by Haden Peterson
The Kathakali Dance Master
"So you see, all is emptiness," said the man on the stage with the luxuriant white moustache. His English was quite good. The dancers had left. The stage was dark and bare except for a few props left behind and a brazier that held some glowing coals. He spoke into a large chrome microphone. There was music in his voice and a world weariness. "Everything ... is nothing." His white shirt, long sleeved, v necked, fell loosely over his pants. He patted a handkerchief to his forehead quickly and returned it to his pocket. "Every 'thing' is no-thing. No 'thing' exists," he said articulating each word purposely. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingertips together. "All is flux. All - illusion," and waved his hand, opening his eyes again. "Except, the moment. THAT is what we celebrate in the dance." He shook a hand toward us pointing his index finger upward. "That is the message of the dance," he said sustaining the last syllable.
The dance master had begun with a general introduction to Kathakali, a traditional dance of this part of South India. The dancers portrayed gods and monsters from the Ramayana tales. The garish makeup and fantastic costumes - embroidered vests bristling with gold tassels, bustle skirts and feathered headdresses - were designed to evoke awe from the viewers. ("Art must be larger than life, always larger.") Their stiff movements and grimaces, drawn from a vast catalog of gesture, could, he assured us represent any object, action or emotion. All this he rattled off quickly; it was well rehearsed. But now he'd moved on to matters of far greater consequence; essences, the ultimate ground of being and the realm of non-dual reality. I tried to connect the logic of his thoughts, but they seemed to flit about like the mosquitoes in the open room. The fan above thrummed monotonously, inviting daydreams. His words began to blur.
I was ready to believe many things now. Over the course of a month here, I'd abandoned at least a few of the preconceptions I came with, like the heavy clothes we'd brought but shed along the road. When we arrived, I thought I was prepared for India - but that was just wishful thinking -and a long time ago.
Delhi - Old and New
My wife and I had arrived at Delhi Airport, exhausted by the long flight but glad to finally be there. On some level the trip had been in the works for a long time. My father had been born in India and throughout my childhood, around the table in conversations with my grandmother, who'd lived there all her life, stories would be served up about life under the Raj. Three years earlier, we had traveled to nearby Burma. In addition to perusing the guide books, I'd been primed by accounts of travelers recently returned.
So as we picked up our bags and headed out the airport doors, I must have carried a head full of ideas about what we were to experience. Now, outside the exit, a huge crowd was massed, facing us. There was an electricity in the air and a low roar that people in great gatherings produce. Policemen in khaki uniforms, their backs to us, kept them at bay. Was someone famous about to arrive, the Pope, perhaps the Beatles? Women waved excitedly. Men held up toddlers to look. A policeman blew his whistle and a path opened up before us through the sea of people, allowing us to proceed. Just beyond this crowd, metal dividers straddled by young men held back even more people. As we continued toward the taxi area, I began to suspect that this wasn't a special event. There were probably no celebrities arriving. It was an ordinary day at an airport in a country of a billion souls. We made our way past the crowd where smiling men with anxious eyes waited. "Sir! Hello!? Where do you want to go?" We declined their offers, got into a little Ambassador in the line of cabs and chugged off to the city, leaving behind a cloud of dust and commotion.
We got settled at our hotel in Connaught Circus, the shopping district, and by late afternoon were ready to explore. It was late December, the sky was deeply overcast and there was a chill in the air. At first glance Delhi seems much like any other modern city. There are tallish buildings on broad tree-lined boulevards. There are smartly dressed businessmen in designer sunglasses who pull out cellular phones from briefcases. There are stylish looking stores with displays of luxury goods in their windows. But up close, the buildings are pealing and crumbling despite their recent construction. Signs are faded, busses are beat up. The "fog", it turns out, is a permanent haze of pollution - remarkably bad even by developing country standards. There is litter everywhere. Indian cities, it must be said, are not charming.
Walking around a while on these maddeningly concentric roads, I finally understood why the Brits call them "circuses". The circular arrangement of streets demands an advanced GPS system. Good luck figuring out where you are. "Wasn't it was back there on 'K' block, near that sign that said 'Suitings'? Or maybe it was 'L'?" Businesses declare themselves with four or five hand-lettered signs in varying degrees of decrepitude, creating a visual cacophony that drains one's attention. Less is definitely not more. In fact, more is probably not nearly enough. Along with the forest of signs, stores compete by broadcasting syrupy Indian pop music from exterior speakers. "Very good for business!" The ideal sound seems to be a synthesis of 50's pop (cha-cha beat, surf guitar riffs) with native idioms - typically a female voice, impossibly high, careening wildly like a violinist playing up on the fingerboard, getting all the "in between" notes. This is the tourist area and immediately men with too much hair and broad smiles were welcoming us - hands extended in greeting. I listened to the pitches of the first few - "Tours?" "Jewelry?" and my favorite - "Anything?" But then I adopted a 'smile back and wave' policy, keeping my feet in motion. The phrase "Maybe later," warded them off wonderfully, like garlic against vampires. After an hour or so of this, we headed off in the direction of the old part of the city.
