Odysseus Returns To “Ithaca’: journey home to a forest in India

Fate was a Forest:

In the days that followed in my parents’ home, I could sense the mystery of how and why two people in love had found their way to this incredible forest and made it theirs for forty years. Their lives were surely hard and challenging but also perhaps rewarding in ways not easily understood by many. They shared an extraordinary love of wild life and of trees and flowers and their log entries reveal an uncanny delight in the natural world. This was long before climate change and the pandemic. Somehow, they were visionaries and attuned to the deeper life of the earth.

Strangely, over days in the forest, I began to sense that my own presence here was not accidental – impelled by their tragic passings – but intended. It was almost as if fate had summoned and I had come not knowing that there may be forces at work larger than my limited doors of perception.. Who, or what, had brought me here to reconnect with my deeper Indian past and a mysterious forest? I simply had no way of knowing. In fact, nothing could have been farther from reality of this forest in the lower himalayas than my mind could grasp.

In 2017, I had been living in a maritime harbor town of Aarhus in Denmark and earlier in Copenhagen for ten years. And for thirty years before that my home was an industrial town – Pittsburgh- in western Pennsylvannia in the United States. My experience of forests in both continents was limited to humanly designed city parks that fit tidy notions of walks on trails amidst trees planted by urban landscapers. Indeed, the city of Pittsburgh had seen the worst of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and was once considered the most polluted city in western United States. Its exclusive city parks were historic enclaves for the steel billionaire families like Frick and Scheneley in their time. The grandeur of original Pennsylvannia forests was a distant memory for local residents – they had long been sacrificed at the altar of ‘progress’ in the steel mill townships where people now lived in packed row houses.

Caught in an urban web:

For most of us, the places we live in become our accepted reality, as it were. There could be nothing beyond or exceptional, one can feel. To have a job, an apartment, a car – to pay bills and make ends meet – that seems enough in life. For many, even that can be a blessing and a luxury. And my situation was somewhat like that. I felt priveleged and lucky to have a faculty position at the University of Aarhus in Denmark – to have an apartment that I could call my own. It seemed like freedom at last.

And yet, even as I celebrated a new job raise, I had some uneasy forebodings. It occurred to me in classrooms that my students seemed oddly disinterested in their subjects. When pressed, I learned that many were there only because they had a university stipend fro the government to go to college and not because of any special interest in their elected majors. This strange ennui in young people was new to me as a passionate teacher but, on closer reflection, I had to face my own demons – was I really so glad for my job and pay check that I would overlook their boredom? At my age, was this really the apex of personal achievement? Was this the alpha and omega of life for me? Was there nothing more?

Shaking these troubling thoughts, I pressed on in academia. But the doubts continued. I asked myself honestly – what was it that I would do in life if I just could do it? And the answer came with uncanny speed – I would much rather work in a wildlife reserve – such as ‘Yellowstone Park’ or for wolves in Finland. It seemed crazy and unrealistic to even harbor such longings but they were undeniable and simply honest. Ad , of course, nothing in my surroundings supported such ideas. Nothing except perhaps a book by Sat Prem called ‘The Adventure of Consciousness’ or the Mother’s ‘Agenda’ and quest for a life beyond here and now on earth.

Over months in 2016, walking by the seaside in Aarhus, I felt a strange melancholy welling up – the sadness of living under par and unfulfilled. I could ignore it but it was there always – silently waiting and watching if I would do anything, as it were.

Then, one Easter Sunday, I got a phone call from my brother, Neeraj, in Dubai. It seemed that my father had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. At first I could not comprehend the reality but as it sank in, I knew the unknown had moved and was suddenly looking directly at me. Grief and shock took over. Then, propelled by some mysterious force, I got it that I was going home at last. Home to a family that had gone but to the living energies they had left behind. Home to meet them across the life divide. To be with the finer essence of their lives – not the ordinary reality of what it would have been to

Daily Life inside a Forest:

Making a forest my home – far from a sophisticated  environment like Copenhagen – was quite an initiation. To my urban mind, a himalayan forest carried images of exotic beauty and of stunning vistas.  In fact, I discovered was that these images were nowhere near the inconcievable splendor of this forest. However, living daily in the midst of this came with something else –  simply put, power. Kick-ass power. 

This was a world where an inexplicable  force – or forces – was surely  alive and everything here had its own reality. Trees grew into walls and opened stone fences as if human constructions were simply a nuisance to be worked through –  a veneer. Behind these signs of human occupation that was my parents’ forest home and estate – I sensed the presence of something far more mysterious. It a was living and breathing power of inconcievable depth like an ocean that could take itself back at any time.

On sun-filled spring days birds flew inside the main living-room – an airy space jutting out of a cliffside – as if they had little sense of interior or exterior. Spiders could manifest out of thin air in the unlikeliest places – beside a computer, inside a beer glass, in a bathroom sink. One night, a leopard knocked on my window and her burning eyes sent a charge of electricity through the room that left both my dogs and I in a trance. The dogs were barking as if possessed for most of the night and next day.

My new life asserted itself in a quiet way but not without some initial perils – mostly in legal dealings with dubious real-estate developers . I could in time succeed in setting up house. There was a year of strenuous renovation and rebuilding of living spaces and repairing ailing greenhouses but slowly, and with help from a capable residential staff, I could make a home for myself and start afresh.

Forest as Teacher:

There was surely a pragmatic and ‘practical’ need to be ‘efficient’ and ‘organised’ in how I ‘managed’ life daily in the forest. Slowly, however, this began to shift and morph into something quite different. The key factor here was ‘presence’. Presence of something larger, silent, breathing, stunning in beauty – the forest itself. Everyday, when I opened the windows of my bedroom, I would see an extraordinary sight – a vast circle of forests set in hills that seemed as timeless as they were real.

The only experience I could compare it with was a time I had spent in Yellowstone Park and in the Tetons out west in the United States. It is impossible to be in Yellowstone and not feel the magnificence of wilderness spaces or be deeply affected by them. Often the impact on the individual is subtle and delicate, like a meditation exercise or a  piece of music. The soul can open from within like a flower and breathe its real beauty. Air gives way to air and open light to light.