Penultimate Pune

Before the sun rises the streets of Pune are deserted. A few packs of dogs are scavenging and then frantic barking as a skirmish for turf unfolds. Further on, when I get to the cycle path, a woman is walking a fat black Labrador retriever. Last week, four huts appeared where the path remains unbroken dirt, and the women are already awake, carrying water back to the morning fire. Their clothes are drying on the fence. Small children and men still sleep underneath their blankets next to the trail.

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Higher up, on the Hanuman ridgeline, families are slowly ascending to the temple. Families are close here in India, much more so than in the US. For many people in the US it would be hard to imagine living with your parents as an adult, or having three generations living in the same house. And yet this family arrangement is normal in India. It would be hard to imagine having your parents take an active role in arranging your marriage, to take another example. And yet arranged marriages, from what our closest friends here tell us, work as well or better than the customs of love marriage-those conceptions that structure our sense of what love is, and what a relationship might be. As I cross the high point of Hanuman hill, families are saying prayers together. A few others are taking in the view or exercising. There are dogs, too, and a father and son watering trees above the green grounds of the Ambedkar museum.

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The sun has crested the horizon and seems to hang motionless in the grey early morning smoke. I drop down and cross a deserted Senapati Bapat road. I then climb again, up the narrow trail and then along the rocky ridge to just below Vetal Tekdi. I’m up early, thanks to N, who climbed out of bed at 5:30 to pee and then stood by the window listening to the birds outside the open window. “It is beautiful this morning, Daddy,” he said, as he crawled back into bed and shut his eyes. And he is right, as the songbirds are bringing in the day. Up here on the tekdi, black and coffee brown Greater Coucals are everywhere. The familiar domed head of Large-Billed Crows greet me further on as flights of green parakeets skim the top of trees. In the broad valley the showy orange blossoms of gulmohur trees are fading. Then the cry of a peacock rises out of the trees below the trail.

I get to the ridge a bit past six. There are small groups of older men watering trees and more families together on their early Saturday morning walks. A namaskar here and a namaskar there as I make my way through to the trail that runs out the ridge to Chaturshringi. There are fewer people on this narrower part of the trail. I notice that the tamarind and peepal and acacia are greener every day. I’ve been feeling as if we are going to miss something, leaving before the monsoons, and indeed we will. I am surprised to see a Kingfisher, too, watching me warily from a broken branch that hangs over the trail.

After about forty-five minutes, as usual, the mind has dissolved into the meditative movements of the body as it finds its way effortlessly over uneven ground. I’ve realized these past few months, living in a culture infused with religion and spiritual practice, that my spiritual life will be forever grounded in the natural world. The oceans and mountains and rivers that have shaped my life, and that sustain my spirit, will always be my temple. Hindu shrines will be swept clean every day by loving devotees. I would sweep clean the open hillsides and forests and trail edges and mix my sweat with dirt.  I realize, too, that much of my concern with the rampant and at times unapologetic destruction of the natural world here in India emanates from my own sense of sacred nature. 

The place of nature in the life of the Indian people, the culture of the Indian family, the relation between men and women across class and caste, the social history and contemporary structure of institutions, the relations among people with different faiths–these are just some of the areas where one finds the idiosyncrasies of history and the contradictions of a culture in transition. The other day I read Sudhir Kakar’s account (and analysis) of the 1990 Hindu-Muslim riots in Hyderabad in his book The Colours of Violence. I had also recently read about the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. The Hindu activists who tore down the mosque, the implication of party leaders in the unrest, and the horrific violence that followed in cites across India were unsettling to say the least.

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Kakar lays out the differing versions of the past that underlie the religious identities of Hindus and Muslims, especially at those moments when these powerful collective memories lead to violent confrontation. As he puts it, “the Hindu-Muslim rift appears as much a consequence of a collision between two collective narcissisms, between two equally grandiose group selves, each convinced of its civilizational superiority, as of differences in matters of faith.” Kakar’s The Colours of Violence, along with his study of the relations of the sexes in India, Intimate Relations, have been terribly useful for me as I seek to understand the passionate professions of faith and the uneasy relations between Hindus and Muslims that we first encountered in Delhi and Agra this past December, and have experienced again here in Maharashatra as the collective narcissism of the Marathis is used to incite violence against north Indians.

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Turning above Chaturshringi for the long ridge run back home the sun is suddenly hotter. The air is thick and smoky this morning, the visibility only a few kilometers at most. I pick up the pace along the top of Law College hill and then drop down the rocky slope to the cricket field where I jump the wall and run almost the length of Prabhat road. As I run across piles of gravel and around stacked sewer pipes I am beginning to feel a change in my focus. I’m thinking about leaving for Karnataka next week, the handful of days we have back here, the Fulbright gathering in Chandigarh, and then our long-planned time in Ladakh. Later, as I walk the kids to the law school, we talk about the fact that we are leaving Pune. A penultimate moment, we agree, as our thoughts are already moving ahead, tapping at the same time a palpable longing for home.


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