The motorized traffic of New Delhi gave way to legions of bicycle rickshaws trundling past slower ox drawn carts and swarming crowds of pedestrians. A sleepy eyed cow stood immobile, impervious to the chaos and dust swirling around it. I felt the magnitude of humanity again, when I suddenly realized that there were no women around except for a group I'd seen calling down from a window; prostitutes, I guessed. We wandered off the main road to quieter side streets. A piglet rooted about in the open sewer, its tail busy swishing flies. Red splatters, the color of blood, stained pavement and walls - betel nut; chewed and spat ubiquitously. A group of boys tagged along behind us - a little too close, shouting "Which country?" and laughing at our response. It seemed more like a tease than anything to get alarmed about, but by then the light was beginning to fade and we were the only outsiders around. As we left the old quarter, in the shadow of the Jama Masjid, the muezzin's call to prayer soared over all of this, his voice filled with the passionate longing of a worshipper for his God.
One morning back in Connaught Circus, I noticed a man on the sidewalk who appeared to be missing the entire lower half of his body - a torso "standing" on his stump. It was chilly and I realized that his legs were drawn up under his caftan for warmth. Though it's an impossible position to maintain long for those unaccustomed to it, the squat is universal here and the most comfortable way to "sit" for any length of time. In front of him lay a small bathroom-size scale. I thought he was selling it - though it seemed odd to have only one item. The next day, I realized that his job was to weigh things. Since his spot was close to our hotel, we passed him several times in the days we spent in Delhi, always in the same squat. It occurred to me that he might not own the scale. He might rent it or be paid to sit in front of it all day. I never did see anyone actually use his service. Somehow he squeezed out some kind of living at this. There are multitudes engaged at such things: vendors by the side of the road with a few combs arranged on a piece of cloth; a man sitting under an awning next to a huge, black Underwood typewriter, ready for dictation. It was only a few years ago that the phone trunk lines were so inadequate that a call to a neighboring town invariably returned a busy signal. The job of "re-dialer" sprung up, whose work it was to keep dialing until a connection was established; this in the days before touch tone.
We needed to confirm a flight. I phoned the office but was told we had to do it in person in their office. The clerk gave their address as "in the Hanslaya building on Barakhamba Road", a curiously vague address that was repeated when I asked for more specifics. We found the road soon enough but discovered that the buildings here had neither names nor numbers - odd given the penchant for signage, that I'd seen back at Connaught. Our navigation strategy was to walk up and down the road (more like a boulevard with service roads on either side of a busy thoroughfare, separated by traffic islands) or cross it, dodging the dense traffic and ask people. We stopped a well dressed businessman for help. He looked up and down the road, squinting. A rickshaw driver got off his bicycle to participate. Soon, a small crowd had gathered around us, as we consulted a map. Two old men pointed us simultaneously in opposite directions and an argument ensued. Eventually, we found it and walked into the office of our airline, Jet Airways. Inside, about thirty male customers stood, the couch already occupied by sullen, cross armed customers. A security guard smiled weakly as he handed me a plastic token, octagonal, engraved with a number. The customers hovered intently over what turned out to be a living customer rep - I could have sworn it was an automaton, so still was she at her computer. Every few minutes, she would come to life briefly, peck at the computer's keyboard and wait motionlessly for a few moments until the thing beeped. After a half-hour of watching her try to straighten out the reservations for single customer, I knew we were in for the long haul. The opening chorale of Orff's Carmina Burana droned as accompaniment to memories of endless waiting in government offices. I caught the guard slyly turning the little cardboard sign hanging from the front of the glass door from 'Open' to 'Closed' and as it was now almost noon, ("Do you think they have siesta in India?") I began to think that we might yet have to learn to master the Asian squat. Incredibly, an hour later we were out of there, our flight confirmed. Jet, we had read, had reputation for efficiency.
