Arriving in Mumbai just before Epiphany’s midnight, after a fourteen-hour flight from Newark, five of us (Cynthia, Stephen, Pam, George and Sally) are welcomed by Jaime and Ligia who are just about the sweetest, nicest people one could ever meet. They are from Goa, the former Portuguese colony to the south of Mumbai, as are all of our Indian hosts. The airport is throbbing with life, a preview of what is to come. Cynthia’s suitcase doesn’t make it (it arrives eventually) and Jaime whisks Pam, George and me to Jivanvikas Sadan, the Jesuit retreat house in Bandra, our home in Mumbai.
Bandra is a classy neighborhood overlooking the Arabian Sea. The cathedral of St. Mary is around the corner and next door is a “bungalow” (six-story apartment building) belonging
to Shah Rukh Khan, a Bollywood star. More and more Muslims are moving in to Bandra, which had been a Christian neighborhood, because “they feel safer here.” Peter and Jenny from Melbourne and Trish from Sydney are already here as well as Harriet from Seattle.
Breakfast is served at 7, consisting of porridge, hard-boiled eggs, bread, jam and butter and milky sweet chai. At 7:30 we pile into two Toyota vans and drive south to the Gate of India next to the Taj Hotel, where we board a boat that will take us to the Elephanta Island wharf on the water, it is easy to get a sense of how vast and spread out and polluted Mumbai is. Highrise buildings stretch to every horizon. Haze hangs over the city, and a nuclear power plant is located on a nearby piece of land. We are accompanied by Hazel, Prashant and Joe Mascarenas, an old friend of Prashant’s and a human resource consultant who has worked and lived in New York and Switzerland.
We walk from the wharf through a tourist center and up many flights of broad, smooth stone steps. The way is lined with stalls selling every touristy thing. Behind them we occasionally glimpse the monkeys about whom we’ve been warned (“they are thirsty and hungry”). The monkeys show not the slightest interest. We engage a guide who lives on the island. He has taught himself Japanese and Arabic.
The carvings and the statues date from the 6th century CE and no one quite knows who was responsible for them. The great Triune God, Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer, is depicted throughout the caves, mainly in the form of Shiva and his consort Parvati. The caves have been restored and are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Pilgrims bring garlands of marigolds to the huge Shiva lingam.
We have a lunch of masala dosas and onion uppadas (Indian pizza, Joe tells us) at a restaurant high on a cliff overlooking the water and make our way back down to the boat.
Returning to the frenzy of Mumbai comes as a bit of a shock and we are assailed by beggars and touts as we wait for our Toyota vans in front of the museum. We are driven to Mani Bhavan, Mahatma Gandhi’s home from 1917-1934.
The house is three stories, crammed with books, framed quotes and photos. The top floor houses a series of diorama displays of significant events in Gandhi’s life. His spinning wheel graces one room. It was in this home that Gandhi was inspired to develop his concepts of non-violent resistance to British rule. Our Indian friends tell us that President Obama visited Mani Bhavan in November 2010, the first American head-of-state to do so.
Back at the retreat house, we come together in a circle. Jaime and Ligia honor each of us with aarti, a ceremony of light and anointing (with a garland of marigolds, and a red dot with a few grains of rice on the forehead). We wind around and around in a spiral dance, singing the song Trish wrote, “We gather on this day to greet each other, with shanti, with shanti…” from her InterPlay India collection GAJARA. This will become our theme song. We walk and stop and run. We are doing InterPlay! The familiar form feels so good to our weary bodies.
After a curry dinner (always a curry dinner), we drop into bed. Mumbai, the Maximum City, has gotten under our skin. The combination of industry and non-stop activity with apparent indolence is confounding and overwhelming.
After breakfast on Saturday we are joined by thirty or forty Indian friends for a weekend of InterPlay. We sit in a big circle of white plastic chairs. We greet each other with shanti, dance our spiral dance and find a partner. We babble together. My partner says that her hfavorite place in her house is her bed. Who would ever admit that in America? It delights me. We enjoy a hand dance together and adjourn for tea, which is accompanied by more happy babbling as we get to know each other.
We separate into two groups: Teamwork and Beyond with Cynthia and Voice Medicine with Trish Watts. With Trish we do lots of facial and vocal warm-ups and a “letting go” song. We are silly and it’s okay. Whatever they were doing in Cynthia’s group on the floor below us sounded noisy and fun.
After the workshop, I walk along the Bandra promenade with George and Dargit, a Sikh environmental engineer who works with an NGO on energy usage and regulatory reform. He went to MIT and spent 26 years in the States. This is his first InterPlay experience and he is loving it. Along the promenade, we see all ages, in burkhas, blue jeans, track suits. The Saturday evening stroll is alive and well.
