Mother India Claims A Son


For Mothers, wherever we find them.

Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it. If change is the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy. We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing too.” ~ (W. Somerset Maugham“The Razor’s Edge”)                                                    

After 40 years I have returned to India and dipped my feet again into its regenerative waters.

I am traveling as a medical tourist for the purpose of getting new teeth (dental implants).  After 37 years my “post-fight” bridgework needed replacing.  It was time for my teeth to change, to be restored, to be made new.  The trip was intended to be all about my teeth.  I’d go to India, get my teeth, come home.

And that would be that.  Or would it?

I’ve discovered that India has a way of setting its own agenda.

For 5,000 years Mother India has had a unique place in the nurturing of human civilization.  The noted historian Will Durant says this about India: “India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of mankind.”

Yes, I would get my new teeth but there would also be healing of a deeper sort, a mother’s healing.

I first encountered the notion of India as healer in a book I read in college, The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham.  Published in 1944, the book describes the extended pilgrimage to India of a traumatized WWI soldier, Larry Darrell.  He was in search of meaning to a life that had been shattered by the war.

This story is not unfamiliar to most of us.  Don’t we all have our our own Razor’s Edge story?

  • Haven’t we all found ourselves lost and in need of guidance?
  • Haven’t we all lost touch with home?
  • Haven’t we all been injured and broken during our meandering?

The hard part often is in admitting we’ve lost our way, isn’t it?

The Razor’s Edge ends with words from the Upanishads:

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”         

So, I confess it’s been hard for me to admit when I’m lost, and harder still to admit my pain.

The truth is, in my 67 years I’ve often found myself

  • On paths where I didn’t belong,
  • Traveling roads without a map,
  • Suffering from wounds that have not healed.

An unhealed wound often makes for an unsettled spirit.

Sharp edge or not, the older I get, the more ready I am to walk the hard path.  So, in addition to wanting new teeth I have to fess up to my own unsettled spirit and my underlying hope that Mother India might see fit to heal to my injured soul.  You see, I have felt broken of late.

Perhaps because I’ve seen both my brothers buried and have a sick sister, I find myself grappling with life’s weightier questions:

  • What is my life really about?
  • What, if anything, will be my legacy?
  • Is this all there is?

When I first visited India in 1976 I was a headstrong young man in his 20’s, damn sure not looking for a mother, hell no!  I was looking for adventure, excitement.  I was out to change the world, not be changed by it.  The word Bombay was known better to me as a brand of gin.

From my point of view, India was far more in need of ME, that I of India.

But 40 years later, 40 years older, 40 years scarred, I am maybe just a tad bit wiser.  Life has

  • Mellowed me
  • Tempered me
  • Sobered me

The truth is, I was secretly hoping that Mother India might wrap her arms around me and provide a little salve for this tired old soul.

So I left my hotel feeling disoriented, even a little frightened, preoccupied with thoughts of my upcoming dental surgery, the work I’d left behind at home, worries about how I’d handle Indian food.

All these thoughts contending with Mumbai, a city of 22 million people.  In Mumbai, there is no such thing as private space; all space is shared space.  Public sidewalks by day are family domiciles by night.  There is competition for every single resource.

I felt the need to guard myself and protect my privacy.

Standing just outside my hotel waiting for my ride, I buried my nose in my iPad in some effort to screen out the mass of humanity surrounding me.  For some inexplicable reason I glanced over my shoulder and caught the eye of an old woman, serenely weaving, seated on a 4×6 wooden plank.  On this plank were blankets, pots, cooking utensils, an all-weather tarp and various Hindu religious artifacts.  Her home, like the homes of so many others, right there on the sidewalk.

I thought, how could this be?  How, by some strange act of fate, did I draw the card that I did, while she drew hers?  I have, by any Indian measure, a prosperous and rich life, while her entire existence plays out on the stage of a 4×6 wooden plank on which she

  • works
  • eats
  • sleeps
  • worships     

Then something strange, terrifying, but also exhilarating happened to me.  She fixed her eyes upon me, dead on.  Our eyes locked on one another, or should I say her eyes momentarily took possession of mine.  I felt as if she knew me, really knew me, like a mother knows a child, as if for this instant I was her son, and as her son she had the power of showering me with her motherly affection.  She seemed to know

  • All my fears,
  • All my aspirations,
  • All my insecurities,
  • All my hidden secrets.                         

It reminded me of my own long-departed mother who would comfort me from my all too frequent nightmares.  Mom had the means of calming me and covering me with a warmth and love I could find nowhere else and from no other person.  Just one of her reassuring looks could slay all my dragons in an instant.

So as my eyes were locked with those of the old woman on the sidewalk, I saw that very same “mom” look that I remembered as a child, except the look was emanating from a total stranger perched on a plank of wood in the middle of Mumbai.  She was to me at that moment, MOTHER.

Mother India had claimed another son.

The moment seemed to last for an eternity.  It finally became too much for me and I looked away, closed my eyes, and thought about what I’d just encountered.  My thoughts were a muddled mass of confusion.  Here I am, this burly Westerner, and this diminutive, homeless lady possessed a look that had NO

  • Fear
  • Envy
  • Sadness
  • Despair

Overwhelmed, I had no capacity to absorb any more of the moment.  I left her presence, packed away my iPad, and decided it was safe for me to take in the sights and sounds of Mumbai.

I found myself reveling in the experience of India, flowing with, rather than fighting against  the teeming throngs.  It’s as if that long gaze deposited a new vision in my eyes and I could now see what I’d failed to see 40 years ago.

“In the end, only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go things not meant for you.”  — Hiraman Gavai

Just a Thought…


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One thought on “Mother India Claims A Son”

  1. Tom Dearborn

    Your experience reminds me that many of the places that I long to return to will never deliver the same experiences. Sometimes the location has changed, but in every instance I have changed. Can’t wait to catch up with you in person when you get back to Chicago!

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