As I write these posts about the recent travel to India, I’ve searched to find my journal from my first trip to the sub-continent 14 years ago. I’m sharing it again now… with the warning that it runs to 20 pages!
INDIA TRAVELOGUE 2005: GRB
One last view of our mountain, Tahoma, as I am lifted out of my reality into a dawn flight from Seattle on December 16, 2004. Leaving too early in the first holiday season the Bells’ web site has been active… rushing off to the next adventure.
We packed minimally, as we plan to shop our luggage full over there. But we moved yet another mountain to clear the floors, which will be refinished while we’re away.
There is a reason for this trip, & even for that schedule. We have long been invited to a traditional Hindu wedding that was postponed for a year & has now been astrologically rescheduled. We’ve learned to afford ourselves full use of valuable tickets. We will stay a month.
One of the wedding rituals…
We’d done our research & planned a series of hops by plane between the ambitious series of destinations within the country. We want the sun of ocean beaches & backwaters; we need time for wardrobe shopping around the wedding; there are simply too many interesting archeological sites; & we always are on our own sacred journeys.
I used the encapsulated hours while flying halfway around the globe, via Frankfurt, unwinding from the previous two weekends of Open Studio & busy bell sales. I’m always ready for some quiet solitude after those events. But the mass of people literally bulging the fence in front of the airport in Mumbai was an almost frightening first impression of how I suddenly was to lose privacy & personal space… much less my treasured “solitude”. I’m now sharing space with one billion people.
India is so ancient & so modern, so habitual & so necessarily inventive in any moment… ultimately so gracefully functional about her chaos. Quite different social forms must be played with here. We were immediately crowded by people whose livelihood depend on doing for us things we were not certain we wanted done, at least not quite yet. People who depend on who they think we are or at least what we represent…
All of this is so exotic! That first ride in the street is memorable. The chaos of so much population is best seen in its traffic, which works… because it must. We began noticing the little shrines to Ganesha on dashboards. That elephant headed god is lucky to new beginnings & all journeys. He will become a close friend…
The saree’d concierge at the old Oberoi
Another reliable pattern we saw from this first dinner was the small army of mostly young men at hand to serve, with some unknowable chain of command for who takes the order, who actually serves the food, & who lifts the plates. Usually there were several who simply directed those actually doing.
The ancient caste system has merged with the British colonial one in a country full of young men needing work… a plethora of the jobs are thus created, even as it seems rather overdone to two west coast guys not used to such an excess of servants. We eventually would come rather to like all this attention.
So much of the worst of the Western world is seductive to those for whom it is new or rare. This trip will be much about those wild mixings & interactions of history & futures between periods & cultures. Here we are to do our own version… to personally do our own current mix.
There is an old Silha/Reimann family maxim: “When in: Do as.”
From the hotel, Stephen called Helen, his mother, & brother Mark, just as they were preparing to greet afternoon guests at their annual holiday open house in Minneapolis, almost a dozen hours earlier than our late night bedtime. We’d looked forward to missing much of Christmas by being in a foreign & hopefully more Hindu or pagan country. We felt a bit smug… too soon.
Old Bombay’s Crawford Market turned out to be a vast counterpart to our own Pike Place Market in Seattle. Thankfully one is required to hire a licensed guide, because the fish market, for instance, is a rough concrete hall on which floor the catch was laid out, with rarely so much as a sheet of newspaper. What scanty ice was in evidence was weighed-out in blocks by a vender using a huge old iron beam-balance scale. I danced with a block being pushed along by a boy on the fishy slime. The scene would have put the heads of dozens of agencies at OSHA & FDA into a fatal swoon!
I joke that this tangle of wiring in the market is a typical Indian “breaker box”…
MASALA = SPICE
We are still new to the ways these guides both effectively hustle tourists & yet save much puzzled time by simply taking you to an “appropriate” shop
We then went to a movie! That’s what Indians do as a broader form of entertainment than we know. It offers rare air conditioning. Everybody dresses up & goes. Grandmother comes on her cane, several aunts & girl cousins cluster, plus all the babies… & batches of boys.
Those who don’t like the movie will talk. Ringing cell phones are constantly answered, returning conversation within earshot of all. Such noise doesn’t matter… the sound track is strained to its maximum volume! Soon everyone, including some in the audience, will be joining in one of those inevitable song & dance sequences that are part of all Bollywood films.
“Mughul-E-Azam” is a b/w film from the 50’s, recently colorized. An epic of history about romance between a king & a dancing girl… quite overblown & without sub-titles… PERFECT for our introduction to India’s film passion! At intermission a soft-spoken Indian in western dress came over wondering why we were there, & did we understand anything of the films story? He was the first of many delightful encounters with curious, helpful, gracious & generous people. We rarely felt we were other than honored guests.
The cave at Karla had a deep impact on us, an ancient place dating several centuries before our Jesus era began. The trek up teaches us, step after sweaty step, more about archetypes in this crowded devout country. It seemed half a kilometer of a sort of primitive renaissance faire. There is a Hindu temple at the mouth of this Buddhist relic, & this becomes our initial lesson in of the everyday commerce of Hinduism. Venders of offerings like marigolds in cups, chunks of coconut jostled with rows of holy plastic trinkets.
I saw leather fanny packs for sale as we dodged sacred cows.
We smiled as one of the guides picked out some pieces of the coconut left as offerings above, bringing them down with us to the venders below, to be recycled… Systems!
This began what would become an endless fascination… watching mile after mile of Indian daily life, being lived so openly out along nearly every street, becoming for me both theatre & school.
My mind mechanique was fascinated by the construction sites & building styles… decoration of course, but more about its bones & systems! Buildings up to five & six stories of thin poured concrete floors emerge from forms supported by crookedly organic vertical tree trunks used as timbers … twisty as the forest in which they grew. Or the juxtaposition of flexible bamboo scaffolding to haul & lay heavy stone. It is beautifully raw, scary… & lively.
Daily commerce is even less hidden. Although not ALL of the street stalls are closed at night with a garage-type door, many have similar qualities in space & size to that. Cheek-by-jowl for most village — as well as urban — shopping, these small spaces bulge with goods to sell.
