a view into the sordid life i lead

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

beaten senseless

i'm getting used to the horrendous imam who wakes me up at 5 am. it's scary that he's at it before the earliest birds. i'm figuring the birds have given up on being the dawn-breakers since this dude beats them to the punch and has amplification on his side.

there is life here that i had forgotten about. the grit and grime and rawness of existence here is something the residents have become innured to. it's making me feel alive, in that way the meat-packing district makes you feel at 6am, just before the carcasses are washed away but after the stench of blood and guts has pervaded the atmosphere so you feel like an entity has to be quelled with every step you take. that's india - the entity that needs to be quelled at every step. the land of ten thousand irritants, each one more aggressive than the last. but even here things are being squashed by mall culture and road-a-holics. there are more roads and flyovers than i remember, and it seems like there are only going to be more.

i could easy get used to this place and forget about my previous existence. it's beginning to happen already, and it's only been 6 days. SIX days! Feels like i've been here for an eternity already, but i've only been unemployed and out of the uS for 6 days!!

there are obviously things that i would have to get used to. having a servant who's constantly being polite to me is kinda strange and i'm still not on the correct frequency to know how to behave with her. the streets have no "footpath" (curb), and that's going to take some time to navigate. walking in the middle of the street is something that should come naturally though! actually there are several streets that have footpaths, but they're almost never used. they're designed in a very odd way - they're about a foot off the ground, so you have to step up and down constantly; they're also quite irregular and have obstacles that must be contended with: peddlers, trees, fences, adverts, etc. basically they're pretty non-functional which is why they're avoided.

family and tradition and culture are the big things to get back in sync with. i've been trying hard to keep my toes in line and put the best foot forward, but i think i've already fucked up at least a couple of times. yesterday we went to a traditional "vazha-elai" place (i.e., banana-leaf service) called Sanjeevaram. they serve you on a banana leaf, which is a treat that cannot be described unless. when we were kids we would salivate at the thought of having banana-leaf meals, and it turns out that my little cousins still do. banana-leaf meals bridge generations! at the end of our meal i grabbed something off my aunt's leaf that she just left. that's definitely not kosher down here. i had forgotten about the concept of "yecchai", which refers to eating in a "polluted" way - kinda like double-dipping. i guess i knew it subliminally, but my stomach overcame my cultural sensitivity!

family relationships are huge in the tam-bram community it seems. i cannot stress enough just how deep these instincts run. but i'm a bit unsure right now about whether this is systemic or just related to my immediate family - are all tam-bram families so formal with each other?

chennai is adapting to "international" standards, whatever the fuck that means. the immediate translation is mega malls, high-rises, big-ass hotels, and glass hi-tech buildings. are these the inevitabilities of economic progress? as long as we're doing business with the US we're going to try to emulate them in every way possible. my relatives seem to think that the small guys will be able to survive regardless. i'm not so sure. i think that there will be rules instituted in the next 5-7 years where street peddling is licensed and limited to specific zones. a giuliani-zation of chennai if you will. nyc's pushcarts went the way of horse-drawn carriages, even though the masses on the ground thought that they could never be quelled. the fruit ladies, the flower girls, the paper-wallah, the knife sharpener, they're they heart and soul of an indian existence, and i fear that they'll be swallowed up whole like gold jewellery was by fashion trinkets. here's my prediction: by 2010 there will be a movement by the local governments to start clearing out the pushcarts and "upgrading" the system. bicycles and human-powered vehicles will go teh way of the bullock carts and cows. (incidentally, what *did* happen to all those cows and goats that were loitering around the city constantly? how did a thousand cows and goats get moved away so completely?) mall culture will take over and people will buy the vast majority of their produce from stores, instead of pushcarts. you can see it happen already - it's easier to find parking in front of stores, so my father decides that's where he'll go to buy whatever he needs. the pushcart vendors can't compete with "free shampoo with your purchase over Rs. 300. their marginalization has, i think, started in a very subtle way. the argument that the underclass and pooor will still have to buy from the pushcarts is going to start fading away. even the poorest person will be buying from something that resembles a small wal-mart. no, not resembles, it'll BE walmart. i can see it now - all the cheap labor here fuels the likes of walmart who can buy massive quantities of produce at ridiculously low prices. and they'll throw in a free packet of shampoo to boot! have we heard this story somewhere before?

what are my chances of being wrong? i think reasonably slim. the transformation is already beginning. the lower income brackets aspire to be middle class. and the middle class increasingly consumes from brick-and-mortar rather than wood and wheel. there's one more thing that's already beginning to help make the transition. there are fewer and fewer footpaths for the vendors to set up on. so where are they going to peddle from? there's a guy on royapettah high-road who sells peanuts from a tiny median on a 5-way intersection. that'll go away in another few years. there's a chance that i'm way off, and the reason is pondy bazaar, a street packed with 3 layers of vendors: the permanent brick-and-mortar shops, the quasi-permanent street vendors on the footpaths, and the nomadic pushcarts and walking hawkers. and they're all competing with the same product marketed to different segments. there's a glass-front BATA store with air conditioning and salesguys that call you ma'am and sir, and right outside is the footpath vendor who's selling nike, reebok and bata knockoffs, and just beyond him is the hawker with bags of flip-flops. you'd need a really big sieve to filter all of this competition down to a single mall-type storefront. but that's the sort of thing that walmart is really good at. let's talk again in 2010 and see where things are at.

