Old white-beard cabbie (younger than me) cranks us out of the airport in his black and yellow Ambassador taxi, over flyways, past pre-dawn activity of coolies unloading trucks, down Marine Drive—streetlights dancing in Arabian Sea—to south Mumbai, Colaba. In 4 a.m. dusty darkness, ghost sleepers are stretched on curbs, wrapped like mummies. A few are awake, huddled around trash fires, their bony silhouettes like sticks of bramble—laborers, most likely, readying for work, sipping their first cups of chai. Behind them, in crate-box shanties, women slap chapattis. One re-ties a square of plastic that serves as a door. Despite the ramshackle make-do—scraps of wood, cardboard, packing foam, rusted tin—a couple shacks reveal the medical-blue glow of flickering televisions. Are these sidewalk dwellers, with access to electricity, water spigots, and bus stops, the more elite of Mumbai’s immigrants? Or are they recent arrivals waiting for a place in “certified” slums with more permanent shacks, whose dwellers are organized into self-governing communities?
Above the shanties, glass-front Bombay offices rise into smoke-hazed stars between giant billboards advertising perfume, laptops, bedroom sets, luxury automobiles, baby biscuits, and the latest kiss-me-in-your-nightgown Bollywood movie. From our taxi everything rolls along in a blur, my eyes deciphering the human swamp in its dark cocoon. Ochre walls, moldy façades, Rorschach stains of monsoon rain. A coughing shadow, a babbling infant, a splintered prop of a woman bent over a wok on stave-like legs, a man silently ironing under a gas lamp: shadow puppets on the eyeball’s screen.
The taxi’s bald rubber gives a metallic screee as we turn left, right, catch a glimpse of a mosque with bamboo scaffolding wrapped around a minaret under repair. Then, an electric-bulb-outlined Hindu shrine; a row of gabled warehouses with bundled ledgers pressed to wire windows; a dismantled print factory oozing smells of mildewed paper and ink; a sagging row of multi-storied tenements emitting a whole spectrum of human odors—toil, food, sex, sleep, death—wafting from windows webbed with drying trousers, dhotis, underwear, unfurled saris. Beneath the laundry Durga rides a fierce-eyed tiger behind the wooden bars of her jail-like shrine. A half-naked attendant wakes from his pallet, gargles the requisite dawn mantra, adjusts his sacred thread, scrubs his teeth with a twig.
All things as they are
I tell myself, but everything
is as it isn’t.
Even if it were the middle of day, objects lit with full luminescence, this would be an indecipherable world, a moment of falsehood, perhaps—life beyond the void. Foam rolling in the gutter, a two-headed calf on the pavement, a seven-armed monkey with a king-sized mouth. A dream-like jetlag arrival into a place absolutely strange, yet with an imprint of familiarity deep in the psyche. Bombay sun is not up, yet I am already burnt by it. Our cab driver jolts along stiff in his seat, tilted to one side, like a dummy. His mouth is on the front of his face but his voice muffles through the rear of his head: “Which country you coming from?” The rutted asphalt turns into brick pavement as we dodge a sleeper dangerously dozing between axel-grind of overloaded trucks. One says HORN ME PLEASE on the tailgate. Another is painted with a buxom lady braiding her hair amid strutting peacocks. Suddenly into view comes Mumbai’s over-ornate British-built railway station, Victoria Terminus. Three million travelers pass through its cathedral-like arches daily, yet the station appears smaller than expected, squat and compressed. The British designed it like a palace, a church, a high court, perhaps to suggest their grip on India. But the terminus comes off as a heavy old wedding cake clunked down in the soft flanks of Hindustan—something from Jules Verne, an undersea organism accented by yellow spotlights. For the British the terminus symbolized progress, refinement, empire. Charlie Parker would have done an about face:
a good idea, someone
should try it.”
We circle Flora Fountain. Its Roman goddess looks awfully white for this country. Sculpted in England, sailed across the sea, she’s fixed to a pedestal in a grassy hub where three boulevards intersect. At this hour, no pedestrians, only a motionless cow standing like a perfect replica of a motionless cow. A short ways down a branching side lane, our taxi halts, we tip the cabbie, unload our two pint-size bags, sign in at a small hotel. In the gleaming lobby a desk clerk stands priest-like behind an open ledger on his pink marble altar. He greets us as if we were a couple of celebrities. With an air of officialdom, he records our passports into the massive ledger and sends us up the tiny lift to a room looking over a tree-lined side street. It’s a bit tight but super clean: vintage 1940, high ceilings, marble floors, scrolled woodwork, overhead fans, patterned drapes, a tall mirror flanked by frosted art-deco lighting. On a rosewood table between our twin beds sits the Bombay yellow pages, a black dial telephone, and a menu. The desk clerk has already told us “dining in the hotel is an unnecessary expense. There is a South Indian café across the street. You will see it from your window.”
Go out to go in
let new trails blaze
Eagerly wake after brief sleep. Down below, early action under graceful trees that pepper the pavement with yellow blossoms. A man saws a block of ice on the bed of a “Goods Carrier” truck with a hand-painted Shiva meditating between the headlights. Three coolies in plaid lungis unload bottled water from a cart. Two sari-clad women swish reed brooms curb-to-curb, bent in the eternal position of labor—as dictated by caste. Their children will likely inherit these same jobs. I wonder how much these women earn, who pays them? What distant village are they from, in what tangle of this city do they make their home?
At precisely 7 a.m. Lalit South Indian Restaurant rolls up its metal grate and the open-air dining room appears. The sidewalk has been washed and swept. The corner newspaper-wallah weights his neatly folded periodicals with squares of lead. Gray-headed crows squawk from balconies. Crows and brooms, India’s first morning sounds—unless you’re sleeping opposite a mullah’s tower, in which case your automatic wake-up is the crackling ascent of prayers to Allah. I stand, yawn, look from my perch. A man directly opposite looks back from his. My idea of him might just as well be his idea of me: a mistaken identity that lives on in the imagination to undermine reality. Or, determine reality.
Lalit’s manager whirls fire and incense around an idol of Ganesha as we seat ourselves at one of a dozen freshly wiped tables. Outside, the streets are bathed with saffron light, a diffused radiance mottled with dust, sea salt, the acrid drift of piss, sweet jasmine, and penetrating medical odors from a chemist’s shop. The inside of Lalit’s smells deliciously of home cooking: pepper, tamarind, toasted mustard seeds, grated coconut, and coffee. The manager looks at us, flips a switch, and a ceiling fan begins to whir above our table. The panni boy brings two silver tumblers of water. If you are a regular here, the food simply appears. If not, you choose from an extensive menu.
We already know what we want: idli and frothed milk coffees. Idli is the quintessential South Indian breakfast: delicate saucer-like cakes made from rice and lentil flour stirred into a batter, allowed to ferment overnight, put into molds at dawn, and steamed. You get two idlis on a plate—or on a banana leaf—with two tiny stainless-steel bowls. One of sambar, lentil broth with bits of aubergine or green pepper. One of coconut chutney, spicy enough to wake the senses and clear the pores. You dip the idlis into the sambar (flavored with toasted mustard seeds, fenugreek, cumin, dried red chilies, peppercorns, curry leaves, turmeric) and alternately into the coconut chutney (a favorite; it’s found in Indian grocery stores back home, but its essence is best when the coconut is grated on the spot, spiced with chopped green chilies, tamarind, roasted dal, curry leaves, ginger, and a dash of salt).
Everything is eaten with the fingers in South Indian eateries. You enter, go straight to the washbasin, rinse your hands, dine, and wash up again before you leave. You know where your hands have been, you’re responsible for their cleanliness. It’s a lot different than not knowing the state of hygiene when using silverware that has been in a million mouths, some quite questionable. I order another milk coffee and open today’s Times of India:
WORLD WILL SOON SPEAK INDIAN ENGLISH
“A new kind of Standard English with pronounced Indian characteristics may signify the end of the primacy of the American English. Future users of global Standard English might routinely say, “I am thinking it’s going to rain,” rather than the British “I think it’s going to rain,” because in language numbers count and India has the largest English- speaking population in the world. Ten years ago that record was held by the United States. English learning in India has increased steadily since 1997. Today there are over 350 million speakers of English, equal to the combined English-speaking populations of Britain, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Even now, if you ring a call centre, it’s often an Indian voice you hear on the phone. As the Indian economy grows so might the influence of Indian English.”
We don’t hear any English in Lalit’s, but the article reminds us how easy travel is throughout the subcontinent. Everybody knows a little English except in the most remote villages. What is unique to India as an emerging 21st century global player is the pervasiveness of English spoken by the middle classes, a clear advantage over China (its nearest competitor), which lacks the popular spoken-English tradition of India. The final details of our travel arrangements—frequent flyer negotiations for a gratis round-trip between Albuquerque and Mumbai—were made via a toll-free telephone number, speaking to a rep in Bangalore. She spoke in a liquid, musical lilt full of distinctive rhythms and oddly placed accents. I couldn’t help comparing what I was hearing to the expressive modes and microtones of the Indian raga.
Kept up the talk
just for the dazzling lilt
of her voice.
Having packed little in the way of clothes, we stroll Mahatma Gandhi Rd. to a garment shop. Renée buys a salwar kameez; I outfit myself in a white cotton kurta. Inexpensive and cool. Back in our hotel for a rest, I dream of a dark animal-like beauty. I stroke her feline face. She purrs forward, retreats teasingly. Then nuzzles up to me, opens her mouth to sigh, whence I notice she has hardly any teeth. One side of her upper jaw is missing. She’s an old hag. I recoil in horror!
Wake, shower, clear the head with nimbu panni, sparkling soda water with lime juice and sugar. Walk around the corner to Strand Book Store, tight little place piled high with hardbacks, paperbacks, monographs, chapbooks, and literary journals. One of those well-managed, diverse-but-focused bookshops that exists as a political and cultural statement in the face of best-seller boredom promoted by the likes of Barnes & Noble. If you don’t find what you seek, the eclectic staff offers suggestions. Browsing the poetry section, we meet Sunil Poolani, publisher, poet, “self-proclaimed pessimist.” He has a vast knowledge of Indian writers, and suggests poets Arun Kolatkar, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Jayanta Mahapatra, and a young people’s poetry anthology, all published in smart low-cost editions.
I find R.K. Narayan’s Dateless Diary, a book Moritz Thomsen suggested decades ago when we were stoking the mind fires in Quito as young writers in the Peace Corps. I randomly open it to Narayan’s rap about how he once upset an American university class he’d been invited to speak to. “After bringing all questions to the edge of a precipice, everybody looked at his watch and planned his retreat saying I’ve a class or I’ve a meeting.” His feistiness unappreciated, he concluded: “English studies work on the basis that a dead author is a good author. He is passive and still while you explain and analyze him in the classroom. Having a living author on hand may be like having a live lobster on your plate.”
Eros theater Halo Head-conditioner
Best Erections Construction Company
Kneel-deep Help Systems
Peeve Butler Service
Signs, labels, conundrums. We bump our way through tailors and collar-stiffeners south of Crawford market. Schoolgirls exchange pocket mirrors, lining their eyes as they cross the Oval Maidan toward Churchgate Station. Polished shoes and knee-high white socks under checkered skirts. Along Dr. D.N. Road, peddlers line a cool arcade over bins of underwear, envelopes, rubber stamps, Chinese dildos, Korean eyeglasses, glow-in-the-dark thongs, import biscuits, pirated music. Artists tack their work to those big yellow-flower shade trees I’ve been trying to identify. “Gulmohur,” says a vendor, looking to the branches. “Jacaranda” another chimes in. “Tamarind.” “Flamboyant.” I return to Strand, search for Trees of Bombay. No luck. We take a taxi uptown to Crossword Books. No luck. Above the register, a paper sign bobs in the breeze of a ceiling fan:
'There is a great deal of difference between an eager man
who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read'
Crossword isn’t far from Mahatma Gandhi’s former house, Mani Bhavan, so we stroll over there between well-kept houses, streets full of kids playing soccer. Gandhi lived in Mani Bhavan from 1917 to 1934, using it as a base to plan civil disobedience against the British. The house is just as he left it, filled with his books and books about him, photos, and—in a room that’s been turned into a museum—dioramas of the independence movement. We take portraits of each other on the balcony where Gandhi spoke to his followers. A tender, reflective moment. “Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”
I remember standing on another balcony with an equal sense of poignant reflection—the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot. When we stare into Gandhi’s room and see his pallet, spinning wheel and modest writing bench, I recall Dr. King’s similarly preserved motel room, where he took his last meal before exiting the door onto the fateful balcony.
“Democracy must in essence mean the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic, and spiritual resources of all the various sectors of the people in the service of the common good of all.”
In the library room, Renée copies the Mahatma’s words into her notebook, adding sadly: “How far we are from this!” In this age of bigger, better, louder, and so many hubris-headed despots strangling the world in their grip, one wonders if Gandhi’s concept of self-effacement and ardent self-examination survives among those struggling for change. Everybody wants more. Pakistan wants Kashmir, the Taliban wants Afghanistan, China wants Tibet, and Tibet is evermore in the news. The young are reaching the end of their pacifist tolerance for China’s occupation of their homeland. The Dalai Lama, meanwhile, upholds Buddhist ideals that, for him, are not “concept” but the truth of his practice. Doesn’t seem these ideals are working for Tibetans in Tibet, though—their motherland violently usurped, their language, culture, and spiritual identity crushed. Where will the path lead?
a red sun sinks behind
spinning prayer wheels.
The inevitable unpredictability of travel. Didn’t expect to find ourselves in Mani Bhavan, but here we are, pondering the lives of Gandhi and King. I think of Matsuo Basho: his walkabouts, his attention to history. Treading paths over cobble, through brambles, onto the moor. Visiting sites where battles were fought, where famous lords passed, where hermit-poets set up their digs. For Basho, travel was a self-imposed exile from the familiar, a slipslap trail into things shaky and askew. He never knew where he would land next. In soggy fields, over flowering heather, in tumbledown inns he met strangers, experienced the exact issues of their lives.
The kind of “getting-down-low” travel established by Basho is a great model for present-day travelers—a way of meandering off the obvious trail onto paths that go beyond what travel guides want you to see, or what headlines would have you believe. Walking the Chiapas backcountry a few years ago, sharing coffee and spirits with the locals, Renée and I got well off the trail into Zapatista territory. We were always aware that people labeled “terrorists” or “guerrillas” by the media were—in the reality of their political, social, and economic struggles— resistance units defying government and corporate systems that didn’t work for the good of their communities, or for their environment. Basho would not only have reported on the flora, fauna, and minute particulars of people’s daily doings, he would have taken the robber barons to task through his remarkably penetrating eye. And his swift, compact prose punctuated by one-breath haiku.
The Old Master should be part of every school’s curriculum, any level, any age. Youngsters love his poetry. They like hearing about his long walks, the idea of grass for a pillow, his attention to the scent of plum blossoms, the bush warbler’s song, the roughnecks and courtly beauties he met, the horse munching a clump of wild roses, the snowball fights, and Mt. Fuji poking through the mists. Teenagers dig Basho, too. It’s a surprise to them, the way he tuned his senses to experience “real flowers of the world” as opposed to virtual, “online” reality. Teenagers!—it’s ever more difficult to raise them from the dead. They have to be forced “down low,” out of the box, into the nettles. It’s a tough act to sway them from their electronic toys. What has the new age brought? Fright of being “disconnected,” fear of being alone. Inability to listen, low tolerance for the written word. Interruptions have come to rule, sentences are left unfinished, it’s hard to return to the starting point of a thought. The call waiting, the “I’m gonna lose you,” the “if we get disconnected,” the “let me call you back” phenomenon. Why call at all?
When spoken to—
only a baffled look
from the plugged-in student.
Errg, am I becoming a crabby ole geeze, unable to cope with the times? A rough-and-tumble guy brought up on pencil and paper, transitioning to clunky Remington office typewriter, then lightweight Hermes Rocket—the one I used during lone adobe-hut Andean nights? And, finally, the computer. I’m happy to learn that even well-seasoned poet, Po Chü-I, had his complaints. In The Life and Times of Po Chü-i Arthur Waley quotes ole Po grumbling about becoming “white headed,” around insensitive “young people (who) are impatient of the old and make friends only with one another.” And this was in 839!
It’s a delight to come upon the exception to the norm. In our travels we’ve met the 19-year-old who left her London suburb for nursing work in Phnom Penh, the 20-year-old who left Quebec to study whales and learn a third language while living with a fisherman’s family, the kid who moved from the Bronx to teach in the slums of Guatemala, and a guy working with African farmers, going against the grain of monoculture, sowing non-genetically-modified local crops—as well as the seeds of social concord. Strength in change!
When Basho wrote his famous haiku,
a frog jumps in
the sound of water.”
I can’t help but think he was signaling: make it new! Let the tired singsong frog that appeared in way too many traditional haiku disappear into the murk. Let something fresh come into the frame! Reconfigure the conditions of your life. When traveling forsake plans, take sudden dives, let chance happenings widen the path. If invited for a cup of chai, step through the jute-bag flap of a city shanty or the gate of a mud-walled farmstead. Leave your comfort zone behind. Intersect!
Ha! an inchworm
on my knee
Gateway of India
The famous harbor-facing British landmark, its triumphal arch topped with stone minarets. Under it, British colonists passed after their long approach over the Arabian Sea. Under it, they took leave when India declared independence. An evocative spot, it lures you into a whirling spectrum of well-heeled, rag-weary, diamond-studded, slop-bottomed, footloose citizens whose lives have been stretched beyond the limits—into wealth or debt, into crime or lunacy, into love or suicide. The swarm buzzes like a cyclone, tickles your nerve endings with a high-pitched whine. The pavement underneath tickles you, too. A beggar wisps his fingertips ever so lightly upon the legs, as if to keep you upright in the vertigo of fat shapes, thin shapes, shapes in crisis, shapes warped, elongated, smoked from the genie’s lamp, pulled and stretched from their own reflections.
Through sheer cotton
so many colors
of sunlit skin—
Everybody whirled and spit from the house of mirrors: upright Bombay locals, soiled bumpkins hunkering against poster-glued walls, stubble-beard backpackers traipsing the planet, old couples from Rajasthan, young monks from Dharamsala, village women from Madhya Pradesh, Rajputs from Kutch—all parading in regional outfits. Children’s faces turned peacock blue with colored popcorn, teenagers sauntering coolly in contraband jeans, springing along in air-heeled Nikes. If for just an afternoon, one feels a bonding—sans tension. No suspicious eye, no out-to-get-you look, no condescending smile. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, Buddhists—each with Sunday tolerance, as if they had put their hands into the fire in a past life, a life no longer applicable to this Sunday afternoon of elevated pleasure.
A thousand million people in India! Impossible not to avoid the multitude. The first time I came face to face with the throng was in Varanasi. A holy day. In a tiny inn above an alley near the bathing ghats, I woke at dawn to the strangest of sounds: a low rumble of slappity-slaps increasing in volume until a steady thunder filled my ears. The room was shaking. My whole body was vibrating. I peered from the window to a stream-like roar: thousands of pilgrims making way to the Ganges for morning puja. A flashflood of flesh! Wall-to-wall bodies seething through the alley—barefoot, barely clothed—swinging water pots, towels, incense, flower baskets. Hardly a murmur of voices, just a universal heartbeat, rhythm of flesh, hum of feet, rub-ruffle of silks and cotton.
Baudelaire claimed to be fortified by crowds. He carved rude alphabets from dissected faces, a blackened bouquet, a feverish eye—feeling equanimity, neither inferior nor superior, in the mix. He bathed in the multitude, saw it as an occasion to lose the self, disappear into others. A holy communion, mouth open, tongue rolled out to receive the body of—not some singular godhead—but that of the busy crowd. To become intoxicated by the Mass! To bend one’s singular ray into the fluid dissolution of the horde’s ever separating, rearranging spectrum.
Kerouac felt it, too. When not on Desolation Peak—or alone in the woods in North Carolina, or ever-solitary and watchful above the ramble and talk in the open alley-window of his San Francisco flophouse—he was drawn to the pack, the gang, the crowd, the misfits: brouhaha of amigos, tipsy women, table-banging rowdies, chance-operational encounters with strangers. He knew what Baudelaire so well expressed:
“Multitude and solitude: equal and interchangeable terms
to the active and fertile poet. He who does not know how
to people his solitude, does not know either how to be
alone in a busy crowd.”
Kerouac, that dedicated shambles of a man! Soulful, ill at ease, diligently observant, magnetized to women, men, ants, cats, the little Lamb, the holy sufferers—a guy with antennas up who could swim the language wave and ride the undertow of slapping feet, barking drunks, madball orgy. He never made it to India, but in his imagination he saw “Benares, capital of the universe.” He could have paddled into the masses, reporting the details of the hum. Strangers “grooking in the streets.” He had that same peculiar genius for abidement, enjoyment, makeusement of the closely packed urban realm—as he did for lightning-crag Cascade solitude, or a boxcar ride under the stars with the lamps of America rushing by in the wet cradle of night. The dusty Deccan of India from the Madhya Pradesh Express? A banged-up bus to Rishikesh? Mumbai with its glass elevators and broken stairwells, mosques and minarets? In the bone rattle, Jack would have found some uncanny vision of eternity.
“The universe is a lady
Holding within her the unborn light—“
Strange to be here, tasting the salt air of Arabian waters, hearing a clang in my head, remembering Kerouac and Baudelaire, following the myrrh of the Muslim gal peering from her cloth windows, or the wood-peg dance of a leg on broken cement, all the while whorling further into the crossfire conglomerate of the bald, the dreadlocked, the barefoot and leather-soled, the stub-legged and stiletto heeled. Hunkered gamblers, diamond-caned esquires. Ring-nosed, string-tied, sequin-veiled, dhoti-clad, jock-balled, bare-assed. Infants in baskets, boys on stilts, goats at the sweeper’s bin. Everything bulging at the seams, sputtering like a wick. Obscene, Holy, Phony—all believable, absolutely genuine. Pock-faced lepers, opalescent movie queens: side-by-side on the pavement, walking, hobbling, rollerblading.
“The one wide street
Lolls out like a giant tongue”
A fortuneteller wants to read my futur. I don’t want to see that far ahead. No searchlight scanning the sea, please. No lantern lighting the top of the stairs. “Okay, then I will turn the pages of your past. Just twenty rupees.” No! I prefer the crowd. Such faces! A musical salad! Some are content to be who they are—dust on their shoulders, gold on their toes, metal trident, saffron veil—enough. Others imagine a life larger than their own, and copy it, like actors on stage scripting clumsy lines, dressed like Bollywood stars. There are tarot readers, scam artists, memory tuners, street gamblers, limo drivers, a lunatic whapping his stick to the ground, a sun-stroked willow of a woman bundling and re-bundling her rags. The candy man does a birdsong twitter, the balloon girl is nearly pulled into the sky by her goods, a juggler’s rotating arms look like a child’s scribble. An oiled-and-coiled human knot of a kid pulls snakes from his head for the camera-heavy Tokyo punk who immediately retracts his lens when the kid demands:
for my face.”
A disoriented flight attendant walks up to us. “You speak English? Can you point me to the Taj Hotel? I’m from Miami, my first time in India. The rest of the crew told me: just go, walk out and see it. But I’m lost!” She is pale, perfect, petite, and clean. We try to help, but point her the wrong way. When we double check with a knit-capped man in a tunic, he waves us away. “Arabia, Arabia, no speak.” We watch the young woman dissolve into the crowd, as if being yanked offstage. We are pulled oppositely, between the samovar-toting chai wallah and a scuffling sadhu decked in body paint, checking his watch. A gold-skinned girl with burning eyes, who, I say to myself, I will never see again, looks right at me as if this is again.
the two of us
like crossed knives.
Smile of hope, dread of knowing. A day of leveling where castes, creeds, singularities, hierarchies go opaque in the single throb of the crowd. A perfect beginning for India: to exchange identities; go aslant in order to stand straight. To be pulled from the self into the consciousness of the crowd. And then, to see a bobbing ferry, to notice a sign: HARBOUR CRUISE, and to buy a ticket—another impromptu move. Without plans, everything is possible.
We cross the gangplank, pay an additional five rupees for the top deck, climb the rusty ladder, seat ourselves. A bell rings. Off we sputter into the violet haze. Ah, flimsy-ruddered ship bulging with nuzzling honeymooners, young parents rocking a firstborn, gaggle of extended families. Drugged, steamy odor of mothers, fathers, sons, daughter-in-laws, web-faced grannies abandoning all glee to rigidly pose for the obligatory portrait.
Mumbai skyline falls away behind foaming waves. City lights blink in pointillist dusk. Harbor grows smaller, the crowd along with it. I offer a salaam, a namaskar—to the couple in the horse-drawn chariot, the loose-buttoned groom with his inert bride; to the blind accordionist crooning her nasal-falsetto lament; to the huge-head-of-a-man rolling backwards on his pallet; to the gloss-lipped follower of Allah, thin as a key, in sequined scarf and black salwar kameez, flashing precious stones as she takes the arm of her burkha-clad mother.
India, one juxtaposition after another. The strictly covered follower of the Prophet next to the unabashedly naked Vishnu worshipper. A tinseled whiff of patchouli above gutter-foam stink of excrement. The cufflinked man at his laptop next to a sidewalk scribe at his Olivetti. Someone starched, someone unwashed. Someone whip-cracked, someone high on stilts. Someone running full speed, someone on remote control.
The alchemical theater! It smells of hair gel and menses, roasted chickpeas and brass. It writhes with unshaved bards mouthing gibberish, peeking through saris, construing veiled nuances and symbolic interconnections, raising new goddesses into their literary pantheons, dusting the soiled waif with attars of wormwood and rose. I hear the clockwork chant of Puranas. See the betel-teeth pimp unroll a carpet to the harlot’s window. This city! Every pore opens, the eyes dislodge. Memory steps ahead of reality, the future basks in the behind. On the promenade, a sign:
under it a legless beggar
sets out his bowl.
Mumbai, electric tsunami—it catches everybody in its tow. Villagers step off long-distance buses trundling a few utensils and blankets to make do until they establish themselves, win their fortune, return home. But how many stay, never to return? How many reinvent themselves into trash pickers, scaffold climbers, twine twisters, pill peddlers, pickpockets? How many children strip the garbage heaps and sewer grates to sell to recyclers? How many housewives crush rock, hoist cement, haul dirt, mow the lawns of 5-star hotels with their bare fingers? The family priest is in the mix, too. He left home, went village to village, state to state, taking small change from devotees at the Naga shrine, taking coconuts from women at Kanchipuram, taking the little girl’s smile who believed in trust, even taking the gold bangles from the Kamasutra idol—ones offered by pilgrims hoping for better karma.
The ferry wobbles in its own wake. On the prow, I stare into dusk, hear faraway toll of the university clock, the grind of the cane juicer’s mill. A bar of fluorescence colors the sex worker in her iodine-blue doorway. Kites tremble, griffins circle, vultures dine on open-air burials on the Jain hill above the bars and double-deck buses. I can see the shore very clearly: men defecating under the bridge, a quarrel over tea, the bride dutifully ironing her husband’s kurta, the prune-faced philosopher sinking deep into theory, the ash-collector’s bloodshot eyes, the bored pundit playing with his balls, a dribble of milk running down Parvati’s hip, a rat slipping out of its hole into the luckless gentleman’s shoe. The sea slaps the prow. It sounds like sex. I open my mouth to the night. My tongue melts. I am the crucible holding fire that shapes the sword—or is it a key? A venture is beginning, the sea becoming deeper as we circle anchored battleships. Electric signs blink as we near port. Sanskrit, Hindi, English? They look like dismembered limbs, bones, bare skeletons of language. The gangplank lowers. Will a crooked staff keep the path straight, or is the rudder off to stay?
To roam, yes—
to be washed up where everything
far fetched is within reach.
