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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, October 16, 2001. At the thresholdIn the weeks after September 11th my mind feels blurry but my soul feels blurrier. Every sight and sound seems burdened with the seed of its own mortality. As I watch sun rises through the smoky Ahmedabad dawn, the red solar disk appears pale and tired, as if our star is finally feeling its age, and the smoke tells tales of burning things, and the mournful wailing of peacocks reminds me of a song by Leonard Cohen:
"The birds they sangBut I do dwell, very much so, and the song continues:
"The wars they willI go to work every day, even on my days off, in the hope that it will take my mind off things. It doesn't. I fidget at my desk, get distracted, make stupid mistakes, and generally accomplish nothing; then I ensconce myself in one of the city's cramped internet cafes, hungrily keeping abreast of the latest developments, nostalgically renewing contacts with my distant loved ones, and paranoically digging for tips on surviving a nuclear war. In my nightmares, extremists overthrow the Pakistani government, and I run with my French-Canadian roommates up to the roof of our apartment, where we watch the lights of distant cruise missiles streaming northwards. In other, more fearful nightmares, there are no flocks of cruise missiles -- only a single pinprick of light, falling from the west in a deadly ballistic parabola. I am unable to convince myself that these scenarios are beyond the pale, and so I prepare myself accordingly.
Preparation one: Memorize the routes to various evacuation-points -- American Embassy locations, or airbases that are likely to be filled with American soldiers in the event of an all-out war. Preparation two: Stuff my money belt with rather more rupees than the average Indian makes in a year, enough to bribe my way past almost any barrier. Preparation three: Learn enough of the language to ask directions, make requests, and find my way around. Preparation four: Familiarize myself with the prevailing wind-patterns. It turns out that they're from the southwest throughout this whole region, which is a relief, as that puts me upwind of both Pakistan and downtown Ahmedabad. But still, better safe than sorry, and so on to preparation five: iodine. One of the major components of fallout is radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid, causing thyroid failure and death. But if the thyroid is already saturated with iodine, then any additional radioiodine that enters your body will be quickly flushed through the kidneys. The best way to dose your thyroid is with potassium-iodide pills, so I canvass the city for them -- there aren't any. The second-best way is through dermal absorption of iodine tincture, which I promptly stockpile.
At first, my greatest fear is not of Jihadi terrorists, but of America mindlessly lashing out like a decapitated hydra, plunging the world into bloody chaos. Fearing the backlash I might encounter if America does something stupid, I begin telling anyone who asks that I'm from Canada -- everyone loves Canadians, I figure. But the weeks go by, and America, rather miraculously, bides its time. The war does not come. Day by day, my mind becomes clearer, and my paranoia diminishes. It served its purpose, I figure: I'm as prepared for the worst as anyone could be, so further worrying is pointless, right? Right!
As my panic clears, I attack my work with renewed vigor. I finish the set of drawings for the Bengali township, and am given a new assignment: do renderings for an IMAX theater in nearby Ghandinagar, the capital of Gujarat. This is very familiar work, quite similar to my last few jobs, and therefore isn't doing much to expand my repertoire of skills. On the other hand, its familiarity is a source of comfort at a time like this, so I'm not complaining overmuch.
Although my mental fog has lifted, the city continues to swelter and stink beneath a blanket of haze. The slowly-intensifying heat has now reached truly oppressive levels; even the local newspapers have been issuing daily complaints about the unseasonable weather. It's more than the heat, though: the air is thick, choked with humidity and pollution. Each breath feels like it is drawn through a damp woolen cloak soaked in gasoline. Where I live, upwind from the city, things aren't so bad -- but when I venture downtown, my eyes quickly begin to sting. At night, the streetlights struggle to cast muddy cones through the smog, which seems to swallow all light before it can reach the ground. Glimpsed from my passing rickshaw, downtown looks like a menagerie of luminous, vaporous ghosts, hovering above the dark sleeping forms of street vendors and camels. I wonder if the city will remain this way indefinitely, until next year's monsoons finally scrub the air.
When I first moved into my apartment, I shared it with two others: Jean-Lou and Josianne, a French-Canadian couple. Now we have added a fourth, Joanne, an American architect who just flew in from Seattle. Since she had arranged her accommodation before I ever showed up, she takes my room, and I stake out half the living room by drawing a curtain across it. Every morning I open the curtain, roll up my mattress, fold my bed sheets, and compact all my belongings into a few square feet. After several days, I actually begin to enjoy this morning space-clearing ritual.
