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An Indian Scale

January 2, 2006

I had been playing the cello for twenty-seven years and yet, since I started at the age of four, I had always felt that it was not I who was playing, but rather someone else’s desire inhabiting my body and trying to express itself. I, meanwhile, was hiding behind the fat ribs of the instrument trying to sabotage that person’s every effort.

It was 1995 and one day, in the middle of a performance, my shoulder froze and I was unable to move my right arm. The doctors told me that day that I would never play again.

Rather than spend my time in snivelling queues collecting dole money, I decided to go in search of some answers. I skipped the traditional French Christmas of oysters and lobster in La Rochelle and, much to the shock of my boyfriend’s parents, I went to India.

I had been to India several times before but never on my own. So as not to flail in the country’s chaos on arrival, I had planned everything: I was to arrive in Trivandrum and make my way – after a night in a hotel – to a cultural centre where I would spend a month learning South Indian vegetarian cookery and Karnatic singing.

We touched down at the airport and, as it always does on arrival in an Indian city, the heat of shit rose almost aromatic in the air to meet us. Ever the intrepid and budget conscious traveller, I bumped up and down on the exploding bus in to the centre of town and went in search of cheap eats and a place to stay.

As I threaded my way between street sellers, trying to fight off the insistent cling-film of the Indian sales-pitch, it was as if the hammock of language – which had always cradled me – now dropped me and I was scrabbling, my limbs wriggling in the air, in the mud.

Everything was upside down.

Six months before leaving for India I had bought my first home – a flat in Brighton, on the South coast of England. In my luminous south-facing kitchen with its sea-view, I had painted my walls yellow and blue, adding hand crafted Mexican tiles in the same hues. I had bought a set of green ‘Le Creuset’ kitchenware in which I planned, on my return, to test out my new red chilli and coriander-spiked recipes. My floors were covered with sisal, sourced from the Kerelan backwaters….

…and here I was in Kerela itself. Having arrived in the side-car of a rickety tricycle, I found myself walking along a noisy mud track, facing something dark and oily cooked in a thick-coated bubbling receptacle by a nearly naked man in what looked more like a brothel than a café. Was this dinner? Where were the plates, the knives and forks? Where were the starched aprons of the chefs, or the reds and greens of the fresh vegetables they were going to teach me how to cook? Above all, where was the silence, which I was going to fill with the sounds of their ragas?

On previous trips I had always travelled with my best friend. Having each other as a point of reference had been, I now discovered, the key to staying sane whilst in culture shock. A mere: “Oooh, look at the taxis! Aren’t they weird?!” or “I guess that must be a potato curry of some sort” had been enough to translate the concept of ‘car’ or ‘food’ from one culture into another. Now however, alone and with no reference point for the very first time on my adventures, I panicked.

Survival instinct took over, and I did something I had never done: I rushed to the nearest three star ‘Western’ hotel. There, defeated and ashamed, I ran up to my suite, ordered dal and rice from room service and listened to the manic beep of Indian city nightlife.

In the muted din that passed through into my double glazed shell I suddenly knew that the world as I understood it – a world in which I ate food, drove a car, cleaned my flat, made music, talked to people and listened to the sea – had ceased to exist. Thus, as the centre of that world, I had surely also ceased to exist.

Certain that I would never wake up again, I went to sleep saying good-bye to loved ones and giving thanks for the rich symphony that had been my life. It was surprisingly easy to let go.

Of course I did wake up. I took the taxi to the Kala Vedi Cultural Centre and immersed myself in my activities: I spent the mornings with Kurup – the ‘Chef’. We chopped small shrivelled things he called vegetables whilst protecting my cello fingers with something which looked like a coloured condom, and cooked them in a black vessel he called a pan. We ate with our fingers off banana leaves. I watched his eyes empty when he ground spices and his belly jiggle above his greying lungi when he giggled. When I was leaving I looked around what had, on day one, seemed like a filthy black shack, and saw everything gleam as bright as Kurup’s smile.

In the afternoons I roamed my way around the Indian scale, embellishing a ‘ma’, stretching a ‘ga’ and finding my way back home to ‘sa’. It was ten days before my teacher, used to coaching bored Westerners from the Ashram, realised that I got it; I got the diametric tension beween ‘sa’ (the tonic, or do) and ‘pa’ (the dominant or so), the agony of ‘ni’(the leading note or te)’s proximity to home. I got also that once you left ‘sa’ and journeyed to ‘pa’, ‘sa’ was changed forever.

In the absence not only of a common language but also a common concept of learning, I absorbed my lessons with my senses, by imitation. My analytic mind started to quieten.

In the evenings, before sitting down cross-legged to a ‘masala dosa’ or a dollop of ‘porial’ beans gathered up in a chapati, I had two hours’ Ayurvedic massage at the Ashram. There, swimming on an inverted body-shaped tree trunk in pints of thick green hot medicinal oil, I lost myself in the maternal folds of Divya’s tummy whilst she pummelled me, and my shoulder slowly started to un-chill.

