READ LOCAL First is your glimpse into the working minds and hearts of Utah’s literary writers. Each month, 15 Bytes offers works-in-progress and / or recently published work by some of the state’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary non-fiction and memoir.
Today, 15 Bytes features Logan-based poet Michael Sowder. Last year, Sowder traveled to India on a Fulbright Fellowship to write poetry, work on a spiritual memoir (of which today’s selection, “Eating Prasa” is part), and teach at the University of Pune. A city of several million people, Pune—the “Oxford of India”—lies three hours inland from Mumbai. It is also the location of the ashram of Sowder’s spiritual teacher, Ma Indira Devi. Sowder has been a teacher and practitioner of yogic and Buddhist meditation for thirty-five years. When his family joined him in Pune in April of last year, they headed north to the Himalayas and lived for two months in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. There, they were fortunate to participate in a special audience with His Holiness for foreign visitors at his temple. This was Sowder’s third visit to India.
Sunday Blog Read continues to accrue a distinguished group of established and emerging Utah writers for your review and enjoyment.
So curl up with your favorite cup of joe and enjoy the work of Michael Sowder!
I left the temple after the chanting had ended, walked out to the red and yellow gate, turned, bowed with my hands in prayer pose, and headed home toward my flat. High above the street, rain tree limbs wove a luminous network, their green leaves lit by the colored lights of street shops and stalls below. I skirted a little roundabout decorated with sculptures of a sitar, a veena, a tabla, took my turn toward home, and nearly stumbled over a man lying on the sidewalk. A small man, face down, his clothes covered in dirt. In the dark I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I thought he might be dead.
It’s not uncommon to see people sleeping on sidewalks in India. On fractured bits of pavement, families cook on little stoves, eat, and live their lives, their half-clothed children splashing in dirty water or waving palm fronds. On a midnight taxi ride through Mumbai, I saw hundreds of families sleeping together on colorful cloths. But not so much here in this section of Pune.
So, I wasn’t sure what to do.
Across the roundabout, three security guards were talking in front of a car shop. I hurried over and told them about the man. One in a brown uniform and a mustache maybe in his thirties shook his head.
“He’s just drunk. Lots of drunks on the sidewalks.”
“Will you come with me to check?”
He smiled shyly and wagged his head. Others came up. I kept asking if one of them would go with me to take a look, in case the man had fallen or was hurt or dying. Nice guys—smiles all around, but no one would come. An older one said, “He’s just drunk. He’ll get up. Anyway, what would you do? You take him to the hospital, they want to know who you are, what your relation is. A lot of trouble. He’s just drunk. Just leave him. Don’t care so . . . .” His voice trailed off as he turned away.
In Indian cities, it seems every one has just about had it up to here with hardship. Faces become masks of resigned, fierce determination. And with good reason. Everyday you face the poverty, fumes, traffic, horns, bureaucracy, chaos.
But behind the masks there’s something else. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, a man not unfamiliar with suffering, encourages a practice of smiling at strangers. The first time I tried it here on my morning walk, I was passing a young man with intense, angry eyes. I smiled at him. At first he stiffened, chin tucked in. He almost halted in his steps. Then realizing I didn’t want anything, his face broke into the sweetest smile, his eyes brightened, and he burst into a laugh. Now, on my walks, I collect these smiles like cowrie shells. I have found Indians to be the sweetest, kindest people, but in the cities, everyone seems on-guard, stiffened-up for the day’s many frustrations.
After the guards refused to help, I ventured back over to the man and bent down to see if he was breathing. He was. I went down to a hotel and told another guard and the desk clerks. No one would help me.
So I stood on the street and waited for a police car. I didn’t have an Indian phone. After a few minutes I looked up towards the man. In the darkness, he seemed to be sitting up. Someone had stopped and bent down. I crossed over and walked up to them. The second was an old wizened man in a little white hat that looked like a paper boat. He reeked. The first had a mostly shaven head, seemed in his thirties. Was he a drunk? Was he a sadhu—a holy man? He looked up at me with a face out of El Greco.
The man in the hat held out his hand, made an eating gesture.
In my hand, I had been carrying with me two pieces of prasad—sweets blessed by a spiritual teacher. I don’t always eat them right away. They’re too sweet for me. I often leave them on my balcony for the crows, which may be some kind of sacrilege or desecration. But my yoga guru loved nature when she was alive, and I love the crows, and in Hinduism everything is God, so I don’t think it could be too terrible.
I bent over and handed the men the sweets. I turned and left them eating prasad on the sidewalk in the dark. All around me the sounds and smells of India competed for attention. Even late at night, horns and music and voices filled the air.
Going to sleep that night, in my bed by the window, a man below was splashing water on the pavement. A child with him talking and laughing.
Through the rain trees, a crescent cut through a tide of clouds.
Copyright, Michael Sowder, 2015
Described by David Bottoms as “one of our finest spiritual poets,” Michael Sowder writes about wilderness, fatherhood, Buddhism, and poetics. His most recent collection of poems, House Under the Moon [read the 15 Bytes review here], explores the ecstasy and the challenges of living a contemplative life in the contemporary world. His first book, The Empty Boat, won the T.S. Eliot Award, and his chapbook, A Calendar of Crows, won the inaugural Diagram/New Michigan Press Award. His poetry has appeared in such venues as Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Five Points, Green Mountains Review, Poet Lore, Sufi Journal, New Poets of the American West, and the New York Times Online. His study of Walt Whitman’s poetry, Whitman’s Ecstatic Union, was by Routledge Press. His essays appear frequently in such places as the Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun. A professor of English at Utah State University, he lives in Logan with his wife, the writer Jennifer Sinor, and their boys, Aidan and Kellen.
Past featured writers in 15 Bytes’ Sunday Blog Read: Katharine Coles, Michael McLane, Darrell Spencer, Larry Menlove, Christopher Bigelow, Shanan Ballam, Steve Proskauer, April Wilder, Calvin Haul, Lance Larsen, Joel Long, Lynn Kilpatrick, Phyllis Barber, David Hawkins, Nancy Takacs, Mike Dorrell, Susan Elizabeth Howe, Star Coulbrooke, Brad Roghaar and Jerry Vanleperen, Maximilian Werner, Markay Brown, and Natalie Young.
Join us on the first Sunday of every month for works-in-progress or recently published work by some of Utah’s most celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction and memoir. Click “Subscribe” at the top of our page to join our email list.