvy begins thinking about rat hunting as soon as she turns right out the door from my apartment. One might think it is the cat food my neighbor Alice keeps under her front step that draws Livvy always to turn right, but she gives it only a cursory sniff before pulling me up the block.

She has a destination in mind. She pulls me all the way to Manhattan Ave. She can barely wait for the traffic to pass and the light to turn to ‘walk.’ As soon as we cross she begins hunting. Her muscles stiffen, her body straigtens and she becomes hypervigilant. She stalks down the block pointing every piece of trash, listening intently to the footsteps of the passersby, every ounce of her longing for the kill. By the time we reach Franklin, across the street from the hunting ground my muscles must tighten as well, to restrain her from darting across the street.

When we reach the hunting ground, there is a rat. She chases it to the corner of two brick walls where there is a hole it can disappear into. If the next rat runs into the street or under a car, I pull the trigger on the retractable leash and she near hangs herself—her butt swings out in the direction of the rat as her neck is stopped cold. I used to get nervous I would cause injury by pulling the trigger so fast, but her attack is hard to predict and the alternatives are either she gets hit by a car or she actually catches the rat in which case she, and probably I, get syphillis and we die a slow painful death. So I try to remain vigilant as well, that I might stay one step ahead of her and save her a hanging.

These are the rules: we take a hard right out of the apartment, sniff Alice’s cat food, race to Manhattan Ave, cross the street, engage hypervigilant dog mode, stalk to the bottom of the hill, play tug-of-war at Franklin St, then enter the great rat hunting ground. The hunt goes right up to the brink of murder, but at the last minute I enter deus ex machina and save the rat’s life. Then we rush into Transmitter Park—she poops immediately either because the end of hypervigilant hunter mode has allowed a muscular release or as I mentioned, this is the closest grass to my apartment. I then drag Olivia to the end of the pier where I like to look at the Manhattan skyline. She has absolutely no interest in this, which she makes clear by pulling in the opposite direction from where I’m facing. We agree to have a leisurely walk home on the opposite side of the street from the hunting ground.

Obviously the lesser walk is the one where I am tired from work or its raining outside and we are limited to a one block radius—Greenpoint to Leonard to Calyer to Eckford—and Livvy realizes at the last minute the masquerade is over and reluctanly pees in the square of dirt at the base of the tree outside my apartment.

The best walk and the one we can only do when there is ample time is the one we took this morning: to McGolrick Park. For one, it’s a longer walk, which makes it better excersise for both man and dog. Two, Café Grumpy is on the way. Three, rather than rats McGolrick Park is infested with squirrels. When we walk through McGolrick, Livvy still tigtens her muscles, drops into stalking stance and creeps very deliberately along the fence, but her energy is different. She appears much more of an explorer than a hunter. She is intent on understanding the squirrel, but doesn’t have the same anxiety to kill the squirrel.

The difference in Olivia’s energy may simply be a reflection of the respective energy of squirrels and rats. Rats are dirty little beasts digging through the trash, scurrying off with some dead thing, which they will either hoard or destroy. They seem malevolent. They spread disease. And they run away from Olivia, me, or anyone, which suggests they should be chased.

Squirrels are different. They are fluffy vegetarians with lofty goals like climbing trees and dashing through nature. Their collections aren’t so vile as those of rats—they collect acorns and berries and save them for winter when they are hard to find and a high protein vegan option is most in demand.

It could also be the setting: the squirrels are found in a lush park, the rats in the garbage on a city street. Or familiarity: when Livvy is not visiting Brooklyn she lives in the suburbs where squirrels are abundant and rats less so.

In any case, Olivia’s energy is different around squirrels. When she sees one, she does not immediately attack, but follows it back to its tree and watches intently as it climbs to a branch and looks back at her. Maybe she is in awe. Maybe she aspires to squirrel life: the speed, the agility, the self-sufficiency, the undeniably great lookout from which all other squirrels—and dogs, and humans, and the whole park for that matter—can be viewed.

