If it’s a sign, it’s telling
it must want to speak to me.
If it’s a word,
it must mean to lead me.
If it’s travelled, it has come across the unknown
it must want to meet me.
And how shall I read it?
And how shall I prepare to hear it?
And O how shall I learn to meet it?
Two short experiences spring from memory –
In the year 1999, I took a trip with a group to the Manali hills of the north and across it to the Solang valley, to see snow for the first time in my life. I was most excited just to be in the folds of the majestic mountains and stand along with trees and pretend to touch the skies. I used to be a practising architect and interior designer then and I loved spaces, all kinds of spaces outside and inside me. I had little idea of what was really waiting for me in those mountains.
Up until then I knew I loved to dance and had learnt a bit of forms – classical and others. What I didn’t know was what this long standing relationship with dance and body and space and movement was all about and they made little sense in being such a central yet confusing part of me. These along with other gifts that occupied large spaces within me and propelled me into actions which I could hardly understand how they were meant to serve a meaningful life for me.
We arrived as a troupe of 2 dozen people ready to adventure into the hills, camp by the river side and do what city people do when they are amidst uninhibited forms of nature – be silenced by it or for some be so overwhelmed to not be able to settle down unless after exhaustion.
The next day was acclimatisation time and so our coach took us all for a little walk down the mountain and alongside a deep gorge which held a bustling river – The Biyas. I was very young then and still naïve and still in my own world within me, which meant that people’s presence or absence didn’t seem to have a deep impact on me. I can say this now after 18 years, only in hindsight.
We had arrived the previous night in the dark and hence had seen nothing yet. So as we began to walk along in the morning crisp air, looking and listening to this kind of morning, most of us fell into the silent rhythm of grandeur. Smiles like the kinds you see on the faces of babies after they have been massaged, fed and wrapped warm to sleep in mid mornings, were seen lifting off of almost everyone’s faces.
I walked along somewhere in that group lingering towards the edge of the gorge and then looked down. The sound of river Biyas crashing on the rocks was pure symphony. I stood there and looked at the large mountain across the gorge which seemed to stretch out its safe muscular arm to me. I smiled and trotted on to join the others. Somebody had begun to hum and some of us were giggling and chattering away. We were nothing but little birds in the lap of Mother Nature, just glad to be held thus.
We must have walked quite a while now when suddenly a deep urge took me over. Like a fountain trying to rush out from within me, it was pushing out of me. It was fulsome and gorgeous within me and I had to, simply had to find a way to let it out. I didn’t know what it was, this feeling, and this overwhelming desire. I looked again at the tall mountain across the gorge and closed my eyes and listened to the high notes of the river symphony now reverberating across the body of the mountain and drumming its way inside me. I had a thought, a single clear thought pass by me “aren’t we all just becoming ‘it’ right now?” I had to do something about it. I had to hold this fountain, this moment, and this aliveness somehow.
I opened my eyes and I knew just what I had to do and had to do it right then. And so I walked up to our coach and told him in a whisper. He looked at me, smiled and quickly announced, “If we all could just find a spot to sit down for a few minutes, we have a young friend here who would like to dance.” Faces of delight greeted my eyes and within seconds everyone found a perfect little rock to perch their bottoms on. Ordinarily if anyone asked me to dance then, I would shy away into a corner. And here’s the most surprising part which until today stands etched in my memory.
As I looked across, as any performer does before a performance I saw this – everyone was seated in a perfect semi-circle on half jutting rocks in the arm of that mountain side and where I stood, so unwittingly, was a flat stone under my feet well embossed in the grass around. I can still feel the care of the grass and the cool of the stone beneath my feet. We were all given a perfect spot to belong to without having to look for it. If this was not an auditorium designed by Mother Nature and the perfection of the moment in which we all showed up to respond to an inspiration and to Her fullness of that moment, then what was it?
