Background Conditions • 31 March 2009


And I thought still spring mornings in Santa Monica defined jasmine. Here it is stephanotis—madascar jasmine. I sneak out the front door at 4:00 or 5:30, and within five steps the invisible wall of new blooms hits me. Almost the same jasmine I know—sharp and even a little bitter at the inside tip of the nose, tastefully—and unlike big storebought flowers—leaving the back of the nose near the soft palate alone to more private matters, and strongly recalling its best mixing-parter of a soft green tea. Blooms in the dark, the smog, the heat… the jasmine’s stronger than me, in a sense.

Women everywhere, sitting on the tile or marble floors after they’ve cleaned and made the first meal of the day, string them into garlands a bloom at a time. Or, I imagine, they gather before dawn to make the white 10-foot-long necklaces that men on bicycles balance on broad, overflowing but weightless plates and sell to middle class women for twenty cents.

Madama, the housekeeper here, takes in the garden’s daily yield around 10, sits beside the kitchen table and somehow weaves a garland for Ganesh. Draping it down over his head and ears and raised right hand. If there is too much jasmine even for him, she braids the rest in to her hair or dusts the last blossoms over my night table.

As if becoming at home in Gokulam is not an entirely and overwhelmingly sensory affair.

I’ll spare you more of these details but will say the palette here—of touch, taste, etc.—is every bit itself. There are the obvious comparisons between Mysore and Luang Prabang, Cienfuegos, Esteli, Cuzco… other has-been provincial centers now home to cultural treasures, but not after the first few days. Other than breeze blocks and spindly men hauling concrete and gorgeous children asking for change, this place tastes, feels and smells only like itself to me.

By the way, because some were wondering, it is nice here. if April is as hot and dusty as it gets, well whatever. Go to the pool if you must. The health and congeniality of the street dogs signal to me India’s liminal economy… it’s getting harder to think of this as the third world. The pollution—consequence of industry—is really something; and to read the papers and talk to middle class Mysorians, there’s a potent social rage about it. Far greater concern about the environment here than in I-eat-organic-so-I’ll-be-fine, SUV-zombie LA. And in the meantime there is so much attention here to detoxing and balancing and cleanliness that it is easy to find respite from the dust and smoke of the streets. My now not-so-secret compulsion for clean, soft feet—easy to satisfy.

Some background conditions:

Everywhere there are poor, extremely hardworking, extremely smart working people. Rickshaw drivers, corner shop clerks, the young men selling jasmine. There is a hopefulness and a hunger in them, an eagerness to engage and very little resentment of the privilege I embody. Humbling.

The caste system is still very much at work, though the tourist contingent of Gokulam cuts through it in constantly contradictory ways. Still, Saraswathi reminds us that she can not have lunch at a fancy local restaurant because the kitchen is not Bramin; and a local boy who was bitten by a snake languished to the point that his arm went gangrenous because as an untouchable his arm was worth more to him as an alms-getting mess and besides nobody but a foreigner would take him to the hospital. What will that arm be worth now that it’s been severed? The quarter of society excluded from all but the bathroom-cleaning economy continues to be crushed by poverty, even in a town so richly infused by foreign money.

Floors everywhere are hard. I mentioned this to Laruga and she chuckled, too floaty to notice the marble just beneath the rug at the shala. For me, sitting on the floor to write is still a bit much after a while, even with durvasasna hips and the pillows Madama brought me.

It’s vegetarian. If India were some other place, there would be spits roasting pork and chicken legs in the streets. I love that this is absent, love the way a rickshaw driver will swing over to brush his hand out against the flanks of a passing cow, toss a glance back and explain, “Seh-cun(d) muutha—.” I’m good and jaded but it still gives me shudders—and images of fat Americans and their hamburgers.

Women keep their chests and shoulders covered. The soft rolled belly and the back—these are fine to expose. But a shawl is always worn, even by us Americans with our pants and camisoles.

There’s plentiful aromatic, beautiful weed. I’d have a bit more fun with the sweetest yogis ever if I cared. But whatever. Pot makes you stupid.

Ghee. Enough said.

There are so many layers of language, and not just sitting out under the shelter at Tina’s while the Swedes carry on to your left and the Mexicans across the table and the Japanese down the way. But it’s been almost impossible for me to pick up any Kaanada or Hindi. Nobody will even try to communicate with me in a local language. The precision of my experiences depends not on my ability to articulate questions and understand conversation, but on the ability of those around me to communicate in the one boring leveler I carry around in excess—English. Everyone speaks some English (even if it’s just on the level of recognizing the sounds and head-wobbling in response); and economic chances increase along with one’s English skills. What a frustrating coincidence—that America should be the hegemon in the era of digitized globalization. If only there had been TV in the 19th century, we’d all be speaking French.

Though it’s not Hindi or Kaanada that interest me but useless, perfect Sanskrit. I wonder if I’ll be able to resist it if I am here again. Saraswati is replacing conference this Sunday with a long session of Sanskrit chanting. Her voice when she speaks that language looks like liquid amber to me and feels like a container for whatever emotion I need to move in my body. God it’s so beautiful. There is Sanskrit around the shala and around Jayashree’s, around home temples and local rituals. There’s an anthropologist here and she speaks Kaanada and it gets her all kinds of knowledge. I should focus on that. But… oh the fucking esoteric Sanskrit. I love having it around the edges.

