Josna Rege

134. Darshan, or You Never Can Tell

In 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, Childhood, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States on January 10, 2012 at 2:17 am

According to the concept of darshan, meaning “sight” or “vision” in Sanskrit,  a person is believed to gain merit by coming into the presence of a sage or a deity, even a child who is too young to be fully aware of what he or she is experiencing. Therefore parents will often take their children with them when they go to receive darshan of a guru, trusting that the benevolence of the enlightened one will heighten the consciousness of their offspring and bestow blessings that will guide and protect them.

Of course, parents everywhere seek to bring their children into the presence of greatness, and mine were no exception. My mother had loved ballet ever since she had taken classes at night school in post-war London. While we were living in Athens in 1962, the opportunity arose to see the prima ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn dance with the great Rudolf Nureyev, an occasion not to be missed. The setting was the 1800 year-old Herodes Atticus outdoor theatre at the Acropolis on a summer’s night; the performance, the sublime Swan Lake. But there was one problem: I was too young to appreciate it.

At eight, I was old enough to know that I ought to have been loving every moment, but, looking down the steep stone steps at the lighted stage with the tiny figures flitting across it, I struggled to stay awake even as I admonished myself to pay attention and remember this evening. Half a century later I do remember it, and am proud to be able to say that I once saw the great Fonteyn and Nureyev dance together, but at the time I couldn’t make much sense of what I saw. To tell the awful truth, I was bored. Normally, I begged to be allowed to stay up with my Greek friends, who, having taken siestas in the afternoon, were able to play late into the long summer nights.  And here I was out with the grown-ups having the experience of a lifetime, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Halley’s Comet 1986 (spacestationinfo.com)

When I became a parent, I too longed to share with my child the things that I valued, to give him the opportunity to see awe-inspiring sights or to benefit from coming into the presence of beauty and wisdom. In the Spring of 1986, when Nikhil was little more than a year old, Halley’s comet came around, a visitation that occurs only once every 76 years. Since we were living in Winchendon at the time, removed from big-city lights, we could expect to get a good view of the comet on a clear night. We woke one bitter-cold night at the appointed time and dressed in our warmest clothes. Although Nikhil was sleeping soundly, I couldn’t bear to let him miss this experience, so I bundled him up in layer upon layer of woolly all-in-ones and blankets and carried him out to the car, still sleeping. We drove to the best spot and all stood looking up as long as we could stand it, with me holding the sleepy Nikhil aloft and pointing out the comet to him. Does he remember that historic night? Of course not. But did he benefit from turning his gaze upward on that late-night excursion? I would certainly like to think so.

Fast-forward to 1999, when Nikhil was 14 and the eminent postcolonial scholar Edward Said came to Amherst to speak at Hampshire College on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, Out of Place. Said was one of the scholars I most admired, so I was eager to introduce Nikhil to his work. Unfortunately that day Nikhil happened to have come down with a streaming cold, and he was in no condition to attend the talk. But I would not take no for an answer. I was determined that Nikhil should take the chance to see the great man and to hear him speak, so I more-or-less overrode his protestations and administered an anti-histamine that was advertised to dry up his teary eyes and runny nose for 12 hours. Hustling him into the car and to the lecture hall, I managed to bag two seats right near the front.

As soon as Professor Said entered and began to speak I was transfixed, listening with rapt attention, and only glancing at Nikhil periodically to see whether the antihistamine was taking effect. To my mortification, Nikhil kept nodding off throughout; every time I looked over, he seemed to be tipping slowly sideways, until he would catch himself with a start and jerk upright again. I kept shooting him stern looks, but to no avail. When the lecture was over and I demanded to know the meaning of my son’s rude behavior, he returned my demand with another: what on earth had been in that pill? Back home, I learned the awful truth: it was a sedating antihistamine whose label warned that it would cause drowsiness and should be taken only at night; in my eagerness for him to receive darshan of the great Edward Said, I had drugged my own son! Needless to say, he has no recollection whatsoever of that particular historic event; still, I tell myself that he nonetheless derived some benefit from the experience.

I was not destined to become a ballet dancer, despite my mother’s best efforts. As a child I was agile, but as likely to be found up a tree than on the ground. As a girl one of my more embarrassing moments was the May Day maypole dancing performance at St. Agnes in Kharagpur when I skipped in the wrong direction and tied my entire group in knots around our maypole. Still worse was the evening when, visiting my friend Preet in Gangtok, Sikkim, some of the royal family came to visit and each of us girls was asked to pair up with a prince for a dance. I had neither learned a foxtrot nor slow-danced with a boy before, and in my awkwardness, I’m afraid I stepped all over his feet. Somehow we got through the dance, but that evening I learned what it felt like to want to sink through the floor. Even so, even if it did not bestow physical grace upon me, I maintain that, in time, my darshan of the divine Fonteyn and Nureyev will turn out to have given me something of lasting value. You never can tell.

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  1. I love your description of darshan as recognizing the value of sharing exceptional moments with our loved ones.

    I had forgotten all about the moment when my mother introduced me and my sisters to my Great Aunt Emma. I was 3 years old and we had traveled by train from Indiana to Idaho while my father was arranging living accommodations in New Jersey, where he would soon start a new job.

    It was evening and Aunt Emma was in her bedroom, preparing for bed. She stood brushing her very, very long, white hair that she would braid in two long braids. During the day she pinned the braids close to her head. The sight was stunning as this delicate but powerful figure stood with her white, floor-length nightgown and her white hair that seemed to reach her feet. I thought she must be an angel. This was darshan.

    Why this memory vision returned to me in my 30’s is a mystery, but it startled me almost as much as the moment of our meeting 3 decades earlier. I named my third child “Emma” as a tribute to that momentary encounter.

    • I can just imagine your “delicate but powerful” Aunt Emma standing in her long white nightgown, brushing her long white hair. It’s such a mystery how and when such memories return to us. Now I know how your Emma got her name. x J

  2. Hi Jojo,
    I generally don’t believe in Karma, but you wont believe this! I am holding in my hand the DVD of “Swan Lake” staring Fonteyn & Nureyev that I am returning to the library tonight. Last week, jean and I watched the movie “Black Swan” and we were curious about the full ballet, so I got the full recording and we watched it this Saturday. What a hoot! I guess we’re cosmic cousins.

    Ciao,
    Vincenzo

    • Amazing, Vincent!! It hadn’t occurred to me that I could find that on DVD at the library and watch it with Mum. This time round I would probably appreciate it a lot more, and it might awaken some good memories for Mum. Even if it didn’t, I’m sure she would enjoy it. Your cosmic cousin, J

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