Category Archives: The Journey Begins

Houston, We Have Touchdown

Hip hip hooray!!!   Alex, my wonderfully humorous computer genius and all round good buddy and grand daughter ersatz, has safely arrived!  Her Tamil skills are already better than mine.  Ahh, but my nerves for the India experience are far more finely honed…

Upon arrival, our driver is piloting us out of the airport parking lot, when suddenly, Alex emits a horrible guttural moan.  I glance her way, fearing something is dreadfully wrong.  An unknown manifestation of jet lag, perchance?  She’s wide eyed in terror, arms and legs all fully extended, bracing against whatever is available in the back seat of the car, not unlike the vision we get of a cat being forced into a bath.  I hadn’t even given it a thought–she’s entering that great flow of beings, all diverse in their vehicular modes, as our driver swings into the divine flow of life known here as morning traffic.  I screech with laughter, she hides her face with both hands and looks away.  Hahahahahaha!  Wait until we have a little lesson on our first walk on how to
cross this same traffic on foot.  Soon we will both come to understand the smile of equanimity on the tranquil face of the Buddha…hahaha

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Work Benches and Nocturnal Wakefullness

Did I mention that I’m often hauled out of deep sleep by the telephone?

Just when I thought I had beaten the dreaded jet lag, the phone rings, loudly enough in my dreamless state that it would wake the security guard who is usually to be found sleeping soundly in front of Krishna’s house.  Hello?  “Who am I where am I what am I is throbbing in my skull.  It’s dark outside, it’s Krishna on the phone.  Doesn’t he ever sleep? Truly one of the great mystical beings of Asia that I’ve heard about…like the miraculous non-eating saints of the Ganges River.  “What time is it?”  Four o’ clock in the morning, of course..

“The bench is being delivered, and the workmen can’t get it up the stairs.  Is it OK to just install it downstairs?”  Far from the students?–no way.  It’s made to be taken apart for transportation, just find the screws that hold the table to the legs.  Not happening–WHAT?   I rise from my sleep, MacGyver at your service.  Without hesitation I command poor Krishna to get in the car and pick me up in five minutes.  Turnabout is fair play…

We arrive at the house and 6 burly dudes have the bench on it’s side in the hall.  Krishna is clearly stressed.  The security guard is still peacefully snoring at the gate.  Traffic laws don’t allow trucks to deliver during daytime traffic hours and Krishna is worried that the dudes will just consider the delivery accomplished and leave–your problem now.  The bench which is meant to disassembled is screwed and glued together–disastro!  My trained eye quickly determines that the culprit is the white cabinet maker glue, Fevicol, the favorite glue of the destroyers of violins in India.  With a sledge hammer and some heavy heaving and grunting, we manage to free one end.  Hallelujah,  we can now lever the rest of it and break the glue joint.  Up the stairs it goes and within minutes workbench nirvana is achieved!  Now installed right next to a large portrait of the maestro, Lalgudi Jayaraman, bliss is ours!  Despite the hammering and racket, the security guard still snores peacefully at the front door.

Krishna delivers me back to the hotel by 6 a.m. and I spend quite some time pacing back and forth, laughing loudly to myself, as if possessed by some sudden onset of deep and profound insanity. Krishna tells me later that he overheard one of the dudes tell the other that he was certain they were going to get a “blasting” when the giant white guy arrived.  Instead, my “Kaalai Vanakkam (good very very very early morning)” which I learned from the hotel doorman on the way out to the emergency, had seemed to do the trick and set the mood for all of us heaving together to solve the problem.  Modest Tamil language skills save the day one more time!

Business as Usual?

Well folks, I never even made it out the front door of the hotel today, so I missed out on learning my Tamil word of the day from the doorman.  I could occasionally see him from the other side of the glass, waving and chuckling to himself.  You see, it amuses everyone greatly that I’m making an attempt to learn Tamil, and as you probably know, it amuses my old stage personality to know that I amuse them all.  Keep ’em smiling, as they say in the performing arts.

The show began right after breakfast in the foyer.  Just at the moment everybody was watching to see if “Vanakkam” would emerge from my vocabulary, my pants pocket gave way to a hole and a stream of quarters came streaming down my pant leg and splashed across the floor.  The encore that really brought the house down was when we discovered that my left Birkenstock had filled with change.  I probably should have done the old dance with the hat and cane, too, but it might have fallen flat compared to the main show…

