Submissive to everything, open, listening.
No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience
5 October, in flight
Aboard Cathay Pacific across the Pacific, 14-hr flight, 50-below headwinds, to Hong Kong where we'll transfer to a Bangkok flight, then Indian Air to Kolkata. Leaving home, a last-minute phone message from poet Michael Castro: "I know it's gonna be a great trip. Keep your eyes open, follow your interests,
and you'll have a totally memorable and amazing time."
When the 747 reaches stable altitude, I order a cognac and peruse the India guide I've tucked into my pack. It features a "When to Go" section with plenty of advice on weather and festivals, but omits the essential counsel: Go when gusto tweaks, when dreams dictate the journey! I remember the People's Guide to Mexico, a paperback that told you not where to go, what to see, where to stay, but simply how to be. Full of wise and quirky suggestions, it let you roam on your own, free to use your own navigational skills. Chance encounters, serendipity, down-in-the-dirt roll of dice: a better way to go. The guide's long out of print, but good books on regional foods, textiles, music, and architecture abound. Why not take one of these?
The rest will open on its own.
5 October, in flight
L.A. airport check-in was less than amazing. Predictable humdrum of homeland-security personnel coping with rules and regulations that change daily. This time the banned carry-ons were gels, shampoos, liquids, and a few medications. Scissors okay, but not the tiny box cutter I trim news articles with. Just after 9/11 the FBI issued an alert for people carrying almanacs. The reason: "almanacs have statistics, cryptic abbreviations, long-range weather predictions, and particulars of geomancy useful to terrorists." Boarding a flight in San Francisco, my shoulder bag was searched. A Chinese almanac was found, a present from a friend who thought its contents useful for my collages. After prolonged questioning, the almanac was seized, and I got on the plane. But who knows what details under
my name stayed behind on the Fed's computers?
Our most pacifist friend is constantly harassed by U.S. airport security. He's an animal tracker and raptor watcher who often travels abroad. "I'm on a list — pulled out and searched whether my ticket says New York or Mongolia." They're probably spooked because he goes so far and carries so little, can't remember his social security number, and has ripened into old age without ever holding a steady job. He doesn't show up on the screen because he's out of the loop, lives on dried cranberries, walks a thin trail below poverty level. He naps in the grass, has perfected the art of lingering in shady squares among balloon vendors and low-cut señoritas, and is perfectly at home in broken cliffs—thunder his only company. He goes against the American grain by simply doing nothing —in the sense of Po Chü-i's wu wei— non doing / non-interference in the natural course of things. You won't find him wasting time at heaven's gate swinging a pick under any taskmaster's orders. He's got straw between the teeth, bills scattered, rice in the bag, binocs around his shoulders,
and a box of Cracker Jacks. Put him on my list!
5 October, in flight
Renée's carry-on pack weighed 10 lbs, mine 9. Her check-in: 28 lbs, mine 31. No matter how individually we go about planning and packing, in the end we come out twins. Now, 40,000 feet in the stars over Mar Pacifico, I can finally settle into the undoing of plans that a true venture requires; a state of readiness where we abandon expectations, let the spirit take its course, mind sabotaged by unexpected turns. All that's required is willingness to follow them. "Big schemes only bring grief," said Yuan Mei:
Carry only what you need
a light skiff takes the wind
and rides the water lightly.
Part of what I need is a poetry book, small enough to fit the hip. Good poems remind us we all desire nakedness. A moment unveiled in the company of others. To strip, sit at the feast, become new to each other through our work. Why stand in the fashion mall wearing manufacturers' designs? Travel naked! Swim the rain and rivers. With little on your back, amid joys and discomforts, you can wake in the journey, meet other guests, break bread, walk the rooms, ramble the garden. Travel engenders poems, realigns perspective, sure; but mostly it breathes and swells as an end in itself, rich with camaraderie, new views of old cities, fine encounters with flowering slopes in untrimmed backcountry. When Basho wrote:
of this painful world
was he not asking poets of all ages (especially the clever ones who seek high profile), to get down off their horses and seek what is low? Beauty in common experience, ache in the plight of the underdog? Nothing hallowed or brainy, just unpretentious images that reveal what convention cannot reach.
from my notebook —
stars in heaven's stream.
South of Taipei over Philippine Sea. Am I awake inside the dream, or asleep with eyes open? The raw scribble of nerve endings inside my eyelids stops when I catch my head sagging, mouth drooling, flaps down, wheels out. The sky's bright, Hong Kong just below in its hazy nest of hills, choking in pollution-spew from its own upstream power plants. During a brief layover, we sample tea, stretch legs, and buy Chinese remedies from an airport herb shop raising its grate as the sun rises. In a book shop we find Asian publishers selling the same titles we have back home, but far less expensive. Lots of Lonely Planet guides on the racks. But why flood your head with information others deem fit for you? Best to travel the way you'd like to see travel taken. No calculation, no hang up on how others would do it. Tailor the journey after your own heart; keep in mind the worthy forbearers: Basho, Bowles, Eberhardt, Matthiessen, or the late Norman Lewis.
Bangkok. Change planes for Kolkata. Artaud: "I'd like to be bitten by external things, by fits and starts, all the twitching of my future self." Will I be able to write a poem in the past-present of the future-tense in the delirium, grit, and relentless multitude of the subcontinent? The minute we board Indian Air we're in another country. Language, etiquette, gestures change. Saris, forehead tikkas, shalwar kameezes, sugared fennel seeds, spiced tea. Dark penetrating eyes, bright silks, expressive features. A preview of what's to come.
a few worthy
8 October, Kolkata
Wake under ceiling fan whirling at high speed. We're south of the city centre on the bottom flat of Ranjan and Vasudha's apartment, two filmmakers we were put in touch with before leaving home. After a cold shower, swig of mineral water, and fresh set of clothes — the only extra change in my pack—we're timidly out the iron gate onto Sarat Bose, making a quick right around the corner to Rao's South Indian Coffee Parlor. A sign proudly states: WE HAVE NO BRANCHES. The narrow, high-ceilinged interior is milk-white, edged with olive-green. A lazy breeze wafts over marble-topped communal tables from tall shuttered windows accented with burnt-orange. In Santa Fe this would be "chic." Here, just another neighborhood eatery. The cheerful proprietor sits over the morning Telegraph, Hindu deities on an altar behind him. A framed newspaper clipping states that he once held an honored position as a governor's cook. Above, on a shelf, a fat-bellied Ganesha gives a propitious smile,
flanked by two sticks of smoking incense.
The traditional South Indian breakfast — idli, sambhar, chutney, and coffee — is a perfect way to begin our first morning in India. Idli (usually two to a plate) is a miniature saucer-shaped, steamed rice/dal flour pancake. You break it with fingers, dip it into coconut chutney and sambhar served in stainless-steel cups. Sambhar is a hot/sour broth of dal seasoned with tamarind, red chili, peppercorns, curry leaves, coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and dry-roasted mustard seeds — light, tasty, and cleansing. Afterwards, we order mishti doi, fresh yogurt sweetened with jaggery, and coffee. South Indians are fervent coffee drinkers and a filtered brew from fresh-roasted beans is a must. Unless you ask — and we don't — it is cut with milk and sugar and comes piping hot in a tiny stainless-steel cup set into a deep saucer. You pour it back and forth, froth,
drink from the saucer, then the cup. A civilized ritual.
Taxi to Dalhousie Square. It's been renamed BBD Bagh in memory of three freedom fighters martyred for trying to oust Lord Dalhousie. We amble strangely uncrowded Sunday-morning streets, stop before the impressive 1780 red-brick Writers Building, and are at once shooed away for taking photos. The imposing three-story building originally housed British clerks who managed the East India Company's red tape. It's now West Bengal government headquarters and the police are sensitive about it. Colonial-era trading companies abound in this area, faded British churches too. The famous Victoria Memorial we glimpse only in passing: a pompous, bygone palace floating above the Maidan, a two-acre lawn where goats graze and lovers stroll. In January the Kolkata Book Fair takes place here;
the greatest book event on the planet.
Kolkata is book society. Gifts of our own poetry books were well received by Ranjan and Vasudha. Bengalis have high esteem for books. On College Street, one shop after another overflows with literature: Dostoyevsky, Poe, The People's Alternative to Economic Globalization, William Blake, Flora of Karnataka, Emily Dickinson, Subcomandante Marcos, Akhmatova, The Peach Blossom Fan, Ramakrishna, Banking on Biomass, the bandit queen, The Glory of the Divine Mother — bet there's even a People's Guide to Mexico somewhere in the stacks. In Havana we experienced similar bookophilia — strong literary tradition; high regard for poetry and novels. No wonder Hemingway was at home in the Ambos Mundo Hotel, naked at his typewriter, shutters open to the harbor breeze. Cuban poetry readings are still in vogue: not only in book stores, but in bars, tobacco-rolling factories, cement plants, and troubadour houses — free to everyone.
We find a copy of Krishna Dutta's Calcutta, a bit loose at the seams but worth the purchase. In the first chapter, A City Made of Words, she writes: "In Calcutta almost everyone reads some literature and has an opinion of what is good and bad in contemporary writing. Established poets recite to mass audiences, most people can quote poems by Tagore and others. Many Calcuttans compose their own poems for weddings and festivals, have them printed, and circulate them among friends and relations."
The smell of paper is thick along College Street. Musty, yellowed pages. Marbled cardboard. Re-sewn leather. Cracked glue, undone bindings. Moths pressed between letterpress editions of Dante. Silverfish feasting on brittle parchment. Water-stained maps webbed with worm trails. Dust floating on onionskin. Glass paperweights turned amethyst in the sun. Books about to topple from tilted stacks. Shop owners sipping milk tea while balancing overflow stock on the iron railings along the sidewalk: biographies, Sanskrit classics, poetry, children's stories, repair manuals for non-existent automobiles, encyclopedias, religious pamphlets, an 1880s medical volume with tissue-overlaid line cuts of facial tumors, novels, and quirky leftist periodicals of the kind that proliferate in Kolkata's back-alley publishing houses. One shop displays a high-gloss calendar: Saraswati on an open lotus holding lute, book, and prayer beads. Goddess of literature, learning, and music, she's the old Vedic river goddess equated with Vac, speech. I've seen her placed atop printing presses,
books, school desks, and sitars on her feast day.
In Kolkata a child is given chalk and slate, bestowed with prayers, and initiated into literacy. On Tagore's birthday, books of his poetry are exchanged. At the Kolkata Book Fair, authors and publishers meet the public in temple-like kiosks tacked together from canvas and bamboo, laced with flowers and colored lights. When not broadcasting Tagore's songs, loudspeakers summon thousands to hear their favorite writer in a simple tent. ATM machines are there to nourish buying sprees. Bengalis have always understood that one way to leave home without a purchasing a ticket is to book a passage on a fine novel, or settle into the classics, the social realists, or the epic poets. This is why Bengalis are so notoriously open. They've traveled elsewhere through words, stanzas, finely-tuned imaginations. Close-minded "culture" is
for those who have forgotten how to read.
in the book store
a man sewing a binding
to Vedic chants.
From a bend of peeling mansions, a battered trolley gives a sudden rumble. Renée and I grab each other like kids, unbelieving, as the wobbling headlight shines into our eyes. The tram jolts and sputters below a maze of wires, dreamlike, close enough to touch, a child's cardboard cutout riding a crayoned track. We're momentarily part of the bygone as it canters before us, then squeals and jerks out of sight, tilting around a slow, leafy corner into the hazy sun: a di Chirco painting.
We head for the India Coffee House, navigating a teeming street market en route. Renée notices the word D I V I N E floating above the crowd on a nearly-invisible wire. Just below, Kali gives a fierce smile. Her tongue is out, fluorescent red, there's a marigold-draped hatchet in one hand, incense curling between her toes. I feel a persistent tap on my leg and look down to see a beggar sprawled stick-like on the brick paving. Under his rag-draped body, each brick is stamped with the word: MAYA. Up the alley as far as the eye can see: MAYA MAYA MAYA MAYA.
Behind ragged awnings, type fonts clatter. Printing presses clank under dripping balconies ornate with metal grilles wrapped like bars of music around yellow façades stained tobacco brown. Gamblers hunker in a chalked circle, slap finger-soiled aces to the ground. Odors of mercurochrome waft from a chemist's door. A cat leaps out, mouse in teeth, nearly topples a tray of writing paper next to a scribe wrapped in a loincloth. He's cross-legged on the sidewalk before a portable Olivetti. Tacked to the wall behind him is a sampling of letters (bereavement, condolence, marriage, appeal, court proceedings) that he'll type and post for a small sum. The tangled streets buzz with shoppers. Dentures clacking, mouths betel stained, canes tapping, flesh shaking — they fumble through clothes, face powders, hair oils, rat traps, deadbolts, doorknobs, and polychrome images of the gods. My eyes are jet-lagged, nostrils on overload. My nervous system wants to log off, but the streets stubbornly insist on their smells: salted fish, rose petals, ayurvedic soap, dung patties stacked like poker chips, vats of boiling milk, moth-balled silks, bubbling tar, men's Legal Wear Sterilized Briefs. The alleys lift and fray, their edges like burnt celluloid. Everything's askew, as if one had taken too many anti-malaria pills. The ultimate psychedelic window is reality itself, a high comedy of walking paragraphs clumsily typeset on samsara's page.
I am made weary to jot this all down. I need centuries, galaxies of time to gather the inanity, the chance-rarity, the phosphor silence between the high moments of surprise. Kolkata burns like a wreath around my skull. Belches, sags, crackles up through the nose. It's all stumble and wonder, mad talk of the living, rice water in banged aluminum pots, bony hips of the dying, red beards with skull caps, stick figures in ironed suits, a man with a floor-mop face, a walking tent whose eyelashes flutter like lost sparrows behind its cloth screen. Kolkata is the radical underground, the rickshaw pullers mobilizing their ultimate push, a poet liberating sound from flesh, a disgruntled housewife pawning her bangles, a sadhu reciting a litany, working on his ego, bowing to his own photograph. In the evening heat, the soul wears henna, the spigot begs repeatedly. In rush-hour traffic a fire-eater shits flames, a pair of perfect buttocks j-walks the tram tracks, one cheek keeping time to the other. Kolkata: unstructured bewitchment, a knot of chaos. The tighter it is tied the more it undoes the mind.
through the leaves
a broken sky, in the throat
a knife's edge.
A bus is coming, elbows out the windows, riders hanging from its tail. At the bus stop wait the burka-clad (clutching purses and musically-ringing cell phones), the business men (slim leather briefcase embossed with gold initials), a hotel worker (straight-backed in a starched-gray uniform), and a gaggle of school kids. Above them is a half-torn poster of a sweat-dripping Bollywood actor saving a cleavage-heavy damsel from a panting locomotive. Now comes a magnetic set of breasts bouncing under a shirt that says DOUBLE FEATURE. Between the anointed and the smoke-ragged, a monkey bites his tongue, a cauterized arm offers a string of jasmine, a hungry coolie wheezes under a well-endowed manikin. Over lap dancers and diamond cutters, milk churners and memory swallowers, a crystal arc sprays from a balcony. A boy taking a piss.
Amid terrors of gloom
one leans to the muse (Verlaine)
Paralysis overtakes the senses. I know I've left home because I've been tossed into the stream. I am in Kolkata without a wink or a lip, and someone's reading me like an old book. It's the blind man with fingers of Braille. It's the low-cut siren undoing my jeans. It's the howl of the Beast, the ancient chase between shadow and symbol. Anarchy! A tameless river carving its own course—as opposed to the tamed river of democracy whose truth has limited options and cataclysmic expansionism is the order of the day. Who in Kolkata would trust a moneyed war-monger puppeted by hawks who regard themselves above the law?
on the veranda
a silver-glazed cup
is smashed to pieces (Basho)
What would Basho do in today's world? His plight would be that of a poet wanting to sleep in the grass and befriend the seasons, yet having to face the population explosion, heavy industry, electronic wrath, the lies of policy makers not only disconnected from nature, but torn from their own souls. Wandering through chilly winds, facing the autumn stars, seeking a balance between the strife of his times and his inner struggles, the wind surely pierced Basho's cloak; but it was not the wind of falling skyscrapers, suicide bombers, nor the ten-million-degree wind over Hiroshima flattening an entire city. Basho was blessed with smaller times. The cook fire was low, sweet smelling. Trees, when talked to, replied. Amid the flies and pasania blossoms he was free to wander, to report on the poignancy and comedy of human life; sans passport, credit cards, government grants, health insurance, PhD, tenure, social security, or burial plan. Pedestrian, humble, earthbound, he was a fragile creature within the greater organism. A man filled with memory, personal struggles, curiosity, delight in the small. From the stillness within his journey he could open, expand, seek friendships, become a teacher. He could empty his head, regroup his thoughts, seek source and renewal in places unfamiliar. Rough seas, dark canyons, lichened crags, foggy heather, even the wood-slat mercantile alleyways of Edo — all were humanly manageable.
Ay, but it is no longer Basho's time. The lamp is lit with coal factories and dams. My shoes run on jet fuel. I cannot pretend or force today to be then. I am on Sarat Bose and Rashbehari, walking in sandals that aren't Basho's except by metaphor. Kolkata is hardly manageable, yet it is this state of unmanageability that drives me to my innermost center. What do I discover in that whorl? That I am a poet! Steered by the whims of the rivers beneath me, rudderless like a reed-woven raft on the rapids. And it is this raft — the raft of poetry — that makes the rocks, rapids, and bogs navigable. On it, I catch a peek of clear sky through the muck.
300,000 years into it
and human folly
still with us.
The earth is quaking, seas are burning, forests are withering, and wars are sending mass migrations across the deserts. No Moses for this exodus; the promised land has been torched. All I want, as things rapidly speed up and collapse, is to grow into the soil and spread my roots through its fecundity. As wildfires roar from no-longer-dormant volcanoes, I'll go the road like Basho — seek the dream that calls my name, find the paradise that I've been ejected from. I'll meet new people, create dialogue, have an exchange, refresh my thinking beyond the walls of the ever-bullying empire that has imprisoned its rulers as well as their subjects. To leave home is a big step nowadays. Too many Americans are frightfully tethered, xenophobic, afraid to go beyond the wall. There is hope, though. Amitav Ghosh, a Bengali writer living part time in Brooklyn, says: "it won't be long before most Americans begin to dream of
escape from the imprisonment of absolute power."
a frog leaps in
What is the meaning of Basho's poem? Last summer I saw the frog jump out, not into the pond, through a rusty bicycle rim. Beyond leap, splash, ripple, murk, and all non-amphibian interpretations, the frog seems to imply: "Move, don't just sit there and think." Kerplunk, get dirty! Travel to unravel. No guarantee you'll resurface. But if you do, you'll come out a different creature. Basho's need to "leap" had its roots in previous generations of Chinese and Japanese poets who ventured largely for purposes of literary discipline. What made Basho different was his elevated curiosity for a world beyond his usual surroundings — a spiritual impulse to go toward the unknown. A stanza from Rilke echoes this impulse:
Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.