India made me rethink my complaints about rampant American commerce… we are, in some ways, laggards! India’s pervasive business looks more raw or naked, which may explain why it felt more essential.
CHRISTMAS IN GOA…
The hard beds with coarse sturdy cotton sheets — honestly effective against meeting toes full of sand — at L’AMOUR Beach Resort… feel less practical when being wakened at dawn by crows. But our room opened in back to a planting of palms, & the more soothing sound of long gentle surf. A little porch made it nice to pull our chairs out, order chai & write a bit.
The winsome boy, who already knew both our names upon our arrival, held my hand in one of those lingering handshakes, introducing himself: Milagres. “I’m a good friend of John”. He brings sunshine through our door with the tray of tea things. We are left with a dark sweet milk chai. One may see a miracle or not.
Next day he comes waving at the back, early, to take away the sugar pot from an invading army of ants… There is an uncanny way these boys know to anticipate your wishes. It is something so liminal in their communication that I jokingly call “the coconut telegraph”, but really it is much more subtle & complex. Like those ants, we are living rather close in a deeply sensory nest.
John had reserved our rooms for us, making a deposit … plus tips, it would seem, toward our future care. He & George are old friends of Toby Schneebaum & thus now, of his partner, our good friend Joel Singer. They live in Goa five months a year, at a place called Mum’s Blessing, where we had dinner with them that first night after wetting ourselves first with a walk, then a sunset drink at one of the shacks on the beach.
We’d heard they were architect & archaeologist, living in London & NYC. They seemed to know some thing about one of the places with which I’d become intrigued, called Hampi. We had decided it was too remote for us to visit this time. But we got a fine vicarious tour, after all, as we came to understand they have co-authored books with photographers about this ancient site! It now is at the top of my list for another trip.
We joined them next day for the lunch they mentioned usually having at Cecelia’s, a beach shack on a quiet stretch of fine sand. We are introduced to others, learning that their style in this season is to host friends from Europe for the holidays.
Twenty-some folk coalesced for Christmas Eve at Mum’s Blessing, mostly Londoners. However two women were from Paris, one an expert on Indian Miniatures & the other a curator at the Carnivalet Museum. A young doctoral student of Islamic architecture, from Cambridge, was taking respite from the reported boredom of Bijapur. There was one family of four. Then too, there’s a Hollander implying a collection of houseboys in Hospet…
It was a rather civilized drinks party with a fine buffet. Many had been to India before. We were the nouveau Americans. Most had just returned from touring Hampi, after celebrating George’s sixtieth birthday the week before. The conversation became rather heady, & passionate at times, among this group of old erudite friends.
Fireworks after the midnight mass we’d skipped & then more hours of intense drumming from the beach made interesting sleep. We drag late & stop early for a savory breakfast of chunky fresh vegetable pacoras. The sun beats on us happily this Christmas Day.
We like this life as beach bums. Dancing with the boys selling sarongs in the surf & the girls selling pineapples, is hard work, & its hot … I need a beer by the time we reach our umbrella. These venders teach us a lot about Indian life. We end up seeming to be somehow responsible for supporting several small villages in the hinterlands. We are constantly besieged… I have to get gruff if I want to write, feign sleep when I want to read.
The “13 course Christmas dinner with Tandoori Turkey & Live Music” as it was advertised by our resort’s restaurant was a lesson in an archetypal “system”. I could see our order ready at the bar, but we discovered we could not get drinks until we had bought a ticket for dinner, so that we might have a “legitimate” place at which to receive our scotch & beer! The group from England, with who we’d sat, had thus already gotten their drinks.
These dinner tickets proved their ultimate importance as we approached the two waiters standing at the head of the buffet line. Duly collected by the second guy, they were scrutinized front & back as if perhaps counterfeit, then handed back to the first, who seemed relieved to be able to hand us a verified plate, with a napkin & a bowl for the dal… Now we could proceed to serve ourselves from the eleven steam trays, I mean “courses”, of good Indian dishes, plus one dried-out turkey… for a hundred guests! I happily skipped the scrapings they were trying to serve from that carcass, remembering our own succulent T-Day bird.
The calamari was much better!
A red robed Santa made his appearance, a slight & short person wearing a mask with attached white beard & waving a sad bouquet of balloons. We see this character often in these Christian areas of India. The Dutch & Portuguese settled here longer ago than the Spanish did the American Southwest. The music was a vocalist with a keyboard & a local church choir singing carols with guitar all at the screeching decibel level we will find to be common. We never got used to it.
We came to prefer prowling along the beach looking for drinks & dinner at the shack that was having no music that night. Choosing to sit out in quiet privacy at tables they would set up close to the surf. Moonlight & gentle whoosh!
We had left the following week purposefully unscheduled, not knowing how we might decide to approach the “backwaters”. We’d not realized that Kerala was such a popular choice of Indians for their New Years holidays.
Stephen found an agent who would help us when we got to Kochi, the native name for Portugal’s Fort Cochin. While Anoop had trouble finding a preferred room for us, he’d booked our first night at the Wyte Fort, a new hotel on the outskirts, having one of those tall, imposing doorman in a big showy turban & even bigger mustaches. But, we’ve read about the possibilities of finding home stays in the historical port area… we will go exploring after lunch.
It is an unexpected feast at the buffet line, offering us a wild variety of dishes we’d not seen at the beach. “Veg” is displayed to the right, with a wonderful curried curd. “Non-veg” is displayed to the left, with a fish in a beautiful sauce. Fruits, vegetable salads & pickles accumulate in the middle, with the breads; soft roasty Nan, flat chapatti, not quite tortilla-like, roti, & crispy papadam. We were hungry… this food was VERY GOOD!
I got a lesson in eating with one’s fingers
Ah ha, that explained the curiously so-visible washroom with a row of sinks behind glass door off the dining room! I washed my hands too…
Insert one nice long nap into our deliciously unresolved schedule.
