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Note: the "India" series of essays originally began as emails to my friends back home, while I was working for Balkrishna Doshi in Ahmedabad. My father did some slight editing of these pieces.|
Ahmedabad, September 6, 2001. Early impressions of IndiaI should preface this letter by noting that all impressions of India probably qualify as "early" and partial. I doubt that even the oldest and wisest life-long residents can put together a coherent description of the place -- my hosts find their own country to be a perpetual source of weirdness and amazement. If you're ever interested in a (slightly) more coherent description of the place, check out Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" -- it's regarded by many Indians as one of the finest English-language books ever written about the subcontinent. It doesn't read like a cohesive narrative -- more of a jumble of scenes, smells, and emotions that somehow congeal into a story. Of course, it's set at the turn of the last century, so everything has changed since then. Also, nothing whatsoever has changed since then. Sigh -- this place is hard to describe!
My hosts actually live in one of the poorer areas of town that I've seen. The streets aren't remotely paved, because nobody can decide who owns them. In the morning, people push enormous carts through the alleys, wailing mournfully for your latest recyclables. Cows and dogs and wild pigs and white monkeys all swarm through the neighborhood. And don't let anyone tell you that India doesn't have bats with 4-foot wingspans. I swear, I thought the damned thing was a great horned owl at first.
My hosts (for now -- I'm occupying their only guest room, so I'm apartment-hunting) live in a compound of 4 bungalows, which are connected by a long underground courtyard. They live a middle-class life -- which is to say, they're as wealthy as you can get here without being heir to some kingdom, or fantastically corrupt. In the society -- that's what you call a collection of bungalows -- live 22 members of the Jain family: a couple of brothers with their wives, male children and their wives, and a handful of grandchildren. They want to show me their former residence -- I guess there were 68 people living in that house. The whole family forms a very close-knit community, and we often lounge on the porches in the evening, digesting our food and generally trying to solve the world's problems. The lifestyle here reminds me of Arcosanti at its rare best, or even the Nest in ways. They are well aware of how precious it is, too, and marvel at the American nuclear families that stay isolated in their suburban homes. They swear that they couldn't live that way. Neither could I, I assure them.
There's also a dozen servants that live here, and that has taken some getting used to. Those who've lived with me can attest that I'm far from achieving this -- but I do honestly try to be relatively self-sufficient. That's not out of necessity; it's a moral thing -- I always try to make myself as strong a character as possible. The servants have challenged this attitude; they seem honestly hurt when I try to help out with the dishes, pick up after myself, and so forth. As if I'm threatening the need for their livelihood -- which I suppose is what I'm implicitly doing. In the past, I've always though of servants as the lazy man's way of taking advantage of the poor, but now I'm not so sure. The people who work here probably make a net income of $10/month -- but they are treated very well (Shrikant introduced them as "the other members of our family"); have safe and warm places to unfold their sleeping mats, have access to all the food they want. I don't know what would happen if one of them became ill, but I doubt that they'd be out on the street. But if they weren't employed doing menial tasks here -- what then? Would they be out in the world, free to chase their dreams, making the most out of life? Hardly. They'd be living among the hundreds of people that I pass on may way to work, sleeping amidst the camel dung, in the cardboard-and-twig lean-tos that line the highway walls. So I've had to reconfigure my sensibilities: self-sufficiency is not the moral thing to do here. Rather, the moral thing to do is find any excuse to employ someone -- however silly the task, and however capable you would be of doing it yourself. This is the best way to spread your wealth around.
An interesting thing about poverty in India: there are no beggars. At least none that I've met (and certainly none like there are in Paris or Rome -- ye Gods!). People want to carry your bags, shine your shoes, sell you suspicious looking foodstuffs, take out your trash, carry you around in their rickshaw -- but nobody just wants you to just give them money. (I imagine that things might be different in more touristy areas, however). Even though I had vowed to walk strenuously while here, I find myself taking a lot of auto-rickshaw rides. For one, it employs someone. For another thing, it's amazingly cheap. And for a third thing, it puts my life in somebody else's hands -- and trust me, this is a good thing. They've survived the streets of Ahmedabad far longer than I have.
