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?"

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Day India Stood Still

Yesterday was the Cricket World Cup Semi-Finals.  India and Pakistan were up against each other.  This made it practically a public holiday in India.

I was in Kolkata for a third and final attempt (this trip, anyway) to see a bit of the sights in the big City of Joy.  Chandana had some business that took her in, so she dragged me along, quite willingly, on the Tuesday afternoon train, so that I could get to know the city she loves.  She'd hired a car and made arrangements for us to stay at Dr. Ganguly's daughter's flat in South Kolkata.  Rai Ganguly hosted us with all the charm of her 25 years and chatted eagerly with the most perfectly beautiful Indian-English accent, which is rather like a constant enchanting song.

Due to a staggering variety of obstacles, however, I saw, once again, relatively little of Kolkata.   It started off rather successfully as soon as we disembarked from the train, with a trip to Kolkata's first mall, New Market, which was built sometime around 1856 and which is still a wonderfully labyrinthine hive of small stalls that sell everything and anything a person could want.  There's even livestock, or should I say, soon-to-be-dead stock of various kinds.  We only managed a few minutes in this part as the smell of blood and guts was absolutely nauseating.

After New Market, Chandana and I went straight to a modern mecca of Kolkattan Commerce: fabIndia, a clothing emporium that specializes in organic cotton Indian style shirts and pants built for everyone, including foreigners with broad shoulders and big hips.  I updated my wardrobe so that I could retire the three outfits I've been wearing in constant rotation for three months.

By the time we got to Rai's my Shantiniketan hostess and I were exhausted, so our Kolkata hostess went in search of food to bring in and we sat on the floor and played scrabble and ate kabob and chocolate fudge, feeling ever so slightly guilty not to be going to the rehearsal for a play that we'd been invited to sit in on.  Sometimes I am the most ambivalent theater person I know.

Yesterday morning started out fresh and vibrant.  Rai insisted on making us breakfast, though she didn't really know how to make the eggs she wanted to offer us, so I gave her a little tutorial and then she, a very quick learner, made the rest to perfection.  It was a morning preceded by an evening that felt like family all hanging out on a really good vacation.  Chandana was the smart and able big sister, Rai was the funny and beautiful little sister, brilliant in living, with small, quirky holes in her knowledge base that just make her that much more lovable.  I said to Chandana as we waited for our "little sister" to cook breakfast, "This might go down as one of my favorite times in India!"

By 8:30 Chandana and Rai were out the door to go off and do their respective business and I got ready to see Victoria Memorial, a huge Raj era monument built in the the early 1900's which houses a museum and which is surrounded by lush, well-kept, clean gardens.  Set to meet up with the other gals by 12:30 or One, I figured it was the perfectly sized tourist trap to get caught in for a few hours.

Here's where things started to go pear shaped.  At first the auto-rickshaws wouldn't take me to Victoria Memorial.  One guy even started to take me, then stopped and basically kicked me out to get a fare he liked the look of better.  Or so it felt.  Later I realized that auto-rickshaws were nowhere to be seen around Victoria Memorial, so he simply couldn't take me and it had been a few moments into the ride before he'd processed fully my request.  He didn't have any English to speak of, so he simply chucked me out. So, I went to a taxi driver who just refused my fare, then, after calling Chandana and bugging her in her meeting to see if Victoria Memorial could possibly go by some other name that I needed to tell the taxi drivers which, of course, it doesn't, I got a cab to take me for double of what it probably should have cost.

After listening to the driver clear his throat then spit repeatedly and watching him pick his nose for the 20 minute ride, it was fun to get out of the cab at the end of the large elegant walk and stroll up to the huge edifice that fronts the Victoria Memorial.

I imagined for a few minutes what it might have been like when it was first built.  All the English Officers in uniform and the wives all dressed in white linen.  Everything and everyone oozing sophistication and cleanliness and decorum.   Maybe elephants decked out in colored blankets with large feathered head dress decorating the walks.....

