Are You Wobbling Your Head at Me?
Western India: Maharashtra & Rajasthan
DEC. 2007 • TEXT & PHOTOS BY AUSTIN R. PICK
In the hushed light of a slowly sinking dusk we left the ruins of Hampi, India's Rome on the Rocks, by the only paved road, puttering past banana fields and freshly-tilled plots in the trembling clutches of an open-air auto-rickshaw, breathing our own exhaust. All that land triangulating outwardly around us and yet everything for miles insists on cramming in along the road; we lurch and weave thru the choked bottleneck of a highway village, rural India's idea of development. Shacks, houses, shops and stalls crowd upon a one-and-a-half-lane strip of pave trammeled by bicycles, bullock carts, rickshaws, goat herds, motorbikes, taxis and transport trucks, blundering buses and long lines of walkers who swarm the shoulders, stepping around drifting banks of garbage, kids squabbling, women washing and farmers selling vegetables on blankets in the dirt. Village children stood and stared into our auto, expressionless and mute, whenever the traffic piled up before a railroad crossing, while vendors swinging pots of chai slipped between braking wheels and sung out snacks to drivers. Mad road, driving men ahead.
The highway village swelled imperceptibly into the town of Hospet, transport hub for the region, as night closed around us. We'd hoped to travel north into Maharashtra state by train, but everything, as usual, was fully booked days in advance, so we'd begrudgingly elected to travel by bus once again. We hoped to reach Dhamma Giri, the main centre for vipassana meditation, in time to volunteer for the upcoming course, which would begin the next evening.
After so many terrible journeys by bus, our expectations for the coming night were exceedingly low, so we were pleasantly surprised when we boarded the bus at last. It was, admittedly, the nicest bus I've ever been on, a brand-spanking-new Air-Con Semi-Sleeper coach with generous reclining seats and what you might even call mood lighting. Imagine a sort of darkened movie theater on wheels. Much relieved, we settled in for the 14 hour overnight drive to Mumbai. About two hours in, I began vomiting.
I hadn't really been feeling well that day, but attributed my low energy to our recent days running around the ruins. Then during a short stop at a highway diner, Shauna started throwing up too. We boarded the bus again hoping that the funk had passed, but after an hour or more of alternatingly getting sick in the darkened, speeding bus, we tried to hold down some antibiotics and threw those up too. In between bouts of sickness I crept forward, gathering up plastic bags from still-empty seats, and we sat for several hours filling our remaining few much too quickly, until the bus finally stopped again. Dehydrated and rather defeated, we wrestled our packs down into the midnight dust of an anonymous town and began asking after a medical center.
Fortuitously, the nearest hospital was literally around the corner from the bus depot where we were dropped, though no one was forthcoming with this information, not the bus office attendant who was shouted down by waiting passengers after I explained angrily that we couldn't follow his ambiguous hand gestures because Shauna couldn't walk, nor the opportunistic rickshaw driver who obliged to help and then overcharged us for the three-second drive there.
Once past the hospital gates, we received the opposite attention, as a large and over-eager staff, joined by patients, visitors, curious passersby and the rickshaw driver himself crowded around us with what seemed a kind of altruistic aggression. The first thing the staff wanted to discuss, as much with us as with the gathering of some two-dozen spectators, was the money, and did we have any and how much, exactly? After some encouragement from Shauna, who was clearly very sick, it was agreed that we'd worry about the money later on. As she was being shuffled off to bed I asked one of the workers there to help with our packs; he happily agreed, but then disappeared with the excited entourage, leaving me, the patient, to make two trips carrying our things up the four flights to our room.
There I found Shauna lying down and surrounded by a chattering old Indian woman and eight or nine college-aged boys, all attempting to make her over-comfortable while not actually providing any medicines. Those, we learned, had to be ordered from elsewhere in town, and took some time in arriving. Meanwhile the noise of all this excessive activity continued unabated in our room and out along the long echoing hallway, giving the hospital an absurdist, cuckoo's nest feeling.
India, I've often felt, is a country overrun with sexually-frustrated adolescent males, and this sense was nowhere more strongly confirmed than there in that nightmare ward. The boys were all recent graduates with the Indian equivalent of a nurse's assistant degree and the professionalism of a summer camp staff room. As they descended upon us like a jocular, clumsy, many-handed Hindu deity, thrusting IV-attachments and arguing amongst themselves, we occasioned to ask, and finally demanded to know, who or where was the doctor, exactly? Not here. But coming soon, they supposed.