This is Joanne's first time in India, and the French-Canadians are out adventuring for a week in Rajasthan, so it is now my turn to play tour guide in Ahmedabad. Lesson number one, as we hurtle back from the airport: the Rickshaws. "For the first week or so," I yell to make myself heard above the honking din of the traffic, "you'll be convinced that the streets are going to kill you at any moment. But believe it or not, you'll get used to this."
"Wow," she says, goggle-eyed, as we graze past a plodding camel that's easily twice the size of our vehicle.
On Sunday, my new roommate and I take an auto-rickshaw across the river. "The river" is a broad swath of stagnant pools and dusty floodplains, and like everywhere else in India, it is teeming with humanity. Boys playing cricket in the dry spots, men squatting to defficate in the marshes, purple-saried women scavenging through the strewn trash -- glimpsed briefly through the hydrocarbon mist as we speed overhead. We direct our rickshaw into the old city, despite the warnings of the State Department, which has advised us to stay away from Muslim-dominated areas. But old Ahmedabad hardly seems to be a Taliban stronghold, for I see few beards and no burqas among the denizens of its teeming alleyways. Our destination is Teen Darvaja or "Three Gates," which turns out to be a large triumphal arch wedged into one of the narrow streets, with strikingly Romanesque proportions, but the fractal edifice of traditional Indian architecture. It looks to have been built in the 16th or 17th century, but the stonework is already more worn and pitted than many of the ancient arches of Rome. India is not easy upon its architecture.
We have come to Old City because Joanne needs a key to the house, and Teen Darwaja is the abode of the key-makers. Our rickshaw driver deposits us nearby, and we wend our way through the crowded sidewalks. Street-vendors seem to occupy every square meter, with most devoted to selling single items: cigarette lighters, combs, hair ties, silverware, rubber bands (meticulously doled out from an old brass scale), doormats, hand mirrors, wire baskets, and an infinity of indecipherable trinkets and baubles, all of them thrust towards us by eager hawkers. The vendors take rejection amiably, however, and cheerfully direct us towards the key-makers. These turn out to be a ragged collection of grizzled old men sitting on the dusty ground, plying their trade from beneath the western arch of the gate. We approach one of them, haggle briefly in rudimentary Hindi, and hand him our house key. He squints at it for half a minute, then pulls two blanks from a key-ring laying beside him, and attacks them with a file. His technique strikes me as incredibly primitive, and I pay him dubiously. But when we get back to our apartment later that evening, the handmade duplicates work better than the original.
Our mission accomplished, we decide to wander around the old city for a while. Everywhere we go, people break into broad grins and wave at us, shouting "hallooo!!" and stopping to shake our hands. The street-vendors are more excited by our mere presence than by the possibility of making a sale, and we are peppered with salutations from all side. "Hello!" and "Good to meet you!" and "What is your name?" and "How do you like our country?" and "What country are you from?" "Canada!" I grinningly reply.
"Good grief," says Joanne, "I feel like we're movie stars." I nod my assent: "just smile and wave, smile and wave"
Eventually we manage to wander into some of less-crowded back-alleys of the warren-like streets. The ground floors of the buildings are still lined with shops, but now they seem more concerned with manufacturing than sales. There seems to be a small district for everything -- we pass by a shoe district, a drum district, a chair district, a scrap-metal district, a doormat district, a Tupperware district. The architecture is an anarchistic melee of different ages, where the weathered façade of every building is a collage of elements from three or four different centuries. This is a source of unending delight to my architect's eye.
By now we are deep inside the inner city's maze-like pathways, which are almost devoid of people. Rounding a corner, we find a block of buildings reduced to piles of rubble, with splintered beams of heavy timber rising like a shattered ribcage above the tumbled bricks. The quake that leveled them was in January, but it looks like these buildings fell yesterday. If anyone was caught beneath the bricks, they're still entombed inside, and I stand for a moment in silent regard. This is only the second time I've seen obvious quake damage in the city; for the most part, bustling Ahmedabad has picked itself up and quickly rebuilt. In the Old City, however, there is little capital to do this. (And closer to the epicenter at Bhuj, which is far poorer than Ahmedabad, there has been very little reconstruction. The city is still completely devastated, I'm told, looking as though it was hit by a largish nuclear bomb. Hundreds of thousands of people are still homeless, thousands of bodies are still underneath the rubble, and corrupt officials have been intercepting most of the aid that was sent to the victims.)
