Tear Me Away

Prepare to meet Kali—in Hell!
—Indiana Jones


Once I heard a story
of a lone Brit astride a Royal Enfield Bullet, a classic motorcycle, the chassis unchanged from the ’50s, and he was driving along India’s highways, fulfilling some post-colonial dream, when somewhere ahead of him on the dusty highway that runs between jungle and mountain he encountered what appeared to be a wall of oncoming traffic, an impossible and anachronistic vehicular rampart.

At the far left of the road, in the slow lane, limped two heavy-humped oxen, long horns painted blue, pulling at a cart loaded with hay; a Hindu in a collared shirt riding a bicycle past this, a tuk-tuk ripping past the bicycle with a whole tangle of tied-upped chickens squawking on the back bench, then a half-rusted car with those old voluptuous streamlines around headlights and taillights passing the tuk-tuk, and finally a huge Tata truck, the king of the road, its bed weighed down with cardboard boxes, boxes piled so high they stood above the cabin and had to be tied down, looking like some Dust Bowl refugee, this Tata truck overtaking them all on the far right—all these vehicles, of various eras and velocities, happened to align like the planets do sometimes, so as to form a solid Indian phalanx, from one shoulder of the road to the other, as the Brit on his motorcycle approached.

This is the best analogy for the state of India: contradictory and anachronistic, pre- and post-industrial, and dangerously, prolifically out of control. A swarm of humanity steers this thing, not some face of politics. Gandhi understood this better than anyone. He never tried to control India, merely to make himself a cog of cogs that would set the swarm to the real work.

There is progress, and there are those left behind, those who have to swerve into the ditch to avoid what’s overtaking them. Men lying face down under the curb, men with sores on their features, with bleeding bones sticking out from amputations, skeletal old women with no one to help them, and filthy children who don’t deserve it. Gutters and begging bowls are India’s welfare network, and charity is their universal health care. The poor put ads in the paper. “My child needs an operation, please help him!” And in the same streets the other billion-plus of India’s swarm go about their business, with a blind eye to the down and out. Rich Brahmins glide by in their rickshaws, their salientian faces each a study of the lion in repose.

It takes brute cunning to survive in India. The best word to describe the country, encompassing all its vast disparities and cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, and geographical distinctions—the word is wild. Wild, from the Mumbai slums to the tribal hills, from the Backwaters to the Himalayan plateaus, from Tamil fire temples to Assamese Baptist churches. The only order and direction is natural selection. Caste is a food chain, and the cities are Darwinian pits, where the ruthless flourish and the rest sink to the slummy bottom and into extinction. Indian history is that of a thousand vying kingdoms, a disunited country, oblivious to the lesser masses. It is free market corporatism to an unholy degree.

Progress of the kind measured in three-letter acronyms by statisticians is quick for the wild nation. The laborers toil ceaselessly for nothing and sleep on the factory floor like slaves. The rich grow richer off ghetto sacrifice. Extortion is common: sometimes outlawed, sometimes permitted, and sometimes sponsored by the state. Cruelty is a virtue.

Yet for every mean generalization there is a good one. Look past the ruin and rubbish to the beauty of the country, and be numbed by the complexity of the city. The multifarious Indians are curious and childish and cunning. For every one that offends, ten will surprise and spoil with thoughtless generosity and fraternal humor. Here men and women preach and practice and sing of love and broken fetters. They crusade for the Untouchables, for women, for the poor. Saints and poets flourish as they only can in a wild chaos: Gandhi, Amma, Teresa, Tagore, Narayan, Ray, Mehta, Shankar, etc. The cultural atmosphere at once classical and progressive.

There is life and noise and warmth in every corner, an ancient heart beating in every city, and spirituality under every tree. The oldest stories and customs survive here, customs not seen in the West since Rome, Greece, and Babylon, graced by modern innovations. The story of Rama as told by television, novel, and comic book, and Bollywood-invented gods, worshiped by the most ancient rites of man.

She is a work in progress, this India—grand in scale, elusive in spirit, and willfully, wonderfully wild. I have known a little of her, and will return to see more of the north, and the mountains and deserts and jungles I missed, each land different than the rest, and to see where she will next steer her ancient patchwork self.

Each Bengali village orbits a pond called the pukur, where the villagers bathe and wash their clothes and water their animals. Holy men called fakir tend to the villages spiritual needs. The fakir brings rain when it is dry, and at night he paces around the village, hitting the ground with his staff to scare away the wild things. There are Muslim fakirs and Hindu ones. At one time in Bengal, the Muslims were as common as the Hindus, and they lived together very peacefully, though the Partition changed that forever.