By late afternoon we found ourselves becoming wiser about the lay of the territory we wanted to spend time in. We have discovered an ATM & how easily we can obtain rupees from our checking accounts. I see that my balance hovers around a quarter million, so I felt happy, sassy & rich…
Bold enough to open my mouth when I saw a sign for “Palakal Home Stay”, where a pleasant boy named Dyas shows us around. We’d walked right into a lovely home for the next three nights… close to the water & Chinese fishing nets, the museum & temples & beers for our sunsets. Plus the Kathakali theatre we want to attend on New Year’s Eve.
Good Work! We deserve that beer! We haven’t seen the usual signs, but we sit at a spot that should have Kingfisher. We do not see any bottles & glasses. Only teapots. We ask our waiter & get a slyly affirmative answer. We have just learned how to order “special-tea”!
Kerala’s tax system creates a small black market for beer in a teacup! We enjoy our favorite pastime of people watching until the mosquitoes come out & it is time to catch the last, but still early, evening ferry across the bay to Ernaculum & our Fort of Wyte.
What didn’t look so far on the map became a version of our own commute here between Vashon & Seattle… a bit mixed up with memories of vaporettos in Venice & imagined versions of the Mosquito Fleet, those small boats that predate our Washington State Ferry System by some hundred years & delivered passengers from Seattle to a dozen docks around our island.
The boat was harshly lit & noisy. Several obviously regular commuters greeted each other & read newspapers. A couple of guys ahead of us nested into each other’s space & conversed in Malayalam, which sounds like singing as the wooden boat gets up some speed. This is a fascinating trip of mixed memories.
We grabbed the first tuk-tuk… adding to our collection of stories about those.
I knew we were going a long way in the wrong direction, but this seems to be a living amusement park, & he soon enough made an about face. I realized this might have been the logical route. Eventually we become a fragile, three-wheeled mosquito swarming with bigger vehicles out on the highway near our hotel. If we thought we were saving money over a taxi we were eventually educated. At this hour it is each tourist for himself, godly guest of Mother India or not. We disembarked outside the gate… whose magnificent doorman wouldn’t want look at a tuk-tuk. We indignantly paid his high tourist’s price…
We are amused to watch ourselves fume about paying barely two dollars closer to the discounted real value we reliably get by having too many boys to do too many things for us, to which we do not quite feel entitled… yet.
But, what fun! “It’s all “GAZINGAS” to me” is one of my favorite Silha family quotes from Otto. He was speaking of that moment when one begins to perceive that first bouquet of any exotic currency, but has no idea what it really is worth.
We are luxuriating in numerous luminous currencies here. I can so easily say the real value of India is her people… There are beautiful people everywhere.
Let me be frank about what we see… there are “herds” of interesting, often beautiful men, here. Their beauty is from within, & shows best when you invite them to smile. They bloom! I treated myself frequently to such bouquets.
They smile in a way only one’s heart can capture. I lost my heart every day!
Male friends easily hold hands while they amble in the street. They embrace spontaneously for a photo-op. They cuddle unselfconsciously… knowing they are each other’s lot in life & the most available emotional field for most of the decade of their youth & early manhood, they must forge ways to be in this culture where women & girls are kept mostly apart.
We watch a population doing what civilized guys do, when they are encouraged by their culture to really be brothers. There are obvious bonds of deep friendship vibrating everywhere. It feels so healthy. We sense, however, a familiar cultural sidestep. There is a lot of sexual energy flashing here. While “some things” can never be easily admitted, I sense more understanding, if not quite acceptance, for the unstated reality, whatever form it might or might not be taking.
They introduce themselves by asking “You are coming from?” Holding your hand gently, never gripping it into a quick “proper” western handshake & then dropping it, their fingers often linger in continuing genuine communication while celebrating a polite sort of foreplay we certainly enjoyed.
We allow our fantasies to be seduced. Sharing those sweet bits of imagined romance together becomes part of the story we are traveling to live. We happily settle into the room next day that will see the beginning of our first decade of celebrating New Years together.
We come to appreciate another day’s tuk-tuk driver, Shekey, who had a silly barking sound with which he identified himself: “Kuu Kuu!” He gave us the mythic city he promised out of the history of an old Fort’s charm. Again we were truly taken care of inside a system that mostly works. We saw the dry Old Dutch cemetery, then a church where Vasco da Gamma used to be buried.
We saw an old palace, now a museum, with elaborately painted rooms full of illustrated stories out of Hindu mythology. We overheard one passionately pedantic guide berating his distracted tourist subjects bored by his lecture on the complexities of the Mahabarata’s tales. We simply enjoyed the visual versions, knowing blissfully that, while we couldn’t understand half of what we saw, we certainly were glad not to have employed him!
This series of rooms with ornately carved & coffered ceilings & low doors displayed several elaborate palanquins with cat-dragon’s-heads of bronze on the terminals of the carrying poles; an ivory litters covered with gold & silver brocade; & an elegant howdah — for being carried royally on an elephant’s back.
I wished I’d had a certain “blue ceramic ball” with me, since one of those conveyances could have been a good possibility for dispatching, & letting ride, it’s mission. As it turns out that story was happily postponed for a later telling…
When we’d topped our sensory absorption level, we repaired to our room & napped, to be ready for an evening of Kathakali. We walked the few, by now familiar, blocks to the theatre with its decoration of folk designs & drawings in rice flour on the dark of the swept-dirt floor at the entrance. This is another folk art form we will cautiously tread… it is a robustly delicate welcome!
The show casually begins an hour & a half before curtain, so as to watch the complexities of makeup. This is an antique art form, which is in a revival. Its name means “a story sung” & it tells more of the mythology we’d seen earlier in the paintings. The painted masks of those gods were being now applied to the actors, laying, face up, wearing simple lungi
After establishing the basic design on their own faces… drawing lines, filling intense color zones… another would apply the sculpturally folded, projecting white paper jowls, which mimic ancient imagery & are affixed with rice paste onto lividly green cheeks. That intimately detailed process then is belied by the large gestures of stylized mudras, & wild-eyed gesticulations, which were demonstrated next. The actors had donned big-skirted costumes, with even bigger headdresses, to portray the gods they might actually better have been… enduring the evolution of their make-up.
