Manhattan broke down my identity; in south India I was more or less confident that I could accomplish anything I set my mind on. I was popular, well-known in certain circles, and could have launched myself into a lucrative creative career had I wished to. Instead I suffered a deep dread of never leaving home and so I finagled my exit to a foreign country that I admired for many reasons. Yes, I loathed the deep-rooted misogyny, caste and class system I was surrounded by and longed for the freedom I hoped to find in America. But I was unprepared for the shocks to my system in the land of the brave and the free. Indeed, nothing was as I had expected it to be and I had to literally reinvent myself, alone, since my husband and in-laws were no help, and instead actively wanted to shove me into a box, lock me up, and throw away the key. You see, they had not expected an Indian woman to be feisty, independent and outspoken about her rights, and so they lashed out in me in a variety of inventive ways until I was deeply miserable despite abundant material comforts. My husband had promised that I could study creative writing and film at NYU, but now he ruthlessly nixed that idea and I found myself temping on Wall Street and in posh law firms, making a lot of money but still a prisoner of my new family and my husband in particular, who insisted on controlling our finances as well as the trajectory of our lives.
One evening after work at a law firm on 5th Ave (close to Trump Tower, incidentally!), I was walking cross-town back to my apartment when it began to drizzle. I stopped for shelter close to Saks Fifth Avenue and saw an old woman, probably Polish, sitting on the ledge outside a display of expensive furs. Rain was falling on her tired seamed face and rivulets of grime ran down her cheeks. Beside her stood a shopping cart piled with all her earthly possessions. The expression on her face gripped me like a murderer’s hand to my throat—it was so sad and helpless that I began to cry. I stood watching her from a distance, she was unaware of me, and my mind restlessly sought out ways I could help her. I could give her ten dollars and flee, or I could invite her home for a bath and a meal before sending her out on to the streets again. But I knew the latter option would not work—my husband would throw a fit and perhaps the doorman would not even let her into our building.
I walked home sadly in the rain and immediately called a wise friend. Sobbing, I told her how I was feeling—that poverty in India was so endemic that it did not strike one so brutally, but to see this poor old woman sitting before a showcase of luxury furs that must have each cost thousands of dollars was obscene in this rich country. How could such a thing happen in America, I cried?
She was quiet for a while, and then she said, okay, now listen to me carefully—you are a student of eastern philosophy and know that what we see is not reality, just the relative aspect of it. That woman has karmic lessons to learn and so have we all—which is why we all play different roles. Who’s to say the fat cat billionaire in his penthouse romancing a supermodel right now has a better shot at eventual happiness than this homeless woman? Suffering is breaking down her ego, but he is only building up a façade that will dissolve the instant he dies. The truth is, sweetheart, every one of us has a higher power, and you are not that woman’s higher power. Love her as much as you can, pray for her wellbeing, but stay centered. Remember too that if you achieve the goal of moksha or liberation that you are seeking, despite all your ups and downs, the time will come when you will be a great light in the cosmos and millions will be helped. Think Buddha.
That conversation has stayed with me; when now I am moved by the suffering of humans and animals I see all around me, I remind myself that there is a deeper story embedded in the situation that my mortal human eyes cannot see. Still I do whatever I can to ameliorate suffering, but I keep my focus on my inner practice of turning into light. Yes, everyone has a higher power and I am not it.
Greetings from Arunachala, Shiva in the form of a hill of fire and light, who vows to destroy all the blinders from our human eyes so we can merge into our true nature, which is no less than pure existence, awareness and bliss!