My third reflection on India. Written in Lima, Peru.
Along the edges of the manmade lake, dug out of the jungle mangroves in the late 19th century that are now the posh streets of South Kolkata- Rabindra Sarbar Lake- thousands upon thousands, maybe even a lakh have gathered for Chhath Pooja.
The setting sun pastes a purple pink sky above the western tree line, a stadium rises somewhere in that distance, giant fluorescent lights and small candles illuminate the ring of the lake. Earthen jars are filled with orange and yellow flowers, incense- ever present- permeates the jubilant dusk, the sun now receives its final worship for the day. Since dawn his power has been praised. On tops of roofs I watched with my early morning coffee, men clap hands pointed skyward, affixed at the rising galactic god and pray. Now on his descent families gather along the banks of this body of water with offerings of tikka, sugar cane, papaya, coconuts, bananas, biscuits, and gourds. Rono tells me most of the faithful gathered hail from the central northern state of Bihar. A state unfortunately famed for its Wild West violence and corrupt political mob.
My memory creates a cacophony of calling mothers, laughter, children, men lifting bamboo beams, affixing the great stages of worship, all drowned in the great blasting of music from car speakers rigged in the branches of trees. Bare feet next to bare feet, hands on shoulders, heads and necks craning in all angles; mobile phones capture it all- recording for posterity.
I am not of the faithful, nor much of a spiritualist but a feeling deep in my heart was stirred as I stood melted into the great body that had amassed along the ring of this lake. While I watched the sun set, bodies moving in and out of alters, trees, and sitting generations, I was moved by the great multitude, gazing at the burning ball of gas made sacred. A feat tragically beautiful.
Women adorned in orange tikka and beautiful cloth saris -history woven in silk and rich dye- bath themselves and submerge the woven reed vessels carrying the fruit offerings into the lake. Men in plaid shirts craft more baskets, young boys and girls help, watch, and participate.
The tree lined paths around the lake are ablaze with probably another 10,000 believers, vendors, police and thieves. A long kayak, or rowing boat is manned by a single figure, he (or perhaps she) navigates the circumference of the lake, coming near to the bathing worshippers. Neither party seems to pay much attention to the other.
A man in blazing golden yellow wades into the water, his dark skin contrasting like a Daidō Moriyama photo in color. He plunges a hollowed gourd into the water and pours it over his body, his hair glistens jet black against a deep blue sky. The sun sets, content to rise another day.
If human history is great cloth being spun by gods, fickle and beastial as us, I have seen a many beautiful strands being woven. And how deathly fortunately so.
I watched the sun set for the last time in 2016, with friends and Chauné at a beach town called Punta Hermosa. I floated with the waves below brown cliffs and the bourgeois of Peru.
I've had dreams of the abandoned Mughal forts I wandered, the Austrian Hungarian palaces I was in awe of, the Rif mountains and the hodgepodge collective of Kuala Lumpur, the bridges and island homes. I remember the great bamboo swings of Daishan, taking me off the earth, for just a moment- good triumphs evil. Not matter how wicked I may be. This time last year I had so many dreams of dreaming such dreams. How deathly fortunate can one be?
The smell of pork, sweet and fatty flows through the dusty side ally. Men line the building stoops and congregations of parked motorcycles and scooters- the Royal Enfield bike most distinctive among them. Women come and go through a shop with large glass windows lined with produce bins. A cart selling the same goods sits under the shadow of a thousand wires crisscrossing the narrow strip of night sky above us.
In a Naga cafe I'm treated to
fermented bamboo shoots, crushed fish king chile chutney, and unfried dhal, not dissimilar to the dhal of Bengal that I chowed down on in Kolkata, or the hills of south central Nepal. (In Kolkata I was treated with home cooked breakfast, lunch and diner- wonderfully prepared traditionally Bengali dishes.) I decide river fish are the damn best.
Indians of the Northeast along with Tibetan refugees have been enclosed in this ghetto near the upscale gentrified village of hauz khas. The people here look like me, and I like them. I blend in as I did in Kolkata, but more so. I develop a solidarity with the casteless class, who have been racialized and discriminated against by the rest of Indian society. I make friends with a friend of the owner of the naga cafe nestled along that side alley. We meet only thrice, twice at the restaurant and once on one of my walks wandering the neighborhood. I regret not visiting once more before I leave. But time flys when your on the move.
I run into a friend of a friend who I had been introduced to a night previous, we run into each other at a corner shop. She is from the Northeast, Arunachal Pradesh. We decide to combine food and have diner. Egg curry, rice, and wine. We talk of the blues, beat poets, love, and war. She tells me how it is being a Northeastern woman in Delhi. The discrimination and prejudices, and inability for dominant Indian society to recognize or acknowledge it's wrong doings- all reminds me of home. She recalls that upon spotting me the night previous how she was happy to see a 'Naga man' at such a literary event. Something not common. I laugh, a Chicano midwestern boy may be just as uncommon for these parts.
The full moon is just around the corner. She's off to London, 2 days before my 56 hour flight that turned into 66. In the tight alley passing drunk and angry men and sheltering women, dusty bikes and rubbish that become part of the very earth it clutters, I say goodbye to yet another soul I will not see again.
3 and a half week before: I am on an overnight train to Delhi from Kolkata. Just barley getting the tickets. The station like a great madhouse buzzing with a million frantic families, awaiting in purgatory.
The presence of a looming country I scarcely know flutters in dim lights of countless villages. The morning shits by the stream along the tracks, a billion faces I do not know but had become accustomed to, the grey towns and wonderfully wicked city like the sea; they are women incomprehensible and everlasting. Before time there was Delhi. Will she stand in 50 years? I do not know. I am doubtful. But she is a city of tombs, those pillared domes and etched archways, set a million times- the deaths of cowards.