do prefer to drive on the left side of the road. But it's about a 60-40 split.");?> Oy, these streets. The drivers here make Italian drivers look utterly sane and sedate. It turns out that my Dad was actually correct: people here do prefer to drive on the left side of the road. But it's about a 60-40 split -- and that "40" is evenly divided between the right side of the road, the middle of the road, the muddy things that are supposed to be shoulders, and miscellaneous. So the upshot is that there are people, among other things, careening all over the place. Colorfully-dressed pedestrians, spaced-out bicyclists, whizzing three-wheeled auto-rickshaws, cows meditating, motorcycles, camels pulling carts, people pulling carts, scooters, wiley dogs, elephants (with blinkers on their tails so you can see them at night), enormous busses, extra-colorful food trucks, steam-rollers, construction machinery, and so forth. All of these are going at extremely high speeds -- except for the cows, camels, and people with carts, who frequently aren't going at all -- and it's a rare occasion when a driver will actually slow down to avoid anything. The rickshaw drivers will weave between obstacles with amazing precision, sometimes actually brushing them off to the side of the road. I can't count the number of times we've come within millimeters of pedestrians while traveling at 30mph. Every time, I'm sure that an extremely unpleasant mess is about to ensue, and then -- like a meteorite skipping off Earth's atmosphere -- everyone continues onwards with only the slightest modification of their former trajectories.
So that's the main reason I take the rickshaws: if you're not inside one, you're one of those pedestrians. I damn near shit my pants, the first time I had to cross a four lane road.
Oh yeah: the beeping! Many of the vehicles have huge, gaily-painted signs on their rear that proclaim "HORN OK PLEASE". If I grok the meaning correctly, then everyone is taking it very seriously: the roads are one continuous symphony of beeping. It's easy to see why: many of the rickshaws lack rear windows, and quite a few lack side-mirrors as well. Since sticking an appendage out the side -- to signal or look around -- would be a sure way to get it lopped off, all you can do is hope that your fellow drives make their positions known via incessant beeping. Which they do. I'm starting to understand the code that they have. Two quick beeps means "I'm behind you"; two quick beeps means "I'm passing on your left"; two quick beeps means "I'm passing on your right"; two quick beeps means "Hey, how's it going?"; two quick beeps means "see you around"; two quick beeps means "wow, there's a full 5 meters of open road ahead of me!"; two quick beeps means "where'd that camel come from?" -- and so forth.
What's really amazing is that everyone seems to do this without acrimony. Unlike the Italians, who will shake their fists and insult your mother if youobey their traffic laws (Really! Who could've expected you to do that?), Indians just handle the chaos with a kind of bemused resignation. I doubt that anyone here is getting an ulcer over it.
Maybe it's the cows. I have to say, that I understand the Hindu attitude towards cows a lot better, now that I've met them. The cows, that is -- not the Hindus. The cows are the most gentle, imperturbable creatures I've ever seen. At this time of year, the grassy fields are wet from the monsoon, which apparently displeases them -- so they all live in the roads. They will wander through hurtling traffic as casually as a bank of fog, without a care in the world. But they don't seem spaced-out and stupid, like the cows in America; there's actually an eerie alertness in their eyes. When they aren't foraging, they curl up in meditation. Amazing creatures, truly.
Actually, the entire menagerie that lives in this city is strikingly tame. It's also strikingly wild -- but the human and animal kingdoms seem to be almost totally at peace here. The other creatures don't have the gentle placidity of the cows -- the dogs and pigs can be particularly frenetic, but not always -- but none of them have any fear of humans, or animosity towards them. Walking through the streets one night, I was briefly surrounded by a running pack of wild dogs -- but they were on some other business, and just smiled at me as they passed by. The dogs' ability to deal with the traffic is uncanny. Although many of them have scars from old accidents, they all seem quite careful about looking both ways before they cross the street. Also, they rarely bark, and like the human people of the city, they never beg. But they are sometimes simply curious to know who you are.
