The saga of Untapped Cities writer Amrit Chima’s new novel Darshan continues in Colonial Fiji with the very capable yet deeply insecure Manmohan. Burdened with the guilt of his father Baba Singh’s long ago passionate crime of murder (see Part I), Manmohan chooses to break ties and remain behind in Fiji after Baba decides it is time to return to India.
Chima bases the character of Manmohan on her grandfather, Magh Singh Chima, who like his fictional counterpart, became a successful and well-respected businessman on the islands, operating a lumber mill and establishing himself as the primary supplier of wood for the government. Luck and a very big storm that wiped out all the island’s bridges and many of its buildings, allowed Magh to earn a very lucrative living for some time. The same turn of events unfold in the novel for Manmohan, but it is in the inner workings of her characters’ minds that Chima weaves an underlying narrative.
India—the land of Hindu gods, Bollywood, yoga, and software technology parks—was also once a nation exploited by the iron rule of the British Raj, an era brought about by England’s (and other Western European countries’) desire to acquire wealth through trade and colonization of the Americas and other Asian countries. Around the turn of the 20th century, Indian villages were hit hardest by the colonial regime as farmers labored to feed themselves, as well as their nation, while under the oppressive tax burden of the ruling English. Compelled to take out loans, men of rural Northern Indian sought the aid of moneylenders to ease their trouble. Over time, these corrupt and crooked lenders began to alter their books and unfairly hike up their interest rates, forcing men off their farms, taking fertile ancestral land into their own possession. Enraged and dejected, these farmers sometimes succumbed to murderous impulses. A family’s stolen livelihood in exchange for a life.
It is here that Untapped Cities writer, Amrit Chima, begins the story of her debut novel Darshan. One of the main characters in her book, Baba Singh, is inspired by her great-grandfather, Harnam Singh Chima, who is rumored to have killed a man in his village. Chima family lore tells of Harnam Singh fleeing from police—pelting his would-be captors with rocks—to hide in another village where he then eventually married and had children.
A perpetually sunny city just a Golden-Gate-Bridge length away from San Francisco, Sausalito is the ideal tourist destination. Rent-a-bike stalls near the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf advertise the scenic ride to the quaint artist enclave-a perfect half-day excursion. And every year over Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of arts and craft enthusiasts descend upon the tiny community for the famous Sausalito Art Festival-more than tripling the population. My advice to would-be visitors: take advantage of Sausalito during the early summer (really just not around Labor Day weekend) and check out the waterfront communities-neighborhoods that consist of boats and people who prefer rolling waves over solid ground.
Whether you drive, bike, or ferry to Sausalito, chances are you’ll find yourself on Bridgeway, the main drag that runs along the shoreline. Art galleries and souvenir shops dominate the commercial scene. I tend to breeze through this touristy part of town, stopping by Venice Gourmet deli to pick up provisions for my urban exploration. The tasty sandwiches here are generous in size, and farther away from this part of town-closer to the docks and houseboats-there aren’t too many take-out food options.
Now a seemingly sedate locale, at the turn of the 20th century, Sausalito was a major transportation hub, the gateway to San Francisco via ferry service. Train passengers made their final stop in Sausalito and transferred to a ferry for the last leg of their trip. Beginning in 1920, the Golden Gate Ferry Company specialized in shuttling automobiles between Sausalito and San Francisco. However, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 led to the end of ferry service between Marin and San Francisco in March of 1941. (Traffic congestion on the Golden Gate Bridge eventually resulted in the reinstatement of the ferry system in the 1970s.)
During WWII Sausalito became a shipbuilding and repair center. After the war, the remnants of the industrial shipyards spawned the beginning of Sausalito’s eclectic modern houseboat community. Navy ships, from barges to tugboats, were turned into floating homes and communities that attracted artists and hippies in the 1950s and 1960s. One such community based around Galilee Harbor is less than a mile away from the current Sausalito Ferry Terminal.
