Arriving in Mysore after yet another overnight train journey left me drained and unexcited due to a posse of Indian business men who entered the sleeping carriage at midnight and then proceeded to play the latest Bollywood hits on their mobile phone MP3 players. This level of disturbance and rudeness is quite rare in India but the politeness extended to a live and let live mentality in the rest of the carriage and nobody spoke up and being alone I didn't want to draw attention to myself. But I fumed as I struggled to sleep on the rocking rolling riding.
Mysore was a city alive with possibilities. I checked into a cheap but clean hotel and hailed yet another killer rickshaw to take me to Gokulam where I knew the yoga shalas (schools) were. Suddenly I felt very alone, adventurous and out of my safe zone as the natives in this area weren't so used to English speakers and I had to survive on my wits. Also bear in mind that illiteracy is high and so writing a name of a place down won't get you there any quicker. I didn't realise that Gokulam could be pronounced in so many ways. The emphasis is on the 'go' or the 'ku' or the 'lam' depending on the driver you ask. It's a funny situation saying the name twenty times until realisation dawns on their faces and they repeat the name the same as you've been saying for five minutes. And they are so happy with themselves grinning as they put your fragile life state in the balance whilst negotiating a roundabout whist continuing to turn around to beam at you and repeat the name of your destination. Gokulam, Gokulam.
I arrived at the yoga shala of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. The famous founding father of contemporary Ashtanga yoga made popular by Madonna and co. I felt like the new girl at school. After enrolling and committing myself for a month to a tough physical regime, I set about looking for somewhere to live for a month close to the shala. I quickly came unstuck...the busiest time of year for yoga students and the only option was expensive hotels or shop doorways. I stood in the street after a long fruitless walk to find something/anything/no room at the inn and I noticed a statue/shrine to Ganesha the elephant God. Ganesha, I have been told is the God of beginnings and remover of obstacles. So, not being one to pass up the opportunity of a good prayer I asked Ganesha to please help me out of this lime pickle and send me a nice place to live.
Dear reader, would you believe it? Within 45 seconds a friendly face popped out from under the shop counter and asked if he could help me? I explained my predicament and within five minutes I was standing in the kitchen of Pushpa's house being fed delicious Indian breakfast and handing over a months rent for food and lodging all within walking distance of the yoga shala. Bingo wings and elephant wishes. Ganesha is now my secret favourite deity...he wasn't always an elephant but it's a long Hindu story. I still say thanks to him when I see him and that's a lot. There are so many Ganesha shrines and temples.
Pushpa, my landlady, had only decided that morning to see if she could squeeze a couple of yoga students in to supplement her meagre earnings as a language tutor. All my luck but she says it was hers as we became firm friends despite having completely different ways of living. She is a devotee of the local Ashram and spends most evenings there in meditation and is a devout Hindu. Never married she is leading a pure life to get closer to God on her death. Hindus believe that the soul reincarnates, evolving through many births until all karmas have been resolved, and moksha, liberation from the cycle of rebirth, is attained. Pushpa, bless her heart, has had enough of being reborn. I, meanwhile, probably have a long way to go to attain the purity and full set of halos that she has.
She was the greatest cook, the best coffee maker and to wake every morning to her performing her puja (Hindu cleansing prayers) was a delight. She washed the front step down every day and drew a new Rangoli design on the path to keep out evil spirits. Bells were rung and bananas and grapes and incense were offered to the Gods. I learned so much being with her, she was a gem cut from the finest diamond. She was as interested in our 'culture' as I was in hers and she insisted in oiling my hair like an Indian lady and squishing a Hindi prayer of sandlewood paste on my forehead, whilst I traded her fast acting Nurofen for her slipped disc back pain. She was surprised we don't have fresh coconuts in 'our place' and to be honest if she left 'her place' for 'our place' she would probably expire on the spot. I tried to explain about life in the West but she doesn't even have a t.v so her life and her world is Gokulam. And very refreshing it was too. She became a second mama to me (of course noone could replace my Jeannie) plaiting my hair before yoga and telling me to wash my hands and nagging me into eating more than is good for me.
I finally found the true heart of India, by living in an Indian home. I absorbed so much colourful detail about the Indian way of life. Walking to yoga every day was an orchestral arrangement in rural village life. Always passing 5 or 6 wandering holy cows munching on people's gardens and seeing the same children who shouted 'hello, what's your name?' every day for a month. And if you pause to engage in this you get asked your mother's name, your father's name, your sister's name, your brother's name and then all the way back to what's your name. All this from a grubby bare footed three year old. Every morning I saw the lady whose sole task in life was picking up the cow pats and make a big cow pat pudding with her bare hands then these were hand formed into little cow poo pattercakes which were put all along the ditch to dry and would be later used as fuel for cooking the evening meal. The 'ironing man' had a hole in the wall ironing parlour and I couldn't even lift the heavy brass iron. He slammed it around ineffectually ironing all day. Muscles galore though. The local shop was a hatch into a living room piled high with groceries. I couldn't recognise much except coffee and washing powder. Milk comes in a plastic bag and packaging was refreshingly minimal on everything.
Yoga was a dream. All that collated energy, all those young warriors bending and twisting like flamingos, the sound of breathing amplified by the room's acoustics. No whispering or talking, just absolute focus on the practise. The only sound was the clicking and unclicking and cracking of my knees and toes. Hmmm. I was a mere beginner by the standards around me but I was full of determination and tried to undo 43 and a half years of no yoga. I worked very hard at my practise. Often wet through by the end of it. I was bendier and calmer and kept trying to emulate a state of grace which was usually ruined by the next rickshaw driver. I saw some incredible yoga postures and some world class posers. In the afternoons at the local hotel pool I saw too many skinny malinky girls eating lunch (three almonds)with a foot around their necks or young stud warriors diving into the pool whilst maintaining a yoga posture. I soon found the rebellion group (the oldies) and we had a good social life, eating cake and sunbathing and talking. I made some good friends.
I have made a great new friend, Anette, around the same age as me, 6'2" and utterly gorgeous supermodel material. She was a German living and working in Switzerland and we became firm friends. Until I met her I was pretty much a Loulounomates and then a whole world opened up for me in the local community. I think she just helped boost my confidence and told everybody about my creative work. I did some bookbinding classes & I became involved in a couple of art projects (one nearly got me arrested, long long story, invite me round for dinner) and helped raise money for a local charity that feeds the homeless every day. Three pounds sterling feeds 45 people breakfast and 10p gets them registered at the local clinic where they can get medical help which many are in need of. I saw so many physically disabled people on the streets. A man with no legs and a tray with castors as his transport. A dwarf man with no legs who used two blocks of wood to shuffle around on. People really in need of help. Operation Shanti is run to help these people and they do a really good job. What I did was a mere pinprick on a bunch of bananas.
And the stories could continue into the night but I have to end it here. Maybe I'll write that book everyone keeps telling me to write. Maybe I wont. But thanks for reading. I'm flying home on Friday. I miss everyone so much. It's going to be a shock after all this diversity and twanging of my imagination. In India I have had the luxury of time to dream and observe. It's a beautiful life for all of us despite the troubles we have to bear. And I think we should all be grateful that we've simply got legs (apologies to Ronnie here) and that we don't make cow pat puddings as a career option. You are all special and much loved by me and thanks too to Ganesha.
And the biggest thanks go to my dad. If it wasn't for John I wouldn't have got round to doing this trip, he told me to go and do yoga and I miss him every day. Thanks dad.
Cor, that was like my very own acceptance speech...
much throwing of roses,
Love and lotus flowers, lentils, garlands and Gods