Excavating Company: After the Surgery

For those who live alone, without family, but with some friends–

went in for an arthroscopy [keyhole surgery on my right knee] on Thursday, ten years after the original injury. I had gotten so used to pain that neither myself nor the people around perceived it any more–pain had became a ghost companion for a decade, almost invisible to myself and those about me. But un/fortunately, the young doctor, whom I finally consulted, rewrote perception. I had to allow pain to assert its presence, make its existence known.Arthroscope

Almost immediately after I see the young doctor, I go in for surgery, spend one night in the hospital, and become dependent on the goodwill of others. In the process, my childhood heroes, women whom my mum had held up as exemplars of goodness, prove Mum is always right. Padmasini checks me in, discharges me, takes me home, messages me with offers of help the following morning–all the while denying that she does anything out of the ordinary.

Other friends spend the night, keep me company, but once home, I’ve myself. Being home after surgery, finally, alone, I have to struggle to throw off the habit of dependancy that hospital and enforced attendance have induced in a day. Even to answer a phone call induces stress, to move, sometimes to get up, to reach for the bloody tiny machine.

And, just as I get home, after the long process of discharge, getting my stuff together, struggling down hospital stairs, into the car, and up to my room, a friend calls. Trembling, anxious, tense [even with the good Padmasini by my side], I don’t want to answer. But, seeing the name, and grateful for her help in spending the night with me in the hospital, I pick up, intending only to let her know I’d call her back. cartoon-mobile-phone-rage-faceBut, oblivious to my panic, she continues the call, informing me that I have to call the lunch delivery guy. In my panic I yell, “PUH-LEESE, I’ll call you back!”

So, I call back after awhile when I’ve rested a bit, only to find the phone left ringing unanswered.

Yes, she did call again to inform me–“she’d call back”–which she hasn’t so far. Oh the problems of social interaction, with psychological games, when I must contend with my own resistant anxious body and mind! Moving around is a matter of judgment, as I must monitor my knee, make sure to sit down each time with my feet up, not to stand. When the phone is left elsewhere, I make a decision to lower the legs and answer. When well meaning friends call to ask “how are you? I’ll drop by sometime,” I’d rather be left alone.

And yet, last evening, when another of my childhood heroes, Kalpana, called to tell me she was coming by, despite taking her son to the dentist, despite having to see her sister in hospital [also admitted for surgery], despite nursing a horrendous cold, I am overjoyed. Pain and Panic vanish.

So, as I question throughout life, what makes the difference? What sets apart one human interaction from another? Is it the depth of emotion? Is it love versus social interaction? Is it the authenticity of the self? And, how did/ does Mum know so far back in the past??mum knows best

So–I bumble, stumble, through life and living, affection and hurt, human and social interaction….pain imperceptible, not of the body so much but of the mind, ghost companion at my side.

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On Show– The Female Body Controlled

Sitting at the bay window in my room, I watch the heavens open up in sympathy with my frustrations–another day at the bootcamp in Kodaikanal, South India. In hot pursuit of the body beautiful, Western and Indian cultural morés and consumer values intertwine, but through that fabric of expectation, the male gaze remains a constant.

"The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society's obsession with how we look. "

“The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one anorectic and one obese woman is a demonstration against modern society’s obsession with how we look. “

Today–I’ve reached a state of out-of-body fatigue, where the body moves like a rag doll, every movement propelled by will.  But I duly wake up at 4 am, do the journal the trainers requested, have my weight checked, then slowly, slowly, move out for a walk. More than physical exercise, I need the company of trees, of rising sun and mountains. Buoyed by this dawn camaraderie, I return and press on with my yoga: no chants, just stretches, and attempts at breathing deep. But, there’s a limit, my body lets me know that its all it can do to stay upright.

So, then, breakfast, whereupon I hang out with my trusty Macbook downstairs, waiting for the internet and geyser to warm up before I limp up the stairs, step by slow step, for my bath.  P—, trainer guy of the beautiful bod, is concerned, questioning me if I’m still hungry; he is, perhaps, guilty about his hard nosed refusal of a second helping of lentils the day before (60 cals over although my stomach has refused the bread served).  So, hey, everything’s hunky dory so far, if I’m just tired tired tired.  Finally, I lumber up the wooden stairs to take a bath in the bathroom shared with P and K, another stress magnet.  In my room, the bay window is unveiled, blinds up, open to the sun–nobody’s out on the deck, the other client, young Rishabh, hates the sun and is resting in his room. I’ve been reassured couple of times in the last days that privacy is mine, nobody climbs the hill opposite or trains binoculars into the room.

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

So, peeps, dear blog trawlers, fatigued even more after bath, I sit myself down on the bed to nurse my legs with pain gel, my big brown, tattooed female body, droopy breasts, saggy stomach, love handles and all, backing the window. Lost in my aches and pains, I suddenly espy, from the corner of my eye, movement outside–men–Indians, laborers–are busy moving the pots outside the window on the deck; they’ve finished three quarters of the deck.  Stupefied, horrified, I am paralyzed because, of course, they are enjoyed that big brown female naked body—mine!  I dash for a sarong, yards away, hanging behind the door, wrap it about me.  But I’m frozen again, gazing at them as their studied movements reveal their relish. I’m glued to the door, stuck to the corner of the room. Gradually, very very slowly I make my way back to the cupboard, reach for a caftan and pull it over the sarong.

The angle of their heads tells me, “O yes, we’re enjoying the show!” So, caftan clad, I sidle up to the bay window, and finally, ah, finally pull the blinds down separated only by the glass from the watchers as I do this.  Free at last from their eyes, I give vent to my rage as I grab a black sweatshirt, pulling it down over the caftan. “Fuck this,” I scream at the door, pull it open, and shout down to K—, the trainer’s wife and yoga mistress. My fury stemmed for the moment by her abject apology and shocked comprehension, I realize that, as a woman, she understands not only the violation of the male gaze, but as an Indian woman she realizes the peculiar lechery of class underwriting that violation. Hey, but rich or poor, the male Indian gaze has a ferocity all its own.

peeping tomSilent, I proceed down those wooden stairs, and flop onto the blue couch in the ritzy living room. P—, trainer guy, comes up,

“What happened?”

Tell me,” he insists, as I protest that I’ve already told his wife and he should ask her. But, I recount the incident, rage rising to the surface as I do. P— responds, initially, with a mild apology that he should’ve informed me before sending the workers to the deck, but, almost immediately, he changes tack:

How could you change with the window open? Rishabh, (who hates the sun, like all privileged Indians conscious of skin color!) could have been outside. You should be more careful.”

Incredulous I begin to defend myself:

“But I did check, the place was totally deserted. I was sitting with my back to the window when I realized the workers were there.”

As I mount my defense, I wonder at myself. Only the evening before as we were getting ready to go out to the club for soup, P— and his wife had entered my room.

The blinds were down as it was late evening and I’d had the lights on. P— commented then,

“hey why do you have the blinds down, the view is beautiful.”

“Well, the lights are on, and I don’t know who might be peeking in through the rain,” I return in reply.

“The hill side’s deserted, nobody is out there,” he affirms.

Backing up his claim retroactively, the masseuse the previous week, had insisted,

“Keep the blinds up, nobody’s going to look into the window from so faraway.”

And as all of us knew, young Rishabh next door was totally uninterested in the deck, the joke of house was that he had to be forced outdoors for a bit of sun for his own good.  Ironically, although I had the bay window in my room, his room had access outdoors.

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

Anger surfaces now at myself and P–, arch jock who claims to ‘love’ women: I retort,

Don’t turn this back at me! Is the guest always to blame?

Of course, by that I mean the woman guest:

If you guys send workers on the deck, as the hosts of the program and house you fucking have to inform the occupants of the room, male or female.

