The Lady and the Lotus

LJ lotus

In Asia, the delicate, beautiful lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

The flat round leaves, anchored with bulbous stems, float gently in the water like giant saucers. A black-and-white bird steps on a leaf delicately with one leg, walks on water and gently skitters on to another leaf.  Scattered throughout the floating barge of green are ethereal blooms of water lily radiant in the morning light – pale yellow, pink or with a peach colored hue. In Asia, the lotus is a sacred symbol of transcendence – of purity rising from the muddy waters.

I am in a cottage on stilts on Lake Inle in Myanmar. The lotus-filled water stretches out for miles to hills in the distance.  It could easily be the time of the King Anawrahta, who founded a kingdom by developing an irrigation system in a dry land and turning it into the rice granary of the region. In a way, this trip is also a quest for roots. A great uncle lived in Rangoon in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, Burma was a province of British India. An aggressive Burmese king had prompted the conquest, not to mention the need for teak and rubies.

LJ lake inle

A cottage on Inle Lake in Myanmar evokes a feeling of serenity, a world away from urban stresses.

I hear the gentle splish-splash of a boatman who stands on a stick and uses his leg to row the boat. It’s far away from a world of mass shootings and barbaric terrorist attacks. No traffic gridlock, no phone calls or appointments. It is life reduced to the bare elements, water, sunshine, air and lotus. Except for one thing – the 4G here is better than in the U.S. For years the country was undeveloped because of military rule, but now, since there was no slow evolution of technology here, cutting edge mobile connectivity is instantly available. So I post my lotus picture on Instagram – not so much for validation, but in a feeble attempt to freeze the present moment.

I love that the women seem empowered, somehow, in their fitted blouses and stylishly draped longyi skirts. No hiding hair with scarves or hunching behind veils to cover their breasts.  Whether it’s a village woman cleaning fish on the banks of the lake or a smart businesswoman in the capital, they seem confident and are treated with respect. The only restrictions are in pagodas. For some reason, the management is obsessed with “spaghetti straps” and there are warning signs everywhere not to wear them. Or shorts. And women are not allowed in the inner sanctum.

Lotus cloth is a big industry in Lake Inle and designers from Europe pay big money for this cloth more expensive than silk. I can see why as a woman at a weaving house extracts lotus fiber from a stem – the process is very labor intensive. And the end result is cool like cotton – not smooth and fine, but a great alternative if you have ethical concerns about silk.

LJ pagoda

A couple worshipping at the Shwedegon Pagoda sport their longyis, traditional Burmese attire.

The night sky feels primeval as a full moon shines over the lake. This phase of the moon is considered holy, and there is chanting all night in the monastery across the water.

Coincidentally, the next day is also a major national holiday – Martyr’s Day – the day the “Father of the Nation,” General Aung San, was assassinated by a political rival. When we get back to Yangon we discover that admission is free at the Bogyoke Aung San museum (his former home) because of the holiday.

From the crowds that throng the house, it is obvious how much the brilliant statesman is still venerated. There are pictures of him with world leaders.  I read a letter he has written to the British government announcing Burma’s choice for independence. A picture of him playing joyfully with his young kids shows so much hope and promise, that it’s sad to see the following one –  of his wife weeping over him on his last day. The sadness seems to permeate the house even now.

At the doorway, you have to take your shoes off and carry them (this is something you have to do a lot in Burma – in temples and, apparently, sometimes even in offices). The furnishings are stark and simple – a teak bed with a mosquito-net stand, a coat rack and a glass cabinet displaying the leaders uniform. A wedding picture graces the wall.

LJ General Aung San

A wedding portrait of Burmese General Aung San, “the father of the nation” and his wife.

Another bedroom contains Aung San Suu Kyi’s crib. As it is with Burmese names, her name actually consists of her father’s first name, her mother’s (Kyi) and a grandmother’s – Suu. I can relate to this because in South India – we don’t have last names either. It’s hard for me to understand the sacrifices Suu Kyi was willing to make. She refused to leave the country to see her dying husband because she knew the military regime would never allow her back. But her prioritizing country over family can be explained by her spiritual beliefs – the Buddhist concept of embracing suffering as a meditation practice.  It might also explain the patience and gentle demeanor of the people that we encounter everywhere, despite the poverty and the hardship they must have endured.

Even though Suu Kyi’s party won a historic election in 2015, rules concocted by the military did not allow her to become the President.  Instead, she is the “State Counselor” and also has to share power with the military which retains 25% of the seats in parliament. She is poised to implement agricultural and infrastructural reforms so Myanmar can join the global economy, but the path could be difficult since democracy is so new. Another serious issue is the persecution of religious minorities and armed ethnic tension.  I learn that for an American NGO based in Yangon, conflict management education is an important task.