As I watch Olivia watch the squirrel, I also begin to be in awe at the life of a squirrel. The squirrel seems to have a rhythm to its existence, an ultimate freedom. A peace.

The other notable feature of McGolrick park is the off-leash dog run that occupies the south end along Driggs. The dog run is a fenced in area where dog owners can sit in a plastic chair and fiddle with their iPhones while their dogs frollick with other dogs from the neighborhood. Inside the dog run there is a muddy area, a grassy area and six or seven tennis balls so dogs and their owners can play fetch. The run is engineered with a double gated entrance so dogs can be corralled and releashed prior to exit.

Being human and identifying the dog run as something special for dogs, I brought Livvy inside this morning thinking I was giving her a special treat. I misjudged. When I let her off the leash, she did a few laps around and sniffed the other dogs in the park. There was an attractive woman about my age at the other end on one of the plastic chairs checking her email while one of her dogs ran free and the other blankly stared at her from a yard off. I thought of saying, “Hello,” but then I thought better of it thinking she was leaning so far into her phone she’ll probably be a hunchback by the time she’s forty.

The free dog started chasing Livvy and barking at her in a high pitched yelp, even occasionaly baring his teeth. Livvy ran in circles trying to lose the little fucker but couldn’t. He was a brown dog, smaller than she was, with a pointy snout. I stood to defend her, then realized though irritating the little brown dog was harmless and sat back down. By then Livvy was over the whole situation, came to me, hid under my legs and nudged the leash into my hand. Then, she looked up at me clearly indicating she wanted to leave. If I were her I might’ve put it simply, “This guy is making me crazy with his incessant talking; can we get out of here?” But Livvy was saying more precisely, “Don’t ghettoize me to the dog place: I aspire to the life of a squirrel.”

Outside the dog run we took one more loop around the real park, carefully taking note of every squirrel in the bushes and trees, then made our way home.

I made buscuits and gravy with sausage and two fried eggs and put a little gravy over Livvy’s kibbles, which she appreciated and consumed rapidly. Then while I was eating my breakfast she went to the living room, retreived her toy squirrel, presented it to me, then as if in performace, eviscerated it on the kitchen floor. She held the toy between her front paws and knawed at its belly until it split, then tore out every last bit of white cottony stuffing, removed the squeaky toy and chewed it until it squeaked no more. Then she left the bits of plastic and cotton and the lifeless shell of squirrel toy in a pile, returned to the living room and went to sleep.

Yesterday when Livvy eviscerated the toy—that time it was an owl—I did not think much of it, but since then everything is different. I have preceived her intelligence, her ability to intend. It began with her intention to turn right out the door last night to go to the rat hunting ground, then there was the difference in attitude towards the rats and squirrels, and her disinterest in the dog run. She makes observations and judgements, perceives a heirarchy of things, of which I am a part, and has desires and intentions within the boundaries of what she knows.

If Olivia has the ability to perceive a repitition i.e. when we turn right out the front door, then left up Greenpoint Ave we are going to the rat hunting ground—something she desires, longs for, intends to repeat, she must also perceive the repitition of my ultimately restraining her just before she captures the rat. That is a far simpler thing to remember than the directions through my neighborhood. If she recognizes this pattern, she must in some way recognize the futility of the excersise. No matter how vigilant she is, no matter how intently she stalks, she never catches the rat.

The simplest way to understand this is stupidity. I recall a cartoon depicting a dog on a leash tied to a tree, longing for a hot dog just out of reach, endlessly hopeful despite never achieving his goal. That dog is stupid. He clearly lacks understanding of the full situation. It is possible Livvy is longing all the time for the moment when—out on the hunting ground, where she has deliberately led me—I slip up just at the right moment and she actually catches the rat, which she then eviscerates. In that case the chirade with the toy is simply an expression of her murderous fantasy. The rat is just another hot dog.

