I was walking back to he home of our hosts with three boys who were equal parts impressed and appalled by the amount of money an American makes in a year, through the dark streets of Karad that were peopled by the usual variety of Indian traffic and complicated by the presence of a ditch and some feeble attempts at construction signage, leaving only a narrow isthmus for cars, rikshaws, scooters, and bicycles and pedestrians to pass each other. Passing was achieved by a mutual unspoken agreement to compete: one lurches forward, another revs and inches, each watching carefully the progress of the other like a stalking lion, or a chess player. At one point, one acquiesces, by what criteria I’m not sure, and another advances, smaller vehicles filling the spaces left between larger ones, and we pedestrians filling yet smaller ones, though not the smallest, which are left for dogs and men with no legs on tiny carts with improbably small wheels that seem to scrape more than roll.

It’s the same with right of way and passing on the narrow, wreck-ridden national highway on the route out of Karad back to Pune. The bus shifts quickly into the oncoming lane. If it’s immediately obvious to the driver that he has to strike a retreat (and this is only the case if failing to retreat immediately would result in an head-on collision), he does, backing off on the gas until he can swing tightly behind the cloud of exhaust billowing out of the lorry (truck) lumbering along only slightly more slowly than the bus, which is to say, about the speed of a bicycle, but with enough noise and thick exhaust that it all seems somehow faster.

As soon as the oncoming vehicle has made its presence known with a rumble and a rush of air and then exhaust, the bus lurches to the right again and slowly begins to overtake the lumbering lorry within 40 yards of a hairpin turn that obscures any possibility of empirical knowledge of approaching vehicles; this is when you decide which of many gods in which to place your faith; everyone else has already decided. This is also when you remove your eyes from the road and attempt to read the stenciled Hindi signs on the interior of the bus.

Samachaar: what was that again? Oh, right – news. It’s a newspaper rack, empty. It’s so decrepit that it obviously hasn’t been used in years. But, then, by all appearances–except for being in motion and full of passengers–the bus hasn’t been used in years either. You catch sight of the driver turned fully around to gauge how close he can shave his return to his lane, then he returns his eyes to the front just as he lurches the bus back to where it belongs, narrowly avoiding shaving the paint off the front right corner of an oncoming lorry. Then the brakes groan and we all pitch forward. The bus comes nearly to a stop behind another lorry, which then swings into the other lane as soon as two cars squeeze by, and we can now all see the reason for the sudden brakes: an oxcart trundling along at its own more sane pace, oxen and driver seemingly oblivious to the calamitous cyclone of big steel boxes circulating around them. He trusts in god. The drivers all do. You can see the picture of god painted vividly on the crown of the approaching lorry’s cab as the bus swings again into the approaching lane to pass the oxcart. Shiva, of course, god of creation and destruction.

Now is the time to regret that you did not drop a coin for the priest at the Shiva temple you visited months ago in Rajasthan. Shiva fast approaches. The truck says, “Goods Carrier” and “Shiva Transport.” You expect that on the rear bumper it says, “Horn OK Please,” and that the side-panels are painted with lotuses and bright weave-patterns to rival the gaudiest shrine. Is it too late to propitiate Shiva? Is that oncoming image just paint, or does Shiva inhabit it, as he was said to inhabit the lingam in that temple? Is diesel exhaust a sufficient stand-in for incense?

The bus lumbers ahead, Shiva lumbers toward us, but must have braked or else he would have destroyed us by now, and the bus lurches back into its own lane again, if by “own,” one means proper, since it seems to spend as much time in the oncoming traffic lane as its own, disregarding the sign that scolds, “Observe Lane Discipline.” The lorry goes by, not having stopped, not actually seeming to have slowed. Another brush with doom gone by, another test of faith. Everybody first, everybody pushing forward at a pace hindered only by the narrow, pot-holed road, and everybody, this time, blessed by Shiva’s forbearance, or perhaps by his winning another game of dice.

We won’t be in tomorrow’s newspaper: 73 killed in bus mishap, along with 2 foreigners. With Shiva’s blessing, we’ll live long enough to return to a world with lane discipline and seat-belts and yes, where the gods are less numerous and less moody, but yes, also, like here, the number of deaths eventually equals the number of births.

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Triptych: Worldly Attachment

I. Bird Song

Mornings, I sit in a folding paradise-
brand steel chair. It’s sprayed unevenly blue,
and here and there the thin coat on paradise
lets the steely chair shine through.

The lettering leans a little, as if paradise
were full of speed, sleek with blue painted steel.
New cars zing by in paradise,
swift palanquins on wheels.

