Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Brahmin Bull" or "Eat, Pray, Shove"

Saturday, July 7, 2012. Pushkar

Like the monsoon was bound to puncture the skies, I have begun to crack. All that nice stuff I'd said before, if you know me, you know that took effort.

Scene 1

Pushkar started off nice enough. It is a tight little town of alleyways that center on a lake. The winding layout of the town reminds me of a Greek island. Supposedly the creator, Brahma, dropped flower petals from his hand and the lake was created and he convened a council of some 90,000 deities here.

The bus arrived in the dusty town and someone from my hotel was actually there waiting. I was suspicious but he knew my name from my on line reservation so it wasn't a ruse. Unfortunately he'd come on his scooter and expected me to get on with my 30 pound pack and 10 pound carry on. Am I crazy? Am I falling prey to the constant Hindu repetitions about fate and "god will take us when he wants?" (Why have I heard that so much?)

Somehow I managed to get on the bike without falling over. Yesterday I turned down two offers to drive me back to my hotel when I was soaked through with sweat, but today I get on a scooter with all my gear? He must do this a lot because he had no problem navigating the alleys with me and my stuff. In all fairness, I probably wasn't any more of a burden than those families of five I've seen riding motorcycles and motor scooters in the Jaipur city traffic.

The hotel is beautiful. I'm on the third floor and there's a light shaft right outside my door that runs from the roof down to the lobby. And the floors are marble. Not pieces of marble, but three foot by five foot slabs. I told the kid that in the US you'd probably have to pay three hundred dollars a night for marble floors. I'm paying twenty and that includes AC and wifi.

I went to the room, gathered my dirty clothes to take to the laundry service, and prepared to go out and find something to eat. After having dealt with the business of clothes and passport and visa records, I headed out. Cows everywhere. Vendors in their stalls not calling out "Hello, my good friend! Where are you from?" Idyllic. I figured all I had to do was follow the downhill slope of the city and I'd find the lake and the bathing steps, or ghats.

I passed a man with a backpack with a trio of dogs following him. He stopped and opened his bag. At first I thought maybe he had meat, a rarity here, but Pushkar isn't only alcohol free, it is animal flesh free. He smiled and said that these dogs like tomatoes. I told him I didn't believe it. Sure as heck, he pulled out a handball size tomato and pitched it to one of the dogs. Chomp chomp chomp with juices squirting out the sides of her mouth, the dog devoured the tomato like it was a milk bone. Two more tomatoes to the dogs and he zipped up the bag. A crowd had gathered. I must not've been the only one surprised.

Scene 2

Downhill has so many connotations. Rarely do the literal and metaphorical coincide. Ahead of me, through some archways I could see a glimmer of the lake. All I had to do was cross a small cobblestone way full of more Anglo tourists than I'd seen this entire trip, including Delhi, and I would be at the top of the steps leading down to the lake. That'd be close enough. The closer you get the greater the chance of crossing the point where you have to take off your shoes.

A man, young, maybe in his late 20s approached me. Indian, to be clear. I forget how the conversation started, but he was verbally pulling me along. He was a priest. Or guru. Or swami. He wanted to tell me about the lake. I'd heard this before. "No money, I just want to tell you about such-and-such." I asked if I had to take off my shoes. "No, no," he said. I really didn't feel like taking off my shoes while carrying my camera bag. I've done that before and the pack either swings off into my face or rolls completely over the top of my head.

I told the holy man I would come back later, after I'd eaten, that I hadn't eaten anything all day but bananas, which was not a lie. He told me later was no good. People would be coming to pray and then I couldn't enter. I had no real problem with that. It's their lake. I didn't need to get so close to it. I could see it from here. I didn't want my non-Hindu presence to taint the lake before everyone came down anyway. A religious "peeing I the pool," if you will.

The next thing I know I've got red flower petals forced into my left hand. How did he manage that? Hindu mind trick? I gritted my teeth and sighed unhappily at him. He told me with a nice calm tone that now I would go down to the the lake with him and throw the petals onto the water. I thought my eyes would get stuck I rolled them so far back in indignation. This meant not only would I have to untie and remove my shoes with a heavy bag around my neck, but now I'd have to do it with one hand preoccupied with flower petals. I'm no goddamned hippy. I did not come to India to find some kind of ceremonial mystic spirituality. I'm not that kind of guy. The other day at the Govinda Krishna Temple, that was great. I asked if I could enter, I was allowed. I asked if I could take pictures, I was allowed. When the guy wanted to administer Ganja River holy water to my eyes, I politely begged off and he respected that. When the young man offered to dab orange on my head, I accepted. It was a kindly offer of inclusion. It was great. Maybe I find my spirituality through others. When that mysterious gap between humans is bridged, voila. Religious experience. Isn't that one thing I learned in parochial school? "Whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name," etc., etc.?

So there I was. Stocking feet, sour look on my face. I walked down the steps looking at how much pigeon crap there was everywhere. I need to figure out India's encouragement of the pigeon population in every city.