Back to the room just in time to begin receiving a flow of guests, all of whom are so giving of their time and effort to help make this program a success.  I feel that all of India is rallying in support of our humble little repair school.  First came S. Shivkumar and his assistant Bharati Raja, engineers who can shake power tools out of their fingertips like magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat.  And of course, they were mightily amused that I knew that Bharati Raja’s name in Hindi means “King of India.”  These gentlemen soberly look at the weirdest of violin maker tools and then set about reproducing them in unbelievably short order.  No problem.  Then came Krishna and the engineers posed with us for a photo op.  Then Saravanapriyan’s father Sriraman arrived just in time to witness me in near nutritional collapse and ordered me to take lunch immediately.  I guess the power to observe that I have bad eating habits and don’t eat enough runs in the family.  Over lunch we had a discussion with Ray from Massachusetts, a firefighting equipment specialist who consults all through Asia.  The conversation soon turned from his famous Vietnamese pop singer wife and her career to topics of world religion and how we are all one big happy family.  Ray, a born and raised Catholic, couldn’t for the life of him figure out what the deal was with worshipping shivlingams and yonis in India and Sriraman eloquently tried to convince him that Catholicism was certainly of one mind with all of these ideas.  I’m afraid you’ll have to research for yourselves what shivlingams and yonis are if you are not in the know already.  We don’t normally have these sort of conversations in America with strangers over lunch.

After the late lunch, I was blogging like a freak because the pressure is already on to keep it alive, and was sought out in the computer center by Anantha, a very sweet  young student, 43 going on 20, who is a violin student of Krishna’s.  He regaled me
with tales of his time studying under the gurukulam system, where he came to live in home with Krishna like a family member, and the instruction in violin and life skills is ongoing daily.  He is very fortunate to have spent so much time with Krishna and his father, the legendary Lalgudi G. Jayaraman and seems quite excited to spend the full three weeks living there again to study violin repair with me.  I am deeply moved by the devotion shown me and my skills in luthierie which I’ve honed over a lifetime practicing this art in Santa Barbara.

The computer is starting to freak out now, so we shall continue when it’s in a better mood.  Thank you to all!

Surviving Jet Lag, Chennai Style

Lalgudi Krishnan, whom I will refer to from here on as Krishna, has been so generous as to put me up in one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been in while visiting India, The Residency.  Being an old hippie budget traveler, I tried to get him to move me to some cheaper digs, but he gently convinced me in his irresistable way to stay put here.  He is definitely spoiling me!  So I am on the 9th floor in the executive level, with a beautiful view over the city, air conditioning, a giant very comfortable bed, cleaning service, sweets delivered to the door daily, 3 telephones, mini office, safe for storing valuable items, mini bar refrigerator (which I’m not touching), hot shower, and a foot massage machine.  I’m glad I didn’t insist on moving.  There’s also a complimentary breakfast, but I will get to that later.

Now to the jet lag–pretty devastating after such a long flight.  Got in at 3 a.m. and proceeded to sleep for about 15 hours on the first day, so that was clearly one day lost.  Krishna was busy that day producing the music for a documentary, so he didn’t have time to meet with me anyway. On day two, somehow I managed to sleep until9:30 a.m. and barely struggled into breakfast, forcing myself to eat a little yogurt and some fruit, my appetite devastated by the jet lag.  By 10, I was back in the room and the bed was so enticing, I figured it couldn’t hurt to lie down a bit.  Fifteen minutes later, I was awakened from the sleep of the dead by the phone ringing–Krishna calling, could I be downstairs in 3 minutes?  A splash of water on the face and we were off to check out the hall where I’d be teaching.  It met with my finest approval and Krishna delivered me back to the hotel, where I was sore tempted to go to bed again, but soon was meeting with Krishna and Narasimhan, first violinist of the Madras String Quartet.  We had a delightful meeting–after all both of these gentlemen are musicians whose playing I have admired for many years.  I unpacked the suitcases full of tools and wood and heaped it all on the bed, we took some photos for posterity, then the cleaning crew arrived and spotted the pile of sharp objects and violins on the bed and decided another time might be better.  After Krishna and Narasimhan left, I packed away all the woodworking implements into the baggage again, which left the bed looked mighty enticing.  Fifteen minutes later, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the phone–Krishna calling, please be downstairs to be picked up by Mr. Venkataswaran in five minutes.  Yikes!  Splash of water on the face and we were off to the medical supply shop to purchase dental inspection mirrors for soundpost work.  Poor Mr. Venkataswaram must have thought I didn’t know what I was doing, my brain was in such a fog, and he had to remind me of some of the other items that I needed from that shop.  Then off to the train station to book tickets to Varanasi in December, only to discover that they were all booked up.  Figure that one out later…   By then it was getting on towards evening, so the day seemed done and the bed was beckoning again.  Fifteen minutes later awakened from a dead sleep by the phone again–Krishna this time, could I be downstairs in five minutes?

