Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jaws and Toes








On Saturday, my Internet is working, so I start the day with a Skype conversation with my Aunt Linda and my husband Scott. Scott has taken a picture of our fish tank and posted it on a blog about our pets for me. I tell him the picture is good. We talk about how surprisingly old our fish are, then Aunt Linda mentions that she once had a fish for well over ten years. I remember the giant goldfish: Jaws.

She says she would have had him longer, “but the dumb thing jumped right out of his tank” and when they found him, it was too late. Jaws had bailed once before, and their dog alerted them to this fact in time. The first time Jaws jumped out, my Aunt Linda went to the pet store and bought some netting to place over the top of the tank to prevent it from happening again. She asked the pet store owner why a fish would do something like that, and he said, “They’re just like people. We all wanna be someplace we’re not. We think it’s better over there.”

The salience of this conversation is not lost on me sitting in India talking to my family in Iowa and Chicago.

The second time Jaws jumped out, he jumped right through the netting. “He was just so strong.” This was the last attempt Jaws made to be some place he was not.

I have a quick breakfast, then Sonu arrives. I ask him to take me to the Lotus Temple before picking up Julianne and her friend Susie to sight see. I try to remember the lesson of the Buddhist stupa, and the lesson of Jaws: that I’m not going to the temple for something inside of it—I’m going for something inside of me; and there’s not necessarily something better than where you are at any given moment. I think of that plaque in the Lotus Temple:

Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of
heaven; yet though wouldst find no rest save in submission to our command and
humbleness before our face.


I’m not going to the Lotus Temple for something in the Lotus Temple, I repeat to myself.

I feel a little anxiety as we arrive because it takes a long time to get there, and I told Julianne we’d pick her up at 11. That’s why I wanted to leave at 9:30 instead of 10 o’clock, but after Sonu’s traffic rescue yesterday, how could I argue about half an hour?

Once we get inside the temple and I sit and close my eyes, it’s as though time doesn’t exist. I try to mark the feeling so I can conjure it whenever I’m running late, whenever I’m stressed. The absence of the racing heart. The peace. The wholeness. The embrace. It is here once again, but it must always be with me. I just need to find it.

A man walks up behind me and whispers to the woman he’s with, shattering the silence. “What is this?” he says, and the woman tries to shush him. In the Lotus Temple, no one’s supposed to speak at all. “What is this?” he insists again, refusing to quiet. “Are they just shitting?”

In Hindi, it seems that most every “s” is pronounced with an “sh,” so Hindi speakers of English will follow this same principle, turning their s’s into sh’s.

“Are they shitting?” he needs to know. Sitting is what you call Buddhist meditation.

“You can pray,” the woman tells him. “You can pray.” With this, he is satisfied and falls back into the silence.

I open my eyes and nod to Sonu who is waiting patiently for me. We can go—right after I copy down another quote: the one I was writing about the other day. The one about not being perturbed when your shower is cold, and not throwing a party when your shower is hot:

Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee,
grieve not. For both shall pass away and be no more.


On the way to Julianne’s, she calls Sonu’s cell phone. Are we having trouble finding her? No, we’re just running a little behind. This is good, she says, she can use the extra minutes.

We have to stop and ask directions a few times, but we finally find Julianne’s place. It’s more spacious than I expected. There are three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, and even a little, private courtyard with an empty fountain and a ping pong table.

Julianne wants to know if we can also pick up Susie. I met Susie the week before at the church service I attended with Julianne. She has been here almost two years. She’s working for a consulting service that helps to train Indian employees working for American companies. Before that, she did one of those “teach English abroad” programs. She is bold—doing all this on her own with no fanfare.

Julianne says Susie’s place is just ten minutes away, but it takes Sonu almost an hour to get there. Instead of driving through the circle, Julianne says, Sonu circumnavigated almost the entire city. It’s okay. We get a good tour.

“I could have told him where to turn,” Julianne says, “but I thought he might have known a different way.”

No matter. We pick up Susie and we’re off to Qutub Minar—another ruin. Qutub Minar, says Wikipedia, “is the tallest brick minaret in the world and an important example of Indo-Islamic architecture.” It’s essential to either take a guidebook with you or do your research on these sites before you get to them, because there’s very little information posted or available as to what these places are or why they’re significant. And the locals and the guides will make up stories about them to impress you.

