Nostalgia is rooted in the body. Strange sensations begin from the heart; some lurk upward, collecting brimful at the eyes, while some plunge downwards to the pit of the stomach, making it churn sick. Memory fades with time, but nostalgia only intensifies, stirring the entire body when faced with objects, sensations, and images that take you back to that obscure past. For me, nostalgia is claimed almost entirely by a single place. It goes by the name of Rishi Valley.
It was in the midst of a synthetic social environment that college life in Delhi otherwise offered that I met the oddest bunch of people. Names have blurred, but faces remain. Bright, quirky, containing a contentment that was charged all the same with a drive to experience life without compromise—there was something magnetic about the profuse energy they carried. You could spot one from the other end of the corridor; it was like each was eternally part of an extravagant carnival. Where did they come from? I wanted to go right to the source of it.
They all pointed southwards, to a school hidden in the wilderness of rural Andhra Pradesh. A three hour ride away from Bangalore, the valley is vast and empty. Its rolling hills aren’t lush green like the ones around Kathmandu, but dry and pebbly. Rocks of all sizes litter the entire landscape. J Krishnamurti chose to start the school 86 years ago around an elephantine banyan tree that looks like it’s been around forever—the Big Banyan Tree they call it. Small buildings hidden under the continuous canopy of trees that sway and give off a perpetual hum like the ocean make up the school. But the school doesn’t end there; it extends into the adjoining forest, the sloping hills beyond that and the farmlands that stretch farther out into an entire valley which gets its name from rishis who, at one point, went there to meditate. A narrow, potholed road meanders into a gate that isn’t used much. A milestone greets you on the right side as you enter the unwalled premises. It says ‘Rishi Valley’; it says you’ve arrived.
While my friends applied for jobs or post-grad courses during their final year in college, I sent a heartfelt letter to Rishi Valley School, filling it with the yearning of a lost soul still desperately seeking its roots and a place to call home; I wanted to come down for a visit, maybe even intern. Good news came in a reply a few weeks later. They were interested in having me for a year.
On paper, the idea was to do an individualised programme in teacher training. Other than the work with my supervisors, I was to attend 11th grade literature classes taught by a poet who’d once been a student at RV. I also opted to conduct a creative writing programme for the same class. More tasks would open up as I found my footing in the school.
Once there, I found myself in a strange land full of strangers. Their ways were so different, in trying to adjust to life there, I found myself a stranger. There was as much to discover within me as around me.
So far in life, I’d only been used to being boxed and boxing others into stereotypes, so when the students embraced me like I’d never been unknown to them, I fell in love out of admiration. In my interactions, I found myself leaning away from judgements and stereotypes because they were so raw—so many uncoordinated stereotypes meshed together to make each person unique.
Early morning, a bleary eyed Anjney would surface in the kitchen and I could tell he’d spent the entire night playing music on a keyboard he’d borrowed from a seventh grader. And he clearly wasn’t done. Alia’s poems, in their simplicity and intensity, would make me shiver and cry. Sid K’s quiet charm, his pointed attentiveness, his desire to outlive everything in life; Ira’s mellowness, her ability to constantly live in a dreamspace, but with exquisite grace; Rana’s reticent intelligence—you’d forget it existed if you didn’t look hard enough—that I was so drawn to; Gullu’s face, a neutron bomb, my god! Every time she smiled, she shuffled a million particles in me; Nikki’s sweetness, even when he needn’t have been; and Pod—with eyes of a green-blue-hazelish colour that looked at everything with a piercing intensity—who would ask endless questions with an innocence that ripped through all my facades. All were living examples of Krishnamurti’s vision; they inquired, sought answers, they were sincere and genuine to the core.
Unaware, they radiated a passion for living that was uncontained and beautiful and worthy of tremendous respect. On a hike during my first month, one of the youngest students in the school, a fourth grader, held a coiled baby snake he found on the way in his palms. When the nervous snake peed into his little hands, he laughed, as did others around him. I hadn’t known children could be unafraid of snakes.
They told me what panspermia was, taught me how to identify a bird by its call, how to jump across rocks, showed me how to dance. There was so much to learn from the students, what I had to offer paled in comparison. The only thing that helped me survive as an instructor was their willingness to learn.
Then there was the wilderness. It was while loitering my nights in the vast natural expanse that I found myself learning to be unafraid of snakes, of the dark, of being alone with myself. Silence taught so much, as did daily sunsets. Thorns scratched my inexperienced legs when I tried to hike, but the excitement always overwhelmed the pain. Something as basic as learning how to see came in the excuse of bird watching. I slowly grew into the pace of life in this isolated school. I saw myself—as Anjney had put it so well for me—getting married, going to the next door village of Thettu for my honeymoon, and spending the rest of my life at RV.
In my teacher training course, I was being taught about distanced alertness, learning ways to create the teacher persona. In my intimacy with students, I was learning how to be authentic, how to shed my masks. When the gap became too wide, I realised I would make a terrible ‘teacher’. I was much too eager to learn from those I was supposed to teach. When the school professed this unacceptable, I was asked to slowly distance myself from the students. I stopped having meals with them, stopped dropping into their classes and their dorms for post-dinner conversations. They wondered and asked, but I shunned them, like I’d been asked. I realised I wouldn’t be able to stay this way for long.
When I left halfway through my programme, I didn’t even get to say goodbye to people who’d begun to feel like family. The stay was too short, the end so abrupt. When some friendships got severed in the process, I didn’t know how to handle it. The loss felt too acute.
Loss, too, is rooted in the body. It resides below the belly, deep inside the womb. It bleeds out of you like a miscarriage, leaves you feeling empty and hollow. It eats into your hope, feels final and irreversible. But perhaps, all isn’t lost.
Last weekend, when Rana and Liz, who were in RV back then, flew to Kathmandu for a visit, I was unsure of where to take them, what to show them, how we’d get along. But a couple of hours into their arrival, I found myself unable to separate from them. They didn’t want to go anywhere either. Like a three-piece yingyang, we held hands, clung together, passing memories and stories to one another. They told me the poet who taught literature, and who spoke his words like they were made of petals, is principal now. We gossiped about him; all of us think he is a Buddha. His name’s Siddhartha.
We blazed with nostalgia—in body, mind, heart and spirit—and just like that, RV came alive around us.
I realise now that whenever people bring up love, I talk of RV, when they bring up loss or heartbreak, I talk of RV. Rishi Valley. How often that name comes out of my mouth as a reference point to any important experience that has held ground within me. It was the same for these two. I was so happy to know that even after having been out in the world for over two years, they hadn’t lost their essence. Something in their visit reaffirmed that we make up a family that will never fade, no matter how abrupt the goodbyes. They are all Krishnamurti’s children. Maybe I am one too.
Though still erect, the leafless banyan tree was already dying when I was there four years ago, resembling a family of grey elephants. The branches have apparently begun to fall now. I’d like to go and take one last look at that tree before it crashes to the ground, maybe connect with my roots, let the valley reverberate in me.
(From today's Kathmandu Post, but also from my heart)