On Show– The Female Body Controlled

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

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

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

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

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

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

photo © Maxim Vakhovskiy

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

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

Incredulous I begin to defend myself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

the fateful roof deck, my window to right

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

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

Of course, by that I mean the woman guest:

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

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

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

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

“Get It Out of Me” by Heather Keith Freeman

Addendum:

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

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

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

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

 

A woman and her bitch: an INDog and I

A scared little dog decided, one day some five years ago, that I was the one to feed her.  When she turned up in my tiny front yard, she was skin and bone, her dugs hanging down, her ribs all too visible under the skin.  As with most female dogs who were not spayed, she ‘d given birth somewhere, hidden her pups nearby, and gone out to forage for food.  Less than a year old herself, she was an awful sight.tippy1

What instinct led her to me, I can’t fathom.  Frightened of the big bad world at large, loud noises, even the sound of a dropping leaf, she ate ‘Marie’ biscuits’ from my hand, shying away if other folk came too near or dogs barked too close.  That behavior hasn’t changed.  If anything, she becomes more worried when people walk into the garden.  As the garden lies in the heart of the ashram, I cannot fence it about though it is ringed by a row of concrete planters. For Tippy, however, this openness makes for an anxious feeding. Constantly on the look out for other dogs, she runs at first bark to take secondary refuge under a red mini-van yards down the block.

Abs not ME!!

Abs not ME!!

I’ve always been quite companionable to dogs: “Hello, how are you today,” I greet any stray on my way.  Merely an acknowledgement of co-existence, I ask them how the world is and themselves. Most dogs respond, staring at this stranger, me, with the expressive dark eyes common to the breed. Sometimes they even follow me about for a while. Indeed, there have been a few dogs who have taken my greeting as a sign of uncommon friendship, jumping on my shoulders and attempting to lick my face. Such exuberant outbursts leave me worried about hygiene as I am a believer in washing my hands after canine contact. As with my interactions with my own species, humans, I’d rather a quiet, occasional camaraderie with no expectations on either side. Mostly, this approach works well.

At a juncture in my life, when any attachment seems too much, Tippy is a one off for me. She’s not really my kind of dog. I’d prefer a more confrontational bitch, a more muscular female, less the pretty dog she’s turned out to be. But, I must admit, when cornered, Tippy snarls and fends off the biggest prick among those who set on her. A particular set of noisy, boisterous barkers claim my garden as part of their territory unfazed by my shouted invectives. At sight of Tippy, they give chase. She can turn on them abruptly even if she’d rather hide.

When I set about driving them off, unfortunately, Tippy is the first to run, though recently she’s hung about, and watched their retreat. In the last couple of days, I mutter away to her as she sits in the yard outside my window, and my mumbled nonsense seems to calm her down a bit. Anyway, she’s definitely healthier.Photo on 02-05-13 at 11.15 AM #3

Tippy chose me, and I let myself be chosen. Now, I’m caught. Thankfully, she’s been seized and spayed sometime after her first overture to me Although she turns up on three days and disappears for the next three, I know she will return. Sometimes, her absences have been as long as ten days, but she re-appears eventually. The day I returned after my three month sojourn in Goa, she bounced out of the bushes, as startled by me as I was by her. I refuse to ‘own’ Tips. She is not my dog, much as I worry about her. In her own timid way, she asserts her independence through her regular absences, through her cautious approach, through her darting escapes out.

As my unwanted attachment grows, I find her beautiful–dark brown eyes ringed with black, short light brown coat fading to a blonde ruff over her neck. Not one of the elect, pure-bred kindred, she belongs to the ubiquitous ‘pi’ dogs that populate every Indian city and village. Wondering what strain these ‘pi’s had descended from, I googled them the other day, my usual resource when I’m at a loss. I’d assumed these dogs were mongrels like me, composed of a mix of different breeds. But, I’ve no company here. I learn that these dogs are a domestic breed, as distinct as any of the pedigreed breeds.[http://indianpariahdog.blogspot.in/search/label/articles] “INDog” is the label now officially recognized for these dogs. On the definitive site for the INDog project [http://www.indog.co.in/], the breed is described in detail, and archeological evidence given to prove that this dog breed was the first to be domesticated, despite the insult of their nickname. ‘Pi’ the label from my childhood is actually short for “pariah” a tamil word for the untouchable, scavenger class in India.

