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.

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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

Spiritual Punk 2–security in anarchy

Evenings, I close myself off, draw the curtains against the dark, and put myself into a capsule removed from the world outside.  I float through the ether, crawl across the glowing laptop screen in black words, or creep through layouts, options, displays, WordPress webs.  More bot insect than human, I am caught up in discussions on Al Jazeera, You tube, blogs, feeds, the web.

Where am I now?  The ashram lies outside my window, but I live spaces inaccessible to the time before. Before the unthinkable happened and my Merlin died. (Reading sagas of Merlin as a child, I used to wonder even then how Arthur carried on.) When people outside my window bustle along to bhajans, routines, preoccupations of their own, I am journeying into nebulous spheres, inner and outer.  The darklight of inner vision impels me to re-discoveries, past memories of a quicksilver being, into webs of interconnected worlds.  Paradoxically, that inner urge leads me outwards, out of safe communal haven, into realms often anti-social, chaotic, anarchic, miraculous.

People taunt me, rebuke me,
they call me crazy
but I see
the whole world is crazy–
Yes, friends, I am crazy.
The agony is now insufferable,
I am driven to destroy all
like the thunder and lightning,
torment and energy.
O friends, I’m crazy.
Bulleh Shah

Saved from years past, the yellowed scrapPhoto on 21-04-13 at 8.18 AM attests to a time that I sat in the big hall, morning and evening, to have darshan, a word now reified, empty of meaning.  In Sanskrit ‘darshan’ means sight, although Indians, especially Hindus, use the word to connote seeing the divine.  Visiting temples, we receive darshan of the particular idol (god) present. Often the devout see the symbols as real, possessed of miraculous powers. To visit one Shiva temple is not enough, another may offer different benefits. Ideally and philosophically, of course, the icon is only symbol for a God (a form describable in words) endowed with particular attributes. But,that God or form (Rama, Krishna, Lakshmi etc) offers a bridge to the formless, through faith. Outside the pale of human cognition, that formless Other is unknowable through reason or language. A three step process, Hindu worship moves from idol/icon to idealized form to formless Other outside the bounds of language.

The intricacies of Hindu philosophy are beyond me and this blog, but I suggest that acts of worship are never simple. Swami, living breathing body, was himself a symbol. Unpredictability and mystery framed his life, but so did massive social projects such as supplying water to outlying villages, relief to drought/famine victims, institutions like free hospitals, free schools and colleges.  The paradox unsettles easy formulas for his followers.  Though people remake his daily utterances into prophecies, their human reason writes these narratives. We sit secure in the confidence that we are the Chosen, privy to divine mysteries. World religions are constructed on such premises, why not particular communities?

In seamless social transition, the devout receive darshan of the marble tomb, now the center of the big hall. Tomb=avatar=god=formless brahman?  But, what if one step (the initial step) of the process is enough?  For the good devotees, the marble tomb is now harbinger of miracles and signs, a sanctified sight, metonym of the (dis)embodied Avatar.  The concrete symbol assuages doubts, affirms the codes of correct spiritual practice.  Having lived , fought, cried, argued with, and loved, a Magical Being, I spurn the cold concrete.  Societies need to continue along regulated tracks, as do those who require human shelter. Limping, fifty, and menopausal as I am, I do not.  I fight the good fight, punk to the last.   I struggle to rediscover the adventure of a living Merlin, the uncertainties of  a human god.

That god booted me out of the ashram on my mother’s death, but just as inexplicably called me back a few months later.  And, years down the line, he packed me off again–to sell our house in Chennai, falling down and decrepit–ten years after my Mum’s death and two years before his own, so ensuring my financial independence when he was gone.  Three years before Swami died, I wrote to him (sending the letter as usual by courier, one among hundreds of others) that the games in the hall were too much for me. I’d rather sit in the flat without darshan but in solitude.  In reply, he started coming by for drivessai_baba_car_darshan in the Prius, right by my garden.  Standing there, looking down at my Merlin, I found myself surprised often by his secret smiles, acknowledgement of a covert anti-social pact.  This, the same god who earlier used to question Mum if I so much as missed attendance in the hall for a couple of days.  Process is all, “kaalame devam” or “time is god.”  Swami was never static, he danced along with time, never missing a beat, a minute. He danced through life’s different stages, gleeful youth, solemn middle age, painful decay, but through it all those brown eyes darted ironic grace, joy in process, in entropy.

