Thursday, October 20, 2011

I don't mind living this way

for Gary Snyder

the trees kneeling heavy
with hibiscus flowers
flowing onto
the ground invisible
hair threading fallen
stars stamen reaching
to drink soil sodden
with urine squirting
between the young girl's
twig thighs as she traces
the fountain's arc
shiny twin moons facing
the world i don't mind
traffic hooting a shrill
concubine with many
urges panting spewing
throttling groans i feel
i am interrupting a lover
go quickly to my own
business i don't mind
the filth garbage
pouring out of crevices
from the side-walk open
sewers exposing
pleasure-smeared innards
our body tries so hard
to conceal i don't mind
bone fingers raking
moldy fruit on an aching
cart face smile-smitten
mouth drenched red light
open inviting i don't
mind living this way.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Easy Driver

The driver sent by Easy Driver driver rental services was turning out to be less easy than anticipated. He had shown up on time as per his telephone call to me but when I stepped out ready to leave, he was no where to be found.

"Arre, kaha hai!' I finally called him on his cell phone exasperated.

"Yaho hoon," he replied, "Gaadi ke pass."

How on earth would he know which car was mine amongst the scores of cars parked in the garage in the basement of the apartment building! He was just loitering by the cars, hoping that I would show up there to point out the right one. I sent the car keys down to him with the watchman then waited, along with my four year old daughter, for him to show up with the car.

When there was no sign of either the car or driver several minutes later, I called to the watchman to find out where he was. The watchman came back with the news that the driver was waiting in the car for us, the engine all started and ready to go.

"Tell him to bring the car up !" I roared. Surely, any driver should know that you have to pick the passenger up from the entrance of the building, not send them down with you to the basement! Now, my daughter was sure to be late for school, something I wanted to avoid at all costs unless I wanted a repeat of the silent treatment I received yesterday when I picked up my daughter ten minutes late, where the staff looked at me disapprovingly but did say a word.

And then I remembered we had to fill gas.

"Gas dalne ka hai," I told the driver in my broken Hindi. We had just returned after two decades of living in the U.S., but I could not blame living in America for my Hindi being so bad; that credit went to living in South India for the first decade of my life, and then moving to an anglicized school in Bombay where not knowing how to speak Hindi was "cool."

Ten minutes later, we were at a gas station, going right past the long lines of people waiting at the pump. I brightened up when I thought that Ramesh had an insider connection at this station to bypass lines, but then I knew something was amiss when the attendant started checking the tires for air.

"Arre, petrol dalne ka hai!" I spurted out.

"Par tumne bola gas," he muttered as he took me to the end of the petrol line.

So, I acknowledged that I had used my American terminology of "gas" instead of "petrol," but surely Ramesh could have seen that the gas, I mean petrol, gauge was empty. I missed my full-time driver of two weeks terribly at the moment--we had decided to let him go when we sent him out to buy chicken this past Saturday and he turned up two days later giving us two different stories--one, that the police had held him at the police station, and the other that his creditors had kept him. I resigned myself to receiving the silent treatment at my daughter's school today as well.

On the way back, I wondered if I had slipped in too easily into the memsahib role, expecting too much of household help without giving them their due respect as my employees. Perhaps going from not having any help at all, and being the driver, cook, maid, nanny in addition to holding a part-time job in San Francisco, to suddenly having all these chores lifted away miraculously all in a matter of weeks might have been too much for me to handle, and to fill my freed-up time I had taken to snapping at the help to give me something to do! I was immediately filled with remorse and struck up a conversation with Ramesh to atone for my lack of patience. I asked him how long he'd been with Easy Driver.

"Ek saal," he replied. "Yai mein part-time karta hoon."

So, he'd been working for one year without being fired; he could not be so bad.
What did he do full-time? I asked.

Turned out he was a milk-man, had been so for twenty-five years, and his family had been in the business for forty years. He was not your ordinary milk-man just delivering milk packets from the local dairy depot to your door, but the real thing--a milk man with a cow, no seven cows! He delivered fresh milk to customers morning and evening, and signed up for slots with Easy Drive in the afternoon.
Enthralled, I started to ask him all sorts of questions about the cows. I had not thought about cows too much since returning to India a month ago, except for my daughters excited exclamations of "Wow, look at that Keow!" every time we passed one by on the road.

The driver told us that two decades ago he had come from Andhra and had taken a family house not too far away from my current apartment and the government had given him cows to start a business. He'd started with twenty-two cows, but now had just seven.

I began to envision cows mooing and chewing cud beside a small shed of a house, and the milkman or his wife milking the cows early morning. How did they all fit in his property? Was his house very big? The questions came rolling out.

Of course they did not live in his house, the milk man retorted. Did I not know how much cows smell with their urine and dung? The government put up all the cows in a pen not too far away; there were a good two hundred cows there, each owned by different milkmen.

It was my turn to feel foolish, but I was also excited as I had read about the benefits of drinking raw, unpasteurized milk. I told Ramesh about an article I had recently read in The Times of India about slum dwellers in Bombay who made a living by emptying out a quarter from each packet of milk from the large dairies and replacing it with whitened water. The alternative was vaccum-sealed milk in boxes, but fresh milk from cows sounded so much better!