The front doors shattered any illusions of being transported to a bygone era.  Armed guards with very large and imposing rifles manned security desks and metal detectors, though I must have looked harmless because I was ushered inside without so much as a sideways glance.

Inside, there was a peculiar exhibit in a very large rotunda of photographs depicting Sister Theresa's life.  They are very strict in the museum about which way you walk and so you follow arrows even though you are in a large open room, so as I went in the proper clock-wise direction I saw photo's of Mother Theresa which were nice enough, though mounted on poster board with little typed signs that reminded me a bit of some strange science art project that a kid might put together for the middle school science/history fair.

What made it really odd, was that every 10 feet or so, there was a break in the temporary Mother Theresa exhibit and then the regular exhibit would be on display for several feet.  This older collection was encased in glass and looked much more like it belonged in a proper museum.  It was an assortment of bayonets and other deadly weapons of war and mass destruction.  So, as I circumnavigated the Victoria Memorial rotunda I was inundated for 10 feet by PEACE and LOVE, then bombarded with HATE and FEAR, PEACE and LOVE, HATE and FEAR, and so on.  It was actually a very typical Indian experience in that it contained so strongly the one thing, PEACE AND LOVE, and equally held it's opposite, HATE AND FEAR, with no sense of contradiction whatsoever.

After an hour of looking at the Calcutta Gallery which told the history of the city from the time the first English trader staked his claim on the area through to partition, I was completely embarrassed that I'd ever daydreamed about the elegant and grand days of English rule in India.  How completely disgusting it all was. Though not without some benefit to a handful of native inhabitants, which is why I imagine the British influence is still palpable and strangely well-respected even to this day.

With an hour or so to wait for Chandana and Rai, I decided to find a cool and comfy spot under a tree to sit and write in my journal.  After a few minutes of lovely solitude, a young man plopped himself down next to me and started asking me who I was and why I was in India.  He told me that due to the big cricket match that was happening in the afternoon, no one had showed up at his office so he was having a leisurely stroll before heading home to watch the game.  He seemed nice enough, so I chatted for a few minutes, keeping an open mind that he was not going to be a jerk.  I am, it turns out, perpetually naive.

Soon he started trying to touch me, first catching a big ant that was on my shoulder...fair enough...but then he just reached out and touched my arm for no reason, while saying he was going to the planetarium and did I want to join.  Hmmmm....go somewhere dark with this  I got up and explained that I had to meet my friends and walked away.  He followed.  It was a very open space with lots of people around, so I knew I was in no danger as long as I stayed there, but I'd "gone to meet friends" who wouldn't actually be there yet.  So I pulled out my phone and pretended to call Chandana.  Eventually the guy took the hint and went on to the planetarium without me.

I sat on a bench and breathed a sigh of relief.  Chandana would be calling for real any minute and the car would whisk me away to adventure in a short while.  But the phone was not ringing. Another man sat on the bench next to me, so I got up and moved along.  I'd seen a big imposing church across the grounds and thought about checking it out while I waited for my phone to ring.

When I got to the intersection that I needed to cross to get to the church it happened to be where the planetarium was....shoot, what if the creep was there and what if he saw me.....after hemming and hawing I decided I had to cross in front of the Planetarium and take my chances.  I did. I was safe.  But the Church was closed.  So was the museum next door.  So was the film complex down the road.

I asked for directions to Park Street, the place I'd hung out the last two trips to Kolkata and therefore know and feel safe in, from a guy who spoke good English.  Turns out, I found out later, that he gave me directions for the cab route and I thought it was the walking route and I got utterly lost trying to get there on my own steam.  I should have known.  He told me to go straight, then take a left, then take another left.

So I asked him, "If I take a left and then another left, couldn't I just turn around right here and walk in the opposite direction of where you are telling me to go without turning at all?"

He said no.

Sometimes a common language is not enough for mutual understanding.

I was in seedy streets and tired of cabs refusing my fare and wary of stopping to try and sit for fear of being hit on and now it was well past the time I thought Chandana would be picking me up.  So I walked and walked and walked without finding anywhere stoppable.  I saw a posh looking mall, but it was across a street that was impossible to cross, which was for the best as I really didn't want to go to a mall that could be just like any mall anywhere in the world.

