Sunday, 6 March 2016

Stories from the Kalari resumed and concluding

photo by Malgo Witter
In December I spent three weeks away from the kalari, mostly in Tamil Nadu. After visiting some friends in Chennai, I took part in a rather anarchic Vipassana course, very uncharacteristic and slightly surreal for the usually extremely ordered and austere Vipassana brigade. I seem to have escaped rather lightly, my room being farther from the ongoing building site than many, and none of my room-mates displaying any propensity to break vows with daytime masturbation as distraction from meditating 11 hours a day, which one unfortunate participant was greeted with on entering her dormitory one day. I’m not quite sure how one deals with such an infraction while maintaining noble silence. I should have asked her…  In fact, I had extremely disciplined roommates, one from Coimbatore and one from Tokyo, and we worked around each other’s foibles in silent harmony. I did have some strange experiences with a tadpole in my bathwater and an injured dog coming to me for help, but no, on reflection, I escaped lightly.

Early January saw me back at the kalari, with the remnants of an unhappy stomach acquired I Bangalore, and where my adventures resumed. 


4th January:

Bodies are strange things. Two months of daily kalari, rivers of sweat and effort, and it doesn't much change but 3 weeks of hardly moving at all and sitting a lot and I seem to have gone all scrawny, judging by my practice clothes. Must be all that dissolving.


6th January:

Three days back into training and I'm surprisingly pain-free for my three weeks off and two-day queasy fast. Both Rajan and Hari commented I looked pale (there was me thinking they always think I'm pale) but bar the slight stiffness of re-activated muscles, I feel remarkably strong and mobile, my various strains and sprains still sleeping with their holiday. At the end of practice this morning I was running through one of my favourite movements, one I think in time translates to the short stick. The forearms and spine undulate up and down like a serpentine sine wave while the centre drops deep through the legs in a mysterious triangle. It's very hard and I've been struggling to find the strength to support the centre's movement, with which Rajan has never been quite satisfied and Sathya drew a rare audible groan from me as he pressed me to the right depth some time back. A Lebanese woman is having private lessons for the week and as I was practising this across the kalari, Rajan pointed at me saying "See how her centre pushes forward..." Miracles everywhere.


7th January:

Rajan has taken to introducing me to foreign visitors (I have no idea how he describes me to local ones in Malayalam) as a "senior student of the kalari". I know because he told me this morning. I think this possibly speaks more for his affection than my abilities, and just to put things in perspective, I took a (painless) whack to the head with the long stick this morning. Up through the market later, dodging the dust of the shopkeepers' sweepings or buckets of water thrown into the street. Sometimes it's a choice between colliding with those or the oncoming two-wheelers. Off to deliver aloe vera (as you do) to my Sanskrit teacher and ask - as always - too many questions (he is patient. I wonder if mastering all those grammatical forms and countless verses instils it as a quality.) At the busy crossroads on my way back, a very elegant elderly lady decided I looked clueless enough to hold my hand and guide me across the street (one I've crossed unscathed and solo many times). Obviously, I need looking after. It feels an eccentric sort of day, so one to reacquaint myself with the sea, I think...


Santosh, who looks after my sun lounger at Kovalam, is worried about my prospects. Technically, he's known me for over three years now, so I guess he feels entitled. After asking after my trip as I handed over payment, he managed to say with his usual smile (he is well named) but somehow severely: "Next time you come with your husband, not alone." Oh dear. So I went and hid under the waves with the fish.


23rd January:

"You've changed your bag," said my friendly waiter at Mani Mess breakfast this morning. We don't have enough common language to enter into a conversation about why I was carrying a different bag. And thus continues my strange sense of belonging here to everyone and no one.


24th January:

Between a cold and my period, I've been off training most of the week, though I do go in every morning to watch. Yesterday one of the lads asked me what he could do to mobilise a particular area of his back so I took him through the specifics of a couple of yoga asana (with wall, of which the kalari has lots of good grippy ones) and I remembered that, oh yes, I like teaching and actually miss it a bit. The others emerged in turn and we chatted as they waited for their showers. "Why are you leaving?" asked one, as though this was a strange thing to do. Then again he is the same one who pointed out some months ago that an Indian president had married a foreigner - though who I'm supposed to marry to circumvent the immigration catches, I'm not quite sure, no presidents being forthcoming. He then told me about his grandfather, the famous Carnatic musician in Kumbakonam and one of the others asked why I've taken up bharatanatyam (curiosity?). They wanted to know whether Western classical dance has mudras, so I gave them a brief ballet demonstration in my kurta and baggies, which all in must have looked very peculiar in the gallery. We've all agreed that, cold or no cold I'm back training in the kalari Monday morning.


In yesterday's Sanskrit class I was given a brief lesson in brahmin table manners. Last week, Francesca from the Vipassana course was staying in the house with me, sorting out a few things before her return home. She is Italian, with everything culinary that implies. We'd had a conversation about being a dinner guest here. Basically, you're sat down to eat - usually very nice food which takes a lot of effort to prepare - while everyone watches, which both of us find disconcerting. As many know, eating together in southern European cultures is pretty much sacrosanct, so Francesca's reaction at being fed alone was "Are you trying to poison me?!" (Well they did have the Borgias in Italy.) My Sanskrit teacher didn't look too impressed at our reaction and explained that giving food is dharma (I think that's probably universal) and that here guests eat first. Plus there are lots of complicated rules on which foods you keep separate, probably originating with hygiene principles, and a taboo on sharing plates with anyone who isn't a parent, child or spouse (so no communal nibbles. Well at least that keeps my stash of dark chocolate safe). I appreciate the kindness (and the food) on the occasions I am offered it here or there but I find it... well, a bit difficult... being sat down to eat with everyone watching (or left on my own to do it). For a start I feel like everyone is waiting for me to finish so they can eat, which doesn't make for leisurely digestion. Then there's usually a commentary occurring in a language I don't understand but quite often the sense I get is that it's about how I eat - exactly, in fact, as Italians do. And I'm really not sure my eating-with-my-hand table manners are up to that kind of scrutiny. Plus it really emphasises that sense of separateness that eating together in European culture is set up to dissolve. In the grand scheme of things, of course you smile and accept the kindness and the custom. But I think when I get back to Wales, I'll throw a large communal non-separate dinner party. Anyone want to come?