In January I returned home to my anaesthetic yellow and blue kitchen and wondered what knives and forks -were for. I couldn’t believe my masseur’s three drops of rose and lavender oil and his highly priced itsy-bitsy touch. My boyfriend broke up with me and, after many tears, life moved on.

Ten years later, having married a painter and made my home and pursued my career as a cellist in France (and having never cooked a Masala Dosa, nor sung a Karnatic scale since), I know that the real magic happened, as it always does, in the space between: In the emptiness of my Trivandrum three star Western hotel, between what felt like life and death, I fell into the crack of the present. No judgements, no attachments, no expectations, no desires, no hopes, no points of reference, no words. Just a tempered ‘dal-bat’ and sleep. It was, I’m sure, in that moment that I first crept around the body of my instrument to see what was out there, that I first came home to my ‘do’.

Written by Ruth of meanwhile, here in France

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  1. January 2, 2006 at 11:16 am

    O.

    Thank you. You have made a very strange transition in my life make sense. My liminal environment was very different from yours, but the effect was much the same. Powerful insight, peculiarly universal.

  2. MB
    January 2, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    once you left ‘sa’ and journeyed to ‘pa’, ‘sa’ was changed forever

    Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our skins, into the space between, to recognize them. Lovely, Ruth.

  3. January 2, 2006 at 4:40 pm

    This is lovely, lovely. And I actually learned a bit about Indian scales, I think, even if that wasn’t the main point.

    I *love* the line “I fell into the crack of the present.” That rings as clear as a bell.

  4. January 3, 2006 at 2:30 pm

    It’s always been the way for me. It’s the defeats and letdowns and disorientations that mark the important turnings. If I got what I thought I wanted I would still be wistfully at square one… sometimes I think hope is a deadly obstacle to growing.

    But of course, you have to be able to hold still, at least a little.

    What a wonderful, beautiful essay! I’m staggered.

  5. January 3, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Ruth – what a stunning essay, beautifully written and conveying so much truth. We are so afraid of those interstices and yet that’s where we find ourselves, in the emptiness-between. But we’d never go there if we were told at the outset that this was the destination. What a wonderful personal story, and you have told it so memorably. Thank you!

  6. January 3, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    So these experiences, of being reduced to the ground zero of culture shock and thereby finding a means to accept another culture rather than convert it into your own ‘language’ allowed you to stop fighting with a personal expression that felt as if it was coming from ‘someone else’s desire’.

    In other words, connection and acceptance of other people allowed you to connect with your own desires and emotions. I guess this involved a sort of letting go of cultural anchors, of what other people would think of you. The sort of thing that keeps most of the world well and truly anchored in place, much to their disadvantage.

    Indeed this is ‘peculiarly universal’ and a deep and important message. As I’m sure you’re aware, it’s a theme that E.M. Forster returned to many times in his writing. Good company to be in…

  7. January 4, 2006 at 9:06 am

    I can’t tell you how much I savored this essay–the colors, the tastes, the
    layers of truth. You have forever expanded my vision of “finding home.”

  8. mig
    January 4, 2006 at 9:15 am

    Ah, you’re the best, Ruth. Thanks for this.

  9. January 4, 2006 at 9:09 pm

    What they all said, doubled.
    I was, am, mesmerised by this brilliantly alive account of your experience and by the courage you had in seeing it through.

  10. Rob
    January 5, 2006 at 12:20 pm

    Great post as usual, Ruth. I too especially liked “I fell into the crack of the present”.

  11. January 10, 2006 at 2:12 am

    once you left ‘sa’ and journeyed to ‘pa’, ‘sa’ was changed forever

    this is my favorite line, and strangely enough, my own sojourns in Kerala, especially the first two-month visit, served to change me forever as well. what an amazing place! I went to an ashram there and when I came home, my experience of ‘home’ gradually deepened. i thought it was because now I had two homes, one halfway around the world, and also that ‘home’ and ‘daily life’ in Kerala was so primal, it was a sort of template of home and life. Life in Berkeley and Life in Kerala were on a continuum, essentially the same. That realization changed me.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story – it was great and well-told. I also particularly loved: “I looked around what had, on day one, seemed like a filthy black shack, and saw everything gleam as bright as Kurup’s smile.”

  12. January 11, 2006 at 8:51 am

    Ruth, I enjoyed reading your essay. I could really smell,hear and taste the place. Remember, if you can, when you were singing the Karnatic scale. Especially those days when you really got it. Please describe how you felt physically. Do you feel the vibrations from singing the scale helped your shoulder?

  13. January 12, 2006 at 6:40 am

    thank you everyone for your very kind and interesting comments!

    Fred, that was the idea – sound healing. In the end, however, I think that the real help came where I least expected it – in that strange hotel!. That’s not to say that sound vibrations (of which, with a cello against my breast most of the time, I am lucky to have plenty)are a real healing force in my life.

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