Residency is a two-part journal entry brought to you by one of our favorite creatives.
souls are birds devouring light
For my second and final residency entry, I wanted to write about the time I spent in India in my early twenties, mostly because it is a time of my life in which I underwent a great deal of emotional turmoil and subsequent growth, and until now have put a tight seal against any excavation of it. But also because the name of my current project, which comes from the Hindi words for “listen” or “hear” (suno), and “look” or “see” (deko), reminds me that this time in my life continues to have a great significance on who I’ve become. In many ways I see now that it is a true marker of my passing some unseen threshold into adulthood.
India has always been a part of my life. My father first went in 1964, fresh from college and catching India just before the first wave of hippies flocked to its colorful and chaotic shores seeking enlightenment. He is a recently retired professor of religion, and has spent his life studying Hinduism. My childhood home was filled with statues and paintings of Hindu deities. Regal statues of Ganesh, lord of obstacles, menacing figurines of Shiva, the destroyer. Paintings of Jagganath with his wide, cartoonish eyes. My father would bark Hindi at us to get us moving (“Juldi chello! Let’s go, hurry up!”). When I was fifteen, I spent the spring semester of my sophomore year in high school at an international school in the foothills of the Himalayas while my father did field research for his book on ritual widow self-immolation, a practice called sati. I returned to India in 2009 after teaching English in northern Thailand for a year to work for a figurative painter named Jatin Das as a studio assistant and archivist for his fifty-year career of painting, drawing, sculpture, and poetry, as well as his vast collection of traditional Indian hand fans, or pankhas, which number near ten thousand.
It ended up coinciding with, or perhaps being the catalyst for, that time in my life, which I feel every person goes through at some point in their early to mid twenties, where it seemed my entire universe was collapsing. Maybe you’re in the middle of this time? Romantic ideals and expectations about the way things should be crash and crumble, and there is a supreme surrender that must occur to move beyond it. I have a few people in my life going through this. No doubt the circumstances of my living situation and the stresses of my job were strongly contributing factors to my continual state of exasperation and creative self-laceration, but I experienced a loneliness and alienation far beyond what I thought was possible for the human spirit. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but let’s just say I was sad.
I’ve kept a daily journal for the past five years, which began when I did the Artist’s Way during my time in Thailand. Over the past few days, I’ve revisited those pages I wrote while in India, which I’ve been unable to do before. It’s difficult to face a past self so carefully preserved. It’s a time warp. You’re transported so fully back into the you that existed in those pages, and when revisiting what at times felt like a living nightmare, you can’t help but reassume the entirety of that self. The truth is, it wasn’t a nightmare. It was only a period of intense loneliness and isolation. It’s a pretty normal reaction to flinging one’s self into the great wide world alone, especially a place as intense and unforgiving as India. But my twenty-four-year-old self had something to prove. I wanted to push myself as far as I could go to better know myself. The real truth is that I wanted to run away from myself, and India was the farthest place away. As you may know, the geography can change, but the self remains. I was actually more intensely faced with myself because I lived alone in a foreign place with little to do besides work and turn my thoughts over in my own mind.
I arrived just a week after my twenty-fourth birthday, in the oppressive heat of mid-June in Delhi. The opportunity to work with Jatin came on the heels of very nearly being scammed out of almost a grand by a fake English teaching agency, who promised me a yearlong teaching job for a Spanish diplomat’s family, all of which proved to be a very clever fabrication. I’d already bought my ticket, and through a Delhi writer who was a friend of my dad, the job with Jatin came. I didn’t know what else to do and somehow felt like not going would be defeat, so I threw myself at it. I still remember vividly the feeling of dread I felt as I descended down through the midnight haze of the Delhi, my heart pounding as the airplane pitched and jolted in the humid air. I was young and resistant to everything. I wanted a million things I had no way of naming.
I lived in a working-class neighborhood of south Delhi called Shahpurjat, which was crammed with clusters of concrete apartments, within which an infinite labyrinth of courtyards and side alleys twisted and braided, slung with blossoming yellow and magenta bougainvillea, laundry drying on clotheslines, tea vendors (chaiwallas) and vegetable sellers (subsiwallas) with steaming pots of sweet milky tea or colorful displays of plump mangoes, spiky bitter gourds, zucchini, tomato and okra, screeching their personalized calls into the thick, humid afternoons. My neighborhood was bordered by a large wall that separated it from a more affluent neighborhood and green space on the other side, and against this long, twenty-foot-high stone barricade, every few blocks would be a massive pile of trash that some impossibly dirty person was inevitably always combing through, which leaked strange florescent blue liquid and swarmed with flies and crows. India is an unwavering and torrential paradox. The most vivid and colorful place on earth, and also the most chaotic and dirty. Smells you’ve never imagined. Every moment contains the entire range of human experience and emotion, beauty and pain, suffering and joy. Every landscape contains a slice of every period of history. A man on his bicycle talking on his cellphone, riding by a woman pulling water from a ditch to use for cooking into which a man is peeing, next to a crumbling fifteenth-century palace, while nearby a team of men is attaching a leecher wire to a transformer to steal electricity and minutes later it explodes into flames. My favorite anecdote from the time I lived in India in high school was watching two men ride bicycles one in front of the other down a steep mountain street carrying an extension ladder on their necks, to which my mom said, “I feel like this country was designed by Dr. Seuss.” There is an incessant barrage to the senses, and when I arrived, added to that was the oppressive heat. The apartment that Jatin procured for me was modest and had no air conditioning. The highs then were in the 120s. It was never cooler than 100 degrees inside my place. I awoke daily to a crust of salt and minerals on my forehead, heat rashes on my arms. My clothes clung to me. The power would cut on and off intermittently, killing my ceiling fan, and the stifling heat would begin creeping across my body. Candle flames would slowly appear in the windowsills of the neighborhood, soft voices and song, wild dogs always barking.
