A Journey with Elsa Cloudby Leila Hadley
In a memoir that Norman Mailer called the "best travel book IÆve ever read," Leila Hadley records a journey to India inspired both by her lifelong love of travel and by a desire to reconcile with Veronica, her estranged daughter, who was living in India and studying Buddhism. The bookÆs title comes from VeronicaÆs remark as a young girl that she wanted to be "the sea, the jungle, or else a cloud," thereby earning her homonymic endearment of Elsa Cloud.A Journey with Elsa Cloud describes the sensuous delights of India, explains sexual mores and myths of India, and speaks tellingly about a memorable cast of characters, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A Journey with Elsa Cloud is the record of a journey, a love story, and a beautiful work of art.
Hadley weaves the details of her trip -- the splendid gardens she saw, the food she ate, the trinkets she bought -- into an exploration of her past, seamlessly linking new sights and experiences with old ones in a vast, silken web. She recalls old loves and idyllic childhood birthday parties, but mostly she explores her troubled bond with her chilly, upper-crust mother -- a link that resonates for Hadley on this particular trip, given the strained, but desperately loving, relationship she has with her own daughter.
A Journey with Elsa Cloud is the story of a spiritual pilgrimage, but don't let that scare you off: If Hadley strives to understand her own inner light, she's also beautifully in touch with her inner crankiness. She's up front about her tender love for Veronica, but she's also shockingly honest. She deals directly with the issue of sexual jealousy between mother and daughter, and she refuses to hide her exasperation at her daughter's spiritual sanctimony. ("Please don't hug the monks, Mummy ... They won't like it," Veronica hisses after Hadley is so moved by the kindness of a Tibetan monk that she embraces him.)
And Hadley's prose is simply luscious. When she's locked out of a museum she was hoping to visit, her disappointment transforms itself into a sweet reminiscence about her recently deceased ex-husband, from whom she'd been divorced for a number of years: "Can't see the museum ... I know what Robert would say to that, and I let him say it for me in the privacy of my own mind. I listen to him fondly. When he was angry or indignant, his words slipped past his calm, scholarly bonds and enjoined outrageous crudities. I used to laugh at his defiance. Now I smile and shrug my own away." Hadley reaffirms the great wonder of travel, the way it allows you to see anew the bits of your past that you carry around with you every day. Sometimes those bits are emotional baggage, and sometimes they're simply luggage, essentials you keep with you of your own free will -- the things you hang onto because you want to, not because you have no choice. --Salon
- Penguin Publishing Group
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- 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.60(d)
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My daughter has been lost to me in a world I do not understand. I have been lost to her in a world she has left and has come to scorn. In more than two years, I have not spoken to her. Now I have been awakened by a telephone call, and her voice, sure, cool, is coming through the receiver from a great distance.
"... And don't worry about your Hindi, Mummy. It's easier than Spanish. I'll meet you twenty days from now in New Delhi. At the airport."
I watch the shifting ladders of reflected light on the ceiling cast from the night traffic moving south on Fifth Avenue. They are scored with flickering ribbons stained the color of pomegranate juicethe bottled grenadine syrup Veronica used to sip for its color, suggestive of myth and mercurochrome. My heart is beating like a drum.
As I forcibly shake myself out of sleep, talking is difficult. "Where are you? How did you get the call through?"
"I'm in a toasty hot telephone booth in Janpath. If I call collect, I don't have to wait long." Veronica sounds exultant. "What time is it in New York?"
I sit up in bed, click on the reading lamp, and check the Tiffany silver bedside clock with my grandmother's interlaced monogram worn smooth from a century of polishing.
"Almost four in the morning. Tuesday. I can hear the echo of my voice saying `To you's day.'"
Her child-like laughter is an unexpected gift. "It's afternoon here. I've just booked a suite for us in Old Delhi at OberoiMaiden's. And I've arranged an audience for you in Dharamsala with His Holiness."
"His Holiness? What's the Pope doing in Dharamsala?"
"Not the Pope, Mummy, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I thought you'd like to write about him. I gave him some of the flea medallions you sent for his Lhasa Apso."
"But what could I say? What can I ask him? I hardly even know who he is."
