March 31, Bandra West, Mumbai…his visceral negative reaction to my half-joking idea of making an epic biopic portraying Guru Gobind Singh as a freedom fighter and neglecting the religious narrative, led to a great argument about art, India and cultural appropriation, eventually digressing to such topics as Jawaharlal Nehru, Anne Bogart and after tasting one of each from the Punjabi sweet shop, what makes an ideal ladoo. I promised to read only Indian authors for the rest of my trip, begining with Nehru’s The Discovery of India.
April 2, Oshiwara…like L.A. with more chai. There were beautiful actresses and pretty boy actors and cameramen with ponytails, people running wires and drinks in every direction. There was a goofy looking acting coach with “Air Conditioned Shoes” who quotes Stanislavsky in Hindi and his mustachioed student, with muscles and broad shoulders, who was set to play a Maharasthran freedom fighter in a film shooting next week.
…by the third High Life we wondered if our similar taste was genetic. She also keeps Gabo and Neruda on hand, listens to the blues and prefers runny eggs. Realizing I had neglected the entire modern history of music, theater and politics of the Punjab, she began eductating me, translating plays out loud with the Coke Studios Pakistan sessions playing in the background.
April 3, Bandra West…Though disapointed the woman with the yellow dress was married to the famous film director, I was pleased to learn Bollywood parties sometimes end with Butter Chicken.
April 5, Rajasthan... I visualized the pee returning to my intestines, I contorted my body in all directions, then I felt the bus slow. I looked out, it was a toll. I poked my head out of my berth into the isle just in time to see the driver pull out of the toll booth.
April 7, Udaipur… At dawn in Udaipur, the owners of the lakeside hotels bathe naked on the ghats. The women sit on the edge washing clothes, beating out the soap with a cricket bat. The young boys swim halfway across the lake to the island haveli which is now in ruin, and climb up on the roof. Now the owner of my hotel comes to the water’s edge in a towel with three sticks of incense in his hands, palm to palm in prayer. He closes his eyes and gives puja before getting dressed and beginning the day. All day his wife rinses the linens and the boys run up and down the stairs bringing Kingfisher to the tourists while he dozes at the front desk and his father reads the Hindi papers by his side.
April 8, New Delhi… the apartment above the gurdwara which felt foreign a month ago is now familiar. After chai and paranthas and a short rest, she came with me back to the train. Riding the bicycle rickshaw down the little streets in the afternoon light of the neighborhood where she grew up, it could have been a hundred years ago. She is older and more petite than I had realized and spoke to me gently asking, “When do you plan to get married?”
April 10, Varanasi… talking to a man in charge of bathing nine children in the Ganga. Two were his, three his brother’s, and the rest belonged to a friend. One boy, maybe eight years old jumped like a lunatic off the steps . The twelve year old girl was shy about the cold water. The younger children were just learning to swim and he made floatation devices for them by wrapping the woven towels the Sadhus use for bathing, around empty jugs pilgrims buy to take Holy Water back to their families. I slid down the steps into the water, then climbed back up and sat in the sun while the fleet of little ones swam between the cleated boats.
April 11, Varanasi…They each danced, then there was a long duet. Their love was difficult. In the end she murdered him, maybe with magic. He quivered and jerked as she waved her hands from across the stage. Then she held his head while he died and smiled to the audience. I left. I bought a bottle of water and bargained for a rickshaw back to Assi Ghat. The crowds were gone except for a few kids smoking hash and playing guitar down by the Ganga. I walked the length of the old city covered in orange paint, ghee, holy water and other peoples’ sweat. There were temples I hadn’t noticed in the day time with a few people left giving puja and being seen by their god in candle light.
April 12, Train to Patna… When I was younger I used to have a recurring dream of a cube shaped robot on legs I could live inside. It was metal on the outside with cranks and wheels and wires and tubes like the pod from a space ship. It could walk on legs or drive on the wheels hidden in its feet. Inside it was cozy, soft, with little screens and windows telling me where I was and where I was moving. My books and supplies were held inside the walls in shelves and compartments, and a table, a bed and a hammock would all fold down so I could use them or disappear if they weren’t needed. It was a private world with everything needed to live and dream and it could take me anywhere I needed to go.
April 13, Bodghaya… I sat still for a long time and tried to meditate under the tree where Buddha first became enlightened. It was peaceful and beautiful and the pilgrims eminated happiness. It was obvious that the Buddhist palces are the places that resonate with my sense of spirituality. I felt comfortable in a way I haven’t been in any other temples or Holy places including the ones I grew up in.
…I vomited in the bathroom at a roadside hotel on the way back to Patna.
April 14, Patna… I rode on the back of a motorcycle with her nephew to the gurdwara commemorating the place where Guru Gobind Singh was born. The grunthi put a long stole around my neck and the nephew said he was happy to share his religion with anyone who wishes to know about it.
…after telling me the story of the Ramayana she said, “Learning only takes you so far in India. To know India fully you must fall in love-with the full devotion of loving someone as if they are your god. Then you know what India is built on.”
April 15, Raxaul…We pulled up to a traffic jam and were about to be passed by a horse buggy full of propane tanks when the horse collapsed and died. The propane tanks spilled into the road and the driver jumped down to the road prodding the horse with a stick to no response.