I caught up to the guy at a walled in pool at the bottom of the steps. The water was pretty green. Lots of flower petals floating already. I must not have been his first of the day. Sitting with his legs crossed over each other, he invited me to sit and told me I may now disperse the petals. I did, but it was pretty humid out and there were a lot stuck to my palms and fingers. I wondered if it was okay if I dusted off my hands. I know you're not supposed to blow out incense in some cultures. You don't want to mix fetid human breath with the smoke, which is your prayer, going up to God. I don't know how equivalent flower petals are.

He told me to hold out my hands and he transferred a handful of green lake water from his palms to mine. This felt so wrong. Campy even. With my hands still wet he told me to touch my head, ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. I thought I was going to be done once I'd flung the petals. Now I had to do this? I came here because I respect Hinduism. If I didn't, I would have gone to France or Italy. But I didn't want to touch any part of my body, particularly orifices, with this buggy water on my hands. But I didn't want to cause a scene by getting up and walking away either. I may be old fashioned, but being rude to others makes me feel bad about myself. Please don't send me a bunch of responses, public or private about what you would have done. Or what a wuss I am for letting this guy push me around.

Thinking the gestures would be enough was as wrong as thinking the petals would have been enough. He started having me repeat after him a bunch of words. Some I recognize as Hindu deities. Was I praying to his gods? Really? Who makes people do that in this day and age? Who did he think I was? Some pissant hippy wanting to pretend I was John Lennon?

He had a little silver plate with more petals, some grains of rice, and a couple of pinches of red and yellow powder pigments. At this point I lost track of everything he did. I remember tossing some rice into the water. I don't remember if I touched the pigments, but I know he wetted a finger, picked up some dye and rice and gave me a third eye. When will this be over? was all I could think. I don't make people go to mass with me and eat the Eucharist. How dare this guy force all this on me?

I think this is when he tied a string of red and yellow around my right wrist. He told me as long as I wear it I may enter anywhere. I may enter any temple and no one would question me. But I know that's not true. And I don't think I even want to now. Not if this is what all the Brahmins are like.

Then he started another thing, telling me to repeat after him. Whatever it was it ended with something like "and to you Brahma I will give..." He told me at the pause that I should say a number, that others do whatever they feel they can. 300, 500 rupees. Whatever, no worries about amount. He knows I am a very good man and will do a good thing. "Any amount is good amount," he said.

I was beside myself. I was infuriated. I said,"fifty." That's a buck. I just can't believe that not only is he asking me for money but he's asking me to make a public pledge. I was expecting to be asked to drop an unseen amount into one of the slit top boxes we'd passed on the way to the ghat. He tilted his head and looked disappointed. "Sir, I am a Brahmin. Whatever you give, that is how I eat. It must be at least a hundred."

"It's fifty."

"Sir, fifty is not for eating. You understand? One hundred is for eating. Brahmins only eat by donation."

"It's fifty."

I wanted to tell him that desire is the source of all suffering. I wanted to remind him how skinny Gandhi was and that Gandhi did not wear blue jeans and a sports shirt. Perhaps pray for god to provide. You keep telling me the prayer would bring me luck and wealth. Get praying, you're the holy man.

He continued protesting but I think my teeth grinding let him know this was over. He thanked me and left me at the bottom of the steps. I went up and put on my shoes and fumed away. Under the canopy at the top of the steps a family of three women were sitting. One of the daughters looked at me and smiled. Big. I'd been on a bus for four hours with the window open. I was in my last clean clothes, the ones I saved for last because I didn't really like them so much. And now I had the masque of the red dupe on me. I smiled back with a telepathic message of "Yep, this has been one fucking brilliant day, and I bet it's not over."

The girl chuckled. I felt like I wasn't so alone or gong to be seen by everyone as some gullible hippy looking for--and thinking--he got his summer in India vision quest.

Scene 3

Successfully done at the ghat I continued on, looking for an open restaurant. I saw a sign pointing up a set of stairs between two shops. The sign said "Rainbow Rooftop Restaurant, recommended by all guide books." As soon as I set my left foot on the first step three girls, not children, called to me. They came hurrying over. Warning signals were sounding but I was confused. The only females who have approached me in India were six year olds asking for school pens, toffees, or money, and old wizened ladies asking for money. The common denominator was that marriage and/or sex was not possibly in the equation of our interaction so approaching me was okay. I don't claim to be an ethnologist, but I'm pretty sure protecting a marriageable girl's purity and reputation is a high priority in India. Post pubescent females do not approach men, especially western men. And you'd better be smart enough, if you're one of the later that you don't approach one of the former.

So it began again with what's you're name, from which country are you? Trying to not be rude I answered the questions with as little impatience as possible. Not that it would matter to anyone but myself. One girl grabbed my right hand and said, "Oh, look at this!" I couldn't tell if she was a prostitute or a palm reader. In her hand she held something that looked like a pen. I thought she was pointing to my life line. All of a sudden brown bird poop was oozing onto my palm. It was a tube of henna. She quickly drew the beginnings of a flower. I protested. Two of the girls assured me it was for good luck. But henna hand painting is for women in all the cultures I'm aware of. This was stupid. My voice raised a little, "Get it off!"