We purchase two berths on the overnight express train to Goa. It departs at eleven so we’ve time to kill. It’s a short walk from our hotel to Mahesh Lunch Home, an unpretentious seafood restaurant with low ceiling, close-together tables, fish swimming in a glass wall. Not an expensive place, yet the waiters wear royal-blue suits and purple bow ties. They stand prim and ready over patrons who’ve come for the famous Mangalorean fare: fresh-daily shrimp, tiger prawns, kingfish, pomfret, ladyfish, lobster, crab, squid, mussels. Everything’s prepared in tangy spices and grated coconut. Renée orders crab cracked in the shell, moist and covered with a rich, red coconut-based curry. It comes with crisped vegetables and naan. This alone is enough for two, but I’ve ordered flash-fried masala shrimp and a side of lemon rice, so we’ve plenty to share. A waiter ties napkins around our necks and we dig in. Succulent, impeccably prepared—a meal for kings at a price for paupers. When finished, we’re given bowls of water with sliced limes to wash our hands and sugared fennel seed to cleanse the breath. We walk the streets for a bit of exercise before hailing a taxi to Victoria Terminus to meet our train.
Fontainhas. The old quarter of Panjim, Goa’s laid-back capital. We choose an inn that our British guidebook describes as “picturesque, refurbished colonial-era house on quiet backstreet, good views, cool tile floors, balconies lined with pot plants.” I haven’t had the pleasure of inns with pot plants since Kathmandu in the ’70s! The pot plants, however, turn out to be “potted plants”—big leaping pink bougainvilleas. The rest of the place is as described, and, for $18 a night, very reasonable. Fontainhas has the feel of a Mexican colonial town. At the end of our street are a whitewashed chapel and a little plaza with geraniums circling a sky-blue well. Naples-yellow façades with green-shuttered windows front the shady lanes. Some date from the early 19th century, perfectly restored. Others are in semi-collapse, walls peeling, grass sprouting from roof tiles, rust eating the balcony rails—a Mediterranean decadence redolent of heat and ferment. Vines tangle abandoned gardens. Damselflies flit over murky ponds under dusty guava trees. The fuzzy, cerulean sky floats with petals riding the sea breeze.
It’s okay to do nothing in Panjim. Couples perfect their lingering on cool verandas. Guys under straw hats, wearing suspenders and bow ties, resolve their politics on wrought-iron park benches. Nothing doing, everything unfolding. Plenty of feni, Goan wine, to bring one into a state of at-oneness with the world. The busy season is over, the city low key. What few foreigners are here have gone straight to the beaches, the parachute rides, the post-hippie full-moon raves tailored for those who missed the Seventies. The sluggish weather adds to the quiet. The pre-monsoon mugginess repels most visitors. For a couple of northern New Mexicans who’ve suffered an abnormally cold winter, the weather is perfect.
the verandah’s warmth
as I take off my shoes.
It’d be interesting to research this whole tourism thing. Exactly when did foreign travel to places like Goa become fashionable? V.S. Naipul, in one of his books, suggests the numbers increased “when steam replaced sail.” Unlike Goans who wrap themselves from the sun, foreigners don’t. They’re here to strip down and bake on postcard-perfect beaches they’ve researched on the internet. Few come for the sights, the history, the inland villages with their lively street markets. Only once, in Java, do I recall a modern traveler dressed practically, yet elegantly, for the tropics. Layered in light cotton—a vanilla skirt with ruffled details, a lace-trimmed long-sleeve blouse, a sunhat, and parasol (looking quite Edwardian, I suppose)—she was walking market to temple to fields with local women (beautifully attired in brocade kebayas and sarongs), graciously accepting invites into their homes. Her daughter accompanied, in a white dress embellished with simple embroidery, tucks, and cutwork. Her blouse was as delicate as a spider web, yet it properly covered her shoulders and cleavage—excellent attire for temple visits. Accented with moonstone earrings, silver bracelets, and a trace of champa oil, her charm was magnetic. No REI insect-repellant synthetics or extended-bill caps with mesh side panels for these ladies!
A cooling song in this heat
—river stones polished
by shifting currents.
Today, Sunday, most everything is closed save for the churches. There is one South Indian eatery on Rua de Ourem open for breakfast. And a pharmacy, a quaint tin-ceiling place filled with talc-dusted ladies ordering herbal cures from apothecary bins, and kids asking for candies from big glass jars. One counter sells pharmaceuticals; the other, pure Ayurvedic remedies. We purchase herbal eye drops, sandalwood-basil talc, root-bark toothpaste, and soap. Up the hill, a Lenten mass is letting out. From the doors of the 16th-century Church of the Immaculate Conception flow the ladies, many of noticeably Portuguese descent, some in bright saris, some in frilly veils and old-fashioned dresses. They exit into the light, pop open parasols, and gracefully continue down the sunwashed steps.
the mottled splash
of the bourgeois.
The clear Goan heat paints the church with vibrant brushstrokes. Sky, pavement, and shrubs shimmer with dreamy color. It’s only a veneer, though. A little reading reveals the ruthless history of the Portuguese, who—in their quest for spices, slaves, and military outposts to guard their trade—forced Goans into slave labor, ordered them to raze their temples, and build churches from the rubble. Hindus who refused to convert to Catholicism were branded “infidels,” publicly flogged, tortured, and burned in one of the bloodiest of all Inquisitions.
But the Portuguese stamped a lasting imprint on Goa. Large numbers of Goans still speak Portuguese and practice Catholicism. Panjim, like the former French capital of Pondicherry on the opposite coast, is a world apart. Pousadas, cantinas, hospedarias, conventos, igrejas, and a relaxed Mediterranean ambience make it a far cry from mainstream India’s franticness. It’s easy to realize how the “scene” developed here in the Sixties. Goa’s plentiful aqua coves are idyllic enough to soothe any long-term India-weary traveler. Add plentiful sun, welcoming people, Iberian architecture, vibrant markets, abundant seafood, cannabis, lively festivals—and the picture is complete.
Goans have a reputation for their friendliness, and the vibe here is indeed relaxed and straightforward. Strange faces are nothing out of the ordinary for the locals, the Arabian Sea has brought foreigners to this coast for millennia. Our innkeeper tells us that tourism really got going after Goa’s independence in 1961. But, she says, forty years later the Goans who welcomed the first independent travelers aren’t as content with the new, uppity package-tour groups who arrive demanding to be served rather than looking to engage. In the past I avoided Goa because of its tourist draw, but this time it’s a conveniently pleasant pause on our journey south to Kerala. We’re way past the lobster-pink German sunbathers’ season, the dope-smoking Israeli soldier-on-leave rave, or the dead-of-winter Russian onslaught. A few tourists ride the breakers, their paperbacks left face-down on reclining chairs with plastic bottles of tanning cream.
Wondering whose it is—
“How to Make People Like You
in Less Than 90 Seconds.”
We’ve timed our visit to coincide with the Lenten feast of All Saints in Goa Velha, a village just around the headlands from Panjim. Today, first Monday of Easter week, the saints usually venerated inside St. Andrew’s Church will be dressed, placed on palanquins, and paraded through town. The custom isn’t that old, historical accounts say the Franciscans introduced it in the 17th century. The rite is accompanied by a lively mela, so the normally quiet town brims with activity: carnival rides, sweets stalls, brightly-painted food booths, a garbanzo roaster at a fire-spitting clay oven, the ubiquitous peanut man, a spun-sugar lady, a ragtag pair of brothers hawking film hits, two rival vendors gassing up balloons, an ice-cream kid pushing his Krishna Kreme cart, announcing his presence by running a stick over a row of brass bells.
Along the main drag, a line of colorfully-garbed merchants arrange yokes, sickles, adzes, buckets, padlocks, mousetraps, piles of clothes, plastic kitchen wares, and jute tote bags stenciled with flowers. Behind them rises St. Andrew’s, its whitened earth walls dominated by a single bell tower (where there should be two), giving the structure a lopsided appearance. In the shade of the steeple gather men, women, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. A writhing, extended family decked in festival fineries, licking mango ice creams, sucking shaved ice, greeting each other with big hugs, wide smiles, rambling gossip. Old timers, gnarled hands resting on wooden canes, reminisce. Young girls, budding breasts under chiffon dresses, keep their vision contained. Boys in requisite attire, wiping dust from their polished shoes on the backs of their trouser cuffs, can’t keep their eyes from popping out of their heads. Everybody is tuned to the bodily prospect, the cosmic possibility—the risk, the odds, the likelihood.
At the sweets booth
a man with a swollen tooth
takes my change.
In the 10th century Goa Velha was an important seaport. Known as Govapuri, it had palaces, civic buildings, and Hindu temples—few of which survive today. Govapuri fell to Muslim invaders for a while, was recaptured by the Hindus, and finally moved north after the port silted in. It was located east of present-day Panjim and renamed Ela. The Portuguese sacked Ela in 1510 and made it their capital, Old Goa. The place is now deserted, a Unesco World Heritage site scattered with crumbling basilicas, chapels, churches, and convents built over the old Hindu temples. It’s a short bus ride up the Mandovi River from Panjim, and high on every tourist’s list. We’ll take a look tomorrow.
Strolling the mela, we meet an Indian nun who speaks perfect English. She suggests we take a look inside the church. Doesn’t say why, but once through the huge wooden doors, in a rush of cool air, we see a boggling array of gilded saints and tin-haloed virgins lined up along the nave. Waxed, polished, dressed in their finest, each wooden icon rests on a palanquin. Devotees, mostly women, pass in front of them, kissing the lace-covered, lacquered bodies, murmuring litanies, bringing their fingers to foreheads and chests. All very similar to what goes on in Mexican churches or in our hometown Church of San Juan; and not far removed from the Hindu ritual of touching, honoring, and parading effigies—a rite predating Christianity’s arrival in India (first century AD) by at least a millennia. Even the casual tourist eventually stumbles upon a host of Hindu worshipers bringing their palms together, bowing, invoking mantras to any one of hundreds of gods and goddesses in their pantheon. Devotees sing praises, whirl fire, dance themselves into a frenzy, touch the feet and breasts of their devas, decorate them with marigolds, anoint them with oils and scented pastes.
Likely the Franciscans took their cues from the Hindus, whose festivals included, and still include, a parade of huge wooden carts bearing multi-armed deities pulled by chanting worshipers, or palanquins of papier-mâché effigies with a mob of supplicants following close behind. Songs of praise and clashing drums for Durga, Ganesha, Kali. Bare-chested Brahmins leading a scruffy band of horns, drums, harmoniums, and hand cymbals. A wild tribe of sadhus bringing up the rear—hashish-crazed men, balls swinging, penises flopping, earth-dusted naked torsos, foreheads painted with symbols for Shiva or Vishnu.
Watching the Catholic version of the Hindu parade, somewhat quiet and strict, one yearns for the brouhaha of the latter: the marigold-draped multi-armed effigies carried from temples to fields to be deposited in caves or rivers, set between banyan roots, or plunged ceremoniously into ocean breakers. One misses the minstrels, trance dancers, and drumbeaters, the spinning-eyed sorcerers, the silver-staffed lords of ash, the ecstatic yoginis and Tantric cosmographers—conjurers from the other world! Always present for religious feasts, they are often mixed invisibly into the multitude. Occult presences, they form their own clubs, speak their own syllables, and tap deep into the bowels of the earth, pulling up language rooted in cosmic ferment. Yes! Behind the orthodoxy of priests and money, the banal ceremonies aimed at pomp in this life and merits in the next, between the tourists with their telephoto lenses—the seers and sadhus are checking you out. They sing red-eyed poems into the world, pierce the clouds with tridents, bring rain to the crops and questions to your head. They are letting you know the world is not quite what you think it to be.
On the church steps
a child brings her puppy’s paws
together in prayer.
We linger inside the church to inspect each veiled effigy frocked in freshly laundered robes, anticipating the moment when it will be carried into the light. It’s all very low key and dreamlike—the stoic pilgrims, the rustling doves, the glass-eyed effigies, the incense coiling into Blakean sunrays that fill the nave like bars of music.
Among the icons is a weird pair of wooden arms, sans head or body, attached to a cross. The arms simply dangle from a pair of bleeding hands nailed to the crossbeam. Whatever body they were attached to has vanished. Are we to imagine that Christ left his arms on the cross as a meditative image for his followers? Way too spooky! I prefer the open, inviting, bliss-bestowing arms of the Madonna just behind. She’s white-faced, looks like a Noh actor. Her lips have a wry, provocative semi-smile. Her deep-amber eyes under heavy lashes follow us eerily. Her cohort is a red-robed saint with equally wry smile and the same serious eyes, though less in the world, more contemplative. He sports a Walt Whitman beard, gilded curls, holds an open book in one hand, a quill in the other. Don’t know who they are, but they’re an attractive duo: one observing, one recording.
Exiting the church into the heat and crowd, we find the square filled with hundreds of chairs. The scene is evocative of a black-and-white Bergman film: empty chairs, empty plaza, sun-bleached, overexposed. When the crowd moves in to fill the chairs, the plaza goes from black and white to Technicolor—a blaze of lime, ultraviolet, bronze, heliotrope. Bangles rattle, buttocks wobble beneath thin saris, rosaries click, babies bawl, women fan and powder themselves. Amid pungent sweat, the women’s perfumes are wildly erotic, almost anesthetic. Mascara purples their eyes. Fiery lipstick paints deep-chocolate faces. The men are more conservative. They fall into the backdrop, neutral in polyester slacks, white shirts, bow ties, mafia-dark suits (we could be in Palermo). They shake hands, straighten, wipe perspiring necks with kerchiefs, and leave their little circles to answer mobile phones.
The only other tourists present are three Europeans who take a quick look and leave. An Indian television crew unobtrusively remains on the perimeters. Two young newspaper reporters seem eager to write something, but they seem as perplexed over the scene as we are. Their pens and pads remain in their pockets, their eyes absorbed in the mêlée. We meet the Catholic nun again and begin to talk. Two other women join us. They speak some English and suggest we take quick advantage of five empty chairs among the rows, conveniently shaded by the church. It’s a bit like being at a Catholic event in New Mexico, an open-air spiritual/social affair with a mix of playfulness. You show up, merge with the crowd, meet strangers, hang out under the sun, feast on posole, coffee, green chili stew, and enjoy the guitars. There’s a hint of eroticism, too: people losing their reserve, checking each other out,
A boost of courage
from a bottle of spirits
hidden in the pocket.
We quickly realize that sitting down is a mistake. Soon all the chairs around us are crammed full. We are trapped in a throng of worshipers who are here, not to witness the immediate exit of the saints from St. Andrews as we naively expected, but to endure a long, drawn-out Lenten mass. The minute the priests, deacons, acolytes, and cardinals pompously parade onto the outdoor stage (the mass isn’t to be said in the church) and begin taking turns at the microphone, Renée and I get queasy. The imprint of these same dominant red-faced priests resurfaces from both of our childhoods. In those cassocked men up there, I see the reincarnation of the cherry-nosed priests who slapped and berated me as student and acolyte. Frauds, square-heads, paralyzers, rosary-garbed alcoholics who masked their stale breath with throat spray and tried to stomp the “animal ignorance” out of me. Convert the pantheist!
Renée counts twelve males ruffling their cloaks like puffed up cocks. I watch their entourage: the follow-the-leader cassocked boys lighting candles and filling incense burners. We know what’s coming next. And it does. The insufferable formula of sermons and gospels. The proselytizing that goes on forever. The congregation uneasily squirming, babies crying, the young girls’ stiff polyester dresses heating up, the old sari-clad grandmothers wheezing, the humbled, well-trained nuns bent dutifully into their prayer books.
“Jesus, nothing’s changed!” I whisper. Obviously, there will be no parade of saints from the church until these dudes are done with their speeches, encores, and the protracted ceremony of setting Communion wafers on the tongues of the recently confessed—hundreds of them slowly parading up to the stage.
Our excuse to leave comes during a moment when the congregation is asked to stand. During the procedure we quickly pardon ourselves, telling the nun and the two ladies “We need water.” Stumbling through the chairs, we reach the outer perimeters of the crowd and break loose into the square. Mission complete! We smile mischievously, buy a bag of roasted garbanzos and a bottle of water, and amble through the mela. When the bell tolls, we return to watch the saints take leave of St. Andrews. “Lookout, the saints are coming through!” From the church door they bob and wobble on their palanquins, shouldered high on several acolytes. At the microphone, speaking Kokani, a priest gives an account of the saint’s life as the effigy is paraded into the square. As each icon passes, devotees line up before it, readying to duck beneath the hoisted palanquin to receive the saint’s blessing and obtain purification for past sins. I’m tempted to perform the act myself, but why draw attention? Besides, what saint would I choose? Probably Mary Magdalene, I’ve always wanted to duck beneath her skirts.
A drop of blood
on Christ’s crown—
a red dragonfly.
Four hours of heat, mela, and procession, and we’re exhausted. We return to the bus stop at the vegetable bazaar, but—no buses. Because of the fiesta the police have blocked the road. The scene is intensifying. Skyrockets fizzing, starlings flocking, vats of oil bubbling, colors colliding as saints and pilgrims pass the community hall, the tailor shop, a beauty salon, the police booth shaded by a huge frangipani tree, and onto the main highway. Bobbing in whirls of smoke, the heads of the icons separate from their bodies. Buoyed by prayers and mantras, blurred by clouds of incense, they rise through the trees, become lost in the sky.
Suddenly everything is too untidy for the eye. Puffs of dust from shuffling feet, urine in the weeds, dung piles baking in the sun, bees covering the sweet-seller’s hat, embryos squirming in pregnant bellies. It’s too hot for the sparklers the kids are twirling, too hot for the bulging crotches, the prayer-coma veils, the fat breasts strangled in acrylic brassieres. Everything pulsates, dizzies, disorients; a cryptic counterbalance to the ordinary. As devotees file by we fall into a stupor, like the moment before sleep. We can feel it now, the beginning of the end, the winding down of the mela. Too soon another frenzy is going to set in: that of everyone looking for a way home.
A policeman directs us to the outskirts of the village where plies the rerouted traffic. We flag down a bus filled with raucously singing young men, one chorus up front, the other in the rear. Our 10 km ride back to Panjim passes in a flash. A flashback to similar rides during my couple of months in Puerto Rico in the Sixties. Guitarists on country buses giving flair to the journey with song. Always someone aboard ready to sing the refrain, a catchphrase easy to repeat, the journey becoming one collective voice—with the help of a little rum.
Back in Panjim we order grilled kingfish marinated in garlic, and talk about Goa Velha. It wasn’t just the color and action around the marching saints, it was the strange mix of faces standing out from the crowd—dark, beautiful, tough; wild, delicate, witchy. Weirdly compelling. I found myself thinking of Garufina villages along the Caribbean, and of Goa’s African connection. During the Napoleonic wars, when British troops came to fend off the French, many Goans shifted loyalty. They were eventually given work in British east-African colonies, where they became cooks, servants, nannies, railway workers. I’m sure the Goans “mixed things up” with feisty subterfuge, their offspring eventually returning to places like Goa Velha to resume residency.
We arrive before the tour buses and enjoy a pleasant morning walking up and down the hills, inspecting crumbled basilicas, weed-tangled gardens, empty plazas. Hard to imagine that by the end of the 16th century Old Goa was larger than London or Paris, its streets thronged with traders and merchants bargaining for silks, lacquer, precious stones, Chinese porcelain, spices, wine, horses—and slaves. A hedonistic scene that was eventually wiped out by plagues of malaria and cholera; karmic payback for the brutal misrule of the fidalgos, whose egocentric psyches are evident in the gloomy portraits preserved in the old villas. The canvases—whether of pompous fidalgos and their overdressed wives, or of bone-thin Christ and his pug-nosed followers—reveal the then-in-vogue mania for the dark European palette. A banal contrast to the vivacity of the land and people the Portuguese colonized, and to the joy of their bliss-bestowing gods.
In the lush hills above the Rio Mandavi hundreds of brightly-feathered birds dart in and out of the brush. Drongos, flycatchers, bee-eaters, kingfishers, rosy starlings. High up, a hawk circles. Higher still, a sea eagle. Our guidebook describes a nearby archway built in 1597, sculpted with a bible-toting colonist stamping the head of a native with his foot. We avoid it. The fallen walls and dark basilicas are heavy reminders of religious, military, mercantile dominion by imperialists from afar. And of the Portuguese Inquisition, one of the ugliest of them all.
Paradoxically, St. Francis Xavier, who began the purge, remains highly venerated in Goa. His body refuses to decompose. It rests behind murky glass above the altar in Bom Jesus Cathedral, a prune-like thing cloaked in brocade. We saw it earlier in the day and wondered if it wasn’t an imposter, a cadaver mined from the local cemetery. The guidebook explains “once every decade St. Francis is taken from the church and put on public viewing, under strict guard by the militia.” An amusing entry accompanies:
“In 1614 the right arm of Francis Xavier was dispatched to the Pope in Rome where it allegedly wrote its name on paper. Another hand was sent to Japan, parts of the intestines to Southeast Asia. A Portuguese woman, doña Isabel de Caron, even bit off the toe of the cadaver in 1534.”
What do Goans really see when they bow before St. Francis or to the Holy Trinity? Even after 400 years of Catholicism, it seems unlikely that the spiritual genes of people indigenous to India have been altered. The Hindu trinity, conceptualized at least a millennia before the Christians got the idea, represents the threefold nature of the Divine: Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. These inseparable deities alternately contain and include one another, a concept which evolved from the old pantheist worship of earth, fire, and water. I’ll stick with that one.
among the marigolds
the priest’s portable TV.
St. Augustine Monastery
Uphill, past a monolithic, buttressed convent, we find the ruins of St. Augustine Monastery whose half-standing tower teeters in the sky. It once capped a multi-story cathedral, of which only the foundations are left. Among them an archeological dig is in process. The overseers are men, the workers women—migrants from Tamil Nadu dressed in soiled saris, large gold nose-rings, and plastic flipflops. While their children tend babies in the shade, the mothers hack into the hard remains of the cloisters. They swing adzes, lift baskets of rubble onto their heads, pass them one to another at accurately staged intervals, and dump the rocks into a fill several hundred meters away. As hard labor goes, it is one of the most precise and gracefully conducted work forces I’ve ever seen.
The dig is part of an ongoing search for the remains of the Georgian Queen, Ketevan, who was captured by a Persian emperor in the 17th century. Held in Shiraz for ten years, tortured and strangled for refusing to embrace Islam, she was especially revered by the Augustine friars, who sought to embalm her remains. Somehow, Ketevan’s arm and hand ended up traveling with them to Goa. Encased in a box, they were placed in a private chapel in the St. Augustine Monastery. After twenty years of digging, archeologists have found the chapel and the copingstone that held the remains, but no sign of the box, arm, or hand.
on weeds grown high
over the martyr’s remains.
Naked children, noses running, stare at us intensely and retreat into the debris of the old monastery tower. We read that it collapsed during construction. The friars were trying to go too high—hubris always turns the tide. Under the rubble are the ancient Hindu temples that in turn were built over the shrines of primitive cultures that the Hindus assimilated—cultures that found source in open sky and psychic summits unclouded by theology.
On the outskirts of Old Goa people go about the few fields and orchards that are left, while, among broken stone and chips of glazed tile, children arrange shards into hexagrams. A worker chalks numbers on broken corbels, two girls braid each other’s hair, a woman kindles a blackened pot with tufts of dry grass. These laborers are here to make money and go home. History, saints, martyrs, relics—what meaning for them? Their lives are about survival: following orders, digging, carrying, dumping the earth. There are countless ruins-upon-ruins all over the planet. We build roads, offices, airports, houses, and casinos over them without clue or care. Shiki’s haiku, late 19th century:
it is a famous place,
a man hoeing a field.”
We’ll rest a couple days, enjoy fresh seafood, swim, and reserve an eight-hour day train to northern Kerala. Traveling the bus south from Panjim to Benaulim, we were surprised to find the potholed highway suddenly becoming wide and smooth at one point—like traveling an interstate back home. We soon realized we were on the section between Vasco da Gama Airport (strange; most places in India named after colonizers now bear the names of famous resistance-leaders) and a spanking-new industrial park with glass-front showrooms full of Mercedes vans, gold-plated bathroom fixtures, Pulsar motorbikes, and—on a lawn evenly mowed by the hands of migrant women—an array of shiny farm equipment; obviously not intended for the farmer, but for the corporation.
Wherever an airport, factory, or industrial center is built to attract profiteers, you can bet the highway will be paved. Glass showrooms will replicate those overseas, and laborers forced from country to city will manicure their grounds. When the new computer tractors and harvesters have been sold to the agri-corporations, a few million more stick-and-stone toilers of the land will flee their unprofitable lives for the barely-profitable city. And their diversely planted landholdings? They’ll be turned into centrally managed, pesticide-intensive monocrops designed for export.
“The homeless night
in us all.”
That’s how Jack Hirschman ends his poem, The News. The “homeless night” has walked right through the front door without knocking. It has not merely descended onto us; it has descended into us—has drilled into our psyches, leaving us vulnerable and without sanctuary. We may be circumstantially apart from people sleeping on the curb, but we are not apart from the universal homelessness we share as bereft beings divorced from our environment. The industrial barons are smart. They’ve kept their workers poor; themselves tucked away in second and third homes. Their employees dangle on sharp hooks; they know they are disposable—can be sent to the shredder without warning. Most are too strapped with debt to risk confrontations with superiors who are responsible for setting in motion the gears that allow for maximum profit at the cost of the worker.
Leaving the U.S. we witnessed the beginnings of a national frenzy: rising fuel and food costs, economic slump, joblessness, alienation, random shootings. Much of it having to do with “Wall Street,” and plenty having to do with obscene amounts of money spent on pointless wars, and an equally obscene denial of the mentally brutalized soldiers who’ve returned from them. The inevitable recession (moral, economic) isn’t coming, it’s here—coupled with ever-present racism and a do-as-I-please ignorance that has chewed up our environment, our diplomacy, our ethical bearings. Where is there to go? There isn’t. We’ve already gone there. How it is is what it’s going to be—unless we act to create something truly new. Travel to India is no escape. On every continent America’s teeth have taken their bite, caused anger, fueled revenge. The Bush/Cheney years have been, by far, the most tried and torn years of my life. Impeach them! Their brash immorality has left a trickle-down stain throughout the world.
Under a shade tree
a mother teaches her kids
the art of begging.
There is no more simple trip abroad, at least not to south Asia. Unless one puts on a blindfold, travel is a very complex venture. Eavesdroppers, con artists, the kid who limps up to you for alms then skips away, the bereft mother “feeding” a fake baby under her shawl—they are everywhere. Hunger is real for the bottom dog sifting through the trash heap. Hunger is a metaphor for the elite 2%, ravenous for more profit. Hunger’s shouts rise decibels above the already insane noise of our cities. Hunger has no bed, no water, no twigs for the fire, nowhere to empty its bowels. The house is haunted. There is no denying the state of grace from which we have fallen. The ruthless-profiteer topdogs thrive on lawyers, lies, lobbyists, and tax loops. And on refusal, denial, and a cultivated ignorance of entire populations marching through the dust, their backs strapped with a few paltry belongings. No longer bystanders, we are partakers in the random fury, the despondency of the starving, the wars and strife that corporate bedbugs and well-fed profiteers have set loose around the planet.
In the face of this, what to do? Buy seeds, give them to ones whose land has been usurped? As a poet, voice the cry? Readings, bookstores, signings? Too comfortable, too safe, hardly enough! Life rises to a greater dimension only when we quit talking and take action. Wherever we travel, it takes only a small effort to slip through the crowds and destinations to discover the one-straw revolutionaries who dwell in the small. Free thinkers who are willing to evaluate, speak out, and act to create what Hirschman calls, “a consciously harmonious ground for brother-and-sisterhood.” When the voice is collective, the signal becomes strong.
“If we free ourselves of fear we shall have wide contacts,
deep understanding, real sympathy, loving consideration,
and great will be the extension of our horizon.”
I think of our friend in Mexico who left mundane housewifery in the US forty years ago, dropped down like an alien into the Chiapas hinterland, lived on an earthen floor (still does), planted a garden (is hoeing one as I write), learned two languages, got to know her neighbors, came to an understanding of their struggles, and eventually encouraged Mayan women to organize themselves into a cooperative, empowering its members to write their poems and stories, collect bark, make paper, cut stencils, and print the first Mayan literature since the Spanish burned their books in the 16th century. She’s still in Chiapas, still active, reaching, revolutionizing.