there are three sure-fire money-makers in chennai right now: restaurants, wellness businesses (hospitals, clinics, pharmacists, alternative healers), and religious outlets (gurus, temples, churches, evangelists). restaurants are understandable - we've got to eat, and madrasi culture loves to eat! wellness, on the other hand, is just plain odd. across the street from my parents' place is a renal laboratory. next door is a clinic. down the street is an ayurvedic clinic. next to that is another clinic advertising "asthma, arthritis and digestive disorder" cures. in a 1km stretch anywhere in the city there are at least 4 clinics or health centers. i used to think the US was hypochondriac. chennai (i don't know about the rest of india just yet) puts the US to shame. there's more quackery here than a pond-full of ducks in a kellogg wellness institution. you name it they've got it, but only if there's no accountability for it: reiki, pranic healing, energy healing, vastu. the crap just keeps building. the best part is that i have at least one family member directly connected to each of these areas of bogusness. it's fascinating that the population here has completely given up on taking care of themselves and have put their lives into the hands of snake-oil salesmen. maybe it has always been the case here and i've just never noticed? i'll leave out the debate of whether the US's staunch squashing of all things alternative to maintain some untenable form of accountability is better than this stew of dubious solutions! the religious/spiritual connection is taking root everywhere in the world, but not in a healthy way at all. there is a minority propounding grand unity and true inter-faith peace, but for the most part the rest of the gang is quite divisive. that's the only way the leaders of these movements gain respect and a following i suspect - controversy sells! and indians love an argument.

in the next few days i'll have a view into the slightly seedier parts of town and let's see if they mimic the middle-class strangeness of tam-bram society.

Monday, November 28, 2005

1000 words

jesus is pretty popular lately in chennai.

i never could figure out how the cross-o-philes figured the brown and black masses in the third world would fall for a blond-haired, light-skinned guy. i would have thought their marketing department would want to localize the brand and make images more like the natives. but i guess that's why they're running the world and i'm writing puny lame-ass blogs!

the good thing about india in general is that all the gods get their share of attention. the jesus-nuts are presently the ones on the big bandwagon, but that's just the fad of the season.
used to be the hindu's not that long ago. there's a massive parallel between the fear of marginalization by the hard-cord right in the USA and the hard-core right in india. they both represent the majority religious view, but feel that they're going to be swallowed up whole by the minority groups. i'd say the fear is at least slightly justified in india, since the jesus-freaks have so much more backing than anyone else. i love the religious phrases tho' - they're just so je ne sais quois!

one of my aunt's cooks' son is vijay - a kid with no fear.
he claims he's not afraid of any firecrackers, and goes around with a plastic pistol in a pink holster. i went over to my aunt's house, and ended up sitting outside having a conversation with this kid in my broken tamil and his hard colloquial dialect. i'm not sure how much we communicated, but i couldn't resist taking some pictures of him.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

missionary position

once in a rare while i end up with an excellent seat on a flight. my london-madras leg put me in a window seat on the wing, behind the emergency row. it's a row of 3, with the row in front having only 2 seats. the seat by the window is eliminated thanks to the protruding emergency door. so lots of leg room for me. couldn't have been happier. my neighbors were a young skinny black couple, who looked very introverted and seemed to keep to themselves. the girl wore a black headscarf. the guy was absorbed in the book he was reading and taking lots of notes. two black guys, an older balding gent and an early twenties tall lanky kid, were our neighbors to the front. there was one other black couple that i saw getting on the flight while in line, but i didnt see where they sat. a black american group that has all the women wearing headscarves heading to madras was a total novelty to me. i first assumed the younger members of the party were students heading to some college, maybe manipal. but obviously with 10 hours to spare on the flight i had time to get all the details. or so i thought.

i'm not normally the sort to strike up conversation with random flight mates. but this was one that i just could not pass up. about 2 hours into the flight i decided to get a sense for what the group was about. the girl, whose name i never caught, was not very forthcoming.

"are you on vacation to madras?", i asked. a lame opening, but i was really at a loss for anything better.

"yes". she giggled, which was odd to me, like one of those smiley new agey types.

"your first time?" i persisted.

"yes". she was smiling pleasantly, almost coyly. when i get monosyllabic responses i sometimes feel like maybe they don't want to continue with that line of questioning. but then again i'm stubborn and dense sometimes.

"are you traveling around, or on a package tour or something?". now i'm reaching for gaps to pry open.

"i think we're just going to be around madras" she said. sometimes the prying works. "but i'm not completely sure. i'm going as part of the group.". aha, so the black entourage *is* together.

"should be fun. where are you guys from?" i ask.

"north carolina".

"are you on a student trip?" i'm still getting the vibe that something's a bit strange with the group, but want to get at the details obliquely.

"we're traveling as part of my church. um, we're going to do some missionary work." there's definitely a sense that she did not want to put out this message too clearly. probably for good reason!

i now realize that the husband, who's on the aisle seat, is reading a rather large bible with lots of annotations and footnotes, and he's taking down notes on a per chapter basis. he's got a spiral binder with pages that have the book name at the top of the page, and each ruled line numbered with a chapter title. he was on romans chapter 22.

