Friday, December 14, 2012

Three Strangers

I am in Target. It is full of crabby shoppers and harried staff. I am just entering the aisle of 10,000 Christmas Things when my Tardis ringtone starts: rrrrWOOOrrrrWOOOrrrrWOOO… rrrrWOOOrrrrWOOOrrrrWOOO… rrrrWOOOrrrrWOOOrrrrWOOO…. (What’s a Tardis? you wonder. Here: more than you wanted to know, but you asked for it.)

A lady in the same aisle, coolly assessing wrapping paper, predictably  glances up, has no interest in the Tardis or me, and goes back to it. Suddenly, a (tired, stressed-looking) Target Employee comes running around the corner, yelling “TAKE ME WITH YOU, DOCTOR!” He nearly knocks me over.

Alarmed, the lady asks: “Is he ok? Are you a doctor? Should I call an ambulance?” Mr. Target Employee & I look at each other and start laughing like loons. We can’t stop. Wrapping Paper Lady looks affronted. He finally collects himself and says to her “Sorry, ma’am. It’s a geek thing. Happy Holidays.”

Then he shakes my hand, turns, and returns from whence he came.

I am still grinning when I walk out of the store. I am still grinning when a friend texts me one word: Connecticut. My smile fades as I scroll through my Twitter feed to find out what’s going on. The news is fresh and contradictory, but one thing is clear: some asshole walked into a school and killed a bunch of little kids. Holy fuck. Little kids.

The face of every kid I love shines behind my eyes. Then: no. Don’t go there.

I drive over to my sister’s house. It’s where I go when things feel rough, you know? We talk for awhile, about how horrible it is, how it’s not happening to us, yet it is happening to us. I mean, we’re fine. But…we’re all one family in the end. But we’re not. But it could happen to anyone, to anyone’s kids. But it didn’t, it happened to specific people and specific kids. It shouldn’t happen to anyone. But it does. All the time. All we can conclude is that little kids are dead, it’s messed up, and we feel helpless and terrible. In this moment, I am happy that I don’t have children. By the time I leave, my mind is back on my errands.

I stop at a gas station. As I walk up to the door, I see a guy in a Massive Pick-Up Truck (I live in the land of MPUTs). His head is down and his shoulders shaking. He looks up and I see tears running down his face.

Hesitating a bit, I go over to his window. He rolls it down. Big, burly dude, wearing a farm-battered Carhartt coat.

Me: “Are you ok? Are you sick?” Flashback to TAKE ME WITH YOU, DOCTOR!

Him: “No…I’m not sick. I’m not ok. I just dropped my boy off at practice, and I keep thinking about those kids in Connecticut. All those kids. And I just keep thinking of my kid…” He starts crying, hard. I reach into the window and take his hand. I start crying, too, of course.

I stand there and cry with this guy (I never got his name). He finally gives my hand a squeeze and lets go. He says thanks. I say, same goes. He rolls up his window, Puts his MPUT in gear, and goes. I sit in The Red Barron (my car) until I calm down. It never really happens, but I have to head home. I take the long way, feeling awful, and sniffling.

I am halfway home when: fuck this. I turn the radio on, and crank it loud. It helps. I’m waiting at a stoplight and singing along to LCD Soundsystem’s Daft Punk Is Playing at My House (My House), when I look over and see this kid in a Toyota, also singing his heart out. After a minute, I realize, Holy Shit! He’s singing the same song.  He notices me, does a double take as he realizes the same thing, rolls his windows down, and turns the music UP. I do the same. Winter air washes over me. The bassline makes our cars shiver. We howl along.

We don’t move until the cars behind us start honking. He waves once, and turns the corner.

 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

First Draft

I recently published an article to both HuffPost and State of Formation: Why My Vote On Gay Marriage Shouldn’t Count (And Neither Should Yours). I wrote it in a mezcal-and rage-induced frenzy. Before I sent it in, I edited out all the expletives…although someone pointed out that you can still kinda hear them when you read the article. A number of people asked to see the unedited draft. If you ever wondered about my “creative process,” I’ll let you in a secret: it involves liberal use of the word “fuck,” and a great deal of me talking to myself.