Another friend does what it takes, too. A former Peace Corps co-worker, he’s doing the work he did in the ’60s: community organizing. He’s continuously on the road, visiting rural women in Cambodia, India, and Africa, helping them form saving-for-change groups. Micro-finance institutions won’t even touch these people. They don’t need much money, and they don’t need to borrow. They need to save—to be able to subsist between harvest and planting. Amongst themselves, in trustworthy solidarity, not only do they save, they effectively earn a small percentage on their savings by lending it to other group members. And it works! To the point where members of such groups gain new leadership skills, enjoy camaraderie, and reap the benefits of mutual aid.
Barefoot in a circle
villagers tally their savings
with guava leaves.
Steely clouds boil up from the sea. Fishermen wake from beneath wood catamarans, bundle nets, return to nap. The sky turns deep mauve in the middle of day. An out-of-season storm, the monsoon no longer marked by old guidelines. The zephyrs are reconfiguring, the ice caps going dry. When the storm passes, we find a beachfront cafe that serves seafood tandoori, one of our favorites. Tandoori cooking adds a moist, smoky flavor to the fish, which is skewered and inserted into a wood-fired clay oven after the fire burns down. Dough is flattened and pressed to the inside of the oven, too. It quickly bakes into naan, crispy Indian flatbread. Tandoori ovens are somewhat like the igloo-shaped, earthen hornos in New Mexico—outdoor ovens that can be traced back five millennia through Spain and Arabia to the Indus River Valley.
For an appetizer, we’ve ordered fresh mango salad. The mango is thinly sliced onto a banana leaf and spiced with a salt, red pepper flakes, coriander leaves, oil and vinegar—a classic sweet-salty-sour Indian flavor that readies the appetite for the mains: fish tikka (wedges of snapper, kingfish, and sea bass baked tandoori style), grilled prawns bathed in roasted garlic and butter, parboiled greens, and flame-roasted pappadam—wafer-thin lentil/rice flour bread.
Ah, face the sea, eat from the liquid garden. The afternoon canvas is soaked with viridians, lavender, tanager red—fuzzy with humidity until a breeze brightens them into sharp edges. Step into a mango grove, though, and leaf shadows ripple in a chiaroscuro of mottled umber and bronze. Bathed in such color, a longing stirs in me. For things out of reach, names I have lost, roads stumbled off of, a past that cannot return except through the backdoor of dreams. I drop a net into deepwater consciousness. Evasive imagery reveals itself in shafts of needling light. Up comes the tangled mystery, the old shoe, ultraviolet plankton, the ragged jaw of things unreconciled.
and scaled beast—
riprap of memory.
The split-bamboo walls of our beachfront eatery remind me of the Jívaro longhouses I slept in as a Peace Corps worker in the Upper Amazon—dwellings that blended perfectly with the jungle. They did not stand high, their airy walls kept out heat and let in the breeze. Their graceful roofs were thatched tight against rain, yet they let the hearth smoke out, the moonlight in. The fires at each end of the longhouse were never kept bright enough to distract. The coals shone with a subdued glow that invoked a meditative trance-state appreciated by shamans. After dusk, ayahuasca steeped steadily darker, until it was potent enough to be served to a circle of participants gathered to heal themselves and by so doing heal each other. Time out of time, a transformative moment in my life. I had left home, ventured into the center of a great green mandala, a tropical rain garden barely tainted (in those days) by missionaries and oil drillers. Under Taisha—a young Jívaro medicine man—I was guided “out there” beyond my body, my perceived limits—physical and psychological. After the all-night ceremony, dawn arrived like a rainbow, soft colors tinged with copper and amethyst—very much like the coming of dawn this morning at Benaulim.
On the beach before sunrise, we watched fishermen sort fresh catch from nets spread on the sand next to their wooden catamarans. Two sea snakes tangled in the nets were simply plucked out and left on the beach, entwined in a yin-yang design. The catch of tiny sardines was gathered into jute bags, tied to yokes, and hauled to the waves to be washed. Then the fish were put into baskets, weighed, and sold to fishmongers from nearby Margao, or to local hotels. By the time we got to the beach the ritual of plucking, sorting, weighing, and selling was nearly over. Most of it had gone on in the dark, while we slept.
Rising at dawn
to meet those whose day ends
before mine begins.
We walk south, turn away from the beach into the palms. As we do, I see a man wearing a straw-hat stroll from a newly constructed house to put his toes in the surf. His paunch is half hidden by a towel hanging from his shoulder. Behind him, a security guard closes an iron gate to the barbed-wire property that has been shaved of its original growth. Two potted palms wilt at the front door to a gaudy concrete-block beach house with black-tinted windows and a “garden” of kitschy ceramic figurines. Another Goa trophy home owned by someone from afar.
Strolling the earthen lanes of old Benaulim, we experience a little of the old, and, sadly, too much of the new. On once-pristine wetlands, rows of condominiums face the sea like building blocks. Between them are a few green strips that haven’t been bought by outsiders. In the palm groves we walk a path into that time warp before India had yet to experience its wealth-boom. Here, villagers have held out, kept their orchards from developers, kept their well-shaded houses intact. They are mostly mud-brick and thatch, each with a walled courtyard swept perfectly clean. The sea is ever present. It doesn’t blast into your eyes as it does through the big picture windows of the air-conditioned condos; it arrives, instead, through a veil of flowering trees spread into a cool canopy. A few homes are more substantial—bright rose and marine-blue façades are graced with curlicue iron balconies above pillared verandas. Likely these larger homes were transferred to local people after Goa gained independence.
A makeshift eatery set back in a raked courtyard advertises Filter Coffee. We take a seat. Mango trees overhang a rustic kitchen built onto a colonial-style home. Jasmine bushes surround it, periwinkles dot the sand; two skinny papaya trees, heavy with breast-like fruit, stand above a roofless bathhouse screened by a jute cloth. We don’t see the bather inside, but catch prisms of water as they splatter from the open doorway. After a series of cold-water sighs—quite erotic—the bather exits in faded pink sarong, loops a shimmering length of hair around the front of her neck, wrings and braids it. A painterly, expressionist scene of flattened colors, burnt-orange sun slanting through an enormous breadfruit tree, a reddish-tan cow grinding its jaws in the ultramarine shade. We’re served fresh warm bread, fruit, curd, and mugs of strong espresso.
The owner’s son, a handsome curly-headed youth in his twenties, speaks good English. When he comes to refill our coffee, we get him talking. “Hundreds of villages here are turning into cement. Benaulim once was a good place for budget travelers who made no impact on nature. But things have changed. Now we are party destination. Food menus are in Russian and Israeli. Foreigners want cold beer, soft beds, quick food. Rich Indian nationals want Goa as investment. They buy land or find a way to push people off and steal it. They build holiday houses, advertise them in Mumbai or in overseas newspapers. Last year we had meetings. We hired lawyers and made our case known. But courts are friendly to the rich. The Benaulim I grew up in I can’t pass on to my children. It is gone.”
The intact cultures and primeval landscapes that so many travelers seek are the ones they’ve already lost in their own countries. Expecting to find them on other continents is increasingly a myth. Much of the time you get a re-made landscape, a demolished town refashioned with slick hotels and eateries. The markets are down, the high-rise up. With so many landscapes reinvented for tourists, and so many locals moved out of the way for resorts, how does one find a village or a setting that appears as it did before the tourist industry was revved into place? In China and India we’ve encountered “theme parks” with grassy walkways circling native huts and ponds with plastic figures crossing quaint drawbridges. A way to let you see what they’ve torn down.
We once stayed in a sea-facing Balinese town that was a handy base for visiting a nearby village. The latter remained pristine in its remote setting. Stone temples, houses, pavilions, and squares were beautifully intact. No hotels interrupted the harmony, thanks to the village council’s rule that outsiders had to leave after dark. The Balinese town where we put up was a different story. Once a serene fishing village, it had undergone a radical facelift precisely for people like us. Entrepreneurs had pushed fishermen off the coast to make way for hotels. Developers bet their hopes on the aquamarine waters and sandy beaches, yet they constructed the hotels by grinding offshore coral reefs into cement. Without the reefs, the crashing breakers eroded the sandy beaches. The water turned silty. Instead of a small market town where one might find a rustic home-stay, enjoy some snorkeling, and dine on seafood while mingling with those who toiled for the catch, the town was eerily deserted. Every concrete multi-story hotel offered an ongoing last-ditch discount, and their restaurants served seafood no longer caught locally, but brought from fishing villages on the other side of the island.
with blooming weeds.
The Trivandrum Express
The Mumbai-Kerala train arrives at the Margao station on time. We are standing in just the right place on the platform, our assigned bogie creaks to a stop in front of us. We board, find our reserved non-a/c sleeper seats, and settle in. This is the best method of train travel for an eight-hour or less journey. You’ve got creature comfort, contact with an interesting cross-section of people, and, if you are traveling as a couple and book two facing window seats, you’ll enjoy each other, and a supreme view of the countryside as it changes from urban to country, hill to coast, dry to wet, cultivated to wild. The second-class windows lift open, as opposed to the tinted, sealed windows in the higher-priced a/c sleeper bogies. The breeze is refreshing and the padded seats fold flat when you want a nap (one of you climbs up into the reserved berth above). Another advantage of economy class—not the hard-bench, rock bottom third-class—is the constant, rapid-fire, channel-changing entertainment. Not the video sort, but the live-parade sort: itinerant singers, booksellers, cobblers, medicine men, palm readers, masseuses, astrologers. Chai, coffee, panni, and soft-drink wallahs. Sari, bangle, nose-ring, and lungi hawkers. Roti, curry, steamed fish, and not-to-be-found-in-restaurants regional-specialties peddlers.
A woman climbs in at a rural station and sells us homemade halwah. A girl offers tiny red bananas from a plastic tub on her head. Very sweet, I hadn’t seen them before. Tagore’s poems are in a stack of paperbacks left on our seat for examination by a peddler who’s gone down the aisle dispersing more of the same from a zinc suitcase. The guy across from us shows us a newspaper photo of a post-operative patient’s 260 kidney stones spread on a white plate like coffee beans. A screw salesman folds his undershirts into a briefcase of nuts and bolts, falls asleep and grinds his teeth to the roll of the train. A singer with block-print dharma wheels bordering her sari climbs into our bogie from a country station signed with: ALIGHT HERE FOR KADAMPUZHA TEMPLE. She thumps a double-headed drum, shakes her bangles, wails a somber kirtan. “No,” an amused passenger tells us. “That’s not a kirtan. It’s a movie song, very well known.”
Riding a second-class overnight express in the old days often meant waking with cinder burns on your shirt: sparks whipping through the window from the coal-burning engine. Sometimes monsoon rains took you by surprise, gushing through a window that wouldn’t close—one that routine riders knew to be perpetually jammed, which was why the seat was left empty in foul weather for the eager foreigner. Then or now, there’s nothing like a starlight snooze by an open window on a clear night, the rails rocking you into dream with a metronome lull. “Chain your knapsack to the seat,” guidebooks advise. I’ve never had a problem. Second-class passengers maintain solidarity; one always watches over another. The camaraderie provides a true democratic experience. It goes against the grain of the hands off, don’t-touch-me travel that most Americans prioritize.
On an Indian train one cannot escape constant contact with another—physically, psychologically. The rice farmer, a matronly grandmother, the shy newlyweds, a youngster eager to practice English, a floor sweeper, the upright devotee: their stories, plight, unredeemed reverie—whatever they have to say—is, for an extended moment, yours. You need only yield, submit. Give up assumption of who they are, who you are, and greet them eye-to-eye with a loose gyration of the head, Indian style. There are also the uncertainties. In ‘79 I took a second-class train from Madras to Trivandrum. Halfway through the coast range, our bogie smelled of smoke. Someone had tossed a lighted bidi out the window and it had blown back into the coupling curtain between the next coach. A man pulled the emergency handle but the chain was rusted and it broke. He suggested we wave a towel out the window to alert the engineer to stop the train (no mobile phones in those days). Another man had a better idea. He eyed my red trousers. “We’ll use those.” I balked. Soon a towel appeared, I was about to be pantsed. Just then a Tibetan vendor selling bright red acrylic scarves came walking in from the coach behind us. A better solution! A scarf was waved, the engineer halted the train, buckets of sand were tossed on the smoldering ember. No one complained of the delay. Tea, samosas, and pickled mangos appeared from people’s traveling bundles. A triumphant feast. The train rolled on, people packed away their thermoses, sellers resumed their singsong parade through the aisles.
In the hair
of the flower vendor
a plastic rose.
Outside, the world foreshortens into the window. Village women lower buckets into a communal well, banana leaves flap in the train’s wake, egrets gracefully lower into moiré patterns of rippling rice paddies. Parrots flock, a quarry emits a sudden acrid-deep odor. Goa to Karnataka to Kerala—every pore of the body receives the land, all its aspects and vibrations. Shakti flows through rocks and woods and rivers, shimmers from basalt outcrops. She wisps along with her playful escorts—winged devas full of impish vigor who move shadows out of place and cause you to look twice. Leaf mosques branch into arched domes. Forest cathedrals are luxuriant with lichens and ferns. Nooks and seams and cleaves radiate secret messages. The land unfurls like a Chinese scroll painting. A flattened yet deeply atmospheric space. Hinted-at details of plants, clouds, cliffs and hills are united in an include-all perspective. Only lastly does the eye discern a man riding a bullock or fishing in a cove. Similarly, out the train window, one discerns a tiny figure: a figure bucketing water from one canal to another—a woman dressed in the most unimaginable attire for the muck of the field: a sari, bright scarlet, wrapped and tucked with such expertise that—whether bending, lifting, or swinging a water pail, not one fold of wrap unravels.
in emerald fields—
women at work.
When wheels turn, head goes into gear. Movement, the great shaker of the brain. Shake and empty, shake and empty—that’s what the clickity-cluk clickity-cluk of the train wheels say. I open a book (I’ve bought an extra daypack for my impulsive purchases) and watch shadows fall upon the print: clouds, branches, semaphores, bridge girders. Sentences run like creeks, words drift like chaff. Between stanzas walks Wang Wei, absorbing the ten thousand things. He takes a brush from his sleeve and writes:
“Though no rain soaks
these mountain paths, green mists
moisten the traveler’s clothing.”
Wang Wei’s receptivity is that of an altered state, a transparence in which the lines between “this” and “that” are blurred. The breath of the earth soaks right through his clothes into his being. His poetry arises from being (the noun becomes a verb) in a “gone beyond” state. It comes from the body, not the mind. I open another book to Jayanta Mahapatra’s poems about his Orissan homeland. His impressions could be those of anyone purposely venturing beyond the hubbub of society to report from solitude:
“Through this door, through
the gleaming skin of the three kingdoms,
the mineral, vegetable and animal,
experience the fever of love
and the deeper undulation of the earth.”
Into my notes, I’ve copied something Renée said about the act of travel:
“It is what is beneath the surface
that gives the journey dimension,
what is below or off to the side
of everything apparent.”
I love what occurs when we aren’t there and everything else is, like when Basho, on one of many walkabouts, stopped at a temple at the foot of Mt. Inaba:
“The temple bell too
seems to be ringing—
Basho, in the heat of the day, has his eyes on the bell while cicadas cry in the far trees. Suddenly the bell rings with their shrill. The sound of the cicadas is fully forward, the reverberation of the bell all-pervasive. Basho isn’t even in the poem. He gives us pure resonance. He is the absent traveler, never in the way of what he sees or feels. He allows what is off to the side to bring new dimension to the moment. Unexpectedly, the commonplace has significance; it is no longer mere circumstance.
Staying out of the way while letting the details of the moment come forward—Basho, during his fifty years, perfected this practice. And, as his life exemplified, unless there’s a complete revolution in one’s everyday living and thinking, it’s pretty hard to write a worthy haiku. You have to give up something, often plenty, to allow something new in—which is what the disciplined literary pilgrimages and deliberate retreats to the hinterland by the old Ch’an masters were about. The world fully alive, every detail standing up on its heels, breathing.
mind standing still.
Why be sure of the next move? We have no plan when we step off the train in the scruffy town of Kannur. We know we want to see the spirit possession ceremonies—Theyyams—if they can be found. We could take a chance and stay at a suggested private house on a nearby beach, but we know nothing of the owners or what kind of tourists we’ll encounter there. We could also remain anonymous in a hotel near the train station. Whatever our choice, it already feels good to be in Kerala. It’s the furthest south of India’s west-coast states, a long narrow strip wedged between the Western Ghats and Arabian Sea, filled with coconut groves, rice paddies, webbed waterways, and, these days, an influx of modern homes built by Keralans returned from work in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Kerala is tropical India—rainy, friendly, laid back, slow-paced, known for unique architecture, ritual drama and bone-jarring percussion bands.
We decide to stay one night in a hotel, and then give the beach house a try (when in doubt, do both). In the train station is a tourist kiosk worked by an affable, resourceful man who opens an “events schedule” and jots down several nearby villages where Theyyams are happening. He’s enthusiastic about our visit. Kannur doesn’t see many foreigners. “If Theyyam is your focus, you must begin at dawn tomorrow. Go to Parassini Madammpura temple in Parassinikadavu town on River Valapatanam.” It’s a mouthful, but he writes it in Malayalam so we can give it to a taxi driver; good, because Malayalam—mala, mountain, alam, place (or azham, ocean)—Kerala’s predominate language, is very complex. Over the centuries its script has been reduced from 900 characters to 50, and we need to learn at least a few to avoid complete befuddlement in the bus stations.
We settle into a bright, new inexpensive hotel, shower the dust from our bodies, and hail an auto rickshaw to MVK Café for prawn masala and vegetable biryani. It’s dark and thundering when we return to our room. I give Nazir a call, the man who owns the beach house with his wife, Rosi. Quiet spoken and very polite, he quotes us a reasonable tariff that includes three meals per day of Rosi’s home-cooked Keralan food. The place is a few kilometers away, isolated on an estuary leading to the sea. There’s plentiful bird life and up the hill lives a Keralan Theyyam aficionado. It’s a deal!
It rains through the night, often violently. At 4 a.m. we wake the sleeping hotel porter, and exit under umbrellas into Kannur’s empty-wet streets. Near the market we rouse a cab driver from his front-seat slumber. “Parassinikadavu?” He sleepily mumbles. He already knows where we are going.
The 45-minute ride, with an occasional candle-dim headlight bouncing into our eyes, or a phantomesque bony dog in the road, recalls night rides through pot-holed Cambodia or midnight heat of misty villages in Java. Cockeyed streets, blurred profiles, a skeleton of a bus, a lone lamplit window. I keep hearing Coltrane’s plaintive Tunji. It’s the eeriness of the night, the musical wobble of rainbeads on the windscreen, the rippled imagery through prismed rain beads.
a sleeping cow
giving off heat.
Well before dawn, we arrive at Madammpura temple, a whitewashed three-story edifice with tiled roofs capping each tier, black-painted elephant heads sculpted under the eaves. The place is more modern than I expected. A few kiosks selling devotional goods are beginning to raise their shutters. Flower sellers are wetting down loops of jasmine. Children, already trained in the art of business, are lining up framed lithographs of saints and gurus. A man tells us an hour remains before the drums will call Lord Muttapam and his attendants to the inner court. We join a few pilgrims seated in a vegetarian eatery for dosas and South Indian coffee. Then walk to the river just outside the temple. In the dark we barely discern the steps where devotees are taking quick, prayerful dips—a peaceful scene, remindful that rivers are sacred in India—liquid Shakti.
filled with singing
When the drumming begins we return up the steps. Pilgrims hurry into the inner court—women on one side, men on the other—everyone facing a miniature vermillion shrine edged with gold. The wooden structure, with its pointed roof, seems a clone of ones found in Keralan villages, or perhaps it is an original and has been relocated here. Either way, it’s a rather incongruous sight inside the oversize, purely functional main hall. There is a brass pillar in front of the shrine, each of its five tiers filled with flaming wicks. There is also a ceremonial pole that juts through the temple’s roof. Beside it four drummers join a lead drummer, all of them rocking back and forth, beating upright drums hung from purple sashes looped around their necks. The musicians are bare-chested, dressed in gold-bordered white lungis, elegant against their coffee-brown skin. They soon begin to move in a slow spiral toward the shrine, accompanied by a shehnai player.
This is our first experience with the energetic percussion that dominates Keralan music—a crashing shake rattle and roll that penetrates our bodies and wakes every nerve ending. Ritual music, like Pueblo drumming back home, but not soft, not the calling-the-clouds-from-the-sky kind. No, it’s thunderous and all surrounding. A “climb up high” kind of music on which worshippers can ascend on rungs of sound, leaving body and mind behind. Keralan percussion! World-class music, totally unlike “classical” music based on European folk melodies, or the stuff of Mozart, designed to inspire contentment. This is primeval sound, meant to uproot you. It finds origin in rain forests, frog-croaks, bamboo clonks, woodpecker knocks, monsoon thrash, falling trees—the energy of a “world becoming.” The mind-loss experienced during furious lovemaking. A chaotic oomph that births order. A ten-thousand-decibel ricochet. Onslaught of epilepsy! As if you were about to go under, into a Bosch-like subterranean self.
We take no photos, content to simply be. We won’t remember all of the details, but for once, it’s okay. Better to let the essence, the distillation, find its way to the pen. I once stood at a Hindu ritual and overheard a befuddled man turn to his partner and say, “We’ll Google it back home.” They took a few digital photos and left. But what would the “googled” information mean? Where had these tourists been, and how, exactly, had they been there? What transformation did the event engender in the beholder? Aw, I remind myself, these are questions of interest only to the poet. Ones that publishers have told me their armchair-travelers aren’t interested in. “If you want to write for us, don’t bring up gnarly questions, and then proceed to answer them. Keep it light. Entertaining, funny.”
Lord Muthappan’s Appearance
The drumming reaches a pitchpoint and in comes the elaborately dressed “Lord Muthappan,” a Theyyam representing Vishnu and Shiva combined—or so we’ve been told. But who knows? Some say Muthappan is simply an old ancestor who roves the woods drinking toddy. To query in this situation is like asking a question at a Hopi ceremony, only to be assertively answered with seemingly valid information—which often turns out to be a spin on reality, something the tourist can chew on. The informant knows he has given “deflective information” to protect the secrecy of the rite. In a Jungian sense, it is what the rite means to the observer that counts, what it brings into consciousness for examination.
One of the drummers steps out to accompany Muthappan as he prances around the room with jerky, otherworldly movements. His speech is muffled, his concentration askew of the world. The impersonator—who has become, through trance, the god—wears a gilded red headdress, a white cloth beard, and swath of blond wig falling down his naked back. His torso is earth smeared, dotted and spiraled with abstract designs. He wears a bulging red waistband under which a brilliant vermillion wrap is tucked. His belly is big, like the Pueblo clowns back home. He is adorned with gold-fringed armbands and bracelets, and has bells around the ankles. His most noticeable attire is a pair of silver goggles over the eyes and a small mirror-disk held in an upraised hand.
When Muthappan holds his mirror disk toward the assembled pilgrims, they fold their palms together in reception. We are told that when the performer holds up the disk and peers into it, he sees the god that has come to dwell in his body. In turn, when the performer holds the disk toward the assembled pilgrims, they each see that god in themselves. At one point, Muthappan sprinkles water onto the crowd. The refreshing drops are like the first sprinklings of a rain shower. They are also a throwback to my Catholic youth: the priest sprinkling his congregation with blessings of holy water (as an acolyte, one of my duties was to fill the ceremonial brass vessel with ordinary tap water).
While Muthappan’s walk-around continues, I notice several bronze dogs on the main altar, perhaps figuring into Lord Muthappan’s story. There was a dog wandering around inside the temple when the ritual began, and he seemed to be allowed there, just as dogs are allowed to wander the plazas during New Mexico’s Pueblo rituals. Apparently so many dogs were once allowed into this temple that they became pests. The priests decided to ban them, but keeping them out also kept the spirit of Sri Muthappan from entering the performer’s body. It was not until the dogs were allowed back in, that the performance went on as usual.
As a Theyyam rite, this is an abbreviated one—no more than a couple of hours. But it is a spirited and authentic introduction to northern Keralan ritual drama—so perfectly timed that when it ends and the pilgrims are blessed and Lord Muthappan exits, the sky has come alive with light. As we exit the temple doors, the river we couldn’t see in pre-dawn darkness is now fully illuminated. The rising sun is a molten wafer floating in soft hues of pear and violet. We bathe our feet in the River Valapatanam along with other pilgrims, and enjoy the solemn quiet imbued with a refreshing undercurrent of joy, an “everything okay” vibe.
Afterwards, we taxi to a nearby village to check out the Trichambaram Krishna Temple. Non-Hindus are not allowed through the massive walls that surround it, so there’s little we can see—only the tops of the multi-tiered, clay-tile roofs of the inner sanctum. We round the walls and exit through a shaded grove where villagers bathe and slap laundry on the steps of a pool. Nearby, a stone embankment surrounds a stately banyan decked with colored cloth. A family sits meditatively, while a couple of worshipers bow to recite prayers.
Gently raising his arm
a boy shows his parents
a resting dragonfly.
We ride an auto-rickshaw to Rosi and Nazir’s—a steeply descending road through Thottada village, scattered in lush palm-grove hillsides ten kilometers from Kannur. At the road’s bumpy end we are pleasantly surprised to find Nazir waiting on the footbridge over the narrows of a freshwater estuary lined with coconut trees. He is immediately likeable—wild haired, big smile, dressed in saffron lungi, red shirt, leather chappals. He greets us with soft-spoken warmth, bright eyes twinkling under unruly curls—a mischievous air of youth coupled with a trim, agile masculine body. Right away Renée senses something. Could he be a practitioner of kalarippayattu, the martial arts indigenous to Kerala? “Yes,” he answers, which makes her happy. As an aikido sensei, she immediately sensed—from his body tone, movements, and centeredness—that he had some form of hara energy going for him.
Nazir’s wife, Rosi, appears in a simple brown sari. Beautiful mother of three children, very open vibe. Grinning, she greets us in perfect English. Reminds me of young Joan Baez. We’re walked across the estuary and shown to their 100-year-old house, a white two-story Mangalore-style place: tile roof, small courtyard, with an attached guesthouse facing the sea. We unload our bags in one of the five rooms, and return to the main house for mango juice and muffins. Nazir draws maps with trails of the area and offers his canoe for bird watching. In a couple hours we’ll return to this dining room for the first of many memorable Keralan meals designed by Rosi and prepared by her talented cook.
etched in mint-green sky
—old nirvana scroll.
While Renée goes through kalarippayattu moves with Nazir, I stroll the estuary toward Thottada village on a path fringed with massive palms. Fuchsia thunderheads drift above, casting a steely glow on the greenery. Several children are fishing on a grassy bank. In humble homes half hidden in the coconut groves, people are lighting oil lamps hung from the eaves. Pinpoints of lemon yellow glimmer in the gauzy, tropical dusk. Soft mantras fill the violet-blue hour. As if I were not alive. As if I were under my own skin, my feet not touching the ground—a spectre slipped into the beyond. The call of a cuckoo, chatter of kingfishers, dwiddle of tree frogs. The lagoons turn rose, mauve, then pearl.
from one child to another
in a paper cup.
Misting rain wets my shoulders. I don’t see anyone, simply hear hushed voices through the woods, children playing, crack of kindling, the bang of hollow brass urns. Fireflies mingle with the first stars and candles flickering in windows. If Basho were here, he’d be in the ever-recording walking-eyeball state:
“Above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark sings.”
I exit the coconut groves at Nazir and Rosi’s where the thump-&-swoosh of breakers behind the dunes becomes more prominent. The thunderheads, blown over the deep sea, have gone from peach to plum. I approach the estuary footbridge. A man is leaning against the rail under an oversize umbrella, his silhouette a perfect Chinese brush stroke.
