Singapore: Cultural Diversity

My arrival in Singapore was smooth, the airport was clean, the clearance was quick, and the welcome was warm. What a mix of shiny sleek high-rises and low charming colonial architecture, rich modern malls on wide boulevards, and the pulsating density of Serangoon with its millions of closely packed stalls of Indian, Chinese and Malay foods. There is even a Macdonald’s tucked away in the heart of Serangoon. Thankfully it gets lost amidst the exciting flavors of the other local cuisines. Indian, Chinese and Malay are the three dominant ethnic groups that make up most Singaporeans, and I noticed that the national anthem on TV was sung by people in costumes that reflected this ethnic diversity.

On the way to the university I spotted a temple very ornately decorated, with a massive awning and canopy as though for a huge festival of sorts. My colleague told me that it was for the Seventh Month Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. The seventh month of the Chinese lunar year falls in August and with it came the festival of the Hungry Ghosts. This festival is taken very seriously by the Chinese. It is believed that the gates of the other world are opened and all the spirits are released from the ethereal world into the real world. Filial piety and the duty to look after one’s parents and ancestors  is observed as the spirits of deceased family members and ancestors are honored by the living descendants through food offerings and the burning of incense. Sometimes paper lanterns are floated into the water to light the path home for souls that might be lost. Meals are served in homes with empty places at the tables for the deceased ancestors to dine along with the living descendants in each family. It is a time to pay respect to and honor the elders and the departed.

Interestingly, almost every Asian country in my travels appeared to have a variation of this custom and cultural value that venerated the elders of the community. Perhaps customs such as these ensure the prolonged adult-child continuity that is characteristic of traditional societies around the world, and that is manifested in the inter-dependent parent-child interactions often seen amongst families from those communities...

India: Pune, Mumbai and the Great Divide

The bus trips between Pune and Mumbai were quite an experience. Why on earth did I even remotely imagine that it might be like a Greyhound bus ride? I was told that the Volvo bus service is the best and so looking forward to a luxurious and comfortable bus ride (even hoping that there might be Wi Fi like the kind you get on the Bolt bus) I got onto the bus at Wadia College in Pune…
I was in for a surprise: No reserved seats, no specific bus stops, getting on and off at random points on the highways, hauling your own suitcases across streets and over ground where there are no streets, fighting for the seat you reserved because other people did not reserve seats and yet sat wherever they wanted to, trying to dig for information because no reliable information is ever provided on the phone or in person, learning how to read geography to know where you are because there are no street signs, learning how to hold your body so that you don’t give out the wrong signals to the leering males who might be sitting next to you on the bus… Yes, a different kind of skills set that Indians have to learn in order to successfully navigate living the ordinary life in India.

This brings me back to the great divide between affluence and poverty in India. In my few days in Mumbai I felt the same phenomenon of parallel universes that I had felt in Singapore. I was living in this universe of affluence but could see right through its transparent walls where next to me was the universe of poverty and squalor. But I could not get near there – I could not cross the dividing line, I could not step through the glass wall that divided these two worlds – the highway was too far removed from the roadside, the car was moving too fast to stop or allow my camera to take a picture, the apartment building was too high up on the hill, Peddar Road was too far away from Dharavi, Shiro’s was too far removed from the dhabas.
I could see the other world but I could not reach out and touch it – there were too many barriers. I would have liked to stop the car on the highway, get off and walk over onto the roadside and enter the world of slums, narrow streets, crowded alleyways, smelly sewers, dirty stalls, stray dogs and half-naked children playing on the streets – to get a feel for a Mumbai one seldom experiences because we happen to be born on the other side of the fence. But I know that along with all the squalor is also all the color, the vibrancy, the music, the dance, the layer upon layer of history and the arts and the context, the warmth and generosity of the human heart, the strength of the human spirit, the faith of human devotion, the potential of the human mind, the India that is Indian and not the India that is colonial and in being that is so “western”…

India: Unrest and Stillness in Ahmedabad

I awoke in the morning feeling very enthusiastic about my plans for the day which were to go to Sabarmati Ashram where Gandhi lived for several years. I got ready to leave the hotel when I was told that because of a rally all the city streets were closed to traffic. Why is that surprising? After all, I am in Gujarat, a state in which ethnic unrest is not uncommon. This day marks two significant events – the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition several years ago when a Muslim mosque was demolished in Ayodhya; and it is also the death anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar, India’s champion for the downtrodden scheduled castes and untouchables.

