Thursday, April 7

Finish the dance

"Dear Pundita, It's no problem if you publish this letter but we don't want to give our names or tell where we live, except it's okay to say we're in Asia. We are 19 and 22 and we have been married now less than a year against our families wishes so we had to run away and now we live and work in a big city where our families can't find us. Even though you sound like a mean person we think you care about people. We can't believe you are American because you understand about the way people in other countries are. It is so true what you said [in "Waiting for Pasha" essay] about not wanting to take out the garbage. Even though we try to have faith in God we don't want to have children. To bring them into this world where there is so much evil and corruption would be wrong. The older generation will never change. Sometimes we don't feel like going on.

Dear 19 and 22:

So. Our ancestors clawed their way out of the caves, fought behemoths with their bare hands; survived earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and plagues, all so their descendents could sit on the road and wail.

There are many Americans who understand people in other lands, for many Americans are well traveled and America is a land of immigrants. It's just that you might not know about those Americans, which is one of the nice things about the blogosphere; it allows ordinary Americans to circumvent the traditional media channels and speak directly to people in other lands.

This is a foreign policy blog, not a counselor's office, but we will make an exception this one time by way of warning. This blog discusses very difficult subjects; we try to get to the bedrock of what's wrong with many things. The blog is not meant for young people, but for people who have lived long enough to be able to put bad things in context--see them against the big picture.

The big picture is not one of corruption and evil--else humanity would have killed each other off eons ago. But with every leap in technology or knowledge, a relatively small number of humans get the jump on the rest. When that happens, adults must set things back in order. For that, we need to look squarely at situations, in order to see what we're really dealing with. That is not easy and it involves taking a critical stance.

You may think what you wish of your elders and you should take care to avoid their clutches, if you think they mean you harm. However, you must never let down our ancestors--all those who came before. Do not sneer at their efforts, for there is nothing this modern world has that they did not help create. For that reason, find words of praise for elders and temper your criticism with a remembrance of their accomplishments. By thanking your elders on occasion, if only in your thoughts, you are remembering to thank all those who came before.

It is none of Pundita's business whether you choose to have children, but if you allow the bad in this world to overwhelm your thinking you forget that this is your time. There is no way to avoid suffering and grief, no way to avoid really bad things that are determined to visit, but you should remember they are happening in your time. No one can own that time except you.

Being human is to make many unwise choices, but that is not all it means. Many years ago I was a guest at Bharata Natyam recital that took place in Bethesda, Maryland. The Bharata Natyam is surely one of the most difficult dances that humanity has thought up; as such it's an accurate reflection of the very ancient and complex Indian culture.

Except for a handful in attendance, including Pundita, the audience was Indian or Americans of Indian heritage. The recital was a graduation ceremony for American girls of Indian ancestry who had been studying Bharata Natyam for years -- some practicing since early childhood.

One girl among the dancers riveted the audience's attention. She was beautiful, incredibly graceful, and for one so young she demonstrated impressive dance technique.

I ask you to put yourself for a moment in the girl's place and consider that the Indian culture, even when transposed to Indians living in America, is very conservative, very restrained. Think of practicing for years to master a dance that is far more than dance -- at once living history, a statement of your heritage, and a spiritual meditation. Finally comes the time to demonstrate everything your teacher has taught you and make your parents and community proud.

Now ask yourself what might be the worst thing that could happen to you on that stage, with hundreds of eyes upon you.

Suddenly a murmur went up from the audience. The woman next to me gripped my arm and whispered, "Oh my God her pantaloons have come undone!"

Yes. The button or safety pin had given out. As the hapless child continued her dance the leggings underneath her costume slowly continued their descent. A look of horror fleeted across the girl's face. The other dancers broke their stride a bit to glance in sympathy.

The girl's teacher raced to the stage wing and gestured, calling softly for her to leave the stage for a moment so she could regain her dignity and her pantaloons. Everyone would have understood if she'd left the dance momentarily under those awful circumstances.

A look of determination came over the girl's features; within an instant the look was gone, replaced by the stylized expression of the deity her dance was meant to represent.

Without missing a beat, and as the pantaloons continued their downward journey to twist around her ankles, the girl continued with her dance.

Even before the triumphant stamping of the dancers' feet to signal the end of the dance, the audience was clapping her on.

Yet only after all the dancers made their bow to the audience was the deity replaced by a mortified child. She whisked off the pantaloons, scampered to her teacher's embrace, then disappeared backstage for pantaloon repair.

Then at the insistence of the other dancers, her teacher, her parents, the musicians and the audience, the girl shyly returned to the stage to take a bow to thunderous ovation.

As the audience dispersed I heard a man say to a companion, "It was as if Saraswati [the goddess of wisdom, music and the arts] appeared tonight to teach us a lesson."

Goddess or no goddess, the lesson was abundantly clear. To be human means you can't avoid making a damn fool out of yourself, even if you're the best-looking and most accomplished of the lot. But you show the spark of that which transcends the human condition when you hang in there and finish your dance.


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