From Delhi, we traveled south to Agra (another polluted, densely crowded city, redeemed by the presence of the Taj Mahal) and west to Rajasthan. People don't usually associate India with desert, but as we drove west, it became progressively drier, the tamarisks and acacias gradually giving way to scrubbier trees on bare plains. We began to see camels pulling carts along the side of the road. Our car climbed over the stark Aravelli Hills as we headed for the town of Pushkar, known for its camel fair and the little lake that the town is built around. With its whitewashed buildings providing an architectural unity and its ancient squares leading down to the lake, it's strikingly picturesque. The human density thins out in Rajasthan, a consequence of the desert environment. Pushkar's small size and relative tranquility came as a relief after the congestion of large cities. We found a hotel with a pretty room that looked out over palm trees and the lake. The pleasant setting and my convalescence from a stubborn case of the runs were reason enough for us to linger a few days here. As dusk fell and the sky turned deep blue, the soft lights of the town, tawny and pale green, flicked on, mirrored by the still surface of the lake. Drummers from across the lake pounded out a syncopated groove for a while, then built it up into a furious crescendo that ended finally in a last few sputters. In the morning women's voices from outside woke us along with the sounds of muffled pounding and the splashing of water. Below, on the steps of the lake, the women scrubbed soap into their clothes and pounded them clean with stones.
Rajasthan is the land of the Rajputs, the warrior clans, who when hopelessly outnumbered, had a history of ending battles by storming out against the enemy in suicide runs. The men really do wear turbans - incandescent oranges and parrot greens. The women's saris are equally vibrant and they shimmer with gold and silver baubles. The physical beauty of its people in their traditional dress set against the desert background gives Rajasthan a distinct, visually arresting sense of place. It's also one of the poorest, most backward areas with a per capita income of about $350 per year and a literacy rate of around 40 percent.
My boots attracted the shoeshine boys who would circle around as we walked down the street. Usually about twelve years old, they'd start to pester holding up a rag and a tin of polish and call out a price. I always waved them off. I didn't want to stop and anyway it seemed pointless in this dusty desert environment. One day, away from the center of town, a handsome kid tagged along persisting for much longer than usual. Finally I stopped and asked how much. His price, at least double the going rate irritated me momentarily. I stupidly took it the wrong way - as a rip-off instead of the game that it is. As I turned away from him and continued walking, I heard him lower the price a couple times, his voice trailing off.
I immediately felt bad. How could I who have everything do this to a poor kid, probably an orphan who sleeps on the street, his only support being the little he manages to cadge from travelers. On the other hand I thought, "There must be some errands these kids can do to earn money. I'm not responsible for their society. I'm just a tourist here." The rationalizing went on like this but it didn't make me feel much better.
It's a gauntlet that must be negotiated daily and sometimes strains whatever reserves of compassion you can muster amid the heat, dust and confusion. The determined rickshaw wallah who follows you, incredulous that you would prefer to walk, the vendor who calls out to you in plaintive tones "Just have a look sir, please!", the barefoot five year old who runs up to you with a balloon to sell - it's heart breaking, of course but the magnitude of the problem tends to inure one. Just to go about your business, you find yourself developing a callus to it. People eat, you can see that - but it's also apparent that the mass have little more than the clothes they wear.
Later in the trip, as we stood with a crowd, a boy with useless, rubbery knees crawled among us, the ends of his shirt providing his knees scant protection from the ground. Everyone ignored him. One hears stories of children being maimed by their parents to transform them into more convincing beggars. After a while he'd disappeared from view. A few minutes later I found him and pulling out all my small notes, put them in his hand. He gave me grateful look and made a gesture of benediction. I knew it would not fundamentally change his life, but it would help a bit for the moment. From then on I made sure to keep a pocket filled with coins and small bills.
Old and the new rub against each other and we came across them in funny or touching ways. We went into a little shop that had a couple computers to email friends. Right outside the place was a communal pump where women filled brass jugs with water to be carried home on their heads. The Rajput women are striking: high cheekbones, pointy noses, full lips, dark skin. Theirs is a defiant beauty - and a no nonsense manner. They do not avert their eyes at a strangers gaze. Another time, on the outskirts of town, a small boy was sitting on a low wall and absentmindedly tossing a small stone into the air and catching it, repeatedly. There were a few cows standing nearby. As we passed him, I heard a soft 'plop' sound and looked back. He had jumped down into the dirt and was rolling up the fresh cow turd, forming it neatly into a block to be used as fuel for cook fires. This was the first place I'd been where toilet paper rolls were stacked decoratively in a pyramid design; the vendor calling out "Hello!" and pointing to it, gleefully. "You need? Good price. OK?" My pocket camera got a complete open-mouthed look of wonder once from a guy shepherding some cows. It was as if I'd just materialized a soufflé from a Starship Enterprise food replicator.
