Thursday, January 19, 2006


At a writers' weekend last July I had the good fortune to meet one of my favorite writers, Suketu Mehta. He's the brilliant author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a heady combination of personal history and exhaustive investigative work that profiles one of the world's largest, most chaotic and complex cities. Although Suketu was one of the speakers at the event, he'd forgotten his copy of his book and read from mine. I was starstruck of course, but instead of hiding during the breaks (my usual behavior) I could not shut up about India India India, Mysore Mysore Mysore and yoga yoga yoga and my then-impending (and since nixed) book about Chicago. He recommended a book to me, Samskara*, by a famous Kannada writer that I'd never heard of, U.R. Anatha Murthy (I did know about Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan and even S.L. Bhyrappa). After the conference I dutifully wrote the title on my "books to get list" and promptly forgot about it.

On Tuesday I met my favorite editor for dosas and thali at Mysore Woodlands. She told me that she just painted her bedroom (yellow) and had shedded a lot of junk -- including books -- in the process. Then she reached into her purse and handed me a thin volume and said, "I don't know why I have this or when I got it but I thought you might like it." It was a mint condition 1978 translation of Samskara, which turns out to be a controversial novel about a decaying Brahmin colony in Karnataka (it's controversial in that it makes most of the Brahmins look like a bunch of hypocrites). It was first published in 1965 and made into an award-winning Kannada art film in 1970. I was pleased as punch and resolved to read the book ASAP and to continue stalking Suketu the next time I'm in Park Slope** -- since now I'll have something to discuss with him.

While I overate, my editor and I discussed shedding, accumulation and the importance of buying something not because it's on sale, but because you need it or want it. She told me that many many days go by when she doesn't buy a thing! After lunch we went across the street to Taj Sari Palace, where she picked up some sheer (yellow) sari remnants ($10) to make into curtains for her bedroom. I lusted after scarves, dresses, bangles and kurtas but stopped myself, and instead went across the street for jaggery, Red Label tea, chickpeas, ghee, calamine lotion and a tongue scraper.*** Later that night I started reading Samskara -- which is so far well worth the wait -- and which I'm about to get back to right naow.


*In this case the word refers to funeral rites. Samskara has also been called karma / conditioned existence. According to Hinduism Today, "For the Hindu, life is a sacred journey, and every step from birth to death is marked, and thus acknowledged, through traditional ceremony, called samskara. A samskara is an enduring impression etched into the malleable substance of a person's mind at a psychological point in life. During these Hindu rites of passage, a temple or home ceremony deeply influences the soul and directs life along the path of dharma. There are many types of samskaras, from the rite prior to conception to the funeral ceremony. Each one, properly observed, empowers spiritual life, preserves religious culture and establishes bonds with inner worlds as the soul consciously accepts each succeeding discovery and duty in the order of God's creation. Religious samskaras serve two purposes. First, they mark clearly within our minds the occasion of an important life transition. Second, they solicit special blessings from the devas and Deities, society and village, family and friends. These blessings and feelings of love have a markedly positive effect, stabilizing the mind so that the deeper meanings of life can unfold within us."

And from Yoga Journal:

"Although he is best known as the chronicler of the eight-limbed yoga path, Patanjali also presented a version of kriya yoga, the path of transmutative action (i.e., the act of changing into a higher form) in his Yoga Sutra. Kriya yoga can best be described as a form of internal karma yoga. That is, by perfecting the niyamas or self-disciplines of Patanjali's eight-limbed path, particularly tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and isvara pranidhana (devotion to the Lord), a yogi erases samskara (subliminal activators) from his subconscious. Samskara are like karma scars that result from good or bad behavior. They are indelible memories, imprinted on the subconscious, that propel the conscious mind to act; they are what dictate a person's birth, life experiences, and death. These activators cause the constant chatter or fluctuations in the mind that separate a person from purusha and make it impossible for him to experience it. An individual has good kinds of samskara and bad kinds, according to the Yoga Sutra. The bad kind keep the conscious mind actively seeking experience outside itself, regardless of whether that experience is pleasurable or painful. The good kind stop the conscious mind from seeking and attaching itself to external objects and senses. The resultant cessation (nirodhah) of vritti (fluctuations) and samskara brings true liberation."

**I hope to be in NYC in late March, for Guruji's workshop

***The last two are gifts for Dorian Black, who is still ill. Go ahead and infer all you want....but he has been out of it for so long that I suspect he now looks like the scary hairy "other" man from last night's episode of Lost.


  1. Anonymous1:00 PM

    Sounds like Dorian is just about doa.

    Better trade up to a newer model!

  2. concerned citizen10:51 AM

    Is Dorian still black or is he better now and just the usual gray?

  3. nice, cozy place you got here :)..