Many years ago, after seeing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I became enamored with Montauk, the most eastern tip of Long Island. There is something that I find magical about geographic capes or peninsulas – these very remote ends of land that jut out into the ocean. Montauk seemed to me like a distant utopia — a place to which people made pilgrimages, the end of the earth. A few years later, I finally made the trip out to see the first sunrise of the new year. It was everything I imagined — the ocean sprawls out in every direction, and the light is almost blinding as it reflects off the waves at sunrise. I can’t even describe what I felt, other than I could actually feel my heart in my body. Still today, when I think of heaven, I imagine Montauk.
Of course it followed that, already being so far south in India, I felt compelled to visit Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, and the convergence of the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean, the three bodies of water that surround the Indian subcontinent.
Even getting to Kanyakumari is beautiful. It’s a nine-hour train ride from Kochi, the capital of Kerala, through the greenest part of India I’ve seen yet – dense Keralan foliage clears away to beautiful green rice paddies. Nestled in the forests of palm trees are little houses and occasionally there is a water hole with steps on one side where people take their baths and wave as the train goes by. At one point I even caught a glimpse of an elephant bathing, happily pouring water over its head with its trunk. When you get close to Kanyakumari, the most strangely beautiful mountains appear. They are otherworldly in their awkward jaggedness, and at dusk they were covered by a thin purple haze.
We arose at 5AM to see the sunrise. ‘We’ was Robin, Aditya, John and me, all fellow fulbrighters based in cities throughout India, working on a diverse array of projects: Robin lives in Pune, studying the development of women’s rugby in India, Aditya lives in Bombay, where he is translating ancient sanskrit mathematical treatises, and John is in Jamkhed, a small town in Maharashtra, working with the local population to implement rural health initiatives. Though our areas of expertise are extremely varied, we all share a sense of curiosity and a healthy penchant for adventure.
Hundreds of people made their way through the large temple at the edge of the city and out to the point in the dark. They gathered either on the shore or on many of the huge rocks a little ways out in the water. Unlike Montauk, the lookout point was buzzing with life — street vendors weaving in and out of the throngs of people, selling chai and strings of white flowers that women tie into their hair. Children climbed on the walls, and people gently nudged one another out of the way to get the best view of the sunrise over the three oceans.
The bustle didn’t make the view any less spectacular, though. As the sun rose, it came up directly behind the massive, solemn statue of the poet Thiruvalluvar, that stands on a large rock just off the shore (reminding me of an indian counterpart of the Statue of Liberty), so that at a certain point in its trajectory, the sun formed a halo around his head.
Kanyakumari is a quiet beach town – there is only really one main drag of shops, and even though there is a steady stream of tourists that come to Kanyakumari, and consequently a number of businesses that cater to them, the rest of the town seems much less affected by their presence than most other cities in India. We were all surprised how uninflated the prices were, and how little we had to bargain. A kilo of oranges was only seven rupees (it amounted to about 2 cents an orange). Our rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel started at ten rupees, and to take us to five different hotels and wait while we scouted them out cost us a total of 30 rupees (60 cents). To get a sari blouse stitched the same day was 100 rupees (two dollars) – the same service by a tailor in Delhi would have cost me at least five to six times that much.
Needless to say, I couldn’t resist buying a few saris to add to my collection. My favorite was a Kerala sari — white with a gold border, worn specifically by the women from that region. Robin also bought a sari, and Aditya and John bought lungis which they learned to tie in the local way by the shopkeeper. (Both lungis and saris are essentially yards of plain fabric with no stitching, but lungis are worn by men around the waist, and saris are worn by women to cover the full body). Robin and I bought strings of fragrant white flowers to tie in our hair, in typical south indian fashion.
While Robin and John had to leave shortly after lunch, Aditya and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around monuments and temples. It’s interesting that in all these years, I have somehow never been to darshan at a Hindu temple. Although I am not Hindu, I found it incredibly moving to go through these simple, graceful rituals with someone who understood and had practiced them growing up. A light touch to the floor and then to the forehead before stepping with the right foot through the door of the dimly-lit sanctuaries, bare feet on cold stone floors, all the men shirtless in reverence, many only wearing lungis, hands in namaste, inaudible prayers murmured through their palms, a spot of vermillion powder at the third eye, making clockwise circles around objects of worship. While I didn’t always understand the significance behind them, these communal gestures of reverence and devotion were beautiful to observe.
I had my own ritual to perform, too, though. Six years ago, when I first came to India, I promised myself that I would find a way back here through my music (the whole story is here). I bought a ring that has been around my left middle finger for these past six years, a constant reminder of that promise. Six years later, at the very tip of India, standing on the statue of Thiruvalluvar, I threw my ring into the convergence of the three oceans.
At the time I made the promise, I thought I’d perhaps write a piece of music and come back for a single performance of it in Bombay or Delhi, or perhaps I’d be able to meet and work with one Indian musician, maybe travel around the country for a few weeks. I couldn’t have known six years ago how absolutely amazing and varied this time in India would be, the vast array of experiences I would have, both musical and non-musical, and the wealth of incredible people I would meet. This year has changed me in the predictable ways, but has also found its way deep into the fabric of my being in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, and perhaps still don’t fully comprehend.
It’s interesting which experiences are emotionally charged for each of us. I’m sure that not many other people experience what I do in these places, or consider looking out over the ocean at the far corners of the earth as magical as I do — at both those moments in Montauk and Kanyakumari, and even in thinking about them in retrospect, I am filled with an energy so intense that sometimes my ears ring for seconds at a time. It is the rarest kind of inspiration for me: most of the time, I write music with a combination of intuition and careful regulation, keeping my emotions in check for the long haul of rendering a piece of music into being. But then there are times like these where the dials are turned all the way up past the safe levels, where the regular methods of expression fail, like an image that is so saturated and bleeding with color that it loses its practical function. My mind floods with sound, and it’s all I can do to keep it contained within myself.
It was with that overflowing energy that, after visiting Montauk the first time, I started writing a piece for two pianos. Though it has laid unfinished for years, the thoughts for the piece, the floods of sound and color came back intensely here, too, and have been rolling around in my mind ever since. The challenge isn’t in finding the method of expression, but in channeling such a massive wave of energy and sound into a tangibly expressible medium. We’ll see if I can make it work this time around.