Sangath (the architecture compound where I'm working) reminds me a lot of Arcosanti. It's populated by young architects, most of them around my age, all but a few from various parts of India. Their most common language is English, but there's also a lot of Hindi, and I'm picking it up quickly enough. Compared to Japanese, it's a piece of cake, and the Indo-European commonality with English is obvious. Everyone has gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, and of course I've made an absolute fool of myself by butchering their names, on the rare occasions when I can remember them. They've put me to work learning MiniCAD, which is fairly straightforward -- and I'm already re-designing the facades of the middle-income units of a 15,000-person city that they're building in Bengal. It's an okay city plan, but is somewhat disappointingly conventional. I guess that they have a wide variety of projects that they do; from the highly innovative to the utterly commercial and mundane. (Guess which ones pay the bills.). It's actually split into two organizations -- one for-profit and one non-profit -- and I'm currently in the for-profit group. Some of the foreigners (from Montreal) over on the non-profit side are working on schemes for rebuilding the Rann of Kutch, which was utterly destroyed by the quake in February. I put them on Nadir Khalilli's trail, hoping that his "Super-adobe" techniques might come in handy there.
Last night they had a party, on the seventh-story roof of a concrete apartment building where a few of them lived. It was a potluck -- I brought my famous Penne, correctly assuming that I would be massively outclassed if I tried to cook Indian -- and we all sat around eating with our hands. Then people began to dance, to wonderfully silly Indian techno-pop. After a while, the boom-box was turned off and someone broke out their tabla and began to play -- and that's when the crowd really went wild. Everyone was clapping along to the constantly-changing rhythm, making up lyrics and spinning wildly in dance. All the neighbors came out to watch; it was quite a scene.
Well, it's 1:30 in the morning as I'm writing this. I have to get up in six hours, so I'd better cut it short. I'll send this emailas soon as I wake. More thoughts (and photographs) will eventually follow.
Ahmedabad, September 17, 2001. Gathering stormsMy room is immaculately white, with freshly painted walls and a marble-tiled floor, and utterly empty save for my backpack resting in the corner, and myself laying on a thin pad in the center. The ceiling fan spins above me, and a breeze plays over my body. With no clothes and no blanket, the temperature is just perfect. Morning in Ahmedabad.
Outside the window is a panorama of dusty rooftop terraces. Some have servants sleeping atop them, now rolling up their sleeping mats as they prepare to start their day. Lush trees bask in the growing heat of morning, silent save for the occasional rustle of a monkey leaping from one canopy to the next. In the distance, towards the center of the city, are huge clusters of apartment complexes. Some are dirge-like gray blocks of Soviet-style housing, others would feel perfectly at home in San Diego or Miami Beach.
My own home, which I moved into yesterday, is on the fifth floor of a modest apartment complex, ritzy enough to have an elevator, but not so bourgeois as to have A.C. I prefer to walk up the stairs; not only does this give me exercise, but affords me a glimpse into all the apartments, their broad doors swung open for cross-ventilation. I feel as though I am sharing a small palace with a few score other people. Sounds of laughter and argumentation, the banging of pots and pans, and televisions blaring the BBC, echo continuously among the solid concrete walls.
The economy here changes the way everything is built: prefabricated materials are hideously expensive, while anything made by hand is fantastically cheap. So marble flooring is commonplace, while a stove or refrigerator -- well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. Tonight I ordered a mattress from a family store, custom-made to accommodate my unusual length. It will be sewn by hand, and cost me about nine dollars, including a handmade pillow.
The bottom two floors of my building contain a pharmacy, a tailor, a beauty shop, several general stores, a tobacco shop, a surgeon, a cyber-café, and numerous other businesses whose purpose I have yet to divine. When you include the buildings in the immediate vicinity -- with another raft of tailors, general stores, cyber-cafés, fruit stands and surgeons (for whatever reason) -- you can also find a stationary store, a camera store, an automotive repair shop, a barber, a doctor, and so forth -- I imagine that it would be possible to live a fairly materially-satisfied life without ever having to leave the neighborhood. And this isn't downtown; in fact, it's on a dirt road beyond the city limits. India is just like this; everybody is an entrepreneur.
