These Shillong Stairs…

These stairs
where I stay,
stay me. Each step
differently deep than
the other. My feet are at sea:
now they meet stone too soon,
now they reach for stone not yet there.
But soon I will leave this inn, this town,
these hills, even while they will
not leave me; having taught me
not to take my footing for
granted; having taught me
the unpredictable play
of geography, of traffic,
of taste; and maybe
just maybe rubbing
off on me some
unpredictability.

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Of Stones and Such

This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.

As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.

I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.

I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.

Differently Beautiful

You are differently beautiful here,
in this land of hills, folding over
the other, draping pleat
over knee, over there.

Here You speak in
tongues between the
crow-like beeps of
horns incessant. Here
here You gird Your
loins with hospitality.

You meet me here
in inquiring eyes, eyes
that soften mine. I hear You
call my name in laughter as Your
daughters – strong and nimble –
colourfully and gracefully slide
past muscled motored men, like so
much water navigating rocks,
softening edges
and finding a
way.

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“For some” or “Foursome”

I am now nicely ensconced in Shillong, Meghalaya, India. I’ll be here
for a month, doing some learning with the good folk at Martin Luther Christian University: teaching a course, learning a bit about tribal communities, and doing a workshop for PhD students, among other things. I have been hospitably received, this hospitality being a red thread tying together the mystery that is India.

This is my second time to India, and it seems oddly familiar and oddly strange at the same time. Let me illustrate. In order to gain some bearings as I move through the fog of jet lag, I decided to go for a walk after Saturday breakfast in the guest house where I am staying. My walk gave me an appreciation for the geography of the place. Part of the allure of Shillong, is that it is a city on hills, sharp hills, with lovely multi-story housing clinging to the steep like wild vines to a tree trunk. Winding weathered roads hold these homes together like a net strewn over rocks. I made my way along a bit of string on this walk, which took me to the local golf course right in the middle of town.

This being India, a tour through a golf course is, in itself, a revelation. There are clearly worn walking trails crossing the fairways, reminding me of cow paths back on the farm, meandering from a to b, with enough clarity to know where you are going but with enough drift to make the tour leisurely. They seemed a bit out of place on a fairway. In my experience in North America, the public does not generally swing through golf courses, but here the signs on the course make it clear that it is okay to do this, with a handful of provisos: no lunching on fairways, no meandering on the greens, no balls larger than the golfing sort for sport, watch out for golfers etc. In fact, on Sunday evening at sunset the fairways were full of families picnicking (in defiance of rule number one). It was a lovely sight.

On my Saturday walk after reading the sign, I chuckled and then came upon a most interesting scene. On one of the greens, I was surprised to see a part of eleven – yes eleven! – golfers at play. I have always wondered why four was the magic number on the courses I have played (perhaps an altogether too generous verb here). It seems another magic is at work in India. You play with the number of friends golfing. I later saw a party of seven, and so I can imagine there are permutations above and below and between four and seven, when considering a fitting “some.”

I’m not sure which hit me as more enticing, the idea that a golf course need not be dedicated to one pursuit alone, or whether the rules of the game might be bent to the needs of the community. I suppose, both speak to the reality that is Shillong. I trust that this month will give me yet more insights into not only the oddity of this place, but the oddity of my own, that place that prescribes a maximum of foursome and the dedication of expansive space to those with clubs in their hands.

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In India, You Slip

In another town, another

place, I saw You

unexpectedly; for a time

with a toothless grin, and then

with elegance wrapping You round, You

sat with such poise and then gone – again.

And then Your trace graced my glance

racing to catch You on mother’s

lap in rickshaw.

But no.  No one is fast enough to

snag You, let alone bag You.

In market’s noise, in traffic’s throes, in

India, You slip between like the child

You are, running your father’s errand – You

skirt past me, again and I, I

am caught.

Coloring Hope

Days are slowly drifting into nights, and nights into days.  Slowly is the operative word here.  Jet lag is a worthy opponent and is only beaten bit by bit.  Mid-day naps are no longer de rigeur, but I write this at night and sleep is far from my mind, which is fixated on color at this moment.

People have been asking me of my impressions of India after our short stay there, and I find myself leading with the word colorful.  Time and time again I would lift my eyes from gray street, or dirty near dead dog splayed across my path and a wash of magenta, crimson, and cobalt laying up against ochre hues would baptize my eyes anew.  Saris would bloom like lotuses in the mud brown streets of Mumbai, and the hawkers’ cries of “Please, sir! Buy, sir!” would fade against this shocking beauty.  The press of body against body as everybody made their way to train became, for a moment a distraction rather than a threat.  Color does that to me.  The color in Kerala in Southern India also took me in.  But my mind, in these southern memories, does not go first to saris even though these too were colorful, but to homes.

We spent a few days in rice patty country at a home stay.  Here we could walk along canals used to irrigate the rice fields.  These canals were fed by a broad river located just outside our converted granary’s window (or would that be ricery?).  We could take walks along these canal systems, where women would be washing clothes on the river rocks, and the children would delight at the opportunity to practice their English.  The poverty in this area was not quite so apparent, although clearly some homes were very basic.  But even the most humble abode was painted in bright colors.  From a distance, houses on canals would sit like birds in a tree, boasting their beauty and bidding us to take notice.  As we took note, my wife, youngest daughter and I all recalled how homes in some of the newer sections in certain cities in Canada are these days colored gray, or pale browns.  A car ride’s view while driving through some subdivisions is rather like the erasure of beauty.  I think also of my first impressions of dress in Toronto, some years back, where black bested every hue.  India seemed little interest in this sort of sophistication.  I had a similar impression of color in Newfoundland some years back.  A guide there told us that fishermen coming from sea would want to be able to make out their house as soon as possible as ocean’s horizon gave way to a glimpse of terra firma.  Perhaps some people are more aware of their need for hope than others.

I remain hopeful that I will again, one day, sleep through the night.  This is a rather modest hope in the face of this worlds’ pressing needs.  But every healthy hope bespeaks the greatest Hope of all, and in this time of the beginning of a new year, I hope for all a blessed year with safe journeys and rich remarkable home comings.

Tomorrow, India

Tomorrow, India.  Today, the plane.

This destination is  farther in mind

than body as this

duty, and that

responsibility

hamper, but cannot finally recall, this fall

into happy circumstance.  And soon I will

be where I am in India – not lost between

duty and destiny

but instead in an

auspicious moment, a place along the

way which is my life.

Not all that I expected,

but more.

Dear Readers, a wedding beckons in Mother India.  Friends of ours who have made us their own have invited us and so we go.  It will be a very different Christmas the year and I may have tales to tell.  My pen will be close at hand, but my computer at home, and so I bid you now a blessed season, and look forward to our interaction in the Newest Year.