If "a church that stands somewhere in the East" calls, or if it happens to be in the Yoruba barrios of Havana, or in the radical Chiapas backcountry, beware. Your quest may be disallowed. Governments are pulling the buckle tighter. They are watching us, attempting to monitor our imaginations, our actions, our quests. Perhaps it's best to remain in your own watershed, dip the bucket deep, drink from the source, raise your children in clean air, quarry river stones, plant healthy crops, glean the rose hips. If you choose to leave, take caution. Whether you head to Memphis or Mumbai, you're fated to meet a majority hooked on "bigger, better, faster." The "upgrade society." Fortunately, it takes only the slightest effort to seek the exception, the maverick, the alternative, to make the journey invigorating (when there are no alternatives, it becomes necessary to create them).
You won't meet the rebel by joining eco-tourist, new-age, shamanic, Condé Nast, or soldiers-for-jesus tours (why would a guy capable of miracles need soldiers?); nor with pre-packaged trips for students primarily interested in getting all A's for the money they've paid; nor with scams that promise "something different" by getting you into "remote areas" that have been over-invaded ever since mass tourism caught on in the 70s. "Hill trek to lost tribes using Stone Age tools" (how about tools of the 1950s?). "See ring-necked beauties of yesteryear as we raft you through misting waterfalls into untamed jungle." But it's all bogus. Bought-and-sold clones of a naked-and-painted past. People who go about in jeans and t-shirts and
change into tribal attire just before you arrive.
There's nothing like traveling on your own. If you must find another, go with a rogue, lock-picker, j-walker, revolutionary, advanced lingerer, clairvoyant, or with souls yet to be born, a ragtag trio of Nadistas, a comrade who loves surprise and disdains having things under control. If a poet, find another poet to look up when you get to your destination; a person who walks on the edge and isn't afraid of heights; an anti-capitalist who knows how to enjoy life; a soul sister or bold brother who has stood up against the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the plethora of wars that have plagued our existence non-stop since birth; which leads me to the inevitable question posed by the war weary: "What to do?"
Every time we travel, the issue arises. No consoling answer, but it's helpful to remember that those running the war machine have arms that reach only so far. Their slaps often extend only into mid air, though people think they've actually been hit, knocked down, and they don't feel like getting up again; which is when the oppressors win. "Remain alert so as not to get run down," advised poet Lew Welch:
You only have to hop a few feet to one side
and the whole huge machinery rolls by,
not seeing you at all.
We halt in a blackened doorway where a child offers a recycled friendship bracelet. A mop slops the stairs in the hands of a tired Cinderella. Here, where Park Avenue intersects Mirza Ghalib, a swelling microcosm boils up from under my feet:
a rainbow rests
on the curb, the broken vow
becomes a doorstep infant.
India Coffee House. The place has seen better days, but it's a must-see institution where revolutions were planned and famous artists—Satyajit Ray among them—fleshed out scenes for films, books, and stage plays. The massive high-ceilinged room has been going non-stop since the 40s, and still echoes with the chatter of students and intellectuals gathered around metal tables set with coffee and snacks. Tagore's portrait looks over them all, gracing the otherwise empty walls. The waiters wear soup-stained jackets and faux-colonial caps. They don't smile, they don't frown. They make their rounds, efficient and unrushed, under trays of steaming coffee and English sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Ceiling fans twirl, talk simmers into whispers, then rises suddenly — like a bucket of clattering nails.
Adda is the great Kolkata tradition of spirited talk, animated dialogue, hearty conversation, enlivened gossip. It reminds us of Havana coffee parlors, Hanoi espresso dives, the clink of spoons on glasses in Vera Cruz. Ascending the worn cement stairs past a hodgepodge of political posters and theater bills gummed to the walls, we're hit by the wired, bombastic buzz of discourse. This isn't the soft-spoken "let's do lunch" prattle carried on over tablecloths and heavy silverware in American cities; it's raised-howl, opinionated, sometimes funny, often combative talk rip-roaring from several bare-metal tables at once — an operatic repartee full of cerebral anecdotes; literary, political.
A good adda is refreshing and rewarding . . .
a safety valve that protects people from
the hard realities of Calcutta life.
We wonder why the India Coffee House hasn't been spruced up over the decades. Maybe the cost of paint and labor would double the price of coffee, making it too expensive for the student clientele. Coffees go for 10-12 rupees, samosas for two rupees, bread and butter is four, meat curry 23 a plate (exchange rate = 45 rupees per dollar). Nope, spiffy it up and you bring in the moneyed and exclude the students. Never! It would go against Kolkata's socialist leanings. There's something compelling about a city with an aversion to cosmetic change; with emphasis instead on the cerebral, artistic, poetic; on the austere, rough-edged beauty the Japanese call wabi. A friend in the States told us before we left: "I suspect the unrefined tumbledown quality, the anarchy and mayhem of Calcutta, would be a bit too real for most American poets." But why should it be? It's the perfect threshold, the ideal metaphor for the absolute chaos one experiences during any true creative act. How about Lorca in New York?
City of musk and sorrow with your cinnamon towers . . .
your blood shaken within dark eclipse,
your garnet violence deaf and dumb in the penumbra . . .
who could see you and not remember?
9 October, Kolkata
A general strike's been called — not unusual for Kolkata. After all, this is the city where 250,000 took to the streets to protest India's nuclear tests in the late 90s. Ranjan says any political decision made in Delhi not of the dominant Communist Party's liking will be protested locally. The strikes are effective, sometimes violent. They can shut the whole city of 15 million down overnight, cutting off water, electricity, and transportation in a wink. This morning my water stopped mid-shower; fortunately there was enough water in the bucket for a rinse. Without traffic the sky is clear; without many pedestrians the streets are, too. We enjoy another South Indian breakfast at Rao's. This time we sample upma, a toasted-semolina porridge seasoned with cumin, ginger, green chilies, chopped onion, and mustard seed (plus dwarf peas and a dash of pureed, roasted eggplant). We wash it down with fresh-squeezed lime juice in sparkling water, then return to Vasudha and Ranjan's to write in journals, and walk.
The neighborhood is full of quaint, neo-classical apartments with curved façades, art-deco ironwork, baroque balconies. It's leafy, friendly, full of life. On a three-block stroll we discover backdoor gardens filled with flowers and herbs, a woman bowing before a corner shrine, a tailor following a tissue-paper pattern with a giant scissors, a doorway marked with vermilion-paste swastikas over a table of precisely-folded shirts. A prim brick apartment is signed with SHAKESPEARE SOCIETY; a sari shop warns: NO ENTRY WITHOUT BUSINESS. On a shady corner is an aquarium on a concrete pedestal, fish playing inside (in an American city street gangs would poison the fish and smash the glass). A man walks up and says: "Oh what a fine gentleman you are," as he boards one of those minimalist rickshaws found only in Kolkata: hand pulled, wood wheeled, a single sun-cracked vinyl seat under a fragile canvas awning. We take a break at "Sree Alterations Shop."
the tailor's flatiron —
a boat on a sea
Several streets are devoted to a vegetable market. Men in lungis, women in diaphanous wraps sit on the ground before arrays of crushed spices, bitter gourds, purple mangosteens, radishes, baby potatoes, pickled lime, dal, garbanzos, jackfruit, quince, banana leaves, coconuts. Everything is spread neatly on squares of colored cloth: kindling wood, charcoal, grinding stones, cheese, milk, sweets, mustard oil, ghee; saffron, sandalwood, antimony, third-eye make up. Roots and bark are good for spontaneous bewitchment, mental cures, erections. Ground-up carapaces induce erotic dreams. You needn't spend much for a cure here; they'll give you free samples if you are dubious. And it's fun to engage, chat, and be
on your way after a simple bow with folded palms.
We buy roasted peanuts wrapped in cones made from the daily news. Hawkers converge and display their upside-down umbrellas filled with Krishna keychains, Kali magnets, bundles of votive flowers. They are disappointed but good natured when we wave them off. Other vendors hawk brass lingams, soapstone yonis, and suspicious jars of Thunderbolt Face Whitener whose label guarantees the cream will "fascinate the face for work or college, removing first apparitions of old age" (I'm due for a jar!). One man proudly balances the final matchbox on his three-foot pyramid of Jungle Fever Safety Lights, each box printed with a smiling gorilla clutching a woman in a shredded mini-skirt.
Why do we come here?
To find in reality what we usually see only in dreams.
To regain perspective within the Strange —
We meet a young French volunteer who works at Nirmal Hriday, "Place of Pure Heart," Mother Teresa's home for the dying, and take a walk over there with her. We noticed a group of Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata's airport; some Indian, some foreign, in simple blue-bordered white saris. Now we see them at Mother Teresa's, side by side with lay volunteers, tending men in one room, women in another, allowing death take to its course; no heavy pharmaceuticals in the way. The plastic-sheeted death beds are occupied by those about to give up their bodies and leave the human community. Some lie flat in semi-sleep; some are curled like spiders immobile in webs; others twist and turn, miserable in their prolonged state, leaking pools of urine which are immediately mopped by the staff. A patient growls and claws at hallucinatory visitors; another sits upright, Renée talking to her as
if she were a neighbor or relative, realizing, yes, she is both.
What code of factors determines which individuals are to be plucked from the destitute that fill Kolkata's streets and brought to Nirmal Hriday? We really don't get an answer (who has time for us amid the dying?), but I later read that when a hospital can't find space for the dying, they are taken to Nirmal Hriday where they can at least have a bed to themselves, personal attention, and some kind of rite of passage. It'd be interesting to learn exactly what drives foreigners to work at Mother Teresa's. If you're tired of peace walks and the passive signing of petitions while you watch the world being destroyed and remade for the rich, or if you want to take a sword to the ego and practice non attachment, you may be ready for Nirmal Hriday; to dirty the hands changing diapers, emptying bedpans, cleaning sores,
washing the blue rubber mats of the dying.
Mutual aid is one way to render impotent the world's rampant military machinery. No doubt humanity is ready for extinction, unless it can be steered away from its violent habits. We've got to be vigilant against tight-jawed men who find virtue in violence and create boundary after boundary—and guns, bulwarks, and barracks to go with them. I recall a tagged wall in Chiapas that would carry its message very well in Kolkata:
Guerra no, lucha sí War no, struggle yes
Apoyo Mutuo! Mutual aid!
Accion Directa— Direct action —
We don't want to become voyeurs, so don't linger at Mother Teresa's. Next door is the Kalighat Temple, circled by priests and beggars, and merchants vending mass-produced images of Kali, as well as the usual over-sweet incense, ritual brassware, hibiscus flowers, and devotional powders. The priests encourage us towards what part of the temple is okay for non Hindus — for a small fee. We aren't interested. The bloody sacrifice of goats is still performed inside, though yesterday's Telegraph said the practice has been banned in many temples of West Bengal, most recently up north in Siliguri, where the goat sellers are marching in protest. "The abandonment of the ritual is a serious threat to our business."
the dying woman —
they've moved her to the bed
closest to the door.
10 October, Kolkata
A thwarted venture to Shantiniketan village to see Rabindranath Tagore's paintings, manuscripts, and his father's ashram (in 1901 he converted it into an experimental, open-air school). After a three-hour train ride upriver from Kolkata, we arrive to find Tagore University, museum, and library closed for the holidays. Worse, the Bengali friend of a friend who's acting as our guide is rushed, of ill humor, and unable to secure the promised bicycles we were to explore the countryside on (likely he doesn't want it to happen). The experience is atypical of the usual camaraderie one enjoys with Calcuttans. We tire of walking and hire an auto rickshaw to visit a crafts shop; afterwards stop to peer through a fence at the Tagore house where an armed guard scoots us on. At a roadside dhaba we eat a rather bland egg curry with rice, then nap outdoors on charpoys in the shade of the mud-walled kitchen. Bollywood music crackles from the cook's transistor radio. A chocolate-skinned boy wearing a pink-checkered lungi brings water from the well,
hopping nimbly on one leg, his deformed one dangling.
Our guide wakes, we pay for the meal, and off we go trying to keep up with him. "I know a Dutch painter married to a tribal woman, let's go visit him." These Dutch painters are always married to tribal women. I've seen their ghosts in Bali, Thailand, Santa Fe, and now India. "I'd rather visit a farmer," I retort. We end up back on Shantiniketan's main drag amid dust and Indian tourists. There's a 6 pm a/c express train back to Kolkata, but our guide — who seems antsy to return to his European girlfriend — insists we jump the 3 pm local. Reluctantly, we agree.
It's a slow, crowded grind. The coach is bright with late-afternoon sun. The glow illuminates the dark skin and glass bangles of village women, the taught, curious faces of their farmer husbands, the wispy silhouettes of their sparkling-eyed daughters, and a jumble of brass cook pots, farm tools, and cackling hens. It's the only "light" moment of the venture — ironically having to do with the quality of light being cast by the reddened sun lowering over rice fields hazed with moisture and dust. Some writers would say "Monet-like light," leaning on the obvious European reference. But this is the light of India, strictly of this place. I mention it to our guide, and he gives his only smile of the day: "This light is particular to our continent. We call it godhuli—'time when cows come home'. It is the hue made by kicked-up dust, the kind of golden haze one should first see his bride by."
a steady gaze
from the farmer's daughter
sharpening her knife.
Late afternoon. We pull into a station called Prantik, "the end" (certainly feels like it!). Here we learn that we must change to an even slower train. The massive crowd of transferring passengers literally sweeps us off our feet, up, over, down the bridge to the other side of the platform. I'm literally carried by the press of the mob, feet dangling above the walkway. The new train is impossibly jammed. We are wedged into a cage-like bogy with barred windows, ceiling fans rotating, hawkers hawking, minstrels singing off key, rattling their alms bowls. Countless staring farmers surround us. For the remaining two hours to Howrah Station we put up with the overtaking of what little room we have on our hard wooden benches by the expertise of those familiar with the art of finding a few square inches of seat — right between our legs. At one stop the urchins appear: little girls in canary saris wearing paper wings, cheeks pasted with sequins and red dots. They carry toy bows and arrows and meander through the crowd reciting verses from the Ramayana — then demand money. Next comes a blind kid being led by his sisters, or maybe he's just faking, eyes closed. He does his job well, though, and ends with a cup full of rupees, and we with a well-fingered card:
DEAR SIR / MADEM, BEARER OF THIS APPEAL IS BLIND & GOTS FITS
COMPLAINT. HIS TWO SISTERS ARE DUMP & LAMB WITH NO INCOM
BUT TO SEEK YOUR HELP FOR THEIR LIVELY HOOD ON EARTH.
MAY THE GODS BLESS YOU WITH FOOD, HLEATH & WELTH.
The finale is Howrah itself, the largest train station in the world. "Never ride third class," I'd warned Renée before India. Previous experience proved that taking a train with no reserved seats into a big city station meant bulldozing out of the bogy, screaming like a 49ers' quarterback, all arms and elbows, as oncoming passengers simultaneously stampeded aboard crushing anyone in their way: cripple, orphan, little Mother Teresas, the old baba on his crutch. I suppose one should have compassion for these charging maniacs. They're usually the lowest of low: tired, hungry workers slaving all day for next-to-nothing pay; all they want is to return to their
dirt-floor abodes sitting, not standing.
On our own we would have lingered in Shantiniketan, taken the express, and avoided what we were about to face. As the train slows into Howrah, the waiting masses begin their charge, running alongside the coach, grabbing window bars and door rails before it comes to a stop. I fear for Renée, but she doesn't need my protection. She's amazingly up to the challenge, even enjoying herself. She immediately puts into action (or non-action) her Aikido practice, lowering her posture, narrowing her stance, bringing arms in around face, becoming small and agile. And it works! She's easily out of the coach before her husband, who's busy reacting, resisting, complaining — wishing none of it was happening—yelling and charging like a bull, only to be stopped
by the lead weight of several other bulls.
11 October, Kolkata
Tonight we take the double-tier sleeper train down the coast to the temple city of Puri. I'm leery of returning to Howrah. Renée humors my apprehension. "All of it, even when you're imagining it, even when you're in the belly of it, is only temporary." I suggest we take a plane. No, she laughs. We're going with the plan. "How will we find the right platform in that mad crowd, or know which train is ours?" No response. Howrah it shall be.
Last night we visited the idiosyncratic Fairlawn Hotel on Sudder Street, an old standard (the building's been there since 1783) still run by the heirs of the original pre-independence British managers. The lobby reeked of fresh green paint, the staff busy re-tacking the walls with framed memorabilia, ticking clocks, and some awful ceramic knickknacks. Writers like Eric Newby and Dominique Lapierre have stayed here, as well as actors like Shashi Kapoor and Patick Swayze, presidents like Clinton, and a famous 1950s wrestler named "King Kong" who broke every chair he sat on. The leafy garden was a relief from Kolkata's heat, its big trees strung with festive lights, tables set with cold Kingfisher lagers, chairs filled with an interesting mix of travelers, business people, eclectic urbanites, and a few Bengali socialites planted amid them checking out the action.
A French lad appeared at our table, pulling up a chair next to the Mother Teresa volunteer who was part of our randomly-assembled group. They began talking in French but she quickly switched to English, partly out of politeness, partly because the conversation was not of her liking. He was a backpacker. Dark-ringed eyes, badly-cut hair, cold sores leaking at his mouth corners. And plenty to whine about: "There is nothing amazing about India. Two weeks I am here and I find nothing incredible. So now I leave."
He glanced around for a response. I threw in my two cents: "amazement happens when you least expect." "Like what?" he scoffed. I told the story of our first morning in Kolkata. The child-like trolley appearing from nowhere, vanishing in a flash, cantering between peeling mansions with their bars-of-music wrought iron. I tried to evoke the sense of wonder it generated: "Like a dream, except it was real. You could climb aboard, disappear." No reaction. I described walking the alley where Kali had her tongue out over a beggar lying on a sidewalk paved with the word MAYA. The French boy was unmoved. "It is better I leave."
I thought of Mallarmé: "A toss of the dice will never abolish chance," but kept the words to myself. "Where do you want to go?" I asked. "Andaman Islands, Thailand, maybe the Similans. I need to move." I suggested he slow down, give India a chance, take some unexpected turns. This upset him. "I'm 23 years old. I've done the contemplative thing. I want action." He took a swig from someone's beer and got up. Jesus, I thought, only 23 and he's done with the introspective thing? Unhappy, looking for an escape, he grabbed his tower of a backpack and was off in a flurry. George Orwell once wrote: "At age fifty every man wears the face he deserves." This kid was already wearing that face. As he went out the gates I noticed a big box of Cornflakes tied to his pack (restaurants catering to Westerners list them on their menus as: "Corn Fakes").
a cool breeze from
the passing waitress.
We repack for tonight's train ride and the Orissa coast. Boots and jackets we brought for the Himalayas we'll leave behind, taking only light cottons and sandals. Vasudha fixes us a fine Bengali meal: spicy shrimp in mustard paste, tomato curry, brown basmati rice, alu, and okra — followed by masala chai. We — try calling Kolkata poet, P. Lal, but his wife informs us that he's terribly sick with bronchitis after their holidays. "It was the freezing air-conditioning on the Puri sleeper train that made him ill." We wish him quick recovery and decide to pack our Himalayan scarves
and wool hats for the same train ride.
There's an immediate camaraderie here with Ranjan, Vasudha, Mishti and all their visiting friends: artists, writers, songsters, movie makers. Seems if you work and think and jostle along the right path, it moves you towards what you need: the people, the places, the encouragement; perhaps even the rewards (though maybe not the kind you were imagining!). The requirements: be yourself, tune your ears, give room for whatever rises from the ferment to reveal its truth.