"oh nice" is all i say. i want to ask what kind of missionary work, but the shyness of the girl, and the fact that the husband is studiously writing away, and the guys in front who both have heard my conversation so far and seem to be pointedly ignoring it all makes me stop for a while. i actually try to get some kind of response from the older gent when he's up a couple of times, but that goes nowhere as well.

i'm a very judgemental person when it comes to religious zealots. missionaries fall squarely within that category no matter how good the work they're doing. and believe me, i'm not on the whole anti-conversion bandwagon - i just don't like to have some whacko religious order that believes that some dude who got nailed to a cross for a few hours is the reason for my salvation. on the other hand, this girl is really nice, so i decide to hold back my sentiments and be nice. i'll put aside my irkedness to be civil since what else can i do at 30k feet?

i had written these people off as yahoos, but i start getting really bored with my books another 2-3 hours in. so i bring the topic back up to the girl.

"you said you were part of a church group? what kind of missionary work are you doing?" those who know me realize that i'm now looking for an opening for an argument. a way to dismiss what this girl believes. it's pointless and mean but that's me.

"i'm not really sure. i think we're going to visit some orphanages, and we're going to a conference", she really sounds unsure of what she's doing now, rather than attempting to be oblique. she reaches over to a bag by her husband's feet and pulls out a folder. inside are some printed sheets with instructions, directions and a schedule - sort of like a convention program. they're going to the ascension church in madras. i decide i need to look it up when i get net access. there's nothing of real depth in the info that's in the folder. just overviews that proved addresses and contact details.

i'm now completely deflated, plus my traditional tam-bram hospitality sentiments start welling up. how could i have been ready to diss this poor girl when she's a guest in my hometown? i actually start having pangs of guilt!

"well i hope you have a good time with them. if you can you should try to go around a see a few things in the area. would be a shame to have come all this way and not really get a sense for the history of the place." this is my attempt at tourist hospitality. i think i need to be retrained!

"thanks", she giggles again.
oy vey! i really should be minimally thankful that someone is thinking about the wellbeing of the masses all over the world. given the degree to which the under-classes in india have been fucked, there should not be an iota of distaste in my mouth for those that want to provide a helping hand. but it kills me that all the missionary work is done with such callousness. i can just see pat robertson and his godamm 700 club saving the indian heathen for the rapture. that's the shit that gets under my skin and makes me crazy. the fucking bastards put out their version of moral rightness which is like a subliminal inquisition. it's a virus that will destroy what little culture there is here.

but then again the indian heathen coexist with far more ruthless parasites on a daily basis. pat robertson and his savior cronies are merely on the level of tapeworm, rather than flesh-eating bacteria!

engorged wetness

you know when you're home when the sounds that wake you up either piss the hell out of you or make you fondly remember days when you didn't have to get up at ungodly hours fo school because some damn fool polititican died. or the sounds of a foreign civilization that is foreign no more - things that you could have sworn you would never again remember and they well back up like warts. and when all these emotions boil into a simmering stew of a cacophony at 4.30 in the a.m. you feel yourself all the way down, like snorting a good heapful of wasabi and washing it down with a line of camphor. my 4.30am was an imam who should be put out of his misery and ours, an auto rickshaw on a completely empty street honking away just to let the world know that he exists, and the warbling brain-fever birds who have taken it upon themselves to replace the ubiquitous rooster for the wake-up call. only thing missing was a badly tuned transistor radio, but generally those dudes are not at it quite so early.

madras, my home, is being cleansed of its miriad sins. scrubbed and rinsed until its chafed sinews and guts are starting to show - and they're not pretty. the drains are overwhelmed and the rivers are engorged and overflowing. not so long ago this was a frigid, dried-up crone of a land. and now she's so wet and flush she may actually be regaining a bit of her viginal self. how much cleansing is necessary is unclear.
there's so much prayer and corruption here that once the pollution is flushed away the gods may yet have to heed the calls of the devoted. this is where a good collaborative dayplanner would have helped - too much confusion between the needs of the masses and the power play of the gods!

the brown nation is pretty damn resilient tho'. the tsunami wrecked a few things that have all been put back together. a rainfall of horrendous proportions made a watery hell that inconvenienced the dabba-wallas and wada paw guys for 3 days before they got back on their beat. the gods, still a bit peeved threw down their sledgehammers and the earth itself shook, and that gave us pause for a bit. so in all a heavy rain is just a little tinkle. and what fool-blooded human can say no to warm humid wetness anyway?

two days of unemployment and this is what's become of me! i want to start making decisions on which way to turn but i think i should heed a good friend's advice and just be - sit out the decision making for this run and see what kind of lifeline the universe throws my way.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

T minus 3 days @ 4.30am

it's 4.30am on thursday as i write this, and my brain has decided that being anxious is orthogonal to sleep. why the fuck can't i just be anxious AND get a good sleep, eh?! this is quite a serious design flaw that i'm going to have to take up with the manufacturer at some stage..

the next couple of days are going to involve ensuring that i don't drop all the bowling pins that i have in the air. actually, they're more like swords on fire that i'm having to juggle, but that's just nitpicky! for no reason other than that this is what seems into my fickle mind at 4.30 in the AM, here's the list of things i need to get done in the next 3 days. ohmygodohmygodohmygod it's only 3 days! you're lucky you can't hear me shrieking like a schoolgirl - it's not a pretty sight i assure you.

