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?"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Seeing Stars

The last 48 hours have held the good and the bad of traveling in India.

I went by train to Kolkata which, after the quiet of Santiniketan, felt like I could be walking into the lion's den.  I was very nervous about how I would respond to the hustle and bustle of street life in big city India after so long away.  But I made friends with a young Australian bloke, Nick, who was sitting next to me on the train.  Turns out he already knew Nicole, who I was going to stay with, and was lodging around the corner from her, so we shared a taxi and I had a pal to ease my entry into big city life.

Kolkata, it turns out, has a very manageable feel to it.  It's crusty and shambly in an almost romantic way.  It moves quickly when compared to most mid-level American cities, maybe even when compared to New York, but it feels like a little town when stacked up against Mumbai.  Especially at night.  Mumbai goes into hyper drive around nine in the evening, and Kolkata is tucking itself in shortly after.

I found myself walking down the street with confidence, brushing off searing looks and pestering requests of rickshaw drivers (here they pull you the old fashioned way, with their arms and legs!) and begging urchins.

I was taken aback, again, by my complete lack of amazement that I was in India.  Shouldn't I be walking with my jaw on the floor, utterly aghast and filled with awe about where I am???  No, India fits like the old, dusty glove that it is.

Nicole had plans to go to the opening night of a Tagore exhibit at the Government College of Arts and Crafts.  She had befriended a professor there named Mr. Sengupta and his student, Irfan, a young Pakistani painter.  Through the usual process of calling person A to get to person B because person A was late to meet persons C and D, then person B calling person C, who doesn't really tell person D what is going on, the evening was a slow starter.

We, persons C and D, went to the quite exquisite exhibit and meandered while we waited for person A or B to find us in one of the three rooms we wandered through.  Eventually person B, Irfan, showed up but we'd been ambushed by a lovely woman named Mitha who wanted to make sure we understood that an exhibit of this magnitude only comes along every 150 years or so and that  we had "come on a very important evening!"  She also wanted to convey that she had gone to the college years ago and been awarded TWO prizes in the same year for her artwork, which apparently was quite the scandal.  She and I exchanged numbers, since that's what you do after any conversation that lasts more than a few minutes and doesn't have to do with buying something.  Then Mitha stalked off after the little man she'd met right before us who'd "had the privilege of reading many of Tagore's letters.  Can you imagine??"  She asked this as she held her phone in the little man's face, recording his every breath in case he happened to spontaneously start talking about Tagore.  Thus is the power of the Nobel prize winning poet in this part of the world.

Irfan introduced himself just as Mr. Sengupta showed up.  The professor is an ex-Bangladeshi man, fiftiesh, average height for a man in this part of the world, which is to say, slightly shorter than myself who stands at 5'5".  He has a warm, open face, broad smile that demonstrates good teeth, with the exception of the one that's missing right in front. Good teeth is a rarity in Bengali men, a missing one is quite common.  Irfan is a strapping, handsome lad of about 28.  He's a liberal young Muslim who has traveled to the US as an artist in residence in the Hudson Valley.  His face carries a joy and energy that speaks of possibility and freedom, despite the fact that his movements are heavily monitored by the state of West Bengal.  His visa is so specific that he cannot leave the confines of Kolkata and must be back in the college grounds by 10:30 every night or face possible deportation back to Pakistan.

Nicole wanted to see Irfan's paintings, so the four of us went up to his room.  While Nicole looked at paintings, Mr. Sengupta and I talked about theater.  He'd recently been blown away by a site-specific piece he'd seen in Delhi.  Then Nicole and I switched places.  Irfan's paintings were wonderful and edgy.  He paints modern people on large canvases using ancient miniature-painting techniques.  The piece he's currently working on portrays "The Fish Man", a beggar that works outside the college.  That man has a missing arm and lies on his stomach, hides his good arm, and deliberately flails about like a fish to get donations.  Irfan has been walking by often enough to see the man get up and drink his tea with as much decorum as you or I might.  Irfan has also seen a friend of the "fish man" in a nice car come and collect the earnings for the day.  So the painting as it stands now is just the man lying on his stomach, but it will soon have a carpet with gold strands running through it and around the man to show the complexity of what Irfan sees in this beggar who probably makes more money than the artist does in any given month.

