Monday, June 23, 2008

Paths to God

It's just before rush hour in Coimbatore and I'm sitting sidesaddle on a motorcycle behind a man I have never met before in my life with everything I own strapped to my back and front. Don't ask me how I got here, it's not a pretty story. Somehow, though, even though I know I should be panicked and crying or praying or both, I'm almost choking with laughter as I cling for dear life with my one free hand as a bus full of Indian men passes within an inch of my knees. I should be heartbroken and scared and all alone but I'm not. I'm laughing, alive, and IN INDIA!!! for crying out loud. And while half of me is spinning in unexplained ecstasy the other half is thinking “so this is how it ends?”. I'm almost disappointed to be delivered so safely when my new found friend stops the bike and gestures at the hotel I was looking for a few minutes ago (and walking in entirely the wrong direction). Thanks motorcycle dude! Best of luck to you, crazy American girl!
The man behind the counter obviously thinks I'm a loose screw. But, given my appearance at that moment I don't entirely blame him. I mean, what kind of person walks into a hotel with a bulging backpack on her back, an equally bulging bookbag on their front, a purse around her neck, a “Lonely Planet” in one hand, hair that looks like it's been through rush hour on a motorcycle, and western style pants with a Salwar top and says “Hello!! Do you have a room?” with this weird accent that is somehow neither American nor Indian? I tell you who does that, I DO! And I mean it, you got a room? And he does, because despite the obvious fashion mistakes that seem to be dripping from me, I'm white and therefore have money and therefore “Welcome, madam. How many days will you be staying?”
The bell boy (who is neither a bell nor a boy) is considerably more enthusiastic about getting me into the hotel. He speaks English with that awesome I-learned-this-phrase-from-a-British-tourist kind of way and is absolutely charmed to meet an American girl traveling alone in one of the least touristy cities in South India. He gets me to my room and makes sure I know that to ring him all I have to do is press 007. No joke, this man's extension is the code name of the word's favorite licenced killer. He asks if I would like any coffee or tea and I ask for mineral water, “Shaken, not stirred”.
Then a few minutes later I am back on the street, looking little less like a pack mule with only a small bag over my shoulder. The autorickshaw drivers are happy to see me, but I don't want a lift. All I need is someone to point me in the general direction of the Dhandumariamman Temple. Which they do, and I'm off again. And part of me is thinking, “Why are you not sad?” and the other half is thinking “Why are you even asking me that question?”
The Dhandumariamman temple has to be one of my favorite places in the city, maybe my favorite of all. Mostly because it is so peaceful there. It sits in the middle of a very noisy block right next door to plumbing stores and used-shoe salesmen, but once you step inside that massive doorway the noise of the city fades away like music on a car-radio that someone finally decides to turn down a notch. I also love it because after you remove your shoes you are required to wash your feet. After walking the dirty smelly dusty streets of India, there is nothing I want more. So I step out of my chakos and smile at the tan line that makes it seem like I am still wearing white straps across my feet, place my shoes in locker 97 (because it seems like such a strong, committed number) and try not to run over to the water taps where I can wash my feet.
The temple itself is actually a smaller building inside this giant covered courtyard, and today I am a little disappointed to see the golden doors that should lead to Mariamman's shrine are closed. There are still a few women here, though, seated “indian style” on the cool stone floor facing either the shrine to the nine planetary gods or, my personal favorite, the huge banyan tree that stretches up and out of the roof and houses a little Ganaputi shrine (Ganesha in North India). And it is so calm and so peaceful you could sit here all day and contemplate...anything.
Which is sort of what I came to do, with a little ethnographic observation on the side. So I stake out a spot close to one of the huge pink and red pillars that stretch up the the ceiling and pull out my weather beaten notebook for jottings.
He saw me long before I saw him, and I got the impression that he had been watching me for a minute or two, working up the nerve to go and talk to me. He speaks lovely English and, shockingly, doesn't start the conversation with “Which country??”