I think my earliest memory as far as I can see was being beheld by Mahatma Gandhi.
Yes, the very one.
You may ask, but he was murdered by a reactive Hindu way back in 1948. When you were definitely not born then. How could that be your memory?
But it was. I was a baby. And I was being held in the arms and the kind gaze of that very bespectacled man. The one I had seen in the little one room kindergarten that my neighbors ran, out of their house, in the old part of Madras, in which I had spent much of my toddlerhood, long before it was time for me to be sent to any such outfit. But this christian neighbors's house, with their four daughters and two sons who all doted on me, was a veritable extension of my own. And I think I was likely minded by them when the young girl who was my nanny had other tasks to attend to.
And I had recognized the man with his round glasses from the picture on the wall of this little room in which these classes were held. Always precocious, and having spent too much time there already, I knew all that they were to teach the other children years older than me, and having thus established as already knowing, I would be kindly asked to not participate in the classes meant for the older three and four year olds. I would often find myself in the corner, without much else to do. In those times, my eyes would dwell on the only two interesting things on the wall, that were readily familiar, but possessed an unknowable quality. One the picture of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, and the other with a bejeweled bleeding heart, that of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
Both images were a source of endless contemplation and what can only be called, an absorption. The kindly gaze of my grandfather and the bejeweled, heart of Jesus, with its own little crown, that stood revealed in his still bleeding body. Although thankfully this one was not that of him on the cross, which always used to verily distress me in the cool recesses of the school churches and chapels I would spend my after school hours of my primary education, just hanging out, alone in their lofty, empty expanses, dawdling my time in their deserted pews and marble alcoves, until it was close to when my mother would be coming home from work. This one had been clothed resplendent in robes, a veritable prince of peace, but with chest cut open to reveal this bejeweled heart and a Benedicting palm out turned, blessing through the open bleeding aesthetically rendered wound of his palm.
Later I would have abandoned that memory and that notion that you and likely others in my own life, might have correctly pointed out as the impossibility of the father of the nation having been my own grandfather.
This man I had somehow claimed as my very own grandfather in my deep subconscious, did not knowingly really play much of a role in my consciousness growing up. Not until after I reached the States, would a little snippet of the now very well known dictate of his would reach me. 'Be the change you want to see in the world' which became and remained my email signature for long, long after, and a mantra of my very own making.
When the usual efforts for peace by protesting the war at the turn of the new millennium proved to be insufficient, this Gandhian phrase would rear up and inspire me to go further on, inventing creative and somewhat all consuming ways in which I could further work for this peace that I so badly wanted to see in the world, by being the peace I wanted to see in the world.
I conceived of an art installation, in which I would offer my meals each day to an image of a soldier who had died in the wars that were being waged in Iraq and Afganisthan. Depending on the number of soldiers who were reported dead the previous day, I would offer as many of my meals, maxing of course at three, to this particular soldier I would go to great trouble to unearth and glean information about, whose image would be stationed in a large frame at the center of my installation space, a window box on 42nd street, just off Times Square in New York City. My feeling was that in giving up the food that otherwise would have gone on to become a part of my body and self, I was able to give a part of myself for the sake of peace. The installation was a complex one with other parts to include the other side of the war, the civilian casualty and a dig here and there on the cheer leading of war done by much of the socio political cultural establishment in that nascent first year of war. I had called it "Send a Salaami to your boy in the army', it being a rather bitter, pugnacious and sarcastic play on the much touted Katz's Deli's World War II jingoism. I think to have called it 'Send a Salaam to your boy in the army" might have been more apt a title, but likely to be perceived just as, if not more, tauntingly provocative and divisive by the warmongers, which was not my intention, well, for the most part. The project was a coming in realization of the futility in a fighting for peace, that perpetuates a two ness, by taking sides, but instead a transcending of the traditional tendency of those being against war, to somehow put the occupying soldiers outside the field of their compassion in the name of justice for the occupied peoples. It was a result of my own well earned and ongoing transition from an identity of being against a war, any and all, to a being of and for peace.
By the end of the nearly 20 days of this, in the bitter cold blighting New York then, I had become somehow so very translucent myself. The very first evening of the installation, as I sat inside the glass box, about to meditate on that moment, feeling naked and exposed, feeling so very vulnerable, and just there, right there on the street, separated by a very thin sheet of glass, with a rather provocative attempt of claiming the dead soldiers as my own, in my grieving for them, and marking their death with my own little rituals, some traditional and others made up, I was overwhelmed by a fear so very great. I was so utterly terrified, that someone would come and shoot me just like that. It was hard to stay there, sit with my eyes closed, not being able to see such a threat even coming towards me. I think it is as vulnerable as any I have ever been in my whole life. And this is from someone who did more than her share of daredevil stuff than is reasonable to expect from any sane being. Some nut job, hard right winger with their gun could easily find the whole thing offensive and knock the little flame of my self out. People have been shot in America for far less.
