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.