12 March 2008

march 12: aslali

[ sometimes we walk alone : notes from a pilgrimage ]

We get to Aslali fifteen minutes after setting off again. India and myself. On the way into town I receive a call on my portable phone from a reporter who interviewed me yesterday. He offers to notify friends in Surat for my arrival. I get the impression he is collecting information for a follow-up story and my energy chills. I give him short answers and will the conversation to end.
Why? I am walking in the sunshine and singing. Why not be open and loving to a man who is offering me shelter somewhere down the line? He is disturbing my profound journey, my careful solitude, with his questions and generosity! How criminal!
His intention is pure, I know. Then it is me. Am I afraid to be seen with this phone that was pressured upon me? Then leave it! It is both who I am and not who I am. It is my choice and my acceptance. I must understand the distinction – between who I am and what I wear – and then absolve myself from the worry of judgment.
We worry about the judgments of others while we have not yet concluded with putting ourselves on trial.
The town talav is on my left and the town unoccupied youth (it is Sunday) is on my right. I throw my phone to neither and tuck it back into my (single) pocket. The highway and trucks fade into the background as I progress down a small paved road, through thick and curious stares, to the panchayat office. The youth in front of the office look vaguely threatening and vaguely respectful. Maybe they saw me on television. They tell me the panchayat is closed (it is Sunday) and I should talk to a couple of older men, hanging out in concrete gazebos across the street.
I note -- as I turn, more nervous than tired, to talk to the men -- that I have not prepared at all for this moment. I have no idea what I will say.
Ten minutes later and in spite of some protest I am on the Mayor's motorbike shooting towards the school where Gandhi spoke seventy-six years ago, today. The Mayor spoke some English and I spoke some Gujarati and the communication predated the both. The Mayor is Krishna and like most Krishnas in the kaliyug, he's a little strange.
The Mayor first reads me the plaque on the panchayat hall, where Gandhi had spent the night. Then we ride to the school. One school building dates back to the British era, the others are newer and plastic. After the last earthquake they installed a number of Sintex “lightweight fiber” buildings. As the Mayor explained, when the next earthquake hits, it won't hurt so much when they fall. It's still unclear to me whether Sintex is the name of a material, enterprise, or worldview.
We also see a new (non-plastic) building named Gandhi Hall. There is no need to go inside, I am told. Next on the tour is the shiny Swaminarayan temple, some propaganda about how wonderful the Akshardam is, and a note that tonight Pramook Swami (the current head of the Swaminarayan sect) will be here in Aslali giving satsung. Maybe we'll attend. I meet the mayor's wife and she smiles at me.
When I explained the purpose of my yatra to the Mayor, he immediately understood:
“I will show you where Gandhi stayed, where Gandhi spoke, and you cannot spend the night there now so you will stay with me”.
When I suggested we walk the 300 meters (downhill) to the school he countered succinctly,
“No. You take bike now and I bring you back. You walk tomorrow”.
His breath smelt somewhere between alcohol and ripe chickoo. I've eaten five chickoo today so I would know -- they're very sweet, almost alcohol already.
A little bit about the village, Aslali. It is all Patels:
“You won’t find a single Mohammedan or Darbar here. Only Patel and Takkor and Harijan.”
What does Takkor mean?
“We have farms but do we work on them? No! The Takkor work on the farms.”
The Mayor has three viga (some have 100) and a viga might mean 2500 square meters (six tenths of an acre?). At this stage of my Gujarati, it's hard to be sure. He works vaguely in government service – he's not actually the Mayor but he enjoys the title.
How big is the village? 5100 people. By people he means Patel, the people of his caste. There must be, then, at least as many workers (Takkor) as people. And God only knows how many of his Harijan. But big enough that there is a medical center behind the panchayat where people from the neighboring villages come for care. Four to five hundred children in the primary school.
It's easy to ask questions and hard to establish context. People will always give you a straight answer for what they know, but anything they are unclear about translates to “never” or “impossible” or some other form of “zero”.
I am hot and want a shower so the Mayor takes me on a tour of the different parts of his village. The Patel neighborhood has big houses made from reinforced concrete, often two stories tall. The Mayor lives in a three-story house, the tallest in the entire village. You, too, can see it from across town.
The Takkor community sculpts its houses out of mud and cow dung. Draped straw over a wood frame forms the walls, applied with dung on both sides. The designs are beautiful, individual and perfect. Though all the houses are made in the same style with the same materials, each reflects the hand size and attitude of its residents. Each house has two rooms, one for storage (utensils, food) and one for living and sleeping. Everyone sleeps in the same room. A low curved wall protects a porch area from wind and animals, and each porch has a chula built-in for cooking.