Traveling northeast along Bridgeway, away from downtown Sausalito, traffic begins to thin out, and the squawking of seagulls replaces the chatter of tourists. The scenic Dunphy Park offers nice views of the Bay, and strangely fascinating public art hint at the idiosyncratic quality of houseboat ”˜hoods.
A member-run cooperative community, the Galilee Harbor Community Association is made up of artists and marine workers dedicated to the “preservation of Sausalito’s traditional working waterfront uses and creation of diverse public access opportunities.” The floating docks, wooden walkways and dirt paths around the harbor allow passersby to experience the natural marsh habitat and get a glimpse of “urban” houseboat community life. Every summer, the community hosts a celebratory Maritime Day, featuring houseboat tours and traditional boat-building demonstrations, among other family friendly events.
Nearby, the fancy Schoonmaker Point Marina caters to a different clientele. In contrast to the modest boats of Galilee Harbor, expensive yachts dock at this facility boasting a sandy beach, restaurants, and “21 palm trees.”
Side by side, these two waterfront communities paint very different views of life in Sausalito. While the Schoonmaker Point Marina boats seem a luxurious escapist pastime, the quirky residences of Galilee Harbor convey a salt-of-the-earth homeyness. The nice thing is that you, as a visitor, can pick which view would go best with your sandwich.
Louisiana-born Lance Centanni-Sachs started studying Mongolian contortion at the age of 23. Now at 29, he is preparing for his second trip to Mongolia as part of a documentary project to trace the roots of this traditional Eastern practice, which is enjoying burgeoning popularity in the West.
Contortion classes are pretty easy to find in the Bay Area; most are affiliated with a circus or acrobatic organization like AcroSports or Trapeze Arts. In 2007, Lance decided to enroll in a Mongolian contortion class at the San Francisco Circus Center. He had just returned to San Francisco, after spending two years living as a Buddhist monk in India and Nepal. Feeling lost and eager to reconnect with his body, he was curious about this extreme physical practice of backbends, splits, and gravity defying poses. At his first class, he met his teacher, Serchmaa Byamba.
Serchmaa is just one of a diaspora of highly skilled contortionists from Mongolia now settled in the United States. She began her training at the age of 8 in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. To be accepted into the Mongolian State Circus’s contortion training program at Ulaanbaatar is an honor, and each year, hundreds of young girls around the ages of 5 to 7 travel to the capital in hopes of being selected. Making use of the softness of their ligaments and bones, these girls are trained to bend forward and backward in ways that seem impossible for the spine. (There are some boys who train to become contortionists, but the majority are girls.) If they complete their years of rigorous training, a career as a contortionist promises significant income to the girl’s family, as well as opportunities to start a new life in another country.
Serchmaa performed and toured with the Mongolian State Circus, eventually leaving her homeland to settle in San Francisco with her husband in 1998. She now performs as a freelancer and has appeared on talk shows and movies including “Minority Report” and “Pursuit of Happiness.” (Currently Serchmaa teaches contortion classes at Sons of Cayuga.)
Part sport and part spectacle, Mongolian contortion is rooted in Buddhist meditation practices and Mongolian dance. Mongolian Buddhist monks believed that the flexibility and openness of the mind was directly connected to the body, and so they trained their bodies in order to train their minds. The monks’ poses and twisted shapes imitate and are named after animals and natural phenomena-all part of the region’s cultural aesthetic, as Mongolians are historically nomadic people with strong connections to the land.
Mongolia’s political history is closely tied to that of its neighbors’ and has also influenced the development of contortion. After the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared its independence from China. Under the influence of its Russian and Soviet neighbors, the Mongolian People’s Republic became a communist regime. Closed to outsiders until the fall of the communist government in 1990, the touring Mongolian State Circus was one of the few contacts Westerners had with this mysterious far-away land prior to the country’s independence. It was during this time that a circus culture developed around the art of contortion, drifting the practice farther away from its spiritual roots.