This is openly produced Hindi ritual, richly accessible to many senses, even while remaining dense & obscure… with incense, bells & drumming. A curtain, held aloft by two tall boys, screens what we can’t always see… it seems close to being liturgy, as was much early theatre. An ancient art meets another new audience.
India’s people are its liveliest media…
Dyas feeding his father the traditional first bite of New Years cake
Dyas invited us to join his family’s New Year’s Eve celebration. Fort Cochin has a local rite of burning Santa at midnight & dancing ’round the fire! We were welcomed as honored guests with special drinks & first pieces of the cake they feed bites to each other as love gifts. The fire lighted their narrow street & the flow of friends strolling by to share cake & drinks. We danced till we were sweaty with all the neighborhood boys joining the party. We loved it!
This custom might make a great import!
Shecky had taken us to an office where we’d bought tickets from a sweet-faced boy named Jude for a boat trip the next day in The Backwaters.
The sand divers…
We go deeper into the country again, being driven for more than an hour out of the city, collecting our tour group from several venues until the boat’s covered deck fills with about twenty people from all over the world. We float on river waters that join coastal lakes to make miles of meandering shallow sea. We’ll observe the water-based culture of fishing, farming spices, coconut coir … & diving for sand.
This is a way to make money by selling black market sand dredged up from the channels, which is seemingly how this region was developed, over many generations, into a communication of waterways for transportation, irrigation & floodwater management.
The men who do this work fairly sizzle as they burst from several minutes’ hard work below water to raise heavy baskets of sand to add to the sopping piles in their wooden boats. A partner is usually bailing out the water which accumulates in the space where they stand to pole. Gradually the deep floating equilibrium allows being brought ashore, where sand is made mobile once more by a beautifully designed, tool: short handle over, a shovel-cum-scoop.
The women who then demonstrate the spinning of coir make it look like a gentle dance, walking backward while the twisting strands form in their fingers out of the coarse coconut fibers bundled into a fold of their sarees. I will later recognize bales of such coir in roadside warehouses. It becomes rugs & rope.
Later on our return, closer to the home stay, we hear that familiar “Kuu Kuu!”. Sheckey’s greeting recognizes us & warbles a salute from the depths of the evening. We chortle & wave in response… feeling we’ve friends in Kochi.
TEA & SPICE…
Kumar, who is to be our driver for most of the next four days in fact, lives not far from where he picked us up at that home stay to begin our excursion up to the hill forts of Perriyar & Munar. It was difficult at first to communicate with his English, but during a stop at a roadside stand for fresh pineapple juice, we learn we share a love of plants… & language got easier. He began to teach us some of the words for spices in Malayalam: KURUMULAKU, ELAKA, INGI meaning black pepper, cardamom, ginger. But, the word I loved best is for the butterflies, so abundant in the plantations…. CHITRASALABHAM!
Two more pleasant home-stays give us good shelter. In Periyar we were presented various “programs” of which we chose to get up for a dawn trek, to look for elephants, & then for a sunset boat ride into the wildlife preserve. But, our favorite was Kumar’s tip toward a restaurant, to which we kept asking to be returned. It had a masala mix of good space, robust food, & a provocative collection of waiters. They sweetly gave us that common “yes &/or no, answer as question” with an archetypal wobble of heads.
Perriyar is spice… Munar is tea. The line on the landscape is drawn midway along the half-day route between these two towns, almost as definitively as that. The cardamom plantations in the shady glens give way as we gain altitude onto the hilly estates of tea bushes being sheared perfectly flat by the harvest for miles. Over years the plants & spaces between them, for the workers, grow to resemble acres of two-dimensional glyphs. If one can read tealeaves in a cup one must be able to read novels in these hills… certainly, one can read poetry!
There was music as well, at the temple below the terrace of our penthouse in Munar. We’d seen the speakers arrayed in front of one of those little “cup cake” temples obviously ready to blast the neighborhood. But this rich rocking chant, with drone, bells & drumming, was so good I believed at first it was recorded. Then, I wanted to go down to watch what became obviously live, with fire!
As he drove us to dinner Kumar was singing the same chant. As we passed the temple, introduced us to the musicians as his friends. He’d been there!
There was an image of Ganesha as a conch shell, spiraling to become his elephantine face, painted on a rock as we left Munar, which still haunts my imagination. I’ll keep searching long for that. Fried tapioca root chips from a roadside shop sustain us while the promise of truly fresh banana chips from his favorite shop back in Kochi draw us down again into the coconut palms & toward the airport. Kumar made good time gracefully & we’re early for our flight. So he makes one last unexpected stop.
Telling us to remove our shoes as he pulls in to park at a tower shrine of 4 or 5 stories devoted to a Hindu saint, he talks us in. We’d occasionally seen the black lunghi & scarves worn by these devotees. Women as usual were rare. Here, on the spiraling way up — three steps & a landing, three steps & a landing — we joined a flow of this beaded, brass belled & barefooted black. I felt properly dressed with my own bell & habitual black tee. Sharing smiles with these men & boys we combine our energies to increase a simple high. I am aware of joyful evidence in that sheen of gentle exertion we wear & something much more spiritual than the shrine’s gaudy frieze of naively painted plaster narrative.
God is simply sexier in India.
THE BANGALORE CLUB…
Arriving in Bangalore for the wedding, we are jolted out of our recently rural version of India by this most modern, well wired & upscale of cities. The car at the airport sent to bring us to the Club was as A/C chilly as its young driver. Still, the familiar street life reassures us … tuk-tuks & cows are sharing space with taxis beneath lofty neon signs for glitzy sarees & extravagant jewelry.
India evolution simply is vast! Having been so much for so long, she obviously must be constantly reinventing even her essentially basic selves, subtly changing & growing at depths that might well take ages to surface into evidence. She overlays layer onto layer, revealing much in their crumbling. So here the cutting edge of her here looks ever more polished & urbanely envisioned, atop millennia of everything but. We continue doing bits of our own archaeology.