The tower was begun by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, in 1193. There’s a lack of clarity over the purpose of the tower, but people think it was either built as a watchtower, or to call people to prayer, or to symbolize newfound Muslim dominance in the region. Supposedly, there were 27 Hindu and Jain temples in the area and they were demolished, and the rubble was used to build the complex of buildings that still stand (at least partially) today. As with all these sites, there is a mosque, some tombs (unmarked and seemingly uninvestigated), and a fortress wall. This site also has an early school—a college or madrassa. I think I read somewhere that over 110 people are buried here, but, then again, you can’t always believe the signs.

Susie and Julianne and I attract a lot of attention as we walk around the ruins, being three white girls. We find ourselves in the background of many family photos and videos. We take our own pictures too.

We’re only there for a few minutes when Susie climbs up onto a pillar for a snap. Julianne uses Susie’s camera to take the picture so Susie can have a picture of herself at Qutub Minar. She smiles, then hops off the pillar’s stump, but she doesn’t nail the landing. Instead, she falls forward onto her left knee. It doesn’t look like any big deal, but when she gets up, there is a hole in her pants, and when I see her toe, I’m filled with a slow dread. It is beading up with blood. Her big toe nail bent backwards and came off. It even looks like part of her toe is missing. What’s worse is you can’t wash wounds with tap water here because they can become dangerously infected from the bacteria in the water.

I imagine myself in Susie’s position totally panicking, but Susie is nonplussed.

I think our day of tourism has come to a quick close, but Susie says she’s fine. She pours a little water from her bottle onto the toe and insists on limping along to see the rest of the site. We trade cameras and take each other’s photos, all the while she is missing part of her toe. “In the United States,” I tell her, “you’re what we would call ‘a trooper.’”

When we get back to the car, we tell Sonu what happened and show him Susie’s toe. He gasps. We ask if we can stop at a chemist’s (a drug store) before going to the next site we planned to visit: Humayun’s Tomb. We drive to the nearest market, then pull in. Susie hops out of the car and walks into the chemist’s hoping for supplies with which to clean her wound. Sonu watches her go, then gets out of the car and follows her in. He wants to make sure she can find what she needs.

They emerge, and Susie has a bagful of first aid: cotton and gauze and medical tape and, the most special supply: beta-dine, a creepy red syrup that she can rinse her toe with instead of using water. Susie reveals that her mother is a nurse and would be proud.

In the parking lot of Humayun’s Tomb, Susie sits and dresses her wound while a collection of fifteen Indian men crowd around to watch. We laugh and take pictures to document the process. Snaps are really so much fun.

She finishes and we tell Sonu we’ll meet him back at the car in an hour or so. At the admission gate, the standard fees are posted: 10 rupees for Indian citizens, 250 rupees for foreigners. How do they know you are a foreigner? By looking at you.

Amar said they had a visitor here from the United States whom they took out to some of these sites and, since she was of South American descent, she had darker skin. They tried to sneak her in at the lower Indian admission price and it worked… until the guard said something in Hindi to her and wanted an answer. She was sent back to pay the foreigner’s admission.

Not only do we have to pay more, we have to pay in exact change because almost no one in India will give you change. Sometimes they just don’t have change, sometimes they are hoarding it because it’s so hard to come by (like at the grocery store I went to last night). I don’t understand this phenomenon, but it’s getting a little old. We have to pitch in and loan money to Julianne because the woman at the gate can’t break a 500 rupee bill.

Susie tells us a little about Humayun’s Tomb. She’s been here before. The Taj Mahal was patterned after its architecture, only built to be six times the scale. Humayun’s Tomb is a huge structure. I can’t imagine something six times its size. In addition to the tomb, there are the requisite other structures: fortress walls, a mosque and other entombments. “His barber and his jeweler have their own tombs somewhere here,” Susie says. “And so do his two wives: one from an arranged marriage, one from a love marriage.” As the story goes, in 1556, Humayun was descending a staircase at the Red Fort when he heard the muezzin, the Muslim call to prayer. He tried to kneel to observe the moment, but his foot got caught in his robe. He fell down the stairs to his death.

Geez, I think. This red sandstone must be really dangerous. It’s lucky Susie only lost part of her toe.