My feminist self back on track, I settle myself on the couch downstairs until the workers leave.  P—, his hackles up, storms outside to be Mr. Fixit.  I lie, shivering, cold, muscles tense, for an hour or so, when I finally leave to creep into the violated room, now with the blinds down but with the willing voyeurs continuing their work outside the glass.  Heaping the duvet, blanket, and throw over me, I fall into an exhausted sleep, willing to forego lunch at the table with the Master of the house.

But, come dinner time, I have no escape.  I force myself downstairs. All the four of us seated about the table, P— looks at me and queries, kindly paternalistic smile on his face, “Everything ok? You alright?”  At that, with my gorge rising, womanist old me, throws back, “You alright?” Of course, Master Trainer’s dignity went for a toss–he couldn’t take that.  So we agreed, lets part.  “Mutual differences.” Catchall phrase.

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

Addendum:

After all was decided, and my bags packed, hotel room booked, I did manage to explain to P— why his paternal 34 man’s years to my 53 woman’s years attitude was so indigestible to me.

"My Body Isn't Mine" by Heather Keith Freeman

“My Body Isn’t Mine” by Heather Keith Freeman

Loving women is not the same as feeling women, being sensitized to women’s issues in an often violent, misogynist world. “Would you,” I ask him, “treat a 53 year old Indian man the same way as you have treated me?” Of course, there had been other previous incidents of the Young Master of house and gym extending his Fatherly (!) arm over me…..but the report/story ends here.

 

Cooking! A Personal Fable of Repercussions

Days now, I haven’t been outside my tiny apartment, haven’t written, haven’t spoken to people except, of course, Shymala, the little maid who comes in to do for me.

“Why?” you ask, dear Reader, 21st century drifter through code, browser of tabs via Google, or Bing, or Facebook,mere happener upon, who stumbles through bit-media onscreen.   Whatever, dear Reader, these words are no aspersion on yourself; rather, I comment on my own inadequacies in facing down the bright Macbook screen.  And yet, when I don’t write, the days are empty, full of gloom that the monsoon skies intensify.   I have not walked, have not written, but, but I have been Cooking.

cooking_indian womanCooking again after months, nay, years, I handle vegetables and spices, wield the big chef’s knife to chop flora, fauna and fruit to create Food for myself.  Not an innocent activity, this!  Rife with ambivalence, cultural dissonances of women at the stove, making huge healthy meals for the family, while Man sits with his paper and pipe. And what is cooked, how it is cooked writes class and caste, as well as gender–here, in the ashram, in India, and in different ways all over our little glorious globe.  I have the means, so I’ve been trying out cooks, too, while cooking myself.  One cook arrives, announcing that she is Brahmin.  The pitfalls ahead loom before me–I don’t like Brahmins.  Just as a matter of principle, I’m wary of superiority complexes.

Garlic or onions induce the lower animal passions, according to the Brahmanic Hindu tenets.  Unfortunately, I adore garlic.  Onions follow close in my affections, and I’m susceptible to animal passions–much preferable to Human Virtue, in my humble opinion.   On informing her of my culinary preferences, she assures me that she will work willingly with garlic, add as many pungent cloves as I wish.  So, the Brahmin cooked for me, and on her departure, Shymala (not Brahmin) and I (mongrel mixbreed) sampled her prowess–swimming in oil, overladen with salt.  Thankfully, a medical emergency in the family prompted her exit the very next day, and I was saved from pointing out that if the Brahmin didn’t taste her own cooking, she wouldn’t know what she was cooking, horrid or ambrosial.

Sinner as I am, reveling as I do in my lack of virtue, my food choices are not regulated by moral imperatives.  More in sympathy with animals than humans, eating chicken or beef or mutton or lamb is akin to cannibalism for me.  In my dark and twisted moods, I often speculate that it makes more sense for humans to kill our own kind.  We propagate so easily that our species is in danger of overrunning the earth to the detriment of all other species.posh_salmon_  [check out Carl Sagan on the human species–http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/07/08/carl-sagan-meaning-of-life/] For years, I didn’t eat fish either,  but when a fancy for seafood beset my taste buds the last year, I indulged.  But, the taste of seafood is losing its savor:  a silver fish tumbled out out the sea at my feet, before the waves gathered it in again, while I was walking on Varca beach a few months ago.  In that brief moment, the fish bound me to its silver flashing being.

Thankfully on my return to Puttaparthi, I left choice behind as the ashram, naturally, is vegetarian.  Contemplating the vegetables that Shymala buys at the weekly village shandy [http://times-voice.blogspot.in/2011/11/village-shopping-mall-or-shandy_08.html], their succulent selves however, I am prey to doubt.  Often times, they lie in my fridge in the veggie drawer, quietly turning moldy, rotting without discovery.  Unaware of their plight, I plunge days later into the fridge only to find them decomposed.  To cook, to eat is a depraved activity, no matter what. I wish I could pluck fruits from the tree, gnaw roots salt with earth in some phantasmal alter world.

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

Perhaps alcohol is the safest bet, clean and pungent liquid that obscures the plight of the non-human world from my mind and eyes.  Coffee is another such:  I grind the beans, fill the expresso pot with coffee grains, and aaahhh, sniff the steaming brew.  Morning is expresso or should I put it the other way around–expresso, dark and rich, is morning for me, ushering in another day with no guilt.

green lentilsToday, the hard green lentils sitting in the jar for almost a year call to me,
“We have been ignored too long.  You must find something for us.  We are tired of sitting here on the shelf, unused, drying up.”
If the dialogue sounds familiar, dear Reader, you must be a woman, or at least a reader of Chick Lit, or Mills and Boon, or Jane Austen…  In the lingo of Critical Theory, we see what we have been acculturated to see.  Put simply, our eyes see what they have learned to see over time and place (not always consciously or willingly).  Oh yes, we can unsee what we do not want to acknowledge.  That green lentil needs to be married, have a fiery romance with water, finishing up a soupy garlicky dhal on white rice.

Bitterly green and resistant as they appear, I wonder if I can render them eatable.  Anyway, I lay out a whole head of garlic, small sambar onions (shallots) that I had picked up on a recent trip to Bangalore, a big juicy carrot, a crisp green pepper, and red village tomatoes.  That array makes me feel more in control, able to tackle those green lentils.  I decide to sauté a couple of fiery green chillies with the garlic and shallots, adding in the carrot, tomatoes and green pepper in that order while the lentils meet their fate in the cooker.

Hah, the lentils rebelled.  They expand, absorb all the water around them, burn the cooker.  Scraping out their charred mess, I consign them to organic waste that we use for manure.  Green lentil mess feeds the garden shrubs, not me.  Suttee, sati, was it? [http://adaniel.tripod.com/sati.htm; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/23/gender.uk1] I cook in culture, history, gender, race, class, and caste.  Caught in time, the historicity of my petty disaster points, if I may see, say, and write it, to other not so petty her/stories. Caught in my cooking, unable to do more, I live my choices as a woman in India, this village Puttaparthi, this ashram, this NOW.

Alone in the ashram room with my tattooed body, my dyke hair that I cut myself, I hear the chanting of the Hindu Vedas resound in the air.  Enmeshed, wriggling like a fish in the spiritual romance of sound, I am also part of the his/tory of violence and repression of women: Indira Gandhi, the dictator, Sita, the virtuous wife of god Sri Rama, as well as the unnamed med student raped on the Delhi bus, the four year old raped and thrown like garbage on the road.  Our choices mesh, we create willy-nilly her stories of living, violence, resistance, loneliness, and yes, sudden stupid content.

