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The International Writers Magazine: Indian Moments - From Our Archives

Scattered Fragments from India
Annie Lalla

Imagine 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 and horrified.

I watched him for a minute, stooping down for a better view.  That’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s angled to its abdomen and add a long proboscis sticking out the back… then 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 seeking vengeance…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’.  That’s 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 couldn’t 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 TV’s mounted every 60 m, playing clips from Bollywood movies - modern ones where girls wear jeans, bikinis, biker leathers and top hats.  They’re 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 couldn’t 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’- that’s 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.  I’d consider myself an eternal student.  Apparently a class was being held on Jan 12th ; If I thought I’d be able to understand the lecture in Malayalum I’d 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 I’ve been asked where I’m 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 that’s all I know.  Primarily, I’m Indian because I’m brown… but I’m not sure that holds much cultural cache these days? However I’ve 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 doubt it.
Apparently, I’m “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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 they’d 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 I’d throw them a curve ball and pulled out my favorite Burning Man shots. 

They didn’t know what to make of these and started asking questions I couldn’t 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… careful 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 can’t imagine what thoughts this was conjuring in them.  More came to look but after I’d 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

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