- Governing Bodies
The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.”
My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.
When I was accepted into engineering school, a local newspaper in New York wrote a story on me saying that I was tracing the footsteps of my paternal grandfather, a civil engineer turned water diviner who was a follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi. I did not know much about this man to whom I was often compared but never met.
These lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson were passed down in my family from my grandfather to my father to me:
And out again, I curve and flowto join the brimming river,for men may come and men may go,but I go on forever.
Thatha, my paternal grandfather, had worked for the British in Burma before moving his family back to southern India in the 1930s. “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible,” Gandhi said in a speech in 1921. Back in Tamil Nadu, Thatha built the family’s Kallakurichi house on these principles, to have no interior partition walls or rooms, just common spaces, with no locks on doors or windows—an experiment in trust. Kallakurichi [End Page 77] was my grandfather’s attempt to practice nonviolence while the society around him was teeming with oppression, both from colonialism and the caste system.
My father—the youngest of Thatha’s thirteen children—was born in Kallakurichi, where he grew up learning Sanskrit and English in addition to speaking Tamil at home. Each day, my father copied a page of the dictionary by hand and memorized Shakespeare, Tennyson, Goldsmith, and others. My father had given me his beat-up copy of Memory Work and Appreciation, a collection of poems that I could also recite “by heart.” His father had given it to him; this book of British verse was the only physical artifact passed on among our three generations.
I now find it curious that Thatha, who quit his civil engineering post with the British in Burma to join the freedom movement in India, showered his children with the oppressor’s literature. But relationships are complicated, and noncooperation need not apply to poetry.
When I was twenty-five years old, I recited those lines of Tennyson to my father at Good Samaritan Hospital in Suffern, New York—the hospital where I was born. My father left the world from the same place I entered it.
There is a sepia-toned photograph of my father at Jones Beach from 1971. He is standing on his head with his legs bent in the lotus position. East meets West, and the world is upside down.
As a new arrival in the US, he befriended and taught yoga to hippies in New York City. His body in this picture is slender and nimble, unlike his body in the hospital in 2003, the one that later was burned to ash and immersed into the coliform-infested waters of the Ganga while foreign tourists watched from a distance as families like mine grieved.
My body does not remember the yoga my father taught me. After his death, I entered a Vinyasa yoga class at a YMCA in Brooklyn. “Flow,” was what my acupuncturist told me my grief-ridden body needed—to restore my flow. The yoga instructor, a young white male, clasped his hands and bowed at me. “Namaste,” he said.