Friday, March 23, 2007

8 months later

Dearest friends,

Every time I sit to write, I think back to when I last wrote and can't help but feel a it overwhelmed by the amount of experiences I have had and more importantly the task (though task really is not the right word) of writing it all down. Sonia tells me I should write everyday, which I should, but writing takes a LOT of time, I've learned. It's all about the balancing act. When you seem to find it, something comes to tip it to one side. I want to share all that has happened, yet the question becomes how. Its been a lot easier for example with my brother and sister since they have seen it, meet the people and felt the love and environment I am in, nonetheless, you're not seeing doesn't deter me from the effort, but rather motivates me to put it all down so I can truly share my world and my life, which is wholly supported by the love and encouragement that each of you are sending me from all over the world. These emails are novels, I agree, they are by no means written in one sitting, so take breaks in reading! =)

Turn on your music and if you have the song "Jiya Dhadak Dhadak" from the movie "Kaalyug", listen to it. It'll transport you to the space that I am in. It's been the theme song for the last two months.

So the last two months:

We'll let's start with the present (which now at the moment of typing is now 1.5 weeks ago). I am in Varanasi/Benares/Kashi, the oldest city in India, for my roommate Anchal's engagement. We missed the train (which wasn't my fault) and caught a flight to Delhi from where we made the rest of journey by train with Laxmi and Sonia, who Krupa, Anchal and I met up with. I'm traveling with my tablas, which can be a pain, but they have become such a big part of my life, that tablas are not a burden, but my tablas. One week without practicing would be really hard.

I spent Holi and Duleti with the MS (Manav Sadhna) gang in the Narmada Valley. Great great weekend. Played duleti with coloured powder outside a Shiva temple that is from the Puranas time, where we also sang bhajans. Singing bhajans (devotional songs) at this temple is a fond memory because I was able to share this with Virenmama who is a very devoted Shaivite (Shiva devotee). We played duleti (covering each other with coloured powder) along the banks and in the Narmada river. Holi is the festival of colour and is celebrated with a huge fire on the night of Holi and with colour fights on the day of Duleti (after Holi). We did a lot of masti (mischief) and ate lots. We got to see the inside of the hydroelectric plant in the dam and WHOA are dams huge! As for my views on the Sardor Sarovar dam itself, they are continually evolving as I meet different people and learn more about it. (the dam interestingly enough is the reason I decided to do environmental engineering emphasis and became so interested in water and sanitation).

The month of February was international volunteering month at MS, meaning that we had an influx of volunteers from the US and UK who came to serve for the month. We had 8 female volunteers. We moved out of the ashram house (Jayeshmama's old home in the Gandhi Ashram itself, used by the female volunteers) in early January because of renovations to the home. (As I write I realize that I have not shared pictures of the most basic places in my life, namely the ashram house, MS, ESI, Safai Vidhylay, which I will be doing shortly). We moved into the dormitories of Safai Vidhyalay (I believe my blog has a posting on all the organizations, how they are related, etc). Moving to Safai was a great experience. The day we moved in Safai, Laura (or "mom" as she is called by hundreds), a Be the Cause volunteer who came on a service vacation to MS last year, moved into Safai also. Laura, amongst other things, is an extremely loving, huggable mom, who is spreading seeds of love wherever she goes. Literally she is a mom to everyone. The dorm brought us all closer together for many reason. The atmosphere really seemed to change. Part of it is the strength of the space itself, Safai being the karmabhoomi (land of action) for some many powerful people, part it being that every new visitor/volunteer (Guri's friend Sandy from Cali, an Australian woman named Linda that Sandy met on her travels, Maria from Alaska) brought a new energy of positivity to the space. And then there is the fact we were all in one space. Very powerful connections were created in that space. In the first two weeks, Snehal arrived from for 6 weeks, Sandy and Linda for 4 days, Maria for 2 weeks. It was the beginning of daily 11pm chats to catch up on the day and each others' experiences. A few weeks later, Krupa from Cali, Binisha and Ekta from the UK and of course Laxmi from the UK was still with us. A blurb on each of these fabulous females below is on my blog for those interested. The ritual of daily chai (made wonderfully by Ramanbhai) and Parle-G's and hanging out with ESI sevaks (Nareshbhai, Govindbhai, Laxmiben, Jayantikaka, Ramanbhai) had begun as soon we got to Safai. The staff lavished us with love.