On my walk to work -- I now don't have to cross any major interchanges, so I walk rather than take the rickshaw -- I pass by dozens of people still sleeping on the side of the road, in rope-strung cots which are ubiquitous around here. Across the street is a private children's school, a genteel modernist building guarded by calm, fortress-like walls. I walk past a cluster of pastel, postmodern towers -- an apartment complex named "STATUS." (Indians, I have decided, do a great many things astoundingly well. Subtlety is not one of them.) Camels, decoratively branded with circles, stars and swastikas, strain mightily under the weight of the carts behind them. Some of these camels seem huge and ancient -- especially at night, when they loom suddenly in front of my rickshaw -- like Paleolithic beasts, dug out of the sand and magically re-animated. They tower above the rest of the traffic, their long necks rising eerily above the early-morning shroud of fumes that cloak the roadway.
Shortly before Sangath, a cluster of dumpsters on the roadway, their contents inevitably strewn hither and thither, form the social nexus for much of the local fauna. Pigs and dogs root eagerly through the trash, paying particular attention to the husks of some things that look vaguely like coconuts, but aren't. Cows stand placidly among the refuse, sometimes nudging it uninterestedly, in case something edible might be found. And frequently, a crowd of old Dalit women -- dressed in vivid purple and green saris -- will be searching for items among the trash. Many of the Dalits are incredibly tiny people -- whether through genetics or malnutrition I don't know -- and I feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians as I pick my way between them. For their part, if they've ever given me a second glance, I've never noticed.
By the time I reach Sangath, I am sweating buckets. The weather is truly oppressive today, with a sun whose piercing intensity is in no way diminished by the thick humidity. Sangath is an island of coolness among this: its green trees give shade; its outer wall cuts the din of traffic to a dull roar. The sound of water cascading off the rooftop pool cools the mind, if not the body. I believe a family of servants lives on the grounds; if I come early enough in the morning, I may glimpse the wife combing her hair in the garden, checking her reflection in a shard of mirror that is hung from a tree. Her five-year-old son will be sweeping the pathways with a bundle of stiff grasses, while her husband prepares Chai in the kitchen. The radiant white vaults of my office rise above this scene, and I never fail, before I go into the madness of work, to give thanks for such tranquility and beauty.
Work. What can I say about work?
There is a sign on the wall which says that THE SIX PHASES OF A PROJECT are:
1. EnthusiasmProjects move fast here. Today, ours went from phase three to phase five in under two hours. But in the middle of this chaos, everyone in the office stopped suddenly, and rose to our feet. The phone stopped ringing, and the traffic noises diminished. The whole of India, by order of the Prime Minister, had quieted itself. We stood in silent contemplation for two minutes, and then returned to our work.
When I first arrived, two weeks ago, the air was surprisingly cool and dry. But my hosts said that they felt one or two more monsoon storms should be in store, and since then, the weather has grown increasingly hotter and muggier. Today, cumulus clouds paraded slowly through the sky, rising and sinking without giving rain. The storms are biding their time, brooding as they slowly gather steam.
These are not the only storms which are gathering in the area.
It has been one week since I returned to the Jhaveri society, late at night, after a long and exhausting day at work. I heard an unusual sound, which made me happy: the BBC news, on television, in English. Being something of a news junkie, I was pleased at the rare opportunity to satisfy my addiction, and thought that it might be nice to see some familiar images from home. So I ambled into the living room, and that's when the first of the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
I think my first reaction was the nonchalance born of sheer incomprehension: "well," I said, "you sure don't see that every day." My hosts looked at me in amazement and then looked back at the television, mumbling something far more rational, along the lines of "bloody fucking hell."
For a while they aired footage of the second plane colliding with the tower, while the aghast anchors struggled to find words to describe the carnage, and then the second tower collapsed. I will never forget seeing the roiling dark swirl of dust and gas rushing towards the hapless cameraman, thinking to myself "something's got to be kicking up a hell of a lot of wind to create an effect like that" -- and then seeing the TV aerial appearing suddenly amidst the dust, a thousand feet lower than it should have been, and falling fast. "Shiiiiiiiiit...." we all breathed in unison, and a while later the newswoman reported that the second tower had, indeed, collapsed.
