The Indian version of the "Detour" road-sign is "Take Diversion." I should just tattoo it on my forehead since nothing seems to go as planned anyway.
Malgudi Days This is the first chance at email I've had since Friday afternoon. The bus from Vijayawada to Amaravathi did not run on time, so I missed the ensuing bus to Guntur where I would have gotten my Chennai train. Fortunately, this train leaves every evening and seats are readily available. Having missed the train and thus wasted the ticket, there seemed to be little reason to leave the peaceful atmosphere of Amaravathi in a rush, so I didn't. There was no internet at all available in Amaravati this weekend. The next morning (Saturday) I got some great interviews with local people concerning their businesses.
RK Narayanan wrote a series of books about a fictitious south Indian town, Malgudi Junction. Amaravathi could very well be Malgudi. Every day - actually, every five minutes - I saw charming scenes of a way of life that is quickly vanishing. Without internet, all I could do was scribble them in my theme book and hope to transfer them later.
In this way, I discovered a gathering of some 200,000 Indian Christians in nearby Guntur, somewhat controversial as there are Indian groups who dislike conversions. My friends Madhusudana and his family have a house in Guntur and said I could stay there as long as I like "as it is your own home." They are pretty cool so I said, okay and tonight we will have homemade dinner at Vijay's auntie's house.
Last night I took the bus to Guntur. A tiny girl named Nagalaxmi came and sat next to me to practice her English. "Your name is what?" "Ca-ro-line." "Your village name is what?" "Chat-ta-noo-ga." I was proud that my "village" name was equally as long and musical as hers, Kondalurpet.
Healing Hands & Headaches Upon arrival in Guntur, Vijay met me at the bus station. We went to the meeting site - just an open field with a temporary stage erected - and talked to the Christians of the Randy Walker Global Outreach (with varying results including their trying to "save" me. "Can we pray for you?"). I had a chance to follow the touring bus with the Christians and go to Rajahmundry with them, the next stop on their mission/crusade/tour. (Most of the team are westerners working with the locals.) I would have done it if a rumour hadn't started circulating that I was a spy from Sai Baba's (?!). I think that's why they were trying to "save" me. After a guy from Alabama tried to heal me by pressing his finger on my forehead and praying aloud, I got a headache that lasted all day today. Maybe it's God's way of telling me to stay away from this particular socioreligious phenomena. Or it may have just been the cognitive dissonance created by hearing an Alabama accent in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.
The volunteers were interesting; they all seem very sincere about helping people and as far as I know, are not preaching against Hinduism, just doing faith healing. You can freely promote any religion in India, you just can't speak negatively about any of them - that's where the trouble starts.
The Indian Christians were about as unfriendly as the Western ones were friendly. They must have had a very bad experience with the press because they were very suspicious about how they'd be portrayed. I just wanted to find out as much as possible about them, so that I can report what I find. If they don't let you ask questions, they make it difficult to do that.
The short of it seems to be - from what I saw sitting there and talking to people for about two hours - that Hindus are coming to Christianity not primarily because they like the belief system, or because they believe Jesus is Lord or anything like that, but because the Christians are, in local parlance, giving "best services." It appears to have more to do with the locals just wanting love and acceptance and help, than with their wanting to "be Christian," or with rejecting Hinduism. That's very understandable, for poor people to want help wherever it is available. If the Hindus don't like it, they must get their act together and offer the same stuff. There are lots of NRIs with money now who could fund similar missions in a Hindu vein. This particular group focused on faith healing before preaching or conversion. There were laypersons laying on hands and praying for the recovery of locals from various ailments. In my case, though, it seems to have actually created an ailment (the headache). I regret that I didn't have the time and resources (time to translate from Telugu and talk to locals about it) to find out more.
Even the Dalai Lama said that Buddhists should follow the Christian example of charity and outreach, rather than sequestering themselves so much in the monasteries. In his autobiography the DL mentioned several examples of Indian charity and how he admired them - because, he said, his own compassion was just words and concepts, and these charity workers were really putting their compassion into action.
My Guntur hosts, Vijay and Phuni (sons of Madhusudana), are bright-eyed, athletic kids. Vijay is studying 3D animation and multimedia at the local university. I have seen his stuff and think he's pretty talented. He also studied karate for two months, mostly, I think, so he could take a series of photos in macho karate poses. I had to admit he looked pretty cool in these shots.
I was all set to get another ticket to Madras tonight, but now have been invited to the boys' best friend's wedding on February 2nd. This could be fun and a great photo op. I have a free place to stay here and in Adyar, Madras for a while.
Now I have, literally, about 100 emails waiting for me. . .
The Madras street kids are also waiting for me, viz. this letter from Prabhakaran, their adult "supervisor," to their sponsor, complete with misspellings:
Dear R, I recieved your messages. Thank you. Today i pay the invoice 181.13 for January. Thank you. Today i recieved 8784-115 and prabhu recieved 1889-115. I think monday mumtaz and jeniffer will withdraw food money. I wellcomes Dancing Lady Caroline. Thank you. Here all are fine. Thank you, Regards, V.Prabakaran.
There seem to be more people waiting for me than for any other unemployed writer in the universe. I guess that's a good thing.
Sirensongs: Indologist At Large
Somewhere between Kangra, Kashmir and Kumbakonam, India
Sirensongs moved to India in 2002 to complete her six years' study of the ancient temple dance, Bharatanatyam. Apprenticing with a revered master in Madras, she learned a great deal; however, most of it was not about dance.
Disillusionment and childhood memories of "Tintin In Tibet" have led her to adventures as a spiritual investigative reporter throughout India, Nepal and Sri Lanka; as documented on this blogsite, her Flickr photo portfolio and various newsmedia (see sidebar).
She holds a certificate in Spoken Sanskrit from Rashtriya Samskrta Samsthan (deemed university, New Delhi) and is a lifetime member of ABHAI (Assoc. of Bharatanatyam Artists of India). Sirensongs is inordinately proud of her ability to read street signs and argue (successfully) with taxi drivers in Malayalam, Hindi, French and Nepali languages.
Her Tibetan, however, is still a total disgrace. She's working on it.
Quote: "Why do people go to India to find themselves? India is where you go to LOSE yourself."
Unless otherwise noted, every word and photograph on this website, including the phrases "Spiritual Investigative Reporter" and "Indologist at Large," is original and copyright from 2005 into perpetuity by Sirensongs (yes, I have a real name I use for legal purposes). It is not public domain. It is not there for the borrowing. If you would like to use it, write and ask nicely. Karma is a bitch. Thank you.