Signs of India (5)

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Let it Flow

Last week I found myself reading Pascal Richet’s A Natural History of Time-a book I’ve been carrying around since December. Richet is interested (I am interested) in how the study of nature has shaped perceptions of time and of durations of time from antiquity to the present. I’ve been thinking about cycles and linear trajectories, eternity and beginnings, chronology and history, hours and days and months and years; Aristotle, the Book of Moses, Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo; and the emergence of geological durations, the rise of physics and astrophysics, and the discovery of isotopes and radiometrics.

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At the same time we are once again complaining about Indians and their sense of time. Of course complaining that Indians are chronically late is merely to express, as many have pointed out, a culturally-determined concept of time. In the US we waste time, buy time, save hours and minutes, invest time, run out of time, put aside time, thank people for their time and, of course, we all live on borrowed time. It is simply rude to waste my time. Every moment matters-or so we like to say.

We schedule our time with calendars and day books. We obsess about having more time. Creatures of modern life, we live the faster pace determined by people living the quick in vibrant city ecologies organized around the economics of efficiency. That is, we consider our time as currency that we have the right to own and to use as we see fit. To be late is a waste. It is antisocial. It is positively un-American. Unabashed individualists, we value individual achievement over interpersonal affiliation. Progress and success predicated on promptness and punctuality. “Push the River,” as the singer Ann Reed puts it.

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Our complaints about Indians being late may then say more about us-about our individualistic concept of punctuality struggling to find a place in a culture that values relationships over the individual,  a culture where people live multiple lives (why hurry?). Indeed, is it not pernicious to demand that people in a developing country conform to the standards of a post-industrial information economy? How can people be on time when there are no reliable roads or transportation? Why should we demand that our Indian friends focus less on relationships and more on the individual?  And so on.

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Still, our work in colleges and universities in India has been complicated (and at times compromised) by the laissez-faire approach to time. To take just a few examples: functions at the university and college predictably start late; students arrive for a morning class scheduled at nine between nine fifteen and nine thirty; a lecture scheduled for ten begins at eleven; a multi-day conference schedule is at least one session behind at the end of the first day; public events have more elaborate protocols, including taking tea, recognizing distinguished guests, felicitations on the dais, and so on; and scheduled meetings are regularly put off, delayed, or do not happen at all. Finally, there are multiple layers of actors in any task that needs to be done. Hierarchies of Indian society are magnified in an institutional context, where getting a cup of tea, a photocopy, or change for a five hundred rupee note will often require an extended wait as one person gets another person to get another person to do the job. It is all, as we like to say, terribly inefficient and a regrettable waste of time.

Among the many explanations for Indian stretchable time are dwelling in the present as opposed to looking ahead to the future; valuing social relationships as opposed to individual achievement; cultivating relationships and trust over getting to the start of a meeting on time, for example taking tea and letting all else fall away; maintaining flexible instead of rigid timelines; adhering to a cyclical rather than a linear sense of time; looking at and acting in social interactions more holistically instead of viewing such interactions through separate (and often conflicting) time frames or personal schedules; feeling reluctant to say no, out of politeness, or even to saying yes when in fact a maybe or a no might be called for; or correlating climate and tempo of life. There is the tradition of taking it easy instead of getting stressed, the yogic way, I guess; an emphasis on deliberation and making decisions more slowly as opposed to rushing impatiently to meet what is most often an arbitrary deadline. And there is the expectation, in a society organized vertically around class and caste, that the more important the person is who you are meeting with the longer you may have to wait.

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Yet when I began thinking about time this morning and listed all the explanations for Indian stretchable time I thought about the dabbawalas in Mumbai who collect and deliver lunches from homes and deliver them to workers. “The Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association” is notoriously efficient and always on time. They have been doing their work, on time, for over one hundred years, in one of the most crowded and unpredictable urban spaces in the world. They get you your lunch on time every day using trains, bicycles, and walking, and they get your tiffin back home by early evening. The dabbawalas raise interesting questions about Indian culture, the relative concept of time, and the relationship between tradition and habit. Their reminder might also lead to a deeper consideration how concepts of time differ across Indian sub-cultures such as Sikhs, Parsis, Muslims and Hindus.

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The Hindi and Urdu word kal provides one indication of the looser notion of time in India. Kal can be used to refer to both past and future, yesterday and tomorrow. Such flexibility has its merits. I’ve heard people say that we might live longer were we to give up rushing about and spending time making excuses for why we’re late. After all, “slow is spelled with four letters-so is life,” reads an Indian saying, and “speed is spelled with five letters-so is death.” In the end, there is something worth having in each concept of time and the cultures that are organized around them. I’m left thinking that perhaps there is a via media-a recognition of one’s own way of thinking about time and a willingness to work toward the better parts of each.

No Cuts!

Everywhere in India people are waiting in line. It seems there is a queue for most everything one wants to do, from buying bus or train tickets, getting into a temple, or carrying out a simple transaction at a bank. The queue is ubiquitous-a product of too many customers and not enough clerks, archaic and inefficient ledgers to sign and forms to fill out, of systems with kinks and who knows what else.

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Our first experience with a queue in India was at the airport in Delhi. It had taken two days to get from Boston (a flight delayed, a flight missed, a reroute from London through Helsinki to Delhi). At midnight, when we arrive, the airport is stifling hot and our senses are overloaded with thick and pungent air of India. We descend the stairs into a mass of sweating people pushing and shoving to get closer to the handful of customs officials deliberately checking passports. Welcome to India, the situation seems to say. In line, people are not at all interested in our attempts to keep the family together nor does anyone appear to be sympathetic to the bewildered stares of two small children whose inner worlds are being reorganized at that very moment. Old ladies in saris, young men in jeans and button up shirts, and carefully dressed businessmen are more than willing to step over our bags or crowd us to the outside and they push to the inside whenever the line doubles back on itself.