The four of us went on to an evening eating street food, buying drinks that we took up to the roof of the hotel, and talking about art and life and the strangeness, "the abstractness" as Irfan would say, of India.  They told me about the street in Kolkata where several marching bands, all in uniform, hang out all day waiting to be hired, like the day laborers outside of the Home Depot back home.  Just as we were about to say our goodnights, a loud and joyful noise sprang up from the street 6 stories below.  At 10:00 at night, a group of people were processing down Royd Street, dancing, chanting, singing.  Behind them was a fantastic, neonish float, behind of the marching bands!  Behind them, trucks carried statues of the Goddess that inspired the joyful parade.  We would discover the next day that Nick, from the train, had been dancing in the crowd. "Of course, why wouldn't he?"

The next morning, Nicole had plans to meet another friend, an Englishman named Martin, who was taking her, now us, out to some kind of sustainable community center in a village on the edge of Kolkata.  We went to a cafe filled with tourists and ran into Nick.  When Martin showed up, it turned out I'd already sort of met him too.

Martin was on the train from Santiniketan the day before.  We'd had a funny little exchange about whether or not he was on the right train, "but I've just seen my name on the passenger list outside, so I suppose I'm in the right place."  "Yes," I replied, "that's usually a good sign." I had hoped we might talk more, but it hadn't happened.

Now we had all day to talk.  I asked Martin, who looked to be about 50 and reminds me a little bit of a younger Geoffrey Palmer in As Time Goes By, what he does for a living and he said, "I'm starting a career as an artist."  This, I must say, might be the most attractive answer to the question "What do you do for a living" that I've ever encountered.  Martin used to be an accountant, working in The City, wearing black or gray suits and ties, conforming to all those things accountants working in The City must conform to, but now he's quit all that and he's turning his hobby of painting into a second career.  I suspected Martin and I were going to be fast friends.

After the usual round of phone calls to the gent, Gordon, whose community center we were going to see, and a long wait for coffee, and a stop at the photo store, Nicole, Martin and I climbed into a taxi and headed to South Kolkata.  We were only an hour behind schedule, which is pretty good in these parts.

What should probably have been a half hour drive turned into an hour and a half drive, or maybe it just seemed that long.  But it was great fun.  I had no idea where we were going, the company was great, and the abstract absurdity of driving through the seemingly disintegrating but sturdy world of Kolkata was a great example of why traveling in India can be so wonderful.  As if a theme had been devised for my weekend away from Santiniketan, we talked about art and form.  As the old city floated past us outside the taxi windows, we marveled together at the painting or photograph or essay that is each frame, each moment in time.  Every face, every rickshaw is a work of art.  It's almost painful, the endless parade of dilapidated beauty.

At one stoplight, the taxi driver bought a small bag of what resembled very thin apple slices.  He offered us each a piece explaining that it was good for the liver.  We gamely tried it.  It was sour and sort of good.  We talked about how the perils of eating street food, riding in taxis without seat belts, and having no idea where we were going were all made more fun and less daunting by doing it together.

Eventually we made it to a place where we were meant to stop and wait for Gordon to arrive.  When he did he was a very large man of about 60, bald, great York accent.  He looked like a merchant marine who'd gone native in his flowy green shirt, carrying his cotton string bag.  Gordon gruffly dealt with the taxi driver who tried to up the price of the ride and the random man on the street who came up and announced that he wanted 20 rupees just because.

We all climbed into an auto rickshaw for the next leg of the trip, which was, under the cramped circumstances, thankfully short.  We found ourselves, suddenly, right up next to the Sunderbans, a large area of mangrove villages famous for, once upon a time, harboring man-eating tigers.  Before I knew it, we were trekking into the countryside.  The air became clean and fresh, the view suddenly shifted to verdant open rice fields. As happens in small villages here in India, people started to come out to greet us, asking for pictures to be taken.  I don't think Martin or I could stop smiling.  Somehow it was inconceivable that this village oasis could be smack up against the crumbling metropolis of Kolkata, but we all knew that nothing, really, should ever be inconceivable here.

When we arrived at the community center, we discovered that it was only the foundation that had been built.  The new skyscrapers of Kolkata were only a few miles away, quickly encroaching on this little paradise.  Gordon was crest-fallen.  Since he'd run out of funds last April, he hadn't been out to the village and since then, the city had gotten much closer.  The fear is, of course, that all the village folk will be tossed out of their land, rendered homeless if "civilization" comes any nearer.  His hope is to prove that village life is viable and self-sustainable by creating a place where health-care, education, farming schemes are strong enough to empower the village to fight for their land and lively-hoods.  It's a noble cause; I only hope he can get the funds in time to stop the developers from taking over.

After the tour, Gordon invited us to his home for lunch.  There we met, Meetu, his 29 year old bride-to-be.  She made us a lovely meal of dal and rice while we struggled to engage her in English conversation.  Nicole, Martin and I exchanged looks that spoke of our concern for the young Indian girl who was being kept by this rather eccentric older English gent but ultimately we decided that all was well and mutually beneficial.

