My Friend the Banana Lady
A couple of years ago, right after our annual pilgrimage, I spent a few weeks studying to master traditional Tamil village-style cooking in a seaside town of picturesque Tamil Nadu in South India.
The most common fruit that Tamilians (a.k.a Tamilar's) enjoy eating almost daily is bananas. And we are not talking about the same old Dole bananas, the most common ones (and often the only kind) found here in North America. No Sir!
India is a major cultivator of bananas. Tamil Nadu (my native state) alone grows 11 to 12 types of bananas that vary in texture and taste, ranging from delightful to honey-sweet.
My father loved banana's so much that he had to have at least one or two every night after supper. And if my mother forgot to buy some, he would put me, his youngest child, on his bicycle crossbar and peddle away to the nearest store to procure his beloved bananas. This is one of my fondest and earliest childhood memories.
Even though the narrow metal crossbar was uncomfortable for my small behind, I loved this ride with my dad on tropical India's pleasantly warm star-studded nights. It was a real adventure, and my alone time with my father was invariably a lesson on moral science. I cherished his advice.
Dad also enjoyed eating the inside of the banana peel by scraping it and encouraged all of us to do so, for he believed that the peel was the most nutritious part. And guess what, he was right! The peels contain a decent amount of vitamin B6, B12, magnesium, and potassium.
Decades later, my beloved father, who turned to full-time farming after retiring as an electrical engineer, grew a packed field of bananas called "Robusta." Even today, I can see his kind, dusky smiling face as he eagerly awaited our verdicts on the quality and taste.
You can safely say that most Indians enjoy eating bananas, especially after a spicy meal. We are bananas for bananas :)
And the standard fixture around small towns and villages is the banana vendor, like my friend I am about to introduce to you.
The lady in the picture above has one of the most powerful voices I have heard. I would hear her all the way high up in my 4th-floor apartment the moment she entered the street and until she walked her way to the next one.
And when she comes to our door number, she will call out to me with a single long utterance, "ammmaaaa," and I would tumble down the stairwell to be greeted by her warm toothless smile.
I would then help her bring down her oversized aluminum container from her dainty but strong head, we would chat for a bit before I purchased the bananas for the day, and she was on her way to take care of her next customer.
A bit of history: My friend, whom I called "Patti" was ageless. (Patti, by the way, is pronounced like "party" and means grandmother in Tamil.) Now, even if I wanted to know her age, she would not tell me, not because she was bashful, but simply because she did not know it herself. This is very common among older people living in rural India with little or no formal education.
Patti woke up at the crack of dawn, did her ablutions, boarded the local town bus carrying her large basin heavy-laden with bananas, and left for her long work day to the nearby city from her humble home shared with her son and his family. She did this every single day, rain or shine.
She was indeed an inspiring figure, for I was amazed at her soft strength. For the next three weeks or so, I had the blessing of seeing Patti and speaking to her almost daily. Not once did I hear her complain or waver in her stamina.
As you can see from the picture, Patti is a delicate figure, but she carried a hefty load on her head and walked several hours a day until her bananas were all gone! Then she started all over again the next day.
This seems to be the hallmark of the Tamil people, who are resilient yet relaxed, laid back but hard-working, and mostly friendly. The ancientness that they emanate is tangible in their penetrating and gentle eyes.
Patti is not only Tamil but from a lower rung on the Indian caste ladder. Sadly, despite all its progress and spiritual greatness, the caste system persists in present-day India.
Russill writes in one of the chapters of our Pilgrim's Orientation and Preparation Handbook, "The caste system, which continues to prevail today, has been significantly challenged to change and evolve in the last five decades. Tamilnadu – the land of the Tamil people –seems to be the region where many of these ostracized people made their settlements thousands of years ago. Perhaps they were always here, an ancient aboriginal people who speak a language (Tamil) that is Dravidian in its roots. It appears that in Tamilnadu, the indigenous people of India preserved their links to the ancient Indus Valley civilization, keeping their devotion to the mother goddess alive and honoring her in their rituals and ceremonies."
When Patti calls out "amma," she calls out to the divine mother. In Tamilnadu, all females, regardless of age, are often addressed as divine mothers. Isn't that special? It is one of the many reasons we love going to India each year. Another reason we love India is its ancientness.
We encounter this throughout our pilgrimage no matter where we are, be it a venerable old priest at the magnificent stone temple sanctuaries or a day laborer toiling under the tropical Indian sun.
In our photo essay, we quote Mark Twain, who called India "the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, grandmother of legend, and great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the moldering antiquities of the rest of the nations."
In this blog, I want to honor two things. First, my friend, Patti, represents a combination of resilience, grace, wisdom, strength, and humor. No matter her meager life, Patti seemed to radiate peace. A sense of purpose that only an inner conviction can instill in us.
Second, I want to honor India, this ancient land that continues to inspire and feed our soul, the land that gave birth to us, and one that birthed spiritual consciousness and methods of meditation that continue to influence our world.
As we prepare for our 24th pilgrimage in Jan 2023, I am eagerly looking forward to returning to Tamilnadu, our beloved land of temples, with a group of fantastic individuals from around the world who are registered and preparing for this life-changing journey.
Instead of visiting India just to explore temples and tinsel towns, we have designed our pilgrimage to create a sense of deep community and belonging. And there are also constant encounters with local people, like Patti, who is at the bottom of the caste system. These folks touch our hearts unimaginably, and we also touch theirs.
Touch is so important, primarily because, in India, people placed entirely outside the caste system were called "untouchables." Later, Mahatma Gandhi dignified them with the term "Harijan," meaning "people of God." Generally speaking, touch between castes does not occur.
So, when we are on pilgrimage, one of our experiences is to offer our touch to people deprived of healthy physical contact. For this reason, we spend quality time at an old-age home bringing love through reverential touch to people like Patti. It is one of the most exhilarating experiences of our journey. Russill and I would love for you to join us in January 2023.
If there is someone in your life who has been an unexcepted source of inspiration for you (like Patti), please share a line or two about them in the comment section below so we can honor them as well :)
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