Monday, November 05, 2012
A Story like a story
Let me tell you, my head is full of stories, and as if it wasn't already full, when I go about my business, more stories pop into my head all the time, circling around me like interesting flies, each a sort of messenger fly, with a little story compressed into its v-shaped frame, hoping to unzip it into my head for the taking. And my head, so full of Concerns, Thoughts, takes no notice of the gifts and nods and moves on to the next Concern or Daydream of Greatness and Grandeur, and the little beings fly off unworried to the next willing taker.
Many of them are composted as things go, and nothing is ever really lost. The stories dissolve into words, and the words into letters, the letters into pixels and join a large heap of dots that merge together into a nondescript mass that stews and ripens and ferments for eons or some other length of time inscrutable to mortals after which little viral bridges are built like tendrils into story-less space, where they touch each other and start to network and become thicker and chunkier until they break up and float off into letters and words and stories yet again. No two are ever precisely the same because they are not just permutations of alphabets or dots, but a different substance that changes through time in a linear way never to repeat history.
Monday, February 20, 2012
Plastic Pujas and Sadhus with Attitude
Yesterday, I met a female sadhu while going to fill up a bottle with Ganga water. They are quite rare. Most sadhus are men wearing an assortment of ochre robes and head gear, with staffs, tridents, dreaded hair, prayer beads and a begging bowl. Some are almsot naked. This sadhu was dressed fashionably with a fleece pullover, jogging pants, waist belt with important things like her national ID card, her IPod and cigarettes. Her hair was salt and pepper colored, and cut fashionably short and practical. Her running shoes were a little weathered, but otherwise she looked ready to attend a feminist rally in Vancouver. There were no beads or orange robes. She said her name was Amrita and she was from Assam. She looked a little butch. She lived on the banks of the river, just above the sand line, under a cement overhang which was the floor of a temple or hotel. The cement pillars delineated her space. Her walls consisted of old election banners, rigged to create some privacy and block the wind a bit. She had a mattress, some blankets and a small firepit. The local pizza place gave her dinner once a day, and a local pay-to-use toilet served her quite well. She was clean and well presented.
Amrita spoke English very well, and explained that when she was small she lost her parents, and had had a very hard life, until she got a Swiss godfather, who took good care of her and sent her to school. After he died, she retired from her government job, gave away all her possessions and hit the road. She was never going to back to Assam, since a sadhu could not go home once the vows were taken. They could move on, but they could not go home. Amrita was a bit restless, almost anxious at times, and looked around her a lot as if someone might creep up on her. She laughed a lot as she explained that all the Rishikesh aartis (nightly riverside public devotional singing by priestly types, broadcast on loudspeakers) were just cheap drama, and they were all money minded scoundrels. The sadhu babas were mostly fake, eating meat, drinking whiskey and sleeping with young blond women whenever they got a chance. And they begged, which she didn't do. She laughed loudly. She said the yoga teachers and ashrams were just businesses, and they were not interested in God. She said you didn't need an intermediary if you had Ma Ganga. God was everywhere. I asked about Prem Baba, as he was the only guru I had gone to listen to. She said he was not so good, but that ShantiMay was okay. ShantiMay, an American female guru, and Prem Baba, a Brazilian male guru, had daily satsangs at an ashram across the river from where we were sitting, with a steady stream of adoring disciples listening intently every day, singing bhajans, and prostrating themselves at their feet. I asked her if she goes swimming in Ma Ganga. She said sure, every morning at 4 am she gets up to bathe in the river, do her ablutions and then meditate until the sun rose. Then she spends the day talking with people, especially tourists and sometimes listening to mantras on her IPod. She said God was fine with her smoking cigarettes, that it didn't really interfere with her devotion. It was a bit cold in the winter, but with God at her side, she didn't feel it much. I filled my bottle with the holy water of Ma Ganga. Someone's tightly sealed plastic bag full of flowers and offerings for Ma Ganga was floating on top of the water, making its way slowly past us. She pointed and shrugged and laughed that no one had any sense or respect for Ma Ganga.