They race past palms and beaches–paradise
on earth! Mangoes ripen in heaps,
no postcard captures paradise
like this! While I wait for the promise it keeps,

I’m messy with mango, and in paradise
calls a bird with a steel blue head and long
(impossible!) tail. It hasn’t yet perched, the paradise
flycatcher, nor called out its chirruping song.

II. Miniature with Kabir

My tea has cooled, I am tickled by sweat,
there are no cushions. How can I relax
when the courtyard clamors like a chai stall!
Alright, Okay, I’m relaxed. Now what?

III. Cave Psalm

What holds her gaze
is not the Buddha
supine, in death, almost
smiling because the rock
is neither immortal nor dead,
but underneath, the crouched
men and women weeping,
tearing their hair.

Nor Saraswati,
voluptuous goddess of art
swaying her hips and breasts
out of the cave’s bedrock,
but underneath, the tiny
nameless man writing
odes to love or the name
of god over and over.

Hear a paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi)
Asian Paradise Flycatcher

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Mango Day! I bought a dozen on Sunday from a bearded neighbor who’d had dozens of crates delivered to his house. His white beard juts forward like a caricature of an Appalachian geezer. As Whit and I walked by, he hooted, “Halloo, Halloo! Come by, come in, we have got all these mangoes, will you buy some mangoes?” And indeed his yard was piled high with crates, dried grass poking through the cracks.

Interesting man: British-educated, and identified my accent as Boston. He wasn’t right about the accent (Virginia if anything, though it’s not impossible he was picking up my mother’s influence); it was the attempt that impressed me.

We’ve lived in the neighborhood, a rambling collection of old houses surrounded by high walls and newer concrete three and four story apartment buildings (such as ours) for about 9 months, with few acknowlegements of our existence from the locals.

At the time I was cash-poor, but promised I’d be back. I went back two days later and bought a dozen. Indoors, the piles were just as high, and a few crates had their lids propped open with sticks. He pulled out a mango, held it to his nose, and sniffed, his eyes focused on some distant point on the other side of his house’s stucco’d walls, perhaps the orchard. I could picture bees somnolently buzzing around the sweet sagging carcasses of fallen fruit.

He inhaled. He exhaled. “These are not quite ripe. Three or four days. Keep them wrapped in a blanket to hold in the heat. That’s very important: don’t let the summer heat escape. No fans, not on the lfoor. Wrapped in a blanket. That’s very important.”

Lacking a spare blanket for mangoes, and feeling a little skeptical that insulation was necessary while the night-time temperature is plummeting to a chilly 85 degrees fahrenheit, I wrapped them in 3 layers of newspaper. Today, Wednesday, I unwrapped them and was asaulted by the sickly sweet smell of ripening mangoes and had a momentary apparition of that grove where I imagine he’d been transported on the day he sold them to me.

He had said, “We’d ship to America, but they don’t like it. The customs. So we ship to Canada. They don’t mind.” All the while his sandy-haired dog yipped and yapped. Every so often he turned to the dog with an indulgent expression that seemed to say, “If it would please you…” and give her a polite bow and “Namaskaar,” and she would turn and head outside.

In front of me, one slightly wizened, leathery-skinned mango on a metal plate, looking for all the world like an aged, lopsided runt cousin of the sun. And a dull knife. I watched Ranjan-kaki cut one yesterday: stab it at the peak and tear downwards, slicing the clinging fruit away from the shaggy pit. It’s messy, really messy, a sort of fruit version of butchering. Hands get thoroughly wet and sticky–so wet and sticky that by the time you’ve taken all the big slices, when there’s still some fruit clinging to the pit, the obvious thing to do is grapple the whole slick mass and chew, lick, and suck it off. Really, you won’t be able to do anything else, the smell will overpower you, it’s a kind of intoxication. When you’re down to the hard pit with its wet fur of pulp, you’ll move drunkenly on to the strips of flesh you’ve shaved off, using your upper teeth as a kind of primitive razor to scrape the flesh from each narrow strip of skin as thoroughly as possible. When it’s done, when all that’s left on the plate are a few orange drops of liquid, the discarded skins and obscene pit, you will notice a bead of juice running down your forearm, and you will lick it.

And then you will notice that you are licking your forearm, and that juice is running down your chin to your neck, and your hands are a mess of juice and pulp, and several pieces of mango skin have been flung here and there on the table, but you don’t care. You just want another. You can’t believe something can be so good. You could eat the entire dozen. You wish you had bought an entire crate. No, a hundred, two hundred. You picture yourself climbing into a tub full of mango pulp.

You see ants on the floor sharing your intoxication. A few dozen have found some spatters. They are stupefied. Ordinarily, these industrious little black ants run from one place to another. For mango, they stop. They look almost as if they’re asleep, their tiny little heads and mandibles on mango-pulp pillows.