27th January:

Well after a full week off training (I had a downturn, so didn't make it in for Monday after all), I was a bit weak and wobbly but back in the kalari this morning. "Do tomorrow" said Rajan, who has also been ill, when we came to the meippayat. I don't know if the temperature has ramped up this last week or if I'm still sweating this virus out, but I steadily dripped my way through leg exercises and postures. As always, the long stick suffered the most for the break. "Observe the Western side when I do it with the others" said Rajan. I just wish I were a little more together with the Eastern (student's) side... I got a thumbs-up for my elephant posture practice from one of the boys, not a usual occurrence and it made me laugh, so it's not all tragic. And then my Sanskrit class was brought forward because my teacher has the day off school (yesterday being a big day and a national festival) and so I attempted to wrap my head around grammatical forms, rats dancing on sleeping lions and the little boy whose father won't let sit on his lap because he's the son of the ugly wife - so the sensible 5 year old leaves home to find god to solve his problem. And now for an afternoon of "corrections" (I've discovered the non-PC term is what works if you want to be understood: no "marking" or "feedback") - anyone up for a discussion on the three upāyas in Kaśmir Śaivism?... Unfortunately, in all this efficiency, I omitted to replenish my supply of coffee, which might just be my undoing. And so unfold my Trivandrum days...


29th January:

This morning Rajan started teaching me the Western (teacher's) side of the long stick. I have a sort of love-terror relationship with this weapon. Not that I'll get hit, though that does happen occasionally, but in a reasonably painless way. The latest incident was a couple of days ago when I found myself backed further into the wall than usual and missed my block, thus receiving the stick in my groin. I heard an audible gasp or two from the lads (they are few, but there are some advantages to training as a woman. I count the fact this didn't hurt as one). "Always defend!" admonished Rajan as he sent the next part of the sequence my way and I peeled myself off the wall to recover posture. People tend to watch the weapons rather than continuing their own practice, in part because it's instructive and it usually comes at the point everyone is recovering from the meippayat, and partly because the long stick takes a lot of space. This means that all our less-than-perfections are very public. It makes for humility at any rate, as we've all been thoroughly told what's what at some point or other. There is something almost comical about seeing a very competent, soft-eyed giant taking his berating so meekly, as I've witnessed on more than one occasion. So the bottom line is I hardly feel qualified to practise the Eastern side, let alone the Western.


1st February:

Today was an exercise in apparent geometric impossibilities. Already with the Eastern side of the long stick is the conundrum of circles that are lines and lines that are circles. On the Western side, this seems to me even more pronounced. Yesterday's lesson was on leading - and quite frankly, I find leading when Rajan is the one working with me counterintuitive to say the least. Today we moved on to a deceptively simple-looking series of attacks up into the groin. They need to be circular but perfectly straight with a wicked and difficult up-thrusting thing at the end. "It is difficult but it will come", said Rajan mildly as he left, instructing me to work with Anoop who patiently broke it all down for me. I struggle to manoeuvre the stick correctly without dragging it into the floor (the stick is about as long as I am), as I struggle with the lines that are circles and the circles that are lines. I can't blame my height though. Anoop and Sathya are tall but Rajan is not and they all make it look perfectly natural. Then Parashuram offered himself up to practise with. It's a nice novelty with the Western side, getting to practise with fellow-students, more like what I'm used to in aikido training. Then the three of us tried to figure out why our inner thighs ache, Saturday not having been a particularly gruelling morning. On leaving that day, Rajan had instructed Charles to work with us on jumps - at least I'm assuming that's what was said as that's what we all did in mingled nervousness, laughter and a few scraped knees and elbows. Something about the landing and lifting of the legs in the less terrifying jump (and hence the one I practised most) appears to challenge the adductors. Ever mysterious.



2nd February:

After my struggles with leading the long stick this morning and my head-clearing cold(ish) shower, I sat waiting in the reception room in Sathya’s apartment upstairs. We were working out the dates for the final part of my back treatment we’d started when I arrived. It’s all a bit complicated, because there’s a huge festival the week before I leave (the largest gathering of women in the world, at least it was a few years ago – all cooking) so the kalari will be shut for a few days, and Sathya and Rajan are teaching and demonstrating in Poland next month, so have to go to Mumbai that week for their visas (and I thought my visa was a pain to get. There’s no comparison. Travelling from Trivandrum to Mumbai is roughly equivalent to a trip from Swansea to Madrid). And we also have to work round my menstrual cycle, which governs a lot of what I can and can’t do and when. Time is a funny thing. My first week here was taken up with the kalari puja (so no training until the end of it) and then the first month – unless you’re starting as a beginner – is really just getting back into the rhythm of things. And now this last month, with its treatments and festivals and so on... The good news is that Sathya says I can keep training while I’m being treated (usually you shouldn’t) – but “gentle stretching, no sitting leg or lifting”.  Coincidentally, as I was running through the leg exercises this morning, I was trying to work out whether it’s possible to engage in kalari “gently”. Talking with the boys yesterday about backaches seems to have set mine off, and for the first time in ages, my pelvis feels uprooted, fragile. I was reflecting, as I swung my legs across the kalari, that this quality of softness a lot of people associate with me, actually developed as a mechanism to deal with pain. As I’ve got older and stronger, I’m much less often in pain (hurrah for age and miracles) but there were long stretches through my twenties and a lot of my thirties when I never moved without it – and the softening of landings and joints and muscles was a way of lessening its impact. Well, suffering is a great teacher, as is the lack of inherent structural shock-absorption. After a timely reminder from Rajan, I also asked Sathya about sourcing a couple of long sticks to bring back with me. So now that is being sorted (fortunately, if I ever get any further with the wooden weapons, the others will fit into a suitcase; the long sticks, however, need special packing), and I have instructions to put my medicine oils order into the pharmacy, so they will be all ready for me when I go. “It’s the last month,” I said to Rajan yesterday, when he popped by to collect some coconuts from the garden and enquired about the timing of my flight. “Not a month, only 4 weeks,” he reminded me. Indeed, alack, alas.


