India, December, 2004
"The corn and the cattle are my care, and the rest is the will of god."i went to india for a hindu wedding of 1500 people, replete with castles, castes, and dowries. it was beautiful and i have no other mention of it here.
- Hindu proverb
the day that i returned to the US a friend told me that an earthquake had killed over 20,000 people in asia. today, a week later, that number has exceeded 150,000. and promises to rise. the fateful ripples were headed to madras as my plane was over singapore. maybe i was lucky, but according to bengali legend, a god named bidatha scratches your fate on your forehead when you're born. and that's that; your life is writ.
in india, freewill is a myth, past lives are a reality, and luck is the cause. this makes everyone both guilty and innocent.
out there, where the bengali sky drags its swollen belly across the green ricefields, fate is the water table that feeds everything else. this makes india incomprehensible to a westerner. any truth i could muster would also be a lie.
india is crowded with gods, humans, and contradictions. cattle wallow in blue slime next to children sorting trash and as our driver takes us down to marina beach we watch it all from the windows of the "Ambassador Limousine," india's national car.
down on the marina beach, before the tsunami came, a man slept with his dogs next to his fishing bark.
though we didn't know it then, 36 hours later marina beach would be trashed,
and not even the children would be sorting it out.
(all three photos of Marina Beach, Madras, courtesy of R.K.Raghunathan, The Hindu.
the people photographed below are (as far as i've heard from emails i've gotten in the last few days) still alive, but there are three kids that i met that are since dead. maybe they'll get a better incarnation next turn. chances are good. if you die young you're lucky.
here are some of the things i saw in the five weeks i was there, before the tsunami hit:
(click, of course, for the real picture)
i drove a motorcycle from madras south, through madurai, towards the southern tip, and back. it was a long drive - india is bigger than i'd expected.
barbie in india is beautiful and reminds me of amsterdam working girls. shiva has 1008 names (niilakanTha, or blueNeck being one of them). the kid brushing his teeth i met in pondichery. i gave him a shirt. he and his family live right on the beach, and while i haven't been able to get ahold of him, i fear that his life has changed dramatically.
later that day, the lovely women in saris were at the temple at mahabilipuram, on their way to celebrate the birthday of the woman wearing the hat. she has visited chicago and she gave me a handshake instead of the finger-touching greet. i found a poster i didn't understand. lastly, the red devil sculpture below was in a playground. the devil is standing on a small child who probably represents ignorance, but the kid in the playground seemed to feel the same way about this statute that i did.
the sign says "breakfast" in tamil, and here, dear reader, is an example of breakfast; idlies, masala dosai, sambar, and some milk tea with chutneys (tomato and coconut). idly is a rice patty, masala dosai is like a crepe, only full of a potato mash, and the chutneys and milk tea need to be tasted rather than explained.
i spent time in pondichery. it is a small post-french-colonial outpost south of madras that has the niceties of a place like biarritz or bayonne; a promenade, sweet bottled water, a slew of good restaurants, and hotels so polished you hesitate to enter with shoes.
i was lucky enough to be blessed by an elephant outside the temple of ganesh. this gal's job is to stand in front of the temple, collect coins in her nostril, bananas and leaves in her mouth, and the dollar bills get handed to her mahoot who sits to her right, on the step of the temple. she's not chained since she obviously knows she's got an important thing to do all day. if you've never spent time with an elephant i'd recommend doing this while you still have time. there's only a few thousand of them left on the planet and i have the weird, sinking feeling that they're smarter than humans. but you have to be close enough to smell one to understand this.
12 December, 2004"Your gods or my gods -
do either of us know which is stronger?"
