fat, bad, and witchy: a woman seeks god

A sinner, that’s me.  Always in trouble, always pulled by stuff that is often termed ‘bad.’ But what’s life without a bit of vice?  As long as you’re not really hurting other people, that is.  Living in an ashram as  I do, I run into narratives, stories of changing for the better, a progress toward goodness.  The Goddess and her consort know– whenever I hear these meta-tales of ‘evolution’ toward moksha, nirvana, heaven, a better life…etc I need a good long drink and a ciggie, if not a fuck.  Drugs, yes, done those, loved coke, but it doesn’t have a hold on me these days, and grass, too mellow.  All the last including sex, however, involve too much preparation and judgement: unfortunately, nowadays, I’m too lazy to take the risks I did when I was younger.

The implicit evaluation in “O, you’ve changed,” impels a mad rush of fury:  I want to beat someone up.  Can’t do that anymore, I’m not fit enough, unfortunately, but the urge remains.  I ‘m comfortable with the demon under my skin now.  Of course Swami it was, gazing at me long and deep,  who declared, “She’s good only….but, who will know?”  That acknowledgement led me to believe in myself, in my weird anti-social ache for otherness.  Earlier, through my childhood, I had always believed myself to be a bad person, given to anger, always questioning, always restless.

feminism-2bWriting this, I realize I’m glad to be–the middle-aged, menopausal, overweight, aggressive, limping, intellectual, hot-headed dyke I am.  Forget the trials of my twenties and thirties, when despite my anger, I still looked for understanding, needing beauty to complement my brains.  After my Mum’s death in 1999, I took to walking and working out in order to get the grief out of my system.  Though I  tired my body out, tears were always a hair’s breath away, as was temper.  Anyhow, for the first time in my life, I was thin, and beautiful.  A dab hand at make-up, attending darshan in the big hall at that time, I became the cynosure of all eyes, female and male.  But, much as my hormones danced and I enjoyed the lustful looks, my anger kept pace. Beautiful women may enjoy being objects of desire, but  my toned body and made-up face nursed an angry genie.  Follow her around and she’s liable to shriek a curse, or take an iron rod to your legs, and I’ve done both!  One arrogant boy in white, one of the chosen elect, close to Swami, drew my ire.  “You fuckhead,”  I said, and punched him in the chest.  Walking away, I turned to have a gander, and there he stood, with his hand to his chest, stunned. Now with Swami’s death, holy N— spouts religious clichés, and hopes for a top slot in ashram management.

Anyway, my brief spell of fighting fitness came to an abrupt end while semi squatting to lift weights at home.  With a loud pop, my knee ligament tore.

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Take Up Space by Heather Keith Freeman

Misdiagnosed, the knee has never recovered, and is prone to swell and hurt.  Menopause followed up the injury, and I’m back to my bad ass overweight self.  What a relief!

What are my vices?  Not many, small ones but reassuring.  Long, cold gins and tonic whenever I’m out of here in the summer, and in winter, my staple, “Honeybee” the Goan brandy that lives up to the promise of its name.  Reminds me, I’ve got to drive down soon to Bangalore, while smoking a Camel toward a pizza and g-&-t.  Not far, a hour and a half away.  I live a life with G-O-D, yes, but I want to burn out fast, reach an explosion of stars and hear the anarchic laughter of space.

Being with God, for me, is the ultimate here and how, a sense of absolute oneness with a chaotic cosmos:  laughter and rest, where nothing in this world, the good, bad and ugly is taken seriously.   “If you really want to, you can be one with god in the blink of an eye.  It’s simple,” my Swami repeats endlessly.  Yet, spirituality becomes an exam, with grades along the way–visions, inner voices, yogic powers;  in any religion, people judge, evaluate and label sister worshipers.  I cannot bother with the rest of the community about me, only G-O-D, process without end, a journey with no goal.  For this absurd  love–of nothingness, formlessness, and journeys nowhere–I give you “Ithaca” by C.P. Cavafy, another outsider, civil servant and closet queer in Alexandria at the turn of the 20th century.  Sean Connery reads with background music by Vangelis who did the marvellous soundtrack for Blade Runner.

