By Lindsay Hebert
Seventeen years ago, Kalsang planted a service tree in preparation for a road that was to run through Auroville by way of her yard. The tree was a service tree, named for the cover it provides from the hot Indian sun. The road never came, but the tree grew to shade the pavilion where her daughter was born nine years later and where we have lived since we arrived in India. Someday, Kalsang wanted to build a house beneath that tree. But yesterday, in service to her, we used machetes to cut it into pieces.
As a class, and as a village, the cyclone has reshaped our plans. I had hoped that for me, the New Year in India would be a new beginning. Seeing Kalsang’s fallen tree stump stripped bare in the mud, I knew this would not be so easy. The Hindu belief in reincarnation is more complex than a fresh start. One is born into another life, but a life that is chosen based on the workings of the past. The very place that you are going is determined by where you have been.
In Paris, your own past is easier to ignore. The city is a beautiful backdrop and one can play along, pretend to be part of a place once in its prime. Distracted by the lovely shadows, the art and the wine and the romance, there is no need to look inward. Caught in time, one can start over and over again.
In India, there is no such reprieve. One must be present to survive; one must pay attention. We sat in the courtyard New Year’s Eve, changing camera lenses until we could capture the stars. Moments later, friends dragged a man, bleeding from a motorcycle accident, into the pavilion. In Paris, one can spend days stargazing. In India, a scorpion on the terrace snaps your eyes straight back to earth.
Physically too, we are connected to this place. The humidity has molded my hair into tangled ringlets. My legs are spotted with purple and yellow and blue. My feet are red with mud, my shoulders pink with sun. I can move forward, but I cannot do so without the markings of my past.
After we kissed in the New Year Saturday night, I walked out to the courtyard to say goodbye to Kalsang’s tree. I thought about her, how she had cried when she thanked us for clearing the debris from her yard. That tree once marked a future road, a path that never materialized. Now only the pavilion provided protection and shade. Kalsang’s tears embodied the duality of this day, when we were visited by two Hindu gods: Shiva, the destroyer, and Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. We were in the dirt, in the presence of the divine.
Something in my past lives led me to India. Here, I admire the stars, but my feet are firmly planted in the red soil. I hope this remains, wherever I am in the world. But for tonight, it’s just us and Kalsang’s tree – broken, but bathed in moonlight.