The guards salute at the gate of Bangalore Club. Our bags are out & we get to the desk, curiously unattended, before we are informed, a bit disdainfully, that we’d been delivered to the wrong entrance. “Chambers” is around to the rear…
That explains the lack of bellhop’s assistance… “Systems!”
We help to reload & are driven around, inside his wilted chagrin, to a more welcoming portal, where we are expected. This is a small hostel in what we are about to realize is essentially a village, created more than a century ago as a European respite from all but the civil parts of visiting & living in exotic India.
This is our home for the wedding week. We set out to explore this antique.
We learn about the debit card that is the only currency to be used in this compound with its array of numerous bars & eateries, a video room & Internet cafe, pool & fitness, tailor & barber, florist & grocer. This card’s account must be pre-fueled by cash, in rupees, only at the “chambers” desk. It seems clumsy to me, but fortunately, there is a 24hour ATM just outside, across the pavement of these neatly swept grounds, with an endearingly bored young uniformed guard waiting to open the door of its kiosk for you… money is sexier too.
Buildings enclose the scattered compound of mostly quiet open spaces under tall palms & ornamental trees. There is a patina to the main lobby one suspects originally had hunting trophies, a central rotunda anchors the axis — reading & video rooms off in one direction toward the courtyard of the distant Mixed Bar. The other direction opens toward a dining room, lofty, vaguely Edwardian & nicely bright, although we never quite could mesh with its civilized hours. There is a door into a cheerful bar named “The Buttery”… for the ladies, it would seem.
Across from our first entrance, through a pergola with a green fountain & a big commemorative bell out on the lawn, we find an old-fashioned stucco ballroom.
This whole place is a “period-piece” gone tatty. We are taking to it.
These now middle-class Indian nabobs are still doing the Raj, just as long ago they’d taught the British how. Isn’t it our turn to play that game for a bit?
It seems derigueur to our script for this place that our first drink must be a Gin & Tonic in the Men’s Bar. But this is a dingy dark hideout… a hole whose history has poured more peaceful therapy into bigger disappointments than ours.
We place our order with the man behind the bar & sit at a nearby table.
Yes, ice… please.
Looking around I see that the back bar is huge, & that some of the room’s woodwork is good… but much of it is plywood circa WWII & would perhaps wish instead to be a nice dull steel paneling with brass accents… plus some new lighting, of course. This place really needs a gay boy!
However, I do understand… they like it this way. It is a room whose posh is so understood one doesn’t actually have to drink with anyone else’s version of that.
Er… yes, lime, please… if you must ask.
We seem to be talking to the wrong person!
It only becomes obvious to us as the correct one bounces into view like a post-Disney caricature of “your favorite server in running shoes”. He’s funny. He’s good. He more properly orders our seconds, facilitating the limes & ice along with a plate of masala peanuts for us, with onions & spice, all in the same scurry.
Next morning we become the nabobs, the hosts with the most, for other family members who’d arrived, on various schedules, during the night… jet lagging into this time zone. We have plenty of masala chai, because we’d bought bottles of “Spice Drops” from a cart,
We’re almost natives, having been here long enough to explore the lay of the land. We can point Jim, who is up first, toward the ATM & to explain the cash-into-debit-card system. I can tell the story how my scotch bill exceeded our bank last night… their cashless system had accepted my cash!
The entire family had become involved in Helen’s angst over her newspaper’s misrepresentation that 2300 people had been killed by the tsunami in Goa! We were repeatedly chided for not calling right away. But we obviously were unharmed, so he next eagerly wanted stories of our Indian reality. He is the father of the groom, Stephen’s cousin & another retired newsman. I like him. We’ve visited him & Lynne at their home in Portland, Maine.
His second son, Ryan, & girlfriend Caitlin wake next, but Lynn chooses to stay in bed while they go to breakfast. Lynn’s mother, Marilyn comes along for me to meet as a lively woman ready for all of this with delightful relish! Hurrah! Of course she chooses masala for her tea! We are having a great time when I realize there are presences I can feel before I see them: Anjana is immediately as gorgeous as Derek is tall & pale… the boy & the girl… but, I feel even more, the presence of her parents, Mohan… & Deepa.
I already had a strong intuitive connection with Deepa, having met the mother of the bride first through her series of informative & entertainingly preparatory emails, beginning more than a year earlier, to explain the traditional wedding we are about to celebrate. She is a woman of rich texture, matching her writing style with a strong sheen of thought & sometimes sparkle, but more like the glow of unpredictable magma, flowing from a depth, yet involving much air & light.
In the middle of all these preparations she has brought me a gift… a small bronze bell with an antique figure of Hanuman as the handle. That monkey god’s mother was also named Anjuna… she draws large mythic circles so neatly.
Soon we are whisked away, in several cars & vans, to have lunch at another buffet with a new variety of foods to explore as well as familiar favorites.
The wedding preparations begin right after lunch, with Deepa taking us to one of her favorite saree shops. The guys decide to come along too, although for some of us that was always the plan. Our drivers drop the cars like magic into the few parking slots at the door of one of those tall buildings with billboard-sized signs… Deepum Sarees. The elevator takes us up into quite a bazaar. We gather in front of a wide counter in a room already busy with shoppers. A sort of “impresario” presides & soon we watch silk blooming out into billows of myriad colors & textures from the stacks of folded cloth on tall shelves behind. If more than passing interest is shown to any particular one it is deftly draped by one of the assistants who, male or female, can model it to show the vitality of the total pattern as it comes alive on the body.
It is fascinating to me that a single garment has sustained sufficient fashion interest for long centuries in such a broad culture, while we in the west fidget with the annual rise & fall of hems or cuffs, on such a wild variety of silhouettes.
We see fabric in weaves from thick smooth brocades to soft draping crepes, embroidered sometimes or even beaded. Most were shot through with metallic threads of gold or silver. Some were lustrous with an effect called “neck of the peacock” … colors woven to shimmer differently together, prism-like, in brilliant lustrous hues… yes, this was silky pigment, & yes, it was spectral as well.