Now that the Marriage Amendment has failed (yay!), here is my First Draft, in all its obscenity-laden glory:

On November 6, we will be voting on (among other things) whether or not to amend the Minnesota State Constitution to include the following: Only a union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Minnesota.

This is bullshit. Total, complete, fucking bullshit. I am ashamed to part of this crap.

Imagine this: I am 22, freshly escaped from an abusive relationship, emotionally vulnerable, partying heavily, and I just got engaged. My family and friends thought it was a terrible idea for me to get married. It probably was. But you know what? They didn’t get to fucking decide that for me. As concerned as they were, it didn’t occur to anyone to propose a law that prevented young, emotionally fucked-up people from marrying each other.

something something about our interracial marriage & my dual priestess-hood something something

People object to the caste system because it creates a society where there are social strata based on perceived spiritual worthiness: those on top are invested with a moral authority that puts them in a position to control, exploit and oppress those on the bottom. The lower castes are less able to exercise or access basic social, civil and human rights.  Does this sound familiar, asshole? Suppose that Brahmins (the top-tier, priestly caste) got to decide that the lower tier castes were not able to marry (which is not the case). How would you feel about that, motherfucker? Huh? Would that piss you off?

And arranged marriage? The idea that people can’t marry who they choose? Non-Hindu Americans freak the fuck out about this. While the are freaking-the-fuck-out, they are able to hold in their minds the idea the THEY HAVE THE RIGHT to decide that people can’t marry who (whom? fuck? is it whom?) they choose.

Now, on to Vodou. One of the many misconceptions about Vodou is that is a magical system that gives practitioners the ability to control others through spells and whatnot. Imagine that part of that system of control was control people’s ability to love and marry. Does that sound fucked up to you? Cuz it does to me. 

We see things (real or imagined) in other, less familiar, cultures that disturb us. But we are not able to see that the things that disturb us not only exist, but are being nurtured, in our own nation.

The worst kind of thumb-sucking idiots claim that Homosexuality is wrong, corrupt, damaging to society. Even if it were true, I’d argue that many people think that young, emotionally fucked-up people are also potentially wrong, corrupt and damaging to society. But no-one votes on their goddamn marriages.

Our attitude towards homosexuality is a big part of the problem. First of all, the entire emphasis seems to be on the second half of the word: sexuality. Sex! Gay sex! Gays using gay sex to fuck other gays! OMFG! The horror! Come on. Grow up.

When two straight people want to get married, nobody worries about how they fuck. Why? Because marriage is not about fucking (well…ok, you know what I mean). If you want to fuck, you don’t need to get married to do so. Sex is everywhere: gay, straight or any combination thereof. Gay people don’t want to get married so they can have lots of gay sex, and, frankly, if they do, whose fucking business is it? If you object to gay sex, why do you spend so much goddam time thinking about it?? Does anyone else see the problem here, or is it just me? fuck that’s not going to work.

Hm. Try: The problem is: we sexualize gay folks. We don’t see them as whole people.

On that note, let’s talk about girl-on-girl porn. I’m been dying to bring this us. There is a hella crazy lot of girl-on-girl porn. I know, I just checked. Good Lord! While I haven’t conducted a scientific survey, it seems that this is not actually aimed at lesbians. It’s practically a national pass-time for straight dudes to watch women fuck each other. Should we vote on whether those women get to have sex when no-one is recording it? Should they be allowed to cuddle afterwards? Have breakfast together? Get married and raise a family?

Are we really investing ourselves with the moral authority to decide that for other people? What the fuck?