So you pick up another. An alphonse mango fits in the hand as if the hand were designed for the sole purpose of cradling and admiring a ripe mango: its warmth, its wizened skin like the face of an aging farmer, but composed of orange blushed with red that could only occur in the tropics. Without even thinking, you bring it up to your nose.

There is nothing quite like unexpectedly coming upon a mango-stand full-to-overflowing with crates of ripe mangoes in the sun sending out their scent like sirens. The Indian mythos equates them with breasts, abundance, and fertility, and a goddess, Amba, the mother of mangoes. The name of the fruit itself is elemental–aam. Ma (mother) backwards.

I know I can’t stop. I understand the man and his mangoes, I understand naming a goddess after this fruit. I would do anything for her. I would at this moment buy six dozen crates if someone offered. I pick up the knife.

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Learning another language can affect how you think. There’s the old Whorfian idea that a multiplicity of descriptive terms suggests a rich vein of thinking in a language. Inuit words for snow and all that.

I’ve learned two new words today that have helped me understand something, I think, about the culture I’m living in now (Indian, Maharashtrian, Punekar) vs. the one in which I grew up (American, Yankee thrift, Germanic ordnung).

Word one:

Vyavahaarik/ Vyavahaar karna

व्यवहारिक/ व्यवहार  करना

On the face of it, it’s just a one:one translation of the adjective “practical” and the verb “do the practical” or “make a deal.” But as you can probably tell from the gap between the two verb meanings (the distance between dual meanings of a word is often telling), there’s more going on. I had Mr. Shitole, my voluble Hindi instructor, explain. Here, in summary form (I couldn’t possibly represent in words on a page his appealingly clumsy, enthusiastic vocal style) is his explanation:

A body of knowledge having to do with the marketplace and practical matters. Vyavahaarik Hindi has to do with railway stations and buying fruit, things of that nature.

[Which reminds me of the reference in Foucault’s The Order of Things to a fantastical Chinese Encyclopedia imagined by Borges. Sorry about the contemporary intrusion into 1994.]

It’s a whole body of knowledge that we try to efface in America; we’ve replaced it with “convenience.” It’s inconvenient to haggle with a produce seller–or even visit a produce market–so we have supermarkets. What we try to do in America is do away with the necessity of thinking about minor practical matters by making them unobtrusive. Why go to a bank when you can go to an ATM? Why attempt to understand the hustle and bustle of a train station when you can just get plane tickets from a travel agent?

Having come of age in a world of convenience, I feel put upon by the expectation to haggle, to have a cup of tea with the sari seller, to expend an entire morning on a Dickensian bank transaction that would take five minutes–five impersonal minutes–back home.

And there’s the rub: impersonal. Isn’t it strange that we’ve excised the personal in order to pursue this rather new phantom virtue called “convenience.” And in so doing, we’ve lost a body of knowledge. I have few or no Vyavahaarik skills in the marketplace. I can’t negotiate, my eyes cross when I look a train timetable, and forget it about knowing when or how to bribe the TC on the train for seat reservations. I’m a lamb awaiting slaughter.

Word two:



Again, on the face of it, it seems simple, because it’s translated as “exemplary.” But the twist here is that it literally means “imitable.” Mr. Shitole took some pains to explain it:

Film-makers in Bombay regularly copy American films: not just general plot lines, but entire films, beginning to end–nearly word-for-word dialogues, whole sequences of pans, fades, and cuts, even layouts of buildings. Of course they do! These films are anukarniya, because they’re so full of pareeshraam— परिश्रम, diligent work–that of course they’re copied! They are worthy of imitation, so imitate!

Which goes some distance to explain attitudes about copyright in India (and isn’t that interesting: “copyright,” the right to copy, to imitate, which people pay extraordinary amounts to do in spite of it’s being the opposite of a virtue!) and about parents doing significant portions of their children’s homework, and rampant cheating on exams.

In America we’ve so polluted the word “imitation” with its sidekick “mere,” that we would never attempt to use “imitable” to mean “exemplary,” even though that’s what we mean when we say “exemplary.” We do a little sleight-of-hand (sleight-of-word?) trick to focus attention on the trend-setter, instead of the trend-follower, even though the virtue of being exemplary would amount to less than a hill of beans if nobody followed (imitated) the example. Everyone has to be a leader in America, everyone has to aspire to become what elsewhere in the world is called royalty.

I aspire to be imitable, but I hope nobody imitates my dealings in practical matters.