Knowing me better than I do myself, he spoke my unspoken self into being.   “You have no use for society, have you?”  Merlin observed once, his eyes compelling truth.  Bereft of words, I looked back at him, mumbling “nooooo  Swami.” He nodded in return.  That exchange warms me now as I type these words, disaffected by the world he’s left behind.  Who is to say that Swami is not punk? Sacrilegious and far out as it may sound, punk nihilism is an Other face of god that human societies cannot acknowledge–the terrifying Kali of Hindu mythology, the dancing Juggernaut Nataraja destroying all–the dance of  destruction contingent on the work of creation.   G-O-D=Generation-Organization-Destruction, in my Merlin’s own words.
Kali

This post continues in “Spiritual Punk 3″….

 

Wake up bell–a welcome home

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from . . . just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
John Le Carré

The lonely places that Le Carré mentions are experiences that seize us with solitude, not those that are geographically remote. My Goan stay had me mapping places within myself that I had lost over the years.  On my early morning stumbles along Varca beach, I had the sea for company: the sea was interrogator as well as friend.  Even the act of writing, except for occasional poems through the years, had strayed  beyond my reach, morally  and mentally.

Now, sitting here in my tiny apartment, I look out of my window onto an ashram world, wondering if these new-found words will wander away once more, lost in routine and busy work.Photo on 10-04-13 at 6.26 AM #2  Even at half past six in the morning people bustle by,  men dressed in white and women in different hued saris.  At five am the wake up bell tolls, though buildings in the  ashram have far exceeded the reach of its sound.  Cement and mortar blocks absorb the chimes:  the inhabitants of this community are now free to sleep as long as we please, only roused by individual choices of devotion, or work, or family, much like any society in the wide world outside.

‘Home’, and its attendant importunity, clamors with the bell to be heeded. I live alone here, yes, but the familiar zoo of acquaintances insist on rituals of greeting and camaraderie. I set out to source drinking water. A mere five minute walk, but I take more than half an hour. People stop me on the way to greet me, asking me, “where did you go?” Curiosity is a great inquisitor, especially when I have not moved out of the place for almost sixteen years until the death of its founder.

An older woman stops me,

“you have returned. Don’t you know what’s happened to me? My son, my son died. Suddenly, without warning. Now I’m alone. We came together to be here. Imagine, three years before him my younger son also died.”

Shrunk from the woman I remember, indomitable, loud, and authoritative, she had served coffee in the main canteen for devotees.  Wrinkles adorn her face, her hair is  grey and unkempt, the folds of skin on her neck hang loosely.  I am shocked, and sympathetic, but bereft of words.  What comfort do I offer, and in Telugu?  Fortunately, she wants more to be heard, her loss reaffirmed, the cruelty of life.  “I wait now for death to take me.  What have I to live for?”

Aptly, she buttonholes me in front of a friend’s flat, someone I have to visit to condole on the death of her mother. After hearing her out, I’ll enter there, and pay my respects. Already, the heat and the emotions of the day have worn me out although it is not yet noon. Returning ‘home’ I battle with various encounters, each fraught. An old doctor, someone I remember from childhood, accosts me during my morning walk through the various gardens and flats, “Where did you go? You have it easy, unlike us worker bees. You can do what you want.” Irritation flares. I reply, “aah, this is the reason I ran away. Everyone here has an opinion on everyone else!” For the rest of the walk, I wonder why pious judgmentality is so rife in a spiritual community.

