India: 5/5

Come with me to Haridwar.  Let’s go up the narrow streets of shops with the crowds that stall and surge and weave around the rickshaw stopped, part before the scooter or auto horns.  Let’s look in at the little shops crammed with cloths, with bracelets stacked in glitzy towers under fluorescent lights.  Walk past the man selling peacock feathers, past the steaming pots of water for eggs, for corn, the mounded heaps of spices.  Under the train overpass, and up the lane, a watery sludge running down the gutter, and under a table of food alive with flies, we come to the cable car queue, a teeming mass of sari and polo shirts and hollering hand waving.

Wait and lose count of the people, wait and let the sounds and the smells and the heat run over you.  Don’t fight them.  Don’t.  You can’t win, or begin to win against it.  On the move again, through a door, down a corridor, on to the gondolas in fours we swing up the hill.  Look at the view: the city, the Ganges, the temple tops and under us a road criss-crossing up – scooters and blue tarpaulin covered stalls.  A moments peace, this, hanging in the gondola before we emerge at the top and merge back into the crowds always pushing ahead.

Is this a train station or a temple?  The funneling tunnels of corridors and high metal barriers we squeeze down and emerge in a confusing mess of shops, under a roof.  Take off your shoes and feel the grit underfoot and walk up to the ticket taker, and press on down a dark lane, a shrine in one wall, bright with flowers and flame: Gensha and Shiva.  The shrine jockey tries to coax donations from the passersby but is mostly ignored.  The locals know that good God stuff is further on, up the stairs, where there is a jam to be blessed.

Slip past the blessing of smoke and sticks being waved and the brazier of fire with rupee in buckets and come to room with pressed metal decoration all over a shrine and its niche.  People push forward to give money and receive a handful of rice.  The rice is blessed I assume although a lot of it ends up on the floor trampled underfoot with flowers and chippie packets as we pour down the steps.  Shiva in a bright red room  festooned with flowers, each shrine with its people seeking money for a blessing, a quick quid pro quo, salvation for a buck, no questions asked, money down.  Then Hanuman, then nine more. All at a clip.  Bursts of chanting, shouting, angry remonstrating.  Somehow we are leaving again after bring dragged backwards through a cabaret of colour, sound and smell we are swinging down on the gondola.

***

Come to the evening prayer at the Ganges.  Come and sit on the wide stone banks with the thousands of others and wait.  See the white, grey water rushing past and the far bank of tiered platforms and the people all across them.  Men in quasi-police uniforms blow their whistles and organise the crowds so they are crammed and not bobbing up too high and blocking the view.  The dismay of hearing we will be here for an hour before the ceremony ends, and then the letting go of that and the sinking down into it.  Close your eyes and listen, let your hearing expand out.  Hear the thousands talking, laughing, crying, calling, some great organic beast in shuddering life, giving off a great heat, sweating and breathing together as the light fades away and the chanting begins.  A steady Sanskrit from texts 5000 years old rises up, and the crowd calls back and raises its hands as a woman comes with yellow and red dye to anoint our foreheads with bindi.  No money, she says.  Blessings and peace, she says.  The chant is “shanti” for a moment: peace.  On and on with the chanting, a steadiness against the descending night, and the surging river that tumbles urgently between the two banks thick with worshipers.

With the dark the fires are lit.  Fire, the purest thing, into the river, which purifies, the fire on the water at Haridwar where a drop of nectar fell from Shiva and people come to have their sins washed away.

We wash our feet in the Ganges.  It is cold.  My feet feel better but I may still be damned.  Afterwards we walk past lines of beggars, some without limbs, they ask for money but I do not give. What may have been washed away is quickly replaced.

***

Our final day: eating McDonalds in Delhi.  Women begging with newborns outside; the affluent Indians inside.  The beggars are hardened and aggressive.  The diners are hardened too.  I’ve gotten better at saying no to the poor.  Like that’s a good thing.  But they sit around in my head those people: on the ground, prosthetic limb, a baby on the hip, no hands, twisted on the station platform, lying emptied of life on the footpaths.  The dignity of man.  The words die on your lips and taste like ash.  When no one cares about you then you turn into a ghost.