Amrita joined me as I walked to the public toilet, but suddenly she ran into hiding, behind the front desk guy and motioned me to not talk to her, to not bring attention to her. She was trying to avoid a particular older Western tourist gentleman walking down the street. It was funny to see a sadhu hiding from someone. Once the old man had passed, I said my goodbyes and walked slowly back over Lakshman Jhula towards my room.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
A quiet afternoon uphill from Rishikesh
Today I walked up the mountain on whose slope I live as a tenant, and passed a waterfall, an ashram, a roadside temple and two villages. The road was broken, dusty, pebbly, and very uneven, but well used by pedestrians, motorcycles and donkeys. I kept going and passed a very tall tree perched fifty feet up a walled embankment, but the roots were hanging over the side, so I saw their intertwinedness. Some of the roots looked independent, some looked locked in with other strands, some were partly embedded into others and looked barely alive. It was impressive.
On the way back I stood and looked at a pastoral scene of green terraces, water buffaloes, rushing streams, and strangely disfigured trees. A young woman looked at me, and said Namaste. I said it back, and gestured to her that I was coming up to her house. The water buffaloes lurched at me, but they were tied up. Apparently, like dogs, you have to get to know them before they ignore you. We talked about things, her house, her animals, and then she introduced me to her uncle and a "friend", and she giggled when she said that. She had beautiful blue green Irish looking eyes, and she was very pretty. She looked old enough to be married, but evidently was not. Her name was Lakshmi and she was twenty-four. The friend, Raju, was also young and kept eyeing her flirtatiously which she didn't really mind, but reacted a bit prudishly, probably for my sake. He asked her to make tea, but I said "no, please sit, you work all day". They were impressed with my Hindi, and laughed and talked to each other quickly in Gahrwali. He told her to make tea again, and she went to make it, so I joined her at the chula, a clay floor stove that is embedded into the ground. She lit up a few sticks of wood and made chai. We came back with three cups. The uncle had disappeared. I found out that Raju had just had an expensive kidney stone operation, and was recuperating, but normally worked as a driver. No one seems to mind forwardness, so I asked if they were going to get married. Lakshmi said no, Raju was just a friend, and that she didn't want to get married because she didn't want children. He said he did want to get married, and he had that kind of look in his eyes, like he would get his way eventually. I told them about Canada, that operations were free, and that people often didn't get married, and even if they did, they didn't have children sometimes. She said everyone was pressuring her to get married.
It was a lazy quiet afternoon, not hot, not cold. Four puppies ran around, while the mother lay exhausted in the middle of the wheat field. The dogs did not belong to the house, they just wouldn't go away. Lakshmi asked me to come to Shivaratri the next day, so I said I would think about it. It's a very important holy day, but I don't know a whole lot about it. I admired her miniature waterfalls, and told her about water wheels and how she had plenty to produce electricity for the whole village of six seven houses. She was not impressed. I asked her about the disfigured trees, and she explained that they chop the branches off three times a year to feed the buffaloes, and that the greens come back very quickly. They had just had all their branches lopped off bonsai style.
I walked back down the gravel road, and passed all kinds of pretty houses and other terraced farms. I felt lucky to be alive. I felt grateful to have no demons flying about me. The electricity was out, still after two hours. My neighbour, also named Anita, came over and thanks to the gas stove we had a nice long tea on the marble balcony overlooking the mountains of Rishikesh, as the dusk darkened quite slowly. Then it was dark, she left, and I made myself some Maggi Noodles, your basic Ramen package, and ate it by myself with candlelight from the one emergency candle. In all these days here, it was the first time I heard a wall of crickets all around me. It was a good afternoon and sweet dusk.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
My landlord is away on holiday, and one of his buddies, Rashid, came to the house to make sure all was well, and that the tenants were happy and the servant was doing his job. After I reassured him all was well, he invited me to his hotel for dinner. I was not really surprised, as I find that well-to-do Indians do like company from other countries and are very hospitable. Since I was going up to that area any way to look into the cost of Thai massage and a steam bath, I paid Rashid a visit. His hotel was on a hill, with an amazing view of Darjeeling, but away enough to be in the cool and quiet woods. There were guava, mango and papaya trees all around the hotel, and along all the rails was a profusion of a strong orange coloured honeysuckle. It was very pleasing to the eyes. He invited me to his house at the very top, one with Roman columns, and an ornate balustrade, leading up to the upper rooms. I was a bit concerned that I was being shown this huge empty house on my own; not that I have been hit upon much now that I am in my fifties, and have stopped dyeing my hair, but among other things, I wondered if the many servants were used to a routine of western female tourists being brought into this den of ostentatious opulence. We eventually settled on a balcony on the top floor, one that led out from a spacious bedroom. Hmmmm... He ordered a fruit plate and sweet lime soda for me and pulled out a bottle of Scotch for himself. I declined to drink, which I do from time to time and anyway, I hate Scotch. We exchanged pleasantries, but his body language was restless and his attention span was quite poor. I am quite used to this. Racist as it sounds, many many Indians appear restless and inattentive during conversations. We got to talking about my landlord's servant, who is challenged in many ways, including speech, hearing and possibly mental faculties. He is a poor local villager. I mentioned that I thought he was unusually rough with my landlord's beloved dogs, pulling them by their legs, and otherwise manhandling them, to which Rashid quickly pointed out that female dogs were not safe in the servant's company. I shuddered, and said that was disgusting. I figured that he needed to tell me this to test my shock-ability, but it might not have been anything as premeditated at that. It could simply have been that he felt less inhibited in a western person's company. I am often seen as more approachable on taboo topics of discussion. I oblige and listen quite a bit.
