Careening along National Highway 211 in the dust of western India’s Deccan plateau, I was quietly directing Anna when to let me die. “If I lose both hands,” I whispered, gripping the back-seat door handle. “If I’m paralyzed from the neck down. If I’m badly burned.”
“If I’m burned.” I was speaking low to spare our mad driver’s feelings. Despite the fact that he was apparently trying to kill us—or was, at best, indifferent to that outcome—I adjusted my volume to “culturally sensitive, non-judgmental,” a diplomatic decibel we liberal Americans try to effect while traveling–when in Rome, die like the Romans. My terror, however, had no dial and as he pulled right again and tore down the packed highway toward an oncoming truck, jerking left at the last second to avoid collision by cutting off a bus, then veered back into approaching traffic I gasped, “What about you?”
“When do you want me to pull the plug?” Not a question I’d ever considered asking my 20-year-old daughter, but as our driver sped down the road from Aurangabad to the Ellora Cave Temples, death—or worse—seemed imminent. A small, gay idol swung from the rearview mirror: Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, who seemed redundant the way our driver simply dived and wove among them.
“We’re not going to die, Mom.” That was youth; I knew better.
Anna and I had made the nearly snap decision to travel to India the previous summer when we were sitting in a coffee shop in East Lansing. She was home from college for a few days and we had just strolled by a poster in a travel agent’s window. “See India!” it cried, nudging us toward something we’d both been wanting to do. “What do you think?” I asked her, stirring honey into my tea. She thought yes, so clutching our paper cups, we walked back to the car, drove to the county health department, and took a little ticket with a number on it. Then we rolled up our sleeves for typhoid vaccines, which left us sore, but “Invincible!”—we laughed—with a hubris that would shrivel on a crowded Deccan road.
Despite the odds, we eventually pulled off the highway and jerked to a stop within sight of the caves. Our driver turned to us. “Don’t buy a brochure,” he ordered, suddenly concerned for our welfare, “they’re over-priced.” But I’d already rolled down the window and was pressing a wad of rupees into the palm of a skinny, middle-aged man who had, I supposed, a smaller house than I did. A little farther down the road, Anna and I climbed out into the shimmering air and approached our first temple which, like the rest in the complex, was carved into the side of a cliff.
The cave temples at Ellora, cut out of limestone and basalt and inhabited by Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu monks from 500 to 1100 AD, had lured us north from Mumbai to the high, dry interior of Rajasthan. We’d taken a night train—second class, air-conditioned—where we’d tried to sleep on top bunks suspended not nearly far enough from the train’s ceiling. Pressing my eyes shut, I tried not to claustrophobically picture us hurtling through Asia in a lipstick tube, a vision I also struggle against on all long flights. Below us two affable, middle-aged men slept soundly after eating their tiflin suppers on their bunks, Chicago-educated engineers from Hyderabad.
Slipping off our shoes in front of the first cave and pressing our soles to the smooth and radiant rock, we entered a broad chamber which was softly illuminated from without. Bodhisattvas—enlightened beings—carved from thick, rock pillars rose over and around us, and half-emerged from walls on three sides. In a shadowy sanctum at the back, a life-size Buddha sat in the meditation asana as he’d been sitting, in stony silence, for 1,500 years. Just a few days earlier, we’d made our way along a causeway to the Haji Ali Mosque, a shrine that rises out of the Arabian Sea and is accessible only at low tide when the ocean recedes and its concrete bridge to the mainland emerges from the water. And though we didn’t know it as we clambered through the caves at Ellora, running our hands over intricately sculpted scenes from The Mahabarata and climbing the giant Hindu temple of Kailas, carved from the top down and flanked on one side by a towering row of rock elephants, we would soon find ourselves peering inside the David Synagogue in Pune. Profoundly attenuated to the infinite, the Indian subcontinent is honeycombed with cells hollowed out for the holy.
Defaulting, as we moved through the caves, to the mundane diction we’d lugged along from the American Midwest, we gasped a series of breathy, “Oh my God!”s, but eventually sensing how little purchase language from ordinary time found on the rock, hearing how it skittered off like loose gravel, we lapsed into silence. Dim chambers revealed themselves as light angled through deeply hewn doors, throwing the deities into relief, and through craggy breaks where columns met the rough, unaltered mountain pressing down from above. Stepping over thresholds that opened sometimes into vast galleries but more often into shadowy vaults sheltering a single sculpted Buddha or god, Anna climbed onto porticos and knelt in corners with her sketchpad, scribbling images of images—a thinning echo of some truth glimpsed centuries before.
Like so many antiquities, the Ellora cave temples have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such are officially revered and protected. Because the impress of human history is writ large in rock here, it is easy to mistake the ancient complex, which runs for a couple of miles along the Charanadri escarpment, as permanent. Compared to the human ephemera crawling over and through it—several busloads of school children arrived to join our explorations, flickering along dim passages in their bright kurtas, like phosphorescent moths, and hamming it up in our photos—these temples do seem impervious to time. But that is maya— in Sanskrit, an illusion. “All compounded things decay,” the Buddha noted—rock, too. Still, I always feel a glimmer of infinity at ancient religious sites. Perhaps centuries of pilgrim-longing lingers; perhaps I bring my own longing and mistake it for local. Something draws me to these places, which are seldom on the way to anywhere else.
