Monday, March 27, 2006

Spilled tea

Another Country
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

I know it's not an original observation - I'm certainly not the first to make it - but I can never get over the contrast between the energy of the Tibetans and the majority of lowland Indians. (The locals seem to have a bit of that spritely hill energy, like the Nepalis.) For one thing, the "Tiptons" (as my Andhra friends pronounced it) seem to constantly smile at strangers as though they were truly happy to see you, although they are not trying to sell you anything and don't speak enough English to grill you with personal questions. And even when they do (speak English), they don't (grill you). You can often tell they've been in India a while when they stop smiling at strangers.

The Dalai Lama's annual Indian teachings are always crowded, so we sit on ledges and stairways tripping over one another constantly - mostly Tibetans, quite a few Westerners (in India, Japanese, Korean and Chinese are Westerners) and the occasional Indian.

The "Dalai Lama Temple" is a sort of overgrown government-issue generic blocky building made of reinforced concrete and painted a faded yellow. It was built long ago - looks like the 1960s - before the world took so much notice of Tibetan Buddhism, and followers have long since outgrown the grounds. Monks and jean-clad young assistants scurry at tea intervals, stepping over and through the devotees seated on the ground like a Buddhist picnic, pouring endless cups of the salty Tibetan brew.

Tao Tea-Chings
Today the family next to me kicked over a cup onto the concrete flooring and the hot liquid went everywhere. Surely this happens many times during such a crowded event. What amazed me, after so many years in Indian India, was that no one got upset, no one clucked their tongue or tsked or scolded anyone, they just kind of picked up their stuff and moved over. It just struck me as being so different from the recrimination I now expect from most Indians in such situations. Everything is drama, nothing is ever okay, or just what happens - when you make a mistake there has to be some kind of reprimand and shame. Above all, there has to be judgment. And someone must pay, for god's sake!

And there's no undoing damage - it is beneath them to fix things. The spilled tea is an unforgiveable sin and shows how sloppy, rude and selfish you are.

So you spilled some tea. It was clumsy. It can't be unspilled, but it's not the end of the world. The Tibetans, like the Nepalis, just kind of pick up and keep going. The Indians are more like the stereotype of the Arabs. Unforgiving, and unhappy until you're suitably miserable as well. God forbid you ever step even part of the way on an Indian foot - it's a grave offense, so I quickly internalized all the proper apologetic mimetic gestures. Now I do them reflexively, and the Tibetans look at me like, hey, what's the big deal? You just stepped on my foot. You're human. It's just a foot. I'll get over it. After all, there are a billion of us in this crazy country, so relax. Feet happen.

The Daily Lama
During teachings, it's too crowded to get a glimpse of His Holiness, so I waited on the concrete staircase for him to pass on his way out to the jeep. I had to stand on tiptoes on the slippery edge of the stairs and clutch the iron railing, pulling myself up to peer over like a little kid.

First the dour Meninkhaki - that is, Indian police, heavily armed and in dun-coloured sweaters and berets, trudged down the stairs with rifles and one machine gun. They looked resentful, as though they'd been assigned the crappiest duty imaginable rather than their actual job, bodyguards to a living Buddha. To be fair, their bushy moustaches make them look extra foreboding and lend a downward turn to their faces. Also, to be fair, His Holiness receives his share of death threats, and these guys are not there to soak up the shakti but must be vigilant. I wish I had photos for you, but I had to check my camera with the female security at the foot of the stairs in order to come into this area.

Senior monks then followed, one in a splendid yellow hat that made him resemble an exotic tropical bird. An elderly rinpoche was getting into one of the jeep fleet and caught my excited eye. We shared secret smiles, like kids spying on Santa on Christmas eve.

Then, with no fanfare at all, His Holiness came, only about 10 feet away and above me on the stairs. His gait was slow and deliberate, as always holding his robes over his left arm like a bride's train, with his ever-present bemused and loving patient half-smile. Everyone silently pranamed (holding hands in prayer position) as he got into the car. There was no pushing to speak of - again, these devotees compared very favourably to those I'm accustomed to at umpteen local melas, pujas and temple festivals.

