Monthly Archives: November 2008

Without Krishna There Is No Song

Life continues to drag on through these winter months, marked by the coming and going of coursework deadlines and the slow passage of the pale sun. Thankfully, I am the recipient of a great many blessings that nourish me in a very tangible way. They come in different forms, some obvious, some less so. Some present themselves as fresh opportunities, whereas some take the shape of inspiring conversations or a few encouraging words from a close friend or mentor. Some are fleeting – glimpses of beauty or momentary breaks in the heavy cloud. Of these, I feel the greatest blessing is that of the maha mantra. Over the last two years, I have somehow acquired some taste for chanting and it seems that the more I chant, the more I am  presented with opportunities to chant. There’s a Bengali saying- ‘Kanu bina gita nahi’, -‘Without Krishna there is no song’. I meditate upon this more and more these days, as the sound of Krishna’s name, whether sung out loud, or quietly whispered becomes more and more attractive to me. Without Krishna, there is no song, and song without Krishna is hardly song at all. I’ve noted with great interest as my taste for all other music has almost effortlessly begun to wane lately. I’m not making any conscious effort to renounce it, I think I’m just experiencing in a very practical way, the effect of getting even the tiniest hint of a higher taste.

Last weekend, me, Tulasi and our friend Radhika drove up to Oxford to lead their monthly kirtan program. It’s the second time we’ve done it. At the beginning of this year we did it for the first time, and it was slightly scary, but really fulfilling. This time was no different, if anything more relaxed as we knew what to expect this time. We arrived in Oxford early, to have a delicious lunch at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies with our gracious and esteemed hosts, Shaunaka, Keshava, Syama and Gopal Hari. They showed us around the town a little and we got to go inside Gopal’s college – Queen’s. It was quite fascinating. I’ve been around Cambridge, but have never really seen much of Oxford. You can almost taste the knowledge percolating in the air, through the high stone walls of every college and library. It made me lament slightly for the university education I might’ve had, if I had perhaps been more ambitious three years ago. The system of learning at both Oxford and Cambridge is held in such high esteem because it is so unique. Teaching is only done through one-to-one tutorials – unlike almost every other university in the world, including mine, which sees me sitting through a bland Power Point and reading a few hand outs twice a week, then churning out some essays every few months. Still, no point in complaining – I’m almost finished, and life is a continual process of learning, so it’s not as if learning will finish, come graduation day.

After spending far too long examining the underground passages of the library at Queen’s, we realised we only had five minutes to run down the road to the program and had to make a dash for it. We arrived puffing and panting to a roomful of people, waiting for us to begin.

The next two hours were really enjoyable, as we led three kirtans, speaking a little bit inbetween. I really agonised about speaking beforehand. I’m not confident at all when it comes to presenting even the simplest concepts of Vedic philosophy, so I tend to shy away from any opportunity to do it. There’s also the fact, I suppose, that many youth who have grown up in the Hare Krishna movement, have never been systematically trained to present Krishna consciousness to others, or even been taught systematically themselves – therefore I think there’s a distinct lack of expectation amongst others in our society that we should have any enthusiasm, or ability to do so. Still, I have found the experience of actually making that first step (through the gentle yet persuasive encouragement of mentors in my life) both enthusing and educational. As the old saying about teaching goes (badly paraphrased), when you teach something to others, you learn to an equal degree.

Of course, all I said was a few words about chanting. Once I started speaking, I forgot anything I had planned to say, and clutched desperately for the right words. But it was alright. People smiled and listened. I think the greatest benefit of being young is that people are still forgiving, and appreciate the effort, even if it is humble.

So what’s next? On Monday I’m flying to South Africa to take part in their first ever youth kirtan retreat, held a few hours outside of Johannesburg. I’m feeling quite guilty about getting to go, especially as I don’t know how these opportunities keep falling into my lap, but I’m incredibly grateful to the South African devotee youth, and Gaura Vani and the As Kindred Spirits family, who have given me this chance to serve them in a way I have some capacity for. I’m flying out with my violin of course, and assorted textbooks – I have a deadline as soon as I get back, and there’s the small matter of the fact that I haven’t even told my university I’m going to be away for two weeks. Just as well I don’t go to Oxford eh?

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I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

  • The sun set at four in the afternoon today.
  • I observed in the speech therapy practice all day.
  • If I see the same wooden puzzle that begins each child’s session one more time (and it’s been about fifty at least so far) I think I’ll scream.

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H is for: Honey, Hertfordshire, Hives, and Herb Walks

Last night me and my mum went to a talk on beekeeping hosted by the Radlett Horticultural Society. My mum has been a member for years, but she’s never really attended any of the meeting or lectures (I don’t get it either). We decided to go though, as I’ve been interested in beekeeping for quite a while now, and we both thought it would be interesting to hear first hand from someone who’s had success keeping bees in this area.

