Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Seasons and Reasons

There is nothing like the choking poison of Delhi traffic or the stifling heat of Rajasthan to make me feel like I am in India. Arriving in Delhi I managed to spend the absolute minimum of five hours in the city before jumping plane to the verdant fields of the Kullu Valley. There was green and mountains misty with monsoon rains, rivers rushing towards the plains of Punjab and the feeling that time had not moved so much as the season since I left only a few months ago.
Life is so soft in the mountains. People work hard and punctuate their labours with local festivals, but there is gentleness about the climate and the Valley that is not evident in the sprawl of Delhi or the villages of Rajasthan.
Anyway, for a long time now I have followed the precept that every pilgrimage of India should begin and end with a visit to Pushkar Lake, until I have done that I don’t feel as if I have officially begun my India time.
So we hurtle down the mountains in a twenty-hour stint to arrive in Rajasthan at sunrise, a detour through Delhi confirmed my suspicions that traffic jams caused by the revamping of Delhi in preparation for the Commonwealth games continue even in the wee hours of the morning. Anyone having to catch a plane out of Delhi would be advised to prepare for delays of up to three hours, even at three in the morning.
But then at dawn, the trail of blue peacock feathers draping the roof of a Shiva temple announces the state of Rajasthan, spread out like an early morning picnic blanket before us.
Here the festival season is in full swing, This is the time for farmers to take leave and make a holy pilgrimage somewhere with the entire family To bathe in a holy lake, to listen to some guru, to sing and chant and dance and buy plastic toys for their children. To cook on fires fuelled by the cow dung fuel they carry with them and to sleep in the open by a busy roadside.
The first time I witnessed this local approach to festivals I used to think why on earth would anyone bother to load up a bus or a bullock cart with just about the entire kitchen, pots and pans and spices and cow dung, the mother in law and assorted children and then walk sometimes for miles to some event so that they could cook and eat and shit and sleep in the open. I mean for gods sakes, wouldn’t they be more comfortable at home? Holidays seemed to me like harder work than the usual round of gruelling farm labour.
I had to admire their commitment to having a good time. Life is hard for rural people in India generally and in particular for the people of Rajasthan and neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The failure of the monsoon has crippled entire villages, bankrupted farmers and fights over water supply have resulted in a quite a few deaths.
So I don’t begrudge them their four am puja beneath my window every morning, after a few rolls and groans and attempts to force my eyeballs open I get up and watch from my window the magic tapestry of India, her people, their stories all played out on the ghat below.
There is a sadhu washing in the predawn light, Brahmins sweeping their temples, cows rolling through the changing shed, a widow and her son, his shaved head and the basket the carry indicate a close death in the family, a farmer woman from Harayana feeding chickpeas to the black faced monkey, a Brahmin shouting at a pilgrim for wearing shoes close to the holy water, a tourist taking surreptitious photos, a swarm of pigeons circling over, a baby monkey swinging on my window and another grooming it’s mother. A group of villagers line up at the waters edge and repeat word for word the shouted prayer of the pundit; two kids scream and run away when a monkey gets too close, a man grabs a cows tail to lead it out of his way. Saris flutter in the early morning breeze and neon coloured turbans twirl as they dry in the sun, there is the constant ring of the bell at the entrance to the ghat, the shrieks of the baby monkeys and the cries of the kids. The sadhu completes his wash and wobbles away on stick thin legs and now here comes a band! With drums and bells and people singing and clapping just to add a bit more masala to my early morning viewing!

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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Spinning Yarns

Chacha ji hs become my balcony buddy in Vashisht this year. That is he is someone to sit and watch the human traffic pass beneath and around us, to make the odd comment to or interjection about.
Chacha ji has the best balcony in Vashisht for this kind of gentle pass time. From our sunny corner we can watch the tourists struggle up the hill, the boys in the blanket shops ply their wares, we can tease the little boy Satyam on the next door balcony and almost reach across the street into two tourist rooftop resuaurants and in his own house behind us there is the shuffle shuffle clap clap of his daughter at the loom and the usual to-ing of any extended family. So there is plenty to feast our eyes on.
I understand probably about fifty percent of what he says and ninety nine percent of his meaning, while he probably understands fifty percent of my Hindi and absolutely nothing of my English. It hardly matters, we play our role like the two old guys on the balcony at the Muppet show or two birds on the tree of life. We bounce off each other for all that with a shared chuckle, raised eyebrows or the many handsignals which have developed over time when people want to talk about each other without being heard. One is the universal signal for crazy, the other is a dismissive downward gesture as if one were throwing away rubbish and the last most expressive one is the hand raised upwards int he shape of a lotus or curled slightly as if you were holding a small bird in the palm of your hand before releasing it. This says many things but a general approximation would be "What can you do? this is in Gods hands."
Chacha ji's hands are never still. For the last week while he sat and walked and talked around the village he has been making rope from goat hair. First he spun the wool onto a small hand held spool. When he had two spools of twine, he spun them together to make a strong twine. When he had three reels of strong twine, he sewed them togther to make a rope about the width of a bridle or reins.
"Strong, " he reckons, giving the half complete work a tug. "Last about fifteen to twenty years."
He looks so quaint as he totters around the village in his traditional Himachal clothes. The home made woolen jacket, the pyjama pants and his brightly coloured cap and his slighty bent legs give him the appearance of being a rather doddering old man. Tourists like to stop and take photos of his beautiful weathered walnut face and he nods encouragement with his bright inquisitive eyes. In fact Chacha ji is probably one of the richest and smartest men in this village. With rental properties all over the village and a large successful family, he remains as sharp as a tack. Alive and alert, interested but most of all amused by the ever changing worlda round him. He lets it all wash over him with a delightful mix of old age craziness and age old wisdom.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Curry in a Hurry and cheeky chapatti