As this fear descended upon me, I sat unmoving, frantically trying to find a way through it. I simply can not run screaming at the first sign of fear. As I sought to sit and most importantly, to keep my eyes closed, which as simple as it sounds, was verily, one of the bravest things I have ever done in the face of such a wild physical and so present a fear, it occurred to me, to do something I have never thought to do before, as a way of combatting this terrifying inner assailant, who could be just as well, there out on the streets, already priming his sights on me. Helpless, but unwilling to yield to this overwhelming fear, with my trademark obstinence, I began to visualize love emerging from me, like a baby pink effervescence, in all directions and spilling out of the glass box surrounding and infusing all, especially that gun trotting stranger, and the whole island of Manhattan, the distant zones of war, and then, just to be charitable, the whole of the world. I mean the very idea of visualization has never been my cup of tea, and then this profoundly silly colour of baby pink effusion, you have to see that as a mark of my abject terror, that would give space for such a manifestation.
Luckily, in all that wild terror, there was no such space for my sarcastic self to assert itself, and I persevere in this very active a prayer, a palpable mediation. In my desperate fear of an unimaginable hate, I had stumbled upon the antidote of Love, first wielding it as its opposite. And it dawns on me, in my deepening stillness, that hate, that much bandied about reason for this war, and what I in turn had feared in thus confronting it, that hate, was not the opposite of this love, but fear, the very terrain of it, I was sitting there ruthlessly exploring, although thoroughly quaking in it. And thus in my frantic attempt to counter the abject terror of being that vulnerable and exposed and very likely subject to something beyond and fueled by my feverish imagination, I had come into a very profound realization of and about fear, and how it, and it alone is the counterpart of love, and hatred is just another face of that fear, not by itself, an opposite.
And exhausted from these and other similarly and even more extreme (for me) efforts, I would find myself in Mexico.
And there, I would have opportunity to refine even that understanding of Fear, as not that of an opposite, but as an absence, of Love. Fear is an absence of Love, and not at all, its opposite, it would become evidently obvious to me. For love verily hath no opposites. Like the dark, which is merely an absence of Light. On its own, there is no such thing as the dark. It can not be displaced nor transported, it can not even be engaged with. There is literally no substance to it. It simply vanishes the moment light is shone. To say that the dark is opposite of light, implies that it has an essence of its own, but it does not. Darkness like fear, is a case of an absence of that inner glow of Light, which is Love.
This visceral realization that somehow obliquely became, 'Love is the absence of fear' would finally replace that Gandhian quote as my own true signature.
When such early memories as this one of my Gandhian Grandfather, revealed themselves in the duration and aftermath of the Mexican meditation, the adult rational me, surmised that, that particular image, freshly gleaned and flushed out by an inner glowing of that light, from the far recesses of my memory of my own baby days, must have been that of my maternal grandfather, who I might have thought mistakenly, had died before my time.
When I would tell my mother, later that year, of this memory, my mother harrumphed and said pfft, he died long before you were born, like she might have said before at other youthful times, in a flat out denial. Now I was really confused. Who then that man might have been whom I can see so well, in my mind's eye, as clear as any face, looking up from my supine held body?
And what of my memory of a phonecall coming in the late of night, with the neighbour's shop at the front of the house in which one received such calls then, having been nearly closed, with most of its wooden slates in place? And the fact that dogs had cried all day, which had made you, my mother very distressed in that sound of ominous omen, and then the news arriving of your father's death?
She in her resolute stance already taken, just brushed it all off. I don't know where you come up with such stories.
Did I fantasize that image? Not being able to resist nor rest a mystery, I would ask her again, and may be this might have been years later, did anyone we know wear Gandhi glasses? Why, yes! My father, did. She would thus admit as a matter of fact, that my grand father did indeed wear Gandhi glasses, the very kind, that other great soul, Lennon would later adapt, round wire rimmed glasses.
What! He did wear those very glasses. When exactly did he die then? Before or after I was born? Well it was just around when you were a year old. It was like extracting tooth, rather than truth. So he was in fact alive when I was also alive? And surely he had held me in his arms? yes, yes, of course, he was very fond of you. So I was held by him, my grand father, in his arms, and peered at so benignly through his Gandhi framed glasses?!!!!!
Yes, but how could you remember it?
Her disbelief and denial of the possibility that a babe that young could retain any memory, was so great that it had dismissed the very fact of my actual memory, and my even having been born then, thus rendering it into further years of confused complexity.
When confronted why she would then say that he had died before I was even born, she continued to assert in her oblique way that she meant that he had died before my time, by which she had meant before what she might have thought of as a 'reasonable' time for a baby to start forming memories, still never conceding the effect of her downright denial and dismissal, which was a denial of my own reality, of my very existence, much less a memory of so special a love.
