Stranded

Friday, 27 February, 2009

Drawing aside heavy curtains, pushing out a pair of wide glass doors, I step out onto the curving balcony of my room in the ISKCON temple guest house to find myself standing five stories up in the air of a much-too-bright Friday morning. My aching eyes take in the lush, sword-blade-leaved tops of a pair of coconut palms, gravid with green cannonball fruit, a little beyond reach. A large crow pogos up a leaf stalk and pauses to strop his formidable beak. He looks at me, seems about to speak, then changes his mind.

My nose rebels at the enveloping tang of rotting fish, the signature bouquet that confirms I am indeed earthbound at Juhu Beach. As I lift up my eyes beyond the waving fronds, over the rooftop of neighborhood high-rises, flaunting spiky tiaras of communication gear, I witness, with a pang of awe and envy, the pale, ethereal form of a jumbo jet ascend in stately exaltation from nearby Santa Cruz airport. And I taste deep of the bitter brew of missed chances, failed prospects, and confinement.

I am stranded.

Thursday, 26 February, 2009

My journey had commenced at dawn the day before from Mayapur. Lurching and swaying, we battled our way down narrow, fogged-in Bengal roads as our aptly named Sumo carried us victoriously through the usual sequence of vehicular death duels to Kolkata. There we were somehow slowly transported through the cacophony and chaos of city streets for a brief social event near Kalighat, and then carried back out again to the surprising calm of the mid-afternoon airport. A cramped flight from Kolkata and a short car ride brought me at last to the Mumbai’s anarchistic international departure terminal. There I chilled out in the AC waiting room for five hours.

At last, the midnight hour approaching, I found myself in a characteristically Indian non-linear line, with far too many other stand-by passengers, all awaiting the sentence, the momentous moment of revelation—as in a courtroom or doctor’s office—from which two breathtakingly divergent futures led. Freedom or bondage? Release or confinement?

It was a good time to practice detachment. Finally, a lucky two or three were summoned. Who would be next? And then there fell upon all the unfortunates the fateful official pronouncement: “flight full.” Even then, most did not move, not yet admitting their new, unacceptable future. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, resignation—all the stages of grief—variously manifested themselves. With startling swiftness, the check-in area was closed down and cleared, but for the stunned, abandoned would-have-been passengers.

At least I had a place to go: welcoming fellow devotees, prasadam, room, a bed— “Hare Krishna Land” was near.

2966912-hare-krishna-land-0

Friday, 27 February, 2009

Why then, the next morning, seeing the escaping jet bank toward the west, the pang of disappointment? The envy of the passengers? The feeling of being trapped?

I reflected on this.

It seems a jet taking off has become a mentally embedded emblem or symbol of escape and liberation. Out of all modes of departure—ship, train, auto—such release is most dramatically suggested by an aircraft’s ascent—it’s rising from earth into the very heavens, the abruptness of its translation. And, of course, its often-filmed use in rescue mission. I remember the dramatic front page news photograph of the rescue helicopter at the fall of Saigon. The image captured impressively the heart-stopping razor’s edge of fate: get on board, you have freedom, a life, a future; get left behind . . . .

Humans naturally desire transcendence. A restless urge to explore, to adventure, to discover, to progress, to excel—this urge to go beyond in many ways is signified by the word “transcend” (from the Latin transcendere “climb over or beyond, surmount,” from trans– “beyond” + scandere “to climb”.)

1965, 1968

On my college campus there was a certain bar famous—or infamous—for lax ID inspection. Accordingly, it filled to overflowing on weekends with fresh-faced undergraduates. A solid mass of students crushed together from wall to wall and packed into the booths. Sloshing pitchers of beer passed hand-to-hand overhead. Everyone screamed to be heard over the blaring jukebox, which worked its way through its collection of 45s. But whenever the opening notes of a certain new song rang out, there was a sudden silence followed by a universal roar of approval. Students clambered up to stand on chairs and table tops, where they swayed and danced precariously. When the song’s refrain came up, all exuberantly joined in at the top of their voices:

We gotta get outa this place!
If it’s the last thing we ever do!
We gotta get outa this place!
Girl! There’s a better life—for me and you.
[The Animals]

This event kept repeating until the bar closed.

A few years later—after I had graduated, moved out of the city, gotten married and had a child, and moved back again—I found myself on campus one Friday evening and walking past the same bar. Sure enough, pouring out into the mild evening air comes the energetic, enthusiastic chorus: “We gotta get out this place! If it’s the last thing we ever do!”

As if nothing had changed, no one had left.

Friday, 27 February, 2009

I remember Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae, arguing that transcendence is originally a male project. Men are the natural adventures, explorers, and questers, she says: the devisors of phallic trains, planes, automobiles, and rockets; constructors of soaring bridges.

