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Hare Krishna at UC Berkeley

Chariot yatras, chanting processions and vegetarian roommates, it’s all happening on campus. Umesh Raghuvanshi tells more.
By Umesh Raghuvanshi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JUL 11, 2008 10:17 PM IST

It was trouble from the word go. As I reached the domestic terminal of the Los Angeles International Airport to take the flight to San Francisco, I learnt it had been cancelled. “I can put you on the next flight,” said the friendly airline staffer, the strain in her voice quite plain.

Nothing was in order in the US, she added by way of excuse. “Flights are frequently cancelled and you have come all the way from India thinking everything is perfect here,” she said. I played the part of the gullible Indian — I didn’t want to disappoint her. The shuttle to Berkeley reached almost at midnight. There was no problem in finding the hotel as all shuttles are GPS-fitted. (GPS is a navigation tool that helps planes and ships determine their locations worldwide).

But the gates of the hotel were closed. What was I supposed to do? There was no response as I repeatedly pressed the bell.

A youth passing by came to help and used the call box to contact the hotel manager. A remote button opened the gate and I was directed to the Reception through speaker-phone.

“So, you have made it! All the way from India!” said the receptionist summoning hidden reserves of hospitality to put on his best manners at that unearthly hour. We even made small talk. What brought me to his city, he wanted to know. “I am a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley for one academic year,” I informed. The University is just 10 minutes from the hotel, he said. With that vital information, I checked in and went straight to bed.

Chinese university?
Next morning, I walked to UC Berkeley. At Oxford Street, I asked a boy for directions to the Graduate School of Journalism. He appeared unwilling. Turning his face away from me, he started moving away. What had I said that put him off? There was no reason for him to behave this way.

So I moved ahead, and asked another student. He was cooperative but said something that bemused me. “I do not know how people across the world get to know of our university’s programmes that even we are not aware of,” he said pointing me towards the street I should take to reach my destination. I could not get his point till I overheard some American students saying among themselves that “they are converting this university into a Chinese university”.

Krishna to my rescue
Barring these two experiences, my stint at UC Berkeley went fine. I had already begun the search for a house on the internet. An American Krishna devotee, Shyama, was looking for a vegetarian housemate and asked me to join her during the Jagannath Yatra celebrations at the Golden Gate Park. “Come at forenoon. I want you to pull the chariot,” she said.

When I reached there, I found three chariots rolling ahead a large procession that was moving on with chants of “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna.” Devotees danced blissfully to its rhythm as they pulled the chariots. I had never expected this in San Francisco. A policewoman was picking up flowers being showered on chariots. I found Shyama and we finalised the deal for the room.

Soon, my family joined me in San Francisco and we had a wonderful time. Other housemates, mostly Americans — Michael, Lindsay and Alex — were enthusiastic chanters. They adhered to their weekly chanting schedules religiously. Lindsay loved accompanying us to the ISKCON temple and was always keen to know more about India. We had long discussions on a variety of issues at the dining table. ISKCON takes a chanting procession “Hari Naam” to UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate every week to take its message to the youth.

To err is human
As Visiting Scholar, I was not only auditing classes at the School of Journalism, but also the Economics and Political Science departments. I made presentations on elections, criminalisation of politics, corruption and India Rising. I found the classes on Investigative Journalism, Japan, Burma and technology useful. We were taken to the office of the
San Francisco Chronicle and the tour guide asked us to point out a mistake in the plaque at the entrance. “We all are humans.

So we all make mistakes. This too carries one,” she said.

By May, my stint at UC Berkeley was drawing to a close. Aiquin, a Chinese scholar invited us for dinner. After dinner, everyone had to sing. A Chinese scholar sang Awara Hoon. When it was our turn, our vocal chords ran dry. None of us from India, could coax out a single tuneful note. So Vanaja, another scholar, came up with a brilliant idea.

“Why don’t we sing Vande Mataram,” she said. And so we did. We first sang the national song. Then we sang the national anthem. When we finished, we all had tears in our eyes. The Chinese began hugging the Japanese and Koreans. Then the Indians began hugging the Chinese. In one evening we had all buried barriers of boundaries and our group could easily be termed a mini-United Nations. When will the politicians learn?

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