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Rajasthani woman at a hand-dug well

The Well

The Prince, son of the local Maharaja, tells the wife of the man who dug the well to demonstrate the well.

The Prince presents to us the village woman–in bangles, nose-ring, and silver chains–letting the rusted bucket drop and the hemp rope turn the wooden pulley supported on its rough-hewn scaffold.

The Prince steps forward in his fashionable loafers in Rajasthani dust and motions us forward also in shoes western but not so fashionable to see the bucket splash and bob in the water fifteen feet below the hard desert ground.

The Prince hitches his hands in his Levis pockets and narrates: Her husband dug the well himself by hand. It took a year. He chose the site with skill. As you can see, the water-table’s shallow here.

The Prince nods to the middle distance behind the veiled village woman to where the green painted modestly veiled in dust diesel pump awaits pipes. Soon this past will be the stuff of photos. If we allow the scaffold to resemble a lever, and if that village woman is a fulcrum, then we see the future, that pump, outweighing the past–that rusted bucket, the frayed hemp, the wooden wheel, the scaffold, the hole.

The Prince becomes silent. The veiled woman waits and we wait under the sun. His raybans tell us nothing further. Can we, should we, address the woman? We wait in the desert air for wisdom to ascend or descend.

The Prince’s eyes might be taking in the pump, the well, our reactions, the village woman, or might be drifting skyward, bored. He’s showed us what we came to see: this last moment the heavy future is weighing down.

The Village Woman, unbidden, finally draws the bucket up. The wooden wheel creaks. Her massive hands grab the bucket as it swings and dump it in a trough. It irrigates the small garden protected by a fence of desert briar. We’re motioned to the jeep.

The Prince is to the left and out of frame of the photo in which I focus on the pulley wheel, behind which the village woman is further veiled by shallow depth-of-field. And behind her, blurred, the diesel pump looms. The wheel, chipped, imperfect, scored by adze-blade and cracking in the heat, is perfectly still.

The Prince is out of frame, but everything he said was here is here, old and new juxtaposed just right: well, veiled woman, diesel pump. I forgot to mention the high-tension power-lines just out of the frame, breaking the desert sky in two. And then the issue of the lens that framed it, zoomed to the sharpest angle, bought in New York at a good discount.

The Village Woman stands behind the scaffold, face half-shadowed by her veil, and watches us leave, hands fisted on her hips. Those hands, calloused by the hemp and the rest of the day’s demands, having pulled the bucket up, those hands fisted as if we were her own unruly children grown up and gone and come back to look at how it was once done, those hands! That face half in shadow. Tours arrive and depart, but that look on her face doesn’t change as the cosmos turns lazily on the axis of the pulley wheel.

The Village Woman, of course, is every woman hauling water. She’d be scolding her unruly children if they hadn’t grown to be adults and gone to distant cities. And because she doesn’t think to rest, play checkers with colored stones on the sand, gossip with sisters-in-law, find Lord Krishna in his modest shrine, and because it’s got to be done, tourists or not, she’s hauling up water, and the pulley wheel turns and the world inches eastward.

Village Woman, I should leave off odes and lend a hand. I want the well to keep on giving, and I’m sure by this time you do it out of habit, which is a kind of care. The Prince would call it Dharma for the sake of the tour. The bucket falls and rises. Care, a thin rope to begin with, frayed and split years ago. The wheel and your callouses also split.

The Village Woman persists. And this rope in the picture, this stronger rope than care, call it memory, it’s fraying. Maybe by now she’s given in to diesel, and can finally rest, happy to hear its mechanical labor. Or followed her children to the city, the entire village now fields ploughed to furrows.

Village Woman, what am I asking of you? Pull what you can out of that desert ground. The future is heavy, I know. I don’t offer much in return: For what you’ve hauled up, for what you offer daily, for water in the desert, thank you.

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Thunder is thunder everywhere. But the story about it here is that an old woman of the sky grinds with a pestle and stone slab the stars that she plucks out of the sky; the flour she makes falls as rain.

That’s a different sort of thunder. There is a stone slab and pestle in our kitchen. The slab is dark gray–what little I recall from a geology class suggests basalt–, and is about the size of an unabridged dictionary, but shaped like a house with a peaked roof drawn by a child. The pestle is the same stone, and a little thicker and shorter than my forearm. When I roll it across the slab, resting on our stone counter, it makes a sound like thunder in the distance.

A German Sanskritist told us most of the slabs were old hero-stones–something like gravestones–with the bas relief carvings chipped off to make them more useful for the living. The backsides are scored in a kind of chevron pattern to make the surface rough for grinding.

In the kitchen, the blank hero stone waits for grain. In June, the real rains will come. We wait for thunder, wait for rain, wait for heroes.