In front of the house, Renée and Nazir are still practicing kalarippayattu—turning, bending, leaping up from low. All of us are smiling. They’re high, I’m high. We share the details of just exactly what, from our separate experiences, has energized us. Rosi calls us for dinner, a sumptuous, eaten-with-fingers meal: fish in masala sauce, jeera rice, puri, alu, dal, and parboiled forest herbs. We share the table with a 23-year-old French woman studying computer science near Kannur, a Swedish woman in her 70s—a five-time India veteran who visits Thottada yearly, and a woman from the U.K who has maps, train tables, and loads of tips on south Kerala. Over a dessert of sweet beans, watermelon, and strong Keralan coffee, Nazir asks us to recite our poetry. Renée does a mix of aikido tanka and a poem from The Storm That Tames Us. I do a few haiku. Rosi’s favorite is:
what to say, he mails
only the envelope.
Nazir bounces off an image in one of Renée’s poems with: “The veil of gold covers your eyes from truth.” We ask him to recite a poem in Malayalam. Rosi translates the poem into English, from which it goes to French and Swedish. English sounds so unmusical compared to Malayalam. Nazir annunciates every sound increment with razor-sharp quietness. He’s a master performer in his own modest way. Renée and I are knocked out. Not that this kind of spontaneity over poetry doesn’t happen back home, but that it has happened so quickly here.
Back in our room, Renée reflects: “Amazing to come to a place so far from home and sit with strangers an hour later, laughing together, reciting poems. Sometimes you have to go to where there is nothing to find everything.” Suddenly, a rap on our door. Rosi, under the stars, has brought a surprise potion for Renée’s cough: a hot tea of fresh ginger, ground pepper, fenugreek seed, and jaggery. “An Ayurvedic remedy.” We wrap up in our sarongs and dim the lights. To the lull of the sea I recall Nazir telling me that the flickering oil lamps I saw on my walk are customary on Saturdays in Hindu households. “They light them at dusk, before the electricity is turned on, for the recital of prayer. You were fortunate to have taken your walk at that time of day.”
An 18th-century haiku by Buson:
lighting one candle
“The softest poem I’ve ever heard,” I say to Rénee. But she’s already asleep. Tomorrow Nazir will to talk to his parents who live outside Kannur, where a Theyyam is supposed to be in progress. I hope we’ll receive an invite.
From Nazir’s canoe, Renée expertly at the paddle, we spot a brahminy kite, black kite, various egrets, cormorant, pond heron, green heron, bittern, sea eagle, blue-bearded bee eater, Eurasian golden oriole, and stork-billed kingfisher: halcyon capensis, a large greenish-blue bird with blood-red bill, rusty head, pale yellow breast. Also, halcyon myrnensis: brilliant turquoise, chocolate head, white breast, long red bill, prominent white wing patch exposed in flight. Nazir says the Malabar Trogan lives in these parts too, but up higher in the deciduous forests and bamboo. Wouldn’t that be a bird to see! He shows us Richard Grimmet’s Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Too heavy to tote, but if one were here only for bird watching, essential, for sure.
Ah, floating the backwaters. Steering into narrow marshy inlets. Peeling a mango. Bringing binocs to eyes. Listening, looking, talking little. With the gentle stroke of a paddle, or on unhurried legs, a slow quiet journey brings the flowers, dragonflies, monkeys, all the sounds and smells up close. Cut the speed, keep the exchange rate hand to hand, heart to heart, eye to eye, thoughts unhurried. I loved being thrust as a city kid in my early twenties straight into another time zone as a Peace Corps Volunteer. As in living with the Shuar (Jívaro) rainforest hunters in the Upper Amazon. Wearing little clothing (in that era), they roamed silently. They knew medicinal plants by smell, taste, eye. Knew animals by ear, nose, extra-sensory nerve endings. Who knows of their fate now? Cell phones, stucco homes, satellite tv, paved roads? Forty years ago, the Silesian fathers were luring them toward the “true faith” with promises of a new home and one cow each—if they would submit to baptism. The homes were cinderblock, damp, asthmatic. The Shuar hated them. They eventually went back to their thatched longhouses and used the cement houses as mangers for their livestock. As for baptism, they had long ago been baptized by the Río Zamora, and by those mythical rivers in the ayahuasca dream realm.
a few dreams
Wake at 3:30 a.m., dress quickly, cross footbridge with flashlights to meet our taxi driver. Confirm fare, bump up the cliffs in overcast dark, ocean pounding in background. Above the cliffs, our little Ambassador rumbles out of Kannur into the a huge web of backcountry villages. When we reach Kadachira, the driver asks directions, turns up a bone-jarring lane, and halts. We exit between randomly parked cars, walk a short ways through dripping trees to a family compound—simple tile-roof houses fronting a tamped-earth square. In one corner a bonfire is shrinking into coals; in the other is an elegant wooden shrine strung with lights. At the roof’s peak is a mask of Yama, god of death, guardian of the south. Yama is one of Shiva’s messengers, also called Kala, time. Shiva, himself, is Mahakala, Great Time. Eternity. A huge tree graces the compound’s far corner, oil lamps blazing under its branches (this enormous giant may well have been the original shrine). Hal hidden behind the courtyard is a dressing room plaited with palm leaves. Here the Theyyam performers dress, apply makeup, and rest. The earthen square is empty right now; the ritual is in the in-between time.
Entering this little compound in the dark was like approaching the heart of a spider’s orb. Lights strung between the dripping trees created a kaleidoscope of spun-candy luminosity. Suddenly—POP!—we stepped through to the Otherside. (For a moment I thought I was in Bali, walking into a village séance, a place “out of time,” a realm connected to one’s own heartbeat—to mists, darkness, a blur of worlds melding.) People began to check us out, but with concerned politeness, not with that north-Indian nonplussed stare. An official dressed in white lungi invited us past the bonfire and up to a pavilion where a couple dozen people had gathered under the thatched roof. Everybody was relaxed and congenial. We took our seats on a rock embankment, but almost immediately two plastic chairs appeared and we were made comfortable. “You have camera?” a man asks. “Oh, too bad. Good theyyam.” Being accustomed to no picture taking at Pueblo ceremonies back home, it didn’t occur to us to bring the camera. Looking around, we see that half of the extended family gathered has either cell-phone cameras or compact digitals.
We know little about Theyyam, perhaps an advantage. We are free to absorb the ritual in a personal sense, no cameras, notebooks, and just a tad of research. It seems—just as in Hopi ceremonies where the gods descend into the bodies of the impersonators—that the gods (cosmic protectors) step out of their mythic realm to inhabit the Theyyam performers we are about to see. The shrine before us is a family one, yet the ceremony extends to the community, a collective séance where people can enter the realm of their spirit protectors. Theyyams are pre-Hindu deities, tutelary spirits indigenous to the Keralan forests. They were gradually overlaid with a veneer of Hindu concepts as time progressed. Mostly they survive untainted, a throwback to the Time Before. They are active, not passive like the Hindu gods staring from loads of marigolds in greasy alcoves.
Deafening cherrybombs explode as the sky dawns—BAM BAM BAM—louder than the loudest crackers in a Mexican fiesta! One, then two drummers, barefoot and bare-chested, walk into the square and begin to beat out a clattering rhythm on their chendas—hefty upright drums slung vertically over the shoulders on bright red sashes. Both ends of these three-foot-high drums are covered with animal skin. Beaten with hardwood sticks, the sound is tight and powerful. There is also a musician keeping time with finger cymbals. The percussion is somewhat reminiscent of Balinese music, sans gongs and metallophones.
A bare-chested, lungi-wrapped elderly priest appears. Seen through the heatwaves of the bonfire, he is distorted into a wavering genie. He hunkers over a brass vessel on the dirt courtyard, placing offerings of coconuts, rice, and bananas on freshly wetted banana leaves. He brings his palms together above his forehead, prays, and disappears into the smoke of the firecrackers. When I look again, six drummers are drumming and two ritual Theyyams are approaching the compound from the dressing area. They wear skirts of young palm fronds sliced into thin ribbons. Their faces and bodies are whitened with rice paste, eyes ringed with soot from oil lamps. Wielding long wooden poles, they jump, twirl and mime—variations of kalarippayattu moves. Impulsive and unpredictable, they halt suddenly to speak commandingly or irreverently. Next thing I know they are sitting down behind large red banners of cloth held up by attendants. All that can be seen are their bare legs and feet. The impersonators’ legs remain very still at first, but then they begin to jiggle. The toes twitch, the drumming ascends, energy ripples from earth to ankles and up into the legs. Now the whole body is shaking and writhing with the planet’s energy. Pure shakti reverberation!
Behind the curtain, the Theyyams’ backs are being tied with tall bamboo standards—six or more meters high—laced with plaited palm leaves. When the cloth is dropped, the first thing we notice is that the Theyyams’ faces are covered by large, flat red-white-black masks with huge eyes and gracefully scrolled fangs. When they rise to dance, they again wield their hardwood poles, which resemble the wooden sticks used in kalarippayattu or the jo used in aikido. Leaning forward onto the poles, balancing themselves precariously, headdresses and all, the Theyyams lower their straightened, board-like bodies rigidly toward the earth. Meanwhile the drumming continues, heightening into crescendos, quieting momentarily, then strengthening again—like rainforest insects, or blasts of monsoon rain on banana leaves.
A young man among the spectators tells us that Theyyam performers are professional artists, trained and paid for their art. They must learn the myths and narratives that go with each deity in the pantheon. They must know martial arts and develop great athletic skills, stamina, and breath control. Each performance demands strict mental and spiritual preparation. “The performer must be ready to exchange his human body for the god’s body. He must fast and keep from liquor or sex for a month before the Theyyam. If he is not pure a mistake will be made.”
The Theyyam ritual is meant to call an otherworldly ancestor (a hero or protector) into the body of the dancer, who in turn transmits that presence to those gathered. The heightening of the drums is an invocation, a repetitive calling of the god into the flesh of the performer whose consciousness will disintegrate into the vibratory energy of the god. In this trance-state the performer can exorcise evil, give consul, answer worldly and spiritual questions, and purge physical ailments. The drumming also heightens the impersonator’s awareness before he enters the courtyard. The crescendoing beat puts him in a readied state to achieve the moves, gestures, speech, and dramatic intensity expected not only by those assembled, but by the very god he is to portray, or better said, “invite into his being.”
The make-up men are also capably trained. They are “face writers” who deftly apply the colored patterns that identify the deity about to be invoked. Along with priests, musicians, and performers, they must forego the worldly and prepare themselves for the otherworldly—that of tenseless, non-linear reality: all things in one-simultaneously-happening sphere. I recall how the Japanese poet Chiyo-ni looked into a pool, whereupon she saw the “endless-present” of interchangeable continuities. Time without beginning or end. Her 18th-century poem:
The priest who earlier vanished into the smoky haze of the firecrackers now reappears. He’s in trance and is being called into the compound by another Theyyam who has joined the performance, dressed in tasseled red skirts flaring out from an elaborately pleated waistband. His arms are lined with metal bands and wraps of red cloth, eyes darkened, face smeared with ochre, a short white beard around the mouth. With long silver fingernails accenting his gestures, he implores the dazed priest forward and props him in the center of the compound, whereupon—through magic words—the spell is broken. The priest walks normal again. The Theyyam, however, dashes about the courtyard with frenetic advances, clattering his bells and ornaments while the drums beat. He approaches the fire, now burned into red-hot embers. The spectators quickly back into the rear of the seating area. So do we. The barefoot Theyyam walks onto the coals, kicks them into the air, and spins wildly away from the fire, only to charge back again. Hot embers fizz dangerously past us and land at our feet where they sizzle and cool.
If Theyyam is to be considered “theater,” it is certainly one that is free of a raised stage. Its characters roam helter-skelter in a courtyard, disappear into the trees, return through the crowd, vanish into mist. As in Javanese shadow-puppet plays, the audience is free to roam. There is no fixed place where one must be. You can sit in a chair, straddle a wall, or roam the courtyard to view things from various angles. It’s perfectly okay to walk backstage, watch the dhalang work his puppets, and see the musicians in action. Theyyam has another parallel with shadow-puppet plays: the audience is addressed in the trance lingo of the gods. Growls, mutters, and raspy utterances bring spectators out of their static, seated realm and into that of psychically active participants. Antonin Artuad, who saw a Balinese dance in Paris in 1931, wrote: “in the midst of a whole ferment of visual or sonorous images (we are plunged) into that state of uncertainty and ineffable anguish which is characteristic of poetry.” That’s Theyyam.
Amazing to be here, witnessing a ritual drama that continues undiminished into the 21st century. In these watery inlets, gods and ancestors take up residence in bodies of humans, just as the gods enter the Hopis and Zunis in the form of Kachinas. Like the Kachina ceremonies that call down the rain, make abundant the crops, keep the world turning in harmony, the Theyyam rituals give life to crops, dispel bad vibes, balance the body, resolve discord, and heal community clashes. They may also make fertile a childless couple. As an outsider, I’ll never know the meaning of it all, but will, to a degree, be allowed to dissolve into a non-ordinary reality as both spectator and participant.
Seven hours have gone by. The midday heat is sultry and bright. We return to Nazir and Rosi’s, take bucket baths, refresh ourselves with mango lassis, pooris, and fruit. Given our description, Nazir thinks the fire-walking Theyyam was Bali, the monkey god from the Ramayana. When I tell him the costume hardly resembled a monkey, he laughs and says, “It is not about appearance, it is about energy. How the monkey acts.” Randomness, capriciousness, changeability.
Thottada: Beautiful Birds
Renée and I take that magical walk I took the other night, same time of evening, although it is a weekday and there is no ritual lighting of oil lamps in the coconut groves. We spot even more birds than I did last time, including a bright-yellow wagtail flickering into the sky, wings streamlined with ebony. A red-billed kingfisher chatters loudly, swooping low over the placid marsh. A fork-tail bird sits on a wire. An iridescent green heron blends into a lavish drapery of vines. The most brilliant beauty of all, though, is off to the side of the path, wearing colors of saffron and royal blue—a cinnamon-skinned girl flashing a wide smile, her dark nipples showing through a sequined salwar. A diaphanous sarong is tied stylishly around her narrow waist, bellybutton exposed. She’s posed like a Vogue model, leaning against the trunk of a coco palm, which replicates her graceful curve. She’s definitely a 21st-century anomaly among Thottada’s conservative Muslims and Hindus, but then again this isn’t the most conservative part of India. The Western world has wave-washed Kerela for centuries, most recently with global outsourcing and the Internet revolution. People have always been adventurous and enterprising here. The alarming number of new homes in the drained rice paddies attests to the increasing numbers of workers returning from Saudia Arabia with a hefty stash with which to enter the consumer world.
The young woman greets us and begins to converse in an easy, forthright manner—perfect English. I notice a man and a woman bundling kindling in the background near a whitewashed house. “My parents.” She checks her chrome cell-phone, lit sapphire blue in the 6:30 twilight. “I am only here for a visit, most of my friends are in Bangalore.” The sea softly pounds in the background, the air is turning lilac, a toddy collector is shinnying down a palm tree, naked save for a breechcloth, a gourd of fermenting coconut-flower juice, a curved knife strapped to his waist. The young woman eyes him with a disapproving face. She tells us, “I have work in Bangalore. There is more money to be made there than here.” Her job, along with tens of thousands of other women from Indian villages, is to cut patterns all day for a high-end design firm. “Tomorrow I take the bus to my auntie’s house in Bangalore. I have to be at work Monday. Cutting patterns is the first step. It is not the end step. One day I hope to be designing the patterns. ”
“So that is your dream?” I ask. “To become a fashion designer?” “Yes. But I also want to meet a husband of good character, one who does not drink (she eyes the toddy collector again). I am 18 years old, I want to marry when I am 23 and begin a family while I am still young—with a man of proper caste. Glamour is not important.” To which Renée adds, “Yes, beauty, inner beauty is important.” The girl remains pensive, perhaps sizing up “glamour” vs. “beauty.” She stares into the twilight, hears a call from her mother, looks back at Renée. “Yes, character,” she says. Before she heeds her mother’s call, I ask if I can take her picture. “No photos,” she smiles, “I don’t like myself in photos.” I’m briefly disappointed. The entire scene, the particular mood of twilight, the girl’s deliberately posed body against the curved trunk of the palm, her exquisite attire—a perfect painting. But why be attached?
an arc of lightning
across her back.
We bid goodbye to Rosi and Nazir, hearty hugs all around, and begin a several-hour bus ride up into the Western Ghats. Much of the wilderness that was intact when I first visited Kerala in ’79 has come under private ownership. The result is a garden-like landscape of evenly planted teak trees, tea plantations, and coffee estates interspersed between groves of bamboo. Entire hillsides are laced with footpaths. Good for planters, harvesters, inspectors—and tourists. Many of the old planter’s homes are being restored, put under professional management and turned into “heritage stays.” All but the high peaks remain untouched—but for how long? Woodcutters and herders are rapidly working up the folds, leaving deep scars. For the casual visitor, it is impossible to tell what has been erased. Before the tree cutters, herders, and planters, who lived here? What animals drank from the springs? What thickly wooded mountains spoke to the old ones before the moment of change, the speeded up “development” that followed?
At the road’s end is the Sri Mahavishnu temple, a 500-year-old complex nestled right up against the final ridge of the Western Ghats. As expected, non-Hindus aren’t allowed inside. A drag, because the temple’s outer wall seems higher than normal, built of imposing stone—so we can’t even take a peek. One would have to float above and look down into the complex to appreciate it. Only the pointed crests of the copper-tiled shrines are visible as we circle the wall on a granite-slab path. At the rear of the temple are carved stone pillars and the moss-covered remains of an ancient aqueduct. It must have carried water into the inner sanctum. Strangely, there is no ritual bathing pool attached to the temple.
We don’t linger long. We are hot and sweaty, the afternoon is getting late, the hills misting over. The only guesthouse is a shabby affair meant for pilgrims, and the manager isn’t particularly friendly. When he grills us on our reasons for being here, I want to say “architecture,” but answer “pilgrimage” instead. The unsympathetic Brahmin, with inside-out bellybutton and gray hair gushing from ears, looks puzzled. He calls in a crony. After a long rap in Malayalam, he declines to show us a room even though the place is near empty. I begin grumbling to Renée, “It’s our non-Hindu status,” when a sympathetic bystander—an engineer doing renovation on the temple—offers to intervene.
With much hesitation, the mistrusting manager has a boy lead us down the water-stained hall to inspect a room—a ramshackle disaster. Did he purposely show us a room under repair? Likely it’s a plot to have us move on. And that we’ll gladly do—the option being to walk two kilometers downhill to the upscale Hotel Highway. We thank the gentleman who intervened and grab our packs. It’d be easy to complain in a situation like this, but we take it in stride. Maybe we’ll spot the rare Malabar trogan or a neon bee-eater.
between the nettles—
evening’s first star.
A four-hour bus ride through scruffy Keralan villages under looming Chambra Peak (2100 meters), then out from the hills—through banana, pepper, tea and coffee slopes—onto flatland rice paddies, and back to the Malabar Coast. At one stop I hop out to fetch bottled juice, biscuits, and a newspaper, noticing that next to the driver’s enormous steering wheel is a wooden box, crudely lettered: COMPLAINT BOOK KEPT. Empty, of course.
The newspaper is filled with news of Tibetan monks protesting the Chinese treatment of the Dalai Lama. A photo shows police firing bullets and tear-gas into a Lhasa street crowd. To the embarrassment of Beijing, the majority of the world joins in solidarity with the Tibetans. But Chinese brutality continues, and, as usual, their leaders are denying it. “We are here to rule, safeguard, and solidify the national unity. Our government will not be seen in poor light. The Dalai Lama is hatching a plot to split the Motherland.”
The Times of India:
Since nothing rattles the Chinese more than the sight of Tibetan monks these days, hundreds of Tibetan men are tonsuring their heads in protest against the Chinese crackdown. 'Free Tibet' activists plan to turn their protest global on April 7, when thousands of Tibetans will shave their hair as part of their crusade against the Beijing Olympics. While Chinese leaders claimed that Tibetan "independence activists were planning suicide attacks," the Tibetan Solidarity Committee called for mass tonsuring. Poet-activist Tenzin Tsundu, who has already tonsured his head, says, "By shaving our heads, we express our anger and anguish against the Chinese authorities. "This is our way of peaceful protest."
The U.S. has somewhat carefully recognized Tibet as an occupied country; this would be the right time for Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics and show solidarity with the Tibetans. He won’t, of course. Likely he can’t even find Tibet on the map. It’s clear that the Chinese want to fully erase Tibet’s quest for freedom or autonomy. For more than a decade they’ve held under arrest the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the next reincarnation of the Panchen Lama—the second highest-ranking lama who decides on the next Dalai Lama. Chinese officials have chosen their own “panchen lama,” who will in turn pick the “dalai lama” of their choice—an unabashed interference in the religious and cultural beliefs of the Tibetan people.
Meanwhile, politically-correct Westerners—“Free Tibet” bumper stickers on their SUVs—continue to buy things made in China: MP4 players, massage tables, computer printers, do-it-yourself flooring, alarm clocks, baby food, electric can openers, etc. Buy Chinese! Support a government that razed all but a dozen of 6000 Buddhist monasteries and killed or interred tens of thousands of Tibetans.
Another newspaper reveals that the protests have turned violent:
At least eighty Tibetans are feared dead following anti-government protests. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has accused China of waging cultural genocide. Protests began when Buddhist monks took to the streets to mark the anniversary of the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Hundreds of Chinese soldiers are patrolling Lhasa after protesters set fire to Chinese- shops. China has barred reporters from Tibet and blocked websites where videos of the protests have been posted. The protests come less than 200 days before the Beijing Olympics.
On every page, more bad news: in Darfur, Iraq, Zimbabwe; in recently re-named states not yet on maps; in rapes and murders by egocentric autocrats and their brainwashed soldiers; in the acid-throwing cowards attacking schoolgirls; in the stoning of women by twisted fundamentalists; in the automatons marching behind despots. Why reactionary confrontations instead of dialogue? Can’t the fire of love drive us instead of the fire of explosions? How would Basho deal with these times, what would he see?
“However close I look,
not a speck
on the white chrysanthemum.”
The coast where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. Kozhikode is all frenzy and congestion, but it’s a worthy stop for its 13th century mosques built in a unique Keralan style by Muslim merchants descended from Arabian emigrants. There’s also a famous restaurant. We land in a hotel whose ’50s-era rooms are advertised as “relaxing luxury cocoons of creatures comfort nestled around lawns offering soothings for business people to discuss corporate affairs.” The rooms are spartan, the air-con noisy—quite a nosedive from our stay at Nazir and Rosi’s.
We head to the Paragon, Kozhikode’s dining landmark established in the 1930s, known for the savory Mappilah cuisine that originated in Arabia and the Middle East. The place is a short cab ride from our hotel, its location somewhat obstructed by a busy overpass. The grit and clamor of the 21st century has camouflaged the restaurant’s exterior, but inside we find ourselves in a spacious dining room under a high-pillared ceiling with slow-turning fans. The tables are mostly communal, overseen by a host of friendly waiters. We sit across from a handsome couple who shyly nod to us as they finish their seafood platters, mopping up Keralan red rice with their fingers. I am shy, too. The woman is too stunning to look at. I must gradually take in all of her without really looking.
The dining room is lively, everyone digging into aromatic biryanis, mussels, prawns, and huge “set meals”—vegetable thalis with pickles, rice, rotis, and fish or meat. The thali comes on a banana leaf, and you get endless refills. For less than two US dollars, it’s the best deal in the house. This is serious eating! The man who joins us after the couple leaves introduces himself, orders, and proceeds into a story about how, as an assistant director of Malayalam movies, he was Anita Nair’s driver during a recent Kozhikode film festival. “I met her at the airport and expected to drive her right to her hotel, but she stopped me. “Take me straight to the Paragon!”
The Malabar Coast is famous for seafood, and the Paragon gets a three-times-daily fresh-catch delivery. We order two kinds of whitefish: a filet bathed in tamarind sauce spiced with red chilis; another creamed in a tantalizing sweet paste, steamed in banana leaves. We also order a side of grilled shrimp covered in toasted coconut and spices—which automatically includes native Keralan red rice. The food turns out to be one of many memorable Keralan meals. Given a second chance to dine here, we’ll try their signature dish—Malabar Biryani, a rice dish flavored with onions, chilies, and meat marinated in curd. Add apricot, raisons, mint, cinnamon, and almonds. Birian is a Farsi word, and the dish originates—depending on who you talk to—either in Persia or among the Arabian nomads. Lizzie Collingham devotes an entire chapter to biryani in her book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. She traces it to the Persian pulau, which underwent a transformation when it met the spicy rice preparations of north India.
of red chilies, cooled
by afternoon rain.
We nap briefly at our hotel, then decide to visit the old mosques. Dark clouds gather as we hail a cab and head out of the chaos onto a back road into the Muslim quarter. It’s suddenly quiet—an enclave of modest tree-shaded houses set along narrow lanes behind gessoed walls. Most of houses are painted white and green. The main attraction is the 13th-century Macchandipalli Masjid, a skillfully proportioned multi-tiered mosque designed after Kerala’s early Hindu temples. What is most unusual about the mosque is that it has no domes or minarets, which gives a zen-temple quality to the place. Each of the mosque’s five tiers has a terra-cotta tiled roof. Twelve blue doorways, arched and outlined in eggshell white, offset the mint-green stone walls of the lower level—simple yet ceremonial.
Unfortunately there is no attendant to show us the ornamented ceilings of the interior. Rain is pounding in sheets, huge brown puddles everywhere. We take refuge under the eaves of a nearby house and scan the latticework of the mosque’s upper stories: long, horizontal wood slats wrap the entire edifice, allowing filtered light and ventilation into the interior. We attempt some photos, but the day has turned dark; besides, we have no wide-angle lens for the dramatic proportions. Later we discover a perfect photo of the mosque, by Barry Dawson, in Traditional Buildings of India, in which the author, Ilay Cooper, writes:
“Mappilah Muslims, a long-established community descended from high-caste converts, form an important social element in northern Kerala. Mappilahs, as native Keralans, have kept to a basic vernacular style. Older Mappilah houses in Kozhikode retain a central courtyard. Later ones dispense with it, are often two-storied, and enclose some verandah space at the front of the house. The floor, raised above the verandah level, is either paved with stone tile or lime plaster with a platform some two feet above the floor level, a combined prayer area and sitting space.”
We pop open our
umbrellas and walk to nearby Juma Masjid, a huge 11th
century prayer hall, then to another mosque with an impressive
multi-pillared hall. Afterwards, we duck into a tiny sundries shop,
and chat for a bit with Muslim men, and even, at one point, with a
few ladies. They are dressed in all black, thin veils minimally
covering their heads—elegant women with seductive,
antimony-darkened eyes. From their well-kept appearance and ease with
foreigners, I sense that they are educated, and probably pretty well
off by Indian standards—the influx of Gulf petro-dollars.
Supposedly, these women of Arabian lineage share the patrilineal and
matrilineal descent unique to Keralan Muslims. Soon the sun breaks
out. Above the coconut trees inky clouds spit lightning as they
Through her veil
everything hidden, revealed
Thunder booms, lightning cracks as a priest pulls the bell rope at the entrance to Vaddukanatha Temple. There’s no congregation save for a mixed bag of crows and goats grazing the grass of the quiet round that surrounds the temple. Too rainy to do much, so we’ll head back to our slump of an inn off the round down a tiny lane. Scurrying through the downpour, we meet a dozen Indian pilgrims doing the same. They’re all smiles, splashing through puddles, having just exited a tour bus into the round. The women, laughing, are deliciously soaked in skin-clinging saris. We take for granted the grace of these women. Ever try running in nine meters of rain-soaked silk?
I should say something about our so-called inn: the “Gurukripa,” a mere hovel that has seen its better days. After a few tries for a hotel that would meet our budget, drenched by the pouring storm, we gave up. A cabbie directed us here, a cell-like room which depressed us both, much reminding me of my first travels to India. But it was getting dark an we were exhausted. Down went our emergency silk sleeping bags (they fit in one hand) over the thin, grayed sheets. Over the flat, threadbare pillows we folded our sweaters and made the best of it. I considered the scuffed wall and greasy head-stains above the pillows and began to complain. Not Renée. “No use making the room darker with dark words!” And to my amazement she started redecorating the place. In mind, that is. “These could be really great digs,” she offered. “All it needs is a little attention. Whitewash the walls, scrub these elegant tile floors of their spittle and grime, sand and stain the ceiling beams, clean the windows, new sheets of course, some locally-woven bedspreads, decent reading lamps, and—just around the corner—there’s a great Ayurvedic chemist’s shop.”