However, it was the spiritual elements of contortion that inspired Lance to delve deeper into his practice with Serchmaa. He describes their relationship:
I just hoped to gain control of my body, to challenge myself, to learn discipline and patience through it. In the beginning, I thought my physical goals wouldn’t be much, maybe do the splits or something. The first day I met Serchmaa, she was really delightful [and was wearing] the best bejewelled boots. We talked a bit about Buddhism and yoga and [since then] I have…consistently been training with her. She really gives the sense of wanting to see her students succeed in their goals [and] push[es] them to a level they didn’t think they could achieve. Contortion becomes not just a performance art but is also a development of patience, discipline, focus and effort. I personally changed in my habits and life through training with her. I’ve seen this happen with other students, and I think this comes about out of respect for her and the amount of care and time she puts into us all.
Founded by Mongolian filmmaker Tsogtbayar Namsrai (Serchmaa’s husband) and San Francisco–based photographer Faern, the Clean Socks Project aims to preserve the traditional training and performances of Mongolian contortionists, as well as document the translations of these traditions as they make their way to Western societies-San Francisco, in particular. Lance’s adoption of contortionism as both a male and an adult is just one example of how the art form is expressed differently in the US.
The timing of this documentary is crucial. The contortion masters in Mongolia are getting up in years. Serchmaa’s teacher, the legendary contortionist Madame Tsend-Ayush, passed away in 2006. Known for her strict methods, Madame Tsend-Ayush had a discerning eye for talent and hand-picked her pupils. These girls, now successful women, are settling far away from Mongolia, performing with groups like Cirque du Soleil, and teaching children and adult students whose goals rarely include “professional contortionist.” Many of Serchmaa’s students apply their contortion skills to their aerial circus arts, dance, yoga, and other personal health endeavors. In fact, most start as adults and the “traditional” training is significantly adapted to each student’s needs.
Images of performing contortionists who study with Serchmaa Byamba in San Francisco (in order): Inka Siefker, Lance Lance Centanni-Sachs, Samantha Halas
The Mongolia portion of the Clean Socks documentary will be filmed and photographed this July, as Lance and other adult American students travel to Ulaanbaatar in time for Naadam. Similar to the Olympics, Naadam brings together athletes from all over the country to compete in wrestling, archery, and horse-racing “games.” The competition and ceremonial performances showcasing the best Mongolian dancers, musicians and contortionists take place in the National Sports Stadium. It is literally the biggest event of the year, for which many athletes and performers spend the rest of the year preparing. Lance and the other students from the North America will take classes with their likely-much-younger Mongolian counterparts and witness this important aspect of Mongolian culture.
They will also meet one of the grand “Madames” of contortion, Norvosamvuu-Madame Tsend-Ayush’s first student-who popularized and promoted contortion in the 60s and 70s, transforming the practice from folk art to performance art worthy of the international stage. What were her motivations for this transformation? What does the future of contortionism in Mongolia look like, especially as more Westerners adopt this practice? How do her students translate their training to fit Western ideals? What is lost, what remains and what is gained through this process? These are the questions the Clean Socks documentary will explore.
To raise money for production and filming costs, the Clean Socks Project has organized an ongoing Kickstarter campaign. Lance and the other students have spent months physically preparing themselves and saving for travel expenses. “We have made personal sacrifices,” says Lance, “but to experience the busiest time of year for Mongolian contortionists all gathered in the same place-we are very fortunate! We want to take advantage of the situation and get the best quality and most footage of”¦Mongolian contortion while we can. With or without the Kickstarter funds we are committed to making this project happen; however the lack of additional funds would result in a major loss of content and quality.”
Locomotion along downtown Market Street is chaotic, arguably to the point of dysfunctional. Buses and taxis have specially designated lanes, as do bicyclists-except no one adheres to these distinctions. Rather than overhead, traffic lights are located on the far sides of the street, on the border of a driver’s periphery vision. And droves of pedestrians, heading to or from a Muni or BART station, stream across every intersection. To make matters worse, road signs-like the very important STOP-are literally painted on the road, which is often covered by swarms of tourists or moving vehicles invariably in the wrong lane.