I reach for my notebook and pen. Dalai Lama, I scribble, while Veronica replies, "Oh, Mummy, you can ask His Holiness anything. Just ask him whatever comes to mind. He's very wise about everything."
"Well, I'm not," I say as the coils of inadequacy squeeze all relevant intelligence from my mind.
"Sorry, but I thought you'd be pleased if I fixed it all up for you."
From fourteen thousand miles away, I hear Veronica sigh. Impatience. Disappointment. Reproach. The advice of an analyst and entrepreneurs of health, wealth, and happiness to the contrary, Veronica has the power to make me feel foolish, unworthy as a person or a mother. Like an empty stage, Shakespeare's O without a figure.
Veronica goes on relentlessly. "It isn't important whether you believe His Holiness to be an embodiment of compassion. At least you could appreciate the purity of his friendliness, his benevolence and tensionlessness. It could benefit your mind. The Indians call it `darshan.'"
"Yes. Darshan. Darshan, you know, what happens to you when you visit illumined people and you receive from them a sort of psychic transmission, which the English word `blessing' doesn't really convey, although it could, if you wanted it to."
Now that Veronica has explained darshan, I have some recollection, some thought-speck around which a crystal grows. "Oh, yes." I try to will this drop of comprehension into an instant stalactite. "Yes, yes, I understand. You wrote me about that."
For a moment, we are both silent. Then, dispensing with that part of me which ought to be up to her intelligence and isn't, I am once again lured by Veronica's voice, gentled to the persuasive and assured sweetness of one asking for a favor certain to be granted.
"Could you possibly bring a few things with you when you come? Sweaters, a dress, things like that? And some of those yummy dried soups and the very dark kind of Swiss chocolate? And some Mediterranean herbs? You don't have to bring them in jars or tins. You can empty them into those plastic things. You know, Baggies."
"Baggies. Yes." No darshan about plastic. In my mind I am hearing about decanting thyme, basil, oregano, and tarragon into little sacks, firmly securing their fragrance with elastic bands. Staples might tear and make holes. I tell myself that I am practical, energetic, and organized.
"There's no way to make a bouquet garni around Dharamsala," Veronica adds silkily. "My thumb and index finger have taken on an almost permanently green tinge from pinching leaves and holding them to my nose. There's wild basil in Manali but not in Dharamsala."
I try to imagine Dharamsala and Manali. All I see in my mind are snow-capped mountains, saffron-robed monks, and Veronica searching for the scent of Greece in the Himalayas during the heat, the cold, and the monsoon. Could the wild basil in Manali possibly be the heritage of Alexander the Great and his armies?
"And I need some of those fine accountant's pens to draw with," Veronica persists. "And cognac. Maybe a bottle of Remy Martin. Even in Bombay and Delhi, you can't get any decent cognac."
I feel suddenly lifted with the sense of being needed. "Of course, my darling Elsa Cloud. Is there anything else I can bring?"
Darling Elsa Cloud. When Veronica was sixteen, she had said, "I'd like to be the sea, the jungle, or else a cloud." The last words, transformed to Elsa Cloud, became an instant homonymic endearment. Darling, darling Elsa Cloud.
I know as I cradle the telephone that this is not the prelude to a simple mother and daughter holiday in India. Veronica has embarked on a quest for peace of mind and self-acceptance. She has steeped herself in Buddhism and, from her letters, she appears to be devoted to the presence and teachings of Geshe-la, her lama guru.
All my journeys start with an anxious pang of doubt. Are paradises only those that poets claim have been lost?
After Veronica rings off, I lie listening to the faint ticking of my grandmother's silver clock and my thoughts regress, associations intertwining like the letters of her monogram. I recall the complete and unalloyed bliss of summer evenings in Scotland when my grandmother read aloud to me in a voice rich enough for grand Shakespearean outbursts, dazzling my imagination with all the sahibs and soldiers and the lama in Kipling's Kim. From time to time, she would stop to explain Kipling's descriptions of the surfaces of life, and the world of ideas in India, and remark about kinsmen of ours who had been governors and viceroys. Kinsmen became Kim's men in my mind, and early on in my childhood, a link was forged associating irrevocably my grandmother and Scotlandwith its heathery hills grazed on by barrel-fat sheep, whose wool, rubbed off on barbed wire fences or caught on bramble bushes, I used to save in shoe boxeswith the glitter of India's bazaars and the wonder of its temples and magic mountains.