Like the good stewards at UNESCO, I have become a conserver of old forms and conventions which makes me, by definition, conservative–not a term or, frankly, a condition I’m easy with. I used to fancy myself fluid, able to glide along with the inevitable changes of an expanding universe, but increasingly, like my brittling body, my habits have begun to ossify and I dig in my heels. Especially where language is concerned. Like the stiff old Lords Dinosaur of Edwardian England, bristling over such vulgarities as weekend and notepaper, I refuse to yield to language’s unlovely new constructions. Particularly noisome to my ear—that pair of modern slovens: me and her. They hang with the high school crowd, as do I. Can me and Kate come after school? Can me and her sit here?
“Me and her went into a bar,” I ad-libbed recently during my third period—a reckless piece of theater that fell apart at once—“where…where…they were refused service because of their poor grammar.” Blank stares. “Okay, so I don’t have a punch line—but you have to knock it off! You know that isn’t right.” Right.
I suppose it falls to every tribe’s elders to resist change, to become so much ballast, modulating the impulsivity of the young who might flip the craft of civilization if left to their light devices. Elders. There’s an unglossed human genre, its pages as lusterless as newsprint. None of us clamors for a place on that shelf. Still, resistance may prove less fruitful than conceding with the Indian poet, Tagore, that “Truth comes as a conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend.”
Sitting with my friend, Ellen, the other day, at a rehab facility where she was fighting her way back from pneumonia, we were glancing through a glossy fashion magazine I’d picked up off an end table—it was all we could find to look at besides the fish tank in the lobby. In one of the magazine’s very few articles, a Manhattan socialite, who’d been practicing an intensely UNESCO-esque preservation of her aging face, confessed she had considered blowing off her Botox regimen, but worried it would be considered rude for her to turn up at dinner parties with her fine lines showing; might they not put people off their foie gras? At least in some circles, wrinkles have become the new body odor or worse, fulsome harbingers of our impermanence— ruining dinner with their dire predictions, anathema to nice society.
As a teacher, it falls more directly to me, than it does to bank-tellers or carpenters or cardiologists, to pass on civilization. It’s direct transmission, word-to-eye and word-to-ear, and conservation of things past is the very name of the game. The facts and failures of theocracies and tyrants, the agonies of Oedipus and Lear, the periodic table and the evolution of current forms by natural selection: these are my and my colleagues’ World Heritage sites. Turn from them or against them and our stewardly fur gets up, though in the end we know there’s nothing that will be conserved. Me and her may carry the day, but not forever. Even the sun will out.
Shunned by society hostesses, the subject of impermanence has lots of time to loiter in my classroom where I leave it an open door. My students and I don’t like it any better than the Botox crowd does, but we’re hearty, middle-class stock, proud of what we can take. The unshakable sense of invincibility that goes with being sixteen—how very abstract our discussions—and my determination to push them beyond their young illusions, help it to the dais where we ogle it and study its various names. It is Buddhism’s Sunyata, Prufrock’s snickering Footman, Europe’s War to End All Wars. I sometimes feel that I’m guiding my students on a devastating Loss of Innocence Tour which I suspect, if I teach them well enough, is actually what I do.
The Hindu verses at Ellora teach that, in Huston Smith’s words, “The self is too small an object for perpetual enthusiasm.” At least one New York socialite has begun to suspect as much; whether or not she dares to disturb the universe with her telltale face, lined enough to spook the locals, is anyone’s guess. Twice a day I rub lotion into the deepening folds of my own face in a futile ritual of restoration that I call oiling the jowls.
After several hours of exploring the Ellora caves, I snapped a final photo of Shiva dancing, ensuring us the world would go on for a while, and Anna and I went looking for our hired car and driver among hundreds of identical cars parked along the access road. When we finally found and woke him, he resisted taking us back to our hotel but, insisting on a “tour,” resumed his breakneck dodging and weaving through the tilting suburbs of Aurangabad where the motion of structures rising and falling underscored the transitory nature of existence as well as did any Indian myth. There are few zoning laws in India; palatial hotels back up to industrial sites and rusting cranes share the skyline with temples and minarets and most things are busy peeling and crumbling and becoming something else. It’s as if all spheres of human activity—domestic, commercial, religious—are collaborating to depict the riotous impermanence we work in the West to deny.
Waiting in DEPARTURES to board our plane a week later in the Mumbai airport, Anna and I were exhausted, but sparking like bare wires with adrenalin; recklessly, we’d handed our passports off to an emphatic stranger who, wildly gesturing, insisted we follow him to the front of a three-block line outside the airport’s front door. Somehow, he delivered us through to our gate and for our last handful of rupees, thrust our passports back into our hands and disappeared. Blinking and relieved, we queued up for London and began the slow process of boarding.
Our days in India had run out, had disappeared behind us and faded like the smoke of countless small wood fires that, tended by idle men watching the traffic, glimmer along Indian country roads. Anna was headed back to college in Chicago and I to my classroom in Michigan and I knew this might be the last flight we shared for a long time—her life was every year separating farther from my own. Spent and giddy, our invincibility shot, we leaned into each other and, as minutes stretched into the first half hour, began quietly customizing the announcements to fit our fellow travelers. “If you’re wearing square-toed shoes, please board now,” she whispered. “Board now if you have an underbite,” I hissed in reply. Two days later we were back in our schools and I was prepping students for the ACT.
Every year I draw two wheels on the chalkboard for my students; one is the Buddhist wheel of life and the other the medieval Christian wheel of fortune and I point to the hub of each: the still point directing lives of discipline and prayer, the core of infinity in our finite lives. And, placing due dates and test scores and GPAs—about which we’re always in such a lather at school— against a few months of The Dhamma and Dickinson, I wonder: do I lead them nearer or do I lead them farther from the center of the eternal wheel.