- hindu proverb
i stumbled into india from a quiet life into the glaring truth of wealth and poverty, sickness and health, better and worse and i realized my sins were not as indelible, nor my judgments as correct, as i'd have liked to think before i arrived. india does one the favor of fundamental re-evaluation. for example, i had rented a motorcycle. i have been driving motorcycles for 18 years now, and i had my second accident in the town of pondichery. a driver swerves in front of me and i manage to miss him, but end up in the lane of oncoming traffic. it's dense traffic, too, and fast, and though i manage to slow down to about 5kph, i run into the back of a pedestrian walking with his friend. i had to hit something. it was too dense, and too fast not to. so i hit the man and he rolls forwards, and as he's rolling he looks me in the eye, we recognize each other on an instantaneous and general level, then he lies down on the ground and starts screaming. i barely knocked the guy over. but there we are, in front of the police department, and now i'm faced with a dilemma. on one hand i'm a white guy. this means that i have about 100 times the amount of cash, means of making it, and friends that have it, that he does. i can't blame him for making a big stink in hopes of getting some dough. on the other hand i hit a pedestrian and in my anti-vehicular ethos this is about as big of a no-no as running over a squirrel. only, of course, this has the inconvenience of civic consequence. india might look like a warzone, but it's really just a functioning anarchy, so the only reason the police got involved at all was because i hit him right in front of their office. i get off the bike and check his eyes and they're not dilating, i check his knee, and it's not broken, so the guy is basically concussion-free and his knee bone's connected to his thigh-bone, etc. some few minutes later we're headed into, he with his friend and me with my rental documents, the police station. i walk in first and they ask me my name and where i'm from. "United States. American. But George Bush No Good" (my stock response). they nod their heads in the curious sideways direction they do, and they offer me a seat on the bench and some tea. Mister Injury is helped in from the taxi by his friend and set down onto a different bench. the police inspector asks him what happened, a brief explanation is given (in tamil, of course) and Inspector starts to really yell at Mister Injury. i can't tell exactly what's being said, but it seems that this is all, somehow, Mister Injury's fault. Inspector raises his hand to bitch-slap the guy, who flinches a bit, and then Inspector sits down and looks at me as if i'm supposed to approve of this treatment. i don't know what to make of it since i don't know if i've managed to nab some criminal that's been on the lam for the last four years or if i've just hit someone that's of a lower caste. Mister Injury here checks out more as the latter; no shoes, darker skin, poor clothes, a lazy eye, and the most important sign - cracked and thick skin on his hands - so he's doing manual labor. i look at the clock in response (it's 1:50) and ask what we'll be doing next. Inspector tells me that we'll be going to court soon, but as he says this all the magistrates from upstairs come down and walk out to lunch. Inspector changes tack and says that we'll be speaking with the chief of police. so much for due process; it's lunchtime. 10 awkward minutes pass in which i try to apologize for hitting the guy, but Inspector tells me i don't need to apologise. then, after these minutes grind by we're taken into Chief Inspector's office and Chief Inspector asks me the same two questions: my name, my place of birth. same answers. i underscore the fact that i'm responsible for what happened. then Mister Injury comes in and he's not even asked anything, he's just yelled at - for a good, long time - and i can tell from Chief Inspector's hand gestures that part of the sin that Mister Injury committed was walking in the street. i can't remember there being a sidewalk. Chief Inspector yells at Mister Injury for a while longer and then once Mister Injury looks like he might break down in tears. the yelling stops and Chief Inspector looks at me. "You have three options," he says in clearly recognizable english. "You can take him to the hospital, pay for him to go, or leave and do nothing. As you like." i look at Mister Injury, who is feebly cradling his knee and fielding assurances from his friend. i tell Chief Inspector that i was responsible and ask what Mister Injury would prefer. But Chief Inspector won't ask him that. Chief Inspector says it's up to me. what would you do?
i paid Mister Injury a month's salary and left town.
back on the highway. the world here is built of hand-carved bricks and lorries painted blue and yellow with little devilheads on the back axles (to ward off the evil eye) and moldy walls and high sidewalks; they have rings on their toes and handlebar mustachios; they live among thatched huts and trash and fragrant coconut palms that grow out of potholes at the edges of decayed asphalt someone that didn't give a shit set down decades ago; they have long braids of black hair and they honk their horns to say "i'm here" rather than "you should not be there"; the bitter smell of exhaust; sad oxen and sad women riding side-saddle on motorcycles; rumbling trains; windy beaches; ganesh and shiva and vishnu; the laughing and naked children; dashboard effigies of mickey and barbie and buddha; limping men with bent shins; curry sunsets over still rivers; boys holding hands; the salwar kameez, sarees, sharwanis, and kordashus, so delicately woven in silk embroidery, and asian. madras is made of things like egmore, mylapore, nungambakkam, and chetpet bridge; it's more trash than gutter; 4 and 5 person families on a single bicycle; the tumeric-smeared faces of the faithful women; all the men have black moustaches; i asked Driver why this is so and he holds his fist in front of his chest and says, "Man power." remember; guns don't kill people. men with mustaches kill people. human ghost-children claw at the windows of the car. "give them food, not money," this is what friends of mine say. generally, i do. handing out a few rupees isn't a problem for me, and if 20 of them each ask me for two rupees, i've made them all happy and spent only a dollar.