Yes, it seems that we are. BTW, If you’re a straight dude who has ever enjoyed watching women make out or have sex, I sincerely hope you support their right to have a full relationship. If not, I would sincerely like to kick the everloving shit out of you, because you are a creepy, exploitative asshole that thinks women exist only in relation to how they stimulate your tiny monkey-dick. There’s a word for that: sociopath. Fuck you and the patriarchal, objectifying bullshit you rode in on. 

Listen up. people: American is not a religion, it is a nation. I don’t give a good goddam what the Founding Fathers intended. They left us plenty to work with. For example: we hold certain truths to be self-evident. That means some truths should be a given: not debated, not voted on. Given. By virtue of being a citizen of this country, each American should have access to the same fucking rights.

Instead, we have created, in America, in the year 2012, a priestly caste of people who believe that their interpretation of certain scriptures should be used to decide others’ fate. We aren’t practicing magic but we are using means acceptable in our society to control the lives of other adults. We are reducing erotic homosexual expression to either a bogeyman or a means of entertainment for heterosexuals. This tells us something about us, not something about gay folks. 

What the fuck do we think we are doing? I really don’t know, but I can tell you what we are actually doing: we are perverting our precious and useful system of democracy to invest ourselves with unearned and tyrannical power over the lives of other Americans.

On November sixth, my husband and I will cast our votes on the Minnesota Marriage Amendment, which aims to exclude gay couples from access to the civil right that we stumbled into, young and clueless, but have enjoyed for seventeen years.

The ballot will ask me if I wish for "Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman." I will vote NO. But it makes me feel ashamed of myself, of all of us, that our vote counts.

VOTE NO, Minnesota. VOTE NO. Let’s kick this motherfucker to the curb.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Messages to the Ancestors…


Last year I wrote a piece called “Flesh and Bone: Honoring Ancestors” for State of Formation. The article, and the issues I raise in it, have continued to haunt me. Our disconnection from and fear of our dead: why is this so often the stuff of horror movies? Why do we make our dead into monsters? These are our departed loved ones, our community, our history. Why do we fear them? I felt like the article was the start of something but I didn’t know what else to do. Write another article?

We were brainstorming new ideas for the Fifth Annual Anba Dlo Halloween Festival at the New Orleans Healing Center: how can we make the spiritual principles represented by Halloween fun and engaging? How can we recognize and express our heritage while doing some good for people in the city we all love? I was trying to think of an interactive project to host in the Spiritual Space.

BAM! It hit me. Messages to the Ancestors. An easy, practical and beautiful way to reach out to our departed ones. A way to ease our guilt and fear, to forge a small connection based in love. To say what might have been unsaid, to soothe our regrets. Maybe a way to make a small peace. I envisioned messages sent as a blog comment, via email, or written out by attendees on the night of the festival, then displayed in the ascetic but resonant 4th floor Spiritual Space. Even more fitting, the adjacent rooftop space will be hosting the 10,000 Bones exhibit (these bones represent a protest against genocide). So we’ll have the symbolic bones of our ancestors keeping company with the created bones of artistic protest against the harms we do to each other. I like that.

Peristlye Gede altar

I had the idea roughed out and ready to go…then I got (Viral) Meningitis and lost nearly a month of work time. As  recovered and scrambled to get ready to leave for Burkina Faso for a month, I kept worrying about this project. It got pushed back and back. I finally got the website launched the night before I left…and realized that now, the timing felt right: the eve of my departure to Africa, home of all of our ancestors.

So, please: visit Messages to the Ancestors. Reach into your history, reach within you, reach forward into a future where you are at peace with your past. Leave a message.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Bangles

Sometimes they annoy me and I say
I’m going to take them off for good.

I remember the night when the bangle-seller eased them on:
Bright and clattering, red and gold, spangly with glitter
For weeks afterwards, small shimmers appear
On my clothes, my face, my husband’s blonde hair.

The gentle glitterbomb of Love and India.