Some of us have convened an Al-Anon meeting before dinner, and that is always a powerful place to share. Tonight is no exception. We are all eager to get to bed after dinner.
Second day of workshops. Cynthia dances and tells of the changes that are upon us, that we are entering a new age, one of transformation, both inner and outer. It is riveting. We divide back into the two workshops. Vikram has joined us today, a gorgeous Bengali poet and art therapist who has done InterPlay with transgendered youth in Calcutta. And we thought we were cutting edge? He leads us in a Gesture Choir depicting the Navkas, the nine essences (anger, wonder, laughter, compassion, etc.) which we perform for the team building group. Cynthia asks the Americans and Aussies to do a Walk Stop Run with 3-sentence stories about our time in the workshop with our new Indian friends. “Namaste, namaste, a thousand ways to InterPlay…”
Twelve of us go in rickshaws to a “mall” where we enjoy the best and cheapest Thai foot massage of our lives. It turns out to be about way more than the feet. After spending the day on marble floors, our feet are made happy, as are our scalps and shoulders. And then we make our bellies happy with huge balloons of fried parathas and too much chole! Chole=chickpeas.
It’s good to have a relaxed start to the morning. We gather at 10 to walk out the back gate and up the lane to the first cancer hospice in India. It is an imposing structure, surrounded by lush gardens. We are met in the lobby by Sister (Dr.) Aquilla, a Holy Cross nun and the hospice director. I had expected to visit a hospice crammed with beds, but this is anything but. The wards are clean, open and airy, with views of the sea. The patients are sitting and lying on their beds, obviously well cared for. The hospice receives no government funding and relies totally on private donations and volunteers. We offer a Shape and Stillness dance in four wards. Cynthia plays her shruti box and keens and sings as we move from patient to patient—blessing and being blessed. One patient bends over to touch Harriet’s feet, and she tried to reciprocate but he won’t let her. We pass out green feathers and I give them to the young nurses hovering nearby and watching us intently. Cynthia plays again for a man in a private room who has just started talking again. A true blessing.
George and I make a pilgrimage to Fabindia in the afternoon. This famous store with outlets throughout India is celebrating its fiftieth year in business. It was started by John Bissell, an American who fell in love with India and its textiles, and found a way to fulfill Gandhi’s vision of reviving the hand-loom industry by creating products for the export and expatriate markets. We buy.
In our closing circle, we share in an “I could talk about…” form. Prashant, Hazel and Poonam prostrate themselves before us as they offer each of us a piece of beautiful fabric as we listen to “Let Me Be Your Servant.” Tears flow.
Up at 4:30 and drive to Bombay Central Station for a 6:20 train for Bharuch. We are headed to the tribal areas of South Gujarat. Jaime and Ligia will serve as our liasions with the priests and tribals there. We are in first-class compartment and are served tea and breakfast, given the day’s newspapers. We pass commuter trains heading into Mumbai that are impossibly crowded. We stop at Surat, the diamond and textile center, and finally disembark after four hours in Bharuch, a small crowded city, in an area dense with chemical plants. The air is acrid and smoke-filled en route to Dedhiapada. I learn later that this is a notorious chemical corridor that has been the focus of Greenpeace efforts. We have a flat tire and Jaime, Rakesh and Tony change it in record time. The others have stopped at a gas station where they are shown a bicycle made for eight! They dance at the dance station.
We are met at Dedhiapada by singing girls bearing garlands and performing aarti. The boys stand aside and watch. Tony Hole gathers a bunch of boys around him. With his drum and his bag of tricks he is a real Pied Piper. He seems perfectly acclimated to India, but by this time the rest of us have started getting sick, and one by one, we succumb to stomach problems. But we all seem to be well provisioned with medical supplies and, one by one, come back on line. Some of us are staying in the priest’s quarters at Dedhiapada, site of a large boarding school, and the others are at a nun’s residence in Nani Singloti.
Father Robert Machado is a brawny, long-haired Jesuit anthropologist who got his PhD after spending two years living in an Adivasi village. Adivasi means indigenous. When the Aryans invaded India in 4,000 BCE, the Adivasi were forced into the hills and forests. The tribe we are in the midst of are the Adivasi Bhil (which means bow and arrows). They lead a simple agrarian lifestyle. In the spiral walkway leading to the chapel are 15 carved wooden panels on the wall. Father Robert lovingly describes each panel, depicting the life cycle and rituals of the Adivasi Bhil around birth, death, marriage, planting and harvest. Ancestors are venerated and animals are considered family members.