Our talk was soon interrupted by two people who came to join us on the balcony. One was a thirty something year old swami whom Rashid has given free access to his house and a permanent bedroom. Rashid told me later that he did a lot of pujas in the house and that hosting holy people gave him good karma. The fellow was European, possibly northern Italian, wearing sadhu Baba garb, and with him was a female devotee from UK, wide-eyed, blonde, willowy and young. She told me her home was mostly in India, but she went back to UK to work every six months to raise money doing contract work in urban design. The swami prattled on about many things with a feminine affect, speaking quickly and jabbing in the air, mostly about the lineage of various spiritual masters. He often stopped to ask me a sudden question, and when I paused during my answer, he would quickly take over. Among other things I found out that the most honourable swamis, the least likely to be up to shenanigans, were Bengali. He also told me that Danish people were the best people on earth, and for a second I almost fell for the idea that my personal ancestry, Bengali and Danish, were just the most virtuous and desirable people on earth. I quickly snapped out of it. The devotee said "I knew you were Indian, something about your energy, your aura..." to which I said nothing. Nobody noticed my silence, which was a relief, because I did not have to tell more of my standard story of how it came to be that I was this and that. They left as suddenly as they came, and there I was with a slightly inebriated host and a fantastic view of the valley. There was a few seconds of silence.
Then Rashid started to tell me about his affair with a Czech woman, in the spirit of his perception that I was open to hearing about ostensibly shocking things. He told me about wife swapping parties in Delhi, and elsewhere. I didn't blink or miss a beat. I nodded. He explained that Indian wives just did their sexual duty without moving, and it was boring. From this information, I gleaned that his sex life with his wife was not good, but he did not say this explicitly. Nor did I get that she had joined him in these swinging circles.
He told me he had had affairs, but he was tired of younger women, because they were not experienced, that in fact, he was looking for older women because they knew what they were doing. I looked at him squarely in the eye, and said "don't look at me" rather matter-of-factly and laughing. He apologized profusely and said "no, no" that he didn't mean any disrespect. I said I wasn't offended, but just wanted to be clear that I was not interested. He moved on. He asked me if I could help him by finding an experienced older woman. I dont' know why but I said "sure, I will keep an eye out for you" and then considered what it would be to look out for such a woman in my daily walks and if I found one, how I would broach the subject. But why leave it at that?
I decided to turn things around a bit. I told him if his wife was not moving during sex, then it was his responsibility to do something about it. He looked mildly surprised. He was also a bit drunk. This was good. A good time to talk to him about the facts of life. Cultural metaphors work really well sometimes. As corny as it sounds, I explained to him that every woman was a Radha, waiting for her Krishna to come to her and seduce her, to make love to her. I said your wife is like Radha, waiting for you. His eyes were wide open and his ears perked up. The previously inattentive guy was very attentive. He asked me to clarify. I said that every woman wants to have good sex naturally, it just has to be woken up, and that his wife was right there waiting for him, only in her thirties, so what on earth was he doing running around looking for other women? I should clarify that he has several homes, in other towns, and his wife was in one of those houses as we sat in this one, discussing his possible duties as an Indian husband. I moved on to the metaphor of music. I said he would have to be the musician, and she would be the instrument, and that he would have to make music. He liked that a lot and started laughing as if it was a very big aha! moment. I laughed too and there was a sense of relief in the air for both of us. We were both talking about something dear to our hearts. He asked me where he could learn all this. I said it's from your own books, the Kama Sutra. He said "but my wife will be suspicious". I said no, she wouldn't be suspicious if he told her he loves her and has been doing research, and wants to improve their marriage. I told him to leave some such books lying around in the bedroom. I recommended he should start with endearments, and offer her foot massage and flowers. I should have mentioned chocolates, as mainsteam Indian TV certainly plays up these western cliches of what women want and it might work. Flowers and chocolate.