The foreigners I see, along the way, adopt a special gait with measured steps: their white faces are calm with far away eyes. Ashram hopping is a particular kind of tourism. Readily classified on travel sites like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and TripAdvisor, the different ashrams are graded according to what they offer–meditation, yoga, community volunteering, gurus etc: [http://goindia.about.com/od/yogawellbeing/tp/popular-ashrams-in-india.htm;   http://www.iloveindia.com/spirituality/ashrams/] In a chatty blog, John Falk sums up the history of such holy communities, through western eyes:

In ancient India, ashrams—a name derived from a Sanskrit term meaning “religious exercise”—were cloisters set in nature where swamis, or sages, sought spiritual enlightenment through, among other sacred disciplines, the practice of yoga. Over the centuries these swamis began hosting commoners seeking spiritual instruction. Ashram life remained primarily an Indian phenomenon until after World War II, when Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and others began blazing the ’60s Hippie Trail across Central Asia. But it was in 1968, after the Beatles retreated to an ashram in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, that the ashram concept shot straight into the Western mainstream. By the ’70s terms such as “ashram,” “guru,” and “karma” had become commonplace in the West, and yoga an accepted form of exercise. Today tens of thousands travel annually to ashrams in India. [http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/john-falk/indian-ashram.html]

We Indians are not immune to its allure. Each seeker nurses the hope that s/he will prove special to the guru, bestowed with unique insight, yogic powers and visions.  Entering the fray about consumer spirituality in India today, Javed Aktar, Bollywood screenwriter and poet, roundly condemns,

the emergence of supermarkets for “spiritual fast food,” where people can buy “crash courses in self-realization – cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. . . .Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of the poor masses. I don’t want to get into that discussion, but spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.” [https://palakmathur.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/speech-javed-akhtar-india-today-conclave-session-on-spirituality-halo-or-hoax/]

Looking about me, I notice all too obvious proof of Aktar’s pithy aphorisms. An electric blue Audi sedan rolls past my apartment, another Merc follows, both on their way to the hall for darshan or sight of the tomb if not of the guru, now dead.

When I circle the hall in private homage to its creator, I glance over the walls that surround it: the elect congregate just in front of the marble tomb, ensconced in white plastic chairs. Those chaired few sit far in front of the sundry devout seated on the floor, the cross-legged, public crowd. Biliousness rises to my gorge at the scene. Earlier, much earlier, under Swami‘s eyes, the front stretched empty. Seated on the floor, the devout formed an heterodox hierarchy, comprising a shifting, vast crowd of worshipers mixed with staff. Chairs were banished to the extreme sides and back. None could foretell who would be out of favor the next time, with no option to sit at front. Unpredictability ruled. No matter the time we sat among the chosen elect, we remained at the mercy of Swami‘s arbitration. Bereft of any such apprehension today, society rules heavy handed: distinctions between VIPs, mostly moneyed, and the rabble are clearly drawn.

I remain an outsider even as I live here over the years.  Suspicious of social edicts queitly enforced behind his back (perhaps his acquiescent back), I remained a spiritual punk, a sort of court jester, a Falstaffian counterpoint to a community that grew increasingly rigid over the years.

[T]o be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, with the unexpected, the chaotic, the improvisatory, to live with your arms wide open to complexity, guided by your own star, fueled by a good measure of playfulness and well-intentioned rebellion. [http://geropunkproject.org/gero-punk-manifesto/]

“Love my uncertainties,” Swami famously remarked. His capricious will induced a necessary apprehension in his presence, an apprehension mingled with awe. But, confining himself to a wheelchair in his last years, Swami  ceded to human society.  He transformed into an icon to be worshiped without trepidation, a living body that mutated, whilst alive, into a religious idol.  Uncertainty is not loved in societies or institutions.  Even gods rest safe in religious sanctuaries–temples, churches, mosques, deserts or high mountains:  societies cannot tolerate much interference with their routines.  When gods mingle with humans, often violence ensues:  Christ had to be nailed to the cross, Krishna killed by his own cowherd community, the Buddha poisoned.
Pandora bert
[shared from Pandora Spocks https://www.facebook.com/wandarinn]

 

In a tortoise shell–may I (re)possess ‘home’?