Interestingly, the scavenger class extended to comprise these dogs, looked down upon as the lowest of the low of dogs. No self-respecting Indian of the upper and middle class would own one of these in those days. A pure-bred Lab, Pom etc. signified status, much like cars, watches, or even the schools we attended. But, the INDog is gradually coming into its own [https://www.facebook.com/pages/INDog-Club/]. Though not recognized by any “Kennel Club“, the breed is ironically admitted to the ‘primitive’/aboriginal breed of dogs. Racist classification of the human species bleeds over into the labels for dogs. More ‘civilized’ perhaps, the Western dogs can lord it over the primitive breeds!

Wikipedia cites Gautam Das who is part of the INDog project–

 Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

Indian Pariah Dog Club logo

“The type represents one of the few remaining examples of mankind’s original domestic dog and its physical features are the same as those of the dogs whose fossil remains have been found in various parts of the world, from very early remains in Israel and China to later ones such as those found in the volcanic lava at Pompeii, near Naples in Italy. In India these were the hunting partners and companion animals of the aboriginal peoples of India. They are still found with the aboriginal communities who live in forested areas. Since these dogs have never been selectively bred, their appearance, physical features and mental characteristics are created by the process of natural selection alone. The INDog has not been recognized by any kennel club although similarly ancient or ‘primitive’ dogs have been recognized such as the Azawakh and the Basenji both of which are also sighthound and Pariah…. It has been recognized by the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society (PADS), a worldwide grouping of enthusiasts which is based in the USA. It is extremely alert, very social dog. Its rural evolution, often close to forests where predators like tigers and leopards were common, has made it an extremely cautious breed and this caution is not to be mistaken for a lack of courage. They make excellent watch dogs and are very territorial and defensive of their pack/family.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Pariah_Dog]

Chacha ChaudharyEven in Puttaparthi, or the outlying villages in Rayalseema, I’ve seen the Indian pariah sitting proudly in the little courtyards before the small houses, standing up to bark fiercely if an unknown comes too close. [On Chacha Choudhry, the comicbook villager, and his dog Rocket, see http://topyaps.com/top-10-indian-comic-book-heroes/]   But, I’ve come across a number of dogs with their ears cropped, and often their tails as well. I asked my dhobi (laundry woman), Saraswati once why the villagers did that. She replied earnestly, “Dogs listen to our secrets. They hear our whispers and family problems, and carry them around the village. So, we have to lop off the tips of their ears. Otherwise, it’s not good for the family.”  Cut off the dogs’ ears the villagers might, but the dogs receive as good a meal as their children.  Last year, Saraswati’s son carried their dog in his arms to the animal hospital in the neighboring village when it refused to eat.

I’ve seen INDogs herding groups of sheep and goats being taken to graze, nipping at their heels to keep them in line.  In Chennai, my friend Ganesh is in the process of training Mani, the street stray, to sleep within the compound. Now, Mani duly scares the courier boy, though a large coterie of his friends tempt him with biscuits to get him outside Ganesh’s gate. Perhaps Tippy turned up in my garden to keep me socialized, a borderline human.  It takes a woman her bitch to keep her womanly…?

Barbara Shermund. I'm Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

Barbara Shermund. I’m Sorry! between 1945 and 1955.

 

Bloodletting II: my bloody sexualities

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

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

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

image on Tom Tom Magazine

image on Tom Tom Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People here and elsewhere often ask me,

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

Another common query, particularly in this tourist state is,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

Leaky bucket days–life dripping down

“Water not only moves around a rock, it actually moves through it,”
Larry Fleinhardt in Numb3rs

An eccentric genius, Larry is a physics professor who cannot get his ‘self’ together. In certain aspects of his life he is highly organized and anal retentive as, for instance, in his food habits, he eats only monochromatic foods. But, Larry has his anarchic  side as well; he sells his house and, now, beds down wherever he feels unthreatened.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0888290/   The episode opens with Larry scurrying out of a steam tunnel, bedding in hand, watched surreptitiously by a Senior Professor.   Although he has been offered a space in Charlie’s garage, he moves out after a few nights, preferring the tunnels.larry Larry’s is a more borderline personality than Charlie Epps, the math genius who, though he may have commitment problems, lives in his own house albeit with his dad. Watching the show at night, having had a few pegs of ‘Honeybee’, that wonderful Goan brandy, I sense Larry in myself.