It’s intriguing that here I am in a city where Gandhi lived and spread his message of peace for about 15 years and yet the place is marked by the violence of riots, rallies, and deep-rooted discrimination. Gandhi’s influence, though secular and tolerant, inadvertently resulted in an intense feeling of nationalism; and although he stood for non-violence much violence does occur in the name of his teachings. Thus Ahmedabad, when it should have been a serene and peace-loving city, often morphs into a volatile space where the streets are deserted and dead, like the calm before a storm, and the only movement on the curfewed streets is the occasional police car rolling by surreptitiously before all hell breaks loose and arrests are made...

It's been long since I have had this experience of not being in control of time and yet feeling a sense of relief in not having to go through a series of schedules: just being and flowing on the currents of time as it passes me by in this hotel lobby where I hear snatches of Gujarati conversation interspersed with piped English music. We, the people in the lobby, busy ourselves with what we can do: I write in my journal and the hotel staff dust, arrange, and re-dust the furniture in the lobby…Sometimes I must surrender to forces that blow in unannounced from out of nowhere, learn to be patient, and learn how to let go of plans. There is an old Sanskrit saying: Welcome what comes and let go of what goes. Interestingly, this attitude would be viewed as rather slack in the Euro-American West where, in a cultural worldview based upon efficiency, punctuality, staying on schedule and meeting deadlines this can be a challenging expectation.

The Sabarmati ashram or Gandhi ashram or Satyagraha ashram - three different names but one space where Gandhi’s memory and his spirit still live on and his voice still echoes in the words of the slogans posted in the museum and in the imagination of those who want to hear him. There is profound silence and peace to be found in the compound as I move from his meditation grounds on the banks of the Sabarmati River, toward his house, and to Vinoba kutir. It is like going back in time, back in history, and being able to imagine and sense the political climate within which my grandparents and parents grew up…

Ahmedabad is an amazing city –colorful and textured. There are so many layers superimposed over each other: symbols of play over symbols of worship over symbols of sustenance and entertainment, poverty and urbanity, stillness and unrest…

Diving in the Maldives

February 9, 2010

More than my fear of heights is my fear of being under water. And so going for my first deep sea dive was somewhat of a milestone for me. I have never been inside the sea except in calf-deep waters along a beach on a calm summer day. But even from the safety of the shore I have been deeply aware of the might of the ocean under the mirror-like calmness of its still surface. I have always feared its heaving force, its mysterious depths, its deepest secrets, the unpredictable direction of its rage.

Not only am I nervous of the sea but I am afraid of having my head under water and not being able to breathe through my nose. My years of yoga practice have trained me to take deep slow breaths through my nose. Now my diving instructor was asking me to breathe only through my mouth. For me to stop feeling the breath in my nostril was akin to not breathing at all. I found myself not only having to unlearn one breathing technique but learn a new way of breathing in just a matter of minutes. And I had to learn it underwater.

So today it was all about trust and surrender at so many different levels – trusting and surrendering to the ocean, my diving instructor, and most of all to myself. There are no words to describe what it took for me to make that first practice jump; to take that first step off the boat and fall into the sea and trust that my universe would still be in order when I surfaced; to put on the regulator and breathe underwater for the first time without letting my nose feel the breath. There were moments when I felt I wasn't going to be able to do it...

But I did. And I found myself under water along a coral reef of incredible beauty on my left, and a deep ravine where the sea bed fell down to over 40 meters on my right. I can only say that as a first time diver this underwater experience felt so unreal that I thought I was seeing the amazing coral, fish, and other marine life as though in a film.

Being underwater was almost hypnotic in a way. Several times I would look away from the sand-covered coral slope and my eyes would be drawn to the sea on my right as it plunged down into darkness becoming intensely deep, mysterious and strangely inviting. There was a part of me that wanted to follow the depths of the ocean and to know its deepest secrets. 

Words by Rumi I had once read came to my mind:

As with the ocean, so it is with life,
Look beyond and further,
And you will surely find
Much more than your eyes can see
Much more than your hands can touch
You may see anew a world
You thought you knew all about.

It was there in the watery depths that I was rediscovering, redefining, and seeing anew the world of my own thoughts, feelings and emotions...

The Maldives: Soundscapes

February 5, 2010

At 6 am the world is such a canvas of tranquility. Outside my Malè window the calm pale blue seas stretch as far as the eyes can see; the skies blush with a hint of rose in the east; and azure ripples waltz gently with the white of light surf, speckled with the gold from the just-rising slant of sunlight.