The boys were headed by a sort of doctor's assistant with rather good English, who seemed both offended and appreciative when I sat up in bed and began to ask for explanations of everything they were doing; I had been thru this before, in Nepal, so was familiar with the treatments we were supposed to receive. By the time the doctor arrived, sometime after midnight, I insisted that the cadre of snickering, ogling boys be asked to leave, which initiated a long argument between the headman and the doctor about professionalism, conducted at high volume from either side of my bed.
Exchanges in India easily escalate into argument, and are frequently punctuated with that most ridiculously characteristic of Indian gestures, the head wobble. Not unlike the goofy side-to-side waggle of back-seat bobble-headed dolls, the head wobble appears, to unaccustomed eyes, at once dismissive and deferential, condescending and accommodating—the physical equivalent of "yeah, yeah, sure, whatever." The gesture actually indicates agreement and accord, and I've found that when used in conversation, it helps to shake the tension out of often volatile exchanges.
There was a lot of head wobbling at the hospital, particularly between myself and the cantankerous, self-sure headman, who forcefully disputed every problem we brought to his attention, even when medicine was making Shauna sick. The boys came and went throughout the night and next morning, discarding empty IV bottles, wrappers and other trash on the floor, and shattering old-fashioned glass ampules over Shauna's bed. Once one of the boys chucked a once-sterile alcohol swab on the floor, only to retrieve it for use again on my arm, too quick for Shauna's scream to stop them. And the noise in the place never ceased. When I mentioned this to the headman, he shouted out into the hall for the boys to stop shouting.
Our discharge the next day had all the intrigue and near-miss of an escape. With considerable effort we wrangled the bill and drew another mysteriously large crowd in the lobby while deliberating the terms of payment. In the doctor's office, overlit by television Bollywood videos, the lackadaisical head wobble became an infuriating display of passive-aggressiveness. And it wasn't until we were climbing into a waiting rickshaw that we were informed there was an additional pharmacy bill.
Then when everything was mostly settled, the headman casually invited us to join him and a few of the boys for dinner. In India, hard feelings don't often extend beyond the argument itself, and this is one of the small, remarkable things that make it possible for a billion people to live together in a coconut shell. Though that might be made even easier if they didn't insist on arguing over everything to begin with. After a vaguely restive day in the town of Bijapur, where we'd landed, we boarded another overnight bus for the remaining journey to Mumbai.
Crawling thru congested traffic, the bus was more than six hours late, and we finally entered Greater Mumbai along a multi-lane grey-brown streak of highway in the early afternoon. Everywhere around us, gnawing at the horizon like an unhinged jaw of broken teeth, stretched the barnacled crust of the city's enormous outlying slums and hutments, sprawling there like so many square miles of variegated sediment from the backwash of Mumbai's belated dreams.
An incredibly industrious corrugated tin and plastic tarpaulin ant-hill, the slums, among other things, digest the city's waste—along dirt roads parallel to the highway, I could see garbage trucks dumping loads being sorted and picked over by scores of lean, dark figures; I've read of how oil cans are repaired or flattened out to form shingles, how plastic parts are chipped and melted for new molding, how paint chips are hammered to powder and reconstituted, how machines are resurrected there and how cheap pieces of pottery, India's foremost disposable container, are produced by the thousands only to be smashed on the streets after a single use and ground back down to dust. The salvage industries of Mumbai's slums account for a large proportion of the city's economy, and the inhabitants there for more than 60% of the city's population.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the largest, wealthiest, most propulsive city in India, the rapacious repository of the nation's dreams, reflected in the glittering, hyperbolic cast of ever-bigger Bollywood productions. Mumbai alone pays fully 38% of the nation's taxes. Millions flock continually from all over India, throwing themselves into the accelerating mill of the city's anxious momentum. Happily, our first turn thru Mumbai was a brief one; a few hours after arriving by bus in the central city, we caught a train out to the sleepy village of Igatpuri, home to Dhamma Giri, only three hours from Mumbai.
