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India as a Literary Place: City of Dreadful Night

John Rothfork

“God with an Elephant Head: Pilgrimage to India,” Prairie Schooner, 62.3 (Fall 1988): 92–103.

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If you fail to recognize
Your own heart,

Can you ever come to know
The great unknown?
            --Kalachand (in Bhattacharya)

Why did I daydream of the Hindustan? What did I know about India? What did I hope to find there? Answers to those questions could wait. The really important question was how to get there. Was it only because I had read dreamy writers like Herman Hesse who wrote that we instinctively move East, stumbling deeper into the blank pupil, the blind spot of the retina where we see nothing; falling into the black hole gnawing at the center of the wheeling galaxy. Was that enough for an answer; that we want to fathom the mysterious?

In the heyday of the Raj, after the Mutiny of 1857, half of England wanted to go, or was on the way, or on the way back. India was the jewel in the crown of empire. Joseph Conrad's "Youth" provided fuel; his "Heart of Darkness" illustrated theganesha.gif (79621 bytes) price. Thousands of white boys shouldered their imperial kit bag, eager for adventure; all escaping bleak winter skies and gray cities for the tropics; a few aspiring to the prestigious foreign service; and perhaps a few searching for a more pristine place than the smoke and machine worlds offered by Manchester and Birmingham, struggling to surface from what Henry Adams called "the plunge into darkness lurid with flames" illuminating the "society of the pit." Yet, those to whom I mention India consider it treason or lunacy. Is it not, as Kipling said of Calcutta, The City of Dreadful Night"; or as Kissinger said of Bangladesh, "a basketcase?" A basketcase was one who had lost all four limbs as happened to some of the casualties of Napoleon's campaigns. I wanted to go to Hindustan because it was unimaginable, an alterity, a holy place but heathen; a place as far away from the hog farms and spring mud of Iowa as I could imagine. Growing up on Polak Hill in what William Gass called "the heart of the heart of the country," I dodged Brueghel's vicious, hunched, and mumbling peasants; Poles and Russians who in a thousand chance ways evaded their places in mass graves dug by Hitler and Stalin. I knew second generation German and Norse farmers, dull as the corn they grew. I flinched from ice in a thousand faces that glowered, knowing the world harbored only enemies.

Occasionally, I glimpsed an African at Morningside College, mysterious in a blaze of red and orange dashiki, some Methodist college student following Phillis Wheatley out of the emerald jungles of a pagan land. But a Hindustani? The very word conjured mystery and the exotic; turbans and cobras and fakirs on nails; the essence of the foreign; a call to pilgrimage. Who had heard Hindi on the radio or traveled in a fabled place where the mountains were the roof of the world? Who knew the streets of mud cities without maps? If Khrushchev was going to annihilate us with nuclear bombs, why was India such an outrageous choice?  I wanted to meet R.K. Narayan's characters who lived in a mirror, their lives a dharmic script or a movie performance for someone else. Could you find a slip of a girl like Kalidasa"s Shakuntala who still played with tiny deer?

* * *

At the Catholic school I memorized the magic Latin and concentrated on God as a white circle in a gold monstrance. I lugged big fishes to Golgotha on Fridays, whipped by the rosaries of old women in babushkas with mumbley, collapsed mouths. I learned the technique of burning incense in a swinging censer and felt, like a knife blade, St. Blaise's cold candles on my throat, getting the magic to keep fish bones from snagging for another year. Baseball cards were unknown. We swapped holy cards bought for dimes. No one knew they smuggled a taste for art into the level land where we watched the sky for threat.

(Shiva, was your blue throat thrumming in some deep midnight tune, heard on the far side of the rolling planet even then?)

At a Carmelite monastery, I marveled at a dreaming life, hidden, but possible on the very land of beef killers, auto mechanics, and whiskey drinkers. The sweating and itchy straw I took from oat fields and choking dust was transubstantiated, sewn into clean white mattresses, spun by myth into Rapunzel's fair hair. It was like walking into a book, a window to another world, a medieval world of poky straw mattresses and Harry Potter cowled robes. Where could you buy such a robe? Sears and Roebuck, Woolworths, the Katz Drug Store? Sandals and knotted ropes for belts, huge rosary chains, and . . . beards like Tolystoy's! A scrubbed skull grinned on the dinner table but where were the chairs?

