Dark Female Selves: undermining the Market’s stranglehold

xenaEver notice, that as much as we’d like to be in control as proper feminist women, our emotions undermine us.  We go all soft and queasy imagining seductions that sweep us off our feet.   Disapproving though I am, of the institution of marriage and commitment, a sly self within me longs for sexual seduction replete with monogamous fucks.  Yes, my suspicions about human sexuality cast aspersions on women (and men) in committed relationships.  For that, please bear with me– my inner woman often sits and watches for a white knight to ride by (although the knight is sometimes a tough femme in kickass boots and tats, think Xena, Warrior Princess).  My inner woman seems in league with a world that’s in the process of institutionalizing gay couples whom marriage (and tax benefits) makes safely monogamous.

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

/www.imaginative-traveller.com

Tucking the fantasist firmly back in place, I put on my glasses (varifocal, naturally) to examine the world at large.  Wherever I turn, consumerism/ media/ capitalism marches hand in hand with indiscriminate sexual desire.  Looking at ads, even rifling through the newspaper, I wonder if sexuality is the underlying thrust (deliberate patriarchal metaphor there) to global markets.  There’s always a new and better model in the works, coercing us into wanting, wanting, wanting in an endless frenzy of desire.  Undiscovered gadgetry awaits us–cars, mixies, make-up, homes, vibrators.  In the name of adventure and getaway, as a reward for labor through the work year, we colonize remote cultures and beaches.  All is tech and tourism.

outsourceWe in the ‘third world’ have been blessed–we have been outsourced to.   So, to deal with Western customers, the Indian young learn to speak English with an American accent (not, however, with much grammar) to counsel the first worlders about gadgets and money instruments.  An Indian accent will not do in such scenarios:  along with jobs, and money, the young mold themselves into capitalist globetrotters.  They leap easily over oceans and histories.  Driving into Bangalore every other month or so, I marvel that the States I left in the mid-nineties has come back to haunt me in 21st century India.

Speaking for myself, I can only eat so much, play so much, fuck so much, before my appetite is sated and I turn jaded.  Some days food tastes like sawdust in the pizzerias and chi-chi restaurants of Bengluru.  The name has turned indigenous, if the city has turned mongrel.  ‘Bangalore’ the garden city of the Brit colonizers, has now become the concrete city as a taxi driver informs me in pidgin, English-Kannada mix.  We’ve recovered from the British and the thrall of white civilization only to fall prey to the racism-s and attendant -isms of making money.   Lightening our melanin [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color] tainted skins, underarms and vaginas, Indian women fall into the arms of MNCs (Vichy, Dove, Unilever, to name only a few).  [http://jezebel.com/264396/indian-women-whiten-their-skin-fight-the-patriarchyShonit Biswas 1 year ago, comments, “such sexy milky, creamy, smooth, armpits…wanna lick them for hours”  Viscerally offputting remark, yes, but common sentiment voiced by young Indian men,  typical consumers of the marketed white flesh available everywhere.

As a grad student in the States, I came acrosss Luce Irigaray, feminist philosopher.  [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294014/Luce-Irigaray]  Reading her writings, my anger took visible shape as a Feminist.  In the binaries of patriarchal thought, white=value=rational thought=male.  Even in casteist India today, the upper caste boasts of fair skin, and lower castes are consigned to  blackness. [see discussions here– http://www.patheos.com/blogs/drishtikone/2012/04/varna-caste-system-and-skin-color-shallow-understanding-and-dubious-arguments/ and http://historum.com/asian-history/18145-were-indian-castes-based-racism-skin-color.html%5D   Perhaps today, wealth is an efficacious skin lightener, a class marker that recasts caste!

If we reflect on the binary logic of most contemporary languages and cultures, white=sun=day=virtue=light=male, and black=earth=night=sin=dark=female. Although, Irigaray sees the binaries working through Western philosophy, I find the same logic operating through contemporary Indian thought and custom.  Linked by media and market value, pretty similar logic works through different nations on various levels, although inflected by particular histories and cultures.  Its a small, small world–dictatorships, capitalists, socialists, democracies–bound together by MONEY.