The Western girls began to find ones they would truly consider, the shop’s girls would use an elastic belt to tuck those six yards of silk around a waist & to gracefully drape the part called the Pallu over one shoulder, pulling the border of the end, which will be sewn into a matching blouse, around the upper arm to show the finished effect… transforming woman & silk into a walking visual conversation.
Stephen & I went shopping too, discovering a shop that showed us embroidered silk Kurta sets… long shirts worn over pants puffy on top & wrinkling at the skinny ankles. Stephen looked fabulous in the long blue vest, a version I had dreamed earlier for myself. But, I’d bought a dark red embroidered Kashmiri wool vest in Kochi. These would do nicely for the wedding.
We’d intended to buy clothes & fabrics…. but we especially wanted to bring home some silk sarees for our own play & for gifts. We later found ourselves at one of the state owned shops where we allowed their notion to prevail that we were shopping for our wives. So, we shopped seriously, indeed! Stephen, who usually wears out before I do, found & held his ground for choosing some geometric ones, which I came to love as well. They will later make fabulous shirts, when we find the right seamster.
Several dinners collected the families to introduce us each to all. John, Mallory’s son, & Peter, her husband… neighbors in Maine, discovered the venue & designed a feast at Blue/Ginger, in the jungle of their spiffy Raj West End Hotel digs. This is an open-air palace, well watered with pools & fountains. An acre of lovely wood floors laid out under a remarkable roof of graceful proportions, sheltering, yet quite open to the air & the greenery beyond its eaves.
We took our cue from its capacious staff & intimate grandness to haltingly gather a group now approaching 30 members of extended families from several continents. Some are the perpetual shoppers who’ve been stuck in traffic after spending the day choosing jewelry for the wedding sarees, bought yesterday. One is a young boy who falls asleep in the cushions after declaring his meal too spicy for his Floridian taste. The bridal couple joined for a couple of courses before leaving to meet yet more guests at the airport.
There were the delights of small reunions ‘midst-mostly-first-meetings out of far-flung connections networking long wondered stories, just as families & friends have always triangulated the tougher truths. The evening lasts four or five hours of liberal courses shared leisurely between shifting constellations at several long tables.
Indian weddings are between the two families. The boy & girl — as they are still known, albeit in a less literal way, these days — are the symbols & have less to do with it themselves than having it done for them, although Anjana & Derek have their own independent history, of course. They’ve lived together for years.
Several times we explored conversationally the institution of arranged Indian marriages, even with several couples whose were, discovering they seem to work well. Most are reported stable & happy at base, & they are still the norm in India. The divorce rate is practically nil.
This is one of the wedding seasons. We had already been celebrating with glimpses of processions on streets, loud bands & street dancers, escorting the groom, traditionally riding a horse. One time he was dressed as Vishnu with a blue face, seated on a throne in a horse-drawn carriage. They take this seriously.
Next evening Jim & Lynn hosted us for dinner at the Club in a room opening onto a palm garden, terraced with tables, a bar at the end. We are dressing up now. Even though our Indian finesse met approval, the arrival of three pairs of hands & arms steals the balance of the evening…
Even the beautiful sarees of Anjana, Deepa & her sister cannot compete with the gorgeousness of rich glowing designs which swirl darkly with welts of henna paste, up their arms, top & palms… down to finger tips.
This is traditional Mehendhi, a decoration on the skin — like a cross between temporary tattoo & jewelry. Its intensity is enhanced by the sculptural quality of the fresh drawings of leaves, floral detail & creatures, which swirl amidst arabesques made of a raw herbal paste dye. The sugar/lemon juice topping is simply a “glue” to keep it from coming off too soon, but that sparkling addition to the early temporary effect is stunning. After it all flakes away it will leave a much more delicate reddish stain on the skin lasting for several weeks.
Next morning is the first day of the wedding so we load up early to go to the wedding hall. There is a reputed Bull Temple next door to see, but the gate of flowers, spelling out “Anjana weds Derek” stuns us first. Inside the hall is a rather austere space with a stage, occupied now by a priest conducting the preliminary rituals. It is a bit under whelming in this casual dispersal of details, but gradually I realize this quiet chaos begins construction of a piece of ritual theater that has been practiced by families for eons. Indeed the noise of the decorators assembling props soon adds its din.
There is our own henna to acquire… we guys will again break tradition & join the women for this decoration. There are social forms, for those who know them to obey, & then there is a more human capacitance to accept new forms & to fill that with one’s own best grace… The Indian women, waiting their turn, insist we guys go first The hands of this quietly manic artist seem to be scribbling wildly, yet… closer concentration, at the scale of his nib, perceives astoundingly unfolding of quick complex patterns.
Deepa, taking me seriously, hennas a gutsy Ganesha on my baldhead!
We are creative to the extent we accept, with honestly & civility the roles of behavior that are historically necessary to the evolution of lasting cultural institutions.
We are two families, two cultures… & two who are looking around.
We two are indeed interested. We have energetic henna circling our ring fingers. We have a curious desire toward the forms of the celebration of a union of two singularities. We still aren’t certain we want to be publicly married; still we love playing with such possibilities… We are open, out, & known. Queer energy accepted & mostly embraced.
As a second cousin & his partner, Stephen & I can more easily identify in age to the “uncles”… or perhaps, even “aunties”. Whether we are or not… Uncles & aunts do have genuine roles to play in this wedding. We discover many are in similar boats when it comes to these ritual complexities. We are sponges in our ignorance. Some Indians are our peers in that. Fortunately some others are more informed & eager to share. There are gentlemen who take us under wing to expound on the forms we’re observing.
The Priest has a cell phone… we’ll see it later on the tray holding other sacred paraphernalia up on the stage, but we see him now, during a break, checking his messages. After lunch, we take a break too, going back to dress at the club
Anjana’s request is to observe this first evening as the highest dress event. We look smashing in our silk kurtas with embroidered vests, red & short, or blue & long. Someone then laid us over with leis of marigold & dense small fragrant white flowers, with a lot of rose geranium leaves around the neck, for their own deep scent. Mine had such length I was sensitized by a big bobbing rose, hanging low! Add to that I was frequently bowing to share with yet another curiosity wanting to see Ganesha on the top of my head. All of this could only add masala to my mood!