True, next morning when we enter the Ayurvedic herb shop, a waft of herbal remedies floods out. Each bottle has a hand-inked label: MEMORY - FLATULENCE - GENERAL DEBILITY - RHEUMATIC COMPLAINT. Each drawer holds dried mountain-picked herbs: BLOOD PURIFIER – NERVINE TONIC –CHANDAN BARK etc. Next door, a brass seller shows us a reasonably priced Ganesha, which, despite being a bit heavy for our backpacks, we decide to buy; also, a tiny vulva-shaped oil lamp engraved with good-luck swastikas. The vendor wraps Ganesh in newspaper. He sits under a framed print of Gandhi, who—toothless, bareheaded, smiling—looks like a cartoon for peace. “The young have forgotten Gandhi,” the man says. “When they get hit on one cheek, they don’t surrender the other. They go for a gun. People believe we are going forward, but they are fooling themselves. Our world is in reverse.”
I notice today’s Daily Times on the merchant’s desk. “Chinese call Dalai Lama Wolf in Monk’s Robes.” The heads of state are claiming that the Dalai Lama was marching in the Llasha riots! They continue to spread the word that he is the “instigator of all instigators hoping to split the motherland, a terrorist with the heart of a beast.”
Rain floods the streets. My one pair of sandals is thoroughly soaked. We order South Indian coffees from a vendor who froths them dramatically, spout to cups, in two-foot steaming arcs. Morning glories erupt from his shed and creep over the old quarter. Tin pails, sparklers, dung cakes, bundled kindling, rubber boots, hafts, and sledgehammers are for sale under tarps raised between poles along the street. The cloudburst makes lingering impossible. We’ll move on to Kochi tomorrow. A gaggle of women at the local bus top suddenly flock like geese when the battered city bus splashes up.
Jumping a puddle
the teenage beauty lifts her sari
over white Nikes.
We’re settled by noon, upper room of a waterfront home-stay. Standing on the balcony, we look through the canopies of massive flame trees to the lights of passing freighters in the harbor. The train from Trissur this morning took us through a vibrant landscape of inundated rice fields, trees sagging, roads under water. People say they’ve never seen such heavy rains this early. Newspapers are filled with reports of farmers losing their rice harvests.
Kochi, specifically Fort Cochin, is a top destination for Europeans, Indian nationals, and a mix of sailors who debark across the harbor in Ernakulum. An influx of foreigners has always been present here: Chinese, Arabs, Greeks, Jews, early Christians, Portuguese, Dutch, British. It is a comfort zone in the middle of India’s sea of chaos, a quaint little harbor where one can find Italian pastas, espressos, pan-Asian seafood, and Middle-Eastern plates served in four or five-hundred-year-old private houses having distinct Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, and Keralan touches.
Under spreading trees in grassy parks, boys play cricket with earnest intensity. Along the harbor are spider-like Chinese pole-and-beam fishing nets suspended gracefully over the water from wooden platforms. On these fragile stages, groups of men do a practiced dance, working booms, ropes, and counter- weights to lower and the nets into the incoming tide—a simple fulcrum principal. Along the bay, a plethora of catch sits in bins of ice: squid, sea bass, barracuda, tuna, kingfish, crab, pomfret, giant prawn, and snapper.
Kochi must be a circus during the high season, but at present it’s laid back. The waterfront, shaded by canopies of flamboyant trees half hiding the nets and dappled water, is reminiscent of a leaf-mottled Seurat painting. Indian women in flowing saris stroll the levee under oversize parasols, arm and arm with men in dark suits and white shirts. Their daughters sport fashionable salwar kameezes. Children romp around in baseball hats, stenciled t-shirts and designer jeans. Many village pre-teens wear old-fashioned, multi-tiered chiffon frocks—never out of style in rural India. Between the sweepers in worn-thin saris, stroll the mother-of-pearl vendors, the papaya man, even an out-of-place goat herder. A shrine-keeper’s nasal prayer rises not far off, accompanied by the clingg of finger cymbals. In the damp crevasse of a missing chunk of sidewalk,
The thumping chant
of a frog
joins the priest’s song.
After coffee at a too-trendy art-gallery place, we walk the sea front, turn into the side streets, stumble upon a family-run cafe in a peeling Dutch house behind a moss-covered wall. We order Keralan thalis from the courteous owner, who disappears into the kitchen, past thick-curtained bedrooms and a galaxy of icons on the wall: Blessed Virgin, San Miguel, Sagrado Corazon, hand-tinted ancestor photos. Shortly, we are served two salty-sweet buffalo-milk lassis. Then the thalis, each arranged on a banana leaf on a metal tray, a little pyramid of rice surrounded by little stainless-steel bowls of onion, bitter-gourd curries, green beans, snake gourd slices. To the side are bowls of sambar, prawn and ginger curry, pickled mango, toasted pappad. A stellar meal, each dimensional flavor tweaking our taste buds. The freshly caught prawns are tender, plump and sweet, bathed in tart curry. You just can’t find Indian cuisine like this in the States.
Strange dream after last night’s Kathakali performance. In a room behind thick drapes (the curtained bedroom of the little café yesterday?), a big brute of a guy—Bhima, from the Mahabharata?—seduces a voluptuous princess, her body barely covered by a thin veil. As he massages her toes, her hair unloosens and she sighs. Slowly he works his hands up her thighs and she thrusts her pelvis toward him with rhythmic undulations—a soft, saffron glow around her vulva. It’s a stage play and I am seated with Renée in the audience. Embarrassed, I rise from my chair, but Renée pulls me back. “Sit down! It’s only a play, after all. It’s what everybody does behind curtains.”
I saw a Kathakali (katha, story; kali, play) performance in Kochi three decades ago, and last night’s act was in the same little theater, just as it was then: rustic, unchanged, half-blown over by the monsoons. The shortened Kathakali is an adequate version of what one might endure all night long in a Keralan village—what was once presented in temples, palaces, and upper-class homes. From last night’s performance, a few notes:
We arrive early, take front seats, watch actors apply make up while a priest lights oil lamps, sifts rice flour between fingers to create a mandala on the floor. Actors sit cross-legged onstage with hand mirrors and paint their faces. Makeup consists of stone-ground pigments mixed with coconut oil. Green for nobility, yellow for female, red for bad guy, black for wild man, white for Hanuman or supernatural being. Anti-heroes are streaked both red and green. One actor reclines face up on stage so his make-up artist can apply the final touch: a beard cut from paper, glued to his jaw with rice paste. To impart a fierce hue to the eyes, a seed is placed under each lid, turning the whites red. After the make-up, the actor retreats backstage to don headdress and billowy scarlet skirt.
Meanwhile, lead singer takes the stage to explain the science of hand mudras and facial expressions. “Mudras are sign language that tell the story. Basic mudras indicate: sun, moon, big king, cobra, bee sucking nectar from lotus, father, mother, brother, sister, husband, wife, baby, you, me, here, there, yes, no, sure, that is all, I am going, I am eating, how are you, I am fine, please come, come!, come here!!, please go, go!, get out!! There are also nine rasas—tastes—shown by facial expressions: love, wonder, comedy, fear, anger, sadness, peacefulness, bravery, sarcasm.” He further explains: “Tonight you will see only part of one of one hundred and one Mahabharata stories possible to act. One story takes all night to tell. Kathakali is for serious actors only. They must train six years in yoga, meditation, martial arts, drama. Makeup artist must train four years.”
The dance is backed by two drummers, a cymbal player, and singer. When acting revs up we discern elements of theyyam and kalarippayattu—leaps, turns, high kicks, trance-like immobile states. There is a strange “after image,” too. It happens when an actor dances furiously, suddenly halts, and a double shadow appear. Like an off-register photograph in a magazine. Head has stopped but you still see it moving; actor has landed but you still see him in mid-air. No speech, just mime in these performances—tilt of head, stomp of leg, sputter, wheeze, sudden finger flutter, roll of widened eyes. Energy swells, ripples through actors’ bodies into night air, wavers the wicks of coconut-oil stage lamps, creates a hiss in the brain, hot metallic breeze against the cheeks.
Form to formlessness
a mutilated flutter
of eyes, fingers, teeth.
An equation here: between humans, gods, nature. An occult triangle of gestures, sighs. The sounds from the actors’ mouths are raw and indecipherable—language liberated from intellect. Alchemic vibrations erupt, dangle, break apart to anesthetize the collective psyche of the audience. We are put into a state of total reception, an emotional trance. Squeals, electric gasps, jagged exhalations. Dialect of a world in creation.
Across the road from our inn, through the rain, behind twelve panes of glass in the window of an old Dutch harbor house, two figures undress, backlit by a lamp. I feel like I’m in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Is the couple about to make love? Or does the rippling rain play tricks? Is one merely bending to iron a blouse, the other opening a newspaper? And what are we doing—two silhouettes backed by a bar of fluorescence—from their angle? Are we naked, unrolling bedcovers, or simply repacking our bags, making a list for tomorrow before sleep?
the eye obsessed
Morning ferry to Ernakulum, rain blasting the riggings. Water and sky, a mutant blur. Chinese fishing nets, simple brush strokes on mica-coated paper. Leaping porpoises, chiseled flecks in backwater froth. The ferry boy pulls down a tarp of sewn-together grain sacks to keep the passengers dry—most of them are women. One has leaves pressed to her skin from her wind-and-rain dash to the jetty. One carries an aged ledger as if it were a baby. One stares hare-lipped over a bundle of cauliflower. One is made blue-skinned by light through the tarp. One smells of sex. One slides a silver crutch under a yellow wooden seat. For a moment, no destination, nowhere to be from, nothing of the birth we were brought into. Everything transparent, unnamed, drenched with arousal, possibility. A lost-in-thought, ghost-of-a-chance, spell-of-the-harbor crossing.
In Ernakulum, we hail a rickshaw to Mahatma Gandhi Marg and get off at Bharat Sari World, a glitzy department store where Renée shops for a traditional Keralan sari. She disappears behind androgynous mannequins, “fixed price” placards, and a hundred mirrors where brides-to-be try on jewelry and silk. I wait with unsmiling men in polyester shirts and trousers, each sporting an identical, evenly trimmed moustache, each fondling a look-alike mobile phone (today’s pacifier). We all sit in an air-conditioned glass cubicle, drinking complimentary chai. For kicks I scan the newspaper classifieds:
CHAT & MARRY SMART BEAUTIFUL well-centered Ernakulum girl especially seeking handsome artistic never-married young-looking tech boy with interestin real estate who owns scooter and automobile.
DEPENDABLE 33 years Vegan Bangalore Software Professional who loves Camus, Sarah McLaughlin and Oatmeal Cookies, seeks Vegan girl as life partner to share the joys of life. Willing to relocate, except inland.
36 YEAR old Mathematics Professor with boyish good looks who hates dairy products seeks suitable fun-loving vegetarian who avoids milk products.
28 YEARS DIVORCEE FAIR GIRL seeks fair Govt. Job Middle Fly Groom, Caste and Religion no bar. Must have full hair, athletic, no credit dues.
TELUGU CHETTY 29/167,Hotel Management seeks young educated girl, grown- up manners, Send horoscope and biodata. Flat stomach, photo required
PARENTS SEEK very beautiful religious daughter MS Computer Science no taller than our handsome boy, working engineer from Mangalore, clean manners.
50 YEARS OLD MAN, fair, settled, affluent, needs educated same-sect Tamil girl, divorcee/widow, good health, wheatish complexion. Send details & photo
SLIM FAIR Beautiful employed modern-with-matured-outlook veg. bride required for 38/166/90KPM Hindu boy with clean habits presently being schooled.
How can so many women can be getting married in such costly attire while the rest of the planet sags into a chasm of global bankruptcy? All this pomp and circumstance only to have the jewels and silk unwrapped and scattered from the body on the “first night.” Next morning, no matter how well she dresses, the young bride walks “naked” into the kitchen to face the dominating mother-in-law, the quiz-show sisters-in-law, the unyielding ways of her husband’s side.
India isn’t as isolated as when I first visited in the ‘70s. There’s the internet revolution, more travel to Europe and America. Young people are seeking their own paths (mostly in progressive cities), apart from fate, destiny, or the pundit’s costly horoscope. They’re knocking down old traditions of love bound to duty, of a partner arranged by parents’ secret negotiations. India promises a bumpy road as it transforms from its medieval past into a democratic world player. There will be rough spots in private lives: tension between family duty and individual desire; conflict between seeking opportunity in distant lands versus remaining in the clutches of family governance at home—both popular themes in contemporary Indian novels and films. Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy,” made in the ‘50s, led the way. Here was a director (and cameraman) who’d never made a film, actors who’d never acted, music by a then novice (Ravi Shankar) and financing so threadbare that it seemed impossible that these three films would garner top prizes at Cannes. So original, so anti Bollywood!
Renée finds a traditional Keralan sari—white silk bordered with green and gold thread—at a modest price. She walks from the bright lights of the main lobby smiling, her folded sari in a giant plastic bag. Outside, the rain has let up. We head for Fry’s Restaurant, a down-home place with superb food where we feast on sweet fluffy biryani, shrimp-pineapple-cashew curry, and iddiyapam—steam-cooked, stringy rice noodles in sugar and coconut milk. Plus parothas on the side: fried puff bread with pickled mango and raita. We take a walk, return for chai and kulfi, grab a cab to the pier, board the ferry back to Kochi.
Easter Sunday / Kochi
Our laundry arrives—my white shirt the whitest I’ve ever seen it—each item neatly folded between squares of newspaper. Crows gabble and squawk on the balcony. Bells clang from Santa Cruz Basilica. Pink and green saris flow into the old Church of St. Francis, a stone’s throw from our inn. Their service is about to begin, ours is already over. We’ve feasted on each other to the sound of the bells. The Church of St. Francis has been rebuilt a number of times, still quaint, but nothing special from the exterior. It was the first church erected by Europeans in India. Vasco da Gama was buried inside in 1524, the Dutch took it over for a while, then the Anglicans. It’s now part of the Church of South India—packed full when we enter the gate, walk under a sprawling bougainvillea, and peer through the doors into a riot of colors. Suspended from the ceiling, and spanning the entire length of the nave, are punkahs—long cloth banners stretched between wooden frames. They serve to cool the congregation when the punkah-wallahs pull their ropes. Air conditioning, sans electricity.
We linger in the rear of the church before exiting onto the rain-wet streets. Immediately, the ghost of Ruth appears—a Welsh journalist who I met on these same streets thirty years ago. Flaxen hair, same wispy figure and forthright manner. Says she took the ferry over from Ernakulum to attend Easter Sunday Mass, but is famished and needs to eat. We begin to walk together. She decides on the Vasco Café and holds open the door for us. We hesitate, not sure if we feel like a conversation this early in the morning. We wish her well and eventually amble over to The Teapot cafe, ironically known for its ultra-strong coffee.
The woman’s presence haunts me—for a few seconds at least—before Renée reminds me of another ghost who appeared this morning: that of the little girl skipping along the streets of Old Havana a few years ago, the one who inspired my poem, A Rose for Lorca. “She was here again this morning. Did you see her? She was in the Church of St. Francis, skipping down the aisle.” Yes! The spindly legs, polished shoes, the darkly gleaming Dravidian eyes* under her holy communion veil. Same face, same airy hopscotch bounce, same joie de vivre. Faint trace of gardenia, a Sacred Heart scapular pinned to her breast. Once again,
in so many places—
How easily we fall into the half-dream of another—in rickety buses, in shiny lobbies, circling the prayer-bannered cairn, standing in the ashram food line, alongside the mendicant climbing the heights to Shiva’s ice lingam. Or, rubbing shoulders with the Muslim girl on the rain-lashed ferry to Ernakulum (fragrance of crushed resin, sea-foam, and the rough churn of the heavy engine). How often we take our cue from Whitman and forego the moment inside us for that of the other: the bare-bone laborer bending rebar in concrete heat; the waif at the spigot scrubbing his heels; the tattered thing of a woman scratching for alms. Her death, our fate, too—only temporarily held at arm’s length. All the while the gong-banging priest oils his belly and exhales an oblivious-to-it-all gibberish over disciples loading his plate with coins.
The young beggar’s eyes
clouded with hope
Renée scans the horoscope page of The Sunday Express: “Every one is about money!” Then she returns to the headlines, which focus on rice farmers losing their yields and the government’s stalled rescue packages. The rains keep on, and with them the weekly suicides. Money borrowed for seed and labor with no harvest to reap has left farmers destitute. Below an article about rural suicides is an ad with a photo of a fierce-eyed professorial:
SELF-ENTRAPMENT: IS THERE A WAY OUT? Watch global mentor and spiritual philosopher Prof. Subash Ramesh Richard Thd Phd DsD. Register and win an Ipod. Log on to Essential Spirituality & access Prof.RameshRichard.com.
In Kochi’s spice port of Mattancherry, we order tea and write postcards. I scribble one to Steve Sanfield relating our attempt to visit the 16th-century Pardesi Synagogue: “a strikingly simple building approached by a stone courtyard. But we couldn’t get in to see the hand-painted tiles, ark, and oil-lamp chandeliers. At the door, the rabbi told us the synagogue is overseen by an all-Catholic staff, and they took the day off to celebrate Easter!”
Kochi once had a large population of Jews, today just a handful. Without some unpredictable reversal, it’s the end of a 2000-year history. Jews were among the first foreigners in Kochi, some historians dating their arrival to 700 BC. When the Portuguese occupied the Malabar Coast, Jews were viciously persecuted; the Portuguese hoped to eradicate them, but under the more-tolerant Dutch, they regained status as traders and spice merchants. In 1949, an exodus occurred to the newly-formed Israel. For the Jews who remained, it was increasingly difficult to find marriage partners. Many became St. Thomas Christians.
In the section of Mattancherry known as “Jew Town” nearly all the streets are filled with Kashmiri traders. A spice vendor relates something I seem to have read before: “The dozen Jews that still live here must wait for the rabbi to come from Israel to bless their meat, and he only comes once a year.” The tourist-oriented shops specialize in fake antiques, hookahs, prayer rugs, pages of scripture, “rare” porcelain, and “old” menorahs. The old port, with its decaying warehouses (they’d make great artists’ lofts), is empty of the haggling brokers that once filled the International Pepper Exchange. Trading is now done online.
We visit the Jain Temple, only to come across a big chrome tour bus emptying a load of Aussies fresh from Kovala Beach five-star resorts. Without clue as to where they are, and definitely oblivious to proper temple attire, the giddy, loud-talking tourists seem little interested in anyone but themselves. When I give their Indian tour leader a shocked look, he discreetly shrugs his shoulders. Likely he just wants to get through the day, get paid, and move on. But to get paid, he’ll have to first please his tour group, and offer the gatekeeper a heavy-duty baksheesh supplied begrudgingly by the scantily-clad Aussies. I watch as—gulp—they get through the gate, only to be met by the Jain elders in the courtyard outside the temple. Here, they are obliged to pay another baksheesh, and either return to the bus and change into proper clothes, or borrow some from the temple keeper to cover their bare chests, bikinis, and lobster-red shoulders. Meanwhile, the tour guide embarrassingly endures the scrutiny of the Jain worshipers, who quietly but distractedly go about their offerings in the peaceful marble sanctuaries.
Not wanting to enter while all this is going on, we forego the temple and walk to Mattancherry Palace, a 16th century medieval complex built by the Portuguese as a gift to the raja of Kochi, and later added onto by the Dutch. The wooden architecture blends Keralan and European styles. Rooms are built around a courtyard with a shrine to a protective goddess. We climb the stairs with Indian tourists to view two rooms of murals commissioned by the Portuguese, executed by Keralan artists, painted with natural pigments: siennas, malachites, yellow ochres, cinnabar, and carbon.
There doesn’t seem to be much worthy reportage on these murals. What little exists is tangled in stodgy arguments over which century the murals were actually painted—of little interest, except to scholars battling it out in academic forums. Where is an emotional involvement in the subject matter? So what that Vishnu is painted “with dramatic effect”? Who cares that “Rama’s expression shows bravery and anger.” Figures may be “voluminous, highly ornamented”—but, for Chrissakes, what are the figures doing! Such obvious commentary tiptoes around the dripping eroticism of the best panels—which are not even mentioned.
The non-erotic paintings are all exquisitely detailed and captivating. Krishna, for example, holding up Mt. Govardhana after he defeated Indra, using the mountain as an umbrella to protect his people from Indra’s pounding rain. Or dark-skinned Rama pulling back a golden arrow. But then we move on to what we came for: the wonderful Ramayana scenes, including the birth of Rama. The “naughty” scenes of the king’s wives, very explicitly rendered, shown with open cunts. And then the real showstoppers: the Krishna Lila paintings. Here a cheerful Krishna, using his six hands and two feet to engage in foreplay with eight happy milkmaids, is portrayed unabashedly fingering and toeing the breasts, nipples, and dripping slits of his gopis—a clearly pleasurable look on his face as he reclines on a divan, his naked harem lolling about. What an advantage to have six hands!
Returning to our room
holding in mind the gods’
Back in Kochi, we stop for a harbor-front lunch: cold beers, squid bathed in a turmeric-garlic-peppercorn masala and steamed in a leaf, grilled tuna, and prawns cooked Bengali-style in ginger paste, mustard seeds, tamarind, shaved coconut, turmeric, and candied onions. Our taste buds are roaring! Another superb meal, haven’t gone wrong yet. I think of all those detox cleanses, colon scrubs, and fad diets back home (“you can have a piece of bacon but no fruit,”), but why not a healthy six weeks of breadless, cheeseless, pastaless South Indian meals spiced with mind and body purifiers—followed by a good salt-wash in the sea? Live full, die thin!
Tomorrow we’ll move on. This evening, scribble notes as the red sun sinks into the sea. Roof gutters clink with cloudburst aftermath. Girls on bikes coast by leaving neon ripples in oil-slick puddles. Rain beads cover the lizard’s back. I’ve come to think the earth is not round, but the shape of a raindrop—a diadem splashed from illusion. The last light on the harbor glints behind couples ambling the jetty. Malayalam signposts—bright yellow with black lettering that scoops, drips, and curls—indicate into narrow alleys with doorfronts opening into oiled wood interiors. Under twittering songbirds in cages, a servant descends a teak stairway to a kitchen of brass urns—a hard bed in one corner, reproductions of the gods glued to the wall. Malabar sky turns oriole, mango, indigo. Stars hang low in dripping breadfruit trees. Cricket players drift away from the park.
We immigrate to the sheets, intoxicated on color. Cezanne, Gauguin, the curves of my lover dusted with pink talc. Around her neck, the little wax amulet with painted eyes has melted from the heat of her skin. At last our eyes meet. Fingers ebb, undo the sash, discover the smooth belly. In wet threads of spun gold, the scent of citrus tea. In the dark harbor,
South to Alappuzha
It’s an easy two-hour bus ride to Alappuzha from Kochi. We take a room in a hundred-year-old former Ayurvedic doctor’s home on one of the canals. The house has been converted into a heritage home-stay with four rooms to let, plenty of sun, nicely furnished, impeccably clean: $20 for the two of us. A gem of a find for two night’s stay before taking a local ferry across the backwaters to Kottayam.
I put on my white pants and kurta, go barefoot across the smooth black dining chamber floor, and into the livingroom to relax in a gracefully curved wicker chair. Powder-blue walls rise high to meet the ebony-lacquered slatwood ceiling. A bronze Shiva Nataraj sits on antique rosewood table. Shiva dances in trance ecstasy inside a wheel marking off karmic time. Datura blossoms decorate his ears, his dreadlocks fly outward, there’s an hourglass drum in one hand, a flame in a second hand, and the Buddhist “fear-not” mudra formed by the fingers of a third. Spinning, spinning,
Limbs moving furiously the cosmic dancer eyes me
with absolute calm.
The black floors receive their high polish from an application of burnt coconut shell, egg white, plant gum, and lime. “A meticulous procedure,” the owner tells us. “It must be done by an expert mason, late at night, when the air is free of dust, no human interruptions. There must be consistency to the stucco and to the process of laying it.” The house is enclosed by low walls constructed of quarried laterite, cut into blocks, squared, set, and plastered. Pure, slow-paced handiwork. An era when both temples and people’s living quarters were planned according to geomancy. A mathematically proportioned floor plan came to represent cosmic space. A family slept and woke inside the cardinal points, aware of the circular progression of life and one’s place in the higher order of things.
You entered the house through a garden, brushing your forehead on dangling passionflower blooms and knew you were alive. Perfumed offerings were placed in stone trays, rainwater ran through channels of stone carved to resemble wild rivers. Music rippled through “poetic corners,” deliberate resting places in the garden: nooks of limestone, grottos filled with flowering creepers and puddles of shade. No clocks, just a wind chime to mark time. No cinderblock and rebar, but the craft of the hand: ponds terraced with orchids, bamboo, rambling sweet potatoes. A canopy of wisteria. Purple hydrangea at the feet of the Goddess. Inflorescence! A tunnel of loveliness between porch and entry gate. An era when paths were edged with drying cloves, and people spoke to one another rather than strapping themselves with suicide bombs.
words from a dream
swept along in the breeze.
Morning. Rise early, scan my notes, watch songbirds flock through honeyed light filtering into the sandy compound. Under the mangos and palms, the sweeper goes about her sweeping, swishing a reed whisk with graceful, circular movements from her barefoot, hunkered position. With quick flicks of the wrist she brushes leaves, palm fibers, and an occasional cellophane wrapper into little piles. Back breaking work that I couldn’t do. Nor could my students, who complain of aching tendons from computer work, and whose fingers are accustomed to texting, but cannot manage darning needles.
Drinking coffee, pen to journal, I am at work, but with the
sweeper-wallah laboring just in front of the verandah, I feel
self-conscious. I quit writing, consider moving inside, but I might
wake people asleep in their rooms. Besides, it’s too dim in
there to work. I decide to go out into the compound, sketch the house
and grounds—noticing the beautifully-sloped roof: how easily
the shadows slide down its curve, somersault over its tiled lip, and
reverse back into the trees. When I return to the verandah, the
sweeper is even closer than before. Distracted from my notes, I begin
to sketch her. She’s aware of this, and, as she nimbly turns,
head lowered, beaded sweat on her brow, full breasts dangling under
the wide neck of her blouse, she gives me a glance, a half-smile,
then turns, adjusts her hair into a bun, and continues sweeping—her
back towards me for the rest of her task.
A single glance
from a Keralan beauty
before labor reclaims her.
The raked courtyard, rustle of leaves, swishing broom, oxcart parked in the backyard: it could be Alappuzha a hundred years ago, save for the white Ambassador parked inside the gate. Fingers around pen, I tease the tip, let flow the ink, pursue all that is tentative, everything elusively fixed. Odor of wetted earth, faint attar of the sweeper, a woodpecker’s drill, the sudden giggle of two women guests waking behind a door to one end of the porch. I want to write, but all is written—in the shifting clouds, in sunlight bouncing from Shiva’s wheel, in the intimate whispers behind the door. I could open the gate, roam the town, write the monkeys copulating, the chameleons upside down in the trees, watch the schoolboys march, see a lion unfurl on the national flag. Or ... stay, ponder Laxmi glued to my notebook, rising from her lotus with a benevolent smile. Instead of moving into the day, I’ll let the day move into me.
Now is the hour when dust turn gold, when the rat goes back into hiding, when leaves are tamped into a basket, and a brown squirrel thumps across the roof. I pluck a pomegranate, my fingers turn scarlet. The women open their door and sit for coffee, strong of perspiration, beads jingling. A man brings a silver plate of purple bananas. They taste very sweet, a hint of salt, it must be the sea in the roots of their tree. At the gate a fishergirl waits, arms raised like a goddess, fresh catch in a bucket balanced on head. My eyes flood with metaphors, ash, spangles, hyperbole. The parrot flaps. The sweeper sweeps, a sun-fiery silhouette in a shroud of dust. On the table Jayanta Mahapatra’s Selected Poems, moist with humidity, the black ink scarlet in the sun:
the motor of the precious pubis—
fever of love
the deeper undulations
of the earth.”