But a human drew that cartoon and it’s humans who condescendingly declare dogs simpler creatures governed by primal animal instincts. Livvy, unlike the dog in the cartoon, is aware of the bigger picture, the futility of the hunt and even my role as protector. It was clear the moment in the dog run, when she nudged the leash into my hand. She was much bigger than the little brown dog barking at her and if she was in fact governed by her primal animal instincts she could easily have used force to get him to desist. We all saw what she did to the toy squirrel. She could have torn out his throat and knawed at his belly until his guts were spilled and he was a lifeless carcus lying in the muddy end of the dog run. His owner was certainly too self-absorbed to protect him. But instead Livvy showed herself more evolved than that. She would rather take her place in the hierarchy of creatures with me as her protector than fight it out for sovreignty of the ghetto. She would rather spy into the secret world of squirrels from safety at the end of a leash than play fetch or run around in circles with other dogs.

I am more like Livvy than I realized when I met her. I too long for freedom. I fantacize about returning to my primal instinct and capability and yet I maintain my fantasy from safety.

Last year I went to Nepal. It was my intention to hike the Himalayas, to taste freedom and to test my capacity as a man to overcome nature. The Annapurna Sanctuary where I hiked contains three of the highest mountains on Earth and standing below them, my primal instict is to climb, to conquer, to assert myself over the mountains. And yet when I actually got to Nepal I walked to the 4000 meter high Annapurna Base Camp then stopped. I got high enough into the mountains that it was snowing and cold and my head hurt from the decrease in oxygen, but I stopped at the last place with shelter, stayed warm, drank ginger tea and played cards with the other hikers. A short walk above the base camp there was a place where the path continuted another 4000 meters up into the snowcap of Annapurna South. The trailhead was marked by the gravestone of three Koreans who had died trying to reach the summit. From that spot I looked across a great valley to Fishtail, an even higher peak and could hear the avalanches falling at the frequency of every two to three minutes. It was there I realized a limit to my fantasy. I do not want to go any higher. I want to spy into the world of the most extreme freedom and the world where survival is a constant battle, but I don’t want to risk my life for it.

Maybe this is why I live in Greenpoint. I want a taste of what its like to live in the city, to scrounge for survival, the sense I’m part of it all, but I’m neither in the rat race of Manhattan or the struggle of East New York. I’m here with my tree, my café and a park with a dog run. Maybe for all my hunting, I too hide in the protection of the leash.

Livvy must have come to these conclusions before I did. She is after all the one barking at me to put on the leash and take her out for a walk and I am the one putting gravy on her kibbles, not she on mine. She likes her place in the hierarchy of things and is adamant I maintain it for her. There are rats who are the most base and she doesn’t have to kill like they do. There are squirrels who are truly free, but they must survive the winter on the acorns they collected in the fall. Livvy on the other hand lives inside, eating kibbles with gravy and takes two walks every day.

Why then, if Livvy is totally confident of her place in the world, if she enjoys the security of the leash, the privelege, the protected status of having an owner, why are her walks the best part of her day? Why then the ritual evisceration of the toy squirrel?

I already mentioned her enthusiasm when I get home. It is one of the things I enjoy most about having her around, and yet I don’t delude myself into thinking it’s because she likes me that she’s excited. No way. When I get home it’s walk time. She jumps around like a lunitic until I put down my bag, stuff my pockets with poopy bags and put on the leash. She is not excited because I am a genuine, loving human being or because I have an interesting perspective on American politics. No. She is excited because I am her means to a walk. I am the one who will protect her while she stalks to the brink of murder and syphillis and as she dreams her way up to the highest branch on the tree, where no dog has ever been before. The walk is her base camp from which she can look out across the valley at the avalanche. It is hunting rats and understanding squirrels that reminds Livvy she is alive. Far more than eating or sleeping or fucking, it is dreaming that connects her to her primal being, the essential dog at the bottom of her soul that once fought for survival but no longer has to. For that for that she will always turn right out the front door.