In another moment of time I was bag packing literally for the first time, hiking across the Dang Jungles of Gujarat during a phase of my life when I felt utterly lost again. Lost and entirely exasperated with what life wanted out of me. Most confused at what should constitute right action from me. In the midst of a marriage that brought on a complete freeze within me. I let off and almost ran to the first place I felt I might just be more at ease. I had come across it in a book and some of the pictures drew me to that place. The pictures of the tribal people of this land in particular a Bhagat and medicine man – Janu Kaka. He did look so much like my own grandfather but I was only going to learn rather soon that he was very much like my grandpa too.
So there I was, rattling up and into the Dang jungles in a state bus and camping out at the government rest house as if pulled and guided by a force that, this I must. The 45 degree heat, the newness, the traveling by myself, no planning, no bookings, no assurance of any kind did not even cross my mind. I must have been so desperate to get away, that I didn’t ask why this place, why Janu Kaka. I didn’t know and this “I-don’t-know” force is what I was trying to learn and obey, it seems so in hindsight.
After the first day of walking around the small town of Ahwa, the next day I decided I should just take off to the very village where Janu kaka lived. And so I inquired with a local lady who ran a shop near the bus stop I had befriended in the day. Learning that Dhavlidhod, Janu kaka’s village was not more than a 20 minute bus ride, I figured it would just be an hour and a half by foot. And so I declared to her that I will just hike it out. It was almost evening now and she fretted, “Oh ben (sister), at this time of the evening that patch of the road is haunted and I dare say, you take a bus to be safe”. I assured her I will and took off.
On such journeys which begin to feel like a pilgrimage, I was learning, something tell me from within that, once one takes a decision to do something, one must carry that out no matter what. As I began walking I found myself telling me, “what could be more haunting than the life I have lived so far? An uncared for, violent childhood, a husband I had to only be sister and friend to and a creative spirit crying a hundred different voices out at me, a successful career in design in Mumbai folded up in depression after 10 years and a self that gave me no idea of who I was, no guides or mentors to tell me any better, I was bumbling my way through life.”
I walked on for a good 45 minutes when, indeed I began to feel the atmosphere change after dusk and that corner in the road feel particularly dense but nothing raised the hair on my neck yet and so I carried on walking with my little black back pack slung on my shoulders, telling whatever was out there, “Honestly you don’t scare me. Do I scare you?” Just then 2 men on a bike stopped right by and in an authoritative voice kindly gestured for me to hop on their bike. We reached Dhavlidhod, I got off and they reiterated, “That patch was not at all safe, ben.”
It was now 7.30 and Janu kaka was sitting on a wooden bench in his porch. Even before I could sit down he greeted me like an old friend and said, “Come, come sit.” In those words, instantly, I was at home, absolutely at home, and utterly at ease. All the worry and care of the past 30 odd years fell away from me as if they were just dust gathered upon shoes on a rough journey and when one entered home, the threshold took all the dust away, just like that. I was empty of everything within minutes and a joy of arriving home infused me. He asked me to go right in and instructed his daughter-in-law to feed me dinner. I fell in love with their kitchen – the corn cobs hanging on wooden rafters in the ceiling, the mud chuhla, the smell of cooking smoke and the smoke making fog in the cool night air. This was how my grandfather’s little hut looked after he began to live an ascetic life since his young son died of tuberculosis.
After some friendly chit chat and dinner and delight I came out again. Janu kaka was now joined with several young and old men. Like they did in my village – post dinner everyone gathered for general gossip, storytelling/listening, singing etc. I told Janu kaka about what brought me to him – the book, the author of the book who was a friend though I hadn’t consulted him about this trip. There was no such time to. Janu kaka took a good long look at me and then suddenly suggested, “Ben, you take up a hut behind my house, stay here, learn the jadi-booti’s from me, heal people”. By now I had gathered that the men sitting around were his sons, nephews, cousins and neighbours. They all heard what he said to me. Before I could take in the full meaning of what he was suggesting one of them launched forth, “he has a great following and is a gifted healer and Bhagat of the Mata temple down there. Lots of people come for herbal medicines to him. We have been asking him since 20 years to teach at least one of us to pass on his knowledge for he’s old. And he’s never once agreed. You have come minutes ago and he sees something in you that he doesn’t in us.” I sat there dumb founded. He understood that it’s too big a call to take for me. Instead he invited me to the big Jatra(celebration) at the Mata Temple which was to be held the next night. Now this was getting more and more familiar to me. My paternal granpa was also a Bhagat and we have our own Mata’s residing in our family home in our village further north in Gujarat. He too used to point things in me when I was very young which I found mysteriously amusing then. We too used to have Jatra’s which were called Mandvo where other healers and medicine men and women would gather over 3 to 5 days and night and sing through the nights invoking all kinds of presences. As a child this was all part of my growing up. Hence I asked no more questions and promised to be there the next night too.