I remember my regular bangle-seller,
Rotund and genial,
Telling me (I was 14) that if a man ever grabs me
And I cannot get away,
To slam my wrist against his eyes.
This surprises me:
They are glass, these bangles, decorative and fragile-seeming
Pretty, useless.
But he tells me that adornment never only serves one purpose.

These shining rings are blinding
In more than one way.
One at a time, they are delicate things.
I wear 30 on each arm.

And when a man grabs me and I cannot get away
I smash his eyes and nose and he lets go
Howling and calling me crazy.
I bare teeth, raise fists and shake shattered, bloody bangles at him.
He runs.

But that was a long time ago. Now they break
Against the edge of the sink
As I throw a ball for the dogs
While grinding spices
When I’m cleaning stalls
Or for no reason I can fathom.

JaiChai

Sometimes in the night I roll over and feel a stab at my back,
An unnoticed casualty tangled with us in the sheets.
I know how that one broke.
I place it on the shard-strewn bedside table
And smile back into sleep.

My bangles are not so bright anymore. Stripped of sparkles by
The Indian ocean
The New Orleans sun
My Minnesota farm.

I meant to take them off when I came back home but they stay
Lose against my dark skin
Jangling now against the keyboard
Chiming when I ride my horse
Dwindling of their own accord.

In the grocery store, a woman admires them and asks if I am a Hindu lady.
I say yes.

I smile at her and think, that’s me, darlin: 
A Hindu lady, deadly and adorned.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Some things I have done:

I have traveled (approximately) 22,000 miles in under 60 days. I have been on planes, cars, boats, and an elephant named Sundari. I have debated the differences (if any) between a vacation, a journey, and a pilgrimage.

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Spice Gardens in Munnar, Kerala

I have visited 3 mountain ranges, 2 of India's major rivers, 1 really huge lake, and the Indian Ocean.

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Brahmaputra River, Assam

I have seen painted trucks and unadorned Uzis. I have passed heavy carts pulled by cows, horses, and human beings. I have left offerings at remote roadside shrines and ancient temples. I have knelt in the womb of the Goddess.

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Kamakhya Temple, Assam

I have struggled to find an internet connection so I could check my email. I have seen sacred images chiseled from stone, carved from the living roots of trees, and made from rebar.

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Trishul (trident) sacred to Lord Shiva. Roadside shrine outside Munnar, Kerala

I have been in 5 states and 9 cities. I have fallen in love with Kolkata (Calcutta). I have had coconut oil and fresh jasmine flowers in my hair. I have wondered why I don’t live here.


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Street food. Kolkata, West Bengal

I have been disgusted by humanity, and myself. I have wanted to punch people (but didn't). I have been happy that I don’t live here.

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Child beggar dressed as Lord Shiva. Rishikesh, Uttarkhand. 

I have been so cold I didn’t want to get out of bed, and so warm I wanted to hide in an air-conditioned room. I have felt sand, dirt, teak and marble under my bare feet. I have been immanent, and transcendent.

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The Himalayas, view from Delhi-Guwahati flight.

I have watched Indian soap operas. I have stepped over open sewers, onto deserted beaches, and across glittering marble lobbies. I have listened to temple bells, Bollywood songs, prayer call, wall-to-wall traffic, late-night roosters, the sound of the ocean, and Kanye.

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Traffic in Guwahati, Assam.

I have been thirsty. I have enjoyed fresh lime soda (sweet), coconut water, South Indian coffee, and chai. I have had wonderful meals, and awful ones. I have eaten off china plates and banana leaves.

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Traditional South India meal. Kettuvalum (houseboat), Kerala backwaters.

I have been jostled by ocean waves, crowds, and decrepit taxis. I have been called Madam, Memsahib, didi (older sister), and Durga-devi. I have hugged an old friend. I have touched silk that pooled in my hand like cream.

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Silk saris in Haridwar, Uttarkhand

I have been bitten by mosquitoes and skinned my knee. I have haggled over the price of fresh nutmeg and silver anklets.  I have earned the undying loyalty of hotel doormen by tipping them $2 and looking them in the eye. I have smelled human excrement, rotting garbage, and pure sandalwood oil.

