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My sore. In which Rebecca indulges in a lengthy reflection of all she has observed (minus a few unimportant details) over the course of the last week.

February 20, 2011

“After enlightenment, the laundry.”

On my first day here, I ran to catch up with Louise and Meghan, as I’d lagged behind to stare at a tree. “Why are you running?” Louise asked. “To catch up!” I replied. She smiled. “Running is not there in India.”

Life here isn’t luxurious by any western standard. We wash squatting on the floor, pouring water over ourselves from a bucket. The solar panels started working a few days ago, so we now have hot water. Laundry is done by hand, outside on the washing stone, which has a tap in the wall next to it (and I feel lucky to have a tap). A ten minute walk is walked, in the hot sun. A five minute wait is half an hour, in the sticky heat. Sunlight reflects off the road ahead (“If there were water, and no rock”). Poverty and riches stand in stark contrast to each other and, well, I’m sure this is nothing you’ve never heard or seen before– I think it’s one of the most cliched observations about India in general– and yet, seeing a man crouching outside his little hut, or walking to pump water from the water pump down the road, does not cause pity. Not like, say, an Oxfam commercial, with those big brown eyes (fly crawling across face), and those skinny little limbs (distended sick belly). No, I think that pity is a response to self-pity. And the general cultural consensus here seems to be more about getting on with it than about sitting in reflection of all that everyone else seems to have. Not like in Glasgow where the general consensus is usually “Hmph. Alright for some.”

Which isn’t to say that it’s okay. And which isn’t to say that I’m not kinda dude-ranchin it up here. A few weeks of washing from a bucket is quaint. A few months would be an experience. A few years and I’d start watching Beverly Hills 90210 to get a taste of something else.

There’s this innocence. Like when Pushpa tells me that almonds are too expensive here, and says that 500 grams of almonds would cost 40 rupees (which IS very expensive for here), and I don’t have the heart to say that 500 grams of almonds in California would probably cost 400 rupees. Or Guru, the rickshaw driver, who picks us up and drops us off in Hebbalu for a few hours so that we can wander around. Guru’s dad died last year, so he’s supporting his mother and wee brother on his rickshaw driver’s salary. It’s crap money, lots of stress, lots of exhaust fumes. He taught himself English a few years ago, and is teaching himself Tanzanian now because he has a few Tanzanian clients. He speaks five languages, all self taught, except Kannada, which is his native tongue. He dreams of doing something else, but he’s the best rickshaw driver there is, and doing something else (like being a taxi driver) takes money (for a car), which he doesn’t have.

We get back after a few hours of walking around, and he’s standing by his rickshaw, polishing his country coins. Little boys in India will run up to you and say “country coin?” and then you give them a country coin and they ask you how much it’s worth and this is almost exciting as having their picture taken and seeing it on the little screen on the back of the camera. But Guru is a grown man with a country coin collection. He has old British coins. Old Indian coins. Tanzanian coins and French coins from before the Euro existed. He sees us and stops to show us each of his favourites, and squeezes each one in his hand before putting it away in his special bag. It’s getting dark, and he reaches up and, with a proud grin, flicks on a fancy decorative light he’s installed in the roof of the rickshaw. We’re all cast with a strange greenish glow, that gives way to pink, then blue, then purple, then yellow.

The next day he picked us up to take us to a craft fair. We were taking too long chatting to all the different artists, so he wanders in to catch up with us, and helps me bargain for a cool statue of Ganesha. He asks me where I’m from, and I explain that I grew up in Scotland, and now live in Los Angeles, and his eyes light up. “I would love more than anything to go to Los Angeles. It is my life’s dream.” and I tell him to come and visit– that he can stay in our guest bedroom and that I can drive him around for a change. I was serious. He smiled and said that he will probably never be able to afford the ticket. He turns to me and says “I do not want to die in India.” I suggest Iran. He laughs and says “no, not Iran. Not Iran, not Pakistan, not Afghanistan and not India.”

I remember having an argument with a man I went to school with. His [sanctimonious] opinion was that the only way to see the world was with a backpack on. We actually had quite a heated discussion about the whole thing because at one point he said that he didn’t think he could be friends with or talk to somebody who wasn’t willing to backpack (I thought to myself that I didn’t necessarily want to be friends with somebody who is convinced he is morally superior just because he owns a pair of Tevas but I kept my mouth shut). I explained to him that, having *kinda* backpacked through Italy (I had a bit more than a backpack), I cannot concede that being a transient will give you a true experience of a place. It’s the love and light thing again. The transient nature of the hippie yang society. I meet them all the time in LA– there’s so much love there, so much understanding, so much sex. It’s a holiday romance, where you can be as open as you want because you’re never going to see each other again. To settle is to give up. To set roots is to be weak. And yet, a life without intimacy is the safest life there is. A life where you touch the surface and everything is pretty is the perfect life. Where lovers don’t have faults, where places don’t have the heaviness of community, where friends don’t let you down because there is always a newer and better one. Believe me, I know this life. You can cover much more ground with a backpack on, but without depth, what’s the point? To check off a bucket list? To pretend that change is coming; to spin your wheels. It’s like only practicing when you feel like it– I think the term might be ‘bhoga’.

