Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Calcutta: The Great Unwashed

Cal Calling
India has a genius for complicating things, and I'm not exactly straightforward and clutter-free myself to begin with.

Your faithful correspondent came North to see the Kali Pujas (Oct 25-28), decided to stay a few days to volunteer at Mother Therese's homes, and, as though in reward for this altruistic decision, promptly got deathly ill - a very nasty 6-day bout with diarrhea, cramps, indigestion, nausea etc and had to resort to a short round of antibiotics.

To further complicate things, when I became well enough to stagger past the ever-present gauntlet of Calcutta's professional beggars down to the local net joint, I found there is a SNAFU with my usually trusty email account.

Mother Therese's home for mentally handicapped kids was pretty amazing and unexpectedly fun, if you can ignore the smell of antiseptic floor wash (barely masking that of urine and feces). You should see the way these kids, many of whom are autistic or worse, light up when you just strum a few chords on a beat up old guitar and sing "Old MacDonald."

Calcutta - (India's second largest city, which in terms of sheer numbers, is quite a statement) is simultaneously the most medieval and most modern place I've yet visited here. Where else in the world can you take a *foot* rickshaw (yes, with huge wooden spoke wheels and a snowy-bearded barefoot man trundling you along the street) - a foot rickshaw, past limbless beggars and snarling street dogs, to the gleaming, punctual, immaculate, safe, uncrowded, *air-conditioned*(!) Metro station?!

In the Indian tradition of religious assimilation, Mother Therese has been added to the local pantheon of street-corner saints and deities. The ferocious Kali Ma leers at you from nearly every streetcorner shrine, alternating with Durga, who smiles benignly while spearing a demon. Amidst what must have seemed pagan idolatry to her, Therese's walnut face has earned an enduring place of honour. The city has been awash with activity honoring her recent beatification; everything from a film festival (mostly documentaries and one docudrama starring Geraldine Chaplin), a ceremony for the first official veneration of her relics (including a few drops of blood - don't even want to know how they acquired that), and various cultural ceremonies, mostly featuring acoustic guitar renditions of "Amazing Grace" sung in Bengali.

Park Street - the hip, happening yuppie street with all the bars, trendy shops and nightclubs - has officially been dubbed Mother Therese Avenue. Calcutta municipal corporation seems to have a real sense of humour in this area; in the midst of a somewhat perverse PC renaming orgy, they also rechristened Calcutta's most commercial thoroughfare "Lenin Street." The US and British consulates both reside on what's now called "Ho Chi Minh Avenue." (I'm not sure what significance, if any, to read into the fact that these names appear only on maps and signs, but never in the local parlance.)

The post-colonial purport behind this nomme-nouveau frenzy (which seems to have primarily benefited the sign-painters and map printers) strangely didn't stop several streets from being renamed with, of all things, *British* names. Thus the former Theatre Road, rather than being named after a worthy Bengali playwright, of which there are many, became "Shakespeare Sarani." Another street, albeit a small one, swapped the decidedly British "Middleton Row" for the equally Limey "Sir William Jones Sarani." And one can only wonder what nationalist purpose was served by giving the name "James Hickey Sarani" to the former Dacres Lane.

I've found it surprisingly difficult to leave Calcutta, described by...well, some old writer whose name escapes me as being composed of "new mud, old mud and more mud." repetitive but accurate. Weather here, which was monsoon marsh and dripping humidity upon my arrival, has greatly improved, as has my health. Give Calcutta a chance to first entrap you with its bewildering network of former cowpaths impersonating as actual streets, or prevent your plane from departing due to poor visibility, amd you'll find it eventually ensnares you with its unique charm - a sort of "creme de la grime." It ranks with Rome as an eternal, infernal city.

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Mysore Packed

1 August 2003,
Mysore, Karnataka state

The former seat of the Wodeyar Maharajah dynasty, Mysore currently seems to be populated entirely by bent, brown old men wrapped in tea towels (on head, waist, shoulders, you name it - always brings to mind the Bible verse 'wrapped in swaddling clothes'). Despite what feels, to this foreigner, like ferocious tropical humidity, street vendors with carts full of acrylic knit caps, cardigans and hooded zip sweatshirts appear any time the temps drop below, say, 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Though the 2nd largest city in Karnataka state, Mysore (best known in the guide books for its silks, sandalwood and royal palaces) is the old world cousin to cybermetropolis Bangalore. Shuttered carts drawn by bony chestnut ponies clip clop by, riotously painted with bright folk designs recalling their gypsy origins...or is it a touch of Pennsylvania Dutch? A fortunate number of charming old Victorian-pseudoMughal style (aka "Indo-Saracenic") buildings remain, housing such mundane concerns as the telegraph office (talk about old world - there is still a telegraph office!) and the agricultural board. In Bangalore, most such structures have long since been replaced by glass and metal monstrosities.