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Misty as the Himalayan pre-Dawn

I am back in New York now, and though the grand adventure is over for the time, I realize my reportage is incomplete. When I left off I was leaving India to go to Nepal and spent the next six weeks in Nepal, Himachal, Ladakh and Kashmir, the northern most states of the subcontinent whose borders are formed by the peaks and valleys of the Himalayan mountains. I travelled alone, finally went off the grid of cell phones, wifi (and this blog). I walked in the mountains, talked to the monks and woke up before sunrise most days. I joked to myself (when you are alone for weeks at a time you develop the habit of joking to yourself), “Maybe the purpose of this part of the trip was to earn flowery metaphors like, ‘misty as the Himalayan pre-dawn.’ These were places where the earth is bigger than the humans. Those who make their homes in these places must accept their lives are less significant than the whims of nature. This results in peoples that are gentle and balanced-in more ways than one. In Nepal, the Sherpas, mountain porters, keep their calm demeanor while balancing massive loads of rice, dal, propane and beer on their heads and pacing slowly up and down the trails. In Ladakh, Buddhism is everywhere and in many villages and the city of Leh monks can be heard chanting their droning ‘on mani padme hum’ across the immense flat valleys from monasteries where the same mantras have been voiced since the 13th Century. I imagine the prayers continuing for miles across the open valleys until they collide with the jagged mountains and disperse. In Kashmir I sat on the deck of a houseboat watching the owner shout across Dal Lake to his friends and family who promptly arrive by shikara boat with whatever goods he might need- flowers, vegetables, lamb, fabric for a new pair of pants, a few grams of hash. His friends never failed to stay for a cup of Kashmiri kehwa, the spiced green tea that passes most of the time in Srinagar.

All of these were places that could not be the way they are without the geography and my time was deeply affected by the earth. The truth of traveling in India that I had already come to accept, that nothing happens exactly how or when you expect it to, was amplified tenfold here.

For the first two weeks I climbed to the Annapurna Base Camp, which took several days of rolling green hills through villages, step farms and rhododendron forests, hiking mornings through the hot sun and afternoons through pouring rain. Then I broke snow line and hiked the bright white days on paths blazed by the previous day’s hikers. At base camp I sat at the graves of the mountaineers who had died trying to summit the higher peaks, and watched the avalanches fall. Three of the ten highest mountains in the world are in this area.

The time on the trail was more about traveling than India. I passed evenings with Chinese, Korean and Malaysian tourists who covet these peaks and hike with state of the art gear. I also met some fatherly London gays who had me talking about Sondheim for the first time in months, a German-Sri Lankan who works at an NGO in Vietnam and a shaggy Australian who had been walking barefoot for two months. When we got snowed in, the teahouse dining rooms became equal parts UN summit and Agatha Christie mystery.

I was down out of the mountains and one day away from Pokhara when the earthquake hit. The rumble was noticeable, but being a New Yorker I mistook it at first for a subway train. Of course it didn’t just pass by. And there are no trains in the mountains. I was close to a village house at the time and watched from a little ways up the trail as it shook and a brick fell out of a wall. Then the rumble stopped and I continued on my way. I didn’t understand the magnitude of what happened, but my guide, who knew these mountains well and the way a rumble of this magnitude would be felt in the cities, began to panic. He called his family and spoke to the people in the villages along the trail, and in little bursts we started to get the news.

I was back in Pokhara for the first major aftershock, the next day. This time I saw big buildings shake and watched the town run outside, but like the earthquake the day before, it soon passed and people went back to their business. I learned that two buildings in Pokhara had been destroyed and many of the villages we had passed through in the last week had been badly damaged, but I was lucky to be far from the most severe destruction.

I had been planning on going to Kathmandu the next day to see an old friend and to go to a wedding, but the roads were closed, much of Kathmandu was still sleeping outside in open, public places afraid that more buildings would collapse in the aftershock and the wedding was cancelled. My friend and his family were not hurt, but their ancestral home suffered damage and the most sacred temples and much of their city had collapsed. I spent several days stranded in the paradise that is Pokhara, eating momos, reading the news anxious that I couldn’t help relieve the pain that was growing around the country. I wrote home to let my loved ones in the US and India know that I wasn’t in the middle of disaster, and I waited. It was strange watching the American and Indian media and my friends Facebook feeds obsess over Nepal for twenty-four hours or so, then promptly forget it. In the three days I was stuck in Pokhara, Nepal promptly gave way to the Baltimore race riots which promptly gave way to TONY nominations.