My mother's mother was confident in the security of her husband's seigniorial Scottish lineage and the cultivation of her own Bostonian upbringing. She demanded respect. A woman of rock-hard conscience and moral caliber, by nature a disciplinarian and a perfectionist, she had a strong sense of purpose, a surprising natural goodness, and devout Christian and intellectual beliefs. Before I was old enough to be able to formulate her character, I sensed her strength and her individuality. I admired her nature, intuiting that it was authentic and tempered with none of the weaknesses of my parents, and more genuinely good than theirs or mine.
It was important to my parents that I know how to behave properly and was suitably well-dressed. It was important to my grandmother that I should read Shakespeare and the Bible, familiarize myself with family history, and write intelligent letters to her. "You can't expect to write well if you don't read good books," she said. As birthday and Christmas presents, she gave me books and leather-bound diaries with lock-straps and tiny gold keys (which I was too afraid I would lose to make any use of except for that first experimental turn in the keyhole to hear the reassuring locking and unlocking click-click, after which the keys would be saved for decorating packages, making collages, or for the matchboxes I filled with secrets and surprises and gave as offerings to people I loved).
My grandmother was the only member of my family who had a kind word to say about James Boswell, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, as she pointed out on the family treenot a tree at all, to my disappointment, but a long parchment scroll inscribed with what looked like a high wall of bricks dripping names. "You should be proud of your heritage," she told me. "Bozzy had his faults, but he was an excellent journalist. He had a strong sense of family. He was a religious man and saw that his children received a religious education. He believed that truth and honor went hand in hand. He had an almost sacred reverence for his ancestors killed at Flodden Field." She looked at me reflectively, fixing me with her truth-telling gray-blue eyes. "He may have been naughty, indiscreet, and intemperate, but he was an excellent journalist, an excellent journalist. Remember that, my treasure."
I came to believe that being a journalist was not only an admirable profession, but excused one of many faults, and would be entirely accommodating to my own temperament and personality.
When I was twenty-five, the same age Veronica is now, I traveled east to discover India for myself and, by writing about it, to make it my own. I saw Bombay and Delhi through the eyes of Kim, an imaginary all-knowing interlocutor at my side. I went to Nagpur and ate its sweet oranges while I watched the dances of an ancient tribe that lives in its province. I saw Ellora and Ajanta, the Elephanta Caves and country villages through the amused and sympathetic eyes of Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian novelist and art scholar. A wonderful middle-aged Kshatriya (warrior caste) Krishna-man, he always wore something red, which was for him the color of life, and his rapid conversation spiced with ribald wit lectured me deliciously. I saw India through all my senses in a tumultuous assault of sight and sound and smell and taste and resonating color.
Veronica is experiencing India with a Tibetan lama, meditating, practicing Buddhism, studying Tibetan grammar in a lamas' college in Dehra Dun.
She has written that she is living now at the end of a goat path in the Himalayas in a three-storied house she rents for an infinitesimal monthly sum. Cows are stabled on the ground floor. Corn and hay are stored on the top floor. She is ensconced in a high-ceilinged room on the middle floor, surrounded by a roofed-over balcony from which there are splendid views of snow-peaked mountains, apple orchards, and deodars, a large, dark and regal species of cedar, known as the timber of the gods. Somewhere, hidden from sight, is the village of Manali and a small Indian and Tibetan bazaar where she can buy dried cheese, fish freshly caught from the Beas river, buttermilk, and other provisions.
Her bed is in arm's reach of a cylindrical wood-burning stove, a tandoor. In her drawing of it, the tandoor has the look of a pure, clean sculpture, with two removable lids on top where she can put pots for cooking, and for heating the water that she fetches in a bucket from the stream close by to her house.