1. el banko must be dealt with. i want to address a rumor around my workplace that i've got some massive gobs of cash stashed away, which is why i'm able to go off on this silly jaunt. i would much rather leave the myth hanging that i'm some financial genius and i've also figured out how to make utsi pay me huge gobs of cash for what i do. but i'd rather just deflate that balloon in case people start showing up on my burmese doorstep asking for handouts.

there's almost no doubt in my mind that my bank balance would make my co-workers completely shocked that a) i've been unable to save more than i have and b) i'm tossing caution to the wind with such a small chunk of change. come to think of it i suspect that most people in the tech world would just write me off as looney. my excuse? the weirdness comes from the dr. pepper (that goes out to my homeboys jatin and satish who, bless their souls, will NEVER tire of that joke!)..

on the bank account note, i have to give due credit to the international banking system, without which i would be absolutely unable to go do this crazy thing. the fact that i can deposit money in an account in the u.s. and have the cash available through a machine in krishnaghar in west bengal is way fucking cool. and believe me when i say i hate "the man", but it's definitely getting harder to be upset at the guy ;-) btw, citibank rocks. i know they're bastard scum that launder all the world's money and are crooks and cheats and all that other good stuff, but their service is outstanding and i'm glad i got an account with them. hsbc in the usa is a pile of stinky poo. these guys are completely inept and i can't for the life of me imagine that anyone would want to bank with them! ah well, i guess live and learn, eh?

2. the final move to fairfield. my car, my unnecessary clothes, my toys, my junk. this is going to be interesting today - i've got to load up the car, meet james for breakfast, get my bike from rushad's, head to work, get my last paycheck, go to the bank to deposit, have lunch with mike, sync up with rushad to get his car and drop him off at ohare, figure out how to get his car back into the city and get back out to get my car, and head to fairfield. somewhere in there there's a little guy in a red suit with horns and a tail just laughing it up. i really should be freaked out of my mind, but i believe my brain has actually stopped comprehending what's going on, and i'm kinda in a state of bliss right now - it all seems just so much fun! yup, i think the marbles are finally loose :-)

3. the final pack-job. things are looking very good on that front. my backpack has exactly the right amount of stuff at least at first glance. i may have to get a few more underwears (boxer briefs if anyone's asking). otherwise i think i've got everything covered. i'm actually surprised at how easy things are going, since a 5 month jaunt should really require more. but i've been living out of a box for the last 2.5 months, and i'm realizing that i have *way* too much stuff - as has been amply detailed in a previous post.

the plan is to take the kelty backpack (redwing 3300), and a small shoulder bag, as checkin. I'll also have another small bag with my camera, a change of shirt, and a few other electronics (mp3, phone, etc.), and my sleeping bag. the change of shirt is for the benefit of the indian customs guys. i've got to have a shirt that says "don't fuck with me", but in a nice way. seems i always get into india looking like a bum, and that may be the reason for getting hassled so much. worth a try anyway.

There has been some very strange sudden change in the past day or so. winter has arrived in full swing - without any pussyfooting. the temperature dropped from 55F to 20F in about 30 hours. i'm very glad to be heading to the tropics! also,
i thought i had lost my work badge on monday. given that i need to turn in my badge when i leave, it's a bit strange that i would lose it after 7 years just days before my final departure. but thanks to the 4.30am insomnia attack i've found said badge under a pile of receipts that i was apparently hoarding for the express purpose of hiding badges. i had resigned myself to dealing with the consequences (what could they *possibly* have been tho', considering i'm leaving!!!), so there was not a lot of joy in finding it again.

things i'm looking forward to for the next couple of days:
1. being in fairfield for one last time for the next several months
2. completely shuttering my house, and getting comfortable with leaving - i'm finally going to have a day to have the entire situation settle in. thus far there have been other distractions such as work to keep me occupied.

not the long laundry list i had anticipated, but there it is!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Saturday, October 29th, 2005 12:45IST

Saturday, October 29th, 2005 12:45IST

A new priest began the sacrifice that is dedicated to Sani propitiation. Kathy is the target of this endeavor. This priest is young & has a very nice voice as he is reciting the mantras. Now Kathy will have to wear a capsule (like Kenny) that is prepared with gemstones inside. Sajal is concerned & rightly so about this sacrifice. The last one presided over by the old priest landed the poor old guy in hospital. He got run into by someone on a bicycle. We were in Darjeeling when we heard the news, so again we assumed it meant the snake ceremony was a success for Kenny. Now this new priest is a whole lot spiffier. He looks pretty neat & clean & well to do in dress, etc. We are all taking this as a sign that he is very successful. I’ll call Kathy later this evening to let her know she’s on the cosmic calendar.

Suzy is hoarding these Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups she brought, saying they’re gift items; which she says about everything, yet she’s not given out any of the huge supply she ferried over. She keeps buying things here to give out.

As I started to say; Sajal has concern that this one is going to be tough. Like the snake ceremony, it’s going to require some serious effort, and we all will be putting our attention on the success. Today & tomorrow are for this sacrifice, then on Monday we head into the Rahu propitiation for Angela. Sajal is very positive about this ceremony’s success. Angela will also be receiving a capsule to wear. All of these recipients must agree to wear said capsules, as they take much effort on the part of Sajal to make. Kenny’s in particular, as was reported to him, has a piece of fabric that two cobras were dancing with in the full moon light…

Sajal's World: Chapter 2


This mornings wake up was particularly obnoxious. There was the usual clanging pot action, supplemented with some mosquito-like miked female singers in a can. Then from the easterly direction came another groups input. Now this was live over a mike & was a somewhat better male singer, but when mixed with the already going action, it was simply insult to injury.