Should cooking be any less fraught, less coded, less dangerous than any other activity?  I must return to my walks, wreaking my ire on the unsuspecting, resistant pebbles, tripping over tarmac; I wreak my internal disturbances on my own fat self while glaring at the men to keep away.  I am contained by this world, though I may contain multitudes, to misquote Walt Whitman.  “Song of Myself” ends this little exegesis on cooking–

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and
self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.I wonder where they get those tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?
–from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman,
http://www.daypoems.net/plainpoems/1900.html

Cold! the physical toll of memory

Last night, sleep was slow in tendering its benefactions.  Perhaps my mind, by the end of the day, had turned again to worry at human interactions with my aunt and others like her.  I find that the more I try to help people out, funding their lives with mindless money, the more they look down on me.   They become the ones doing me the favor, they allow me, from their inherent goodwill, to bankroll their lives and indulgences.  Accepting the moolah, they put themselves on a pedestal. Hurt, I bark and growl, tuck my tail between my legs and remove my scrappy presence.

coldIn time, anger appears.  “Why should they get away with it?  I’ll keep them on their toes,” I vow to myself.  And so, in some part, I do, but in the doing, I tear my mind apart.  I fall ill, perpetual colds rack my body, the inhaler becomes my succor.  I recover from one attack of the cold virus to succumb to another.  Every morning I turn on the steam machine, bury my head under a blanket, and inhale hot air.  Quarter of an hour later, I reach for ayurvedic nasal drops and squirt medicated oil into my nostrils [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayurveda].   Pain hits my teeth and sinuses, I groan in discomfort and my throat burns with the taste.  Last in the process, I sip hot lime and honey, the sour-sweet infusion counteracts the pungent oil.

The morning runs by with these rituals.   Colds have long been my body’s familiars.  In childhood, my dad’s big white cotton hankies were indispensable: held against my dripping nose, their absorbent comfort got me through my days.  Come the long awaited monsoon, my nose watered in company with the skies.  Dosing me with Erythromycin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythromycin], my dad was often fellow sufferer.  But, for him as well as I, after each course of the antibiotic, another cold bided its time to attack anew.

My college years in Anantapur and a decade of graduate study in the States granted me some respite.  Over the last decade, however, with Mum dying, and the peri/ post-menopausal years, I have reverted to my childhood self, clutching now not a white hanky but a tissue to my nose.tissue box  Wastepaper bins overflow, and crumpled papers decorate random corners during my worst drips. Though guilty at the waste of paper, I am now addicted to their convenience.  When my nose streams, and I can barely stand upright, the tissues are my tenuous hold on sanity.

During times of stress, I’ve noticed that the colds follow one upon another.  This month, for instance, I’ve hosted three major attacks.  Is it any coincidence that this is the month, I’ve driven down thrice to neighboring Bangalore, in order to check on my aunt who happened to be hospitalized?why-i-keep-getting-colds  [cf. blog that relates stress and recurrent colds:  http://healthblog.yinteing.com/2010/04/14/why-do-i-keep-getting-colds-sinus-and-flu/]   Aunt Devaki, my Mum’s only surviving sister was rushed to CCU in the throes of intense abdominal pain, initially suspected to be the heart, and later diagnosed as gall stones.  After a week’s stay,  my aunt recovered to celebrate her ninetieth birthday at the Old Age Home I’d placed her in.  I was summoned to take her out for lunch:  transport and treat which included her recent favorite, her cousin’s daughter-in-law.  The cousin’s son doesn’t bother to visit her.

His wife, on the other hand, is a regular attendee on Aunt Devaki, in favor because she’s of the Coorg race, fair as the Coorgs are. [check out the Coorgs here: http://coorg.tripod.com/coorgs.html]  Earlier, my aunt has been known to insist on receiving blood transfusions only from a Coorg!   For mongrel, mixed blood me, Aunt Devaki is a relic and memory of Mum’s do-gooding.  Mum was the standby of her older sister, when life didn’t go Devaki’s way.  Dearest Mumso often grumbled at her sister’s airs and graces, but she stood up for her, even when Devaki pissed off my Dad, “I have a right to come here.  It’s my sister’s house.”   Feminist in rhetoric, but parasite in substance, Devaki feels that looking after her is our duty–first Mum, now me.

Every time I visit her, I come down with a Cold once I return home.  Suggestive?  Aunt Devaki is the mistress of manipulators.  With a face whose beauty even at ninety startles people, her looks and regal presence have gotten her through life.devaki  Although nearly penniless, she has numerous servitors who appear magically when prompted, among whose midst I number myself.  Having taken her on financially, a responsibility as memorial to Mum, I am yet periodically beset with childhood belief in her gracious self.  That belief, besieged by her physical reality, doesn’t last long for adult Grie.

I have to take to my heels and run home–to my ashram apartment, the Rain tree, the increasingly unkempt garden,  timid Tippy the bitch, and of course, my watering, suffering nose.

Literate encounters: rural women and educated me

Deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations, but unable to rest easy with my own little nest-egg, I look around for folks I can help in any way– financially mostly, but also with a bit of personal involvement.  Here, in Puttaparthi, most village folk (even those in their thirties) are either illiterate or literate just enough to read labels with difficulty, having just scraped through high school, about tenth grade.  Exploring various definitions of ‘literacy,’ commonly accepted as the skill of reading and writing, I came upon the following by the U.N.:

“[This] view, responding to recent economic, political and social transformations, including globalization, and the advancement of information and communication technologies, recognizes that there are many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes, personal circumstances and collective structures”….‘Literacy’, throughout history and across societies, has encapsulated a varying range of skills and erudition, but its antonym, ‘illiteracy’, has always been synonymous with disadvantage. It is this definition that, perhaps, elucidates the concept best.  [http://www.unric.org/en/literacy/27791-the-evolving-definition-of-literacy]”

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Photo: S.B. Krivit

Even here, in rural, backwoods Rayalseema, I commonly notice all manner of villagers talking busily into their mobile phones.   Sitting on a bullock cart, jogging along with a stack of hay on tarred roads, the ‘driver’ wields his mobile phone while he urges on the skinny, underfed bullock.  Inside the ashram, too, I’ve come across maids and  sweepers chatting importantly on their phones.  I knew that they probably weren’t ‘literate’ but couldn’t figure out how they managed until a ‘dhobi’ or washerwoman wanted my phone number.

woman phoneSaraswati fished out her phone, laughed, and asked me to enter my number.  “How are you going to know that its my number when you want to call me,” I asked. She told me that she’d assign a symbol to my number, so that she’d know it was me.  Showing me different symbols, dots, dashes, asterisks, she reeled off the names behind the numbers.  Remembering symbols is impossible for me, my educated mind and memory used to the alphabet, but Sarawati had formulated her own personal code. Living here, I’ve learned not to label folks easily, even ‘literacy’ becomes an unclassifiable spectrum.  As in the UNIC quote,  strategies like Saraswati’s are part of “”many practices of literacy embedded in different cultural processes…”

Although I’m not actively searching for girls who want to study further,  I stumble across quite a few without looking, given where I live.  In Rayalseema [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayalaseema] a district that suffers perennial water scarcity, the villagers eke out a bare living from seasonal crops.  Thanks to its founder, the ashram provides free schooling, but getting into college after that is impossible for the villagers as they possess only very basic English language skills when they make through from high school.  atp-frontOffering free education, Swami’s women’s college in Anantapur nearby, is now part of a whole university.  Ironically,  the standard of literacy required is beyond the locals.  In fact, I studied for 5 years in his college, and graduated with a Master’s which got me free education in the States!

The villagers, or original inhabitants of Puttaparthi before it became a bustling tourist town thanks to Swami, depend on the infrastructure of the ashram (and its attendant free hospitals, colleges, schools, canteens) for employment outside that of the land.woman farmer   The ashram proper employs a number of yard sweepers (also block janitors), a sweeper for each block of tiny apartments.  Most of them have been around for years.  Hard as the job is, it comes with benefits, and so prized, often passed down through generations of the same family–mother to daughter/ son, or even husband to wife.  Non-gender specific, the women actually outnumber the men.  Gangamma has been doing the job for years, arriving in the ashram at dawn, going home to her house in the village for lunch, and returning in the afternoon for another stint until about 5 pm.