Eventually, I would walk to the nearest intersection and cross the street and make a u-turn to get to that mall just to try and go into an air-conditioned haven.  But, Ganesha was clearly off removing obstacles for some other more deserving soul because just as I was about to step inside the mall, my phone finally rang and Chandana and I proceeded to attempt to connect about where she was and where I was and how we could make ourselves be in the same place.

However, once again, a common language was not enough.  What I heard, instead of intelligible words and thoughts, sounded like Charlie Brown's mother was calling and yelling at me very loudly on the phone: WAHHHH WAH WAH WAH WAHN,  with an understandable word thrown in every once in a while, CAR, WAHH, WHAN WAH, WHA, GET YOU, WHAN WAH WAH WHAH, NEED TO UNDERSTAND WHERE YOU ARE WHAN WHA WAH WAHN WAH GO TO WHA WHN WAH PARK STREET WHAH WA WHAN WAH WA......

Between my feet hurting, feeling like I was a strange refuge roaming the streets of Calcutta who had no control over whether I would be displaced or find a safe haven, and the intense need to pee, I was not in a good space to be talking to anyone on the phone, especially someone who seemed to be yelling at me (she wasn't, of course, it was the phone acting up) and who wanted me to try and walk to Park Street which was effectively dead to me ever since I had tried to find it an hour earlier.

Finally I told Chandana that I wasn't going anywhere.  I was going into the mall to get a pedicure and I would have the salesgirl call Chandana and tell her where I was and the car could come there.

I was shown into the spa by the doorman (you rarely get to open a door in any establishment in India, either because there are no doors to open or close, or because a doorman is in charge of your door for you).  I approached the pretty lady behind the counter and looked at the two young men idly waiting for customers sitting next to her.  I asked if I could get a pedicure.

The girl said, "Oh, no m'am, I am so sorry.  But he has gone home.  Something wrong."  Here she patted her stomach and squinched up her face and tilted her head just so, all to indicate that the poor pedicurist had taken tragically ill quite suddenly with a stomach ailment.

I was in no mood.  I looked right at her and said, "Don't fib to me.  He's gone to watch cricket."

The two boys laughed.  The salesgirl looked stunned to be called out on her lie.  And I walked out.

A block away I found a cafe and realized that I'd heard the name of the cafe in some abstract form in Chandana's phone call," WAH WAHHHN WAH WHAN HENDUMANS CAFE WAH WAHN FOOD WAH WHAN WEHN RELAX."  I texted Chandana to tell her exactly where I was.

I went in.  It was packed.  The Cricket match was about to start and tv's were on.  I managed to get some food and a table.  I ate.  Thinking Chandana's arrival was imminent I opened a text to find out that she was making another stop and would be another half hour.

I had to give up my table.  I found another table in the sweet shop next door and ate a piece of cake.  Then I got kicked out of there.  I asked for more directions from a gal with impeccable English and headed, once more, intrepidly and fortified with sugar, in what I hoped was truly the direction of Park Street and the Oxford Bookshop.

On Camac street, another big shopping and tourist area that would lead me, I was told, to Park, a large group of men had gathered outside an electronics shop and was watching the beginning of the India-Pakistan match on tv's on display inside of the front window.  I'd never seen anything like it except in movies about when Kennedy was shot; of course, in the movies everyone stood in silence weeping, here everyone was full of electric anticipation and hope.

Shortly after stopping to take pictures of the crowd, I found another spa and took a chance that someone might actually be working.  They where.  All the hair stations were fitted up with their own individual tv's and the game was playing in 10 tiny boxes in a row down the length of the salon.  So I could be pampered while Rajesh and Naim, who made my hands and feet look pretty, got to listen to the game along with the rest of their countrymen.  Walking in sandals for 2 months is brutal on a persons feet so I did not envy my pedicurist his task.  Rajesh even asked me if this was my first pedicure.  I couldn't blame him.  My feet didn't look like they'd ever been pretty in their life.  I was glad the game was on.  No one should have to scrap my feet clean AND miss the cricket game of the century.

