A Fruit for Every Season
There are a few fruit shake stands by the main food court area in Thongsala, the port town on Ko Phangan, one of Thailand’s favourite islands to do yoga. But there is unarguably the best stand. It’s not even because the service is better or for one of those ineffable reasons we are happy to leave alone as we enjoy what is prepared for us. The reason is clear: they offer, by far, the most fruit combinations (about 60). You order by number and the fruit are also depicted as animated images, so there the chances of language barrier complications happening are reduced to almost nothing. We had a few delicious shakes there without incident, but despite the friendliness of the girl and older man operating the stand, there have been two incidents that leave me wondering, not for the first time, what went wrong, and why. The first time was at night. Only an older Russian couple (I could source them after hearing them speak) was there with me, and they’d just arrived. I placed my order by pointing to the numbers listing the different shakes on the large menu. Then I started observing their fascination with the fruit shake phenomenon. They must have been new to Thailand. Through their gestures I understood that the husband was explaining to his wife that you can order any combination on the list, and started listing some of the fruit to her. She was intrigued but tentative, like the stand or she might set on fire if she moved closer. Eventually she honed in and said, Ah! She pointed directly to one combination that her husband explained to her (the fruits were depicted as somewhat hazy images): milk and tomato. I never noticed this combination before, and marveled at hour differently everyone’s brains work. Eventually they ordered (not the milk and tomato one). A couple of minutes later, the girl gave me my two shakes, but one was obviously not mine, because I ordered one with beet root, which turns shake a deep purple that mine clearly was not. I gave it back to her and told her the number I ordered in Thai. She repeated it back to me without any explanation. Finally she took the shake and started making a new one. Then, out of the corner of my eye I’m pretty sure I saw her give my wrong shake to the Russians, who didn’t know any better. If I’d known this would have happened, I would have taken the wrong shake so the newcomers to Thailand could enjoy the shake they ordered. The second incident: we ordered coconut/mint/passionrfruit, and got watermelon, which, strangely, isn’t one of the 60 fruit on the menu. Most importantly, I hope the Russian couple enjoys their stay on the island.
The Man of Haridwar Station
The details take on mythic proportions. A tiny girl, aided by her mother who holds her hands from behind, squeaks little steps on shoes designed to make noise so that neither shoes nor child ever get lost. A group of young men huddle together like lovers on a mat made from the refuse of a goods packaging factory. They hug each other with one arm and hold their cellphones with the other, all of them, synchronized like chorus girls. Across from them, I can see the bottom half of a woman in an orange saree and I almost mistake her for a sadhu – India’s orange-clad men who have renounced all material possessions in their search for spiritual illumination.
People come and go. We’ve been at the Haridwar train station for over two hours now, having arrived early on a bus from Rishikesh. It was the smallest bus we’ve been on, or rather, the bus with the smallest, most uncomfortable seats. And this is saying a lot. We’ve been to India three times now, and altogether, this is our thirteenth month. We just finished a month-long yoga teacher training course and are on our way to Dharamsala, high up in the Himalayas, where we plan to do some intense meditation. We’re on the waiting list for a 10 day silent retreat. You do a lot of waiting in India. Most of the time it’s worth the wait.
For a month we’ve been sequestered in a yoga hall with five other students and our guru-ji (respected teacher), a Ph.D in yoga and a brilliant practitioner. We’ve been, for the most part, removed from India at large. Except for the occasional run-in on our few days off with other tourists, a self-proclaimed schizophrenic seeking rupees and a persistent drum seller on the main drag, we have been breathing clean air, eating sattvic (yogic, pure vegetarian) food and sleeping early. All this is a startling contrast to the two months of our trip prior to arriving in the safe haven of Rishikesh’s vast mountains and yoga spaces.
Being back in the real India is a bit of a shock, and nothing is more shockingly Indian than its train stations, thronging and humming with life 24 hours a day. Everyone has their own space but everyone watches each other. People eat, spit, sleep, talk, stare, fight and basically live their lives right out there in the open, despite, or maybe because of the crowds. It’s miraculous even as it’s exhausting. I look up and see someone I’m sure is Caucasion, only he’s in full Indian garb and has the casual confidence of a local. The albinos here always remind me how readily we recognize – and judge – people by the colour of their skin, with all the horrible things this implies.