We planned to miss the Annual General Meeting part of the evening, or rather, planned to be fashionably late. It didn’t seem so fashionable when we showed up at the venue (a local primary school) and it turned out there was only one entrance – the front door of the school hall, which now faced into the seated audience of over one hundred people, all with their eyes fixed in our direction. We moped around in the cold outside for a few minutes, trying to find another way in, but finally had to resort to tapping feebly on the door, until one of the leaders of the meeting, looking thoroughly disgusted, came and opened it.

Once we were in there was no turning back. I suddenly found myself sitting in a sea of silver hair, tweed and woolens. I was probably the youngest there by at least forty years. The meeting droned on. Raffles and trips to Highgrove Gardens, discussions about coach tickets and advertising in the Annual Horticultural Review.

Finally the meeting broke for ‘nibbles’ – Ritz crackers, Pringles, orange juice and wine in plastic glasses. Yawn.

Time dragged on. First twenty minutes, then another twenty. We sat at the side of the hall, inbetween the bee display, already set up before the talk, and the ticking clock. We were attracting a lot of curious stares, probably people wondering who on earth we were – we clearly didn’t fit the profile of the average member.

At long last, the bee keeping talk started. It was quite interesting, but after waiting for so long for it, I got a bit fed up.

The Honey Master himself.

For most of the audience, this seemed to be the social highlight of their week, so they were perfectly happy to draw it out for as long as possible.

Still, I learnt some interesting things, like:

  • You can tell what flowers the bees are making honey from by cross referencing the pollen on their legs with a pollen chart. Every flower has a different colour of pollen, and different combinations of flowers also produce further shades.
  • Oilseed rape, one of the biggest crops (especially around here) is a huge draw for bees, but since its widespread cultivation is a modern phenomenon, it brings new challenges for beekeepers. The honey produced from it crystallises extremely quickly, so it has to be removed from the hive very fast, otherwise it becomes useless. Interestingly, without human intervention, it would therefore also be useless as a long term food store for the bees – they are fully dependent on humans now and would probably not survive for more than six months in the wild. Were it not for beekeepers in Britain, there would be no more indigenous honeybees here.
  • Bees are amazingly civilised and respectful toward one another. If a bee within the hive dies, the other bees will pick up the body and fly it away. They’re practical too though. If it’s winter, and it’s too cold for them to go out, they will unceremoniously push the body out of the hive’s front door.

It was fun just to go to something like this again with my mum. We had a tradition when I was much younger – from about eight or nine years old, that I would go along with her whenever she took part in any agricultural/horticutural workshops and talks. I used to go with her on ‘herb walks’ on Hampstead Heath. From the afternoon until late evening, a group of interested gardeners and herbalists would follow a white bearded expert around the Heath as he identified every herb, and told us about its benefits. I loved it. I don’t know how much I understood at that age, but I relished picking little samples and sticking them in a book along with the name. Through that, and being obsessed with the Flower Fairies, I memorised a huge number of the herbs and wild flowers of England, most of which I can still remember. I still love collecting samples now, especially during my summers travelling in America. It’s so interesting to get to know a country by its plant life. I feel quite ridiculous typing that, but there it is.

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Dial M for Mali

On Wednesday night, Mali took part in his first ever concert at Watford School of Music, where I used to learn violin and where he now learns piano – well, not at the same building. In the past year or so, they’ve moved premises from the old, squeaky staired mansion house where I learnt for 10 years, to a purpose built glass construction, called the Clarendon Muse (but also known as ‘the Ice Cube’).

Mali was really nervous.

It was adorable, but I could also completely sympathise with him. I have been performing a lot lately and for some reason the more I perform, the more nervous I seem to get each time. It’s not the nicest feeling. He was all prepared though. He’d practiced his pieces countless times and new them completely off by heart. The music school had arranged to hold the concert in the beautiful recital hall, complete with a Steinway grand piano, worth about £70,000 (so we were told with pride, by the school’s principal).

One by one, each student got up to perform, most doing an excellent job. The audience was just made up of parents and siblings and assorted recording devices, but the mood was serious – though this was a practice concert, for many students it was their first time performing.

I felt a pride verging on maternal as Mali got up and played his pieces.

Maybe I’m growing more and more sentimental as I get older, but I find myself in a constant state of amazement, seeing how he has grown up and developed. Is this how parents feel? Looking at the face of your child, you see the soft baby you first held, the chattering toddler and the first day of school. All are present simultaneously, and even as you look, changes are taking place. Each day new skills, assimilating new information, forming new ideas, building memories. Buds of ability emerge and blossom into beautiful talents. It’s incredible, not just viewing this from the adult perspective, but also reflecting on you have grown to look on from this mature vantage point, whilst others have watched you from the beginning also, marvelling as you grow and change.