3rd February:

"Don't hit my hand," warned Rajan with a half-smile as I practised waving a stick as long as me with some semblance of accuracy and technique. The responsibility of the Western side is such that if anything goes wrong on whoever's part, it's your fault. In one of our documentation sessions last time I was here, I distinctly remember Sathya saying that if a teacher hit a student "he himself should be hit". He half-laughed at the impropriety of it. It struck me at the time, because Sathya is not at all a hitting kind of person. I am a little overwhelmed by the quantity of information coming my way this week. My practice of the Eastern side was hard and fast (which magnifies my faults) and Rajan then started teaching me a totally new section I've never seen before, so it can't come out very often. When I was back up for the Western side, we moved from the stomach up-cuts to the (new to me) rib strikes. He called up Parashuram for me to practise with. "If you hit his hand, you have to meet all his expenses for one week. That was our punishment when we were learning. You must meet all his expenses for one week." There was a very light brush, but Parashuram claims it didn't hurt. Bichu avenged him later when he kicked me in the head as I was helping his handstand. But let's hope Parashuram isn't planning three meals a day at the Taj.


Amongst the interesting things I learnt in today's Sanskrit class is that the (la sound, well actually li in this case) in Kali is pronounced differently to usual s - because we couldn't have Kali sounding soft. If this were a t or a d or an n sound, the change in pronunciation would qualify for a whole new letter, so I'm grateful for small mercies of the alphabet gods. This came as I was being made to read through all the prayers we have covered over the last few months. The traditional building-block nature of my teacher's methodology suits me and taps into strangely soothing memories of endless chanting and complicated rote learning of French conjugations and grammar and poetry I did in humid classrooms as a child in Gabon. First I'm given it as a dictation, then my spelling is corrected which is actually an aural test, then I'm made to read it and my pronunciation is corrected, then the grammar and meaning is analysed, and then I'm left with it on my list of things to read as homework. We usually do anywhere between one and three per class, depending on length and complexity. To show me how it's done properly, Mahadevan chanted a few of them in between my spoken efforts. "This is my aim, for you to chant like this," he said. Needless to say, I'd be delighted to get anywhere near. I feel a bit like the talking rat in the story about the hungry lion we're currently working on. Next class promises to be a marathon recording session so I have a record of all the tunes and correct pronunciations. And I still find it soothing.

"to be recorded" list


5th February:

Well today was stressful. I don’t know if it was the far-too-long I spent at the computer yesterday or just life’s little challenges, but my balance was definitely not at its best. “Days are different,” said Bichu sympathetically, as we crossed at the end of the kalari. And of course, it’s the day a photographer turns up. My Eastern side of the long stick wasn’t actually too atrocious, just the usual faults with a few minor improvements, the new sections getting a bit more fluid. Once everyone had been, I was up again for the Western side. Well, I hit Rajan’s hand. Quite hard. Everyone round the edges flinched. “Be in control”, he reprimanded mildly, as he massaged it. Of course I was mortified and everybody knew it and they smiled sympathetically when I’d finished. “Practise with them,” Rajan instructed as he left. Yesterday, when he’d gone and I picked up the stick on the Western side, there was a definite frisson in the kalari. But today everyone had got used to it, even me. I didn’t hit anyone else and everyone volunteered himself in turn to practise - which actually I really enjoyed. And then Charles and Parashuram very patiently helped me work on some of my problem areas (my wrists being one will come as no surprise to my aikido sensei). It really brought home how fond I am of them all, how much kindness and generosity has come my way at the kalari. Waiting for the shower, I had a lesson on the ingredients of Bichu’s banana-leaf-wrapped breakfast (packed food is very elegant here) and explained what ratatouille is to Darshan. Bichu wanted to know whether my family is vegetarian (no), and then how long I have been. “But you know the taste of non-vegetarian food!” he exclaimed, as though it were akin to necrophilia. And then I had a discussion on ahimsa (non-harming) and its complexities and contradictions with Parashuram, who is always very thoughtful on such matters. Still a bit discombobulated, I cheered myself up later with a pistachio sharja, which breaks all Ayurvedic rules and all my food-colouring ones. Later on when I enquired after Rajan’s hand, he clearly thought I was hilarious, so I think I’ve been forgiven.


17th February:

Well, it's turning into a medical few days. Here's my small fortune (relatively speaking) in kalari oils, kindly prepared for me by Gita in the pharmacy, all ready (bar much wrapping in towels) for their trip to Wales. I began my 5 days of treatment with Sathya this morning, later than planned as my body has been rather thrown by the events of the last few weeks and my cycles are not cooperating. I forget how intense the kizhi treatment is (herbal bundles wrapped in muslin, dipped in heated oil and then used to massage). It's hard to say why because it's not forceful. Something about the heat and the oil and the sense of it penetrating right between the bones of the spine so that something a little bit overwhelming releases. Or perhaps it's Sathya's wizardry. Or perhaps all of the above. The bad news is my frankly traumatic last few years have taken their toll on my poor struggling body. I'm off for blood tests before dawn as Sathya detects changes in the joints of my hands and if it's the beginnings of arthritis, now is the time to deal with it. In Ayurveda, problems in the joints are a symptom of digestive imbalances and digestive imbalances cause changes in the blood, hence tomorrow's test. I feel a great sense of grieving for my body, as though it's something separate to me I've not been able to care for properly - very much actually as I felt about the poor, bright, injured dog who came to me for help during the Vipassana retreat at Arunachala, sleeping at my door once I'd given it, and who apparently later died at the shelter he was taken to. Bichu cheered me up afterwards by fulfilling his promise to show me how to tuck a lunghi properly (my long-serving one from Rishikesh which has been round the world in many guises), ably abetted by the kalari cleaning lady who fancies my flip flops. So now I can dress like a South Indian boy, if not a girl. And then more cheering up at the dentist. No really. It was my first check-up since one in the Himalayas in 2012 and my teeth are still fine, filling-free and now cleaned and polished too. But there's something a little bit blue about all these leaving preparations. Ho hum.



18th February:

So this is what I look like after pre-dawn blood tests, kizhi treatment and practice. The photo looks drier than I am. I was sternly told off by Sujith in the kalari clinic for doing too much but protested I am dutifully following doctor's orders. And here's the Kumbakonam coffee to perk me up post blood test and requisite fasting. Kumbakonam coffee is supposed to be a bit special (this one was very nice), as is the chanting. Perhaps next visit I'll go find out. The dirt on my forehead is from all the salutations - so if nothing else, I am humble.