Then the Pentagon was hit, and then the fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania, and they reported that there were more planes thought to be hijacked and on their way to other targets. [Editor's (father's) note: Deora Bodley, the roommate of my wife's closest friend's daughter, was aboard that plane. Seeing her photograph makes the tragedy ever so much more personal. I want to cry.] Such nightmare images. I pray that the world will never again see a sight like that. But I know it will, and far too soon.
I didn't sleep that night.
Or the night afterward, much.
Finally, on the third night, I took some valium to help me sleep, and since then I've been resting better. But it has become clear to me that a very large war is brewing in the air, gathering on the horizon like so many storm clouds. On my horizon, to be exact, just over that-a-way. And nobody here seems particularly concerned.
I can understand why. The concept of non-attachment, here, isn't just some flaky eastern religious convention. It's an absolutely essential approach to life. Why? Because if you are attached to something -- be it peace and quiet, money, linear logic, egalitarianism, or life itself -- then you will consequently be disturbed when any of these things are lacking, or at risk of lacking. Elsewhere, these kinds of attachments may account for the sort of mild gnawing neuroticism that virtually everyone in America is familiar with. In India, however, they will KILL you. They will drive you COMPLETELY FREAKING NUTS. Because everything in India is extreme, and every extremity embodies a paradox.
Type-A personalities wouldn't last a week here.
So what do you do when a war is coming? What do you do when anything is coming?
In "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," Shunryo Suzuki talked about non-attachment in zazen practice, which is close enough to the Indian mindset to be illustrative:
"Knowing that your life is short, to enjoy it day after day, moment after moment, is the life of "form is form, and emptiness is emptiness." When Buddha comes, you will welcome him; when the devil comes, you will welcome him. The famous Chinese Zen master Ummon, said, "Sun-faced Buddha and moon-faced Buddha." When he was ill, someone asked him, "How are you?" And he answered, "Sun-faced Buddha and moon-faced Buddha." That is the life of "form is form and emptiness is emptiness." There is no problem. One year of life is good. One hundred years of life are good."So if war breaks out or if peace somehow prevails, there will be no problem. It will be Sun-faced Buddha and Moon-faced Buddha, and either way the people here will talk about it over tea. Myself, I have difficulty reaching this level of non-attachment. In particular, I find that the presence of nuclear weapons in the area changes the equation rather dramatically. Sun-faced Buddha and Moon-faced Buddha alike are far less enjoyable when there is no tea to welcome him and no people left to do the welcoming.
But maybe that's just me.
As nonchalant as everyone seems to be about this on a personal level, the political ramifications of it are on everyone's lips. (Remember, this is India, so a paradox is essential.) Initially, many people -- aside from feeling deep sorrow for the massacre in New York -- seemed hopeful that this situation could somehow bode ill for Pakistan. More recently, people seem to have realized that Pakistan faring ill would be an astonishingly good way to open World War III. Now they are actually hoping that Musharraf manages to maintain a modicum of control over the country. Alas, this does not seem particularly likely to anyone, and if Musharraf looses control, then the conflict is certain to spread. As the closest large city to Pakistan, Ahmedabad will likely be one of the first places to be engulfed.
I can't fathom this. I don't want to fathom this. The degree to which I can put it aside in my mind and get on with my daily life -- that isn't non-attachment, it's denial. Perhaps that's what the people around me are feeling as well.
Well, once again I have stayed up far past midnight, trying futilely to capture another glimpse of India. My fingers are beginning to slow, and my eyelids have started to droop. There are so many things that I haven't yet written about: the strange new languages that have evolved, such as "Hinglish," or the fat and happy geckos that serve as pest control in my apartment, or the tiny, smoky repair shop to which I have entrusted my beloved digital camera. Everything here is new and strange and terrible and wonderful, and I am in awe of it constantly, but it also feels like home, like a place that some part of me has lived before. I wish my friends and family were here -- I would take them to my favorite tea-stands, we could sip chai and make faces at the nearby monkeys -- but I don't wish that I were anywhere else. Amidst all this chaos and revelry and threat of war, there is a lesson waiting. I can feel it out there, waiting for me, but I have no idea what it is. I must find it, and I'm not sure that I'll be able to leave until I do.