So far the day has been a leaky bucket, my resolve to write, my good humor, have both dripped out through the hours. An all too familiar mood of futility and desperation flows in instead.  I hear my own voice, shrill, high, and loud, berating the service people who delay the car’s return until the afternoon.  The heat today  is like an unwanted blanket, it presses down and renders me numb and nerveless.  Aware that the world is at odds with me, I don’t want to move.

Sure enough, my voice hits the heavy air again like a harpy’s. I shout at Francisca, the housekeeper, who forgets to bring the sticky tape I need to mend a carton. And, I am constantly on the phone to the service people who whine,
“we are bringing the car, just now, bringing the car ma’am.”
They have now been bringing the car for four days.
“Brake pads are worn down, ma’am, we don’t have a driver, ma’am, the car is in the body shop, ma’am.”
Sung in inimitable Indian cadence, the refrain drums through my head. The customer will never be God here, s/he has to grateful for any favors done.

My harangue, in response to their ditty, removes me to another time and place–the ashram of two years ago when its founder died.  The note of hysteria that inflects my voice summons up those days:  Swami dead, people, pilgrims, gawkers, and thieves bound together in the sweat of mass emotion.  Me, in my tiny flat, I cower amid the thick of things, hidden behind my walls but I witness all.putt  I don’t venture outside, but my room rides the gusts of hysteria and hypocrisy. My apartment is a ship, battered by a cyclone of mourning.

I lock myself forcibly inside, and attempt to eat myself into immobility. My legs lock up.  They ache because they have nowhere to walk. [FYI:news video Devotees mourn death]  Today, two years later, the legacy of locking myself in for eight months endures, physically and mentally.  I write to release myself from that immuration within doors. Physically, I am free, I have the means to move where I please–to be in Goa, to meet folks, to walk on the beach.  But every so often I feel the weight of  those mental shackles.  I allow myself more latitude now but grief still bears down on my mind. I will not move out of this room in Sunlife Residency today, although my voice beats at different doors.

Scrunched over my little MacBook, I hear a scooter start up, and Shalini, my neighbor goes by with her year old son balanced in front of her.  She looks up and waves, plump, with shoulder length black hair, large dark eyes that crease up when she smiles. Her round face, as well, creases into goodwill. In her black skirt and printed blouse, she looks the perfect mum.
“You must have heard me screaming,” I tell her, “horrible day, guess how much the service cost?  Thirteen thousand rupees.”
“Ooh,oh, my Gawd!” she exclaims.
“Fuck them. Ba-a-ad day.”
“Yes”, she agrees.

I’ve been bled dry.

 

Hungry sharks–queer encounters in Cavelossim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snakes of the sea–a catholic-hindu mongrel on the beach

“Le hasard, c’est peut-être le pseudonyme de Dieu quand il ne veut pas signer. [Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not wish to sign his work.] —Théophile Gautier [http://www.phraseculte.fr/phrase-culte-hasard-theophile-gautier-18.html]

I never knew who wrote this until right now when I trawl the web for writings on coincidence. These words, like so much other literary miscellany, jitterbug through my mind at odd hours, waking me up when I need to sleep. Coincidence rests in the realm of the miraculous.

Surfing the net a few days ago, I read that sea snakes are common to Goa‘s seas.[http://indiamike.info/india/goa-f23/sea-snake-t180518/#post1493182] sea-snake-in-goa-beachhttp://indiamike.info/india-images/pictures/sea-snake-goa-beach The very next morning I see a dead sea snake coiled up on the sand at low tide. Today again, I enter the beach at extreme low tide, walking onto exposed black sands, and I notice on my right, just about a yard away, a sea snake. Only, this snake is alive, opening its mouth and attempting to make its way back into the sea. I watch it for a while, wanting to help but queasy all the same. As I make my way along the shore for my morning stumble, the thought of that stranded serpent remains at the back of my mind. On my return, about an hour or so later, I look around but see no sign of it. Hopefully, the snake has regained the sea.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but also a sign from the god that follows me about, a whisper from the universe,

“You are not alone, detritus on the shores of life. The snake and you, god holds you both equally, process without hierarchy.”

Evolution or not, the plankton on the waves, a dense frond of seaweed on the shore, inanimate sand and animate human foot, we are interdependent, we create G-O-D together. Shell studded beach, star studded sky, neon studded cities, will I learn to hold these together equally? If my prayer is listened to, what about that breathed by the cockroach I spray with Baygon? At unprompted moments, this catholic breath blows through my being; at others I am empty, washed clean, like that spiral shell on the beach.