We hire a driver to take us along the backwaters. At the Krishna Temple 16 kms south of town, we leave our sandals with the shoe-wallah, walk barefoot through a corridor of trinket vendors where Renée buys bangles and bindis. Deeper into the temple, we look at one another with raised eyebrows: “Finally we are inside the walls!” Well, almost. We’re permitted into the inner walls of the outer sanctum, but not into the innermost sanctum of the outer. Between wooden pavilions spaced Zen-like in a massive courtyard, an elephant is being led by a white-swaddled priest. Another priest follows bearing a curved brass spoon of flame. Two drummers and a trio of horn players follow him. The elephant is met by a host of devotees and dutifully uncoils his trunk to bless them. It’s unpleasant watching men unchain this elegant mammal (tusks sawed off and filed) to parade him around for religious purposes, then lock him into shackles again.
In a corner of the courtyard is a naga shrine where snakes uncoil and rear their heads from vulva-shaped nests—everything carved of stone. Three women say prayers here, gold-bordered royal-blue saris accenting their chocolate skin. They fold palms together before the nagas, then open them with sprinkles of turmeric and jasmine petals. Far back into time these gestures must find source! Behind the women a musician spreads The Times of India on the ground, sits on the headlines, crosses his legs, takes a tiny bow to a one-stringed lute, and begins to play. A sadhu reclines on his side, head propped casually on one arm, watching the world go by. He eyes us intently, reminding us of old poetry comrade, Ira Cohen. He has a wise, mischievous look despite his disheveled appearance—the rumpled lungi, the scraggly beard.
A blast of soprano horns fills the courtyard. Two bare-chested men wrapped in white lungis (why, it’s Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane!) wail into a microphone, while the elephant with sawed-off tusks kneels to allow a priest to mount his back. Wild Keralan jazz rips through the stone courtyard as the horns intensify and drummers join in. The music nearly takes my head off! It ricochets from every wall and timber, rattling my skeleton.
An hour later, heads ringing, we examine an interesting architectural detail of the temple: the latticed, copper-plated woodwork on the outer walls of the main sanctum. Each cubicle formed by the trelliswork is meant to hold a wick floating in a tiny vessel of oil. At temple festivals, thousands of worshipers converge after sunset to light these floating wicks. What a spectacle it must be. Within a few minutes the temple becomes a screen of dancing flames. Walls of fire! Even now, given the sun’s angle, the wall has an allure: the metal-outlined trellising catches the light like the jewels of a bride. Walls of fire, yes. And, when combined with Keralan horns and percussion, sheets of sound.
Lots to ponder. We stroll back in silence to retrieve our sandals at the entrance gate and meet our driver.
Those of money
and those of rags—
their sandals in a single pile.
Further south, our driver turns off National Highway 47 onto a bumpy side road, parks in a grove of trees, and announces “Mannarsala Nagaraja Temple.” A major destination for serpent-god devotees and particularly auspicious for childless couples. Unlike the negative inference in the Christian West, the serpent has positive implications in India. An obvious fertility symbol, the snake stands erect from its coiled base, a candid image of the upright phallus. Not the image I was brought up with—the evil serpent crushed by the barefoot Holy Virgin or the vermin driven from Ireland by St. Patrick (no snakes in post-glacial Ireland!).
Here one roams the grounds free to contemplate the serpent carvings: spirals in stone, the Mystic Spiral. Spin of Dervishes, flow of water, shape of the galaxies, uncoiling of the male sex, blood whirling through the heart, sound in the eardrum, voice in the larynx, vortices of air that deliver rain, the unscrolling labyrinth of the seeker’s quest, knowledge curling from gray matter.
his fingers rotating
into rain-calling mudras.
Young women, already pregnant or wanting to be, are here with husbands, mothers, and in-laws to offer supplications. Others have come for “fear riddance” or “disease curing” or “anger release.” They offer sticks of incense, brass serpent trinkets, ghee, salt, and eggs. Musicians are for hire, they sit waiting amid the trees with lutes, drums, and violins. Given the dampness and the burning incense, it’s as if the gods were providing a constant humidifier of ambrosia.
Unlike the Krishna temple we visited earlier, this temple neither sits in the open nor does it have walls of fire. It’s shrines are half-hidden in creeper-wrapped trees whose exposed roots stand taller than us. Every bit of this grove is sacred, home to real and storied nagas. Along the trail, stone railings are carved with rearing serpents dusted with turmeric. Ah, India: women wrapped in periwinkle sprinkling erect cock heads with gold dust! One shrine is more modern than the other structures, built of plastered brick, painted powder blue and pumpkin.. The garden around it undulate with lime-green leaf shadows. Of the fallen leaves, not every leaf is raked, not every weed has been pulled. Blossoms dropped by pilgrims have been left to the bees and ants. Lizards peruse piles of stone waiting for the mason’s chisel. An axe sounds between soft prayer and bursts of music.
Even the way
of stacking idle stones,
At one point the chief priestess (so we are told) does a hurried walk from the main temple to her private residence, her face covered behind a bamboo fan. She moves briskly toward the ancestral house in a tamped-earth square. Here live those in charge of the esoteric rites that maintain the temple’s sanctity—the modern relatives of the first people to worship in this grove. Nearby is a tree with a dark, sexual cleave—a moist vulva with swollen lips of grayish bark. Around the tree are stone nagas—writhing, hooded—strung with marigolds. Before us passes a decked-out teenage couple. They couldn’t be more than fifteen or sixteen years old, married, treading the deep-forest path of life, dressed in finery of gold: she, bearing a coconut half-wrapped in her ruby-red blouse; he, cradling bananas in his lavender shirttails.
At the fertility shrine
above childless couples.
We have time to spare, so our driver suggests a third temple, half an hour away. When I ask what its name is, he replies, “Town temple, small place.” We never do get a specific answer, and when we arrive, nobody speaks English, all the signs are in Malayalam. The edifice is superbly proportioned, outer walls of whitewashed stone topped with terra-cotta tiles, bordered with tall coconut palms. The walls enclose a vast courtyard of raked sand, which we enter through a roofed gate hung with devotional bells. The gabled, trident-peaked main sanctum has the same trellised “walls of fire” we saw at the Krishna Temple. A towering brass pole stands in front of it, ringed at intervals with tiers meant for oil and wicks. The architecture is remarkably austere, amply surrounded by empty space, and very well kept. I’ve never visited Japanese temples, but this place certainly reminds me of photographs I’ve seen of them. A sparseness, a Zen quality.
The hallmark of Keralan temples seems to be low, straight wooden rooflines. Most have wide overhanging eaves and tiered gables supported by a framework of timber resting on stone. Strictly angled eaves nearly touch those of neighboring structures. Between them, a narrow chisel of sky becomes positive space rather than negative background. These wooden structures, hundreds of years old and subject to heavy monsoons, are very well preserved. Good thing, for they are rare to the subcontinent, par with ones in Himachal Pradesh and Nepal. Ramu Katakam, in his Glimpses of Architecture in Kerala, writes:
“Proportion, geometry and simplicity are features that make traditional Kerala architecture eventful. A Kerala temple is usually low in profile and set in a beautiful part of the countryside. Traditionally the building height was not allowed to be higher than a coconut tree as it was intended that devotees should not be in awe of the building. The base of the structure from foundation to plinth was made of stone and then wood was used to make the walls and roof. Units of measurement were related to parts of the human body. The arrays of roofs were kept at a uniform slope and angle, balanced and in perfect harmony, creating different compositions…able to interact visually with sky and surrounding landscape. There are 900 years of history and continuity to these temples and many may have even more antique beginnings, It is said that some of the lamps’ flames have been kept alive for over 300 years.
As we wander the grounds, a dozen musicians appear in spotless white lungis, white cloths over bare shoulders, beating drums and blowing horns behind a fire-bearing priest. From emptiness they appear, into emptiness they vanish. But the stark architecture keeps ringing with their music after they leave.
in the half dream.
Drill and cough of diesel engine, three-hours through the Alappuzha backwaters to Kottayam. We’re on a rickety 20-passenger public ferry, similar to one that capsized a few years ago, drowning all 29 people aboard. The boat was carrying twice its legal capacity; ours, fortunately, is barely full. At one stop, a woman with plastic flight bag filled with baby chicks boards in wraps of lemon yellow, sucking a purple popsicle. A breech-clothed tailor on the pier whirrs away at a treadle sewing machine under a hand-lettered sign: CHERUB FINE STITCH. Two flags with Communist hammer and sickles wave bright red from wooden poles. The bright red triggers a sudden realization. I forgot my sacred red thread at our Alappuzha home-stay. No! The one blessed by Karmapa during his visit to Santa Fe, 1980, when he gave me my Tibetan name. It’s dangling on the armoire doorknob in our room, absolutely unimportant to whoever finds it. I overlooked it, hurrying to make a ferry that arrived two hours late. And Renée warned “They’re never on time, take it easy.” Rushing brings everything out of focus. Did I really need the thread, though? I’ve still got my name.
In the boat’s wake
a discarded bouquet bobs up
and goes under.
At the next stop, the only passengers on the pier are two snowy egrets under a brass bell. The ferry pulls up, chuffs idly while the pilot gets off to smoke a bidi. Iridescent reflections waver on his unshaven face. While he smokes, a mother hurries down a clay bank, her daughter in tow—a jet-eyed girl clutching a Syrian Christian prayer book. She’s dressed in a crinoline dress, lilac against her polished teak skin. With a gleeful leap, she’s in the boat as if carried by angel wings. Pure joy—the kind the world needs huge doses of right now. How many times in my travels have I witnessed the pep, abandonment, and trust of a little soul like this skipping her way through the world? The shape of innocence, radiance. The Reality behind reality.**
Once the girl is aboard, we shove off, duckweed bobbing in our wake, waterbirds riding the waves. We rumble past a man paddling a dugout canoe, seated amid bundles of hay. Another, in a motor–driven longboat, brushes his teeth behind a cargo of sand. All through the backwaters, there’s a lost-in-time sense, a spell that pops whenever a cell-phone rings or a satellite dish appears through the palm trees. We soon reach the open expanse of Vembanad Lake; Kerala’s largest, but ever shrinking due to reclamation of its shores for by rice farmers and resort developers. Tourists are shuttled up from the coast to these expensive hotels, each offering Ayurvedic treatments and a backwater cruise on a traditional kettuvellam, a wood-coir-bamboo houseboat. These nifty crafts, formerly used to haul rice and spices, now serve the tourists with air-con bedrooms, lounges, bathrooms, and kitchens.
There’s a lot in the news lately about the pollution caused by these boats and resorts. And about the insecticides, weed killers, and chemical fertilizers used by paddy farmers who plant the reclaimed shores. In less than a century the water surface has been reduced by two thirds. A controversial seawall, recently constructed to prevent salt water from entering the lake’s fresh water, has created ecological problems, most visibly the out-of-control spread of water hyacinth. The Hindu reports that fifty years ago more than 150 species of fish were found here. There are now less than 60.
Across the lake, we sputter into a moss-clogged canal lined with stone-and-thatch houses, a star-over-crescent-moon Islamic flag, a Communist banner, a ramshackle toddy parlor tacked with a portrait of Christ. A man herds a gaggle of ducks up a grassy trail. Little shrines dot the woods. A whitewashed dome for Shiva, another for Baby Krishna, a peak-roofed altar for the Blessed Virgin, a Thai-looking glass reliquary encasing what appears to be a mummified meditating bikkhu. Further on, haystacks tilt in narrow fields; the canals are crossed by miniature cantilever drawbridges like Van Gogh painted. As we near Kottayam, the houses become crammed together, stonework turns to cinderblock.
We’ll visit the Mahadeva Temple, 12 kilometers north of town, then head south to Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital. Kottayam is a busy, polluted town grown out of its britches into an ungainly adult with money in its pockets and plenty of “foreign-returned” Indians opening shops to accommodate 21st-century consumers. The global mall, the global home, the global addiction to things new. I’d rather own a moment of silence rather than what we’re supposed to need to keep up with the times. The marketing assault is everywhere. Blonde European fashion models on billboards cluttering towns and fields without relief. Only place we’ve visited that’s been spared such visual mugging is Havana. No sheik Banana Republic men or must-have laptops on billboards blocking baroque facades and flowered balconies. There’s espresso wafting through the streets, dominoes clacking on wood tables, the scent of puros, mint, and rum—all preserved though years of socialismo, economic woes, the iron-fisted blockade of the Yankees. If and when change comes, I hate to envision the downside of what capitalism, even compromised capitalism, will bring.
Renée learns of a newspaper, the Malayalam Manorama, which has been around since 1890. But the English version is nowhere to be found. “Try the internet,” our hotel clerk says. Meanwhile, he recommends a people’s eatery. Off we go trailing look-alike South Indian businessmen swathed in white lungis, each wearing a white dress shirt and carrying a black, faux-leather briefcase.
The unsigned eatery is a delight. Right away the boys are upon us, wiping the marble-slab table, putting down banana leaves, pouring filtered water into silver tumblers (when’s the last time the filter’s been changed?), setting us up for a classic midday thali. Keralan rice is scooped onto the leaf’s center; now comes servings of fish curry, dal, curd, and avail—yam, runner beans, cukes, and snake gourd spiced with coconut, chili, and cumin. There’s a plate of papadams with mango and mint chutneys, and payasam—rice pudding flavored with almonds and cardamom. Generous portions, refills unstoppable. Keralans look twice at anyone who refuses a second heaping of rice. For us, one serving is plenty, but to be polite we accept seconds of curry, lentils, veggies, and chutneys—washed down with cold Bagpiper soda waters, the kind we saw on a Gangtok monastery altar last year. Exiting, we thank the obviously-honored manager, and buy two squares of irresistible sweet-milk pistachio topped with edible silver foil.
The Mahadeva Temple is oddly quiet, a bit museum-like, being that no festival is going on. There is supposed to be a ticket-taker in the arrival kiosk, but no one is around. The only activity is in a far pavilion, a group of students seated in front of their master. We enter the walls through the main gate and begin to explore, kind of like visiting a Rio Grande Pueblo sans dance, song, drumming, or crowds. The obvious benefit of no people is that we can enjoy the architecture without interruption: the perfect register of sky between eaves, low straight rooflines, copper against blue. The temple is a potent axis for prayer, well away from the chaos of the main roads. The day is HOT, though, and the shoes-off requisite makes for a foot-burning experience in the sandy courtyard, which is austere and symmertical, and the minute we enter we know we’ve left secular space for the sacred. In Sanskrit, the word loka defines “space.” Not simply physical place, but space as “plane of existence.” A cosmological intersection of heaven and earth, social and spiritual, psychological and physical. The temple’s latticed walls and refined woodwork provide visual repose. The inner sanctum is a metaphor for one’s innermost point of calm. The empty courtyard is the Void. Not emptiness, but rather “that in which all exists”—sans permanence.
Separately, Renée and I explore the grounds and rejoin at the multi-story brass oil lamp at the entrance to the inner sanctum. Deep inside are the sacred icons. Under the eaves elaborate woodcarvings depict scenes from the Ramayana. There’s also a finely detailed mural showing the Dance of Shiva. But, the heat . . .
I spread both hands
on the cold marble altar.
The bane of getting older. I don’t want what has become of the once-quiet seaside town of Varkala. I’d rather remember it as it was thirty years ago. The old town remains quiet, but the once palm-fringed cliff fronting the Arabian Sea has turned into a hopeless trap of home-stays, pizza joints, trinket stands, travel agencies, quickie Ayurvedic treatment parlors, and jumbled signage:
Sea face Rooms Brick oven Tattoos Lakshmi Satellite Calls Internet Palmistry Full Moon Trance Party Live Birth Stones Sleeplessness Workshop Real Fish Boat Cruise 24-hr C.D. Burning Lucky Birth Stones Free Morning Sun Set Sai Baba Dhoop Xchange Emotional Blockage Removal Energy Amplification Session Femur Bone Horn Sale Pranic Quick Heal Daily Hair Removal Long Distance Teeth- Whitening Duplicate Personality Finder: Contact Sri Resident Seer
Despite the hype, we’ll stay a couple of days, catch up on our notes, and eat from the sea. After some searching we locate an upper-story room, away from the seafront, shaded by a giant cashew tree, $4 for two. We feast on a delicious meal—sweet biryani, avocado salad, somosas, and tea—then take a swim. I remember Varkala being just a rice-field rickshaw ride from the train stop. Now, plenty of pavement. Droves of Indians arrive on charter tours. The man who’s rented us our room says, “In 1990 it all changed. Kerala government decided to promote tourism as an economic development. I had left India for twelve years to work in Dubai during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years—her crackdown on civil rights and civilian protests. When I returned, I had money to build this house, and another, and rent them to long-term tourists. But with so many people having the same idea, much of the coconuts and cashews are gone. We are still not quite sure what we have done. In any case, it is too late. We are too connected to money, not to trees and fields. We cannot make the reverse.”
I miss that leafy space between train station and town, between town and beach. It would be hard for a visitor new to this place to imagine how it once looked. Unbelievable how much has been so quickly wiped out—the concrete shambles that have replaced the trees and meadows. Everywhere everything so crowded!—my basic feeling as an elder on the planet. A friend who lived in Mongolia for two years came back to live in his more familiar western cityscape. But those Mongolian steppes—that space, its people, their different ideas of time—are in him, just as the Varkala of old is in me. I can see through the new development like an x-ray, just like I see through the mobile homes and junked cars that now litter once-worked fields in our New Mexican village.
I often wonder about the idea of finding utopia in distant lands. In the ‘60s I met an ex-pat living in a remote Andean valley—an American who had built a stone hut, was raising his own food, practicing yoga, translating spiritual texts—living the “pure” life, far from American wars and materialism. But forerunners of the new agers were beginning to seek him out. His advice: “Stay put, you can do everything I’ve done here right where you are.” I’d have to paraphrase the rest. That in your imagination a picture of “someplace better” draws you elsewhere, but the elsewhere can reject you. You arrive excited, everything is new, but in time the pleasures you sought become familiar. You tire of being anonymous. You make new friends but they have the same old complaints. You want a decent bookstore, reliable electricity. Life is no simpler here than the place you left. You’re a bit better at speaking the language, but still don’t know what people are saying back to you. You’re not a citizen, neither upper nor middle nor lower class. You’re apart, you have no class at all. Your clothes wear thin, you run out of money, jobs are reserved for locals, you get sick, there’s no decent hospital, you tire of what drew you. Mental baggage piles up, solitude fills with restlessness. You’ve exhausted your interest. You came in haste, you are neither happier nor wiser in this new land. You become aimless, you need a retreat from the daily rigors. You need to renew your passport, escape. Travel is an elixir, staying in one place can be unforgiving.
But this Andean ex-pat—I’ve written about him elsewhere—was well settled into his environment. Years had gone into establishing a cordial exchange with his neighbors, building a house, assembling a library, bearing down on scholarly work, and printing his esoteric “Universal Life Newsletters” on a primitive mimeograph. One day on a walk he pointed out the local farmers, tanks of pesticide on their backs, spraying their tomatoes—“just what I loathed back home and now it’s here! Everything banned in the U.S. they sell to the South American poor.” At that point in my life (I was 23) I wasn’t ready to remain in the Andes, to support myself with odd jobs, to attempt to pursue a career. I moved on, into the investigative travel I still celebrate—journeying out, coupled with returning home—inspired, reawakened, fired up to resume creative work.
There is no utopia out there, and, besides, you can never retreat from the self. Horace, who witnessed the collapse of the Roman Empire, wrote: “those who cross the sea change sky but not the soul.” When I hear people wanting a better life in Mallorca or Belize, I cringe. I believe it’s our duty NOT to live in utopia. To not need a getaway, a second home in Malta or Costa Rica. Stay put! Visit, but don’t own. Don’t add to the mess. Camp, hike, swim, or sit still for a thousand years in one spot with no plan or list of things to do. Plenty of traveling can be done sitting still.
On my first visit to Varkala, I came for a swim near a Hindu shrine under a spring seeping from the red cliffs—not a single disco or hawker’s shout, no hotel, spa, or rave party. Only salty air from the waves and women singing at the shrine. A serene and lonely beach, introspection the main attraction. The water was, as it still is, rough and rocky. I wasn’t sure about a swim. I hesitated, watching a young man perform asanas on the beach, hypnotized by his grace and composure. When he took a break to pray in the surf, then dive and swim in the waves, he displayed ease, bearing, and confidence. Feeling safe in his presence, I tested the water. At one point, amid the turbulent swells, a wave hit us from behind and washed us to shore, where he began anew his yogic postures.
Up close, the man was not the physically perfect person I thought he was. It required effort to look at him and not flinch. His body was disfigured, covered in scars, his skin bubbled and webbed where it had recovered from severe burns. His face, too, was malformed, one eye lower than the other. It seemed that I had approached beauty only to discover the beast. I could either avert my eyes from his ugliness or open them to a new definition of beauty—the man’s dignity, his inner composure, his athletic grace. I could ponder the fragility we are all born with and realize that the man deserved neither pity nor censure. He was human like the rest of us—he had lost something, yes, but preserved a wholeness within.
It took some effort to open the more lyrical, inner eye. To get rid of my notions of “beauty” and concentrate on the body’s vulnerability, the journey from birth through sickness to death. In the West it’s easy to shun this process of decay. In India it slams you in the face. It’s on the streets, not behind hospital or nursing-home doors. You see it in the leaking eyes of swollen babies, in the premature stick-figure mother begging on the Howrah bridge, in the elderly waiting for death on the banks of the Ganges, in the maimed or born-deformed (with no recourse for medical attention) rolling through the crowds on their pallets. You see it in the U.S. too: scabby, bony legs jutting from cardboard— sleepers in rags and packing crates in city stairwells and piss-reeking alleys.
There are masters in India who live in caves with only the bare essentials. They collect water, build fires, eat simply, and die without air pumps and feeding tubes. They make peace with decay by meditating at pyres or by working in wards for the dying. I’m not suspicious of these masters like I am of the comfortable gurus in the West (with so many pretty people in their lecture halls, it’s difficult to ponder decay). Such gurus keep it easy for you. They don’t ask you to volunteer in a ward for the dying or meditate in a graveyard; they want you to think about what they say—and pay for it, too: “nothing permanent, everything in the moment.” But there is a certain irony in becoming one with the moment and having to fork over a little dinero to get there. Ah, Varkala. Too much thinking, I strip to my shorts and run for the water:
and smashing waves
I ride the surge of awe.
A short train ride from Varkala, Kerala’s capital still retains the feel it had years ago. More traffic, yes. But there are walkable, shady neighborhoods along hilly streets off the main arteries. After a stroll, we hail a taxi up Mahatma Gandhi Rd. to the Napier Museum, a British-built, turn-of-the-century manor on a hill overlooking the public gardens. The building, a weird mishmash of Victorian and Middle Eastern architecture, somehow manages to retain a certain stateliness. Ascending the steps, we pause at an incongruous Venetian fountain before an imposing façade of vaulted roofs, tiled gables, stained-glass windows, Islamic arches. If this isn’t enough, the building is wrapped with geometric designs—slate and salmon-colored bricks arranged in dizzy patterns reminiscent of a Navajo rug.
Inside, the at-first darkness slowly reveals elaborate wood ceilings beamed and timbered looming high above the psychedelic, candy-striped walls: turquoise, pink, yellow. The museum’s collection is nicely displayed, with some worthwhile sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu, and Buddha in bronze, stone, and wood. There are glazed Ming Dynasty jars, an aquiline Burmese Siddhartha with goofy smile, a fierce Balinese Randa mask, Javanese shadow puppets, Sumatran coin bells, a huge wooden ceremonial chariot, and a case of musical instruments where I find a veena kunju, which, I believe, is the one-stringed lyre the musican was playing at Allapuzha’s Krishna Temple. Best of all, is an open-posed, big breasted, heavy-nippled “Uma,” an erotic man-woman sculpture that has a pair of visiting high-school girls titillating. Uma is Shakti, or Parvati—female energy emerging from Lord Shiva, her male counterpart. In this case, she’s simply delicious.
A quick stroll from the Napier House is Sri Chitra Gallery is a little museum that I’ve been dying to see. It contains Raja Ravi Varma’s oil paintings and several major works by Russian visionary, Nicholas Roerich. The paintings are displayed in a modest whitewashed Keralan house set in tropical greenery. Varma’s paintings are rather formal, repetitive, and sentimental. Dark-skinned, sari-clad South-Indian women, mythological themes, and goddesses that look more Greek than Hindu. Varma was born in 1848 near Thiruvananthapuram. His European-style oil-on-canvas portraits were in demand during his lifetime and he enjoyed a good amount of fame before he died in 1906. His works have been reproduced all over India on calendars and as religious prints for house altars. An aged Varma chromolith would be a good souvenir, but I’ve yet to find one. (I should have looked in one of those expensive Mattancherry antique shops.)
There’s a small watercolor by Tagore—a mystic, golden bird emerging out of dark purples, reminiscent of works by Morris Graves. The highlight, though, are the Roerich paintings. I’m not sure how I feel about Nicolas Roerich. He seemed have one foot in the faint light of a world untainted by humans, the other set firmly on the turf of ambition. But I’m intrigued by his vision and by what he painted during his final years in the Himalayan foothills. Shortly after my first trip to India, I discovered Roerich when I was invited to read my poetry at San Antonio’s Center for Peace Through Culture. The center was established under Roerich’s symbolic banner, a white flag with three red dots inside a circle—a motif derived from a petroglyph he saw in Mongolia. Similar circle-and-sphere designs appear in Himalayan silverwork, as well as in Tibetan monasteries where it represents Buddha-dharma-sangha. More relevant to Roerich’s ideas, the symbol could be interpreted as truth-beauty-peace. As artist, philosopher, and peacemaker, Roerich got lots of world notice, particularly after 1925. He worked with international leaders to create the Roerich Pact, which let his banner fly over any educational, artistic, or scientific institution devoted to peace. The same foundation would be guaranteed sanctuary during times of war.
In his lectures Roerich promoted a blend of Eastern wisdom and Western philosophy. He met with prominent thinkers like Einstein and Tagore, and in 1929 was nominated for the Nobel Prize. He and his wife lived in Santa Fe briefly, where he influenced the New Mexico Transcendentalist painters, particularly Raymond Jonson and Agnes Pelton. I’ve always appreciated their work, along with that of Lawren Harris, who was drawn to the mystic light of far-northern Canada. “Out of time” paintings, I’d say. Ones that move you into a rarified state.
Roerich painted thousands of canvases that ended up in collections around the world. In India they are in Bangalore, Kerala, and in his former home in Manali among the peaks of Himachal Pradesh. His works in the Sri Chitra collection are large and glowing, rich with purples, blue violets, lemon yellows, citrine-tinted alabasters, mint greens, and powdery dry-brush ether. They embody moments of fleeting radiance: the first breath of night, alpenglow. gegenschein.
The Himalayas were Roerich’s “sacred symbols of ascent.” Beyond Mt. Kailas, where the plateaus formed the roof of the world, he found his Shambala. In Tibet his paintings flickered with burnt-brick, red violet, misty cardamom. In one painting, a horseman emerges from pewter fog; in another, a solitary crystal-robed figure meditates in a glacial crevasse; in one more the same eerie figure is engulfed in a crystalline explosion, as if a rare geode had just been smashed open. There is a prophetic messenger who appears in many of Roerich’s works, too. Painted cathode-blue, he’s usually poised at a threshold. He meditates in the Himalayan rain shadow, in the high desert of Ladakh, under the cliff-straddling monasteries of Tibet. Above him tiers of jagged snow peaks whirl in vapors, an oxygenless void sans time or human history. Above the dust of samsara. The Edge. The crack between worlds where Milarepa composed his songs. What you see in these paintings you can hear in John Coltrane’s Meditations. You can feel it in traditional Keralan drumming. Ascendancy!
A vast leap
through smoking stars
to a higher Eye.
