Tuesday, July 29, 2008

All You Need Is... a deep wish for the well-being of others

Saturday morning I feel beat. It’s 9:30—later than I’ve slept the whole time I’ve been here.

I roll out of bed and notice a pain in the back of my left knee. It looks like a scratch, as far as I can see. Try looking at the back of your knee. It’s not easy—even if you do practice yoga. I don’t remember scratching my leg on anything, but it was quite an evening. I can imagine having scratched myself and not realizing it at the time.

Sonu arrives promptly at ten o’clock. The problem is that the technician from the hotel who has come to check out my wireless issues also arrives promptly at ten o’clock. And I’ve just gotten up anyway, and I’m shuffling around in a bit of a stress hangover.

I tell Sonu, “One hour, okay?” He hangs out downstairs with the guard at the gate while the tech works on my computer and I get ready for the day.

The tech runs a few diagnostics, then says there is a problem with the router. He tells me he’ll go downstairs and fix it, and I should have no further problems with the Internet. He turns out to be right—at least for the time being.

Downstairs I ask Sonu if he knows where Dilli Haat is. It’s a “somewhat contrived open air market” according to my guidebook, but all the locals (and the expats I’m hanging out with) tell me I should go there. They have crafts from all over India. Can Sonu find it?

“Yes madam,” he tells me. “Dilli Haat.” We pull away and Punjabi music fills the car. One of Sonu’s favorite songs these days is “Rambo Rambo.” The song is half in Hindi, half in English and some of the words I can make out include, “Like Sly Stallone I’m bringing the pain. The only difference is I got a Singh in my name.” I like Sonu’s music not just because of culturally mashed up oddities like this, but also because it’s just good music. I tell him he has to show me where I can buy some before I leave.

Then for some reason I tell him there’s a lizard in my room. I wonder how he will react to this news since he tends to be protective of me. I hope he doesn’t think the lizard upsets me.

“You like?” he says. “I like.”

Sonu and me. Compatriots. “Yes, I like them a lot,” I say. “They’re cute.”

“Cute,” he says, then laughs—either at me or at the thought of a cute lizard. I’m not sure which.

Shortly thereafter, we pull up to Dilli Haat. Sonu gets out of the car and points the way. “I stay?” he asks. I think he doesn’t want to go shopping with me. Especially without his phone to take snaps.

“It’s fine,” I say. I walk through a metal detector and a man behind a table says “Tikka,” which means okay, but he’s also motioning for me to stop. “Tikka,” he says, “Tikka,” and points. I’m confused.

“English?” I say. The man points me to another man who is sitting beside him.

“Tickets,” this second man says.

“Oh, tickets! Not tikka,” I feel like a dufus.

I walk to the front of the adjacent brick building and purchase a ticket for fifteen rupees. I return to the guards, laughing. “Tickets!” I say. And they laugh back. “Acha,” I say. Good.

Inside I realize what the guidebook meant by contrived. There is no garbage or rubble here. There are no men peeing. There are no scurvy lemonade stands. This market is maintained for tourists, but because it’s so nice, locals like to come here too.

I also find that the prices seem a little more fair and a little less prone to wild fluctuation. Shoes will cost you about 250 rupees unless you get the really fancy ones with lots of stitching. Jewelry is about 150 rupees. The blouses are around 300 rupees. There’s not such an exorbitant white tax here, which is a relief, as is the lack of the pushing, surging crowd you have to constantly battle in the regular markets. If it wasn’t 100 plus degrees, this would be downright nice.

You can still bargain a bit, and the shopkeepers still kiss the money you give them and bow their heads if you are their first customer. It’s not like this market is some kind of frosted flake commercial franchise. It just isn’t a daily market that is part of a neighborhood. It’s strictly souvenir-type goods.

I buy my sister-in-law some great bracelets. I buy my niece a cute little change purse (even though she can’t have change yet because she’ll eat it. It can wait.) I buy myself a pair of shoes and am convinced by the vendor to buy one more pair for good measure. His wife made them, you know. I get some kurtas and a suit I can wear to the Macroeconomics book launch next Saturday. The woman who designed the suit (and all the beautiful clothes in her booth) sells it to me. Here you can see the designers and craftspeople sitting in the booths making the amazing things they are selling. Dilli Haat is a real kick. I’ll have to stay away lest I fill my suitcase to bursting and have to leave behind my treasures or ship them home at ungodly prices.

I walk back to the car with my many bags. “I bought too much, Sonu,” I say, and he smiles.

“Where next, ma’am?” he asks.

“There’s an art museum by India Gate,” I tell him. “Can we go there?”

“Yes ma’am,” he says, and we pull out of the market, Punjabi music playing as it always is in Sonu’s car.

We near India Gate and Sonu starts speaking a bit excitedly. “Madam? India Gate?” He says a lot more that I can’t quite make out. Sometimes Sonu’s English confuses me, but he always seems to be able to understand me pretty well. I finally make out that he’s asking if I want to walk around India Gate. “Sure,” I tell him. I hadn’t really walked around it the first time I saw it. I just kind of popped out of the car, took a snap, and popped back in.