Up & at ‘em.

The Misty sisters are already with the honey, lemon water for Suzy & I, & are patiently awaiting our emergence from the room. They’ve left out the ginger, because Suzy read in some Ayurvedic magazine that plain honey & lemon in hot water first thing in the a.m. will reduce weight. Oh, fine. They announce our “garam jal” (hot bath water) is also ready & that they are going to Sajal with tea.

During my bath, the gathering of the usual suspects as well as a few additions gets under way. This mornings crisis is centering around “the fat, black priest” that Sajal had recommended to the temple that he sits on the board of directors for.

It seems the fellow had been observed pinching rice from the temple stores. The night before last, Sajal had been awakened with this news at approximately 1:30am (just after he had fallen asleep). He therefore, had to get up & go ride his shiny new bicycle over to see for himself. According to his word he had parked his bike in a visible position outside the temple & hidden himself in shadow. Sure enough, the fat black priest & his wife came now to the spot & out loud were wondering whose fine, new bicycle this was, when Sajal emerged from the shadow. Sajal made mention of the lateness of the hour & inquired what they were doing there at this time of the night; in the meantime grabbing hold of the culprit’s bag & taking a look at what might be there. Not to his surprise, Sajal found rice of the same quality (Indians know their rice, if nothing else) that Sajal had purchased for the temple. The priest’s explanation went along the lines of having purchased this in the market, but wouldn’t furnish details on which shop, knowing that Sajal would’ve immediately wakened the owners to confirm.

Back to this morning; the fat, black priest has been summoned to the room downstairs to be confronted by the actual benefactor responsible for the funds that are purchasing the temple stores. There’s a whole lot of yelling & sawing the air as I breeze by after the bath in my night dress. I get the details from Suzy who was down there just before the fireworks began when the fat, black priest showed up. By the time I make it to the actual inquisition room the whole thing has dispersed as though nothing has happened. No one seems put out in any way. All the participants are having chai & bidi’s & smiling & talking of other interests. The Sani propitiation, inclusive of fire sacrifice, is about to begin in the patio area. This will be performed over the next 2 days & will bleed into a Rahu propitiation by late Sunday evening (tomorrow), continuing Monday & Tuesday, then culminating on Wednesday when 3 different ceremonies (these current two & the snake ceremony from 2 weeks ago) are brought to a close.

Sajal's World: Chapter 1


What the feck is all that din? It is sometime in the middle of the night or the wee hours just before dawn & some group or another is banging for all their worth (which isn’t much, but they seem to enjoy exaggeration) on that which can only be cookware, accompanied by a croaking, miked voice screeching out Hare Krsna, Hare Rama. This is not a special festival night. It is the usual, “Let’s wake up all the non-believers with our incredibly grating version of God’s names”.

It’s impossible to know what time it is, as we have no clock. We do have a cell phone that I could root around for, but it really doesn’t matter, it’s just too damn early, no matter how you slice it. Not to mention, there’s no guarantee I could locate the specs to see the little numerals on the cell, if I did manage to find it. Now that I’m awake, there’s a choice: do I go downstairs to pee, risking life & limb on the pile of bricks mimicking stairs, quite probably encountering bugs the size of a buick; or do I go pee down the drain on the side of our room& wash it down with the bucket of water brought up for this express purpose? The aesthetic repulsion at this juncture is really only in my mind, as no on in this neck of the village would bat an eye over it. Grossness is part & parcel of life here.

I opt for the life threatening descent & as I round the corner, flipping on the bathroom light as I pass through “the kitchen”, I spy a machete emerging from the downstairs room door. I can’t see who it’s attached to, but I swiftly look to the right where it is pointing to see a pile of monkeys sifting through last night’s Laxmi Puja Prasad. I emit a yell & run back upstairs to grab a bamboo pole & run back down, all the while yelling. I twirl it like a martial artist into the midst of the pack & they scatter. Leaving the remains of the Puja scattered, likewise. I pick up what is not demolished or bastardized by them & put it in a bowl to be washed & distributed to any early morning guests that are sure to be arriving soon.

Good morning Nabadwip!

After the melee, I realize the machete was being brandished by one of the “Misty” (sweet) sisters. The Hanumans had menaced them by chasing them with teeth bared. They usually go for girls, no matter the size or age. Who knows why they reacted to my rushing them, maybe I was not fully awake enough to be scared, just pissed by their bravado. Interestingly, even the smallest of male children can chase off a pack of monkeys, but the girls they’ll attck every time.

The sisters, Mejo & Chota (big & little)are greatly relieved & without missing a beat, get on to drawing water ot heat from the well, accommodating Suzy’s & my bath; and making both garam lebu, ada, madhu (hot lemon, ginger honey) water & a separate pot of cha to awaken Sajal with, who is sleeping in his room across the way, visible from the upper level of our compound.

By the time I’ve finished the teeth cleaning routine (an entity unto itself) the girls have already returned from Sajal’s, mission accomplished, & are onto rinsing out any clothes we’ve left in any pile either upstairs or down.

The bath is by bucket, as may have been surmised by now; and although when we were last here, 2 & a half years ago, we had seized one side of this concrete structure as a bathroom & the other side dedicated to the squat toilet. We’ve since been confined to both the bath & toilet in the same side. Not our first choice on good ideas, but in the long interim of our absence, the “bathroom” side had been encroached upon by Sajal’s rather impressive levels of pack-ratting. We’ve yet to re-claim the acreage & may just forego it altogether in favor of just adding another story on top & making a real usable western style bath/toilet with all the amenities, such ad soap dish, towel bar or hooks (or both).