The Hindus, for example, bow down to the Sun god, perform elaborate ritual namaskars, or prostrations, in His praise, and deny the Goddesses of earth and night.  [http://www.shantiyoganola.com/sun-salutations-the-meaning-of-surya-namaskara/]  In the Ramayana, sacred Hindu epic, Sita the virtuous queen–abducted by a demon and released, presumably unravished–finally retreats to the maternal bosom of Goddess Earth, in revolt against the aspersions cast on her chastity.  [I link here to Namita Gokhale‘s thoughtful analysis of the role of Sita as virtuous wife for any reader interested in that mythic Indian wife: http://namitagokhale.com/sita.html.]  For the chaste queen, the only way out is a descent into earth and darkness.Sita cries

As I sit here to type my disquiet at Indian patriarchy,  I look about me.  Men charge around the ashram dressed in whites, women sport colorful saris.  Where is virtue vested, in these sartorial symbols?  My own androgynous Merlin, my Swami suggested that darkness begat light, and not the other way about. Darkness, he hinted, encompassed all, even light nurses a seed of darkness. In my past hours of meditation, dark beckoned to me: I concentrated on following thought until I thought no more, encompassed in the warmth of godly dark.  Only Swami made sense of my attraction to the dark.

If in the binaries of logic, then, one side is devalued, must it be the associations of the feminine?  Women in the real world often embrace male rationale, rise to power, become leaders in politics, industry, commerce, or academia: Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook.  [see for eg.–http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/women_worst_enemy_sjGvDqEhR54DfmBOsMLc9K]  And men may, in their way, reclaim the feminine, my own Merlin for example.  Our genders are fluid, shaped by our selves and our particular histories, even if our physical bodies are sexed.   So, my love of the dark womb of the earth, the vast black of Space and goddess,  must subvert the masculine–the bold seductions of consumerism, of phallic sexuality and its institutions.  Where am I headed, then?

"In and Under Water" painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

“In and Under Water” painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez

O, but that’s a question based in the logic of patriarchy.  I refuse to journey from point B to point A, to climb higher, to progress to a GOAL….  I move in circles, I travel in mazes, I let darkness enclose my steps, I cannot know where the goddess goes.  She presses my hand, I tremble with fear and joy, I live–and, I wait to die into the dark.

Cooking! A Personal Fable of Repercussions

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

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

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

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

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

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

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

courtesy: Selvankavi TOI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Sleep with Trees: a small meditation on lives & deaths

To sleep like Rip Van Winkle for a hundred, a million years…and then to wake into the wonder of a world made new.
It’s not the waking but the sleep I crave.
I long to plunge into a deathly sleep, a sleep that transfigures my nascent, waking self.
I would be a changeling, stumbling bravely through a sphere seen anew.
A sleeper who wakes not herself, but another altered eye/I.

neemtreeAs a child, I used to creep out of the back door of the bath room, out to sit under the Neem tree in the night quiet. [http://www.organeem.com/neem_tree.html] Sitting there, I would let the minutes and hours slip away, breathing in the sentience of non-human earth. Way back in the bowels of the house, caught by human anxiety, Mum would hunt for me, “Grie, Grie, where where are you?”

The faint echoes of her voice cautioned me into total still, under the leafy neem scented starlight. Though our house lay in the center of Madras, three roads bordered the bungalow:  our back yard only connected to old lady Achutha Menon’s front yard, separated by a wall and yards of shrubbery.  Mum, moreover, had planted trees all about the compound wall, cutting us off from neighboring lives.

On the ground, seated beneath the Neem, I, small Grie, shared a reality that humans, bustling about their lives, missed. Feeling the earth breathe, the insects bite and rustle, small creatures (rats?) stir about me, I touched G-O-D, unknowable mysterious process that, even then, reassured and brought me curious strength.

Years later, Mum referred to those ‘catatonic’ states of mine. She’d been worried, she said, but Swami put her mind to rest, though he counseled me not to sit alone when he sent me off to his women’s college in Anantapur, about six years down the line.

Dad had died by then, so my mind tunneled into different spaces of grief and loss, crevices disparate from my dark Neem shelter.  In the scrublands of Andhra, I discovered, at the farthermost edge of playing fields, a rocky outcrop that I could sit atop to consider the barren, stony hills.  None of the other girls ventured close, scared off by tales of surrounding graves and their attendant ghosts.  But, the quality of solitude was different: with dad’s death, complexities of adulthood came creeping over my soul, trailing in its wake, romantic fantasies, sexual infatuation, and existential confusion.

Photo on 24-06-13 at 5.52 PM #2Only now, sitting in this little semi-open patio, with the Rain tree’s [Albizia Saman] branches spreading overhead in the green company of shrubby foliage, I wake from the thrall of an unplanned two hour sleep to chanting from the hall, and feel a sudden breath from the child I was.  [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albizia_saman]

Now, with Dad, Mum, Swami departed into the past–
now, stressed by a recent encounter with my ninety years’ old aunt who revels in the busy, petty minutiae of human interactions,
who still plays one human against the other,
have I woken to unspeaking child’s awareness.  Now, the little dog lies on the doorstep, a squirrel dashes from shrub to tree, a butterfly hangs from a flower, and only the gusting breeze bustles.

