29 January 2008

the dichotomy that is India

"In some ways, India is like another home. There’s a familiarity of myself here. It’s the rawness of life that resonates with me, in its myriad forms - beautiful, grotesque, otherworldly. The systematic stripping away of distractions and compulsions; attachments that keep us from being fully present."

This is what Barbara Raisbeck has to say about India in her blogs The Daughters of India and India in Stories. Go to her blogs to read the rest of the above post and her other powerful stories. When I got her email with this post the above words resonated with me very much because I feel the same way. I've said before that as soon as I put my foot on Indian soil in 2005 I felt like I had come home.

Barbara is another woman I've come to know online through the website although we've never met. She is in India again right now doing research for a book on dowry brides.

My trip this time was a very mixed bag. As I said previously, one of my teachers told me that on your third trip you become a native, seeing India for what it is, warts and all. Well, I saw plenty of warts, my own included. India is always the country that attracts and repulses you all at the same time. Just when India drop-kicked me in the head, another wonderful moment occurred just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time (I'll write about it later.)

I read a story before I left about a baby elephant that was rescued. A baby elephant had fallen into a pit in the forest and the mother and the rest of the herd tried to rescue him. After awhile the herd left, but the mother stayed there trying to rescue her baby, with "tears streaming down her face" the article said. The villagers saw this and called the Forestry Department who sent a working elephant and a vet. The mother elephant would not let anyone near her baby, who by this time was not moving, so the working elephant with her mahout kept the mother away while the baby was pulled out of the pit. When the vet treated the baby, it was discovered that the baby had also been stung by a scorpion, that's why he was not moving. The article said that after treatment the baby would be released back into the forest. Definitely a feel-good story.

Compare that story to the one I read about a Chennai hospital that was being investigated because they threw a patient, still connected to tubes and IV bags and a urine bag, out into the street. Imagine walking along and seeing an old person in hospital clothes still connected to tubes and bags just lying in the street outside a hospital. The article said that the patient was indigent, that no one claimed any responsibility for this person. In other words, the hospital was not going to be paid for treating this person, so they threw the patient literally onto the street. The article said the hospital was being investigated but I noticed there was no mention of what happened to the patient, whether he had been taken to another hospital or what.

Over breakfast one morning I read another story about 13, 14, and 15 year old girls being raped by their husbands. In the Chennai area there are still tsunami camps, refugee camps where people still live despite the tsunami happening in December 2004. Mothers fear for their daughters in these camps so they think if they marry off their daughters, the new husbands will protect them from the unwanted advances of men. However, given that these young girls know almost nothing about sex, they refuse the advances of their new husbands, so their first experience with sex is rape. I read how one young girl was drugged into unconsciousness so her husband could have sex with her. These girls of course become pregnant and have babies at these ages, in a refugee camp. And the cycle continues. Lovely breakfast reading.

For every story like the first one, there are two or three of the other.

There are still people who think India is the land of yoga, incense, and spirituality, some romantic place where one only needs to travel to the Himalayas to find their guru and nirvana and all their problems will be solved. If you read an Indian newspaper every day I can assure you that your rose-colored view of India will change. I am reading a book right now called Children of Kali and the author says that India is very good at exporting spirituality and gurus, but doesn't have the guts to look at its own problems.

Like anywhere else, India has its angels and its devils. I've met the friendliest and kindest and most gracious people in India but I've also met the most arrogant and the most rigid. I've met people who could not think outside the box to save their own lives.

But the thought of never returning to India kills me. I came back this time sicker than an Indian street dog with the thought that I will take a break from India for a while. But as soon as I started to get my strength back, I started having Tamil Nadu dreams again.

What keeps drawing me back? I can honestly say that I don't know. Maybe it is the rawness and the grotesqueness that Barbara writes about that keeps bringing me back. Maybe it is those 4 hour bus rides through the Tamil Nadu countryside that I said I would never do again, but that I achingly miss right now. Maybe it's those fleeting moments of human connection with a total stranger, no words spoken, but completely understood via a smile and hand gestures and the eyes and the head wobbles that have settled deep within my heart.

India has her hooks in me like an old lover -- an old lover who you've told yourself that you never want to be with again but who keeps re-appearing like a hungry ghost tapping on your shoulder, and no matter how fast you run you can never escape him because he is a part of you forever.

You know this and you hate it but you love it all at the same time. I have no answers, but Barbara comes close....

"The only way I can answer is, in suffering, in our own or being a witness to it, there is an opening that occurs. That opening can consume or liberate us. Or both. Consume, then liberate. And just at the moment that we think we’ve been liberated, the consumption starts again. The suffering doesn’t just end, even when we beg it to. But I have learned that to observe it, allow myself to feel it, hold it, accept it, I can then let go of it. Not completely since our wounds leave scars, but enough to help me out of the fire and into the awareness of the lesson, that will, when I am ready, appear and show me a way through to the other side."

26 January 2008

look at this child

this was one of those serendipitous moments when my auto rick stopped and this boy came out from his hovel in the alley to look at me, and then smiled. notice that he is playing with garbage and then think of your own child.

this photo that took all of 3 seconds to shoot says a lot. it was one of those fortunate moments in india. not because I got a perfectly framed shot of a boy living in an alley and a half-hidden girl that in itself makes a statement, but because when you connect eye to eye it changes you forever. and I am grateful for that.

the rickshaw pulled away just as he was about to take 10 rupees from my hand.

25 January 2008

two reasons why I love india

because of the kids I meet...

slum children in Madurai...all they asked for was to have their picture taken and then to see it on my camera.

and signs like the one below...