I had long nights there, especially in the heat. I was in pursuit of a deeper self; I wanted to remove familiarity and comfort from my life to uncover a more elemental self, to know who I was beyond the protection of family, home, and friends. I was an ascetic. I was on a vision quest. I wanted to outgrow parts of myself I was unsatisfied with. In a way, I did accomplish this. I put myself in the most isolated environment I’d experienced, the only white person in a neighborhood of Indians, who stared at me relentlessly as I walked the streets and back alleys to work. Despite how innocuous staring is in Indian culture, to me it was a daily reminder of how little I belonged to that place, to myself, or to anything.
It’s been strange and powerful to watch myself change in the pages I’ve been reading. It’s a bit of a mind fuck to be immersed in those pages and look up realizing I exist presently in this much different (and happier) life. Like I can track my dreams of being a famous writer slowly ground into the dust that coated everything in Delhi. But in the end, now looking back five years later, I see that it was a time of intense growth, and at the very core, a time of surrender. Despite my friction with Jatin, who was in many ways impossible—manic, demanding, monomaniacal, childish—looking back, there was much he taught me about being an artist. I was so sure of what I thought I wanted and who I thought I was, but only by having most of those ideas stripped away, only by finally surrendering to the loneliness and sadness, and inhabiting it like a room, did I find a deeper way into myself. And it took years to see, to understand that by surrendering you enter more fully into your own experience. Nothing is lost by surrender; everything is gained. There were times where I became so immersed in my solitude and sadness that I started seeing subtle differences, changes in its colors. And in those moments, the world seemed to open up to me. I could lose myself in the swaying curtains, drawing the sun in and crowding it out of my bedroom, the light growing and dimming, the slow moan of car horns and voices careening off the walls outside. I felt an undefined longing, whose lack of place in the world made its existence even more confusing. I didn’t even long for home, or for Thailand, where I’d found a loving and supportive community. I longed for something I couldn’t name, for some fulfillment of a feeling I couldn’t define or place. I think now perhaps that longing was either for love, or a steady and fulfilling creative practice. I wrote a lot there, but I never allowed myself to enjoy it, or be okay with what I was making. I wrote a lot of emo poems and bad songs. As an artist I was too fragile, and too hard on myself. And always the long nights, my head a block of stone from the hash, the headlights of passing cars making ghoulish shapes on my ceiling through the bars of the windows, packs of stray dogs barking and growling, the call of food vendors and jingling of bells, and the asthmatic caw of the massive black crows that scavenged the trash.
During my time there, I went to the eastern state of Orissa (which recently changed its name from the Anglicized spelling to the more phonetically accurate “Odisha”), where Jatin has founded a museum in his name, and where he was born and most of his family lives. On the train ride back to Delhi from my first visit there, an interminable 31-hour ride through the colorful Indian countryside, I had an experience that still returns to me. I borrowed a book from Jatin called The Religion of the Artist, by Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most influential writers and musicians in Indian culture, who was the first non-European to with the Nobel prize for literature. As I was sitting alone on a dark train hurtling through the opaque Indian countryside at night, reading this book, I came upon a passage that struck me like lightning. Tagore likens a man’s inability to be aware of everything around him in his present existence to a man sitting in a lit train car with the night outside; the man knows the countryside is there, but he is only focused on what is happening in the car. This became a metaphor for my entire mental state up to that point—that I was so focused on the suffering that I was creating for myself, that I was failing to see how much beauty was thrumming and moving all around me. Tagore goes on to say that the restless ambition, or that feeling of longing for a place I couldn’t name or know, that I had been thinking so much about, is actually just the self trying to find a piece of itself that can attain a kind of permanence in the world. And for artists, making work and putting something that comes through the self into the world is the closest we can come to that permanence. There have been times since where a piece of art or writing has struck a chord with me, but few that have been so otherworldly. I was literally sitting in a lit train car at night, reading about a man sitting in the exact same situation, and found an explanation for this strange hollowness that I was trying too hard to define or understand.
I would love to say that was my spiritual awakening, and from thenceforth I was totally happy, but the truth is I continued to struggle. I made it through, and by the end had learned a way to enjoy myself. I was blessed with the friendship of my first friend there, Simar, who I connected with on many levels, and who listened to my early songs and read my poems and gave me encouragement. By the end I had begun to find a community. I got to organize and execute an international film festival of documentary films on art. I learned much from Jatin, despite his sometimes-insufferable demeanor. I have quotes of his that I’ve kept written, that now have far more significance than my stubborn, immature self would grant: “Don’t be so quick to just be this or that—be everything at once and the course will appear.” “Don’t ever let your pursuit of writing or being a writer or poet or painter or singer distract you—always fully experience the present.” “Just surrender—no one does that in this day and age—don’t do it because I tell you to, do it for yourself.” My time in India was many things to me, but one of the most important lessons I learned was to let go of ideas of who I should be and just sit down and do the work. In his youth, Jatin wouldn’t allow himself to eat dinner until he had completed three hundred sketches. The time there hardened me, but I learned to soften again. And while I would never relive that experience, or wish it on anyone else, the suffering I endured made its mark on me and sharpened my focus on what I truly want out of my time on earth. I became, over time, less focused on the outcome and more on the experience of the present. And I learned to surrender. I learned, and have continued to learn, that to resist is to strengthen. To surrender is to take a step toward grace.
Week 1 | Week 2