The test of any good Indian woman or wife to be is in the chapatti. I have watched enough Indian television to know this to be true. So I told Ommie that I would take over the kitchen once his brother went back to Omkareshwar. This was so that he couldn’t carry tales of my kitchen inefficiency ahead of me to the family.
But things rarely work out as you plan them. The day I made puri bhaji, his brother took one look and ran away before he even finished stirring the curry!
In the morning said he wanted to leave but we insisted he stay another day so as not to be travelling on a festival day and promised to cook ghee-laden food as a gesture to Lord Krishna whose birthday it was.
So in the middle of us all working to prepare the meal, Chacha ji called out to say that his brother had just jumped in an auto and left with his bags. Now, my puri are a bit rusty and nowhere near as light and flaky as a good Punjabi puri should be but I though the bhaji were pretty damn good. Anyway what’s wrong with saying goodbye?
After the initial period of disbelief, Ommie picks up the phone and rings not his brother but his mother and father and sister in law and tells them what his brother has done. There is about twenty minutes of shouting on the phone. I sit outside with Chacha ji, the grandfather of the house and my balcony buddy.
What happened, says the old man.
I made puri and he ran away in the middle of stirring the curry, I tell him.
The old man is more interested in listening in on Ommie's phone call than hearing about my dismal puri.
With dinner cooked and no body feeling like eating it, we sit on the balcony with the family and discuss the curry in a hurry departure of his brother. Suddenly the brother returns and parks his bag in the room gets out of his travelling clothes while Ommie tells the neighbours about his brothers behaviour. The brother defends himself in the debate of good manners versus bus timetables and him missing his kids. Eventually Chacha ji, like any good chief, decides that each has had his case heard and tells everyone to shut up now and get over it.
Later in the kitchen I said to Ommie, what happened? Couldn’t he get a bus?
No, he smiles. Mummy and Father told him he had to come back.
Amazing to think of a society where family still has so much power to resolve problems and adjust behaviour.
Scary to think that news can travel that fast in India these days. Already my crap puris are famous in a place I haven’t been to yet!
The family that Ommie rents a room from are now also eyeing me speculatively, frankly assessing my value as a wife according to their norms. While they haven’t seen my chapatti so far, they like to come into the kitchen and watch me cook as if it was some rare thing.
By that time the chapatti dough is prepped and sitting innocuously in a dish awaiting its final humiliation.
It’s a long time since I cooked Indian food for Indian people which is something like us watching an Irishman put down a hangi. Food is such a cultural reference for us all, no matter where we come from and food in India is still so very tied to survival. If you turn out a crap dish it doesn’t go in the bin and someone goes out for takeaways. It’s eaten anyway while its merits and deficiencies are discussed. To any cook the sound of people eating quietly means more than words, it is approval by digestion.
When I lived in the jungle temple with my guru ji, my first attempts at cooking were watched over by Baba ji’s eagle eye. People would eat with the “not bad for a firang” kind of attitude and I knew my food still had that desi taste
I remember the day I served a meal and noticed that the people eating were hardly conscious that the food was or should be or could be any different from the taste that they knew since childhood. They didn’t see my food as something from a firang but as if it had been cooked by Baba ji’s own hand.
Accustomed as I was by then to constructive criticism accompanying my food as predictable as chutney, I couldn’t help but notice the silence. What had I done differently, I wondered. What had changed?
In my exhausted jungle survival mode I had lost my own self consciousness and that in some strange way it reflected in the taste of the food. I had long since given up my struggle to be different, to remain an individual and surrendered mostly to the madness around me. In fact there was no longer them and me but all of us together sharing resources afloat on the sea of humanity.
If life is a feast then the best meals are ones made in the spirit of this kind of symbiosis.
In the meantime I will get to wrestling some divinity out of the chapatti dough.