The one with the tube acknowledged my desire to go to the restaurant and suggested we go upstairs. I climbed the steep stairs, right palm face up, unable to hold onto the bannister. On a landing they blocked my way any further up. One of the friends wanted to know, "What you give for good luck?" "I didn't want this!" I reminded her. "You force a person to owe you money? That's not good luck. That's a thief!" "No thief. She give you that. What you give?!" "Please let me go. I did not ask for this." Not to mention that with the henna flower beaded on my right hand I couldn't even get to my wallet if I wanted.

One girl wiped the paint off with her finger and deposited it on a wall ledge. Eventually they acquiesced and moved aside. I was free to continue up the stairs to the restaurant. Once seated under a fan I got out a wet wipe and tried to reduce the stain of the henna as much as I could, which was not much. I almost forgot and used a clean corner of the wipe to go after the mark on my head from the pushy Brahmin.

I was the only customer at this time of day until a German hippy couple arrived, she with short beginning dreads, and he with a big head of dark curly hair and a very unmanaged beard running down his neck almost to his chest. She chatted up the young waiter as her boyfriend sat silently. He looked like he had followed her to India on her spiritual journey. The only thing I could make out him saying was, "that's why I think that about Americans." Yah, well I'm surprised to see German tourists in a dry town. Oh wait, you must be Dutch. You're not wearing black socks and brown leather sandals.

To continue with my rant, the cashew curry was dry with a crust on the top. So far all the food I've had in India has been spectacular. Then again, this was the first restaurant that boasted its ranking in tour books and served anything other than Indian food. Not only that, but this was the first restaurant where I was asked to write down my order and tabulate the total price for the waiter. When I was ready to leave I was honest even when the total of 90 and 95 was 185 rupees and the waiter said it was 175. Even when he gave me change back as if the bill were 165.

Scene 4

I felt like a heel for being so grouchy, but I thought I'd go with it even if the god I prayed to at the lake considered it bad karma. The Brahmin did mention that.

When I got to the bottom of the stairs I looked both ways before exiting to the street. I did not want that gaggle of palm vandals attacking me with claims of unpaid service. All I needed was to be tried on the street as a foreigner. I could see my punishment as being forced to muck out the gutters of sewage with my bare hands while smeared in cow dung.

The coast was clear and I made it home without incident. Just finding my way back to the hotel, with or without incident, was reason to celebrate. I didn't know if I'd remember my way back through the warren of alleys.

Scene 5

When I entered the hotel lobby one of the owner's older sons was hanging out in the lobby. He asked how I enjoyed the city so far. I told him I was fifty-fifty on the place. I told him I loved the hotel and the city, for a photographer, the city has wonderful light. It really does. With the narrow streets and high buildings, light is filtered most of the day, effecting a soft warmth I hadn't seen in India.

I then showed him my hand. "Men don't wear this, do they?" "Did some gypsy girls do that?" he asked. I was surprised he used the word gypsy. I didn't know that word was used in India. I knew gypsies arrived in Europe with Alexander the Great's returning soldiers after his death in India, but also that gypsy is a corruption of Egypt, where people thought they had been taken from.

"How much did you pay them?" he asked. "Nothing." He looked very relieved and a little surprised. He said he was happy that I paid nothing and that I should never pay for something like that. I felt incredibly relieved that someone thought I had done the right thing. Again, I don't like being rude. It makes me feel awful. I know my students and a lot of my friends who know me as a cynic would not believe that, but it's true.

I then asked him about the Brahmin. I gave him the five cent version of that whole thing. He looked puzzled. Either it was unusual behavior on the part of the holy man, or I got on the wrong bus and needed up in this pilgrimage town by mistake. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. Then he said, "Keep that string on your wrist. No one will bother you now. They'll see you've already gone to the lake. No one will make you do that again." Words cannot describe how much better I felt knowing that someone was on my side. He suggested I spend some time at their rooftop lounge and relax and watch the sunset. I thanked him and went to my room. I would get my computer and go to the rooftop.

Scene 6

When I found the rooftop cafe area, one of the younger sons asked if he cold get me anything. I ordered a club soda. Turns out Coca-Cola makes a sparkling water for Asia called "Kinley." It was nice to have something similar to what I drink at home. And the view from the rooftop was breathtaking. Three sides of the city are bounded by a range of hills. And in front of those hills are isolated peaked hills, two of which have temples balanced precariously at their tops. I asked the son if he knew about them and if one could could get to them. He smiled. He was proud to tell me that of course he knew them and that you can get to either one only by foot. Each one is about an hour climb including the walk from the hotel. I told him I might have to try that.

I looked out over the city. On corners of buildings and on top of unused chimneys monkeys were gathering. They all faced west towards the fading light. On many of the roofs women and girls were emerging. No scarves. Many of them stretched their backs or rearranged their long dark ponytails. I realized for all the men I saw in the streets of the city, this was probably the one means the women of the city got to see the sky, from the safety and seclusion of their rooftops. As dusk turned to night I typed. A single woman's voice raised in song from a rooftop somewhere not far away.

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