Everything accuses me: you are young and you burn up your sense of purpose with minor concerns. I found a stone with a fossil impression of a trilobite. It says to me, you won’t leave a mark. You diminish, preoccupied with subtraction and bills.

An otherworldly Jain bas-relief carved before the conquests of Charlemagne, a man and woman burning with desire, forever calcified outisde the silent temple facing desert scrub.

Faith calcifies. Only a few will last. Who knows which? Build temples of stone, it’s the only chance. Or burrow, die, and let lime slowly replace your hard shell.Your clothes are clean, the rain will only chill you. Let go of everything but survival in the long term. Dignity leaves no marks. What’s left is a record of deaths. The lives are left to implication. We induce them.

Stone footprints at Sravanbelgola
Footprints of Jain monks who removed themselves by starvation from this illusory life are all over the hill opposite the hill with the megalith Bahubali at Sravanbelagola. They number in the hundreds. The story goes that their feet burn into rock at the final moment.

I imagine the prosaic reality: the stonecutter getting the message just as he’s sitting down to dinner that another sadhu starved. We need another set of prints, urgently. He finishes his dinner and sets off with his hammer and chisel. He must work all night to preserve the sanctified fiction.

It’s the same everywhere, unknowns paid to leave someone else’s mark. Once I thought it was cause for doubt, then I swung the other way, saying to myself, “What a wonder, that men believe such things; in itself that’s reason for faith.” I don’t know anymore. It’s simply what happens, I’m at a loss to judge, a loss to make anything of it.

Am I the stonecutter or the monk? YOu can see it either way, like that old drawing: old woman/young woman. I go back and forth like a gate to a field in Autumn winds. Hell, maybe I’m neither, maybe I’m the kid who comes to tell the stonecutter another monk bit it, maybe I’m only his borther, maybe I’m on the sother side of the world entirely, riding a subway, unaware of the existence of my metaphorical dopplegangers, wanting only to make it to the bus connection on time.

Who’s to say who’s preoccupied? I’m saying it to myself, obviously, speaking for the rock impression of trilobite. Maybe, after all, the dying monk had a vision of a subway-rider. Maybe that’s all that matters, that you make a connection, get to work on time. Who’s a metaphor for whom, anyway? My footsteps in the subway leave no marks, I’ve hired no stone-cutter.

Anything can happen, but it doesn’t.

Only a few things happen. Otherwise, why would people gather when the sadhu nears the final moment, or at a housefire or a crime? The crowd around the police tape around the chalk outline on the pavement. They gather because of the rarity, because…

It was like that with the Jain monks, only more so. People come to watch things, who knows why. I would, too. Maybe because anything could happen, but usually doesn’t, maybe that’s all. I don’t know anymore.

Stone footprints at Sravanbelgola with goatAt any rate, we’ll all leave some sort of mark or have it left for us, however fleeting. The chalk washes out with the next rain, the carved footprints eventually erode, tombstones are made into grinding stones. Even the trilobite will wash out eventually, become sand, and then silt, and then carry some other body’s impression.

So I may as well keep making tracks in the life I know, even if I burn up purposes in minor concerns. This other stuff… sometimes time opens up like a wide canyon, and you just have to throw something in and see if it hits bottom. You just can’t take the lack of an echo too hard. The rock probably passed some fossil-impression on the way down. That’s faith. You’ve played your small part, whatever it is, even if nothing seems to confirm it.

Those footprints of Jain monks shouldn’t make you feel inconsequential. Hell, just because it’s in rock and lasts a thousand years, what’s so big about that? I saw Norse graffiti in a passage grave in Scotland, too: Olaf was here. Lasting is no big deal.

The trilobite hardly had a brain. It’s the symbol of it that lasts, and that’s carved in our minds, so we’re just talking to ourselves and these old pieces of stone are just reminders, like string around your finger. Gotta remember the dentist appointment. Nothing wrong with that, either.

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True Story

(After Kolatkar)

The sun rides to the horizon
on the rusting rack of a bicycle
pedaled by a man in flip flops
that bend around the pedals
with each downstroke.

Because the whole place
is crowded, the sun shares
space with the man’s
nephew and a large box
that might hold a TV.

The sun rises
in a wide metal bowl
the color of cement, full of gravel
on the head of woman
whose blue bodice
is inlaid with mirrors.

Because it is a formal occasion
her arms are covered in bangles
and wide disks of gold
hang from her ears and shimmer
as she dumps the gravel.

There is no chariot,
There is no winged horse,
no golden ship. The true
story: the rack, the bowl,
the labor, his ropy legs,
her muscled back and grip
turning the wheel of time.

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