It was a gorgeous day today. After three days of drizzle and heavy rain and 35* cold the morning dawned with promise. The clouds were thin and wispy, scuttling across the sky. Just beginning to break up with hints of blue here and there, with enough silver and gray in the clouds to remind one that it was still winter. But by noon all had dissipated. Nothing but blue skies and sunshine.
I’m sipping a warm, smokey scotch, re-working portions of the manuscript tonight, trying feverishly to complete the India portion before I head back to cubicle-land Tuesday.
Last night I had a long conversation with a writer friend about India and it helped put into perspective much of what transpired there. I’ve certainly been hard on India in many of my latest posts. But I think it’s important to note that I’m not so much hard on India as trying to correct the huge mis-perception corporate and political folks in America have about the place. A few days ago I alluded to some of the good things that happened to me in India and felt like sharing.
There is no place on the planet where culture is so raw, in your face and real. India, if it is anything at all, is its culture. And that’s what makes the place so rich in paradox and so attractive. I did, after all, visit the place three times. And after writing fifty pages on the country I have a strange desire to return–but only to Kerala. If I never see the Gangetic Plain ever again, I am okay with that. And yet . . .
There is an unspeakable attraction to India. No where in the world are the colors as vibrant, the fruits and vegetables as colorful (and poisonous), and the characters as diverse as they are in India. India, in many ways, encompasses the world. The Chinese have often spoken of their country as the Middle Kingdom, with the implication that all that is the world is in China. But that’s not the case. There is a lot of diversity in China, but not like there is in India. The last forty years of economic growth in China have homogenized vast swathes of the country. China isn’t as diverse today as it was the first time I visited in 1995. White tile and blue glass windowed high rises litter the country. A certain uniformity is a work. But not in India.
In India anything goes. In the West, (and in the Far East) we tend to hide, lock up or punish societal deviancy. And I use a small ‘d’ here. I am not talking about sexual deviancy, although that is a part of it. I’m talking about non-conforming deviancy; people who deviate from the societal norm.
For example: cross-dressers in India have a cultural role to play. They show up at weddings and children’s birthdays as entertainment. They are paid–more like bribed to leave. And yet, I talked with several Indians who said, “it’s horrible luck if they don’t show up.” But here’s the thing: once you are a cross dresser, once that choice is made, you can never go back to any other kind of life. India institutionalizes its deviancy. It doesn’t physically lock its deviants away, but it does lock them into a societal role, where they have a larger purpose in the chaos that is daily life in India. They are accepted. And tolerated. (Of course there are always exceptions.)
Another example is potheads. Marijuana and hash are illegal in India. Unless you buy it from a government sponsored shop. For foreigners its okay. And the only Indian allowed to purchase it legally are the multiplicity of sadhus wandering around the country. Again, for everyday Indians: no go. But if you are a Holy Man? It’s understood. So, if you are a pothead, in essence, you are a holy man. And your deviance from the norm of society is institutionalized. Order is restored.
These are but two small examples of the larger cultural and societal role of the caste system. There are serious problems with the caste system. Is India addressing it? Yes. But India is probably the most cultural static place on the planet. Culture changes very, very slowly in India. There is no judgement in this. It is what it is. It’s also what makes India an amazing and infuriating place. The modern world is colliding with India and the Indians are just as bewildered as the foreigners are who visit there.
Of course, I didn’t go to India for spiritourism. I discussed this with a friend a while back. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop a few weeks ago when Reyes showed up.
“Whatcha writing, white-boy?” Reyes asks me.
“I’m writing a story about how filthy and poor India is and why you don’t want to visit,” I said.
“You are always complaining about India. Didn’t you derive at least some spiritual benefit from the place? I mean, you’re Buddhist, right?” he said, wiggling his pug nose in disgust. His brown eyes were bloodshot after a long night of tequila, Tecate and football.
“Indians are Hindhu, you ugly Mexican. And No,” I said. “I didn’t go to India to find myself spiritually or to hang out in an ashram or learn the meaning of life or any of that nonsense.”
“Why did you go, then?” He asked.
“Cuz it was there.”
And that is why I went. It was on the way. It was either cross the Bay of Bengal on the Tiger Breeze and up through Central Asia, or go through China and Russia. Of course it worked out differently, but I did go to India because it was on the way.
But, something strange, even kind of spiritual happened to me while I was there. It was a subtle development, if anything can be subtle in India. I learned new things about myself.
As I said to my friend last night when asked, “what did you take away from India?”
“I learned that I have a deep, deep, deep well of patience. I have more patience than I ever thought I had. All kinds of craziness can be going on around me, all kinds of annoyances, all kinds of expectations can be dashed, and at least 95% of the time I was completely calm,” I said.
“Oh, listen, I am not mother Theresa, nor do I have the patience of a Buddha, okay? I did have a few India moments. That happens to everyone. But I learned very quickly that there was nothing I could do to change any of what was happening. No matter how much I pouted, moaned, yelled, snapped at people, nothing changed. I had to accept life for what it was. For that very moment.”
I smiled. Took another sip of my drink, and continued, “And there was another gift: I gave up on the world. I came to the conclusion that the fabric of the cosmos was going to be just fine without me. Without my worries, without my complaints. No matter what I thought, the world would continue to spin on its axis, the sun would rise and the moon would set. The waves would crash and the birds would chirp. The monkeys would howl and jabber all night. Dogs would bark. Drivers would pull in front of me. Politicians would lie. Life would go on. My job in life now was simply to observe.”
To observe. Or, as my Zen master would say, “Attention!”
The music is fading and it’s growing late. The melted ice spoils the taste of good scotch. The ashtray overflows.
But good things happened to me in India. And for that, I am grateful.