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Lakshmi Jagannathan with a woman who is a weaver and also teaches the skill to guests.

On the last day of our stay there is a heavy downpour – it’s peak monsoon season. We are in a fancy new pizza place, that serves microgreens, but when it’s time to leave, the compound is flooded. “No problem” says the manager. A taxi is hailed and people place benches on the water so we can step across and sit in the car seat. Burmese hospitality at its best.

Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi came into office, expectations are very high for her, but the challenges are many.  I hope the peace they have now lasts and the country continues on its path of reform and accomplishes its goal of a brighter future for its people.

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Lakshmi Jagannathan is a writer, startup cheerleader, reiki healer/counselor and tree-hugger. “Lately,” she says, “I have found that if I call myself a writer I get asked too many questions by immigration officials in different ports, so now my official occupation on application forms is ‘counselor.’ It works — the junta left me alone in Myanmar.” Follow her @BeavertonWriter. Read her Living La Vida Pura blog on WordPress and her Veggie Travel posts on Facebook.

Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writers program. Then and now, I’ve admired her intelligence and writing ability, her multicultural sensitivity and love of the natural world. Through her VOA posts, I feel as if I’ve traveled to multiple Asian and African countries.

Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, A haven for political junkies

Elegance in print

Jhumpa Lahiri, master storyteller.

Jhumpa Lahiri, master storyteller.

There’s a reason — actually, many of them — why Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors.

She writes exquisite sentences. They come one after another, like waves upon a shore. Some of them are so perfect they take my breath away

She creates complex characters. Young or old, we come to know them as multidimensional individuals, imperfect and utterly believable, their inner lives laid bare as each chapter unfolds.

She tells interesting stories. Her narratives invariably go back and forth between India and the United States, crossing generations as well as continents. With precise language and just the right details, she conveys the universality of human emotions and the markers of cultural differences, both the obvious and the subtle.

I’ve read her previous works — a novel and two collections of short stories, the first of which won her the Pulitzer Prize at age 30. And now I’ve read her second novel, “The Lowland.”

Published in 2013, it was a National Book Award finalist here in the United States and a nominee for the Man Booker Prize, honoring the best novel of the year written in English and published in the United Kingdom.

Like its predecessors, “The Lowland” is an engrossing novel, moving from the 1960s to the present, toggling back and forth between decades. The novel initially pivots around two brothers who are exceptionally close and of whom much is expected.

Udayan, the younger and more outgoing one, is involved in India’s ultra left-wing Naxalite movement of the 1960s. Udayan is drawn to the Communist Party of India and the Maoist ideology it embraces, advocating armed struggle against the national government and redistribution of land to peasants.

Subhash, the older, more cautious and more traditional one, moves to the United States for college, in pursuit of the quiet, protected life of a marine researcher. “The death of one sibling,” Bio.com says, “causes reverberations through the ensuing years.”

Indeed.

the-lowland“The Lowland” is a story based on real-world political events and it rewards your patience as a reader. As one event follows another, they create a layered narrative bound together by strands of politics, history, romance and cultural traditions. The characters experience loss, hope, despair, self-discovery, and the consequences of their choices. As readers, we understand why they act as they do, but the characters themselves are often at a loss to fully appreciate each other’s motives and foremost life decisions.

The point of view shifts several times as we gain the perspectives of various characters. Ultimately, many things are left unresolved — as they are in real life. But the effect, for me anyway, is to encourage a more open mind about people’s singular experiences and how those things inform a person’s behavior and life choices.

I won’t say this is my favorite Lahiri novel. After all, “The Interpreter of Maladies” and “The Namesake” were utterly superb. But I will say reading Jhumpa Lahiri is a pleasure in itself. “Elegant” is the word that pops to mind in describing her writing style. “Sophisticated” is another.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering Lahiri’s family background and educational pedigree. She was born in London, 47 years ago, to parents of Bengali ancestry and moved with them to Rhode Island as a young child. Educated at Barnard College in New York City and Boston University, she holds multiple degrees in literature and a doctorate in Renaissance Studies. As a writer and academic, she has led a life of the mind. Now 47, she and her husband live in Italy with their two children.

I bookmarked several pages as I read “The Lowland.” Space doesn’t allow for sharing more than a couple of excerpts, but these are a couple of my favorites:

Here is Subhash, riding a bus on a return visit to his boyhood home in India:

He saw foreigners on the streets, Europeans wearing kurtas, beads. Exploring Calcutta, passing through. Though he looked like any other Bengali he felt an allegiance with the foreigners now. He shared with them a knowledge of elsewhere. Another life to go back to. The ability to leave.