The principle heathen deity among the Bengalis is the Mother Goddess Devi, usually linked to Parvathi, and with ten avatars of her own. Among these are benevolent women like Annapurna, goddess of food and plenty, and bloodthirsty terrors like Kali and Tara, who appear as mad and black-skinned horrors with lolling tongues and sharp teeth. Their dozen hands hold a dozen blades, and they wear the severed heads of men around their necks.

The Kali worshipers of Calcutta feed their goddess with the blood of sacrifices, and the devotees of Tara drink from skulls and practice Tantric rites on the new moon. In Tarapith they live in the ash of cremation grounds and throw bones at those who come to interfere in their inverted society, which refutes all the order of Hindu caste. To these heathens, even the malevolent aspects of the Devi are goddesses of love, personifying the intimidating courage of a mother’s devotion.

The Bauls of Bengal also throw off the chains of Hinduism, and society in general. They are wandering minstrels who sleep under trees and wear long shifts with checkered patterns and play the ektara, a single stringed instrument shaped like a gourd. Sometimes they stop in a small village, and all the Hindus come out to hear their songs of love, though the Baul creed forbids them from staying in one place for longer than three days and soon they must move on. They play on trains and on street corners and are the happiest of men.

In Bengali, their name means “mad” or “possessed,” for they yield to personal passion, to inward need. The Bauls say that God does not exist in Heaven but inside each man. “Seek truth within,” they say—within, rather than outside in the Hindu world of temple rituals and temporal masters. Seek God in love and music, passion and pleasure. Thinking this, they live like Krishna, traveling from place to place, singing their love songs and practicing their arts of seduction, and never tying themselves to anything.

“This is the best life. The world is my home,” said one of these minstrels in William Dalrymple's new book on the Indian sacred. “When you walk, you are freed from the worries of ordinary life, from the imprisonments of being rooted in the same place.” Ah, what happy example for an unattached rambler like me!

While in Calcutta for the second time, and with an interest in all this Bengali mystique, I went to see the Temple of Kali in Kalighat, the holiest of that black goddess’s shrines. The story goes that when Kali was murdered, for being vicious bloodthirsty or for whatever reason, her husband, Shiva the Destroyer, was raised to such angry heights that he nearly destroyed all the three planes, Heaven and Earth and Hell. Vishnu only quelled his world-burning revenge by dancing on and disintegrating Kali’s corpse. Bits and pieces of her flew all over India, and now reside in her temples, like the saintly relics of European cathedrals. Calcutta maintains Kali’s big toe.

So I went to the Temple of Kali one sweltering afternoon with James of Edmunton, the deer hunter I had met in Kodaikanal who had just arrived in Calcutta from the steamy south. The Traveler’s Bible warns not to follow the Hindus that approach outside of the temple, who show you around in the friendliest way and then ask for an obligatory donation, but I’m in the habit of spiting these people, especially when they come from a priestly caste with a tenet that forbids begging. So when one Brahmin named Babu approached James and I on our way into the temple, we willingly allowed him to guile us through the market of holy trinkets and into the crowded temple courtyard.

Babu showed us the Barren Tree, the flowerless arbor where women pray for healthy grandchildren, and took us to a stand in the back. He got us us garlands of the Akanda, a flower holy to Kali, and two hoops and some incense, and he showed us the cupboard where we could put our shoes. Then he took us past the normal line to a secret entrance into the prayer chamber. This was a relatively small room packed full of worshipers all jostling for a space in front of a square hole in the wall that looked on the malicious, simple idol of black-faced Kali, shrouded in cloth of gold and surrounded by gilded offerings. They pushed and shoved against each other until they could see the goddess, and then threw in some Akanda flowers and managed a quick prayer before being forced away by the tumult.

This rite observed, Babu took James and I out into the courtyard on the other side of the temple. A few priests were preparing food under the colonnade there. Some 1200 of Calcutta’s poor come to the Temple of Kali every day for a free lunch, made up of rice and vegetables and the seared produce of sacrifice, for like those of the ancient Greeks, the Hindu sacrifices are in truth a ritualized excuse to barbecue a goat. Knowing this, I asked Babu, “Where does the meat come from?” and after he had answered, I asked, “Where are the sacrifices?” and led our guide towards them. I wanted to see some blood.