Yesterday, I had to take my blue Jazz for service to Verna. A long drive, but I follow my friend, Gerry, in his little red Zen to the service center. Leaving my car there, I hop into the Zen, accompanying Gerry as he does a few errands. Then, we drive to his house in Orlim, where the carpenter and his assistant are replacing the tiles on the roof. They remove the red terracotta tiles one by one, then, they clean and replace each: their activity writes a poem in color, labor, and sunlight.

Underfoot, the black dust from the tiles sprinkles the mosaic on the floor. Inside the kitchen, Preethi is at the stove, busy with an Indian breakfast delicacy, pooris. Deep fried, true, but ambrosia to a hungry person. Gerry has a headache which he attributes to a hangover from a peg of vodka drunk the night before, but we, Preethi and I, are sure that the pooris will prove a remedy. Sure enough, the headache vanishes, and he holds forth on his projects for the day. Standing up to leave, he remarks casually that he’ll see me later.

“But, Gerry,” I hesitate, “should I come with you right now, otherwise, how will I make my way back?”
Surprised, he looks at me: “Ah, no, you’ll have the car, so you can leave later.”
“What car, do you mean you’re handing over the car to me?”
“Yup, keep with you in ‘Sunlife Residency,’ you’ll need it to go to market, or beach.”
He mutters, “I prefer the scooter to move about on, any way. What traffic in Margao, you know.”

His unforced kindness bowls me over. My interactions with others over the past few years have been fraught; his simple goodwill renews my faith in our species. Preethi pipes in, “keep it, keep it. You use it.” She’s got a lot to do after Gerry’s departure—-wash the dishes, sweep, dust, and mop the house in the aftermath of the roof cleaning. As she moves round to the back to free their two enormous blonde Labradors who have become entangled with each other, I follow to see pails and pails of clothes soaked for wash. Freed from his chain, Tyson jumps on me, tongue lolling to the side. I push him off, fearful of my legs. Meantime, Bruno, still chained, starts wailing.

I take my leave, not wanting to get in the way of Preethi’s chores. Outside, the small house faces a vista of fields, the neighbor’s place is well beyond a banyan tree. Gerry and Preethi have cleared the ground about the house, and planted decorative shrubs. To protect the emerging shrubs from the depredations of the dogs, Gerry’s brainwave is to circle them with upended, Tuborg beer bottles. Everywhere I look, those beer bottle butts wink greenly back at me. The Zen is parked facing the narrow dirt track that leads up to the house, making it easy for me to maneuver it over the rubble.

I start the car which is in first gear, but, before I get it to move, the clutch jerks and the engine cuts out. Under the grinning gaze of the tile cleaner who is watching me closely, I try a couple more times. No go. Finally, I raise the engine in frustration, and the tiny car moves down the track. I am off in Gerry’s car but it is a tense and jerky ride until I get used to it.

Anxious though I am at driving a vehicle so different from mine, a sense of felicity envelops me. Later, the same evening, I visit my neighbor, Shalini, to genuflect before the icon of Mother Mary in her living room, decorated with a crown of electric lights above and a burning taper below. Mother Mary travels from house to Catholic house in Varca. (Every local church sends their particular Mother Mary from house to house in their neighborhood). Each home welcomes her, keeps her for 24 hours, and celebrates her visit with fireworks and prayers. I am blessed.

So, I consecrate my private togetherness with god and the vast anarchic totality of Being. For now, a divine, fugitive order of coincidence directs my steps. Tomorrow? Who knows? Certainly not me.

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]

Spiral shells along the mindshore–solitary thoughts on Varca beach

Stumbling along on Varca beach in the morning, about 7 am, I realize that my dress is inside out. Earlier in the morning, drinking my coffee, I noticed that the pockets were hanging out, but had absentmindedly pushed them back in. Now, I comfort myself that the sundress is black, in a dye so runny that the rinse water stains the floor during the wash. The label is probably dyed by now; anyway, I’ve knotted the dress up on one side, and other side I’ve pinned up with a nappy pin. Surprisingly, this early, the beach not empty: beach walkers and joggers, wave paddlers and wallowers move by.

Sunday today, so perhaps the weekend tourists are getting in their fill of the sea before the sun beats down.  Only mid March, but the heat during the day prevents any strenuous physical activity. We Indians, phobic about the sun’s effect on our skins, are the most visible on the beach. Foreigners tend to get here after 8 am, wanting to take in the heat. Some turn a boiled red through the days, some a glorious golden brown, others a kind of in between brown-red.