Mysore is also home to a particular brand of yoga, the 'Mysore style.' As it is known to incorporate a rather ruthless approach and a bit of sadism, the name (My sore) seems apropos. The local contribution to Indian cuisine is Mysore Bonda (a ball of fried rice-lentil dough) and a dessert called "Mysore Pak," which amounts to nothing more than an excuse to eat a cake of brown sugar melded together with a quarter stick of pure butter. Just looking at a plate of Pak is enough to make your teeth ache.

It's monsoon season; in this region it's not the disaster one envisions in the West, just an inconvenience. Today there were sheets of downpour for literal hours on end. The street on which I found myself having been transformed from rutted road to near-river in minutes, I took refuge in the Vijaychamarajendra Gallery (15 rupees admission), housed in a former palace. Like most Indian museums, it's woefully lit by glaring overhead fluorescents (fully half the fascinating works you can't see for the reflections on the glass), equally poorly arranged and captioned. One room was filled entirely with exquisite Moghul miniatures, and the roof was leaking....huge puddle in the corner! Another containing Victorian brocade diwans had rain seeping in from the windows - with such lack of care, it's a testimony to the craftsmanship that it has lasted this long. What I was able to see, however, was enthralling, especially the Rajasthani miniatures (mind-boggling minute detail, down to the wisps of hair on the pale cheek of a Moghul maiden). Another display featured sepia-tinted photos of royal festivities in days gone by. The Mysore Dasara is an ancient festival, still celebrated each fall,in which the Maharajah and the statue of his patron deity (the lion-riding warrior goddess Durga) were paraded on richly caparisoned elephants, with the medieval pomp and circumstance in which Hindu culture has yet to be surpassed. Nowadays, however, only Durga rides in the gilt elephant howdah, the maharajah having been relegated to mere mortal status. Stiffly posed photos of regal gentlemen in jeweled turbans,immaculate white sherwani coats and tassled saber scabbards peered out at me from the past, captive in their dusty yellowed frames. Their large, inky black eyes and florid mustaches were echoed by the features of listless museum employees lurking in the shadows of the gloomy formerpalace. Descendents many times removed of a once-great dynasty, now reduced to being underpaid caretakers of their cobwebby heritage? It beats selling zippered sweatshirts on a monsoon street corner.

I trod carefully up creaking narrow steps to find other entire rooms dark; occasional glimpses from available light showed them to be filled with motley conglomerations of ancient, Victorian and modern works, including the surreal and luridly colored landscapes of the Russian Nicholas Roerich (who worked in India and Tibet most of his life). The only other visitors in sight were a German trio who wandered about, equally baffled by the magnificent disarray. Finally, out of frustration (a stunning antique wardrobe, for instance, would be labelled something like "Stunning Antique Wardrobe" - no exaggeration! - but no date, provenance, nothing) - out of frustration I retired to a nearby tea stall, unwilling to put myself through the third floor of the 'museum,' which promised ancient musical instruments, as well as more eye strain.

The tea stall was a typically overstaffed Indian business -anywhere you go to order a cup of sugary tea, there are commonly 4-5 people scurrying to wait on you...and yes,they all work there, or at least keep up the appearance of doing so. In the 10x10 tea stall, crammed with chips,sugary cookies and trinkets, a full family of 5 including at least 2 generations waited on me as I ordered a solitary glass of coffee, then almost out of guilt, a few candies (total cost: 12 rupees). As per the custom, the coffee was served scalding hot in a tiny thimble of unholdable glass. Despite the rainy desolation and lack of business (most other nearby stalls had been closed for hours), the elder man of the family, encouraged by his elbowing but silent wife, struck up a polite conversation with me. Upon finding I was "from U.S.," as they say here, he wanted to know "what you think about ladden?" What? Oh, Bin Laden! "Yes, they say he is planning to strike somewhere again in the States."

This is the subcontintental idea of small talk. I never know how to answer these pithy opening gambits from Indians. The interrogators are usually Hindu, and even random comments reveal there is little love lost between themselves and the local Muslim populations. However, they are a proud post-colonial people, so they also - so far without exception - fiercely oppose the US/UK activity in Iraq in principle. Thus they are in the bizarre position of (sometimes not-so-) secretly wishing death and destruction on all Muslims, but resenting the West for beating them to it. Indians don't seem to be truly anti-imperialist, just anti-Western. Imperialism seems to be all well and good as long as they are the implementors. Therefore, as much as everyone from indignant editorials to the tea-stall uncles protest the war in/on Iraq, I can't help but detect insincerity colored by jealousy.

So how do I answer such a question without sounding like either an imperialist pig or a Muslim oversympathizer? With a smile, I took a scalding sip and said - without a trace of irony - "I'm glad I'm in India!" A reply guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of the proudest post-colonial, even that rainy monsoon afternoon. They then paid me what for them was the ultimate compliment - that of telling me I "look like an Indian," tantamount to saying "you may be American, but you qualify as human, after all. And we won't overcharge you - too much."

So much for shopping, silk and sandalwood. Learning to have an adventure on 30 rupees or less is something no guidebook can teach you.