We are passing through this place like apparitions.  We are at the hotel having showers, food.  A bus, a plane, a thousand miles away.

India: 4/5

Driving up to Mussoorie at night was not unlike winding our way up into outer space.  Picked out in the darkness the lights of the settlements across the mountains seemed like star clusters.

Ahead though the headlights of the bus illuminated the side of the cliff on one side, and the concrete barricades between us and the drop we could not see on the other.  Along the road there were signs that said: Speed Thrills But Kills.  A group of men clinging on to the sides of their car, riding on the roof, wheeled past us into the night.  Stupidity in that case seemed more likely to kill than speed.

Tin sheds hanging off the side of the road selling chai, a few plastic chairs for customers.

We travelled up and up and up to the hotel.

***

In the morning we could see where we were.  1800 metres up and the steep forested spines of mountainous ridges plunging sharply down; buildings descending the precipitous slopes.

The horn here is key to driving but in a different way from Delhi.  The long parps on the air horn going into every blind corner and hairpin turn wards off collisions with on-coming traffic.  There is not a gap small enough that will make a scooter driver reconsider aiming for it to get ahead of you.

At the top of the road to Mussoorie, at Libary Chowk, there is a statue of Gandhi, and a roundabout with a group of statues of dancing musicians in the centre.  Traffic snarls crossly every few minutes and then clears away every few minutes after that.  An old photo of the same chowk from 150 years ago shows the library building there, and a band rotunda where the statues are now.

***

Woodstock School.  A different kind of exile from the people we met at the THF.  $43,000 a year to send your child to board here.  An exclusive bubble high up in the hills.  The sons and daughters of wealthy Indians with a percent of international students from wealthy Americans and Asians working in or near India.  You do not hear Hindi, Urdu, you do not see sari.  English, jeans, T-shirts.  Our students are paired with students from the school and have a great time going to classes.  One of the students is paired with an Indian girl who can’t speak anything other than English.  I see no temples or churches.  They are applying to American universities, or going on exchange to Scandinavia.  Wealth is a separate nationality.  It understands airports and hotels, it speaks in transnational brands and chains, it uses the currency of westernised expectations and English.  It is self-assured.  Life will be alright, and alright for everyone they know.

On the noticeboard in the entrance hallway was a little information about the theme for week: Poverty.  Like studying about medieval female saints, or the mechanics of fusion, poverty is something that can be studied as an abstract, distant concept.  The community engagement wall shows the students doing extremely worthwhile and meaningful social action projects which are unquestionably good, and locally focused.  Yet, it has a whiff on it.  The begetters and sustainers of inequality and capitalism send their children to the victims of that system as temporary emissaries of idealistic good will.

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King

His speech, Time to Break Silence, is better than I Have a Dream because it is so radical.  His long critique of America and the Vietnam War, and the American system, is absolutely prescient.  I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I feel like Rage Against Machine are right:

You know they went after King when he spoke out on Vietnam

He turned the power to the have-nots. And then came the shot.

***

They had no tour or plans for the teachers and parents at Woodstock so I went to the school library and read poetry.  The old school building is old but without beauty.  A series of functional rooms off a wide, high-ceiling passageway.  The library is down a staircase, and mostly quiet except for the odd vacuous outburst of banter from some of the students.

One of the little volumes is by a former student of Woodstock.  On the inside cover the author has written:

Woodstock, Woodstock, things longed for, regretted… we move from ourselves into ourselves, from that reality to this. I miss the clean breath of the mountains.

The children of the super rich here are lovely and kind and bond instantly with our kids.  They are not the problem.  They are the problem.  There is no target.  All of us swimming in the system we participate in, some of us complaining about the water as we float across its surface and fearful of the ocean floor.

***

The staffroom at morning tea time has about 30 teachers in it.  There is wicker furniture, and a certain dishevelment.  Piles of books, papers, newspapers.  A large tea urn appears, over sweet chai, and a tray of cake.  A man approaches me, he is tall and rather dapper, Indian in appearance.

“I’m JP.”

“I’m John-Paul.”

He laughs.  “I am John-Paul too. John-Paul Rajeshree.”

He wants to visit New Zealand one day to see the night sky.  “I love the night sky.  I photograph it”.

