Pune Journal 2018: What brought me here

John Owens

Pune Journal 2018: What brought me here

Today I had my first full day of formally working in an organization since 2011. What is notable is that this was a manifest beginning of my Quest, and it took place in Lavale, outside Pune, India. The journey here has been long in the making, and, I think, an interesting story.

The seeds of my arrival here in India in 2018 began back in 1958 when I was in Mrs. Judd’s first grade class. I clearly remember a woman came in for Show and Tell, a part of the day that I often lagged in attention for. This day, the lady shared dolls she had made of famous figures, and told their stories: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others I have no memory of. I didn’t pay much attention (I distinctly did not care for dolls…girly stuff) until she lifted one doll, clothed in white with brown cloth for skin. She said, “And this doll is Mahatma Gandhi, and he is from India.” In that instant something clicked for me, and I knew with total certainty that India was a place I was going to.

A few years later, Americans and the British were having a romance with all things Indian. I remember “Genuine bleeding madras shirts,” the Nehru jackets, yoga classes and Ravi Shankar sitar concerts. In high school I would go with my friend to the Lower East Side in NYC to Arunachal Ashram to chant (and I still do) and study the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. I did a lot of yoga, a little meditation, and experimented with fasting and vegetarianism, eventually, at age 18, having a spiritual revelation that I was no longer meant to eat animal flesh. I have kept my vow ever since.

In college in my Junior year, in 1972, I was accepted in a program to go to Pune, India for six months of study. I was excited at the prospect of finally, 14 years after I had my inspirational moment that I would go there, spending time and fulfilling what felt like my destiny. After a quarter of orientation classes at another school in a small, conservative Wisconsin town that I did not care for at all, we students were assembled on the last day of classes and informed that the program was cancelled. The program was unable to get student visas for us, due to politics between India and the USA. The Bangladesh war was raging, and Nixon had tilted American support toward (West) Pakistan and against India in the conflict. Also, American scholars were writing very negative things about India at the time (The Sleeping Giant, pointing out failure to modernize due to traditional family systems, taking measurements to prove that India would run out of food permanently and its population starve to death, etc.). So Indira Gandhi put the kibosh on American student visas. That was just a speed bump for me.

I was devastated…for a day or two. Then I decided in my youthful impetuousness that I was going to India, no matter what. I applied for, and got, a tourist visa. I bought a one-way student-fare airline ticket to Bombay with help from my parents. In August I boarded a plane at JFK airport and left for India. I knew no one, had no plan other than to eventually get to Pune and set up something there. I thought I was prepared by the 3 months of orientation. I knew a few dozen words of Marathi. What could go wrong?

Forty six years after the fact, I can still picture the descent into Bombay Sahar Airport on the Boeing 747 jet. Miles of hutments, colorful laundry strewn across tin rooftops, squalor everywhere. Concrete pipes lay above ground housing thousands of people. And the intense green of rice paddies, egrets wading, cattle grazing, and people everywhere. Before we landed, the sewage smell of Bombay hit me, tightening my stomach. The slum reached up to the very edge of the runway. This was not what I was prepared for.

The big jet landed, and did its long taxi to the airport. Finally coming to a stop, I descended the portable stairway rolled up to the plane and felt the hot, sticky stinky monsoon air cling to me like a soggy blanket. People were scurrying everywhere, chattering in a tongue that I could not recognize at all. I made it through immigration and customs and stepped out into the sunlight again and was immediately overwhelmed by a sea of people, some grabbing at my luggage, some insisting I get in their cab, beggars seeking alms, vendors pushing all manner of cheap goods in my face and shouting at me. I dashed for a taxi and got in, shutting the door to isolate myself from the intensity of the situation and the noise, smells, the desperate needs that appeared aimed at parting me from my money or my luggage, or both. I told the taxi driver the name of a cheap hotel my friend had once stayed at, and the cab roared away into the chaos that is the urban Indian roads. Jetlagged, exhausted, overwhelmed by this chaotic scene, overloaded with sensory input, I had only one desire: to get away, hide, sleep, and hopefully sort out what the hell I had just gotten myself into.

If I write my memoirs someday, perhaps I’ll detail all the things that happened in the next two weeks of my life, which is a whole chapter in itself. Instead, I’m skipping forward to moving from Bombay to Pune, and seeking out the Foreign Student Advisor for Poona (old British name for the city) University. This man, Dr. (Professor) S. B. Mujumdar was a faculty member at Ferguson College (FC). I found him at his home in a small bungalow on the FC campus, along with his joint family: his mother, brother, and his wife and three children, his own wife and two daughters, Vidya and Swati. Again, I’m cutting out a chapter of a remarkable story to get to the bottom line: I ended up living with this extended family for 9 of the 12 months I lived in India. There I experienced the unconditional love that my soul was searching for my entire life. I hold no doubts that this experience was what called me to India 14 years before my arrival. And a permanent bond was formed with this family, which has endured the years, the separations, and all other challenges of long-distance relationships. I am considered as one of the family.

I’ve lost count of the many times I have visited India since. And when I last came to India in 2015, and Dr. Mujumdar, now the Chancellor of his creation, Symbiosis International University (SIU), with 17,000 students, 31 institutions and 10 campuses around India, asked me to come and be a part of this organization and bring my coaching perspective here, I could not refuse and still be true to my heart. Before caution could slow me down or back me off, I said, “Yes, I’ll do it!” And so I have, working with his daughter, now Dr. Vidya (Yeravdekar), the Pro Chancellor for SIU, to make it all happen. With support from my wife, Sujata, who has remained in USA to manage her business, I’m here by myself for the next six months to explore this Quest. Even today, as I sit here in the Lavale campus and contemplate setting up my office tomorrow, and begin whatever it is I’m to do and be here, I’m not clear yet what my role is, other than I will work to bring coaching and coaching skills and perspective to this university, and thereby catalyze a transformation. For now, I stand in this place of not knowing, in a sea of possibility, with something calling me forth to be and do, yet it is my fate to allow it all to unfold and inspire me to action. The challenges ahead are big: unlearning some of the attitudes, beliefs and perspectives that are ingrained in Indian education and culture, and learning to break down some of the barriers between people to enhance the depth and intimacy of conversation and relationships. I think my task is to bring the best of American culture, and integrate it with that of India. And the secret sauce that will make that work is simply that which I found here 46 years ago: Love.

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