“….Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.”

 

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A dance through death–of non-human beings

Mornings, these days, I want to wake at 3 am, enjoy the dark quiet before the ashram about me stirs all too soon. Now, I’ve made it to 4 am or nearly so, but when the alarm shrills at 3, I fumble to shut it down. Even at 4 am, when I move to draw the curtains open, I notice the corner room opposite on the third floor. The lights are always already on. An old couple, husband and wife, they’ve redone the room and moved in to stay only about a year ago, after Swami died

So many people still wander around, as I sit typing later in the day. A boy announces loudly, self-importantly to his sisters (or are they his girlfriends?), “You must know the places here. There is the western canteen, there. There is the Swami’s room” They nod, smiling, proud of his knowledge of the ashram.

I observe all, a fat spider spinning my webs onscreen. In this heat of May, my body balloons up, and clothes that fit me a couple of days before feel constricting today. I hang about behind my locked doors in long Indian cotton gowns, which shroud the body, shoulder to foot. Yet, if I’m braless, I need a long scarf to veil me for modesty; men of course loiter on their balconies shirtless, nipples exposed.  I dress properly, pants and shirt, only early morning when I leave the flat for my walk. Even at a quarter to six, I meet other ashram dwellers walking by on the tree lined concreted road behind. I exchange greetings with those whom I’m acquainted. It is a community after all, much as I struggle with its norms.

Among those morning walkers, I detect signs of Swami’s absence. The ‘boys’ erstwhile whiteclad, now, the few who turn up are in jeans and tees. Time stretches, there is more time to stroll, to walk. ‘Darshan‘ in the big hall is not as much a compulsion now as it was in the days when Swami walked the hall. Then, people lined up early, arguing about who was first in line so that they could stand a better chance at a spot where they could catch his eye. After his accident years earlier, after the initial dumbstruck horror of his non-presence, people slowly slacked off. Used to a being who never missed his rounds in the hall, a diurnal rhythm as regular as the sun, folks had to accustom themselves to seeing his erratic arrival–first, in a golf buggy, perched in front to be visible; then later in the Prius, kulwanthallmuch worse as he’d keep the glass deliberately rolled up; and, finally, pushed around in the wheelchair almost eye level with the seated devotees.

More exposed, more vulnerable as Swami was in the wheelchair, he could not be seen from the back of the hall.  Plush as it was, the wheelchair offered him up to his devotees, a victim where once he was master.  Swami played all roles, slave or master, enjoying the ironies of  human hierarchy.  In the hands of the boys who pushed him around, he spoke in muffled tones allowing the men around him to intercede.  His gestures often feeble and his eyes distant, those about him took it upon themselves to translate his words.  Serving himself up to his devotees in a plate, he dished himself up as  an icon even before he died, with those ‘close’ to him acting as pundits. Those men in the know increasingly took decisions of their own. Doctors turned up with remedies for Alzheimers‘, Parkinsons‘, and other malaises, attempting to ‘cure’ Swami even as they prayed to him for succor, or for their own cures. A comedy of human blindness.

The urge to get a good spot in the hall, to catch his eye, gave way to the inclination for social ritual. As Swami‘s arrival in hall became hit or miss, the attendees passed their time in various ways: gossip foremost, a chance at a tête à tête with the VIPs in the front rows, a sprinkling of minor celebrities. With the menfolk, staff and VIPs, seated on the veranda, looking down through the women ostensibly at Swami‘s house, the hall offered a chance at surreptitious romance or flirtation. Life’s nitty-gritty, human interactions carried on much like the great, sinful world outside the ashram gates.