To my right, an old man sits in an effortless half-lotus potion. There’s bright pink dye running down the back of his white shirt, dried now, and he wears a pink scarf that doesn’t seem to be the source of the dye problem, this time anyway. Ladies chat together on one bench and men on another, always separate, always preferring the company of their own, directly in front of my view. It’s the man between these two benches, by a post that he has claimed, who catches my attention and captivates me the most.
He arrives with a wooden stick and a bag, and sits for awhile, leaning against the post. A great struggle begins. He’s gotten it into his head to remove the contents of his bag. It’s a tight fit and the stuff doesn’t come out easily. But the man’s resilient. He bends over the bag; this doesn’t seem easy for him. He’s an older man, at least 60 in my estimation, though it’s hard to tell here sometimes. He wears a long-sleeved, pale yellow shirt in the Indian style, long and loose, and a white cloth as his pants, or skirt. His scuffed black sandals are neatly stacked by the post. He’s rather meticulous, I can tell. He stands on another mat made from faulty goods packaging – crinkly and shiny, these are common seating aids at train stations; people sell them here for a few rupees apiece at most of the stations I’ve been to.
The man struggles with the bag for a long time. His fingers shake and he doesn’t seem too stable. I want to help him but something stops me. He has a pride about him, a fierce independence that’s familiar to me but I’m not sure from where. Does he remind me of the many older, homeless Indians I’ve seen who have to fend for themselves in adverse circumstances? Is it my grandmother he’s recalling, who resisted help at every turn as she aged and succumbed to eventual mental illness? Is it both, and this man is bridging cultures, worlds for me? There’s something so sad about this struggle he’s engaged in. You almost never see people on their own here. People move, breathe, congregate and travel in packs (the homeless notwithstanding and, tragically, even here, they are not as visible as the rest). As I write this, a family nearby numbers seven – five of them are on two adjoining benches and two sit on the ground in front of the rest with the luggage, on a pink and white cloth. It’s so common to see large families travelling together that the old man’s solitude is striking in contrast.
Is he a widow? Never married? A recluse? Is he sick? It’s impossible to tell. He’s still bent over his bag, trying to retrieve its contents. His bare feet are dirty, long and lean, his calf muscles a good size. Maybe he was really strong once. He wears a black hat that might distinguish him in some way – caste? – but I’m not sure how. Now he’s approaching the frailty of old age. His white hair stands out too – not only out of his cap, but as unusual in a country where most old men dye their hair black or red. It’s very rare to see white-haired men unless they’re extremely old, or sadhus/swamis/gurus living a more natural lifestyle – if you can call dreadlocks, extreme austerities and constant near-nudity natural, and this depends highly on your conditioning and your point of view in the world.
The man’s fingers fumble as he tries to lower the bag around some kind of blanket, the object of his desire at the moment. There’s something else in the bag, something metallic – a bowl, maybe – that’s stopping the bag from easily falling away from the blanket. He pauses to take some water from a plastic bottle and then lifts the bag again, this time from the bottom. Success. He holds has a really pretty purple and orange blanket, thick and cozy-looking, in his hands. With great care he unrolls it and, over the course of a few minutes, neatly spreads it on the mat, which is perpendicular to the post. He kneels down and it looks like he’s praying, his back to me, but I don’t think he is. There is something staunchly atheistic, anarchic even, about him to me.
Now the bag is in his hands and he wipes something off the blanket. Then the bag itself catches his attention. He removes the bowl and a few other things from it, and moves over to the bench on his knees. The family is aware of him and ignoring him at the same time – the former is informed conjecture on my part. He empties the contents of the bag onto the ground underneath the bench. All I can see emerging onto the floor are a few orange peels, but he takes these into his hands and eventually puts them back into the bag. He crawls back to his new home and puts his scattered objects back into the bag. He then spends some time arranging the bag just so – here, he reminds me of my grandmother, who also used to arrange things at great length, and who used to say ‘just so’ to mean ‘exactly this way, to perfection’ – and now he has the perfect pillow.