It's interesting the effects of this kizhi treatment. Today I've felt like my bones are cooking - in a good way, however little sense that may make. I've been sitting at my computer half the day kicking out heat like a little furnace, the fan turning over me but nonetheless drenched. And it's no hotter today than it was yesterday or the day before. After this morning's conversation with Sathya as he treated me, I think I'm getting off lightly. Kizhi works right into the spine and so has a strong effect on the nervous system. Apparently, some people who carry a lot of tension, especially around the neck, can end up hallucinating or with fever over the first couple of days. Hence the injunction to rest. So a bit of cooking, really, is fine.


25th February:

Today I got a purple knuckle. I guess it had to happen once before I leave. Long stick learning curve. On the plus side, Peter asked if I'm practising the short stick (the next weapon along). I'm not, but I'm flattered he even considered it a possibility. I think I'm doing subliminal Malayalam in the kalari, because 3 meippayats and the salutation later and hardly a word of English had passed his lips.



6th March:

And so now here I am, back in Wales after the strange momentum of my last days in Trivandrum and so much simple warmth and kindness from so many people there. I reflected, as I have in the past, that one of the nicest things about having a week of treatment with Sathya is that you actually get time to talk to him on a daily basis, a rare treat as he is always so busy. Even if 7:00 am is not the most naturally conversational of times, I learned about all sorts of interesting things: Ayurvedic approaches to arthritis, traditional Kerala coconut toddy (“You should try it”), now largely supplanted by scarily poisonous industrial alcohols that have never been near a coconut, though apparently the natural version is making a come-back, Malayalam astrological stars, people who think they maintain traditional south Indian eating habits but actually don’t, naturopathic cures, scholars who are passionately immersed in their subjects versus those appointed to assuage politics or the marketplace… Arjun one day said something slightly daft, I can’t quite remember what, but then excused it by explaining that I am like his older sister, so such slips are normal. And it occurred to me that I feel very much like that around all the lads at the kalari, and a little too around the foreigners who pass by. Sujith one morning insisting on sharing his breakfast with me, and then Arjun bringing in his mother’s sweet iddly, followed a couple of days later by Darshan’s mother’s puttu (I think that’s the name; I never remember it). Taking everyone to Mani Mess for breakfast on my last morning and my friendly host there squeezing my hand and wishing me “good journey”.  And the things I seem to know that others don’t, so that when Malgo, the Polish woman currently training at the kalari, suggested Parashuram taste her breakfast, half-laughing at his look of embarrassed horror I was able to say “You don’t share food off your plate with a brahmin,” then asking “but how does that work with chocolate bars?”  “Oh, you just break it with your hand,” said Parashuram, relieved that appropriate table manners were restored, “you don’t bite it.” Parashuram later putting me on the back of his bike to help me with my final purchases of coffee and star anis (discovering the Malayalam for that created much confusion and laughter amongst us all, one of the clinic’s patients enthusiastically involving himself).  Bichu’s and Parashuram’s lessons one lazy morning in Carnatic music (“He knows a lot about it,” said Parashuram in some surprise about Bichu – and he really does) and various caste and religious customs, And Bichu asking me for the umpteenth time “Why are you going?” and me looking at him and struggling to find a good reason. Mahadevan, my Sanskrit teacher handing me a book of poetry and insisting I read it (and the English commentary, thankfully) daily, Rajan stopping by the house to help me wrap up the long sticks Anoop had prepared for me, complete with a label all printed with my address in Caswell. Gita’s repeated kiss and cheek-pinch and hug. And all the time wondering “why are they fond of me?” But very glad they are.


I felt quite bereft leaving. And now here I am on my Gower seascapes, still dizzy with the changes, wondering at this adjustment and what it might bring.


from Lucy, with love x


Monday, 4 January 2016

Of Grief and Grace and Arising and Passing Away

The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise your sails. ~ Rabindranath Tagore 

Coming up to midnight on winter solstice 2014, I wrapped myself up, walked out of my then-home on the seafront in Mumbles and followed the coast path. Finding a quiet spot, I stepped down onto the beach, sat on a damp rock and looked out to the far low tide, distant sea merging with mist in that mystical way Welsh seascapes do.

I meditated for about twenty minutes and then in a small, still, silent ritual set my intentions for the coming year. Looking back at my notebook, I seem to have manifested all of them. Given the nature of my 2015, this is surprising.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

…on Swansea Bay between Mumbles and West Cross. The tide out, sea lost in mist, light rain, like the air was wet – looking out to sea like looking into the heart of the longest night, lost in darkness and mist. A glow somewhere (in my head? heart?) – the return of light? A promise? A hope? We need darkness to see the stars…

The intention that came to me most clearly, almost by surprise, was “it’s time to go back to India”. By that, meaning the kalari… This seemed logistically improbable at the time but, as I said, that voice was very clear…

A few days later, I was off on my self-directed retreat (see the post On Tong Len and Toilets). Upon my re-emergence into the world, I received a letter informing me my landlord was repossessing his flat. Very soon after, a friend suggested I rent her holiday chalet. “You can only stay from March to November,” due to holiday chalet planning regulations. “But you can leave your stuff there.”

“Oh,” I thought, “that’s how I’m going to India.” And suddenly it was logistically probable.

Winter solstice 2015 found me looking at the moon over the top of Arunachala from my Vipassana retreat in south India. 

Yes, somehow, all those intentions manifested.

But back to the beginning of 2015.

I embarked on house-move number twenty-seven (I thought it was worth counting them up this time) and had no sooner negotiated that upheaval and started to feel a little more settled in my holiday chalet home by beautiful Caswell Bay that Nana died.

As a child I was fascinated by patterns. They still bewitch me a little. I’m not much concerned with reading meaning into them, but symmetries seduce me. My mother and her pattern of nines: born, married, the birth of her first child (me), died - all on the 9th day of the month. And the months for her: August, September, October. (My arrival disrupting the pattern as usual in June.)

And now a new pattern. I had exactly reached the age my mother was when she died. And here I was caretaking not my own passing (I did sometimes wonder) but her mother’s, just as I had to a rather crazy degree for a nineteen year old, overseen much of my own mother’s.