According to Wikipedia, Humayun, the second Mughal emperor of India, lost his Indian territories to an Afghan sultan and, with Persian aid, regained them fifteen years later. Having spent the intervening years in Persia, he brought with him a considerable influence of Persian art, architecture, language and literature. He is partly to thank for the grand style known so well in the arches and domes of the Taj.

We walk around the grounds of the tomb which is kept up quite well. Even some of the fountains are functioning. There is a huge team of workers pounding at large red tiles. Susie and Julianne think this would be a good place for a date, though they seem to be talking about it only in conceptual terms. Neither of them are talking about a date that they would bring here. I marvel at how these two are so absolutely fine with being by themselves in a country that is so different than their own, how they are so used to being the only white person in sight, how they are so happy so far away from their families for so long a period of time. They must know love without attachment, I think. They seem to be happily without that possessive part of a relationship wherein you have to “have” the other person to feel like you’re not alone.

There is an outbuilding that houses a fountain. Julianne and I climb up to it and walk inside while Susie waits at ground level for us—and I don’t blame her. This is where the well is that supplies the fountains on the grounds. I splash my hand into the stream of water. A loud rumbling ensues and the water seems to stop running. I picture a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where you touch something you weren’t supposed to touch and the whole temple begins crumbling around you. I expect a large rock to roll at me from out of nowhere. Julianne and I look at each other for a frightful second then burst into laughter. “I angered the fountain god,” I laugh.

In this building a white dog lays on her side. She wags her tail when she sees us. I try to pet her but she runs away frightened, then approaches me again, tail wagging. I hold out my hand, but she runs away again.

“You must miss your dog,” Julianne says.

Yes, I do. And I feel bad because you can’t really explain to a dog that you’re leaving for three months because you have the opportunity of a lifetime and you’ll be back soon and you love them. All your dog knows is that you’re gone.

We wander back towards the car.

“Is your power on?” Julianne asks Susie. It is. There was, apparently, some confusion about Susie not paying for her electricity even though she’d never received a bill. A man showed up at her door threatening to disconnect her service. But this is nothing compared to the time when she lost water for eight days. Again, she describes the situation with little fanfare, as though it were no big deal.

“Eight days!” I exclaim.

“Yeah,” she says, “I showered at my friend’s house.”

I’m beginning to feel like my place is pretty posh after all.

We ask Sonu to drop us off at the Defense Colony market so we can eat at Sagar’s. Sonu is concerned: it’s very early and we have very much time left. I have him for eight hours on Saturdays, and we haven’t used the full eight hours. But Julianne and Susie need to go. They have evening plans. I tell him I’ll see him on Monday at 8:30.

“Okay madam,” he smiles.

We eat dinner then part ways; Julianne and Susie hail auto-rickshaws and I walk back to my guest house. After all the commotion and fun of the day, I suddenly feel very alone. I talk to my husband for an hour on Skype (thankfully my Internet connection is working). He says he’s going to go get ready for the day, and I can barely keep myself from full-on weeping. It’s okay, he says. He can talk to me some more. But I’m unsettled and it feels like no amount of talking will fix it. I am my Aunt Linda's fish, Jaws. I've jumped out of my tank and I'm gasping for air. Scott wants to help, but he can't, and neither can Sonu or Susie or Julianne, because what I need is not talking. It’s peace. It’s that feeling of wholeness that is still fleeting. I want to know how to get there, but then think of a poster I saw in a market on the drive to Susie's apartment, "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way." I'm confused, and I ache again, but this must be natural, like waves. It’s been the same getting used to the drastically different culture here. Sometimes I’m excited about the Indian food and all the new tastes I get to experience; sometimes even the thought of one more dal or curry dish turns my stomach.

This is what people mean when they say two weeks isn’t enough to really experience a place. It’s not enough to experience a person either, even when that person is the self.

I have a lot of learning to do in the next three months--and isn't it so hackneyed to come to India to find yourself, I think. But things are hackneyed for a reason, and it's because they started out being true. When you jump out of your fishtank and you land here, you are challenged. You've got to find new ways of breathing, of swimming. And for that, you need strength and patience and buoyancy. And for that, you need to rely on yourself in ways you've never done before.

So maybe it's a tired story, but this time it's mine.

1 comment:

Shahana said...

You really have very nice tour. I wish I could go with you all.