Driving through Kathmandu was probably the closest I have come to feeling what it was like to be in a city ravaged by war. It wasn’t terrifying or dramatic like it was seemed in the news, but somber. It was an entire city in grief. For a place that is famously bustling to a point of chaos, known for its frenetic energy, a smaller Delhi or Mumbai, Kathmandu was still. You could walk down the highway, but couldn’t necessarily drive, there were big rifts in the pavement. Many were inside their homes and caring for family. Others were still sleeping in the squares. The world heritage sites, the temple complexes were filled with piles of rubble. It was only three days after the disaster and there was still a huge gap between the known casualties and the predicted ones. Many of the villages north and east of Kathmandu still had not been reached by rescue efforts, and the magnitude of the rebuilding needed was only just coming into focus.

Now, several months later, my hiking guide is having trouble feeding his family because tourism stopped completely. I was his last trekker. My old friend in Kathmandu has put off travel plans and adjusted his work life to focus on contributing to local outreach efforts and to continue raising awareness and funds abroad for relief and rebuilding. Despite the grand events and news fury having passed, Nepal is at the very beginning of a long recovery.

I didn’t understand, until I visited Nepal, that earthquakes of this magnitude have happened every 80-100 years for all of history. Kathmandu is built on a fault line, and throughout all time the geography has been both protective and crippling. Residents in their 80s lived through the most recent earthquake and their grandparents lived through the one before. In the context of my project about ancestral roots and belonging to a land, I was impressed by peoples’ resolution to remain where their forefathers established themselves. Kathmandu will rebuild itself knowing it will fall again on its grandchildren and I suspect the future generations will also be proud to live in the city of their forefathers.

I volunteered for a couple days with Amod and met his family, but kept the flight I had booked back to India a month prior. I felt both relief and an intense guilt on leaving. My day spent lifting fallen statues and tossing bags of rice onto trucks made too little impact. I badly wanted to contribute something tangible, but lacked the skills and resources to be much more than one more mouth to feed.

Now time has passed, relief efforts are much more organized, but tourism, a major part of Nepal’s economy has taken a huge hit. Maybe one thing I can do now is to remind whoever I can that Nepal is a stunningly beautiful place filled with loving, centered and resilient people who deserve our support and friendship. There is no reason to stop visiting or to forget the place exists. Even during a time of crisis, I was welcomed and protected.

I can also encourage you to learn about Amod’s group, the Global Shapers Kathmandu hub, which is an affiliate of the World Economic Forum but unique amongst international organizations focussed on disaster relief because it is based in Kathmandu and partners with other local NGOs to work towards the long term wellness of Nepal. This approach seems more connected to people and development than simple disaster relief.

Not long after leaving Kathmandu, I arrived in Chandigarh, a city that had been unfamiliar two months earlier and now felt like coming home. My relatives took me in once again, and convinced me to rest a few days before heading north to Ladakh and Kashmir where I would continue learning what it means to say ‘misty has the Himalayan pre-dawn.’

Fragments, The Discovery of India


March 31, Bandra West, Mumbai…his visceral negative reaction to my half-joking idea of making an epic biopic portraying Guru Gobind Singh as a freedom fighter and neglecting the religious narrative, led to a great argument about art, India and cultural appropriation, eventually digressing to such topics as Jawaharlal Nehru, Anne Bogart and after tasting one of each from the Punjabi sweet shop, what makes an ideal ladoo.  I promised to read only Indian authors for the rest of my trip, begining with Nehru’s The Discovery of India.

April 2, Oshiwara…like L.A. with more chai.  There were beautiful actresses and pretty boy actors and cameramen with ponytails, people running wires and drinks in every direction.  There was a goofy looking acting coach with “Air Conditioned Shoes” who quotes Stanislavsky in Hindi and his mustachioed student, with muscles and broad shoulders, who was set to play a Maharasthran freedom fighter in a film shooting next week.

