Archives for posts with tag: India

On 2 November in my room at the Taj Palace, watching Indian state tv was like watching science fiction; with expressionless humanoid faces telling us not to believe “rumors of communal violence.” As I watched Rajiv light his mother’s funeral pyre on television, I could coincidentally look out the window at a column of smoke rising in the distance. Indira Gandhi’s body going up in flames or another Sikh home? There was no way for me to know, as these were simultaneous phenomena. So, what was the point of the television lie? Another trait India holds in common with the western democracies – ‘what you’re told isn’t the reality.’

Meanwhile I’d picked up a security detail shadowing me, no one believed for a New York second I was Old Babette’s grandson. It’d been better if she’d said nothing. I took care of that with fortuitous circumstance. I was sitting in a lounge in the morning when some vile looking, dowdy and incredibly wealthy (her gold and jewels hanging on her like kites tangled in utility wires) old woman decided to abandon her huge purse that appeared to be so heavy as to be filled with gold bars and leave the room. I spotted my security man across the room in a doorway, looking the other way. I walked swiftly over to him and, without mentioning the owner, I told him “There is an untended bag.” He immediately followed me into the lounge where I pointed out the purse, as it happened the old woman was returning to claim it. After, there was no further suspicions; they didn’t care who I was, other than an extra set of security eyes. No one wanted a bomb going off. A little later I frightened the ‘bejezuz’ out of myself with a stupid trick. Heading back to my room I turned the corner to see the elevator doors were beginning to close. With a sprint & leap worthy of some caped hero, I flew into the elevator as the door closed behind me: squarely into some VIP”s armed security detail! And fortunately for me, sans VIP. I wasn’t shot. If only they’d taken a photo of my face in that moment, some things are absolutely priceless. Recovering my composure in the stare of several ‘men-in-black’ security types, I simply said “Sorry” and pushed the elevator button to my level.

3 November simply dragged on in some sort of time warp that makes a day seem as though it will never end, as Indian television insisted despite rumors, there was no communal violence. Meanwhile I’d encountered an American who said a mob had boarded at a stop and killed Sikhs on the train he’d taken to Delhi.

Meanwhile Old Babette had been showering me with promises. Grateful, at least momentarily, for engineering our escape, she insisted I was going to be put up in Cairo and take a boat tour with her on the Nile, all on her dime. I listened but said nothing. Underneath, both of us knew we were absolutely incompatible personalities. That, and I recalled her brief episode of delusional belief she was a siren of eternal youth. That made me more paranoid than the rioting city we were looking to escape.

On the morning of the 4th, the Guardian Angel Sister’s Muslim travel agent manifest, to be certain Old Babette and myself made it onto the airport shuttle. For that fact, I totally forgive her for -on my departing the Hotel Imperial- passing off to me two, inferior quality, counterfeit USD$100 bills as a means of getting rid of them. On the other hand, her Bandit Sister was prone to absolutely angel moments (time to time.)

Cairo

Cairo

In our (cheap) silk kimono jackets courtesy of 1st class tickets on Japan Airline, we were among the first people out of Delhi. No sooner than we we’re in the air, Old Babette’s immense gratitude began to wane; she  was certain I wouldn’t mind a 2nd class hotel in Cairo. The truth is, other than reassurance as escort on absolutely insane taxi rides, there hadn’t been much I’d done she couldn’t have done for herself. It was the Muslim friend of the Guardian Angel Sister had made our departure possible. I don’t know if Old Babette had ‘male companion’ in mind for Egypt, but as far as I was concerned we were parting ways. As we were disembarking our plane in Cairo, her plans for us were getting reiterated and I said nothing until we’d passed through customs; her needing assistance with luggage, and myself with two carry on totality of luggage, I turned to her and said “I’ll take a rain-check” with a wave of the hand I strode away .. and the look of complete surprize-shock-amazement on her face was the last I ever saw of Old Babette.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

 

Humpty_Dumpty

The term ‘surrealism’ in the common vernacular is about more than any school of art or literature. In the collective conscious of humanity, it is sometimes expressed in the vulgar tongue as ‘shit happens’ .. as when life itself becomes surreal. As surreal as my adventure might have seemed to now, suddenly it took on that psychosis that does not belong to the ego of any one individual, no matter it was both; arrogance & narcissism of the individual had initiated some few days mayhem & bedlam worthy of some South Asian ‘El Greco’ portrait. Except these inmate behaviors were exterior to the walls of the asylum. But first:

Indira Gandhi was an arrogant woman. From the time of the so-called ‘Emergency’, it was clear India is no exception to the general rule of democracy; it is the selfish ambition of the individual rises to rule, and the rights of the ‘little people’ are run over. After, when a militant Sikh separatist had taken over the Golden Temple (some would justly believe he’d been radicalized by Gandhi’s Congress party acts) she could have waited him out. Instead, this woman had her army storm the Sikh sacred temple, as Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was an affront to her ego. Her long time body guard, the Sikh Beant Singh, consequently ended her life. Then, Gandhi’s Congress party empowered a massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. This is what I’d been caught up in. These organized (by Indian Congress Party officials who’ve never been held to account) riots were from the evening of 31 October, the day Gandhi was assassinated, through the evening of 3 November, when the authorities finally began moving to have order restored. Meanwhile, thousands of Sikhs had been murdered and countless Sikh businesses and homes damaged or destroyed. The Hotel Imperial was a Sikh owned and operated business.

Delhi_4_Nov_exit

I managed to get out of Delhi (and India) on 4 November and needless to say, I am no fan of the Gandhi dy’nasty.’ Reflecting on these events is not fun but I’ll seize any black humor opportunity in the narratives that follow.

The Hotel Imperial is first of all, a walled fortress. A late colonial period construction, it was probably built with defensive features in case of rebellion. There was a large population of Sikhs in the neighborhood and this resulted in two phenomena; every Sikh in the area that could make it alive, came to Hotel Imperial for refuge … and Hotel Imperial became a point of focus for the anti-Sikh mob or what was essentially an organized pogrom. It wasn’t the Alamo, but the potential for one seemed real.

Insofar as the surrealism, imagine this: after their evening dinner, European tourists are camped in lounge chairs in the garden by the pool, with waiters serving drinks while profoundly apologizing; for the occasional Molotov cocktail that comes sailing over the wall.

The morning of 1 November, I tested the waters beyond the walls; it was quiet during the day. Walking out the gate in my western clothes, past the Sikh guard contingent, I drew looks from the Hindu mob’s sentries across the street but no one made any move to accost me. Taxi fares were over the moon. You could get rides for wads of American dollars but it was clearly dangerous. I made it to the American embassy where I gave the details of our party and asked for their assessment. They said there appeared to be no hostilities directed at westerners but frequenting any Sikh neighborhood or associated business was definitely not good. I inquired what area of the city was secure and they recommended any hotel in the ‘diplomatic enclave’ as that was the only area the army had moved to secure. Back at the Hotel Imperial, I gave my report. Old Babette wanted out. The Guardian Angel Sister was more philosophical; “Oh, I love these Sikhs, I’ll stay here.” Of course that would have nothing to do with her carpets arranged for export having been commandeered to fortify windows; where muskets that looked to have been retrieved from a colonial museum were manned from behind her precious bales.

Meanwhile, Old Babette and myself struck a deal – using her money and my experience, we’d get out.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

Varanasi III

Somehow I suspect the whole of the western counter-culture scene in India has roots in combination of beat poets (YUCK!) fused with LSD via one highly dubious character named Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass. I recall reading his ‘Be Here Now’ in 1976, as it was recommended to me by a friend I knew from my high school days in Montana. By this time this friend was an enlightened dope dealer, so Jasper® cannot be considered unique in that regard. In fact it was this same enlightened friend had introduced me to the sisters, in 1979, and that’s no small coincidence. Think about it. An enlightened dope dealer in Montana introduces me to the sisters who introduce me to an enlightened dope dealer in India. Goes around, comes around. So, what jumped out at me when reading ‘Be Here Now’ was Alpert, while visiting India, had a yogi eat enough LSD to make five people high for 2 days. The yogi went on meditating and after some hours finally looked at Alpert and flatly stated “So, what?” What Alpert had done was like serving up five Big Macs® to a guy who’d eaten ‘The Texas King’ steak in Amarillo, Texas, in less than one hour (a deliberate bad metaphor.) And that was an ‘Aha!’ moment for Alpert. I happened to have a glossy photo of Alpert came with a magazine together with the book, and I hung Alpert’s portrait on the inside of the door into the rural slum apartment I lived in at the time; and drove slender steel darts into it from an aluminum tube converted to a blow-gun. Reading the book had been a waste of time. Or better said, Alpert writing the book had been a waste of time. Monty Python’s ‘Brian’ had summed it up best: “You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves!”

