frames of reference

I’m writing this from my new apartment! It’s been an exhausting day of moving in, figuring things out, buying stuff, trying to find an internet cafe, waiting for all the pieces to lock into place – the regular things that happen when you move into a new place.

I have to admit, I got a little worried last night as I fell asleep. It was maybe my first moment in this whole journey where I had a moment of apprehension. It was so easy to stay at the Taj for a week, and I knew that there would be so many new things I had to deal with now that I was really living in India. But standing on my awesome balcony in the warm, humid air at dusk, looking out over our new street, it really felt like home. I think it’s a little like diving into cold water – once you make the initial leap, it’s usually quite pleasant.

It’s interesting, I’ve been reading this book, The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, about a girl in Bombay who studies Hindustani music with a guru from the Jaipur Gharana. The book is warm and inspiring, and really encapsulates the beauty of the gurushishyaparampara (the style and aesthetic of the classical music teaching tradition).

A thought occurred to me as I was reading that I’m not sure I can even articulate. I remember so often reading books in school about other cultures – things that took place in Central America, or Japan, or even other parts of the US at a time removed by history. It was obvious each time that these stories were meant for an audience other than the people of that culture and frame of reference, and no matter how much I loved the story, I always felt a disconnect – that I was in America, looking into this world with my American eyes.

Living in America and reading American novels, we don’t think about the fact that they’re American, or compare them to life in other places, or have to read through a bunch of italicized unpronounceable terms followed by clunky definitions (“…I ate a hamburger, a flattened circle of ground beef sandwiched between two halves of a bread roll…”). We think about the concepts in the work, we follow the story, we are immersed in the writing. There is a flow that never gets interrupted by explanation. We live in that world.

Even reading Indian authors, up until now, still had that last level of disconnect for me. Yes, I may have understood the terms and the references, but I was still very much aware that I was in America, reading about people from another culture.

But sitting here in my room in Delhi, reading this book about this incredible tradition, surrounded by the culture that bore it — listening to the squeaks of the bicycle-rickshaw as it carries someone home from the Metro station, the occasional old-timey honk of a car horn as it comes up the street, the Hindi murmurs of people on their terraces at night — this is the first time I’ve felt that there is no distance between me and this world.

Tomorrow, I am going to see Gaurav Mazumdar, the incredible classical sitar player who has been kind enough to shepherd me along in my study of Hindustani classical music. I don’t feel the distance and effort of a western classical musician who has come all the way from America to study Hindustani music for a year. I feel like I did when I was eight, before my first guitar lesson – I was mostly just curious and excited about what the lesson would be like, about how the guitar in my hands would generate sounds, and about the direction of the path down which I knew I was beginning a long and interesting journey.

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