Chandigarh, Sept 20thish
Totally uneventful. I boarded the night bus to Chandighar, and it actually arrived, and on time. So there I was in Chandighar in need of a story. So I set out on a walking tour of the city at 5 am. Its a pisser of a city to navigate at first because its not oriented to the compass, its rather at about -30 degrees off North. or so. So figuring out which end is up on your map can take some time. Additionally, you`d be hampered by the size of the map, about 6 inches square. I passed up the opportunity to buy a better map because I was only passing through, and at 5 am when the bus arrived, the newspaper stands were all closed.
Chandhigar (I don`t know how to spell the name) oh its ChandigarH. I knew there was an errant H in there somewhere... Is renouned for its famous gardens and western planning. It was designed by that freak Corbussier, and this apparently was the best he could do. By Indian standards its idylic. There are things like sidewalks and abundant roundabouts and bicycle lanes. There`s a vast central park system and a huge rose garden (but I was there in "fall." Kawaiso!). It was my intention to walk through said park and to the southern end of the city where there is an "Internationally Famous rock garden" made from repurposed industrial materials. Its less glamourous and weirder than the description leads one to believe.
But first, it was 5am and I was in need of a chai. Sunrise wasn`t for another hour, so I wanted to kill some time anyway. But the only chai stand open at that hour was lacking in ambiance, so after a samosa or two and a chai, I hoisted my pack and set out trekking in Chandigarh. Of course I immediately set out in the wrong direction. By the time I found the first streetsign in English I was at one of the roundabouts at the intersections of the grids of "sectors" into which Chandigarh is divided. I found myself at the intersection of twentysomething and way to high; but by then the sun was coming up and I could get a better fix on my directions. Strangely, the compass I was working with was less accurate. So, after thirty minute I found myself very nearly back where I`d started, and discovered that the park is really really close to the bus stand. Next time you`re at the bus station in Chandigarh, head from the regional bus stand toward the local bus stand and keep going to the roundabout. The park is just past the cricket stadium to your right and across the street. From there, you enter into a several acre wide strip of open space, a precious commodity in India, complete with established trees, open lawns, and at dawn, the entire population of elderly out for their morning walk. What was most striking after Koksar was that nobody was doing their business in the meadows. There were also precious few cows in the one place in India that would be best suited for them. Instead, it seems much like any other central park in a western country. I walked through the park past museums and government buildings until public access terminated at the government buildings. This section of the greenway was barbwired off and inaccessible to the public, made moreso by the sniper and machine gun bunkers at all points of access. Corbu left these out of his initial design. Being French-Swiss, the thought of putting up a fight must not have arisen. Either that or he was clearly not briefed on the political situation of the Punjab. So, tucked amidst a veritable forest rises an raw concrete mass of complex proportions. You`ll have to consult the pictures. As a tourist with a largish backpack, I was met with curious stares, but little more. I kept thinking how interesting it would be if I had 20 kilos of explosives instead of cloths and computer gear. The unfortunate thing is that the presence of security perimeters and machine gun posts transformed what would otherwise be an image of government in touch with nature and the people into its converse. Instead, it appears a government isolated and afraid. Which is more the case. Ghandi was not the first politcal martyr, but was rather just one in a long long succession of power brokers to meet a violent end in the last several thousand years. The only difference is pericide and fratercide of the Moguls has given way to militant political factions achieving the same end. Democracy slows down the process of violent power struggle, but far from assuages it.
In the center of the complex, in an open space is the "open hand" symbol, designed by Corbu to represent the gorvernment of the people. Benieth the monument is a submerged ampitheater, with a rasied pulpit for some reason, and asymetrical symetry. While the composition is very avant guarde, It unfortunately shows the reality of an open hand of government in the open secretly manipulated by a subteranian minority faction lead by a single strong leader in the role of pundit (a hindi word). It speaks not of transparent governance, but rather of the dark underground of Indian politics. On the other hand, maybe Corbu was briefed...
By this point I had missed my turn to the rock garden, and It became apparent I was leaving Chandigarh. So I kept going. Immediately upon leaving this gridded fantasy, I entered a mud track where the road ended, having fulfilled its designed mandate. As there was still need for the road, it was continued against Corbu`s will, to the villiage immediately beyond the Government building which is of course was completely cut out from the urban planning of the city. Past the ragged edge of the city were farmlands, cowshit, goats and chickens running feral as is the case in any other Indian city. It was like being Alice in down in the rabbit hole, only to open the wrong door and suddenly finding herself back in her accustomed reality. You could literally stand one foot in Corbusier`s design-by-fiat and one in India`s design-by-Darwinian anarchy. It was funny. So, naturally, I went for a chai. I ordered breakfast, but by accident ordered two, and ended up stuffed. I was overcharged for the privilege as well. It was nearly 9:30 at this point and I`d been walking in damp shoes (there was quite a lot of dew) and discovered that for some reason while I could trek through the mountains with damp socks and without blisters, this was not the case for flat land. I guess I had inappropriate socks on. I hadn`t planned on trekking, at any rate. But my feet were quietly suffering. Finally, I asked someone for directions, after 4 hours of wandering (there`s an art to being lost), and found my way to the rock garden. For the first time in India, I was in a city that made me feel uncomfortable to be on foot. I felt like the oddball for not being in a car, or at least an autorickshaw. The sidewalks faltered in this corner of the city, down in sector 3 I think. But I made it to the rock garden, and got more--and less--than I`d bargained for.
The first difficulty was finding the entrance. I got lost in the Cafe courtyard at first and thought It was just a really small and overhyped venue. But I climbed a wall (easy to do, it was all rough rock and electrical sockets) and saw that there was far more than this. So I left again, found the main door, and was turned away to buy a ticket. The ticket window perhaps was not part of the original design as it was a tiny camoflaged, barred window over at the corner by the parking lot. It looked less like a ticket window and more like a window for the staff bathroom. Nevertheless, they sold tickets, and that was the important thing. Buying one, I returned to the first window, and swallowed my pride. I paid the woman at the gate ten rupees to keep an eye on my pack. Mostly I paid ten rupees out of guilt, being too proud to admit that I couldn`t carry it all day without complaint.
The Rock Garden is in three phases (their terminology). The first phase seems to be where the artist was finding his voice. Its a procession of room, with walls tiled in various stones and stone-like material. The walls between the rooms are easily scalable, and although there are signs counterindicating any 14 year old`s natural tendancy, there were many people climbing over walls. I ended up finding an off-route path leading to the servant`s quarters. Nestled amidst the public walkways was a dormatory with central courtyard, completely unseen by the public. And I accidentally got myself locked in. Just my luck. As I was about to break out, I was spotted, and had to explain what I was doing in his house. Fortunately there was no common language between us. Back onto the path again, I found myself instead in a space suggesting a narrow canyon. The walls were lined in obsidian, and it was terribly tempting not to break off a couple peices, make arrow heads, bow and arrow, and go back and storm Corbusier`s courthouse in the name of aesthetic justice.
But instead I kept wandering. Found a path that led by a few waterfalls, got lost and locked in again climbing walls, managed to traverse around some stacked barrels on the edge of a balcony, and was once again on the main trail. I had entered "Phase 3" from which I concluded I`d missed phase two in my monkeying around. Here, they apparently had received additional funding, and the whole park took on a grander, though more comic, scale. There was a waterfall, an artificial mountain, faerie land castles, a lake, an artificial rainbow on the artificial waterfall, and then a plaza that was direct plagerism of Parc Guelle by Gaudi. (I don`t know how to spell that either. You have the internet, look it up!) Well, perhaps plagerism is the wrong word. Nevertheless, I`m sure the cheshire cat was an oversight on Gaudi`s part in the first place. There were zoo-like enclosures lacking animals, though it appeared some could get in if they tried. There was a long swerving greco-roman colonade with spacio-anachronistically American porch swings. There were styrofoam packing peanuts strung with other objects in an ill-informed attempt at novelty. In general, the whole place felt exactly like an amusement park, but without the amusements. If they put in a couple rollercoasters it would certainly not hurt, and would make more sense. But by this time I had filled my camera cards, and was missing my backpack... and water. So I started to head out. (I found the back door in on the way out of course). This was when I came upon phase two. This was dominated by creatures. Creatures composed of bracelets, bits of tile, bottles, and other recyclables, studies, done approximately identically a couple hundred times, without much more success. It became a photo lighting study for me, as the same figures were arranged along the curvilinear wall, each recieving slightly different lighting effects. You can see the result in the gallery. soon. haven`t built the gallery yet... I should be honest...
Completing my circuit, I was tired of walking after five hours. It was now a little after ten am, so I headed to the railway station with no clear plan. But it was a short rickshaw ride, so I figured I`d figure it out on the way. A little to my surprise, I walked up to the window and said, "when`s the next train to Delhi?" She said in ten minutes. I knew just what I had to do, and that was the impetus for decision in iteself. I ran to the counter at the opposite side of the room and dove into the queue head first. See, there was only one person selling tickets. I knew talk of reservations or class were out the window with ten minutes and counting to departure. Nothing happens fast in India except at the last minute. So I bought my general class ticket, hauled my ass up the walkover, and guessed that the place with all the commotion was probably my platform, ran down, found the second class cars, looked for one reasonably less full, and grabbed the first conductor I saw and asked if it would be possible to upgrade my ticket. He said sure, and showed me to a seat in the car, where I paid the extra fare for second class. In the end, I had a bench, if not a section to myself for most of the five hour ride to Delhi. At the next station I ordered lunch, and at the one after that it arrived. I dined on... surprise surprise, dahl, curried potatos, rice and chapati. With a little achar, two chapatis, and I believe even curd and a cup of water. I arrived in Delhi a little before sunset, refreshed, and so I searched diligently for a room with an outside window on a not-too-busy part of the street, an attached bathroom and fan for 200 rupees a night. And in the end I found one. But not one I`d necessarily recommend... But it was only for one night, as I`d bought my ticket for Varanasi while I was at the station.