Technically she’s not assigned to my block, but on the ground floor as I am, with a little private garden, I’m a face made familiar through the years.  During festival seasons, especially when Swami was alive, the place gets a noisy influx of pilgrims from the outlying areas.  Out for a spree with the excuse of religion, farm workers themselves, they don’t look for toilets but search for any semi-private spot to squat and do their business, more the women than the men.  At such times, I keep a wary eye out for such offenders.   Sure enough, a couple of years ago, I found a fetid pile of human feces in the corner, under some plants. At a loss about how to clear it up, I was glad to see a trio of sweepers cleaning up my neighbor’s yard in the absence of the regular guy.

sweepersNoticing me and my quandary,  the women wished me and assured me they would deal with the mess.  Curious to see how they would clean up human excrement, I hung around.  The two who had assured me most vociferously continued to sweep, but the third, the one I was least acquainted with, the quietest of the lot, disappeared.  Returning with a cardboard carton in hand, she proceeded to flatten it and, then, neatly swept up the stinking pile and deposited it in the waste bin.  Impressed with her wordless efficiency, I asked for her name and tipped her well.  That was how Ganga (the ‘amma’ is a suffix denoting formality, i.e. Gangamma) and I came to be acquainted.

After that incident, I would run into her sweeping elsewhere while returning from my morning walks.  Always quiet but smiling, she wished me on sight.  Dark and sloe-eyed, I find her the epitome of Indian womanhood, her hair oiled and coiled up in a bun, clad in a simple working woman’s sari.  Every so often, when the irregular worker assigned to my block failed to show, she appeared to sweep out my yard, so we got acquainted over a couple of years.  But, returning after a gap of two months from my Goa hiatus, I saw her no longer until she turned up at my door, suddenly one day.  Immersed in my writing, I was impatient, and told her to return when I was free.  Only later, when my composition was done did her words and appearance hit my consciousness, prompting a wave of guilt.  Teary eyed and hair in disarray, she’d appeared to tell me that her mother had died with no warning, just fourteen days after the death of her father who’d been ailing for some time.

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Artist N.S. Abdul Rahim (Kerala, India)

Kicking myself for my selfishness, I inquired after her when I came upon the other sweepers.  Thankfully Ganga showed up to meet me again, and I could hear her out.  Weeping inconsolably, she repeated that the death of her mum had been a total shock. Bedraggled though she looked,  she’d returned to work.  In the weeks that followed, her face grew lined and she lost weight in her grief.  There no way for me to console her, I could only tell her that she should watch herself, that time would heal the pain a bit, even if, at the moment of loss, sadness overwhelmed all thought.  Diffident in the face of her loss, I presented her with a couple of my own mum’s saris and some money, poor consolation.

Over the troubled course of a month, Ganga continued disturbed and weary, but slowly her face regained its old contours.  Approaching me again, she said that she wanted her daughter to meet me.  Her daughter had recently finished high school, and wanted now to go on to study for her intermediate,  a two years interim course before graduate college.  Wondering if her daughter liked studying, and if her grades were any good, I questioned Ganga, unwilling to assume responsibility on hearsay.  “She wants to study further.  She’ll be the first woman to study beyond school in our family.  Anyway, please amma, I want her to meet you.  She looks like you, her nose, her face.”

I acquiesced.  What else could I do?  I warned Ganga, however, that I wouldn’t finance her daughter’s studies completely, although I could help out a bit if I thought the girl was serious.  She smiled at me:  “I’m not asking for any financial help.  I just want her to meet with you.”  So I did.

Pramila, her daughter arrived with together with Ganga,  and two small, restless kids, one her younger sister, the other a cousin.  In India, the concept of family is rather different from the West:  even cousins are commonly referred to as sisters or brothers. Until they clarify the relationship for me, I routinely get misled and assume they are all part of one family.  Although Ganga has four daughters, one older than Pramila and the last younger, she’d brought her niece along rather than her other two kids.  Looking far younger than her years, Pramila was quiet when I questioned if she was the oldest:
“Hey Ganga, I wanted to meet your oldest daughter, the one who is going to study.”
“My eldest is at home, my family has decided that she shouldn’t continue.  She’ll stay home and look after the house when I come for work.  Anyway, her eyes are weak. She wears spectacles.”
“But, glasses are not a big deal, I wear them too.  I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight years old.”  I assured her.
Ganga remained unconvinced, “When she was about 10, the doctors slit a stye on her eyelid.  Then, they told me that she couldn’t see too well, that she’s to wear specs.  It’s better she remains at home.”
“What are you planning for her? Marriage?”

Source: The Times Of India Group © BCCL

Source: The Times Of India Group
© BCCL

She nodded hesitantly, “Pramila’s the one whom we want to send to Anantapur for further studies. My younger brother is checking colleges now. They ask for a capitation fee* of about 2 lakhs (ie about 200,00 rupees), then we pay fees of about forty thousand.”  [on the controversy about capitation fees charged by colleges and schools for entrance in India, see http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/keyword/capitation-fee/featured/4 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitation_fee ]
“What subjects do you want to take for your major?” I ask Pramila who looks totally out of it.
Like a parrot, she responds, “CEP.”
girl studentsI’ve no idea what the letters stand for, so I ask her to explain and learn they stand for “Civics, Economics, Politics,” one of the majors possible for an intermediate degree. On questioning Pramila if these are her favorite subjects, or the ones in which she gets the highest grades, she replies in the negative. Her cousin, studying for a degree in Anantapur at present, has told her she should choose this major.
“What do you want to do after this?”
“I’ll go to TTC.”
More initials, here they stand for “Teacher Training Center.” And at the Center, what is she training toward? A degree, a diploma, a certificate? She doesn’t know. Is the major relevant to entering TTC? She doesn’t know. “My brother has told me,” is her invariable response.

Gradually, I get her to come out of the shell of wordless disinterest, goading her with questions on her favorite subjects, on the papers she written best in her exams. Pramila has given me the certificate of her overall grade in school finals, a C-, but she doesn’t know her individual grades in different subjects. Finally, she admits that she feels that she’s done best in Physics and Biology. Surprised by that, I ask her to meet me again. After she checks, she’ll know for sure the subjects she’s done best in, and I’m curious if they tally with her own estimation. Poking her further out of her shell, I prod,

“do you want to end up doing housework even after your studies? If you don’t have a goal in life, if you don’t decide where your interests lie, and just listen to your brother, or, later, your husband, what is the point of your parents spending so much money on you? You’ll be the first woman in the family to do further studies, you shouldn’t let your parents or yourself down.”

Unfortunately, without proper guidance academically and emotionally, there’s an all too real possibility that Pramila could end up later in life as a maid or a sweeper.

Graduating from an ‘English medium’ school, Pramila doesn’t speak English, not even broken English. When I speak in English to her, I’m not totally certain that she understands me. But, by the end of the visit she’s more animated, and promises me to talk to her cousin, go to the Teacher Training Center in Anantapur, and to check her grades for individual subjects. I don’t set too much store by these promises. I’m not sure how long the enthusiasm will last, though Ganga assures me her daughter will meet me again. At the last I spell out the word g-o-a-l to her, explain what it means, and tell that she has to define some goals in life for herself.

Artist: Loui Jover

Artist: Loui Jover

I’d like to help further her education, but only if she will help herself, will attempt to become a woman who thinks for herself, and works towards some (any) goals in life. Motivation is hard to sustain in her circumstances. I doubt that Pramila will come by, but pray she will!