Our business as poets is not to be successful,
but to be honest, see past the muck, go beyond it
— in our lives, our visions, our work.
So many clever poets out there tolerating each other, while elbowing to the top of the pack, nestling up to those who control the money and power. Wiser to become smaller as you age, less visible, less connected with literary establishments that juggle people around, setting up competitive situations that dampen creativity. With honest comrades along a narrow path, you can be who you are, and garner a success more worthy than what the establishment has planned for you. Everything that poetry often tries to be — bigger, better, louder — goes against its nature. I'll always bow to the words of Vietnamese writer, Le Thi Diem Thuy: "People are often larger than their situation. Make yourself small in order to absorb it all. Pull everything into a kind of cool perception. Pull the people who are in the backdrop forward." Become the face you do not know. The precise cinema of the world won't spill off its reel into the body unless nerve receptors are relaxed, ready to perk. Keep cool and the heat of your encounters will rise into clear flame. Start with the emotion, write from what unfolds. Any order of arriving imagery within the ungainly randomness that surrounds is the right order from which to begin.
It's good to be sharing Ranjan and Vasudha's flat with co-creators in whom we can trust. No hierarchy, no this side or that. We can divulge the specifics of our individual selves; be teasing, provocative, vulnerable, and totally "in" because we're outside the loop. Best of all, we can hang out after everybody leaves, knowing the party's never over. Kerouac, in an early journal (he was in his twenties) celebrates "solace in the raw world. In Human people, loving, trusting people … a classless society undivided by pomps and worldly vanities and envies — a dream not of perfection in the world but of simple desire for happiness and fruition, a sincere struggle."
haiku competition —
all those 5-7-5 poets
moving their fingers.
We take another walk in our neighborhood. Effigies of Kali in makeshift shrines. Sewing machines working overtime. Carpenters flying about like spider monkeys on bamboo scaffolding. Each block tries to outdo the other with a painted deity, tinseled temple, and a knee-jiggling band of musicos drumming and tooting while frenzied dancers lose consciousness amid popping fireworks. One shrine's canvas is spray-painted bronze and scarlet, its entrance spanned by a split-bamboo arch braided with marigolds. It's like feast days in New Mexico: the dusty plaza of Jemez, deities arranged on a plastic-flowered altar inside an open-air shrine plaited with juniper boughs. People kneeling on the ground, eating from paper plates (in India it would be banana leaves). Chile, posole, boiled squash, bread pudding, coffee. The caciques firing rifles as half-humans/half-animals prance into the plaza, their anthropomorphic presence not unlike Ganesha with elephant head and human body, or Hanuman with Superman torso and monkey head. A world not quite what you see, that's the world I want to live in.
Resting on the earth
who needs satori or faith?
Embrace what holds you!
12 October, Puri
Hazy, humid, fierce breakers, bad undertow. No one trusts the skinny lifeguards walking the beach or playing cards with barely-inflated inner tubes around their waists. Indian families bathe fully clothed, the women revealing just about as much in their wet, skin-pressed saris as they would in the raw. More is less. They look very erotic this way.
a smile from the dark one
as she struggles from the surf
tangled in wet silk.
We lodge in a two-story manor that formerly belonged to the raja of Serampore: $10 for two. Inside the thick walls it's naturally cool. Our room is airy, with ample bed, huge bathroom, plenty of hot water — though it's hardly needed. Bougainvilleas lace the balcony, the Bay of Bengal sparkling between their magenta flowers. We shower, order prawns, cucumber salad, two beers, and settle in. The staff is friendly, the cook — as we are to learn — is a master with fresh seafood. The desk clerk is the Orissan version of Screaming Jay Hawkins in Mystery Train. He doesn't have a gruff voice, but whispers sweetly — perpetually bent over a massive hotel register, doing his duty, pencil in hand, a responsible but mischievous look in his eye.
Before bed we linger in Puri's sultry night, share a tall bottle of beer, review notes we've scribbled on Kolkata's sidewalks, trams, and tea stalls. Kolkata isn't on the map for most Americans. They can't imagine how much JUICE it has. Its people, conversations, streets, architecture, and nonstop stream-of-consciousness imagery is so entrenched in my body that it continues to boil up and out through
my pen like a dervish under the desk lamp.
I want to return to Howrah Station . . .
Getting there from downtown Kolkata was a broken-shock, bald-tire, sagging-spring acid trip. I think the mad cabbie thought the faster he drove, the higher his tip would be. What a thundering daredevil—squeezing through impossible spaces with persistent horn honk, rapid acceleration (my neck still hurts) and staccato braking. But he got us there, plenty of time to spare. From central Kolkata you have to cross the Hooghly, inching your way over its dark waters on the 27,000-ton Howrah Bridge. By foot, rickshaw, bus, or taxi you fight your way through the clamor, sucking in exhaust and spittle-hack, ears pounding with rattling trestle bars, clobbering hoof-kick, and wallah-shout over slow-turning axels of carts piled with rebar and rice. If you hail an antique cab, likely its meter will be broken, its windows down, and bumper to bumper you will creep, inhaling toxins behind a hundred other taxis, revving and shoving through acetylene flare of welders strapped to the sad fretwork of cables and mesh. And always there's the rag-of-a-doll child, scarcely out of the womb, precariously close to the traffic, outstretched in the begging mother's arms. Or a spindly guy, half alive, pedaling a makeshift contraption, his head like a burnt match,
eye-level with rusty bumpers.
Below the bridge, guttering lights of top-heavy barges splutter by. Above, the sky is a hazy all-night khaki. Vague movie-set shapes brighten and disappear in factory flare. Billboards light up with giant legs, vodka bottles, pearl chokers, silk underwear, Japanese televisions, perfumed eyelashes, and sexy laptops — but not plow handles, yokes, scythes, or seed. Above a brittle nest of destitute campers in the street, a pharmaceutical company's billboard depicts a baby sleeping inside a big blue pill:
WE HELP YOU LIVE LONGER.
Kolkata gives unbelievable dimension to joy and despair. In other cities, these adjectives are often a veneer. In Kolkata they swell from a dark, paroxysmal pool like a glowing anemone; or they retreat into an eclipse of cloying purple ferment. One has a sensation of morphine in the limbs, a rubbery fatigue (like Artaud describes) not of muscular tension, but "a fatigue of cosmic Creation, a sensation that the body is being dragged on and on." Kolkata is picture show upon picture show, a kaleidoscope of disembodied imagery. One feels incredible fragility coupled with staunch determination. I'm going to make it to the next block. I'm not going to wince at dire odds.
I am going forward with utmost hope.
"Compassionate" is a better word for Kolkata than adjectives of spectral despair most westerners bequeath upon this city. Compassion for millions of refugees from Bangladesh, Kashmir, Bihar — and for the sagging infrastructure that can hardly bear their weight. Between 1947 and 1951 alone, nearly two million uprooted migrants entered West Bengal. They were accommodated, even if sewn-together tarps were the only way. Resilience, resourcefulness, and cooperation are taken beyond their conceivable limits in Kolkata. By comparison, America (who likes to brag of its wealth and superiority) couldn't even deal with an emergency like Katrina. A New Orleans neighboring city actually refused hungry, homeless refugees from the floodwaters;
they were turned back with guns.
Kolkata provokes the most unimaginable emotions. Sometimes it's a startling wonderment, an unfolding lotus blooming from turbid muck. Other times it's the collapse of everything familiar into the teeth of a grinding gear. Maybe you had no belief in the the Divine Goddess (or in her Kali aspect), but if you give yourself over to Kolkata, the breakdowns and alembic highs, you soon come away knowing she's there. From her were born the gods, and yourself with all your concepts of god. Like Alice, you grow smaller, able to fit through any door.
You discover humility, and in humility, courage.
Kolkata. Elegant, vitreous, immune, defenseless. You want to get where you are going but where you are going is where you are. Titillations and sidetracks rupture all plans — because they are all absorbing. I sometimes hear Baudelaire, or Piaf, faceless in the crowd; watch Kali dance from the strings of Leadbelly. I hear the Marvelettes sing from an open-mouthed gargoyle; feel the ghost of Patsy Cline. I fall to Pieces. I melt like the stripes of a tiger. I bed down inside the eternal conversation — with the electrician, the poet, the floor scrubber. Or find relief in the sheets, tangled up with Parvati, searching for her lost earring. I hear puja-clang, tabla patter, a wheezing box organ, and discover Gandhi — not in the Oxford Bookstore — but as a nameless genie in exhaust haze, his glasses fogged in the essential mystery, the guesswork of anticipation. I hear Ginsberg, too:
An ogre goes with every rose,
a bee sting guards the honey . . .
But I had been talking about Howrah Station . . .
its church-like chamber, its brown echoing halls. The smell of coughdrops, paan, lime, and leather. The clinggg of bangles, the monologues of the lonely. Myrrh on the earlobes, antimony at the eye corners. Sweat, acrid and sweet, from necklines and secret folds. Vishnu's miniature foot dangling above the cleavage of the musk-nippled bride to be. A handbook on right attitude might help you through Howrah. Or a logistics manual to figure the math on how to perfectly sidestep the overloaded porters, the crazed rush of commuters, a sudden pothole, a slippery streak of spilled ghee, the sleepers on the floor inside their temporary suitcase walls. A little lunacy might help, too. Inside Howrah are more people than you will likely see at one time in one place in your entire life. Amid the ticket holders, some people seem camped forever on the floor — no ticket, no home, no goal. The same sleepers you'll see on the ghats of Varanasi — only their destination is death; they have come to camp in Shiva's city next to the Ganges. They have come for moksha, liberation;
the final crossing of the river to the Far Shore.
The amazing thing about Howrah is that it works. What seems like pure anarchy holds a certain intuitive order. People are helpful. We found our track with ease, and to our amazement, in a station handling millions daily, our names were posted on the dispatch board along with train, coach, and berth numbers;
everything booked online 12,000 miles away.
The train to Puri . . .
Once aboard, people eight to eighty climb into assigned berths, undo bedding from paper wraps, and make up their bunks. A slumber party on wheels.
under the newlyweds' blanket.
We meet an Indian couple from Orissa, Anita and Sanmath, who lived and worked ten years in the States, sold their home, and are returning to India. By the time we awake to Orissa's shimmering rice fields, we've been invited to Anita's mother's home in the old part of Puri. They want to share prasad with us — sacred food prepared in the famous Jagannath Temple and blessed by the deities. We thank them, make a plan, and go back to watching the remaining two hours of scenery pass by: mango groves, sparkling paddies, snowy herons riding water buffalos, kids splashing in ponds, clay roads glinting like flint, oxcarts filled with pick-and-bucket village women in parrot-colored saris. Where to, where from? And how can time be measured with clock hands amid such beauty, such sadness, the whole show
lopsidedly creaking along on wobbling wheels?
I brush my teeth in the stainless steel sink at the end of the bogy, and recall my first Indian train ride, 35 years ago: Delhi to Hardwar, a holy city at the foot of the Himalayas. Blurry eyed, stumbling down the aisle to the toilet, I stopped dead in my tracks. At the washbasin were two naked sadhus wearing only saffron thongs. They had their backs toward me, huge buttocks shaking madly side to side with the train's rhythm. Zealously, they went about their morning toilet: brushing teeth with neem twigs, scrubbing beards, smoothing eyebrows, twisting dreads, applying stripes of paint, crowning their heads with flowers.
Who paid them any attention? No one but me.
14 October, Puri
Wake to 4 a.m. conch sounding from nearby Hanuman Temple. Damp stone, damp odors of dung and boat calk. The first glint of lavender sky brings women up the temple steps, saris flowing; incense, oils, and flowers in tiny brass buckets. After puja they dodge the temple cows and continue down the alley to the beach. At 9, Anita and Sanmath meet us to stroll the breakers and have breakfast. There's a shorefront café, right in the sand; we order lassis, spicy vegetable omelets, fresh papaya, bananas, and coffee. The sea coils and foams. Salt crusts on our cheeks. The inner waters of the body surge to meet the earth's waters. Fishermen ride the waves under triangular sails, the old Arabian sails that catch the wind from any direction (Columbus' square sails could sail him in only one direction). With quick precision, the fishermen maneuver the surf, returning from a "day's" work, though day has hardly begun.
the boats arrive,
scent of fresh catch.
Renée and I spend the rest of the day walking without plan, glad to be in Puri, one India's holiest pilgrimage sites. The Jagannath Temple is on our itinerary, so is Konarak, the 13th-century Sun Temple an hour up the coast. Puri's growth is alarming, most noticeable along the beach. It's not the laid-back hippie retreat of the 70s, nor the kicked-back place of the 90s. Residents claim the town has tripled in population since then. New hotels are everywhere, one blocking another and both blocking the original Sea View Paradise or Ocean Breeze Lodge, where there's no sea to be viewed nor breeze to be caught. Many hotels are unfinished, or finished in a slapdash way. Rebar pokes from sloppy brickwork, garish signs hang from unpainted balconies, sewers can't hold their wastes.
"Things have changed" is the new mantra in Puri. The village of yore is under the mire. Green fields and flowering orchards are beneath the arterial roads, boxboard slums, public housing, and the glass-front offices of corporations who prioritize shareholders and overseas investment, not the locals. My father grew up with the ice wagon and lived to see the exploration of Mars, yet he always said the biggest change during his lifetime was in human relationships: "people have lost their respect for one another." That was in the '90s; now the change has been moved up several notches. The sensible pace of village life is under the dust of a new global upward-mobile crowd operating on fast forward, prioritizing "I, me, my." Human relationships have become marketer-consumer relationships. While seller and buyer pursue their material cravings, they are in turn pursued by stress, worry, suspicion, dissatisfaction, and orneriness. The pharmaceutical industry is having a ball with anti-depressants, sleeping pills, pain killers, and relaxants. The electronics industry, too, is enjoying its plunder, providing "great escapes" for the mired under. Television, the computer screen, the mobile phone; the 21st century's terminal disease is the "stay connected" phenomenon: wherever you are, you can be where you're not. And nobody's going to care. Because they're not there, too.
stepping from her limo
the bride parts her veil
to check her messages.
At four p.m. we meet Anita, Sanmath, and their little girl, Alicia. We hop a rickshaw towards Anita's mother's house in old Puri. Shops in narrow alleys sell handloom silks and cottons, religious paraphernalia, hand-painted seashells, astrological charts, and quirky papier-mâché idols of Lord Jagannath. The crowd begins to pick up, a nervous, trembling sensation. We sidetrack into the craziness around the outer walls of Jagannath's abode. Behind its fortress-like barricades are dozens of mini temples and a massive 24-hour kitchen that serves a non-stop flood of pilgrims. There's a whole population of priests who do nothing but attend the idol of Lord Jagannath, and there are assorted guides, not only for westerners, but for Indian tourists from afar who seem as perplexed by it all as we are.
Nightfall. We peruse the trinket stalls, watch the crowd. The temple's many-tiered domes — breasts, nipples, phallic-ribbed lingams—are lit with colored lights. Across the street, we pay a small fee to enter the Raghunandan Library, a dank centuries-old building housing rare palm-leaf manuscripts. From its flat roof facing the Jagannath Temple, we watch ant-like pilgrims parade into the brightly-lit portals of the inner sanctum. Everywhere sacred cows laze with indifference, casting weird silhouettes on the walls. Juxtaposed with their bony hulks are the bladelike bodies of women wisping along with armloads of flowers, oils, and sweets. Occasionally a bangle, an anklet, a nose ring glints as the women vanish into the blinding light at the temple entrance. Behind them follows the indiscriminate mob, from which stands out a trident-wielding sadhu, a khaki cop, a monkey-like band of ragged mendicants, an upper-caste family glued to cell phones, stepping from a chauffer-driven Ambassador.
From our vantage point — the closest we can get as non Hindus—the temple looks like something from War of the Worlds, an alien ship set down from outer space, round and squat, phosphorescence bleeding from its honeycombed portals. Who knows what goes on inside. Delirium, devotee insanity, spiritual Fantasia, erotic gyrations under hallucinogenic strobes? From here there's only the mystery of the walls, and from behind them a frenzied, psychotic derangement of clanging bells, screaming horns, lewd slaps, bolts of popping electricity, fog of syrupy incense. Suffocation, disorientation. A moist, hammering lunacy. A place where pain, quarreling, caste wars, politics, and family rivalries are temporarily pacified with spiritual anesthesia. It's crazy carnival madness, a very ostentatious public display of worship. Yet, it seems to work, seems to rouse the senses, focus the worshipers on the divine as they reach to sound the brass bell, purify the body with fire, fill the nostrils with nectar.
all that Buddha
still in place.
We find our way down the library steps onto the streets. A parade is in process, profuse with clamor, the volume hostile. A multi-armed deity smiles inside a flaprag tent on the bed of a rusted truck wreathed with tinsel. Smoke spirals from her see-through attire; a sparkling tiara bobs on her matted locks. Following behind her are two rows of brightly-garbed men tied one to another by thick electric cords that light the high-voltage candles they hold at their chests. Slowly they march, like astronauts strung together with lifelines, the wires bringing electricity between their arms, powered by a chugging generator mounted on a jeep bringing up the rear, its tailgate painted with H O R N M E.
On the town parapets are furry silhouettes — monkeys. Exactly human in shape, they perform the same public acts we do: nose picking, hair preening, lice scratching, the dutiful rearranging of balls, the adjusting of breasts to feed the young. An explosion of sky rockets sprays us with sparks. Renée gets slammed into by a sacred cow. Conch shells drone from alcoves. A beggar pokes a finger into my ribs. Crows flap from the stars to snatch the leaf-wrapped offerings left by pilgrims. Sensory fatigued, but in good cheer, we hail a rickshaw and are off
to the quieter lanes where Anita's mother lives.
We're warmly welcomed, served milk tea and a delicious array of samosas and pakoras on plastic saucers — all of us kicking back on a giant bed between the earthen walls of a simple room decorated with bands of painted flowers. A throwback to Pueblo festivities in New Mexico, the spontaneous welcome by strangers into baked mud or cinder block homes, the instant pleasure of coffee, hominy,
and chile. The laughter.
Within moments arrives a relative with prasad, the sacred temple food. Anita sets the floor with banana leaves and onto them places the red and white sweetened rice, fried roti, vegetable curry, sweet and salty dal, a lime-salt-chili side spice, and an unbelievably rich milk-solid dessert. Water is served in a large brass pitcher—brass providing the necessary ayurvedic properties to purify the water. Everything is eaten with the right hand, sitting cross legged on reed mats. Anita says "We're glad to be giving this to you. America has given us so much."
Sanmath describes how Puri swells with a hundred thousand pilgrims each June during Rath Yatra, the chariot festival. "The hotels are packed, every rooftop crammed with people watching the chariots. Jagannath's car is five stories high, the two smaller ones carry his elder brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra. Crowds of men pull them on giant wheels with bare hands and ropes. Fanatics, all of them. They dance for days."