As his benign gaze swept the heads of those waiting, I realized the pain in my jaws was an involuntary ear-splitting grin. Then I burst into tears of happiness.

The glow stayed with me as a flurry of monks and laypersons hotfooted it down the slick stairs, past the now-redundant metal detectors and out into the street to get a glimpse of the passing Holy Jeep. The narrow street was a river of maroon robes as we crowded the blue-tarped tea stalls trying to get out of the sprinkling rain, but still receive the holy darshan.

Although every one of us wanted the same thing - to be as close as possible to His Holiness - and there was no way we would all get it, the feeling was so markedly non-frenetic. No one pushed. No one yelled. No one elbowed. Elderly Tibetans, longhaired rock n roll Tib Teens, dreadlocked hippies, middle aged Germans all had beaming smiles on their faces as we huddled together waiting for the jeeps to pass.

They did, silently, and no one tried to touch or grab them. They just stood reverentially with heads semi-bowed and hands in Anjali mudra. After the Sacred SUVs were well up the hill, on their way to HH's residence some 7 kms away in Siddhbari, we turned our attention to steaming spinach momos and butter tea from the sidewalk stalls. These are people who've lost everything, their country, their sacred relics, their political and cultural autonomy, and yet they don't feel the need to push or compete for one of the only things left to them. Maybe all kinds of stupid competition and pettiness goes on behind the scenes, but there's none of the public grabbiness I've become accustomed to.

My friend The Wizard described the Tibetan monks as "a military outfit from outer space." So disciplined, so well organized, so one-pointed - as though they had come down from their home planet, the Planet Dharma, to promote peace on earth and the welfare of all sentient beings. The more I look at the Amaravati, Boudha and Sanchi stupas, the more they resemble spaceships. The mandalas are maps of their galaxy.

They had to come to India - it's the birthplace of the Dharma. They came to bring it back.

When they go, will they take me with them? I want to go where they're going.

The rain turns to a hailstorm as old Tibetan ladies and monks scurry for high ground, grinning all the way as though getting caught in heavy precipitation is a fun game. Ice pellets drum on the blue tarps overhead.

The salty buttered tea blends well with the taste of my tears.


bottled-imp said...

felt nice reading this post, as it had lots of feelings to it. i have started to respect people with faith, since I dont seem to have it anymore. havent lost faith in humanity though, only in divinity. did you by any chance visit the kalachakra festival in amaravati?

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Thanks B-imp, Yes, in fact I did attend the Kalachakra and there are a bunch of blogs about it...circa January. It was a mindblowing Buddhist Woodstock.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Darkhorse in Nashville asks:

Wondering, Carolyn, if low-land Indians are victims of the caste system? Or, conversely, if they are advantaged by it, behavior might also be explained.

Siren Responds:
The caste system is everywhere in India and Nepal, and to a slightly lesser extent in Buddhist Sri Lanka. Malana is a village up in the Himachal hills that won't even allow the out castes past the outer border. I think all the craziness of Indian behaviour can be explained very simply - too many people. When you have so many people, you come up with bizarre forms of psychological social control (China has similar "face" problems). Without psychological social control (read: brainwashing), one would have to resort to violence and physical force. And we all know we don't want would mean getting your hands dirty. (only halfway joking)

Siren the Selfish Foreigner

Mohsenمحسنخاتمی said...

Dear one
Thank you for writing your feelings so well and clear (of course some of your vocabs i do not get, but can guess the meaning).... it made me determined to spend more time in Darmasala and the surrounding area. your reminding of this difference of the culture and attitudes was VERY useful for me.... Thank you again... hope to see you there.....

Aadil said...

Great post here, siren. Would love it if everyone could emulate the attitude you spoke about with the tea incident and more so the one about stepping on someone's foot.