Friday March 25, 2011
The intermission music has been silenced and a gulf awaiting words to file in and take center stage has begun to expand.
There are times when words, sentences, metaphors, and allegories flow with uninhibited purpose from my fingertips. There are also times when the field of my mind must lie fallow until the next spring of fertility. Aka writer’s block. In short, I’ve been experiencing the latter state recently.
I am also a master of procrastination. With all things, it must come to end sometime, it might as well be now.
My intermittent time has been devoted to 1) dancing 2) attempting to sleep 3) reading 4) attempting to eat things that won’t make me sick 5) writing school papers; in that order.
Now that the Pushkar Odyssey is coming to a close, I am beginning to feel the pressure to tie up lose ends. Beginning first with the case of the Madmen.
It is only appropriate to finish the story of the Madmen with the most recent illustration. The festival of Holi took place on Sunday. Holi is a celebration of the love between Radha and Krishna. There are Odissi dances depicting Radha preparing the colored water and spraying Krishna with a squirt gun. I’m not sure how the Natya Shastra describes the squirt gun in use 2000 years ago….
Here in Pushkar, Holi does not have the sentimental or loving qualities that it embodies in other (mainly rural) parts of India. It falls on spring equinox and full moon (lunatic anyone?) which cannot be a coincidence. The pent up male adolescent frustrated sexual energy is palpable. Gangs of men young and old alike, stalk the street for unsuspecting foreign women. This is a day when men state “all is ok.” Referring to outright groping, harassment, and molestation of women. No thanks. Vanessa and I watched the mayhem from our balcony. The main event took place in the market square, but overflow streamed into our alleyway. I witnessed women be surrounded by large groups of immature “boys,” have color shoved into their mouths, their clothing being pawed at, sunglasses taken, and general unpleasantness. I already get verbally harassed in the market by obnoxious men, no sense in walking into the jaws of the beast.
Just a bit of contextualization.
Back to the adventure into the desert.
I left off as I flew through the ocher sands on my rented motorcycle. Hair streaming behind like a standard carried by a cavalry soldier charging into battle. Only this battle was with the sun and sands. The day was bit overcast and the temperature bearable. I followed the snaking pavement around mountains and into a valley.
I passed an unassuming road branching off on my right. It was nothing more than a glorified bike path, but it was lined with white and orange km markers, demonstrating that it lead to somewhere worthy of note. For no other reason besides curiosity, I turned off and I began weaving through mustard fields filled with tall stalks of green topped by yellow flowers. The path continued through small villages with barefoot children playing cricket in the streets.
I came to a point in the road where the pavement ended and what I believed a goat path began through the rocky scruff landscape.
Debating whether to continue on foot and stash my motorcycle or attempt to continue to drive through the sand, a couple of men popped up out of nowhere (which happens often in this country)and gestured down the path saying “Shiva Temple.” When I rented my motorcycle, the man at the shop asked if I was trying to go to the Shiva Temple. I had no idea what he was referring to at the time, but I apparently found it by accident.
Deciding to continue on the motorcycle after being passed on foot by a motorcycle coming up the path with a women riding sidesaddle, I determined the path couldn’t be too difficult. I’ve spent many a summer day riding rough paths to camping or fishing spots on four-wheelers (mostly against my will).
I am in no way familiar with desert landscape, but I was beginning to appreciate the harsh beauty it exudes. A very Kali-like energy. Beautiful and wonderous, thriving against all odds, and prepared to eat you alive if you are not vigilant. There is a passion to the desert that I have never before experienced. Even the barren expanse of rolling sand contains a fervor that is tumultuously held in check.
I followed the flight of large predator birds riding the thermals above my head, the vain displays of peacocks along dried streams, and the elusive erratic zigzag of what I believe were roadrunners. After a conversation with Vanessa the other day and further reflection, I am beginning to believe that my totem animals are birds. I was born on the cusp of an air and earth sign, I feel most comfortable in nature at the top of a mountain or nestled in a tree (demonstrated during rehearsal one day) and I am constantly dreaming of flight. Considering many moments wandering alone outdoors and growing up in Alaska, the only wild animal I have ever come across unsuspecting in the wild was a huge (at least 24″ tall) dark Great Grey owl. He was no further than 10′ from me sitting on the ground. We gazed at one another for a mystical space of time until he launched into the air with a powerful majestic wingspan. The only creatures I witnessed among the cacti and craggy rock outcroppings that day were birds.
I came upon the Shiva temple where I parked my motorcycle in the shade of a tree lining the banks of a small stream. I continued on through the sands on foot. I passed the temple (not of much interest this day) and decided to follow the path as far as it would go. I was joined by three young men, alternating taking turns driving their own motorcycle. The one that spoke the most English informed that they were heading home to their village 3kms away. I thought of all places to go, I might as well wander through a relatively remote village. I had sweater, duppatta, long pants, and kurta on to insure my modesty. I was armed with about 5 Hindi phrases and the ability to count. Sign language is universal.