She reads by candlelight or the light of a kerosene lamp. She has no electricity. Veronica finds this nineteenth-century pastoral life agreeable, and regards much of the twentieth century as trivial, mindless, and tacky. She writes about white cherry blossoms, red apples, green pears, about a palm squirrel in Dharamsala, a skittish kitten in Dehra Dun, a puppy that lies warm and furry on her pillow in Manali. She writes that Buddha's answer to life's riddles are the Four Noble Truths. Suffering exists. Suffering is caused by desire. Suffering can be overcome by the elimination of desire. Desire can be eliminated by following the Noble Eightfold Path of moderation and clear thought, a statement of the role of reason in human affairs that addresses itself to the human condition and a concern for all life. She writes that the Buddhist doctrine teaches nonattachment, the sublimation of the ego so that even though there is chaos all around you, you can still maintain detachment and an all-calm inner self, not only freed from worldly attachments to people and things, but also in a state of complete and true self-knowledge. You can achieve this state best, she writes, by the mind-emptying exercise of meditation which allows the mind to open outward and let in life, the way a lotus opens to the sun.
What do they mean, these ascetic, cerebral commentaries of hers? What do they have to do with India, my India?
Turning off the light, I hear my grandmother's voice again, quoting Shakespeare. "Out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety."
Would this be true for me? Was it true for Veronica? Had she managed to pluck a flower of safety from that dangerous nettle-bed of the sixties when it was not the fashion to endure reality in an unaltered state?
Lately, I've had the recurring fantasy that I am Demeter and Veronica is Persephone. Demeter knew her daughter was lost, and she wandered over the earth, searching for her. At first, she simply abandoned herself to her sorrow. Then she consciously entered into it as though entering a temple, enclosing herself in a ritual holy place. She contained in her grief not only the loss of her daughter, but also the loss of the young and carefree part of herself.
Likening myself to Demeter and brooding in my own cave of introversion, I had said to my therapist only a few months before, "Veronica has gone to earth in India. I miss her terribly. I don't know what to do."
"So, why don't you go to India and visit her?" My analyst is Jungian, and is as conversant with mythology as he is with my needs for reassurance and encouragement.
"She hasn't asked me. I don't know how she really feels about me now."
"On the archetypal level, your daughter is an extension of yourself. She carries you back into your past and your own youth and she carries you forward to the promise of your own rebirth into a new personality, into the awareness of the Self." He added, with a smile, "Is that what you were thinking? Is that what makes you feel ambivalent?"
I did not know if this were true or not. It was one of those sessions when I had arrived feeling my sense of self shriveled, the fruits of the earth withering all around.
When I told him how I felt, my analyst said, "That's good. You always feel withered when it is time for a transformation. Everything dries up inwardly and outwardly and life becomes sterile until the conscious mind is forced to recognize the gravity of the situation." He paused, gesturing in the air. "Then you are compelled to accept the validity of the unconscious, the force for renewal."
Ever unflappable, ever optimistic, he has reminded me many times before that growth and development are painful.
I am sure his theories are correct, but what I want to know is when will suffering lead away from neurosis to a new life, to new understanding? Will I, like Demeter, be truly reunited with my daughter? Will she, like Persephone, having eaten the food of Hades and taken the dark pomegranate seeds into herself, give birth to her own new personality? Can we both, like the mythical mother and daughter, pass through death and enter a new springan ageless inward renewal? Can we accept the necessity of life in the underworld darkness of our psyches?
My puckish therapist sighed an exaggerated sigh as he always does when I go off on what Veronica calls a blither tangent. "Well, of course," he said. That was down the road. Just give yourself time. Everything would work out. "Just give yourself time," he repeated, glancing at his watch.
Time has gone by. It is February now, almost spring, and I have received a miraculous telephone call. Soon I shall be with Veronica.
WRITING ON WRITING
By NELSON ALGREN
SEVEN STORIES PRESS
Copyright © 1996 The Estate of Nelson Algren. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Leila Hadley is a cofounder of Wings Trust, dedicated to literary and educational projects in the field of women's studies; a consulting editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; and an elected member of PEN and the Explorers Club. She is the author of the award-winning Give Me the World, A Fielding's Guide to Traveling with Children in Europe, and other books. She lives in New York.
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