As we contemplate the destruction, a young boy of about 12 approaches us, saying "Hello!" and "What is your name?" We trade names, and he decides to accompany us down the street. After a while, he points ahead and says "Coca-Cola?"
"No, no thanks," I say.
"Okay," he grins, "hello!"
We walk a ways further, having apparently come to some sort of religious district. We can see the minarets of a mosque for several blocks before we pass its entrance, a large stone archway covered in ornate geometric filigree. From the inner courtyard, men in white robes wave shyly to us, but we decline to enter. Our young guide points at it enthusiastically, saying "Hello!" and "What is your name!"
"It's a mosque," I say.
"Ha, yeh Muslim masjid hey," our guide agrees. "Coca-cola?"
"No, really, that's okay."
"Okay!" he says, and leads us cheerfully onwards. In another alley we glimpse a bulbous dome rising behind the piecemeal row houses, and our guide points as towards an engraved alabaster doorway. "Hello!" he says, by way of explanation. But a barefooted older man wearing a white kurta emerges from the door, and sternly proclaims "Jain Temple! Want take photograph?" We demure and walk onwards.
Soon our guide becomes very animated, and begins urging us towards another alley, with eager calls of "Hello!" and "What is your name!" The alley widens to accommodate an ancient stone fountain, and then terminates at a massive, four-story-high doorway, which is painted in colors so vivid that they make my eyes swim. Outside there are vendors selling incense, brass bowls, and an assortment of mysterious trinketry. Our young companion is now practically bouncing with glee, shouting "Hindu Temple! Lord Ram! Coca-Cola!" Then he runs away, chirping "bye-bye!"
We stand at the threshold of temple, unsure of whether we should enter, but various pilgrims beckon us inside, and guide us to a room where we remove our shoes and place them in numbered compartments. Then we are whisked through the courtyard, beneath the remains of a quake-ruined archway, past alters of Ganesh and Hanuman with worshippers laying prostrate before them, and into the main chamber of the temple. At this point Joanne and I are separated, for there are different areas for women and men, as we pass before the idols of Lord Ram, portraying scenes from his life. My two self-appointed guides briefly prostrate themselves before the idols as they pass, making various gesticulations. I briefly consider trying to imitate this, but decide that this would be disingenuous, and so I stand respectfully aside as they attend to their supplications. Between shrines, they quietly explain the history of the temple to me. Near as I can tell, it was built 200 years ago, on the site of another temple that was 2,000 years older than that. Considering the massive amount of stone overhead, the colonnaded interior is surprising light and airy. It's also amazing that it didn't collapse in January. "It was a miracle," my guides assure me, "there is no steel here, no wood, not even mortar, nothing but stone. Only one arch collapsed. Everything else was spared. Lord Ram blesses this place, and he intervened!"
I'm wary of my guides at first, because I've heard that self-appointed temple guides will often attach themselves to tourists, giving them a minimal amount of information in exchange for exorbitant fees. But these ones seem to have no interest in money, as we return to the courtyard and wait to rendezvous with Joanne. Lounging on the steps in front of the shoe repository, my guides gesture towards the many doorways of the arcaded, multistory courtyard. "That is where the saints live," they say, "very humble lives. There are several hundred here." And indeed, a number of nearly naked Sadhus have emerged from their cells and are nonchalantly watching me from their balconies. I ask my devout companions what they do for a living.
"I'm a textile engineer," says one, proudly -- Ahmedabad is deservedly famous for its textiles.
"I program front-ends for database-driven websites," says the other, matter-of-factly.
"Oh," I reply, having long since accepted that time flows differently in India -- more concentric than linear -- "me too." And so we switch languages and talk in geek for a while, in the courtyard of Lord Ram's temple, beneath the sweltering Indian sun and the passive gaze of lounging Sadhus.
I'm glad we went to the old city that day, because that evening is when the bombs began to fall.
"We asked for signsBut before the war starts, we go to Ghandi's Ashram, a serene complex of building and gardens on a bluff high above the west bank of the river. We walk through the small, empty house where Gandhi developed the core of his philosophy, as the enthusiastic old guide patrolling outside informs us.