In 2010, after my first stay at the kalari, I stopped in Varkala for a few days before exploring a little more of Kerala. An old man sitting at the top of some steps leading down the cliffs grabbed my hand to read my palm. “You will live to 87”, he told me, and that same clear inner voice that sometimes pipes up said “I wonder if he’s talking about Nana”. Nana died exactly a week before her 87th birthday.

It was Easter and she had suffered her own crucifixion in the weeks preceding. “An auspicious time to die,” I said to Colin, the craniosacral therapist who has been treating me for various ailments of body and spirit over the last few years. “Very. And the sacrifice – taking on the suffering for others,” he reminded me.

Somehow I felt this. My internet wasn’t working and my phone network was playing up, so I had to drive near Mumbles to make the phone call to receive the news of her passing. It was unusually warm for April, a beautiful, luminous evening. Immediately, I felt lighter, like an old weight had lifted, at the same time a new weight of grief descended.

I made the requisite phone calls and drove back home, not quite sure what to do with myself. It felt absolutely significant that at this time, as at so many others, I was utterly alone.

So I did what I often do. I went for a walk. Here’s what I saw.



It struck me yet again how powerful a tool trauma is for making me totally present. There was no attention for anything but the sensation of my feet walking the path, the movement of my breath. The very air on my skin felt overwhelming.

I had frequently wondered over the previous few years whether it wouldn’t be me making an exit, so hard had they been. I looked on in some astonishment at my health, which seemed to continue so robustly in spite of everything. Of the ends I have witnessed, Nana’s was by far the worst. So much suffering, psychological even more than physical, spread all around, fracturing the fragile network of relationships around her. Most of all, she suffered. And what an appalling thing to witness and be able to do nothing for. She lived and died that case of squeezing her hand to hold the water and wondering why it all runs out. Because, yes, only an open hand holds water…

But I had this very strange, irrational sense that this awful karma of clinging, controlling poor Nana had lived, and lived fully, with all her power and enthusiasm and generosity, so the rest of us could set it down. Perhaps it’s odd to feel grateful but she had carried her sacrifice completely and bravely. And it’s one of the many things for which I’m profoundly grateful to her.

A few days later, I went to the nursing home round the corner from my chalet, to find the people who had been with her during the night she died. One doesn’t generally meet Malayalis in Swansea, but they were two nurses from Kerala, one of whom I had met on my visit the day before Nana’s passing. For the first time I felt I was sitting with two people who were just kind and present, no threat of imminent attack or demand or judgment. For the first time since her death, I felt safe enough to cry, just a little.

“Where are you from?” I asked the nurse I hadn’t met before.
“South India,” she answered.
“Yes, where?” I asked.
“She knows Kerala,” said her colleague. “She does kalari. Look, here is Aum,” she indicated the charm on my necklace.

“You really have a connection with that place,” remarked a friend as I recounted this to him on a beach walk some days later.

At the funeral home, when discussing the logistics of Nana’s cremation, we’d been asked what to do with any jewellery on her body. “Let her take it with her,” I’d answered. My brother had agreed.

“Wait, I have something for you,” said one of the nurses and went to a locker to remove a brown envelope. In it was the little gold chain Nana had been wearing. Of course, Indian women have a different relationship to gold…

I took it down to the sea at Caswell and held it in the incoming and outgoing waves as I recited the Mahamrtyunjaya mantra 108 times.

My intention was to clean the chain of its dark residue of suffering and death. I’ve taken a few things to the sea with that mantra. I wasn’t thinking precisely what it means; I’d mostly forgotten.

Months later, I was sitting in the low chair in the front of my Sanskrit teacher’s house in Trivandrum, transcribing that mantra into Devanagari script to test my understanding of the pronunciation. He then took me through it, translating each word for me. Roughly it means:

We give fire offering to the fragrant three-eyed one (Shiva) who increases fertility/prosperity. Like the pomegranate (or watermelon – fruits that fall on their own, without effort), release me easily from the bonds of death to the eternal.
Om tryambakam yajāmahe sugandhim puṣṭi-vardhanam ǀ
urvārukam-iva bandhanān mṛtyormukṣīya māmṛitāt

Mahamrtyunjaya mantra means the great death conqueror mantra.

Sometimes we know without knowing.

transcriptions and corrections

At Nana’s funeral service at the pretty chapel at Clyne, I chose to read a poem by Mary Oliver.


Messenger
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird –
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

A few things occurred to me as I walked up the steps of the Victorian pulpit in my navy dress to read the poem. I looked out at my mother’s father’s family who had crossed the country to be there and thought how hard it must be for them to see me, the same age as my mother was when she died, the same age her father was when he died, and how they all think I am so like her (a comparison which always makes me profoundly uncomfortable). I wondered whether my voice would hold, whether I would hold. So I concentrated on my feet in touch with the wood through my shoes, my breath in the pit of my belly, my gaze as it embraced everybody there.

A strange thing happened as I began. A wave of power rose up through my feet, filled my body and carried my voice to fill the church so that it was all far bigger than I am. I hesitate to use the term because it’s become so hackneyed, but really it was a sense of pure Shakti. I’d always struggled in theatre with big emotion closing down my throat, contracting and constricting my voice, but here it was totally open and very powerful, even in breaking.

So that’s what Lear’s channelling, carting Cordelia’s body around the fifth act, I thought.

I wonder how Shakespeare knew.

It felt an inappropriate moment to be thrust into performance practice research, but there it was: the states we open to and create and how we share those with others present. And looking round, it seemed clear to me that the other mourners had felt it too. Really, a moment of grace.

For the past few, traumatic years I had felt like a hot desert fire was powering my body, giving me huge energy but drying me out. I did at times wonder whether I would survive it. With Nana’s passing, all the holding released and that dry fire turned to something liquid and swampy. I was permanently sluggish and exhausted and genuinely panicked that I was coming down with some form of unshiftable chronic fatigue.

Patience Lucy, all things in their season. I modified my yoga practice accordingly and tried not to panic. But it didn’t shift. And part of me panicked. For months.

The strange thing was that in my Aikido practice, people were telling me how fit and strong I was. My body was doing it mostly. It just felt like my bones were like water as it did.

In June, one of my oldest friends committed suicide, in particularly distressing circumstances.