In Sanskrit Jagannath means "Lord of the Universe." Jagat/Universe; Nath/Lord. It's the root of the English word Jaggernaut, "unstoppable thing." Hindus regard him as Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. Originally Jagannath was a village god; there are many versions of his story, this one pulled from a Michael Castro letter:
"There once was a king who was a great devotee of Vishnu. He prayed hard for Vishnu to incarnate in Orissa to preserve the dharma. One night he heard the voice of Vishnu telling him to go to the ocean and look for a special sacred piece of wood that could be fashioned into a new incarnation of Vishnu. The king wandered by the shore and found a piece of wood darker than he had ever seen, and so hard that none of his carpenters could cut it with their axes or dent it with their chisels. The king didn't know what to do until one day a being appeared who announced himself as Visvakarma, the carpenter who could do the required job on the wood. All he needed, he said, was a room to himself to do the work, and to be left alone and not interrupted for 21 days until he was finished. The king and the queen recognized him as a supernatural being and dubbed him the Celestial Carpenter. They gave him a room and vowed not to bother him. He set to work and the king and queen rejoiced in the sounds of his hammering and scraping through the closed door. On the seventh day, however, no noise came from the room. On the eighth, when there was no sign of activity, the queen became so curious and concerned that she talked the king into opening the door. Visvakarma stopped his work on the spot and vanished. Thus Jagannath and his little brother and sister remain incomplete — physically blockish figures, stumps for arms and legs, and crude cartoonish eyes." The king placed the unfinished figures inside a temple and every year a grand procession was held during which the three deities were dressed in jewels and wheeled through Puri on an immense carriage. To this day, anyone who sees Lord Jagannath or pulls his chariot attains spiritual merit. People carry on a personal rapport with Jagannath in their homes, too, talking to him intimately through a priest, sometimes even cursing him out like they would an irritating family member.
his blessing, the swami
asks for a cigarette
15 October, Puri
Woke last night with ill effects. It's not India, not the food, not the water. It's the anti-malaria pill. Haven't taken one since Peace Corps days. The effects were weird enough then, but this takes the cake. We were talked into it by an old India hand who warned that mosquitoes would be a problem in Orissa, especially after monsoon flooding. Larium, the recommended medicine, we learn is outdated; the label warns: "not recommended for bi-polar, manic, or chronically depressed people" (what about poets?). Both times we took it we woke with nightmares. Renée dreamed of a best friend shooting up and driving her car over a cliff. I watched fierce-eyed dogs shit in a cathedral while I suffocated between grotesque bodies in the choir loft. Got writer's block? Take Larium. You'll have no trouble with imagery. The final test: you'll either laugh at your dreams or contemplate suicide. We dump the meds and decide our best insurance is a dab of repellent and long-sleeve shirts after sundown. Mosquito net? Too hot; a ceiling fan directly over the bed works just fine.
We'll take a morning stroll, proceed to Konarak, then tomorrow take a two-hour train to Bhubaneshwar to explore old Orissan temples. We hope to visit Dhauli, too, site of the 3rd century BCE battle after which king Ashoka embraced non-violence and spread Buddhism across the Indian empire.
On our walk we discover a sandy path to the waves where there's a miniature shrine gleaming in the sun: birthday-cake breast, saffron pennant waving from gold nipple. The mud wall around the shrine is slowly deteriorating at bottom. Along the top of the wall there's a freshly-painted warning:
CLEAN HABITS SHOW GOOD MIND
PLEASE DO NOT PISS HERE
In the bazaar we buy a crude chiseled-wood, raccoon-eyed trio of Jagannath and his two siblings — 20 cents for the three. There's a ladder propped against a clothing store, a sign painter on the top rung painting super-realistic panties, boxer shorts, sleeveless t-shirts, and bras, slowly filling in the slogan:
SKIN FRIENDLY TOP EXPORT
FITS TIGHT COMFORT
We purchase bottled water and etched palm-leaf bookmarks at Cold Goods World Trade Store. When we ask for toilet paper, the owner smiles, takes his last rat-chewed roll from the top shelf, and sells it to us for 15 rupees. I blow off the dust and grumble about the dirt. "Why does it matter?" he says with a frown. "You're going to get it dirty anyway."
On the bridge over the open-sewer river that flows from Puri into the Bay of Bengal, three village women clad in flower-patterned saris meticulously decorate the iron railings with puja designs using rice and unopened hibiscus flowers. When they finish, they fold palms to breasts and pray towards the ocean. I appreciate their devotion, but appreciate more the active devotion by townsfolk to protesting the open sewers flowing into the sea. Puri's officials have finally met their demands. The city is installing underground sewers, albeit there are now complaints that the pipes are too small. Daily, the husbands of women like those on the bridge (we're told they come from Tamil Nadu) dig ditches with crude metal scrapers. A single shovel tied to a rope and hefted by a pair of men lifts the tailings from the ditches.
We say goodbye to Anita and Sanmath. They've certainly laid claim to a wider world, having left Puri to enjoy a new life in America, yet with a strong homeland identity, they've returned to re-establish roots. Just like others we've met in recent travels that tried America, achieved what they wanted, but decided their native lands might hold a better life. Over tea and ice cream we share a laugh about a driver we hired for an excursion to an artisan village two days ago. Hoping to go to America, he learned English, and bragged how good he could speak. "Speaking English 15 years," he kept saying. But that's about all we understood all day long. "We go pissing willage (fishing village)." "No down step latrine use road" (don't step out of the car onto the road shoulder because they use it for a latrine). "Poor guy," Sanmath chuckles, "He didn't know he'd been speaking bad English for 15 years!" Of course, what little he spoke was infinitely better than our Orissan.
15 October, Konarak
Easy ride from Puri along a pretty stretch of ocean, though many of the causarina trees are ragged and broken from the 1999 cyclone. The forest seems numbed, void of its original strength, still in the state of shock. Water's rough, horizon filled with purple salt mist. The few fishing boats that have ventured out at dawn are already in. A lonely, abandoned feeling pervades. Konarak is another story, though. Hoards of Indians are there when we arrive, doing the fast-paced pilgrimage circuit. Only a few foreigners. We are singled out by more than one vacationing Indian family who want us to pose with all the relatives in front of the ruins. We feel like movie stars yanked from one group to another, greetings exchanged, cameras clicking. After the Indian families move on, we escape into the walled sanctuaries.
It takes some settling and adjusting — to the physical site, the tourists, the ornate complexity of stone — before the eye adjusts. The main attraction is the 100-foot multi-tiered stone temple built to resemble a chariot. It rises from a plinth banded with friezes of parading elephants, musicians, rambling flora, and entwined lovers. The chariot, the celestial cart of Surya, the sun god, is at first hard to visualize. We are too close. But when we discover the huge stone wheels— symbols of the solar year — sculpted on the north and south sides, their hubs carved with miniature couples in
erotic poses, it begins to become clear.
In ancient times, the chariot must have been incredible. Seven sculpted horses drawing it toward the dawn. Fire burning under carved deities wrapped in hand-woven cloth. Priests blowing conch shells from the cardinal points. Dancers in the pillared hall. Yogis along the river perfecting mantras to the rising sun. A 200-foot tower rose behind the chariot, but it's rubble now. As is the harbor which the temple overlooked — trade ships docking from all over Southeast Asia. After the river that fed it changed course, the bay silted in. Konarak is now three kilometers from the ocean, but dig deep enough and surely the old port would reveal itself — beneath the trinket stalls and tour booths around the kiosk where you buy a ticket, cross the manicured lawn, and walk into the restored temple.
between the crush of feet
a perfect white blossom
opens to the sky.
While Indian families speed along, we linger before elaborately-carved erotica on the upper level, the kama level, where couples copulate in every conceivable position, arms and legs voluptuously entwined in often impossible poses — sweetly caressing, seriously embracing, giving each other the go ahead with tender foreplay and ribald teasing. A woman raises an arm to remove a bangle, a man fondles the earring of a courtesan, an open palm cups a breast, fingers run through locks of hair, a hand slides down a hip, a toe tickles a toe. A favored place for sure, an altar where male and female join, transfigure, meet the Divine. Quite unlike the altar I knew as a child — all those saints and virgins fully dressed, standing alone,
suffering through their pleas and lamentations.
Here, couples do it under the blue quilt of the sky, an open-air party of unabashed lovemaking where bodies perform outrageous asanas, draw their limbs up, achieve ecstasy while honoring the gods. Konarak celebrates earthly and divine, carnal and celestial. Male and female are not in opposition, but reconciled in delight. A man stands on his head using fingers and cock to please three women at once. A girl hangs upside down from her partner's shoulders, bending backward to suck him while he puts his lips between her legs. A youth takes his girl from behind, her lavish buttocks raised, shoulders arched, head thrust back as she takes another man into her mouth. "Exuberance is Beauty," wrote Blake, and beauty pulses everywhere here. India at its most sensuous — and, for some, at its most shocking. In one not-too-secret nook is a gentleman masturbating next to a youth tickling the slit of his consort. There's always somebody peeking, too; parting the bushes to learn from an adept couple exalting in the playful tingle of intercourse.
his waist, the village beauty
half undone, guides him in.
The heightened transport in which one lover dissolves into another and both disappear into a threshold is what Salman Rushdie writes about in Vina Divina. He calls that threshold a state of where "glory bursts upon us and the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an 'eff' of the ineffable." But how aloof from this state of grace we've become; busy with our separate pantheons, our mercantile and military strategies, our superiorities and petty battles. "Our lives are not what we deserve," Rushie says, "they are in many painful ways deficient." But, he adds, "song turns our lives into something else."
Konarak's walls are plentiful with songsters. On a tier below the heavy-breathing pleasure givers, a frieze of celestial musicians wavers in the heat. Naked, they chant into momentum the dance of the lovers above them. "Song shows us a world that is worthy of our yearning, it shows us our selves as they might be, if we were worthy of the world." (Vina Divina)
These lovers aren't switching off the lights to do it. They're sun washed, rain stroked, diaphanously dressed for the occasion — in bangles, diadems, necklaces, anklets, and bells. Their play is real play. Transcendence between earthly and heavenly, secular and sacred. At Konarak, everything to be avoided by the purse-lipped and prudish is in full display, as if to say: take it easy, give yourself permission, uncloud your judgment, start with the body, let its beauty and pleasures move you into the sublime.
Too much of the pale criminal
is with us and not enough
Jack Kerouac in an early journal. A devout but questioning Catholic, he was always pondering the morality issue. The morality issue! How difficult to be raised within its confines, to embark upon the high wire, to walk without net out from under the puritanical do-it-in wraps syndrome, the grit your teeth to redemption thing, the down on your knees on cactus pads trip. Should butterflies wrap themselves in coats, or caterpillars hide their feelers? The rest of JK's entry:
Moral concepts, a form of melancholy.
Not for me, not for me! Let's have a morality
that does not exclude sheer life.
Eventually Muslims would sack Konarak's figures; uptight Christians would dismiss the sculpture as shameless. Western know-it-alls would write things like: "temple whores, sinister orgiastic rites, amorous dalliance." A 1929 British guide, Murray's handbook of India, states (on Bible-thin pages): "There are very fine carved figures of green chlorite on the walls, but unhappily much of the decor is of licentious character."
Licentious character? Best to read Alan Watts, Ajit Mookerjee, or Philip Rawson; not dubious "authorities" who draw a stuffy, academic veil over the candid beauty of Indian sculpture; who imply that art is separate from life, that Konarak's lovers should dance in the dark, that we should hide our eyes from them (nobody does) or scoot the children on to less-touchy art (nobody does). Surely, behind the face of the god who frowns there's another who smiles and asks us to do ourselves a favor: take a break from our puritan hangups; examine a green leaf, a naked damselfly, the undressed brilliance of one's lover in the full flame of the sun.
Alan Watts gives us an idea of Konarak's images in their original state: "the stone polished and painted in vivid color, Surya, the Sun God going on his diurnal joy ride." He describes the chariot as an elaborately-carved pyramid "supported by hundreds of apsaras (celestial courtesans), devas (angel-gods), nagas (serpent equivalents of mermen and mermaids), yakshas (genii), and gandharvas (celestial musicians). Most of them are engaged in some form of sexual play — copulation, masturbation, cunnilinctus, fellatio, fondling, kissing — the leptosomic apsaras with full hemispherical bosoms, narrow waists, and curvaceous buttocks hanging like vines upon their lovers. Actually, the image is more of a float than a chariot — an ancient and no-holds-barred version of a Mardi Gras vehicle — for the entire scene is no other than the archetypal orgy or 'holy day,' the Sabbath which is 'time-out' from the normal conventions and regulations of society."
Thumbs up! We all need a ride on Surya's sunmobile, a secret "time-out" where conformity, regulations, and orthodoxies go into the waste bin to be replaced by an all-permissive "holy day" where, without shame, we blissfully roll around, all tongues and spinning limbs, in unabashed erotic play.
the work of a chisel
or a love scratch
on the maiden's breast?
When the crowds slack off, the stone comes forward. It vibrates with light and heat, dreams itself into the eye. Konarak is located on an auspicious intersection: a tirtha. The Sanskrit word means "river crossing" but tirthas have come to represent any powerful crossroads or river confluences — places where celestial and terrestrial unite, where life-altering transformations can happen. Robert Johnson visited "the crossroads" and returned a full-blown blues master. In Havana, we were shown a rather ordinary traffic intersection where Elegguá — the Yoruba god who opens the doors to potent decision making — was honored. In New Mexico, there's an adobe chapel built on a tirtha where springs seep from mountain clay and sacred datura blooms in profusion. Cripples are healed here, and the sick spread holy dust on their wounds to cure physical and psychic pain. In nearby Pueblos, non-descript stones in plazas or atop mesas are sprinkled with pollen and turquoise. Song and prayer
travels where it needs to more readily in these places.
In India one comes to a tirtha to pray, practice austerities, join with others, and swim the repeated rounds of birth and death (samsara) to the Far Shore. The Divine is more clearly revealed at tirthas: places like Puri, Konarak, or Kashi; along the Narmada, Ganges, or Godavari; or south of here in Ramashvaram or Madurai. It's invigorating to see people on the move through blowing sand, glumpy swamps, craggy labyrinths, wave-lashed shores, or up into Himalayan ice caves. The whole subcontinent is a map of the Hindu universe, a topographic cosmogram. The wanderer's body, adorned with flowers, enveloped in rings of hallucinatory smoke, is a microcosm of that universe.
the naked sadhu
darns a marigold diadem
into his dreads.
Tirtha madness! I've always been fascinated by this aspect of India: people doing their own thing any way they want, treading the landscape, powdering themselves with ash and sandalwood, performing austerities to help them toward higher planes, eating the prasad of the gods, stopping for a drink of bhang, getting a head shave, letting dreads grow, spinning prayers into the air, drinking Shiva's elixir, stopping to adorn Durga's feet with jasmine. Sleeping with cows, crows, and jackals. It used to be that Indians made these yatras (pilgrimages) solely on foot, plenty of time for introspection along the way. These days many forfeit the arduous barefoot journey; instead they travel by hired bus that promises quicker delivery. Michael Castro reported a ragtag band of naked, blue-faced sadhus trekking to Puri in 1990. Fifteen years later, we saw a ragtag band of pilgrims exiting their streamlined buses parked behind the Jagannath Temple. The buses had names like: Full Faith Yatra, Love Axis, Twinkle Star, Sree Durga, Konark Comfort, and Spring Ride Krishna Passion.
Walking is still common, all over India. The pilgrim seems directed by an inner map, an imprint in the genes. Among the throng, the sadhu is the standout, often a spectacle, serious and playful. He's a throwback to the Zuni mudhead, that volatile and unpredictable otherworldly clown dressed only in kilt and muddy cloth mask, bones and belly and spindly legs smeared with earth. A living deity, for sure— one who operates beyond lineal time, conventional clocks. The sadhu, too, has abandoned lineal time. He might be a mystic, a yogi; an impostor, a nutcase, or a true poet-minstrel in the lineage of Kabir — but whatever the case, he is an anomaly in the human race; a walking mystery visible to the naked eye only briefly before evaporating back into the woods or tangled alleys.
I often think of the sadhu as the Indian Aborigine. He has evolved from the rocks, come up from the dusty navel, and lives not in any nation, but in the state called Bardo. While everyone does with more and more, he goes without. He plunks a trident in the sand, unrolls a sleeping mat, sings, bathes, chants, smokes a supreme bowlful, eats a simple vegetarian meal, and proceeds to the next tree, cave, or ashram. He is the outlandish seeker bearing seeds and water, holding a staff of lightning, rings of colored air vibrating around his sun-baked shoulders. He is the deviant, the exception, the renouncer, the trickster, the walking enigma. Fully dressed, he is naked to the bone, bare to the world. Instantly materializing before you, he can just as quickly reverse the process and go invisible through alchemic states of consciousness. He can be provocative to the max without even speaking. All he need do is stand in your presence, his bolting black pupils floating in crimson pools, and a thousand questions arise. To where, from where—all of us? Or as one word alchemist put it:
One day man was virulent
all electric nerve, flames of everlasting
phosphorescence, but that passed into fable
— and then?
What does it all mean? — that's what hits you over the head in India.
Better put, what does it all say?
Konarak's lovers roll us back to ancient India: to the yakshis, female deities associated with woods, rivers, and sacred pools. Or to Shakti, the primal energy rippling like psychic water through the universe. Or to fecundity — bubbling magma, rotting humus, the vitreous juices of elementary consciousness. The yakshis were often depicted with one arm around a tree. Buddha's mother gave birth in an upright, tree-embracing position. At Konarak the women embrace not trees, but the trunks of their male counterparts whose arms branch out in ecstasy, swell with sap, bend in delight, bloom, drop seeds, and renew the creative cycle.
Tantric practices were associated with the Sun Temple. Students gathered to test physical, mental, and spiritual limits; to tackle and surpass what they normally shunned; things deemed ludicrous, vile, or banned. The 15th century Bengali rebel priest, Chandidas, broke social and religious barriors by falling in love with a low-caste laundress. To even walk in the shadow of such a woman was regarded by his Brahmin peers as sheer pollution. Chandidas disregarded this idea. His poems reveal an ardent quest for the Divine Mother through knowing her earthly counterpart, an ordinary woman who could offer him what no god could offer.
The seeker dwells in the lake of love
using one's body as a medium of prayer.
Those who define life, not even knowing
what feeling means, double my pain.
Tantra as a concept originates in a story about a devi who transcends the gods by taking their weapons and fighting their battles. She's so successful that she attains super-perfection and becomes Mahadevi, the Great Goddess. Today's books on Tantra often describe sex techniques (get out your lava lamp) rather than the lives of initiates who pass through tests such as meditating in graveyards, licking the skulls of enemies, eating caste-banned foods, sleeping inside rotting carcasses, eating human stools, triumphing over feces. Such practitioners eventually transcend it all, even "transcendence" itself. They graduate as spiritual alchemists, able to transform negative psychic forces into acts of tremendous compassion. Others, not quite ready for the world, resume practice; they prepare to experience total abandonment of the body while engaged in — not the extremes of solitude and celibacy — but the extremes of SEX. Transcendent union; or like Watts describes: "a melting sensation in which each is both, where self and other dissolves and
all concern for time and place, what and who, drop away."
Each is both and self drops away . . .