In the midst of these worldly pursuits were sprinkled the grieving, the needy, the devout. But, that was Swami‘s way, “head in the forest, hands in society.” Living in the ashram meant being put through the mills of god, to be ground exceeding fine. Rubbing shoulders, smells, and sweat with same people in the lines, day after day, morning and evening, brought out all the jealousies, the viciousness, the petty snobberies, the kowtowing. As Swami retreated, the people in positions of management came into prominence. And did they enjoy it!

My place in the second row, my identity after mum died was always suspect. Many a time, Mrs. S– the white-haired domina of seating hauled me up for snapping at the ‘security girls.’ Women of indeterminate age, anywhere between 25-60, they’d graduated from the same college in Anantapur as I had, electing to do ‘security’ duty for the perks of an authoritative seat in front.  Security, there was, plenty of it, from being checked at the entrance for contraband like books too big, cigarette lighters, pens etc to saris too flimsy, blouses without sleeves, overly visible cleavage. Mrs. S—would smile, showing her large teeth, pat me kindly, and remark, “so, are those snakes on your shoulders showing?” Ooh, we’d get patted down daily, as did the cushions we carried which had to be stitched up at the sides.

That I carried on for darshan as earnestly, single-mindedly as I did for nigh on 10 years amazes me today. But, all said, that was Swami‘s mystery, the sense of otherness he carried into daily life. The adventure of being with him while detesting the society about him kept me going. I had to tread a fine line, as everybody realized that I was there, inexplicably, under his eye, personally supervised.  I could not carry rebellion too far, I loved him too much. My retreat from the hall during the last 3-4 years of Swami‘s life came about without my volition, maybe Swami spurred me on from within myself. Perhaps, my goblin god kept his jester (me) out of trouble as the hall slowly lost its mystique and surrendered to human routine.

Swami remained without appearing in the hall for longer and longer lengths of time. He confined himself to his room. Illness, perhaps. But, with such a strange being, I wondered, even then, if the drama of his decline was orchestrated. By whom? By himself, a being who used and manipulated his physical self without a pang of regret at its bodily suffering.

Long before the decline, I remember sitting next to Mum in the front row: Swami came by, paused to make a quip about something. Looking down at his foot peeping out from under the long orange robe, I saw that all the toes were rimmed in blood. Sweeping away the robe, I examined his other foot as he stood there jesting but quite aware of my horror. Yes, the toes were crusted with blood. What human being could cut his nails quick to the veins, making them bleed, oblivious to the pain? Torturers know that driving even the thinnest sliver under a nail makes the victim scream with agony. If, in the simple act of  cutting his nails, he could be so oblivious, why should he care about the agonies of disease, old age, or death?

That distance from one’s own body is not easily achieved. The nearest I’ve come is when I’ve pierced my own ears or brows, or during the 41/2 hours under tattoo needles. In that time, while the body is cut or pierced, pain becomes an experience in itself–no different from forcing yourself to eat on a full stomach, to depriving yourself of sleep, or to be hung over, or experiencing an orgasm. Pain/pleasure, or pleasure/pain form a spectrum of physical sensation. These experiences of the body are detached from the inner self.  Perhaps an evolved being may achieve total detachment from physical sensation even as the body undergoes it.Swami sil

Who knows? I don’t even want to fathom these depths. I only know that in the 52 years I’ve been with him, since I tumbled into this world, Swami’s life has been a little too neat yet too full of paradoxes, too mysterious for any human rationales. G-o-d lies all about me, seeps into my being, what have I to worry about in this strange adventure I call life?