The teaching here for $43,000 a year is worksheets, and note-taking and listening in silence to the teacher.  You can smell it, bullshit teaching, a mile away if you’re in the job yourself, and the smell is ripe here.

 

India: 3/5

Our guide is 28, married and Brahman.  He says he wonders about the purpose of life. It’s hard to read people across cultures but he doesn’t seem to care that much.  Then again, it probably seems to him that I don’t so it’s best not to judge.

He particularly likes the god Hanuman.  He is strong, a great warrior, and the first follower of Rama.  The story of Rama and his wife Sita is part of an annual festival that lasts ten days called the Dussehra.

In most of northern and western India, Dasha-Hara (literally, “ten days”) is celebrated in honour of Rama. Thousands of drama-dance-music plays based on the Ramayana and Ramcharitmanas are performed at outdoor fairs across the land, in temporarily built staging grounds featuring effigies of demons Ravana, Kumbhakarna and Meghanada are held. The effigies are burnt on bonfires in the evening of Vijayadashami-Dussehra.

Wikipedia

Our guide said that the story is told in four hour performances over the ten nights leading to Rama’s final victory over Ravana.  The victory of good over evil.  A flaming arrow shot into the effigies ignites and destroys them.

The guide tells me that each person is reincarnated seven times.  You don’t know if you’re in your first or seventh incarnation, but being human suggests that you did something good in the past.  Man is the penthouse suite of creation which is not an idea I really agree with.  It seems to privilege consciousness too much.  But it should mean that we are a brother and sisterhood of beings who all have good in our past, and the experience of having been another consciousness: a cockroach, a rock at the bottom of a river, a bird hanging high on the updrafts.  That should make humans something special, shouldn’t it?  Well, it would if the knowledge of goodness and otherness was evident in us all I suppose.

***

After the bus ride back from Agra to Delhi we had three hours to kill before our train ride.  Should we take the metro to some shops?  Some hesitation, but ok.  It put us in India for once.  Not in a monument, or a foreigner friendly restaurant, but on the trains.

In the metro, waiting for the guide to come back with tokens, an old man approached me.

“Where are you from?”

“New Zealand.”

“So many pretty flowers,” he said nodding at the girls and chuckling.

I nodded.

“You are a lucky man.”

I shrugged, not wanting to play the game: the imaginary brotherhood of the cock.

“Have a nice day.”

Down in the metro the girls got on the woman only carriage.  I went in one of the other ones.  At the other end of the metro we found a cafe and flooded in with our exotic cool.  The coffee was terrible but I enjoyed it.  And the chippies.  And the samosa.  We could have been anywhere in the world.  Sometimes that’s nice.

***

We picked up our packed lunches in a car park that stank of urine.  Urine in a fan oven.  Then we walked to the bus.  To walk with bags, literally bags, of food past the poor and starving wearing my stupid white man skin.  Fuck.  We put all the bags of food down.  A man hung about asking for food.  I gave him 10 rupee.  The point of which being nothing.  A fee to my pricked conscience.

Then into the thick of Delhi Station with suitcases.  Weaving through the crowds, around the families camped on the ground eating, or the men lying down to sleep, through the sheep pen maze of railings to the metal detector.  Up the stairs, along the bridge, down the stairs.  It reminded me of Japan.  The heat, the noise, the time pressure, but for quite a few of the girls it was pretty full on.  A bit too real.

After all that the train drifted out of Delhi Railway Station serenely and on time.  We passed vacant lots and ponds so clogged and covered with rubbish you could see neither land nor water. A rejoinder to the posters and signs about cleaning up India.  After the sweaty chaos of getting on to the train we settled into quiet, into the slow rocking sway of the carriage.  Soon, men in blue polos and caps (“Doon’s”) started marching up and down the aisles selling chips, chai, water and snacks.

***

Two men in white, with rimless white caps, hands at their backs, walk quietly between fields up a dirt track.  A little black puppy lollops across rough ground.  20, 30 young men out on a beaten earth court playing volleyball. A cat, as a rare as a woman out after dark, regards the train as it passes.  A sense of people coming in from the land and the busyness before dark.  The moon, low and large, an orange disk sliding up on the “wrong” side of the train, disorients me.