In the stone pavilion that Babu had indicated, two priests brought out a small screaming goat, its legs tied, and the knowing natives watched on. It was not the first—the block was already wet with blood. At half-past seven in the morning, when the head priest beheads the first goat, he takes up the severed head that he may bathe his face in its blood. The sacrifice we witnessed, one of the sixty sacrifices performed each day, was no less sanguinary than the first, and was performed by the head priest’s disciples. Placing the tied and squealing kid between two wooden boards on an uneven rock already carmined with blood and Akanda petals, the priests then ran a dowel through holes in the boards so it held the kid in place by its neck. Now the device was arranged like a guillotine and with a similar purpose. One priest hefted a massive blade with a reverse-curved edge. The kid issued one last bleat and was silenced.

The priests tossed its body into the corner of the pavilion, where it bucked as if trying to run, creating a circle of gore, and they took the severed head from under the dowel. They walked it around the circle of shouting pagans and drew blood from its neck with two fingers to paint the mark of Kali on rapturous foreheads. This poor goat, now reduced to paint and twitching meat for the spit, was one of fifty or sixty killed that day. The blood goes to Kali, the meat to the temple kitchens to feed the poor, and all the blessings of charity to the rich castes who fund it.

Babu took us out to the Shiva pool, where there was a stone idol of Kali’s vengeful husband. One at a time he took us down to the statue and guided us through a solitary ritual of puja. I went first. I lit my incense and circled it around three times, saying, “Om shanti,” put my hoops around the god’s elbows, lay my Akanda garlands over Shiva’s crowned and grinning head, and placed a pile of the flowers in his lap one by one—the first for myself and the others for my parents, my love, my sister, and my travels.

Then Babu brought out his ledger and asked for a donation for the poor. He showed me how people from other countries had donated between 2000 and 4000 rupees (that is $50 and $100), but told me that 1000 rupees would be sufficient. I expect that some of these philanthropists were fabricated, or otherwise I severely underestimate the common sense of people. I replied that I could not afford a donation and was only there to learn, but I thanked him for showing me around his temple. I would certainly consider donating money to a charity or donating my time to service when I someday returned to Calcutta with more of both. Brahmin Babu had ways of dealing with those reticent to donate—this was his job, after all—but I resisted them all with stupid stubbornness and gratitude.

Angrily did Babu dismiss me, and as I left he pulled the last of my flowers, the blessing of travel, from Shiva’s lap and returned it to me without comment, and never told me what I was supposed to do with it. While I waited in the shade, James came down for his puja, which did not last very long, and then refused the donations in much the same way I had. Babu led us back to get our shoes and pay the woman for our ritual items, and then he asked for a tip, which we also refused.

Money can procure anything in Calcutta, but the City of Joy is especially good for leather. Knowing this, I went around a few showrooms and to the Hogg Market, a mixed up bazaar with a meat market full of yet-living flesh, a dusty produce warehouse, and a maze of random stalls, including one that seemed to deal entirely in American country music. In the basement are the luxury crafts stores, the artifacts and apparel, without brand stamp but of excellent quality nonetheless, and into this subterranea I followed a guide who approached me in the street. These take you to shops for a commission, and are sometimes worth following.

He wound me around the cool and sleepy hallways to a shoe store. Six salesmen lounged about the room, and one of them approached me while the others watched. My guide waited at the entrance, hunched over and expecting his payment.

“I look for leather shoes,” I said casually, in the broken English that anyone can understand, gazing around at the store, as if the thought of footwear had suddenly sprung upon me and I had wandered in without any anticipation of buying something.

Crieth the salesman: “Sit down!” and he slapped a couch in the center of the room, but I ignored him and browsed the shoe racks. It is a constant power struggle in these equations. Allow yourself to be served, or put yourself in a situation where you need what is offered (i.e. it’s raining and you need an umbrella, or it’s late and you need a room), and you are sure to receive the bad end of the math. So I browsed the shoes calmly and picked out one I didn’t really like. “Very nice one,” said the vendor, and he told me a little about it. I put it back with disgust, then picked out the pair I really wanted and considered them with the same expression. They were black and long with crinkled leather and flat toes and were very rock and roll.

“Real leather?” I asked, not really knowing.

“Of course,” said the salesman. “From baby cow,” and he stroked the shoe as lovingly as he might the real animal. He then selected an ugly pleather thing from the rack and said, “This fake, you see? No good. This real leather, very good quality, baby cow, embossed leather. No wrinkle. You bend, no wrinkle. It will last seven years, no problem, guarantee. Here, try on.”

