When First Upon this Country…

So, dear readers, we have now officially completed our first course in violin repair.  The students have been extremely diligent, often giving up their family life and putting their professional lives on hold to participate for 21 days.  To do so, they had to think outside the box and understand that they had a serious opportunity to grasp a new conceptualization of how to approach their work.  A certain sadness was in the air as they left yesterday, even though we will be meeting again on Thursday for a little graduation ceremony with all the patrons of this fine program.  We’ve worked closely together under tight and hot circumstances for the entire time with no sign of tension, humor prevailing the all the while.  Not unlike the crew of a small submarine, never seeing the light of day, all functioning as one.  Our students are our brothers…

The patrons of the program have been exceedingly kind and supportive, yet wish to remain largely anonymous in their magnanimity.  To them we owe a great debt of gratitude!  Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan has been a most incredibly gracious host, being the one whose vision spearheaded this effort in the first place.  He is a grand violinist and no less a grand thinker about the future of all the violinistic arts in India, and has given selflessly in so many ways to make this program a success.  He and the Lalgudi Trust have put Alex and me up in positively royal accomodations and have seen to it that we lack nothing in comforts.  He has seen to it that I was interviewed and published in every national newspaper in this great huge country, with a live radio interview thrown in for good measure.

It was not always this way with India and me.  There have been times in the past when it was downright difficult and lonely.  As I lay in bed in our fine hotel late one night, enjoying all the comforts afforded me so graciously, I couldn’t help but muse upon my first night ever in India, an unforgettable night:

The year was 1979, I had just finished a month long vacation with Peggy in Sri Lanka.  Her work required her to return to San Francisco, leaving me to embark on the grandest adventure of my life–a year of travel in the Indian Subcontinent before returning to Germany to commence with my apprenticeship in violin making.  Fall season was upon me, and time was pressing to be getting along to the Himalaya of Nepal, because trekking for normal mortals at those high altitudes occurs only in a small window of time between monsoon and the advent of hot season.  I met up with a German fellow and we agreed to take every next available ongoing public transportation directly to Kathmandu–a journey of 8 days by train, ship, bus and taxi.  We obtained our Nepal visas in Colombo (the consulate consisted of a gentleman sitting at a card table in a sporting goods strore!), and boarded a train to Talaimannar, where we had tickets for the ferry to cross over to India.

Upon arrival in Talaimannar, we were dismayed to find that an impossible throng of pilgrims and travelers were blocking our access to even come near the ferry.  The crowd literally covered the hillsides in every direction, like millions of ants covering everything.  We had no idea how to proceed when we came upon a group of budget travelers like ourselves who found themselves in the same dilemma.  While pondering the problem, a gentleman appeared as if by magic who proclaimed it atrocious that we should be treated this way and insisted that we follow him.  A thaumaturge who parted the crowd as Moses parted  the Dead Sea, he led us to a large closed gate, which opened occasionally to let passengers with valid tickets through before closing again.  We waited anxiously while he knocked on the door, and suddenly the door opened and a swarm of a half dozen police officers pounced on the poor fellow, knocking him to the ground and beating him viciously with batons.  Somehow, in an instant, he managed to get to his feet and ran away up the hillside, pursued by his attackers all swinging their clubs ferociously.  We never had a chance to thank him for his kindness.  Then the gate opened and a smiling gentleman ushered us onto the waiting ferry for the journey across the Straits to Rameswaram, South India.  Still shocked by the incident with the police, we set sail.

As the ship pulled up offshore, I had no idea what awaited me in India, but onshore I could see nothing but dense jungle and what appeared to be immense towers looming high into the sky, covered with exotic carvings of fantastic figures.  I had no idea that I was looking at some of the most incredible temple sites of S. Indian Dravidian culture, older than dust, inspired by devotion beyond my ken.  I found it odd that we were not pulling into a port, but rather remaining offshore in deeper water, and soon a flotilla of small dugout canoes came pouring forth from the jungle lined shore to receive us.  Like a Tarzan movie.  A large netlike rope ladder type affair was hung over the side of the ship and we had to climb overboard and into the waiting canoes, precariously balancing baggage and fiddle before dropping them to the waiting hands of the oarsmen, who then paddled us to the customs zone.  There, I fell prey to the oldest scam in the book–the bank wouldn’t cash a travelers check, or cash dollars for that matter.  Seems there was a “problem” with international currency exchanges that day.  Of course the bank was in cahoots with a hotel and taxi driver to extort poor exchange rates and exorbitant fees from the unwary traveler who didn’t have the 10 rupees (25 cents) to pay departure tax from the customs zone.  So I was stuck and couldn’t exit for lack of a quarter.  At some point my German friend had noticed my absence and came back to look for me, paid the quarter and busted me out of my prison, but by then everybody had left the ferry and filled the entire town.  Not a room left in the territory!  We went from hotel to hotel–no luck!  Finally, a hotelier took pity on me and offered to store my back pack for a small fee and allowed me to sleep in the hallway of his hotel.  I spent my first night in India huddled against the wall of the walkway, hugging my violin close like my baby, trying to get some well needed sleep, while shadowy figures stepped over me and around me the entire night.

The song goes: “When first unto this country, a stranger I came…”   Well, I’m no longer a stranger.  India has transformed me with it’s curious process of making us it’s own, pulling us in with an acceptance of our own strangeness that is amazing to experience.  India has shown me her secrets;  in return, I’ve given freely of my own.  My eternal gratitude to all the fine artists and musicians of this great country for a wonderful and rich life!  Namaskaram, Namaskaram!

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