My father died in his fifty-third year, the earliest of my loves to depart, Mum in her seventy-fourth, and mysterious Swami in his eighty-fifth.  I envy my Dad his exit at the height of his human achievements.  Me, I’m 52.  My soul, and body, tire of interaction, I long for sleep in the bowels of the earth, next to the Rain tree’s roots.
Saman1744

FAT comfort: wrestling with the image police

What’s happened to you, you’ve ballooned!big wonder woman

The ‘tactful’ remark greeted my hesitant foray into the garden after a self confinement of nearly 5 months in my apartment.  On venturing outside, I was only too aware that the garden lies in the epicenter of the ashram, subject to the sundry looks of passers-by, self advertised spiritual seekers. Ironically, the comment had issued from one of the longtime residents, hardly a slim woman herself.

The community had gone through an upheaval with the death of its founder 5 months earlier, and we were still reeling from sensational revelations of hidden wealth, silent immediate thefts by the managing council, and speculations about the true date of his death. [see for eg. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/more-gold-found-in-sathya-sai-baba-s-ashram-in-puttaparthi-116432http://www.ndtv.com/topic/sathya-sai-central-trust; ] Unable to socialize, gossip, or add to the rumor mill, I’d shut myself up in my room. But, my room lies in the eye of the storm, behind Swami’s erstwhile residence, itself next to the big hall of worship where the 12 day death rituals were conducted–I could elude none of hysteria.

I’d lost the three of them over them over these 50 years of my life–Dad first when I’d just turned 15, Mum next, four years after my return from the States, and now, Swami two months into my 50th year. Menopausal, hurting with grief, I couldn’t take the socio-spiritual hubbub. So, for five months, I stayed within my little apartment. A box really, but one Swami had personally gifted to me just two years before he died. A prescient talisman, the room was simultaneously my protection and an object of envy, a double on the ground floor occupied by a questionable single feminist when whole families occupied a single.

How did the time of self immuration pass? Times of depression or great grief are periods of hibernation for the soul. The body may ache from lack of exercise, but the spirit needs silence and solitude to nurse itself back into human interaction. Menopause, lack of exercise, over-eating, all played their role: I knew I’d ballooned up.

But, still mentally vulnerable, that unthinking comment by a sista, a self-promoted white sari clad seeker, triggered my angry response, “Hey, you’re not so thin yourself. What gives you the fuckin’ right to comment on others?” Of course, she was righteously offended, unable to comprehend my anger or its cause. To her way of thinking, the remark was merely a casual joust, to me it was an insensitive blow to my already shaky psyche. I’d had to summon up my willpower and courage to go outside, into the glare of human interaction. Perhaps I unconsciously sought the friction of social intercourse that the scar tissue of ill-healed grief might toughen up?

Anger has always been my defense, armor to withstand the blows of the world. angryblackwomanWhere other folks cry, I scream. I throw tantrums. I used to break glass and crockery, tear up clothes, smarting from social hurts I couldn’t explain even to myself. “You’re oversensitive, you read too much into things,” friends and acquaintances advise me. But I’ve never been able to figure at what point sensitivity crosses over into the prohibited area of over-sensitivity.

Unfortunately, in order to be a productive, socialized, civilized human, this knack of differentiation is a pre-requisite!

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Patch (for sale) by artist karapassey

Fat is chain-mail too, a sheath both defensive and aggressive. [on a life changing book, see http://www.feministe.us/blog/archives/2012/04/09/fat-is-a-feminist-issue-2/ ]  Right from childhood, I’ve been plump, overweight, at one point even labelled obese by the school doctor, a family friend.  I remember my mum outraged by the word, “obese, what a word to use.  She’s not obese!”  So, the very first time I heard the word, it was an insult, an affront to parental nurturing.  Looking up the word, I took in its connotations and cringed.  That was the beginning of fat guilt:   I was the culprit in my obesity.  My mum consulted our family doctor after that report about my ‘obesity,’ and he put me on a diet.  It didn’t work.