The others had brought out a pair in my size (and there are few of those in India), and I slipped them on and looked for things to complain about. “They don’t fit here,” said I, running my hand around the space between my ankle and the shoe. “It will fit with sock!” the salesmen protested. “Look at these wrinkles,” I whined, and the salesmen assured me they would fade. Make them desperate! and then you ask, “What's the price?” I had asked around at a few stores earlier, so I already knew what would be fair and what would be an exorbitant demand in that market.

“For these,” said the salesman, pursing his lips as if in deep thought, “One thousand six hundred fifty rupees."

“One thousand six hundred fifty!” I echoed, and I melodramatically reconsidered the shoes as if he had told me they were cobbled from gold.

“You have discount,” stammered the salesman. “First customer today, first customer discount. Ten percent off.” On a calculator, he showed me this meant 1500.

In an affected rage I informed him, “I go to store earlier, all real leather, air conditioning, nice showroom. Their shoes are only seven hundred rupees, fixed price.”

“Yes but this good quality,” pleaded the salesman. “Much better than other shoes.” Again he made a comparison between the ones I wanted and pleather shoes. “See, very good quality, baby calf. Embossed leather.”

I looked entirely unconvinced. I studied the shoes, bending them around as if they were worth nothing.

“In showroom,” said another salesman, “These cost three thousand rupees. Good quality, good brand. Only here, no air condition, good price.”

I became forgiving: “Yes, it is good quality. Very nice shoes.” The others thanked me. “It's just more than I wanted to spend,” and I put them on the floor with high tragedy and brought around my own lesser shoes, dejected.

“What price you offer?”

“It was seven hundred at the last store.”

“No!” said the first salesman, exasperated, “seven hundred so small. These good quality,” and he pointed out many of the shoes’ fine features once more.

“I know, very good quality, I like them.”

“So say price.”

“They are good quality, so I’ll give you more than at the other store. Eight hundred is a good price.”

“Last price?”

“Eight hundred.”

“You pay eight hundred, I make nothing. I pay more than that,” said one of the salesmen, I'm assuming the manager or merchant.

“I'm sorry, I’m on a budget,” I said, full of morose self-blame, “It's more than I want to pay.” I got up to leave— the bargainer’s ultimate weapon, though it must be used at the proper moment and not too soon.

The merchant got out a piece of cardboard and wrote down 1650, then 1500, and then had me write down my price—that is, 800—and then he said, “This is how much I pay,” and put 1150, “I will give you for this price,” and put 1250. “Very little profit, but you are first customer.”

I considered this, as a dictator might consider the truce offer of some lesser nation, and then told him, “Last price, one thousand.”

The merchant sighed. “One thousand fifty. I take hundred rupee loss. You are first customer.”

To these generous terms I agreed. My guide took me to a leather merchant down the hall, where a repeat performance of all this act—I was very patient that day—got me a red leather satchel and a jacket of supple sheep’s leather, for 1200 and 2800 rupees, that is $24 and $70, respectively.

For travelers, India is as rewarding as it is difficult, and on my last day before leaving, and the last day of my visa, I faced down all difficulties with a tremendous morale, which stemmed from a vague feeling of homeward bound. I joked with the touts and on one occasion pulled a rickshaw-wallah around a block in his own vehicle, saying, “You need rickshaw?” to all the incredulous locals, and fulfilling a lifelong dream. I bought what I needed (or rather what I wanted), mailed it home, and met my friends, all successfully in the face of wild challenge and complexity. “A cheerful man does best in every enterprise,” as the blind poet wrote.

That morning I walked down through the clean-swept cobblestone alleys, tile eaves low and wide against the sun, to the mission of Mother Theresa. Indian nuns in their two-toned habits, in wimple and guimpe, sat prayerfully in the vestibule, and I went past and through to the courtyard. I saw her marble tomb, her barren room: a small bed (she was very short), a writing desk, and a table with a bench; no comforts or conveniences, only the appropriate ornaments: a statue of Mary, a Crucifix, photos of her and the Pope, and a sign, written in red ink on a strip of masking tape, that said, “My Vocation is Love.”

Now to take up an unrelated subject, the people of Calcutta have another custom of interest called adda, which is a daily meeting of minds in some venue—porch step, park grass, restaurant, or living room; over coffee or cards or in the ticket line for a show—for discussions of art or politics or sports, or of spiritual or philosophical matters.

