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Remembering Awe

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by Mira Desai


Remember: to retain in the memory; keep in mind; remain aware of:

From Late Latin rememorā, equivalent to re- re-+ Latin memor mindful + -ā infinitive suffix

 - Dictionary.com


It has been three years or five perhaps, or seven since we went there, trekking all the way from the main gate to Kanheri, the ancient Buddhist monastery nestled in this green island, an actual living forest with regular leopard-man encounters; although the signboard terms it a national park, nestling within the city boundaries of this bustling, cramped and crazy megapolis, Mumbai.

It has been three years since we last went there, or perhaps five, or seven, I don’t remember too clearly, but only the golden emotion of the moment—but the exact hour and time of your passing into another realm, of that dreadful day I remember everything, the beep beep of the respirator and the hum of the ICU airconditioning—I well remember that, perhaps wear it like a badge of honor or a perfume, and since that memory mustn’t be the overriding one that I’m weighed under; it is imperative I remember the magical, fluttering green and gold, as well the solid century-rich browns of Kanheri, an ancient monastery scraped out of a mountain.

We were an incongruous pair—you, fit at eighty-something, and I ambling along at forty-plus. What prompted this adventure, this trek though a somewhat-forest-but-on-the-edge-of-urban, “But-you-quite-never-know-when-a-leopard-can–cross-your-path” adventure? I don’t remember, maybe just the challenge of going the distance. Maybe it was just the solitude that took us there, maybe we were there because we both knew how fleeting time was, and this a subconscious attempt at building memories.

Leading past the crowded park with its swings and ice cream stall, and snaking past an avenue of trees, the none-too-even tar road to Kanheri was dappled, dancing sunshine on a canopy of green. As we’d stepped away from the picnicking crowds amidst the creaks of the swing and the see-saw, a quiet path to an oasis rich with echoing birdcall and the bewitching wind in the leaves. Just ten minutes from the expressway that raced across the city and we were in another world, we’d been silent as we stepped away from the chaos of the metro. Yes, I must remember this too, hold this to mind and try and remember the details, the feel of the wind and sunshine, the sigh of ruffling leaves, and not let it get swept away by other memories – memories of machine beeps, the whoosh of air pressure vents and the smell of antiseptic.

So yes, we’d walked along, you and I, far away from civilization or so it seemed, with every step, even though the proximity of the bustling city just outside the gates must have been reassuring. Urban forest or not, if only one would close one’s eyes and listen, senses on high alert, one would identify footfalls and the rustle of the undergrowth. That sharp crack underfoot, a cheetah or a panther? And I’m sure both of us, father and daughter, remembered all the stories about people missing on the trail.

“One carton of milk, and an egg a week,” you’d said, as we walked hand in hand, your wrinkled hand held precious in mine, more for my comfort than any real need for support. When you found your way out of the dusty village and abroad as a student in 1949, England had just been recovering post war. Yet the country and the people stood by. Respect for the common Britisher, for his stoicism, would filter the lens you’d view the UK with all your life. All your life it had been this way, the Americans for scale and ambition perhaps, as versus the Britisher, with his fish and chips and no-complaint perseverance. “Took me close to a fortnight to return by ship, via the Suez,” you’d said, and just then a car with stereo on loud had whizzed past, breaking that magic cocoon of post World War II Britain you’d created with your words.

We’d walked past a serene straw-thatched hamlet, wondering about how they’d cope when the monsoon threw an impenetrable sheet of water from the skies, or what they’d do if they needed a doctor in the middle of the night. I’d shivered thinking of what the place would seem like after nightfall, barking dogs and the roar of free-to-roam leopards near by, just a light or two scarce in the darkness, perhaps only last week a sleeping infant or dog dragged away without a moment’s notice, and the red panic later. Yet my loyalties were with the wild beasts; it was not completely clear who were the encroachers here. An excavated watering hole sheltered in a bamboo grove had given one the impression of being in the deepest forest—blink, and you’d think you were in tiger country, on a shikaar all sepia toned, with men dressed in sola topees and linen suits from another age. Yes, I must find a way to hold on to that elusive feeling, more richly embroidered than a memory, too.

After the tar road finally tapered out, the path to the caves was steep, with impossible curves and turns that we’d labored over, wiping the sweat off our foreheads, exclaiming at a solitary tree growing on an impossible ledge.

And finally we’d reached the ancient cave monastery, Kanheri, a monastery scraped out of a hill in a pre-machinery age. We’d stood still for a while, drinking it all in, almost genuflecting.

Kanheri, this cave-monastery had first been established in the first century, BC-- so a black and white signboard from the Archeological Society stated, the leap, the chasm of time too immense to fathom. The paint on the board was peeling off, the names indecipherable, the names of the kings and merchants funding this miraculous monument lost for ever – in the march of time what was a name misspelt, or a century or two, we’d laughed. The Buddha would have approved!

Every time that I have thought of that day, I can see the laughter and your wonder, and every time that I’ve visited again, I run the risk of overwriting these memories with ones I make anew, and yet I’m drawn there, to the impossible ancient caves carved into the hills, their stone walls carefully inscribed with long forgotten script and calm with the cumulative silence of all who must have meditated there.

Oblivious to the gaggle of Japanese tourists, camera ever ready, we’d stepped into the main hall, the vihara, its walls cool and pleasant, an eon removed from the humid blanket that covers the city. The cave had been still, peaceful, cool. Aura-rich, you’d said, the walls were still exuding the chants intoned centuries ago. I was to remember your words on a later, solitary trip, when a photographer tried to capture the dark interiors and photographed a dazzling ray of light instead. Camera malfunction, or some arcane law of physics? Who knows?

Perfectly proportioned pillars carved out of rock lined the sides, hand hewn, how did the ancients craft these? Unlike the concrete and steel structures of this century that make news when they buckle in, the work from all those centuries ago is still solid, fine finished. Intricate carvings of deities, elephants, birds and lotus-eyed goddesses span the high entrance, all hewn out of rock. The worldly admixed with the divine—a frieze paid tribute to an unknown merchant and his family, presumably for his patronage of the meditation school, but what prompted this generosity, what karmic debt was he settling? No one knows.

I remember I had tiptoed around the stupa, silently chanting the prayer Buddham sharanam gacchami-- I seek the shelter of the Buddha. And then I’d slowly spoken the words, separating out each syllable, shivering as the last echoes faded away. For a moment I was lost in a time warp, seated amongst a roomful of saffron-clad monks, deep in meditation even as the flames in the wall niches had seemed to leap higher.

A child’s prattle had broken the spell, and we’d reluctantly stepped away.

Every time I think of Kanheri, I think of that magical morning, and the spell of the spartan cave overlooking forests of green and gold. On later visits, I came alone, and I explored the tougher parts of the ancient cave complex, using worn-away toeholds to reach distant caves, and even though I walked alone, it seemed your wrinkled hand was firmly tucked into mine, and your awe was just as childlike. In my mind’s eye, that’s where you still are, a part of the crowd of chanting monks invisible to the eye, a welcome inhabitant of that serene space, a belonger. Goldspun.


published 15 March 2014