Monday, January 30, 2012

Don't - do

Don't run around bare foot.

Don't play with your food.

Don't eat with your fingers.

Don't stare at people, its rude.

Don't push in line.

Look to your left and right before crossing the road.

Wait for the green light.

Don't hoot at other drivers. (honk, for the benefit of Americans.)

I am sure we have all heard at least a few of these admonitions. In India all is topsy turvy. Everything we have been warned against, we must do if we are to survive, and not commit gross cultural misunderstandings, unrest, violence ...

When I was in the north, 18 months ago, I developed a horrible painful rash from the heat. I remembered that when I was first in India many years before people used some kind of powder for this condition. In congested crowded Vrindavan I saw what might be a pharmacy across the road from where I was standing. That is, I saw some bottles on the shelves of a stall with red crosses on them. I determined to go there to ask, but i had to cross the road.To my left, right, ahead of me, and behind me was a constant stream of people walking, limping, pushing carts, propelling vehicles with their hands or legs, bicycles with at least five people sitting on them, motorbikes likewise, pushcarts, buffalos, dogs, goats, pigs, rickshaws, cars, buses.   It took me two days and pain to get me to cross the road.

This time in Puducherry I had to cross something similar to a wide avenue to get to our hotel. Maybe something like a six-lane highway, although of course there was no such thing as lanes.  I  stood on a strip across from the hotel and looked to my left for a traffic light - nothing. Maybe to my right, if I just walk a bit. I walked, then realized I might walk forever, I was not going to find a light, and there was no such thing as a pedestrian crossing.  What to do? To cross the road was nothing short of suicide.

I looked at the never-ending flow waiting for a break of sort. Then, immediately to my left an angel appeared in the form of an old, skinny, barefoot woman. She hitched up her sari and began to cross the road. Here was my salvation, I hurried after her, shadowing each step she took. The pavement on the other side loomed up like a glimpse of land to someone who has been floating hopelessly at sea.

I reached the hotel safely.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What to Do

I was reading my very brief journal I kept in India, and was reminded of an incident which occurred on our second day there.

We visited Mahaballipuram, an area of magnificent stone carvings and an ancient temple. I remembered it from a previous visit, 18 years ago. What I remembered about that visit were the granite carvings, the  snake charmers, and a fight between a snake and a mongoose. I also remember walking along the lovely beach being pursued by a young girl, a beggar. She was in rags and held a tiny equally ragged baby. As is their custom, she latched on to me and didn't leave me alone. It was at a time when I was in desperate need of quiet time, and I am ashamed to say that I quite lost it with her. I told her to get away and asked whether she had ever heard of the world's population explosion. Of course it went by her.

On my return visit, 18 years later our group of 46 stood outside a temple, waiting to go in. Of course we were accosted by every urchin and beggar in the area. Again, a young girl stood in front of me holding out strings of synthetic beads and pearls. She shoved them in my face and tried to open my fingers. I looked down at her and shook my head. She gazed back out of large brown eyes. She was a pretty girl who was very very dirty. She stared at me and said, "please Ma'am, very every hungry." Despite my stoney face she continued. I looked at her, obviously she was hungry. She wasn't in good shape, but what on earth could I do? If I agreed to buy even one of her strands of beads the other hundred beggars around her would insist we buy from all of them. I looked into her eyes and shook my head. Her whole sorry life and future unfolded in front of me. Just then a security guard who had been on the outskirts of this group came over, raised his hand and he hit her on her back, hard. It happened so quickly. I felt myself screaming 'no' as he hit her again and all the street kids scattered.

It is very difficult when one is confronted with this level of misery and despair. One of the men who leads our tour is an Indian man, a Hare Krishna disciple. For the past few years he supervises an organization that feed 1200,000 children a day in Mumbai. For most of these children this is their only meal. They are fed in government schools and their parents now send them to school so that they can eat, and of course, learn. On my last visit to India I decided to donate to them, because I know where the money is going, and that it is an extremely worthy cause, better than the 10 rupees I can dole out to a few people to make me feel better.

If you are interested, this is the link

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Shopping in India

My latest trip to India passed in a dream. I will write more of it for Namarupa, and hopefully more vignettes will follow in this blog. It is really impossible to capture or even try to describe the sensory overload that is India.

Amongst other places we visited was Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry.) Cyclone Thane had passed through before we arrived, uprooting trees, destroying roads and communications, wiping out villages. The area in and around Auroville was damaged very badly.

We eventually arrived in Puducherry after a long bus ride delayed even further by a sit down strike on the bridge, stopping all traffic. The strike was instigated by workers who had not received compensation for cyclone damage.

The area of Puducherry around the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is reminiscent of the French Quarter of New Orleans (thankfully without Bourbon Street.) It is elegant and gracious - wide, almost clean streets, beautiful French colonial buildings. Lush trees lining the streets and form overhead canopies.

After our visit to the Ashram and Temple we had time for that most spiritual of activities, shopping. I was told of a Kadhi Shop (The Kadhi textiles are the industry begun by Mahatma Ghandhi, and not the shop where Ghandi went shopping, as one of our crowd informed her husband in Michigan. ) They are a wonderful homespun cotton and prices are fixed.  I wanted to buy something for my nephews.

An Indian 'guide' accompanied some of us along bustling Nehru avenue, no longer reminiscent of the French quarter. Narrow dusty streets lined with crammed shops and stalls. We arrived at the designated shop and everyone dispersed into the narrow, crowded interior, on either side of which textiles and clothing were piled to the ceiling. Behind a counter sat about 10 men, if not more, all their heads wagging as we asked questions.

Behind one of the men I spotted plain medium sized short sleeved shirts and pointed to them. One of the men removed them from the pile and from their cellophane bags. He displayed them on a crowded counter top. Inside the shop the heat and humidity were getting to me, I wanted to leave so I wagged my head in approval of these two shirts. Another man refolded them and replaced them into their cellophane bags. He handed these to another man who wrote the  prices on a piece of paper. This man handed them to another man who added the totals and handed them to a man at a cash register. I paid the amount and yet another man handed me the parcels along with a receipt, (and apparently, a blessing.) Finally, another man handed me my change.

"How many Indians does it take to buy a shirt?"