I like that. It makes me want to write a message from Konarak, a missive that comes up from under, not from tongue, teeth, or hands — they are peripheral — but from the heart, a more central chakra. I want this missive to go out, as Surya's chariot goes towards the dawn — without stamps or postal officers — by its own momentum, towards those who believe that war, random slaughter, mutual suicide, arbitrary hurt, the butchering of innocent civilians, the carnage and resulting displacement of millions through planned genocide, is a necessary part of the human situation. A rough draft:
To World Leaders, Angry Bombers, and Entrepreneurs of Violence:
Take a break from your war agendas! Hold the next summit at Konarak. If you think "evil," dissolve into "evil." If you think "victory," bring yourselves to the idea of "loss." If you hold others accountable as "enemy," realize the real enemy is the one who creates the enemy. Stand before Konarak's lovers who have nothing to hide. Let your egos dissolve. Undress, dive into the breakers. Hold dialogues in nautaloid floating positions. Return to your conference tables without "this" "that," "good" "evil," "mine" "yours." Consider how we are like one another, rather than how we are different. War, the most vicious of human pursuits, is an unworthy diversion from our real work, which is to not add more hurt to a wounded world. The only worthy killing is the slaying of the ego that drives greed, envy, hate, paranoia, and xenophobia to the vilest of extremes.
A haiku written by Basho in the 17th century, on the site of a futile 12th century battle between two brothers, could have been written this morning:
all that remains
of young warriors' dreams
We know from his journals that he wept when he stood in those waving fields. The same feeling overtook me on a bend of the Little Bighorn River, again in Quang Ngai, once more on the plains of Laos, and in the chambers of Toul Sleng, and at Acteal, in the Chiapas highlands. The past is never over. It continues into the present, and in the present is a map of the future. But why, on the map, no durable solution for the wildfire of war, hunger, and suffering that races across our imagined borders? Where are the good things in which we can share pleasure?
brambles and mist
— still looking
for the headwaters.
Konarak, the setting . . .
Emerald fields surround the Sun Temple. Rhythmic, electric green; stroked and wriggling with hints of lilac. The air is moist from the sea; the sun has a burnt-orange, vibrating quality. Out from it dash Van Gogh's thick strokes: unlabored, instantaneous. Beneath the spinning orb, the textures of the fields, broken by dark clumps of bamboo, are rich yet simplified. Peasants are only hinted at, yet clearly there. The men are brushed silhouettes, distorted in the heat, made diaphanous by a transparent purple glaze. The women are thinly-wisped dots and dashes: rose, lime, ultramarine, canary, against the broad green paddy. Though distant, you feel them bending, straining in the heat; you catch their grace and burden. Over them floats a calm horizontal cloud — soft, not angular — salmon pink in the azure. The scene takes me back to a farmer in Java who invited me to plant rice with him. Thick mud sucked and eddied around my feet; leeches were abundant; my back ached in the equatorial sun. The farmer moved rapidly, spacing each young rice shoot evenly in straight lines. My transplants were crooked and floppy. I didn't last long out there. A passage from Basho was never more apparent that day:
Keep your mind high in the realm of true understanding
but don't forget the value of that which is low. Seek always
the truth of beauty but return to the world of common experience.
Retreating from the crowds, Renée and I fold into our thoughts. Nobody gives a hoot. They're thirsty for family fun, and for the cold sodas waiting at the entrance gate. Nothing wrong with that, but I am happy to be in our stone nook, writing rapid-pace in my spiral pad, sans connectors or conjunctions; a barefoot skip, one stone to the next, no heavy boots of logic. I inhale in the architecture, exhale the inherent emotional experience — what the inner seismograph records beyond the interpretations of others. Whatever personal "meaning" unfolds en situ must be recorded en situ; jotted, brushed, pen stroked, bled upon the page as quickly as the hand will allow — as did Van Gogh. To any student of poetry, I would say: do your headwork on the spot, precisely as your ten-thousand nerve receptors give it to you. You can't Google it back home! Sizing it up after the fact, using the internet, is a mistake, a fallacy of our age.
I like Konarak as a ruin, rather than an active Hindu temple full of worshipers. With the commotion removed, I can absorb its design not simply as a grouping of stone, but as an assemblage of sound, vibrating molecules, an extension of my own consciousness. "Membranal space" is how a musician friend describes what I'm trying to say (I think of the inside of an ear). He once walked the 800-foot causeway at Angkor Wat, playing a one-hole flute, when suddenly he hit a perfect fifth note, answered by an exact echo of that note. In the open immensity of lawns and sky, what made the echo? It was the geomancy of Angkor; its location on a tirtha where concentrated vibrations of occult phenomena achieve corporeality; where what you don't normally see or hear attains dimension.
In places like Angkor or Uluru or Kailash or Konarak, you can experience the latent energy of locked up atoms in what is before you. What seems like solid stone is a world in motion. Space is time; time is consciousness, rhythm, timbre. No special training is needed to experience this. All you need do is sit, empty, spit out the mind garbage. Or let it stay. Watch it until it is so unbearable that you must ring the butler and ask for an axe. Try again. Adjust legs and spine, bump up the strategy — by ridding yourself of "strategy." Relax into a no-space and the cosmos begins its hum. The hum has color; the color shapes a vibration into a becoming. Surya's sun chariot is a flutter of molecules assembling, fizzing out at the edges, disassembling back into the blue. If you listen to the blue, it is a pulsing sound substance. All of this makes sense when I remember the last stanza of Nanao Sakaki's poem, Why:
There is no mountain
nor myself, something moves
up and down in the air.
Rounding the Sun Temple a final time, I wonder: were there keepers of an esoteric cosmological view who resided here? A clan who encoded its vision in a special language, one most appropriately expressed through ecstasy, a transport towards the Reality behind the reality we commonly occupy? Maybe these seers commissioned Konarak's copulating pairs to be carved around their temple, each pair actually a male-female glyph, part of an occult alphabet spelling out a secret message wrapped around a solar chariot, its wheels ticking off a cosmological year, spokes carved with everyday human activity, the whole cart turning with erotica. The "genital center of the universe," to quote Watts. "Love makes the world go round. Every spoke leads to the hub."
naked maiden —
her innermost curve tickled
by a passing butterfly.
16 October, Bhubaneshwar
The modern city is a mess. Broken sidewalks, petrol haze, congested traffic, haphazard construction, rampant influx of country people seeking work (where are the incentives to stay home?). We find no budget-friendly inns, only the lowest of low dumps or pricey hotels catering to package tourists. I take a mental dive in a tattered inn that we hastily book because we're fresh off the train, weary of walking, tired of the fumes. "Only temporary," I remind myself.
Next day we leave the sagging curtains and spittled walls and upgrade to a large hotel lacking in character, but clean, with friendly staff. The lobby is dominated by a framed photograph of Sri Ramakrishna, South India's popular saint, and a four-foot high Jagannath idol dominating a stone pond floating with rose petals. Jagannath's arms end in stubs, each pasted with a fresh basil leaf. "The basil is holy," the manager says. "Our god protects the hotel. You will have no problem here." And we don't. Next door is an open-air eatery, spotless and airy, with idli breakfasts and delicious lunchtime thalis: prawn curry, rice, vegetable dal, mixed chutneys, followed by a slab of vanilla ice cream: $2 an order. All you can eat.
Thousands of temples dot Bhubaneswar. The oldest are the Jain meditation caves; next, the rock-cut Buddhist grottos; then, free-standing Hindu temples of cut-and-joined stone with multi-tiered towers and richly-ornamented halls. The ornate facades, with deeply recessed nooks and crannies, gradually reveal their intimate details as the sun arcs overhead, lighting each crevice that hides the gods, battle champions, and courtly maidens. The facades are storybooks of stone illuminated with rogues and heroes progressing through life's journey. Their architects were obviously in tune with metaphor: they wanted the devotee enter the inner sanctum for darshan with the local god, but only after passing through an ante-chamber ornate with confusion; nymphs, nagas, writhing foliage, ogres and alligators gnarled among the struggling protagonist. Progressing from bright to dim, distraction to insight, self to no-self, the pilgrim underwent a rite of passage, foregoing daylight for the occult — the womb.
my whole face
in the tiny green eye
of a temple fly.
Of Bhubaneshwar's thousands of temples, a hundred or so remain, and a few are worth checking out. They were constructed between the 9th and 13th centuries, nearly all of them that unique Orissan style with bulbous, vertically-ribbed towers narrowing into rounded crowns topped with disk-like "sun stones." If the temple is active, a saffron flag waves on top.
Michael Castro had written us about Bhubaneswar: "The Lingaraja and Rajarani temples are otherworldly. I had the feeling I was on another planet. They are a complex of small pyramidal, stepped temples and dome-topped, almost hive-like structures with shrines below ground level, like covered kivas, outside walls and roofs filled with carvings — images reflecting Buddhas (Ashoka's lions) and Shaivite (meditating figures, males and females in moderately erotic poses) iconographies."
One of our favorite temples is the restored 12th-century Rajarani temple. It sits alone in a grassy clearing ringed by a wall lined with red lilies. Dream-like figures are carved into burnt-sienna stone that imparts an earthy glow to the complex. Some figures are in seductive poses, garlanded with flowers; others are dikpalas, guardians placed at propitious loci around the main tower. Half hidden in narrow niches, naked courtesans glance enticingly backwards at us, or sensuously hold up stone mirrors, hips thrust out as they examine their well-endowed bodies. Their exaggerated, thrust-back positions, a trick of the artists who carved them, are designed to heighten the visual impact and give erotic emphasis to the luxurious beauty of the maidens. Strip away the sexual stuff, and you've got basic asanas — meditative postures calculated to relax the body and carry the yogi from worldly to spiritual. Practiced yogis could surpass the realm of the senses and evaporate into the omnificent power that permeates all creation.
stone goddess —
at first, thinking that dark seam
was part of her silk wrapping.
Rajarani is serene, stately; not at all overbearing. I wonder why the sacred music and dance incorporated into Hindu ritual of old didn't survive into the present. It certainly does in Java and Bali, where women play a prominent role beside the male priests. In India traditional dance and music is reined into concert halls; it doesn't happen in temples. Perhaps occult sects do survive. But where, I wonder, amid hands-free phone systems and noise-canceling headsets, are the Kabirs and Mirabais — the ragged break-away saints of creative rebellion?
Near Rajarani is Bramesvara temple, another gem. Its inner shrine has a cloth-covered deity, a Shiva lingam, and Shiva's black stone bull, Nandi (whose balls are shiny from the repeated touch of pilgrims). In our guide to India, I find a bit of an answer to the music and dance thing I was questioning at Rajarani. Apparently an 11th-century Queen presented a troupe of devadasis (dancer-courtesans) to the Bramesvara temple. At that time Orissan temples had nata mandapas, halls where "corps of dancing girls were employed. Devadasis, literally 'wives of the god,' were handed over by their parents at an early age and symbolically 'married' to the deity. They were trained to read, sing, and dance and, as one disapproving 19-century chronicler put it, 'to make public traffic of their charms.' Gradually, ritual intercourse (the Tantric influence on medieval Hinduism) degenerated into pure prostitution, and dance, formerly an act of worship, grew to become little more than a form of commercial entertainment."
mother's back turned
the son quickly caresses
a sun-warmed thigh
16 October, Bhubaneshwar
We hire a taxi to Hirapur Yogini temple, a small 9th century circular temple dedicated to the 64 manifistations of Shakti. Short, bumpy ride through rice fields where haystacks, oxcarts, smoking clay hearths, and thatched houses pervade. Eager to see this circular ruin with niches holding black-chlorite deities, we arrive after the scenic drive only to be taunted by annoying priests with their demand for money and their obsession with recording our names (and amount donated) into fat ledgers — always adding zeros to the sums so the next poor tourist will have to up his ante. We try to shun them, but they tail us like CIA agents. When we stop at a small altar, they run up and, without asking, paste vermilion dots on our foreheads, put flower petals in our palms, and thrust open the ledgers. I wave them off, making them think we'll pay when we go — not as we go. It works for awhile, but at the end of our tour (uncomfortable with the priests' presence, we hurry through an otherwise time-demanding archeological setting) they nervously quicken their pace as we approach the exit, and so do we. Again they open ledgers, push them into our noses. I offer 20 rupees, refuse to sign. They grab the dinero and grumble. Too bad. They're way too young to be engaged in this nonsense. In Kolkata I recall Mishti, a native to India, explaining: "the Brahmin thing is all franchise and hype. The young are born into it by caste and privilege. They're programmed to collect money and learn priestly duties. They're too pressured to reflect, too lazy and scared to get out. If they break away they lose caste, family, social standing, and their chance for marriage and worldly success."
Ira Cohen, comrade, decoder of the eternal mirage (who once advised "Follow the rapid beat of the transient heart"), has a poem that could have easily been written at one of these temples:
Even if the temple is destroyed
the spirit will remain
The border between earth & sky
is described by a bird
The border between life & death
is defined by a single breath
The border between past & future
is now, a tightrope, a cutting edge,
a point never to be reached.
We dance on one leg
between Samsara & Nirvana
trying to consummate our own future
between the dancing & the telling
Let the dancer break away
from the dance
Let the words fly off the page
Next time we will begin
with a headstand.
We visit two more partially-restored temples, low key, enjoyable, then backtrack to the famous Lingaraja Temple. The giant pineapple-like tower can be seen long before we arrive. Up close, sheer madness. Our taxi man can't fit the car between the crowd, crows are shitting on the windshield, there's hardly a place to park, and when we finally find one, it costs money for the space, and more rupees for an attendant to guard it. In the rain-wet narrow streets around Lingaraja's walled complex, everyone's moving fast. School kids, Indian travel groups, locals with fruit and vegetables in nylon bags, Bengali vacationers loudly shouting, eager touts, prayer-beaded sannyasins, and sweating porters whose leather-taught skin seems about to snap from their bones. They trudge under stone corbels and iron scaffolding. One old man is bent under an enormous mound of marigolds; only his red, veiny eyes peek through. He may be easing his workload high on ganja.
The Lingaraja Temple is barred to non Hindus — even Mrs. Gandhi couldn't get in, being married to a Parsi. There's a viewing platform on the surrounding wall, rickety ladder leading up to it, young bald-heads lurking below with sign books and pens. We opt to return to our hotel and take a rest. Tomorrow, we'll have a leisurely day; return to the crafts shop we visited earlier, buy cast-metal toys and a palm-leaf etching; then take a short excursion to Dhauli, the wooded hill where India's king Ashoka defeated the Kalingas in the bloody battle of 260 BCE. It was on that hill, standing above the tens of thousands slain, that he experienced remorse, renounced violence, embraced the Buddhist path, and vowed to spread peace through his empire.
from a clay bowl —
earth's subtle flavor.
17 October, Dhuali
The hill at Dhauli is dominated by a modern stupa built by the Japanese. Five mushroom-like cement umbrellas jut from its crown, symbolic of faith, hope, compassion, clemency, and non-violence. They give the stupa an ugly, spacecraft look. A modern Indian temple is built quite close to the Japanese stupa, as if to shove the Hindu claim that Buddha is just another incarnation of Vishnu into the face of the Japanese. Conservative Brahmins believe Buddha taught heresy, that Vishnu reincarnated in his form to lead Hindus astray, thus providing Brahmins with a chance to gain merit by bringing heretics back to the fold. Hmmm.
Around the base of the stupa, a band of poorly-executed bas reliefs depicts the life of Buddha. Hardly praiseworthy, this newness with its connected sums of money. Rapid-fire construction of modern shrines is often sponsored by wealthy Hindus or Buddhists who want to gain spiritual merit. They could, of course, add another bed to a hospital, a desk to a school, or a well to a dried-up village. The result of these private donors is not a place in afterlife but awful architecture in the present: Dhuali, for example. Or Pagan, in Burma, a worthy pilgrimage in the 70s, but to go there now — and we'd be supporting Myanmar's repressive regime, if we did — would be to observe modern temple facsimiles that hardly resemble the originals. Slapdash and generic-looking, they are mere cement clones constructed to please their sponsors. Along with balloon rides and a golf course, they also help attract package tourists who are more concerned with the comfort-level of their hotel than with fake temples spread among the originals.
We round the stupa, peer downhill over rippling rice and waving bamboo. No big crowd here. Just a few of the usual in-a-hurry Indian families and two Japanese ladies in safari outfits wearing floppy hats with mosquito veils. There are no monks, only a young Brahmin attending a bas relief of a reclining Buddha. He wants me to touch the toes, gain a little merit. But the idea of a Hindu asking me to touch Buddha's toes (add the usual donation) is so incongruous that I clown a bit, touching my own toes instead, indicating "Buddha is in all of us." He doesn't think it's funny, doesn't get it, doesn't want to get it, has no time for my teasing. I feel sorry for the guy, shaved head and ceremonial thread draping his chest; he's too straight, too indoctrinated by his privileged birth into the topmost caste, to crack a smile. He's eager for me to move on before a disorderly scene is created that will discourage other tourists from stopping. But I linger, take out my sketchbook, and draw the reclining Buddha. These days religion is really empty. If it's not after your wallet and patronage, it's overtaken by politics, reinterpreted to meet the profane standards of extremists whose ultimate goal is tyranny.
Our more interesting stop is at the foot of Dhauli. Here the wooded hills roll to a halt. A boulder is inscribed with one of Ashoka's edicts, the oldest rock writing we've ever seen (260 BCE). It marks the site where the emperor felt the horrors of battle, the pain of his carnage, underwent transformation, and decided to embrace the Buddhist path of non-violence. He must have realized that as he was grasping for more, he was all the time losing ground, getting farther from the peaceable kingdom he believed war would bring. Experiencing suffering, he experienced understanding. In his remorse, he took on the rough work of picking himself up, admitting his mistakes, and reversing his destructive path to one of peace.
in the plow's wake
red dust settling
from the ancient battle.
I'd like to believe that George W. Bush could step away from his lies and hubris into the work of peace and diplomacy. But I can hardly give him the benefit of the doubt. He's a madman who wouldn't know what to do with himself if peace were declared. Of his many self-centered statements, who can forget his words in front of the National Security Council, 2002: "I'm the commander, see … I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president … I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." Here's a guy who could really use a Dhauli.
Just above the site where Ashoka experienced his transformation, there's another vine-scrambled boulder, partially carved into an elephant's head. It looks like one of Michelangelo's figures struggling into the world from pure stone, a Dharma beast trudging steadfast through the tangles of existence, overcoming all obstacles. Dragonflies hover above his ears, a bee brightens his lower lip. A delicious silence pervades — until a carload of people rumbles up. They step out, arrange themselves, listen to their driver talk, and — almost as quickly as they arrive — they disappear back down the road.
after the tour guide's lecture
a farmer's song
from the fields below.
19 October, Kolkata
Back at Ranjan and Vasudha's, we stroll, talk, find hidden eateries with our new friend, Mishti. He tells us he was raised "anti-religion," educated in Darjeeling, lived in the States, ascended the corporate rock, opted out, put on his hiking boots, and traveled the Americas. He's definitely not interested in values endorsed by members of the crowd. He's an artist who smashes their wall; he has faith in his imagination, not in their smoking pantheon. Nor is he confident in headlines or tv networks. He lives to dive deeply, investigate, hear the reports of others who dive deeply; to bring questions into the world, a shine of light. He speaks Hindi, Bangla, Spanish, and very fluent English in a slightly Dylan Thomas key. Dressed in a cool cotton kurta, he works in the half light of the room above ours, typing away on his novel. "Will you give it a look?" he asks. Yes, yes I tell him. With wine in one hand, hatchet in the other, manuscript in middle, I agree to tackle it back home.
