The International Writers
Indian Moments - From Our Archives
Fragments from India
the diameter at the bottom of a toilet bowl; it was as long as
that. I know because the head touched one side while the
tail brushed against the opposite. He was paddling for his
life. I never knew millipedes could actually swim, but this
one seemed proficient. Wiggling ferociously on the water
surface, this dark ripple as thick as a pencil, had me fascinated
I watched him for a minute, stooping down for a better view. Thats
when I noticed a delicate white stripe along the middle of his back. Every
pale-colored leg was visible, both sides undulating in tandem -gentle
and graceful in waves. Brown and shiny like the dark part of a date,
I have to admit he was rather handsome, elegant even. But that didnt
make the scene less revolting. Natural beauty is only so persuasive.
Taking one last apologetic look I flushed my unbidden visitor into the
void and watched him swirl away.
70% of Indians are good and 30% are cheaters, the young
man rowing our canoe explained. The sunlight was dim and fading
as the backwater banks were cloaked in a misty veil.
And which are you? I asked.
Half and half, he smiled.
I laughed with him, incredulous and astounded at his honesty.
Ok take a friendly butterfly, a full sized Monarch. Now change
the vibrant orange wings into long thin transparent ones, make the legs
a little thinner and less fuzzy, bend the head forward so its angled
to its abdomen and add a long proboscis sticking out the back
brainwash him into a rampant vampire. Now you have an idea what
the mosquitoes in the S. Indian swamps are like. Add to that a highly
developed consciousness, one capable of eluding traps, getting angry and
you too would be afraid, very afraid.
Especially with my odd honey blood that drew them in droves.
5 rupees, ok, his head shook side to side and up and down
simultaneously in the typical Indian gesture for yes.
Thats how much it cost to buy a coconut from this barefoot keeper
of a tiny street temple dedicated to Ganesh. The temple consisted
of an iron cage built around a giant, undeniably majestic tree, one I
too would be inclined to worship. In front of the tree sat a 2 foot
bronze statue of the elephant god. He was dressed in garlands of
wilting jasmine and surrounded by unlit dia candles. The deity was
flanked by 2 sculpted females with the roundest of bosoms. Inside
and surrounding the temple the floor was black and dirty, every surface
was covered in dust, soot and seeming neglect. Yet Ganesh gleamed
forth regaled in gold and near dead flowers. You couldnt enter
the temple, it was pad-locked. However, you could purchase a coconut
and make an offering. In front and left of the temple stood a large
carpeted box the size of a fridge with the top and front sides cut out.
Into this, a devotee would hurl a shelled coconut with all their might
hoping to crack it open in one shot. Afterwards the fruit would
either be left in the box or eaten by hungry passer-bys. Either
way, it all ended up in the infinite belly of Ganesh.
We are waiting on the Trivandrum rail platform for our train to Kanyakumari
(the southern most tip of India). There are TVs mounted every 60
m, playing clips from Bollywood movies - modern ones where girls wear jeans,
bikinis, biker leathers and top hats. Theyre dancing a hybrid
of hip hop, classical Indian, break dance and vaudeville tap. I
am amazed at how modern the whole story, setting and costumes have become.
And yet, no matter how avant-garde the show, I have yet to see two
lovers kiss on screen.
The music is supremely infectious, at least for me. I couldnt
help tapping my feet and moving my waist to the beat. Jena soon
joined me and we fed off each other mounting in mutual courage. Before
long we found ourselves dancing full swing to the train station soundtrack.
A space opened up around us. We kicked some recently learned bharat
natyam moves, salsa and regular dance club styles while the entire platform
looked on in shocked delight. Some part of me was mortified that
hundreds of bewildered Indians were glued to our performance. But
the rest of me was happy to entertain our onlookers and give them a wacky
story to take home. Only one native dared join in, he was a young
traveler from Kashmir. But that was enough to sanction the mad antics
of two shameless tourists who simply love to dance.
The title said: Awareology- thats the only part
of the street poster I could understand. The rest was in Malayalum
(Keralan native tongue). It made me laugh out loud, I expected they
were meaning the study of awareness - what an excellent term.
Id consider myself an eternal student. Apparently a class
was being held on Jan 12th ; If I thought Id be able to understand
the lecture in Malayalum Id have gone for sure. Alas, awareology
for now would remain unaware of me.
You are NOT Indian, he said defiantly, shaking his head in
disbelief. Definitely not Indian, you are mistaken madam.