We go into the chapel with its smooth stone floor. Next to the altar is an urn where a pinch of ashes is placed after each cremation. Fr. Robert leads an Adivasi chant. We sit in a circle and share about moments of heart-opening. We offer head and neck and shoulder massages to each other and a humming blessing and we pass the peace in a hand dance, an InterPlay Adivasi Eucharist. Dinner for me is banana and water, but we have already partaken of the bread of life.
A morning for learning more about the tribals. Father Berichi is a Basque priest who came to Dedhiapada in 1969. He comes from Nani Singloti to tell us about his work here. “I am a tribal,” he told us. His early work focused on preventing immigration to the cities by starting a dairy cooperative, a seed bank (to avoid exploitation by money lenders) and schools for which they needed government approval. These Catholic priests work under the jealous and suspicious eyes of the Hindu nationalists. Father also spoke to us about the shrine of the Black Madonna, which we would be visiting the following day.
We go to the community hall for a talk by Fr. Lancy de Souza a botany professor at Xavier College in Ahmedabad and brother of artist priest, Wendell, who taught InterPlayers in previous years about Warli art. Father Lancy started a project of cataloging and researching some of the hundreds of medicinal plants that the Adivasi use. They are beginning to grow them commercially. Last year at a traditional food festival they sold 300 kilograms of ice cream flavored with the flowers from a tree that the government wanted cut down because the people distilled alcohol from it.
Tribal women and men sit in front of us on the floor. We learn later that these are the shamans and midwives of the villages. The women are gaining knowledge that had previously been the male domain. Cynthia asks that they be told that the dancing and singing of North American tribal peoples was suppressed in order to suppress their culture and power. Our Adivasi friends dance in lines with arms around each other and we join in. Outside we see a beautifully tended garden of medicinal plants right outside the community center.
Tribal village visits to Sakva and Bal take place in the afternoon, and play with flowers and bubbles. I stay back to rest and recuperate. Father Joseph turns on the wireless modem for me and our room becomes the wi-fi HQ for the group. He was a software engineer before ordaining and taking over responsibility for running the dairy coop.
In Bal, Hazel, Cynthia, Stephen, Peter and Jenny are greeted on the road by the Bal elder (though he looks to be 25 years old). The jeep follows him to the village. Seated in plastic chairs under a shelter, the group is welcomed by tribal dancers and drummers in a series of dances. Countless children waiting patiently on the grounds watch in anticipation. The InterPlayers are invited to share a dance with movement and stillness. They blow green feathers of peace into the village. Hazel draws the children and youth into incrementally bigger and bigger forms of following and leading until we create a huge clapping and moving circle. It is learned that many men are in the town for work because farming is poor. As dusk falls, InterPlayers are shown the village elders house complete with satellite dish and water buffalo.
Jaime and Ligia have worked with the Couples for Christ movement in Dedhiapada for the past two years. There has been a remarkable transformation in village life as problems of alcoholism and spousal abuse have been dealt with in this context. Couples arrive at community center to be with us. Ligia leads us all in the Shanti spiral dance, with Trish’s words now translated into Hindi. Jenny and Peter, Stephen and Cynthia, and Jaime and Ligia offer a dance of Shape and Stillness on behalf of all the couples.
Fr. Rakesh drives us through the countryside to see the shrine of the Black Madonna. It sits above a riverbank, next to a schoolyard. Fr. Berichi would come to the riverbank to pray to the Holy Mother, and he determined to have a shrine built on this site. When the shrine was built, the father ordered a white alabaster statue of the Madonna from Spain. The tribals made a black one and he asked them to choose which one they wanted. They chose the black one. She sits inside, resplendent in her garlands. The old caretaker lays his hands on our heads one by one and prays over us. Rakesh offers his prayer and Trish a song. The school children are at recess and playing in the schoolyard and are intensely interested in these foreigners visiting their lady. Once a year on her feast day, some 20,000 worshippers gather here. Out in the middle of nowhere.
After lunch we set out again in three groups for another village visit. Father Anthony, our group’s guide, says that he is responsible for ten villages. He makes his rounds every day, making pastoral home visits and celebrating mass in one village each night, frequently returning late in the night. These priests are a dedicated group of men, committed to bettering the lives of those they serve, no matter which religion they profess.