Obesity, however, didn’t come in the way of my activities.  I played throwball, basketball, netball, even tried hurdling.  Inclined to sports, and addicted to swimming, I continued stubbornly overweight.  And obese I grew up–through my troubled teens, my father’s death, my college years in Anantapur, through grad school in the States, and my return to India and the ashram.   It took my Mum’s death to make me lose weight.  I walked miles each day, worked out frenziedly between times sitting in the big hall for Swami’s darshan.  Appropriately enough, that was the time my sexuality made its presence anew after a decade of dormancy. I wonder if such sexual hunger at time of loss is a reaffirmation of life force, the urge to the species to continue to propagate its kind.

Crossing the forty watershed, I looked much younger than my age.  It had nothing to do with weight, however–I’ve never looked my age thin or fat.  angry black womanNow, at 52, I still don’t look my age, fat though I thankfully am.  Looking young, to me, is more trouble than its worth. I’d rather look my age if not a little older: youthful looks often encourage patronage, particularly by the men. I still suffer from the occasional male follower, at a stage when sexuality is more trouble than it’s worth. How did I regain my weight and recover the self I’m most comfortable with? [see a wonderful post on self image: http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2010/01/feminism_and_fa]  A torn knee ligament which the aches and stiffness of menopause only made more painful, Swami’s death–the last of the trinity I love–and the accompanying depression/ grief.  So here I sit, typing these words, too big for the world as ever.  I’m out of the agoraphobia of intense loss, go for regular walks early morning, work out with weights, but I’m a big mama.

After 52 years of being obese, with a skinny interim of maybe 5-6 years, I have at long last learned to rejoice in my big self.  Too large for the social spaces I’m in now, and spaces like academia that I moved in earlier, I am the right size for me.  Men can’t easily talk down to me, either physically or intellectually, nor do most women. [see also– http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/oct/11/gender.society ] Thin socialized women find me unsettling:  loud, big, and rebellious, unable to conform.  I make my friends uneasy, as I really have not much yen for company.  My solitary self does not revel in too much interaction.  [on singleness today, see http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/09/going-solo-klinenberg/http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/16/120416crbo_books_heller]. Most comforting now, I’ve begun writing again, taking up as much space as I want in words and letters.

I spread myself easily: I am fat enough for comfort.

dirty words, filthy mind, profane body–reclaiming language & god

Women porters Madras 1920s

Women porters Madras 1920s

In that never never time of memory, a decade ago when Mum was alive and Swami too, I worked at the Western Canteen, pre-dawn, mornings, afternoons, and evenings. A dog used to accompany me there, leave me to work and sometimes even appear to take me back. Pappu was my Mum’s dog, really, but she took it upon herself to assume responsibility for me.  (Who owns whom?)   Eddie, a co-worker seeing Pappu’s solemn duty, joked, “one man and his dog.” Without thought, I reacted, “No Eddie, love, its one woman and her bitch.” Eddie found my come back apt, but funny, as I did too at the moment. But, my own quip remained with me through the years: unconscious knee jerk reaction to language and its sexism.

Now, when I’m writing this blog, putting words down after a silence of almost twenty years, I find that words like ‘bloody’, ‘period’, ‘bitch’ run through my sentences. I wonder at myself that I gravitate instinctively toward words or phrases resonating with women’s sexuality. An Young Woman in Sari, Rides BicycleGrowing up an overweight child prone to tantrums, fits of withdrawal, I had my parents worrying about my mental health.  [See Mollow’s article that looks at fat discrimation even in the queer community: http://bitchmagazine.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability] Getting my periods early didn’t help either, nor that I possessed a shrieky witch’s voice too loud for the surroundings.  These traits added to a mind that couldn’t take anything for granted meant that I invariably got singled out.  Trouble followed me around.

My discovery of Audre Lorde, when doing my doctorate in the States, lifted a weight off me.  Reading “The Uses of Anger” and the poems in “The Black Unicorn” and meeting Lorde herself gave me a role model. I fancied Lorde literally bulging out of the confines of white racism and academic restrictions with her big black lesbian body.  She thrust the physicality of her black, woman’s body in the midst of white anemic writing. Lorde Myself too big, too loud, too argumentative for my Indian context–the well behaved, upper class schoolmates, or conversely, the conservative, modestly hindu collegemates in Anantapur–I rejoiced to be one among the big, black women I met.  [On going against the norms of modest Indian womenhood, read http://thefeministwire.com/2013/05/walking-the-tightrope-good-indian-girls-race-and-bad-sexuality/ ]  Called “nigger” by my black friends, I learned the painful ironies of that sisterhood.