Cooperative milk is just powder, Ramesh agreed vociferously. He had worked in a cooperative dairy and knew that himself as a fact. And as for the health-benefits of drinking his own milk...why, he drank two gallons of it everyday straight after milking it from the cow, along with six raw eggs!

I told him to sign us up and start delivery right away.

How many cows did I want milk from? he inquired.

Would I need milk from more than one cow? Wouldn't one cow provide a liter of milk for our family? I asked.

Arre, he exclaimed. Milk from all cows are mixed and then given to customers. If requested, he could give me milk from a single cow.

Why would I want milk from a single cow? I asked innocently.

Did I not know that milk from many cows was much stronger than milk from a single cow! I should know that especially, with a small child," he said, exasperated.

I felt even more foolish.

Never give milk from a cow who has just given birth, he said sagely. Wait for at least three months and then start."

Seeing me hang on to his every word, he continued, Also for very little children, up to two years, you give them a thimble full at a time to build immunity and then you can give a full glass.

When are you going to start us on your milk? I practically begged. But, then I hesitated. How I could be certain that he was not adulterating the milk himself?

He looked mortified. Adulterate? Never! The references came pouring out. The pediatrician in the building next door had been buying milk from him for the past twenty years, as had the engineer in the flat behind us. His milk was shudh.

By now, he had become a man-God in my eyes, a veritable Hanuman--strong, pure, and with the goodness and purity of milk. Like Krishna, he had deigned to be the driver of my humble Maruti, and had dispensed his knowledge to me. I would forever be beholden to him as I drank my chai in the morning and evenings, ate my paneer and dhai, and cooked my food with the ghee made from his milk. Kya Easy Driver ka kamaal hai!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pilgrimage to Masai Mara, Kenya: Tourist Depot, Sacred Site

Coming around a steep bend, the great Rift Valley suddenly reveals itself, Earth’s underbelly exposed by a rupture in its crust millions of years ago, sparse and desolate as the ocean floor. We have to descend into the heart of this valley to get to Masai Mara, one of the last remaining places on Earth where you can still find animals on land as plentiful as they are in the oceans, and you can experience for a few days what it means to be just one more animal among many.

We boarded our mini-van with great anticipation shortly after the sun rose in Nairobi, three generations of us squeezed in three rows along with our driver Isaac, a native Kenyan and veteran guide. After a few hours of being jostled around on pebbly, pot-holed roads, we finally entered the official gates of the Masai Mara national game reserve.

But, we felt we had truly arrived only once we had our first animal sighting--in this case, a trio of giraffes ambling gracefully, heads amongst trees. In the past, Africans believed that giraffes connected humans to the sky Gods, but to us, road-thrashed travelers, the giraffes we saw were more like divine door-keepers, allowing us to pass through tall columns of their legs to enter the world of the wild.

Moments later, we all turned into kids yelling “zebra crossing” as a troop of zebras crossed the road in front of us. Their stripes befuddled our eyes, turning into haze in the heat and dust. A slender string of wildebeest followed, but Isaac was not impressed by the small numbers and dolefully shook his head. We had specifically timed our trip during this time of the year to witness the annual migration of the wildebeest and zebra, one of the last great animal migrations over land. The sight of them crossing the Mara river in the Masai Mara, undeterred by the crocodiles that feasted on the weaker animals in the herd was much photographed and documented, and one that we hoped we could catch, but the few odd wildebeest were a far cry from the million strong that should have been present by this time.

"The Tanzanians are keeping the wildebeest on their side by giving them water," Isaac complained. And when we inquired why they would want to do that, he retorted, "To keep the tourists, of course!"

Wildebeest aside, over the next few days we ratcheted up an impressive number of sightings, all within the safety of our van. Much like a submarine, our van let us descend onto this erstwhile sea-bed, an ancient world from the past with birds and animals of every shape, size and color, and not too much human intervention other than us tourists. Best of all, in our van, we were on par with the strongest and fastest of the animals.

From our safe shore, we drank in the wildlife surrounding us. We spotted a pack of spotted hyenas, lower jaws square and powerful enough to crunch bone, dragging their shorter hind legs behind them; further ahead, a family of elephants beat the ground to release water from their legs; several species of antelope munched on the sparse vegetation—the miniature dik-dik, Thomson gazelles with their striped horns, the slightly larger Topi, and the largest deer of all—the great Eland with horns thick as tree branches. Packs of wild buffalo, their sickle-shaped horns as dangerous as knives, grazed the fields seemingly as harmless as cows but Isaac told us that they were to be avoided at all cost. And then there were the myriads of birds, most notably the secretary bird with its long red-stockinged legs, thrust-out chest; vultures that sat like great knots on barren trees; and great herons of varying sizes and shapes. Snatches of bright color on a tree or bush turned out to be another novel bird or perhaps even a small animal.