4:30 am. I lie in bed, dozing, after  being woken up an hour earlier by a dream of white flowers laid for worship of Swami.   In dream reality, as I sniff their dense white petals with brown-yellow centers, the flowers bloom afresh although they’ve lain in a bowl for three whole days.  As I bumble about on waking in the dark rooms, a refrain drums through my head:  “Flames to dust/ Lovers to friends/ Why do all good things come to an end, end, end…” Unable to identify the song, or the singer, I remember a nasal, insistent, woman’s croon.  Later, I identify the song as one of  Nelly Furtado‘s, an apt elegy for my Goan interlude. [http://grooveshark.com/#!/search/song?q=Nelly%20Furtado%20All%20Good%20Things]

Traveling I only stop at exits
Wondering if I’ll stay….
I want to pull away when the dream dies
The pain sets in and I don’t cry
I only feel gravity and I wonder why

Flames to dust
Lovers to friends
Why do all good things come to an end
Flames to dust
Lovers to friends

Why do all good things come to an end
come to an end come to an
Why do all good things come to end?
come to an end come to an
Why do all good things come to an end?

Well the dogs were whistling a new tune
Barking at the new moon
Hoping it would come soon so that they could….
Die die die die die

A dream of sacred flowers to background music from Furtado on barking dogs lends a surreal tinge to the pre-dawn scenario on the day I pack up.   Reaching Varca beach earlier than usual, I  find waves frothing at the white sands, high tide today.  The sea welcomes me,  waves rise to greet me.  As in all love, I have to find my boundaries–how deep in I am comfortable.  I let the water tug at me, but remain near the shore.

Rip currents are common along Goa beaches, pulling one straight out into the sea. Maybe one final day, all boundaries unheeded, I will let the seas engulf me, physically and mentally. But, no, I am not ready yet for that release, that great tide of love that will set me free. Still bound, I am not free of convention, or social diktat, no matter my private furies.

Standing there near the shore, feeling the the tide, I mark a lone fisherman pulling his catamaran out over the breakers, slowly with effort, out into the open sea. catamaran[The image shows two fishermen carrying the catamaran out to sea, but the boat seen is the nearest I could find on Google to the log boat that I saw.] I contemplate his lone journey, as he finally reaches deep water and clambers onto the logs, paddling, poling out out into the open sea. Out there, he is a speck, on his solitary quest for fish: all the other, bigger boats form an almost invisible line way out on the horizon. I wish, then, that I had a camera on my cellphone, that I may record the last sight of the beach for now, adorned by that small speck.

People here and elsewhere often ask me,

“why don’t you get yourself a smartphone? You can be on the net anytime, and you’d have a camera to take snaps.”

Another common query, particularly in this tourist state is,

“why don’t you buy a flat instead of wasting money renting one? That way, you can fix it up the way you want, and it would be an investment.”

Those ‘ands’ accent the common mindsets behind the two questions.  A smartphone and a flat may look unrelated, but, I am sensitive to the economy of ownership that motivates both queries.  Rather, I yearn to live like a tortoise, carrying my home in a shell on my back. At any sign of threat, I’d retreat into that shell.  When writing a earlier blog on shells [see https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/spiral-shells-along-the-mindshore ], I happened upon J. Atherton’s observations on types of skeletons and societies,

The Skeleton view holds that people are normally expected to live on the basis of their own internal resources, contained within their own bodies. They find the basis of their self-hood inside themselves, and the structure for their lives from within.
The Shell view suggests that the individual can only find a meaningful structure for life with reference to something external, and that there is no adequate basis internally on which to base rules, judgements or performance.
These tendencies may be different, but they do not have to be in opposition. They may be complementary: Eastern societies have traditionally been better than Western at handling such complementarity. [http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/skeleton_and_shell_1.htm]