Just as I found out, I was called to my other grandmother, Lucie, not far off 92, in the south of France, as she was very ill.

She recovered.

I returned to my friend's funeral.

In 2009 I was taught a meditation called the Kalagni Rudra. Basically, you dissolve everything. About 10 days after I started practising it, my entire London life dissolved around me. Well, if you want to practise, you have to take the consequences. I kept practising.

“But I feel like it’s been one long process of dissolving ever since then,” I told Colin the craniosacral therapist over the summer.

“Don’t you think it’s time to start building?” he asked.

The problem is, I’ve come to realise that if anything has a remotely shaky foundation, it’s inevitably set for dissolution, so better, easier, sooner rather than later.

This was the year any problematic or inauthentic relationships I’d been politely paying lip service to were once and for all cast into the fire. I no longer had the energy or desire to keep them limping along. The French have a saying «Mieux vaut être seul que mal accompagné» which means “better alone than in bad company”. I’ve realised that I live this with a fervour that is perhaps not entirely healthy. But I do love people, many of them, just not generally too close.

Having said all of this, it did feel that perhaps this phase of dissolving might be coming to a close. For a start, now that Nana was gone, I had a promise to fulfil to her, of buying a home. So maybe house-move number 28 would be the last one for a good long while.

It turned out it wasn’t quite finished. On All Souls Day, I was sitting in my Sanskrit teacher’s front room again. Unusually, my phone rang and as it was a UK number, I took the call. My other grandmother had died during the previous night of Halloween in France. Given her astonishing life-force and occasional ferocity (though never towards me), it seemed perfectly appropriate she should go this night the veil between worlds is thin. My full heart was grateful I’d seen her last summer, grateful for the sense of connection I’d had with her, sad not to have seen more of her over the years. Ah yes, those shaky, dissolved relationships. But funnily enough, never with her.

Receiving the news of the passing of this Lucie I was named for was less isolated than it had been for Nana’s, but awkward, sitting in a meeting point of different cultures on death, the personal and the formal, three or four languages. I found myself falling into my usual pattern of caretaking everyone’s feelings but my own, concerned my teacher shouldn’t feel embarrassed at the situation. That day on my way home, I was less tolerant than I usually am of the children treating me like the circus come to town. Sometimes it’s wearing being the woman with three heads. Sometimes it would be a relief to be seen as ordinary.

Having said that, while people think I’m strange here in India, I’m sure they think I’m just as strange in Wales. Just generally, they’re quieter about it there.

Given that since my 2013 departure from the kalari the term I’d used most honestly to describe my general state was “punch-drunk”, my return to Trivandrum in October felt wholly enchanted.

Yet in all the difficulties, there were countless instances of kindness and integrity over the last year, from friends old and new in Swansea and beyond, from my teacher and fellow practitioners at the Aikido club in Port Talbot. I felt carried by all of these as I landed in Trivandrum. The immigration official at the airport seemed delighted I was here for kalari, and that theme continued.

It was like no time at all had passed with Rajan, the kalari’s senior teacher and my landlord, as he fretted over our crossed wires at the airport (and really, I felt terribly guilty, having got him out there at 4:30 am). People at the kalari I thought would certainly have forgotten me seemed genuinely pleased I was back, arriving in the full swing of the preparations for the annual 3-day puja.

“Be free,” Rajan had said, when I questioned him on some logistics, “you are part of us.” And I pottered around, greeting everybody, grinning like a child at Christmas.

For the 2012 puja, Shiva Rea, a rather famous American yoga teacher, had been around doing lots of filming. “It is the students’ privilege to clean the kalari” had said Rajan to camera, in his formal, dignified voice. I hadn’t thought much of it at the time, being rather taken up with polishing a spear and a couple of bucklers.

After one of the morning rituals this October, I was helping tidy up fallen flowers and streamers. One of the regulars tried to take over, under the guise of helping me. “No! She is helping!” had said Rajan, in his fierce way.

“Oh,” I thought, “not everybody gets to clean the kalari.”

For a start, you can’t go into the training-area-come-temple unless you’re an initiated student or priest.

I explained a little in my last post how things have been at the kalari, fitting into the quiet, focused rhythm, much more one of the regulars, for all my different gender and language, than the occasional foreign students who pass through and for whom Sathya (the gurukkal) and Rajan give gracious and time-consuming attention of new-initiation. I’m not quite sure why or how, but that’s the way it is. Maybe because I’m perfectly happy just getting on with it.

When I first came here in 2010, possibly because of my other training, I learnt all the basics very quickly and made great progress over that month. It feels that ever since then, bar the long-stick (a real struggle for me to make any improvement with), nothing much has changed, nor have I learnt much more. This isn’t true of course, and this is where kalari is a lot like the Aikido I practise in Wales. Fundamentally, the basics are the same. There’s a limited amount of material to get through, so everybody, at whatever level, is practising more or less the same thing. What differentiates practitioners is the degree of subtlety and skill and control with which they work. And it’s quiet and methodical and long, but I see the results clearly in the young men I left behind two and half years ago and the fluid and powerful change in them their daily training has wrought.

Almost as soon as I walked into the kalari on my arrival, Sujith, who works in the clinic handed me a slip of paper with my Sanskrit teacher’s number. I had fully intended resuming my classes, assuming my teacher, Mahadevan, was willing, but I’d assumed it would probably take a month or so to track him down, things being what they are here. I sometimes think of Sujith as my good fairy; he really wants me to learn.

For the first few days, I was sharing the house with an Odissi dancer based in Rajasthan (also collecting Rajasthani folk dances) who originally hails from California called Colleena Shakti. On my second morning, still light-headed with arrival, I followed her bleary-eyed for the goddess Saraswati darshana that happens on the side of the huge Padmanabhaswamy temple over Navaratri, the nine nights of the goddess which the kalari puja marks the last three of. I wasn’t prepared and had in fact planned to go to the beach (I think I did later) so wrapped the lunghi around me I had once bought to cover my plunges into the Ganga at Rishikesh, in lieu of the requisite long skirt (or sari). It may be mostly used as a beach towel these days, but that cloth has had some pretty sacred dips, for all it’s now rather travel-worn.