As on all mornings the music to this beautiful backdrop is provided by the melodious call of the koel in the solitary mango tree that grows underneath my hotel window. I can’t see the koel but I can hear her. The plaintive sound cuts through time and space and takes me into childhood’s backyard when I heard a different koel sing in a different mango tree; and when lazy days were spent in a cloud of comfort that came from just knowing that I was loved beyond all else. The koel’s song this morning unearths those memories which speak of happy times and yet still manage to evoke a feeling of deep sadness - for the loss of childhood, the loss of innocence, and the loss of those who loved me. Yes, the koel’s song is beautiful yet fringed with pain.
Another sound that I have become used to is the call for prayer. Here in Malè there are mosques everywhere – in blues that match the sea and sky, and golds that match the light of the sun. There is a mosque right by my hotel and every day I hear the call for people to come to prayer – to remind them even in the midst of busy diurnal schedules of the bigger force that permeates the universe. Again there is that plaintive quality to the sound of the call – a promise of bliss in whichever form you might be searching for it, a promise of love and hope but also a reminder of loss and pain.

Joy and sorrow – the basics of human emotions - without one we can’t appreciate the other. In journeying through life we perhaps strive for both in our need to know both – just as in this moment I find myself listening for notes of love and loss in the song of the koel and the call of the muezzin.

The Maldives: City Streets

I had found a street map of Malè with great difficulty on the internet, having been surprised at the scarcity of a city map in most of the tourist centers or hotels. The general outline map of Malè is available but not a detailed street map. I soon realized that maps are not a way of life in Malè, and street signs are not always displayed and when they are they are not easily visible. Street names seemed not to be important to local Maldivians. They use a more general sense of direction of where buildings and landmarks are and can take you to a destination but they cannot give you directions using street names to help you find your own way there.

Heading west on Bodhuthakurufaanu Magu my walk took me right along the waterfront since I wanted to catch the sunset over the Indian Ocean. I went past the various jetties for the island ferries, the island tour boats, the Coast Guard and police vessels, the fishing boats; and other supply boats that bring in most items sold in the markets because the country has to pretty much import everything. I walked past the bustling local vegetable and fruit market which obtained its produce even as it was being off-loaded from the boats; the fish market where there were pails of fish so fresh that they were still gasping for breath and struggling to get back into water; past the Customs building, the Port building, the warehouses and tiny stores all the way around until I came upon the west end of Majidhee Magu, the main artery in Malè. Right on the corner was the Vilingili hotel with its terrace-top restaurant the Raaveriya. I went up to the restaurant, got a table overlooking the ocean and the setting sun, ordered a fresh lime soda and spicy grilled tuna and sat down to enjoy the quiet transition of day into dark , marveling at the clean ocean just fifty feet from me, the boats on the sea and the sun sinking lower behind a distant island. When I left the restaurant I crossed the island in the darkening dusk, walking east on Majidhee Magu until I got to Sosun Magu where I turned left toward my hotel.

On one of my walks along the jetties I turned left onto Chandhanee Magu and passed the souvenir stores. There are some really interesting shops on Chandhanee Magu between Majidhee Magu and Bodhuthakurufaanu Magu, but closer to the latter. I went into one of the stores and ended up buying some coral and shell jewelry. After all, the entire country of The Maldives consists of coral islands and this was the place to buy coral! Apart from coral the country is also the tuna capital of the world.

On another day my walk along Fareedhee Magu took me through a very historical and political section of the city: Some of the landmarks I saw were: the Mulee-Aage, the President’s official residence which was built by Sultan Shamsuddeen III just before the first world war; the Hukuru Miskiiy, or Friday Mosque built in 1656 whose walls are made of coral stones and whose grounds hold several ancient tombstones in memory of past nobles and sultans; the Munnaaru, a white minaret built in 1675 from where the chief muezzin of Malè called the faithful to prayer; the Medhu Ziyaarath which is the shrine of Abu al Barakaath Yusuf al Barbari who is believed to be responsible for converting Maldives to Islam in 1153; the Islamic Center, opened in 1984, with its grandiose shining golden dome and a mosque that can hold 5000 worshippers; and the Sultan Park and National Museum. It was interesting to see that one of the buildings on the street housed the 100-year old Scouts Club of The Maldives!

Malè may be tiny but it is a uniquely historical, urban, thriving, busy port in its own right, with a large dose of friendly hospitality, youthful energy, and much optimism for the future…

The Maldives: Introducing Malè

February 1, 2010

As the plane approached Malè International Airport it seemed as though it would land in the water itself when suddenly the runway appeared from almost within the sea...

