India – Contrast and Comparison

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Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

India is a land of stark contrasts.

As I write this (March 11, 2009) I am looking out of the window of my room in the Hyatt Regency in Mumbai.  The traffic outside is absurdly light this morning as it is a holy day in India.  The normal chaos of traffic, beeping horns, exhaust, and fumes has been supplanted by a sense of ease and tranquility, with only the eternal haze that surrounds the city reminding me that I am in India.  The relative calm gives me a welcome opportunity to reflect upon this trip.

Earlier in the week I was looking out of a similar window of my room in the Ibis Hotel in Gurgaon just outside of Delhi. My room looked out on a barren patch of dirt and mud surrounded by shacks made of corrugated metal. Inside the perimeter of this shanty enclave children played with sticks and rocks, and the adults went about the business of living their life, as the images before me carved impressions that remain with me still:

  • A young man in his early 20’s standing beside a water truck in only his underwear, brushing his teeth
  • An elderly woman in a sarong standing at the back of the truck, cleaning the dirt from her arms and hands using a hose from the truck
  • Two friends greeting each other with a hug and then heading off walking hand in hand
  • A woman totally absorbed in the task of smoothing the dirt behind her shack into a perfectly level patch of ground, for no reason that I can discern
  • Three pigs, one an adult and the other two juveniles, running around in the center of the compound and from time to time wandering outside the compound to the trash strewn directly behind the shacks
  • At times the children cavort and play with the pigs, and at other times they throw rocks at them
  • The adult pig seems to be a favorite of the woman leveling the dirt behind her shack, and even from a distance I can sense their mutual love for one another as she pets him and scratches behind his ears 

The day outside is like most days in Delhi: theoretically a clear day without clouds, but the sun is nonetheless a dim glow in the sky, it’s radiance veiled by the thick layer of smog that constantly blankets the city.  The traffic outside is a cacophony of beeping horns, high pitched groans from motorcycles and tricycles carrying their passengers to and fro, the rumbling of trucks straining under their burden of their cargoes, and underlying it all the buzz and hum of engines at work.  Despite the apparent chaos and discord, there is an underlying vibrancy that is the unmistakable pulse of life and its boundless energy.

I am in Delhi on business, deeply involved in contract negotiations that are rapidly deteriorating with both parties threatening to cancel the project we have been working on.  Both sides have started to contemplate legal alternatives, which is never a good sign. 

Soon it is time to leave for my meeting, which is with one of the senior executives from the oil company we are hoping to work for.  The meeting is scheduled for mid morning; the hotel car – a shiny new sedan – slowly weaves in and out of traffic and I become lost deep in a mobile phone conversation with a colleague from Houston as I make final preparations for the meeting.

BANG!

BANG, BANG, BANG! 

Beggar and Baby

Beggar and Baby

I am jolted from my conversation by a young girl, perhaps 11 or 12 years old, banging her open palm on my car window.  “Mister?  Mister?  One dollar, one dollar?  One euro, one euro?  Please, mister?  One rupee, one rupee?  Mister?”  Her pleas are insistent, demanding, unrelenting.  Now two very young boys, probably half her age, accompany her banging with the light tapping of their fingers along the bottom of the window, a staccato accompaniment to the banging of the young girl’s palms.  As I sit in air conditioned comfort struggling with whether to ignore them, pity them, or help them, a sense of disconnect, of unreality, grows and infuses the world around me with a sense of imbalance, of asymmetry.  In the end I simply acknowledge them with a smile, but underneath there is a growing sense of disquiet within me.

The traffic light changes, the scene gradually changes and soon we are nearing the Taj Mansingh hotel, where my meeting is scheduled to begin in less than half an hour.  After the car passes through the security inspection -conducted by smiling men sporting semi-automatic rifles and undercarriage mirrors that remind me of the dustpans used for sweeping throughout Southeast Asia – I step out into a fantasy world of beauty and opulence.  Marble statues and fountains rimmed by ferns and palms, everything sparkling clean, and yet somehow there is a sense of sterility and artifice rather than purity or cleanliness.  Inside the lobby, baroque music is piped in at just the right volume – not too soft, not too loud – and all the staff smile, offering to assist me with my bags, to help me check in, to show me to my room.  No thanks, I reply, I am just here for a meeting and the only reason I am carrying my travel bags is that I will be leaving directly from the meeting to the airport so I can travel to Mumbai for my next set of meetings.