Ok, so I promised Jasper® would impress me and he did; here is how it came off. Following the evening of floating the Diwali candles, we had the next day off, nothing was scheduled. Mid-morning on that day, Jasper® invited me to take a walk to an open market and I went along. We arrived somewhat early, the area was not yet incredibly jammed with people bustling about business and Jasper® dressed in native costume of a sadhu and carrying his large set of fire tongs, gave a sermon. I had no idea what he was saying, as the sermon was delivered in Hindi, but people were stopping and listening, more and more people as Jasper® went on and on. After a little while, he had a devoted audience of more than 100. There was full confidence in the lesson he was delivering, it was obviously authentic, you could judge that from the reaction of the crowd. I’d never seen anything like it; this tall, thin Anglo-Saxon with full beard and long hair dressed as a native holy man and making it work, manifesting his knowledge of the Hindu scriptures to a crowd he pulled out of thin air. I doubt it crossed the mind of a single person present this was an opium junkie. Clearly, Jasper® had put a lot of sweat equity into his learning … and I could only wonder if this suddenly manifest, authentic Nath Sadhu, Ram Giri, was even aware of the other Jasper®.

That evening, the Tibetan and myself rented a small rowboat and went to the ‘Burning Ghats.’ It is here bodies are burned, day and night, prior to the ashes pushed into the Ganges River. In the Hindu tradition, this is a desirable place to end this existence; bodies are transported from far away, those who can afford it, to be disposed of here.  It was well after dark, and when about 15 meters (50 feet) from a funeral, I stopped our boat and we watched. We could hear some conversation and suddenly the Tibetan was translating for me. There was a body, its’ feet sticking out of the piled branches, about to be set on fire and the undertaker was telling a family member of the corpse … “Everything has gone perfectly, don’t mess it up by arguing the price now!”

The next day, we stepped onto a plane to Kathmandu.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

Varanasi II

Jasper® had been eying myself as though I were a freak enigma, I’d noticed. Not more than one sixteenth (my two strongest lines are Dane & Ruysn) of any ancestral heritage, a Vietnam veteran from the Rocky Mountains who domiciled with Blackfeet Indians. I was pitched by the sisters as the ‘wild man’ along on this dubious pilgrimage. Now, it so happened the ‘Bandit Sister’ liked my company and we shared ‘war stories’, not about war per se, but about those numerous compromising circumstance and odd events that make life interesting. And I noticed Jasper® liked to position himself, unobtrusively, so as to overhear our conversation. Clearly, this was about trying to get some sense of just what this strange Ron West humanoidish thing was, without committing himself to direct interaction. Meanwhile, I had determined Jasper® was certainly intelligent but wary of being a fish out of water. He was competent to do a few things in this life; that is superficially escape his aristocratic English origins while alternating between lives as an somewhat infamous counter-culture figure and a nearly authentic sadhu. But, as previously noted by a certain baba, Jasper® could never really altogether live the latter, on account of his inability to surrender the former. And he was most certainly insecure on account of this and protected himself from keenly penetrating intellect that were outside his comfort zone and I was outside that zone. But now this would change.

The sisters had rented a large wooden boat for the day, the kind with a long oar that could be used as a pole, complete with a boatman. We initially used this craft to take us across the Ganges River, away from and upstream from the ‘ghats’, to a beach that was fairly isolated. And it was here several of us did a ritual bathing in the river according to Hindu tradition. For myself, it was an anthropological interest as much as anything, I was along for the ride and curious. Now, this ‘remission of sins’ or ‘cleansing’ is to do with the goddess Ganga and a whole lot of mythic history I won’t go into here. I’ll say nothing to upset this goddess, as I was so loaded with sins, these innumerable acts insisted on leaving my person by route of my ear in the form of a fungus; so effective was this cleansing bath. This fact would detour my fate, at a future time.

That evening, back in the care of our boatman, we lit our Diwali candles in a little boat shaped leaf, and sent them floating on the river. Each of us was supposed to say something significant for ourselves as we, one by one, lit the candle and released these votive offerings to float away. Here was my chance at Jasper® and it broke him down, he was afterwards actually able to open up a little bit and share some stories.