It takes a certain level of determination to get thru a bath balancing the soap & shampoo on a ledge of the door frame (the only area that might possibly be slightly cleaner than the rest of the nasty arrangement) & thanking the lord above for your fanatic forethought last time here, insisting on a tiny, nearly useless little bar of hooks that’s hanging on the door for dear life in the face of the Indian onslaught.

Emerging from the bath, I find Sajal’s world in full swing. Sajal has arrived in the compound & all are in attendance. One of the Misty sisters is serving him up more chai, while the other is massaging his legs & feet as he reclines on one of the two queen bed sized structures in the downstairs room where he holds court. These structures are mattress free, but piled high with all sorts of unlikely items; bags & bags of things, mysterious; that become known when Sajal is searching for something specific. Two to three minins will begin thrashing through them in earnest at Sajal’s command, spilling the contents of all for perusal.

There is a really thin “electrician” friend here now, smoking a bidi & sipping a cup with Arthur & Suzy to get the day started off on the right foot. I hed upstairs to get dressed & Mejo (big sister) follows me up to make sure I recognize the bowl of “no chini” (sugar) curd they’ve brought & is now sitting on the floor, under my bed, in a plate of water to keep off the piplis (ants). A curious thing about yogurt in West Bengal: it is always sweet. It is one of my least favorite occurances, & I’ve enlisted the sisters to make me special non-sweet batches on a daily basis. Not only are they on that mission, but they are masters of the West Bengal sweet called Rasgulla. I’ve never had better & they began bringing them to me to the tune of 6/day. Luckily, I ran off to Darjeeling for a couple of days, but as soon as I returned, so did the rasgulla. I had to sway them from the path of my supreme obesity by making them promise to only bring them once a week.

When I head downstairs again, there are at least 3 to 4 new characters on the scene. Uma, a short, stocky little loudmouthed dishwasher/general wipedown artist is yelling in her course, hoarse voice at Sajal. There seems to be a crisis surrounding her not getting her breakfast portion of chai & biscuits (the British word for cookies) because the dhutt (milk) has run out & the packet of biscuits is missing. Someone has obviously absconded with it…most likely suspect: Alo Mashi.

Sajal has known Uma & her sister, Minuti since childhood. They are of the Sudra caste, but have a certain level of pride whereas they are up to battling back with a few flinches when Sajal tries pushing them too far. Sajal has a running commentary in English that Uma cannot understand, but she guesses rightly that it’s derogatory, running along the lines of Uma wanting to “bed” Sajal all the time. She explodes in a top volume tirade & hits Sajal hard. He grunts & acts like he’ll beat her, but the tiny little form holds her ground. This is pretty much a daily routine.

Now, Alo Mashi is not going to show up before 10am. She is of a higher caste (Vaisya) & is therefore the cook. Uma does not like Alo Mashi & vice versa; and the Misty’s, who beat it out of here by 7:30, latest, don’t like anyone in Nabadwip, (a very bad village, altogether in their estimation), except their father, brother & Dada (Sajal). They will show up again around 4pm bearing really good samosas that they prepare for their father & brother to sell in the market every day.

Alo Mashi is an enigma. Sajal vacillates between gossiping about her thieving, covetous nature & extolling her virtues, almost bragging about her cleverness & abilities. In all cases, however, she is referred to as “that bloody bastard”. She is approaching 40 years old, but has never been married as she is incapable of bearing children. Get the picture? She is the eldest girl of six sisters & three brothers. Sajal constantly creates the picture of Alo Mashi desiring to entrap him in marriage; and robbing him regularly. He recently had an inspiration while in the throes of some sacrificial ceremony or another by the burning ghat that the only way to assuage her desire was to give her something she could transfer her love to. Shortly thereafter opportunity presented itself in the guise of a puppy. It was a fluffy whit spitz being offered for sale at a deeply discounted price by a neighbor of Mashi’s. She mentioned it to Sajal, who responded that he could not commit to caring for a dog; but then, by divine intervention he realized the import of the moment. He told her he would buy it for her. She said she could not afford to keep a dog, so Sajal promised to maintain all costs. Enter Rajada.

Suzy is an animal lover. She will always rise to the defense of any creature that is not human; those she feels can fend for themselves. As we wend our way throughout India she will distribute many dozens of Marie Biscuit packs to any of the various species of 4-footed citizens of the sub-continent. She is known as “The Snack Queen”. Here in Nabadwip, in fact anywhere in India, people don’t really have a great love for the poor animals. The fact that Sajal has taken on this aspect of Suzy, animal lover, is therefore, a rather interesting development. He did display some leanings in this direction during our last sojourn here, but nothing could have prepared us for what greeted us this time. Rajada is the new love of Sajal’s life. This dog he calls Dada (brother), and the little fellow is allowed, nay, encouraged, to lick the inside of Sajal’s mouth! Sajal regales us with involved stories that at some point I suddenly realize are about the dog.

Aside from that bit of nonsense, the other surprise awaiting us was Sajal having rescued a tiny kitten from a garbage heap where he was about to become a pack dog’s dinner & brought him home for Suzy to care for.