How right! Think of the Renaissance adventurers, voyagers to the new world, eager to “penetrate virgin territory.” Even the stay-at-home Jacobean poet John Donne gave vent to the spirit of his age when he memorialized his lady disrobing in her bed chamber; when she finally bares to his questing hands her ultimate secret, he famously exclaims: “O My America! my new-found-land!”

America! The land of opportunity! Adventuresome European migrants, they say, formed the distinctive American culture; risking all to break loose from the predestined social and economic fetters of the Old World, they bequeathed their boundless aspirations to future generations as “the American dream.”

Perhaps even heaven itself was in reach. Early explorers sought in the New World the legendary Fountain of Youth and the City of Gold, fragments of ancient tales or persisting rumors of terrestrial paradise (bhauma svarga as described in Bhāgavatam). Although they found neither, the quest for eternal youth and cities of gold goes on, now transferred to Florida dermatologists and cosmetic surgeons and Western desert real estate developers. And even now American east coasters join in a steady stream to leave it all behind and make themselves anew in mythic (and myth-making) California.

Why this persistence? Why the deep indestructible longing to transcend, a longing that nothing in the world assuages?

28 January, 1986

The space shuttle Challenger lifted off with an elementary school teacher aboard. The cameras tracked up, following the powerfully ascending rocket, while thousands of school children, gathered in instructional assemblies across the land, watched live as the rocket’s rising trail, seventy-three seconds after lift-off, swelled and blossomed spectacularly, breaking up into diverging plumes that arced and spiraled gracefully down to the sea. All aboard died.

That night President Ronald Reagan delivered a eulogy, ending:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye, and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”

Hardly. They crashed. And the face of God, in any case, is out of rocket range.

The president, an actor from the California dream factory, could not resist a Hollywood mythic ending.

Friday, 27 February, 2009

I go to the temple in Hare Krishna Land to chant my midday Gāyatrī mantras. I sit happily before Rādhā-Rāsavihārī. A crowd gathers to witness the noon ārati. I don’t need to go anywhere. Here I am, just where I want to be.

2543543073_a28eda6026

All voyagers and questers take note: Even when we have turned away from Kṛṣṇa, we are unable to stop searching for him. Our search, however, becomes deflected by ignorance, and we quest after our self-made substitutes. They seem in reach. Even if after much struggle and danger, we reach our factitious goal, it is only to discover it is not what we wanted after all.

Kṛṣṇa himself tries to disabuse seekers of material heavens of our folly:

When they have thus enjoyed vast heavenly sense pleasure and the results of their pious activities are exhausted, they return to this mortal planet again. Thus those who seek sense enjoyment by adhering to the principles of the three Vedas achieve only repeated birth and death. (Bhagavad-gītā 9.21)

See also Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Easy Journey to Other Planets for a deconstruction of modern attempts at space travel.

easy-journey-cover

Monday, March, 2009

The 777 hits heavy turbulence as it descends into Newark airport. We have all escaped from Mumbai, and in a very long night we have finally arched across Greenland, turned south over Newfoundland. Although they soar high, the passengers go about their eating and sleeping and excreting and video watching just as though earthbound.

On my trip I had been periodically puzzling out T.S. Elliot’s long and difficult last major poetical work, the intensely mystical “Four Quartets.” On the final page we find these lines:

We shall not cease from exploring
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Here in the New World, it’s a dramatic change from Mumbai. We land in dawning twilight in a heavy snowstorm. Plows work the runway. Our luggage arrives on the carrels snow covered. Flights are being canceled. Stranded travelers queue up in long lines at the transfer desk. I watch through the terminal’s large window until my ride slowly emerges from the whiteness. Then we crawl at thirty-five miles per hour down the snow covered New Jersey Turnpike in a strengthening storm toward Philadelphia.

Ahead Rädhä-Çaradvihäré await.

rsb

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2 Comments

Filed under Addtional Writings

2 responses to “Stranded

  1. Wow, Hare Krishna. I wonder if I’ll get to see Vrindavana and Mayapur before I die. An unfavorable balance of laksmi and responsibilities, the hard struggle for existence in material world, makes it seem unlikely. Perhaps when I find my bhakti, the passage will open.

    Hare Krishna.

  2. “Even when we have turned away from Kṛṣṇa, we are unable to stop searching for him.” That’s so profound.

    Just today I was reflecting on how every relationship and pleasure of this mundane realm fails to truly satisfy us.

    I called to mind and recognized on a slightly deeper level that deep down insie I seek the taste of rasa, the intimate emotional exchanges between God and His devotees, the rarest commodity of the spiritual world, a vast, constant and ever increasing blissful experience. No wonder the mundane rasas of this world never measure up!

    But, of course, the sad reality is that at the present moment I’m unable to experience rasa in direct communion with the Divine. Yet I found solace and assurance in taking shelter of the katha-rasa available to me, and the hope of one day having a true experience of the Name… and, not to forget, the joy of reading your blog is a real support too! :)

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