Almost three hours after I thought Chandana and I would be starting our tour of Calcutta, she had arrived and we were leaving to do something.  It was four o'clock in the afternoon.  This is, I'm afraid, a rather typical Indian kind of a day, so I wasn't really that surprised and the pedicure, and the added manicure that I'd decided to indulge in as well, had cheered me up.

We went visiting a cousin of Chandana and then, instead of going to see the Kali Temple, as planned, I chickened out on doing what promised to be one of the most intense experiences I could go to in India and decided that we would go to a movie at a mall.  It, too, was also planned, but as we started out so late, something had to get eliminated from the itinerary.  I needed a break from India, from wandering, from heat, from the unpredictable and I wanted to go somewhere familiar and safe, a nice air-conditioned, dark movie theater where I could get lost in a good story for a couple of hours.  Besides Chandana had had a very eventful and fraught morning herself; I suspected she was emotionally nearing her personal edge, exacerbated by the fact, perhaps, that she was still graciously trying to accomodate and make this fussy and exhausted traveler happy.

I was surprised as we were driven up to the mall to see people walking in. I thought every self respecting Indian who was not playing tour-guide to the likes of me, was glued to the match on tv.  Rai certainly was, which is why she wasn't with us.  But the mystery was cleared up when we went into the mall and found hundreds and hundreds of people cheering for some great cricket moment that had just been shown on the massive tv screen hanging in the atrium of the mall.

I kind of liked the idea that Chandana and I were going to escape the madness, yet not be too far away, like the safety of falling asleep in a peaceful room while you can hear the party your parents are throwing downstairs.  Indeed, in quiet moments of the movie, I could hear cheering from the multitude two stories away.

Going to a movie in India is supposed to be a treat.  So many people back home told me to do it.  I think they meant a real Bollywood movie which would be packed and filled with hoots and hollers and people dancing.  Instead, Chandanda and I went to a quiet family drama about an Indian family living in London.

The movie theater was as posh as any I've been in.  There were only about 12 people in the theater.  These two points were a plus.

But then the movie started without the foreplay of coming attractions which is criminal, if you ask me.  On top of that, the volume was so loud that the voices were actually distorted.  I had to plug my ears in order not to be in actual, acute, physical pain.  Then, everyone but me was TEXTING.  CONSTANTLY.  Obviously this is a culturally acceptable phenomenon.  Even Chandana, who is as respectful as a person gets, was texting.  At least people weren't talking.  Or maybe they were, I couldn't possibly have heard them over the volume of the movie.

Believe it or not, and there of those of you who know me who will really be challenged to believe it, but I actually made my peace with ALL that, as I became more and more engrossed in the family drama.  I told myself that this was how movies are enjoyed in India and that I needed to chillax and I tried narrowing my focus and tilting my head to just the right angle that the four people whose phones I could see light up every 6 minutes were not quite in my line of vision.

Things really got good and going in the film; I was thoroughly engaged.  The father and his favorite daughter finally had THE talk we'd been dreading and waiting for.  The daughter had run out, the father looked like he might explode, AND........ the lights popped on and a sign came on the screen that said, "Interval."

Remember when I said that maybe we needed less one-act plays and more intermissions to absorb a story?  I take it back.  I think this is bullshit, especially in a quiet family movie that was not made to be broken in half!

I was teetering on the edge of sanity.  The day had felt like a series of false starts and now in the safety of a dark movie theater, a sanctuary I am long familiar with, I was pulled right out of my comfort zone, which I was really working hard to stay in, onto foreign and shaky ground.  Chandana was excited because Indian movie intervals mean popcorn.  I bought some from the bloke roaming the aisles like peanut hawkers at baseball games while the texts were flying from every other movie goer to someone or other in the outside world and I felt like an alien on a planet that looked like a planet I had lived on once, but all the rules had changed.  I tried to accept that this was my problem, my hang-up, my immense pet-peeve.  I was glad that Chandana was having a good time and took a deep breath and tried to be grateful for the experience as it was and not how I longed for it to be.