Atherton suggests that the labels of ‘skeleton’ and ‘shell’ societies may prove simplistic, noting also that the categories are complementary. But, when I attempt to explain why the tortoise is a personal symbol, his description provides a starting point. TortoiseLiving without possessions heralds freedom for me. Is this because I see a breathing universe which holds all beings, animate and inanimate, equally?  If  humans are merely one species amongst others, how may we, humans, ‘own’ things and ensure security?  Aren’t we perpetually dependent on the goodwill of a cosmos with its cycle of death, flood, hurricane, famine, tsunami? The pagans saw gods everywhere, in every tree, rock, and stream, and sought to placate them with offerings, human, animal, or plant.  In today’s industrial world, danger lurks in every corner, but, so equally, does joy.  Both unsought for, each seizes us most when we are unaware. How do we assure of ourselves of either, though we seek them under umbrellas of adventure or happiness?

I  possess a basic cellphone for my needs, to make and receive calls and messages.  Even if I carelessly leave the phone behind, the calls are duly recorded and displayed when I reach home.  Often, I’m not in a mood to respond to cursory chats, disinclined to talk about folks and their doings.  As for flats, houses, or bungalows, why, owning one is simply too much work.  I’d have to maintain the place, fill out paperwork,  file taxes, worry about thieves and so on and on.  A basic phone, I can leave around, I don’t lose much if someone bothers to swipe the thing.  I don’t need to think about it.  A rented flat, I don’t have to furnish it, nor do I need to dress it up.  To rent is to be able to move out without too much bother.   I am happy not to ‘own,’ to think about things that cost too much when I need much less to live.  ‘Owning’ less, I am freer to drift, tied to no-one and no-thing.

The sight of that lonely catamaran has me surfing Google for an image that others have recorded. I am grateful to the world wide web. I need record nothing.   I merely cut and paste. When I blog I leave my words free.   Grie Verd is content to drift in the cloud, my words open to different readers and different meanings.

 

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.

 

Windows, and looking in (contd.)–a mystic collides with Goan society

When I initially checked out ‘Sunlife Residency,’ I scheduled the visit with Karen, one of the owners, known also as Ronaldo’s wife, as the bargainer, the bitch who had gotten on the wrong side of a few folks who had bought flats from them. Unaware of the illwill surrounding her, I take to her appearance: in her early thirties, brown (as are most Goans and I), with clearly marked features, she sports a pageboy of neat black hair and arrives on the ubiquitous two wheeler (the transport of choice that buzzes fly-like on the winding, narrow roads). Showing me an isolated apartment, which looks out over the fields, she is observant of my reactions: I delight in the view, but am wary of the isolation. Stuck with the ground floor option in order to avoid stressing my knees, I, consequently, worry about safety.

Karen calls me the following day to offer me an alternative I might prefer. In fact, on seeing it, I like the layout, the white walls, space, and little patios/ balconies. As I muse over matters outside in the car park, a voice greets me. Aruna Mallick is an old woman, smartly dressed in yellow pedal pushers and body hugging tee. Her clothes accentuate her neat figure, but her voice codes her for me. Western inflections overlay a heavy North Indian accent. My reactions are mixed, mongrel though I am I belong to the south of India and am proud of my Tamilian/ Dravidian heritage from my dad (ie. I’m not Aryan although my mixed parentage allows for a Coorg quotient from my mum). North Indians often patronize us, dumb, black southies. But, having a soft spot for older people and curious about the interaction, I greet Asha in turn.

“Oh, are you renting that flat from Karen? Are you alone?” she asks, “and where do you come from?” The inevitable urge to place a new arrival. Although I normally avoid my tangled histories, on impulse I tell her that I’m from an ashram in Andhra. “Which one?” she questions, and, of course, I have to name the place– the country is famous for its ashrams, and their spiritual leaders, gurus. Spirituality” is a postmodern commodity that we Indians market aggressively. In return for my personal info, Usha offers a startling titbit, with an enigmatic smile and wink, “There’s been a burglary here” And, “better watch out for Karen, she’s hard to deal with. Rude woman, not like her husband.”