Finally – wearily? – he sits down, back against the bag/pillow and the post. I feel I’m watching a lone king surveying his land, obtusely and indifferently, from his lair, with the entirety of his existence. He doesn’t rest for long. Minutes later he’s made his way to the far reaches of his blanket, where he neatly folds the edges so the blanket aligns exactly with the packaged goods mat. Satisfied, he crawls back to his pillow, and sits down again to observe his surrounds.
We marvel: he must have only these few things in his whole life. What freedom! Where is he going? Will he stay the night? Who will greet him at his next destination? (He seems utterly without human connection). How will he get the blanket back into the bag? Why isn’t he, like most, staring at us foreigners?
A sadhu sets up shop next to him. He appears much wealthier than the old man. His hair is thick and clean and he has metallic food containers and a glass to drink from. The two don’t speak.
The old man starts playing with a few rupee bills. He rolls them in his hands, over and over. The action is absentminded and deliberate at the same time, somehow.
“Chai. Chai chai chai. Chaiiiiii.”
There are two chai, or tea wallahs (men, sellers) in this part of the station, carrying their heated chai in a metallic holder, and paper cups. So far the old man has not said a word, which I find hard to believe now that I think about it, since I feel I’ve been in dialogue with him for over an hour now. Still silently, he beckons one of the wallahs over. He indicates that he wants a chai with a nod of the head and holds out one of his few bills. I can see it’s taped together in a few different places. Indians are obsessed with clean bills and usually won’t accept torn ones. This wallah is no exception. He discards the bill and walks away. I try to read the old man’s face but get no reaction. A few minutes later he tries again with the second wallah and is rejected for the second time.
We discuss buying him a chai because a chai is such a simple thing to get and such a pleasure to consume but again, we’re thrown by his independence. Some people don’t respond well to being helped, and we can’t tell if he’s one of them. I think of the ladies I saw in Amsterdam’s red light district over fifteen years ago, showing off everything from behind glass. Music comes out to us on the street, but our voices don’t reach them, and there’s no chance of communicating with them, finding out who they are, though everything is superficially visible. Here too, he’s very visible, but it’s an impenetrable division. There is him and there is us.
While he’s being rejected for his chai, an older woman who appears to be talking loudly to herself, spreads a mat on the floor next to me – I’m on a bench. I can see what her packaged-goods mat references: BAR CLIF: CHOCOLATE BROWNIE. I’m guessing she’s never had one of these in her life, but its packaging is now her throne, and indeed, like the old man, there’s something regal about her. She wears a blue saree, has wild grey hair and has an adorable feistiness about her. Where the old man is a master of detail she is thoroughly rough around the edges, almost graceless, except for the dignity and pride that pour out of her like a salve. I can almost feel it soothing my skin. She throws a large bag on the mat and flutters around, chatting to herself. The old man, meanwhile, has laid down on his side for a few minutes, before thinking better of it. He sits back up and catches the old woman’s eye. This is all it takes. She zooms over to him and kneels down, displaying a more perfect posture than I saw during an entire month of intensive yoga. The man is unmoved. He watches her with eyes that seem nonchalant and occasionally gracious while she talks and talks and pats him on shoulder now and then.
Eventually it seems he’s had enough. He says something imperceptible to my ears – his first words of the evening – and she abruptly gets up, nodding in understanding, and says her goodbyes. He then touches his forehead and spreads his hand across his face as she gets up and leaves. She wanders away, sometimes returning to her brownie mat and mostly leaving it alone. We’re in the anteroom of the station, between the front entrance and the platform, where most of the action is taking place. She disappears around the corner to the platform area and we don’t see her again until we have to leave to catch our train.
The old man lies down again, but when I get back from buying a Sprite, he’s sitting with a seller of some strange-looking black plastic boxes all hanging from one central piece of string like a mobile. He’s leaning on the blanket; he’s been invited into the old man’s sacred space. The old man is eating something out of a newspaper. How did I miss this? Where did he get the food? From the black plastic box seller? Did he pay for it? With the taped 10 rupee bill?
What did the woman-in-blue say to him and will they talk again, these two denizens of this summer train station night?