Nicole, Martin and I returned home via two rickshaws and the excellent Kolkata metro system.  It was much faster than the taxi had been.  On the way we shared a rickshaw with a young girl named Sumitra ("It means Good Friend.")  She helped us to find the metro and to buy our tickets.  We all exchanged contact information on the train, of course.  She adopted Martin as her new Guru once she found out that he was an accountant and that is what she is studying.  Such is life in India that gurus can be adopted on a 15 minute subway ride.

That evening Nicole had organized a going away party for herself at The Fairlawn, a little expat garden bar.  Here gathered Nick, Mr. Sengupta, Irfan, and an Englishman named Peter who Nicole was particularly close to.   Eventually one of Nicole's roommates from Amma's Ashram, a young Kashmiri film maker named Chaz, joined.  Later, Martin completed the set.

Irfan and I got to talking about life.  He asked me what my goals were, once I got back home.  I said I hadn't a clue, really.  "You're just going with the flow, eh?"

"Look," I said, "I've only really ever had one goal that I could ever really commit to.  It's always been important to me that at the end of my days I could look back and say that I tried to be the best human being I could be.  If I get to work in the theater a lot at the same time, or I write a book that gets published and makes people happy, if I get married, or have kids, or travel the world, that would be great, but nothing is as important as trying to learn how to be the best human being I can be."

Irfan sat with that for a long moment.  Finally, he said, "I'm curious.  What is your definition of a good human?"  Mr. Sengupta leaned forward.

I said, "Well, let me put it this way.  I've lived my whole life in the theater.  I've seen a lot of artists behave like shitty human beings for the sake of their art.  Or they use the fact that they are artists as an excuse to behave poorly.  I think that's bullshit.  We are all human beings first.

"I'm not really interested in what any church says about morality.  I believe that we all know in our hearts, when we are brave enough to open them and to listen to them, what are the right choices for ourselves, we know how to live, act, behave, love, work in ways that will not hurt other people or ourselves.  Conversely, I think sin is as simple as letting fear shut us off from our hearts.  I am under no illusion that I will banish fear from my life, only that I will try to be braver in that regard every day that I live."

Mr. Sengupta said, "Yes, Yes.  The important thing is that we try.

"There are two important myths in our culture.  First, there is a lion hunting a deer.  The lion loses track of the deer, but meets a man in the forest.  The lion asks the man if he has seen the deer.  The man, who has seen the deer, then has a dilemna: If he tells the lion where the deer is, the deer will die.  If he doesn't tell the lion, the cat will starve."

Irfan and I looked at each other....yes, this is a dilemna.  It's fairly impossible to make a "right" or "good" choice.  Ok....

Mr. Sengupta went on, "Another tale concerns a man walking through forest when a beautiful young woman comes up to him and says, 'sir, I am starved for sex, will you please have sex with me.'  The man thinks to himself, if I have sex with this woman it would be bad for her, but if I don't have sex I will be denying her."

From the look on his face, Mr. Sengupta made it clear that he thought it was right and good that the man not have sex with the woman.

Just as I started to launch my protest, Martin showed up and joined our conversation.  We gave a quick recap.  I then said, "I'm sorry, but I find it such a male behavior for our guy in the forest to think he knows better than the woman what is good for her.  If she wants to have sex, just for sex sake, then why is it bad?"

Before Mr. Sengupta could respond, Martin threw in a salient question, "Well, I guess we'd have to ask, would the dilemna be the same if it was a woman walking through the forest and a man came up and asked her the same question?  Of course then there'd be the worry of rape and all those sorts of things..."

The four of us went round and round.  Irfan, it turns out, had actually found himself in a situation not unlike our man in the forest.  The girl of his story had argued the same as I.  Irfan didn't share the outcome of his situation.

Ultimately it seemed to be decided amongst the men that since the man in the forest cannot separate his own experience of having sex out of the equation when having sex with the stranger then it could not be considered a pure act of kindness and therefore would be wrong and he should not do it.  I, rather dramatically, conjectured that if I was ever that desperate to have sex and I asked a man to gratify me, it wouldn't bother me one way or the other that he also had an emotional response in the process.  It would still be an act of kindness.

But I could see their point.  And I appreciated it.

I loved the whole discussion.  The fact of it.  The very reality that I could be sitting in a bar in Kolkata discussing the complexity of being human, of sexuality, of morality with three artists: one Hindu Bangladeshi man, one young liberal Muslim from Pakistan, and a formerly buttoned up British gentleman.  It was the height of what I call joyful communication.  When people ask me why I love to travel, I might very well call upon the memory of that unlikely event.  Actually, of the whole unlikely day.