When the interval was over, I took another deep breath and plugged my ears and re-submerged myself in the second half of the movie, which I'm sure would probably have moved me to great emotional depths if I'd been able to just let go and be in the present and accept the way things were instead of judging and needing and whining in my monkey brained head.  By the time we left I was convinced for the first time since I'd come to West Bengal that I was actually an American at heart and not a Bengali misplaced at birth.  I was legitimately homesick for the good old USA.

At 8:30 we emerged from the cinema back into the greater South City mall to the sound of thunderous screaming and applause.  The cricket match was on it's sixth hour and going strong.  In fact it had two more hours to go.  Chandana and I went to a lovely Spanish place a floor down from the movie theater and had dinner and watched the end of the game.

Facing different directions at the table, I could see a large screen and Chandana could see a slightly smaller one.  I understand nothing of cricket so I was really watching the fans in the restaurant to understand when something good or something bad was happening.  From what I could see the people in the restaurant were geniuses.  They seemed to be able to tell even as the the ball was leaving the bowler's hand whether it was going to be an out or not.  He would throw and the restaurant would erupt in screaming, then the batsman would hit and his ball would be caught and he would be out.  It took an hour before I turned around and saw Chandana's tv to realize that there was almost a 30 second delay on my tv.  All the other screens were in real time.  The fans were looking, I now realized, at the smaller screens, screaming, then I would see what they had already seen on the larger screen.

Eventually the game came to an end.  I can't really tell you why or how or why they didn't actually call it an hour earlier since that's when it became clear that the losers had no choice but to remain losers and that the winners had already won.  But at some point there was a pitch and the game was over and INDIA HAD BEAT PAKISTAN!!!!!!

I was in San Francisco when The Giants won the World Series.  That was crazy.  When India beat Pakistan in the semi-finals yesterday, it was lunacy.  Our restaurant crowd was fairly restrained, but you could hear mayhem on the streets outside.  Charmingly, our waiters all turned into 7 year old boys and jumped and hugged and beamed the sweetest smiles any child whoever got their greatest wish has ever beamed.  One smartly dressed Indian woman caught my eye and playfully gave me a thumbs up, then a few minutes later while on her way out to join the revelers she stopped and blew me a kiss.  I blew her one back, then she blew me two, I reciprocated, she blew four...and so on till she'd made it out of my line of sight.

The bill was paid at our table and we headed out into the streets for a 5 minute walk back to Rai's place.  The streets were full of people screaming.  Motorcycles were buzzing down the road with 3 or four men at a time on them, often one guy in the middle would be standing up on the seat holding an Indian flag that was streaming behind him.  Fireworks were erupting over the city in patchwork explosions.

Chandana and I only had to cross one intersection.  It was the only time I felt at all physically frightened for my life.  Chandana was being a real mama bear, though, and that was a great comfort.  People were idiotically throwing fire crackers into the maze of electrical wires that criss crossed the wide boulevard.  I became increasingly nervous that one of the lines would come undone and we would be fried right there on the spot.  It didn't help that the sound created by the impact of the firecracker and the electrical wire was what I can only imagine is identical to gun fire at a very close range.  It was mayhem!

Sitting on the balcony of Rai's apartment listening, a short while later, to marching bands and fireworks and partiers from a safe distance, I felt on the outside, unable to understand this unfathomable, loud, crazy country where people can be absolutely glued to the tv for 10 hours straight, bringing traffic and commerce to a stand-still, all for a Cricket match while sitting through a two hour movie without texting this, that and the other person is unthinkable.  I get that it was an historic game, two rivals, the semi-finals, Big Drama happening for real.  But I have a feeling the people texting in the movie were getting scores and staying clued into the game while they sort of watched a movie.  I was thinking about Mathew at Mundax and all our talks on mindfulness and being in the present.  I was thinking about the opportunity both arts and sports offers us to slow down, to leave our life behind and to BE HERE NOW.  It became clear to me that sports have become the more successful purveyors of escapism.  Maybe it's the adrenaline of rooting and hoping and fearing that comes from watching your favorite team battle for scores and prestige that captures the hearts.  The real-life theater of it all.....