Snack Queen snapped into action & succeeded in over-feeding the poor tiny soul to the degree of necessary veterinary intervention. She didn’t stop at giving the starving kitten cooked fish every day (who would simply gorge), but living up-to her reputation, supplemented it with milk & sweetened yogurt, just to be sure; never-minding the fact that his little wormy belly would swell immediately to practically double his size.

So, the night before last the crisis of little “King Tut” came to full fruition. Exactly who was responsible in this den of animal torturers for pushing tiny Tut’s nose into the dirt so hard he could neither smell nor breath, remains a mystery. There were a few vague references to a tall 23-24 yr. old, no one recognized as from the area (a clear pack of lies, told to keep Suzy & I from throttling any of the locals) and no one could give account of his whereabouts. Then there was Suzy & Sajal’s theory that one of the little kids, Sajal calls “Devil boy”, from tenant’s row (part of the inherited lands that Sajal & his brothers rent out (another bit of intrigue for later discussion) was responsible for the act of terror.

This very night that King Tut was laid-up, unable to eat or breath through his nose, was accentuated by another visitation. An old friend, Visnu had been called by Sajal earlier in the day to announce that Suzy, Arthur & I were in station. The last time Suzy & I saw Visnu was at Howrah station just before we left the country two & a half years ago. Sajal had given him a call then, as well, & as we waited for our train to Delhi, within half an hour, Visnu had arrived. Prior to that we had seen him in 2001 at the Mahakhumbamela in Katya Baba’s camp, where we all spent a few hellish days & nights to the sadhu chant, “Chai, Chillum, Chappati” & kept from anything that might remotely resemble sleep by the loudspeaker installed just above the tent we were “housed” in. I must keep using quotes in this text, as the description is just so far away from the reality.

Round about 5pm there was a commotion at the back door through the “kitchen”, which by rights should be the front door, but is locked & blocked by a big pile of rocks & a lone plant that bears a lovely white trumpet type flower. Sajal was yelling through the door to someone & I heard Visnu sprinkled in there, so I looked out over our little “terrace” to see what was up. Sure enough, it was Visnu, accompanied by two others I didn’t recognize. This little gang turned out to be the “Calcutta Contingent”; three “free men” (by their own account), that hopped into Visnu’s car in Calcutta immediately upon hearing of our presence & partially drove, then got on a train for the remainder of the trip, arriving here a few hours after Sajal’s call. The other two with Visnu were a doctor of anesthesiology, who remains nameless to us, & Bacchu, a fellow who has given up working for a small pension & spending his time stoned on chillum & chanting at various temples in the Calcutta area. Although I hadn’t met these two before, they were well known to Arthur & Suzy, who’d run up against them with Visnu some years earlier in Calcutta. There was all around hugging of the men (they don’t hug women, unless “Rainbows”), and they were full of tears of joy & much hashish. Sajal, the perfect host, although in the midst of the Sani Sacrafice, (finished for the evening), quickly arranged with his temple to accommodating the three. He also gave them the option of staying in the room downstairs. Over the course of the evening, the three began to add hard liquor to their on-going program of smokables.

Sajal bowed out sometime in the revelry, having abstained from any pollutants (as he would in any case) heeding religious observance & needing rest for the sacrifices that would continue with the new day. Suzy & I had long been asleep when I fitfully rose & headed downstairs to the loo. The three “freemen” & Art were making such a racket that I stopped to question their male-bonding ritual’s position in respect to our windows above. For reasons known to them, they had posited themselves in the courtyard rather than the room below us that could buffer the sound of their drunken chatter that had increased by plenty decibels. I ended up down there twice, as they reawakened me with explosive levels & I figured, “no time like the present to utilize the loo again.” At some point I heard the noise subside & then locking the front door & lights out. I relaxed into slumber.

An hour later the clangers began their reign of terror while the Misty sisters quietly arranged our morning bathing & imbibing rituals.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Everything is predictable in hindsight

Everything is predictable in hindsight. The trick being to get the clue as it is presented. We left Nabadwip in an ecstasy of rain, headed for Darjeeling, Sikkim & points N.E. after a not so bad 3 tier AC ride asleep to New Jaipalguri station we spent a good hour deciding to just continue on the toy train all the way to Darjeeling for free, as opposed to 2 & a half hours in a share jeep for Rs.600, reasoning that even though it was an 8 hour journey, it should be enjoyable from our 1st class position. Well, there were no available seats in 1st class & until that moment of embarkation, we'd not actually realized there was less than 1st class. Turns out, there is. Coupled with the description "toy train", one might begin to adjust the understanding of what our next 8 hours were like. Even for the relatively small Indians, it was an inconvenience to say the least. Imagine, if you will, Art, Suzy, Sajal & myself in the cattle car of the Darjeeling Toy Train packed to capacity. The continuing omen presenting itself for all to see was studiously ignored. As we arrived in Darjeeling for some reason we began walking uphill to our chosen guest house out of the Lonely Planet's first budget entry, rather than engaging a porter/taxi. It seemed we were determined to live up to "difficulty is our motto". After utilizing the new cell phone with vigor by calling the guest house owner at least 5 times for continuing directions, we arrived in a cloud (literally) that didn't bother to lift for the 3 days we were there, except for the occasionalpunctuation by drizzly rain.