"Gandhiji lived here for 12 years," he exclaims, "He lived here very, very simple, as you can see! He is the father of India! Over there on the walls you can see the rules for the Ashram, written in his own hand! Gandhiji was a great man, a man of peace! This was his home! It has been visited by many dignitaries! Including Bill Clinton Margaret Thatcher Bruce Springsteen Tony Blaire Madonna Hillary Rodham Clinton Chelsea Clinton..." He takes a deep breath, "Julia Roberts Robert Dinero Jimmy Carter Boris Yeltsin... and many famous actors and politicians from India, too!"
"This place," he proclaims, thrusting a finger in the air, "is a temple of truth! What country are you from?"
"Canada," I lie miserably, wanting to keep my story straight.
At the Gandhi museum, quotations from him are mounted on the walls, and one in particular catches my eye: "If blood must be shed, let it be our own. Let us have the courage to die without killing." It stops me in my tracks; his sheer nobility holds me in it's thrall. I contemplate these words for a time, and am deeply moved -- but I'm also impressed by the workability of such a philosophy. All the British wanted to do was rule India, not destroy it. But would such a philosophy have worked in the face of an enemy who wanted to exterminate India? Did it work, I wonder, for the Armenians in Turkey, the Jews in Europe, the Tutsis in Rwanda? And is it possible that my culture -- the West, nuclear-armed culturally imperialistic polluting greedy for oil uncaring garish decadent global steamroller and all -- could my people now actually be on the receiving end of such an exterminator's philosophy? And in the face of such an enemy, is "dying without killing" a gallant thing? Or is it merely being complicit?
Troubled, I bow to Gandhiji's noble words, and pray that there will be a time when the world is again genteel enough for them to be applicable
"Can't run no more
What exactly is the "Reason for the Season" remains something of a mystery to me, although I gather it has something to do with fertility. There are numerous articles in the paper explaining what Navatri is all about, but for some reason they're all written in Hinglish -- which means that every time they're on the verge of getting to the point, they switch languages. Rather frustruating, but language in India is like that. I've been reading Salman Rushdie in my spare time -- all his characters have been positively marinated in Bombay, a city with which he seems to have a personified virgin/whore obsession. In "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" he describes "Bombay's garbage argot, Mumbai ki kachrapati baat-cheet," as a dialect "in which a sentence could begin in one language, swoop through a second and even a third and then swing back round to the first. Our acronymic name for it was Hug-me. Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi English. Bombayites like me were people who spoke five languages badly and no language well."
In Bollywood's cinema, however, I discover that they speak a purer form of Hindi than can be found anywhere in India. I go out with some friends from work one afternoon to see "Yeh terra ghar, yeh merra ghar" ("It's your house, it's my house"). Which turns out to be an epic, 3.5-hour drama/romance/comedy/kung-fu/fantasy/musical, which is what all Bollywood films apparently are. The plot concerns a lovable shlemiel bachelor who is forced into near-poverty to pay his three sister's dowries, so he travels to Bombay to sell his one remaining possession -- a house that is stubbornly occupied by a lovable shlemazel family, or more to the point, their beautiful and tragic daughter. All kinds of wacky antics ensue when he attempts to get persuade them to leave, and the two sides proceed to harass each other with a baffling assortment of legal maneuvers, duplicitous plots, overwrought acting, scythes, crockery, local Mafiosos, raw fish, lovelorn policemen, their mothers, and so forth. The shy but determined hero stutters and stumbles endearingly, even while whupping gangster ass up and down Bombay; the eyelash-batting heroine is headstrong and cold, except during the fantasy/musical sequences, when two-thirds of her sari dematerializes, and she treats the audience to the sort of Meaningful Looks™ that Beautiful People™ wearing Very Skimpy Clothing™ are apparently wont to give. The two combatants inevitably reconcile their differences at the last possible moment, fall in love, and ride off into the sunset. Its bawdy dance sequences more than compensate for the actual chasteness of the plotline -- which ends just as they hold hands for the first time, and gives no indication of how the rest of their situation actually resolves itself. Based on the setup, I presume that they live ever after in impoverished misery, but at least in each other's company. Then again, there are times when I'm a cynic.
The multiplex is on the fifth floor of a massive entertainment complex known as "Fun Republic," and after the film we exit onto an exterior west-facing stairwell, affording us an excellent view of the sunset. The sky is topaz-blue above us, while salmon-colored thunderheads line eastern horizon, and a temple rooftop below fluoresces with the last light of the day. As I watch the vivid solar disk bow beneath the western jungle -- past Pakistan, past Afghanistan -- a cool a breeze comes to me, bearing the sound of bells from the temple.
"You can add up the parts