Bloodletting II: my bloody sexualities

In a country like India with so many taboos about periods, my Mum was curiously casual about her first child’s coming of age. [see a description of taboos and problems in India here- http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/29/opinion/the-taboo-of-menstruation.html?_r=1& ] Only nine, and overweight as I was, my period shocked both her and me. In the 1970s, most girls started much later at about 13 or 14 years.  “Well, you got it early, so it’ll end early,” was her consolation.  I wish those words had come true, but they didn’t quite prove prophetic.  I ended my monthly blooding only at 50, a nice round figure. Forty-one years of ‘maturity’ proved useless as the idea of having kids left me cold.  I’m not into marriage either, being single, grâce à dieu, is the best choice I’ve ever made in life!

I’d like to reclaim the time of monthly periods as empowering, but, I have to admit, I’m a little relieved at the onset of menopause.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

[see men’s research on goddess worship and period power: http://www.metaformia.org/articles/menstruating-women-menstruating-goddesses/; http://indianstemples.blogspot.in/2012_12_01_archive.html]  If only menopause didn’t arrive with various aches and sudden stiffnesses in a body shocked by the sudden withdrawal of hormones. The withdrawal itself wasn’t too hard a process for me, given some of my friends’ sufferings. More scanty, the period became more painful and frequent as well. My problem was towards the end–I’d be sure I was going in for a feverish virus, when, lo and behold, I’d see blood. Grateful for the abrupt bloodiness, I’d know the pain and stiffness would leave, and that I didn’t have the ‘flu.

Back to Mum. Warning me not to get too close to the boys (for months I would not allow any boy even to brush past me), she took off to attend a wedding. Already in her forties by then, Mum had tutored me in the art of using clean, old cloths to wrap between my legs. Torn from thin, cotton saris that had been saved for that purpose, I’d throw them away unless the blood flow was minimal.  Only then, would we wash and reuse them.  Looking back down the years, I find that my Mum’s method was ecologically sound as well as hygienic.

Quite apart from the nuisance of bleeding inconspicuously, I’ve noticed that there’s always weird stuff happening at “that time of the month.” My period was a trouble magnet. The time of my first period, for instance, my schoolmates and I were in the thick of rehearsals for “Tulips of Amsterdam,” a major school performance where the younger kids swayed onstage in bright orange stretch pants and short blouses. Plump as I was as a child, those seventies stretch pants proved more traumatic with thick wads of cloth between my legs. Sundry girls would comment, “hey, Grievs, you look kinda boyish down there.” Those ghastly stretches pants defined every contour and crevice. Hiding the news of my ‘maturity,’ I kept my bleeds deathly secret: if anyone deduced the cause of my ironic ‘boyishness’, they kept quiet about it.

More troubles followed when Dad decided to treat the family with a summer holiday in England, a year or so later. Trips abroad were a big deal in the days of protectionist India, especially trips for the entire family.  In Brockley, London we put up my uncle’s house.  Uncle K— had married a Britisher, Jean, and had actually disappeared from the visible face of the earth for a while to escape his mother’s demand that he qualified as a doctor. periodMy Aunt Jean wass a kind, solid Englishwoman, and she made us kids feel welcome when my Dad and Mum deserted us for a romantic twosome in Paris.  Naturally, with wonderful timing, my period made its appearance. Too shy to say anything to my aunt, I was at a loss about where to throw the used cloths. As children will, I wrapped and stuffed them into a bottom drawer, just hoping the whole mess would disappear. The smell grew stronger by the day and Mum didn’t appear, but Aunt Jean getting a whiff, during her housekeeping, discovered my shameful secret. I don’t remember much about the trauma of getting caught, but Jean was an understanding woman.  She showed me where I could throw the bloody detritus with no fuss.

Thank the Goddess, any Goddess, I found that sanitary pads existed about a year later. Leafing through one of my Mum’s woman’s magazines, (‘Femina‘ or ‘Eve’s Weekly‘ most likely) I came upon ‘Kotex‘ and its elastic belts. [of all writers, V.S. Naipaul comments on these two women’s mags, the first of their kind in the country, see http://books.google.co.in/books?id=BDBSzbe252kC&pg=PT117&lpg=PT117&dq=eve%27s+weekly,+femina&source=bl&ots=rChVNrDH8a&sig=8HRDDH8e_U7Yk9LqglP13JaCtdI&hl=en&sa=X&ei=bZ-RUdDHF4LorQfXmYCwBQ&ved=0CGsQ6AEwBg] After that first awesome discovery of pads, I read women’s magazines assiduously in hopes of finding more tips.  At eighteen, I tried tampons, not really knowing how or where to push them in. But, after several tries, squatting in the bathroom, I managed.

Over Mum’s and her sister’s anxiety (probably, they worried about breaking the hymen), I used Johnson’s ob’s regularly, preferring to push the tampon in with my fingers instead of a plastic inserter.  I found obs heaven sent in their practicality.  [See skywind’s comment to http://philobiblion.blogspot.in/2005/11/menstruation-why-is-it-so-hard-to-say.html] I loved that I could continue to go swimming even during my period. As the oldest child, I was forced to embark on a continual journey of discovery about my body, given that my mother was a generation older than other mums, only married at 34.  [more about my mum in a post to come]

image on Tom Tom Magazine

image on Tom Tom Magazine

Despite her worries, my mother yielded to my wishes, allowing me a freedom of mind and body. Not having a son, my father made sure I was never inhibited by my gender: I dreamt of becoming a fireman or a policeman, both macha fantasies. Unhampered by her female body as a child,  Grie was feminist even before knowing the word. Growing up with two intellectuals for parents, I was trained in deconstruction as I learned to mouth syllables.  Nothing was taken for granted at home, even the concept of religion, hindu and catholic as Mum and Dad were. Though Swami was a given, his visits home reinforced my parents’ ideas.

Even marriage as an institution was questioned.  A poignant memory recurs:  suddenly one visit, Swami looks over toward us, my younger sister and me.  We were only about 11 and 13 years old.  He gazes at us, and grumbles, “One of them has marriage madness.”  Sure I was the one being accused because I was in the throes of a hidden crush on David Cassidy, scrawling “Mrs. David Cassidy in my notebooks, I trembled. Fortunately for me, Swami’s finger pointed at my sister. Not really understanding the exchange at the time, I was only thrilled to have escaped with my pash undetected.

Later, after being sent to the States, in therapy there for being abused by an older woman in the college in Anantapur, I realized what that accusation meant. Marriage as an end in itself, a social identity, was challenged by Swami. Though he warned me on leaving for the States, “Don’t change partners like shirts,” when I returned having done exactly that, he teased, “You did change them like shirts, didn’t you? Girls and boys.”  True enough, after the abuse in college, I had needed to check out my sexuality for myself.  Under Swami’s mocking guidance, I learned to see sexuality as a spectrum. We position ourselves on one end of the spectrum, as lesbian or gay, or, on the other, as straight hetero, but bodily attraction is a slippery slope. Given different contexts, we are pulled toward people, men and women, to whom we may not be attracted at first glance. I know I’m going to piss off a lot of folks with this view, but it’s what I’ve learned through life.

Swami was a strange being, androgynous though physically of the male gender. Growing with him through different stages in my life, I’ve realized that rational classifications don’t apply in his case.  If I’m a feminist, a woman who likes being a woman and feels equal if not better than the men around, my perspective is  shaped through him. Though the society Swami moved in is homo-social, a segregated society, with women often belittled, Swami undercut those social morés frequently. For example, in a private address to a bunch of male students in college, with women sitting in an adjoining room, Swami remarked, tauntingly:
Spiral_Goddess_symbol_neo-pagan.svg“In the early days of Indian culture, women like Gargi and Maitreyi [women ascetics] were treated on a par with men, wearing the sacred thread and debating philosophy. Made jealous by their prowess, the men took the sacred thread and made it into the ‘mangalsutra’ so that the women could be put to serving the men tea and coffee.” [check out a sexist and caste-ist explanation of the sacred thread here: http://ajitvadakayil.blogspot.in/2013/04/upanayanam-sacred-thread-ceremony-of.html]

An astringent comment on the patriarchalism of Indian culture, Swami’s words go unnoticed, and unremembered in favor of other sayings on the role of women as mothers. But I was present, and of course, Swami’s rebuttal of men’s superiority went straight into my fierce woman’s heart, especially since I had just returned from the States after writing a feminist thesis. On my return to India, I had feared the set up in the ashram–men and women segregated, with women consistently put down. Swami’s deconstruction of Indian his-story gave me courage.  And so, I stayed on with the being I love most on earth, and learned to trust myself loving him. I am woman and strong, loving and loved….