While I pondered that, I heard the sound of a person hitting pavement on the road below.  I looked down and saw that a man had fallen over on his bike.  The road is under construction and there are big areas where the top layer of concrete has been removed leaving old cobbles and large potholes and a very uneven driving surface.  There also wasn't much light.

Oh, and, the guy on the bike was obviously completely wasted with the drink.

Drunk Guy laid on his side for quite a while and I wondered whether I should go down and check on him.  Just as I decided to get up, a man approached Drunk Guy and helped him get to his feet.  Once up, I could tell the man who'd fallen was trying to convince the other guy, Sober Guy,  that he was ok and he just needed a hand getting back on the bike.  Sober Guy wasn't hearing any of that and was obviously trying to get Drunk Guy to walk home.  They argued, though relatively quietly for two Bengali's.  Eventually Sober Guy walked away, seemingly resigned to the fact that he couldn't help someone who didn't want to be helped.  Drunk Guy stood for several minutes in the street, leaning precariously on the seat of his bike, trying, when the odd headlight would illuminate him, to appear as if he wasn't using every ounce of his strength to simply remain upright.

What happened next, simply knocked me for a loop.  Sober Guy suddenly re-appeared with a bicycle rickshaw....he was the driver.  He pulled up to Drunk Guy and convinced him to let go of his bike and to hold onto the back of the rickshaw wagon while Sober Guy hoisted Drunk Guy's bike onto the rickshaw.  Then Sober Guy hoisted Drunk Guy onto the seat, made sure bike and man were secure, then Sober Guy rode off into the darkness, presumably to take Drunk Guy somewhere safe to sleep it off for the night.

I don't know why this act of kindness so astonished me.  I've seen so much generosity of spirit in Santiniketan over the last six weeks, so much love and care on so many people's parts to make the lives of whole villages better.  Chandanda has been nothing but loving kindness to this wayfaring stranger.

Perhaps it's the extreme poverty of Kolkata, combined with the dog eat dog energy of Mumbai, the big city I've really gotten to know in India, that gives this outsider the illusion that human life is somewhat expendable in these parts.  This illusion was heightened, I suppose, by the Russian Roulette so many people were playing on the walk home, the throwing of tiny, but live, explosives into the electrical wires while several total strangers, Chandanda and myself included, frantically navigated home in the direct path of potential flailing live wires.

I don't know for  sure, I just felt like in watching Sober Guy rescue Drunk Guy that I was witnessing a pure moment of love for one human being from another, two strangers who might never know each other's names.  After a day of so many personal experiences of missed connections or interactions gone awry, while the country stopped to glue itself to the tv, I was touched that in a nation of over a billion souls, one man took the time to get another man safely home.  Maybe it was the spirit of the shared victory that opened Sober Guy's heart to aid his fellow Indian.   Maybe he would have done the same on any other night.

Either way, it was my favorite piece of theater I'd seen all day, purer than Cricket, or sitting in the dark of a movie auditorium.  No one went home a loser, like Pakistan whose team will most likely have to lock themselves in their houses for a few weeks to avoid getting beaten by an angry mob, and no one checked out to text someone about something completely unrelated to the moment that was being lived.

At the end of the day, after all our foibles, our naivetes, our missed opportunities and awkward attempts at connection, we are all just humans doing the best we can to get home on uneven ground.  Isn't it all we want, should we stumble and fall, to be lucky enough to have someone care enough to stop, pick us up and treat us with kindness, helping us to get to a safe place where we can rest till we are able to start moving again on our own? 

1 comment:

auntiemao said...

This was a great post. Fear and Peace, fear and peace. Those words seem to embody your entire experience in that country.
Here, it rains. Seattle is more than 3 inches over its average currently. However, flowers and trees have begun to bloom and are beautiful, if wet. Also, today is opening day of Mariners Baseball. Peace and fear indeed!......xo