Some nun told this story to the sixth grade class. Two women were traveling in a city bus when they passed a church. One of them crossed herself and the other asked her what it meant. It was because God lived in there and one should not pass Him lightly. I thought of the blank circle locked tight in a gold box, handled like uranium. Was that what she meant? I don't know if the other woman, or the nun telling the story, had been reading A Burnt Out Case, but the woman on the bus said, if only she could truly believe that, she would crawl back there and never leave. I understood the longing for something clean and deep, to be among people smarter and more mysterious than those on the drab bus who, I thought, were only shuffling from one shabby place to another. An American now, the bus rider no doubt kept her seat, nodding off in the belly of the lumbering machine, carried on the same safe ride through summer humidity and winter snow. Between Arthur Godfrey and Donna Reed, I hoped -- as though planning an episode of Twilight Zone -- that she might see a National Geographic Special about Tibetans who crawl to Lhasa, prostrating themselves at every step like an inch worm, wearing special mittens and knee bindings to keep them from rubbing raw. What did such crawlers do after, at long last, reaching Oz? Did they discover a raconteur and fake behind the curtain of peasant culture? Some spiteful old man or childless old woman who feared their life's talk was delirium? Did they feel they had trudged the Stations of the Cross to conjure a more real place? Ritual murder to sustain the dull routine of a washed-out world? Who could you ask? With the journey done and no place to go but back to the farm, did the sacred crawler begin to feel "The Nothing, the Nakedness / that covers and veils" what we cannot name (Mahadevi-yakka)? Who would not crawl to God, if they knew the very place where It was manifest as something more than a white circle? My Krishna,

"When the sound of your flute reaches my ears
It compels me to leave my home, my friends,
It draws me into the dark toward you" (Govindadasa).

* * *

And what of God with an elephant head? Sri Ganesh whose trunk lifts the delusions and anxieties of this world, bringing us to the smile of his dark father, Shiva? I was asking something like this of a fellow student. He was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, so I though he had escaped the flat horizon of prairie thought that kept us idling in the tractor seat as we scratch furrows of convention. I hoped he might tell me something genuine, deep, and perhaps only vaguely caught in the corner of an artist's eye, offering the lowest rung of a ladder I was eager to climb. But like an unexpected blow in the diaphragm, my mind went blank when he casually informed me that Asian thought was the result of malnutrition! It was like a shot of vodka or a blast of blizzard snow. I couldn't see a shape, but I could almost run my hand on the ideology of the peasant strung like barbed wire; thin and sometimes invisible, but what gets through the peasant's faith? What can you say to the midland ag-scientist when food is on the table waiting to be blessed? It is the bottom line. Doesn't everyone eat, even if there is a skull on the table and no chairs to sit on? Meat and potatoes. Pity the starving children in India. They are so poor they eat with their fingers having only a banana leaf for a plate. Bring your technique to the table, for nothing runs like a Deere.

I wonder if my artist thought of our conversation, as I did, when those toy-men of Viet Nam, reeking of rotted nuoc-mam fish sauce, began returning our friends for Christian funerals. Did he wonder how the hi-tech hardware could fail to plow and cultivate and reap a fenced world? Didn't we export the grain to make Russian bread? Didn't SAC bombers thunder in the treetops? The world was ours, unless the Russians blew it up. Nixon knew it was conspiracy; fellow-travelers who lacked the faith to win hearts and minds. Years later, I heard my painter was quite a success in Chicago, painting super-realistic hogs and corn fields rippling like the long blond hair of Eve to hang as mirrors for Narcissus in the agri-tech boardrooms and banks of the sprawling Midland Empire; holy cards for a prairie world.