I was aghast. All through India Ive been asked where Im
from. Each time I answered with this tripartite explanation.
I was born in Canada, my parents are from the West Indies, but my
heritage is Indian.
Where in India? I am usually asked. Truth is,
I have no idea. A few generations ago my great, great grandparents
found themselves in Trinidad and thats all I know. Primarily,
Im Indian because Im brown
but Im not sure that
holds much cultural cache these days? However Ive never had to prove
my heriditary status to anyone before. But the manager of our Ayurvedic
clinic was so adamant I did not belong to his race, even I started to
Apparently, Im Brazilian. You are samba
dancer, he assured me. As well as being: dominant, very
bold, unnatural and in preference to explore others more than reveal yourself
(glad to see he got at least a few things right). He also claimed
I could not be following a spiritual path because I worked in IT.
Computers not divine, he muttered. He also didnt
like my hair, enjoyed the cut and the style, but suggested it should be
blue streaked instead of pink.
He stared at me in long bewildered gazes. I held still, keeping eye contact,
letting him drink whatever he wanted from my eyes. They were intimate
but detached encounters. He would look at me completely confused
by my seemingly inconsistent being. What I said in words, offered
in energy and presented physically did not measure up for him, so he denied
my connection to his culture and my gender. He nicknamed me man,
admitting I looked like a girl but didnt act like one. I wondered
what he could mean. Maybe docility heralded femininity for him.
Perhaps the way I softly but seriously challenged his assertions masculated
me in his eyes. He didnt want to like me, but I know he did.
One night I ran across the street to make a phone call at the local STD,
ISD booth. Later Jena revealed he was very worried about my absence
and went out looking for me, walking up and down the street until I was
found. Another evening I asked him for some chai explaining I was
a little sick. He was quick to attend to me, made the tea, went
and found a brand new tub of vicks vaporub and insisted on applying to
my neck. Strange his simultaneous negative judgment and tender protectiveness.
He always wanted to talk, but in a distanced, measured way. He didnt
know where to put me in his filing cabinet. When asked my religion,
I said, All.
Cornered into Hindu, Muslim or Christian? I affirmed
all, explaining that I liked taking the most beautiful bits of each and
weaving them into my own living morphing system. This was met with
a shaking head. I admitted to him my secret desire to break stereotypes
and force people into forging new labels. I wondered if it was working on him.
It was as if theyd never seen a laptop before. I mean
we were in small town India, but everyone here has TV. I had
taken out my computer to make some notes but that would never happen.
First came the owner, he stepped around the cafe table to spy this strange
black box. Seeing my desktop his brow furrowed, bewildered.
Then others came, they stopped eating their food, put down their chai
and gathered around me, waiting I guess to see some magic. I had
an entire restaurant poised in curious suspense. So the performer
in me took the stage. I introduced myself as Vidya,
my Indian middle name, and considered what might entertain them most.
I started with my family
opened some recent xmas photos and introduced
each family member by name and age. Then I thought Id throw
them a curve ball and pulled out my favorite Burning Man shots.
They didnt know what to make of these and started asking questions
I couldnt understand. Jena, my hindi speaking muse, had gone
for a walk and left me alone in a hotel cafe full of locals. One
by one I showed them sculptures and costumes, stilt walkers and fire spinning
to avoid nudity, which was a challenge. Each pic was met with laughter
and wide-eyed chatter which I took to be a sign of amusement. I
suspect they had never seen anything like it. Most westerners are
shocked and beguiled by b-man photos, I cant imagine what thoughts
this was conjuring in them. More came to look but after Id
exhausted the b-man files, my battery began to wane. I motioned
to say all done and began packing up my gear. Thankful,
they dispersed back to their seats happy and mumbling while I smiled on
in silence. Not unlike Burning Man, technology, culture, art and
magic all converged in this tiny little roti shop in India, and I was
proud to have been part of it.
© Annie Lalla June 2007
most have barely heard of it, many are intrigued, few are brave
enough to go. If this is your first encounter with the phenomenon
of Burning Man, welcome.
de Sao Paulo
Annie Lalla in Brazil
There are no cars here. You walk everywhere by foot. All transport
of goods is accomplished by wheelbarrows marked "Taxi" on the
side with unintentional humour.
Contact in India
keyboard I'm typing on is so old I can barely see the letters a sign reads:
"browsing 20 rupees per hour. No discounting, no bargaining
of rates will be encouraged."
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