The last two months have flown by. I moved back to the ashram home with a bathroom that looks like its from a really nice hotel and Safai Vidhyalay's dormitory is bare. I returned from Benares and the volunteers were gone. Krupa left last night. It's me and Anchal and Sonia in the house, but Sonia too leaves for Mexico at the end of the month. No more 8 girls living together (until the summer I guess). This week since I've gotten back has been of internalizing and focusing more on myself and my work, which has its own advantages

The volunteers have been an experience in itself. Specifically the women I lived with. Observing teaches you so much, I realize time and time again when I actually observe. Each volunteer comes for a different reason and from a different space. To watch them as they go through their own process over the course of the month or months that they are here is very very powerful. I see the struggles that I had when I started and watch them encounter things I have no yet experienced. Each volunteer teaches you something about yourself. Laxmi and Krupa didn't really want to come to their last prathna because that's when everyone talks about your good qualities and shares their appreciation. It is their humbleness that makes them uncomfortable in such a situation, but on the other side I see the reason for the practice to be different. This gundarshan (viewing of good qualities) is very powerful for the listeners and sharers because it allows us to reflect upon what we have learned from that individual, making it more easy to internalize those lessons. Also it is a moment of inspiration as we reflect upon the qualities of the person in ourselves and find the motivation to develop those skills in ourselves. We have an example to look to, which makes it easier to hone that skill.

Two things are the focal points my life. Music and the Service on Wheels project. A small thing on both are below , more on it is on my blog .

Music has taken on a new dimension in my life and I'm loving it. Listening to great music, singing and playing tabla are staple activities in my life now. Music is infusing every part of my body and soul and in the process making me more in turn to the music of the universe. Tabla is particular is something I am really doing for myself. It is my grounding. I am so blessed to have the Guruji I have – Pandit Divyang Vakil. Guruji not only is an accomplished musician, but more importantly he is extremely personable. He is a philosopher and I love the conversations I have with him. Music is intricately linked to spirituality and Guruji has a strong understanding of both. I always look forward to classes.

Music is something that is felt by so many here. The people at the home (the volunteers) and MSers are so supportive of my musical pursuit which makes is easier to overcome challenges and find the motivation to stay focused and practice.

Service on Wheels
The service on wheels project is Virenmama, Jayeshmama and Anarmami's 16 year old dream project- to have a van that will travel in the villages doing service work. Their dream is finally coming through. ESI is creating a Service on Wheels van that will travel the villages of Gujarat doing 5 day camps in each. We aim to provide information and motivation focusing on five topics: water sanitation, health, addiction and education, specifically female education; the underlying theme for the project is empowerment, to empower villagers to take their future in their own hands.

The van is being designed by Prakashbhai Vani (graduate of the first batch of students from the National Institute of Design) and his team at Playtpus Labs. I am the project coordinator, in addition to being responsible for developing the IEC (information, education, communication) material for the van. Which entails giving ESI's existing material a facelift and additional punch by incorporating new technologies and gathering and creating the materials for the other exhibitions. Panels, games, presentations, the works on each topic. I am working with an animation designer, Sakshi, who is student at the National Institute of Design (NID).

The project is quite a bit of work and on a tight detail, which means running, but that is completely okay. It is nice to have a focus and good to have a reason to not jump from one thing to another since I have a large load with this project itself. I'm having tons of fun working with Sakshi, its awesome to have someone my age to work with and I'm learning loads about what good and effective IEC. Toilets of course are a lot of fun and we have seen quite a variety of scenes as we have been taking pictures in villages for our panels and animated film. In fact, I've even had to go on a hunt for newly made defecation, which surprisingly wasn't so difficult to find, even though it was almost 11am.