Riding a bus in the Punjab, as though reading another novel by R.K. Narayan, I was struck by the sight of a white inverted pot on top of a pole in a dal field. It summoned what I read somewhere. It was a kind of visual magnet to attract the eye and thus, like a lightning rod, render harmless the evil eye, which otherwise might blight the crop. Even now, like the green sun, if I close my eyes, I can harvest the afterimage of black arms in an orange sari, female flesh in an emerald rice paddy of Orissa, with palms and two or three crumbling maroon temples wherever the eye falls; the sea just beyond the horizon making the air heavy on my skin. A beckoning, a ladder; how can it be said? The places we go to looking for what? Hindus talk about asrama-dharma (stages of life) and varna-dharma (caste). These provide a canvas for what we paint, what we imagine. How can I tell the woman on the other bus that I am getting off here? And what of a God whose third eye of fire glows between the eyebrows of a hundred million delicious women? No hunched babushkas mumbling in rubber galoshes. The glowing ember of rung in a tikla dot on the brow; a moustache of sweat; the smooth exposed belly and hip bone; a smile hungry for something more than blank circles of paper bread.

(Where shall I find you, oh Shiva? Chanting with the refugees from America, from the TV century, Shivo-ham / I am Shiva? The Bauls say:

Look for him
In the temple of your limbs.)

* * *

Since the early ninth century, when Sri Shankara established pilgrimage sites, and no doubt long before that, Hindus have been indefatigable pilgrims in search of what? Dark, slight Tamils from south India climb to Shiva's ice lingam in Amarnath cave in the Kashmiri Himalayas. Kashmiris go south to the bottom tip of the subcontinent, to Meenaskshi temple in Madurai with its fabulous gates that erupt in jungles of life; and to Cape Cormorin to pick up the multicolored sands, like the memories of their lives, brought there by different oceans. They stare off to Sri Lanka and marvel that the Monkey-God, more compassionate and dedicated to God than they, built the rock bridge to rescue Beauty. (And we all light the hundred million lamps of Diwali to welcome Beauty home.) Maharastrians from Bombay travel east to Puri for the Jaganath festival, to hear the Gitagovinda, the Song of the Dark Lord, given to the Lord of the world every night, forming a chain without a break for seven hundred years. Did my mumbled altar boy Latin from the other side of the world help? Each night, Krishna, the black God, searches the stars for his beloved Radha. And the sun rises over the Iowa cornfields each day when he finds her and lights the world to gaze on her body. And we light the small lamps of our lives from this light. Meanwhile, Bengalis go west to Elephanta in Bombay harbor to see Shiva Maheshvara. Heinrich Zimmer called it "the face of Eternity." And everyone goes to Kasi, the shining city of Shiva.

How can these places be so different? What do we search for in the hunt for a different place? Hindus believe we are in this world to exhaust our fascination and longing for somewhere new and different that we hope will transform our anxious and drab lives into something unimaginably better. The world has no El Dorado or Shangri-La, no secret place that if found offers a true home. Was it a pilgrimage to follow the corn rows of the heartland? To march along the black print on white paper in a thousand books? Looking for what? To ride machines in a circle of longing? For what? The Bauls of Hindustan sing:

Farming the splendid,
measured land
of this human body,
you raised the crop
the devotion to God.

In Woodbury and Plymouth and Ida counties, I saw only Dekalb and Pioneer seed signs: corn ears in tin aimed like cannons and rockets at the side of old curbed highways; brightly painted good luck charms from the temples of agri-science; shields against the city eye; hands folded in prayer for money; mile-markers for the folded journey of tractors, a promise for genetically engineered food no one had yet tasted. The flatland, scratched by expensive machines, raised . . . what? An eye for geometry and a hunger for escape.

