India: 4/6

We began our visit to the Tibetan Homes Foundation in a large conference room, homely rather than corporate, sitting at long tables with a cup of chai, and listened as the director explained the origin of the school.  She had attended the school herself, and handed out copies of the school yearbook from 2015.  Inside the yearbook were samples of work from the students.  Every third student seemed to be called Tenzin.  Someone showed me a piece that was mainly about how that student loved her mum, but ended:

Everyone loves mom and dad but I hate my dad because he doesn’t love my mom.  He loves other woman.  He doesn’t have time to spend with us.  I really hate him.

Other pieces of writing talked about being and not being in Tibet (Tibet is my country.  But I have never been to Tibet).  About places they’d never been in their own country.  About being in India but not Indian (Since from my childhood days, I was being told that we are ‘refugees’) .

We are taken by a man from the THF for our tour around the school.

***

We visited the temple last.  Downstairs was a shrine to the Buddha.  Bright red walls and at the far end, behind glass, a Buddha wrapped up tight in coats.  On one side a cardboard cut out of the Dalai Lama, and in front of both a kind of tiered pyramid with dozens of light bulbs at each level.  Upstairs a study room with hundreds of books wrapped in faded orange cloth on shelves behind glass cabinet doors.  Then we were taken into the room where the Dalai Lama sleeps when he visits.  A very modest room.

Our guide pointed out the depiction of hell on the wall by the entrance to the temple.  A round circle filled with images of the specific punishments for specific crimes.  Hieronymus Bosch.  Liars with their tongues stretched out.  Drinkers being filled with something colder than ice that burns in every cell.  For those who commit suicide, 500 years of hell before they can be reborn.  Each day in hell a year of our time.  Is there such a shortage of suffering here on Earth that we must imagine more in death?

***

The school steps down in different blocks.  There are walkways and staircases, playing courts and playgrounds tucked into tight spaces.  The roofs of the buildings are dark green, as is the uniform.  The girls and the boys wear grey pants; the jersey, tie and blazer is green.  The kids generally have a wider face than the local Indian population, and more narrowly shaped eyes.  Some of them wave coyly and smile as we walk past.

We went into a class of five and six year olds.  A large room with carpet, we took off our shoes and sat with them.  They also wore the full school uniform.  Laid out in front of the students were wooden cards with words written in Tibetan on them: a very vertical script, like a bar code, with a single line looping across horizontally.

“It says ‘wheel’” the guide said pointing at one of the cards.

One kid seemed to be causing some trouble in the corner.  The guide looked at him proudly.

“He’s my son.”

There were a pile of exercise books on a shelf by the window.  The top one was covered in pictures of Anna and Elsa from Frozen.

***

Above the temple on a high hill we could see hundreds of flags beating against the wind.  Some of the students walked up there.  The rest waited back at the temple with me.  I wanted to talk to them about getting along a bit better with some of the outliers in the group.

Which led on to religion, and what we are doing in our course next term.

“The meaning of life”, I said.

“What is the meaning of life?”

“I’m not sure, but I think love has something to do with it.”

When the girls came back from walking up the hill I asked them what was up there.

“An eternal flame for the 100 monks who have immolated themselves since the Chinese took over Tibet.”

Someone remembered the painting of hell, and the punishment for those who committed suicide.  Isn’t self-immolation the same?

In the wheel of birth and rebirth how long in hell for the martyr?

When your homeland is over the mountains and far away; that is suffering.

India: 6/6

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: 5/6

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.