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

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