Along the far horizon, laid out in a line, fishing boats dot the sea: they are further out today as the tide is coming in.  Only one lonely catamaran, a contraption of two huge logs bound together, rides into shore. Its sole fisherman, in baggy black trunks, poles through the breakers, and, at the last he has to get down and push it into the sand. Watching him, I look to see where he has placed his catch on those two logs, but all I can find is a plastic bundle. He must have wrapped the fish up so they wouldn’t fall back into the waves. Curiously, as the tide laps in, the sea remains calm, the breakers that ride in with crests’ foaming are still gentle. Behind my back, the sun rises behind a fringe of eucalyptus trees. The sea is red gold, a color that invokes an atmosphere of legend.

If reality and the physical world exist, they must exist hand in hand with the legendary, a mystical otherworld where knowledge is built on the miraculous. I ask myself if belief, or faith, functions in that world just as rigorous analytic thought functions here. Other minds, other perceptions–agreeing with me, the tide throws up an orangey brown spiral shell at my feet. The shell comes with a tiny blob still clinging on.
spiral shell  When I try later to identify the shells through Google,

I come upon Ivars Petersen’s article on sea shell spirals.  Describing the nautilus shell (not this orangey elongated shell), he writes:

the growth process yields an elegant spiral structure, visible when the shell is sliced to reveal the individual chambers. Many accounts describe this pattern as a logarithmic (or equiangular) spiral and link it to a number known as the golden ratio….Starting with the observation that shell spirals are logarithmic spirals, many people automatically assume that, because the golden ratio can be used to draw a logarithmic spiral, all shell spirals are related to the golden ratio, when, in fact, they are not. http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/6030/description/Sea_Shell_Spirals

 

Are spirals magical or not? Does it matter if all spirals confirm or not to the golden ratio, or the Fibonacci sequence (popularized by Dan Brown)? Can magic or miracles ever be caught in a net of scientific proof?  The shells lie in the black tidal sand at my feet, some sections of the shore are shell studded, and some parts of the sand are bare. I find occasional small starfish, and big, glossy, black mussel shells. Pelecypods, or bivalves, I assume.

Caught though I am in reverie, a sharply trilled, “Good Morning”, shocks me into polite response even before I raise my head. When I look up, I see a sari clad, plump worker woman, hair neatly caught in a bun and oiled. She smiles cheerily at me, and strides on. As I watch, I see that she wishes nobody other than me. Inspired by her stride, I move faster, limp determinedly on, pushing my legs through the water. Every so often I move deeper into the sea, and let the salt water wash over my swollen knees. My body’s deterioration seems part of some process where my physical self and mind move together: as the body slows down, the mind must seek an equilibrium. As long as possible, I will stave off surgery that refashions my aging body and fixes me up with ‘new knees’. No, I am not against science, or progress, or rational thought, I just need to believe that these are not the only ways that humans can live.

Heeding those aching legs and creaky knees, in the meantime, I look for a sandy ledge thrown up by the tide in order to lever myself down on the sand and do a few stretches. I sit awhile, looking at the horizon and the near breakers. A black bird, maybe a crow, flies high overhead, heading out over the waves and into the open seas. I watch until it is a speck in the sky and a gull distracts me. Where did it go, I wonder, did it head out to the fishing boats on the horizon in hopes of a stray catch off their decks? The crow’s solitary flight triggers the memory of other flights. I remember butterflies fluttering alongside the breakers, seemingly out of place, far from any vegetation. These butterflies are huge, warmly red, or red and black, almost minute birds. Remembrance prompts their arrival, a red butterfly hovers now above the waves, and I realize they are always solitary beings, never in pairs.

Movement along the shore attracts me, though I sit with legs half buried in the sand. I stare bemused at the lone jogger: the woman now has her sari hiked up, and jogs plumply along. As I smile at her in wonderment, she grins back. I notice that she even has a black thread tied about her ankle (usually part of some Hindu ritual), and sports the red dot on her forehead. Joy seizes me. The spontaneity of our camaraderie is miraculous, two beings who are joined for a moment in their eccentricity. Yes, yes, I believe in an anarchic world, a process where Generation-Organization-Destruction invokes the universe. And that particular phrase, or definition, G-O-D, is courtesy of A magical Being, Person, Human, Sage, and my very own Merlin.