…by the third High Life we wondered if our similar taste was genetic.  She also keeps Gabo and Neruda on hand, listens to the blues and prefers runny eggs. Realizing I had neglected the entire modern history of music, theater and politics of the Punjab, she began eductating me, translating plays out loud with the Coke Studios Pakistan sessions playing in the background.

April 3, Bandra West…Though disapointed the woman with the yellow dress was married to the famous film director, I was pleased to learn Bollywood parties sometimes end with Butter Chicken.

April 5, Rajasthan...  I visualized the pee returning to my intestines, I contorted my body in all directions, then I felt the bus slow.  I looked out, it was a toll.  I poked my head out of my berth into the isle just in time to see the driver pull out of the toll booth. 

April 7, Udaipur… At dawn in Udaipur, the owners of the lakeside hotels bathe naked on the ghats.  The women sit on the edge washing clothes, beating out the soap with a cricket bat.  The young boys swim halfway across the lake to the island haveli which is now in ruin, and climb up on the roof.   Now the owner of my hotel comes to the water’s edge in a towel with three sticks of incense in his hands, palm to palm in prayer.  He closes his eyes and gives puja before getting dressed and beginning the day.  All day his wife rinses the linens and the boys run up and down the stairs bringing Kingfisher to the tourists while he dozes at the front desk and his father reads the Hindi papers by his side.

April 8, New Delhi… the apartment above the gurdwara which felt foreign a month ago is now familiar.  After chai and paranthas and a short rest, she came with me back to the train.  Riding the bicycle rickshaw down the little streets in the afternoon light of the neighborhood where she grew up, it could have been a hundred years ago.  She is older and more petite than I had realized and spoke to me gently asking, “When do you plan to get married?”

April 10, Varanasi… talking to a man in charge of bathing nine children in the Ganga.  Two were his, three his brother’s, and the rest belonged to a friend.  One boy, maybe eight years old jumped like a lunatic off the steps .  The twelve year old girl was shy about the cold water.  The younger children were just learning to swim and he made floatation devices for them by wrapping the woven towels the Sadhus use for bathing, around empty jugs pilgrims buy to take Holy Water back to their families.  I slid down the steps into the water, then climbed back up and sat in the sun while the fleet of little ones swam between the cleated boats.

April 11, Varanasi…They each danced, then there was a long duet.  Their love was difficult.  In the end she murdered him, maybe with magic.  He quivered and jerked as she waved her hands from across the stage.  Then she held his head while he died and smiled to the audience.  I left.  I bought a bottle of water and bargained for a rickshaw back to Assi Ghat.  The crowds were gone except for a few kids smoking hash and playing guitar down by the Ganga.  I walked the length of the old city covered in orange paint, ghee, holy water and other peoples’ sweat.  There were temples I hadn’t noticed in the day time with a few people left giving puja and being seen by their god in candle light.

April 12, Train to Patna… When I was younger I used to have a recurring dream of a cube shaped robot on legs I could live inside.  It was metal on the outside with cranks and wheels and wires and tubes like the pod from a space ship.  It could walk on legs or drive on the wheels hidden in its feet.  Inside it was cozy, soft, with little screens and windows telling me where I was and where I was moving.  My books and supplies were held inside the walls in shelves and compartments, and a table, a bed and a hammock would all fold down so I could use them or disappear if they weren’t needed.  It was a private world with everything needed to live and dream and it could take me anywhere I needed to go.

April 13, Bodghaya… I sat still for a long time and tried to meditate under the tree where Buddha first became enlightened.  It was peaceful and beautiful and the pilgrims eminated happiness.  It was obvious that the Buddhist palces are the places that resonate with my sense of spirituality.  I felt comfortable in a way I haven’t been in any other temples or Holy places including the ones I grew up in.  

…I vomited in the bathroom at a roadside hotel on the way back to Patna.