Diwali_Lamps

When I’d lit my little fire ship and sent it on its’ short lived journey, I uttered a calm speech that was one part eloquence, one part philosophy and one part self-deprecating humor, all intermixed, as I noted the little boat’s fire sputtered on as my life had sputtered on, against all odds. Jasper® was transfixed, giving me a combined penetrating stare-look of amazement. I’d got to him. Now, I’ll be the  first to admit I have no idea what would be the mental construct of a high IQ having been raised a British aristocrat turned rebellious, and after, living a schizophrenic life bouncing between the drug imbibing western counter-culture and ascetic life as sadhu in India, but I wanted some of his stories. And Jasper® delivered. Looking back, some of what he became comfortable confiding in my presence, is nothing short of amazing. But as my style is deconstructing western culture, a dedicated hobby, I’ll restrict my retelling of Jasper®’s anecdotes to one incidence, incredibly socially incriminating, as well as politically salacious. More on that, later. But now it was Jasper®’s turn to impress myself and he delivered, to be found in the next chapter.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

Varanasi I

On my first full day in Varanasi proper, I dove into the crowd in that city, simply to know the experience. The humanity in motion, in this area of no vehicles, is an experience I won’t recommend to the typical westerner; for the simple reason they’d not manage the etiquette well. It requires an instinct. ‘Like ants’ dwarfing any Cecil B DeMille movie scene, transiting the crowd is like mastering an art. With what seemed two centimeters or one inch, maximum space between pedestrians, if that, in a vast sea of people, all in constant motion, there is no jostling, or even contact, AT ALL. You understand you cannot stop and interrupt the flow and nobody does. Like moving with diverse currents in a river, or rivers within rivers, there are eddies where people ingress, and exit. To intelligently traverse from starting point, to destination, you must know how to read the current and align yourself like a molecule of water within the flow, in the desired direction. Now, having said that, I will add I am not satisfied with the description. Even Saigon, as crowded as the streets of that city could be, and where I had enjoyed wandering on several extended occasions, paled by comparison, this was in my thoughts. The experience really does defy words, at least for me. As I observed all of this, in my first ever immersion in any such circulation of humanity, I somehow managed it. I was later to sort this incredible human density was on account of many tens of thousands of pilgrims in the city, to celebrate Dwali or ‘Festival of The Lights’ And there is no way I was ready for what came that evening.

I’d been out and about until it was past drawing dusk, and with the onset of dark, all hell broke loose. The tens of thousands pilgrims, every citizen in the city, and this had to include every beggar saving for the occasion, had bought firecrackers to celebrate. And these were not the tame explosives Americans played with on the Fourth of July, these were what we call ‘cherry bombs’ & ‘M-80s.’ These were powerful explosive devices and sometimes indiscriminately tossed. One went off about a meter in front of me, about chest height, as I was nearly back into the hotel. I didn’t flinch, by now I was in the psychological combat shell of my war zone days. The din was incredible and only growing. I went to my room and reflected on what it must have been like in Saigon for Tet offensive, 1968, a famously intense battle for that city, an event I missed by two years. This was probably a more intense noise, I thought. The intensity sustained, for hours.

The Asians had come up with an explosive substance to create fire crackers for purpose of frightening away bad spirits, the purpose driving that evening’s chaos. The Europeans, having co-opted the Asian invention, were most adept at utilizing the modified substance, renamed ‘gun powder’, to a metal barrel for purpose of hurling a destructive projectile and world history was changed in a few short generations; with firearms combined to the ‘age of discovery’ and resultant colonialism. I wondered if the irony had ever crossed the thoughts of those Indians who considered the British Raj the work of a demon:

Revolt of 1857

^ ‘Blowing from a Gun’ depicted by Vasily Vereshchagin in his painting ‘Suppression of the Indian Revolt by the English’ on the events of 1857. Queen Victoria’s agent bought this painting, in an attempt to suppress it. ‘Blowing from the Gun’ was a means of execution where the prisoner is tied to the muzzle of a cannon, which is then fired, popping the victim’s head about 15 meters (50 feet) into the air, apparently a sort of juvenile entertainment for the executioners

I recall reflecting on these sort of thoughts as I sequestered myself in the hotel for the duration of that evening. The day had, into evening, recalled both; the best and the worst of my experience in Vietnam, an American attempt at social engineering, with hindsight wisdom, I have come to call ‘neo-colonialism.’

This was the only time in India where my nerves were actually somewhat raw, this despite negotiating an exit from some very real violence, on a quite large scale, before the trip was out. Of course my interpretation of the city’s festival is at odds with its intent; but it was Socket™ had informed me the cotton pashmina scarf I’d bought in Varanasi was ‘auspicious’ on account of it was of a checkered design preferred by Indira Ghandi. I’d actually thought it was Palestinian motif. For some, it would seem everything in India is seen in a sense of omen.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