The villagers are waiting for us as we drive up. Their faces are glowing and they garland us and dance us up the path to the tented area. There they perform more dances for us and we join in, wrapping our arms around each other’s waists. The steps are simple and rhythmic. We have drawn quite a crowd of onlookers. I am the only non-Indian in our group, and I speak a few words to them, with Father Anthony translating for me. “I am a tribal.” We are invited for tea afterwards in the headman’s house. His daughter is a police officer in Ahmedabad. The rooms are large, airy and sparsely furnished. Animals run in and out of the porch area where we are served.
On the way home, we stop at a nearby convent school for girls next to the Jesuit Social Service Center. We meet two Dominican sisters, both Maria-Theresa, both serving here for 40 years. We are given a tour by the 72-year-old retired sister and the sister who runs the dispensary. On the rooftop sit two hundred of the older girls, reciting their prayers in unison as the sun sets. We sit quietly and as they finish, we stand in front of them. We invite them to dance with us…Shanti all around. We walk back in darkness.
Jenny, in her village, shared about Uluru, their sacred mountain in the heart of Australia, and says that “by our coming to the heart of India, our two hearts become one.” We go to bed early since we will be picked up tomorrow at 5 to ride two hours to the airport for our flight to Delhi and Varanasi.
This is the beginning of a three-day weekend in Gujarat, and as we drive through the pre-dawn morning to Baroda we see children starting to fly kites. This is the area where the Narmada Dam has inundated millions of hectares of land and displaced many tribal peoples from their land, moving them into concrete boxes.
We have a one-hour flight to Delhi. The air is so polluted that one can barely seen anything on the ground even from a low altitude. The domestic terminal is very first world, complete with Pizza Hut and KFC, Swarovski crystal and Swedish vodka. And I begin to notice Tibetans in the boarding area for our flight to Varanasi. It turns out that HH the Dalai Lama is giving teachings in Sarnath, the Buddhist pilgrimage site where the Buddha gave his first sermon in the deer park. We will go there.
The new airport in Varanasi looks like it belongs in Dubai. Ligia says that last year the terminal looked like a seedy bus station.
Father Joseph, our cheerful host at Nav Sadhana, the regional pastoral center for twelve dioceses, greets us and our luggage is piled on top of a little yellow bus for the short drive to the center. Lovely flower gardens surround the buildings, with a huge and productive vegetable garden out back. A rabbit hutch faces the dining room, and a raucous bunch of ducks lives behind our dorm building. We have our own bathrooms. And thick acrylic blankets. The rooms are icy cold and we are happy to hear that we will have hot water in our bathrooms.
Father Paul, the center director, greets us and tells us a bit about the center. He is especially proud of the College of Traditional Music and Dance where the students are much in demand when they graduate. We are invited to a concert the next day, in celebration of his 52nd birthday.
Some of us did InterPlay with the youth leadership training. One of the participants said afterwards, “This is the equipment for learning.” Harriet felt like she had fallen into another “portal of treasured connections.” George, Poonam and I went for a walk in the back roads behind the center. We flew a kite, watched men gambling, a woman making cow dung patties for fuel, a neighborhood fight. We found a “beauty shop” where Sunita, the owner, told us to come back in a while and she would be able to apply henna to my hand and arm. So, while most attended the concert, complete with traditional dances from all of northern India, as well as a skit and a Bollywood number, Harriet, Poonam and I made our way back to Sunita’s. We were the object of much attention as we sat there getting our hands covered with designs.
After a sumptuous picnic lunch in honor of Fr. Paul, we board a big tourist bus to take is to the Brahmakumari temple in Sarnath. We were glued to the windows of our bus as we drove along the outskirts of Varanasi…dust, dirt, rickshaws, motorbikes, cows, goats, dogs, pigs, chickens, food, and shops of every conceivable variety…tree trunks being milled into boards being turned into furniture all happening on the street. New sewer lines are being put in and everything seems like a construction site.
The Brahmakumari temple is an oasis of cool marble and dedicated practice. Our guide walks us around the room explaining the elaborate dioramas depicting nothing less than the evolution of consciousness. Founded in 1939 by a Hindu business person, the Brahmakumaris are renunciates who have dedicated their lives to meditation, study and service, with centers throughout the world. Their emphasis on female leadership and practice is an inspiring example of a new religious movement in an ancient land.
On the way home, the kites are out, flying from the rooftops. All the food stalls, street food, shoes, kitchen implements, sari shops—everything in a seeming jumble, but one senses an order weaving through it all. Everyone seems to have a place in what seems to our eyes like sheer chaos. We pass two rival political rallies.
Back at Nav Sadhana we share an InterPlay session for ourselves. Seated hand dance, and a Walk-About for each person to share noticings is completed with an InterPlay Aarti with little electric candles that Cynthia pulled out of her bag of amazing tricks.