When we were not on safari we took rest in our hotel. Part of the exclusive Serena chain of hotels, the Serena Lodge is designed as a futuristic Masai village with each room a separate stucco “hut” strategically placed on a hill overlooking the Serengeti. Lights are recessed into curved walls, and pop up when lit like opened eyes, and colored stripes adorn the wall much like tribal painted faces or else a Joseph Alber painting.

Looking out of the ceiling-to-floor glass windows of our room, we continued our safari-mongering, spotting a lone bull elephant marauding down the plains at great speed and herds of zebras grazing on a green patch. We were so immersed in our own safari worlds, of trying to see the maximum number of animals, that we barely noticed other travelers even during meal times in the common cafeteria, travelers similarly outfitted with binoculars hanging around necks, sun hats, and vacant gazes more suited to look out into the distance to search for animals than to focus on particulars including each other.

On our third and final day at the hotel, my three year-old daughter called out that there was a baboon staring at us. I spun around to see a full-grown baboon spread out on the window's glass coolly checking us out. We had been warned about keeping our windows closed to keep the baboons away from our food, but this baboon was more interested in us. For a few terrifying moments, the tables were turned as we became the viewed instead of the viewer. Unlike the animals we had subjected to our own gazing the past few days, however, we were not yet inured to being stared at and we screamed until the baboon unplugged himself from the glass and calmly ambled away.

We were glad to leave the hotel, our sense of security visibly shaken. In the van, Isaac further rattled us by telling us stories about tourists who ventured away either from the van or hotel into the wild. He recounted how a Japanese tourist hopped off the van to try to get a closer shot of a lion, and had his camera knocked out of his hand and his neck broken for his efforts. Similarly, an English tourist decided to take a morning saunter in the wild, away from his hotel, but never returned; search parties later found his body stomped into the ground by an elephant. We were not comforted with the choice of our next hotel either; designed to bring us closer to the wild, the hotel had tents for us to sleep in instead of rooms with solid walls, making it a breeze for baboons or similar animals to get in!

Truth be told, we were starting to get a little bored even though our trips out in the van were still filled with excitement as the kids chanted the names of each of the birds and animals we saw. The novelty was slowly fading, but then just when I felt as if there was nothing else to see or do, I would have an encounter that touched my soul. For a few seconds, an elephant looked at me briefly while crossing the road right in front of us, and I felt a bridge between us that transcended the artificiality of my situation there; perhaps his massive girth, so tethered to the earth’s rhythms centered my own frail reality, negating for a few seconds my loss of this special connection.

As I gazed at the scores of animals, I also got the feeling that I had been here before. For over ninety-five percent of human existence, we have lived as hunter-gatherers, and being here in the savannah, amidst the animals, the sensations encoded in our memories are overwhelming. Also, like many religious experiences, I transcend my body in these environs, becoming more than just myself, one with all around. There is an overwhelming sense of being every-where and no-where in this limitless horizon where Savannah and sky meet.

Back at our hotel, we are thankful the tented accommodations are luxurious and outfitted with several layers of electric fencing to keep most animals out, though baboons could still easily get through, as could leopards, the hotel staff coolly informed us. We allayed our fears by getting into the thick of things--we signed up for a walk with a Masai warrior around the hotel's compound, as close as you could get to the wild.

Our tour guide, the chieftain of a village, was a proud, no-nonsense type who pointed out the major attractions along the hiking path. We saw skulls of various animals and were asked to identify them--thankfully none were human! He also pointed out various trees and bushes, his peoples’ apothecary developed over centuries. As we were walking, he gave us snippets of knowledge that had protected his people over the years. He told us that elephants were far more unpredictable, and therefore more dangerous than lions. To avoid them, you had to walk against the direction of the wind since elephants cannot see too well and go primarily by smell. I made a point to remember this piece of advice in case I should ever need it.

Too many vehicles, cameras separated me from the world of the Masai. We were helpless without our car, and more so without Isaac. We could enter this world to spy on animals only because he enabled us to do so, him along with the hundreds of staff in the hotel. With the use of satellite radios, cell phones, the drivers and hotel staff created a vast network, a contemporary forest without which we would not be able to survive in this area for more than a few days. Nor would we be able to see the diversity of animals--currently, the minute there was a sighting of a large animal, Isaac’s radio would start spluttering, and within moments he, and scores of other drivers, would descend upon the hapless animal, often taking illegal paths, out-of-bounds to cars, to get there. In this way, guides made sure that tourists were happy capturing the animal on camera, ensuring a big tip for themselves.

With all his satellite's transmissions and chattering, Isaac was still unable to lead us to the big prize of our trip—the wildebeest migration. We were packing and ready to leave on our sixth and final day, and then all of a sudden, his radio came alive. Isaac hurried us into the van, and within minutes we were speeding down the plain.

