Politics & Policy

Notes on India, Part V

Hope you had a wonderful weekend. And here are the links to the previous installments of this Indian journal: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV. Get started? Restarted?

Previously, I mentioned the Jain temple at Ranakpur, Rajasthan. And this is a wondrous thing. Honestly, it is one of the best sights I have ever laid my eyes on. It is beautiful, majestic, and peaceful at the same time — a rare artistic and spiritual achievement. I see it at twilight, which must work to its advantage. (Not that it needs an advantage.) Seldom have I been to a place that breathes such a spirituality. It is heavenly, actually, this spot.

The temple was built in 1439. And that is a humbling thought, for the Eurocentrist (as we used to say). (Do we still?) What was Europe doing, of lasting impressiveness, in 1439? (I’m sure we could come up with a list, with thought.)

And how interesting that such an ascetic and self-denying sect should have built something so glorious and huge and magnificent — a cathedral! Think of this: Some Jains do not allow themselves mere clothes! But their answer, I feel sure, would be as follows: This is in honor of God, not of self. Therefore, make it as glorious and magnificent and wonderful as possible.

Anyway . . .

‐I might mention that I’m in and out of many, many temples while in India. Of course, you take your shoes off before you enter, as you do before entering homes. And I have a thought about the outside of temples: An excellent place for a shoe thief. Or a shoe fetishist, I suppose . . .

‐Along the road are sort of hostel places (no, I did not say hostile). You can eat there, and you can sleep there. They don’t look like your familiar HoJo. They look — pretty bare bones, basic, not to say crude. There are these netted cots, on which men eat, cross-legged. I could never get into that position. And if I did, I could never get out of it. But these men are amazingly limber, the bastards.

‐There is something that takes a little getting used to, if you’re a foreigner. I am speaking now about the presence of the swastika. Being a Hindu symbol, it is everywhere. For example, you’ll find it on the thresholds of homes — they are present in the gracious homes in which I stay. Also, there’s a hotel in Jaisalmer called the Hotel Swastika. I wonder whether European tourists are repelled by it — or, worse, attracted to it.

Indians of sensibility greatly resent that the swastika was taken by the Nazi party and twisted — literally, physically twisted. I say: At least the Germans did the Indians the favor of altering it, somewhat.

‐On the subject of hotels, I see a hotel in Bharuch called the Hotel Shital. I’m thinking: If they ever think about branching out into English-speaking countries (I mean, thoroughly English-speaking countries) — consider a discreet name change.

‐Do you know about the temple of the rats? That is not its official name, of course. Its official name is the Karni Mata Temple, and it is in Deshnok, Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Let me do a little quoting from Lonely Planet’s Rajasthan:

The Karni Mata Temple . . . is one of India’s more challenging temples for Westerners — its resident mass of holy rodents isn’t for the squeamish. . . .

The temple is an important place of pilgrimage; pilgrims are disgorged from buses every few minutes. Once at the village, they buy prasad (holy food offerings) in the form of sugar balls to feed to the rats. Eating prasad covered in holy rat saliva is also claimed by believers to bring good fortune, although most travellers are willing to take their word for it. [That’s one of the better lines in the guide.] . . .

It’s considered highly auspicious to have a kaba [rat] run across your feet — you’ll probably find you’ll be inadvertently graced in this manner whether you want it or not. . . .

The temple is an important pilgrimage site, and what may seem unusual to Western eyes is devoutly believed by pilgrims — remember that this isn’t a sideshow but a place of worship.

So very true. The pilgrims around me are very moved to be in this temple, with the rats running riot. (There are nets strung above our heads, to keep predatory birds from picking off the rats.) The pilgrims are filled with fervor. And it is a strange, strange experience, to be in a temple overrun by rats — to feel the little things tripping over your toes.

Earlier in this journal, I spoke of travel that seems not-so-foreign — e.g., looking at Big Ben, climbing the Parthenon — and travel that makes you think: “Yes, I’m not in Kansas anymore.” A visit to Karni Mata is definitely in the latter category.

‐In the course of our bopping around India, we hear a dog not barking. People don’t smoke. That’s kind of weird. Everywhere else I’ve been in the Third World (if you’ll pardon the expression), people have smoked like fiends. Same in many parts of Europe. Plus, smoking has always been called the pleasure of the poor. But in two weeks in India, traveling hither and yon, I see very few people who smoke. Why does this come to my notice? Because, every now and again, I see someone smoke — and I’m struck by how rare it is.

‐But you know what there’s a lot of? Spitting. This is very much a spitting nation. Spitting, spitting. Hocking, hocking. When I walk through a city, town, or village in the morning, as people are preparing for the day, I hear loads of hocking — thunderous choruses of hocking. This is particularly bad one morning in Jaisalmer. That and the open sewage make the walk — not the pleasantest.

‐Along the road in Rajasthan, we encounter some really old-style living: huts. Huts of cow dung. It is almost as primitive as life can get — in a country of high-tech centers, and Bollywood, and so on. Time might have stopped, eons ago.

Of course, as a Westerner, I very much enjoy seeing this. I count it a rare privilege. I feel like I’m Bronislaw Malinowski or something. But how do they — the people — feel? That’s all that matters, or what matters most, really. I am not one of those romantics about the Third World who want it to be a kind of living museum for the rest of us.

‐A word about the weather, that hoariest of topics? Speaking of frost: On our windshield one morning, in the Thal Desert, near Jaisalmer, there is a quarter inch of frost. And in our tents the night before, we froze our tushes off. India is supposed to be super-hot. And it is. But it can also be super-cold (as Kashmiris are best equipped to tell you).

But, as I’ve mentioned before, Indians have their own concept of hot and cold. One day, the temperature in Jodhpur is about 74 degrees. I have on a short-sleeve shirt. Our guide for the day (Jodhpuri) has a fairly heavy coat, a hat — and a scarf. The scarf never leaves his neck, except inside. He and I look like we don’t belong in the same place on the same day.

‐Above, I mentioned a hotel in Bharuch. I also take notice of a bank. It is the Axis Bank. I’m thinking: Does that mean Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, or Saddam, Ahmadinejad, and Kim?

‐In a hotel in Jodhpur, I take the backstairs, being somewhat confused. It is a place for employees. And I see an admonition — a declaration — painted on the wall: “You are responsible for your behaviour.” I think: How un-American. Completely unlike modern America, where you are never responsible for your behavior: Someone else is. You know, the government, George Bush, Enron, “society,” your doctor, your mother, your father, asbestos — The Man.

“You are responsible for your behaviour.” What a shocking concept, alien to my own country, at least as I have known it.

‐You know what’s really good in India? I mean, besides the dals and dosas and so on? Minute Maid’s Pulpy Orange drink, sold in plastic bottles. Why don’t we have that? Or do we?

‐India is a musical country, and there is music everywhere — from TVs and radios, from loudspeakers on trucks. I hear it in village squares, especially when marriages are celebrated — and they are very frequently celebrated. This is a populous country, and one to which marriage is central.

Anyway, I don’t believe I hear gazals and ragas and other forms of music I expect. But do you know what I hear a lot? “Frère Jacques.” I hear it in three different cities, played by three different ensembles. It must be a thing here — a fad, a fixture. Something. I hear it both played and sung. They need some help with pronunciation — for instance, they say “matinés,” instead of “matines.” But I stay out of it (for once).

And that’ll do it for this installment, I think. See you tomorrow for Part VI? Good, then . . .

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