After 2kms, the talkative guy informed me in broken English that I did not want to come to his village. “It is filled with madmen, no good for you.” This is the first time that someone has not wanted to drag me into their home, feed me, ply me with questions and photos, and promise to become best friends. Not only was it not hospitable, it was a warning. I know enough to heed a warning.
I left the young men and turned off the sandy path and continued along the border of blossoming flower fields. I found a lake surrounded by dried and cracked earth illustrating that in cooler months the pond was demonstrably larger. Hoping to have a moment to eat a snack while perched on a rock, my plan was foiled by a woman emerging from over the crest of a hill carrying gathered sticks like a new mother clutches an infant to her chest. The woman approached me and proceeded to gesture and speak loudly, animatedly, but not unfriendly. All I made out was Pushkar, police, and foreign. Not knowing quite what she was trying to explain, I again I took the hint. As silent and beautiful as the area was, I decided maybe I should move on.
Retracing my steps back down the sandy path along the flower fields, a young woman stepped out from behind her hut and smiled and gestured me in. I paused and on a whim I decided to join her family when “chai” was mentioned with a smile.
I pried off my pink Chacos and entered the dirt floor 10′ by 10′ thatched hut. The family consisted of the robin egg blue clad woman, her equally young husband and their two daughters. One a toddler and one just beginning to walk. The husband prepared chai over a wood fire while I sat upon a burlap sack covering the packed earth. I removed a pack of biscuits (cookies) from my backpack and offered them to my hosts. The husband divided up the biscuits giving one first to me as the guest and then to his daughters and wife. Finally taking one for himself once chai was served. Neither wife nor husband spoke English, but smiled and laughed as their daughters hid behind their mother, afraid of the strange white giant in their midst. The energy was humble, modest, and gentle. Their home consisted of a couple of mats in the back, a small mirror near the door, and apparently a birds nest in the roof. Either that or the small bird that kept gracing us with its presence; flying in over head was helping itself to the readily available twigs found in the walls of the family’s home.
All was going well until what I assume was family that lived near by, came barging into the quiet space. A young boy got hold of my camera and began to document the time, full of photos with mysterious fingers blotting out half of the picture. An obnoxious aggressive older female relative demanded my nose ring, my sweater, my scarf, my jacket, my water bottle, and every other item she found while rummaging through my backpack. The only thing she didn’t want were my feather earrings. She squealed when the wife tossed them in here direction. Each demand I met with “This was from my mother. This was from my good-sister. This is to keep me warm.” It broke my heart to defend my belongings from people who were dirt poor, but I have experienced this many times. Giving a non profit money to send tribal girls to school is more effective than giving a family living without electricity my iPod. The moral dilemma makes me ill every time. I have much and they have nothing in material goods. Each time I am confronted, I politely say “no you cannot have —–.” For no other than my own selfish desire to keep my belonging. I always experience the melancholy that accompanies these exchanges and the futileness of the entire socio-economic structure that manifests these moments.
The young boy in between photo ops, found the samosas I had brought along and began devouring one while my iPod was passed around and I attempted to keep my belongings together. As a distraction from demanding every item I possessed, I showed the assembled pictures of my family and Alaska on my iPhone. (This has happened many times in the last few months. Suffice to say Family, your mugs have been viewed by many Indians and new friends here). Fending off curious hands, I tried to explain that I did not have children or a husband to show pictures of.
As I was gathering my items and stuffing them back into their respective compartments, the obnoxious woman asked if I was hungry. “Sabji?” (vegetables; usually basic curry) and I acquiesced and removed the remaining portion of my pack lunch. A samosa and salad vegetables to offer to my hosts. They procured a tiffin(lunch box container) of sabji and bajra rotis (millet flatbreads). They divided up the remaining samosa amongst everyone and scorned the raw veggies. Indians do not have the same obsession with raw food that people in the West have. The food was simple, basic, and spicy. Rajasthan likes its spice.
After a quiet session of communal munching, I determined it was time to chelo (verb: to go). After a few more photo ops, and a frantic search for my sandals only to find them hanging up on a post that the husband explained was to deter the dogs from carting them off, I said thank you and goodbye.
As I was turning to leave, the wife thrust her youngest daughter at me and said “Pushkar.”
I stared back uncomprehending.
“Take, Puskar” she emphasized with outstretched arms dangling her terrified daughter towards me.
A light bulb flickered on somewhere in between the back of my head and the bit of my stomach. Girls are undesired here. Two daughters is tantamount to a curse. Fathers must provided a young bride with a dowry, pay for a wedding, and lose a farm hand to a future groom and family. After my return to Pushkar that day, I read a newspaper article about a 17 year old girl here in Rajasthan who while walking home from school with a female friend was attacked. Refusing to be raped by two teenage boys, she suffered being bound with rope as her attackers procured an ax and hacked away at her hands, nose, and ears as payment for her resistance. Atrocities such as this are a manifestation of deeply ingrained inequalities between sexes promoted by a dominating patriarchal society. Although mother deities are revered all over India, there are horrific cases of female mutilation, infanticide, and abuse. As horrible as this is, India is not alone in its ineffectual protection of womens’ reproductive rights. A look at rape statistics in the US doesn’t reflect the actual realities. Candid talks with female relatives, friends, and loved ones will reveal a much more sinister portrait of female abuse at the hands of domestic partners as well as strangers.
My heart cinched in a vise grip realizing this family wanted me to take their youngest daughter, guaranteeing a better life for her and them in their eyes. Innocently, I hoped that there was a misunderstanding, but I did not think that a day trip on a motorcycle with a foreign woman was what they had in mind.
Terrified and confronted by realities I have witnessed and read about but not so intimately familiar, I fled. I left past the bleating goats and dancing fields of flowers. My mind and heart heavy under the brilliant blue sky.
I returned to my motorcycle and turned to face the road I arrived on. Cruising along the broken path, past partial pavement, partial sand stretches, I arrived at a section blocked by road construction. I sat on my bike, turned off the engine and prepared to wait. A couple of girls in Rajasthani dresses were hauling gravel from a pile next to a tractor by scooping up the gravel in a large bowl, both helping one girl place the bowl on her head, carry it to the tractor and dump it in. All while a lazy man sat in front of the wheel sucking on paan and lounging. In between scooping up gravel, while I was trying to determine if their was an alternate route, one of the girls came up to me laughing and poking at me. It was neither friendly nor particularly humorous. After demands, I willingly gave her her a tomato that had been given to me by the family I left. By the time she started cackling and pelting small bits of gravel at me I was a little less ready to sit and wait an indeterminate amount of time for the construction to end.
At that moment a man on a motorcycle passed me and drove through the center of the construction. Taking my cue I followed. As I was trying to ascend a small pile of gravel next to another tractor, I was surrounded by a group of women consisting of the construction workers. One woman stepped in front of my bike, slapped me on the shoulder and stuck her hand in my face to shake. I looked at her aghast and exasperated and said “I’m not shaking your hand, you just slapped me.” As she looked like she was about to do it again and other women were beginning to pull at my clothes and hair, I gunned it and left the construction site in the dust.
Winding back through the small villages that were mostly deserted in the afternoon sun, I came upon a 15-20 year old boy. I could see him standing in the middle of the road corralling me to one side. I slowed down as he continued to push me to the side for fear I would either hit him or ride off the road if he moved too fast. Mistake.
As I passed him, he hauled off and slapped me, hard across the left shoulder (same as the construction woman) and upper back. A black rage rose up my spine as I slammed on the breaks, turned off the bike and put out the kick stand in record time. I ran back to the guy in question now joined by a friend who had witnessed the episode, staring dumbly in my direction.
I stood up in his face and yelled “Noooooooo!” (I can’t seem to formulate words when my blood is running fury, I apparently can’t curse either). “No good! What were you thinking???! Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m on a motorcycle?!” My volume escalating and my gestures becoming more erratic. I could have been a mime performing a particularly animated exchange full of face paint. Instead I was in the middle of a street, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of India.
At this point, his quick thinking friend inserted himself between us and apologized on the account of the jackass. I could read the sincere apology in his eyes, but the face of perpetrator in question never registered remorse. I was something inhuman to him. Something that did not adhere to the worldly rules of pain and feelings. I guess I should be flattered by my apparent immortality, but I was pissed and dangerously close to knocking the guy in the face or maybe a kick to the balls,( I’m not above that). It took every bone in my body to practice nonviolence. In my less becoming moments I realize how close I was to getting into a tussle with an immature, teenage, Indian boy.
With barely contained rage, I turned and walked back to my bike. I started the engine and continued on my way, ever vigilant for rocks thrown in my direction and wary of people close to the side of the road.
The return trip was not nearly as enjoyable as the beginning of the afternoon for obvious reasons. Breathing easier and enjoying myself again, I entered Pushkar and skirted the market to return the motorcycle. The men I passed in town all smiled and yelled “Very nice!” in my direction as I cruised along. It was a small vindication to be acknowledged as a woman on a bike.
I pulled up to the shop with a goofy grin as I parked. I bounded up the steps with my arms outstretched confirming I had returned unscathed (maybe not emotionally, but from road rash). Reaffirming to myself and the lazy group of men still lounging in lawn chairs, my success. The man in charge smiled along with me.