Swarms of black dots, seemingly as small and numerous as gnats, marked the boundary of the hill in thick lines. I followed the black dotted line down the hill, onto the plains, and then, as they got closer, watched them metamorphose into hundreds of wildebeest and zebras, all walking in a straight line. They were crossing the road in front of us and continuing to the other side, massing in pools of black at the bottom of the hills. Every now and then, a wildebeest would stop in its tracks when it noticed us, but then a "leader" would come back to urge the animal on. Like an army procession, they kept strict file and order, speaking their own language, following an ancient migration path, the kind that we see only birds use today. Tourists fell from the skies in giant parachutes trying to get a closer look, and the road, the rivers of our times, was fraught with the dangers posed by our vehicles, but the wildebeest carried on, undaunted.

Dwarfed by the thousands of wildebeests and zebras, foreigners among them, we nevertheless felt accepted as they continued with their ageless march despite our presence. They seemed willing to share their world with us as we had never shared it with them-let us be witness to their great journey, and, for a few moments, be just one species among the millions of other animals also given the privilege of being born on our Earth.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rio-Salvador-de-Bahia

From the top of Sugar Loaf hill, the city unfurls below like a full skirt gone awry. Azure waters, in numerous finger-like inlets, make deep forays into the land on all sides. Miles and miles of white sand beaches trace an undulating hemline, trying to keep up with the ocean’s writhing. A swath of forest reveals itself, surprisingly manicured in all its wildness.

Ipanema beach on the Sunday we arrive is bursting with youthful energy. You can barely see the sand for all the men and women covering the beach with beautiful tanned and toned bodies. We stumble around fully clothed like lost sheiks who have somehow found themselves in the midst of a nearly nudist colony. We see bumps everywhere, I mean breasts and bums, and in the distance the humping landscape of rocky hills jotting the landscape.

I can’t seem to get away from sexual imagery, but can you blame me when women and men clamber onto buses wearing nothing but the briefest bikinis and briefs? Enough has been said about the women of Rio, but I insist that the men also deserve their fair share of praise—lean, yet muscular. Can the inhabitants of Rio help be anything but vain and beautiful when they live in this terribly beautiful city?

Where else can you be driving along a main street and suddenly be confronted by an enormous rock, and just when you think you are going to crash it opens up a tunnel to let you through? Where else can you find a forest in the middle of the city? After a few hours on the beach, we dare to unhinge our clothes and our limbs, and our movements get a little loser as our minds grow drugged by the sun, and our bodies seduced by the hot sands beneath our feet.

But, we pause. All is not lose and flowing, for not too far away, on the hill right opposite the mansion of a plastic surgeon, one of the wealthiest inhabitants of Rio, lies the largest favella (slums) in Rio, full of disenfranchised youth. We cannot strip to our bikinis for that would expose our passports hanging from our necks, and someone might snatch them from us. This danger adds more excitement to our already feverish bodies, and we are mercilessly tantalized with the decision of whether or not to strip.

The next day, we take a tour to see what lies behind the glamour and glitz that is beautiful Rio to view the shantytowns it cannot hide. The poor in Rio claim the land on hills that nobody wants, and now they have some of the best views in the city, even if it is from the edge of a precipice. Our tour guide is hopeful about an emerging middle class that is transforming the favellas, and we see several positive signs—auto mechanics who work on the sidewalks, a bustling market, and constant improvements made to the ramshackle buildings. Slowly a lower middle class is being born, inching this particular favella into respectability.

Respectability is not too many shades away from the color of skin in Rio as with the rest of Brazil. The country was one of the largest exporters of African slaves in the world, and the ratio of black to white was almost three to one at the beginning of the century. After a few less than successful attempts to lure Anglo-Saxon immigrants, the country grew reconciled to changing the color balance through miscegenation with the hope of gradually eliminating black skinned people altogether, and in doing so harboring a new more “civilized” Brazilian. To the surprise of conservatives, it is in the very blackness of Brazil—the African presence in towns like Salvador de Bahia, and the acres and acres of forest area in the wildest of wild Brazil—the Amazon river and forest—whose soil resists all attempts of cultivation and agriculture—that it has found an enduring industry that might outlast and surpass its previous goliath industries of rubber, sugar, and coffee—tourism!

We, the tourist animals, suckered into exploring snatches of Brazil, make our way finally to Salvador de Bahia, the last leg of our journey. We have visited the Amazon, the Pantanal, the grand Iguacu falls, and there is only Salvador keeping us away from San Francisco, and the United States. We are tired after our wild adventures, caught in the nets of tourist operators, and by now the excitement of adventure and the novelty of traveling has worn out. We are not sure what to expect from our last stop, and we wonder if there is anything to expect at all or if we are touristed out.

The historical district of Pelourinho is charming as expected. The colonial buildings are endearing as they nestle against each other, almost touching. They are painted in different colors, making me recall the wondrous plumage of the tropical birds we just left behind in the Pantanal. Stone cobbled streets sew black wavy lines in-between haphazard rows of buildings. Men and women hang their heads out of small windows in the buildings to chat with each other, and the scene is picture-postcard perfect. Regal black women seem almost strategically placed on street corners wearing long gusseted skirts and dresses from an era gone. They try to attract our attention to their small stalls where they sell acaraje, an African style dish made up of peeled brown beans that are deep fried and covered with a sauce made up of dried shrimp, pepper, and tomato. The air is heady with the smell of food cooked in dende (palm oil) proclaiming to the world the heady combination of African-Portugese-Brazilian cultures that is distinctively Salvador de Bahia. The scene is picture perfect, almost too much so, and I am starting to accept that there is something as travel burnout, and that perhaps it is time to go home.