* * *

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Every dozen years, when the stars are strung like pearls on the black neck of Devi, the Great Mother, Kumbha Mela occurs. "Mela" is a festival; "kumbha" means a pitcher. In a rather vague way -- perhaps like, and yet not very like, the "fat Tuesday" of Mardi Gras in relation to the Christian liturgical year -- Kumbha Mela celebrates the churning of the milk of life -- semen, blood, ocean, shakti, libido, forces we can almost see -- the cataract we call the Milk Way. This faintly glowing ember of the Milky Way fell on Shiva's icy head as he meditated in the Himalayas. And today, lounging at an open window in my office on the fifth floor of the faculty building of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, feeling sleepy from the humid heat, I see Ganga flowing here in the flatland of Uttar Pradesh as a mother's milk. Vinoba Bhave asks, "If God is not manifest to us in Mother Ganga, where else shall we see Him?" Chapatti and pani are still bread and water. My neighbor, a physics professor, with a Ph.D. from Ames, tells me that muddy ganga jal will cure my ailments. At Allahabad, the Yamuna (on whose banks Krishna calls us with his flute), the Ganga (who is God as the Great Mother, and who also has her origin in Shiva's dreadlocks high in the Himalayas), and Sarawati (the invisible river of grace, a pure gift of love), converge, to pour into the vessel of time that is human.

Hsuan-tsang, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, wrote an account of the Kumbha he attended in the seventh century. Nearly fourteen hundred years later I came to exactly the same place to see the same thing, to the rivers at Kumbha, feeling like Ved Mehta, "as though I were sleepwalking through some celestial bazaar." The Delhi newspaper, The Statesman, said 150 lakh pilgrims were on the way, fifteen million people! Imagine fifteen million Americans coming to a bald river bank where there was nothing to buy. Fifteen million midland farmers walking to St. Louis to go into the dark waters of the Mississippi and Missouri before dawn, each hungering for Krishna's dark touch that will open a different dimension in their humdrum lives. I can hear the farmer of my childhood, listening to the liturgy of the 5 A.M. market report, laugh in disgust, spitting out, "heathen!" And see him so tenuously gathered, entranced in electric puja with the millions, sharing the bought vision of the Evening News, as a blizzard sweeps the vacant land. Nothing out there but wind and weather. Yet, I marvel that at the same time, on the other side of the planet, the Bauls in the jungles of Bengal and at Ganga's breast at Kumbha, sing:

Scanning the cosmos
You waste your hours,
He is present
In this little vessel.

* * *

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is an Indian novelist. Of Polish descent, she was born in Germany and grew up in England where she married an Indian architect who took her to Delhi. She is now famous as a screen writer for Merchant Ivory, having received a Booker Prize for her novel, Heat and Dust, and Academy Awards for her work in writing scripts for A Room With a View and Howards End. In her novel, A Backward Place, she has Judy, a character searching for a different life in India, recall her old life in England: "One locked oneself up at home ... and looked at the television and grew lonelier and lonelier till it was unbearable and then one found a hook in the lavatory," on which to hang one's self. Britishers -- as they are called in India -- consider Judy a traitor to the higher standard of living, which V. S. Naipaul endlessly reminds us, is collected in the flush toilet: "Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets." One does not have to be Sigmund Freud to note the anal-retentive character of Naipaul's writing or recognize his suggestion that Hindu India is crap.

Nonetheless, "Judy liked being here. It was busy and crowded and yet at the same time peaceful. This was a paradox she discovered over and over again, wherever she went. One left the house and everywhere it was full of people, so much going on: little shops in which women bargained, men played cards on a bed pulled out into the street, students studied under a lamppost, holy men cried Ram Ram tapping with a long staff and rattling a tin, and film songs came out of a radio: yet always, above everything, the sky was large and beautiful, and one had only to look up and it was peaceful." As in an Escher picture, the familiar horizon can twist into a strange vertical dimension, opening a surprising new world in which the water falls forever. There are more roads to follow than John Bunyan's pilgrim knew. You may have to get off the bus and walk, whether you believe or not. For the journey may be the only destination.

In a curious book written by a Chilean pilgrim, Miguel Serrano said, "in India everything is done in common, and the Indian is always surrounded by people. He lives, loves, eats, sleeps, and dies communally." Western egos generally find this squalid and threatening. Living in Bombay, Naipaul said, "was like being denied part of my reality. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. I felt the need to impose myself." Walking in mincing and hobbled steps -- as when burying Jesus in a side altar during Passion Week -- in Bombay's Crawford Market, is something like sex. It cannot be adequately described; you must experience walking there. Like a drop of water, you flow in a current of people. You watch the steps of the person in front of you, collapsing the distance, so that you are in step with him. I thought of L.A. freeways and the sixty-mile-an-hour tension, ready to react instantly to the brake lights only yards in front of the windshield and vaguely recognized the sexual tension here, of a soft rear-end collision with a stranger. And like Naipaul, I felt a moment's paranoia. Breath fluttered in my throat.