We share a thali at Banana Leaf Café. Over frothed coffee, Mishti tells us: "You were fortunate to have been invited for prasad cooked and blessed in the temple at one of the four holiest pilgrimage sites in India. A rarity. Something not even I, nor Ranjan or Vasudha have been privilege to. Puri's magnetic that way, it draws to you what you need. It's why we travel. To gain entrance into the lives of others, into a deeper consciousness of our own."
Our Kolkata neighborhood has grown quite lively since we last saw it. The night is clear; a crisp, thin moon hangs like a tin cutout. Kali Puja has just taken place, makeshift shrines are hammered-together on every block. It's Diwali, too, Indian equivalent of Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Those who can afford it spend lavishly on trinkets, designer clothes, games and electronic gadgets, framed deities, colored paper, wicks, oils, fireworks, and sweetmeats. I buy a box of Striptease Firebombs, just for the half-dressed woman backed by semen-spitting rocket ships on the label. Mishti says the leafy alleys we stroll through are called "gullies," a word Arabic in origin. They are the heart of Indian city life, filled with the conviviality of people moving casually between paan vendors and chaana shops (offering sumptuous arrays of milk sweets), and ancient grocery stores whose owners have every item dusted, memorized, and blessed with fresh incense. Where the gullies empty into boulevards, the pulse quickens. Policemen on platforms mechanically lift and lower their STOP-GO paddles. Trolley masters trolley, tailors tailor, ironers iron, cherry-bombers fill clay shells with saltpeter and sawdust, rickshaw pullers pull obese loads of high-caste, their laps piled with bitter gourds, brassware, metaphysical accoutrements, Sony TVs, and baskets of the tiny, oversweet bananas favored by goddess Saraswati.
talking over the heads
of the assembly.
Near our flat, a woman who by day serves "fast Chinese food" from her corner table now beds down on that same table, pulling mosquito gauze over her dreams. One stall away, the guy who serves early-morning satu to the rickshaw pullers — toasted chickpea flour mixed with water served on dry leaves — is doing the same. Behind him there's a shrine-like bundle of bedrolls tied with aluminum pots, a wok, and plastic jug of cooking oil. This is somebody's home. It belongs to a rickshaw man and his family who've just arrived from Bihar. Renée notices a sign over a door: SOCIETY FOR TEMPORARY ARTISTS, then realizes her eyes have fooled her. It's SOCIETY FOR CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS.
Inside our room we move our quilt to the floor; the bed we broke the night before (trying those Konarak poses) waiting for repair. Tomorrow we fly north to Bagdogra, taxi up the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling, then to the former Kingdom of Sikkim. Meanwhile, the city's outside, the heart's in its cage, the wet heat of darkness mixes with mechanical sounds, birdlike squeaks, the splat-clap splat-clap of the laundry wallah down the hall, a sudden crescendo of film song, mustard seeds popping on a neighbor's stove, a half-muffled umph-oHhh! from the bedroom behind a curtained window across the alley. Everything inky, identities blurred, cold stars sweating in the heat, voices passing, outcasts, fancy pants, ghosts. Everything suggesting a deeper unknown.
I can adjust
— it's the face.
20 October, Darjeeling
The prepaid taxi man promises to drop us at our inn, but upon arrival in Darjeeling (after countless hairpin curves signed with GO SLOW : SINKING ZONE AHEAD : DARJEELING BELONGS TO SIKKIM), he drops us at the train depot. We're left to fend for ourselves. A pot-bellied locomotive puffs and belches in its coal shed. We unfold a map, locate our inn several tiers up the hillside. Darjeeling rambles over steep, piney slopes, half clouded at this hour. It's cold and ominous, with looming rain and the chuff-HUFF chuff-HUFF of the engine sending steam into the northwest. Following the vapors, I spot one of Kanchenjunga's five peaks barely showing through the mist.
Darkness. We take a room at the Snow Lion Inn, order momos at a steamy café, and return to bed down. Renée hacks with a Kolkata cough; I feel a chill up my spine. The staff brings two "hot bags" (water bottles), thermos of tea, extra quilt. Feels like China. I light a candle, a cricket sings in the wall, there's ping-tap of water pressure running through the ceiling. The girl who delivered our hot water pads softly away down the hall under a painting of the Potola. It's clammy and damp, but at last we are in the mountains.
21 October, Darjeeling
We don windbreakers, trek downhill from town to Bhutia Busti Gompa, a small eloquent Buddhist monastery, a branch of Sikkim's Nyinmapa's sect. Wooded hills rise and fall every direction, pine tops erase themselves in the mist, a stream brawls through the gorge below. The gompa's walls are Mars red and white, window frames yellow, pagoda-like roofs accented with gold. Everything blurs in and out of the racing fog. An elderly monk appears, rattling a key ring. He opens the thick wooden doors, generously explains murals and altar. We're delighted enough to offer him 20 rupees for his time. We meet the head abbot, cordial, speaks good English, obviously knows the ropes of how to attract foreigners to his dharma discourses. Several are housed in the opposite dormitory.
Clouds close in, rain gets harder. No views of Kanchenjunga today. We've heard of visitors coming to see the third highest peak in the world and staying weeks before she appears. The walk to Bhutia Busti is refreshing, though, even in the wet. Hearth smoke floats through evergreens, humble dwellings line the trail. The twilight-blue façade of a grocer's shack is looped with marigolds. The earthen yard is freshly swept and arranged with baskets of scallions, cilantro, red chiles, mustard greens, cabbages, potatoes, and flowers. We buy two Chinese umbrellas and proceed back up the path to town, meeting
a man in the rain
using his umbrella
as a cane.
Nightfall. Firecrackers and pyrotechnic displays. Returning to the Snow Lion after a plate of fried dumplings, we dodge spinning firewheels and a beggar bent over his spindly legs, repeating a nasal litany: "Eeeee whannnnn-ah monee-monee." A rag girl up the alley is lit by a shower of sparks from the balcony above. Pretty face, sad mouth, angry eyes. Her flowered sari is grease-darkened, blacker than her South Indian skin. She wears plastic over her shoulders, road-stained flipflops on feet. No one goes near. Fear of disease, bending too low, losing caste status in the act of touch? It's difficult to bear my wealth, her poverty, and continue through the world with acceptance. Bliss might lie in the Pure Land, or in Allah's lap, or with God behind his gates, but the threshold is filled with muck. Above the rag girl, a sign: HOTEL PLEASURE DISH 100 METERS.
Back at the Snow Lion we're offered a warmer room, with a view over town. Hot tea and water bottles, reading lamps and quilts. Next morning, Pema, the owner, shows us to her large upstairs living space, gaily decorated with gold and maroon. She's making preparations for a lama who will perform a private puja. Smoking juniper sprigs purify the air; spice-pounding drifts from the kitchen. The girls are preparing blanched greens, dal, and alu dum — boiled baby potatoes bathed in a gravy of cumin-seeds, red-chile, mustard-oil, tamarind-paste and a secret spice called panch phoron. The lama spins his prayer wheel and sets the family altar for services. Outside the clouds thicken; the dampness is penetrating. We decide to leave the clammy altitude for lower, quieter Kalimpong, an hour's drive from Darjeeling via the Tista River gorge, east on the old trade route to Bhutan.
side by side
on the prayer step
the lama's shoes and mine.
22 October, Kalimpong
Clear sky, and with it our first full view of Kanchenjunga, its ice-chiseled flanks some fifty miles away, magnified by the crystal air. I feel at home here — much more drawn to the mystery of a cloud-ringed mountain than to the ambiguity of a Hindu pantheon inside a smoke-ringed temple. A mad-crazy, klieg-lighted shrine brings confusion. A lofting summit lit by the zodiac brings clarity, makes the whole world incredible, beyond belief.
In New Mexico we are ringed by sacred peaks. West, the Jemez Caldera; east, Taos Mountain; north, Mt. Blanca; south, Sandia Peak. These are Spanish names; the real names depend on which Pueblo you view them from, what language the people speak, what cosmology they embrace. With songs, dances, a sprinkle of sage, a medicine bundle gathered from the heights, the mountains are worshiped without the pomp of big religion. To them we blow the fire of our breath, let the vapor of our words light the dawn. A country at war may see mountains as obstacles or hideaways. A country at peace walks freely into them, finds solace, erects a shrine, sends out prayer. The Pueblos inhabit a mandala edged by sacred peaks. The Diné live within a sacred hoop edged with sunbeams, jet, turquoise, onyx. The Balinese enact their rituals under Gunung Agung, a volcano they know as the "Navel of the World." The Aborigines reawaken Dreamtime as they bed down under Uluru. The Tibetans have their hallowed axis mundi, a mountain at the center of a great wheel. Hindus have the Himalayas, home of Ma Ganga, the roar of Rudra, the dazzle of Agni.
Mountains circled my childhood home — oddly-shaped elephant-like formations backed by the ragged Sierra Madres. Our backyard had a Dutch elm, perfect for climbing. From the topmost limbs I could pick out the summits and give them names. This was good "starter geography." It was complimented by forays into the Hollywood hills where I could pick out Catalina Island floating in the Pacific or Mt. Baldy, floating above the smog. But the real summits were north, in the Sierra Nevadas. I was ten years old when my father hiked me up Moro Rock, a hallowed outcrop for the early Paiute people. Standing on its granite dome, I savored the 360-degree view. To the east, cloud-scuffed snow crests; to the west, forests falling away into bee pastures, lemon groves, olive orchards. Time disappeared up there; all was primeval, full of beauty, "clean." Moro Rock became a symbol for me — an Original Place, something out of the far past that remained into the present: a sanctuary, somewhat like a church, but not easily accessible. You had to make an effort to get there. A pilgrimage.
The idea of pilgrimage is still with me, though not in any formal, religious way. There's still a need to get where it is "clean," an internal as well as external quest. It could take me up Blanca Peak or Uncompaghre, to Gokyo-ri or Popocateptl, into Evolution Valley or onto the Chhukung icefall. High summits bring a steely timbre to the ear. The body becomes a bell transparent with ringing. Circular rungs of sound reverberate from the flesh in chromatic bands, the kind that a shaman climbs out of the world on. Indian music divides the octave into notes associated with color and the cry of a bird or a beast; tala — rhythm — is rooted in human movements: inhalation, exhalation, the walking breath, the sleeping breath, etc. A beat outside the heart and a hue found on no chart is what you experience when the air gets thin enough.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer I lived beneath 20,000-foot Chimborazo. From is flanks you could look up and down the Andean cordillera towards Cotopaxi, Antisana, Cayambe, and Tungurahua, a sacred range — as are the Himalayas, the Devalaya, the abode of the gods. Meru is the center of the world, Kailash Shiva's home. All of India is a sacred topography. Over it ambulate seers and seekers singing the deeds of the great heroes. "Back then" is right now. Everywhere, at all times, pilgrims are passing through. Sans material baggage, they sleep among boulders, in mythic riverbeds, on battle grounds, in the grottos where Milarepa sang. Further up, through the clouds, in the narrow reaches at the roof of the world, no human is to be seen, yet faint voices drift on the air.
a deeper world
in this swirling vapor
beyond the Gate.
Our upstairs room is impeccably clean and airy. A big window opens out to Kanchenjunga. A short walk up the bamboo-clad hillside gives a fine view in the opposite direction: Bhutan and the craggy spires of Natu La into Tibet. "Chinese occupied Tibet," the owner reminds us. She was a former barrister who worked in Gangtok for the government of Sikkim; now she enjoys a more relaxed pace, opening her house to travelers, most of them from India. She tells us there was a political assassination in Darjeeling right after we left; all roads in and out are closed. A contrary story is running the rounds, too: that the murder wasn't political, but resulted during a standoff between two rival youth gangs. Either way, good thing we got out when we did.
It's a stretch of the imagination to believe we are still in India. High peaks reign, Buddhist monasteries replace Hindu temples. Scattered villages hang over steep watersheds. Terraced barley, buckwheat, and millet replace flatland rice paddies. Kalimpong was part of Bhutan until late 19th century, pivotal on the Tibet trade route. The British developed a hill station here to escape Kolkata's heat. Until China invaded Tibet in 1959, there was strong barter here with Lhasa. A weekly market still fills the downtown, a road crosses into China, a clandestine network of trails leads into Bhutan.
Under the stars, locals merrymake in the streets. Up-and-down call-and-response singing, a mostly male chorus making the rounds house to house, drums pattering, voices raised: Oh heey yo hey yo! Oh heey yo hey yo! My pen is carried along by song. When the singing halts, a buzzing void tingles my nerve endings — psycho-exuberant pleasure bites. It's not darshan of saint that enlivens the spirit, but darshan of snow peak, fiery constellations, wind through rhododendrons.
blow out the lamp
watch the night
fill with fireflies.
En route to Kalimpong yesterday, we saw children riding tall bamboo swings on a grassy slope where dozens of colored prayer banners rippled. On a curve, high above the confluence of the Tista and Rangit rivers, we stopped at a tea shanty. The green-eyed, red-beard owner asked where we were from, and showed us his handiwork, posted on a wood-railed overlook: "Love is perfected where nature is at its best. You may have seen mountains of Alaska, you may have seen dancing girls of Siam. But have you seen these two rivers join? Review your views from this point of view. Do it before you are considered outdated, old chap." We smiled over his excellent Darjeeling tea. The confluence resembled a vulva, fringed with leafy hills. "Is my English perfect?" he wanted to know. "Yes, yes, everything perfect," we assured him. A humble moment. The silver pot, the smoothed-clay hearth. Guests of a stranger who refused to charge us. A rainbow colored the clear sky. Was it prismed by the moist air rising from the sexy union of the rivers? We could taste green heat waves scintillating on our tongues.
rivers and peaks
mysterious through the fog
of hot tea on my glasses.
24 October, Kalimpong
A visit to the Zongdog Palri Phodrang gompa. Everyone gives a different set of directions and condenses the walking time. "Just ten minutes," the standard answer. But ten minutes easily stretch into an hour. "Just two kilometers" turns into six. We meander up to the top of Rinkingpong Hill, discovering all too late that everything but the monastery itself is in the firm grip of the Indian army. Rounding an otherwise serene bend, we're greeted by a huge billboard: "115 Engineer Regiment. We Rule Land Water Air. We Are the Punchers." From here on it's alarming. There's a children's park without any children. There's a mowed golf course with lone golfer in fatigues, his wife sitting in the shade looking on. There's the sound of monks banging prayer cymbals that turns out to be a military canteen's clatter of metal mess kits. Two canopied army trucks roar from infinity and reverse themselves back in. It's not a landscape, it's a movie set.
From the brush suddenly appears a recently-bathed army private. We're surprised; he isn't. He holds out a cold hand for a shake. "I'm Johnny" he says. "That was what they called me when I was your age," I reply. He doesn't understand, just smiles and slips back into the brush, combing his hair. Childhood ghost? We walk on. A sentry box smells of fresh paint, and over the fresh paint a bunch of conscripts are painting it again. Then appear the high-frequency towers on the topmost hill, though which we spot the gold-spired stupas of the gompa. Monks chant in the assembly hall. Their prayers, on a different transmission length, soar right through the signals from the army's communication towers.
In the gardens, monks weed, haul water, unload propane canisters from a delivery truck. They're seemingly unmoved by what moves me to the raw edge: all this spiritual activity being infringed upon by the army inching right up to gardens and shrines. During the monks' prayers, a windbell dings, and then comes the bleating goats of the military camp, the stink and whine of diesel trucks, sputter of megaphones, a whip-crack of orders, a dry-run from the marching band.
fluttering prayer flags
the army's drumroll.
The abbot unlocks a red-lacquer door to the "pure-realm palace." Prayer wheels clatter and spin while antennas blip and beep over the wall. We remove shoes and bow, perplexed by who, exactly, is on the altar with dorje, bowl, and trident. He meditates with calm smile on blooming lotus, and we can only be humbled in the silence. No one speaks English, and the signs are in Tibetan. We inspect yak-skin drums, low benches covered with Tibetan rugs, conch shells and cymbals lit by a ray of sun through latticed windows. Rotating gently in a draft is a stick-and-yarn "God's Eye," like those found in New Mexico curio shops. Later, we're told it's a "thread cross" whose carefully webbed colors are designed to trap bad spirits.
An Indian family arrives, quickly going through the place with cell-phone cameras, looking not with bare eyes but into little rectangular pixel patches. They seem nonplussed, "doing" the site in rapid-fire-foto-approach, car motor running outside, wristwatches beeping, kids wearing Ipod headdress pacifiers. Outside the monastery I greet one of the teenage visitors. He hears me, sort of, but defers to the song on his headset, responding only after the tune's finished. Hard to face these modern times. Travel wireless, stay connected, don't miss a thing—except what's before you. Speed's up, shades are down. When people unplug they still act as if plugged in. Hmmm — I'm caught up in my own judgment.
Let go of aversion and longing
and everything will be
(3rd Zen patriarch)
25 October, Kalimpong
Ginger soup; momos, hot chile. Tonight it's the women's turn to sing, honoring their bhai, their brothers, with gifts. Wherever they stop, a door opens, a family gathers, out comes a ritual plate of uncooked rice with a candle burning at its center. Tonight, life is raised above humdrum. There's time for joy and lightness; and for each other. Voices wonderfully sweet ascend and drift as the earth spins.
Above our room, an orphan lives on the roof. Twelve years old, Nepalese, works as a maid, sleeps in a tin-roof shack behind drying laundry — best Himalayan view in town; but what time does she have for it? Her hands are raw from wringing laundry. Her bed is a hard fold of cotton cloth. A few clothes spill from her half-open suitcase, not at all freshly-laundered like the sheets she irons in exchange for food and lodging. She's tucked in for the night under a thin sarong, candle lighted at her side, head resting on thin pillow under framed chromolith of two swallows mating in mid air.
a cricket sings
in the corner mop.
Electricity's off. I put a match to wax and work in the dark. Tomorrow we'll take a shared jeep to west Sikkim. Yesterday we visited another monastery, Dechen Chola, Bhutanese, 17th century, 200 prayer wheels lining the walls. We gave them all a spin, passing plots of mustard, dianthus, mums, and pole beans. Three young novices horsed around on a dormitory balcony, lighting firecrackers. Two elders chatted by a copper-plated prayer wheel in a side shrine. The grassy courtyard was well tramped from audiences and festivities. A wide eave covered the main entrance, its underneath latticed with wood shakes worked into repeating diamond designs, each with white center from which interlocked shingles radiated into expanding hues of green, red, blue, and ochre — like an eye-dazzler Navajo rug.
The gompa's founders were of the Nyingma (Ancient Translation) sect, founded by Padmasambhava who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the 8th century. He's right up there with Shakyamuni, enjoying the status of supreme guru and protector. There was a painting of him on a wall opposite a library of sacred texts. Each "book" was a loose-leaf set of Tibetan mantras printed on narrow strips of handmade paper sandwiched between painted boards and wrapped in silk. They have their origin in ancient Indian manuscripts engraved on palm leaves and rubbed with ink, a scrimshaw process leaving lampblack in the incisions, excess carbon wiped clean. The woodblock printing developed in 7th-century China. It's mind boggling to think that each page in these books had to be carved in reverse relief, individually inked, and pressed into hand-made paper — a concept of time and process hardly known in our age.
on black silk —
a resting butterfly.