As part of the groom’s family we were met at the gate by Deepa & Mohan, with a cleansing ritual involving a basin of swirling water, which was then thrown out on the rice flour decorations drawn on the road at the gate. There was an enormous fireworks display set off in the motor court, too small & filled with too many cars’ fuel tanks… we had to look straight up to try then to properly gasp. Our Indian friends have never heard of the safety regulations we take so for granted… we are living out loud, & life is simply astounding!
When the important parts happen in the series of ceremonies & rituals on stage the priest’s hand waves up the band’s music to a drowning noise. There is a videographer, with his lighting assistant, plus another camera guy doing stills & snaps. A dozen or more personal cameras were variously in play, contrasting memento shots of groups, all dressed, up, with the ceremony going on in the background.
We are complimented for dressing & “looking so Indian!”
Ultimately we must accept the improbability of comprehension of the historical overlays of symbolism of this time-out-of-mind ancient Sanskrit ritual & simply to remain ecstatic in the overload of all this exotique in our eyes & minds. We seem to understand a lot by osmosis.
There is another elaborate banana-leaf banquet, of course. This is a significant party. The actual wedding now starts at 6:00 AM!
There is a sweet time of meeting again at the gate. The series of sarees has been dazzling already, but Anjana is especially decked out & is wearing a huge collar piled with big sturdy leis. Derek acquires them too. Then each is lifted by an uncle to ride into a game of throwing these garlands over each other’s heads. This is one of several games that are part of the folk life of this tradition.
Then boy leads girl by an enfolding hand hold to sit in a swing entwined with flowers… traditionally a throne, but its movement, activated by the family, now symbolizing “the ups & downs of life”. Several blessings are performed by the women of the family, including washing of the couple’s feet by their aunts & a circumambulation of blessing by the elements of smoking fire & splashing water, then a serenade, which Deepa led, showing us more of her skills, a beautiful voice singing songs both ancient & modern with her well rehearsed group.
Inside the wedding hall we are invited to go have some breakfast during what was supposed to be a lull. But just as our banana leaves began nicely to fill, another call came that we needed to be in the hall… the “actual wedding “ was about to begin!
We were ecstatic when we were invited to take off our shoes & join both families up on the stage. A bamboo covered canopy had been installed over this morning’s proceedings & a brazier was smoking & burning under that with the priest feeding up the flame with a fan, while directing & assisting Derek doing offerings.
We were given hands full of flower petals & rice stained with turmeric, which we throw at one point. Anjana, in her official nine-yard saree sat on Mohan’s lap, ready to symbolically leave her childhood family.
The fire is the only necessasary witness to officiate for these ancient wedding rites, so this smoke is very important as the noise of the music collected our attentions, enclosing us deeper into the eternal circle. Two tribes were joining as a new unit around this fledgling couple. We all were getting married in some primal, quite palpable way. Again there were small conversations & useful explanations for the two of us, obviously rapt, by uncles or other elders, who had done some version of this in their own weddings. They compliment Derek for his thorough attention to the arcane details.
There were more formal gifts & more knots were tied. Rituals of Derek leading Anjana’s first steps into this new life while holding her right toe, then both walking together around the fire.
It was done!
The TAJ MAHAL…
Next morning we flew early to Delhi with the family group, who were adding a tour of the north to their trip. We were along just to see Shah Jahan’s white marble prayer. The Taj Mahal is indeed gorgeous beyond more words.
Those several nights were fun, staying in the “ B” hotels with the “budget” group, which included the younger adults. We often identify with several generations. We quickly realized our relief to peel off after just those several days. We travel SO WELL on our own.
We are aware these are the last days of our trip & want to make the most of our remaining experience. After a train to Jhansi we are by met by an agent, who quickly packs us off a car with new driver for a five-hour road trip to Khajaraho.
Some parts of the road were rather more harrowing than others, with lots of deep ditches dug alongside a single lane of dilapidated asphalt to prove that it was being widened & repaired. Sazar’s English was never good enough to be useful as a guide. He seemed to prefer lording it over all other traffic as a private driver for some version of our being his VIPs. As always, driving brings great visual slices of the exotic & interesting parts of the everyday life of “others”.
We stop for lunch, his suggestion… at a lovely old ruin of a palace in a small town along the way, which is being nicely restored as a hotel & restaurant… Alipura. We saw the big cool dining room as a bit too formal & chose to accept the invitation to sit instead up on the rooftop terrace, listening to the waft from the two blind musicians down in the courtyard from which we’d climbed an interesting series of steps, some without any pretense of OSHA approved railings. They were delighting us on a stringed folk instrument & drum in a manner that helped to enliven our fantasy of this place as it might have been in its more glorious days.
We secretly enjoy this temporary business of seeming nouveau Maharajahs, being driven, then waited for, while being so well taken care of by yet some ones else… all within the potential of finding ourselves bitching a bit because it isn’t quite what we feel we are due. Oh my… yes, we do.
Khajuraho is a city of ancient temples… a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we didn’t see the well-kept grounds in the dark of that first evening, while we watched the sound & light show explaining its history from the imagined viewpoint of the 9th century architect of this sacred precinct. It was a bit of Bollywood drama about the romance of a god & a maiden… played out with the usual loud soundtrack, but more appropriate for the space it could fill… with the new lunar crescent vying its setting behind the floodlit spires of the temples we would actually go into the next morning. Our imaginations were thus fired by the magic & myth of both moon & modern media strewn over timeless stone.
We give ourselves a bigger treat than our arrival via the first ride in a bicycle rickshaw, by paying the boy a big tip to let us walk the mile or so home to the hotel. The ever-present rickshaw drivers can hardly afford to grok that we want a bit of alone time & a little exercise. That’s not very like the Maharajahs they need for paying their bills.
Only a quarter of the temples once here survived the jungle & other fates of this historical site, discovered by an Englishman in the late 19th century. Twenty-five still rise in good shape… thus inspiring.