(And Shiva smiled; how can you fear the embrace of living flesh? Going down into the river of flesh?)

Rustom Bharucha, an "America-returned" Bengali, wrote about returning to Calcutta with his hard-won Western vision. He described people as misaligned or broken machine parts: "You are part of a mass of bodies. Your face could be pressed against the damp armpit of another passenger, your leg could be lodged in between the thighs of the person sitting directly in front on you. This is not an orgy. Your body is not assaulted: it is depersonalized." The tangle of bodies in the bus is matched by the tangle in Bharucha's thought as he struggles between two worlds. Like Naipaul, he has picked up the burden and joined the battle of America and the machine to repress the wisdom of reflecting on life as time, as rasa (taste), as a collection of temporal performances. He is exasperated by India because he hopes to turn time into technique. His life is now a project. He has a diploma, a ticket out. Because he is going somewhere, he has no patience for the traffic of Calcutta that moves at foot-speed; the buses engulfed in a million bodies on the street, and Bharucha engulfed in the bus, locked in the sweaty embrace of a pan-spitting and sweaty village mother he is now ashamed of. He complains that his bus only makes circles in squalid Calcutta. And the boy -- he was once a boy -- remembers a different bus, a different time. The boy dreamt of exotic India but who can he tell? Is this what he found in college English courses?  Koestler's adolescent hysteria saying Hindus are "shapeless, spineless, non-individuals, drifting through the world of illusions towards the ultimate deep sleep of Nirvana."

From Koestler to Kissinger, these are the Prussians who give orders to keep a straight line of progress. From Naipaul to Bharucha, these are the Aryan Brahmans. They are men talking to other men; the "tough-minded" of William James; white boys; empire builders; engineers. Robert MacNamara mapping bomb runs in Viet Nam; Donald Rumsfeld rallying the troops in Afghanistan. In Richer By Asia, Edmond Taylor said, "The sahibs seemed to differ only slightly from other men, yet their mental world was the world of another race." No doubt the master race. Who is drifting in a world of illusions? Peasants thankful for the blood of the Atonement that conjures the sun to rise over Chichen Itza, to make the corn stand taller than a man, to make their dick rise. Which is it, death or sex? Let them also claim Manchester and Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the thousands of forgotten gulags of the taiga when they call Calcutta a nightmare, "The City of Dreadful Night."  What do I find on the Net in my faculty office today? Videos of cutting someone's head off for the glory of God.

(Shiva, do I hear your conch, the roar of your electric silence? When will it awaken me from this dream of the flatland and journey of the circle? I hunger for a different taste.)

In Heat and Dust, another of Jhabvala's Englishwomen, gone native, feels Shiva -- the Dravidian black bull, the dark of the moon, the silence before speaking -- trample the glass world of words: "I lie awake for hours: with happiness, actually. I have never known such a sense of communion. Lying like this under the open sky there is a feeling of being immersed in space -- though not in empty space, for there are all these people sleeping around me, the whole town and I am part of it. How different from my often very lonely room in London with only my own walls to look at and my books to read." Here are flesh and time rather than ink in books, words spoken in tiny voices by ghosts on TV, or words memorized and mumbled in prayers to Jewish ghosts. The Bauls sing:

The eyes see
And the skin feels
The dust and the dirt.
Tasted on the tongue of life,
The lord of love is true.

Licking to taste life; fingers sliding on flesh; sex instead of murder. Is that what pale Westerners fear? The uncontrolled female? To be enfolded and pulled down from the fifth world instead of conquering the enemy with a spear thrust of hips?