26 October, Pelling
Bought a lathe-turned bowl in the Kalimpong haat (street market) before leaving town, used to store yeast for making chhang. The vendor was Tibetan, she and husband both wearing prayer beads. Also bought Indian toy horse on rollers, all metal, and bargained for miniature gold-plated statues of Manjushri (Renée) and Tara (me). Manjushri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom, raises the sword of discernment in one hand, opens the book of wisdom in the other. He sits on a lotus, synonymous with "Om Mane Padme Hum," the mantra indicating the Bodhisattva's vow to lead suffering beings to the Far Shore. Tara, the One Who Saves, wears a five-jeweled tiara: the five summits of Kanchenjunga. She has an eye in her brow and one in each palm to see into the origin of suffering. With one hand to earth, she grants wishes; with the other raised, she gives refuge. Born from Avalokitesvara's tears, she's often carved from crystal, naked from waist up, save for flowers and beads. As Mother of the Buddhas, she sits on a fully-opened lotus, watchful and supple, breasts round with milk.
After our purchases, we hurry through the streets to catch our "share jeep" to Sikkim: 18-20 people crammed circus-clown-style into a Toyota with iffy tires and grinding clutch, luggage roped precariously to top, a real ballast hazard on narrow curves that lean into infinity from a road no wider than a dining room table. Once inside, bumping down the Tista Gorge and through the "Welcome" gate of Sikkim (where we do informal paperwork), everyone's mood is cheerful. "Share jeep" makes me realize that "democracy is NOT having your own car." It is to travel as a group, sharing price of petrol, snacks, dialogue, general good vibes and camaraderie. Only in ass-backwards countries do you see a lone driver in a gas-guzzling SUV doing 90 on the freeway talking up his next business deal.
Just before arriving in Pelling, we leave off a passenger in the darkness, a remote rural stop. She has luggage up top and the driver has to unknot the whole rack to get to it. This lasts several minutes. During the procedure a human haystack walks up and waits alongside the jeep, unable to get around it because of his load. The peasant says not a word, just stares from under his massive bale. Without warning he takes a penlight from his pocket and shines a powerful beam into each of our faces, breaks into a hearty laugh, and shakes his head side to side. We are the big joke of his day, crunched inside a strange metal box on wheels. After the lady receives her luggage, the peasant ambles off into the night, whistling to himself.
We lodge in a cliffside hotel — everything's on a cliff in Pelling. The place is filled with trekking groups who've got the cooks tied up with a buffet production, so we can't order a la cart. One of the groups cordially passes us an extra plate of momos. We give a bow, and order two "Hit" beers. A pale, nervous Yale student joins us, traveling alone. Quirky guy, big glasses, wobbly Adam's apple. He's based in Lucknow, studying Urdu. Asks "What's different from first time you visited India?" A worthy question, I make a spontaneous attempt:
"In the late '70s India's population was about 600 million; now it's a billion. Urban explosion with ethnic tensions and proliferating electronics isn't the India I knew, nor is it the India of my imagination now. It's well-connected, a world player. Everybody is just a few clicks away from whatever they think they need. Occasionally there's an upside to this cyber dazzle. We booked our train tickets without waiting hours in queues. But the old bureaucracy still thrives, big and tangled as ever. In America they'd do away with it because it no longer serves any purpose. In India they hold onto it because it provides jobs, even if they are completely meaningless. Despite all this the old magic is still alive — holy rivers, wandering mystics, strangely dressed and undressed characters, ancient temples, snow-bound monasteries, tucked-away villages that still perform puppet plays and verses from the Ramayana — but you have to look harder for the magic now. It's behind the consumer veil. The sadhu wants a Rollex; the villager is leaving the plow to fold towels in tourist spas. When I first came to India, east and west were two different worlds. It's one world now — almost. The mythic dust of the gods is all pervasive in India, and that's what sets it apart."
Poor kid. Probably overwhelmed him (I've certainly overwhelmed myself). He's pretty young, younger than my kids. When I was his age (gulp, I've become my father), all seemed possible. A war could be stopped by taking to the streets. One could experiment with body and mind and come to an entirely new biological and political awareness; or push through perceived psychological and social confines, explore consciousness, see if it had an end. Violence, in all its mutant, evolving forms, takes the center stage now; along with New world disorder and the blatant hubris of men who've ushered it in.
"As a writer I have tried to live by the credo that nothing human should be alien to me. Yet my imagination stops short as I try to think of the human realities of what it must mean to plan a collective suicide or stand in a check-in line with people whose murder has already been decided on." (Amitov Ghosh)
We finish our beers and turn in early. Half hour later, I lift my head to drums and guitars in the street below. Within minutes the acoustic stuff becomes amplified. A crowd has gathered on the hotel steps. A gas lantern lights a cranking-up group of Sikkimese musicians. A street party is about to begin. Renée is already asleep, but I throw on jeans and jacket and go down. It's Himalayan rock, a funky mix of Led Zeppelin and Sherpa two-step, performed mainly for the trekkers. I join in and dance — with tall Nordic women from the trekking groups; with village girls half my size, wood-smoke smelling, speaking Bhutia. All very warming in the cold mountain dark. I could go for some chhang, but there isn't any, so I grab a beer from the lobby and continue partying. Ah, yes, feeling sassy.
who from where
and what matters language
dancing in the dark —
27 October, Pelling
Wake at 4:30, open shutter, watch first light descend Kanchenjunga's thousand-layered crags: pink, mauve, apple green, bronze. At 6 hike to Sangachoeling, second oldest monastery in Sikkim (1642). Himalayan views pristine all the way, hearth fires tracing the air. Stupas gleam in early sun, capped with half-moons and orbs. The gompa is beautifully kept and spellbindingly quiet — one lone crow grawwks in the conifers. A caretaker says the monks have gone to "learning" in another gompa. Inside, we are drawn to the finely-painted wood panels depicting the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols: parasol, two fishes, lotus, treasure vase, conch shell, endless knot, victory banner, golden wheel — all of them influenced by designs found in pre-Buddhist Jain and Hindu sites in India. Leaving the gompa we notice a sign that we missed on the way in:
This is a Notified Religious Place
Killing Drinks Smoking Toxics Strictly
Prohibited. Visitors Appealed To Keep Clean.
We hike back to Pelling for breakfast, then walk to Pemayangtse Gompa (1705), a highly-revered place on a wooded knoll opposite Sangachoeling. It was founded in honor of the Buddha of the Perfect Sublime Lotus. The final ascent is slow and steep, lined with dozens of green, white, and yellow prayer banners waving on poles. Just before the monastery a notice explains their meaning: "These prayer flags are dedicated to sentient beings of six different realms for eternal liberation and particularly for victims of world negative forces: twin tower 9/11, coalition forces in Iraq, innocent war victims, Madrid train blast, Iran earth quake 2003, world victims of genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing."
The Tantric-influenced murals on the upper floor are veiled. When we peek, we find yab-yum lovers in tangled copulation. Union of wisdom and compassion is what they're about, if you can get past the lovely buttocks and thrust of male shaft between them. The murals encircle a gaudily-painted, multi-tiered wooden sculpture in the middle of the room. Glued, wired, shaped, carved, and plastered, it's about 15 feet high, a Dadaist "take" on "Padmasambhava's Abode." The whole thing is encased by glass to keep ogling pilgrims away. Each tier has hundreds of tiny dragons, rainbows, Buddhas, flying nymphs, and mythic hamlets tucked into gilded crannies. Hard to digest it all, except in small doses. I think of it as an upward-rising magic stalagmite, a big thick Hobbit lingam, a time-frozen bubbling mass of epoxied energy.
under the yabyum couple —
love without fear.
28 October, Pelling
Another stunning morning, Kanchenjunga undressing in the first light. Body of Buddha, breast of Tara, open arms of Kwanyin. These peaks are the original temples, thrusting their tiaras into the vaporous realm beyond worldly doings. Best to stand in their presence and then visit Angkor, Borobudor, Bodhnath, Ulun Danu and so many others that draw source from them. Up here you witness firsthand the all-dazzling geography that informed their architects.
At breakfast, we meet two newspaper journalists from Brussels who ask if we want to share their jeep for an all-day trip to Kecheopalri Lake, a pilgrimage spot in the pines above Pelling. Perfect. We were wondering how to get there. We return to our room to pack sweaters, camera, and bottled water into our rucksacks. For good measure I toss in my tattered copy of Basho's poems, smudged and dog-eared, well broken-in with travel. I stop for a moment and randomly flip it open:
do not resemble me,
never be like a muskmelon
cut in two identical halves.
Basho advised students to cut their own trails, not follow in his footsteps. Over the centuries that's exactly what's happened. Basho's influence, his dictums, his example of poetry emerging, not from school rooms, but from a life fully lived, remain. But haiku has been transformed as it has traveled continents, cultures, and languages. Basho became his own frog, disappeared into the water. He left only a sound, a splash, a lasting ripple spreading to the edges of the pond. Nakumara Kusatao, leader of Japan's Humanist Poets in the 40s, called Basho "Japan's first modern poet" and said that his poetry represented "art for life's sake." Basho, on his many walkabouts, was always the "absent traveler," erasing the ego, looking beyond the self, yet seeking what was meaningful within. Something to be considered deeply in this everybody-for-themselves era.
rain beating upon rain
hardly a shape.
28 October, Pelling
Tonight, under low light, I transfer today's notes into my larger journal and relive the journey. What a day! Hooded mists, melting streams, vast empty flint-spark scent. The vanishing-as-it-arrives dream — what word?
Rimbi. A waterfall reminiscent of Tana Barak, in Bali, where Renée and I were married. Driver stops. We walk down, renew our vows under draperies of spray plummeting into a bouldered pool. Eyes fill with mist, open into Chinese scroll-painting inked with dragonflies, a perched kingfisher, a parade of water striders. Between dangling spider webs, seed heads float in mid-air dot-patterns sucked up by the water's surge. We walk backwards from the falls, turn toward the opposite view: stone terraces ascend into gnarled forests which disappear into fuzzy clouds hugging bare-rock ridges. A few wattle-and-daub houses dot the valleys, plastered mint-green and rose. Animals, carts, haystacks, houses — all are in miniature against the Himalayan backdrop. Grizzled crags cut through eternity, ice melt splashing between their torn seams.
hill trail child
swinging a basket, out
and back into the mist.
Khecheopalri Lake. Mountain-eye jewel circled by painted cairns and wood-block horses fluttering in solar gleam. We advance over an old covered bridge lined with prayer wheels, a sprinkle of rice under each of them. The place vibrates with empty-peace. Sky so blue it's black. Pine tapestry 360 degrees. Gnarly tree where we stop to eat wears a crown of bromeliads. I recall a years-ago trip to Bodhgaya to spend my 36th birthday under the Bo Tree, full moon shining between prayer flags adorning its branches. A monk had offered to carry my pack from rickshaw to guest house. He winced under its weight. "What inside?" he asked. "Stones and books" I said. "Better to collect silk," he laughed. "Make you more light."
Khecheopalri's placid face is rippled by gold script of swimming carp — a poem endlessly writing itself then drowning in the deep. We're told an old monastery sits on a ridge above the lake, so off we go. Trailhead sign:
Nature has everything
to meet man's need
but not his greed.
Up top, a grassy meadow. The peeling monastery is poor and forgotten; too far off the tourist track. You have to be gone-astray to get here. Across the field is PALA TEA SHOP. The proprietor is 70 year-old Mr. Pala, a spirited recluse who's turned his rambling plankboard house into an inn. He plunks a big umbrella into the ground, gives a hearty smile, sits us on benches, points out his grandkids doing acrobats on rusty parallel bars in the meadow. He lights the hearth, melts snow in a kettle, and takes a tin of tea from between bottles of homemade medicine, one whose filmy liquid holds a coiled snake. Strings of drying herbs hang from the ceiling. There's ointment in jars. Leaves and roots curing in string-tied bundles.
Pala says he was the Dalai Lama's cook in Tibet and escaped with him in 1959. Who knows? He has a playful smile and his eyes glitter with Himalayan light. He shows us his tomatoes, chilies, squash, and a healthy cannabis bush in a makeshift greenhouse behind the house. Between the plants are crystals from the slopes of Kanchenjunga. "Give good life to plants — shhhhwish shhhhwish," he laughs. I comment on the marijuana; he takes us to a big cannabis tree around back. We return to the benches and sit. He points to the cliffs and clouds, tells us "the caves where Milarepa meditated are up there." We've heard this story before — that these mountains are pocketed with lightning-ripped crags where gurus sat and saints found their way to the beyond (a friend recently found Milarepa's cave in China, but it was locked; a visitor center being built atop it).
Pala's 20-year-old bodhisattva daughter walks up with tea and cookies on a tray. Her face is burnished gold, her hands dyed with pomegranate juice. She smells of tea smoke and mock orange, a bit of pearl in the hollow of her neck. She eventually relates that she's the last child to remain home with her father. "All the others gone to India to work."
I feel that lost-again-where-trails-go-thin feeling. Sabine, one of the Belgian journalists, says she met a man like Mr. Pala on a trail between Darjeeling and Ghoom. "He came out of his house as I was passing. He invited me to the porch for tea and told me: 'The only way I can know the world is to open my door. Do you open your door where you live?"'
We languish in warm sun. Pala vanishes, returns with a twinkle, puts a little bag of cannabis in my hand. "For a good trip," he laughs. "Big stars for the night!" We pay him for the tea and cookies and begin our downward trek: past grandkids doing push-ups, a pair of waxed shoes drying on a stone step, sapwood split and bundled into kindling. Tiny pink buckwheat flowers shake in the breeze-ruffled afternoon shadows. A dharma moment, a
contact high —
the clear whites of the eyes
of one settled in mind.
We loop back to Pelling via Yuksom. The driver inserts rap music into the tape deck as he maneuvers jaw-dropping cliffs: "Don't you wish your daughter was fun like me, wrong like me, hot like me, bad like me," etc. We are about to tell him to turn it off when, BLAM, a tire pops and we flatten to a halt. The spare's threads are showing, but the driver gives it no thought and proceeds to change it. On the road's edge, workers crack small stones with big stones into pyramids of gravel to be mixed with tar and broomed on the roadbed. "Job security," Renée says. How could this road possibly be finished in a lifetime? The workers are Nepali tribal women — green headdresses, pink blouses, gold nose ornaments, brass bangles, bronze saris. A blackened rice pot boils, wild greens wilt on a makeshift table. Plastic garbage bags are folded and tied in a wicker basket. "Those are their raincoats," our driver says.
30 October, Tashiding
Tiny guest house, plank-wood upstairs, outdoor latrine. Tashiding is an isolated village with all the sounds that accompany: buckets clattering, water gurgling, someone calling across a field, a saw sawing, a hammer nailing, baskets winnowing. From the surrounding cliffs water flows into halved bamboo sections, emptying into one garden after another. At dawn, Nepali music blares from village speakers. Women swishsweep the courtyard below. I began the day with hot-water bucket bath, crouched in the stone-floored, latticed loo.
by candle light —
frog's eyes watching.
Crammed in rear of the jeep to Tashiding yesterday, Renée and I faced two bright-eyed schoolgirls. "We are friends from ever. We share everything." They put their arms around each other with big smiles: "We share same bed, eat same food, share homework, everything." "Maybe you will both marry the same man and share him too," I joked. They giggled crazily; the whole jeepload turned around and rollicked. Ah, these girls: not even out of high school and they're fluent in English, Hindi, Nepali, and Bhutia. What's it take to get an American kid to learn one other language?
Notes from yesterday's hike to Tashiding Monastery:
The gompa (1717) sits on a wooded hill above Rangit and Rathong rivers, a hefty hike up a stone-paved trail from town. Many traditional Sikkimese homes dot the fields. One has a wind-worked set of prayer wheels under tin-scrap rain canopy perched on adzed posts. Painted with primary colors, it's a folk-art masterpiece. Where the slopes become gentle, scraggily pear trees bloom in pencil-scratched rows. Kids play games along the trail, etching lines into the dirt with shards of glass, then pitch rusted bottle caps. We linger to watch, hugging our knees, backs to a stone wall, absorbing the heat. A russet-winged raptor dips low to inspect, then loops out of the human world back into the clouds.
Fissures abound in these hills, plenty of lore connected with them. Did Padmasambhava really meditate here? I imagine clouds shining light into his cave from the eternal void, lines deepening in his face, petals softly falling upon green moss — carried by nomadic wind. What is history? Is it only what's past and written about? Or can we experience it as a dimension of myth and reality, the long-ago unfolding within the continuous present of our daily lives?
think of Basho traveling Japan in 1689, repairing his sandals, gathering brushes and paper, setting off on the "narrow road to the interior" (Japan's interior, his own interior), aware of history, literary forbearers, famous dynasties. With each step he grew smaller, more vulnerable — caught in sudden downpours, scratching through bramble, lost on the wrong path, night descending, no place to stay. "The journey is home," he proclaimed. His was a bare-bones venture. It was not for escape or entertainment, but full of hurdles, doubts, chance encounters, nettles in the feet, plenty of solitude. Three-hundred years later, America's own dharma bum, Jack Kerouac, would lift his walking stick, tune his ear, ride the rails, hitchhike the highways. "I ain't afraid to roll in the bottom of things" he yodeled as he came to experience — not read about — the struggles of the common laborer.
and so was I
full of horror and confusion
just like them.
On this leg of the trip we are evermore aware of the journey as home. Moving along, stopping, moving on — no familiar room to retreat to. Letting small details shine through as we briefly taste the villages we pass. Each with a shrine hugging an overlook, water rumbling from the rock, a swath of woods for timber, a stone cellar full of hay and apples. But stop for awhile. Roofs are cracked, wheels rickety, the dark dusty, and the repairs makeshift. But it works. The handles of farm tools are varnished with sweat, crusted with earth—they smell sweet. They are leaned against a vine-tangled shed close to the seedbeds, the turned fields, the orchards. The spider spins, soot thickens, the chaff flies. Someone sings. Another banters. A pan rattles. The dogs lay down, the old bitch scratches her balding rear. Fleas rise to the sun. A kid comes along, all shy and mischievous glee. He speaks, eventually, a slow, unsteady speech. He has a schoolbook where you write your name, and he his. His sister shows you the water-worked fulcrum pounding rice into flour. Father and mother take a break from work and sit as proud audience.
You linger, you leave, amazed by — but unsure of — a world just shared. The slanting light is warm, you feel joy. The mountains cloud, afternoon shadows extend, you feel melancholy. A figure bundled with grass hobbles into a canyon, vanishes in the dark. All is evanescent. Outer and inner worlds are fated to expire. You know that. But why is it different to feel it here? Is the emotion, the circumstance, the transience played up by the exaggerated heights and goosebump drops, the miniscule stick figures engulfed by nature's vast scale? What, in the thereby-here-now-shoulda-been, has you on the ramshackle edge? That your hair is whiter than it was a moment ago? That time has fled and you didn't settle in as deeply as you wanted? That curiosity and impulse waylaid you too often? Or, while astray, did you witness firsthand the wrath of the war mongers, the rape of profiteers; how they've tampered with time, imagination, the air, the soil, every inch of water? What to do? Face the blade and be mowed down? Become angry in the fight, or disengage and become part of something small whose efforts and actions add something positive to a hurting world? Become mighty! Know thy merciful voice.
thorny ravine —
nameless weeds bend & straighten
as we move through.