Meanwhile a young man handed me a pamphlet. The night light being dull and all I could not read it well and so asked him to explain to me what it said. He said the pamphlet talks about a light which rises from the jungles like a meteor in the sky just above the trees and flies back into the land. This light is the Mata’s presence and only those whom She wishes to, will see this. Even if you happen to be walking in a group of 30 people only one might see it even though it’s large and pretty blazing at times. I had heard many such stories as a child from my grandpa and his friends so this story did not daunt me. Instead I further felt more at home.
Janu kaka spoke again, “Ben, that cot has been laid out for you. Now it’s late. You sleep here tonight.” An invitation to sleep in my own “home” after years and years of misery – how could one turn that down.
Soon I was on this big cot and invited some 10-12 kids who were hanging about to come up and that I’d tell them a story. Weaving a story of sorts for the little ones, we laughed and giggled under the dark night with the yellow glow of a bulb from the cottages which flanked this open sit out. 4 -5 women folk were sitting around the cot and those 6-7 men were at a little distance still hanging out, perhaps discussing the preparations for the Jatra.
After 2-3 hilarious stories my heart was now full with all the smiles of the children. For a natural respite I happened to stand up from the cot leaving the kids to wind up for the night and walked further away to the open part where the cattle shed seemed to be housed. I took a small stroll and returned back to my cot, placed my head on my palm with my elbow propped up like a stand and lay down a bit, just listening to the chitter-chatter and soaking in the sense of belonging. As I took in a deep sigh, my eyes happened to roll up to the roof of the house and just then, in a flash of that moment, the big meteor light sprang from behind the roof of the house and across all our heads and vanished in the dark.
Naturally I gave out a yelp, “…did you… did you all see…see the light?” No reply came but a few smiles flashed at me and the same young man who had explained the pamphlet to me sang out loud, “Told you ben, only She decides who can see Her.”
All my feeling worthless and lost and confounded, all those thoughts of worry and misery were nowhere around me and I wasn’t even aware that they had left me like a swarm of flies leave once they have devoured what they came for.
In conclusion after, 16 years since this story and 18 years since the former one and a hundred other episodes that “happened” to inform, lead, infuse, suggest, hold me in ways I am only now beginning to understand just a wee bit about, I share with you my thoughts on divination. That you and I maybe a tool for something to find itself through us: that divining fork crafted out of a ‘y’ branch of a tree, which keeps vibrating to the sound of an invisible river of life way below the surface of earth and some invisible hand is holding us in the direction we must go and know not why. All we need to work on is – “not knowing” and remain in that “i-don’t-know”, open and vulnerable like all the elements of nature. That these stories are all I have to share and may a river find its way up on the surface of life to quench a few thirsts. At least writing these down as they occurred to me then is setting the course for my own river to water my own parched life to begin with. It’s helping me to be found by the divining forces to come alive in me, around me once again, after another decade of roaming around – “homelessly”.
Deepali – an artist and writer by default. She has always found a calling in a range of expressions from theater, dance to painting, music, poetry and literature. A natural with children, she has engaged with creative ways in education over 3 decades. Living in Pune as an independent parent raising a young son, helps in building a community for creative transference and creates alternate spaces of expression and listening through creative means.