Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

16 Sep 2010, 1:45 a.m.

While Reminded of Resonance

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Steam engine, lamppost, and benchThe day before I left Melbourne, I rode Puffing Billy, a restored steam engine that goes a few miles per hour. To get there, I took commuter rail/subway east of Melbourne, like an hour's ride, and then I was in Belgrave, a little town that reminds me of bits of Marin, or West Portal in San Francisco. While in Belgrave, I also visited Limerence and bought a necklace and a pin; more on that later.

When I got on Puffing Billy, upon the platform as we were about to depart, a conductor walked the length of the train, calling "all aboard" and ringing a bell. The bell sounded exactly like a Hindu temple bell, which in retrospect is unsurprising. It's brass, the same size, probably the same ratios of clapper to airspace to wall thickness.

Sumana in front of a steam engineBut it was almost gratuitously evocative, the blue-suited-and-hatted volunteer walking before the anachronism, mist and wood and iron grill and forest all around, shaking a bell to call us to devotion. The priest rings that bell, for example, at the moment in the prayer ritual where we stand and rotate three times clockwise, hands pressed in Namaste (Namaskaar, in Karnataka) in front of our chests. The chant starts "Yani kani chippa pani," which has a mathematical elegance to it. You're supposed to pray, but I always concentrate on not being utterly clumsy and stepping on someone's foot or falling down in my sari. After three turns you kneel and pray, the way you see Muslims do in those great massive photos of hundreds of Muslims in mosques: arms and back stretched out horizontal, legs folded in at hips and knees.

Steam engine turning around a bendA very restful pose after the dizziness, and perhaps that's the point, to provoke one's own disorientation and then conflate relief at its cessation with gratitude to God. A calm moment with my thoughts, prayer stripped of some of my inhibitions and intellectual wariness. So many religious rituals are about taking away the usual crutches so you have no choice but to trust-fall. And sometimes self-discovery rituals, like going off to Belgrave to ride an ancient steam engine alone, are about taking away the usual stimuli so I can hear the susurrations of the self beneath. Turning off wifi, going to the command line, the world shrinking to the 17-inch diagonal of white text on black...


16 Sep 2010, 2:13 a.m.

A beautiful entry, and I love your coat!

Will Thompson
18 Sep 2010, 16:49 p.m.

Beautiful, indeed! My own experience of riding Puffing Billy involved a faint echo of riding it when I was a very small person, in Melbourne for a few months. I'm not actually sure if I did ride it, actually, but it felt like I ought to have. :)