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Opening Your Heart And Home With Sandy And Ranganath

--Amit Dungarani, on Apr 5, 2012

Eight or nine years ago, Sandy and Ranganath Nayak thought it'’d be nice to see the country. On a US map, they plotted the location of everyone who had ever been in their home. Then, they hopped into their car and embarked on a nine-week cross-country road trip.
 
The Nayaks visited 168 people, almost all the strangers-turned-friends who had ever stayed in their home except for two (“one in Texas and one in Florida, because they were too out of the way”). Of the sixty-three nights on the road, forty-three evenings were spent with friends and family, and fourteen in motels, “mostly between Chicago and Idaho, where we didn’t know anybody,” Ranganath recalled with a childlike grin and twinkle in his eye.
 
Deep into the 90-minute Forest Call, the smile and twinkle of his eyes had become contagious. Some of us gathered in person, some over phone and skype, all of us in their living room, enthralled in a dance of colorful conversation specked with frequent spurts of laughter. It was a cloudy New England afternoon, but inside the Nayak’s home, it was as sunny as ever. 
     
That’s how it is with the Ranganath and Sandy. Walk into their home, and you can’t help but become family. Talk with them, and you’ll immediately begin to see the beautiful, warm, and playful side of life. From traveling through India on third-class train tickets to serving up countless meals for generations of strangers-turned-family to sewing dazzling costumes for plays by children with special needs, authoring three books, and helping to preserve indigenous cultures around the world, the Nayaks are pillars of warmth, community, and love in the world. And they elevate all around them into their orbit.
 
In the words of new mom Suchi, “People often retreat to their home to be private, to be quiet. Here– there is no such thing as separating their lives from ours. It is all of the same continuous flow. A deep connection and caring for all those that come through.”
 
Open Hearts, Open Homes
 
In the 1970s, they signed up to host college students far from home. But it really began much earlier than that. Having grown up in a home always brimming with guests, Ranganath and his siblings never slept in a bedroom.
 
“All the bedrooms were given over to guests, so I slept in the corridor on a mat with one of those old---they’re called charpai in India—where it’s a wooden frame with a mat and cloth strap wrapped around it,” he describes with a rich smile in his voice.
 
For Sandy, too, having strangers-turned-guests-turned-family was common in her childhood home: “My father was a university professor, and if there were foreign students who were lost (which was frequent), he brought them home... We always had people come like that.”
 
Remembering the fullness of life that resulted from the multitude of people who streamed through their childhood homes, the Nayaks couldn’t just host their “hostees” for a simple Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. Their “hostees” became family.
 
One of the first hostees, a young PhD student from Northern India, even named his own son after the Nayak’s son, Anand! After graduating, moving away, and getting married, one of their first hostees called up the Nayaks and asked 7-year-old Anand for permission to name his own newborn the same name.
 
“Our son Anand was so thrilled that someone was asking him permission to name their kid after him,” Ranganath recalls. “And then twenty years after that, the new Anand had graduated and come to the Boston area, and his younger sister was a freshman at Harvard. And they both used to hang out at our house!”
 
Another moment came when a friend of a friend arrived from Switzerland: “He arrived in our kitchen just as a kitchen pot exploded. And that was his introduction to our house, because I had put a lid on something, and it somehow glued stuck and developed steam under it. As he entered the house, the lid blew. And he spent the next half hour helping us clean up our kitchen. That was very memorable. I bet you he never forgot it. “This is America!””
 
Open Hearts, Open Minds
 
After graduating from Radcliffe with a degree in Anthropology, Sandy found herself traveling through India for a year.
 
“We were supposed to be teaching English at Allahabad University, but Allahabad University went on strike against English. So we had a lot of time,” she laughed.
 
Instead of the first-class tickets that many Americans opted for, Sandy and a friend went for third-class tickets. “It was a third of the price and it was a lot more fun. In third class, everyone was friendly, whereas in first class, people tended to be reserved. In third class, everybody thought we were a traveling circus act: two American girls wearing saris and speaking bad Hindi.”
 
Having since lived in India, road tripped the US, and traveled all over the world, the Nayaks found time and time again how very similar people are. 
 
Long ago, Ranganath, like Arthur Kesler, became interested in the question, “Why is mankind so violent? Why do we divide the world into “Us” vs. “Them”?


“Essentially there’s a primitive brain that divides the world into Us and Them, so you can be safe. It’s the ‘flight or fight response. And then there’s the more “civilized” brain that somehow manages to control the primitive brain. And the only way it manages is through travel, through meeting people, through reading, through education. Through recognizing more and more people as ‘Us’," Ranganath sums up from Kesler's book, The Ghost and the Machine.
 
“So throughout our travels, we’ve tried to broaden the definition of who’s “Us”. Now, I can’t think of anyone I meet who is not part of us, of whom I would instinctively have a negative reaction. It just doesn’t happen. So I think that’s an important dimension of this sharing business... the idea that we are all one. Starting out with instinctive dislike or instinctive distrust is the root of so much violence in the world. Everywhere I go, people feel the same. I mean their habits are different, their cultures are different, the food is different, but their basic drives are the same.”
 
“I think it’s important for children to learn very, very early in life that people who look different aren’t necessarily very different, and that you can have your friends from anywhere,” Sandy added.
 
Simply Known as Love
 
When asked how the couple progressed into such a beautiful relationship-- how they came to accept each other and give so much of themselves to the world-- Ranganath doesn’t skip a beat.
 
“It’s simply known as love,” he beams. “And it strikes you out of the blue, and then you can’t help it. If you meet Sandy, you’ll understand why.”
 
Gandhi once said, “Where there is love, there is life.”
 
With a household as full of life as theirs, the Nayaks can never fall short of love. In between hosting a crew of musicians and their families, a friend from Switzerland, and a cat named Agnes, Sandy and Ranganath also hosted all of us on the call. By the end of the 90 minutes, they were invited to stay in Santa Fe, we all had been invited to dinner, and a plastic wizard in an orb-- gifted by a hostee's cousin 20 years ago—stood on the table, waiting for us to ask it a question.
 
For the Nayaks, it's nothing extraordinary. Just another adventure of a day.
   More about the Nayaks, including their recipes and efforts to preserve indigenous cultures, can be found on Ranganath's blog.