Regarding the more esoteric topics, please afford me the following rant:

If you have never heard an Indian wax philosophical, count yourself lucky—it is the most irrelevant and impractical bunk, all meaningless metaphysics and quasi-esoteric pathos. Not that it’s hard to follow the train of thought. This is a theoretical subject being wrestled with, something never before considered, and the thought train really never leaves the station. Rather what comes out is a cerebral miscarriage. Shapeless and figurative of opinion, the Indian debater worms around the most general of subjects, sometimes agreeing and sometimes disagreeing with his own point of view, as he change topics and refuse to accept evidence unless it’s worded as some worthless romantic imagery, which causes him to coo in self-satisfied delight.

It often aggravates, this faux-intellectualism, reminding me of the nonsense rhetoric of the old Greek sophists, rambling wordy circles around tight-lipped men of action with no patience for it. Would that Socrates were here to reveal their tangled illogic and strangle them in it, or otherwise I prescribe a good punch in the jaw.

As for an elucidating example, I could never reproduce this tendency towards abstraction. The best way to understand it is perhaps by browsing some online message board for politics & philosophy—amateur scholars of pop culture in a grand arena of ad hominem and ego, spouting nonsense and trying to sound smart. Or read the first paragraphs of high school essays, e.g., “People everywhere have always liked to build tall buildings. Is this because people are short, or is there another reason? We may never know the answer to this question,” or, “Throughout time man has wondered about the meaning of life. Sometimes they think and talk about it, and sometimes they fight wars about religion and things.” Now spread this out to book length and you have an idea of the simple-minded torture of Indian philosophy.

To afford a taste, an article I read about adda begins: “It is possibly worth a thought as to whether man created adda or whether adda maketh a man. The truth must be that both are correct.” To which the only reply can be, “What the hell are you talking about?”

Rant ended.

The same author of this article, a certain Nondon Bagchi, writes, “The hallmark of a good adda is that those conversations are of the finest quality, and, had they been recorded over the years, there is no doubt that it would have made for enjoyable and stimulating reading, listening or viewing.” Some adda, the article continues, regards the trivial philosophies mentioned above, and is a way of cementing ones own opinions through fluid debate, while adda can also inform on practical matters, such as current events or horse racing, though the proliferation of the Internet is quietly usurping this role.

Indeed adda, this important toe on Calcutta’s cultural footprint, is in danger of amputation in our Age of Information. Older Bengalis are too busy for it, and the idle young take their discussions online, where anonymity allows them their self-conscious fear of being assertive and opinionated in public.

Yet I was lucky enough to engage in some adda during my last days in that sweltering city. James of Edmunton had met two gruffly suave Londoners, Fran and James (who I’ll just call James II, with apologies), and a sweet Danish girl named Nana. Our adda venue alternated between Khalsa Restaurant, with its Punjabi kheer pudding that I insistently proselytized, and the rooftop terrace bar of some skyscraper in front of the Hogg Market. We ordered Kingfishers and upended them into a glass of water. The beer stayed in the bottle, but the headache-inducing glycerin, which the Indians use as a preservative, flowed out in oily waves.

Our topic was chiefly travel, the places we wanted to go and the beauty and charm of the places we had been, though we often ventured out into the alien issues of our respective nations. Fran said that she had heard my own Portland compared to East London, which I took as a compliment. We also digressed to complaining about India’s low points, a necessary and therapeutic venting of frustrations.

And really Reader, if you plan on living abroad, or spending any length of time in some foreign corner of the wide world, I heartily recommend you do so, but don’t forget to find some corner where there are other internationals, a foreigner support group of people from the same generic Culture, who understand just how crazy it is here, who you can complain to at the end of the day about the incessant honking or the weird looks, who will understand your reminiscences over good burritos and nacho cheese—because sometimes that just needs to come out, and we need a taste of the Western roots.

On this note, that same day that James and I went to the Temple of Kali to receive pagan blessings and observe a ritual sacrifice, we went on to an air-conditioned mall, an upward spiral of trendy storefronts and trendy people, for a completely diametric experience. We went up to the food court, fully stocked with fast food embassies, and as appetizing as the Indian varieties looked, I relished a Subway chicken and ham sandwich with honey mustard and a chocolate chip cookie. Fran and James II met us there around one, and we went in together to see Clash of the Titans in 3-D, savoring the Hollywood cheese, the predictable plot, the cliché dialogue.

Don’t take this for granted, Reader, lest you be stuck someday with interminable and nonsensical Bollywood dance numbers, a broken speaker bombing the bus with music and static, and ridiculous kung-fu fights where the hero wields two umbrellas hooked together—but enough ranting! It is as rewarding as it is difficult, this India. Strange things try every traveler, mentally and physically: horrors seen, difficulties encountered, the long days, the crowded streets, so much that it seems unendurable at times, but adventures, real adventures, always seem that way.

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