Leaving the bus stand area with a proud gait knowing I can ride a bike in a foreign country, on the left side of the road, in utter mayhem (without a horn), and knowing women here only ride side saddle. If receiving a few smacks is what I get for blowing a few minds and perceptions, so be it. It was worth it.
This ends the day in the desert. Yet not the story of the madmen.
Later that same week, after dinner at one of the restaurants in town and with Vanessa’s assurance, one of the guys working showed us music videos that he had starred in. Suffice to say they were hilarious. The dancing was crazy and the stories in the songs humorous. I don’t think Mickey appreciated my giggles that I attempted to hide in coughs. As we were making our exit, Mickey asked me if I was interested in being in one. I looked at him queerly not really comprehending. “I maybe filming one in Jaipur next month. Would you be interested in being in one?” Not at all serious I said sure while imagining myself in the midst of an absurd staged Indian music video and laughing under my breath. My mistake was soon realized. “I bet you would look very beautiful dressed as an Indian woman. I will contact you when I learn when I am filming.”
Knowing that none of this was going to happen, I smiled and Vanessa and I left the restaurant.
On Valentine’s Day, Vanessa presented me with Cadbury chocolate that she had promised to give to me from Mickey. Apparently he had flagged her down in the street and demanded that she give me my Valentine’s present because I had not walked by. It felt a bit like middle school.
A few days later Mickey’s brother flags me down before rehearsal to tell me that Mickey needs to speak with me. He needs to send my picture to his agent in Mumbai for the music video. Ha. I’m not falling for that one. I pretended ignorance and continued on.
A few days after that, Mickey showed up outside of the temple demanding to know why I had not come to see him. While imploring me to have dinner with him, he told me he had a present for me. Alarm bells. I politely told him no, I was not interested. He told me he had been watching me rehearse at night in the temple from a rooftop restaurant. I had a full fledged stalker. I escaped and made my way home.
The next few days, fellow dancers who ate at the restaurant would send me messages that Mickey wanted to see me. I avoided that area of the market unless I was with a friend for the next couple of weeks. I was really bummed about not being able to go back to the restaurant. They had a really great sandwitch.
Thankfully it tapered off from there. Mickey hasn’t been around. Ironically, it may be because he’s filming the music video he had mentioned. Suffice to say it’s a grateful respite from the unwanted attention.
Here is the throwing babies bit.
At about the same time, in the alleyway on the way to my guest house, there is a shop run by a family with a young son. The father has taken it upon himself to insure his son’s future success by physically tossing the son in my direction every time I walk by. Sometimes I try to stealthily make my way home, only to find the father staking out the alleyway waiting for me to come through. I’ve taken to walking fast and waving with real and imaginary excuses explaining my rush. I hear “Kenni didi(sister)!” multiple times a day. Thankfully, the son, who is more interested in my water bottle than myself is not always around.
Then there are the various men catcalling in the market. The odd whispered “beautiful” or “sexy” or “Shakira” or “very nice” as I walk through fully covered, head to toe and usually dripping with sweat between classes. No makeup and frazzled.The chai man who thinks we are buddies and attempts to drape his arm around my 5″ taller shoulders. The odd, the crazy, the perplexing daily interactions.
There are also beautiful, kind souls. But they usually do not make for humorous, exciting story fodder.
Oh India. How I love thee and how I despise thee. Mostly love. This is what will keep bringing me back. Keep allowing me to be smothered in her over eager bosom of friendliness and hospitality. Squeezing my cherubic cheeks and trying my patience.
One man who most definitely does not fall into the madmen category is my Guruji. It is a tragedy that Shawna and Melea were not able to experience his beautiful spirit. Guruji is brilliant, compassionate, sincere, honorable, funny, and gentle. I have fallen even more in love with Odissi (I did not think it possible) through the devotion in his eyes. Odissi is not just a beautiful art form for him. It is a lifestyle. “A dancer must live classical. Be strong of mind, character, and body. To do good work.”
He’s the real deal. His generosity as a teacher outweighs all of the madness that Pushkar has to offer.
I can handle a little bit of madness in return for the wealth of knowledge imparted by Guruji. Only next time, I’ll be going to the village in Orissa to study. Suspend the madness and enjoy the simple life of garden growing, cow tending, house building, and dancing. Living the classical life.
That’s all for now folks. I know it’s plenty.
Tune in soon for news from cooler sands. Ocean breezes and general relaxing decadence. Or better yet, don’t hold your breath. Everything I’ve read about the Andaman Islands states that the travelers venturing into its pristine beauty become afflicted with a strange desire to do nothing. Writing may prove to be too tiresome with this new affliction. No worries though, I now have a ticket for Turkey in my hot little hands. Or email account. More adventures are guaranteed. I tend to attract odd occurrences.
Ok, ok. Enough of the drivel. Now I let you go on with the rest of your day.
Salutations to the moon. Patron of the loonies and the romantics. Take your pick.