The police officers shepherding the crowds have to follow the strict dress code of the temple, so the men were in white lunghis, bare-chested, and the women in white saris with jasmine in their hair, only their police tags around their neck identifying them as they ushered us through. We were there just towards the end, as we’d been at the kalari homa (a fire ceremony) before. The queue was thick and jostling, with the usual pushing. Slowly, slowly, we followed the line to where the goddess was displayed and the brahmins were dispensing blessings (some rather extraordinary Carnatic musicians in the background). This particular murthi is very small, and as we reached the opening, my sight faded to blindness. I had a distant sense of a tiny idol I couldn’t see, a thick wreath of fragrant marigolds pressed firmly into my hands and staying there resolutely, despite someone’s efforts to tug them out. The floor dropped away and I stood passive, until my sense of self-preservation took me away from the crowd and I joined Colleena on the floor to recover, watching the musicians finishing their set. “That was on her body,” Colleena said, indicating the marigolds. “What a blessing!”

Well I may not have seen the goddess, but I’m pretty sure she saw me.

Given that Saraswati is learning and the arts and wisdom and speech and the Vedas, I decided this was an auspicious beginning to my stay.

The next day was Vidhya Arambham, the ceremonial recommencement of learning (also associated with Saraswati), and the main ritual for the beginning of the year’s training at the kalari, in which all students participate and part of which involves touching the gurukkal’s feet and receiving his blessing.

It’s hard to explain just how full and happy was my heart, and moved to the point of tears when my turn in the line came, after his sister, to touch Sathya’s feet and receive his blessing. I’m not sure if it was the joy of being back, the simple surprise of being so welcome, the release from all I’d been through over the last years – perhaps all three.

When it was all over, I cleaned up and caught up with people and ate too much sickly-sweet prasadam everyone kept giving me more of, and drank sweet tea and smiled a lot. Then Unny gave me a lift to Mahadevan’s house (because I didn’t trust myself to remember where it was) where smaller rituals of learning were being enacted at the Sanskrit school, and where I was made to read something and given a short lesson before being fed festive lunch, with everyone looking on in fascination at the foreigner eating (India is not a place to be self-conscious).

Dazed and jet-lagged that first week, I felt as though I was falling in love with everything and everyone I encountered. It was a genuinely surprising sensation, and exactly that same overwhelming heart-opening melting I’ve felt when falling in love with a person. But fundamentally much safer and quite probably more satisfying.

Of course, this honeymoon period wore off, and I got down to the daily business of training and studying, continuing my work online, still hampered by the damp heavy exhaustion with me since Nana’s death. Things fell into a rhythm and started to shift. For my first few days Sathya treated my back, which had gone into dramatic and excruciating spasm shortly before my arrival, with daily massage. He gave me some stretches to work on and I was instructed to apply a particular oil daily. I’m to have further treatment before I leave, but as that involves full rest from training, I think the plan is to do what we did in the past, and save it for the very end of my stay (because you have to take an equal amount of time off training after as during treatment). In the no-nonsense, pragmatic way of the kalari, there’s a sense of being looked after.

Rajan drills us every morning, politely correcting my forms, fiercer at times when it comes to the long stick (I would try a saint’s patience). “I will take a stick and beat you”, he half-joked on my first try back with it. Of course he would do no such thing; however clumsy I may at times be, he is unfailingly precise. “I give many corrections but I must have perfection.” And then in all that quiet dignity and occasional ferocity, an occasional gleam of mischief, like this morning, my first back in the kalari after three weeks away, when he called up to me as I was leaving: “Lucy, I stole a piece of chocolate from the fridge!” and we both laughed.

Sathya teaches us very occasionally, being general taken up with the clinic but I pay very careful attention to whatever he gives. Invariably I’ll be working on something I feel I’ve achieved a reasonable standard with and he’ll introduce a degree of subtlety and rigour that has me puzzling and struggling literally for years to come. Such as my elephant posture some weeks back, when he came up to me. “Like this” with the feet, and adjusted the grip of the toes, and “try to stretch this tendon here”, and adjusted the rotation of my thighs, “and a little more low” and something fired and worked in my pelvic floor no yoga asana has yet touched.

I took three weeks off in December because I decided it was really time to put myself through another Vipassana and there’s a new centre at the mountain Arunachala in Tamil Nadu, said to be the embodiment of Shiva as fire, and one of the places I’ve wanted to visit. So I planned a little trip, starting at my friend Irene’s in Chennai, who with her parents and husband always spoils me rotten, then onto Tiruvannamalai for ten days of 10 hours a day meditation and total silence, and then a chance to visit the temple and the Ramana ashram, and then onto Chidambaram, where I’d heard all sorts of things about its “secret”, before a return via Bangalore, to catch up with some dancer friends there.

The Vipassana was its usual challenge, though I loved the setting, for all it was still a building site. Stories from that to follow.

The first few days were their usual ordeal of extreme boredom for me. At one point I gave up entirely on forcing my mind to the extremely dull task it had no interest in and just sat in silence and re-worked all my plans for the coming year in some unforeseen directions. Boredom has its uses. By day 6, the instructions were getting subtler, which I found much easier and less painful. At the end of it, a friend of Irene’s arrived to escort me on an extraordinary adventure, which, with hindsight, might have been a little extreme straight out of 10 days’ silence and sitting.

Here’s some of what I posted on social media:

27th December at Parvata Malai:

After a 3:40 wake-up bell (because 4:00 is a lie-in) and the closing meditation and whatnot of the Vipassana course, a friend of a friend arrived at the centre in a car with a group of friends (I think we're all friends now) to check me into my hotel and take me up to a temple built crazily tip-top a mountain. After a 3 hour trek up, the last part essentially hanging onto spikes and ladders on the side of a mountain - did I mention my terror of heights?... Anyway, after 10 days of the most austere meditation I know, no exercise allowed, 10 hours sitting a day and not much food, there I was all sweaty, strenuous, adrenaline-spiked and light-headed, crawling rather less gracefully than the monkeys that kept jumping us on a rockface. And after those 10 days where all rites, rituals and prayers are strictly forbidden, I found myself ushered into her little sanctum to perform the abishekam for the goddess. Intimidating? Just a little... From there into another sanctum with the lingam for another series of rituals. The temple's brahmin was very gracious and seemed very pleased to see me, sending me back down (almost as terrifying as the way up) with lots of information I can't read (but the Tamil and the pictures look pretty). I don't think they get many foreigners up there, stunning views notwithstanding. Certainly one of the lime-soda seller's children looked terrified of me on the way up but had mustered the courage to wave on my way down. 3 hours up, 3 hours down, 2 hours in the temple. To say I feel peculiar is an understatement. All that time in silence focussing on sensation and then vibrating like a tuning fork with it in the mountaintop temple. "Temple? Arunachala?" asked the shopkeeper in the foyer of my hotel. "No, Parvata Malai," I answered. He was impressed enough to inform the hotel staff and now they're all being very nice to me. I'm recovering with two cups of tea and a possibility of calming myself down practising some Sanskrit. And bed.