These temples are known for the erotic sculptures that adorn the bases of some of these elaborately carved spires. Indeed, we can easily share that is much of the hook we have followed here. We know that we will get much quicker to the nubbins of culture by skipping those stories that avoid talking about sex. This site is rich… We’ve drawn another good guide in this one named Rajput.
These scenes are so easily accessible the story seems plausible that these are symbolic of the progression one makes through his beginnings at the basics of all that is human, on his way toward all the other stuff carved yet higher above.
Well, these beginnings are like what we also enjoyed as another culture’s celebration in the “secret chambers” of the Naples Museum. Still, one difference is that there are fewer images of men sexing with men. This culture has long kept its secrets, even as much is hid so out in the open. We walk around rather human-scaled piles of ornately sculpted stone, making all but the most frenetic European facade look almost calm by comparison.
Staccato repetition of a rampant tiger or dragon form becomes background against which evolves the bewildering plethora of unique scenes of individual statements of gesture inside this immensely carved saga of several stories. Tall, yes, but one’s senses can almost climb them.
We listen to the Rajput’s jokes about the Kama Sutra poses & we laugh, both as the trained seals of our own rude culture & as more truly evolved guys. Everyone winks, so we wink too. Has everyone truly gotten it? Sly sex on the public can be really twice fun.
It is the Shiva Lingam temple which has caught our creativity… we both are thinking “blue ball”.
Oh dear, ought I back out? Or, plunge forward with a story about Sedona’s “Golden Calf Realty”, which in the early 1980’s bought a lot of creative advertising on KGYP radio, usually broadcasting fiction in the vicinity of the tape decks of a couple of audio artist friends of mine sometimes residing in Idaho
So, well… that is about what is inside the cobalt glazed ceramic ball we went back to fetch… imported sacred cows.
My friend Cigale
We’d both received the same calling. The obvious place was the Shiva Lingam shrine, Kandaria Mahadev. This is a temple dedicated to the male principle. I had known this was really the place when the guide pointed out the belladonna, which was blooming purple, & making seedpods, at the front steps to this temple. Cigale has a particular connection to that herb. Linga languish for lack of loving ovum.
We were disappointed as we departed through the gate of the site because I’d left the blue ball in the car that morning, having carried it all through this trip only to miss this meeting with godhead. Rajput, hearing our enthusiasm encouraged our expressed desires to have more time with these ruins because, he explained, the ones at the second half of the site are not so engrossing…
Retrieving the ball from my pack, we return through the gate.
Approaching quietly in conversation toward this spontaneously shared event, it feels appropriate that we are both in alignment for this. This subtle play is deliciously fey as a thousand year old womb is about to be impregnated with some newly charged subtlety.
No one else is present in our chosen place. This really is meant to be. This is it!
I display small daring to climb into the inner sanctum to install the ball in a niche close by, in service to, that big waxy protrusion of old stone phallus. Inside tons of elaborately carved ancient sandstone a fragile new seed is planted.
The carved step down out of this temple holds a determined shape requiring one to focus on the beauty of a curve terminating with conch shells, presumably making fanfare to announce passage of any footstep… I visually heard that echoed in the lintel above, an elaborate trill of a river becoming a dragon, carved fleetingly forever in stone.
How long will it last? Surely this installation will soon be discovered. I wish now I’d brought flashlight to find a less obvious spot up in which to place it… I wish I weren’t telling as much as I am…
Perhaps I’ve made all this up & we really threw our damned cobalt blue balls into the frustration over our cliff when we realized we’d totally forgotten that tiresome mission until we unpacked. Good riddance! We never could better have faked such a cocky story!
Varanasi & Benares are the same place, different names for different times & stories. This is one of the oldest & most holy places on earth. This is the place one hopes to come to die. This river sends you directly to heaven. This is where we have brought some of James Broughton’s ashes, but death is the significant part of life & our journey in this place where life in death is so celebrated.
This place of eternal legend is having a festival the days we are there. A festival celebrated with flying square paper kites! We are ensconced in another tourist destination… we choose the Orissa Room not for its by now familiar naughty scenes from the Kama Sutra, but for its big shower. The hotel’s boys here wear some historical sketch of a bright yellow silk suit, belted low into big pleated high pantaloons. They invite us further into the ritual, sunset Arti, the Blessing of the Ganges from the stage of the Central Ghat.
How can one bless a river containing heaven itself? Well, we watched as five priests did a highly choreographed dance toward that, with fire, water, smoking incense & bells… lots of bells. The music was no more manageable than anywhere else. Rarely subtle… “Systems!”
Dawn took its time to find our small boat poled & paddled by a boy on the river… we were well down the line of Ghats by the time I made the photo of Stephen inundating James, back-lighted by the sun’s rising.
“You did a holy thing.” Our guide Mukul notes with emotion, having averted his eyes when he realized what Stephen & I were about.
We watched people bathing all our holy way back to breakfast. Death in the Ganges is most sexy of all. Most holy as well. We were afterward taken away to Sarnath where Buddha began his teaching & where we bought an expensive brocaded silk bedspread we hadn’t known we needed. Blessed until death may our lovemaking be.
The night train to Delhi was a taste of travel we’d mostly avoided by opting to fly. We had berths in a first class compartment to ourselves. I wrote while he read. We ate tandoori chicken bones, & drank chai out of disposable clay cups we preciously chose to bring home.
Home for many currently important Indians might have been the Modern School where Stephen’s friend Lata is the principal. He has known her for ten years. The school is some eighty years old, with a roster of significant alumni.
She & her husband, Vaidnathan, would make interesting subjects for my last Indian constellation… Add Govin, the sly cook smiling with a sultry chip on his Nepalese shoulder & another tale of a driver… but we had tickets to fly.
Well… I’d been warned that journals would come to ends like this…
Stories… & Systems!
India is so much of life lived so long by so many. I had a sweet dance with her… & once again on these pages with you. The trick is to know when to stop & let go. She will go on forever & part of me might never get home.
Gordon R. Barnett