I remember holding him for the very first time, his face screwed and red, squirming with discomfort in my arms. I raced forward in my mind, trying to picture who he would be aged five and aged ten, and we all had fun exclaiming about the fact that ‘When Jahnavi’s twenty, Mali will be ten!’.

Time flies, whether you’re ready or not.

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Jala Dharam

Today the sky is white, trembling with the heavy weight of the water it holds. Puddles rise at the edge of every kerb, turning fallen leaves into sodden piles and catching wavering light, red, amber and green. Trees are washed, trunks slick; faces wet, bent down or only seen in snatches beneath umbrellas. Drops roll down each window: of my quiet bedroom in the early morning darkness, of the train as it speeds through tunnels and underpasses, onto the glass skylight of the classroom as the children sing about baby Jesus and cut coloured card into strips. Time slows down with the clouds that hang low – no telling the hour – just grey light and endless rain.

My mind is elsewhere. Caught somewhere between the dancers I watched yesterday, enacting the pastimes of Sri Hari, until tears rolled – quickly brushed. Somewhere between Goloka Vrindavan and the London Underground. I chant your name quietly to the regular rustle of the morning papers but can’t help getting distracted by the people opposite. The train rolls further and the rain falls still.

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Propositional and Predicate

I feel clever,
just writing Calculus at the top of the page.
Even though it’s not real,
a brief,
dizzying diversion into logic,
sandwiched tightly between noun clauses and maxims of communication.
I smile inside, suddenly smelling my old classroom once again,
Sharp leaded tang of fresh pencil sharpenings,
and apple cores.
Staring at the unfriendly sheets of empty squared paper,
head pounding,
churning cold numbers that refuse to co-operate.
Fractions fold their arms, unwilling to help,
Equations turn their backs,
and even the beautiful angles turn a blind eye,
to my head on desk,
hot, bitter tears.
They splash onto the pages, wetting the formulae,
making them momentarily human,
making them share the pain of not understanding.
They know for a moment, the years of red penned notes –
the ‘see me’, and the ‘Don’t understand your method here’.
The empty years of accumulated noughts
and lines of crosses, interspersed with a rare tick

I remember as I write the word Calculus,
letters curving confidently above the neatly spaced, horizontal lines.
And though my head swims a little, as the teacher explains,
struggling to communicate abstraction to the roomful of blank stares,
I enjoy the momentary rush of fleeting numbers,
and the feeling,
just the feeling,
of being clever.

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Dippy dippy doo – it’s the days of the week…

So went the song the children sang this morning – gathered in an excitable clump on the patterned carpet. I spent the day at One World Montessori School in Hammersmith, West London, as part of the work placement I’m on right now at children’s speech therapy clinic. It was somewhat of a welcome change from the other tasks I’ve been doing, though my job here – sticking like glue to a young boy with severe learning disabilites, poses a huge challenge. He is prone to tantrums, has a very short attention span, and a very unusual (but sometimes charming) fascination with long, well kept hair.

The placement has been hard work so far, in the way of not doing much. I’ve mostly been observing – but after sitting for almost six hours straight on a  toddler size woven plastic chair, as child after child comes into the clinic, my brain (and lower back) start to scream. It has been interesting though. This is the first time I’m working in London, having the opportunity to interact with a whole new sector of society. These people are wealthy enough to afford private therapy, and often private education for their children. They lovingly give them some of the most extravagantly grandiose names I’ve come across. This week I’ve met two Raphaels, Christabel, Olympia – the list goes on. It’s a world of mothers, cashmere coated and concerned, ushering their children in and listening attentively to them as they pronounce their d’s and t’s. Some are less attentive, but no less well off. One mother unashamedly pored through a fashion magazine while her son refused to complete any task, and threw his chair across the room. Many are Jewish – almost a given in this part of London, which adds another interesting dimension.

This placement is just one of the pieces that make up this jumbled puzzle of winter months. The days are depressingly short – dark until late morning and sundown by five, and the cloud cover has barely broken for the past week and a half. Life is a whirl of coursework deadlines, working, driving back and forth to violin and dance lessons, writing essays for university, the temple newsletter, planning the great unknown (life after Graduation), making and breaking appointments, obligations, festivals, trying to chant rounds in a way that feels less like I’m trying to practice spiritual life in a chicken shed (a pretty accurate description of the Harrison household chaos level from 5-9 am daily), training, walking, driving, driving, more driving, trying to speed read textbooks on semantics and Relevance Theory (don’t ask)…..ahhhhhh. I wish the days of my week were a bit more dippy-do right now.

Perhaps I should just go to sleep instead of sitting here at 10.30 at night, uselessly spouting to the proverbial four walls.

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