I take chai and talk to the farmers (the ones who work on the land) and ask about the usage of chemical poisons and pesticides. Here they are called “medicines”. The parallel is only too true. The Mayor says there are no problems and one of the Takkor gentlemen speaks up to say the older farmers are experiencing strange ailments, problems with their hands, and cancer. They tell me they get to the fields at seven, lunch at one, go back when the heat fades, and come home at seven or eight. They say rice was the major crop and I saw mostly wheat.
I play with the children and one family’s mortar and pestle. They seem fascinated that I knew how to use it. I am surrounded by people, left suddenly alone, and surrounded again by people with handfuls of tamarind. Fresh from the tree. Ask and you shall receive. Or, don't ask and you shall also receive.
Back on the bike and to the Harijan part of town. Harijan – the people of God – was Gandhi's neologism for the untouchable castes of India, who suffer fierce personal and systemic discrimination. On the way to their neighborhood the Mayor offers me whiskey (turns out it wasn't chickoo on his breath after all) and tells me not to drink the water they offer me. I pass. He stopps for paan and cigarettes. I pass.
“Anything?”
Fruit?
“Fruit not available but ice cream available”.
I pass. The idea in not carrying money is not to make others buy you ice cream, I think. I'm still new to the idea, of course.
A quick spin through the Harijan vas shows me run down concrete houses (government built?) and kids who know very little about Gandhi. Not surprising. Everybody seems to know the Mayor, however, in all three parts of town. Maybe he is the Mayor after all. And everybody was playing cricket, in all three parts of town (it is Sunday).
We talked to Harijan and Takkor people who were working outside of caste, in government service. The result of strong affirmative action politices post-independence. Perhaps to give me the idea that caste isn't fixed. I did not, however, note any people (Patels) cleaning toilets.
Finally to the Mayor's residence to put down my backpack. I am shown a terrible scene from The Bandit Queen. An eleven year-old girl is sold into marriage. It is violent, I need a shower and am unsure of the point of it all. Finally, the Mayor orders his daughter to bring me chai and goes off to arrange dinner. I take a good shower, rinse my Brasilian sandals, massage my feet, and soak my clothes. I have two pairs of clothes and must wash one each evening, trusting in Krishna and the far-off monsoon.
My back is sore and I'm excited. I feel clean and beautiful, like I'm doing the work I was meant to be doing. It's been a long and wandering path before this long and wandering path and in neither have I seen the sun set on my first day. But there has been no office, no problem set, no essay, no program, no kitchen, and no side of a classroom that has made me feel this content. The only call that comes close is working with the land – farming – but somehow this walking seems to be an even better use of my spacetime. More observation than action. Like I'm finally trying to shut up and listen to the mother.
I'm excited about the pains in my body, about the body it is becoming. I'm excited about the peppery gingery chai I'm drinking as I note the day. I'm excited about having an hour to sit before dinner, and I'm excited about dinner. For years I have wanted to do this walk, to respect Gandhiji in this way, to take this walk around the self. And it's nice to be so taken care of from the start, to feel that people understand – much better than I do – how my steps are connected with their own.
I could imagine so much good coming out of a couple traveling here. They could call a nightly meeting – segregating men and women of course – to ask people about their lives. You would have to speak the language much better than I do, or have some more comfort with theater. But the people are ready – of all castes – to treat you like a star. To listen to you lecture. All they know is that I'm foreigner (which is half true, even), and that I'm following the Dandi kooch. And they know that nobody follows the Dandi kooch and for some reason my respect for Gandhiji is to be respected.
All we need is someone who deserves their trust, their excitement, their openness. It's been half a day and already I know it's too soon for me. I'm too young, too ignorant, too proud, too rough. But somebody. There is so much room, so much potential, for somebody to really be, here. Someone to take advantage of all the stares and attention instead of getting bothered by them.
Here – in the villages, in the cities, in India, in the Anywhere – you are always watched and always judged. But where are these judgments, where is their hive? In the minds of men – ours and the judge's. Can we feel judged if we think of the judge as merely observing? Or are we party to the judgment? Do we give in? Do we create it? Do we make it possible out of our own weakness, insecurity of purpose?
When my relatives ruthlessly criticize my paths and peregrinations – does my resolve weaken? Do I entertain their suggestions? Must I? When they ask me to find a bride do I discuss the color of the bridle? Why? Can I blame them? Or Anyone?
A few years ago I can remember every discussion with friends and classmates over our paths to have been singed with comparison, judgment, jealously, regret, and insecurity. Now? I have neither envy nor scorn towards more conventional educations. I'm too busy walking and supporting the walks of my friends. It is and I am originally one, and manifestly (in terms of space and time) other. I have learned not to be free of these desires but to accept them, and to realize them when necessary – I have given up trying to argue against the temptation and turned to the purity and efficiency of becoming it and moving on.
Hunger stirs. Only when I truly feel hungry will he return, so I have time to wash my clothes and to play the flute. Tonight I will have a peaceful dinner, meditate, and sleep long.