. I like him already. Actually, he was just wondering if I would like to join the puja they will be doing shortly? It is a very powerful puja, and I can come and be part of it. It will be good for me, bring me blessings. So I get up and follow him to the other side of the inner temple to where I see a group of worshippers, mostly women, have already gathered. Two women sit on the floor facing the side of the temple which has shelves carved out of it at intervals where other deities reside in less grandeur but no less importance than Mariamman herself. The women are facing one of these minor deities now, but I can't make out which one exactly. It's a woman god, though, that much I can make out from her clothing and decorations. The rest of the devotees are standing around some tall metal tables with lamps on them made, are those lemon halves? Yep, lamps made of fruit. And of course my latest friend would like to invite me to light my own lemon lamp. So I follow him outside the temple to where a man is selling flower garlands and coconuts and all the other odds and ends one needs when invoking deity in India and he buys me a sweet-lime which is kind of a cross between a lime and a very small lemon. Back at the tables he cuts my lime in half and instructs me to squeeze it inside out. Then while I am struggling with this idea he sets down a little vile of ghee next to me on the table and is suddenly gone again. Once my lime halves are inside out the woman next to me, with the slight smile I only ever see women direct at me and very small children (both being pretty naïve, I suppose), helps me to apply the correct markings with red and orange powder around the rims of my little lime cups. Then I pour ghee into each half and my friend is back, somehow, with cotton wicks in his hand. I try to light them but get a little chuckle from the woman at my side- You're supposed to dip them in the ghee first, silly, then you light, then I light them dear because you are about to set yourself on fire...there you go honey. Or at least that is what I imagine she said in some South Indian dialect. And with my little lime lamps burning on the table amidst all the other lime lamps I am directed to sit myself down next to the growing group of women facing the idol as the men stand back in silence. So I do, and that is when I notice it.
They're chanting.
I can't understand a word of it, and it's probably Sanskrit so neither can they really. They aren't chanting loudly, and they certainly aren't swaying to the rhythm or clapping their hands or wavering on the brink of St Teresa-esqu ecstasy. They are just a group of women chanting, together. The “tune” is not musical, just rhythmic. And it's absolutely mesmerizing.
And here is where some of you start getting worried about me and my “testimony”. Because here is where I officially step off the “Mormon's have the corner on spiritual power” wagon. No, I'm not saying the statue stood up, spoke to me in an ancient tongue that I somehow understood, and pronounced me officially Hindu. I am saying that as much as I believe in the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith, and as much as I know that Christ is my only way to eternal joy, right there right then sitting on that cold stone floor in a group of women singing a hymn in the praise of their god I felt power. True, unadulterated, spiritual power that left me crying and filled with joy. So you can hit me with all of your theories about where that power came from or what it's purpose was and nothing you say will change the fact that no religion, not even ours, can limit the power of God to work upon His children wherever, whenever, however He wants.
The rest of the puja was pretty basic, the usual offerings to the goddess poured over her in the form of milk, ghee, curd, dates, etc. The priest came out to do this part and ring his bell. Nothing spectacular about it, from my perspective. It was just that chant, which lasted only a few minutes, that overturned so much of what I thought I knew about God.
When it's over I find myself being chaperoned by a new friend. She is stunning in that way that only years of goodness carved into an old face can be. Her hair is white, pulled into a loose bun on her neck, and she wears a white cotton saree with light pink flowers. When she smiles at me, I see my own grandmother in her eyes and have to fight very hard not to cry for missing her. She is my first friend's mother, actually, and he has left me in her charge. So she helps me get my forehead markings on (white line with red dot over yellow dot in the middle), and tells me to get up and come eat the food. She speaks English, too, with a clear accent but limited vocabulary. The food is actually more offerings to the god which we can now eat on her behalf. Mother, as I have taken to calling her, gets me a little metal/paper plate and oversees the men serving me my portions of spicy rice and sticky sweet rice. Then she grins at me and puts a little crumbled laddoo on my plate too.
So we sit on the floor on the other side of the temple and I try to eat the food at the rate she insists (If I pause at all she starts pointing at my food and then her mouth). Sitting there talking about her life and family. Married at 15, five children, widowed, suffers from asthma. Then I hear from outside the courtyard the distinct tones of a Muslim call to prayer. So I ask “Call to prayer?” and she wrinkles her already wrinkled nose and says “NOOO! I don't like them. Musslemans. Dirty. Don't drink their water. They only bath once a week.” And again I am half laughing half crying because there it is. The source for years of bloodshed and hatred: they only bath once a week.
I guess you can draw whatever philosophical metaphors you want from all that. I've certainly drawn mine. And I'll go on drawing them for the next two months before I pack it all in and leave this country crisscrossed with paths to God.