Rashid was very happy and declared that I was his guruji. I said "no, I don't think so" and laughed, and said I would be his friend. He said I could come and stay at his place anytime I wanted and for as long as I wanted. It was a very nice offer. He offered to drive me home on his motorcycle, but I insisted that I preferred one of his people who had not been drinking to drive me home.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Baloo and the Do-Gooder
I showed the American-Mexican volunteers to the alleyway opening to their hotel. It was dark and I was not used to walking at midnight down the familiar but smelly and broken streets. There were some autorickshaw wallahs standing around, some whispering, some engaging loudly, some of them clearly drunk, and I was aware of myself as the lone tourist, albeit an older somewhat substantial mother figure tourist. I took a firm, but relaxed stride, feeling basically safe, but wanting to give the signal that I was not to be messed with since I was outnumbered.
As I got past the darkest part of the street, where during the day plastic bangles and hand made jute bags with Om signs are hawked by a variety of persistent micro merchants, I relaxed into my uphill walk home. I passed some more very drunk people and recognized one of the hip rafting guides who stands out because he always wears a knitted hat with a thick line of tassles that look like an exaggerated mohawk hair cut. I think he is Tibetan, because of his height and width, but I could be wrong. I wanted to pass him unnoticed, but he called out to me with "Mataji" which was clearly affectionate and respectful, so I had to turn around. He said "help me, please, I cannot ride my motorcycle, I am too drunk". I hesitatingly said "yes", and asked him where he lived. My heart sank when he said he lived 3 kms away. I had no desire to walk that far or to find a taxi. Then he asked to sleep in my room, which was not an option as I did not know him very well at all. I had seen him hanging around the internet shop I use often which is also a trekking outfit. I realized that the owner of that shop, Pradeep, was my neighbour, so I could just take him there and let them take care of one of their own, shopwise and genderwise. I asked what his name was and as if that was an invitation he told me his wife didn't love him. My heart sank. I got him up and standing so we could go. As I started up with him, arm in arm, I felt discouraged at the idea of walking uphill with a very drunk and heavy man for the next half an hour, possibly having to listen to his side of a marital drama.
As I resigned myself, a police jeep cruised silently past us, and looked at us somewhat suspiciously. Suddenly I wanted desperately to maintain my air of respectability, given that it looked like I was a drunk older female tourist with a young gigolo-like man with a very strange knitted Mohawk hat. Lucky for me, Baloo shouted out "these are my friends, they will give me a lift". Oh Shiva. I did not want to spend time begging for a lift only to get a humiliating refusal. But they gave us a lift, in the backseat of the jeep. Baloo started ranting about something to the officer in the back with us, and I leaned to the front, and in my very best Hindi explained where we were going, which was only two minutes away by car. I was very very grateful to the police for the second time in India. That was just awfully decent of them, considering their extensive reputation for corruption, torture and general laziness. I dropped off Baloo with Pradeep, who said "no worries, thank you, we will take care of him" and was home in thirty seconds. How great is that, when things work out well?
Well, postscript. I found out today, the day after, that no one liked him there, and no, he wasn't really their friend, and he always gets drunk, but they took him off my hands to be nice to me. Sigh. What should I have done?
Thursday, February 02, 2012
Even stagnation passes
All things must pass. Even stagnation passes. I walked up the hill from my apartment in Rishikesh, towards the mountains and the more distant concrete and brick houses. The road was torn up and broken, as a newer drainage and sewage system was being put in, a covered one that would take sewage to a treatment plant and people would not be able to add their trash to the open gutters that now served as drainage.
Labourers were sitting on their haunches looking at the various pits, some lined with gravel and earth, others with running water and pipes at the bottom. A couple of them were working hard to dig and move piles of gravel manually, shovelful by shovelful. Usually the water drains down the hills along the street in open gutters. The water has a tremendous force as it sends downhill all kinds of debris, consisting of leaves, branches, twigs, tetrapaks, plastic and paper. But even the force of the water cannot clear away a blockage of the modern things if they refuse to get soaked and rot. Stagnant pools form, like small dams all along the road, usually where the gutter narrows, or where there is a grill for the purpose of straining out the big stuff and the debris creates temporary barriers and the water then sits, and seeps through very slowly, and often, just flows over and onto the road and creates new pathways.
