Saturday, February 23, 2008

Talking to Strangers by Jon Hartmann

Having spent less than a week in India, I began what would become a dangerous habit: riding trains hanging out of the open boarding gate door. When you blow your nose after riding in this way for a while, you find it is coated with the dust of spent coal belched out by the engine-car, and dirt off the train tracks. This is how I saw most of the Indian countryside, wind-in-hair and occasional pebble-kicked-up-in-face, with dusty shirts and blackened nostrils.

I think I first realized the unspoken consciousness of class that all people have at a train stop outside of Delhi. It was one of my first train rides in India, and I remember, as the train slowed down, being interested in the way people of this particular town had taken to growing pumpkins on top of their tarpaulin shacks. They let the vines curl around their tin walls, blackened by railway soot. And soon, at a total halt, the boarding platform appeared. It was an area of packed earth with a Hindi station sign and a tree. The tree itself was one of the sacred-fig trees planted at the stations across the Indian plains to provide shade. Sacred figs, the same variety as the Bodhi-tree that Buddha attained enlightenment under, are actually sacred to Hindus. They’re often the resting places of Hindu holy men, or Sadhus, who occasionally erect shrines around them. This tree’s keeper, orange-robed and turbaned, shot me a startling glance. It was piercing and unwavering. I knew it was because I was not Indian, and I appeared to be wealthy, yet I was riding in the manner of the poorest of India. Whether this was puzzling to him, or aggravating, I clearly saw the division in his eyes that would haunt my seven months in India.

There’s an unheralded class in Delhi that doesn’t appear to live anywhere in particular; they’re seen on highway service projects, sweeping streets, and selling chickens. When you stop your car in traffic, they’re there with a baby in arms and shattered teeth, asking for loose rupees. Sometimes the baby is dead. I was rummaging through a lower residential bazaar, and had finally come upon the source of its foul smell: a poultry slaughterhouse. I noticed its gutter in the ground at the entrance, the stream that bled avian fluid onto the sidewalks and alleyways of the bazaar. Clouds of flies reassured me that it was the foulest smell I had ever detected in my life. Near vomiting, I stumbled past several bazaar children, who were amused I had wandered so far into the slaughterhouse. Finding some fresher air, I watched them, matted hair and torn green cardigans, begin to kick an improvised cricket ball back home.

Their home was the square kilometer of packed clay earth between the railroad tracks and the slaughterhouse. It was dusted with chewing tobacco packets, and spent beedi cigarette stumps. At the height of the afternoon, the greater part of the community was languishing in the heat, seeking shade in their hodge-podge of shacks, made mostly of tin siding, tarp, mud, and the more salvageable parts of Delhi’s waste. Some families had a tire full of drinking water, or an outdoor bed, raised off the trash-covered and infestation-prone ground. The government had put up a stick fence around the entire lot to hide it. I sat for a while, and no one seemed to mind; it was as if they knew what I was thinking. They could exit the enclosure, but they could never leave. The children smiled.

Earlier that day, when I rode the train into Delhi, I sat in the open boarding gate with one of the train’s conductors. We were discussing railroad life and his home, when the train began to slow down as we pulled nearer to the station. We stopped in the thick of a slum. I at first was inapprehensive. Just beyond the tangle of power lines, I saw the tin roofs and blue tarps, bonfires, smelled the air of unrefrigerated meat and dairy. A group of children came skipping up the railroad tracks, matted hair and dusty clothing, homemade toys of electrical wire wheels and soup-can chassis. Immediately the leader of this group ran up to us and began shooting pictures with his small yellow camera. The situation quickly escalated as the conductor demanded they leave “Jao!” – but they didn’t leave. “Go f--- your sisters,” the conductor said in Hindi. The camera boy spat as the conductor closed the boarding gate door. The children skipped quickly back down into the sea of tin, as the conductor threatened to throw a piece of fruit from behind the tinted window.

I asked him “why did you do that?” He said “because they are salas, they are bastards and rascals.” I only hoped that the reason he had done that was because I was present, and that normally he would have even let them on the train. “May I have a tip?” he said. “I have no money with me,” I replied. It was true. I even showed him my empty wallet; he laughed.