Running out of beer late one night, Jackie, my girlfriend, and I walked down to the corner store only to be told by the lone clerk that we couldn’t buy alcohol after midnight, although we knew that the cut off was 1 pm.  When Jackie and I suggested that he wasn’t selling us the liquor because we were black, the store clerk was on the verge of pushing the panic button, thinking he was about to be attacked by us.  Merely the sight of our skins signaled aggression to him.  Where then is the difference between black and brown.  Did Indian culture and upper classness distinguish me any from Jackie, my  tough black ghetto woman?

A month or so later, Jackie left me, jailed for shooting a dealer when he intruded on her territory.  I wonder if I’d been around in that park whether I’d have been arrested too regardless of my involvement or not. [For a look at internalized racism and its workings, see http://shotgunseamstress.blogspot.in/2012/10/radical-anti-racist-racism-or-rarrrrrrr.htmlanti-socialLater, while writing my dissertation, I wrote of a black/ brown/ colored woman’s, particularly a lesbian’s, “monstrously feminine” body in the convoluted prose of critical theory.  The jargon of ‘high’ theory protected me against the messiness of words, the dirt of description and anecdote, the visceral secretions of women’s cussing.

Growing up, I learned first to lisp English syllables.  Speaking the different vernaculars of Coorg and Tamil communities, Mum and Dad, educated intellectuals both, spoke fluently the language of our colonized past.  Indian English is my first language, and I now dig in the mire of its sexist, racist, and classed legacy.  I speak my woman’s self and body, not to abuse my self but to savor the curious delight of an identity too big for others’ comfort.

But, twenty years down the line, doctorate or no, class markers or no, I am yet prey to a secret guilt that I am too gigantic, too clumsy still for the spaces in which I live and write.  That these negative socio-cultural attitudes persist, internalized somewhere in my psyche, is proof of the immense power of cultural norms.  I fight against these dictates of womanliness, but in moments of self-doubt they rise like specters to haunt me.  I shut myself up in an ashram room, go for walks only at first, faint light, and speak to hardly anybody but Tippy.  Grie Verd, the my private childhood nickname for myself fits snugly into the “malformed series of noh masks” by a Japanese artist in a collision of non-white hurting(s).  Apt indeed that I find these malformed faces/ masks beautiful! [see ‘About’ page: https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/about/]

And what about my clumsy quest for otherness, the ache of longing for some vast awareness that  includes all, animate and inanimate, and judges none?  Any route or religion seems to demand purity, often an ascetic purity involving continual cleansing of humanness–of the dirty woman’s self and body, in particular.  But I’ve been born with a being who hinted otherwise, that total acceptance of the self and universal process leads, will nilly, to surrender.  Surrender which rejoices in just being, worship and adoration without mind,  a sense of arbitrary divinity—I am tumbling through Generation-Organization-Destruction, process, entropy, cosmic chaos, multiverses.  I live in god. I am everything and nothing—loud, big, messy, dirty, bloody, slutty, womanly, angry micro in the macro cosm.

"Venus Variation Large" Artist-Susan Grabel

“Venus Variation Large” Artist-Susan Grabel

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.”

 

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?

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 3–to protest against death day rituals

From six in the morning, pre-dawn, sounds at once raucous and rhythmic accompany my waking fluster.  That holy din heralds a pooja conducted in the hall behind my flat. I am told the ritual will last for three days, culminating in narayanseva  or distribution of food and clothing for the needy.  The dissonant  voices chanting rites for Vishwashanthi Yagna, or ritual for world peace rent the warm morning air, air that will touch forty degrees centigrade or more by midday.  A summer of heat and water scarcity ushers in Merlin’s death day, teaming up with social ritual to make it a day to endure in fortitude.

World peace is an utopian concept to a punk like me–societies, identities, people, men, women, too much flux in life to reach a stasis of peace.  Sure enough, the morning cacophony turns into a yearning, atonal, chant, reminding me, strangely enough, of the Muslim music I heard in a Kashmiri shop in Goa.  Then too, on another morning,  the music roused a restless grief in me.  Tracing these hyper-connections through the web, I happen on Rabbi Shergill, urban balladeer, whose record ‘Rabbi’ fuses an eclectic mix of religions, music genres and communities, a meta-link for my own quests.   I offer my reader Rabbi Shergill singing the poetry of Bulleh Shah, Sufi mystic (circa 1680-1757)–