the Shiva lingam post-abishekam up the top of Parvata Malai

29th December in Tiruvannamalai:

I was dressed head-to-toe in red yesterday, not because of the colour but because I thought there might be some quibbles letting me into the temple and that wearing my most traditional ensemble might help. Even by my usual standards, I elicit strange reactions here. One old man (and he wasn't begging) on my walk to the temple, jumped up from his walking stick, clapped his hand to his heart, looked me straight in the eye and shouted "Om namah Shivaya" very loudly as I passed. (Why me and not every other passer-by, I'm not sure.) I'd noticed on the climb up Parvata Malai the previous day some women dressed in red but beyond asking why (a Shakti cult, apparently) I'd not thought much of it. As I arrived, coach-loads of women in red were filing into the temple, every one of them in a sari (which I wasn't). Again, I didn't think much of it but took my time meandering around the various courtyards. On my way in for darshana, I was grabbed by a group of red-clad ladies on their way out, plonked firmly in the middle of their group photo, all of them trying to touch me at once, the older ones pinching my cheek. On the slow queue in, another group adopted me, one wanting to swap her sari for my very ordinary kurta and bottoms. Well, I went in without a murmur, so I wonder if my clothing choice wasn't a lucky coincidence. I've not had any trouble getting in anywhere so far on this Tamil Nadu trip. Jayaram had joked he'd walk out in protest if they didn't let me in to the temple he and Irene took me to in Chennai, but there wasn't a murmur (I read later in my guide book that they don't let in non-Hindus). Off to Chidambaram later today to visit Shiva as Lord of the Dance (appropriately), so let's see how I fare...

Nandi guarding the Arunachala temple at Tiruvannamalai
The last few days have been full of lucky coincidences, from yesterday's fortuitous wardrobe choice to the timings of my impromptu Ramana Ashram visits. Yesterday I arrived quite by chance just as the intricate and beautiful evening ceremonies were beginning and today I walked in for the chanting that preceded the first of a week of special discourses. And so beautiful that discourse was too, of the small-explosions-in-my-heart-tears-in-my-eyes variety. Quite effortless to sit still on the marble floor for an hour and a half. Then somehow I was carried part-way up the mountain. Tough little battered foreign feet it turns out I have. Thicht Naht Hahn advises us to walk as though our feet are kissing the earth. On Arunachala, they are literally kissing Shiva. A few of my life-plans have shifted these last two weeks. I suspect I'll be back (please).

some of the 30 or so brahmins, young and old, chanting during evening ritual at the Ramana ashram
Shiva Nataraja Temple Gopuram, Chidambaram
30th December, Chidambaram:

Now I am on my overnight bus, I feel better placed to recount my Chidambaram Shiva as Lord of the Dance Temple adventures. First of all, it's a quite extraordinary place - just pulsing. I spent 3 hours there this morning, somewhere between lost and not, last night's dinner persuading me that the light-headedness I've felt for days has nothing to do with lack of food. I found the temple tank at one point and began a slow circumambulation. On the far side, away from the various small groups, was a brahmin performing ablutions. Initially I thought he might just be a visitor, as his hairstyle was rather ordinary, but given the quantity and complexity of ash covering him when he finished, I think he belonged to the temple after all. I'd stopped by a metal walkway that went out into the water, at the end of which long metal poles formed a square on the water's surface. The brahmin interrupted whatever he was doing (I'm not sure what because it feels very injudicious to be gawking at men bathing as a white woman on her own) to come over to me. He only spoke slightly more English than I do Tamil (I know the words for water, no and if not) but it wasn't a problem. He led me out onto the walkway, warning me to be careful because it is lethally slippery with algae. He then explained that under the water under the square is a Shiva lingam, which on occasion they drain the (huge) tank to perform abishekam for. He then left me alone to peer into the green water, and really, it felt quite appropriate that nothing was steady underfoot. Some time later, I was back in the inner sanctum on the edges of a crowd gathered for a puja. The (beautiful) embossed silver doors were shut to us onlookers as the priests went about the ritual. Then, with great fanfare and clanging of bells, the doors opened to reveal the lingam - which is Shiva as akasha, space, and so not visible. If you've ever been to a Hindu temple, you'll have some idea just how insistent the pushing can be and I was in no mood to resist. After all, whether I can see or not, isn't god everywhere? As the doors opened and the pushing began, not only was I not pushed away, but I was pushed by the crowd right into the centre, to the very front, head spinning in space, feet in a puddle. So it is my day of invisible mysteries and blessings. Even my bus was invisible tonight, though I somehow got on it at the last minute. So here I am, on possibly the most comfortable bed I've lain on for weeks, jolting my way through this night to Bangalore. Blessings, visible and invisible, to all. Lxx

the temple tank - under there is the submerged lingam

So now, after my adventures, I am joyfully back in Trivandrum, in my quiet little life of kalari and slow Sanskrit study. Things shifted in those three weeks away. Bizarrely, hardly moving at all bar a few strolls around temples and one arduous hike up a mountain and back, I seem to have lost weight when I don't think I much did during the preceding two months of daily kalari training. And that damp stodginess has lifted - let's hope permanently - and with it that endless sense of exhaustion. If I'm tired or weak, it's through lack of sleep or food rather than that awful sense of systemic weakness. Hurrah for miracles.

Looking back at this past year, I see so much grace, however fierce the transitions.

So grace - hopefully less fierce - and light and joy to you in 2016.
From Lucy, with love xx

because it's the temple of Shiva, lord of the dance