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Perfume Shop in Kochi (Cochin), Kerala

I have mourned for the India that I knew so well, and discovered the India I could never have imagined.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Music for Mountain Roads

Things I associate with other things:
The MN State Fair and mini-donuts
Bare feet and the beach
The smell of alcohol and hospitals
Indian mountain roads and very loud music through headphones

*   *   *   *   *   *

On the way down from the hill town of Munnar, we bounce and shimmy over a road that is almost wide enough for two vehicles to pass comfortably. Sometimes, leaping around a switchback, we meet another vehicle. Both lurch to a halt. The drivers communicate with complicated hand signals and abrupt jerks of their chins. Usually the coming-down-the-mountain vehicle reverses, maneuvering backwards up a hairpin turn or two. We find a place to squeeze by, like a passenger in the window seat scooting up to the airplane aisle. Now imagine doing that if, instead of the seatbacks in front of you, there’s nothing but a drop-off and empty air. I peer out my window as we rattle past a truck; it may as well be 10,000 feet down.

As soon as we’re clear, the car sprints forward. This is less of a flat-race than hurdles: we spend a great deal of time partially airborne, crashing back to the road with elephantine grace. I hold the Oh, Jesus handle. (Would that be a Hai-Ram handle in India?) Unlike the USA, where the Oh, Jesus handle is so called because it’s what passengers grab in an emergency or accident, here in India, these situations are so constant they lose urgency. You learn to hold the handle (or the prayer, if you swing that way) the whole time. You keep your bag zipped up so that when it is flung onto the floor all your stuff doesn’t fall out and roll around. My headphone cord is arranged in such a way that it will not strangle me if I am flung onto the floor (learned that the hard way); the phone it is plugged into is wedged carefully so it does not become a projectile (same incident). 

I am listening to Kanye West: aggressive, misogynistic, smart and melodic: Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster. I turn it up all the way. The sound is fantastic.

I have (have always had) diverse musical tastes. Growing up, I was as likely to listen to Air Supply as Iron Maiden, Billy Joel as Peter Tosh. But when it came time to buck over the narrow, nearly vertical paths and ruts of the Himalaya of my childhood, I always chose the loudest, most parent-disapproval-earning, ear-drum-punishing sound for my headphones. When I was young, it was as much escape from my family as anything else. I don’t know why I do it now.

Kanye threatens, howls and opines: I mean this shit is, fucking ridiculous…

I listen to the pounding bass and observe the bewildering tragicomedy of Indian billboards: smiling sari-clad women loaded in gold jewelry, a child sprays water at an Audi, half-dressed men lurk on motorcycles and scowl, happy couples jump for joy, a swami floats beatifically over a temple, a group of anxious people are menaced by a gigantic snake. There are signs for something called Globstar Sofas (that is not a typo). Every single person in every single ad could pass for white. The signs are mostly in Malayalam, a language I can’t read or speak. Besides the sofas, I have no idea what the ads are for. Movies? Wedding jewelry? Undershirts? Motorcycles? White folks?

Praises due to the most high Allah
Praises due to the most fly Prada
Baby, I’m magic. Ta-da!

I settle my sunglasses more firmly on my face (they will shake lose again in a couple of minutes) and glance over at Urban. He is wearing a fine, cream-colored cotton shirt, and a lungi (the sarong-like garment traditionally worn by Indian men). It looks good with his fair skin, unruly blonde hair, and the ease with which he carries himself. His eyes are closed and he counts prayer beads on his mala: he is meditating. I look down at myself: I am wearing capris and a shirt I bought at Ridgedale. Kanye thumps and cusses in my ears.

We got nothing to lose, motherfucker, we rolling. Motherfucker, we rollin. With some light-skinned girls…

I am the Indian one, although all the Indians in the billboards now rushing past at roughly the speed of sound have complexions closer to Urban’s than my own.