Within a few hours, I come to see that the town is not what it seems to be, and there is a lot more to it than its pretty fa├žade, made prettier for us tourists. This first comes to light as I am walking toward the enclosed porch on the ground floor of our beautifully renovated and very expensive posada (guest house) to enjoy a cup of tea and the wonderful view of the bay, to forget all about city and just pretend there is nothing there but the ocean and us. That is when I come across the model of the plantation with slave workers. The model describes in graphic three-dimensional sculptural detail the work-life of the slaves on a plantation. Several men plow the field with manacles around their necks connected to a prison ball. One worker is being punished, and his hands, legs, and head are manacled together such that his tongue sticks out. What kind of bestiality allowed this to happen! What kind of endurance sustained the people in this town through the ages! The image of our nice clean only-for-wealthy tourists pousada is shattered, as is the idea of spending an uneventful touristy week at this location. We are forced to remember Salvador’s slave past, the time when it was the capital of Brazil’s sugar industry, and the center of its slave trade. All thought of tea and the view go out of the window, and I am close to throwing up. Somewhat chastised at my tourist aspirations, I sip a much more humble cup of tea as I gratefully snatch in glimpses of the view. I look at the black women serving me tea, the picture of civility, and I cannot help but wonder if they, by chance, had something to do with placing the model of the slave station where it could not be missed.

The feeling that things are very different in this town than what they appear is reaffirmed when we see the ornate, almost decadent, Igreja Sao Francisco church where the slaves who were forced to build the church several centuries ago. At first, we are dulled into appreciating the gold studded ceilings and cherubs, which looks like any of the other excessive architecture of that period. Then, I think I am seeing things when I notice that some of the cherubs’ faces are contorted and their sexual organs are hacked off, and a few others look positively pregnant. Our Lonely Planet guidebook enlightens us that the slave artisans who built the church fought their oppression and the suppression of their own religion by intentionally distorting the sculptures in the church. The penises they endowed on the cherubs were so large that the sacred authorities ordered them effaced. I am no longer surprised when I find out that the capoeira dance that is the dance of favor for many of Salvador’s youth originated as an African martial art developed by slaves to fight their masters.

We walk the streets of Pelhourinho not knowing what to expect, but knowing better now not to jump to any conclusions. We are greeted by an all black female band of drummers passing by. They are dressed in dresses made of hemp, the same hemp worn by their slave ancestors, and they are led by a girl with a manacle around her neck and whose mouth is covered with a cloth. The girl in the lead represents the chained slave unable to speak, but right behind her the other girls in the band are gaining ground, going crazy, banging on drums that are larger than their bodies, and dancing wildly. They are as wild as the lead girl is quiet and subdued. A crowd roars behind the drummers, dancing and clapping. There are tourists in the crowd, but there are far more natives. We get sucked into the procession, and soon we are also dancing and clapping our hands. Somewhere, somehow, I manage to get my hair braided from one of the many girls offering their braiding services for a small fee, and the braids hug my head, Boyz-in-the-Hood style. And we continue dancing, braids and all, and I am smiling.

And then, as the drummers pass by, the streets come alive as if touched by a wand. Every other street has a band or a musician playing, and some streets have two. The streets have been taken over by dining tables and chairs, and people are drinking caipirinhas, cachacas, or else cervezas. And they are laughing, chatting, and singing to the music. And it becomes clear to me that beyond the tourist jargon, despite the tourists, there is a joy and a love for life that runs deep in the lives of these people, a feeling that arises from those once most despised and brutalized, but that now reaches out to touch the heart of most Brazilians, even those who oppressed them and continue to oppress them, and even us lucky tourists who amble along their way. I feel the rhythm, and I feel blessed and joyful to have this time on this place of the earth, to feel the pleasure of the ground beneath my feet, the palm of my loved one in my palm, and drinking this air that is alive and dancing to the rhythm of a thousand people beating time to the music with their feet, and thrumming tables with runaway fingers, and I am happy to just be alive.

Crossing of the Waters, Amazon & Pantanal, Brazil

Crossing of the Waters
Natural Brazil: Amazon River, Pantanal, Iguacu Falls

That the world is a bubble we are floating upon is never more apparent than in the Igapo, the flooded Amazon forest. The largest repository of rainwater in the world, the Amazon river post its rainy season in July swells almost five meters. A forest lies submerged
beneath glistening waters, and it is with treetops we converse, our boat a tiny speck on the eye of the world awash in tears.