The whole passage from Vashisth to Delhi took right at 24 hours. I could add some details about the muddy, vacant bus lot in Manali which forced all the busses to load on the road, but its really not interesting. I could add that I smoked a joint at every stop, but it would just be hollow sensationalism. I could even go on about the blisters on my feet, the incorrigable heat and humidity, or the artificiality of Chandigarh, but it would only be hollow griping. In fact, it was a completely uneventful and thus utterly uninteresting adventure. The only adventure was a minor one I`d thrust upon myself. The utter precision with which the whole day went off in itself should be a tipoff that something was awry. From finding a book by Heinlin, "Job, a Comedy of Justice" for the adventure at an out of the way and easy to overlook book stall, to having an hour after that to sit, drink a beer and read the paper before catching my bus, arriving fifteen minutes before an on-time departure. I should also mention that I slept peacefully and soundly on the tourist-class bus (tourist class means not a bench seat). I arrived at the rock garden barely fifteen minutes after they opened. I caught the train not ten minutes before departure and was comfortably seated with a reservation in a nearly empty car (all this is incremental degrees of security) three minutes before the train actually left. I arrived in Delhi and bought my ticket for Varanasi on the day I wanted at the time I wanted, and even managed to dig up a reciept from an ATM (proof of legal currency exchange) which for some dated reason is still required for making a reservation in a tourist office. I found a nice hotel room at a reasonable price; my only compaint being that they couldn`t make a "ginger-lemon-honey" to save their lives (it is actually quite a leap for the Indian imagination). In all, as I said, nothing happened. I finished "Job" and picked up "Jacques the Fatalist" and "The Dubliners" to tide me over until Calcutta. And the next day I boarded my train and arrived in Varanasi without incident. Sometime, even India works out.
Sept 21st-Oct 27th - Varanasi, India There are still cows everywhere. But after a month, I know them all. They`re my neighbors, after all. I know a lot of people in fact, but what is most important is that everyone recognizes me and leaves me alone. I realized today that I`d been nearly a week without yelling at someone. And better still, now that I know the prices for everything, I never need to bargain. Varanasi is always a rough landing, but once you settle in, you realize that you are living in the 19th century. The value of everything is different here.
For the first week I was here I did very little. For the second time in my trip I really felt as if I`d arrived. But unlike Khirganga which inspired me to devote time and energy to study, yoga, and meditation (to say nothing of some dedicated bathing), here, I just really did nothing. Varanasi is strange. In other places I`d be meditating two hours a day. Here, it all seems somehow irrelevant. Its as if one meditates in order to be in Varanasi; but once you`re here, what`s the point? I don`t know the answer to this. And I`ve done very very little meditation here.
I have been good about waking up before dawn and bathing in the Ganga. I wouldn`t lie to you and say its been every morning or even half of the mornings, but its been regular enough to call routine. At five A.M. the city is spectral. My favorite chai wallah is up though, and has tea waiting. Then to the river as dawn is breaking and all locals and sadhus are bathing. The ghat I go to is one off of the busiest one, which draws off the touts and boatmen. Since I`ve been here I`ve watched the water level rise two feet and drop twelve. There is three meters less water in the river now than there was one month ago. I`m still having a hard time accepting that I`ve been here a month. It feels like six. I can`t really remember a life outside of Varanasi, and Parvati Valley seems a distant dream ago. In many ways I feel I`ve hit my stride as a traveller. A month here a month there. This is a peaceful way to travel. I`ll be travelling out of Calcutta, and even though I`m just catching a plane, I`m giving myself a week, just so it doesn`t feel rushed. Besides, there is one of the major Indian festivals on the first, Diwali. Everyone paints their houses with fresh whitewash, and lights off fireworks and there are free outdoor concerts. That`s all I`ve gathered about the event so far.
But there`s always a festival in Varanasi. Every day of the year is holy to several of the Gods, and every day of the lunar month and seperately the solar month as well, and every day of the week too. There are so many overlapping calenders that there is never an end to the puja here. Just a week ago was Durga puja, with great kiosks erected in alleys and fields around the city, and tonight was a "moon festival" which was only for the women. There were two or three minor festivals that passed without ceremony cause they overlapped, and then there was Autumn Navaratri, the nine nights of the goddess leading into Durga puja. You can understand why being a Brahmin has always been considered a full-time job. So Diwali is just around the corner, and shops are closing so they can go home and paint the house to prepare for the next holiday and clean up from the last.
23 Oct: Everything I ever needed to know I learned from Buying a Sitar. T-minus 4 days in Varanasi. Oh fucking shit. There aren`t swear words big enough for how I feel right now. I`m full. I`m tired. I just let out a jazz riff to break a sensitive ear`s heart. And I have a sitar that is so near perfect that one minor flaw completely destroys me. I`m at the extremity of emotion and the bottom of my first bottle of beer. Everywhere you go in this town all the children scream hello! at you. All the boatmen scream boat boat want boat? at you. All the rickshaw wallahs scream hello rickshaw! at you. All the shop keepers yell namaste, hello, please sit down, what do you want, you want perfume? [do I smell bad?] shaving, shaving? [oh god do I need to shave again already? <feeling face> I guess so...] I have kurta pyjama! You want charas? I have hash good one. Bhang you like bhang? Hello mister! Hello! hello... two chapati... please sir... i no eating.... for baby for baby. Hello mr hello. And then one day it stops, and you don`t notice bad things when they stop. Suddenly its just the children and beggars (who leave you be) because everyone else recognizes you. They leave you alone and you don`t notice, because bad things not being their rarely draw one`s attention. But then one day you go out "shopping" you have a different look in your eye, a different pace to your step and it starts up all over again like a rerun of Night Court.
For the last two weeks its been peaceful, and I did notice the other day. I noticed it, and realized for the last two weeks I`ve walked the exact same circuit from my favorite chai wallah to my favorite thali restaurants to my sitar lesson to the beer store and back. Occasionally throwing a bookstore into the mix. Several mornings I go to the same ghat before sunrise to bathe in the Ganga, then come back to the hotel for an hour of yoga, sitar practice, and then breakfast and internet, and somehow its noon and I`ve been up nearly seven hours. How does this happen? What is happening to me? I`m waking up at fucking sunrise, for christ`s sake, and those of you who know me don`t have to know me well to know how improbable that really is!
But what is hard to comprehend, and what is hard to express is how radically different everything is to an outsider`s perspective. I guess I have a propensity for picking places particularly peculiar. But to go from Japan to this is almost too much. After all, the Japanese replace the Israelis as the dominant non-indian lifeform here. I`ve spoken quite a bit of Japanese here, which is ironic, since I can`t speak Japanese. I`ve had a friend or two at the guesthouse, and as this is more house than guesthouse, I know the family that lives here pretty well, and they know and like me. Amisha is a heartbreaker. 23 years old, a dancer, and has never been kissed. Krishna, the "manager," so to speak, has really become my friend. He`s very very subtle about trying to make money off me, but I think that`s really not a sign of good character so much as his intrinsic slothfulness. Really, he`s content to rent me a room, but if I want a saree, or to ship a package, or as was the case, to have a sitar made, then he`s very helpful. But his payment is instead extracting favors from me. Pictures for a website, passing notes to guests at another guesthouse...
But really, this is the first experience in my life where I`ve really meaningfully interacted with the merchant class. I was blind to so much before. As a function of mentally shifting from a mind centered on monasticism to a householder`s mindset, I inadvertently dropped myself out of the clouds and into the station of my birth. My father`s father was a merchant, my father was a merchant, and now in January, I too will be a merchant. Its hard to think about how different the world looks from these two perspectives. Last time in India I was seriously seeking enlightenment, truth, beauty and all those "living deeply and sincerely" moments. I have always beheld the merchant class with a certain thinly shrouded scorn. I think like most hippies, the concept of "making money" in inherently dirty, and the thought of breaking through the veil of samsara really is the cornerstone of our aesthetic sensibility. Yet for the first time, as I contemplate having children, I realize that to be a merchant is an honorable profession, for ultimately its about feeding ones family. And as I look at myself becoming a householder, I realize that it is a death-to-self not unlike the monestary. Marriage vows and Wedding vows are not so different, but rather active and passive manifestations of the same internal "death instinct." Freud was close, but not quite on the money. He saw the death yearned for as a physical death, but rather, the death sought is psychic. One suffers daily for the "unbearable lightness of being," that sensation that one is floating a couple millimeters above an arbitrary and inessential world. Where nothing is determined, everything ought be permitted, yet here we are unable to fly. To be rid of this feeling is the greatest desire of humankind. But death itself, suicide, is itself a testiment to the arbitrary nature of life, and this is not something we want to affirm. Its rather that dealth-of-self that is the marriage/monestary which we seek. In both cases the same thing occurs. "I" is no longer responsible for one`s actions. When we take vows, we are accepting a role, following a script, someone elses script, telling us what ought be. We are surrendering our birthright of freedom to be seperate distinct, an island unto ourself, and merging with a greater whole, accepting a role in society. Have I been such a misanthrope for the last ten years to have run so far from both?
And where am I now? I`m starting to learn my second raga, and all this music has gotten into my brain, and seeps out as jazz riffs... jazz riffs receptive to new Ideas of raga, however. I bought a couple flutes, cause I have a dependancy, you see, and its nights like these where I would die without one, so I`d blow into empty beerbottles to fill the void. [as I write now, since teaching grammar, I deconstruct the verb tenses instinctively and analyse the possibilities of form. Layer upon layer experience stacks up. Sensible people build compatiible layers so that life makes sense. People like me however look for antithetical and contradictory layers, and though this opaque filter view the world.]
Really, there`s nothing to do at this point but smoke another "cigarette." It was pointed out to me that I am a tad indescreet in my writing, so I`ll just say this once. I rarely smoke a "simple" cigarette these days. Its my medication...
I am a child of the ADD generation. But we were the ones undiagnosed for all these years, and like generations before, had no idea that there was a normal elseware which involved the ability to concentrate. I have never in my fucking life studied music so hard. In five weeks I`m where I was after two years with a saxophone. And I remember, one of my few intense memories of my childhood, and the only one from the midst of a music lesson, I remember my saxophone teacher, who taught at a school in a stripmall near my house in Sarasota. I remember him one day in class listening to me play and getting frustrated. He practically yelled at my 13 year old ass, "you`re just not concentrating." And what was funny was that at that moment I realized he was right. It is rare that I will concede victory to a teacher, but he was in the double bullseye with that one. My mind was off on something else, as it always was, is and has been. And I tried to concentrate, and I got through the passage that was giving me difficulty. The funny thing about this memory is how isolated my sense of self is from the experience. My childhood I experienced in the third person for the most part. I was watching me do, make, and be. I, effectively, was rarely present anywhere I was. This, I presume is common for most ADD cases. But what I think, IMHO, is really interesting is that that small part of me that has been present on any given day has always been slightly above mediocre. Imagine how strong I would be if I could simply concetrate for five minutes straight on any one thing. Even as I write this, I have dozens of tangents, from the desire to roll another cigarette, one thought-train about peeing, one thought-moment on the Policeman in the Villiage people who`s currently on the lam, with a warrent out on him for possession of crack and a handgun; always a winning combination. I`m thinking about the geckos that live in a newspaper mysteriously taped to my wall for reasons unexplored. I call it the gecko house and put it out of my mind. I`m back to thinking about peeing. just a minute.