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Love in the Time of H1N1

I watched on of those travel shows the night before I left home. In this series, a ‘personality’ is patched into an organised backpacking tour of a foreign country. Basically they get to interact a lot with the local taxi drivers, the odd random teashop dweller and the kind of characters one meets on the road and the result is filmed.
The episode I watched was set in India. A netball star coped with just a small film crew and her own resources.
It made me think about why we travel and how it is that we do so. For myself there is a curiosity about the people that draws me to a place, I want to know what makes them laugh or cry or stir to action, I want to understand the rhythm of their daily lives and find the bridge that exists between us. In the face of The Other I am looking for a mirror. What is it about us that is the same and how are our differences so different anyway?
I felt strangely sad to watch the travel show and realise that while I believe our urge to travel is about our urge to experience brotherhood in fact that simple heart connection between travellers and locals is rare enough these days to become the basis of a television series. Ironically the series is called Intrepid, after the name of the tour company.
To me an intrepid traveller is one of those god like Scandinavian mountain climbers strolling at altitude in the high Himalaya, or a solo yachtsman rolling on a forty-foot swell. These people are pimped and prepared and frighteningly intrepid. I feel more like Forest Gump by comparison.
These days, simply to travel is almost to be considered intrepid. I refuse to believe in Swine Flu or H1N1. First of all, please! Whatever happened to names like Cholera and the Plague and Consumptive Fever all perfectly romantic and tragic diseases. Heroines can die of cholera and its poetic, something to base a novel around, but swine flu just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
It’s something almost to be ashamed of. Or paranoid about especially when you
are jammed inside long queues at New Delhi Airport. Two planeloads of people are crowded in an area under the escalators, queuing and curling in a snakelike formation in order to pass through the temperature testers.
This seems to me to be Indian logic at its best If by chance someone in the teeming crowd of exhausted arrives did have some contagious disease then by the very manner in which the screening was organised, we were all potentially exposed.
In Kuala Lumpur screening of passengers was as subtle and efficient as one would expect in South East Asia. We hardly paused in passing through the temp checkers.
Someone near me started to cough. I notice that this coughing is also noticed by at least six people around me. I wonder if I should take the names of the people around me who cough or splutter or (god forbid) sneeze! I clear my throat nervously and hope like hell that I don’t have a hot flush.
After an hour or snaking and queuing and eyeing each other nervously, we form a single queue and the desk is in sight. I wonder if I can claim menopausal immunity to the test since hot flushes are random and or triggered by small stresses. Two men ahead of me are hauled off for temperature misdemeanours.
I imagine myself being dragged off for the crime of being hot and tired and human.
It hurt my feelings to think that Mother India with her generous visiting and entry rights should do this to her guests. So much for guest is god, I grumble to myself.
Suddenly its my turn, my hormones behave and for the lack of a single hot flush I am granted entry into the country and escape into the night.
Even better, within ten minutes I am arguing with a taxi driver, hot and tired, and totally human again. Intrepid as.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Consuming the Light

"A good teacher is like a candle - it consumes itself to light the way for others."

Recent events in my lie have begun me thinking about the role of the various teachers I have had in my life and how blessed I have been to have had them.
In India the teacher is said to appear when the student is ready, the word Guru means dispeller of darkness. A teacher then is anything or anyone who reaches into your mind and does a bit of fine tuning, who leads you from the darkness of your own ignorance to the blinding light of ..well, Love actually.
There is a common misconception amongst people in the west that enlightenment is something you get after sitting at the feet of your guru, chanting and singing and dancing sometimes. While I have heard of these places and seen the fall out, my own experience in learning anything has always come from fire. My time with an Indian guru was hot and hard and passionate, tempestuous and mostly slightly crazy. There were rare moments of enchanted bliss but these were brought on from mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion rather than from any hard core meditation.
Everyone learns in different ways, mine seems to be always through some baptism of fire.
My first baptism of fire came in the form of a Mana Wahine called Jayne Matenga Kohu. A woman so fierce, so passionate, so brilliant that she honestly scared people! She was a warrior for women, for the rights of children and of family. She was an artist, a poet, a story teller and her voice would make the angels weep. Jayne paved the way for many women to come, inflamed us all in various ways to continue to dare to spark and blaze and be as brilliant as she showed us we could be.
But she burned herself out just a few weeks ago. She lay dead in her house for two weeks while her wairua went walkabout amongst all of us whose lives she changed, just checking that the spark was still ablaze.
Good teachers carry the very fire of creation within them, they burn and flame with a passion so huge, so explosive that the limits of the human body cannot confine.
It basically is the fire of love and teachers who work as a fire are working from a position of love.
"Throw away the shell and take only the pearl"said Sri Ramakrishna of the teachings of a guru.
The perfect gift of any teacher is a distant shore of becomming littered with pearls and light by the light of the fire of love.

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