We embark on our river expedition in Manaus and first head to see a phenomena our travel brochure calls the Crossing of the Waters where the pale waters of the Rio Solimoes, the main river of the Amazon, meet up with the black waters of the Rio Negro, the Amazon’s largest tributary. It is only after the rivers meet, the Amazon as we know it is born. We don’t know what to expect, but we after our visit to the fish market earlier in the day have an idea about the magnitude of the event awaiting us. Stacks of Tambaqui, a large fish popular with both locals and tourists, lie next to each other. They are identical in every, differentiated only by color. The white Tambaqui come from the Rio Solimoes and the black from the Rio Negro, a passerby enlightens us. He adds that the black Tambaqui are tastier. The thought of the same fish growing different in different sources makes me shiver—I think about the force needed to stamp its imprint clearly on living and non-living beings. I can barely imagine what might happen when two such forces meet, each capable of engendering its own unique eco-systems.

The crossing of the rivers is far from conciliatory. At the crossing, a zig-zag line demarcates the battle where the black waters bite into the muddy waters, and then where the Rio Solimoes counter-attacks the black. In a phenomena that is surely among the natural wonders of the world, each river refuses to compromise on its individual nature, traveling side by side, touching but not mingling. After several miles, the rivers finally settle into convergence and move ahead as one river, one Amazon, all the way down to the Amazon's hungry mouth in the Atlantic Ocean.

The flow of the combined rivers at its mouth is twelve billion liters a minute, but the individual rivers are mighty in their own right. From the center of the Rio Negro, I can barely see the banks. Here and there, small waves form over slightly more elevated stretches of submerged lands, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is not an ocean. There is so much water! I am humbled into remembering that my body is comprised mainly of water, and that this quirky ego-ridden thing that is my mind is a lonely island that can so very easily be flooded.

The idea of all this water around me is too much for my mind to encompass, and I prefer to bury my head in my book, Richard Flanagan’s The Death of a River Guide. I reflect wryly on the irony of my book choice, but it is too late to change books as the boat draws further away the port. We are headed toward a small floating lodge situated on one of the many lakes on the Rio Negro that swell after the rains. We have another two hours of boat travel left, and I flip through pages, going deeper into the story about humans who have forgotten what it means to know a river and their own selves, and the river’s terrible revenge. I don’t realize that there is someone behind me until I see a face right next to the book, very close to my face. I put down my book, and stare into the smiling face of our very own river guide, a stocky middle-aged Indian from the Amazon region who goes by the name of Samuel. “Reading, eh? Very good, very good,” he chuckles, and pulls my book up to my eyes so that I can resume reading.

In the days to come, especially after encountering guides who rattled off the scientific and local names of birds and trees with much academic virtuosity, I would think back fondly on Samuel’s halting English, and his unspoken connection with nature. When he
talked about the river or trees, he patted them with the palm of his hand, as if to let the words come out from them as much as himself. He didn’t share too much about his background, other than he came from a tribe up river, and that he had learnt snatches of English, Italian, Japanese, and French in school to become a tour guide.

Throughout our Amazon safari, Samuel showed us special care and attention in numerous small ways: making sure we got a room with a good view, and that we were never too far away when there was anything of interest on the river. I like to think that with our dark skin, hair, and eyes we reminded him of his kin. Perhaps he thought that the same forces that formed him might have formed us, albeit in different parts of the world. Or maybe it was because my people had shared a similar crossing with Europeans, and had come out, like his, on the losing side. Whatever the reason, he treated us with the same care he did the plants, and the river, as if we were just another extension of them, and so himself.


In the quiet air that surrounds Samuel, I can sense sorrow and also outrage at the consequences of the crossing of his people with Europeans. In the collision that happened, six million Indians were reduced to less than 350,000. Slavery, disease, murder, missionary conversion have all but effaced them from the indigenous people of Brazil from the surface of the earth. Where was the convergence of peoples, cultures, that was supposed to happen, Samuel’s tense limbs seem to cry out!

Samuel’s protective gaze and caring for the river and forest cannot stop the fast pace of their destruction. It is predicted that by 2020 less than 200, 000 sq km will remain of an area that once included several million square km of Amazon forest. Farming, ranching, hydroelectricity, logging, mining, and man-made fires all took and continue to take its toll on mutilating rivers, forests, wildlife, mountains. As they are crippled, the delicate balance that sustains life on earth is altered irremediably.

The idea of what it means to be a native of a land keeps gnawing at me, what it means to have your skin, hair, teeth, body, temperament, walk, and talk fashioned by the forces where you live. Millions of years go into harboring the forces of nature, such as rivers, mountains, the sunlight. They, in turn, fashion all native organisms—mountains, rivers, minerals. How long the process takes! The steady yearly inching up of mountains, the swell and ebb of rivers, the achingly long and tedious process by which carbon becomes coal, and sediments form into oil. And then, the thousands of years are responsible for the fashioning of a native organism, you and me. Truly, to know yourself—know your body’s health, its relationship with the rest of the natural world, and the larger issues of life and death—is to know the forces that fashioned you. Tribals who continue to live with the forces that created them, the forests and rivers, carry a unique knowledge about their environment and themselves. We can learn much about ourselves from them.