In Pushkar, I discovered that my favorite perspective of Indian cities is from the rooftops. The cities are not pretty, but they are bursting with life. Long tailed monkeys sat calmly at the very edges of roofs grooming each other until a squabble erupted sending one to chase a transgressor over the roofs and across to adjacent buildings. Boys tugged at kites floating in a breeze off the lake, their excited shouts echoing over the rooftops. Women hung out wet clothes to dry in the hot desert sun. A score of mottled finches took refuge in the leaves of a scrubby vine that crept up a utility pole. A moment later they exploded away in a flash of energy. From above, one is far enough away to savor the throb of life that, like so much else in India, manifests itself in profligate excess and to forget for a while the squalor of the streets below.
To reach Varanasi from its airport we took a cab to the Cantonment, the new city, where there are a few modern buildings and the streets are still wide enough for cars. From there, our driver turned us over to a grizzled bicycle rickshaw wallah who pedaled us into the slow moving clot of rickshaws, ox carts bikes and more rickshaws. The road narrowed to a point that would allow only foot travelers. A bearded porter piled our bags high on his head, defying 'Ripley's Believe it or Not', and led us up and down a series of alleys to our hotel. Our room was a minimal, concrete block cell. Other than the bed, and a couple hooks on the wall, there was one hard plastic chair. But the place did have the virtue of a balcony. We stepped out on to it and looked out over the ghats and the wide river beyond. The late afternoon sun raked across gilt temple spires casting deep pools of shadow through which the oarsmen pulled their boats.
The Ganges River is sacred to Hindus and Varanasi has for millennia been India's holiest pilgrimage site on it. It is here that all devout Hindus wish to be at the end of their days. To have one's ashes scattered on the river is to release the soul from the cycle of death and rebirth. Stretching along the water's edge is a series of wide stairs, called ghats, the spiritual and social heart of the city, where people bathe, wash clothes, meditate and relax. From the river, the ghats lead up to a labyrinth of alleys that is the Old City.
Through a boy at the hotel, I arranged for a guide and the next morning he approached us on the ghats - Rinku - A friendly kid who despite his small size turned out to be seventeen. With his quick, ironic smile and busy eyes, he was a bit of an operator, but in a gentle kind of way. He wore a scarf around his neck and a sweater to protect him from the morning chill. After a brief discussion about possible itineraries and price, we set out down the narrow cobbled lanes of the Old City. They snaked around and doubled back. We would unexpectedly find ourselves in a little square where a few women would be gathered round a communal pump or a few cows were stabled. The stones were slippery with cow puddles and other unidentifiable leavings; my boots were useful. Rinku's English, consisted of a few words and stock phrases. The tag he had pinned to his sweater that read 'Official Guide' was perhaps a slight exaggeration. He certainly understood us but his responses required decoding. It took a while to figure out that "too much" meant "a lot" as in "Japan people have too much rupees!" or "He talking 80 rupees. You talking 20 rupees," (his advice to walking dollar signs on how to barter with rickshaw wallahs. (My practice of tipping drew pained looks and snickers from him). His meager vocabulary didn't inhibit him though. He kept up a constant chatter wherever we went, reshuffling the phrases to fit the situation. His response to my questions, a sideways wobble of the head, is very Indian; it means neither yes nor no.
Here, everything seems to happen in public from attending to ones toilet to handling the dead. We passed closet size stalls that are shops and homes. The skinniest dog in the world, a walking skeleton ravaged by mange poked through a garbage heap. A "sadhu", holy man with a long beard and matted hair came up to us and made an eating motion; hand to mouth. The white stripes on his forehead indicated his devotion to Siva. Begging is thought to provide benefit for both the giver and receiver. The receiver gets sustenance; the giver, the opportunity to do good. Both are reminded of the ultimate connection of all beings. I gave the sadhu a few coins and he moved on. We came upon a shrine set into a niche. There was an offering of dried flowers and few sticks of incense moldering. I paused before a blue faced deity with many heads and arms, reminiscent of a Jimi Hendrix album cover. "Lord Shiva, he is a happy god," Rinku said and indeed the god did have a beatific smile.
Each morning we climbed down steep steps past crumbling buildings where Rinku would be waiting. He did take us around to "the sights": The Golden Temple, birthplace of Shiva, the Nepalese Temple with it's erotic carvings ("Only men can look!" he said, smiling at my wife. "Not for woman") and Sarnath, the Deer Park where Buddha preached his first sermon upon reaching enlightenment. I find these kinds of places dismal and ugly - monuments to hubris. All I can think of is the misery of the slaves required to build them. (A dazzling exception was the Taj Mahal, a vision of perfection in all its perverse symmetries.) But, in Varanasi the sights are secondary anyway, I realized. The core experience is the Old City and the devotional life on the ghats.