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Most Indians, we have learned, have absolutely no concern for anyone else in a line. Or so it seems. In the market, standing in line for food, a woman simply walks in front of me and sets her basket on the counter; waiting to pay for fresh juice, a driver walks up and holds out ten rupees over my shoulder to get the attention of the cashier; in the bank, a well-dressed man simply walks in front of me as I reach the teller window and begins his transaction with the clerk; and at the temple, on a Monday during holiday, we are shoved against a metal gate as people push their way toward the entrance. At that moment, for the first time in India, we felt the movement of a crowd that can so quickly evolve from pushing and shoving into something more unpredictable, even terrifying.

The other day I was waiting in line at the market (the cashiers and the transaction protocols in the little markets here are astonishingly inefficient-hence the queues) and a pleasant looking middle-aged man walked in front of me and took his place in line. So I put my hand on his shoulder and said as kindly as I could, “excuse me, but I am waiting in line.” To my surprise, he was profuse in his apologies. He then stepped in back of me-not incidentally, in front of two others who had been in line before he tried to enter the queue. Then today, as I was waiting to pay for a thali lunch and two fresh pineapple juices, two young men leaned in front of me, got the attention of the clerk, and paid for their thali and juice before I could utter a word; later, as I was unloading a small basket of items at Spencer’s, a young woman walked in front of me and held out her rupees to pay for the bag of onions and packet of ghee she was holding in her other hand.

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Taking cuts is simply the way one negotiates a crowded country, I guess, where it is every person for herself. So we’ve learned to press our bodies close to other bodies to close off inviting openings, and to lean over counters and hold our arms wide to block people angling toward the front. Still, coming from a country where taking cuts is not the norm, I can’t quite abandon the etiquette of a queue. No cuts, I want to say, like I did as a kid when we were lining up for lunch at school.

Which Country?

Inevitably, and usually in a crowded public place, someone will approach us, smile, and ask a simple question: “Which country?” I was asked this question, most recently, as we stood sweating with thousands of others in a long line at the Kukke Subramanya Temple deep in the forests of southwestern Karnataka. We have come to the coast of this southern state for a ten day visit with friends who grew up in the area and have a home in the paddies and coconut groves along the banks of the Gurpur River. After months in an urban area, this lush green valley outside the hilly city of Mangalore feels like a return to more familiar ground. While it is fiercely hot and humid here, and there are cobras in the grass, we are immediately at home in the open green fields with water and the hum of insects at nights.  

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Most often I respond to the which country question with “United States” as the answer-a response that on occasion leads to a brief moment of confusion with a follow up, “America?” In such cases, I roll my head and smile and say yes, America, knowing that I would not be able to explain the distinction. Conversation follows. More often than not the question leads to other questions. We follow with questions, too, asking where our interlocutor is from, what their good name is. We are asked what we think of India (we love it) or if Indian food is too spicy (for me never, I say, though too often, I add, for my daughter). Our Indian friends, whether in a temple, in a market, or on the crowded street of a busy city, are interested in what we notice, what the differences are. We explain the differences and also point out the similarities. These conversations can be brief, or they can last for some time, leading to an exchange of cards of e-mail ids or a group photograph. Others are not interested in conversation but rather in taking a photograph of us with their family members. At the Subramanya Temple, two young children were pushed close to N and E and encouraged by their parents to greet our fair headed children with a hello and a handshake. Their mother said that the kids were less interested in the temple than in us.

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The man at the temple was clearly delighted in the fact that among these thousands of devotees-Indian women in colorful cloth, children, and shirtless men in white lungis-there are four white people moving (actually being pushed and shoved along in the Indian manner) ahead to catch a momentary glimpse of Lord Subramanya, the deity of the temple. After a momentary pause to fold our hands together and press them to our foreheads in the presence of the idol deep in the interior of the temple building we are pushed among the waving arms of priests to a concrete platform where we sit for a puja. We then accept the offering of prasad as we find our way through the chaotic center of the temple grounds to a narrow stone door that empties out into the street.

 

Food and Friends

We spent afternoons this week at the National Film Archive of India at the Documentary Film Festival Young Heroes for Young Adults. There were twenty-six short documentary films in all, from four to eighty-three minutes in length, from ten different European countries. The films explored borders and friendship, gender and sexual identity, religion and politics. One of our favorites, “Ayla, The Tsunami Girl,” tells the story of a young girl coming to terms with the 2004 tsunami during a family vacation in Sri Lanka. The kids also enjoyed “Wow, Adrian can Dance,” about a young boy with a passion for ballet. Apu and Niks joined us on Thursday afternoon. We then crossed the river to Sadashiv Peth for one more dinner of mutton fry and curry. We picked up a bag of green mangoes, some jaggery, and a round of mango mastanis.

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On Sunday morning Apu and Niks drove all over the city to gather one of the tastiest breakfasts I’ve ever had. We sat down to a table with poha, a rice dish from Maharashtra with onion, chopped potato, and green chilies, upama and shira, three different types of dhokla, and bright orange deep-fried, syrup-soaked jalebis. Aparna (from Assam) and Nikhil (from Nagpur in Maharashtra) were R’s students and are becoming among our favorite people in the world. We enjoyed a meal together, and then N taught the kids how to drive a motorbike. They are leaving Pune this week for a summer internship and we shared a tearful goodbye. Th efollowing morning, before we head to the train station, A and N show up with more gifts–an Indian cookbook and a copy of Nehru’s The Discovery of India–and a final goodbye.

 

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.