He had wanted to call me Kosala, after the mother of God himself, Ram, just as the Mahatma, whom I mistook for my grandfather, in my babyish innocence, had wanted the country to give birth to its own highest possible self in its Independence.
Ram, whose very name, would be the last word to come out of the Mahatma on being shot. 'Hey Ram', he would go down saying...
In sitting in contemplation of those two figures from my toddlerish days, one a prince of peace, and the other an apostle of non-violence, it helps to clarify my own seemingly confounding further attempts at being peace. In the spectrum of relating, Peace can not be made always together with an unwilling other. Peace can only be made with oneself by this acceptance of the fact of an other to be thus unwilling. It is within the domain of their right. Their right to their reality is as inviolable as one's own right to her own interiority.
In my own earlier experiments in peace, forged from my peripheral participation in the anti war, and social and economic justice movement in America, I was often left with a question. Would Gandhi have been so successful in his methods of non violence and civil disobedience in twenty first century America? Or for that matter in contemporary India? Or was it even a gentlemanly decency of the English rulership from a bygone era, that was the reason for the success of the movement in India? In looking for answers to these questions, I have come to appreciate the real power of the Indian Independence movement: its human heart, pounding its truth, simultaneously in each of the worthy hearts of the millions, who each claimed for themselves their individual truth and thus their stupendous inner strength derived from the conviction in their inner authority, in their inalienable right to their own being. This is the indomitable power of the meek against which no force on earth can prevail.
In any violently unjust scenario, only an action based out of a firm commitment to non violence can be a response. Such actions as was the case of the remarkable mass movement of non violence and civil disobedience that successfully earned India her Independence, are wrongly talked of as passive resistance. It was neither passive nor resistant. It was an incredible show of an entire subcontinent raising together in its consciousness, and recognition of the fact that a foreign dominant power could colonize one's land but never one's mind. That an external power could possibly limit one's physical freedom, but never one's internal freedom to hold true to one's own experiential reality of an eternal self ever conferring upon each of us, our inalienable right to human dignity. As that eminent beacon of common sense, Eleanor Roosevelt avers, no one can humiliate you without your implicit permission.
The very salt of the earth, that made up the heart of the Indian movement for Independence, knew this in their very marrow. These were warriors who took the war home, and fought the battle within themselves, and slayed the forces of oppression within themselves. Their own inner authority can never be subjected, nor subjugated by any.
Thus resolved, they were free men and women already. Thus armed with their inner dignity intact, refusing to be humiliated nor broken by the many such intended schemes of an occupation, they walked right up to the very face of it, in endless streams, until its mechanistic oppressing arms fell tired and its own human heart was awakened, by the marchers' dignified presence, that neither asked, demanded, nor beseeched the occupation for anything. They simply claimed it, what was rightfully theirs. They simply did not choose to participate and partake of an occupier's reality of themselves as anything other than what they were, autonomous, Independent, authorities of their own internal destiny.
This conviction in their own actual reality of internal autonomy was what proved so powerful, and unbreakable, for it basically denied the British any actual way to counter it, for there simply is none, in the same way, that the dark, has no way of opposing the light. There may be a limit and reach to this light, but it can never be snuffed out by the vast seemingly overwhelming expanse of the dark.
The key ingredient beyond the enlightened leadership was the mass participation in Integrity, that actualized the abstract principles espoused by the leaders, in their own individuality. They were each emperors in exercising that right to their own self rule in authenticity no matter what an external world told them to be their lot.
Like an exquisite sree yantra the top down visionary leadership was interwoven with an enlightened mass meeting it in an uprising in accord with an uncompromising personal morality rooted in the very indwelling spirit of their being, the integrated and stupendously powerful machine could not be stopped by any.
The men and women of the Indian Independence movement did not raise up in their masculinity or femininity, but in their innate humanity. It was in this humanity that they recognized their selfhood in commonality and was able to call upon their greetings to the very motherhood of not just India, but Life Itself. We each have to enter into the terrain of our own internality and realize its Independence, not in isolation, but in our profound interdependence. This can not be done by imposing upon ourselves economic values from the west, or authoritarian values from the east. It can only be done by interrogating for ourselves what it means to be actually and authentically alive in this time and place, and then going on to, living that meaning, in our very breathing.
The only power that can switch off our ability to light up our reality is our own choice to abdicate this power.
If Gandhi were alive today, he would be one hundred and forty five. But he can only be dead, if we let this light of our remarkably earned for Independence go out by abdicating our individual responsibility to continue to examine and experiment with the bill of goods sold to us as commonplace truths in the laboratory of Life, and articulating and actualizing of the results of those experiments in truth, peace and non violence, in the very being of ourselves, in our natural authority and dignity.
I think my earliest memory as far as I can see was being beheld by Mahatma Gandhi.