Whenever I’ve moved, I’ve noticed certain stages of intimacy with a place. At first it’s strange and unknown. Purely surface impressions– beauty, smells, sounds, temperature, weather. And then little things start to creep in– the food, the people, the pace. After a few weeks you know people, and have an idea of your favourite places. And then the bliss sets in– the honeymoon period of about 3 months, in which everything is perfect. It’s after 3 months that it starts to become uncomfortable again. Somebody lets you down. There is gossip. The weather goes bad and something breaks and you have to stand in line somewhere (and it’s no longer a novelty, as in “oooh I’m standing in line for an hour in an Indian post office– take a picture!”), and that’s when the discomfort really starts. Maps are consulted, new destinations chosen. I once said that I could happily spend my life living in a different place every four months. I also never wanted to get married, just to take lovers whenever I felt like it. I’m sure that, had I not decided to start analysing absolutely everything in great depth, I could have been quite content like that, possibly even dying before I realised I was missing something.

It’s in that four month window that we start to set habits. And what makes us feel more trapped than our own selves? Keep moving, and the patterns disappear under the surface– constant stimulation (you can also substitute with a television or an interwebs or a new relationship every few months), constant distraction. It’s like painting a blue sky over the prison bars (See, I’m free). Bhoga. Pleasure. Distraction. Practice when you feel like it. Only skim the surface. Life is love is light is pleasure is beauty is life.

Westerners here keep to themselves a lot. Discussing asana more than anything. It’s a spiritual pilgrimage where nothing changes and nothing is challenged, really. A new pose is added, Sharath looked in this direction one more time than last week. The coconut stand is visited, dosa parties are arranged. I’ve been reading Jane Austen books for a week (cheesy romance= holiday reading) and am struck by how similar the silliness is (same shit different century). Newcomers arrive, with obviously inferior practices, and are snubbed in favour of those who might actually be somebody important one day. And practice, in a room full of vrittis, is much more difficult than practicing to the rhythm of my washing machine, hearing Jamie clacking away on his keyboard, and the cat curling up under my back in setu bandhasana. Not that I’m vritti free, by any means, but in the context of Austen’s silly characters who, save the heroine are consumed with the goings on of society, all these vrittis feel like 19th century women, chattering away about who is who and who is important and what they are going to wear to the ball.

It’s absolutely chaotic. A wilderness in a way. The plants creep in, the cows and the chickens and the goats all run around in the middle of a main road, the cars and the rickshaws and the scooters, all honking at each other, ignoring street signs and stop lights. If humans and animals were left to their own devices without things like city planning and government regulation, I think it’d look a lot more like this– as a natural process of evolution. And you know how being in the wilderness is scary in ways that gardens are not. It’s just an illusion of course– I mean, we’re just as vulnerable whether we’re out in the wild or in the middle of a city, but our cities are built to make us feel safe, just as our infrastructure is. Out in the wild, with none of that safety around, we become aware that we are truly mortal, and this is terrifying. Gardens are safe. Westerners have made a garden of Mysore. I, myself stay in that garden, under Pushpa’s watchful care.

Amid that chaos is this general slowness, and a natural order. I mean, things just take a long time. Doing laundry takes a couple of hours. You fill a bucket with water, and soak your clothes, then you soap them up, one by one, and scrub them on the stone outside, then you rinse them off, and smooth them out, and hang them up one by one on the washing line. It’s not like back home where you can just throw on the laundry before you go out, and toss it in the dryer when you get back. Waiting at the post office, where there is no such thing as a line, is an experience (for which you really need strong elbows). People come to India to look for peace and spirituality and find a dirty noisy country that is covered in cow poo and a place where everybody has a mobile phone and hardly anyone does yoga or meditates. Years ago I was sitting in an Indian restaurant in London with an American yogi friend of mine, and she actually asked the waiter if he’d heard of her yoga teacher. I almost died of embarrassment, but that’s another story.

Men will walk down the street holding hands with each other. Manju brings over his engagement book with the cheesiest pictures I’ve ever seen, and almost pornographic poetry, and be so damn proud of it all– of how he can support his wife and of their engagement book. When Guru turned on his little fancy light, a part of me swelled up (the part of me that is NOT hypercritical and jaded, obviously) and I thought my heart might actually break right there on the spot. Lou asked me if I was ok, and I told her that my heart was breaking, and she told me to save my heart and let it break on something that isn’t a silly light in a rickshaw in Mysore, and she’s right, of course… but then sometimes I think it’s things like being faced with these opposites– the innocence in the face of my jaded criticism; the natural order in the chaos; the devotion, the sweetness and the strangeness and the sheer beauty of it all even though it’s half smelly and half delicious– sometimes it’s all a little too much to deal with all at once, and there’s nothing TO do but to break open so that it can flow through you, instead of staying rigid and trying to hold it all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 03:58

    More, please. Chai is there.

  2. February 24, 2011 05:05

    Oh my goodness, this is beautifully said. Having transplanted myself from California to Jerusalem, I understand where you are going with this. And you said it so beautifully. Keep safe and have a great adventure.

  3. February 24, 2011 09:15

    Perspective, eh?

  4. Kara permalink
    February 24, 2011 09:35

    Beautiful. Could see and smell the scene. I think the rickshaw light was a perfect thing to allow your heart to break open and allow the experience to flow through. Ah, the beauty of the mundane to symbolize so many layers of life. Thanks for sharing. Enjoyed very much.

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