Every Tuesday evening, men and women carrying yoga mats converge at Grace Church Cathedral. They come from all parts of San Francisco to this sacred space in Nob Hill. Darren Main, a well-known and respected yoga teacher in the Bay Area has been teaching Yoga on the Labyrinth for two-and-a-half years. It is a donation-based yoga class open to all levels, from beginners to advanced students. Everyone is welcome. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
On average, 200 to 300 people come to the cathedral for the hour-and-a-half “gentle” yoga practice beneath the Gothic arches and stained glass windows. As Darren calls the class to attention, the last rays of the sun filter in through the spectacular rose window. It is 6:15 pm. He speaks into a microphone fastened discretely on a headpiece and reads the opening meditation from his iPad.
Darren’s assistants are scattered throughout the cathedral, ready to provide hands-on adjustments and additional instructions to students. The cathedral practice space is so vast and yet still constricting. On both sides of the double row of pews and through the center aisle, individuals claim their rectangular space, squeezing their yoga mats closer to each other as more people file into the church. The thin cushioning of the mats separate bodies from the cold stone floor. Up above, the looming arches almost fade into darkness, a false starless sky. Only the lights set up at the ceiling of the church belie the illusion.
Seven years ago, yoga instructor Jamie Lindsey created Yoga on the Labryinth at Grace Cathedral as a way of bringing his Christian faith and his passion for yoga together. When Jamie moved to New York in 2009, Darren took over the program and invited musicians to perform during class. The idea is to use live music to bring students to a deeper state of meditation. Depending on the week, the sounds of a harp, singing bowl, or didgeridoo reverberate up toward the clerestory windows. Yoga on the Labryinth refers to the indoor limestone labyrinth of Grace Cathedral, located on the floor directly in front of the main entrance. Modeled after the medieval labyrinth at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres in Chartres, France, it is a place for walking meditation. On Tuesday nights, the labyrinth is still a place for meditation, but of a different kind.
At 7 pm the heavy clock tower bell begins to strike, momentarily drowning out the sounds of the cable cars running up and down California Street. As the last deep gong begins to fade, the low churning grumbles of a didgeridoo fills the space. Its player walks between people lying on their backs, gazing up from the labyrinth floor.
“Bring your foot to your ear. It’s just like answering a telephone. Except it may feel like it’s a bill collector on the other line.” Darren pauses for dramatic effect, “But really, it’s your hip opening up.” He delivers his punch line calmly, with little inflection. The humor percolates, surfacing as a chuckle here, a grunt there, and finally an appreciative release of laughter from the supine crowd.
Darren moves through the church, checking in with his assistants throughout class. His instructions are simple and clear. For the most part he leaves personal commentary out, occasionally bringing in humor to encourage patience and acceptance when the poses become more difficult. Darren’s manner is quiet, understated even, as if he were allowing the cathedral’s space, and the added elements of music and asana-the physical shapes of the yoga practice-to lead the class. He reflects, “There is something so healing about doing an Eastern practice in a Christian church with students of every age, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and physical ability. Everyone [is] seeking peace-having a unique spiritual experience, and yet finding harmony with hundreds of others through the live music and the awe-inspiring architecture.”
Completed in 1964, Grace Cathedral was designed in the French Gothic style by American architect Lewis P. Hobart. It is the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in the nation and known for its open-minded environment and progressive policies. The current dean, Dr. Jane A. Shaw is the first woman dean and the first openly gay dean of Grace Cathedral. Given the prominence of Grace Church in the Episcopal community-plagued by internal struggles over full inclusion of gays and lesbians-the appointment of Shaw was a historic moment, for both the Episcopal community and the city of San Francisco.
After the final closing meditation, a reading from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, people pack up their belongings, pausing to drop off their donation or to thank the assistants and the musicians. “I think it’s very San Francisco-that this class is donation based and in such a beautiful space,” says Dina Solomon, who had come to class straight from her workplace in Berkeley. It was her first time to practice yoga at Grace Cathedral.
Soon the church is quiet again, as the last of the people file out of the main entrance. Once again the labyrinth is uncovered, free from mats and bodies. Until next Tuesday evening.