meanwhile india appears cruel and affords you the choice to be what you will yourself to be - generous or other. i hit a snag when the girl with leprosy dressed in orange came up to me and began to pull on my shirt sleeve and wipe her leprous hands on my hip. my first thought was not of sorrow but of leper-cooties. in the face of real hopelessness, or real humanity (because, mostly, they are the same thing), you can be cold-blooded, if you like, and it won't matter. weirdly, in the face of real need cruelty is somehow as acceptable as kindness or generosity. you, dear reader, should consider yourself lucky if you don't know this.
i gave the girl a couple of rupees and she took her cooties away.
between this incident and paying Mr Injury a month's salary it might be said that all my generosity may be selfish. i like to think of myself as generous, but really, india seems to be pulling other threads of truth from my neatly embroidered self-opinion.
madras is made of an impossible modernity of coughing motors and spaghetti-strung cables and billboards that fill the sky. but underneath these urban screams is a laughing and desperate mess of humans, all doing the same things they've been doing for thousands of years, despite the introduction of cars and billboards with their stupid slogans stuck in the eyes of the passerbys. the world and its colors hum in your eyes, like hummingbirds.
13 December, 2004
"We Two, Ours One."
- indian bumper sticker
though english is as widely spoken here as anywhere save, maybe england, there's a vastly different body language. on first glance people seem to be shaking their head No to every question you ask. but smiling at the same time. the constant negative causes some confusion. on second inspection people are not shaking their head No, but rather wobbling it Yes, pivoting from the chin in side to side motion. this causes even more confusion since, in much of asia, No just ain't a word that's said (imagine asking your driver if he knows how to get to chetpet, and he doesn't, but answers Yes anyway). on third glance i found that it's a way of saying Hello, OK, Maybe, Yes, No, and everything in between.
there is a word i've learned today that is "pooja." it pretty much means Prayer. the hindus have pooja time, pooja beans, pooja statues, and just plain pooja, which is something close to magic.
india's depth seems infinite. a busy street of a thousand shops lurks between two buildings, and in each shop is a thousand shelves, and on each self are a thousand items, each a thousand years old, each requiring a thousand lives to build, and each one of them a busy street of a thousand shops.
christianity fits india about as well as high-heeled shoe fits a bull.
beggar children no longer frighten, disgust, or irk me. they are a part of the landscape. like the gutter they must be either stepped over or fed. if this seems cruel, it means you simply lack sufficient experience to know this truth. feeding them (with either money or food) serves as an encouragement. after all, people are animals, too.
in many ways india is the opposite of germany or england or the US (i'm thinking of that calvinist collage of western, north-western europe that emigrated to north america); it is opposite in that india is warm, the people are polite, the food is spicy (and good as well as vegetarian), the people are skinny and dark-skinned, there's feces everywhere, and it relies on completely non-mechanical solutions, like ox and human sweat, for labor.
i've managed to pick up a local sampler of dysentery, or something related to it. four days ago, i was walking on the beach and i had the unique experience of intending to let loose a little fart but instead shitting my pants, watery. this was my first indication something was wrong. i waddled back to my hotel room and cleaned up. i haven't done something like that since i was in first grade. even the creep i picked up in wartime baghdad wasn't as sneaky as this. so now i'm bed-ridden for a few days, listening to the wildlife noises of the honking horns and shouting people, and the rare siren. last night, while watching "RajTV" - the local music video channel - i got a case of sweatyforehead. so something is alive and well inside me, besides me, so i called doctor manohar (on harrington road) and he gave me some drugs. india is advanced travel - high benefits, high risks. as far as the dysentery is concerned, the only thing about all of this that i really mind is not being able to eat spicy food, as per the doc's orders. so i'm drinking about 5 liters of water today and watching the news. and trying not to fart. speaking of farts, the TV news offers a few american digestives that have escaped the knotted digestive tract of america. CNN is the best example. this means that indians, this 1/6th of the world's population, 90% of whom speak english, can see to some degree how uneducated, malinformed, and incorrectly opinionated we americans are acting. so this gives the indians, as a nation, upset stomachs, tolerating, as they must, all the shit and flatulence that flies from the land of the free and the home of the brave.
now it's time for me to return to my little porcelain throne in the other room.