Nobody, and I mean NOBODY can understand my fascination with the Abhidhamma. Professors of Pali, esoteric Beatnik translator, Bhantes of Bengali monestaries, fellow lay-scholars, all have seriously questioned my intentions in studying Abhidhamma. Anyone who knows what the Abhidhamma is runs far far away. But between 4 and 800AD, there evolved a concept which explains all this "monkey-brain" madness quite succinctly. But Abhidhamma scholars are rare, and they`re the only ones who`d be interested in the ill-fated insight I won`t share in detail. But the point is, that thoughts are not a steady state or a flow or river or whatnot. But rather what we call "thought" is in "fact" particulate "moments". As a meditator, one learns to observe these instances, to a certain depth depending on one`s experience. The greater the time spent in meditation, the deeper the insight into the operating principles of thought. This is the what evolved into the concept of Vipassana. From whence does suffering arise if not from thought, well, then from whence does thought arise? Aye, there`s the rub.
You may as well ask where do babies come from. But the interesting bit isn`t at the fringes of this system, but right in the middle. For there are weak thought moments that arise without being noticed, and there are strong ones that subdue and suppress weaker thought moments. So "I have to pee" starts out weak, and eventually grows so strong that it overrides all other sensation. Likewise, there`s a gecko walking on newspaper is a weak background noise thought moment, until he goes for the kill and skitters down the wall, springing the final inch in a blur and grabs the moth. Without thinking, one turns and looks, because you`ve been aware all along, just not paying attention.
The slower one`s life moves, the more one notices of the internal process, and there is nothing slower than life in a monestary. And this is the long awaited answer to "why join a monestary?"
But that was so 2004. Today I`m thinking of starting a family, and the monumental amount of work that will require. See, part of my inability to concentrate stems from my tendency to work decisions out three moves in advance, due to playing too much chess at an impressionable age, no doubt. Chess positively reinforces preplanning. Hence, for me, decisions like "I think I`ll drink a beer" get played out to its effect on me months later. I put "one beer tonight" in contect of all the wine I`ll be drinking in Charlotte for four months, and decided to drink beer tonight anyway. My brain is always working out the ramifications of things way way beyond what is technically feasible. They get stored as tangential vectors to the hyperbolic curve that is my life. Moments, as it were, of said curve. Now I need that cigarette, and to get back to Varanasi...
I pride myself in being honest. Really, I do make every effort to be absolutely forthcoming on all subjects, with everyone, at length, on everything, no doubt you`ve noticed. As a child I was an excellent salesman, of course. It was genetic. But when I became an adult, I saw the quality of what I was selling, and came to understand the motivation people have for buying, and it was the latter which fascinated me most. I can no longer sell, because to be honest is to do what is in the best interests of the customer, to recommend them to those of your competitors whom one knows are better than oneself. Who can honestly say that theirs is the best product anywhere. Even if you sell the finest quality widget money can buy, in the end, true, deep honesty involves questioning the buyers very intent and need for a widget. However, "unselling" is itself a manipulative tactic, and in the end, one can never ever ever be unbiased toward ones own goods. It is a game after all, and who would let oneself be a loser (besides myself; I prefer losing at chess and pool. Winning makes me uncomfortable. Playing down to the level of my competition to achieve this goal makes me dishonest. Its a catch-22. Hence I rarely play competitive games competitively I`m always only playing myself. Unless my opponent deserves to lose, that cocky bastard).
But this was my old way of thinking. For the last few weeks dealing with Sudeep and Ramesh, I really saw the heart of the matter. Both of them are family men, of course. Both of them have wives and kids. (And I made my business deals with both before asking about their families. I missed that tactic. shit. next time). Both of them are taking the money I give to them and converting it into food to stuff into their children`s mouths. Who deserves my money more, their children or me? Yet I still can`t abide by dishonesty, and I have lost count of the number of times I`ve have been lied to, straight to the face, baldly, here in Varanasi. Whether its bogus charas or poly/cotton blend being passed off as silk, its a never ending stream of insults and deceit. I have nearly hauled out store clerks and beaten them when I knew something to be one thing and they look me in the eye and say its the other. In my culture, I would have been justified, but here, everyone is on the take. Its part of the culture. Krishna no doubt got a kickback from Sudeep, and the chai wallah charges me double what he charges Ramesh for the same beverage. Ramesh told me as much with a smile. Now there is principle and then there is kicking the ass of every lying son-of-a-bitch in this town. Tonight, walking home, I walked by a shop, and a young man trying to draw me in and get a commission said, "what do you want." I took two steps and almost turned back and said, "I want to kill. I want to kill. I wanna eat dead burnt bodies with my teeth!" (A. Guthrie, Alice`s restaurant). But I didn`t. But I felt like it. Because its been a difficult month for doing business.
I have been playing Ramesh, my sitar teacher against Sudeep, my sitar maker, for a month now, and paying the price. Ramesh also sells sitars, and so buying from Sudeep is blow to his pride. He is in direct competition with Sudeep, and so as a "teacher" has a conflict of interest. He constantly strives for the high road and fails to make the turnoff. He is a merchant in the worst way. I actually heard him haggle over the price of a guitar pick. I should have slapped him. Better. I should have peeed on his shop. Life for his seems to be a pissing contest anyway. But I took him as my teacher, because I hated him from the beginning. I always hate my teachers in the end, so I figured, why destroy a friendship. He`s like Bill Clinton: you look in his eyes and you know you can`t trust him. You know he`s a player. That`s why I refused to vote for the latter, and took lessons from the former. Call me pessimistic, but I believe that life or god or whatever really is out to get you, so you might as well save it some time.
Sudeep, on the other hand, is a sitar maker. What this really means is that he make the djawari. The jawardi, however you want to spell it, is the overall shape of the bridge. This is the single most important act is the assembly of the sitar. The bodies usually come from Calcutta, and the strings from Germany (on a good day) and the bridge itself from the black market for antler (also in kolkata (however you want to spell it))... but the sitar maker is the one who make the djawari, the curvature of the bridge. This is an extremely precise operation, because each string meets the bridge at a slightly different angle for a slightly different effect. The sound can be open, meaning more overtones when you strike the string, or closed, meaning none, or somewhere in between. At the bottom, its a compromise between how it sounds now, and how it sounds a year from now. Professionals have the djawari remade probably every two or six months. This, clearly is not an option for me as I can`t imagine how much a sitar maker in The States, if there even is one, would get to reshape my bridge in a year`s time, when it needs it. Its a highly skilled profession, after all. And flying to India to have it done means a pain in the ass easier solved by just buying a new sitar next time I come. So. I have to do it myself. This is all part of the plan...
Now, there is a stylistic difference, and then there is when something is just wrong. Now, I know/knew nothing about sitars, and my task was to wade through the maze of bullshit and get a good one. Krishna plays the sitar, so he was my "in". He also is my landlord, so I knew he had a vested interest in my happiness. So I had him take me to someone he knows. When I mentioned to Sudeep that I was left handed, he immediately insisted that I needed a left-handed sitar, something I hadn`t even considered. It was a spark of honesty, and I sensed that Sudeep was at least capable of the stuff, so when in complete ignorance, you have one of two choices, and took the path of faith rather than painstakingly gathering all the knowlege I would need to make an informed decision. So I decided to trust Krishna and Sudeep, and took the plunge without even meeting a second sitar maker (there are dozens, if not hundreds in Varanasi). At any rate, this is all intended to be a massive learning experience, and only I know how much I`ll actually be playing the thing... which sad to say is not much... The constrictor about my neck is that forces beyond my control have limited my time in Varanasi from the three months I`d intended to just over a month. I knew there was no time to waste. But what really sold me was the body I found. I am not completely ignorant, since I played and studied violins, and know the intricacies of building a violin. I saw that a few of them applied to the Sitar. I`ve also been burned on the purchase of a guitar from a dishonest merchant in Charlotte. But, through and through, I`m a woodworker, and I know a happy piece of wood when I see one. I went through all the bodies Sudeep had in stock, and there was only one that was really close to perfect. Straight grain, which only ran out at two places on the neck.
The secret to selecting lumber is learning how to see what part of the tree it comes from. This is an art and science in itself. And I`ve been doing it long enough that I can pretty accurately tell you how thick the tree was from which a particular board has been rendered, and whether a particular piece is from the top or bottom or center or perimeter of the trunk. The neck on this sitar is clear of knots (which would be totally unacceptible for a piece of stock under this much stress) and was from reasonably close to the center of the tree where the wood is harder (the grain is close together, and doesn`t suddenly widen. The worst piece of wood is one from the outside edge. This will always twist). On the face of the instrument is another piece which must resist the force of the bridge pressing in, and ought to be of a certain thickness. I can`t guage that, but Sudeep said it ws a thick one, and I trusted him when he told me. Its my belief that this body was misfiled. It was heads and shoulders above everything else I saw. It was also the closest one to me, and the first one I picked up. All of these things inspire faith. But the one thing I had complete faith in was that there was not a word coming out of Sudeeps mouth which I could trust. He is, after all, not just a djawari maker. He`s a merchant.
Ramesh entered into the picture because I had visited his shop and decided to not do business with him recently upon arrival in Varanasi. After I`d ordered the sitar from Sudeep, I was going stir-crazy thinking music with no instrument. So one night, I was smoking on my porch (my hotel room has a private balcony... finally!) and it occurred to me that I was living in an apartment with music shops where other cities had convinience stores. There are five within a two minute walk of my room. So, where in other cities I would have gone out for a beer, here I went out for a flute.
At the first shop I went into, the flutes were not labeled as to pitch, they were dusty and in bad shape. The second music shop had really low quality instruments. Muddled grain, off-round sections. The third shop had broken flutes mixed in with the merchandise, which was just disgraceful. But when I`d been at Ramesh`s shop, I`d noticed his flutes were labelled, and I`d found one (I always check out flutes when I see them) that was just magic. A near perfect tone, and sized close to a silver flute. So, I swallowed my pride and went back to visit Ramesh. I took the super high-handed role, decided not to care about the price, and just went back to sell myself a flute. He is honest enough to admit he knows fuck-all about flutes. So I told him. I played a couple dozen of them and pointed out their good and bad qualities. He called a friend over who pretended to play flute, but he couldn`t get a clear tone to save his life. Of course conversation started with me bitch-slapping him by telling him that 1) I`d already bought a sitar from someone else, and 2) He`d forgotten to enquire whether I was left-handed. Of course nobody stocks left-handed sitars, so he`d been short-sighted, trying to sell me what he had, whereas Sudeep had more tools in the shed to work with.
In the end, I overpaid for the flutes by about two dollars and fifty cents, which galled me and caused me to lose more respect for him. But I overpaid, just to make a (low) point. Nevertheless, a couple days later, Ramesh cornered me on the "street" (Its hard to call Bengali Tolah a street. (Tolah means both "street" and "twelve grams" pertaining to gold and drugs) Bengali Tolah is about a meter and a half wide at parts, is all but impossible to even ride a bicycle down, and just forget about a car or bicycle rickshaw, and is the main street through my neighborhood. Pariah dogs like to lie in the middle of the street and get stepped on--frequently--for some unimaginable reason. (The dogs in this town are incredible, but that`s another story....) Cows, however, are the dominant life-form on the road, and tax the shopkeepers who sell anything they can eat. They launch sneak attacks, and saunter up nonchalantly, and take a swipe at anything green or milky and sweet). Ramesh mentioned that he knew of an old left-handed sitar which I could rent from him and start taking lessons now while my sitar was taking two weeks to get made. Again, kismet. I had been planning to ask around whether anyone knew of a left handed sitar in town that I could rent and start taking lessons while my sitar was being made. So, I took the sign from god, and decided to take lessons from someone I already hated.
(I don`t really hate anyone, I use the word as a convinience. "All is full of love" (Bjork) after all. And everyone has Buddha-nature (uhhh... Nagarjuna?). Still, I have little respect for the man. Perhaps the lowest thing I`ve seen him do is this: He`s asked me a couple of times to lie and tell people I bought my sitar from him. I was not principled enough to stand up and piss in his face when he asked this of me, but instead assured him I just wouldn`t say anything. I would do very little for Ramesh, certainly not recommend him, but definitely wouldn`t I lie for him. Still, he had a customer come and listen at our lesson time, (his shop is two garage doors opening on the main street, and about ten feet deep), and as he tuned my sitar, he was commenting on how excellent it sounded, which was true, and it was the only time he has allowed himself to speak truthfully about my sitar, BUT, he was insinuating without saying that it was his sitar he was praising. Obviously no customer would be so adroit as to question him on that. So in effect, the bastard was trying to sell off Sudeep`s sitar as his own.)
I shouldn`t call my teacher/guru a bastard. But there you go.
So, the next day Ramesh produced the left-handed sitar, a bastard itself. It was ordered and not picked up apparently, so has been laying around for a number of years. The neck has a sizable twist (for the reason previously mentioned) and the strings sit high above the frets. The chikari strings have a tinny sound, and the low Sa string was wide open, weezing and rasping like an asthmatic. But it was left handed, which is a small miracle in itself. But the best part of all was that I got a good benchmark for everything that could possibly be wrong with a sitar, and mine has none of these, except for one small detail I`ll mention later. And so I began taking lessons.
Now, of course, I couldn`t wait to tell Sudeep that I`d already found a teacher. And you should have seen his face when I said it was Ramesh. I knew I couldn`t be the only one to see him as he was, and Sudeeps resignation at the done deal was as moribund as Ramesh`s. Everything happens for a reason, and I suddenly found myself in Switzerland between Axis and Allied forces. When the flames are lapping, fan them. It can be fun.
Thus began one of the most fanciful purchases of my life. By realizing that I`d placed myself between two dishonest rivals, I realized the deeper meaning of (A+B)+(B+C)= A+B^2+C (is that right? I should have failed math). By factoring the lies told by each against the other, I could come out with a close approximation of the truth. Or rather, by playing the vested interest of each against the other, I could come out with a damn fine sitar. If Sudeep was selling only ME his sitar, and he got backsheesh from a teacher he connected me with, then any sitar I bought would be glowing in the eyes of the teacher, and anything the teacher said would be gospel. But, well, you can do the math. I repeatedly told Sudeep that I knew nothing about sitars, so if he was going to impress anyone it would be Ramesh. Its also obvious that Sudeep would want to market himself to Ramesh for future purchases; He knows that Ramesh buys his sitars from an 85 year old djawari maker who can`t be long for the world. Its equally obvious when dealing with men of this character that Sudeep would want to rub Ramesh`s nose in the fact that he sells second-rate sitars and knows this. Conversely, its obvious that Ramesh would want to plant every imaginable seed of doubt in my head so that I would never do business with Sudeep again, and also so I would keep Sudeep jumping and take up as much of his time as possible, which has been my intention anyway in not negotiating the price he set. So, by trusting both to be dishonest, I have learned a thing or two about sitars.
Now, this is a very negative way of looking at everything. As I said before, I have switched teams, and no longer find Truth and Beauty in castles built on clouds. Rather, I see Sudeep who honestly believes himself to be a first-class djawari maker, and Ramesh who sees himself as a great teacher for foriegners wanting a taste of Indian Classical music. (You should have heard the tone in Sudeeps voice when he said, "Ramesh plays a little sitar..." ). But in another moment of heartbreaking honesty, a girl from Korea came back to stay in Varanasi for four month She`d been his student last time, and the two appear to be a little bit too friendly. She apparently took the other tack, which is, "win his heart and he won`t exploit you." And she`d won. She surprised him during our lesson, and after she left, he confided to me that he was going to introduce her to his guru. He said, "this is not a place for her to study. Its too noisy. She would be wasting her time." The humilty. I nearly cried. Deep down inside, even he knows what he is, and what he`d rather be.
His eyes nearly teared up at this accidental revealation. I could even see it flash across his mind that he was telling this to me, his student, in the very same time-wasting scenario. I assured him that the noise, the chaos of the learning environment, the cows walking by, dogs fighting, monkeys chasing eachother across ledges, the chai wallah opposite his shop, the beggars begging from me during our lessons, the cobra handler whom I gave ten rupees to who then wanted to give a show of his doped up and blinded snake, this was all okay with me, as if forced me unconditionally to concentrate, something a silent room has never done. I assured him that I came into it with my eyes open. Its a problem in my character, I think. I can never exploit an opponent`s weakness.
So two weeks ago I picked up my sitar. Sudeep built it first without the "sympathetic strings", the 13 strings which are never struck, but resonate with the note played above. Ramesh said he had never heard of anyone building a sitar this way, but I understood Sudeeps rationale. The instrument is under an incredible strain; so add the stress gradually. He gained my respect as a craftsman for doing this, and if I`d haggled on the price of the sitar, he wouldn`t have mentioned it, and I wouldn`t have thought to ask. Sudeep added several hours of work to his schedule by doing this. Ramesh, perhaps had never heard of such a thing, but that he couldn`t see the craftsmanship at work reaffirmed my reasoning for not doing business with him in the first place. Sudeep said he made sitars as his father had before him. That alone was quaint reason enough. [arg. I`m being attacked by grasshoppers. They seem to come in waves. We had a wave of grasshoppers a couple weeks ago as well. Followed by a wave of moths. And then a wave of what I`d call sand fleas if I weren`t on the fourth floor of a building. But I`ve only seen one mosquito since I`ve been here. And this should be the season.]
My karma with Ramesh played out with two weeks of my most dreaded musical task. Exercises. I fucking HATE playing exercises. Ever since I was six years old and playing a full upright piano and taking lessons from someone from our church. I don`t remember anything from that period of my life except hating to play excersizes on the piano. The difference between now and then is that nobody is making me do this except me. And I was practicing five hours a day. Since I started taking sitar lessons, there has been nothing else in my life. Everything has revolved arouind the sitar for one month. I have developed impressive calluses on the fore and index fingers of my right hand, and discovered why right-handed string instruments have never worked out for me. And I played excersizes for hours a day, and have taken lessons six days a week. Tonight we finished our first Raga, Rag Yaman. The starter raga for everyone, since its in a just-off-major scale and is relatively slow. Whereas when I was learning piano as a child the excersizes went on forever since I took lessons only once a week and I never practiced, here because of my lifestyle choices, I`ve condensed a six months of lessons into one.
And man, what an instrument. The sitar is like having an orchestra in your pocket. You only play one string using only two fingers. But somehow the sound swallows you and transports you to an ethereal realm where you are being serenaded by angels. I often forget that I am playing, and just sit back and listen. The history of the instrument is pretty cool. Aparently "Si - tara" means "three strings" in some language, and it was so named when the warrior`s plucked bow evolved into a bamboo stalk with three strings and a sounding chamber stretched over with something`s skin. But under the Moguls in the 13th century, everything got all posh. Suddenly the strings expanded to five and then six and someone discovered the sympathetic strings, and now we`re up to twenty strings. But still, as with an archer`s bow, you still only play on one. The tone of the instrument is matched to the human voice, with sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa replacing do-re-mi-fa. But while "doe" is c, sa is "d". I guess Indians sing one note higher. In fact sa can be any note. Music is writen relative to Sa, so Sa can be set to any pitch. Hence, all the flutes have Sa as the third hole closed regardless of the pitch. All tuning is relative. But "D" is the favored tuning for sitar these days. Though Sudeep says I should be playing in "C," Ramesh say I should be playing in C#, but what he thinks is C#, in fact is D. I`ve downloaded instrument-tuning software to verify this.
So this has been my little adventure on the sitar. All the bugs hopping about on my computer screen , head and shoulders are starting to annoy me so I`ll call it a night. None of them sting, they`re just a nuisance. The power goes out pretty regularly, as it has now, and the last of my candles is about to die, so the monitor is the only light source. Grasshoppers down one`s shirt can be quite distracting. Nothing to do now but practice the sitar...
Monkey Theft. First it was grasshoppers. Then moths, then sand mites. Then geckos. But the latest plague is the worst. The Israelis are back. The nice thing about geckos is that they are silent. But no pack of Israelis is complete without a badly played guitar. In this case they`re playing half-known American rock songs that everyone else long stopped caring to hear. Oh well, its my Karma no doubt for my incessant Sitar-ing.
