My arrival coincides nicely with the arrival of a new year. I have barely one day to get myself oriented to the Ashram, and then it is already New Year's Eve. After dinner, the small courtyard starts to fill with people. We all sit on the ground--some of us on the cool marble floor and some on grass mats. The Indian women have all dressed as though for a wedding. Their hair is oiled and dark and braided down their backs. They are wearing their finest silk saris and gold bracelets, and each woman has a brightly jeweled bindi in the center of her forehead, like a dim echo of the starlight above us. The plan is to chant outside in this courtyard until midnight, until the year changes over.
Chanting is a word I do not love for a practice that I love dearly. To me, the word chant connotes a kind of dronelike and scary monotony, like something male druids would do around a sacrificial fire. But when we chant here at the Ashram, it's a kind of angelic singing. Generally, it's done in a call-and-response manner. A handful of young men and women with the loveliest voices begin by singing one harmonious phrase, and the rest of us repeat it. It's a meditative practice--the effort is to hold your attention on the music's progression and blend your voice together with your neighbor's voice so that eventually all are singing as one. I'm jetlagged and afraid it will be impossible for me to stay awake until midnight, much less to find the energy to sing for so long. But then this evening of music begins, with a single violin in the shadows playing one long note of longing. Then comes the harmonium, then the slow drums, then the voices . . .
I'm sitting in the back of the courtyard with all the mothers, the Indian women who are so comfortably cross-legged, their children sleeping across them like little human lap rugs. The chant tonight is a lullaby, a lament, an attempt at gratitude, written in a raga (a tune) that is meant to suggest compassion and devotion. We are singing in Sanskrit, as always (an ancient language that is extinct in India, except for prayer and religious study), and
I'm trying to become a vocal mirror for the voices of the lead singers, picking up their inflections like little strings of blue light. They pass the sacred words to me, I carry the words for a while, then pass the words back, and this is how we are able to sing for miles and miles of time without tiring. All of us are swaying like kelp in the dark sea current of night. The children around me are wrapped in silks, like gifts.
I'm so tired, but I don't drop my little blue string of song, and I drift into such a state that I think I might be calling God's name in my sleep, or maybe I am only falling down the well shaft of this universe. By 11:30, though, the orchestra has picked up the tempo of the chant and kicked it up into sheer joy. Beautifully dressed women in jingly bracelets are clapping and dancing and attempting to tambourine with their whole bodies. The drums are slamming, rhythmic, exciting. As the minutes pass, it feels to me like we are collectively pulling the year 2004 toward us. Like we have roped it with our music, and now we are hauling it across the night sky like it's a massive fishing net, brimming with all our unknown destinies. And what a heavy net it is, indeed, carrying as it does all the births, deaths, tragedies, wars, love stories, inventions, transformations and calamities that are destined for all of us this coming year. We keep singing and we keep hauling, hand-over-hand, minute-by-minute, voice after voice, closer and closer. The seconds drop down to midnight and we sing with our biggest effort yet and in this last brave exertion we finally pull the net of the New Year over us, covering both the sky and ourselves with it. God only knows what the year might contain, but now it is here, and we are all beneath it.
This is the first New Year's Eve I can ever remember in my life where I haven't known any of the people I was celebrating with. In all this dancing and singing, there is nobody for me to embrace at midnight. But I wouldn't say that anything about this night has been lonely.
No, I would definitely not say that.