I'll take one snake, please

24 January 2008

how I spent my last day in india

this is how I spent my last day in India (tuesday afternoon), flat on my back from food poisoning. I am still sick and have had "loose motions" and stomach pain since last Friday evening -- a long time. as I said in the previous post, I am sporting the fashionable emaciated heroin chic look right now. I weighed myself this morning and have lost almost 10 pounds. I wanted to lose weight in india, but not this way!

I won't bore you with the gory details but I was stupid and ate a "jam cake" in Fort Cochin, Kerala late at night. I realized at about 3 am early saturday morning when I woke up puking my guts out that the thing had been sitting out all day in the heat. what an asshole I was. I have survived indian street food and drinking chai from street vendors where the chai cups are washed out in who knows what type of germ-infested phlegmy water, and a pastry does me in. am going to rethink drinking street chai for my future trips. chai cups washed in water that sits out all day doesn't appeal to me. and while I'll be contributing to India's worsening garbage problem (like it could get any worse), think I will only drink chai from stalls that use plastic cups from now on.

My friends Nick and Sushi (my thankachi in tamil, i.e., "younger sister") picked me up Tuesday morning from the 5 star hotel I stayed in for my last two nights in india -- where I spent most of my time in bed or on the toilet -- and took me to their house. since I was facing two flights totaling 18 hours, Sushi (Nick's wife) thought it would be a good idea that I go to hospital for an IV. I had thought that on the way home from the airport I was going to tell my husband to stop at an ER for the same thing.

When they took me, I was very sick. I basically had not eaten anything substantial for 5 days and my brain felt like it was in a fog from lack of food. I felt very disoriented.

They took me to the hospital that is admininstered by Sushi's daughter-in-law's father. Sushi made the call and they were waiting for us. I was treated by the head doctor and the head nurse -- for free. The head nurse is in the pink sari and sushi is in the orange sari, but she is hiding on the left side. I saw Nick taking the picture and said "oh no you don't!" and put my arm over my ashen face.

They wanted to give me two bottles of glucose and salt but it was already after 6 pm when we left and I had to repack my bags, we had to get back to the house. The hospital director (sushi's in-law) did not ask for one rupee, but I would not have felt right if I did not give something so before we left I gave him 1000 rupees for my treatment and told him to donate it to a charity if he wants to -- 1000 rupees is about $26. The hospital, by the way, is a hospital for leprosy, TB, and AIDS patients. The room I was in was a private room.

This was my third trip and I never got sick before this. my husband said since I got sick I should never go back to india. I looked at him and said, "you know that's not going to happen..." but he was happy that I told him I decided not to go to sri lanka this year with the buddhist monk whom I sit with because the tamil tiger and sri lankan ceasefire is over, I decided it would not be safe. but I do feel like a big chicken for deciding that.

Thanks to all my Indian friends!

down but not out

whew! I returned from India about 12 hours ago sicker than a mangy Indian street dog. I've had food poisoning for the past 6 days from a "jam cake" that I ate in Fort Cochin. I am amazingly svelte -- eating nothing but 2 slices of bread, 2 bananas, and water each day for the past 6 days does wonders for the figure, however, my face is very ashen and gaunt. Oh well, it's that heroin chic Kate Moss look.

Thanks to my network of friends in India I was taken to a hospital for a "drip" (what they call an IV infusion) of glucose and salt just to help get me on the plane for an 18 hr. flight home. It's good to be home in my own washroom....:)

what a long strange trip it was! It was a very different trip for me this time physically but especially emotionally. I experienced the beautiful and the terrible of india, but hey, that's india....both enthralling and repulsive all at the same time.

one of my teachers at the school told me that I'm a native now -- that the first time you go to india one is scared and apprehensive; the second time you're in india, you love it, you want to stay forever, nothing is ever wrong; the third time you begin to see things as a native does, the good, the bad, the horrible, the indifferent, india with its warts and all. what I found amusing this time around was that instead of asking me "what country, madam?", people asked me, "do you live here, madam?" I've arrived.

india never fails to make me rethink this suburban life -- if people here only knew what goes on in the rest of the world, maybe they would appreciate what they have. Yes, people have it bad here, but I would rather be dirt poor here in the United States than anywhere else in the world. If you want to live a Hurricane Katrina experience EVERY SINGLE DAY OF YOUR LIFE WITH NO GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE, be a slum dweller in India. so quit your moaning and belly-aching about what you don't have like those hand-painted yoga pants or the latest yoga book or that eco-conscious yoga mat. I was with slum children in Madurai, India who have nothing compared to many American children, yet they had the biggest smiles for me.

my favorite experiences of the whole trip was my serendipitous visit to a slum school where I was the "guest of honor" and my dancing with tribals at a Pongal (harvest) festival at an Indian village outside of Madurai. I took two train trips and a four hour bus trip through the back roads of tamil nadu where I swear I felt something run across my foot. I discovered that four hours is about my limit on an Indian country bus, especially when one has to listen to cheesy Tamil videos from the 1970s played at full-blast.

but here are some pictures from tracy . You may recall that she was collecting shoes for the street kids of Mysore, India and I sent her three boxes of shoes that I collected at my former yoga studio. I also sent her my own baby shoes from the 1950s and requested that she take a picture of the baby that they went to, so here are the pics:

wow. my baby shoes from the 1950s now worn by an Indian baby. incredible. incredible india. thanks, tracy.

more stories and pictures from India soon...