Friday, August 10, 2007

Monkey Mind

Whenever Chris and I started to get cranky on a long drive from one tribe or temple to the next, our guide, Samar, would turn around in the front seat and tell us a story. He seemed to have a real knack for sensing through the back of his head exactly when his passengers were on the brink of going postal. So every few hours he would save us with a story, or he would point out a beautiful banyan tree, or he would have Dija stop the car so he could hop out and buy us some bananas. His tactics were all nice ways to break the monotony of bumping over the primative road network that gave us whiplash every day. They also distracted us from the battle that was waging in our stomaches between the good old American bacteria we brought with us to India and the army of foreign invaders we had introduced in the form of sweet lassis,l desserts and a steady diet of samosas.

But the stories. They were generally folktales about things like the monkey and the crocodile (my favorite which I will recount later), the monkey and the crow or the monkey and the tiger. As you can see, a lot of these stories involved monkeys, probably because there are a lot of monkeys swinging around India. Samar told us he had learned most of the stories he knew from his grandfather and that his older son, aged four, already knew many of them by heart. Pervez, our host in Delhi, told us stories too. One morning, as we checked email in his office, he shared with us his three favorite stories, one of which was a haiku. The scroll painters in Naya had stories to tell, the tribal women in Orissa had stories, the Bhopa we found playing to the sunset over Lake Pichola had stories. Our cab driver in Kolkata, Rafick, had stories. Not folk tales; he told us about his wild youth and his stint in jail. Then he charged us double for our ride, and we paid it.

Everybody in India, it seemed, had a story to tell. Even the temples, ornately carved with maidens dancing or washing their hair or waiting for their suitors, offered layers and layers of stories. One temple, in Bhubaneswar, even had the story of the monkey and the crocodile carved among its elephants and lions and maidens and monks.

As a teacher, I tell my students not to tell me in their writing, but to show me. And in India, that's what it seems they do: they show you. For example, where an American might explain being absent-minded or distracted as having ADD, Samar explained the same thing as having a "monkey mind" (there are those monkeys again). "Monkey mind" comes from a Buddhist description of the mind of a person who is not in the present moment. The mind of such a person is said to be likened to a monkey that goes from tree to tree tasting a piece of fruit from each and then dropping it and moving on to the next tree.

I went to India in search of stories from three specific groups. What I found were stories everywhere, and now I have the task of organizing them. So here is my plan. I have begun with pictures, which I am sorting through and will begin to post shortly once I figure out some of the technical glitches I'm running into (see how the picture at the beginning of this post is sideways). Then I have some writing to do, to explain more about where we went and what we encountered. You'll notice that a lot of my entries from internet cafes are incomplete. Finally, I will be posting film clips of all the story tellers I found. Suffice to say, I will need to tame my monkey mind to accomplish all of this. In the meantime, consider this site under construction. Keep checking back, hopefully you will find something new, and for now...

The Monkey and the Crocodile
as told by Samar

There once was a monkey who lived happily by the edge of a great swamp in a blackberry tree. His best friend was a crocodile who lived with his wife on a small island in the middle of that same swamp.
Day after day, the monkey would pick sweet blackberries from his tree, eat some and throw some down to his friend the crocodile. They were so good and sweet that one day the crocodile brought some berries home to his wife.
"Oh my," said the crocodile's wife, "these berries are so good and sweet and delicious!"
She smacked her lips.
"Where did you get them?" she asked.
The crocodile explained that he got them from his friend the monkey.
His wife licked her lips and closed her eyes and thought for a moment.
"You know what would taste even better?" she asked the crocodile and then told him before he even tried to answer. "The monkey's heart. If the berries are this good and sweet and delicious, his heart must be even better. I want you to bring me the monkey's heart to eat."
The crocodile was horrified.
"But the monkey is my friend," he said sadly.
"And I am your wife, and I want you to bring me the monkey's heart."
So the crocodile swam to the edge of the pond and called up to the monkey.
"My wife loved the berries you sent her and she'd like me to invite you over for dinner.
"What a lovely invitation!" replied the monkey. "But I can't swim."
"Don't worry at all about that. You can ride safely on my back," responded the crocodile. So the monkey jumped on the crocodile's back and off they went.
But after a little while the crocodile's conscience got the best of him, and he told the monkey everything.
"Oh dear," said the monkey. Then he thought a bit before saying, "I wish you'de told me that before we left, because I don't have my heart with me. I keep it hidden in my tree. Can we swim back and get it?"
The crocodile was relieved to have told the truth and happily turned around to take his friend back to pick up his heart. When they got to shore the monkey hopped off the crocodile's back and scampered up his tree.
"False and foolish friend," he called. "Don't you know that we carry our hearts within us? I will never trust you again or ever give you fruit from my tree. Go away and don't come back again."