Spiritual punk–a tattooed woman goes home to god

Since I’ve labelled myself, or the noh mask icon on the blog, a “spiritual punk,” I’ve got to explain a bit.  As usual, I assumed that the internet would prove a catalyst, and so it does, overwhelmingly so. I found punks of all sorts on the web, Muslim, black, queer, fat, women, as well as the usual white men.  If I had any worries about using a racist term to describe myself, my fears proved ungrounded in today’s punk scene.  Punk, in fact, invites the dissidents, the outsiders, and those suspicious of social edicts.
But first, fyi, ‘spiritual punk’ is a particular strain of marijuana available online, both seeds and seedlings. All of you who’ve clicked your way to this blog, feel free to click further on Google. The strain appears particularly potent. spiritual punk-samsara seeds-fem ‘Samsara’ seeds is the secondary label: particularly apt for my blog: “Samsara refers to the process of passing from one body to another throughout all species of life. Hindus believe that consciousness is present in all life forms, even fish and plants…. Most Hindus consider samsara essentially painful, a cycle of four recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age, and death.” [http://hinduism.iskcon.org/concepts/102.htm] Wonderfully pertinent to my digressions on the interconnectedness of the universe, or on the miraculousness coincidence!

Why am I a punk? Because I see myself as the eternal outsider, who never fits in and who never shuts up about it.tatsme Mongrel to the core, I have always barked away frantically at attempts to make me toe the line. With a potato-half pressed on the back of my ear and a needle on the other side, I pierced my ear lobes diy, my eyebrow too. Though people tried to describe it as masochism, I found the piercings empowering, a protest against societies which tried to make me fit in, to homogenize my different selves into a well behaved whole (hole). I even tried piercing my tongue, but had to stop with the job nearly done; I couldn’t get the needle out through the base of my tongue. When I walked across the street to get it pierced, I found myself with a novice whom I had to direct. When he pierced my tongue too close to the tip, I got him to remove the ring and repierce me, while blood spurted all over. With swollen tongue, I walked back to my teaching assistants’ office to meet with students to discuss their writing.

Three years later, when I returned to my Swami, he never mentioned the piercings except to remind my Mum of the time I’d cut off my eyebrows, eyelashes, and hair after my Dad’s death. (I removed the piercings one by one over a couple of years with no external prompting, tired of the villagers’ naive curiosity.) Merlin’s total acceptance of my distaste for social edicts bound me to him. Never did he criticize me for my anti-social tantrums, nor would he allow anybody else, even my Mum, to do so. His absolute awareness and understanding of my self exceeded my own: Swami knew me better than I knew myself. Graced with such acceptance, I integrated my punk anger into a recognition of the chaos of the universe, of a god who celebrated entropy above social order. That G-O-D, in Swami‘s phrase, meant Generation-Organization-Destruction, with no part of the process prized above another. Process is all, the universe breathes, we die. So am I a spiritual punk. God as a symbol (sometimes a living symbol) is an anarchic sprite, the Coyote trickster of the American Indians, a beautiful, yet goblin being with warm brown eyes. Human, but non-human, more feral in his/its ways than a man with hands and feet of clay, Merlin/ Swami.

Today in my early fifties, fat and limping, I still fantasize about steel safety pins in my ears, about tattoos that crawl over my hip and down my swollen knees. Women in steel toed boots with green hair, red eyes, black/ brown skinned, still make my blood thrum, and the music–L7’s “Monster in Me” was and is the anthem to life, complete with “my lovable curse,” my Swami.

Come on over
It’s getting late
It’s time to fish
No time to cut bait
Ghoulish passion you inspire
With your kind of trouble
I’ll never tire
Monster
(monster in me)
Bring out the monster
(monster in me)
Monster
(monster in me)
Bring out the monster
(monster in me)
You bring out
The monster in me
In a world full of disposable icons
All the jokers with the phony come-ons
I know I can depend on you
Cause when we’re together,
we’re hurtin’ crew
We don’t need to look for trouble
My partner in crime, my insanity double
When life takes a turn from bad to worse
You’re always there, my loveable curse

Oh, Donita Sparks, the growl that issued cuntside, the reassurance that bad as I was, there were women to keep me company or kick my ass.  I remember a party in grad school where the white women who’d invited me began worrying I was going to get my black punk friends over to thrash the place!

