Archive for the 'distance' Category


June 2nd, 2008

In the capacious, perfectly sprung College of Wooster bus on the way from Cleveland Airport, one melted back into miles of smooth pavement stretching out ahead, wide shoulders empty of cyclists, walkers, pedlars, families engaged in construction, and sleepers curled into patches of shade—and with orderly, spaced, manageable traffic. At the airport, one drank from a public water fountain. One did not think to bargain at the trinket booths in the terminal.

What else marks the luxury of being a middle-class citizen of the United States? No need to monitor CNN to learn whether or not the Gujjars have blocked the road to the airport. Elevators are not stopped and darkened between floors by power outages. The homeless are tidied away, and eleven-year-old girls carrying their baby sisters are not allowed to plead that you give them a little money. Nor are parents allowed to send their children to touch your arm and urge you to buy a necklace or a postcard. No one holding up a monkey to the bus window at the traffic light in Burbank (as a subject to be paid for any photographs taken). No need to look to Shila for permission before eating a piece of fruit.

Mrs. Sukhwar on the Train

May 20th, 2008

Mrs. Sukhwar, on the train from Delhi to Haridwar, was pleased that she had recently married her daughter, in her 20s, who is now living in Australia with her husband. Mrs. Sukhwar found the husband through an ad in the newspaper. Later, I looked through the Hindustan Times (“the HT,” as Mrs. Sukhwar refers to it) to the marriage ad pages which appear every Thursday, and here are samples:

Main head: Grooms Wanted For; Sub-head “Brahmin.”
Match 4 Fair/Slim b’ful MBBS Bhardwaj girl, 158cm/1981 born/Veg. preparing for MD/MS Looking for IIT/IIM/PG-Medico match.

Sub-head “Punjabi.”
Suitable match professionally qualified for Masters (UK), 29/5’3″, simple, convent educated, very good in communication skills, good looking wheatish, fair working girl, caste no bar.

Sub-head: “Khatri.” [a caste]
SM [suitable match] for NM [non-manglikh: an unflawed horoscope] slim b’ful Pb [Punjabi] Kh [Khatri] Kukhrain [sub-caste of the Khatri caste] conv. ed. MA Eng. . . . .

Mrs. Sukhwar is now at work on marrying her son in the same way. “Now I have to get him married.” One wants to find a similar station and educational level, she said.
I met her son a little later when he came from another car on the train to check on his mother. She was sitting in a seat that was “not confirmed,” she had told me, but her son had arranged with the ticket master to make it all right. But the train service is “not corrupt,” she told me. Their procedures are fair. “Very honest, very good.” She wanted me to know that no bribery had been involved. She had talked with her son about it on her cell phone, and when the ticket master came by, she was apparently approved. And when another man arrived later to claim her seat, she sent him away pretty handily (but without any asperity that I could hear), by pointing out that the “ticket master” (the way it is said in Hindi) had not questioned her seat.
She raised a subject that our academic speakers have addressed repeatedly: India’s happy diversity. There are sixteen official languages (this number seems to change from speaker to speaker; we must post the official numbers when we’ve found them), but all the communities are wonderfully generous and helpful to one another, she said, though there were some difficulties with immigrants, principally from Bangladesh and Nepal, who come to India because things are so bad in their country and India is moving up so quickly. When I asked about the killings in Gujarat, she said they were the result of politicians using religious difference to incite the poor people. And the treatment of women was quite good in India except, perhaps, in the villages. But, for example, when the Doctor asked her, as her daughter was born, if she was happy, she had said she was because her family was now complete. She had then provided her daughter with the same education and other advantages as she had given her son. The British? No, there is no bad feeling now. It was so long ago. The children do not know about the British. They don’t even know about Gandhi.
Her son has given her a Dell computer on which she does e-mail and plays games. It is several years old, but it works fine. Some older people complain they do not have enough to do, but she loves to keep learning. If you have the will power, you can learn to do anything.
I made some video of Mrs. Sukhwar as she talked, and she enjoyed seeing it when I played a segment on the camera’s view screen. She gave me her e-mail address so that I could send her a clip. But she also requested that I never show it to anyone else. She is a very simple person, honest and direct, she said. She wants no involvement in politics, and I have changed her name in these posts.
As we pulled into Haridwar station, the son arrived again, and I shook hands and told him how much I had enjoyed talking with his mother. I could not read him at all, though he was very polite.
I thought of Mrs. Sukhwar later, during both of my “dips” or “holy baths” (as she variously called her immersions) in Mother Ganga, and I remembered her travel across India to holy sites she found to be sources of deep pleasure and spiritual nourishment.

Holy Baths

May 20th, 2008

This video (“In Devprayag”), placed here for continuity in the blog but completed well after our return to the U.S., adds illustration to Mark Wilson’s fine description below of our visit to the beginning of the Ganges in Devprayag. His text explains what the video shows: the three rivers, the suspension bridge, the mountains. The video runs about 3 minutes, and so it may take a minute to come up on your computer.

In mild disagreement with the comment on religion with which Mark ends his post, I’d point out that the ghat we used to climb down into the birth of the Ganges was constructed for sacred purposes, like the little rooms for pilgrims pictured in the video — though there are no signs warning off visitors with secular curiosities. Our position seemed to me analogous to that of one walking into a European cathedral while a service was in progress. If one wanted to examine Christopher Wren’s work on the rood screen, one would wait until the service was over, deferring to the building’s purpose.

Hinduism seems not to have services in the European sense; the Ganges is holy 24/7. So when the ghat on the Ganges is the church, and there are only individual acts of worship, it is a natural practice for priests to approach potential worshipers. And playing by Indian rules, it’s their ghat.

In Devprayag

Discovery of India

May 20th, 2008

I sat next to Mrs. Sukhwar on the train from New Delhi to Haridwar, and we spoke together in English. She has lived in Delhi for 50 years, though she was born in Lucknow, and she was on her way to Haridwar for the same reason we were: to join the Aarti ceremony in honor of Mother Ganga (see Immersion in Ritual, below). She explained to me that “Haridwar” means “door to God,” and that the holy sites and famous temples multiply as one travels north from Haridwar into the Himalayas.
“I cannot remember how many times I have bathed in Ganga,” she said, making the word “Ganga” a mother’s caress. Indeed, she has been to temples all over India in the past several years: as far south as Chennai, and to Benares and Allahabad and Amritsar, among other cities in the North.
“So you have been discovering India,” I said.
“Yes I have,” she said.
“That’s what we are doing,” I said.


May 13th, 2008

In 1889, Rudyard Kipling wrote to his friends in Allahabad that Londoners knew nothing of Life as it was lived, always in peril, in India. Amazingly, Londoners were shocked when an old man died in bed, his family round him. In India, they would see their friends “of thirty-five die at two days’ notice not once but twenty times” and “the young girl die within a fortnight of the wedding.” Only in India could one see what “death really means.”

Colonialists like Kipling distanced themselves from the Indian people with fear of contamination. A hundred years later, packing pills for Delhi and pondering the danger said to coil in a sip of Indian water, one glimpses the possibility.