* * *

The cicadas had just begun their evening chorus when a certain farmer discovered the reason I had been resting atop one of his trees for the past half hour or so. The time of course made no difference to him, as he did not have, and had potentially never seen a watch. His guard dog, mastiff-like and wearing a nail-studded collar to deter leopards, had pursued me and several other backpackers until we scaled the nearest trees. Laughing to himself slightly, he persuaded the dog to return to his yurt. I descended the tree, slipping on monsoon ferns and fungal growth. Half apologizing, he beckoned me and my two fellow hikers to follow him and the dog back to the yurt.

At that moment, I felt resistant, resistant to accompanying a total stranger, whose ferocious and completely obedient dog had just chased me up a tree. Ignoring my screaming western “practicality” or “common sense,” I followed him. We were soon sitting in the evening shade of his walnut tree, audience to the chorus of the cicadas and jungle crows. He shot me a searching look, and adjusting his wool hat, thought to give me a bag of walnuts. I smiled, and we both ate walnuts looking down into the Himalayan valley, sharing something unspoken or intangible, a knowing collision of two cultures in the wilderness. Realizing that walnuts are prized produce in the Himalayas, I made an effort to give him a small amount of money. Ten rupees, enough to buy his family a few kilograms of rice; he declined. I continued to insist and he said in Hindi “Because you give out of love, I cannot refuse.” His crumpled brow loosened, and he stuffed his hands into his grey kurta-pockets.

At the Baha’i Lotus-Temple in Delhi, out of respect, all visitors are expected to take off their shoes and tread barefoot on the woven mats that lead up to the temple’s entrance. I remember first seeing the temple, somewhat masked by the haze generated in Delhi’s own greenhouse-like atmosphere. It sits on a parched grass lawn, and is shaped like the traditional flower of Hindu and Buddhist iconography, twenty-seven interlocked petals emerging from a pool. I accompanied several Buddhist monks to the doorway, and stood back for a few moments watching them enter the base of the marble lotus. Looking out over the walkway, Asian tourists, Hindu holy-men, all backgrounds of Indians, and the occasional Westerner slowly pushed their way through the humidity to the temple entrance. Unaware that I was blocking the door, I was urged by a French backpacker, currently a Baha’i door-holder, to enter the temple.

I expected there to be some sort of ceremony or activity inside; however, there was nothing, nothing but the stone silence of several hundred people breathing. Never before had I encountered a congregation of people simply sitting, listening to silence, simply thinking. I sat on one of the few hundred wooden benches and stared three stories upward at the ceiling. The temple itself is surprisingly light for having so few windows. It seems to collect the sighs and soft murmurs of its occupants, bottling them into a collective and primal drone.

I was at first puzzled by the meaning of the temple, and my posture must have displayed this clearly as I walked back to the parking lot. Kicking a bit of trash up the road and trying to spit the dust out of my mouth, I passed a strip of bazaar that sells various religious goods such as marigold garlands and strings of peppers to ward off evil spirits. I spotted a Hindu holy-man sitting underneath one of the open air stalls, the dusty air just agitating his beard and dreadlocks out of their resting position. He was bare-chested, with eyes ablaze; our eyes met.

Several months later, I again found myself entering the home of a complete stranger. He was a Rajasthani folk artist, one of the precious few painters still using ground minerals and oil as watercolors. We sat for a while on his rooftop, looking out over the desert city Jaipur, drinking tea out of shot glasses. He said “I hope I’m not boring you.” I immediately responded “not at all,” looking out at the paper kites flying above the city. Every telephone wire in the city is wrapped in twine and kite skeletons. I was silent for a moment, looking at the swarms of people below us, flowing through the bazaar, the heavy traffic of rickshaws and greasy diesel trucks, the occasional cow demanding to cross the road. Moving to his studio, we discussed art for a while. The walls of his studio were covered in parchment, each bearing a famous scene from Hindu legend. The incarnations of Vishnu, the birth of Ganesh. He smiled, said “artists need to help other artists out,” and handed me a small package of water colors.

I came to rest by one of the small shrines interspersed throughout the twisting bazaar pathways. This particular one had been built up around a withered tree that was now coated with religious calendars, hundreds of spent incense stubs, and layers of sweet oils. The shrine bore the presently sooty and oiled image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles. I sat for a moment looking up at the parched growth on the surrounding mountains, and back to the shrine, interested that no one had stolen the coins from the oil-filled offering bowl. I thought, “because you give out of love, I cannot refuse.”
[photos courtesy of Austin Ryer and Jon Hartmann]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pico Iyer would appreciate these forays into the foreign.