Check out the blogs listed, wonderful indian women on the PERIODhttp://madperiodwoman.wordpress.com/
http://youngfeminists.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/menstruating-goddesses/
articles & tips: http://menstrupedia.com/blog/
discussion: http://newint.org/cgi-bin/new.comments.pl?action=rss&article_key=/blog/2012/05/11/becoming-woman-india/index.html
for a young western feminist, see- http://sketchbookradical.wordpress.com/

Of fools like me–eccentrics in a spiritual asylum

Around the corner from me lives Subramaniam.  When I sit here at my window, I see him as he rolls by, white haired, chubby faced, rotund. Although he must be at least 65 years old, there is still something childlike about him.  Mornings he sports a bed head, white hair sticking up in spikes, a look that I still (52 myself) attempt to duplicate with hair gel or wax.  His clothes are different too: for the last three days he wears the same bright red baggy pants, and a loud red plaid shirt.  With his hands scrunched up like a child’s, one finger pointing toward the ground, he is the resident ‘Idiot’, a fool, certainly mental.

Continuing to live on in the ashram after my Mum died, I heard a loud rapping at the front door suddenly one night.  Nine o’clock is late night here, particularly in those days a decade ago.  Everything had shut down, and quiet filled the place– especially so for my flat on the high road, just behind Swami’s residence.  Taken aback at the rumpus, I stood behind the door (a mesh door) and asked cautiously, “Who is it?”

“Grie, Grie, it’s you isn’t it? I know your mum, where is she? Her name is T–, your sister’s name is N–, she’s married. She lives in France. You lived at 4a/1 Tank Bund Road. Don’t you know me? Why didn’t you get married?”

“Who is it?” I repeated, wondering what was going on.

“I was there, in the D— Mental Hospital from ’73’-75. Dr. D—, your dad, he’s dead. Is your mother dead too?”

“Hey, go away. I’m not opening the door. You’ll get into trouble knocking at doors after 9.”

“I’ll get into trouble?”

“Yes, you will, now, c’mon go.”

Subramaniam mulled my words over, standing behind the door for a while, and then he left.

The encounter stayed with me through the rest of the night.  The details he remembered had touched a nerve, and I found it difficult to sleep. 

Image courtesy of Jennifer Warters

Image courtesy of Jennifer Warters

Subramaniam’s memories of his stay as a mental patient at my father’s hospital triggered my own memories of Mum and Dad.  As children, my younger sister and I had played in the grounds of our family’s mental hospital.  He remembered me, but I had no memory of him. My childhood years, except for sporadic bursts of random memory, remain a blank even today.  But, in the years that followed after Mum’s death, Subramaniam and I developed a curious camaraderie. “Take me with you when you go to Madras. Promise me,” he’d demand off and on. Those years I was an alien to the ashram community, looked at with suspicion.  Subramaniam’s memories became a lifeline to my own identity, lost as I was in no woman’s land.

Most ashram folks couldn’t comprehend what motivated me to remain, an obvious misfit, with my cropped hair, jeans, tattoos. There I was, alone in a big flat when whole families stayed cooped up in small room, a woman without work, and single. Swami keeping me on didn’t help either.  He didn’t place me in an institutional framework like he did most single women of my age–he put them to work in the school, college, or hospital. Me, he kept to myself, prohibiting me even from helping out in the canteen where he’d plunked me down earlier.feminist-comics And, he never forced external social markers on me–long braided hair, womanly ornaments, the Hindu/ Indian red dot on the forehead. Good, womanly woman I could never be, and he left me be.  Bolstered by Swami’s support, I always reckoned that social morés asked too high a price in such badges of belonging.

Eccentric alien as I was, my frequent outbursts of fury put me further outside the pale. Particularly aggravating in their holy whites, men dominate the surroundings, elevated to supremacy merely through gender.internet-dominatrix Unable to look me in the eye, the male staff talk down to women, particularly single, jobless me. My hackles rise with such treatment, especially when a few of these holy beings took to following me around. Trude, an Austrian friend and ashram habituée, joked that the ‘boys’ in white ( men anywhere from 20-40 years old)  fixated on me because  they longed for a dominatrix to spank them into submission. I wouldn’t have minded, in those years, a leather whip in hand to slash across their hypocritical cheeks!

Give me Subramaniam any day.  Staying alone in his little ground floor room, he trundles around the place, even venturing outside the ashram gates.  Leaning against the gate, mouth pursed in a perpetual pout, he watches the world go about its routine.  I’ve often seen him engrossed in a chat with the policemen who guard the sanctum sanctorum, or with sundry workers.  Sometimes they picked on him for a laugh, but mostly they looked out for him.  A mascot, god’s idiot, one of the holy fools, Subramaniam moved out of  the mental hospital into a community of spiritual seekers.  Who’s to say who is closest to god’s heart?  The VIPs whom Swami conversed with in the big hall, who lecture away to the public?  Those whom he called in for private talks?  The men who donated big bucks to ease their mercenary consciences?  In Swami’s absence, those same front men, and their wives on the women’s side, use the hall for business deals, networking, routine commerce of life.

Or, are the white clad ‘boys’, running busily on errands about the hall, are they the Elect?  Now that death deprives us of Swami‘s physical self and its attendant hierarchies of ‘closeness’, what defines the status quo?  Seated in chairs about a marble tomb, or arranged cross legged in rows by order of importance, the pious chant sacred songs and mutter benedictions.  Seated furthermost in the back are the ordinary, nondescript faithful who wait long in lines for a sight of the tomb.   Subramaniam, of course, does not enter the hall.  He ambles outside, sometimes pausing against a wall, belly out, lost in his reveries.

Abetting his vagaries, I keep vigil in my room, gazing out onto the garden, hearing the singing from afar.  Somedays I never leave the flat, or if I do I embark only on an early morning stumble.  Early mornings, I may avoid social niceties.  Subramaniam, a self identified ‘mental patient,’  Grie, a self admitted ‘eccentric’ –only a thin social line separates us.   I think I would cross that border and join Subramaniam, if I could only let go–of a sanity still holding me in line–to evolve into an Idiot other Grie.

jester2

New year days–different dates for different hindus

afternoon heat, or
a relentless sun?
or power tools
that whine
through my head?

I can’t write

buildings one behind
one, behind the other.
devotion
will fire
throats in unison

I can’t write

chant a benison–
Telegu,
then Tamil,
then Malayali
new year’s day

and I can’t write.

New Year’s day falls on so many days through the months. Here, in the thick of these unfaltering celebrations of an Other year, I cower behind my grove of plants. Bank holidays, market holidays, each community demands its due on the calendar. I made it through New Year’s day four months earlier, a day consecrated to celebration on the Western calendar, and for resolutions and cards. In arid Rayalseema where the ashram sits, the seasons cycle along different tracks–monsoon, summer, small rains, sun, and more sun. Looking out from my window, a non-participant in any ritual, new year or other, I find that relief only arrives when the crowds trickle into a quiet strollers, and the sounds that issue from the hall behind quieten to a murmur, of the obligatory morning and evening vedas /bhajans.