Marie

Prior to this trip to India, I’d had a dream. It’s not easy to describe this sort of dream, an experience that actually does comes across as traveling back in time. In this dream I saw a far away place, not in physical distance but from the very distant past. There was a haze in the atmosphere of what appeared to be tropical landscape, a panorama. There was a single word spoken, Dravidian, and the sensation was profound. After, I had to look the word up. ‘Dravidian’ indicated a people of south Asian origin, I discovered, most of them located in India, indigenous Indians from long ago, if you will. If you took the modern aspect away from the landscape of India in 1984, the two panorama were essentially the same, the dream and the reality. It so happens, my great-great grandmother was Romani of (genetic studies have since determined) Indian-Dravidian descent. I don’t have a photograph of her or her daughter, but I do have a photo of her quarter Gypsie granddaughter, my grandmother (together with my grandfather.) If western civilization doesn’t blow itself entirely to bits, prior to environmental collapse, maybe we’ll have enough time left to sort there is much more to genetic memory than had ever been assumed by science, to now. I was completely comfortable in India, from the beginning, as if it had always been my home. And my great-great grandmother’s genes were turning me black in the tropical sun. Back in Delhi, in native dress, the street vendors were not giving me a second glance.

We’d visited Dehradun, made famous in the West by Kipling, and experienced the very excellent hospitality of a Tibetan community there. One wonders what had gone wrong with Western culture, when compared to people elsewhere, and the many non-European peoples ability to be so much more open, compassionate and welcoming. After a couple of days, back in Delhi again, we departed for Varanasi.

We checked into a small hotel whose proprietor was of the Brahmin caste. The one sister, our patron saint & guardian angel, who’d utilized this establishment in the past, and had earned some privilege for bringing business, clucked about like a mother hen while examining the courtyard inside; finally rendering her verdict .. with stating “I’m disappointed, it used to be cleaner here.” The Brahmin made a point of looking directly at Jasper® & Socket™ when replying “You’re right.” I saw it the Brahmin’s way, the hotel premises looked quite ok.

I knew practically nothing about Varanasi and the week spent there is the stuff of upcoming stories, there was much to experience. But first, our side trip to nearby Sarnath was interesting to me on account of having read Herman Hesse’s ‘Sidhartha.’ That, and the Tibetan and I were becoming quite good friends and he was able to inform myself on much of the history and culture surrounding Buddhism, an interest that was to continue, even if I cannot state I am a good Buddhist or even a Buddhist at all. But certainly some tenents integrated to my ‘practice’ of life are similar or identical to those of Buddhism.

My personal acquaintance Karl Schlesier, the well known ‘action anthropologist’ & authority on Cheyenne culture, once related to myself a conversation he’d had with a friend who was very well studied in Buddhism. Together, they’d arrived at a conclusion – with the exception of differing views on the transmigration of the soul, and a few cultural strictures – the essential underlying philosophies of Cheyenne culture & Buddhism, were remarkably similar, in fact nearly identical. The Tibetan and myself had a very similar experience; between us, we’d come up with around three dozen identical, or near identical, philosophical/cultural practices in day to day life – and related taboos – shared between the Buddhist Tibetan culture he was raised in, and (Cheyenne relatives) the Blackfeet culture I had been immersed in.

What some of my readers might not know is, Buddhism was born in India. Today, India has the 10th largest Buddhist population in the world at seven million. Buddhism once rivaled Hinduism as India’s major philosophy or religion, with Hinduism reasserting itself over Buddhism in India, due to certain historical factors, about 1,500 years ago. The two religions share a ceremony, Dwali, which was interesting to me, having participated in the Hindu tradition on my visit to Varanasi (more on that later) with sending a lit candle to float on the Ganges and 30 years after, having seen monks from Thailand fill a pool at a temple in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to float Dwali candles in the Hinayana Buddhist tradition.

At Sanarth, we walked around the ancient stupas and saw the Bodhi tree. The tree is, according to tradition, an offspring of the very tree Buddha had sat under, at that location, when giving his first teaching.

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My Madcap Adventure (all episodes)

Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

ganesh

Tales of a 1984 Journey to India

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 1 From Indian country to India

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 2 New Delhi, round one

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 3 On character

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 4 Into the Himalayan foothills

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 5 Sanarth & the Buddha

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 6 Varanasi part one

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 7 Varanasi part two

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 8 Varanasi part three

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 9 Katmandu

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 10 Trisuli River

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 11 Chitwan National Park

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 12 Katmandu reprise

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 13 Back to Hotel Imperial

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 14 The riots begin

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 15 To the Taj Palace Hotel

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 16 Out of Delhi!

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 17 Cairo-London-New York

My Madcap Adventure, Episode 18 Aftermath

My Madcap Adventure, Epilogue (Notes) corrections/disclaimers

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Letter to the De Sousa clan of India

All stories copyright Ⓒ 2015 by Ronald Thomas West: For profit & mass paper media redistribution prohibited

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