A couple weeks after I arrived, one of those things which one dreads happened. I lost my glasses. Now, in my case, I`m legally blind without my glasses; I only ever take them off to sleep. and meditate... and do yoga... and shower... okay I rarely take them off. As it happens, a few weeks ago, I took off my glasses to both meditate and sleep. But when I went to bed, I forgot to close my balcony door. Now, in the real world this wouldn`t be an issue, as I`m on the fourth floor and its a private balcony. But this is India. Here, I share the balcony with every monkey in town. So, the next morning I woke up, and went about my morning routine. Meditated, showered, puttered around, smoked, and then... well, I realized I wasn`t wearing my glasses after about an hour. I think what normally happens is in the process of this puttering I usually come upon my glasses and put them on without really thinking about it. Habits like these have formed over nearly 20 years, so they`re quite unconscious. But after an hour without coming across my glasses, I started to get concerned. Finally, I had recourse, for prehaps the first time in my life, to my second pair. I`ve never lost my glasses before, but I`ve always carried a second pair just in case. The extra pair were scuffed and scraped from years and years of disuse and jostling in transportation. I imagine the glasses case became something of a rock tumbler over time. Still, they functioned, but I still couldn`t find my glasses. I thought I was losing my mind. I looked in and through everything, when finally, I realized the only logical conclusion was that monkeys broke into my room and stole my glasses.
You have to love living in a place where the most rational explanation is that monkeys stole your glasses.
They also have a penchant for lighters apparently, or at least I blame all my lost lighters on monkeys, whatever the case may actually be. I could see this habit sticking, actually. Varanasi has a real problem with monkeys. The other day there was a protest. People marched to protest that people were not feeding the monkeys. I appologize for my overuse of italics in this missive, but India kinda demands it. So, the mostly peaceful protest was to call attention to the plight of the poor starving monkeys who have to raid people`s houses and apartments, and rule the rooftops ot Varanasi. In a city where the average alley width is about three feet, Being on the roof with monkeys is not unlike being in a boat watching the fish. The difference being fish in the sea don`t try to pinch your lighters.
The monkeys can go anywhere. Its nuts. They leap and play and tumble, but never fall (speaking of animals eating shit, I had a swallow miscalculate a turn and run straight into my belly. I laughed at him. Its always nice to see animals being human). They can even take a leap at a bare wall and with friction alone spring up fifteen foot walls. They`ll leap across a chasm and land on their feet on a four inch ledge. There`s nowhere they can`t go. Needless to say, a monkey stick is a requirement of home ownership. Sort of like Americans have remotes, which they always have to look for when the monkeys stage a raid. Of course they travel in packs, So where you see one, there are always several more lurking just around the corner, over the ledge, or over your head. So you have to wield the monkey stick confidently. Its the local equivalent of kendo.
So the monkeys stole my glasses. I keep expecting to see a monkey appear on the bars on my window, wearing my glasses and taunting me. A few days later I lost my hat, for which I also blame the monkeys, though I know it not to be true. Now the monkeys are trying to ape my fashion. The fuckers. Anyway, I didn`t really like the hat, but I bought another, which they also stole. So now I`m on my third hat in as many weeks. Good thing they don`t wear my size. So I can take a hint, and figure the monkeys want backsheesh. So now I put my apple cores on the balcony for them. A few days ago I came home to my locked room, and there was a cigarette on my bed, just inside the bars of my open window. I figured that was the monkey`s way of saying thanks.
When I had just started to play sitar, the strings cut into my fingers painfully. So I wore bandaids on my fingers in order to practice the five hours a day my early enthusiasm demanded. One day I was on the balcony smoking with my friend Chris, and the bastard monkeys came into my room through the front door, grabbed my bag of bandaids and tore ass out of the room with me in hot pursuit. By the time I caught up with them on the balcony, they were unwrapping them, trying to eat them, with Chris laughing at their folly, and me cursing the loss of a hundred bandaids to fucking monkeys. I mean if they knew what they were for and used them after their monkey fights, fair gaime. But they were after food. So my bandaids ended up scattered across the roof opposite my balcony, and I got to play my favorite game.
I`ve had bad luck dropping my cigarettes, my drying laundry, etc, off the edge of the roof. So what can you do? Well, I`m glad you asked. I`d bought a kite in an ill-fated attempt to be cool like the Indian kids, though I could never get it up, and now feel immasculated by seven year olds. Its rough. But I had kite string. So, I started experimenting. My first attempt involved an ingenious engineering effort involving a multitool, one string to support the weight of the device, and the other run through the keychain loop and close the pliers. The concept was a "UFO Catcher," one of those games with the arm that always fails to pick up the stuffed animal you so desperately want. Well, the results were the same, or would have been, but a last-minute addition involved gaffer`s tape (the sophisticated man`s duct tape) around the pincers of the pliers, which in itself did the trick. thus I retrieved my cigarette. I realized the tape was the thing, so my second device I put one of the little clay cups that come free with the purchase of a cup of yogurt (here misnomered "curd") on the end of a string, forming a mini-basket-on-a-string thing, to which I adhered a patch of tape upon the bottom. Is that clear? I donno, anyway, this was immediately successful From five stories up. So, I had succeeded with retrieving small objects from a verticle drop, but the bandaids were scattered several meters away, in strips of five. So, my brainstorm stumbled upon the "monkey fist," the knot tying tour de force of geeky seamen everywhere. I was too lazy to figure that out, and besides I needed a wad of tape on a string. So I took a small cyindrical canister, one of many I`ve been collecting, ran the string under the lid, wrapped it in tape and came up with the lazy man`s analogy. Now the game became interesting. I swung the "monkey fist" as a pendulum until its tragectory seemed on target, then released the string to send it falling parabolically directly on target with the nearest strip of bandaids. Proof of concept. I got the first one, the second strip from maybe 10 meters away, but the third, a good fifteen or twenty meters away proved a challenge. And after five or six misses, the adhesive properties of the tape was deteroirated. I had drug them close enough for a final pass, when the mother in the house next door came up to the roof and stared at me with perplexity. I`m used to this. Nearly everything I do here causes consternation among the older women. So instead I pantomimed could she be so kind as to attach the bandaids to my string so I could retrieve them. My pantomime skill have reached such a level as to moot the need for me to study languages when I travel... at least that`s what I tell my lazy ass when I`m doing interpretive dance at a bus station at five AM.
So, I had to buy new glasses. With a perscription as strong as mine, I require truly high-tech eyewear. My glasses, if made of glass, would be thicker than the bottom of coke bottles. So I buy the highest index plastic lenses available, which costs over 400 dollars when combined with frames that look dorky but in a fashionable way. So, I had two major worries. Technology and fashion are two things India is not renowned for. Bangaloreization is a myth. Varanasi is the 19th century. So my first task was to find fashionable frames with an credible optomotrist. The first three eyeglass stalls I visited were not encouraging. The first guy was trying to hard sell me his lenses and glasses. I realized that he was yelling at me, and with disbelief walked away asking him why he was yelling at me. The second and third had fuck-all for frames. The fourth, had a manual kit for determining the perscription of my lenses, which while fascinating and ostensibly accurate, was so medival I just moved on. Finally, I came upon a man who spoke a smooth and undemanding English. Still, he was the son of an Optometrist. Everything I`ve purchaced here, the sitar, glasses, the mizrab (sitar pick), my airline ticket, everyone is the son of a father who started the shop. Anyway, when I walked into the shop, there was only one pair of frames in the whole place. I saw them from the street. Walked straight over to them, asked to see them and they were perfect. Then I looked around and saw the other couple hundred pairs. The optomotrist asked to see my perscription, which I had inadvertently brought along, He quoted me a price of 2400rs, which is around fifty bucks. I was skeptical, but thought the price was in the ballpark of quality. So I took a walk to the Motilal Banarsidas bookstore, thought about it for twenty minutes, went back and placed the order. I also suggested that if they were acceptible, I`d buy sunglasses as well. This was partly a line, since its a good idea to insinuate to merchants that one could be a repeat customer, but on the other hand, with a budget of 400 bucks, I could buy eight pairs. He said they`d be ready in four days, "lets see, this is thursday, so they should be ready next wednesday." Of course I picked them up as soon as they were ready: 7pm on Wednesday night. And they are fine. Not quite of the quality to which I`m accustomed, but ballpark. So I bought sunglasses. I`ve never had perscription suglasses. Oh wait. When I was a kid in the 80's I had some lenses that got darker and lighter with the lighting conditions. Didn`t I? Or was that Erik. Anyway, those were cool. Whatever happened to them. But now I have movie star sunglasses. Though to my mind, when I see myself in the mirror wearing a baseball cap, I`m the spitting image of a C.I.A. agent. Which makes me nervous. Though I do feel a hundred percent cooler when I`ve got them on. Its nice, sunglasses, baseball cap, headphones, and I am no longer in India. Its the next best thing to teleportation. Suddenly India is just a T.V. show and I`m walking through the set.
Buying things in the country is a total pain in the ass. I`ve been searching for five years for Kahdi or Kardi Kurta Pyjamas. This is the Gandhi-certified best thing to wear. "Kardi" sometimes signifies "handloom", but more often is just a word tagged onto clothing to sell it. There is a pattern of fabric that`s referred to as Kardi as well, I gues to make honest men of the merchants. Anyway, a true white Kardi garment is easily identifiable because it looks like shit. The quality of the yarn used is low, with many imperfections, the weave is uneven, and the bleaching agent is still present as a dull blue hue, or even patches. The workers evidently don`t wash their hands, as they garments are delivered with ring around the collar. It looks like you`re buying second-hand goods, starched and pressed, after being worn for a month by a hippie. But in fact, after a few washings they do come to be soft and white. Anyway, I searched in vain, despite Gandhi`s marketing push for handloom garments, for Kardi Kurtas last time I was in India, but was sold something that was called that anyway. This time, being more adroit at cross-examination, I managed to ask the question, and its opposite, and as many different formulations thereof to enough people [dude. A bug that smells like a flower just landed on my shoulder. I shooed him away, and now my hand smells like Bath and Body Works` interpretation of a rainforest!] to finally figure out what Kardi really was, and what it also was... sheesh what a pain in the ass. Five years to arrive at a straight answer.
But I still hadn`t found the garment I was looking for. In the process of my searching, I had heard that the only place you could buy such a thing was the Gandhi Ashram. But though I found a sign advertising the Gandhi ashram, I couldn`t find its door, just a line of shops. Discretely tucked in the middle was one room distict from the others by its dim lighting and surly sales staff. It was the one shop that wasn`t welcoming my business. So I`d gone in, and asked for Kardi fabric, cause that was the question formation I was up to at that point. It turns out they don`t sell the raw material, but instead sell readymade garments, which I hadn`t noticed, cause they were in plastic bags stacked on shelves. Every other shop had assured me readymade garments weren`t available, except at the Gandhi ashram. Little did I suspect that that`s where I was. Anyway, a week later I made a concerted effort to find the Gandhi Ashram, ended up back at the same place, asked the right questions, and now am the proud owner of a Kardi Kurta. Though its a little large. doh! We`ll see what machine washing does to it in The States...
I have a three-footed gecko in my room (not a three foot gecko... my room`s not that big). He`s been my roomate for a month now. Its his house on the wall. Now think about that. Geckos are renowned for their ability to adhere to any surface. Their feet utilize quantum physical properties to attach molecule to molecule with the wall surface via uber-microscoping hairs. Now, this gecko has only three feet, and gets around just as well as the others. How cool is that. Scientists have produced a tape that, while it doesn`t maintain its stickiness, does utilize the same physical properties as a gecko`s foot. Ah the relentless pace of modern technologies. We spend all this time trying to walk on two legs only to each and every one of us upon hearing the existing of Gecko tape, immediately crave gloves and shoes made of the stuff... wait, or is that just me...
While we`re on the subject, another strange aspect of the animal kingdom in Varanasi are the pidgeons. People seem to "keep" them here. Outside my window, below my balcony, our neighbors has a pidgeon coop. I never see the pidgeons come out, and I`ve never heard of anyone eating them, so I guess I just don`t see the point of going to all the trouble to imprison and care for these animals that would hang out on your roof anyway. But often the young man who lives there comes out, takes a pidgeon stick (not to be confused with a monkey stick. A pidgeon stick is longer and thinner, with a plastic bag inexplicably attached to the end. Does it look like a lead-pidgeon? Are pidgeons that stupid?) Anyway, he takes this stick, says, "haow, haow, haow. Hao hao hao..." and swings the sticks in a circle. After the pidgeons are circling overhead, he throws them some grain. All the while his imprisoned pidgeons coo and warble nearby. Occasionally other pidgeons from the hood come and check up on their homies in lockdown. Overall its just sad. But training wild pidgeons to fly in circles is kinda cool. I remember a movie from te fifties, black and white, I think it was the one with the line "I coulda been a contender" where the hero also lovingly keeps pidgeons; and this demonstrates the soft side of the boxer`s hard life. Or was he a dock worker... Anyway, apparently the keeping of pidgeons is an urban phenomenon not unique to India. Still I have trouble with locking up animals for one`s personal pleasure.
I`ve spent almost no time at all hanging out in Cafe`s here. Contrasted with Khirganga and Vashishth, where that`S about all I did. Consequently, I have met very few people here. I found Modern Vision Guest House, and its cast of characters because I was trying to pick up Claire, a French girl sitting opposite me on the train. She showed me the guesthouse, we shared a rickshaw here, but it ended there. We hung out a little bit, but she made it eminently clear that she wasn`t interested. It turns out her grandparents own a farm and she grew up driving horses, getting covered in mud, cleaning stables and the like. After a week, she went to Nepal, and was the first beacon that my time in Varanasi was coming to an end when I saw her return here after three weeks there. As she was leaving, I showed my hand a bit, which was closely held till that point, and we made one of those imaginary plans to visit Prague together next summer. We`ll see how my finances play out.
Claire also introduced me to my favorite Chai wallah, Bholanath-ji. He is so much more than a Chai wallah though. He produces an amazing beverage better refered to as chaispresso. He really cooks the tea, and then gets the sugar right up to the super saturation point, and hits the spices just right, so that one of his chais is worth ten others. He is also the only chai wallah who says "thank you" when he hands you your tea... In fact, he`s not really a chai wallah. It seems more like a hobby. Its reminsicent of the "Soup Nazi" episode of Seinfeld. Five times a day I walk by, and plaintively enquire, "Chai Milega?" And four times out of five he says curtly, "no." And I go away disappointed. But that fifth time is magic. Making chai seems to be his hobby. The rest of the day he`s making lunch for his family or napping, or delivering milk which perhaps is his real job. He`s also always up, with chai waiting (not chaispresso) at 5:30 am when I go to the Ganga to bathe. Claire tells me he`s nearly 80 years old, but I`d guess more like early 70`S. He has a strange huge lump on the side of his throat that any doctor could diagnose on sight no doubt, but I`m not a doctor, and he doesn`t seem concerned about it. Though he does have that slight edge to his demeanor that suggests he knows you are staring.
Its funny one day, after two weeks without a single Israeli, one showed up. A day later, two more. And now the entire floor is filled with Israelis. What is up with these people and why do they put so much stock in their grapevine. I guess the insular nature of their culture is what comes from 3000 years of persecution... They do certainly clump together... The strange thing is if you ask any of them, they`ll tell you that they all just met here. So that means...
I can`t fucking believe I`m leaving Varanasi in two days. It totally feels like I`m moving.
The only real friend I`ve met here has been Chris. She`s an ex-gopi. She grew up on a farm in the Austrian Alps, helping out her uncle until, apparently, there was a falling out. But just like Raja, she is from a small farm outside a small villiage, thirty minutes from the nearest town. Three farm girls, none of whom will give me the time of day. I have no idea what that says about my karma. Anyway, Chris, who is 19, and I hung quite a bit. She`d go with me to the Ganga in the morning, or at least tap on my door on mornings when I was too lazy to get up at the crack of dawn. We even went out sightseeing together on the rare occasion when I played tourist.
One Sunday, when I didn`t have a lesson, we went to Sarnath. Sarnath, as you undoubtedly know, is where the Buddha taught his first sermon on the four noble truths, which goes something like this:
- Suffering originates.
- Logically, everything that has a begining, must have an end, hence, there is a cessation to suffering
- There is a path to the cessation of suffering.
Point four is roughly the equivalent of Jesus saying, "follow me and I`ll make you the fishers of men." And like their catholic bretheren... awe, lets not go there. Anyway, I`ve had no interest in Buddhism here. Something about the ambiance. Its too thick with other gods, and Shiva and his entourage totally dominate the subtle nature of this city. There simply isn`t room for any more gods here.
And anyway, I`ve felt almost completely atheistic as of late. I feel in touch with something-whatever-it-is so directly, so deeply, that giving it a name, talking to it in my head, meditating to know it, or performing some silly song-and-dance ceremony or puja seems completely irrelevant, or almost insulting. The story of Nazruddin comes to mind. One day Nazrudin was seen tear-assing through town sitting backwards on his donkey. Eventually people were afraid he would kill himself and started chasing after him. Finally a group of them caught up with him and asked what was wrong. Nazruddin said that he was desperately looking for his donkey. Its like that. I don`t think I`ve stepped into the sanctus sanctorium of a temple since I`ve been here. I just show my face and my respect to the lingam from the door, and move on. I just can`t stomach the play-acting of it all right now.
So, Chris and made a good match. For the first few days here she was seeing all wine and roses, while I was seeing fucking boatmen and goddamn dealers and harrasment at every turn. Then we switched. We rented a horsecart to go to Sarnath, because, and this is a funny story, Chris has bought a horse and is awaiting delivery. Okay, so, I`ll assume Chris is reading this, too. But what exactly transpires so that you end up buying a horse in Delhi, the day after you arrive in India? It was not her horse pulling the cart, of course. Her horse is the ward of a Kashmiri horse dealer. Now, I don`t know what you know about horse traders, but come on. Our species has been dealing with horsetraders for hundreds of generations. But what turn must conversation take? So there you are, fresh off the plane, you find a family guesthouse in Delhi, you`re soaking in all the cultural conundrums, turn to your host and ask, "by the way, do you know where I could buy a horse?" And then the older son turns and says--this is in Delhi, mind you--,"oh of course. My good friend is a horse trader." and in the end you agree to pay five hundred bucks up front for a horse, sight unseen. Needless to say, Chris feels a little bit taken in. But there is still a chance she will get her horse. She`s still determined, for it is her childhood dream to travel by horseback. Clearly this is not a mode of transportation I would recommend for India, but heck, shine on you crazy diamond. I love and respect her all the more.
So, we rented a horse cart, and set out for the thirty minute ride to the outskirts of town. She`d been in a bit of a foul mood, and I, on the other hand had just come out of the three-month doldrums, where everything tastes stale; largely because I hadn`t been leaving my hotel room much. Today, for example, I went to the main ghats during the day for the first time since I`ve been back. I didn`t remember why I never went there, until I went there today. I made it a dozen steps down the ghats before I`d been offered five boats, two massages, and a shave (shit do I need to shave again already?!). I had two barbers chasing me across the ghats, when I stopped, turned and shouted, "what the fuck, Chello! Chello! [piss off! piss off!]. "You are angry?" one of the barbers said. I didn`t respond, and was only offered two more boats in the three minutes I spent at the riverfront. It was funny to watch my mood sour so instantly, but since I was watching the rope break, I was able to duck up an alleyway and end up back on my widely beaten track, where everyone leaves me alone now. Most of them having been told, individually, to piss off. I`m getting better at feigning anger without it taking root. But anger always sews its seeds.
At Sarnath, there are troupes of beggars and touts, but most of them are little kids, entry and exit seems to be unrestricted for them. So they latch on to tourists and try to sell little pressed clay buddhas as stone. And its no use arguing. Also ornamental tikka stamps such as a 12 year old girl would be partial two. So while I played with the kids, Chris fumed. Eventually, I started informing the kids that Chris practices Wang Chung Kung Fu, and was dangerous. And talking to her was dangerous. I put my hand on her shoulder and got an elbow in the chin--just lightly brushing, but definitively making contanct. She made herself known that I was not exempt from pissing her off by wanting something from her, either. I played with the kids mostly to draw fire from her, and in the end, grabbed one of the kid`s bags, ran a hundred meters away, put it on a fencepost, and ran back. That confused him.
Chris and I hung out for a while, but then she, like most of the other travellers in Varanasi, was making the trek to the border and Nepal to get a new visa. So for the last two weeks I`ve been alone here. Claire came back for a couple days and we connected a bit more, but mostly, I`ve been alone, apart from the family here, doing battle with Sudeep and Ramesh.
But some of my happiest moments came in Indica Bookstore. What a beautiful collection. While they don`t have everything I need, they have most of it. I`ve spent hours there, and visited several times. Also, Motilal Banarsidas , a preeminent publisher of books on Indiology, has a branch here, and there are three or four other bookstores of a less scholastic tone (Pilgrim`s near Durga Kund is one example. In a bizarre twist, I had to explain to my rickshaw driver how to get to Durga Kund, one of the most significant historic temples in Banaras. Universal Books near Indica is good for fiction). But at a bookstore of almost all Hindi books I found a really bitchin` copy of the Vedas. For those of you who don`t know of the Vedas, they are in my library on the website as well. But I found revised translations with commentary by a Sankarchariya (those who know). Owning the complete Vedas has been a dream of mine for twelve years, and assuming the packages make it to the states by January or February, I will spend my time in Charlotte studying them. It was my intention to do that here, but circumstances being what they are...