After dark, we get a hefty taste of “ascendent music.” What we at first think to be a thunderstorm is actually the terrific roar of drumming a couple blocks from our hotel room. We hurry up the sidewalk, past the Communist flag flying above a rickshaw stand, to a small Ganesh temple—its doors and parapets outlined in flashing lights. Over the entrance an elephant-headed deity stares down on ten cymbal-playing dancers and two-dozen drummers in the midst of a long, non-stop performance. The furious rocking-back-and-forth drumming and metallic clashing takes the skin right off our backs!
The young male musicians are barefoot and bare-chested, wrapped only in gold-bordered white lungis. Their eyes bulge wildly as the percussion heightens to a deafening crescendo with each muscular swing and pound of drumsticks. It’s a bomb, not the terrorist kind, but one that explodes into lightning rungs of spiritual ascension. Ladder-rung music, a Keralan spiritual! Music you can climb up out of the world on. At one point, the musicians lean backwards toward the ground, drumming all the while, until they are face-up to the night sky, horizontal in a kind of rowing motion. I think of the Balinese monkey chant, the dancers raising chattering hisses in torch-lit darkness—leaning back into the earth, rising again, collapsing again, like a sea flower swelling and contracting.
For over an hour we’re entranced. When the session halts and the puja is over, each of the young participants comes forward to shake our hands. Totally unexpected! Their smiling elder maestro, does the same. “I am a priest,” he says. Immediately I bring my palms together to meet his bow, and reply “The gods were with us tonight.” We talk briefly. I think he thinks I’m a musician, and that I may have connections to get the troupe to the US for a performance. When I tell him no, I am a poet and a painter, he expresses no disappointment. Instead, his eyes brighten with comradeship. But he’s anxious to catch up with his students. They’re quickly disappearing into the dark with their drums.
What an amazing couple of hours! The 32-man troupe had become, through the power of sound, a 32,000-man troupe. During the drumming, there would be a point where a signal from the maestro brought the musicians’ madly rotating arms to a slowed beat, a near-pause. At this break, the drummers took deep breaths to regain momentum. They seemed to be deliberately inhaling the impurity and chaos of the world to re-shape it into pure Beat, a blast of thunder to cleanse the air. Music as alchemy, the listener a vibrating tuning fork. Stand in the midst of the drumming long enough and you no longer “bear witness,” you begin to thrum. You float on the lip of an eddy, become a vortex of sound. A strobing resounds in the chest. Legs begin to shake. You are beyond spectator. Gone. A vitreous nobody! Burning, you become that head-wobbling, cymbal-clanging boy in the troupe who looks like a shadow-puppet madly dancing on its own.
After the drumming
a starry sky
continues the beat.
Sri Anantha Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Wake at 5:30. Sweepers in semi darkness whisk the hotel courtyard while houseboys clank around in the kitchen. We take coldwater showers, dry off with paper-thin towels, dress, have coffee, and hire a rickshaw to the 18th-century Sri Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple. It’s unlike any of the temples we’ve previously visited. Instead of low, straight roofs, the temple is built in the tall, decorated-tower style of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian temples. The 100-foot stone gopuram is already blushed with the first soft gold of sunrise as we approach along a huge ceremonial bathing pool. Next come the trinket kiosks selling puja accoutrements. There are a couple of refreshment stands, then the gates. Save for the amazingly multi-tiered gopuram, there’s not much a non-Hindu can see. But the grounds are quiet. No touts or fake priests posing as guides pushing you forward, then demanding a hefty tip for “best tour of prohibited area,” then scowling with frowns when you don’t tip them what they think they deserve.
As we stroll through the fortress-like whitewashed walls, we spot the same high school girls we saw yesterday in the Sri Chitra Museum. “We are from Rajasthan,” one of them singsongs in that endearing Indian English that fills the American’s square ears with a round musical tone. The girls are dressed school uniforms—neatly pressed white-and-mahogany salwaar kameezes—but are busy wrapping sarongs over them, as seems to be mandatory for all female Hindus (dressed northern style) entering for worship. We watch them disappear beneath the gopuram entrance and file between hundreds of carved sandstone pillars lining the inner sanctum. We’ve read that a giant Vishnu reclines in a subterranean chamber. It’d be cool to pull a stealth move and see it, but we’re used to the rules. Plenty of Pueblo ceremonies in New Mexico are barred to outsiders. We’re in the way, curious interrupters, no matter how hard we try to fit in.
Leaving the temple, we walk beside a fastidiously cut-and-joined stone wall topped by a gabled wooden facade. Renée stops to photograph a well-endowed goddess (statue, that is) nakedly peering from a pair of open shutters. We exit into a quiet, narrow-alley neighborhood that recalls the Muslim quarters of Kozhikode. Here the “old India” is still intact, probably because its residents are a tightly knit caste, too poor to upgrade into the 21st century. There is an occasional television or radio, but for the most it’s just simple people going about their chores: wetting doorsteps, sweeping lanes, scrubbing pots, hauling water, slapping chapattis, sorting chaff from seed, pebbles from rice, weaving home-spun cotton, or chalking the streets with rice-flour mandalas. Every fretted window yields a sound, smell, activity: a splash of morning bath, a staccato of kitchen chops, scent of mint and cardamom, the dinnng of puja bells to wake the altar gods. At a street-corner shrine, devotees pour coconut milk into a brass vessel under a god sculpted of puddled mud, marigolds for eyes, a daub of sandalwood paste between them.
At this early-morning hour, the uneven facades are cast in snow-blue shadows. A grandmother decorates her porch steps with auspicious designs, while two granddaughters look on. The house is painted squash-blossom yellow, built in the traditional Keralan style: wood, thatch, stuccoed mud and rock. It is cooled by a huge, spreading tree, one that says, “Hey, look at me!” Massive, yet elegant, its branches are ornamented with singing birds, its leaves bronzed with morning sun. A hardy thick-armed tree, yet open enough to let the sky through. A tree that lets you finally see the light in yourself.
We admire the tree from a distance, old grannie smiling at us, the kids shy. Nobody is adept in the other’s language, so all we can do is give appreciative nods, bow toward the tree, smile brightly, watch grannie check us out, wondering what the hell we’re about (the kids duck behind her sari, bewildered). I want to believe that the tree is medicinal. That extracts from its roots might cure coughs or fever, that its leaves can be boiled into tea, that its fruit is deliciously eatable, that its bark can be ground into exotic aromas to be dusted over a bride’s skin on her wedding night. But we’re only able to guess at the lives of those who eke out a living under the tree. Unless we stay, we’ll never know the rhythm of work and prayer and play of just one single day.
The boy learning
English: “how many years
are you old?”
We leave Kerala by train and head south into Tamil Nadu, finally reaching Kanyakumari, the very tip of India’s sacred triangle, the apex of the pudendum, the sea-surrounded, southernmost finale. En route we watch the Western Ghats descend through the haze into the rice paddies. At one point the mountains are close enough to touch. A steep hill, broken away from the main range, is endowed with mythological status. Covered with herbs that have been gathered for millennia, the peak figures prominently in the Ramayana. Hanuman, the monkey warrior, had been ordered to fly to the Himalayas to gather healing herbs for Rama’s brother, poisoned by an arrow while fighting the demon king who abducted Rama’s wife, Sita. Confused over which herbs to gather, Hanuman flew back with an entire mountain. Just north of Kanyakumari he dropped a piece of it. Today the place is known as Maruval Malai, Medicine Mountain. Its herbs are used in Ayurvedic medicines. A gleaming shrine crowns the top of the peak.
From coiled undergrowth
rises the sun-warmed head
of Shiva’s lingam.
Kanyakumari is an overgrown fishing village with several significant Hindu temples—an important destination for pilgrims. We’ve managed to get a room facing the wave-smoothed boulders that form the subcontinent’s final end. From our balcony we can watch the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal, cross the Indian Ocean, and set in the Arabian Sea. Below is Kanyakumari’s original fishing village, much of it wiped out during the 2004 tsunami. I’ve walked down there already, a rather dour and scruffy lot of families sending signals of suspicion and envy, a collective given-up-ness—perhaps from centuries of misery, caste gloom, human and material loss, the wrath of the tsunami, the anger at receiving no recompense. No one offered a hello. It’s the only place I’ve not been greeted on this trip. People were not simply disinterested, they weren’t even there. Children with dirty faces and bottoms, wearing only torn shirts, rushed up asking for pens or chocolate—trained by thousands of tourists who’d come before me. Old whiskered guys, ten years my juniors, were crouched—skeletal, ragged—in broken doorways, too frail to give a nod or reach out and beg. Mass was being said in the cathedral, the priest sermoning before a riptorn congregation raising its palms to a crucified Christ. Outside, a fisherman was shitting in the tide: another was undoing his pants to pee at a wall signed with: Forbidden Urination Here.
Around the cove: wave slammed ruins of homes, rows of colorful wooden outriggers, more hunkered-over shitters, and a temple devoted to Kumari Devi, the virgin-goddess aspect of Parvati. The last time we saw her was in Kathmandu, not as an idol but as a twelve-year-old Living Goddess, peeking from the second-story window of her ancient temple-home. The Living Goddess isn’t just a symbol, she’s a potent embodiment of Shakti, an active intermediary between the Absolute and the mundane. In Kanyakumari she’s worshipped as an icon, a far fetch from the way ancient villagers saw her: in caves, sacred groves, mineral seeps, rocky clefts, river confluences —any organic, geologic, or fire-wind-water-created shape that exhibited terrific energy compressed into hips, breasts, vulva, pregnant belly, a receptive curve, a moist swale, a dell, dip or glade.
Entering the temple of Kumari Devi, it’s a mandatory shoes off, shirt off. Inside the sooty sweet-stink of the sanctum, jail-like cages display idols smeared with centuries of ghee, too veiled in flowers to see. In murky gloom, temple priests are all snobbery and duty. Bald, serious, privileged, they’re not much different from the Catholic priest proselytizing in the cathedral. The poor, the lower caste who come to worship, nothing much has changed for them. Hardly enough rupees for a tin-scrap roof or a dollop of curd for the rice. First thing the conquering Aryans did was to set up the “us” and “them” caste system, so as not to become tainted by the Dravidians—the south Indians, the monkeys, the dark little heathens. Four millennia later, the concept is still in place, though activists have certainly begun to jackhammer its foundation.
When a priest sits me down before Kanya Kumari’s greasy idol, I feel nothing. I try to envision who or what might have inspired her image. The Aryans usurped the villager’s gods and recreated them into their own into gods, inventing new stories to fit their roles. Where hasn’t this invader issue happened? In New Mexico a thin veneer of Catholicism remains over the indigenous beliefs the Spanish tried to erase. In Mexico the Virgin of Guadalupe stands on a hill that once belonged to Tonantzín, the Aztec Mother Goddess, who was placed over the former shrine of an even older village goddess.
Renée is spooked by the temple’s ancient gloom-blackened interior, fire lamps burning in claustrophobic dark, stone pillars fingermarked by devotees, stained with betel-nut spittle. The real devotion is outside: in couples splashing erotically in Kanyakumari’s waves, in the freshly-bathed women re-wrapping their bodies, in the grandmother holding a child’s kite, watching her children and theirs frolic in the foam. No temple priests here to spoil the fun. Just the cleansing roll of waves where three seas meet. Playful, all-permeating Joy.
“Life is to take pleasure in,” says a man leaning on the stone railing next to us. “This is our purpose, friendly play.” He nods to the kids tackling each other on the beach, to the half-submerged newlyweds grabbing secret fondles, to the little boy pulling his sister into the waves. And yes, there’s background clanggg of temple bells, the scrape of a ragamuffin dragging his sack, the squeal of a crane over the unfinished skeleton of a hotel in the cove where fishing families had their homes. All of it imperfect, transient. Renée and I join hands and step into the sea just as the crimson orb extinguishes itself. At the continent’s end, on the steps where we dip our feet, a mother dries off her daughter after a ritual bath.
Helped into her dress
a naked child raises her arms
to the setting sun.
Wake in steamy heat, looking out to sea at the rock, where, in 1892, Swami Vivekananda meditated before heading to the West to lecture on Yoga, Vedanta, and Hinduism. At our bedside is the “2 Rps only” pamphlet I purchased from the hotel manager: Golden Words of Vivekananda. I bought it not so much for the aphorisms as for the off-register pictures of Vivekananda Rock and the swami’s photo superimposed in a sunflower. I open it casually to:
“a thousand stumbles
and at last some semblance
Not bad. Perhaps Vivekananda was a haijin at heart. A few fumbles in the misty brambles, a backwards flop when the coast is clear. In leaking boots, not polished shoes, we get closer to the ever-elusive headwaters. Between the nettles, a peek at the source, but only when one forgets the self. On the same page:
to be set in your ways.”
Which reminds me that yesterday I should have abandoned my routine of giving beggars the snub. Sure, they’re often fakirs, scoundrels, or public scam artists out to get their ways. But genuinely destitute are in the mix. Indians themselves will warn you never to look a beggar in the eye. It usually works, but—who wants snubbing people to become part of one’s practice? Eventually it becomes a matter-of-fact habit and destroys spontaneous goodwill. The peripheral eye blips with its own radar, warning you not to engage with “the pest” preparing his spiel. The pest, however, could be truly in need.
Once, while riding a public ferry down the Mekong, our friend Jacquie related a favorite quote from Zen teacher, Joko Beck: “a good practice is always undermining itself.” I’ve never forgotten it. With minimal effort I could have undermined my “never look a beggar in the eye” practice and put myself off-guard. I thought about fellow poet, Ira Cohen, walking among sadhus, stopping to engage, asking for a story, sharing a smoke on the chillum. In Kanyakumari he probably would have made time for one of the more high-profile beggars: the “hairpin lady.” I bet he would have sat down with her, asked about her life, given her a few coins in exchange for her photograph. No doubt, he would have come away with a poem, and the lady with a breeze of uplift.
The hairpin lady! All I allowed into my peripheral vision was a nameless twisted face under matted hair, a hag in a dirty-edged mustard-colored sari. The daily loony. The nag doing her rounds peddling cards of hairpins, some obviously used, some in bright, new metallic colors. She was one of many waifs in the alleys pestering travelers like me. But what if I had stopped and looked at her?
Joko Beck’s idea of turning things around means if I give a usual shun to someone who repulses or annoys, then it’s up to me to stop, un-shun, see what her eyes say, sit down with her. If I had given the hairpin lady a chance I would have given myself one, too. I could have allowed her to be, for one simple moment, a woman of worth. She might have combed and pinned her hair with the wares she was offering to others. She could have had a memorable day. Me too, I tell myself in bed under the fan, listening to the splash of breakers and the shouts in the alley.
When I rise and walk the streets to set my practice straight, the beggars are not there. Nor do they show for the rest of the morning. Instead, “What is your good name, sir?” asks a middle-aged man whose wife holds his hand inside their umbrella handle. “You will be taking the Vivekananda Memorial ferryboat?” Yes, we reply, not having planned it. “I am an insurance salesman, my wife, too. My name is Devangha Bharadwaja, pleased to meet you. Making friendships is my hobby. Excuse me, you are coming from?”
Moments later, the man and his wife and Renée and I are at the ferry landing, separated in the mad scramble up the gangplank into the flimsy boat, then rejoined in the crammed-full hull, forced to sit on each others’ laps, taking it all in with superior glee. This is the first time I have ever sat on an Indian man, or Renée on an Indian woman, though Indian men and women have sat on us before, in trains and buses. This is not the beggar kind of thing I set out for this morning, but still, it is quite the exchange.
each other’s laps
suddenly, no caste.
Vivekananda Rock is built on an outcrop where swamiji meditated, about 500 meters off the cape. This is also where Devi Kumari left her footprints while performing austerities in preparation to marry Shiva, a union not to be. The gods intervened and consigned her to the role of a celibate, and her quest became that of eternal bliss. Modern Hindus hold her as an example of the “perfect woman,” the submissive one, the pure one devoted to the male god, the male deity, the male priest. But David Kinsley, in his Hindu Goddesses, suggests a different role:
Myths concerning the origin of village goddesses also include the motif of injustice done to women by males. These myths help us to understand certain central characteristics of village goddesses: namely, their fiercely ambivalent nature, which manifests itself in sudden outbursts of rage, and the goddesses’ relative independence from or superiority over male consorts. These goddesses rarely provide a traditional model for women in their relationships with males. They are often not married at all, and if they are, they dominate their male consorts—the reverse of what sexual roles should be according to Indian cultural models.
Kanniyakumarai’s power seems to be directly related to her celibacy. In the context of Tamil culture a woman’s virginity, through which she upholds her sexual energy, is more or less equivalent to the building up of tapas (inner fire resulting from ascetic practice) in males when they retain their semen, which is magically transformed into powerful heat. Kanniyakumarai is more powerful as an unmarried maiden than she would be as a married woman. Although reluc- tantly unmarried, her independence from males gives her great power.
In Sanskrit, Vivekananda Rock is called Sripada Parai, “place sanctified by the touch of sacred feet.” When the December, 2004 tsunami rolled in from Sumatra and hit Tamil Nadu’s coast, 500 pilgrims were stranded on the rock. They were eventually airlifted out, faring better than the hundreds of families that were swept to death from their palm-thatch fishing huts along the beach.
The rock is peaceful enough, once the boatload of tourists fans out. The sandstone temple, bookstore, and meditation room (with electric Om symbol) are low key. And the 360-degree turquoise water is soothing. What is not soothing is the newly constructed 40-meter-high statue on the adjoining rock—Thiruvalluvar, the much-revered ancient poet of Tamil Nadu. The million-dollar, 7000-ton stone anomaly is absolutely ugly. Perhaps fundamentalist Hindus wished to overpower the ascetic-reformer Vivekananda’s memorial with their old-time saint. I don’t see any poetry in Thiruvalluvar’s morality couplets, though—just a chance to preach. The creation of this monstrosity adjacent to the Vivekananda shrine is sort of like having a 40-meter-high Jehova’s Witness statue next to the Statue of Liberty.
Local bus #83 follows a narrow leafy road north out of Kannyakumari. A pleasant ride along paddies, following bullock carts, workers bearing sickles and rakes, and scores of miniature Tata trucks lettered with Jesus Lives or Mother Immaculate. All of them are piled precariously high with the rice harvest, gold-flecked chaff raining on all sides of us. We hop off at Suchindram, a small Tamil Nadu town with a Dravidian-style multi-tiered temple overlooking a bathing tank where boys are swimming and women are wringing clothes. A few goats perch on a stone outcrop like sculpted gods.
In the center of the pool—one of the cleanest we’ve seen in any temple thus far (they’re usually covered with scum)—rises a pillared shrine crowned by an elaborately sculpted phallic tower. It thrusts from the pool like Shiva’s heated member: erect male energy rising from liquid Shakti, deep-conscience female power. Candy-striped walls draped with bougainvilleas surround the pool, and behind them sky-blue houses. In one doorway, a smiling woman asks Renée to photograph her cuddling her amulet-decorated baby. At a nearby Ganesha shrine, a devotee in blood-red sari offers a coconut at the sky-blue gate. Many houses are decorated with folk paintings—the kind we’d love to carry home. One has Devi Kumari raising a rosary to the sky in prayerful bliss. Her toes are carnelian, her outspread fingers lit like candles. At her feet a black stone lingam is strung with jasmine. Around its base are rice-flour mandalas slowly vanishing in foot traffic.
Parts of the Sthanumalaya Temple date back to the fifth century, but most of the architecture is from the 16th-century. This is one of the few Tamil Nadu temples that non-Hindus can enter, including the inner sanctum. Immediately a Hindu “priest” attaches himself to us and encourages in, our shoes left with a wallah, our camera with another wallah—a fat little monster in a wire cage (I give him my $10 point-and-shoot, and say nothing about Renée’s digital stuffed in our daypack). Not for an instant do we believe our “guide” is a priest. More than likely he is an upper-caste villager who speaks enough English to give a tour, from which, after handing our tip over to the temple hierarchy, he’ll receive a minor commission. Nevertheless, it is a way to gain entrance through the temple’s tall gopuras to explore the inside. One last requirement is demanded, though: I must remove my shirt and go in bare-chested.
Upon entering, there is a three-meter tall Hanuman, situated appropriately opposite the Rama shrine. Hanuman is carved of black stone, completely covered with a continuous daubing of ghee and rice paste by pilgrims. Just like the priests, he gets fatter and fatter as the centuries pass. Further inside we come to Vishnu, sculpted of jaggery. Next, we are led through a series of colonnades. Many are explicitly erotic, and our guide, in an almost mock pretext, wobbles his head and mumbles: “You will excuse me, yes, no, for showing you these, absolutely?” He is testing our boundaries, hoping we’ll answer, “Oh, no problem for Westerners, we do not find them disturbing.” Which is pretty much what we say, hoping he won’t hesitate to show us more erotica as we press on.
The granite-pillared arcades are the oldest and best part of the temple, despite their various states of disrepair. But there is a bit of eeriness that creeps over us, causing us to wonder, as we did in Angkor: what esoteric rituals were performed here? Our leader claims we are standing in “ancient dance hall where king god sits above girls to look on their heads.” At least two pillars here are carved with erotica: a dog licking the cunt of a dancer with one leg lifted in yogic pose; a man bent in yogic asana, happily sucking his own cock.
Further on, the courtyard opens up into light. A banyan thrusts its crown into the sky. Naga sculptures abound. Shiva’s bull, Nandi, is oiled and strung with flowers. Additional sanctums hold caged idols lit with oil lamps, attended by stern-looking priests—the very guys Buddha rebelled against! Hindu women worship at each of these nooks. Sadhus sit red-eyed in the lotus pose. One of them prostrates face-to-floor in naked solemnity, sweating profusely in the mosquito mugginess. Maybe these sadhus have trekked in from the north, padding through Deccan dust, feeding on bark, nodding in caves, cleansing in rivers. Or maybe they are locals, dressed for the show, making their daily appearance for future merit in some bags-under-the-eyes afterlife.
The final “tour importance” is a set of stone pillars, which, when slapped with a cupped hand, makes a hollow chime. The guide first demonstrates the ring, then asks us each to put our ears to the pillar to hear the music more clearly when he slaps it. When it’s Renée’s turn, it’s an occasion for him to rub against one of her breasts while guiding her head closer to the stone pillar. How about that? A little feel up, and a tip, before he unmasks and goes home to the wife and kids.
As we weave back to the entrance, the predictable battle begins—over the guide’s fee. “Up to you,” they always say, but it never is. It’s up to their skills on how terrible they can make you feel for not giving enough, and up to you to take a firm stand on what you can give according to your means. Attempting to explain that you’re on the road as a budget traveler for six weeks doesn’t cut it. “Ho! You are rich enough to buy a plane ticket from America to India and you cannot put $20 in the kitty?” That’s at least ten times what a well-heeled Indian would give. We each place a hundred rupees in the man’s hand, only to receive the expected downcast-eyebrow, upturned-eyeball, you’ve-gotta-be-kidding look of disbelief. He has it all figured out, too—the tourist will not be able to easily hurry off; he’s got a shirt to put on, shoes to retrieve, and a camera, too. The “priest” is going to tag along hoping to convince us to increase our tip.
I approach the camera wallah in his wire cage. He immediately mutters his only word of English: “money!” To which I say “camera!” to which he says “money!” to which I say “camera!” An endless mantric battle, two grown men acting like schoolyard rivals in a tug of war—until I force my camera from the wallah’s hand and into my pocket. Renée walks away in disgust. I follow out, ready for a cool coconut-water drink from a vendor on the edge of the sacred pool. Without caste, we are easy targets for mistreatment. A strict Brahmin is in it for the money, not dialogue. He’s not interested in hearing your story, he’s too busy explaining his merit, his position, his dharma, his social standing.
Echoing through the temple
the angry priest’s
India—a non-stop opportunity to test one’s patience. If you’ve been meditating behind the ashram walls, sitting inside a zendo, or getting close to god in a church, here’s a chance to see if you’ve progressed. Have you emptied of anything, become loose, tight, grown numb? Can you walk through the rubble and wake back into the dream?
China is even more of a test of patience. Bill Porter (Red Pine) is one guy who gets through it with a smile. I’ve had a chance to re-read his Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits. He is an exemplary traveler in the spirit of the old misfit, Han Shan. His practice is in the doing rather than in the knowing. Much to his merit, he operates outside the academy—can’t be bothered with literary babble that oils the awards machine. He is fluent in Chinese, and this gets him beyond haughty officials who might thwart his pursuit. If they can’t be of help, he politely excuses himself, walks on, finds a farmer who guides him to where he wants—no frills, no suspicion. He’s out of the dharma hall and into the Dharma itself. There’s fine oolong in the hills, a pillow for the head under the blossoming magnolia. Around every bend, the Old Patriarchs come alive. What do they encourage? Wandering zen, not monastic zen! The whitewater way.
If Porter is thirsty, he’s offered a bowl of sugar water. If out of breath, bushwhacking in search of a famous poet’s grave, a plowman points the way. For sleep, he’s given a quilt in a hermit’s hut. Unhindered by rules, rites, or formulas, he avoids ceremonies, naps when tired, wakes when he pleases, fumbles through his pack for a teapot and cup. Instead of sitting in meditation halls, he walks. If the wind takes his hat, he runs after it with glee—more enlightening to cartwheel through the brambles than to get hit by a Jikijitsu’s stick on a zafu! Suspicious looks from the mainstream don’t bother him, nor do snooping officials. With an air of nonchalance, he laser-beams his way through them, always seeking
The crooked path,
for going straight.
The zigzag path is what gives India spunk. On it walks the exception to the stuffy priest who makes dullness his life calling. Exception means a renegade bhikku who dwells at the mandala’s center; an independent seeker who turns faith-without-doubt on its heels, incites revolution, clarifies truth, re-defines reality. Kerouac’s “dharma bum” lives on in India—doing his thing at the headwaters of the Narmada, alone in the caves of Mt. Abu, serving the dying at Mother Teresa’s, talking the man on the Howrah Bridge out of jumping.
False prophets live on, too. One could write interesting stories about fakirs who pose as enlightened ones (as R.K. Narayan did in The Guide), braiding their dreads while checking their Rolexes. More interesting might be to not write at all, but to become a partaker in a rite, like the Theyyam, that carries you beyond the world’s dust into mythic time, no “what was” or “what’s coming,” everything as is. In this altered state no priest, temple, or altar is needed; just a sandbar, a hut, or a the shell of an old schoolbus (Nanao, under Taos Mtn!). In India, the man in a loincloth, the nun in maroon wraps, the soul searcher stepping through Himalayan clouds—they are your stalwart reinforcements. The quiet seeker laying down a rattan mat in the forest, the soul-searcher nesting with lizards on a river island, the Tantric singer piercing the veil of illusion—they make the show go on, bring bop to the beat, smoke to the heels, a thorn to the pants seat.
Unlike the guys wearing painted sect marks, glittering beads, and tie-dye dhotis (some hand you their business cards) the hermit-seers are not easily accessible. They’ve deliberately retreated beyond slippery cliff edges. They are not busy climbing any social or spiritual ladder. They have long ago torn it down, made drumsticks of its rungs to play a new tune.
Bees in a halo
a drumming sadhu.
Joanne Kyger asked if we would visit Madurai. We hadn’t thought of attaching it to our tip-of-India venture, but when we discover it’s a no-fret, five-hour train ride from Kannyakumari, we decide to do it. Should be interesting to see Meenakshi, the temple dedicated to Shiva and his three-breasted consort, famous for its towers of psychedelic iconography.
We arrive late at night, only to find the little hotel we booked a complete disaster, at least from the outside. The tall, narrow building sags like a Halloween house. Inside the finger-smudged doors, the seedy flophouse lobby looks unpromising. Our rickshaw driver winces. “Hotel not look good. You check room. I wait.” Nevertheless, we wave him on, afraid that at this hour we will become prey to his whim. What a mistake. I should have trusted his wince. Like two cheerful kids, we remain hopeful that the “penthouse temple overlook” we booked will be ours, as promised.
“You are late,” the mafia-looking, hair-greased night clerk chides. “Late?” I ask. He looks up from his ledger with a snarl. “Your room has been given to someone else.” I complain that I booked the room with the hotel manager himself, saying we would arrive on the night train, late. “What hotel manager?” the clerk scowls. “Mr. Karunanidhi.” I say, looking at my notes. “I am Mr. Karunanidhi,” he glowers, asking our prepayment for an alternative room.