I’m still here, but I’m already nostalgic for these monumental dramas that seem to have no end in this vast, multitudinous country. And this is just what I’ve seen, observed, let alone imagined. The old man chats briefly with the sadhu to his right and asks one of the family members on his left to help him open a little white plastic vile, giving him a large grin before spitting on the floor under the bench. Now he’s laid down to attempt sleep again. I will board my train and inflate my soul with his dreams.
* This story was originally published in The Bactrian Room.
“Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.” ~ Helen Keller
Eyes invite people in, giving others a glimpse into the deepest parts of ourselves.
It also works the other way around; eyes are our window out onto the visual world. For those of us with functioning vision, it’s estimated that 80% of our sensory information about the world comes through our sense of sight.
Looking into the eyes of those we love, feels like magic.
Really looking at people in the eye can help us connect with them and understand them better.
A whole realm of empathy can form around the simple act of people looking at each other.
In other words, we’re very dependent on seeing, for building our identity and wellbeing. Look how many expressions exist in the English language based on eye metaphors or analogies:
Do you see? Try to look at it through my eyes. An eye for an eye. Do we see eye to eye? To see with the naked eye. Wide-eyed.
It goes on.
Our eyes are very complex mechanisms that link our brains and minds to the visual field. They do incredibly uncanny things, such as helping us to distinguish objects, perceive depth and experience color. It’s almost impossible to fathom that these little pieces of matter, lodged in our heads, can do so much.
It’s very important to consider how and why we make sense of the world the way we do, and why we’re so dependent on our sense of sight (try practicing navigating through the house blindfolded or listening to movies rather than watching them, for example).
It’s also a really good idea to take care of our eyes.
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.”
~ Sylvia Plath
We know this intuitively. We ‘look inward’ when we meditate, turning ourselves over to our inner eye, and washing, purifying and strengthening the powers of our ajna chakras, or third eye.
We can only complement this process of inner seeing by nurturing our physical eyes. One of the basic yoga kriyas, or cleansing techniques, you can do every morning, involves cupping your hands, filling them with water and thoroughly rinsing your eyes in it.
A more comprehensive kriya for cleansing the eyes, is Trataka—a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to gaze upon’ or ‘to look.’ Trataka is a fixed-gaze meditation that I like to think of as a natural wonder drug for the eyes.
On a physical level, looking unwaveringly at one object for a substantial duration strengthens the eye muscles and is known to help those with insomnia. It can facilitate improvement in vision, making it an excellent tool for avid readers and chronic computer-users.
Trataka also triggers or prompts physical and emotional release—the idea is that by stilling ourselves, we can allow that proverbial ‘stuff’ to come up and wash away.
Yogis use Trataka to stimulate the third eye and develop concentration skills, considered integral in their own right. This enables them to move into more advanced meditations that would be impossible without an ability to tame distraction and cultivate an ability to focus.
How Trataka works
Note: Trataka can be done using virtually any unmoving object, such as a dot on the wall. I find using the flame of a candle, to be very powerful and intimate.
1: Light a candle; place on the floor, or table, in front of you.
2: Sit in a comfortable position, preferably with your spine straight, and surround yourself with anything you might normally use in meditation or relaxation practices to create a peaceful, conducive atmosphere.
3: Take a few deep breaths; allow your body to relax for a moment and slowly become aware of it.
4: Look at the wick inside the flame—if using a candle—as the centring point, and perform the following movements:
– Move your eyes from left to right several times.
– Look up and then down several times.
– Look diagonally up to the left and down to the right several times.
– Look diagonally up to the right and down to the left several times.
5: Rest your eyes on the wick of the flame and keep your eyes open. Fix your gaze, remaining fully aware of the flame until your eyes grow very tired or start to water.
6: Close your eyes and concentrate on the image of the flame between your eyes in the center of your forehead. Try to keep the image stable. When the image begins to fade, try to bring it back.
7: Open your eyes and repeat steps five and six, one or two more times.
In the beginning, you can concentrate on the flame for one—two minutes, increasing this amount of time with practice. Observe any emotions that arising without thinking about, or judging, them.
You might also notice that this exercise helps you learn to “open your eyes” to your environment in a new and more vibrant way, and the benefits of seeing things anew are, of course, innumerable.
“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”
~ Albert Einstein
* This article first appeared in elephant journal.