Samuel shows the tourist attractions of the Amazon river and forest with the rehearsed motions of a circus performer—catch a piranha and pry open its jaws for all to gape at; capture a baby alligator and pass it around for everyone to shudder and squeal; drink from the bark of a water bearing vine in the jungle. This is the tourist Amazon that he has been trained to let us see. It is only in a few unrehearsed moments that the splendor of the Amazon shows itself—being caught in a rain shower in the midst of a thicket of tree tops, spears of rain piercing the water, trees that otherwise stand so still in the waters rustling gently to life with the splatter of rain drops. The sunrise and sunsets, where the sky breaks out into a profusion of color in anticipation, and the rising or sinking orb breaks up the black waters into color that mirror the orgasm in the sky.

In the days to come in the Pantanal, a vast wetlands south of the Amazon basin, we will gaze in wonder at the tall, gawky jabiru stork with its red crest and wing, the majesty of huge indigo-colored mackaws lording over trees, the green flash of parakeets
flipping the air over, the splash of color when herons open their wings. We will grow accustomed to hundreds, no thousands, of alligators, many with their mouths open with the hope that a tiny bird will come by to pick out the parasites that are in clear view. We will witness capybaras, the largest rodents in the world, bopping in the water, kissing and playing with each other. We will see a green snake slither into the marshes, and just when we are least expecting it, see a traffic jam of storks and herons that have disavowed the rule of the road to claim everything—the sky, the ground, the water, as they cascade down in flocks of white.

And then, still later, we will see the unfettered Rio Igacu cascade down an area wider than Victoria and higher than Niagara, over a rock formation with several curves and one semi-circle where the water falls down a deep gullet—the Devil’s Throat. The river in its wide majesty hurtles down a multi-tiered expanse, so that at no point and from no vista can you see the falls in their entirety. We try to take in the waterfalls, one vista at a time, but they evade a sensory reduction, and work more on several planes—sensory, mythic, experiential. The falls are clearly their own entity, and more than a river falling, they are about water creating its own symphony with different notes, spatial arrangements, intensities. I cannot forget the colors as rainbows emerge and dissolve in the various two hundred and seventy-five falls in which the water and waterfalls come into being.


Both the Pantanal, and the Iguacu falls are on protected land, with restricted human interaction. For now, that seems to be the only way to maintain a slice of the world where age-habituated patterns of flora and fauna can be maintained as if no meeting with Europe had occurred. But, in Samuel I see another alternative, where we learn to cohabit with the natural world, instead of only exploiting it. In him, I see a different possibility, one of convergence of worldviews and knowledge, where the modern world embraces all that tribal societies have to offer. I see a world where our civilizations and peoples move along together, both mighty waters of human promise and endeavor, toward a sustainable future.

Banganga Temple, Bombay, January 2008

Banganga Tank: A Symbol of Hope Bridging Old and New India


Shortly after the year turned, we walked up a narrow promontory of land, cradled on three sides by huge swathes of the Arabian Sea, up to the Ban Ganga water tank. Gazing down at the brown sands of Chowpatty beach, at the colonial pillars of Wilson College opposite the beach, and the sleepy road with morning traffic still to wake up, we could have been taking our walk a hundred years ago, and expected at any time to see a Victorian horse-drawn buggy clip-clopping into the distance, disappearing into the foggy lights of the Queen’s Necklace.

But as we continued our walk, different eras of Mumbai’s past began to emerge. Here and there, we spotted a building from Mumbai's British past--the Chief Minister’s bungalow, a Rajasthani palace built out of red stone, looked incongruous, even a little absurd, next to the concrete apartment buildings of our time, most of which sat squat and ugly, hugging the road so closely that not even Bombay’s tenacious trees could take root next to them.

Then, as we neared the tank, Mumbai’s ethnic identity from before the arrival of the Europeans began to assert itself. We found ourselves walking on narrow cobbled lanes built not for cars but pedestrians, lined on either side with temples, flower and fruit vegetable stands, and small houses with doorways engraved with intricate wooden carvings and upturned roofs. We looked on as a priest washed the steps of a temple close by and performed his morning puja to welcome the day--a scene that we might have witnessed several hundred years ago.

And there in the center lay the tank. The steps leading to the water were broken and strewn with plastics and remnants of food, and the water itself was murky with garbage and dirt. Men, women and children lay sleeping on its steps, nuzzled by geese who hoped to find a morsel or two in the folds of their blankets. A child defecated on one of the steps and his mother washed his bottom, and then washed away his stools with some water from the tank. A man cleared away some of the garbage from the rim of the tank, enough to let him collect a cup of water with which he brushed his teeth, spitting it back into the water’s dirty foam after he was done.

Despite the filth and squalor, the tank still maintained a quiet dignity as it lay shaded by an umbrella of ancient trees, a dignity enhanced, no doubt, by the inscriptions on a plaque at one end. The tank was built in 1127 A.D. by the Silhara Kings of Thane though the Walkeshwar temple on its banks was built even earlier in the eight century. We stepped even further back in time, into mythology when we read that Lord Rama pierced the earth with his arrow on this very spot to release a spring of fresh water, supposedly a hidden off-shoot of the Ganges river--the source of fresh water in the tank up to this day.

