My first trip to India in 2005 marked me so much that on the plane back to Europe I already knew I would return for a long time some day – and I wanted to learn Hindi. I wanted to explore this incredible country further and discover exactly why I had been so fascinated and touched by its culture. I had loved the brightly smiling children so much, and reading ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and a biography of Mother Teresa had made me want to express my deep love towards India by helping its children, teaching English or providing them with care – I didn’t know exactly what – and maybe it didn’t matter who – but I wanted to do anything to care for ‘India’.
One year in India: The indelible mark of India
I got back to Scotland, where I lived at the time. I found a fantastic job there working as a support worker with people with learning difficulties and almost had a stable situation. A few months, a couple of years passed. There were times when I would forget all about India, but every few months it seemed to vehemently come back into my face: an amazing yoga class would remind me that I wanted to study it in India. An Indian classical music concert in my yoga centre or a fascinating Dhrupad workshop would fill my heart with joy. My Indian brother, whom I had met in Khajuraho the first time, would phone me and I would hear the irresistible rickshaw horns for five minutes. Or he would send me a present from India, and when opening the envelop the strong Indian fragrance would overwhelm me with vivid memories. I would read a fascinating book on Ayurveda and remember how much I would love to learn more about panchakarma therapy in India. A friend would present me his Indian neighbours and they would help me learning the Devanagari script, or the cinema screen playing stunning colourful images and sounds of Varanasi (Deepa Mehta’s wonderful Water) and would send me back to India for two hours.
It was obvious that India was not going to leave me like that. My grand-father had passed away a few years before, and when I finally received the inheritance money that was it. I no longer had the motivation to earn my living in Scotland…
One year in India: Leaving Scotland & preparing myself
In May 2007 I slowly started organising my leaving Scotland. After seven years I had to move on, and the Scottish culture – despite how much I loved Edinburgh – was weighing on me. I came to a point where I had no choice: it was obvious that if I was not going to India, if I was staying where I was, it was literally going to feel like I would bang my head into a hard wall. I had to go through this Indian experience; it was clearly part of my life journey. I didn’t know why and I had to go through it to find out why. There were days when I was extremely excited about it and others terribly scared, but the fear never outgrew the dead-end feeling I had if I imagined staying. So I had no choice, and some six months before leaving I ‘saw’ myself preparing for the move… I had no idea where I wanted to ‘settle’, as ‘settle’ was not a verb that agreed much with me at the time, but in the meantime I would spend some time in India. Maybe six months, maybe a year, maybe more or maybe less if I couldn’t cope. However long it had to be…
I had many ideas about what I wanted to do in mind. Mainly there was yoga, a Vipassana meditation retreat, learning Ayurveda, studying Hindi, spending time my Indian brother, and doing some volunteer work with children. I had started learning violin in 2005 and it was out of the question to leave it behind for such a long time, so I would take it with me. I had ideas, but no plans, because I was determined to spend this time in India the present moment, taking Life as it came and seeing where It was going to take me…
One year in India: South India
My musician friends B’eirth (In Gowan Ring) and Michael Northam were also planning to go to India at the end of 2007, so we decided we would start the trip together for the first couple of months, and then make our separate ways. Landing in Mumbai in November 2007, we travelled south through Goa and Kerala. We spent a few days in the company of an Indian artist on the idyllic Kakkathuruth (Crows’ Island) near Kochi, and then some time in the Shivananda Ashram near Trivandrum. Mid-December we arrived in Pondicherry (Tamil Nadu) to spend two weeks at the art residency Adishakti. There, my friends worked on their projects while I practised on the violin. They performed at a couple of concerts and I sang along. I spent a very intense and energy-filled ten days at Amma‘s ashram in Amritapuri in Kerala for ten days, then returned to Tamil Nadu to explore Auroville for three weeks.
At the end of January 2008 I left my travelling companions to take the road alone. Well, except one is rarely alone in India. I wanted to go north to Khajuraho, but the train and bus journey was about fifty hours, so I stopped in Pune (Maharashtra) on the way. I had been practising Iyengar for seven years in Scotland and I wanted to visit the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute while BKS Iyengar was still alive. Within an hour of being in the centre I saw BKS in person, burst into tears of deep emotions, and realised that my purpose in Pune had been met. I stayed only one night and I took the road to Khajuraho.
One year in India: Khajuraho
I ended up spending two months and a half In Khajuraho in my ‘Indian brother”s family, immersing myself in traditional Indian life… and starting a secret relationship with Kishan! I had also started learning Hindi seriously and tried to teach English to children without much luck. I had a foot operation on a dirty wooden table and was ‘stuck’ in a bandage for a month. I spent a lot of time with the neighbouring children, informally helping them with English, and practising my rudimentary Hindi skills with great joy. I never considered this operation a problem; no, it gave me even more insight into the amazingly different rural Indian culture. And the family provided me with such love and care that I was happy it had happened.
When I could walk again it was time to leave. My first six months in India were coming to an end, so I had either to fly back to Europe or to go to Nepal to get a new visa. I obviously chose the second option, as I had certainly not fulfilled my purpose in India. Despite the amazing insight I had gained by living in a traditional Indian family, I had always been completely dependent on them, and so I had not yet ‘done my own thing’. I felt of all the things I had thought I would do in India, apart from visiting my Indian brother, I had done nothing at all! But I didn’t know what to do or where to go. Varanasi was a good destination though because I had been fascinated by the Holy City in 2005, and because from there I could fly to Nepal. But to do what?
One year in India: Varanasi
Eventually, just a week before leaving Khajuraho, my friend Michael, who was in Varanasi, sent me a text message telling me he had found ‘THE violin teacher in Varanasi’ and he had talked to him about me! I was bewildered. I had discovered the existence of Indian violin by chance just a few weeks after leaving Scotland in September 2007, and my musician friends had encouraged me to learn it but I didn’t know if I wanted to embark on such a long and obscure journey. I was sick and tired of practising my old violin pieces over and over again on my own though, so it was obvious that I had to go to the Indian violin teacher in Varanasi.
I arrived in Banaras in April 2008. Kishan had decided to come with me for the first week because he was worried about me going there on my own. He wanted to protect me from cheaters and see that he trusted the violin teacher. It was amazing to be in Varanasi with an Indian friend because he could give me all the tips I needed not to be cheated or hassled. Everyone looked at us in the streets, probably imagining that he was a dubious guide… We stayed in a hotel with Ganga view right above the small cremation ghat, Harischandra. One day after arriving I had my first Indian violin lesson with Pt. Sukhdev Prasad Mishra and was delighted.
After a week in Varanasi I flew to Nepal to get my new Indian visa. I was miserable there because all I wanted was to go back to India, and after nine days I finally got the magical stamp to come back. I had another week of violin lessons in Varanasi, but Guruji was going to Europe for three months and it was getting terribly hot, so I had to go north. I desperately wanted to carry on learning violin, so he gave me the name of another violin teacher he had heard of in Rishikesh – but no contact number! There was also a yoga retreat there I wanted to attend.
One year in India: Rishikesh
For the first few days in Rishikesh was in a state of utter loss. It was still very hot, and although this was the ‘World’s Capital of Yoga’ I was completely overwhelmed by the number of touristic ashrams there. I didn’t want a touristic experience. I found what felt like a more authentic – Iyengar – yoga school in the town centre, but it was scary at first because there were no foreigners there at all. My first yoga class took place in a hall full of fifty Indian men and with a rather shouting and unpleasant-looking teacher. I was so scared that I had to really focus not to run away. The quest for the new violin teacher was unfruitful at first, since I didn’t have his phone number and no-one I asked around had heard of him! Eventually, just when I had set myself to go further north up to Dharamsala, I did find someone who knew him and I met Shivananda. Rishikesh was where I was meant to be after all.
I got used to the yoga school which later included some women, and I attended violin classes morning and evening in Shivananda’s charitable music school for four weeks. It was wonderful to study violin in a class full of children, very beneficial for getting used to the Sanskrit note system, and great to practise Hindi too. And I found myself a beautiful room in the lovely, quiet ashram of Swami Rama by the Ganges where I stayed for a month. After that, end of May I moved to Swami Dayananda Ashram for the 10-day yoga retreat. There, I had never thought I would have time to practise violin for four hours a day, sometime even with a south Indian singer. I stayed on in the ashram for a while after the yoga retreat, studying Sanskrit with a very funny Swami, and then left to go for my long awaited ten-day panchakarma therapy in Swami Rama’s Himalayan Institute in Dehradun. After the therapy I returned to his quiet ashram for some two weeks, where I could practise more yoga and more violin.
One year in India: Back in Varanasi & Khajuraho
In mid-July 2008 Guruji came back from his European tour, and the day following his return I was in Varanasi for some more daily lessons. It was still very hot and I regularly had to practise violin almost naked, in puddles of sweat on my bed, because my beloved fan would stop during the regular power cuts. It was sometimes horrible but I loved Varanasi so much, and while Guruji was there I could not help but go to violin lessons. After two weeks, end of July, my friend Niko with whom I had travelled to India the first time was coming to India for a month. So it was time to go back to the Khajuraho family and to wait for Niko. After some very solitary three months I couldn’t wait for the company of my old friend!
It was wonderful to be back in Khajuraho. Plus it had finally rained for the first time after three years, and I did not return to yellow and dry but to a green, rainy Khajuraho! And so that was another month in Khajuraho with Kishan, two weeks of which with Niko and a few days of which all three ofus travelled in Madhya Pradesh. Spending time with a Western friend from home after eight long months in India was magical…
After another month in Khajuraho, I finally had some considerable time to spend in Varanasi while my Indian violin teacher was there. I spent a month of daily lessons and intense violin practice. I had been practising daily since the beginning of April and had made considerable progress despite the absence of my teacher. I also volunteered at the Mother Teresa Institution for three weeks. Doing ‘Indian-style’ laundry for some fifty women (chain work) and bashing the cloth was hard work in such heat. Learning to make chapati after I had observed the task so closely in Khajuraho was fantastic though. It was real meditation to roll my chapati nice and round, which made me forget about the whole world.
I left beautiful Varanasi for the last time that year around the end of September. I went back to Khajuraho for a last goodbye-week and then slowly took the road direction Mumbai. After one year in India, leaving felt very odd, so I needed some quiet contemplation time alone before departure. I stopped by in Nagpur (Maharashtra) for a short Vipassana meditation retreat. I had wanted to visit the Buddhist Ellora caves near Aurangabad, but instead I was hospitalised for a day and a half because of a boil – not that I would normally go to hospital for a spot, but it was so freaking huge that my cheek was completely swollen, and I was due to fly back to Europe just three days later… The infection eventually left me and I arrived to Mumbai the morning of my departure on 6 October. I went to Ramesh Balsekar‘s house to attend one of his talks which I had hoped I would do for so long, and then I flew ‘home’.
I guess in the end I did all I had wanted to do… albeit in completely different proportions. I did some yoga and an ayurvedic therapy, but I hardly taught English to children, and only spent three weeks of volunteering work. What mostly happened for me though was the beginning of two life-long relationships: the one with my future husband and the one with my Hindustani violin teacher.
Read more: New life in India: from 2009