Trawling the web today, from my ashram room, I’m totally psyched to discover Osa Atoe, of Shotgun Magazine. [check out her zine and music here: http://issuu.com/shotgunseamstress/docs/makingwaves01-rev1_complete, https://www.facebook.com/shotgunseamstresszine] Aware of the contradictions of punk, she still carries on the dream,

I have my own utopian fantasy of what I think punk rock should be and some small part of me feels like it’s possible, so I can’t let it go no matter how many times I get let down. Fantasies of utopia are what get you hooked on punk in the first place right? ….punk rock, offer[s] you a different way to relate–a different way to have community and live your every day life that feels more fair, honest and free. At moments, it really does feel perfect even though nothing ever really is. When I was around 19 and 20 years old, I believed whole-heartedly in the ability of the punk scene to actually be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, anarchist–all of these things existing perfectly inside a bubble.
Numerous people by now have made the point that punk rock isn’t as separate from the “regular world” as we’d like to think it is. Many people have also pointed out that no matter how punk we believe ourselves to be, there’s still a little piece of The Man inside us all that recreates the injustice we wish didn’t exist in the world. —Osa Atoe

neverdie

[http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2010/02/punk-rock-utopian-fantasy.html%5D

this post continues in “Spiritual Punk 2”

 

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]

Watering the garden–Madras now & then

At the fruit stall, the ubiquitous “Pazhamudir” fruit/ vegetable supermarket in Chennai I browse bananas.  Deciding, as usual, on the yelakki variety, I pick up a few of those small, but flavorful, variety.  Ganesh is diabetic and, spotting the fruit, is liable to consume them at will.banana_shopWarned by Rohini, his wife, I confine myself to just six, each fruit merely a mouthful.  All us Indians from the southern states, Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Karnataka, must have bananas about the place, within reach as a snack.

The bigger variety of fruit, nendrakkai, is often steamed for breakfast, gooey and sweet with a faint sour undertone. Bananas are part of any Indian household routine (the raw fruit is a staple in savory dishes) as well as sacred ritual (the long, broad leaves are tied to house gates and to vehicle fenders). An agricultural site suggests, “The banana culture in India is as old as Indian civilization” [http://www.ikisan.com/Crop%20Specific/Eng/links/ap_bananaHistory.shtml].  Over 200 species exist in the country.  Choosing which banana to serve at what occasion is a matter of some thought. Although, varieties still abound, Indian banana species in the wild, particularly in the hills of the north-east, run the risk of extinction.  [http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12702822/]

Settling down to write in Ganesh’s sit out, I draw my chair under the shade. Supporta, Guava, Neem, Banana, and Coconut trees share space with each other.Photo on 29-03-13 at 8.31 AMAs I look about me, I am disinclined to face my Mac Book.   I wish rather to absorb the particularly ‘Madras‘ (not ‘Chennai’) feel of  a childhood long left behind.  Memories of school days in the heat drift back–long afternoons at home that I spent under the shade of trees in another backyard.  Nostalgia for that atmosphere particular to the tropics,  of heat and growing things, renders my head heavy, resistant to embark on any analysis.  I’d rather focus on those fragile yet heavy banana saplings, still thriving in a Madras turned  Chennai of  black dust and smog.

When I’d dug out the six yelakki bananas at the bottom of the bag, from under the rest of the fruit, Rohini had flashed her sudden, toothy smile and darted out of the back door;  she bustled past the well in the yard behind the kitchen, past mosquito nets hung to be washed, past sundry coconut palms, and had rounded the corner to exclaim in delight:

“see, see, I’ve planted yelakki banana trees.   Can you see the green bananas?”

I couldn’t, even to please her, spot them then, but, now, seated here, I look up and notice a bunch of them.Photo on 29-03-13 at 11.48 AM #2Unripe green as they are, the bananas play into the muted symphony of greens about me, in contrast to the gray, dusty pallor of the trees and shrubs that front the busy road.

I probe, later:  “how often do you water the plants?”