Stories are told and retold to remember memorable events, and mythologies are built around miraculous happenings. Looking at this fresh water tank, it is easy to see why the spring, and this spot would be deified. Having a fresh water spring that survives on this tiny sliver of earth surrounded by the salty waters of the Arabian sea seems nothing short of miraculous but finding this underground spring seems even more incredible. It is a testament to human kind’s intelligence and ingenuity, the god-like ability in us.

Today, with the wounds from the terrorist shootings in Mumbai still not completely healed, we must remember that this land of Mumbai is a special land, and a sliver of hope runs through it. And, more importantly, that its inhabitants can and will overcome the conflicts threatening to tear them apart by bringing forth their inherent intelligence and wisdom, a bequest from the land.

Provence, July 2004

France, July, 2005

Auberge de la Lube lies just beyond the valley, a
car's breath away from Bioux, a tiny hamlet barely
visible amidst fields of purple lavender. We are among
the first to arrive, and the Chef and his entourage
are sitting on a table by the entrance of the
restaurant in the midst of eating, drinking, and
conversing. They seem nonplussed to see us, and take
their time, smiling broadly at us in welcome. By and
by, they get up and one of them, a younger woman who
seems part of the family rather than just another
waitress leads us to the cozy rooms inside the house,
each with three to four tables, laid out prettily with
flowers. We settle for a table by the gardens, and
are presented with menus with the day's four or three
course entree. We settle for four.

The aperitif is not part of the courses, a stiff drink
reeking of anise that promises to whet the appetite.
It does more than that, for it has forty percent
alcohol, and I am suddenly in a cheery mood, ready for
the entertainment to begin.

Our guide and server for the night, aka the waitress,
enters with a large tray with over fourteen small
porcelain vessels, each with a different
appetizer--mushrooms swimming in a delicately spiced
tomato sauce, whole sardines, their eyes glittering,
cherry tomatoes, just picked from the garden, three
different types of tapenade, a humus, sticks of celery
so fresh they crackle in my mouth. I am awed by the
variety, so much good food, and the thought that all
this is just the first course.

I have a freshwater fish for my main meal, cooked in
its own juices but the body still plump and inviting
with plenty of fluids. The red wine Ishwar chooses
compliments it perfectly, a gentle wine from the
region that rests calmly in the mouth, tongue, teeth,
and gums soaking in the sweetness wrested from the
barren soil, the rocky earth. I've heard it said that
the sweetest tastes, songs arise from the saddest
things and thoughts, and the wines of the Luberon are
no exception. The Luberon lying just above the
Cote d'Azur, the French Riviera, is characterized by
expanses of huge bare rocks upon whose escarpments,
villages were built in the past, barely clinging on to
steep cliffs. The houses were built of
stone, for stone is more prevalent than wood in these
parts, and so have survived centuries. The cultivation
of grapes has similarly persisted over generations,
and while the grapes are hard and barely edible as
Ishwar and I found out to our mouths´distaste after we
snitched some grapes off their vines earlier in the
day, somehow the sweetest wine is still able to be
squeezed from their hard bodies.


The chef comes out to check on us, a smiling portly
man, with a goatee that makes him look more artist
than cook. Louis IV, France's most envied,
authoritative Sun King, was among the most enthusiastic
supporters of cooking, raising food to the status of art, and
giving accomplished chefs the same importance reserved
for great musicians and artists. The tradition in
France continues today, and the chef of Auberge de la
Lube is a living example of the artist-chef. We are
his guests rather than his customers, and he, as with
all other good chefs and famous restaurants, will have
only one or maximum two sittings the entire night, for
the process of eating a meal cooked by a good chef is
a slow one, meant to be savored with every bite, every
passing minute. After a while, time and its
significance disintegrates... the meal is an
event, experience to be savored, an experience that
devours time. Hunger is also the most inconsequential
of factors; it is the tongue's palate that chefs'
target, not your growling innards, but by the end of a
good meal, the subject of a chef's artistry is
surprised to discover that with the night's wizardry,
his or her hunger has somehow also miraculously
dissolved.

The night slowly peels away time, and as with nearly
every restaurant in France where you have to almost
beg someone to get you the bill, we are completely
ignored by the staff who let us be on our own,
savoring, dreaming, making time a servant of
experience, our senses reigning sovereign for the
moment. Now and then, I spy an aproned woman amble to
the garden and come back with strips of lettuce, a few
tomatoes, which makes it to our dinner plates in a
couple of minutes. From soil, to plate, to mouth is
only blinks apart, and freshness tingles, the crunch
of lettuce bursting in my mouth. Again, the chef comes
by our table to see if we are enjoying his show, and
nods his approval at the utter satisfaction on our
faces.

Dessert is not the last meal but the preamble to other
great meals to come in this magnificent land where the
sun blazes orange over fields of Van Gogh´s golden
sunflowers, where the indigo seas turn a limpid
turquoise near the beaches to accommodate revelers,
where class distinctions are not tolerated but human
rights and the equality of all is celebrated over the
swinging face of guillotines. