Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The New Satan."

I went shopping yesterday.  Crossed the water in a little ferryboat over to the big city of Ernakulum.  I went to the biggest sari shop in the world: Kalyan.  It was 6 floors of air-conditioned bliss.  Hundreds of salesgirls in matching, understated rainbow saris.  I sought it out on Leelu's suggestion and found it after wandering a good hour in the wrong direction into the wholesale fabric district.  After two nice salesgirls in a tiny shop could see that I was overheated and insisted I take a tuk to Kalyan I relented and hailed one down.

I was trying to avoid taking a tuk, partly because I wanted to get some exercise and partly because I didn't want to betray Sandosh.  Though, I hate to tell you this, I think Sandosh may not really be on the up and up.  Roy was the first person to point it out.  Sandosh appeared at the homestay while I was out at the Kathakali Thursday night and apparently refused to leave for about 2 and a half hours.  Roy eventually told him to, "Go and make some money; She is out for the night".

When I got home Roy said, "I don't like this Sandosh.  There is something not right about him.  I think he is not trustworthy."

Leelu scoffed and said, "He's just a poor fisherman trying to make some money."

But when Sandosh and I went to the palace that was not the palace I had wanted to go to, I started to feel just a little bit uncomfortable.  He took liberties like letting me buy him ice cream and telling me we should sit on the bench and "relaxing".  Not to mention the 10 pictures he insisted we take together, "friend pictures".  What really started to bug me was the way he would walk behind me, like he was watching me walk.  When we returned to the homestay there was a tiny bit of coca-cola in my bottle and he just reached over and took it from the seat and finished it, looking at me the whole time as if he was challenging me to stop him, or, maybe, to see if I liked his slightly intimate presumption.  Later that night he showed up outside of the music show I went to see.

I walked home with some other tourists, so all was fine.

When I told Roy that he might be on to something about Sandosh, Roy said, "It's all a racket with these guys.  They act like your friend.  Be careful, next thing you know he'll be taking you to his house."

"I've already been there."

"HA!  I knew it.  Don't go with him anymore.  Use our guy."

Instead of using their guy, I thought I'd try walking.  It's about a 20 minute walk to the ferry from Leelu's.  I set out and found a nice little market where I met Nessam.  He looked to be about 19 and had some rather wonderful little paintings done on old postcards.  It's a very popular thing in India.  As it's one of the few things they recycle here, I like to give them a look.  Nessam was warm and talkative.  He asked me where I am from and what I do.  When I told him I was an actress he said, "This is why you are always so smiling."  Then he told me about his friend from Chicago, "my sponsor actually", who is putting Nessam through school.  The young Indian boy doesn't like taking the guy's money so he works when he can selling the mini-paintings.  Before he asked me to be another sponsor, I chose a Ganesha painting and bargained with him.  He started at 250.

I said, "150".

He said, "200".

I said, "170".

He said, "179".

I laughed and said, "180."

He said, "No.  179."

When I walked away with my 1 rupee coin clutched in my hot little hand, Nessam yelled after, "You don't spend that rupee.  That is your lucky rupee."

I promised I wouldn't.

It's amazing how quickly so many conversations in India turn to money.  I heard some tourists talking to some locals about taxes here in Kerala.  Apparently the government double taxes the buyer in any transaction then taxes the seller twice for the exact same transaction.  So the Men in Charge get paid four times for every sale of any kind that happens.  Where does that money go?  Certainly not to roads or ferry boat facilities or recycling plants.  The locals said, "Into the pockets of the Congress and their lackeys."

Leelu says about money, "It's the new Satan."  Rajiv, back in Mumbai, said, "People are forgetting about what it means to be Indian.  They only care about money."

India is money hungry.

Apparently there was a Tuk driver here in Fort Cochin who became the guide for some wealthy tourist.  The tourist went home and sent the Tuk driver a ton of money.  He built himself a big nice house.  Now all the tuk's want their benefactress.

It's not just the Tuk's who are hoping I might be their Lady Luck.  I met this lovely little old woman named Jesse Mary.  She hailed me down on the street.  Her smile was as bright as her yellow and green sari.  Jesse Mary wanted to know everything about me, where I was from, etc.  Jesse Mary told me all about her life as well.  She was born on the same street I am living on, but had gone to the school a few blocks away as a live-in orphan because her mother could not afford to keep her.  Jesse Mary works cleaning houses and, wait for it, guiding tourists around to different sights.  Jesse Mary did not go for the hard-sell.  She knew I was going to the Kathakali and she let me walk away with such joy and light.  She is unmarried, too.  Though she thinks, of course, that I have a husband.  Don't ask me why.  Even with her I felt the need to stick to my story.

I feel bad about the lying because, despite the barrage of subtle and not so subtle cons, there is an overwhelming generosity of spirit in India, so much sparkle behind the eyes, even the crafty ones.  I've been stunned, more than you might know from my previous posts, when a stone face suddenly transforms into a beacon of warmth.  Indian smiles are universally almost unbearably beautiful.  I want to meet those smiles head on, without artifice, without fake husbands.

To make it easier to fit in and to feel more comfortable I have decided to abandon almost all of my western clothes.  I will ship them home at the end of the week along with some gifts that I don't want to lug around for the next three months.  I kept wearing my old clothes because they were the coolest things I have, my Mumbai Punjabis being dreadfully warm for this southern heat.  Thus the trip to Kalyan.

Last night I was wearing one of my new cotton cool Punjabi suits, complete with matching scarf.  Walking home at dusk while many villagers strolled in the other direction toward an evening prayer service I passed a handsome looking man in his mid-fifties dressed in a very elegant white robe and hat.  His wife was gussied up in an expensive deep burgundy sari.  They both seemed to be giving me that disapproving look I've grown accustomed to.  Then they had a brief exchange about, if I'm not mistaken, my attire.  They shared a gentle little laugh.  The woman nodded her head at me and smiled.  The man said, "Good Evening."  If my life was a musical I would have broken out in song, my relief and gratitude for that kindness was so explosive.

I've been trying to sit still and breath more.  Though my bank card has stopped working and Sandosh is "stalking" me so my mind has had plenty of excuses to fret.  But in my moments of stillness I am aware of a tugging at my heart which reminds me of the raga I heard the other morning, the song was called Batya which has to do with the energy of the day revealing itself slowly as a lotus opens to the sun.

My heart feels like a lotus blossom on the verge of opening and affixed to each petal is a thin sturdy string.  Each string is gently urging my lotus-blossom heart to open up and bask in the warmth of India and it's people.  This is challenging to do when so many lovely encounters  become tainted either by sexual or cultural misperceptions or by the feeling that it is my bank account that draws people to talk to me.

I met a man in Seattle who is from Kerala.  He had been asked, as a psychiatrist, by Amachi to come to Kerala and research why the suicide rate has skyrocketed here.  After much traveling around and interviewing people and taking the train and observing daily life, he concluded that people in Kerala were far more disengaged from each other than they used to be.  He remembers riding the train between Mumbai and Kerala as a student and everyone would be talking and sharing their lunches and making friends.  Now they are always on their cell phones and listening to their ipods.  They aren't talking to each other, visiting, connecting like they had when he was younger and he is sure that is why they are so full of despair.  As I sit in the internet cafe watching other wanderers type away on their computers, checking in with their friends on facebook, I can well relate.

But I also wonder if the collective Keralan depression doesn't have a little something to do with the "new Satan" making people feel dissatisfied with their life.  It is becoming more important to make money than it is to reach out and really connect, human to human.

I wish that didn't feel like such a western influence, the need to have money trumping the desire to understand and converse with their fellow human beings.

But yesterday when I realized that my bank card wasn't working and I couldn't get to my money, I went into a frantic state.  I stopped breathing and I stopped seeing this place.  I felt slightly afraid and worried about what I would do, even though I have other cards and a myriad of other solutions.  Money became my over-riding concern.

I'm inclined to think having my card go wonky is the universe's little joke, made in an effort to help me feel just a skosh of the kind of urgency the tuks and and the Jesse Marys and the Nessems feel on a daily basis.  It's my opportunity to choose connection to what is here rather than to what is not, to trust that tomorrow when the bank opens I will solve the problem and move on.  In the meantime, it is Sunday, the Lord's day, as the constant hymn singing wafting through the narrow streets reminds me and I'm not gonna let the new Satan pull me down.


Aimée said...

tough being a walking dollar sign, yes?

hang in there.

JM said...

I hope your bank card starts working soon. Though I love that you're using this frustration to find empathy with the people around you. Still, I hope easier times await you.

Anonymous said...

I am just loving your stories. I feel like I am there with you at times. How brave of you to go on this journey! I am a little nervous we haven't heard from you since Sunday...I await your next story. Travel safely.
Kim Whitehead

njsh said...

I think the change from the old Indian way to money is worldwide, and more marked in cities.
Other factors: Keralan are among the best educated people in India. Education was important tot their communist government; but jobs aren't as easy, so there are underemployed young people. In addition, for women, advanced degrees lower the dowry or bride-price. We've had young lawyer-guides on back-water tours, and PhD saleswomen in sari stores...