Swami often remarked that one should treat every day as if it is New Year’s day, wake with fresh eyes to see and act our lives anew. Each day, each minute, each second lies in time’s basket: we have to pick them afresh. That simple awareness is hard to come by when I am 51, my body and mind bear the weight of so much living that the first step out of bed is hard: I am stiff, and my feet and knees inflexible. Gradually, through the morning chores, they loosen up, but my mind can take longer. On certain days, it lies in stupor, wanting only ‘Mad Men’ or some such to avoid the chore of thinking.

Without the sea,in this landlocked town, almost scrubland in the summer months, March,April, May, I turn dessicated. Without Swami, I am bound into aimless routine. Even these words turn vapid onscreen; mere language does not initiate meaning.

jungle book

[Jungle Book Art Print by David Fleck | Society6]

Only waving, not drowning–leavetakings

A litter of small black pigs roots at the ground, they surround their mother a huge black sow.   Posed against the compound  wall, with ears pricked, two mongrel dogs, dirty white and spotted brown, look back at me.  A policy of live and let seems to infect the animals if not the humans.  Last afternoon, a ginger cat stalked by, followed casually by the same white dog, both pursuing different goals.  In the house opposite lives a skinny man, not altogether compos mentis .  A little gate leads into the apartment compound, and he trots back and forth during the day, carrying buckets of water. I wonder if there is no water connection for that little yellow house, while here in this complex, water overflows from the overhead tank without anybody running to turn it off.  These are the material contradictions that bracket life in India, marking off the lives of those with money and those without.

I travel in two days to Chennai, city of my birth, on matters of money.   Almost time for me to leave, apathy holds me down.  A week later, I  will return to the ashram.   I resist my return there,  but emotional ties force me back–the death, two years ago now, of the ashram’s founder my Swami, my Merlin (King Arthur’s wizard mentor).  A week after follows the death anniversary of  my mother.  She died 10 years earlier to Swami.  The rituals and festivals that mark  any religion don’t summon me back, but their deaths do. I need to celebrate their moving on, Swami & my mother, in spaces sacred to their now decomposed physical selves. Grateful to had Swami in my life, I have now to let him go: guru [spiritual mentor], god [avatar], friend, and shadow of my self. Even language is fraught here, veering between Indian reality and western framework.

I decide that I don’t want to deal with Swami in my writing, but he turns up anyway, often uncalled for.  In these descriptions of sundry encounters/collisions in Goa, birds, dogs, pigs, fish, his presence shadows my words. I resist t/his unwanted shape; I don’t want to search for phrases in language to sketch realities beyond words.  If, willy nilly, I hint that common and everyday sights lead me to other realities, so be it.  But, deliberate descriptions of a Merlin being, magic in daily life, mysteries of a living god are beyond me and my skills as a wordsmith.  I’m only waving, not drowning, to reverse Stevie Smith‘s tart, ironic poem,

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Put to music, sung by Tanita Tikaram (a boundary hunter herself) in her husky monotone, the poem turns mystical.

No matter those who write their experiences in prose, god is best left to poetry. The more that we speak about divine longing, the more mystery turns mundane. A crow sits on the roof of the adjoining building, looks down at me, and caws his being forth. Another crow flies by with a piece of bread in its mouth. Smoke rises into the morning air.

 

Hungry sharks–queer encounters in Cavelossim

Ten days into my stay at Luisa-by-the-Sea in Cavelossim,
Photos of Luisa by the Sea, Cavelossim
[This photo of Luisa by the Sea is courtesy of TripAdvisorI decide to get some lunch more suitable to my south Indian palate, so I venture into ‘Sagar Kinara’, a Hindu restaurant that offers a variety of cuisines. No sooner do I enter and look around for a table, a woman hails me, “Hey there, are you alone?  Come, join me, lets have lunch together.” Surprised at her chumminess, I take her up on her invitation.  Skinny, white, blonde and about my age, she’s a little inebriated, but that doesn’t put me off.  I order a gin and tonic to catch up with her.  Plates of shrimp, dhal, rotis, litter the table, but she merely picks at the food and begs me to share.

Sandy tells me that she lives in Goa, but is really from Scotland. She questions me about where I’m staying, and remarks that she owns a couple of apartments, one, indeed, in Cavelossim.  “Would I like to see the apartment?” Renting out those flats provides her with income, but she’s still short of cash.  The information given with bitterness,  she begins a rant about Goans being crooks. Why then, I speculate to myself, did she invest in property here, particularly as I know there are restrictions on foreigners owning property in Goa? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/3351813/Keeping-it-legal-how-to-buy-safely-in-Goa.html

A few years ago in London, she and her friend buy a “Vogue” magazine in order to check the advertisements. Interested in applying for a job as a train driver, her friend knows that the London Underground  has advertised in “Vogue” for women subway train drivers. In that same issue, Sandy coincidentally sees adverts of property in Goa, probably with pictures of the sunny coast, and quaint Portuguese architecture. The prices, to western eyes, are low despite being quoted in sterling.  Just having sold her house and with money at her disposal,  she yields to impulse without even having set foot in Goa.

On arriving here, as to be expected, Sandy is disillusioned as the construction is way behind schedule. Now, a few years wiser, sitting in ‘Kinara,’ downing a couple more beers, she mutters that the other owners (all expats) and she are involved in a class action suit on the property developer.  Syllables a bit slurred, only picking at the prawns before her, Sandy mutters, “don’t trust Goans, they’re goin’ to rip you off. Le’ss go, le’ss see my flat. I fix’d it up nice. I ‘ll hav to clean it up, but com n see.”

We need to visit the rest room first, and as I take my turn, Sandy pays off the waiter.  I force money on her on our way out, followed by curious smiles from the staff. Surprised at the car, Sandy worries about my driving on the narrow winding roads along which the local buses, taxis, scooters hurtle along. We make our way back to Cavelossim, and to her flat which lies in a complex fronted by expensive looking shops. As we get down, she greets two men at the gate effusively, only to receive reserved nods in return.  On the first floor, her flat is carefully furnished with attention to detail, but the tenants have obviously just moved out.  Sheets to be washed are piled up in a corner, the kitchen counter is grimy with food debris.

“Who’s gonna clean all this up?” I ask.
“I’m the maid, I come in twice a week to give the place a once over.  No money, I need the rent.”
About her tenants, she snaps, “Those people were strange, they moved out soon.”  [mumble, mumble]
I puzzle over Sandy’s life– she’s so short of money that she cleans the flat herself. Labor here is a little more expensive than in the ashram, but to hire a maid is still cheap. Though I notice her outbursts, I initially put it down to her being a bit sloshed with beer, but begin to suspect she is as irritable with her tenants.
“those Russians, they come in and think they own you. Those Russian girls with older men, see how young they are?  Whores, and most of them underage.  I called the men downstairs for help when a Russian man abused me.”

She wants to go out for dinner but I need to get to Luisa-by-the-Sea to leave the car.  Besides, its still too early.  Once in the villa, I get out the gin, and Sandy hits the bottle.  She gets expansive: “When you walked into Kinara alone, I thought, that’s unusual, an Indian woman on her own, walking into a hotel. I just had to call you over.”  Recounting her various relationships, she glosses over any reference to gender.  I call her on that, “so was your partner a man?” My gay-dar has picked up the omissions, though she looks straight with her longish blonde hair.
“My partner was a woman. She died.”
Sandy rambles on, “I’m a dyke, its hard being a dyke in Goa.  There’s no gay scene here at all.  My hair was very, very, short earlier, like yours, but I got fed up of Indians calling me ‘uncle’. Don’t you get called ‘uncle’?”
“No, maybe ’cause my boobs are big.”
“Hey, you telling me I’m flat?  I got boobs, see.”
Looking more closely at Sandy, I notice scars on her shoulder with red welts trailing down her arm.
“I fell down the stairs and my shoulder joint got broken,” she explains too glibly.