In my city of Kanpur -- an evocation of Krishna -- amid the millions, I sometimes see a striking naga sadhu. These are naked (naga) holy men (sadhu) who have given up everything down to and including the very shirt on their backs to find what is there beneath words, beneath schooling and advertising and jobs and fear that is like mud or mortar used to build our ego. This naga was dark, a rather small athletic-looking man who wore chains around his waist, across his chest and back, and around his neck; a metal jock strap. I never caught his eyes, which were focused on some not too distant horizon to which he was walking without time to lose. I think we all silently regarded him for providing the obvious lesson, reminding us of our bondage and the chains we wear that attach us to the illusions of our lives. He was not, as you might think, anomalous. I recall another young and totally naked sadhu, jiving down the thronged streets of Krishna's dirty city, in tempo with his own mantra, oblivious to the thousands who generally ignored him. And with these images I struck another, a naked white farmer dressed in his Sunday tire chains, rising from a truckstop dinner of roast beef, corn, mashed potatoes and gravy, to amble down State Street in Chicago, his skin neon white, a sheet of paper waiting to be written on. A ridiculous and impossible figure, yes. If he appeared he would be whisked off to an asylum. I had sat through long nights in the mental ward of a midland hospital, an orderly who listened to the desperate, intense raving of farmers cut from the herd by some rogue chemical. In the middle of the night the TV was full of static; the talk crazy because the farmer had no idea of what place he was in. I had also been inside monasteries. Even as a kid, I suspected there were white peasants wandering in cornfields on expensive machines who dared not venture beyond the plowed ground and barbed wire. Cattle farmers who, if they heard Hindu fables, would laugh at the heathen fantasies of Gauri, the cow goddess who manifests the love of mother and wife. And when he is done laughing, who could the farmer cry out to in hope of the Rapture, in hopes of going home, of going somewhere unimagined? Implore a blond Jesus on a holy card? Listen to the raving of Billy Graham on TV? Who comes naked to show them their bondage? What would they say to India who whispers only to herself:

My heart,
Dress yourself
In the spirit of all women
And reverse
Your nature
And habits . . .

I know what my farmer would say. I hear my farmer of the white forehead grumble, "Queer! Heathen!" He hungers for a better place but clings to what he knows, the habit of turning the earth. He says, surrender to the blank unknown is defeat. I want to know what I'm getting into. He knows that life requires the torque of dangerous arms, dollops of money, even to worship from afar the beautiful sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra.  

* * *

I cannot explain India, how the streets with their throngs exude life and love, even though life is desperately hard. Is it enticing only because it is exotic, lacking a context for me because I haven't walked the streets of Kanpur or Calcutta long enough to wear them out? Sarah Lloyd, an English traveler who spent two years in India, writes of returning to India. "The first hint of homecoming had taken place on my departure at Heathrow Airport, where I had stepped into a plane full of Indians. The effect was instant: I smiled and relaxed. Such a thing could never had happened to me in English society: on the contrary I can go into a pub, or a restaurant, or a supermarket, or even a university and feel an overwhelming desolation and alienation."

This incident is not striking, but it was how it happened to me. A man was standing in a long queue for a circus ticket in Calcutta. He was poor, skinny, dressed in a none too clean kadhi (cotton homespun) kurta (long shirt) and pajamas. The circus tent looked equally shabby and unpromising. He had enough English to invite me to come to the circus. I thought Calcutta was itself a huge circus, so I told him the queue was too long. He smiled, offering to stand in line, obtain my ticket, and then collect me, just as a mother would do for her child. Why, I wondered? I could so easily hear my Iowa farmer laughing at the prospect of wasting an hour at a run-down, threadbare circus with a few scrawny animals. He had money to make and better places to go.  

(Lovely Shiva, wearing the moon in your midnight hair, did you turn your third eye on me then, breaking the chains with moonlight?)

I remembered Joyce's "Araby" and the disillusioned Catholic kid who discovered that his sexual feelings only impelled him into commerce with a shabby world, and the bleached land on the other side of the planet, and the twentieth century money machines . . . and I loved India.