Ain’t no question if I want it: I need it. I can feel it slowly drifting away from me…

We pass painted trucks & indifferent cows, sometimes whipping by inches away. A group of shirtless men squat by the roadside drinking chai. A young woman in a pink salwar kameez roars by on a motorcycle. Our eyes meet. She does a double-take at Urban and gives me a grin and a nearly suicidal thumbs-up.

Would you rather be underpaid or overrated?
(I consider this line for some time, and try to imagine a scenario where I would have to choose between these two options. Then I realize that I already have both. This makes me happy.)

Turn up the lights in here, baby: extra bright, I want you to see this.

Urban finishes his mala, digs around for his headphones, and plugs them into my phone. This is possible due to a device that goes with me everywhere. I call it The Nifty Dual Headphone Jack Adapter Thingy. Getting all this technology out of bags and connected while the car jumps and spins takes some doing. Now Urban is trying to take pics of the billboards while holding on to the Hai-Ram handle with one hand. I turn the music down for him, a little. Kanye is picking up steam:

No more drugs for me; pussy and religion is all I need. Grab my hand and baby, we’ll live a hell of a life.

We pass a bus with an Indian-looking Mighty Mouse emblazoned on the back. Urban & I grin delightedly. We reach out to each other, but the car careens around a corner, and we have to clutch our respective handles to avoid being thrown across the bench seat and out my open window.

Exchanging amazed glances at the world outside, the same music in our ears, we can’t hold hands because the ride’s too wild. Coming down the mountain, hurtling toward the sea: we have no idea what we’ll find there.

That’s one hell of a life.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

This Is The Plan

We’ve been in India for a few weeks now, in Garhwal, the first range of the Himalayan foothills. It’s chilly.

We’ve visited SRSG ashram in Rishikesh, spent the day in Haridwar and for the last week we’ve been camped out and bundled up at my mom’s vast white house in Dehradun.

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River Ganges at Rishikesh

 

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SRSG Ashram, Rishikesh

 

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Har-ki-pauri, Haridwar

 

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Sadhu (wandering holy man) having a smoke outside a sari shop, Triveni Ghat, Rishikesh.  

 

We’ve made offering into the sacred river Ganges. We’ve marveled over gorgeous fabric, gems and statues. We’ve bounced around in taxis, and discussed the rogue elephant attacking cars on the Rishikesh road. We’ve told stories, made fun of my brother-in-law’s hat, reminisced, argued, watched weird Bollywood music videos, laughed, consumed heroic amounts of chai, and generally just gotten to be a family.

I had great plans for this portion of the trip. I was going to write an article about the International Yoga Youth and Children’s Retreat going on at SRSG. I was going to interview my dad. I was going to interview a traditional Welsh storyteller I met at the ashram. I was going to track down my old horseback riding buddies. I was going to write about my family history with social work, go through old photo albums, visit some historic sites, spend time at the school we run, do art. I was going to be productive.

I did none of these things. India is the great destroyer of itineraries.

I’ve walked in the gardens, consulted (fruitlessly) on how to deal with the monkey menace, meditated in the little hut on the corner of the property, gotten as many hair oiling/head massages as I can coerce my mom or sister into giving me. I’ve gotten up to speed on The Land War In Asia in which we are embroiled. I’ve reconnected with my few friends here. I’ve struggled to adjust to the changes in India.

Now we’ve all pulled out our bags and boxes and started cramming our stuff back in. My sis & bro-in-law leave for Delhi in the morning, Urban & I leave the day after that, the nieces the day after that. Tonight we sat around and read our old Asterix and Tintin comics. Tomorrow this great house will start to empty.

We are not going home though.

Urban and I are headed to Kerala, the southern-most state in India. There, we will explore the backwater canals in a houseboat, travel up into the hills and stay on a tea plantation, then head to the beach to do nothing for a week.

