I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock. I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry. Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime. In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge. I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family. I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.
I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away! The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked. The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state. In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged - many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help. Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore. I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the colorful intricate tapestries they create.
My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds. The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of the lack of natural environment. In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in. I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.
My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California. Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner? Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.
Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.
As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.
After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM on Saturday night – the height of travel at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me. I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks. Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.
When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.
I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left. And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.
These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..