Often men and women clear the blockages in front of their house with a stick or rod, but they do it by sending the debris further down the gutter, rather than take it out, unconcerned that this creates a problem a few meters downhill. And so the solid matter forms another plug. Today as I was walking, I saw a young woman clearing the waterway only to have it accumulate two meters down. I asked her in my broken Hindi, using my leverage as an elder, why she was doing it this way. She giggled, and looked at me sheepishly. I took a stick and started removing the second pile and throwing it over the side onto some uncultivated land near a small waterfall, where the organic debris would at least decompose. The water flowed better for the moment. I thought of all the uncleared stagnant water on this hill, both natural and manmade. I suppose, unattended, all stagnant things eventually clear with a little help from someone or from decomposition. Sometimes that eventuality can take a very long time.
If that time does not come, then the life force just finds another path.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
The Haridwar Hustle
It's difficult to sleep properly on a night where one has to get up very early to take a train or plane. I had set the alarm for 5:30 but did not sleep very well, having drunk too much tea and gone to bed by midnight. I kept waking up. Then Auntie Gulati woke me up at 5:25 anyway and I was mildly upset for missing that extra five minutes when I really was asleep. Having showered and packed most things the night before I didn't have much to do, so we left early for the Metro, which was running. I realized I absolutely had to go to the bathroom, and when I found myself waiting 9 minutes for the next connection, I was horrified at the thought of not being able to wait or to miss the connection. I did drag my three pieces of luggage up the stairs, and found out the toilets, maintained by some sacrosanct sounding society, were outside the Metro, so I had to drop in my token and run. The female metro operator was not only completely indifferent, but I am quite sure I heard them all laugh as I schlepped my belongings to the loo. The toilets were a disaster... the doors were rusty and ill fitting in this new Metro, the seat was dirty with muddy water, the flush did not work, you had to use a small piece of branch poked into a little hole where the handle used to be, to choose between low flush and high flush. I was immensely relieved that I did have some toilet paper, as the requisite little bucket and water tap were filthy. The floor was filthy too but I had no choice but to put my bags somewhere. It was preposterous, to be crammed into a dirty little toilet with three pieces of luggage, harem pants and down jacket, running late, with no sleep, to be unable to suppress nature's call, and at the same time be stuck deep in the cement bowels of a "new" Metro. Is this what I am reduced to when I try to hold my head high? It's funny of course, yes, in an absurd, film noir kinda way, but it was damn stressful, and the only thing that saved me was my steady breathing and refusal to give up. On the way back into the metro, I had to yell to wake up the security personnel who were fast asleep on the job of preventing terrorism in the fancy new Metro, a world class target for some ancient tribal feud. Perhaps these guerrillas could skip the security check and bomb the toilets?
I finally made my way through the pre-dawn concrete jungle at Ashmeri Gates of New Delhi train station, dodging mud and excrement pools, and found my way to my car and chair number with five minutes to go. The usual anti-terrorist squad were inattentively passing all our bags through a huge screening machine. Someone had taken my window seat and pointed to me to take their aisle seat, so he could sit next to his brother, but I refused. I asserted my right to look out the window at this country that was mine to be revisited, and viewed especially after I had reserved it that way. He relented, and moved, but left his shopping bag hanging from a hook over the seat. I didn't notice at first, but once the train started to move, it kept gently knocking into my head, so I asked him to please take it, which he did. My neighbour got to talking to me, and I discovered he was from Ottawa, had lived there for ten years, and was here for his father's funeral rites. His father had died suddenly, so he and his wife had flown into Delhi just a few days ago. He was on his way to Haridwar, and as a devoted Hindu son, he and his brother were bringing the ashes to the Ganges River in this most holy of cities. I expressed my sympathies, and he nodded towards the bag hanging now next to his brother in the next seat. Those were his father's ashes. I nodded and kept a poker face as I realized his father's ashes had been knocking against my head in a benign looking shopping bag. It is a little unsettling intellectually to think of this, but on a biological level, I could only think "so what, some more organic matter, his ashes, my head, distributed in some random permutation". I focused on the landscape, the endless trail of plastic trash in various states of compression, but not degradation, refusing to disappear, the stern, grimy, grim, tired, depressed faces of thousands of early morning risers and workers and students at the railway stations and crossings. I was hoping for a sign, a signal, something to reassure me that this was not all staged by a very dark humorist.