I cannot explain India, for India is not on a Christian mission. She is not a project, nor an experiment, nor a machine. She is just your old mother. India is simply life, often conscious of itself as savoring the passage of time, which evokes a kind of aesthetic taste (rasa). As Jhabvala implies, India is a place where you self-consciously feel the crushing heat in the sweat of your body and taste the dust on the hot wind, a backward place not going anywhere special. There is no escape; time simply passes. There is no money to be made; no heathen to be beheaded or subjugated; no Mel Gibson crucifixion to offer the violence of sexual narcissism that simultaneously punishes itself for gratification. India offers the most ordinary as something special because time and perception are consciously tasted. It is not the place or the object that is special, it is our perception of these that is special, causing us to know that life is not a pilgrimage to reach an unimaginable reward; it is skin, rasa: flavor, taste, sex, sorrow. Life offers nothing but the perception of time. That is why we all journey East going home to Kasi, the shining city, the city of burning, of desire. This is the place we are going, not to find Oz or dad's approval or anything else at the end, but simply moving to Kasi because we spend time in this life and must journey somewhere. This is the pilgrimage we make while preoccupied with trips to the grocery, to the ATM, to work, and to home where we watch TV to laugh at other people and to dream of other places, other lives.

In his strange book, Miguel Serrano describes the primal vision of the Hindu, who is so deeply sunk in the unconscious, in experience unmediated by computers and machine technology and unframed by the discourse communities of reasoned institutions so that "almost alone in the world, he is still entirely in rapport with nature." Serrano says, "For this reason, probably no one is so well fitted to survive catastrophe as is the Hindu. His civilization is one of jungles and mountains."

(Shiva, plowing the flatland, will I come to jungles and mountains, and your serene smile on the other side of this catastrophe?)

Grudgingly flying to the white land of words, with a jumble of impressions to sort through like note cards, I stayed for a time in Mission Viejo, one of the Brahman enclaves of pure money in the City of Angels. It seemed a mirror image of Fatehpur Shikri: deserted and clean. Mercedes zipped past with dark windows as in a city of robots. "Hello, George Jetson," I thought. In the bathroom of the house where I was staying, I found bronzing cream, a kind of perfumed money in a plastic tube to turn white people temporarily the right shade of brown. A few pale souls congregated in a puja of money at shopping center space ships. Fat white kids fed a week's wages into machines to kill and eat TV things. I felt the catastrophe, the aggression that expresses resentment at being cheated, at not having something more, at not dominating in every situation; at being bored when there is no obvious enemy or competition. It was a fleeting recognition, hard to keep in mind, that above the smog,

The stars and the moon eternally move,
with no sound at all.
Each cycle of the universe
in silence prays,
welling up with the essence of love.

Then I was sitting at the dean's dinner table, a bit drunk, waiting for the interrogation, "why did you like India?" Treason. I thought of Henry Adams, "floundering between worlds passed and worlds coming," paralyzed between them. And I thought of the Namdharis who tattoo the name of God on every inch of their skin, shaving their heads for more room, printing the name on every inch of their clothes, chanting His name in every breath hoping to be immersed in Ram. I mumbled, "It is a religious society." I could not imagine what images he might evoke to interpret that for he was a man of the machine, of technique and control. I did not know what my words meant either; they had no object. They were prayers for a life I had tasted. Instead of struggling for language and communication and control, I thought of grain elevators in Edward Hopper's cold winter light -- Shiva's lingam of the midland -- and of the Taittriya Upanishad, which says God is food, time, the sustenance of all life; and the grain in those linga; and the icy, white, flat, pressed-down wheat circle of my childhood God.

(Shiva, what shall I say?)

I had been through the world and back. Am I still that boy hoping to dodge another cut by going somewhere magical in a book? Hoping that somewhere else is better than here?

The Bauls say:

A man unknown to me
And I,
We live together
But in a void
A million miles
Between us.

And so we walk on, spinning in this Milky Way, pilgrims on tractors in cornfields of longing; pilgrims eating through meals of words and marriages and Mercedes; stringing barbed wire karma around gardens of money hoping to control what comes up. We mouth the gold chains on our throats; we watch in the lens of the Internet for light at the end of the tunnel. We listen to George Bush preach the gospel that the Iraqis want lives just like those in Dallas. We send our doddering mothers to nursing homes because we have long commutes to do something important. Tell me, whose is the "City of Dreadful Night"? Who prays to the dark God to annihilate our bondage?

* * *


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