When life is a fragrant lake of cold destiny, why have we a burning throat? Why hold on to our desires and judgments of ourselves? What we learned from the bullies and bosses, the friends and lovers, we must now apply to that last mirrored joker, the self. Annihilate it, realize it, understand the whole lake is ours for the drinking and the playing. Desire is the middlehuman and the steel glasses are private cages. Let there be a storm of tickling mus--
Enter the Mayor. My reverie smashed out of lotus and into the synthetic amber honey of the whiskey glass. Krishna wants to get drunk. His friend Anilbhai arrives to give him company since the Dandi yatri is sworn to uphold the dogma of the master[i]. Apparently there's another hour before dinner will be ready (where? who? what?) so he turns on the TV to gerba at full volume:
Thirty-two. So very India.
He has six speakers for surround sound all pressed together surrounding each other in a cute line on top of the television. We begin to dance but it's not loud enough so he breaks out the dhol.
The dhol is a very, very loud drum. Louder than thirty-two, even. We dance and drum until the consolation of whiskey turns the Mayor and his friend towards the consolation of philosophy. They drink it (the whiskey, not the philosophy) Indian style – a shot of whiskey into a tall glass, and filled with cold water. As they get progressively more involved, the water becomes warmer and lesser.
First, they appreciate Gandhi:
“Gandhiji was my father and India's father – without Gandhi there can be no India. And Gandhi is a Gujarati like you and me.”
Gandhi is from Porbandar, the Mayor says. And then he tells me a story, a sad story that hurts him to tell it (he tells me). He tells me how Gandhi's house in Porbandar is now in control of a Muslim man (minor chord) and this Muslim man (minor chord) uses dear Gandhiji's very room to store daru.
Liquor. The ultimate in disrespect. This to show, I think, that since Gandhiji's death, there's been no respect for Gandhi, to the extent that if I'm running for office, it's best not to mention him. Exhilirating. This is exactly what I’m looking for – or part of it – how Gandhi is seen today by the people.
And furthermore, “If anyone challenges this, you send them to me. Even Sonia Gandhi! You have my address”.
I note his address. I sense some dramatic tension between the story and his pungent exhalations, and ask why there is prohibition in Gujarat: It's the only state in India with such a law.
“Because of Gandhiji! Gandhi didn't want daru and now Gujarat drinks the most whiskey of the twenty-six states!”
He points out how you have home delivery in Gujarat (hard to tell whether he's laudatory or critical at this point) and how that facility doesn't exist in other states.
They continue to intoxicate while I continue to hungr. At one point the Mayor confesses he is the master of ceremonies of the town's epic nine-day Diwali celebration. He is the lead drummer and spends 15,000 points over the ten nights of the ceremony (unclear on what), and plays the drum from 22h00 to 3h00 without a break. Whiskey is his stamina – he will occasionally tell his nephew to bang on the drum for a minute while he sneaks into the bathroom for a quick pack.
The Mayor whirls around at this point and wants me to know, “In the 26 days of your journey not a single man will be known to you compared to me.”
I have no doubts. We prepare to leave, and will stop by Anilbhai's house. Anilbhai lives, it seems, from his father's pension, who was a freedom fighter. To qualify as a freedom fighter, you must have spent six months in jail under the British raj for political agitation. We get onto the bike and ride to see Anilbhai's father's tamalpatra plaque. A man who suffered so that his country might be born. Perhaps the most matronly act a man can perform.
We get on the bikes again to go to dinner. They are both terribly drunk. I am reminded of the journey some friends[ii] took through India, “in search of the good”. Is that what this is? Have I found the Good, in the Mayor and his friend? It seems I seek not the Good but the Weird. Bottles and blackouts of collegiate karma haunt my fragile attempts at a sattvic present. We roll drunkenly to the Takkor section of town and my mother calls.
Timing! Yes, mother! Everything is wonderful. You saw me on TV and Krishna is taking good care of me. I have no money and a place to sleep in the biggest house in town and I'm going to dinner. And I'm not going to lie to you because I'm walking in Gandhiji's footsteps so please don't ask if I'm involved in reckless and drunk driving through a dusty Indian village!
We stop outside a beautiful mud house and stoop to enter the veranda. It’s been night for some time now and there are at least two dozen forms squatting in the shadows watching, and a single kerosene light to blind me. No electricity in these parts. It's the house of Kantilalbhai. Anilbhai's mechanic.
There are no women outside the shadows.
The Mayor embarks on a twenty minute prelude seemingly designed to torture a hungry pilgrim. The food is ample and two arms' lengths away. He waxes poetic and wanes gibberish, fumbling between tradition and respect, demanding I say namaste to the cook, demanding the cook present herself to be namaste-d, etc. We altercate over the consumption of milk. I have never liked drinking milk. I think I am starving.
My Krishna is quite drunk and has achieved a point beyond fun for a non-drunk, non-enlightened companion. Enlightenment is inhabiting a salt-bath of The Flow and remembering to laugh at everything. I'm hungry and incapable and complain to myself that his actions choke the flow. Except that nothing could possibly choke The Flow -- just my image of it.