April 14, Patna… I rode on the back of a motorcycle with her nephew to the gurdwara commemorating the place where Guru Gobind Singh was born.  The grunthi put a long stole around my neck and the nephew said he was happy to share his religion with anyone who wishes to know about it.

…after telling me the story of the Ramayana she said, “Learning only takes you so far in India.  To know India fully you must fall in love-with the full devotion of loving someone as if they are your god.  Then you know what India is built on.”

April 15, Raxaul…We pulled up to a traffic jam and were about to be passed by a horse buggy full of propane tanks when the horse collapsed and died.  The propane tanks spilled into the road and the driver jumped down to the road prodding the horse with a stick to no response.  

28 & 88

When I woke up in India for the first time, it was cool and misty and the backyard was full of monkeys.  That was nearly a month ago in New Delhi and since then I have filled an entire leather bound journal (the only acceptable kind) with notes, stories and maps, phone numbers, railway bookings and diagrams of different branches of my family tree.  Selfishly I have so far kept all those notes to myself and this is the first time I have turned on the internet machine, but now the times have changed, Grandpa and I have parted ways and I find myself in my friend’s apartment in Mumbai with wifi and more importantly AC, so I thought I’d give you a little update.

For a start, I’ve done the thing I set out to do- I listened to Grandpa tell the stories of his life in India in each of the places where the events took place.  The tape was rolled, the stories were told and I have an awesome book in the works.  “Mission accomplished” as as my travel buddy would say. Very quickly though, I realized that there is more for me in India than a story: I have a huge family filled with people who have embraced us, taken us in and lovingly fed me more aloo paranthas and mattar paneer than I ever thought possible.  Over and over again I have had delightful little moments when I realized people I was meeting for the first time look like me, share instincts, tastes and habits with me, and have had lives full of love and loss, personal triumphs and obstacles overcome.  As it turns out, the family history is my history, but also the history of all the people I met here.  Every time we sat down to chai, the family gathered around and started listening, and in the morning there were eight of us in a van headed to one of the locations we hoped to track down.

In Sanawar, we visited the Lawrence Royal Military School where Grandpa, his parents and his two unmarried sisters lived under a veranda for the first couple months after partition.  Grandpa’s brother worked at the British prep school, and was able to get the family onto the poperty even though “dogs and Indians” were not allowed, but never into decent housing.  The gymnasium where their two sisters were married was still standing, and we went inside.

In Amballa City, we found the plot of land Grandpa’s father was given by the governement in exchange for the land left behind in Lahore.  In his papers there was a will written by his mother in Urdu (that we were all surprised he could read) describing the plot of land, the block and house number, and a description of the house (two rooms, walls of uncooked bricks and mud plaster) and the fact that it was across the street from a certain havelli.  We found the plot of land and a very old man who did not remember my great-grandfather, but could confirm that the crumbling building across the street was in fact the havelli described.

In New Delhi, we visited Connaught Place where Grandpa did a breif stint at an architectural firm before getting his first real engineering job, and 73 Kalka Nagar, the bungalow where he lived once he began working on the construction of the Bhakra Dam, one of the first major public works projects created by modern India.  Outside the bungalow, he pointed out the place where he ran to get a taxi to take Grandma to the hospital the night my father was born.

To get into the property of Bhakra Dam we pretended to be veterenarians attending an animal welfare conference on the other side of the Dam site and with the help of a friend of my uncle and a stealthy driver somehow managed to stand just above the dam and listen to Grandpa tell the story of the time he was liason between the design office and Le Corbusier, who came to give an architectural treatment of the dam after completing the layout of Chandigarh.  60 years later, Grandpa still remembers the technical details of the dam construction and all the details of his argument with Le Corbusier about whether the dam should be designed for utility (Grandpa) or beauty (Corbusier).