Not a believer inside the mosque, am I/
Nor a pagan disciple of false rites/
Not the pure amongst the impure/
Neither Moses, nor the Pharoh/
Bulleya! to me, I am not known/
In happiness nor in sorrow, am I/
Neither clean, nor a filthy mire/
Not from water, nor from earth/
Neither fire, nor from air, is my birth/
Bulleya! to me, I am not known/
Not an Arab, nor Lahori/
Neither Hindi, nor Nagauri/
Hindu, Turk, nor Peshawari/
Nor do I live in Nadaun/
Bulleya! to me, I am not known/
Secrets of religion, I have not known/
From Adam and Eve, I am not born/
I am not the name I assume/
Not in stillness, nor on the move/
Bulleya! to me, I am not known/
I am the first, I am the last
None other, have I ever known
I am the wisest of them all
Bulleh! do I stand alone?/
Bulleya! to me, I am not known/

Born in then Punjab, amidst the communal rioting between Muslims and Sikhs,  caught up in savage race riots, Bulleh Shah turned mystic seer.  His birthplace now lies in Pakistan, over the border from India, the two countries unfriendly neighbors.   Amassing a cult following in Asia, Bulleh Shah’s poem, a mix of urdu and punjabi, is sung by a Sikh who appropriates the Jewish title of Rabbi, Rabbi Shergill.  Shergill’s contemporary fusion joins east-west beats, but Qawwali yearning [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qawwali] resounds through it all.

Seduced as I am by the music and words, something in me also resists.  Is such a-social longing always male?  Hard to find songs by women that trace such anti-social, alienated, longing through time.  Merlin/ Swami was also biologically male, but I could not gender his androgynous being.  Even to use the male pronoun to describe him feels sacrilegious, reducing (in)human pixie to human species. swamiBut, he lived, he died, caught in time–of the human species he must be!  I remember now, about a decade ago, sitting in the lines for darshan, women on one side of the hall, men on the other.

Merlin makes his way down through the hall, he goes past us women first. Behind me, a voice whimpers, “Babaaaa, baba, baba…” Baba means father, and often used for all saints, men, elders [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baba_%28honorific%29]. Swami, (this word also generic title for saint!) pauses, half turns his head with its halo of black hair, an Afro,

Ba Baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full.”

The reply haunts me still, mocking the human urge to make god over in our own image, our society, familiar family.   Or is it sarcastic pun on his own mop of woolly black hair, “black sheep?”   Or does it echo the master/slave dialectic between god and devotee, human and animal?  Is it a subtle poke at the colonialisms of our britishized upbringing, learning racist rhymes?  This was/ is the dance with Merlin/ Swami, whirling me through hoops of my own mind.

Making these wry rejoinders within earshot, his eyes would catch mine, gleaming with laughter.   “I know, I know. What do you know?”  he acerbically asked me in another encounter, forcing me to see my own intellectual arrogance, a legacy of my doctorate from the States. Angry women, tired of being on the sidelines, turn spiritual, empowered by rage, yearning for spaces less constricted.  My own rage at the world was fueled curiously enough by such encounters with Swami–he needled me out of cozy identities, social or sexual or class. He even sent me to the States, “She has to go, she can’t be without going.” And, after a decade, he exasperated me into returning, with messages through my Mum, with piquing dreams, with frustrations at academic status quo.  So, my punk allegiance, ironically, lies in my dance with Merlin.

Artist: Saadaspeak كلام سَعْدَى

Artist: Saadaspeak كلام سَعْدَى

Osa Atoe, Nigerian Amerian, queer, punk rocker, founder of Shotgun Seamstress  zine muses,

…no one gets to say what punk is. No one owns it. And in reality, punk rock ranges from Christian punk to radical queer punk: from drunk white boys annihilating each other in a mosh pit to anarcho-feminist reading groups. These characteristics can be found outside of punk rock too, in the lives of activists, artists, hippies and other wingnuts who are not necessarily affiliated with any ‘‘scene’’ per se. Things like communal living; anti-consumerism; DIY music and art making; feminist, anti-capitalist (including but not limited to socialist & Marxist), anarchist, anti-war, and environmentalist beliefs.  [Osa Atoe in an interview with Elizabeth Stinson [https://files.nyu.edu/es544/public/WP-PA22.2-3.pdf]

For my Merlin/ Swami’s death day, I celebrate process, breath that flows through all species, that rouses the inanimate into resistance against the living, action and reaction. [about reaction from the inanimate world see https://quiescentbeing.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/watering-the-garden/ ]   “Jagath MithyaSwami insists.  In a world combining truth and falsehood, why search for absolutes?  “Love is a bridge over the sea of change. Do not build a house on it.”  Merlin’s paradox.  We search through different truths in quest of one, but that universal transcendent One rests on difference. That’s the ironic beauty of living and loving–nothing lasts.

