Wednesday, June 30, 2004

In the Shadow of the Mountain V: It takes all kinds

Continued from In the Shadow of the Mountain I: A silent beginning,
In the Shadow of the Mountain II: The Hunter's Dance,
In the shadow of the mountain: Mastering Anicca
and
In the shadow of the mountain IV: The Mountain Stares Back


On the tenth day, noble silence gave way to ignoble chatter.

All through the ten days, a secret fear lurked in everyone's mind, 'Will we forgot the sound of our voice?' Or worse still, 'Will we lose interest in it?'

But that fear was unfounded. On Day 10, I tried several times to get hold of the single STD line at the centre to wish my mum for her birthday. But the sheer length of the queue and the unhurried pace at which it proceeded thwarted me each time. Jaws hadn't lost their elasticity after all.

Still, the words rolling off one's tongue felt uncommonly good. And the facial contortions which accompanied them seemed comfortingly familiar. Exuberant smiles and nods replaced averted gazes. And a trickle of conversation soon became a torrent. The huge group scattered into little chatty clusters, the ice-breaker being, 'How was it for you?'

Despite the no-eye contact rule, there were certain faces that had piqued my curiosity. And I wandered among the clusters looking for them. One of them was Rukmabai Bansod.

Rukmabai sat next to me in the Meditation Hall. Slightly stooped, she seemed over 50 years. She was one of the few who wore her sari the traditional way (between the legs and tucked in at the back). She was probably hard of hearing, because I had to discreetly nudge her each time her name was called for the interview with the teacher. And from the bemused way she looked at her nametag, seemed unlettered as well. But it was the unexpectedly loud growls from her stomach which got my attention. Initially, they kept me awake, and later, when I was deep in concentration, they made me jump. But I noticed something else about Rukmabai. Despite her age and the swelling in her knee which she massaged constantly, she never missed a single session. Towards the end, participants would leave the Hall before the gong was struck, but not Rukmabai.

It took me a while but I finally spotted her in the Tower of Babble. She seemed delighted that I was enquiring about her and grasped my hand, holding on to it for the length of the conversation. I learned that she was a tribal woman, whose family followed Buddhism and who eked out an existence doing menial jobs. But that hadn't prevented them from going to Sarnath twice and to Nagpur every year, for the Buddhists annual gathering. I was intrigued by her faith and wanted to inquire further but my rusty Marathi put paid to that desire.

Another person I found fascinating was a nun, whose saffron robes contrasted sharply with her olive skin and whose shaven head drew a lot of curious stares. But it was her eyes, which exuded a serenity that seemed other-worldly. The name she had adopted was Shramneri and she lived in a monastery in an unfamiliar sounding town. How did you become a nun, I asked. Her response seemed to come from deep within, 'Pehle se hi man me shraddha thi'. (loose translation: I've always had a deep devotion) The curiosity of a few other women was kindled as well. 'What was your name before you became a nun?', 'Do you meet your family now?', they asked. She coloured under the scrutiny but answered with humility, 'My earlier name is of no relevance anymore. And the people I work with have become my family.' She seemed to be in her early 20s but her wisdom and humility belied that.

The dining hall, which had hitherto only heard the clatter of utensils and shuffling of unshod feet, now revelled in the conversation and laughter. Between mouthfulls of kheer, everyone was asking everyone, 'Kaisa laga aapko' and some woes poured out and some epiphanies.

'It's too long,' one woman moaned to the assistants, 'It shouldn't be longer than 5 or 6 days, don't you think?" The assistant merely smiled. She herself had done three 10-day courses over 2 years and this was the first time as a volunteer.

Three! I was awestruck. Until I met a participant who was doing it for the 14th time. And for those who think a 10-day course is the ultimate in self-flagellation, consider this: There are 20 and 30-day courses as well. And a new facility to offer 45 and 90-day courses is being constructed. Enlightenment in this lifetime, anyone?

As the day wore on, people began easing back into the groove they'd momentarily renounced. Cell phones made their incongruous appearance. Numbers were exchanged and plans to meet in Mumbai were made. My pen was back in my grasp.

As I packed my bags that night, there was a sense of relief and apprehension. It had been an incredible experience, but would it go to nought in the 'real world'? Would chaos usurp clarity? Would good intentions lose the battle with inertia?

Before leaving in the morning, I took one last look at the mountain. The peaks were clear of mists and bright, irrepressible green blotted out the brown earth beneath. In that moment, I knew I had my answers.


(A small note: The experiences I've described are my own and hence purely subjective. My intention was only to share a little about my experience, so I haven't covered the Vipassana technique in detail. I hope I haven't coloured anyone's perspectives by describing the rigours of the course. If you have any questions or would like to clarity on some aspect I've mentioned here, feel free to mail me - leela@mail.com.)

1 comment:

joan said...

Hi Leela, thanks for posting such a detailed experience of a vipassana retreat, I for one needed it a lot. I am going for my first vipassana coming December, feeling bothed challenged and blessed. Looking forward to the serenity of it, and expecting the agony that would come along! Reading your experience made me appreciate even more the skill of being able to write well like what you can do, thanks again.