NOTHING CHOKES THE FLOW, PILGRIM. IT'S YOU.

I ignore the message from Beyond and continue to get annoyed and hungry against the better intentions of my will. I am allowed to eat, finally, and now the Mayor interrupts every moment of the dinner with inane (though memorable) proclamations (“India is best!”). I am taught how to eat with rotla. I am forced to eat Anilbhai's wife's handwo (quite good). I am forced a second helping rotla and shak. The shak excels in quality and quantity. I force Kantilalbhai, our pressed host, to eat with us. He eats half a plate and disappears inside. There is a huge amount of food. Everything is vegetarian of course. How much am I expected to eat? What is the deal with these people? Are they hungry? Have they eaten? Will they eat? Why is the host so unhappy?
“This is my fast friend. This is my house”, the Mayor says.
I fight the feeling of imperial shittiness. This is what they mean by the violence being oppressive to the oppressed and the oppressor. No! I am a guest! I have a sacred duty to be thankful! I am flowing. I am chewing meditatively, sending love to Kantilalbhai. He starts to smile more. I say silly things about looking for a diesel scooter to convert to vegetable oil. My language skills aren't quite there yet. Nobody would understand that I'm serious anyhow. My command of the language makes the shadows laugh. I am offered kitcheree and forced more shak. I am the guest! I eat it. The energy has changed, I can sense it, we're nearing the end. Anilbhai has arrived with a new bottle of whiskey, but he can change nothing. His friends from the police call, “Yeah I already got it”, and they all smoke.
No thank you. I have a long history of allergy and intolerance of smoking and yet am relieved that Kantilalbhai is smoking. He relaxes and enjoys. Anything for him to relax and to enjoy. Thank the gods for the vices. We go.
I opt to walk with a gang of young men, scared of flowing off the road with the Mayor's drunken bike. They are short and talkative and all have something to do. Chai-walla, government service, high school, mechanic, etc. None wants to walk with me tomorrow. Good. The Mayor picks me up along the road and we go home. He stops at the paan shop and a kind old man offers me ganja. Apparently all you have to do to get free drugs in this country is start a pilgrimage in honor of Gandhi.We pass the Mayor’s wife on the road and he doesn't pick her up, ignoring my protests. She is coming back from the temple satsung. At home, the sobering Mayor copies my itinerary[iii], word for word. I refuse his kind offer for “easy toilet medicine” and opt to sleep outside on the terrace. I thank the waxing moon and the waning Mayor. He is Krishna. Amazing. I can feel the structure of the trip, the true depth and intensity of reality, reflected in this day's progression. I am in love. I meditate and go to sleep .

[ by ankur shah ]

[i] gandhi did not drink. See ashram observances
[ii] nippun and guri (cite)
[iii] see appendix X (yatra programme)

1 comment:

Saroor said...

Its very pleasantly surprising to see somebody sharing a dream and executing it i.e. to walk on the dandi march on the same days as Gandhi walked. In the pursuit read a book "On the salt march by Thomas Weber" and will walk once in my lifetime. All the best. I wish I knew you walked and I would have joined.