On the Al-Jazeera You tube channel, in the panel discussion “Who Speaks for Muslim Women,”  Hind Makki reflects on Femen‘s topless revolt [for the revolt see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/12/femen-activist-protest-putin-merkel].  She points out, “Femen is asking us to choose between feminism and our faith…between our gender identity and our faith identity….the prophets were radicals, but they worked within their societies.” [Makki’s blog, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hindtrospectives/]  Questioning the relationships between their faith, Islam, their gender, their race, their nationalities, the women on Al Jazeera’s panel come to no one consensus. Watching them, I confront the mystery of faith. These women acknowledge that Islam is not one singular religion, nor is feminism a singular ideology.  Beliefs conflict even as we join together as women, or as Muslims, or Hindus, or devotees, or Indians, or Iranians, a consensus of absolute oneness is out of reach, either for Femen or for the diverse other Muslim women.

Take for example, Taquacore muslim punk, a movement that began in fiction but moved to real life.   For Malik from The Kominas his music calls forth,

the idea of a complicated Islam. It’s western Islam’s first real voice of dissent. Because we are complicated. I don’t even feel Muslim most days. I know the culture, but I’m also American so I’m informed by rock’n’roll, hip-hop and everything else. I call myself a non-denominational atheist Muslim, but what does that even mean? [http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/aug/04/islamic-punk-muslim-taqwacores%5D

Malik is a guy, and a Muslim, his struggle is between his music identity and his faith.  But that discomfort with where you are, that questioning, that frustration, is quintessential punk.  As always, that discomfort casts me back to  an interconnected sentience, an it-ness, breath of breath, that we humans may never put into words.  Of course, we can try. Struggling for words, I call upon punk anger, rejecting social givens.  Security, identity, family–nothing is safe, all beings, all concepts, all identities move in flux.  If the earth blows up, other stars may nurture other life.  No absolutes around me in life, jagath mithya, yet G-O-D moves through all.itrustmy guitarjpg

[http://issuu.com/raggs/docs/itmg1/1]

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]

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]

 

Ambassador of life–SUV of the Indian roads, circa 1970

I sit here, at home in an ashram, and type away at the white screen.  Crawling like black ants out of a crevice, the words that arrive prove unreliable.  They force me into spaces that I’d rather not touch, those hidden crevices in the house where unknown creatures lurk.  From Goa, the end of my great Escape, I returned to a Madras metamorphosed into Chennai, then back, back to this little room. The Great Escapes in my life have been flights off a cliff, headlong into empty space. I flee into an unknown land, forced to leave routines of thought and being behind, a journey without companions or plans.

Twenty years or so ago, I had accompanied my cousin in her army jeep to Goa without absorbing much of the surroundings. Then, after the death of a god, suffocated by the social strictures of a spiritual community without its guide, I ran again. The sea called me, the memories of long, empty Goan beaches. Marked by its dependence on tourist trade, Goa nurses a risky reputation. Indian newspapers report murders, rapes, drug traffic in the state. But, after being there for almost 3 months, I find it safer and less indian than the other states in the country. As with most of its counterparts in other parts of the world, tourist trade in Goa makes for a laissez-faire culture.

Breaking out of the ashram, I seek yet for the lurking, uncertain magic of god, for a being whom death has freed from constraints of society or religion. A symbol. Where do I run to? To a place that is the obverse of a structured community, to tourist haven. Traveling today is easy. We board buses, trains, cars, and journey to places we have researched thoroughly. Trawling through sites like TripAdvisor, I realized that hardly any place on the globe remains unreviewed by previous travelers. Comments, reviews and blogs render the destination familiar before I set foot outside my door. We live in a world of déja vu, the already seen, already reviewed topography.

Staying for almost three months in Goa, I grow another skin. I become Goan in part. My return here to Puttaparthi asks that skin to be peeled off, a process more than cosmetic. My tan has to fade. I have to dress differently, to cover my newly sensitive skin with more layers against the sun, and social morés. Despite the ease of my journey, travel has turned me foreign to the self who lived here. Coming back ‘home,’ to a place I’ve lived in, for almost seventeen years, I am blessed with a sense of difference. Puttaparthi, for fifty years of my life has evoked a sense of wonder in me, symbol of a world beyond human logic. Now, the spell has broken. Magic exists, yes, but not here for me. Through my childhood years, beyond memory, I remember the journeys to this place, always with a sense of expectancy, a churning stomach, premonitions of marvel.