18 December, 2004"Those who know astrology can indicate what will happen in the future.back in madras. it is peaceful and stinks like diesel puke. the fucking cars are drooling petroleum perfumes and the roads are choked with drivers are trying to killing me and it's all making me even more insane. after being on the highway for a week i'm twitch and hateful. indian drivers would cause psychdamage to 99% of all american drivers. indian drivers don't give right of way, even when they're passing on the highway. survival means diving off the shoulder of the road to avoid head-on collisions. whether in LA or madras, i hate four-wheeled vehicles. to paraphrase orwell, 'two wheels good, four wheels bad.'
Who else, besides the creator, can say?"
- vedic saying
at any rate, today i went to talk to a vedic astrologer, a nadi card reader:sri agasthiya nadi jothida nilayamhe told me my fate and fortune.
apparently, i was born in trincomalee, in sri lanka in my past life and i was a bit of a pimp. i had a gambling casino and i sold drugs and women. this was not good news. i had been a sinner. fortunately, i repented in my later years. i put a good deal of my fortune into building temples around eastern sri lanka and i somehow managed to please krishna and shiva enough that i got a good incarnation this time. this past-life story doesn't surprise me. apparently it is causing me some problems now. in this incarnation i have some potential pitfalls ahead of me. the sins of my past life, he said, "follow you like a shadow." he said that i need to watch my step. around the age of 50 my "servants will turn against" me and i may get really sick and my wife might leave with the kids when i'm around 45. otherwise i'm destined to live not just like a king, but a rich king, and i'm also destined to build my own house between the age of 40 and 43. these are good tidings, but i've got to deal with these past-life sins. they had a solution for me.
but before i explain that, the nadi astrological system works like this: some four thousand years ago a man had a vision. he was able to forecast the lives of the people that would interact with him in other lives and so he spoke to his students, who wrote down what he said. apparently, there are some 1008 different types of people (the number comes from 9 (planets) x 12 (astrological houses) = 108 + an additional 0 for merry measure. these can be identified by their thumb print. so when you go in the first thing they do is take your thumb print and send you to the waiting room. then, using that information, they start to dig through their library of scrolls. they'll find a group of scrolls and one of these is about your life. your life and some other peoples' too, since there are some 4 or 5 other people just like you that are doing what you're doing right now, just elsewhere in the world. their parents have the same names as yours, they have the same number of forks in the kitchen, they have the same amount of money, they were born on the same day, and they'll die on the same day, too. so while Mr Nadi is reading your page from this scroll, he's also reading a few other people's too. they figure out which of the scrolls (and which page on that scroll) is yours. this decision is based on yes-no questions. oh, one other thing; they won't have your card if you don't go to see them. this is a factor of fate. that's to say that if you don't go to visit them they won't have your card, but if it's in the cards that you'll go visit them, well, then they'll read your life to you. and past life and future life, too, if you pay them.
while i bought it, because i paid for it, i might have really bought it, had it not been for the photo i took of my pali leaf. afterwards, in looking at it, nobody that i know - indian or otherwise - can identify this as a ancient tamil, sanskrit, modern tamil or even a legitimate language. there's a page identifier on the right, and that's in tamil.
anyway, the clincher for me was that once we'd gone through my reading (astrology played an occasional guest appearance) i was told what i had to do to absolve myself. i was disappointed to find out that it would cost me 440 rupees (about 22 dollars) for 240 days. $2,433.46 is quite a tithing to wipe off some pimpiness from my past life.
beware the doctor with costly cures.
19 December, 2004"Call on God, but row away from the rocks."i drove south again. at some point my bike ran out of gas and a man walked out of the bushes to watch while i kicked the starter, stupidly trying to figure out what was wrong. he said "Petrol?" and it was a help (note the trucks taking up the lane. this is the kind of thing i was talking about up above. they do this regardless if you are in your lane, or not. in fact, they are constantly doing it).