Meanwhile, in the words of my fellow traveler Sydney: It's not fair to read someone's blog and not leave a comment.

Friday, June 13, 2008

random stuff

yes, women do carry stuff on their heads sometimes. Jeeva serving us lunch in our room

and this is me in a saree at my first indian wedding, very strange to have complete strangers dressing me.

more sights on the retreat

a ginger factory i visited and a man? woman? both actually, kalikathi dancer style.

A brahman priest applying colum before a kalikathi dance show, he is also the singer. Tea at the carpet store, carpets so expensive they come with thier own pedigree charts like pure bread ponies.

Mid-research retreat in Cochin

Sea of Lakshmi, fisherman's boat, chinese fishing nets intruduced around the time of Xubla Khan (for the Colderidge fans out there), our boatman on a tour of the backwaters (lazy rivers), and the rooftops of Fort Cochin, obviously european influnce is strong here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Black Keys Than White

“Cathlin! Are you happy in your life?”
I stop mid-stride, halfway up the stairs. What kind of a question is that? And from my hotel manager? I've only seen the guy a few times, I don't even know his name, I've never really stopped to speak to him, and suddenly he's asking me if I'm happy in my life? I turn and lean over the rail of the stairs to look down at him as he sits there next to the hotel desk, skinny arms and legs sprawled out and huge eyes looking back straight into mine. “What?”
“Are you happy in your life?” Okay, so that really is what he said. I try to play it casual, smiling back at him “Most of the time” I say. I planned to just say it, smile, and turn back up the stairs. But even though I know I should turn around then and walk up to my room, even though I know I'll probably regret option number two, I can't seem to help myself. Like a moth flying straight into the mesmerizing light of the fire I ask “Why do you ask?”
And of course, he pats the velvet chair next to him. Yes, obviously that is what I should be doing right now. I should be sitting in the reception area of a little hotel in Cochin, South India, talking about my life with a strange Indian man who, unbelievably, is a huge Billy Joel fan. So I do. I walk down the worn wooden steps in my bare feet (shoes off at the door, as always) and sit down next to him. He starts gyrating again as I make my way to him. All angles and bones as he throws out his arms and waggles his head to the sweet perfection of Billy Joel's greatest hits. He goes on grooving even after I sit down next to him, and I have to lean a little bit away to avoid getting an elbow in the eye. Then he stops suddenly, turns to look at me full on and says “You are a very simple person, is it?”
Now, I have absolutely no idea what he means by that. It has any range of meanings from “You're kinda dense, aren't you?” to “You radiate the simple perfection of divine knowledge, don't you, Oh wise guru?” I try really hard to come up with some brilliant reply, but I eventually just nod my head and say “sure.” Clearly leaning toward the first option.
He nods back, and says “Yes, I can see it. I am watching you here when you come and go and I see in you. You like the simple life, simple person.” Then he starts wiggling his boney extremities again. After a few more bars of “River of Dreams” he stops and says “You know the piano?”
“Sure” I say again, because hey, that reply seemed to work pretty well last time.
“The black keys and the white keys, you know?”
“Yeah” I return, jazzing up my one word replies through variation.
“The black keys” he says, making piano-man motions in the air, “make sad song. The white keys are happiness. You play both together, is beautiful.”
“Uh-huh” says the genius from America.
“You” he says now, focusing once again on the giant white girl sitting, transfixed, beside him “You play more black keys in your life.”
Okay buddy, what the freak is going on here? I play more black keys than white? I'm not sure whether he's about to read my palm or hit on me at this point, but I'm hooked. I have to know where this is going. I have to know why this strange man has singled me out of my group as the girl who plays more black keys than white in her life.
“Is it right?” He asks, no longer moving to the beat but leaning forward in his chair.
“Well, I guess so. Yeah.” Why, oh why am I having this conversation?
Another head nod, as if he already knew I would assent and was merely waiting for me to figure it out. “What does it mean, the black keys?” He asks now.
Now I'm totally hooked. I don't know what the black keys in my life mean, but somehow I am positively sure that he does. And I have to know, I just have to. So I stutter “I...uh...I dunno...I'm not sure.”
And then he turns to me and says “I think it is to do with your parents. A small problem with your parents?”
And then I'm reeling. Dizzy, freaked out and fascinated all at once. Sure, since Freud the whole “blame it on the parents” thing is pretty cliché and it wouldn't be a devastatingly original guess. But still, this is pretty weird. I decide I've had enough soul-reading for the night so I try to end it. At least, that's what I meant to do. What I meant to say was “No, no problem.” But what I really said was “No small problem” with particular emphasis on the “small”, and then he gets up and walks around the desk to turn down Billy. He gestures to the chair he has just vacated which is closer to the desk than my current seat, and I get up and move into it.
“So tell me” he says “tell me about the problem with your parents.”
And, for no rational reason I can possibly think of, I find myself talking to a complete stranger about the fact that I haven't spoken to my father in over four years. I try to keep it short, leaving out most of the explanation, because I'm more interested in what he has to say that whining about my paternal issues. When I finish, he bobbles his head and points to the bag of cashews in my hand. Oh yeah, I forgot about those.
“You want plate?” he asks, and then gets up to find me one before I can reply. Which is just as well, I've already run the gamut of my brilliant one word replies. When he comes back, or rather when his torso comes back from the cabinet to his left, I am trying to pull on the “tear here” tab of the bag.
“No, no wait” He says and starts rummaging in a drawer to his right. He produces a small pair of scissors then and, reaching for the bag, continues “We do it simply, simple way, your way.” And I'm thinking “Well, I do want you to cut the bag open with those scissors rather than let me hurt myself trying to rip it open with my hands. So yes, this must be my way.”
“There is another package here” he says, gesturing to the inner wrapping within the bag that has been air packed to keep the cashews from breaking against each other. I stutter a reply about keeping the air out, feeling somehow that I ought to apologize for not having bought a “simpler” bag of nuts. It's okay though, this guy is his own simple bag of nuts.
“This is safe” he tells me “like us, it is safe in here. No air can get in, no water. Safe, like us here” and he cuts open the smaller bag. Then he pours a few cashews onto the plate between us and starts wrapping the rest back up in the bag. He folds the plastic tightly and then secures the whole thing with a rubber band from the drawer which he wraps around the package twice even though I'm pretty sure one wrap would have done it.
“Thanks” I bobble at him.
“Like you” he tells me, “like your heart. You keep it wrapped up tight and safe, not get hurt.” Then he puts the bag of cashews next to my arm and pats it. “Like your heart” he says. And I smile back at him. Because, at this point, there are really no simple answers left to give.