After I see Urban off in Delhi, my mom will meet me and we will head east. I’m not sure what to say about that part of the trip. We will visit a friend’s ashram in Orissa, but that’s sort of a detour. The real purpose of the trip is harder to explain.

When I “became a woman” i.e. started menstruating, my father took me on pilgrimage to two of the primary Kali/Shakti temples: one in Calcutta, one in Assam. On that journey, I was dedicated to the Goddess. Now, I’m going back.

At least, that’s the plan.

image

Let’s see what actually happens.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Riding Home


From the gate of your mother’s house, you could swing up on a horse, clop down a few quiet streets, cross the river and then there was nothing but packed dirt roads good for a gallop, tiny temples perched on mountainsides, villagers gathering firewood and grasses, miles and miles of rice paddy. You would come around a hill and see the paddy rising in terraces from the valley floor, marching ponderously up the slopes, shrinking as they go.

These hills are as big as some mountain ranges. They are foothills only compared to the sweep of the snowpeaks that float behind them: The Himalaya. When you saw the mountains you would finally feel that the city was behind you. It’s not that you could relax: things here require your full attention.  But something in you eased, a little.

You would follow broad forest paths through the hills then take goat tracks that clung to the mountain and shed pebbles into steep drop offs as you rode by, going too fast on an unpredictable horse. You would pass through villages, and tiny old ladies would call to you from the fields. They would ask you to have chai and chapattis (flatbread) with them. You would sigh, because it meant dismounting, which meant remounting. The mare would stand steady and quiet while you held her, and walk like an angel when you took a village kid up in the saddle for a quick pony ride, but when it was time for you to mount up she basically tried to kill you. If she knocked you down, she would then trample you. You had to vault up quickly, hauling her head around to the right so she didn’t give you a bite on the ass to hurry you into the saddle. She was sinewy, tough, and quick as a snake.

You get to know the villagers. You help haul firewood, you carry packages and messages between the scattered settlements. You are given chai and admonitions. They joke and call you “Kalki didi,” after the last incarnation of Vishnu who will come to end the world, riding a pale horse. It is better than what they call you in the city.

You mount up (quickly), turn your body toward home and the horse beneath you follows and carries you at the same time. You ride her like a current. You go home in the dusk to the sound of temple bells and prayer call. Cows are coming home, plodding and lowing. The air is dust and jasmine.

*  *  *  *  *

You have been gone for 10 years now, and these memories are even older than that. Now you come back, and there’s an airport with a glass elevator. There are luggage trolleys, a gift shop. You get in a Toyota and the driver takes a back way home because Rahul Gandhi is speaking at the Parade Ground and there are crowds. You remember when his grandmother was assassinated and there were riots and killings. You remember when his father was assassinated, too. You were in the States by then, and you remember thinking: that bloody country. You think about this as you take the back way home. You are excited to be here. You know it’s going to be different. You’re ok with that.

The roads you take are packed with vehicles: trucks, cars, putt-putts, scooters. Everything has an engine. Traffic is both lumbering and nimble. Car horns sound, not in complaint but orientation: a wolf howl, saying: I am here. I am here. You swerve and bully your way through. You parry and dodge.

The roadsides are packed with stalls and carts selling: pyramids and piles of oranges, apples, red winter carrots, potatoes, T-shirts, shoes, and everwhere everywhere plastic plastic plastic: buckets and bags and baskets and toys. There are no sidewalks and no parking lots, the traffic and the bicycle guys and the pedestrians come together with the inevitable and irresistible force of the sea meeting the land. Road verges foam like surf. Everyone is in motion but nobody gives ground. Pedestrians in jeans and dhotis, leather jackets and shawls, weave and thread through moving and parked vehicles and talk on their phones. A dog sits down and has a good scratch. Everyone goes around him, not even looking down. The dog trots off.