Sonu parks across the street and is careful to make sure I cross when he does. In addition to my driver, he is my trusty crossing guard. The heat is searing, so our pace is leisurely. Vendors approach, “Madam! Madam!” They have little airplanes that slingshot into the air, and bobble-headed dogs, and balloons. There is a Mother Dairy ice cream stand. Mother Dairy sounded gross to me when I first got here. I don’t really want to associate my dairy products with mothering (i.e. breastfeeding), but now I’m used to this ubiquitous brand.

“Sonu,” I ask, “did you get a new cell phone?”

“No madam. There is a money problem. Wait until next month. Next month cell phone,” he says.

I wonder how much a new cell phone costs here. I consider offering to take him to a cell phone store and buying one for him, but I think that might be crossing a line. Without a cell phone, I wonder how he talks to his wife and kids who are seven or eight hours away in Punjab. I know from my first day or two in India when I couldn’t even figure out the hotel’s phone how much being incommunicado with your family hurts.

I feel like an idiot for parading around and laughing about all my crap from the market when Sonu has to wait until next month to talk to his family. I don’t know why he isn’t completely annoyed by me. I think I would be if I were in his position. I think I will slip him a little extra money in his tips, and maybe that will help.

After we walk around India Gate, I ask Sonu about the museum again. There is a museum of modern art somewhere off the circular drive around the India Gate structure. Sonu doesn’t know where this is. He knows where the National Museum is, though.

We’ll go there, then.

I’m afraid I’ll be a bit bored at the National Museum, but it turns out to be fascinating: full of beautiful, ancient carvings of Hindu gods and Buddhas, and impressively refined Mughul miniature paintings in which the faces seem to have been painted with one hair of a brush.

They charge Indians ten rupees to get in and foreigners have to pay 300. If you want to take pictures, you have to pay an additional 300 rupees. I don’t pay admission for my camera and kind of regret it. The sculptures are beautiful, and I’d like to take some record of them home with me.

I get an audio tour for my three hundred rupees, and it’s actually pretty good. It tells me about a sculpture of Ganesh, the elephant god. Ganesh is the oldest son of Vishnu, the sustainer, part of the trilogy of gods I learned about before I came. Hindu gods have families, wives and children, and that’s where part of my confusion has been coming from, I discover. The gods aren’t necessarily willy nilly, at least Ganesh isn’t. He fits within the trilogy as a family relation.

Ganesh is good luck, the man selling baubles at the market outside the Red Fort said. Ganesh is the most intelligent god, my audio guide adds. He is celebrated as the remover of obstacles.

The audio tour then tells a story. Ganesh’s parents, Vishnu and Lakshmi, posed a challenge to their sons. Whoever would be the first to circle the universe would win. His brothers took off, but Ganesh simply walked a circle around his divine parents and, in doing so, won the contest.

I later try to check the particulars of this story online, but find when I visit Wikipedia that Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati—at least according to Wikipedia, he is. Did I remember the story wrong from the museum, or is there a conflict here? An error?

India is famous for getting tourist information wrong, or making it up. At the Old Fort, for instance, there’s a plaque touting it as the ancient site of the Indraprasthan civilization—even though there’s absolutely no evidence of this.

Is my audio guide another case of bad information? Or is this a case of conflicting “truths” in Hinduism? Do some people think Ganesh is Shiva’s son, while others think he is Vishnu’s?

Just when I think I’m making some sense out of Hinduism, it all gets muddy again.

I walk past a Mughul miniature painting entitled, “Drunkard and faithful wife,” dated 1740. In it, a man lays passed out on a cot and a woman fawns over him. It looks to me like an early Saturday Evening Post cover, everything bathed in a soft light. Like the scene is supposed to be quaint. It still strikes me as strange subject matter. The rest of these miniatures are scenes of royal weddings and king’s courts. But not this one: a drunk guy and his faithful wife. Hank Williams could write a song about this one.

Another interesting stop on the audio tour is a series of illustrations of the Gita Govinda, a hot love poem that tells the story of the romance between the lord Krishna and the goddess Radha wherein they incarnate as a cowherd and a milkmaid. Hot.

Krishna, I learn here, is said to be the ninth incarnation of Vishnu, who is also called Narayana. So gods have different names and multiple incarnations in addition to whole families. So this explains a little more of the multiplicity I’ve seen here in the temples.

The audio guide tells me that this love story between Krishna and Radha is an allegory about the love between god and man. Coming from a tradition in which the model of love between God and man is paternal (God the Father), I find this interesting and somewhat disorienting. The notion of romantic love and the notion of divinity couldn’t be farther apart in my head. How could these two things possibly go together? Romantic love is dirty and sinful, isn’t it? Sex is bad, but we must endure it under special circumstances (i.e. marriage) because it’s our duty to maintain the human race. We can’t get romantic with God.

I finish looking at the sculptures and decide to forego the other open exhibits (many are closed for repairs). There’s an Indian navy exhibition and one of Indian coins that I’m sure my dad would like, but he’s not with me, and they wouldn’t photograph well as they’re all under glass.

On my way out, I decide to sneak a few snaps. What could they do? Kick me out? Make me pay the stinking 300 rupees? I decide to play stupid like I didn’t see the sign if anyone catches me. But no one says anything, and I come away with a few stolen photos.

After the museum I tell Sonu we need to go back to Defence Colony. I have to make a few phone calls. I’m supposed to meet Susie for dinner and I was going to see a movie with Amar. I get hold of Susie. She’ll meet me in the Defence Colony market at 7 p.m. I’m glad because I can’t stand the thought of another rickshaw ride home alone from Malviya Nagar where she lives.

I walk back out to the car thinking it would be nice to walk around Lodhi Gardens, but it’s threatening rain. I need another plan.

“Sonu, let’s go to the Lotus Temple,” I say, and he points the car in that direction and pops in another CD as the rain washes down around us.

Because the sewer system is so inadequate here, when it rains, the streets quickly fill up with water. Parking at the temple is difficult. I tell Sonu maybe we should turn around, but he guns it through a big mess of muddy water.

We get out our umbrellas and walk down the manicured path to the shoe check and the entrance. As always, Sonu takes my shoes for me and takes care of the little token that will get us our shoes back when we are done.

Inside we sit in silence. I close my eyes and think about the paintings of the Gita Govinda. I think about love, how the concept of romantic love is so very different from the concept of paternal love. Is it even the same thing? What do we mean when we say love? What do I mean when I say it? And, finally, what is love? We say it all the time. We sing about it. But what is it? What is love?

The question floats through the air of the temple and hangs there for a while. What is love? How can I not know? But I don’t. I can’t nail it down, put my finger on it, say it in ten words or less. It’s too big to define, too nebulous. But that’s a cop out. That’s an easy way out.

What is love?

More silence. A bird cries. The sound of clothes rustling. Then, I get an answer.

“It’s a deep wish for the well-being of another.”

Who said that? Was that me? This question/answer thing is getting weird. I think this answer came from me, but I want to argue with it. It’s too simple. Love has to be more complicated than that. I want a better answer. So I put the question out there again.

What is love?

This time I get something more like, “I already told you. It’s a deep wish for the well-being of another. Before you decide you don’t like the answer, think about it for a while, would you?”

I oblige this voice-from-wherever. I think about it for a while. Then I make a deep wish for the well-being of my husband. Then my mother. Then my niece. Then I tear up.

As comes naturally to me in the Lotus Temple, I then ask why. Why am I crying? Because I can wish all I want for the well-being of these people, but I can’t do a thing to ensure it. My niece could fall and skin her knee. My mom could get sick. I am powerless, especially all the way in India.

I get a little mad. I tell my voice it must be wrong. This can’t be love; it’s making me sad and frustrated. But my voice straightens me out. It’s not about achieving the well-being of others, it’s about thinking of them before or instead of or more than thinking about yourself: a deep wish for the well-being of others—as opposed to the self.

Do you get it yet?

Yes, I think so.

Good. Maybe we’ll do more next time, then.

Okay, I say, then just sit there in peace with a still mind, wishing for the well-being of those who I love. “Wait a minute,” I say. “What about all the different kinds of love?”

You have different kinds of relationships, my voice says, not different kinds of love. Love is love.

I open my eyes and nod to Sonu who is sitting patiently beside me. We can leave, though I could probably sit here all night.

Outside the rain has all but stopped and it feels cool for the first time since I’ve been in India.

“Ooo. Nice,” Sonu says.

I agree.

We pause, and I look at the aqua pools of water that surround the ground level of the temple. I feel like the water: serene, unperturbed, a world away from the anxiety hangover with which I began the day. I tear up again but this time it’s from happiness or beauty or peace.

I follow Sonu down to the shoe check, and we are on our way home with our soundtrack of Punjabi music.

We pull up to Defence Colony and before I get out of the car Sonu says, “Ma’am, you and I have the same problem.”

“What’s that, Sonu?” I ask.

“Your husband too far. My wife too far. Seven month,” he says.

“We do,” I tell him. “It sucks.” (I’ve asked him if he knows what this means before, and he’s assured me he does). I so want to buy him a cell phone. I so have a deep wish for his well-being, and I know he has the same wish for mine by the way he has helped me through my first weeks in India.

“Have a good night, Sonu.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good night.”


SRWRay said...

Hey Vicki,

I've been living your adventure vicariously thanks to this blog. Please keep up the wonderful descriptions!

After tagging along on your trip to the museum I feel like I should mention that Christianity does use the model of marriage and romantic love (Christ as bridegroom) as well as the model of paternal love (God the father).

I haven't read the Krishna - Radha story, at least not recently, but parts of the old testament are pretty hot. They just don't tend to cover those pieces in Sunday School. ;)

Vicki said...

Interesting, Miz Ray. Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to do a little more learnin' about Christianity while I'm on my religious expedition =)