Rohini specifies that she watered them each day with water from the well, although now the duty has been taken over by Ganesh.   As the well is not connected to an electric pump, watering is a chore.  Each evening I’ve been here, Ganesh procrastinates as he dislikes lugging buckets of water around the yard.  But, as I wash dishes the first evening, he hovers over me:

“Hey, don’t waste water. I save the rinse water to pour on the plants.”

When I press him about how often he actually waters the garden, however, he evades me. Despite his lackadaisical watering, the garden is healthy, though the grimy foliage at the front demands attention.

Madras/Chennai endures, now and in the past, perennial water shortage. The Metro Authorities have already warned the city’s inhabitants that water will not be supplied for the next two months, April and May, as the rains have failed this year. Living in an independent bungalow as they do, Rohini and Ganesh, will need to buy water, delivered to them and fed into their sump (underground tank) by private companies. Most houses and apartment complexes include a bore well, drilled to enormous depths to reach water.  Despite this measure,  they buy tankers of water as well.  With bore wells constantly sunk in most cities,  ground water tables have diminished all over the country. In the newspaper, I read that the city council will sink new bore wells to depths of 100 feet to replenish dwindling reservoir levels.  [http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/borewells-to-be-revived-to-augment-citys-water-supply/article4559183.ece]  “The major reason for declining water tables is due to more water extraction to sell to urban areas,” a researcher informs me through the web.   [http://www.worldwaterweek.org/documents/WWW_PDF/Convernors/2012/ACaseStudy.pdf]

As cities get bigger, and living standards more luxurious, the threat of drought and water scarcity lose their menace.  City dwellers extend their budgets to include the cost of buying water even as they grumble about it.  We may adjust our routines to save a bit more water, but buying more is easier.  The poor don’t waste much water as they have to carry buckets of it from a common pump or Metro tanker back to their homes. The sheer labor of the task forces them to save water.  Ganesh grumbles,
“people are soooo dirty in this city. Get on a bus, and, gosh, the smell. They don’t bathe every day.”
He continues, “I prefer the West coast, the streams and the rivers there. No water shortage. People are cleaner.”
I live in a universe that is inextricably interlinked, the shell to sand to the human foot to the stars. When I brush an ant off my sleeve and it tumbles down dead, I must set in motion an event which causes another. Who is to say that the death of an unknown ant has no effect? As humans progress, we colonize the world in our name. But, the world may rebel; we, as a species, must also be kept in check. Water taken from the ground must find its way back to the earth.

jefferson-25-feet-525x351[One of artist Nickolay Lamm’s images of what the United States’ landmarks might look like in 500 years, when sea levels are predicted to rise by 25 feet.   http://flavorwire.com/385231/disturbing-photos-of-landmarks-ruined-by-rising-sea-levels/]

“…groundwater depletion adds about 25 percent to projected rates of sea-level rise, making it the largest contributor from land to sea-level rise other than the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Even the melting of glaciers in the world’s high mountains won’t contribute more to rising sea levels.” [http://news.nationalgeographic.co.in/news/2012/05/120531-groundwater-depletion-may-accelerate-sea-level-rise/]

The poetry of such reaction sets me gasping for god. Process is all, everything in the universe lives and dies, and is equal in its being to another. If I spray a cockroach dead, I cannot ask that earth protect in my turn from what awaits, destiny, process, reaction, the cosmic/anarchic verse!

I sweep out my room, but black dust accumulates each day. In crevices under cupboards, on window ledges, on the soles feet, I spy that black grime. My car has settled under its cloak of dust in the front. Even before I begin a fight against dirt, I relinquish the battle saving my energy for skirmishes in traffic, scrimmage with financial accounts, and allergies that flourish. Much as the back yard beckons, I resist dreams of the old Madras life. I am child in the vast playground of sand and stars, good and bad, life.

 

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.