The Vipassana International Academy, better known to meditators as Dhamma Giri, is the largest vipassana meditation center in the world, with comfortable accommodation for more than 600 students, who attend 10-day intensive meditation courses as at other centers elsewhere. Dhamma Giri, however, is unlike any other center. In addition to the dozens of volunteers from as many countries, it's size requires a large permanent paid staff. Despite these numbers, the center has what you might call a loose, decentralized organization, where things seem to hang together precariously but somehow always flow and function smoothly. There is always a lot of head wobbling at Dhamma Giri.
With so many languages, communication difficulties do arise, however. In one instance a rather curmudgeonly old Indian man wished to relate something to a young Australian guy whom he'd apparently taken a disliking to. The young guy's English was perfectly fine, but the old man insisted he couldn't understand, and had me translate between the two of them, from English to English. Instances like these make giving service at Dhamma Giri, as Shauna and I did, a unique experience. And the dynamic energy of the place is matched by its beauty: a small city upon a hill, surrounded by the ancient semi-arid mountains of central Maharashtra and dominated by a spiring golden pagoda, glowing calmly in the contemplative silence of serious mediation.
From Igatpuri we ventured further into Maharashtra, the heartland of India, passing thru the prosperous agricultural and trading centers of Jalgaon and Aurangabad on our way to visit the cave temples at Ellora. Carved by Buddhist, Hindu and Jain practitioners between the 5th and 10th centuries, the caves and their adorning sculptures represent the progression of religious history on the subcontinent. The centerpiece is the enormous Kailasanatha Temple—carved vertically downward without the use of scaffolding from a single rock, the imposing, elaborately decorated Hindu temple is twice the size of the Parthenon. We explored Ellora with some fellow meditators from Dhamma Giri, and were also surprised to meet a friend we'd first crossed paths with in Japan there among the caves!
After those few days out in the open pastoral spaciousness of the Indian countryside, we returned to Mumbai by overnight train. It has surprised me to see that India is not an overpopulated country. On the whole, India has a lower population density per square kilometer than Belgium. It is India's ever-swelling cities that are over-crowded. In 1990 Mumbai had a population density more than double that of Singapore, and now has a population of some 19 million. Some parts of the city's slums have the greatest density of people living together in the entire world.
Bandra Station, which formed the hub of our transit thru Mumbai, exemplified for us the city's extremes. To the west of the station huddles an affluent neighborhood and shopping destination where residents walk their dogs past exclusive boutiques, trim cafes, cinema houses and upscale hotels. To the east, beginning along the tracks and spreading under the station's elevated walkways, lies the ramshackle fringes of Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia. In the station itself, these two worlds continually brush shoulders in a strange mixing throng, wired into the nerve center of the the city.
Navigating the packed, push-and-shove style of local train riding, Shauna and I ventured out to the site of the as-yet-unfinished Global Pagoda, located on an island along Mumbai's northern extremities. The Global Pagoda, being built as a functional center to honor and express gratitude for the teachings of Buddha and the practice of vipassana meditation. The Pagoda's dome, recently completed, is now the largest free-standing dome structure in the world, and while construction still rings everywhere around the site, is an inviting place for practice. We meditated there in the echoing, cavernous space, and were struck with a sense of how resonant the Pagoda will be when finished, a thimble of calm amidst Mumbai's vast sea of people.
Dreaming our own dreams on another overnight train, we found ourselves far north of Maharashtra in the great desert state of Rajasthan, rich with history and distinctive culture, where we relaxed into the lovely sunny entrancing rhythms of Pushkar. A Hindu holy town on a lake ringed with stepped ghats for ritual bathing, Pushkar and its little markets, crowded with tourists, pilgrims and traders, seemed an ideal place for us to spend Christmas, and we'd arranged a camel trek for the occasion.
And then on the day before Christmas Eve, with what seemed incredible finality, Shauna and I broke up, for about 5 hours. I think one reason people often travel is precisely to find those rare, unshakably intense moments where everything hangs, Wile E Coyote-like, over a precipice, where the things we typically take for granted are revealed in new light, and we are challenged to make our deepest commitments anew. Our brief breakup, on the rooftop overlooking that little spiritual city, was one such moment for me.