We did re-find the Tibetan momo house we'd longed for over the past 6 years, although it turned out the "Hasty Tasty" was putting out a better momo product this time 'round. However, the Tibetan joint was unparalled for freshly squeezed orange juice & wide noodle soup, Suzy loved. We found Glenary's had a lovely "heavy cake" for those fearless of eggs & a "chocolate" doughnut that had the taste & consistency of sopapilla's from El Patio in Albuquerque; although
their rendition of chocolate leaves one a-wondering what the hell they could possibly mean by that; if you ignored the color & name, it was quite enjoyable.

After two days of nary a glimpse of the mountains we'd come to see, we headed downhill on foot to the District Magistrate for the permit to Sikkim. They didn't open until 11am & given that we were there at 10:30am we settled in for tea across the way in a building that, had there been no cloud cover, would've sported the most awesome view of Himalayan views imaginable. But alas… Promptly at 11am I ran over with our applications & voila, we were on our way up the mountain (on foot) to the foreign Tourist office for further stampage of the document. Have I spoken of ordeals yet? If so, here then was another of the rascals. Not the actual stamping once arrived, but the getting there. The nice man at the Magistrates Office's description of "a 15 minute walk" was brought better into focus by Suzy's added comment, "for a goat!". Not to mention the constant stream of jeeps hungary for passengers going anywhere, spewing their nasty, non-CNG omissions into the environment/your face. Finally, as we had our stapage & had now only to return to the Magistrate's office for yet further stampage, I prompted Art to approach & hook onto a nice English girl who was heading back down, as well, but by taxi. I thought, "Here, at least, is someone with sense & we can ride down with her." Sure enough. It worked! I had broken the back of "difficulty is our motto" & gotten us to take a ride down. And don't you know miracles come in two's?; she held the taxi & it brought us back up the mountain, depositing us directly down the street from our new favorite, "Hasty Tasty". Gotta love those Brits for knowing their way around an ex-colony. When the driver started to complain that he wanted more than the Rs.100, she just laughed & said, "that's more than fair." & turned away. We now had our way cleared for Sikkim & only l;had to fix ourselves up with a share jeep for Rs.150/head. I determined that we should purchase 6 out of 10 available seats in a jeep (not including the driver & his cut partner). It goes like this: the driver, buddy & two riders in the front seat, 4 in the middle seat, & 4 in the back seat, for a grand total of 12/jeep for 5 & a half hours. Again, let me remind you dear readers, of the bulk of ourselves as opposed to that of most Indians. It is simply a matter of physical not-going-to-happen. Somehow from my idea of Rs.150-200/head, equaling Rs.1200, Art & Sajal ended up commandeering the whole jeep for Rs.1700. Oh well, at least we kept our bags inside & out of the continuing rain on the trip over. Now, on the said "trip over", we were waylayed in a town called Legship by the local gendarmes looking for baksheesh to the tune of Rs.100. we held our ground while the driver desperately attempted to locate his proper permits to put off the inevitable payment. We still don't know if he succeeded, but we were delayed by at least 45 minutes.

At long last, Sikkim!; looking in no way any different from Darjeeling in the sense of nary a mountain in sight, only dense cloud hugging us. It really does boggle the mind to realize fully & finally at the end of it all that we were given clear indication right from the start at the 4am Nabadwip departure & that we could now look back & say, "Oh, that's what that meant." Okay, no more "Mr. Nice Guy". If the clouds don't disperse by the end of the day, (which everyone keeps saying will be the case), we need to move on. I am beginning to feel ever so slightly depressed with this weather; no views, no treks, just sitting around reding a book in the most dramatic landscape ever to not bebeheld!

We decided to hike up to the Pemayangtse Gompa at any rate & it didn't rain, but didn't clear either. As we took to the road (it being about a 2 kilometer hike) a black dog began to accompany us. There was a fork in the road & the dog led us on the one that went to the Gompa, rather than the one most traveled on. It was really rather remarkable.

That evening we fixed a ride with a share jeep that didn't have a buddy with the driver, so Art & Sajal shared the front seat with him & Suzy & I got the far back with two seats facing each other, with no other encroachers. The arranger took one look at us & realized there was no way he was going to jam us in with the 4/seat gang. So the cruise down was not half bad. The best part was that the cloud had dispersed before we left at 5:30am over Khangchendzonga & we were graced with the sight of that dominant visage seen from all points in Sikkim. It was worth the entire miserable trip, after all, just to be able to experience this splendor. Art & I got pics & hopefully they will give a glimpse of the magnificence.

We headed out at 7am for Siliguri & upon arrival Sajal got us the smallest, stinkiest auto available, instead of the more roomy style & we headed over to New Jaipalguri station to see about jumping on a train. In the end, that's what we did. Nothing was available on 2-tier AC until the following day at 5pm, so we booked it; but after a bite to eat at a pretty good restaurant a really long way away from the station, we went back & waited for the Teestatoasta Express TC & we got some berths on that train leaving immediately. Onward back to Nabadwip a full 5 days early due to inclement weather.

I always love the return to Nabadwip, as we invariably arrive late in the evening or early morning when the streets (cobblestone) are deserted & there is only the swish of the bicycle rickshaws peddling to disturb the 3am peace of the slumbering villagers. It feels ancient & magical…until Sajal stops our 4 rickshaw parade, jumps out of his & ambles up to a doorway. He booms out a stream of Bengali through the locked gates & waits, puncturing the silence now & again with further instructions to the unseen dwellers within. Finally thedoor opens & Sajal is handed 3 packages of dhut (milk). We're back.