The waters here are so blue in every possible shade – sky blue, sea blue, deep ocean blue, azure, turquoise, aquamarine, sea green, jade, teale, sapphire blue, blue green. The shallower the water the lighter it is in color, with little black fish darting around just under its transparent surface. The dhoni or the water taxi carried us from the airport - which is essentially only an island with a runway and the terminal - to the city island of Malè about half a mile away. Even close to the jetty the waters were crystal clear and an amazing pale pearly turquoise in color.

The Maldives as a tropical archipelago of nearly 1200 islands is spectacular, and Malè as its capital is a bustling city – all 2 square km of this island can be described as small, new, old, busy, crowded. The streets are narrow, barely allowing two vehicles to pass at a time, and the sidewalks couldn’t be more than 24 inches wide. It’s very urban on a very tiny scale. The streets are cobbled or bricked, and lined with clothing stores, shoe stores, food stores, technology stores, cafes, tea shops, bakeries, tiny restaurants, bookstores, schools, office buildings, national headquarters of various government agencies, residential homes and mosques. People walking everywhere, many cars and many more motorized bikes can be seen on the streets. The narrowness of everything is remarkable – not only of streets and sidewalks but also of buildings, hallways, and staircases. The city is actually like a maze, with streets leading into narrow alleys, many of which are dead-ends. And although the city is so small one ends up driving in a long circuitous way to reach a destination because of the one-way streets and dead-end alleyways. So of course it's easier and faster to walk to your destination. Most women have their heads covered with beautifully embroidered and sequinned scarves called buruga or with the longer black hijab. The language is Dhivehi which is an Indo-Aryan language with a mix of Sinhala, Arabic, Hindi, and Bengali. The script called Thaana is beautiful and aesthetic with tiny neat-looking letters.

The people are friendly and helpful and very conversant in English and even in Hindi. There is more English on the streets here than in Sri Lanka because the medium of instruction in schools is English whereas in Sri Lanka it is Sinhala. The Maldives were never colonized and the underlying currents of colonialism that are so prevalent in India and Sri Lanka are not experienced here.  The Maldives is as Muslim as Sri Lanka is Buddhist and India is Hindu. If the temples in India and the shrines in Sri Lanka were profuse and beautifully constructed, then the mosques in the Maldives are no fewer in number and no less beautiful. My travels have been interesting from the perspective of spirituality and religion as I have tried to understand the influences of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam on society and schools in each of these three countries – India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

For photos click here.

Sri Lanka: The Sri Maha Bodhi Tree

Established in the 1st century BC as the capital of Sri Lanka at the time when Buddhism from India spread southwards, Anuradhapura is home to the Sri Maha Bodhi tree – the oldest known uncloned tree in the world with a definite date of planting. This tree was planted in 249 BC from a cutting from the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya in India under which the Buddha found enlightenment, and which was brought to Sri Lanka by the daughter of Emperor Ashoka.This large bo or bodhi tree is closely guarded and protected by a shrine built all around it.

On the evening that I went to see the tree there were hundreds of visitors -mostly Buddhist monks, nuns and civilians. I offered the pink lotus flowers I had bought outside and added them to the heaps of water lily, lotus and jasmine blooms already there. There was a special feeling in being so close to one of Buddhism’s oldest legacies. Amidst the quiet hum of chanting and praying I walked around the circular path trying to take in the significance of this experience. I couldn’t help but send up my own fervent prayers, earnestly believing that the collective vibrations of this peaceful and positive moment were undoubtedly impacting the vibrations of the larger universe in some way.

Not wanting to leave but having to – such are the pressures we bring upon ourselves when we deal with deadlines and the time-money equation – I walked to the beautiful temple that stood close to the tree, the Ruwanwelisaya which is another very sacred site in Anuradhapura. This stupa is an incredibly tall monument, standing at 300 ft (92 m) and with a circumference of 950 ft (292 m). I stood below it and marveled at the enormity and perfection of the simple yet massive white dome that towered above me. It was dusk and the evening prayers were in session and once again the peaceful chanting of the monk rendered a meditative stance in those who were present. There was an almost involuntary willingness on my part to set aside thoughts of my material life in this material world, allowing my mind to dwell upon the hardest question we choose to ignore - was I doing with my life what I was supposed to be doing with it in regard to its relationship with the universe?