A few of the ghats are cremation sites where funeral pyres - there are always several going at a time - roar continuously, day and night. Though the ritual is attended ceremonially by family members, all the tasks of attending to the dead, carrying the body, stacking wood, building the fire - are performed by the "untouchables", the lowest caste. Repeatedly, while walking, we would be surprised by the sudden rhythmic chanting of approaching pallbearers and had to press ourselves against the walls to allow the procession to pass. They had shaved heads and were clad in saffron robes, as was the corpse they bore on a bamboo litter. We walked down to the river's edge within a few feet of the pyres, watched and listened. Far from being grim or macabre, death here seems simply a part of life, integrated, as it is, into the everyday. To be here was to inhabit another world, outside of time.
After accompanying us for a couple days, Rinku invited us to come to his home and 'have lunch' with his family. He zipped down narrow streets, back behind some shops, through a secret corridor and upstairs to their home, a small two-room place with a little alcove for cooking. His mother and three young sisters greeted us - the father was off at work. The girls seemed to have put on their best dresses for the occasion and had little colored stays in their hair. The mother too wore a formal silk sari, deep green with a muted pattern of gold arabesque. Rinku provided translation. We couldn't really have a conversation with them, but it didn't matter. Smiles and gestures seemed enough. There was a strength and dignity to this family on their faces and in their bearing. The girls, who were between seven and thirteen, were especially smiley. They fell into dreamy stares around my wife, beguiled perhaps by her exotic freckly coloring and blond red hair.
The front room had two small windows letting in light that fell in bright patches on the bare stone floor. There was a wood stool which they insisted I sit on while they began to prepare our lunch. When the mother went to the kitchen, the two older girls got busy helping her. They squatted on the floor, each working over a tin bowl. One peeled potatoes and shelled peas; the other patted flour into dough for chapatis, the unleavened bread. From time to time, the middle girl, about nine, would look up from her work and flash a big grin. When they had finished, they set up our dining table, spreading a cloth over a crate in the bedroom where they had us sit cross-legged on their bed. A couple of bulbs gave off intermittent light. Two beds, an old metal cabinet resembling a gym locker and the stool in the front room were what they had. As I looked about, I wondered what they would make of the products of our consumer culture.
The girls brought us vegetarian dishes; cabbage and onions sizzling in a creamy sauce spiced with chilies and coriander; potatoes and peas in a cumin flavored broth with raita and dhal accompaniments. The rice had currents, nuts and other small treats in it. The aromas of the spicy food filled the room. I managed to gobble it all down along with the crisp stacks of chapatis as soon as they arrived, three or four every few minutes. We finally had to ask them to stop bringing us food and they finished our meal with coffee flavored with cardamom seed.
Afterwards, Ravi, the boy at our hotel whom we'd asked for a guide, appeared along with his mother and sister of about fifteen. They lived upstairs and were related to this family, I guessed. They also seemed pleased to see us, but were more reserved than Rinku's family. Rinku's youngest sister, the seven-year old, pulled out the family photo album, a plastic thing with soft rubbery pages and put it in my hands to look at. There were only about fifteen prints of varying quality and age to look at - not many between two families with grown sons. Somehow they'd accumulated these over the years - they certainly didn't own a camera. Our visit was coming to an end. Before saying goodbye, we gave Rinku our address and asked him to write down theirs. The discomfort registered on his face as he struggled to form the letters. Eventually, a printed card from his uncle's shop was found, resolving the problem.
The standard tourist thing here is to hire a boat to take you out on the river, preferably at dawn, when the sunrise lights up the city. In the course of a hour's walk along the river, we would be approached a few dozen times "Boat? You need boat?" Returning to our hotel one evening, we passed by a little hovel, a thin plume of smoke rising from an opening in the roof. From within a disembodied voice called out weakly "Boat? You need boat?". We decided to settle on one guy who worked the ghat near our hotel. We agreed that we would come to him on our last day. He had an 'exclusive'. When that day came, we found him waiting, as always, on the ghats and stepped into his boat. From out on the river, our perspective of the city softened and it became, if not beautiful, the otherworldly vision that, for us, it was.
"Are there more questions?" The microphone shrieked momentarily and the master stepped back from it. It subsided after a moment, allowing the sounds of evening to filter in from outside the open windows; birds chattering, children playing, the ring-ring of the bell from a passing bicycle. He looked around the room, smoothing his moustache. "Well then, thank you and good night." He pressed his palms together and bent his head toward us. "Namaste."
Copyright ã 1999 by Haden Peterson
Haden Peterson is a writer and software developer in New York City.
Back to Contents