All told I think I`ve bought nearly 30 books. I sent back 25 kilos of them to Charlotte at any rate. The price for hard bound editions of some of the most priceless classics mankind has produce, shipped half way around the world came out to under ten dollars a volume. I also bought the complete Jataka Tales (past life stories of the Buddha) which are the best picture of circa 300BC India available anywhere, as well as the Su-Yu-Ki, or Tales of the Western World by Hsien Tsing, or Xuanxang or however you want to spell it, which is the same for 600AD. And an unexpected Gem, I discovered a book called the Sangeeta Ratnava (donno the name exactly right now, I shipped it without writing it down) which is a 13th century treatise on Indian music; it dates from around the time of the evolution of the Veena into a Sitar. Written during the Mugal period it is also presumably muslim in character. I don`t know, I shipped it without reading it. So I pray my 25 kilos, including three or four secondary texts specifically on Buddhist Logic and Epistemology, arrive. This small library was a big part of my agenda for coming to Varanasi, if not India.
But most of my time outside of the guesthouse has been spent with Ramesh, studying sitar. One night while I was in the middle of a lesson, and the middle of a new and difficult section of music, a classic seventies burnout walked by, stopped for a moment and wailed "SEX DRUGS AND ROCK AND ROLL, THAT`S ALL BY BODY NEEDS!!!" and then walked off. I just kept playing. Afterward, Ramesh asked me what that meant. I just smiled and said it was from a song, but not to worry, it was intended as a compliment. Its funny taking music lessons on the side of the road. No less surreal than seeing roadside dentists and butchers. Its certainly a lesson in concentration. By far the greatest challenge I`ve faced while playing was not the bullfight (two bulls fighting) but was about a week after I`d started taking lessons. I was in the middle of rehearsing a certain excersize over and over again when a in Indian woman paused, and suddenly started doing the same excersize vocally, and then took it to the next level, singing double the notes at twice the tempo I was playing. I couldn`t stop, cause then she would stop, but on the other hand I could barely play the excersize. So with beads of sweat dripping from my brow, I concentrated with absolute severity, reigning in my monkey brain that for the first time was grasping Indian vocal music, as if recieving transmission from a guru. I didn`t dare falter and bring shame to myself or my teacher, or the singer for having thereby interrupted my lesson (this is a very japanese way of thinking, I know). (Lately, I`ve had several Indians comment seperately and with no connection to eachother that I look Japanese. I always take it as a compliment, but seriously, I thought I was only joking when I said I was turning Japanese a couple years ago.... The Japanese as I might have mentioned previously, love Varanasi and tend to stay for months on end here. I guess it means I`m in my idiom, whatever that is). But I made it through, and unfortunately, she left before I reached the end. I never even saw her face, I only just heard her beautiful voice....
How it all worked out. The day after I wrote the diatribe about buying a sitar, I went for my final meeting with Sudeep. I was dreading a confrontation, because for two weeks, the only lingering disagreement between Sudeep and Ramesh through me has been over the nature of the djawari. Having no knowlege what it could possibly sound like, I have been forced to use all my Jedi mind tricks to see through their respective biases. In the end, Sudeep`s story had a hole in it. He said on the one hand that the sound of his djawari should last a year. And then in the next breath he said that the "low Sa" string, known as Jori, was "open" (buzzing, producing overtones) as a result of my inexperience and rough handling. I would counter with Ramesh`s statement that if it starts closed it will gradually open up, and if it is open to begin with then the sound of the instrument won`t last as long, to which Sudeep responded, no no no, the Djawari will last a year... Even though mine didn`t last a week. You can see the bind I`ve been in. So I was dreading a repeat of this same story, for despite the fact that twice he`d closed the djawari on jori, it was now quite open. And somehow this was my fault, not his, because Sudeep`s djawari should last a year.... Around and around.
So, with misgivings, I woke up early, and headed over to Sudeeps early last monday morning. In addition to confronting him for a final time on the sound of jori, which within myself I`d resolved as a stylistic difference, I also wanted to have two additional frets set. He didn`t have any of the right guage material to make the frets a week before when I`d finally scraped up enough knowlege to know to ask for them, so this was my final chance to get them. While it wouldn`t be a big deal for me to make them, it would take a couple days for me and a couple minutes for him. There was also a small matter of some replacement parts, etc, etc... I had many things I needed from him, and he had all the cards in his hands. All he had to say was that he didn`t have time, and I would have been screwed.
But instead, I showed up monday morning, and he greeted me saying, "you must have a long life (sic). We say this when you are thinking about someone and they show up." Indeed, he had blocked out most of the morning to work on my sitar. He had come up with a second bridge, had decided to take two frets off another instrument for me, and gave me the replacement parts gratis. Since he now knew what Ramesh wanted from my sitar, he made the new bridge with completely closed djawari... Which I have mixed feelings about, but Ramesh says the sitar is now perfect. I then spent the entire morning at Sudeep`s, watching his worker set the frets, and watching them make the djawari. I learned how to tie the special knot for setting the frets. First make a loop in the end of the string, then place that against one side of the instrument. Get the fret in position, then wrap the string twice over the loop and the two notches at the end of the frets. Now the cool part. You pass a loop of string through the first loop, then pass the tail end of the first loop, back through the second loop and pull the two free ends taught. Then tie a knot and voila. Its really simple, but I`m sure it will fuck with me when I try it for the first time. Making djawari is likewise simple. Set the height of the bridge so the string is not to high or low above the frets, then from the rough shape, start at the back to form a curve, and then with all the strings closed, gradually open them. Its all sandpaper and a bit of string. But, truly, impossible to describe in words. I`ve found a book that makes a stellar effort at it however. So, in the long run, if I keep playing this instrument, I will become a djawari maker, if only out of necessity.
I took the three hours I had there to run various things Ramesh had told me by Sudeep, and to pick his brain about the market in Varanas. He says that his father and Ramesh`s maker used to be the only two sitar makers in Varanasi, but that there were many djawari makers in town, none of them any good (of course). He also told me that Varanasi`s business environment was particularly cut-throat, moreso than any other place in India. He admitted to the tactics in others that he`d used on me himself. He also explained that it was a difference in state tax laws on lumber which had shifted all the production of sitar bodies to outside Kolkata in West Bengal; apparently lumber is almost four times more expensive in Uttar Pradesh. This was a tactical failure of honesty on his part. He also told me of three cities where he sources his sitar bodies, a cardinal sin for a merchant. I was feeling that Sudeep was being guile-less and honest with me all day, and I felt bad for having doubted him. He made a completely closed djawari for me against his will, and I realized that the stylistic difference annoyed him. He wanted to make an open, singing, Ravi Shankar style sound, but I was asking for the more introverted, muffled, closed sound which will take months to properly open up (unless I get a hair up my ass, as they say, whatever that means). In short, he tilted hand, and I showed mine, and we walked away as friends. I have replacement parts for nearly everything that could brake and be fixed, as well as rolls of string. But most importantly, I think could buy a body and make a sitar myself from what I learned from him.
He also mentioned to me a mizrab maker. Now imagine you found out about someone who makes guitar picks. Wouldn`t you want to have a custom made guitar pick? So today I set out in search of this man, Bharuni Babu. It was the kind of name you can`t go wrong with. But where I was expecting an elderly man wizzened with experience, I found a man younger than myself. But he has been working in the shop for 12 or 15 years. Bharuni Babu was his grandfather, and died a long time ago. Still, the shop has been in its tiny hole in the wall for more than fifty years. And he`s the last mizrab maker in Varanasi. I ordered five or ten mizrab, and walked away with 8. I showed one of them to Ramesh, and he insisted that I give it to him. He said he had no idea Bharuni Babu was still making mizrabs and that he was going to go order some. I also surpised Ramesh by asking about Shruti, and a couple other really pointed questions today. I was hitting home runs right and left. But in addition to teaching me to make mizrab (again extremely simple and yet a terribly precise method), I took the opportunity for another take on the sitar market in Varanasi. I asked him how many sitar makers were in town, and he said, "only one person who makes sitar bodies, but even he doesn`t make sitar bodies anymore." You learn to listen to sentences like that a lot in India... Eventually you stop throwing things. Asked about djawari makers, "there is only one really good djawari maker," he said, suspiciously close to his shop. So... no matter where you go, its wading through bullshit in this town. Anyway, he makes harmoniums mostly, but he also makes a darn fine mizrab. When I agreed to make a gift of the mizram to Ramesh he threw his other one away calling it a fucking terrible mizrab. It was the first time I`d heard him say fuck, in fact. I`ve used it a bit, but I guess he really does know what it means... oops. He was practically covetous of it. "Its the perfect size for me," he kept saying.
"Many things are strange about western countries that I don`t understand," Ramesh said as a cow walked by on the street outside his shop... I could relate. But we got into a discussion of music theory, and I realized for the first time that he didn`t have a the vaguest idea of western musical theory. There are several fundimental differences, such as Indian music being mostly improvisational along structures far more complex than Jazz. Its not unlike the traditional Baroque style of Fugues or a theme and variations. But there are certain notes, that one should never never ever play. But for that we`ll need background.
I mentioned before that the Indian music scale is based on the progression, sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa.... Well, in principle, Sa can be any note. whatever is comfortable for the singer or soloist. There are no orchestras in Indian Classical music, so the concept of a "concert pitch" isn`t relevant. Whereas we tune to "A" in the wstern orchestra, the sitar is tuned somewhere between C and D. Mine sounds best at D, so I left it there. Most of the notes can be made sharp or flat with the exceptions of Sa and Pa. The first and fifth notes of the scale. Likewise, in western music Playing in the key of C-sharp or D-flat is uncommon, and if you are playing in the key of C, the C-sharp key is only used to cause nausea in the audience. Its truly an unholy note. So on most sitars, there is no fret above Sa or Pa, until you move a full whole-step higher. However, this doesn`t work out for western music. While we never play C# in the key of C, we do use it in a number of other key signatures, and modulating between keys is a halmark of western music. This is never done in Indian classical music. The scale of the Raga is adhered to with stubbornness. One never modulates. One starts, improvises, plays, and finishes always in the same key. You never go from Major to minor keys.
