This post begins a series on “objects”, inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let Mona Jean’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.
By Mona Jean Harley
I sat down to sip my morning tea, Indian black tea from Munnar, and I remembered the lush green tea plantations terracing the hills of South India, visiting the tea museum where I learned that white, green, and black teas all come from the same plant. The way the leaves are processed produces the different types of tea. Who knew?
As I swallowed a taste of that black tea, leaves that had been on the bottom of the stalk, I looked down at my dining room table where the hand-blocked flower-and-leaf print met my eyes, and I could see the colorful textiles lining the shelves of Soma, a popular store in India where they continue the ancient art of hand-blocking fabric.
I spread this tablecloth on my dining room table two days ago as I was preparing to host my neighborhood Bunko group, with an India theme. To get ready for the evening I had made a vegetable curry that had simmered all day, bathing in the fragrances of curry powder, cardamom, and Garam Masala. I had made a quadruple batch of palak paneer, which I had already made several times since returning from India two months ago. I needed to be sure there were leftovers, so my kids would have plenty to take in their lunches, and wouldn’t have to fight over the meager remains as they had after previous dinners.
I placed the stainless steel cups on the table, ones I had bought at the market “underneath” the Shree Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. That temple was massive, covering fourteen acres and it had forty-five hundred columns inside and outside the structure, plus an elephant that gave blessings. I can still feel the tickle on my nose, the joy in my heart, and the laughter on my lips from that elephant’s long trunk blessing me. We left our sandals outside the temple and walked through an outdoor tunnel to enter the temple, with a sign overhead that read, “This way to Darshan.” I felt intrigued seeing both English and Hindi combined in one sentence, not yet knowing what “seeing” and blessing I would experience inside the temple walls, and throughout my India journey.
I continued to prepare for the evening festivity by putting some Indian snack mixes in a tiffin box, and taking the samosas and pakoras out of the freezer. It had been such a joy to buy these items at one of the local Indian markets in Madison, and observing the now-familiar head bobble as the owner bagged my food items.
I had prizes for the evening, as well as simple gifts for each neighbor, that I had selected from Blue Mango, the women’s cooperative where I had spent five days. Before my guests arrived, I excitedly dressed in one of my salwar kameez outfits. Stepping into the clothing transformed me in Madison, as it had for those 17 days in India, where I became even more open to the people, the culture, and the experience of India. I draped the dupatta, the scarf, around my neck as the first guest arrived. It was a delightful evening sharing food, gifts, and stories.
After finishing my morning tea I decided to check Facebook. I saw the beautiful picture of fellow traveler Pam’s dear daughter Amanda, as Pam was remembering her daughter’s birthday today. I spent time thinking about Pam, and Amanda, a young woman I never met, and never will meet, yet I learned to know her and care about her, through her mother’s stories.
Then I thought of another traveling companion, Peg, who had also lost a child. One-by-one each of the women in the group came to mind with deep appreciation, smiles, and a few chuckles, which led me to looking at photos from the trip. I spent time perusing some of my hundreds of photographs and created an album of the village home visits. It was so pleasurable to take time to really focus on the women, the villages, each of the five homes we were invited to tour, the village residents who gathered and watched our group of American women, and the feelings that filled me.
As I was reliving all of this I experienced an almost startled thought: “I was in India!” I felt overwhelmed, and filled with delight, and awe. And with ache. At that moment I wanted so much to be right back in that village, right inside the first very tiny one-room home, to see the lovely chalk Kolam on the floor of the second home, to see the delight and pride once again as Marialama showed us her sewing machine in the third home, to watch 13-year-old Anish take us immediately into the second room of his house and proudly point to the framed photo of his deceased father on the wall of the fourth home, and to, once again, feel the warm concrete underneath my bare feet on Priya’s rooftop, the warm sunshine on my face, even the sweat dripping down my body, in the fifth home.
I need to write down the India Stream of Consciousness I am experiencing today. I am listening to Carrie Newcomer singing the song “A Small Flashlight,” and a phrase jumped out to me: “…only in looking back do we understand that the way was true, like an open hand.” YES! True understanding does not simply occur in a moment or in an experience, but in looking back, and continuing to look back, at life experiences. Truly it is the Darshan, the seeing. I am so grateful for the “open hand”—and hearts—by Lakshmi and Sarasong and all of the Blue Mango Women and children, by the Avenue Regent Hotel Staff, by Beena and her staff at Cultural Academy for Peace, by the Vipin Village women and children, by Dr. Bhasi, by the women and children at Shanti Bhivan Women’s Shelter “Peace House,” and, without a doubt, the open hand and heart from each of my traveling companions on this Cultural Connections sojourn. I feel like my hand and heart have opened in new and bigger ways, seeing not only through eyesight, transforming me then, and now.
After wandering inside the small, dusty Ghandi bookstore in Madurai, I stepped outside to find my sandals. I looked back at the entrance, and there was the bookstore owner in the doorway, leaning against the door frame. I held up my camera, gesturing if I could take his picture. He gave me a head bobble, an affirmative. I snapped a perfect picture. He took his two fingers to his eyes, then extended them to me, then back to him. This was the Darshan. The seeing. A glimpse of the holy, for him, and for me.
© 2020 Mona Jean Harley
Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.