 

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]

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…

 

Windows, and looking in–tourism and social identity in India

Funny, Emily Dickinson, that strange 19th century recluse, frequently pops into my head when I question my increasing reluctance for human company. I spend most days quite alone, lonely at times, content other times, but needing to come to terms with my reclusiveness. “Sunlife Residency” in Varca, Goa, is quite a big complex of apartments. With my ground floor apartment situated in a corner where residents (passing or permanent) of another block have to cross, I am the target of curious stares. I sit out on the little patio in order to get best dibs at the erratic Internet reception, and so my bent head receives those glances.

cropped-photo-on-10-03-13-at-5-07-pm.jpgSome come up to chat like the Kashmiri, Fayaz, with his beautiful wife, Mulammal, and cuddly Haziq, their baby son. Melodious, the sounds of all those z’s. The humans live up to their names. Mulammal is tall and fair with a noble Persian nose, soft spoken, and hesitant in her English syllables. With her head wrapped in a scarf and her salwar kameez (shirt and pajamas), she harkens back to those old Hindi movies my mother used to watch– Nargis, Nutan, the mystique of their presence.

Fayaz drives a silver Nano (Tata Motors‘ coup as the lowest priced car in the world), and approaches me with no hesitation. A businessman, as most seasonal Kashmiris are in Goa, his manner denotes savoir faire. “Come, visit my shop in Mobor, next to Cavellosim- ‘Exotic Gems’,” he urges me a few times. Hating jewellery shops, and wishing that Fayaz would notice my utter lack of ornament, I hesitate. But, he, as are most people here, is curious about the rent I pay. The usual response to my reply is “but noooo, that is toooo much, you can get a much better apartment for less.”

Most of the income, in Goa’s tourist economy, comes from renting rooms and apartments to tourists. Indeed, I drove around different neighborhoods, asked residents in their gardens, and discovered every other person had a room to rent. So, the curiosity about rent is constant, creating much havoc in my judgement until I learned to go with my comfort zone. If I am gullible, and can’t bargain beyond a point, so be it. The curiosity is also about how I am perceived–single, in relatively roomy one bedroom serviced apartment, with a car in tow.

Driving back from Margao (the biggest town in south Goa), I notice a huge black hoarding with yellow letters that shouts, “Exotic Gems, Mobor.” Earlier, staying in Luisa-by-the-Sea, an upmarket, swish collection of villas set in a landscaped gated enclosure on the River Sal, I noticed that the boundary wall to this exclusive property was set with a line of posh-ish shops. In the main, they were occupied by seasonal Kashmiri traders (there October through May) who returned to Kashmir for the summer and monsoon months. One trader, in particular, remains with me, an older man in traditional attire (jacket and cap) who played atonal but stirring Sufi music early morning, and opened up to me when I requested that he replay the music when it ended. “Muslim music,” he told me, while my friend hunted busily for a 34DD bikini top….

Goa is no exception to the rest of India, where Muslims, even those indigenous to the place, are looked on with suspicion. Being Catholic here ensures an automatic acceptability. I fit in quite easily, and can pass as Goan if I wish to, with my features, and skin color, and dress. My mongrel self, coming from Catholic and Hindu parentage, fits into no real class or creed. Too much emphasis either way and I feel constricted, hemmed it, paradoxically bereft of a god. Even the ashram society, unable to process a philosophy which compared religions to the fingers of a hand joined at the palm, moves increasingly toward the Hindu in ritual and belief. The true God, different peoples insist belongs only to us, to us, and by this insistence they define their identities.

This is the ultimate irony of a spiritual society; perhaps ‘societies’ by their nature thwart the longing for god? Perhaps, it is the misfits, the outsiders, the wanderers in the desert who can truly devote their lives to longing?? So Emily, dear Emily, the outsider at the window who knows that entering, belonging, cannot bestow identity or security–

I had been hungry all the years
My noon had come, to dine
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.

‘Twas this on tables I had seen
When turning, hungry, lone,
I looked in windows, for the wealth
I could not hope to own….

“Nor was I hungry; so I found
That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.”
“I am Nobody, who are You?”