Monday, February 7, 2011

Indian Fantasy

India is a land of fantasy, pervaded by a four-millennia-old, polytheistic mythology that most Hindus believe in still, whereas polytheism in Egypt and Mesopotamia and Western Europe long ago yielded to a sterner, more practical monotheism.  It is a land where elephant gods and monkey gods bring luck and long life, where killing a cow is considered a “heinous crime” for which one may be jailed indefinitely, but deformed humans live on the streets and are allowed to die, untended, like cows.  It is a land in which the grimy, ash-laden waters of the Ganges are believed to purify whatever they touch, a land in which history and mythology and superstition are so interwoven, as in a Kashmiri rug, that they create a strange pattern on whose form and imagery no two observers can agree.
One wants to like India.  The Indian people, themselves, are likeable:  deferential, pleasant, clever, largely honest.  They are mostly attractive people, except for the deformed and/or starving beggars one sees everywhere along urban streets.  In mid-November, 2009, I took a trip to India, a country I have wanted to visit most of my adult life.  In my mind’s eye, it was a land painted in exotic colors and flavors – splendid ancient temples in the countryside, aromatic spices in the air, and spiritual enlightenment in people’s souls. 
The reality, as I experienced it, was very different.  I saw a land and people that seemed worn out, worked, reworked and overworked; edifices built, rebuilt and abandoned; ruins and unfinished construction everywhere.  Most disturbing of all, I saw people and animals scraping and foraging for remnants of whatever they could find to sustain themselves in what were clearly difficult and painful lives.  I was prepared to see poverty; one sees that everywhere - adjacent to wealthy neighborhoods in Central and South America; in the cities and countryside of Egypt; in the ghettos of U.S. cities, and in the Appalachian back-country.  I was not prepared, whenever we hit the streets, to be mobbed by the skeletal figures of children begging or hawking cheap wares, nor for the heartbreakingly disfigured humans lurking around the edges of the suppliant mob, hoping to be noticed, hoping for something to be tossed their way. 
And the animals - foraging garbage from plastic bags strewn along the edges of streets, alleyways and railway tracks; urinating and defecating anywhere and everywhere; many of them without owners, especially cows and dogs, scabby and flea-ridden, dependent upon whatever beneficence comes their way from gentle-hearted humans.  It just seemed to me there might be a better nutritional use for what was given to (and stored in the flesh of) those animals. 
The ancient temples are, for the most part, not very ancient, at least not in the northern Indian cities I visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Veranasi (Benares).  Most ancient Indian temples and other public buildings were razed and pillaged during the two major waves of invading Muslims (13th & 16th centuries).  Much of what we think of as Indian architecture is really Islamic/Persian in origin (“Indo-Islamic” as it’s called), and is from the Mughal period (1500’s – 1700’s), including the famed Taj Mahal, really a giant tomb.  The ancient Indus Valley civilization lies almost entirely in what is now Pakistan and is, to all purposes, inaccessible to Western tourists.  We did see an early Hindu temple complex at Chandelas, preserved only because Muslim conquerors did not penetrate to that part of the country, as well as an historic Buddhist complex near Veranasi.

And then there was the outside air.  Only in one city (Jaipur) could I breathe without experiencing wheezing and coughing spasms.  I had brought along disposable masks to protect me from catching a respiratory virus on the plane trips (Miami – London – Delhi and back), but I wore them during most of the trip, while outside the hotels, to protect me from the smoke and dust and grit in the air.  Layering the sandy and barren ground is discarded plastic and dropped cow dung.  The latter can be mixed with straw (~1:3), then turned, by hand, into patties about the size of roof tiles, to be used as cooking and heating fuel, which adds to the brown haze layering the air, at least during the non-monsoon season. 
Finally, there is the “spiritual enlightenment.”  That would take many pages, another time.  And yet, I’m glad I went.  I certainly learned a great deal and must meditate on it much more

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