After Irfan and Mr. Sengupta went off to make sure the young Pakistani made curfew, Martin and I continued to talk about the complicated process of learning how to identify oneself as an artist, the bravery it takes to own the moniker.  We talked about our fears of being self-indulgent and the scary reality that inspiration doesn't actually make an appearance every day just because you start calling yourself a painter or a writer.

Eventually it was time to call it a night, and Nicole, Martin and I, helped the young Nick, who had been less successful moderating his alcohol intake, navigate his way down the street.  When we parted from Martin, I felt a little sad to be leaving this new friend.  As he said, we'd "only known each other a day, but it was a great day!"

In the morning, Nicole and I had to gather ourselves together and get to Howrah Station for our 10:10 train.  From the moment we set out to get a quick breakfast, India seemed determined to irritate.  The customer service at the famous cafe we went to was beyond rude, the first taxi we hailed drove away when we told him where we needed to go, the second taxi driver gave us a hastle about turning on the meter and tried to get a flat rate out of us...a rate that was twice the price of a metered ride.  The magazine wallas on the train stood at our seat and repeated, despite our protests, 20 times in a row: Cosmopolitan, Femina, Hindu Times.  The musicians that had been so charming on my first train to Santiniketan over a week ago, decided to play a 12 minute jangled, disjointed tune right in our ears, then mumbled unkind words about me when I let Nicole give them money, but didn't cough up any dough myself.

Once in Santiniketan, I told our rickshaw man that I would pay 50 rupee, which we both knew was almost double the normal fair, for the trip to our house but we would be making a few stops along the way.  He literally ran to his rickshaw yelling with glee to the other drivers that he was getting a 50 rupee fair.  When we got home, though, he balked at the fare and demanded 100 rupee.  I gave him an extra 4 rupee I had in change and told him he could take that or take nothing.  He stood there for several minutes, but finally gave up and went home.

That night, when I had to go the computer guy to get my internet re-connected since it had stopped working in Kolkata, Nicole wandered in the tourist shops on the main Santiniketan strip.  Just as I was going to retrieve her, she came out of a store shaking with anger and bewilderment.  The man running the store had just exposed himself to her.  We debated the pros and cons of going back and causing a scene and ultimately decided to let it be.

I went to bed feeling exhausted from all the little barbs that can get under a traveler's skin.  I don't suppose it's really worse than days I've had in Paris or Belfast or Rome.  I also know that India, or anyplace, could be so much scarier if it decided to be.

Tonight while we were riding our bikes home in the dark from Chandana's house, I looked up at the stars and veered off the road.  Normally, this would be ok.  The edges of the road here are the smoothest part of the path, and pothole free.  Unfortunately, there was a short, stubby palm tree sticking out over the edge of the road that I couldn't see and before I knew what was happening I was flying over and through the shrub into the dirt on the other side.  Nothing was broken, but my right leg got torn up a bit and will be lovely shades of black and blue by morning.

Nicole flew off her bike and was at my side in no time.  I got up and could feel blood trickling down my leg, but thought it best to just get home before assessing the damage.  After walking for a few minutes to get over the shock, I climbed back up and rode on down the lane to the house.

It's amusing to think that by looking up at the stars, I landed flat on the ground, battered and bruised.

"Teach me to look at the stars, " I joked half-heartedly as I picked up my bike.

Nicole was a champion about letting the trauma of being flashed, go.  After I fell, I got right back up on my bike.  We both know, that those kinds of things are the price you pay sometimes for the extraordinary events, like our day of traipsing on the edges of the Sunderbans and our evenings of delightful conversations with artists from all over this crazy globe.

Falling on the ground, getting bruised and battered is simply that.  It doesn't take away the stars, or the memory I have of seeing them just before I fell.


auntiemao said...

Back in this part of the world, it's Womens History Month. It seems to me that you are living that history fully right now and living to tell the tale! How wonderful to follow every step, every fall, every star. Wow!.......xo.....

Kirstin said...

Keep it coming Morgon. I feel like I'm reading a novel with each new entry. xoxo

Christopher said...

Great story - like a mini United Nations, but with cocktails!

And oy, us males can be such stupid, ignorant imbeciles sometimes! All I can say in our defense is that some of us DO try to rise above that sort of primitive behavior; not always successfully, but we do try!

Sorry to hear about your leg. I guess the lesson there is: like with smelling roses, it's advisable to stop first before taking in the stars!