Creating effective IEC material is most definitely a challenge, especially since I have not spent much time in villages, but I have lots of great resources. I did an overnight stay in a village called Haripura, which was great fun and just reinforced the idea that has been at the back of my head about village life being the life, so much more grounded and organic. Then you see the villages that aren't so clean, don't have as much prosperity and wonder where the middle ground all is. Something about the village definitely resonates somewhere inside, my understanding it, we'll its all a process.

In all, I'm happy. I'm enjoying the ups and downs. It's very powerful space to be in when you can recognize the ups and downs and be somewhat equanimous during the downs in particular.

There have been some great discussions, lots of thoughts continually evolving, and such the journey continues.

I've been trying to find my own balance and after getting inspiration from 2 Daily Good emails 2 months apart, have been really good about keeping a daily gratitude list, most of which are posted online. They give a small glimpse into my day. It seems to be working atleast in that I end my days on a good note since I write my list before going to bed. That and listening to some good music makes sleep so much more peaceful.

Another novel now comes to an end. For those that made it through, kudos to you.

With lots of love, good wishes and gratitude

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Music and Me

When I returned from Mumbai in January, a volunteer named Balaji, student at MIT, came to MS for two weeks through Project Ahimsa with a goal doing music related work. He didn’t join in on a music program at MS, since at current there is a standstill, but that didn’t stop him from sharing the music. At Seva Café and MS, he strummed away on his guitars, lifting hearts with the notes in his songs. He infused more music into Manav Sadhna, providing Laxmi with additional inspiration, reminded Sandeepbhai of his previous guitar endeavours. His smile and enthusiasm of course made him even more loved. The girls at Safai took a trip to Sarkhej Roza, which Balaji joined us on. In the MS car, he pulls out his guitar and all of sang and listened as we made our way across town. The ripple effect of Balaji’s presence still persist. Laxmi and him pushed me towards taking up Kathak or tabla, tabla winning out. Sunilbhai considered the violin and has decided on the flute, under Ankur’s influence. Sandeepbhai and Sikhander are learning guitar. The ripples continue.

For me, music has taken on a whole new dimension in life. Bharatbhai left Manav Sadhna for a teaching post at Gurukul, so prathna was empty without his singing. Soon after he left, Laura came to MS and that day, Virenmama asked if anyone wanted to sing. Be the influence of Balaji, the presence and love emitted by Laura or this bhajan being remembered from the time Akanksha students came for the retreat, the desire to sing emerged. I didn’t sing that day, but the next day at Saturday prathna. The response was powerful. During college, when I would talk and listen to Shalin and Trent with their singing pursuits, the desire to sing would come up. Some point along the way, I stopped singing because of my deep voice, but that began to get replaced with an appreciation for its “uniqueness”.

So singing began. Every week, a bunch of the MS staff always encourages me to sing a bhajan. From there, remembering old ones and learning the words of new bhajans has been spurned. I now sing randomly to myself and yes, listen to songs and practice while listening to the song. Having Jagatbhai to play the tablas as accompaniment makes singing so enjoyable and I look forward to singing at prathna. I got sick while in Benaras, which has left my voice hoarse or inaudible for a week or so, my first thought when I got sick was that I wouldn’t be able to sing.

Tablas. It’s been two months since I have begun tabla and I haven’t looked back. I love it. Tablas keep me grounded and is something that is just for me. I am so blessed to have the Guruji I have – Pandit Divyang Vakil. Guruji not only is an accomplished musician, but more importantly he is extremely personable. He is a philosopher and I love the conversations I have with him. Music is intricately linked to spirituality and Guruji has a strong understanding of both. Classes are a lot of fun. The teachers are very cool people. Music is their grounding. It’s an outlet for me to interact with other people beside those I work with, which is very nice and they are really talented. I always look forward to going to class, well maybe not so much on the days that I haven’t practiced enough… =)

Music is really important to people I work with, particularly Jagatbhai, Krupa, Laxmi and Sonia. When I started tabla, I was practicing on the Manav Sadhna tabla before prathna. Jagatbhai would arrive early in general and just sit while I struggled with the most basic tabla bols. His presence and support have been huge. If I ever think of quitting (knock on wood), the first words that are going to come to mind are jagatbhai saying, “Heenaben, tabla chalu karya che, uve ene chhodata nahi” (Heena, you have started tabla, never leave them). His skills always are an inspiration. One fond memory of Narmada weekend for Holi is hanging out with him and Raju as Rajubhai sang bhajans and Jagatbhai played the tabla. Laxmi, especially has been so encouraging. As I banged away trying to make some noise from the tabla, she’d always listening with a smile and ask how practices are going. Many of the volunteers especially love good music, ghazals, soft music you name it. Their love for music and the contentment they get from listening to music has only pushed me further to bring music more and more into my life.