Later, after more gins, she confides,  “A Goan family in Colva, my neighbors, threw me down and beat me up.  They threw boiling oil on me, ‘tell anyone, and we’ll see that you get beat up even more.’  Whom can I tell?”
I am horrified by her tale: the red welts and white scars are palpably real, but I also suspect that there is more to the beating than she lets me hear. Unwilling to delve too deep, and wary of her mood swings, I let her story be.

We go out for dinner, walking down the main road and looking about for any suitable restaurant. Deprived of choice, we head down a narrow lane that ends in a restaurant on a jetty, on the River Sal.
hungry sharkThe place calls itself “The Hungry Shark,” and we see quite a few diners, all whites, the women dressed for dinner. As we walk up to a table in the corner, the guy at the next table smiles and winks at me.  I stare hard at him, picking up the vibes of a foreigner-local interaction. Sandy, on the other hand, is loud; she joins her hand in an Indian namaste and walks up to the couple’s table. “Hello, how are you, we’re here for dinner. Is this a good place?”  The woman is reticent, but the man, perhaps in his forties, dark haired and sunburned, starts up a conversation. He discloses that they’ve been coming there every year for the past three years.
Sandy responds, “what’s a white woman to eat here? There’s nothing on the menu. Give me dhal tadka, kya?”
I order the Goan prawn balchao, which arrives too vinegary and sears my tongue.

Seated with my back to the dark waters of the River Sal, I look toward the interior of restaurant.  Three men cluster around a pool table, two browns and a white. The white man has an young girl draped over him. From northeastern India by the looks of her, with narrow uptilted eyes and high cheekbones, she can’t keep her hands off the man, older and stocky though he is. The pair intrigue me, and I point them out to Sandy.
“Of course she’s a whore. Look at him.”
Her comment rings true.  Oblivious to the girl’s caresses, the man is absorbed in discussion.  All three men pay the girl no attention, and yet she is striking with her exotic looks and flamboyant dress.

The restaurant, despite the Brits dining at the brightly lit tables on the jetty, darkens and takes on a more sinister hue.  I am unable to finish the second gin and tonic.  Sandy, on the other hand, wants a shot and insists that a genuine bottle of tequila be brought to the table so that she may examine the label.  Genuine though the bottle look, I wonder if the contents are diluted.  But, the shot is brought, and Sandy downs it, orders another.  At long last, we request the bill: it is a hefty sum.  Splitting the amount, Sandy runs short of cash and I make up the difference.  When we question the alcohol noted on the check, we realize that the place serves no small pegs–every time we’ve ordered liquor, we’ve been served a double.  “The Hungry Shark” is a monster alright!

Tottering with all the pegs she’s put away, Sandy blusters about not having enough cash on her as we walk back through the dark lane.  “Forget it, no big deal,” I say, but my reassurance falls on deaf ears.   Midway between her flat and my studio villa, my own temper flares up.  I’ve had enough of her.
“Fuck you, Sandy, I’m off.”
“Can you reach home safe?” she questions.
Her concern is genuine. She looks ludicrous, hardly able to stand, worried about me.  A visceral empathy with her–her contradictions, her mess of memories, the violence of her interactions–almost undoes me, but I move on. To the studio, and to bed, and the relief of solitude.

I never see Sandy again nor do I attempt to. Strange fish, stranded on the shore, belonging neither to the Indian seas nor to the tourist reefs. For the space of an evening, Sandy and I, both women and both misfits, overlapped in our common shadows; then, we swam away in separate currents, fashioning our different selves.

 

Low tide debris–moving beyond intellectual strife

“In proportion as [a person] simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude…,” Thoreau, http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/03/13/tarkovsky-advice-to-the-young/

At the age of fifty-three, a friend works on a degree in Law: he is finishing up at a university only about 200 kms south of where I am now. The courage of his endeavor amazes he, that he puts himself into school alongside the young, that he leaves his wife in Chennai to stay in a crummy hostel. I invite him to Goa when I first get here, fearing perhaps the loneliness of my undertaking. Unfortunately, Ganesh cannot make it.

But later, two months into my stay, when I recover my cellphone after leaving it in the car, I see five missed calls, all from the same person. I call the number to hear Ganesh on the line: he has to return to Belgaum on work of his own but is thinking of coming up to see me. With only a couple of weeks remaining here, I tell him to hurry up. He suggests that it maybe a good idea to come up at the end of my stay and travel back to Chennai with me. “Alright,” I agree, “it’d be good to have some company on the way back. We’ll be on the road 15 hours.”

Next morning, I wake in the pre-dawn. (I wish I could regain this habit of early rising–earlier on, in the ashram, rising in the dark was as unforced as walking.) By the time, I’ve done my various waking bodily chores and drunk my coffee, it is seven in the morning. At the beach, my body refuses to move but the sea soothes both mind and muscles. Extreme low tide exposes black tidal sand, compacted by the water, and it takes me a while to get to the sea.

The scene reflects my mind. I have a sense of scraping bottom. Words and people feel extraneous to being, and that I have made it out of the apartment is accomplishment enough. As I move further, my body eases up and I walk the same distance as the day before. Turning back however, fatigue washes over me. Back at my place, I realize that I have done too much. In that weariness, doubts about Ganesh’s visit grow.

I call him up to voice my hesitations, and curiously find camaraderie in his response:

“You’re just about a year younger to me.  Both of us in our fifties.  You know, we’re not young.  I also was thinking,  I need time in the morning to get up, go to the bathroom, get myself together.  If we leave at 4 am, it’s a long long drive.”

His doubts ironically reassure me about his company.  Now, I’d like him to accompany me, but he will only confirm his arrival once he reaches Belgaum.

Leaving Goa will not be easy as I’m in a liminal space, uncertain of what I am, what I want in life. Existing in the ashram, I had fashioned a single goal: emptiness, a vessel to be filled with god. To keep the mind empty is difficult, it entails cultivating detachment. Detachment from material desires or ambition is not too hard for me as I have always been skeptical about goals that drive people on.

To publish, to prove one’s intellectual worth, for example, holds no intrinsic meaning. Even as much as we value literary effort, the printed word is constantly displaced by digital images. Is this necessarily tragic? Before written/ printed texts came oral recitation with each performance revising the one that went before. Think of the ballads, or the many cultural epics in song. Those religious texts have added to and been edited after their Original spoken ‘Word’ (if ever there had been an original singular text!): the Koran, the Bible, the Vedas. As for literary texts, all are constantly re-inflected by patriarchal and cultural agendas in each new reading. Literary scholars make a living arguing over which interpretation is more relevant. Having a printed text does not ensure that meaning is simple or singular.

While writing this blog today, I am prey to the vagaries of the internet reception: a couple of times, my draft disappeared and I had to write anew. Each time I faced a blank screen, I typed in a different version, my meanings in flux. With no control over this text, I am free from Authorial pretensions. Easily cut-and-pastable across the web, my Signature dissolves in a jumble of code. And in similar scramble, I move to create meaning in my life, wanting nothing, and believing that nothingness is enough.

Having fled here, to Goa, I discover that this apartment is also ‘home’ to a self who once again begins to put words on the web, limping in text, mind, and body. In this little patio, marginal space, I create myself anew as I look up at the different greens that define the trees, as a bird whistles, another whirrs, and a crow caws. The onomatopoeia of words with the world is in sync with me.Photo on 10-02-13 at 1.16 PM
This self is solitary, it desires only to reflect on connections through the universe, none profound, none profane. I have to “learn by going, where I have to go.” Roethke’s lines run through my days, after Goa where? I will not worry, each ‘home’ will have its own learnings.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close behind me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lonely worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air;
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

–“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke,http://allpoetry.com/poem/8498751-The_Waking-by-Theodore_Roethke, http://www.317am.net/2012/02/i-wake-to-sleep-and-take-my-waking-slow.html [the second link discusses if poetry should have any one ‘interpretation’ or not]