So when I filled in the two missing frets on my sitar, Ramesh looked at me like I was crazy, or rather, possessed by some unfathomable scheme. It was beyond his imagination what I would need Sa-sharp for. I briefly explained that unlike Indian music, there is no necessity to "Sa" or C as the tonic of the scale, and what he was thinking of as major or minor could begin from any fret. I played major scales starting on C, D, E, F, G just to demonstrate, but I could tell he wouldn`t grasp the ramifications. So, I did my best to explain, then made a copy of Rachmaninov`s 3rd Piano Concerto. Some things must just be felt.
Western music seems to be based on abstract principles, whereas Indian music is based on the timbre of the human voice. Eastern musical instrumentation has always been primarily accompaniment to singing. It wasn`t until the Sitar, which learned to sing with itself, that soloists other than the singer took center stage. "Sa" has a relative value for each instrument and can be any note, whereas western instruments are all applied to the same abstract scale. There is something in that, but I`m not sure what. A completely different musical theory... give me a few months to work on it.
One week later in Kolkata (Calcutta). Today I was walking down the street and a guy approached me saying, "yes? what do you want? Internet? Hash? Good one...." Are my vices just written on my forehead or something? If he`d added beer and a blowjob it coulda been a date. But I just used the ultra-effective talk-to-the-hand maneuver, and he left me alone. Nobody wants to talk to the hand. I wonder if this is human nature?
I also went to the Birla Planetarium. Now the building is cool. Its a marble clad dome upon which they project the stars and some really antiquainted slides from the seventies. Ever since I was a kid I have adored the projector mechanism that they have in planetariums. Few devices are more suitable for a mad scientist. So, it was a bit regressive for me to be sitting in the Planetarium, having snuck in an ice cream cone through the metal detector at the door. (Are planetariums terrorist targets now? Did I miss something?) So after I figured out which direction would be projected as south (clearly not the magnetic south) I sat back in order to learn something. However, sadly, this was not to be an educational visit. The speaker was an elderly woman who apparently spoke english, but had no concept of how it should sound. It was as if she was reading from a script, and stopping at the end of each line. But that it was a script she`d been reading since the opening of the planetarium in the 70`s, and hence had memorized, with the pauses at the end of each line. In the middle of the brisk speil, she actually yelled at whomever`s cellphone has one, chastising the unfortunate soul in fluent English (she was incredibly Indian, however) with, "turn off that cellphone RIGHT NOW, didn`t I tell you at the BEGINNING of this presentation...?" Etc. Everything was complete. I was back in Kindergarden, but this time the kids had cellphones.
I also finally found REAL, honest to god, REAL pizza. It was Pizza on an international standard, and of course, therefore an International price-scale. I spent 375 rupees on lunch, sorta the Indian equivalent of having Lunch on Madison Avenue above 54th st. It felt like I`d blown a hundred bucks on lunch, and emptied my wallet, that`s for sure. But it was worth every other "pizza" I`ve had in India combined. I finally scratched the itch that has been driving me mad for the last three months. I can finally move on.
The beer still sucks, though.
The day after tomorrow I leave India foir Thailand. And I think not a moment too soon. I could easily whittle away a mountain of time here, but for now, I`m full. I scarcely want to leave the hotel anymore, and I certainly would rather eat my sandal than another curried potato. But I have truly opened my heart this time. I am awake and alert and not the least bit afraid to tell anyone who cares to listen exactly how I feel. The encrustation of social condioning caked upon my heart was expertly chipped away by the three millionth tout who`s tried to coerce me into his shop for a commission. I think I remember the moment when I finally broke free. He was certainly sizing me up for a fight, which wasn`t promising from his angle, about six inches lower than me. And I was certainly going to pick him up and throw him into traffic if he followed me for another step. But these are the life-changing experience India holds for you.
Another famous day I donned my sunglasses, baseball cap, and camera, worn as a fashion accessory, and set out to play tourist for the day. My goal was to take illicit pictures of the funeral pyres, and perhaps find the section of the Vishvanatha temple that was incorperated into Aranguzeb`s Mosque. It turned out to be a memorable morning. As I walked briskly north from the Main Ghat, I waved off the first dozen and a half boatment. Along these sections the boat, boat, boat, comes with the frequency and tone of frogs in a rice paddy. Which I simply imagine it to be. I only get upset when the frogs start chasing me, "boat, boat, boat" bearing down on you from behind can be quite unnerving. So, when I was trying to set up a complicated shot, and a boatman walked over to me, I gave him the polite "no" twice, but when he continued to stand there and stare at me, I just continued to refuse him. "No, I really don`t want a boat." silence "Really, no boat, thank you." confused silence. "Honestly, I wouldn`t know what to do with a boat, thank you, no." more confused silence. "Really, thank you very much but I don`t want to take a boat ride." annoyed silence, irritated look. "Really, I appreciate your offer but..." I went on in this vein, counter-harrassing the boatman until I was afraid I might just end up swimming with the Durgas in concrete sandals.
A short while later, I was, again, trying to take a picture free of goats of a really delicious texuture. It was three shades of whitewash, (terracotta wash?) one layer painted over a hindi add, and then a shadow effect with some stairs. But the goats kept making it a cute picture instead of an artistic vision, so I was patiently waiting for this damn goat to get out of my picture, when I hear him coming.... "Hey, Hoi, hoah,..." I cut him off. "No, no, no, whatever you are selling I promise you I don`t want it. I don`t want a boat, I DON`T want to see your silk shop, I don`t want a haircut, I don`t want charas, NO! Whatever you are selling I SWEAR TO GOD, I don`t want it. So go away and leave me alone." I`d given up on subtlety, but I wasn`t angry. I was trying to be clear and firm. So, I went back to my goat-watching, and finally got my picture, when I hear from over my shoulder, "You want massage?" "Are you LOOKING for an ass-kicking? Cause that`s what you`re about to get! Fuck the fuck OFF!!!" At this point the yogis watching this were pissing themselves, and told the guy to beat it. I was a good five meters away from him, and atop a cement something or other. And I fully intended to throw his ass in the river if he said another fucking word. But I never got angry. I just vented my frustration, and moved on.
Eventually, I got to the burning ghats, the scene of a row every time I`ve gone. See, this is a public place, but someone, let me correct that. Some evil sonuvabitch has taught the fire tenders enough English to chase around tourists around, all of whom are perplexed by this place the first few times, and convince them that he is working here, and that they have to pay to watch the fires. Of course its more subtle. There`s a public viewing platform nearby, and there is no admission, but anyone entering this building is told they must give a donation to the ancient and whithered woman posted, or rather piled, at the top of the stairs on the way in and out. Additional guide-services are offered for a nominal fee. Now, imagine you spent your entire life around a funeral pyre, burning bodies. You, too, would grow up to be an ugly motherfucker. Now, I have seen myself approach true anger around these people telling me bold-faced lies to my face, about what was and was not permissible in this area. True, no photos, but that`s it. One time I had this guy hounding me for fifteen minutes, telling me where I could and could not go, where I could and could not sit. Everything out of this mans mouth was total shite, I knew for fact, and I started getting truly pissed. He had the eyes of an opium addict, and the teeth of a pan-addict. Both of which were likely true. And this cretin was trying to put himself in a position of authority. I was looking for the dirtiest caste-based insult I could hurl at him about the conduct of untouchables around their superiors, but fortunately couldn`t find it. He left before I`d worked out the Hindi. (me: is it Dalit? whatsa Shudra exactly? Are tourists more like Brahmins or Shudra? Oh wait, he`s leaving, whew) .
But this time, I had intended malfeasance, so I opened myself up. I approached the platform early in the morning, before the funeral rush, and managed to sneak up to the roof unseen. Or so I thought. I hadn`t gotten off more than five photos, when I guide came up to me. "NO PHOTOS." "okay... I said." Then he started talking. I explained to him that I didn`t want to talk to him. Then he asked me a leading question... "how many pictures you want to take." I hazarded, "10, 20?" He said, "how much you want to pay...." And it was on. "If I pay you, you will let me take pictures? You low down piece of shit. You are total scum, get out of my face your worthless turd. You`d sell your god and your beliefs for ten rupees...." I went in for the kill. Straight in. He was so shocked he couldn`t say another word except "but..." "I"... for five minutes. But he had volunteered himself to be bribed to look the other way, and so I was dead to rights in ripping him a new asshole. Which I cheerfully did. "Get the fuck out of my face," "NO! I can stand here...! This is not your father`s house!" I hissed, "Okay, true. I can also keep telling you what a piece of shit as long as you are here." Which I did. I kid you not. I berated him, people like him, and the entire macabre circus that is tourists` Varanasi for a solid five minutes. I practically busted out a power point presentation on him explaining just how big an asshole he was for offering to be bribed. I explained how that attitude was the root of everything that is wrong with India and that he makes a mockery of Hinduism, which I practice, and Shiva, whom I worship. And on and on until finally, he started to get tired of it, and ventured, "why do you want to take pictured," I seethed, "because I`m a fucking photographer you asshole, its what I do. I take photos so I can share my experiences with others who are not as fortunate as I, who cannot travel. I bring photos back so my mother and my father and friends can experience a culture that otherwise they would never see. I am damn lucky to be able to travel as I do, and photography is one small way in which I try to give something back...." [I`d like to thank the academy] He was stunned. As was I. I`d never really thought about why I wanted to take pictures before, but in a fit of unbridled honesty, it made sense. He backed off, and told me fine, take all the pictures you want, and left.
What was that? I won? Well, shit, that takes all the fun out of surreptitiously taking photos. So I left. Feeling much, much, much better. I felt like I at last had vented everything that I`d wanted to say but which had instead ballooned up after nearly three years of third-world travel. All that pressure was off my chest, my heart beat easier. The smile on my face would have put the Cheshire Cat to shame. I blame the sunglasses. They just make me that much cockier.
There are several other war stories along this line, but slowly, I`m trying to take the honesty of my web-log onto the streets. My working hypothesis is that when you feel angry, you should be angry. When you are happy you naturally smile, don`t you? It is deceitful when someone annoys you and you pretend not to mind, or not to notice. Its a lie to hide your anger. "That anger will eat you in the end," as Shahar pointed out to me a month or more ago in Khirganga. So my training in Buddhist Dispassion confronted by a Indo-Mediteranian passion. And in the end, passion always wins. Were I to live out my life in some monestary at the top of a friggin' mountain I would`t have to put up with shit from boatmen and touts and guides. But where`s the fun in that? The truth I came to India to find is this: Anger will eat you. You have to let it out. And its better to let it out at its source.
[unedited and in need of revision]