When we went to Narmada, several people brought music players. From them, I remembered the ipod mom had given me months ago, tucked away in a bag and pulled it out when I got back. Now the ipod, loaded with some great songs, of course Kailasa Kher and the hanuman chaleesa, goes with me everywhere and before bed, its all about listening to soft Indian fusion music.

How dance fits into all of this I am trying to figure out. A wonderful girl (I say girl for people similar in age to me) named Malavika, who is a friend of Ankur’s stopped over in Ahmedabad. She does wonderful pieces of dance theatre that are moving to watch. Seeing her work was very inspirational.

An ode to women of Safai Vidhyalay

The month of February was in international volunteering month at MS, meaning that we had an influx of volunteers from the US and UK who came to serve for the month. These women each have so much to offer. I learned a lot from living with them all. Here’s an ode to these fabulous women.

The volunteers

It’s really hard to describe Lax because you don’t know where to start. She always has a smile on her face. No matter how many things she is doing, when she talking to you, she’s focused on you. She has taught me so much about dedication and the small things. She didn’t work on any large project, but did all the litte things that can get easily overlooked. Daily tutoring for Raghu and Yogesh in English, spending time with Herama and Kantima in the tekra, two elderly women who bloomed with her companionship and love, tutoring Sandeepbhai for exams, etc. Laxmi took time off between jobs in the UK to come to MS for 3 months to volunteer, I love her dedication to this dream of hers and the perspectives and grounding that she offered me. It was when Laxmi came home with her guitar that I really got the kick that I should start pursuing my other goal of taking up tabla or Kathak while in India. I mean if she could follow up on her dream while her for 3 months, I had already let 6 months pass by. The push to start something came from that day.

So I met Krupa last year at Miles for Smiles, a CharityFocus event, where we stood at intersections holding up signs that asked people to smile. The eldest of the volunteer (not counting Laura), Krupa just came with a desire to serve as she waited to hear back from graduate programs. A philosopher at heart, she has a lot of knowledge and is a true seeker of knowledge. She kick started the solid waste management program in the slum, where she installed waste bins in the homes and taught about proper garbage disposal. She’s super meticulous in her work and really gives everything a lot of thought. Krupa’s avid interest in music has been a big force in music becoming a larger part of my life. I learned a lot from watching Krupa and seeing her open up over the course of the month. MS really is a place where you can learn to trust your heart because there is so much love and support.

We had quite the myriad of volunteers. Snehal is the first married volunteer that I have met. Her maturity and level-headedness are things that really stick out. It’s what made it so easy to talk to her. She worked primarily with Gramshree teaching classes on mental health. She instantly connected with the women at Gramshree and it was so awesome to see her take such a sincere interest in their lives and well-being. Snehal’s love for animals cannot be forgotten. From the bhes (water buffalos) behind Safai, to the baby bakri (goat) and “jadu padu”, a puppy she nicknamed, at the tekra, her face lit up when talking about her animals. Snehal also came to India with a desire to take intensive Kathak classes. While most people say they want to something like that, they don’t follow up. Snehal did, which helped keep me going in tabla pursuit.

Hailing from New Jersey, Payal has been at 4-5 months at MS, working both at an organization called Sahyog in Jamalpur and Manav Sadhna (splitting the week between the two). Payal is a model of focus. As it is, it can be hard to focus while working just at MS, but Payal was able to find her focus at both orgs. She’s very focused and organized, continually working away to get whatever needs to be done done. After overcoming the initial hurdles of teaching tuitions, she found a her own of working within the system and left behind great documentation and suggestion for improvements. Despite her persistent cold and other hurdles, she persisted in her work and her own journey.