- tamil proverb
i also picked up hitch-hikers. i would go a good distance out of my way for hitch-hikers. if you hitch, karma is real. so i gave an entire family a ride.
along the way i tried to pronounce the names of towns. tamil has a burbling sound, like bubbles in a stream, or a wooden drum. it looks like a jawsplitter at first, but rolls pretty easily once you say a few words out loud.
then to the sri meenakshi temple, in madurai. this was more sincere and made me feel like the stars were again in their proper seats. the place is old, and was the center of the tamil world for a good long time. these days, if you walk in, you'll find that it's littered with gold and red ghosts, floating aimlessly among their effigies as people throw butter and walk 108 times around a column of granite, chanting the names of planets.
below, are pictures of the temple, a family i met, and the man cleaning off butter balls from the statue of shiva. people throw butterballs as offerings, and he wipes them off once every few hours. it's actually ghee, not butter. the rest are images of the market and the temple.
22 December, 2004
i've driven from the west coast to the rockies in a single stint, but this bike-session through southern india was mean. at the hotel i documented the sunburn and soot, and went to get a shave. this included some old spice after shave (that stank up my face for three days afterwards) and an ayurvedic slap-massage (performed by two men, at the same time, one slapping my scalp, and one slapping my cheeks).
outside the hotel it's night. people are working construction and laying concrete; i can smell shit and incense; some man in the hallway is clearing his throat; out the window small fires are burning on the side of the road; tonight, it was clear that women do not go to bars, ever; smoking is a past-time for the rich, billiards too; service is always impeccable; a dollar is worth (maybe) ten; human labor is cheaper than water; i've given all my old shirts away (they each cost me about $40) to orphans, then bought four new ones that were custom-tailored silk, and only $3. i stayed out all night because the drive left me buzzing. in the night i found some sin, but in the morning i found that india has the brightest colors in the world. the air is full of water. though the colors are bright you can see neither far nor truly. the world is hallucinogenic. it's adorable.
i found a local temple on this street. i even made a donation to the temple, and the men there showed me my receipt. it wasn't much that i gave them. my sins were worth more.
in some restaurants in madras you can order chicken and, instead be served well-broiled pigeon. i saw a boy riding a scooter, and the reason i looked at him, the reason i saw the 20 or so living chickens tied to his handlebars, was because this bushel of birds was still clucking as they hung upside down, helplessly watching the pavement. if they were lucky they were on the outer edges of the birdly bouquet, and they could lift their heads enough to have a look around. it might have been 30 birds, judging from all the phlegm yellow and toenail white chickentoes. i followed him for a while. we went to a gas station and i took the photo below. later, he surprised me when he bought some pigeons from a woman on a street corner and added them to the bushel. pigeons are not as tranquil about being hung from handlebars, but i'll bet they taste about the same. of course, there were other things to see, like monkeys that would run in front of the bike, and impossible truckloads.
i found a communist party rally. note the chap on the right. the rest of them are pseudo-intellectual tough-guy types. you know; academics.
23 December, 2004
"What I have learned is a handful of earth and what remains unlearned is the Earth herself."my bike ran out of gas again. a man brought me a crappy plastic chair to sit on. the chair is de-facto hospitality, like offering someone in the west something to drink (but not quite). anyway, he and his wife are working part-time shifts at the local school, making 1600 rupees a month. thatís around $40 / month. after telling me this factoid, the man pointed out that america is a very wealthy country. i agreed and told him that india is, also. while lacking money, she is rich in love.
- tamil proverb
you know you're a long way from home when you stop for a break and 30 people silently stare at you. and you know you're even further away when three dogs are barking at you because they've never seen your color skin, and you know you're lost when 10 of those 30 humans walk up for a closer look. i didn't do much other than drink some water, smoke a cigarette, and say hello.