The lobby begins to take on a hallucinogenic house-of-mirrors presence. I feel as though I am shrinking into a warped dream. Everything is growing tight and small, the compression overbearing. A bad acid trip! The walls of my psyche have been squeezed into a black-box echo chamber with no room to raise a shoulder or wiggle a toe. It’s well after midnight, I’m tired, can’t think straight.
Renée suggests we take the alternate room and seek another hotel in the morning. “Let us see the room, then.” The hotel porters, two young boys seated before a dimly flickering television showing a kung-fu film, get up and crowd into the two-person elevator with us. We inspect the room—ugly, waterstained, dirty windowed. No view. Renée, tired from the train journey, indicates that we can make do. Not the best, not the worst, but BAD, I think, and return downstairs to hand over a night’s board. “You booked for three nights!” The grease mop stabs me with his eyes. “I will pay for one night and decide.”
I’m crabby and uneasy. Before bed I check out the roof and discover there is no “penthouse temple overlook.” If it existed at all, it’s been turned into a sleeping shed for the hotel servants—stashed with mops, brooms, and buckets. Renée is determined to sleep, make the best of it, and remain positive. I’m caught in turmoil. The railroad-station retiring room would have been better. Bright marble floors, clean sheets, 24-hr restaurant. Instead, I trusted the guidebook and booked this craphole. Okay, to bed. Perhaps this place was once under responsible management, with potted plants, free chai, swept floors, and a temple view. Maybe things took a dramatic turn, perhaps the manager had a heart attack and the wrong people took over. Renée is already snoring, I toss and turn, finally doze off, but abruptly awake, screaming in nightmare hallucination.
In the dream it is not Renée snoring under the covers next to me, but the counter clerk! With a gruff, muffled villain’s voice, he is reaching out to hammer my neck with karate slices, while smothering my head in the blankets. Grasping for air, suddenly I realize I am not in a bed at all, but sleeping on the seat of my Uncle Mario’s 1953 Buick. Jesus, Mario! The dreaded Italian gangster of youth! He’s firing up the engine, the car shaking madly while someone repeats my name in a garbled voice: johnbrandi johnbrandi johnbrandi……..
Renée calms me and rocks me. It’s 5 a.m. and dawn is breaking. We rise, shower under rusty water, repack our bags, hurry out the lobby, hail a taxi to a better hotel. On the ride we catch a glimpse of the towering gopuras of Sri Meenakshi. They are completely hidden behind scaffolding! Not a square inch of the four towers isn’t covered. “Twelve-year repair,” the desk clerk at the three-star Imperial Meenaksh Hotel informs us. “Every twelve years all images on towers need cleaning and painting.” Trying to remain positive, I chuckle and turn to Renée. “Well, we can enjoy it as a Christo wrapping, then.”
The new hotel is clean, the bed comfortable, there’s unlimited hot water, the staff is cheerful, and the price is exactly the same as last night’s dump: 600 rupees. Feeling renewed after another shower, we head toward the Meenakshi temple, me with a pair of cotton trousers rolled up under my arm. I want to have them copied by one of Madurai’s famous tailors. On the streets, a man with a scissors and a tissue pattern in his hand runs up to me, “I am your tailor!” he insists. Soon a dozen more tailors spot me, all of them tugging like madmen at my rolled-up trousers, yelling for my business, shoving business cards into my face. Mad tailors! All with the same mantra: “I am your tailor!” In the hubbub, I manage to chuckle. My grandfather was a tailor. His father was a tailor, too. What karma do I carry? Maybe my relatives were from Madurai. Sailed from South India to Sicily via Greece. Then to America where they once again took up the sewing treadle, shears, tissue patterns, and charcoal iron.
A street battle ensues. One of the tailors ends up with my trousers, leaves the rest in a keystone-cops brouhaha, and strides far ahead of us, my pants under his arm, all the while indicating with a frenzied, downward wave, “Come, you come.” We increase our pace, follow into a maze of cows and bicycles to a centuries-old arcade behind Meenakshi Temple. Among the ancient colonnades, directly under three-breasted Sri Meenakshi sculpted of black granite, are rows of tailors bent over treadle sewing machines. Impatient clients hover above them, scraps of cloth everywhere on the marble floors.
Impossible to decide on cloth for my new pants! Bolts of polyester are piled into my arms until I am sweating, weighted down under rolls of synthetic materials. Renée, a disbelieving look on her face, sits on a stool trying to be helpful. I am now on overload, beginning to hyperventilate. “I don’t want any! None of these! Nothing! Nada! Niente! Nahin!” There is a question of price, too. The tailor is asking well over what I’d pay back home, while measuring and re-measuring me with a yellow tape, recalculating the price, all the while saying, “Sit! Relax! Just you relax!” He wants to bring tea, sweets, more cloth. The material is getting slicker, uglier, more synthetic. No ordinary cloth for the foreigner! Soon I will look like Uncle Mario. I will be a stogie-smoking mafia poker shark. Finally I throw my arms up and look at Renée, “Why don’t I just buy them at Dillards!” We leave under a sign that says Entrance to Exit, and another:
Use Clean Handkerchief
Your Nose Out.
We hail a bicycle rickshaw back to our hotel. The wallah quotes 10 rupees and begins to pedal. Two blocks later he swivels around: “Thirty rupee!” We jump off and begin to walk. The wallah makes a u-turn, flies into a rage, and pedals after us. He wants the ten rupees. I refuse. “You’ve given us no service. You have made the original price higher.” The wallah won’t back off. He follows us in a screaming rant as we walk the 100-degree heat through the traffic back to the hotel. The wallah follows us in, continues his beef to the desk clerk. We head upstairs. The desk clerk admonishes the wallah and he leaves. “Did you pay him ten rupees?” I ask. “No,” the clerk replies. “Why do you pay a man who cheats?”
Gary Snyder asked me, after our last India trip, “Would you go back?” I answered yes, reminding him that, just before my first India venture in ‘79, he advised me in a letter: “Be prepared for great travail.” But I had misread his words as “be prepared for great travel.” Joanne Kyger, in writing about her journey with Gary, et al, in the early Sixties (The Japan and India Journals), recounts several instances where Gary lost his patience. Not that it makes me feel any better, but it brings a smile. I’m glad India tested him, and that he, too, lost it. From Joanne’s journal: “Gary speaks sharply, loudly, NO I DON’T WANT THEM to insistent shopkeeper who wants to sell us bananas.” I’ve met that same banana man. Everybody who goes to India does.
We decide to leave Madurai’s madness. We’ll end our India trip high in the Western Ghats, on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. This requires backtracking on the same night-train we arrived on. We’ll lose our 600 rupees for tonight’s hotel stay, but not a problem. I walk to the station, use the computer system, and in minutes a ticket is in my hand. Far cry from the old days, waiting hours in line only to have the ticket window close, then having to start over the next morning.
On the night train we share a compartment with two Indian men whom we believe, from their animated conversation, to be on a spiritual journey. One talks about his guru, occasionally joking about his lectures and the money it costs him and his wife to attend. “I always have to ask myself, is swamiji giving his lectures for our survival or for his!” He gives a wide smile at his own joke. Cross-legged on his bunk, he looks us up and down. He insists we’ve met before, that all meetings are god’s preplanning. He draws a line across his forehead: “It is written. All experience is part of the rebirth cycle. Simply, it is written (another line across the forehead). Whoever is predestined to cross our paths, we must be ready to receive them.”
A vendor appears with a box of steaming food strapped to his waist. The two men order alu curry with chapattis and hand them to us. Renée and I accept with a bow and dig in hungrily, scooping the spicy curry from its dry leaf with fingers. Delicious! Our bunkmates eat from tiffans prepared by their wives: rice, vegetables, curd. The compartment fills with the scent of Indian home cooking. A chai wallah appears. I buy a round of steamy milk tea spiced with cardamom. We all drink in silence, then the talk resumes.
“I think you have three eyes,” one of the men says to me. “You have two that are obvious, but I see another.” Renée laughs, “Yes, he does. But it’s often closed.” The men talk of the meaning of life—a favorite subject of Indians of all walks, be they tile setters, schoolteachers, bandits, or businessmen. They are softly animated as they express themselves. In contrast, I recall three German tourists at the table next to us in a Varkala café, two men and a woman. She, listening with mild interest to their heady existentialist arguments about what is real, what is not real. Gruff voices, bulging veins. An endless rusty wheel clunking along on a broken axel, contradicting itself with every turn. The men on the train across go about things cooly. “Meaning isn’t in words, but in action. If you simply help someone who needs help, you will find the meaning of life. You will feel it, not understand it.”
Personalities are preconceived, they agree, “written in the air by god.” Noticing my doubt, one says: “Oh, yes, yes. Our leaders, the ones of the highest order, are born gifted. Those not born the same are fated to be followers. No such thing as a self-formed individual. We are compromised to our fate.” Mahatma Gandhi? “Fated to happen, already written.” Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Mozart? “Yes, circumstances of fate, already in the stars—developed fully in god’s eye before their time on earth.” A hard one for me, but I don’t feel like arguing. I’d rather watch the fields and towns whiz by. The moon looks make believe, the stars are twinkling to the chinkle-tic chinkle-tic of the tracks.
Four hours later the train pulls into Palayankottai Station. There’s a big sign: Thiruppudaimarundur Temple, a famed riverside holy place. The men hurry to disembark. They have only two small briefcases and a battered suitcase. We’re convinced they’re going to the temple, but when we ask where they’re headed, each, in unison, hands us a business card: Trimurti Pesticide Sales, Servicing India Since 1999. “We sell insect killer. We are here for a sales conference.” They hurry to the door as the train rolls to a halt. “We will meet again,” one of them says, making way to the bogie door. “Yes, I think so. It is written,” I say. The man smiles. “No, don’t think. It is so.”
The Western Ghats
Munnar. My fingertips have turned yellow-orange from so many turmeric-spiced meals. I’ve even got a yellow-orange moustache to compliment my new tangerine-colored kurta. There’ll be no turmeric specialties up here, though. We’ve already scouted this small tea-plantation town for eateries. Pickings are slim, and only tea and biscuits are to be had at our roost, a private bungalow owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ipe. He’s the venerable guide celebrated in Dervla Murphy’s On a Shoestring to Coorg (a book Joanne recommended, written in the ‘70s). He’s now 78, wears pressed polyester slacks, blue sport shirt, and whiter-than-white jogging shoes. “Walking is the best medicine,” he chortles. The house remains as described by Dervla Murphy: “the Ipyes live on a steep, tea-green mountainside some three miles from the town, overlooking the river valley and directly opposite the blue, rounded bulk of Anaimudi.”
On arrival guests are called into the house, asked for their passports, and loads of nomenclature is recorded into a nonsensical ledger. I don’t mind. It’s a chance to have a look at the Iype’s living room: the animal skins, knickknacks, plastic flowers, barometers, maps, memorabilia, and photos of his early treks into the Keralan wilderness. The bungalow sits on a high, terraced slope surrounded by rows of evenly trimmed tea plants. Mr. Iype, being fastidious to the point of obsession, has painted and repainted it like a lighthouse keeper. A hired hand constantly sweeps, prunes, and rakes the grounds.
There are only four rooms to let, butting right up next to one another. Ours is the most spacious. The comfy bed, piled with blankets (cold nights at this altitude), faces a window with fine views across the valley. When the mists evaporate, bits and pieces of the opposite slope shine. Terraced tea gardens climb high up towards the grass covered crests. What’s left of the original forest hides in moist folds just under the burnished summits. Anaimudi, the tallest peak—a gray, ancient-appearing granite shape—is over 8000 feet, highest in India outside the Himalayas. The name is Tamil for “Elephant’s Brow.”
Through the decades, Joseph Iype’s charm seems to have worn away into a rather upright, repetitive groove. He’s overly polite, insistent with tea and biscuits, loves to point out a pair of bulbuls he and his wife feed in their backyard. There’s a bird in the brush he asks us to listen to—an odd repeating call: duty-full duty-full duty-full. He has made copies of his hand-drawn walking maps, and is adamant that we take his suggestions. (Other guests will tell us he hasn’t walked the paths for years and many of his suggested walks are now spoiled by newly-built hotels and homes.) Iype is a stubborn talker, doesn’t take to chatty exchange, doesn’t hold up well with people who differ with his knowledge, or with those whose questions present an alternative to his point of view. But he’s worth enduring for his familiarity with a place he clearly loves—and for his tea and biscuits. Mrs. Iype is more discreet. Soft, able to listen, she’s more forthright. Renée takes to her easily. She’s a snuggle-up kind of mom. Her eyes seduce with open warmth.
The paper-thin walls of our room create the effect that the occupants of the three adjoining rooms are right inside our own. Douse the lights and we begin to hear coital groans, slipper slaps, muffled arguments, trombone farts, unabashed belches, and hushed secrets. Intriguing at first, even hilarious, but soon annoying, particularly the zip-unzip-re-zip of backpacks (a John Cage piece). Over morning tea we try to pair the voices heard through the walls to the faces at the table. Was she the one emitting those loquacious love cries? Or was it the tall sinewy one who now talks in a polite “public” voice? Was that big-bellied Dutch guy the one who blatted that huge fart? Or was it his equally capable wife? What about the dainty Japanese girls—perhaps it was them zippering away, obsessively repacking their backpacks, then spitting toothpaste in the washbasin next to my ear? And the gardener we heard practicing his off-key whistles just before dawn? Mr. Iype points out a crow-like bird, indigo with black head, on a pole behind the house. “Malabar Whistling Thrush. You thought it was a person, I think.”
Upslope above the tea plantations, we take a fortifying climb through stands of eucalyptus. What species have they replaced? We weave through grasses waving around enormous boulders, tossed and tumbled, fringed with bonsai growth, each infused with its own personality—sculpted dynamism, coagulated rhythm. The boulders look like clouds that bumped up against the ridge and solidified. When the wind begins, there’s an eerie “before time” feeling.
the sound of them
before a storm.
The cliffs disappear abruptly into swirling mists. Time to descend. We take a different trail down, into clipped tea plants rambling in storybook patterns over every inch of tillable land. We meet a group of women picking and pruning, dressed in flipflops, workaday saris, gold nose rings, plastic bangles. Their male overseer tells us they are from Tamil Nadu. Each earns 100 rupees a day if she harvests 40 kilos of tea. Under the British these women worked for a pittance. Now they are unionized, with guaranteed health care and shelter. We didn’t get all the details, but I imagine things really began to change when Gandhi turned the tide, and with the rise of Kerala’s Communist party.
The overseer is nice enough, wants his photo taken; so do a few of the laborers, who provide us with addresses. Each of the 40 women carries a razor-sharp pruning sickle. Easy to see how agricultural tools could be turned into weapons for change. Organize 100 parties of 40 mistreated, underpaid workers to go after their straw bosses, and there you’d have it—a revolution.
Further down, we meet another worker who tells us that if she picks 20 kilos a day she earns 90-100 rupees. “Employed by Tata,” she says, “nationally-owned tea company.” She says the tea plants are harvested every fifteen days, the tips plucked. Every five years the plants are pruned back and left alone for six months to re-grow. New shrubs are constantly being planted—you see the young stick-like saplings in patches between the green hedges. They’ll require three years to mature before they can be harvested. Most Munnar tea estates are found between 1300 and 1900 meters; some, at 2100, are the highest in the world.
When the sun begins to slant, blue shadows crawl up the hills. Down the mountain the women trek, balancing giant bundles of leaves on their shoulders as they head towards the weighing scales.
From cloud summits
of tea pickers’ knives.
Over the Western Ghats
I don’t like visiting remote places deemed “natural” and made accessible by tour operators flapping smudged business cards in my face. Nevertheless we have an open day to make use of and decide on a jeep ride over the crest of the Western Ghats, down the east slopes toward Tamil Nadu. The area is designated as Chinnar Wildlife Refuge. We’ll arrive too late to see anything worthwhile, but, with sketchbook in hand, I hope to get a look at the less populated landscape of the eastern side of the ghats. The “guide” recommended by Mr. Iype isn’t really a guide, just a guy who knows how to drive. He can point out a few obvious trees and such, but to go deep into the ecology we would have to stay a while and find a good forester to trek with.
The brilliant green soaks right into us. At the top-out (almost 2000 meters) there’s a breeze-driven mist. When it breaks we catch an occasional sunlit dome. Down the eastern slope we come into a long, wooded, primeval valley enclosed by elephantine peaks. Water rushes down granite troughs, spilling over their lips in gleaming ribbons. Flame trees, sandalwood trees, blooming jacaranda-like trees light the swales vermilion and violet-blue. Otherwise, there’s a uniform filigree pattern to these dusky-dry woods. Hardly a trace of human mar. A very striking presence, unlike anything I’ve previously seen. Africa? Mexico? A bit of both, maybe. But, no, we are here—India.
I do some drawings, Renée takes photos. At the bottom of the valley is the park entrance, modest fee, requisite guide hikes us into the riparian woods along a pretty stream. Wild pheasant, red flycatchers, and a sprightly group of tufted gray langur—black mask-like human faces floating in wild halos of silver fur. Elephant dung in birthday-cake masses, plenty of tracks, but no animals. The guide wants us to be silent. I feel like clapping my hands to scare out the parakeets, babblers, and laughing thrush. A few hours of hiking and the shadows lengthen. Now’s the time to be here, but our schedule has us going back to Munnar. I’m a bit sour we didn’t make different arrangements.
On the return, our driver halts at a dhaba, the kind of food stops that long-haul truck drivers frequent. These places usually have good, quick Punjabi food: dal, chapatti, egg curry. Here we’re seated on a bench and served tasty portions of spicy alu dum, South Indian parotha, and milk tea. St. Theresa peers from a calendar opened to the wrong month. Brass kettles boil on a clay stove. Baby Krishna licks ghee from an overturned pot on a wall poster. I feel a little removed, the day still whirls in my head. I should nap on the chaarpoi under the big shade tree over the kitchen, let the breeze blow me back into the hills.
At Iype’s place we settle in for one more night. Our beds are pushed together and we’ve been given an extra blanket for the moist chill. Ours, the most expensive room ($12), ironically comes with the shortest beds. Jeez, I’ve really done no writing at all up here, and that’s what I had hoped for. To get away from Kerala’s coast—the lushness, the distraction—and climb the heights of the Western Ghats to look down on India, size it all up, write a sustained, peace-be-with-thee conclusion to our trip. A jazz riff with off-the-cuff rambles and a from-the-heart arpeggio.
Nope, thus far I’m unable to put the pen to the page and come up with anything. The view is too magnificent. And our trusty Mr. Iype, forever and absolutely insistent with his tea and biscuits, is full of endless suggestions and must-dos. He’s not exactly nosey, but somehow he’s always there … in the antechamber, at the window, just outside the bathroom when you’d least expect. There are also the paper-thin walls, the ambient voices in surround-sound: the two Japanese girls in one room, sighing in high-pitched gasps (what are they doing in there!), the overly-polite mid 40s couple in another—do they always talk like that? Or is it because they are aware that others are listening? In a third room, also completely audible, is a constantly bickering couple—sure to split up—only two weeks into their trip. I doubt they feel very reassured at Iype’s. No privacy from others, no place to eat, no heat, and the wattage is dim. Good for bickering, or good for lovemaking. It just depends. Mark Twain said: “there’s no surer way to find out whether you like or hate people, than to travel with them.”
I suppose people bicker out of discomfort and fear. Dread of being so far from home without the usual chair, the predictable meal, the daily routine, the familiar language. Without the protective wrap, one is ejected from the safety of the cockpit, and the control stick. But this is precisely what gives significance to travel. The new, the foreign, the strange turns the horizon inside out, extends the boundaries. Taoists say, “poets knock on silence to make sound.” Miles Davis listened for what he could leave out. Cavafy warned not to hurry the journey, “pray that the way be long, full of adventures, full of knowledge.”
Did I receive a calling to the other side of the world? I don’t know. I never had any guru–ashram–nirvana calling. Simply had an idea as a young boy that if the world had another side, then surely that side had another people doing things another way in another kind of geography. My father’s photographs of India, his souvenirs, his stories proved it to me. By the late ‘70s, fifteen years after Gary and Allen and Joanne carved out a trail, I was ready to see the “other side.” One could not help be impressed by Gary’s drive, Allen’s spontaneity, Joanne’s quick-flash insight. Literally, they were OUT there—walking geography, reporting luminous particulars, sleeping in railway retiring rooms, exchanging riffs with poets and bikkhus, meeting the Dalai Lama, decoding sacred texts, making rubbings of Buddhist art carved on ancient stupas. Soul wisdom—not head learning.
The same moon
in the next century!”
In those days, with little money, it was easy to take to the road. As late as the 1970s it was possible to rent a Benares rooftop for 25 cents, bed down, wake to conch shells bellowing from the local shrine, get fed with pilgrims for a small donation, and ride a train the huge length of India for ten dollars. Like Basho, one could ramble a crooked path straight into the world, and witness something NEW, UNUSUAL, DIVERSE. The global meld wasn’t there, the “edges” were safer, there for your learning. They were not our dastardly, present-day edges of suicide bombs, televised beheadings; orchestrated killing of people, cultures, tribes; rampant obliteration of animal and plant populations; the creation of illogically-carved “nations” based on wars, politics, economic grids. “Go for broke” is today’s mantra. And man, it’s broken.
If I had a “calling,” it was founded in the idea of geography. My father gave me beautifully accurate maps that I pinned above my bed. I fell asleep to the shapes of Italy, India, Australia, California. With the world as my wallpaper, I could locate Mt. Everest, Death Valley, Vesuvius, the Ganges, Sulawesi, and the Wallace Line. Needle-fine cartography! Musical contours of peak and ravine, swale and slope. Dot-patterned dunes, filigree fjords. Musical hogbacks, rock-and-roll hoodoos. If I discerned a ragged ridge, I walked it. If a dot in the Himalayas represented a market town, I visited it. If there was an island called Bora Bora, I jumped aboard. I imagined where and how people lived and what they saw from their windows. I remembered my mother reading to me about the peaks of Nepal, “Mountains still growing,” and saw myself staring at summits getting taller as I watched.
When I woke, I didn’t need the maps with their pink islands, yellow deserts, and periwinkle oceans. I had what I dreamed. I put my Dixon Beginner’s Pencil to a square of newsprint and squiggled imaginary continents with picture-puzzle fjords, smoking Krakatoas, fiery fault lines, knife-sharp summits that cut through the stratosphere. My language was the line, a ceremonial thread extending from body onto page, procreating as it went. My head was a continental drift. Maps were topographic reconnaissance. Place names had shimmer. Gilgit, Ladakh, Baltistan. Wet Granite gleaming through snow banners. Muztagh, Rakaposhi, Gasherbrum. Flecks of mica whirling in thermal updrafts. Mariana, Tonga, Ogasawara. Sea bottoms incandescing. Fish prying underwater canyons, guided by bioluminescent lanterns growing from their heads.
I had a lantern, too. To explore crystal caves and dark groves of sequoias. I had mukluks printed with bears. A desk with a lamp whose shade was painted with a covered wagon. I had shelves of National Geographics. A window that opened to rain beating on poinsettia leaves, and the distant rumble of the Southern Pacific—bound for Mohave, Tehachapi, Winnemucca, Timbuktu. I had my father’s photos of the Taj Mahal, the ghats of Benares, the veiled women of Chandni Chowk. How could I not want to travel?
Today students travel to the “other side” by pressing a keyboard. They “bring up” K-2 or Benares on their computers, clone a “report” from Wikipedia, and send everything back into Cyberspace. When you talk to them about hitching through the haze, cracking an ice axe into the moraine, dancing along a fault line, getting sucked into the funnel cloud, paddling without a sounding line, or drifting into the doldrums to sit still inside your mind—you lose them. There’s no screen. They can’t “see” what you say.
India had its own whim and worry and unforeseeable vortices that first time around —still does. But these days there’s less of the “fabled unknown” that gave India its particular madness and beat forty years ago. That wild-eyed, multi-armed goddess, sticking out her tongue, dancing with a necklace of dripping heads, is still there. So is the half-elephant, half-human potbellied guy swinging his lasso while riding a mouse. Ditto the super-monkey that flew into battle setting fire to evil kingdoms with his tail. And the wild-eyed, naked man bathing in a pile of ashes? He’s still in the mix (albeit often talking on his cell phone). And the child crowned by a flashing diadem over her kohl-darkened third eye? Yes, still in the crowd. Still sending a sizzling a beam through your brain.
India is touchable, tasteable surrealism. It will thrash your senses into overload and spin you around so that when you face east it is west and when you stare towards zenith it is nadir. You go to be rearranged, as at a Theyyam where trance dancers swagger into your soul, or at Thyangboche where chanting monks lift you out of your skin, or at the Khumb Mela where wild-eyed minstrels spike your mind with falsetto rhyme. On my first visit to India I traveled without plan, taking sudden turns, visiting places I hadn’t set out to see, ones that changed my life. Bodhgaya, Lumbini, Sarnath, Kushinagar. The headwaters of the Ganges. The beach at Mahabalipuram where Padmi gave me a necklace of jasmine. The monastery where nuns printed prayer flags under the ice-chiseled face of the Great Mother. The pyres of Kashi. The marble spires of Jain temples, polished by desert sandstorms.
Amritsar, Zoji La, Muktinath, Bhubaneshwar. Zanskar, Swayambhu, Ama Dablam. Going to the “other side” was to have childhood maps come alive. The journey was, and continues to be, exploration of place, idea, archetype, metaphor; what is in your own head, what you carry—the psychic rucksack, the bags of upbringing. Could one really give an answer to: “Why go?” It still holds true, Mallory’s reply, when asked, “Why climb Everest?”
Why did I go, and still go? Doesn’t one find “another people doing things another way in another geography” at Hopi or Pascua or Zuni? You don’t have to leave home. You hardly have to travel at all. Emily Dickinson had no wheels. Thoreau had Mt. Katahdin. Georgia O’Keeffe, the White Place. I had a map on the wall, then in the mind, then in the sole. As a kid I inspected ant trails running up the backyard elm. I followed them into the branches where I found a perch and looked out into the view: rooftops, steeples, hazy blue mountains, a line of locomotive smoke, a faint yellow radiance over the desert behind the ridges. I shimmied down, returned to my room, found places like Annapurna, Rainbow Bridge, and Bukitinggi on my maps. One day I learned to put a key to the ignition and drive: to Furnace Creek, Lone Pine, Cabo San Quintín, Dawson Creek.
Years later, rounding Annapurna, crossing Thorang La, descending into the Kali Ghandakhi Gorge, the wind blew a thought into my ears: “adventure does not drive me, nor reason. Rather, something in the genes alchemically combines with impulse and sets the feet forward.” As Rilke put it: “Sometimes a man stands up during supper/ and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking/ because of a church that stands somewhere in the east.” Or as Ramblin’ Jack sang:
“When the whistle blows,
I’ve got to go-oooooOO!”
Looking out from Pt. Lobos towards Hokkaido, how far west is east? How far to Sanchi from San Francisco? Burma from Burbank? Sakyamuni jumped the palace walls because he wanted to see things for himself, figure it out on his own. What better reason to “go”? It’s simple, clarified Henry David Thoreau. "I am eager to report the glory of the universe." Kerouac said he wrote On the Road “because we’re all going to die.” Basho picked up his walking stick and rambled because, well, why not? We’ve all got the same “sorrowful destiny,” he said,
“Man turns into
a bamboo shoot
at his inevitable end.”
Renée and I have been absolutely bathed by our travels. It will be a huge process of distillation to rope-in the where-been/what-happened details from this journey. The minute we touch down in Albuquerque’s mile-high airport, we’ll realize that the country we’ve left, the journey itself, is slowly catching up to us with a beat all its own. Our friend Jacquie referred to Jemez Pueblo as the “metronome of the universe.” Kerouac, without even going there, called Benares “the capital of the universe.” We’ve visited a host of such designations, and, of course, there is always the center of the universe right inside us—the one we carry wherever we journey, or better said, the one that takes the rudder from the raft, churns us into the whitewater, and sends us rocking across the sea:
a current frothing us
to the far shore.