Opening Our Ears and Eyes to Friends from India

Today’s story is contributed by writer Lynn Tofil, 17. Our goal in Friendship and Faith is to expand beyond our book (at right) to encourage women of all ages to share stories about their lives opening up to friends of other religions and cultures. Lynn graduated from Plymouth High School and will attend Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She plans to keep writing and hopes to become a teacher. Her family is Polish-American and, even though her classmates have always been diverse, she writes here about the revelation in joining Indian-American friends for an evening of Indian culture.

As Lynn honestly explains, she was goaded into attending this late-in-the-school-year program because her senior-level Humanities class requires students to attend cross-cultural events and produce reports about their experiences. Trying to squeak past year-end deadlines, Lynn found herself rushing to catch the May 2010 performances staged by a local Indian American Student Association.

Here is Lynn’s story …

Risking the frightening potential of being pulled up onstage into a spotlight we did not ask for, we choose seats on the end of a row in this packed auditorium. The house lights are still on, pairing all of the chatter with an overwhelming visual. Most of the crowd is made up of families whose children are appearing in the Indian American Student Association show. I recognize some people from my fifth hour, but one of my friends—a pale, blonde girl, just like me—waves to me as we exchange the look that admits why we are here: Humanities. The class not only studies world culture, but also expands our horizons with assignments that go beyond the typical school day and, sometimes, beyond our comfort zone. Each semester, we are required to attend a number of cultural events and write up “logs”—expressions of our thoughts, feelings, reactions and connections with things we have learned in class.

My friend and I share a mutual chuckle at the thought of everyone scrambling to finish logs by coming to the IASA show at the last minute. It’s true! We procrastinated. Many times, Humanities deadlines crept on me too quickly, leaving me to scramble, too. So, my expectations are low, but maybe this won’t be a complete waste of time I think as I settle into my seat. Looking around, our two pale faces stand out in a sea of richly colored skin.

Women walk to their seats with hair as richly flowing as sable, making my stringy yellow hair look like a straw rag. Their brilliantly colored saris put my jeans and grey sweatshirt to shame. Draping flawlessly around their bodies, the sparkly fabric flatters them in every way, creating a rainbow of jewel tones across the rows of seats: turquoise, emerald, ruby, gold, ivory …

I slump in my chair, trying to hide my figure even more while theirs shine with each step they take. My mind wanders to thoughts of their everyday attire, and what it would be like if all of us dressed up this wonderfully for what is merely life.

Thankfully, the lights dim and the show is ready to start. “May everyone please stand for the American National Anthem.” My mind and muscles team to force my body out of my seat. I can barely stand to hear a poor rendition of the American National Anthem by some random singer at a Red Wings’ game, let alone by a high school student. A sophomore stands in the middle of the stage, a spotlight isolating her from the rest of us.

“Oh, say, can you see…” She attempts to color up the song with a couple of Kelly Clarkson-esque runs. “By the dawn’s early light…” However, running the notes just ends up cracking her voice. Audience members around me are flinching. “What so proudly we hailed…” There comes a point, after hearing a song so many times in one’s life, that it is hard to actually concentrate on the meaning anymore. This rendition of the song is rapidly becoming a nightmare. Now, I’m bracing for the disaster lurking in: “THE ROCKETS’ RED GLARE!” The weak, bird-like squawk sounds more like hysteria than a national hymn. People have stopped singing along, but soon the anthem ends and the show moves on as if these embarrassing moments had not passed between us. I sigh. I’m ready to sit.

My thoughts wander to my fellow classmates surrounding me who have probably all been to India at least once; whereas I have only reached as far as Canada outside of the country. American pride has never exactly been a prominent part of my personality, however, I would like to think that I pretend that it’s there sometimes. The days I had to stand up from my chair in elementary school to mumble the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand resting on my chest come rushing back to me in this single moment, criticizing me for never fully touching my heart.

Lynn Tofil, at right, and friends after the Indian American program.“Now we will have the Indian National Anthem.” The audience remains standing. My legs grow tired at the thought of continuing to stand through another song. A new singer takes a breath before she starts; this time it is a senior, someone I know. Her eyes close thoughtfully, as if she is already listening to music, possibly a classical piece I imagine. The lingering pause she takes before she starts to sing is so long that I close my eyes along with her; maybe she sees something that I do not. Perhaps there is something within the darkness of her eyelids that might be more interesting than the darkened theater.

A small sound rings softly through the speakers above the stage, then … “Jana-gana-mana-adhinayaka, jaya he Bharata-bhagya-vidhata…” The microphone picks up every breath she takes—and every graceful note. This sound is enchanting and I wonder if this new effect arises from some advanced technical equipment she is using or her natural talent.

The audience joins her in the song, her eyes never opening. My curiosity about this majestic music moves me to slowly open mine. The audience is a choir now, singing this anthem like angels, something I would have never imagined in any culture. They become a family, telling a story of how they came to be. They are caught up in the comforting lullaby of a mother, the gentle and sweet song of a child. Their words make no sense to my ears and their story I have never heard, but the music rings truer than any other national anthem I have ever heard.

In that moment, these thousand voices singing as one somehow make more sense to me than my own country’s song. Even after it ends, this new anthem echoes through me as I sit still in my seat. Merely a song, it has completely changed my perspective. My eyes and ears are opened to new beauty—and surprisingly to new beauty in my own life as well. I cannot say that overwhelming pride is exactly what I am feeling, but I am at peace—a peace in knowing that our earth is filled with such diverse joys.

A peace assuring me that, even in my mundane life, I can experience such beauty, too.

Thank you, Lynn Tofil, for sharing your story!

Care to read more about the Indian National Anthem, written a century ago by Nobel Prize winner Rabindrath Tagore?

Rabindranath TagoreReadTheSpirit Books published an inspirational chapter on Tagore’s life in our 2008 book, “Interfaith Heroes, Volume 1.” A portion of our Tagore story explains his thoughts about the lyrics of the National Anthem. You can read the entire Tagore chapter and the story of the famous song free online. Plus, there are links to free sheet music and free audio of the stirring anthem, both musical versions provided by the government of India.

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