And here is Gauri, a widow in America:

And yet she remained, in spite of her Western clothes, her Western academic interests, a woman who spoke English with a foreign accent, whose physical appearance and complexion were unchangeable and, against the backdrop of most of America, still unconventional. She continued to introduce herself by an unusual name,..Her appearance and accent caused people to continue to ask her where she came from, and some to form certain assumptions.

There’s more, so much more. But at the risk of revealing too much, I’ll refrain. Suffice to say, Jhumpa Lahiri is a master.

Read an interview with the author in The Telegraph of London:

Photograph: Dan Callister

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Tiger Lady

Lakshmi Jagannathan and her husband Raghu at the Taj Mahal.

Lakshmi and her husband Raghu at the Taj Mahal. Who would guess their wedding anniversary has a connection to Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister of India?.

By Lakshmi Jagannathan

The house was surprisingly small – ranch style, with an understated ethnic décor. It was hard to believe that world leaders had congregated in the simple living room. Vast collections of books dominated the home. A sari with burn marks, a handbag and slippers were displayed in a glass booth. From the other exhibits – childhood writings, photos and other memorabilia — an erudite persona emerged.

Many years ago, militant Sikhs in India waged an insurgency to create their own state – Khalistan. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, ordered troops to enter the sacred Golden Temple of Amritsar to remove the rebel leader and his armed followers.  Several months later, on a crisp October morning, Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh guards as she walked down a path in her garden in the capital, Delhi. Needless to say, violent anti-Sikh riots followed and thousands were killed.

Why would I write about this today? As fate would have it, that was the day and time chosen by priests for my Hindu wedding ceremony.  I have always had an eerie feeling about the juxtaposition of these events, but a happy side-effect is that many friends and relatives always remember our anniversary.   One friend, who worked in an underground cell during her infamous “State of Emergency,” felt it was an auspicious time to get married. Indira confiscated all civil liberties and ruled by decree. Her most egregious act was to order mass sterilizations of young men to control over-population.  Her death was no loss for many people. Sometimes, though, I wondered about what the Universe was trying to tell me.

The Indira Gandhi museum is modestly decorated.

The Indira Gandhi museum is modestly decorated.

It doesn’t help either that the day was Halloween in the U.S. when only a witch and a warlock are supposed to get married – or so the saying goes? True, I consider myself a healer, but I like to think that any energy work that I dabble in is benevolent. And my engineer husband certainly doesn’t believe in practicing magic, black or white. This April, on a trip to see the Taj Mahal and a tiger park with my family, we decided to go to visit the Indira Gandhi museum in New Delhi. In a weird way, for me, it was like a pilgrimage back in time to a momentous day in my life.

Indira was a skier, fluent in French, attending school in Switzerland and college at Oxford.  The aristocratic background of her family somehow seemed at odds with that of the traditional rural majority she represented.  I wondered if she could have only chosen another career pathway, her destiny might have been different. Her house was frozen in time, but marriage is all about change – people, situations, places. The key, perhaps, is to keep cycling in tandem – whether the road is smooth or the trail is full of gravel. And of course, you have to swerve around the potholes.

One facet of Indira I had never known about was that she was one of the original environmentalists of India. She used her power to ban recreational hunting (hunting safaris by Indian royalty and the British rulers had decimated the tiger population). She stopped fur exports, passed the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. If it wasn’t for her, the Ranthambore National Park we visited wouldn’t have existed and we wouldn’t have sighted a glorious tiger after 2 days and 8 hours of grueling Jeep rides in the heat.

Good luck charm?

Good luck charm?

For me, my kids say that my main accomplishment has been to be a Tiger Mom. But they seem to have survived to tell the tale. I stood in front of the glass walkway that commemorated her last walk and said a prayer for her soul. I asked her to bless me with all the good qualities she had – her strength and determination and the visionary creativity she brought to her life and work.

I forgave her for her bad ones. And I bought a key chain with her picture on it. I hope it brings me luck for the next 30 years.

A mentor/angel investor for tech startups, writer, Karuna Reiki practitioner, volunteer for CeaseFire Oregon, scientist and spiritual explorer, Lakshmi Jagannathan enjoys connecting different worlds — so much so that nobody has been able to pin her to any tribe yet. She loves traveling with her husband Raghu and her two sons and is currently hugging Eucalyptus trees in California and sending out positive intentions for rain — yes, Oregon rain.

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Editor’s note: I met Lakshmi in the fall of 2007, when she was one of a dozen people selected for The Oregonian’s Community Writer program. She is one of the most intelligent and well-traveled persons I know, with so many interests I can hardly keep up. For starters, there’s “Downton Abbey” and The Eagles.

Tomorrow: “Genesis of the magic” by Natasa KG