Taking a gap year between high school and college, at the age of 18, Binisha took the leap of faith and came to India on her own to serve for a month and travel, something that takes a lots of guts. You don’t find many high school graduates doing that. Binisha has a ridiculous amount of energy and often reminded me of me a few years ago (tho it seems like YEARS ago when I was 18). She did capacity building work at Utthan and UK marketing work with Gramshree and of course served religiously at Seva Café. She carried her enthusiasm and smile everywhere she went and soaked up everything that was through at her.

As with Binisha, coming to India at such a young age to serve is really inspirational. A friend of Binisha’s, hailing from Malawi, studying in the UK, Ekta thought the India trip would be interesting so came. Pretty cool. Ekta’s heart is what draws you to her. She’s full of compassion. She became good friends with the girls in the Young Doctors, youth who don’t get to interact with international volunteers. To hear her talk about the girls, her learnings was really powerful and she even got interested in toilets! Ekta loves to dance and she channeled this energy into teaching the Ashramshala girls dance, even if it was only for 2 weeks. The girls adore Ektadidi and I remember her last class. I was still in Nainaben’s office and hear “disco” music. I look outside and Ekta and all the girls were just jamming to music. You could find Ekta amidst all the girls who were all over her. Ekta also has a beautiful voice and really sings Jiya Dhadak Dhadak Jaye from the heart, making it the theme song of Safai. (she also the one who taught me the words).

Laura, amongst other things, is an extremely loving, huggable mom, who is spreading seeds of love wherever she goes. Literally she is a mom to everyone. She is a mentor, a great listener and very wise from the heart. Truly working from heart, listening to the voice of the Divine and moving the music of the universe, Laura is an beautiful soul, infusing the universe and people with more love and positive energy.

A friend of Guri’s, Sandy was traveling through Asia for over 3 months, technically alone, but of course has found many companions. After Asia, she came into India and wanted to make way to Dharamshala, but didn’t have a travel buddy, when she met Linda (see below) and the two were traveling through India together until either got sick of each other. Sandy came to Asia with a desire to travel, no other set plans and a whole lot of courage and fearlessness. She simply has been following the winds of the universe, with a few places in mind that she wanted to visit. Over 3 months of traveling alone, leaving everything behind on a journey that inevitably teaches one about self. Sandy always had a smile on her face and really took everything in around her. She shared her art of tarot reading (which she just picked up and knew how to do), her wisdom and of course heart with all of us. Inspiring us all to take that journey into the unknown for ourselves. I def got inspired to backpack an unknown part of the world.

Another woman with a desire to explore the unknown, Linda also set to India to discover its beauty and found its love and depth. It’s takes so much to just pick up and leave without a set time frame of return and the fact that Linda was going to a place that she had no visible ties to is remarkable. Her enthusiasm and desire to do whatever she could in her short time was great to see.

Her class came to Ahmedabad to take a two week course at Darpana, Maria decided to spend those two weeks volunteering. Armed with experiences in orphanages all over the world, this Alaskan, has seen a lot of the non-so cold parts of the world. The amazing thing about Maria was her willingness to literally do anything that needed to be done. She wasn’t fussed about working in the field, she just wanted to do whatever would be of use to the organization. So she spent learning about our organizations and interacting with beneficiaries through the visits, while

Not really a “women at Safai”, but nonetheless needs to mentioned. Last year, Ankur did the Dandi March with zero rupees and two pairs of clothes he made. A world citizen with an Indian soul, Ankur is a powerful soul seeking out truth in the world. A fabulous cook, all about healthy, grounded food, I met Ankur last year two days before he headed back to Washington State where he has started the foundations of an ashram. Ankur is a great listener and has something in him that makes you want to share with him and he plays the flute with great heart. The stories that carries with him from his travels and interactions really reassure you that you are not alone in your journey and experiences.

Of course, a side perk of all these international volunteers is that when I do travel, I have potential travel buddies and of course couches to crash on all over the world ; )