the more i travel the less i know. every hour i find the inexplicable. today, there was the bank of the river, where hundreds of people were pressing 10m long brightly colored rods into the mud, but not for irrigation, or hanging clothes. there were, outside the market, the pieces of living matter in bundles on some guy's cart, and at first i thought they were scabbed-up cow femurs then, when i didn't see flies, i thought they were some long stalk of yellow and purple rhubarb-type plant, then i thought they were human femurs, then i realized i couldn't tell if they were vegetable or animal, but since i think they were vegetable, this makes it even more mysterious. there was the 3m tall intricately decorated statue of a cat-woman dancing on a human baby as two horses looked on (and, No, it was not Hanuman destroying Ignorance). people had left diapers as offerings. there was the loudspeaker brassy speech blasting singsong lyricae at the whole village at 2pm (about what i will never be able to say). there was the woman who was running clockwise laps around her two cows, both of whom had their front feet on treestumps, nose to nose, patiently waiting and tied together, while she ran her laps, lightly slapping each cow on the ass as she ran by. there was the old war-cart (that might have been missing its elephant) left to rot in the middle of town near the temple. (notice how the man who appears twice in this photo stares as he drives by. he is not staring because i am taking a photo of something exceptional). it was on the main drag in town. there are other things that i think i can explain, like worshipping rats, pouring honey over a statue, leaving coconuts at the base of a phallic symbol, and having, maybe, 50 people ask me for money in a single day (and ten times that number give me smiles). these things are strange, but i know what they mean.. every one of these things make me less confident in the gangplanks of my understanding. maybe, if i'm lucky, traveling will scrub my brain clean of all the dribble i've sponged up from others over the years. i'll be like an alien, an animal, or a god and see humans as we are.
the emerald fields of rice, populated sparse with hunched shadows, the yellow-winged hawks, children shouting hello from the roadside, copper sunrise that unravels into silver mountains of cumulous afternoon, a warm sunburn on my knees from riding the bike with shorts, complicated moldy walls (that make the buildings real), a security guard that told me the way to find good drugs, and,
this is the land of the kama sutra. i met an indian girl dressed in a pink shirt whom i won't forget.
24 December, 2004
"One should never trust a woman, a dream, or a gond."this is my last night in madras. for now. i'm staying in one of those 5-star culture hotels named harrison's, on nungambakkam road, mainly because there's a really good restaurant here named Eden. anyway, everyone around here knows me, after a month of reappearances, and since i keep asking for spicier food for dinner they finally brought me a plate of onions with a menacing, and very small chili. when the waiter set this intimidating plate down in front of me he smiled and pointed out that rock music had been put on for me. though there were at least 10 families in the restaurant it didn't matter. i appreciated the gesture, thanked him, and bit into the chili.
- gond saying
my arms and head immediately turned numb, the volume of the music grew dim, and a strange panic fell over my head. india is a fistful of life. it is old and there is evidence of things, images and stories, that remind you that you're only a leaf on a river.
25 December, 2004
"Do not blame God for having created the tiger, but thank him for not having given it wings."on the day after christmas i was in the plane and madras inhaled salt. she exhaled her choleric sigh of despair, and the Tamil Nadu sunset turned a bruised shade of typhoid yellow, and the families wept at the water's edge as bodies floated like plastic bags into the newspaper front pages.
- Hindu proverb
hours after the tidal wave hits madras, i'm greeted, at the airport gate in singapore, by a strange reminder; it is christmas time.
india's all about fate. here (with things like tsunamis, smallpox, and stillborns), bad luck may be stronger than death, but as i fly over it all on my plush carpet of wealth it's clear that i've been lucky so far. i haven't drowned, i haven't caught a fever, and i was born screaming wild and healthy with cute pink cheeks in north america. in india things are different (maybe so different that they are opposite from our germanic lineage). indians are fierce and murderous, deadly disloyals that will stab your shoulder if you fall from the throne long enough to afford them opportunity - it's an understood reality among them. this reality is a little odd to find nestled among the great innocence and kindness of a culture of tolerance and servitude that fuels a warm democracy of spirit beatitude secret decency and cordial smiles of sincere sentiment. i don't find monotheistic cultures to be like that. not generally. but my being a pantheonophile aside, this trait of indian kindness and tolerance wanders around like the cows that graze the streets. indians are innocent and cruel at the same time. and this is all based on the simple principle of fate. the fateful line between a dog and a man is thin in india, as it must be in the eyes of a thousand gods. if you believe in fate then poverty is a thing you are born with, like bad eyes, or a tail. the actions of an indian do not belong to him but instead his crimes and his blessings both belong to the world. he is both a victim and a responsible party for the world he left behind in his past life.
this is how the past can become the future.