Behind the pedestrians and the carts are the shops. Steel shutters on cement block and plaster buildings, built to last. They are streaked and mottled with black monsoon stains. Above are apartments and homes, washing hung out to dry, kids hanging off crumbling railings. The buildings are solid, the doors and windows square and steady. Everything else: doors, curtain rods, shutters, is askew. The city is festooned with electric wires, a snarled canopy of current. A festival of lights.

Amid this are shanty tarps and tin roofs. You have no idea if the rickety shack you are looking at is a shop, a home, or both. These structures look fragile but seem to have stood for a thousand years. Here and there a massive tree survives, coerced into propping up the world.

You pass by a man squatting on the ground, his head tilted back. There is another man behind him, holding a straight razor to his throat. Only after they vanish in the dust of your wake do you figure it out: a barber, shaving a customer on the side of the road.

The road is curvier now, you take disorienting turns onto side streets with less activity and fewer crowds. It is still wall-to-wall buildings but the noise has lessened. Now and then you catch a glimpse of the hilltops: a familiar confluence of peaks catches your eye. You ask the driver what the massive cement building under construction on your left is, and he says they are building an IT park and call centers. You feel a sense of dread. The road curves left, right, left again. You look around, crane backwards, look up at the hills, look at the city surrounding you and think: no. No. It’s not. But the next curve is a sharp one to the right and you are descending towards the riverbed and then you have to acknowledge that you know where you are.

These are your dirt tracks, your goat paths. These are the fields where you helped gather grass for winter forage. There, where the IT center is rising: that was the maze of camelthorn bushes with their small, bright flowers and vicious thorns that left your calves bloody when the damn horse swerved into them. This rusty steel bridge, this was the shallow curve of the seasonal levee over the riverbed where you would open the horses up to canter. You had to remember to slow down and look for rare but lethal trucks barreling over the hill: you could never hear them over the reverb of hoofbeats, the wind in your mount’s lungs and your own. The beating of your hearts drowned out the world.

This, here, is the open stretch where you could finally leave off the battle and let her run, full and true, nothing between you, nothing holding you back, nothing before you but the hills. This is your refuge: built upon, populated, grimy. Strewn with trash. Crumbling as though it has been like this for a thousand years. As if there were never anything else here at all.

*  *  *  *  *

Some days later, you walk down to the Ganga during arti, the evening prayers to the sacred river. You have to stop at the market first, to buy offerings: little leaf-boats are piled with marigolds. A rose makes a scarlet ruffle amid the orange petals. There is a rough clay dish with a hunk of camphor to light, and two graceful incense sticks leaning out at an angle. The whole thing is about the size of a soup bowl. Although you are in a hurry, you raise the leaf-boat up to examine the construction. It is woven together by the fragile stems. Nothing more.

Priests are waving towering oil lamps at the river, and chants are broadcast on loudspeaker. There is a crowd milling around the priests and their dramatic accouterments but the verges are peaceful. Most people are carrying garlands of marigolds and roses, or little boats like yours. People spread out into clumps, then groups, then families. Some young guys strut around. The beach is rocky and the water is swift. It is not the color of any North American water you have ever seen. Not clear blue, this, but jade and opaque. You have journeyed to the source of this water, high in the Himalaya. There, it is white as milk.

You all huddle around and try to light the lumps of camphor in your flower boats. It takes some doing, what with the wind tearing down from the hills.

You take your shoes and socks off and wade in. It is cold. Offerings buck and scurry past. Rocks shift under your feet and the current urges you downriver. You stub your toe, plant your feet. You offer prayers for others, but when you light your own you don’t have anything to pray for. Everything seems ridiculous. Well, I carried it this far, you think, lowering the bright cup towards the water, so, here…just, take it. 

It is dark now. The flame of your offering mingles with the reflections of electric lights. The priests are wrapping up their ritual. For now, their voices cannot reach you. Take it away, you think again. The river rushes on, ignoring you. The river rushes on, unchanging. Because of this, you will never be the same.

 

Rishikesh 2011 076 copy