Thursday, December 3, 2009

Family Trees, Family Trunks

We have bigger houses but smaller families;

More conveniences, but less time;

We have more degrees, but less sense;

More knowledge, but less judgment;

More experts, but more problems;

More medicines, but less healthiness;

We've been all the way to the moon and back,

but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.

We build more computers to hold more information to

produce more copies than ever but have less communication.

We have become long on quantity,

but short on quality.

These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;

Tall man but short character;

Steep profits but shallow relationships.

It's a time when there is much in the window,

but nothing in the room.

— The Paradox of Our Age, by the 14th Dalai Lama

The way everyone talked about my great grandfather and his immaculate memory, I was convinced that, had we been alive at the same time, he would have remembered me. He never forgot a name, my father said, and would systematically enquire about spouses, children and careers of relatives he was meeting after years. “Like an elephant who never forgets,” someone once quipped, and I pictured my great grandfather as a large grey elephant, all sagging skin and drooping ears, but with a nimbleness to his thoughts and words.

I was in India for my cousin’s wedding and stole away one morning to the coastal town of Pondicherry where my father spent his childhood. I knew my father had lived with his grandparents – my great grandparents – for some years before they all moved to the larger city of Chennai, and I was eager to visit the house that played host to so many of my father’s milestones, measured in dollops of mischief and ladles of pride.

The three hour drive hugged the coast line the entire way. The Indian Ocean seemed glued to my left window, punctuated by the occasional beach resort. My sunglasses kept out the sun but not the salty breeze that nested in my hair and made my shirt dance. The water roared its welcomes and warnings to me throughout, and when I finally got out of the car in front of the address I had scribbled down that morning, the tide’s rhythm continued in my head, as if a shell had affixed itself to my ear en route.

My great grandfather’s house stood before me: grey with sagging walls and drooping windows. It had responded well to sharply administered doses of neglect and the crashing tides of time. The garden was overrun with weeds and vines that now sought refuge indoors through cracks in the windows. Rust wrapped around the knee-high gate, which protested loudly when I pushed it open. Weary of stepping too heavily and disturbing the fragile state of a long-retired home, I just stared, instead. What now?

“Who are you?” asked a voice in polite Tamil, a South Indian language spoken in the area. I turned to my left and it took me a few moments to locate a small head peeping through the neighbor’s door.

“My name is Aditi. My great grandfather used to live in this house. I just came to see it. Sorry for disturbing you! I’m leaving now.” I clicked the gate closed and turned towards the car. I wasn’t sure how much more Tamil I could manage and assumed our conversation was over.

“Where are you visiting from?” he asked.

“America,” I replied. “I’m in Chennai for a wedding.”

He nodded understandingly; after all, weddings are the delightfully or disturbingly universal reason for people to visit India. But I had no idea how to say that in Tamil and didn’t try. I doubted he was interested in my social commentary, anyway.

“America! You’ve come all the way and you’re visiting for just a few minutes? Come inside, have some tea! I knew your great grandfather; he was an excellent man.”

Visiting relatives in Chennai had taught me that just as vegetable vendors and others constantly passed by people’s houses, calling out their wares in loud and resonant voices, so did neighbors between them, a non-stop shuttle of food and children and news and noise. People’s doors stayed open all day to allow the sun to draw its shadows, and were only shut at night when hungry mosquitoes took over to draw blood instead. I could imagine this man in my great grandfather’s house, spending time, eating meals, playing with the children. I was curious to know what he knew about my family.

As I approached the man’s doorway, he brought his palms together in greeting and I was moved by this kindly old man with a soft voice and thin hair, skin lotioned by sun and salt. I slipped out of my sandals and followed him into a small, neat room with a single bed, a framed picture of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, and a ceiling fan churning the air with a lethargy that suited the sleepy town.

“Your great grandfather was a very wise man. He raised a wonderful family and taught his children to single-mindedly pursue knowledge, for that is the ultimate goal” he said in English. He spoke with a thick accent, pushing English words out of a mouth that first learned how to shape Tamil vowels and consonants, and I envied his bilinguality.

“He was a teacher?” I asked.

“He taught us all, child. Anyone who had a problem went to him. One of his favorite pieces of advice was from the Dalai Lama. Here, let me show you something.”

He disappeared into another room and returned with a framed poster titled “The Paradox of Age.” While I skimmed it he disappeared again, and I heard a clatter of cups in another room. He returned with two stainless steel tumblers of tea balanced gingerly in shallow, wide saucers. We poured the tea from tumbler to saucer to cool it, the back and forth sounding a little like the ocean, and I followed his lead and drank my tea out of the saucer, leaving the tumbler unused on the floor.

“There is much in the window but nothing in the room,” he said, quoting the last two lines of the Dalai Lama saying. “Quite often,” he elaborated, “a person believes he is in a dilemma because of how he perceives his situation. An obstacle is a hardship, but also a chance to overcome and grow stronger. A loss is painful, but also a chance to learn to live with less and separate our wants from our needs.”

I nodded and continued sipping my tea. We sat in a rare silence that was comfortable, not awkward: two strangers drinking tea out of saucers, bound by the memory of my distant relative and his dear friend, my ancestor and his neighbor. Whatever lay outside his window, there was something magical in the room.

He broke the silence. “Before you go back to Chennai, be sure to stop by the Ganesh temple. Your great grandfather loved visiting it.”

I rose and handed him the Dalai Lama poster.

“No, keep it. Your great grandfather gave it to me, and now I shall give it to you.”

I gratefully accepted with a “thank you” – I knew how to say that in Tamil – and left. The man pointed me in the direction of the temple and wished me a safe and happy future.

“Remember, a triangle can be a square that has been torn apart, or a square whose tips fell in love.” He smiled.

The temple was ten minutes away on foot, ancient and patient and comforting to step into. Right at the entrance waited Lakshmi the elephant – a real one! – who blessed me with her trunk before nudging me for some rice that sat in a sack within my reach but out of hers. She seemed to smile while she ate. Inside, I made a quick round of the main shrine to the elephant God before heading back to my car.

I left Pondicherry feeling peaceful and satisfied. I had something my great grandfather once owned and lived by; now I could learn to live by it, too. My great grandfather the elephant! I left knowing I had the blessings of not just that elephant, but many more.