Driving down, through the heat and the arid thorn bushes, we packed the car with necessities–rice, kerosene stoves, pots, pans, dishes, bedding, sheets, towels, buckets, mugs and other stuff now forgotten.  Trailing two young kids in her wake, my Mum had to plan for all contingencies.  Our car, a 1961 Ambassador, bumped valiantly over rutted, pot-holed non-roads.  When in Madras, I looked for Ambassadors, those solid iron boxes on wheels, but only spotted them seldom.
[Ambassador or Amby – the first car to be manufactured in India, has been running on the Indian roads since 1948.  Based on the British Morris Oxford it is now made by Hindustan Motors (HM)]
Sober grey white, with steel detailing, our Amby was a bit different to one in the image.  Sporting a catchy license plate with the number, MSR 100, the car, over the years it stayed with us, developed a character all its own.  Journeys to Puttaparthi, the landscape of semi-desert, were its forté: MSR 100 hardly ever broke down along the way.  We’d see cars of lesser determination stranded with their bonnets open, often spouting grey fumes of smoke as we chugged by.

Petrol stations were sparse and far between, so Dad had to watch the miles between. In the monsoons, old MSR 100 would face a different problem than overheating as freak floods would block the road. But, built to withstand indian terrain, the Amby’s ground clearance contested the SUVs of today. Without a sputter of protest, MSR 100 pushed through the rising water.  Today, the Amby’s rusted iron number plates stand memorial just before the front door of my ashram apartment, decorating my garden.

Having lived so long in an ashram, I absorbed the Hindu respect for all beings, animate and inanimate. Swami often remarked that even dead bodies have atma or consciousness. Tempted to believe that MSR 100 lived, fought, and had a being, I particularly notice the Hindu beliefs about vahanas or vehicles [Vāhana from sanskrit–that which carries, that which pulls].

The vāhana may be considered an accoutrement of the deity: though the vāhana may act independently, they are still functionally emblematic or even syntagmatic of their “rider”…. Vah in Sanskrit means to carry or to transport. [wikipedia: vahana]

Living here as I did, hindu-catholic mongrel as I am, brought up by intellectuals who never bothered to teach their kids any religious rudiments, I found my own interpretations for rituals unknown, as, for example, the worship of vehicles during Ayudha Pooja in September/ October.ayudha-poojaAs a child (and perhaps even now), I simply believed that MSR 100 was a special vehicle with a soul of its own.  If my god and Merlin said that atma or consciousness resided in all things, animate and inanimate, why not a car, particularly a car like MSR 100? Movies like Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang reinforced my views. And what about Stephen King’s Christine? She may be a car of evil intent, but ‘Christine’ lived and was destroyed. The cars that transport us, or trains, or buses, or planes, may be put together by us with steel, wires, rubber, and fuel, but they are greater than the sum of their parts.

That special magic of life with Swami opened my eyes. I wonder at the syntagmatic relationship between humans and created objects, the part (the car) leads to the whole (the ‘owner’). MSR 100 sat for years in front of our house “Sai Jyothi.” The house itself was a symbol, built for Mum by Dad. Theirs was a hard union: Catholic and Hindu, my Dad and Mum had been separated by parental edicts for twelve years. Ironically, Dad died a couple of years after moving in. But, Mum loved the house: it gave her the space and security she needed to collect her thoughts, and her actions. After Dad died, she sold her small car, the Fiat, but kept the Amby. Later, MSR 100 took me to college way out in the boondocks of Andhra, past Puttaparthi, into a dry dusty town/ village. At the last, when Mum died, decades after my Dad, MSR 100 carried me back and forth to hospital. It carried me back to “Sai Jyothi” one early morning when she breathed her last.

Another decade later, when my Merlin/Swami declared that the house was to be sold, I returned to see MSR 100 squatting on its deflated tires, stubborn to the end. Opening its bonnet to check on the engine, I beheld the skeletons of rats and mice decorating its bowels. I sold the car for scrap. When the they came to take it away, they towed the Amby by its back axle, its nose to the ground. Watching, I broke down and wailed for the first time on my return to Madras. MSR 100 departed in protest, dragged by its heels to be torn apart for scrap. The number plates, rusted with missing letters, bide still among the green tropic plants.Photo on 06-04-13 at 11.50 AM #2 Entering or leaving my flat here in the ashram, I notice the plates and remember the spirit of the past, my MSR 100, guardian of childhood, harbinger of journeys.