Taj Mansingh Hotel

Taj Mansingh Hotel

Sitting in the lobby of the Taj waiting for the appointed meeting time, the sense of unreality returns.  Sounds seem to fall dead, with no perceptible reverberation or depth: just an abrupt truncation as the void instantaneously swallows each potential echo.  Despite the music in the background, there is a harshness that is elusive and frustratingly difficult to describe, but very palpable.  I sense the need to go within.

I sit and rest.  Straightening my spine and deepening my breathing, I close my eyes and reflect back on the teachings from a few nights before.  As I ground myself, I visualize sending energetic roots deep into the earth below, and stretching limber branches up to the sun and wind and sky.  I begin to pull energy in from the world around me.  In my mind a column of brilliant white light extends up and down along my spine and out of my physical body, anchored to the core at the center of the earth on one end and reaching up to the infinity of the sky at the other end.  Golden red energy spirals up around the column from the center of the earth, while electric blue energy spirals downwards from the sky. 

The two energies intertwine and merge within me and I observe the chirality of the spirals: always the scientist, the “Professor”, I note that both the earth energy and the sky energy follow the right-hand rule.  I send my mind off to consider the puzzle of why earth and sky energy are both levorotary, and bring my focus back to my breathing and pulling more energy in.  Energy builds as my spine and scalp start to tingle, and I set my intent on filling my being with light, and building a loving container that can somehow hold and transmute the conflict inherent in the upcoming meeting.  My body is vibrant and alive.  I open my eyes and the room around me is transformed – what seemed a moment ago to be dry and sterile is now lush and scintillating.

My client shows up a few minutes later, and the meeting comes and goes over Darjeeling tea for him and Masala chai for me, as we discuss possible ways forward.  Although the energetic container I have set up keeps the discussion civil and our interpersonal connection open and strong, it seems that even this connection cannot overcome the wide discrepancy in the commercial expectations of our two companies.  And so I gently allow the container to dissipate and leave the meeting to re-enter the world of traffic, airports, and hectic business schedules.

 On the taxi ride to the airport, I review the events from earlier in the morning.  Why is it on this trip that these contrasts between surface appearances and underlying reality seem so vivid and so all-consuming?  Certainly this is nothing new in comparison with my previous visits to India.  What message is the universe trying to send me?

As I sit and reflect on the mixed emotions I experienced when confronted with young beggar girl – and the thoughts that went through my mind as she banged on my window – part of the message begins to form.  What emotion was I really feeling?  I know that what I should have been feeling was compassion and love, but what was I really feeling?  The answer is not pretty: I was feeling pity. 

In that moment I responded as if this young girl was somehow a lesser being than me – that my education, my relative wealth, status, and affluence somehow made me a better person than her.  Perhaps seeing this ugliness within myself was the real purpose for my repeated trips to India, for my path has certainly been guided here repeatedly over the past few months.  Once again, I sense the need to go within: straighten my spine, close my eyes, and breathe. 

No judgement or condemnation of myself, but an intense curiosity concerning the nature of my feelings of pity and underlying assumptions that support those feelings.  Do I really believe that I am a better person than the girl outside my window?  No.  Aren’t we both children of God, of Light, of Spirit?  Yes.  Do I even begin to understand her world, not from the perspective of evaluation or comparison with mine, but under its own terms?  Is it really as devoid of beauty and love as I imagine it to be, or am I just afraid that maybe – just maybe – her world has something to tell me about my world, about my cherished beliefs and values.

As I “dig deeper”, an ongoing imperative from my trusty guide Max, it becomes clear how much of my self-image revolves around relative values – comparisons and contrasts – rather than intrinsic values.  The obsessive need to be better than others – smarter, wealthier, stronger, more successful – is clearly nothing more than a vain effort to obtain what I truly already possess: worth, value, and significance.  Why is it that we expend so much effort pursuing that which we already have?  Why do I have such a hard time accepting that I am worthy, valuable, and significant simply because I am?  Why do I feel the compulsive need to earn or prove my worth – why can I not accept this as a gift of existence?

Layer up layer, I continue to work my way down to the core of my being.  I am not discouraged, but rather intrigued with the twists and turns my journey is taking, and the unexpected revelations along the way.

Namaste!

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