Happily, that moment has passed, and with the space between us cleared and clarified in new bloom, we departed for the desert the next morning with our four new friends: Hari, his partner Eva, and our fine young camels, Johnny and Krishna. Several months back, at the vipassana center in Kerala, we'd met a lovely swiss woman named Sandra. Her friend Eva, having fallen in love with Hari while herself on a camel trek a few years ago, had recently moved to India to be with him, and sharing a mutual friend with them made for an intimate and especially enjoyable jounce thru the pastoral desertscape of central Rajasthan.
For three days beginning on Christmas Eve, under the imperial sun and the stunning, effulgent glow of a full moon, we wandered by camel and cart among the arena of the desert's dry gullies, irrigated fields, unfenced pasture land, and tidy, unintrusive villages. Cruising by camel isn't just a tourist thing; camels are widely used throughout Rajasthan as superior work animals and reliable transportation, pulling impressive loads with steady, plodding surety. Every year, Pushkar is host to a huge camel trading fair, which draws people from all over the vast arid region.
We departed from Hari's family's house on the edge of the desert, where his father gave me a fine-fitting turban to wear. And Shauna had had some Santa hats made by a local tailor, so we celebrated Christmas in snowless style and with a certain local flair, passing thru villages and giving out unexpected gifts: our empty water bottles were in high demand, as they are hard to come by, yet super-useful in that parched place. At the fringes of Pushkar we passed scattered, shoddy gypsy camps where people emerged to serenade us as we drifted by, the lovely, haunting melody of the sarangi seeming to suspend the spirit of the land in midair, caught there briefly in ancient incantation.
We slept under the stars for those few nights, cold in the desert dew, and returned to Pushkar a little tired but refreshed by the slow quiet rhythms we'd come to know there. From our rooftop room we watched sunsets over the temples while thousands of children flew kites in anticipation of a coming kite festival, the air full of jerky, wheeling, high-flying boys' joy on bird-wings. Reluctantly, but without overstaying our welcome, we left peaceful Pushkar and traveled north to Jaipur, Rajasthan's old capital city and old seat of kings, in time for the New Year.
Jaipur, the fabled Pink City, is famous for its big bazaars and local craftsmanship, a superb place for shopping. We did our share, but spent New Year's Eve wandering the long lanes and trekking up to the Tiger Fort for sunset with our Hungarian friend Karoly, whom we'd first crossed paths with in the Himalayas! Midnight found us finishing a movie at the famous Raj Mandir Cinema, the best known Bollywood theater in India.
The disjointed, dance-fantastic melodrama and sublimated sexuality of Bollywood films has long puzzled me, but since coming to India I've begun to get an inkling of the genre's persistent appeal. The impulsive, chaotic, argumentative crowding of India's cities slams against one's senses, and the confusing, contradictory doublespeak of the country's bureaucratic and political processes is beyond bewildering. On the other hand, the bright, buoyant symmetry of Bollywood's bouncing musicals, hundreds of humans in perfect harmony, suggests a radical alternative to the pervasive grind of everyday life, a visual balm for over-stretched minds. A suggestion of cosmic order, many-handed, thousand-eyed, gravity-defying, beautiful and bejeweled, moving together in perfect time. Deluxe, dolby-digital divinity.
This sense was confirmed by the film we saw, Aaja Nachle, which means "Come Let's Dance," about a dancer who returns to and saves the social fabric of her hometown by organizing everyone into a Bollywood-style production play. Watching a Bollywood film without subtitles is interesting because, as in modern India, people speak in Hinglish, an amusing mix of Hindi and English. It so happens that most of the major plot points tend to be exclaimed in English: "jibby dibby bubby bobby but then he married my sister shoop ship shad!" Something like that.
A few days into the New Year, we headed out to the Jaipur Vipassana Center, Dhamma Thali, for a special 8-day meditation course. The lovely center, built in an integrated blend of Burmese and Rajastani styles, is one of the quietest places we've been in India, aside from the steady screeching and squawking of a dozen or so species of birds, who inhabit the place in droves. These include a large population of peacocks, parading around pretentiously but still pecking and preening like any birdy beast, simply psychedelic chickens. Peacocks too have a way of wobbling their heads, and their garish strut, at once regal and ridiculous, seems easily recognizable after watching the bollywood theatrics of my own mind all those days of silent meditation, and the comedy of it, yes, seems eminently agreeable.
Such was the month of December, sliding into January.
Yours with Love, A