Big emergency, we can’t use Sri Krishna Gana Sabha hall for the workshop–some sort of scheduling difficulties beyond my understanding.  Hurry hurry faster mad dash through the insane traffic of Chennai’s evening madness to view other halls, Krishna furiously weaving through the maze of cars, motor rickshaws, pedestrians, and motorcycles that form this melange of motorized humanity, all melding into one being streaming through life toward whatever it is that brings us all closer to divine realization.  Krishna’s take on it all:  “If we have so many problems toward the end, we must be near the goal…”  We disrupt vedanta classes, we view halls suitable to suit thousands.  “After all, this is India,” I’m thinking while fixing my gaze on traffic and potential vehicular disaster, “perhaps we will have this many onlookers during our workshop.”  Of course, none of these optional halls are satisfactory, but it was sure an adventure for my jet lagged, sleep interrupted mind.  Krishna suddenly comes up with an idea, the brilliant idea, the one and only idea–we’ll hold the workshop upstairs in his home.  The spirit of his recently deceased father, legendary violinist Lalgudi G. Jayaraman will be ever present.  It’s perfect in it’s poetry, perfect in conception, everything there that a violin maker could need–it’s just simply perfect.  Fait accomplit…  We begin planning moving the entire operation from baggage pieces in the hotel into his home, where so much of Carnatic violin history was conceptualized by the great master himself.  I pinch myself–it doesn’t get any better than this; Krishna touches my arm to assure himself that I am really here and that this is really going to finally happen in “our” India.  A moment of silence and deep humility washes over me.

Adieu French Toast

It’s been several days since I arrived in Chennai, jet lagged to the max.  To my great surprise, Krishna in his overwhelming generosity has put me up in what to me looks like a five star hotel.  I must have slept 15 hours off and on the first day, but why not?  I’ve never experienced such luxury digs in India.  Ninth floor “executive” with air conditioning, maharaja sized bed, tv, not a mosquito in sight far and wee, sweets and fruit delivered to the door with a newspaper daily, foot massage machine (!), and several phones (in the bathroom, as well, so I don’t miss your call…), and hot shower with all the foo foo soaps and skin care products.  Fully equipped gym upstairs, but the gentleman who sits here and monitors everything while I’m on the computer assures me that only the ladies use it–we gents are a little lazy.  Then we share a little chuckle together…  This ragged old hippie India budget traveler has never experienced anything quite like it.  Oh, and did I mention the complimentary breakfast?

I was torn from my deep sleep, 10 minutes after laying my head down on the stack of plushy pillows, by my dear friend Saravanapriyan (SP for short) from the bay area, chastising me for not telephoning him sooner with all my co-ordinates and contact info.  I whined and sniveled mightily in my groggy state, something about jet lag and related lack of appetite…  His response:  “You have bad eating habits, and besides, you don’t eat enough.”  I absolutely adore SP–he is far better than having an Indian auntie and grandma, all wrapped up in one.  I promised by the blood of my ancestors to try to be better.

Now my dear wife, Peggy, who has been my constant India travel companion for 30 years, will certainly confirm that I have the old India habit of seeking out something for breakfast that will give me a culinary grip on anything familiar in my stomach before setting out on our daily adventures.  French toast has always been that comforting teddy bear of the  Indian breakfast menu, always immediately recognizable.  Especially with high fructose imitation maple corn syrup, precious if you had the great luck to find it.  Up until I got the nutritional warning call from SP, that is…  So I set out for breakfast the next morning, steeled in my resolve to heed his admonishments, bypassed the omelette bar, the muffins, the yoghurt, and headed straight for the idly.  Idly is a blend of rice and lentils, finely ground and then poached in a specialized tin which then produces a small compressed cake onto which a soup-like vegetable brew, called sambar, is ladled.  Since I was feeling so bold, and jet lag was waning, I decided to complement it with some other items with names like uppama, pongal, aloo mutter, with some coconut chutney thrown in for good measure.  Slightly full of trepidation and eyeing the french toast bar, I took my first bite.  Like a blinding flash of light miracle, all of my best India experiences flooded my being, my chakras opened their eternal flame, tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes and I pounced on the plate of food as if transformed into a starving dog.  It became clear to me  in an instant why India is the fount of meditative bliss, the land of nirvana.

I glanced around me nervously to see if any of the fellow breakfast guests were looking at me curiously.  The food was so delicate, so delectable, that I had to fill my plate a second time and vacuumed all of it straight through my mouth into my soul.  It was all I could do to keep from choking up with gratitude when I complimented the chef, who only shot me a puzzled look and said “Yes, you try our Indian food!”  As if I hadn’t been doing that for over 30 years…  So it’s adieu, farewell, lebewohl, namaste phir malinge french toast for breakfast forever, hello bliss.  Thank you Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan for the experience!