Trail steepens. Two flies get under my hat and make love. Out of nowhere a lanky German passes like a rocket. Skimpy leather shorts, giant shoes, clacking aluminum poles. Shirt off, body on display, he's absolutely fit. The flies don't bother him, the ascent is a piece of cake. With all his perfectly-synched wheezing, he's got no time for a hello. Can't manage a smile, not even a wink. He'll likely get where he's supposed to get and drop dead in front of the chuckling Immortals. That's okay, we're here, he's there, we'll always have more road to go.
Tashiding's murals are locked up, so we'll walk the grounds, savor the location and architecture. Dozens of chortens gleam in the sun, reliquaries originally built to house the bones of Buddha or the remains of lamas. Their design incorporates the square (earth), the circle (water), and the triangle (fire). One of these chortens has a reputation for being magic. It is supposed to cleanse the beholder of all previous wrong doings. One look and you're washed clean. But, which one is it?
A group of Tibetan women round the gompa, humming mantras. They wear traditional wrap-around gowns tied with neon-striped wool aprons. Between their litanies, we hear the tacktacktackkking of hammer against stone. Under a shade tree, an elderly carver chips away in a smoky cell, sipping tea from a clay cup warmed on glowing embers. He sits on a cushion, chiseling Om Mani Padme Hum into a thin stone panel to be added to the impressive array of already-carved slabs that line the gompa walls. Meanwhile, an old abbot walks the garden tangles, bends to inspect a string bean, reties his robe, and continues his stroll.
an autumn fly
the monk's bald head.
1 November, to Gangtok
We stand by the road and hitch. Immediately a jeep carrying the regional water minister and his entourage pulls up and opens its door. Off we go, the minister shouting loudly over engine noise trying to communicate. But the straining motor outdoes his rap: "Master plan … whole country … stage one then … backup … then two … eight … so on … Master plan." I catch the drift. More dams will be added to the ones that already exit, right up to the Himalayan border with China, until not a single wild river remains in Sikkim. Along the way, I copy slogans painted on the retaining walls:
SOFT AND SINKING AHEAD
DRIVE LIKE HELL & YOU WILL BE THERE
Gangtok is crowded, but the ridge above the main bazaar is quiet, wooded, and catches a continuous breeze. We lodge in an inn owned by the former King's surgeon, a gentle, knowledgeable man who obviously misses the late emperor and his former American queen, Hope Cook. After dark, the chanting of monks from Enchey Gompa, on the hill up canyon, sifts through the trees. Along with rattling gongs and blaring horns comes the crash-boom crash-boom of drum and cymbals; then slow, guttural rise of voices. Rough, raw, deep, eerie.
I decide to roll a little of Mr. Pala's homegrown and have a smoke. No papers, but a Bible-thin page from The Rough Guide to India will do. Lessee, what do I want to smoke: Goa, Kerela, Varanasi? I tear out Arunachal Pradesh, I've always wanted to go there, sift in Pala's sweet smelling cannabis, dab the tissue-thin paper with Elmer's glue, lick it, and strike a match. Ah, that sacred-lake, high-mountain Milarepa feel. Yes, yes! Throw open shutters, savor crisp bakery-smoke air; the essential relaxation of resinous heaven filled with monk mantras through spinning stars and state-of-perfection bamboo. Visions of flower heads pinkly bobbing in silvered stone terraces, Pala's grandkids doing solar back flips, his bodhisattva daughter materializing from pure void, six whirling arms bearing tea tray and cookies — the animal cookies of youth in cardboard circus-wagon box. Milarepa, too, floats down from his rent-free meditation cave on antelope skin, right hand raised to ear, listening to indispensable high-peak vibrations, writing poems with a persimmon twig dipped in root smudge.
Who's the old hankering fool
trying to conquer the mind, bumbling up to the altar
wondering what to pray for?
With or without heightened ganja-state, each star's twinkle is a visual echo of the monks' diamond-clear voice vibrations. Deep-roar throat singing, clarinet altos, hollow boooom-boom-boomba-baboom of wooden drums, blat and blustery howl of crescendoing horns. Waaaaaaaaaa! Yheeeeeeee! Thelonious Monk at piano, Bird doing speedhead tempos on Marpa's sax, while on the trumpet-flower's lip:
bobs its head
to bluesy wail.
2 November, Gangtok
Enchey monastery. Morning walk, uphill through pines, day lilies, and golden cosmos (we stop to harvest their seeds). The gompa vibrates in early sun fluttering through evergreens. Monks are milling around; it seems haphazard at first, but there's a certain order to their randomness. Each has an assigned task in preparation for daily puja. Several sweep, some dust, others fill brass bowls with water, a few load fruit into wicker baskets and carry them to the altars. The youngsters are off in the shadows playing leap frog, their robes flapping.
At a wooded corner of the courtyard, the Kanchenjunga-facing one, a monk feeds smoking juniper boughs into a gessoed shrine. It must be an auspicious corner because rice is sprinkled on the pavement (at home, in the Pueblos, it would be corn meal). Rounding the gompa, I step back and perceive how closely its design replicates the mountains behind. Up-sloped roofs are an extension of crests and saddles; the bright white walls are ice fields; the gleaming rooftops, sunlit ridges.
Renée chats with a senior monk, until he looks at his watch, humbly excuses himself from the bench, and says "I have some things to do." Later, during puja, she points him out. He's the head lama, leading the sangha in chant! There's something about the sudden shift of play into prayer that's familiar — like the slow milling and horsing around before a Pueblo feast day where the prep and play, the filling of baskets with food, the raking of the dirt plaza suddenly stops, and the chanting begins. Dancers appear, jangling in ceremonial regalia, prancing out of the rising sun into the plaza, high peaks aglow above the dry desert upsweep.
I love these events. The timelessness, the fact that they are happening at all in the 21st century. The Himalayas of Sikkim / The Sangre de Cristos of New Mexico. This is one case where I feel east and west are not living in two different worlds. At the Zuni night dances I've often felt I was walking between the low, flat-roofed houses of Ladakh. In Ladakh I felt I was walking between the low, flat-roofed houses of Zuni. In both places there is ritual drama. Masked dance, ancient chant. Something vibrating at a higher pitch than anywhere else on the planet.
Enchey suddenly buzzes with prayer and music. Schoolgirls in pressed uniforms stop to enter, their wrinkled grandmothers in tow. The elders wobble up to Buddha using their granddaughters as crutches. Some are guided to a favored protectorate on the altar. In the dimness, before flaming votives and golden bowls, each devotee is pulled into a dissolving point, fading into a greater realm than the one of our afflicted world. Palms pressed together, they prostate, leave coins, biscuits, chrysanthemums, and receive the clear taste of Tara's smile.
to the monks' chanting
a spider weaves
a diamond throne
3 November, Rumtek
Was Ginsberg here 44 years ago? Or did he travel only as far as Ghoom? The latter would have required great travail; Rumtek would have been an absolute feat. It's a mindblow of a monastic complex, the largest we've seen. Multi-tiered, richly embellished in golds and vermilions, it's the seat of the Gyalwa Karmapa, leader of the Buddhist Black Hat sect, the 12th-century order founded by Marpa, pupil of Naropa, teacher of the roving ascetic, Milarepa. A hundred monks are chanting in the assembly hall as we enter. Drum booooM, horn blaaaaAAAAng, conch groaaaan. The familiar fire and smoke of my Catholic youth, icons half-in-shadow, all fierce or benevolent smiles, arms extended from flowing robes. Ghost-dance bodies, Noh-mask faces. A dapple of curd in a clay bowl set before Manjushri whose raised sword cuts through ignorance and brings liberation.
Rumtek is heavily guarded by the Indian army. We have to sign in at the entrance. India doesn't want any monkey business here. The Black Hat sect was firmly rooted in Tibet for eight centuries, but when the Chinese invaded in '59 the 16th Karmapa fled to Sikkim and proceeded to build this monastery, the Chinese grew tense. The Karmapa was a venerated incarnation, responsible for spreading Buddhism throughout the world. In 1980 he arrived in Santa Fe to perform the Black Hat (Kagyu) Ceremony, manifesting himself as Avalokitesvara to transmit radiant compassion to the gathered sangha. A moving event. It was a year before he died and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time to receive his blessing, and my Tibetan Buddhist name.
After Karmapa's death, bitter confusion clouded his successor. The more likely inheritor fled from Tibet to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's home in India. But he's still in exile, so to speak. India won't let him take the throne for fear of offending China, once enemy, now future trade partner (and competitor). The other claimant is from nearby Kalimpong. The contention is tense; it all seems so anti-Buddhist. In the meantime, the actual Black Hat, woven from the hair of heavenly apsaras, is locked away "to keep it from flying back to heaven." More likely, it's to keep it from getting into the hands of the wrong contender. After all the trouble the Chinese went through to destroy Tibet's monasteries, they must burn with spite over how many of them have been meticulously rebuilt, exact replicas of the originals, just across the border in India. Rumtek is modeled after the Kagyupa Gompa in Tsorpu, built in honor of Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha.
We overnight in a lodge down the road from Rumtek. The kitchen's full of jovial cooks, cold beer's across the street, and there are long views across the valley to Gangtok. No beggar business goes on at these Sikkimese gompas — a complete turnabout from India where temple steps overflow with fakirs, broken-limbed beggars, and homeless mothers extending swollen babies. The few beggars we do see up here seem lowlanders, not locals, attracted by a tourist industry keen on promoting mountain treks and monastic circuits.
Under Cassiopeia, cliff edge dwellings are bright with candles. The monastery is outlined with hundreds of flame points blending into the stars. Horns and drums and mantras wheel though Van Gogh's Starry Night. Next morning, sun floods our room from Tibetan peaks cragged along the eastern sky. India's haze drifts up south-facing valleys, until the winds reverse it all back down.
along the balcony
jeweled dew on buds
of plastic flowers.
4 November, Old Rumtek
Old Rumtek, not far down the road from New Rumtek, is built on a clearing at the sky's edge, much more peaceful and less ostentatious than the new monastery. What's amazing is the robin's-egg blue that tints its white façade, as if the sky had lent its color. The translucent hue gives the place a floating quality, like a cloud skimming the grass. Around the façade, a brick-red stripe is painted, bordered with white dots. The theme is common to nearly every Sikkimese monastery we've seen, a distinguished modern-art look. On the cement path used by pilgrims to circumambulate the temple, maroon-robed monks spread rice to dry. As they drag and push their wooden rakes, chaff rises into the sun and veils the gompa with a soft, golden aura. On the front steps, a path has been cleared between the drying grains. Up we go, as if being wed, through big wood doors, bodies flecked with golden chaff.
Inside the hall, an instant welcome. A novice ushers us to a bench behind a half dozen monks readying to chant. He moves a low table before us, sets it with two cups, disappears briefly, returns to pour each monk a cup of butter tea, and, smiling, comes to fill ours. We drink slowly, adjusting the pallet to the salty taste, more like soup than tea. How auspicious it is to end our journey at this sky-blue "cloud loft" in relative solitude (gompa means "solitary place"). Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, and White Tara dominate the altar, a fine trio to send us out into the world again. My head full of joy and distraction, I sit, curve my tongue like a lotus petal, straighten my spine like an arrow, let shoulders float, fix eyes on tip of nose, inhale deeply, and slowly repeat Om Mani Padme Hum.
until the mosquito
The monks are very animated during their chanting. One makes a popping hollow staccato sound on a small double-headed drum, the old Bon shaman's drum; another clicks tongue and snaps fingers, flicking rice grains to floor; a third crashes brass cymbals to punctuate a fourth who beats a painted yak-skin drum hanging in a carved wooden rack. The hollow BOOM BOOMBOOM resonates inside my ribcage. Then comes a low droning conch, the bleating of long wooden horns, and two brass cymbals rubbed clockwise that give a metallic taste to my mouth. They seem to announce a new actor to the stage, and yes, here he comes, out through a curtain under a yabyum mural — a monk with smoking censer. He stops to bow under Shakyamuni, adjusts his robe, then begins sprinkling water onto Buddha's altar, and over the chanting choir. We're included.
The mantras reach a pitch point, loud and garbled; "like barroom talk," Renée whispers. Layers of voices tumble, soar, weave into unearthly cacophony which turns suddenly lyrical, like a Javanese gamelan. Villagers honor Padmasambhava with trays of puffed rice, sugarcane, unrefined salt, a bottle of Bagpiper Whiskey. On the altar, eight silver bowls are filled with water; above them are the neatly-crafted sacrificial cakes called tormas. They are sculpted of dough, flame-like in shape, decorated with motifs of colored butter, crested with moon and sun. Food for the deities, not meant to be eaten. We've seen variations of these tormas in India, where they likely originated, and in Bali, where they are very elaborate.
When there's a pause in voice or instrument, the river scampering through the canyon below fills the silence. In every Sikkimese gompa we've visited, water has lent its company. The monastery is always on a dramatically-rising, east-facing hill above a river whose current washes you into a meditative state. The hill is perhaps symbolic of the cloud-resting abodes of the mystics who inspired today's practice. The monastery wasn't around in primitive Buddhism — just a craggy lookout, a bare-rock cave on the flank of a holy peak.
what you think
you don't hear.
The grassy clearing around old Rumtek's assembly hall, used for religious gatherings and masked dances, serves to isolate the structure and give it importance, a kind of "no-space" between secular and sacred. Crossing it, you leave the world of distractions. Entering the assembly hall, you bend under a curtain draped just low enough from the eaves as to partially block the door. This in itself is symbolic. The curtain is embroidered with the auspicious Mystic Knot, a looped, intertwined design — no beginning or end. As you bow, the curtain strokes your head; you are reminded of the intertwined radiance of wisdom and compassion woven into unending harmony.
The garish adornment inside at first overpowers, then becomes emphatic of Buddha's golden truth, the bliss-bestowing grace of the Bodhisattvas, the all-mother glow of Tara. It brings me back to my upbringing among saints, divine mothers, flaming doves, and gold-thread symbols hand-embroidered on altar cloths. Walking into the Spanish-style church of my youth, my eyeballs rolled. Frankincense filled the air, melted wax, odor of wine, the scent of polished wood. A cooling sensation enveloped me when I dipped my fingers into the holy-water fount. With eyes adjusted, the darkness began to shine with prophets and martyrs. The paneled altar was gold leafed, and on it a battered Christ hung, hammered to his cross. The look on his face was of bleak misery. No Shakyamuni with golden curls and placid smile. My mother shunned the cross, though, and guided me to a side altar filled with calla lilies. Two tall candles flanked a beatific Lady who spread her arms, opened a sky-blue veil, and walked the earth with bare feet.
The young monk who brought us tea shows us to a small chamber behind the altar. I think he wants an excuse to practice English; that's fine, we want an excuse to see what's in there. Whew! Turns out to be Mahakala's room, an Aztec-like inner sanctum accented with black, green, blood red. A band of smiling skulls wraps the upper walls. Below them are murals of writhing, disemboweled humans doomed to lesser rebirth for bringing suffering into the world. Mahakala is half hidden by drapery. "Too powerful to see," says the monk. I ask to move closer, he nods. I peek to catch what I can of the huge smoke-smelling deity. He's goggle-eyed, open-fanged, bulky shoulders wrapped with scarves, bulbous retinas peering right into mine. His feet are positioned in warrior stance, ready for any adversary. "You see the sword? It cuts down problems inside you."
Mahakala is good for our times — chops up demons, turns them into elixir. Cuts down obstacles that obscure truth. He can rid the world of despicable wrath. As the fierce manifestation of all-compassionate Avalokitesvara, he can help us take the final step toward abandoning all-consuming bad habits. His garland of severed heads means he's already made "headway" towards vanquishing lust, pretense, envy, anger, aggression, spite, hypocrisy.
old age —
I smile back
at the smiling skull.
Leaving the assembly hall, we go from dark to light. Same concept as the Orissan temples. But here, no maddening enterprise of alms seekers awaits us. Only pine scent, water echoing from the chasm below. The juxtaposition of river sound and sun warming the bones takes on a special significance. I am alive! Have ridden trams, pondered crossroads, walked through jumbled cities — a guest of others. Have climbed cliffs, craned my head through brambles, stopped where no dust collects, looked from a stone window — and caught another world glinting. I've felt my body wisp into floating summits where the masters sat. West of Natu La, east of the Five-Jeweled Crown, I cup my palms into ice melt and drink from the clouds. Frayed but happy, I am
no mountain monk,
just a bum on the far side
of what's near.
I take out my travel-frayed Basho book. A poem he wrote en route to see the harvest moon at Kashima in 1685, is just as fresh today as it was then:
the moon fleeting fast,
foliage atop the trees
holds the rain.
Basho was traveling through rice fields and fishing villages backed by autumn mountains when he wrote this haiku. In his journal he recorded his feelings about his failed attempts to create a worthy poem. Ultimate beauty, he said, was beyond description. One could participate in the moonrise, absorb it, but words fall short. Despite his admitted failure, Basho's haiku seems remarkable. In just three lines he provides an entire picture — of the near, of the far; of movement, of stillness. He does not step in the way with emotion, nor insert any word for stillness, peace, or calm; yet the poem resonates with serenity. "Rasa" is the Sanskrit word for this: the taste or mood that reverberates from experience. Basho's picture — evanescent moon, still treetops, glittering rain — is simple. But in the listener's ear a whole landscape reverberates. There is pictorial music, a mood is aroused, and there is a symbolic after-tone: what is transient can actually be held. The rain in the trees mirrors everything around it: moon, autumn foliage, departing clouds. The poet is part of this transience. Like the raindrops, he can absorb and reflect what is around him. He can hold the fleeting moon for a moment, and, using the haiku, he can express the inexpressible.
Our trip is coming to a close.
Yellow orchids, misty crags, chiming sun. I scan the clefts but can't find the trail on which we came. Should I pick a roadside daikon and taste my original nature? As we leave Rumtek, the monks continue to rake, the chaff flies. A breeze lifts a spider web, turns it inside out, ruffles drying laundry on a hedge. Clouds rise, a burst of hail clatters on tin roofs, echoes in cliff-rock meditation caves, scares out the inner lions. We turn towards the monastery and bow. An old guy is digging his field, a potato in each pocket. Behind him, sheer steaming peaks. Below him, stony soil brought down from the summits. Everything as is. Breeze, mountains, this taste, this feel, the silky pebble I roll between my teeth. This, the Golden Eternity that Kerouac celebrated from Desolation Peak. Flowing and retreating, fogging and unveiling. The world a perpetual riddle as crickets sing, monks chant, and the mill wheel wobbles on its rusty shaft. It's like poet-amigo David Meltzer once said "It's all over, never stops, begins in the end, ends in the beginning."
Jot a few scribbles in my pad?
Ah, but these cloud shadows running across the stones beneath the stream's flow.
Why not linger a bit longer?
amid swirling mists
a fiery ray
on the unnamed peak.