I’ve started calling the first stage of the journey 28&88 because more than anything it was about spending time with the guy.   We have traveled together wonderfully, accomplished our ridiculously ambitious goals, dipped our bodies in the holy waters of the Golden Temple, pulled an all-nighter on a sleeper train.  Despite the sixty year gap and our different skills (he speaks Punjabi, I can see the buttons on the phone) and different needs (afternoon nap, laps around the cricket field, respectively) it turns out we are pretty similar dudes with great love for each other, our family and the art of storytelling.

I’d tell you more, but at least twenty minutes have passed, which means I’m due for the next cup of chai. Maybe I’ll write from Varanasi.

28&88 Signing out.

 

 

Seven Suitcases

In 1947 India was partitioned into three countries, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The lines were drawn in part based on religious majorities determined by a British census but also after lobbying from different factions of the revolutionary movement. For most of India, Partition took place on Independence Day, August 15th, but my grandparents, then Sikh adolescents living in the integrated and cosmopolitan city of Lahore, experienced Partition on August 17th when the newly appointed Prime Minister Nehru traded a section of the state of Punjab (including Lahore) to Pakistan in exchange for a part of Kashmir that included his own hometown. As confusion and violence escalated in Lahore, it became clear that all Sikhs and Hindus would have to leave and go to India.

My grandfather was twenty years old at the time and was given the task of packing the family’s belongings into the seven suitcases they found in the house so he and his elderly parents could flee. The family was rich in property, which obviously could not be packed in suitcases and the capital they had saved was held in gold bricks in an underground safe and was too heavy to carry. Overnight these things lost their value. His task became to choose what few items he and all his descendents would inherit that would represent the entire family history up until that point.

I started listening to Grandpa’s stories without intention. I was in love with a woman who grew up near where my grandparents live in Maryland and I stopped to see them one night while I was visiting her family for Thanksgiving. Whether it is because he is Indian, a retired project manager or just old, whenever I visit Grandpa has prepared a detailed agenda of things for me to take care of—fix the curtains, reinstall the driver for the printer, teach him how to listen to Sikh prayers on his iPhone—but this time he had a different ‘agenda item.’

Discovering he was the first turbaned Sikh ever to live in Cleveland, a historian had asked him to write down his Partition story. Knowing my job has always been words—I’m a lyricist, not a historian, but nonetheless—Grandpa decided that I should be the one to transcribe the story and write it up in ‘proper English.’   I started a voice memo on my phone and chased him around his basement while he produced each of the items he had packed in the seven suitcases 68 years ago and described them for me.

I listened to the list of things he’d carried—a silver handled cane that belonged to his grandfather in the 1800s when he worked in the court of Maharaja Partap Singh of Kashmir; the preserved navel of a buck deer that was a gift from the Maharaja himself, holds medicinal powers, and has ‘the most beautiful fragrance known to man’; a piece of fabric that was part of a prayer shawl his grandmother had wrapped around her shoulders in Kashmir and his mother held in her hands in Lahore and eventually he draped over his head and turban while he prayed for his children and their children in Delhi then Cleveland, Miami, Atlanta and Maryland. There were photos and letters, strange little artifacts and important documents that told our family history.

Hours passed that first night and we didn’t even get to the Partition Story. Over the next two years, I returned to Maryland with intention. I started to spend time with my grandparents—for the first time really—and I realized, like when Grandpa had to fill seven suitcases with our family history, I had the opportunity and responsibility to do the same for myself and for the generations to follow.

I have never been exiled. The times I have packed suitcases have been of my own volition—to go on tour, to explore in Central America, to go to grad school, to move in with my girlfriend.   I’ve been lucky in that way, and yet as my grandparents age and I get more involved in life in New York and the dream of building my own family and telling my own stories, I feel a sense of urgency to find out what has happened before.

So I’m collecting the stories. I’m writing a book about my grandfather, about myself, about our family and about the idea that you can choose what you wish to inherit. I have packed another suitcase and so has he, and we’re going to return to all the places in India he lived in the first ten years after partition before moving to the United States. When we get there, we’ll sit together, roll a tape and see what there is to discover.   Later, I’ll sift through and decide what to include in my Seven Suitcases.