P.S. If you are interested in the Narasimhan commentary, I'll continue to drop bits in the previous and penultimate posts as I remember them. There's already been quite a bit added to the first of the two.


  • Posted 31 March 2009 at 12:18 pm | #

    Yes, more Narasimhan, please!

    Beautiful description of Mysore, Owl. Thanks.

  • Posted 31 March 2009 at 1:57 pm | #

    I will go back to my notes from him when I have some quiet time…

  • Posted 31 March 2009 at 2:32 pm | #

    Mon hibou!, but I love these posts. And to think, you had said you might not do any “mysore blogging”. Nevermind the photos! You’ve always said you’re not very visual, but these are so very.

    Petri’s here right now. Matthew Sweeney’ll be here soon. Got celebrities?

    P.S. I love softcleanfeet too.

  • Posted 31 March 2009 at 2:35 pm | #

    PSS, thanks for linking to that BBC documentary, I’m eating it up. It’s very beautiful! To my great relief there’s a minimum of “dramatic reenactments” (a couple of uncomfortable moments around the Rig Veda, that’s all so far), so my cheeks don’t burn. 😉

  • e&sj
    Posted 31 March 2009 at 8:21 pm | #

    Thank you for the poetic and insightful descriptions of what is mostly indescribable O Scribe.

    The Story of India is fantastically done. The music by Howard Davidson is lush and empathic. I just love this first scene: I have a copy of it and its one of the few videos I am am willing and able to watch more than once. There is just so much to learn of Bharata and how it has trickled down to our posh San Vicente/Montana abiding abodes from the physical postures to the metaphysical posturing.

  • knl
    Posted 31 March 2009 at 11:30 pm | #

    And I thought it was William Faulkner and New Albany, Mississippi that defined the allure of jasmine. It all sounds delicious.

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 10:22 am | #

    Oh yeah….

    Hey Petri, you should go to Montpellier! I heard the famous Joy Suzanne is there…

    As for Mysore blogging, well, I’m not writing about the scene (which is rapidly evaporating) because that would be boring and I actually agree with the awful legend of What happens in Mysore stays in Mysore. For the sake of good taste and because stories of the subculture don’t make a lot of sense without a bit of context. (I cannot believe I didn’t come here sooner, though I don’t know how I’d have done so. And while I always sensed it was inappropriate to teach the practice without spending time here to pay your respects, now I have many reasons why I feel that way.)

    Also, I’m not writing about my personal practice, where a large, really good tectonic shift is taking place, because… that would be weird in a lot of ways.

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 11:59 am | #

    hi (0v0)
    beautiful. makes me want to visit. if i go i hope that besides doing yoga, i would also see a lot of architecture. i agree with JS, your writing is like garlands.

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 12:42 pm | #

    “I always sensed it was inappropriate to teach the practice without spending time here to pay your respects”

    No doubt it would be a delicate subject to broach, but gosh, I’d like to hear more about that.

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 3:19 pm | #

    I can’t wait to go too! Do you know if there will be any shala closings anything in November and December?

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 3:53 pm | #

    Narasimhan commentary- yes! more!
    Wonderful writing… thanks! Jasmine. mmm mmmm. The photo makes it look light and almost liquid like something that should exist in the ocean.

  • Posted 1 April 2009 at 8:14 pm | #

    The academic in me heard the word “subculture” and began salivating. It’s funny how I experience my academic curiosity as totally separate from my yoga curiosity, when they are obviously (take a look at ANY blog post) quite closely related.

  • Posted 2 April 2009 at 10:01 am | #

    Really, if anyone has any “inside knowledge” ahem, inside owl…

    Could you ask around and try to find out about November and December? Does the shala normally close down at that time of the year, or are there any world-tours planned?

    I’d like to buy my ticket as soon as possible.

  • V
    Posted 2 April 2009 at 12:13 pm | #

    Hi Joy,

    Your best chance is probably to call the shala in Mysore and ask Sharath himself:

    phone: +91 9880185500

  • Posted 2 April 2009 at 1:16 pm | #

    Sharath says, “Check the website.” 🙂

    It’s always subject to change, but at this point he’s scheduled to be teaching abroad for much of the remainder of the year. No matter what, though, sounds like they’re doing something new: staying open. Saraswathi will teach alone when he’s away. And she is really something: now that the room is hers alone, she shows her truly big personality. A lot of people here have really strong feelings for her. Can’t deny I’m picking up on that too.

    Also, thanks Liz. 🙂

    And, I remembered another Narasimhan thing and took a couple of notes to come back and post it later.

  • Posted 3 April 2009 at 5:49 am | #

    hmmm, you keep mentioning the swedes… i wonder if there’s anyone i know who’s there now? i think everyone left already?

    jasmine, mmmm….

  • Posted 3 April 2009 at 1:57 pm | #

    Saw four Swedes at the pool today, including an adorable guy named Per? Keep your eyes open for Laruga. She’s AWESOME and should be rolling in soon, staying 5 weeks. Tell her you are a dear friend of mine…

  • Posted 3 April 2009 at 4:45 pm | #

    oh, i know! (happen to know whom she’s visiting 🙂 let’s hope then i’ll have the pleasure! and sorry, i can’t recall that i know any ashtangi by that name, if you send me a pic i’ll know who to look for, he he.

  • Posted 7 April 2009 at 12:06 am | #

    Chitta, I kept trying to photo the Swedes for you but they eluded me! Look for new arrivals with little sunburns…?

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