On the first day I move in nothing is ready, all Karen’s promises to see to stuff remain unfulfilled. Quite enraged, on the verge of leaving the place, I mouth off to Agnello, the guy in charge of maintenance, Karen’s brother-in-law. Curtain rods are falling down, the curtains hung are disgusting, there is no gas hob, the shower head is missing, and, woe betide, the sheets are too small for the mattress. The apartment is in need of a thorough dusting and cleaning as well. But, Agnello, a lanky man in his forties, lackadaisically charms me out of my fury. As he placates me, Aruna turns up again, and, seeing Agnello, informs me sotto voce that he is very helpful; she and her daughter only talk to him after checking to see that the coast is clear of Karen.

Over the next two days when all is slowly put in order, I come to the realization that this process is Goa. Two weeks before, when I had arrived in Luisa-by-the-Sea after a 12 hour drive (we’d started at 4:30 am), nothing had been organized either. The owners seemed to wait for the person actually to walk into the place before running about to put things in order. Agnello is a great pacifier, with his easy smile and lanky stride; and, finally, he explains Aruna’s cryptic remark on the burglary that never was.

“It was a set up. They told the police money was missing from the locker, but there were ten people sleeping there. Don’t tell me not even one person saw anything? Anyway, they were all Kashmiris, you can’t trust them. So much money missing, and nobody sees?”

And much later, Karen,

“it was Fayaz’ relation. He brought Hafiz, they are all in it together. I had to pay up Rs. 95,000 in settlement. If I did not, the police would ‘ve been after me as Hafiz didn’t fill up the Form of Particulars.”

Dear blog reader, please reflect on the names we Indians have:
Karen, Ronaldo, Aruna Mallick, Agnello, Fayaz, Hafiz. The names pay tribute to various religions and cultures. The Portuguese colonized Goa in the 1500’s, quelling a petty Sultan; they were forced out by the Indian Army only in 1961 (the year of my birth). As in the rest of India, the colonized are proud of the heritage and culture imbibed through their colonizers; only here it is the Portuguese not the British. The recent colonizers left a legacy of Catholicism, although, ironically, the caste system remains.

A Brahmin Catholic is distinct from a non-brahmin catholic. Similarly, the vegetarians are distinct from the non-vegetarians–the ‘non’ prefix demarcates the good from the non-good! In the West, vegetarianism may distinguish the politically correct folk, in India, it marks the higher caste Brahmin through their diet. Only the lower caste eat meat, and only the lowest would eat the meat of a cow, ie. beef.

As for Aruna Mallick, that name has Sanskrit roots, Aruna being the dawn, a name common in both the North and the South, to Hindus and “non-Hindus.” Names, as for most Hindus, are chosen by markers of caste, community, astrological significance, and auspiciousness. The difference here is that she introduces herself by her first name to me, a younger woman, and allows me to call her “Aruna”. But, as I shall learn, that westernization is superficial, a diaphanous veil over the high caste, well-born female scion of a ‘good family.’ “Mallick” is her husband’s family name, a family which, I will be repeatedly informed, is not on a par with hers. Ironically enough, ‘Mallick’ turns out to be common to both Hindus and Muslims, originating from the Arabic malik meaning ‘king’ or ‘lord.’

Their looks mark the Kashmiris, Muslim or otherwise, as the ultimate Aryans, tall and fair with hooked, noble noses. Their names are testimony to their heritage, Mughal, Afghan, Pashtun, and religion, Islam with a strongly Sufi bent.

Rumi, Sufi mystic, writes,
tumblr_mbmeoxIemE1rxuaovo1_1280

And, from the Upanishads of the Hindus,

That is infinite, this is infinite;
From That infinite this infinite comes.
From That infinite, this infinite removed or added;
Infinite remains infinite.

I find the Hindu scripture expatiating on the Sufi poet, or vice versa, or as you will…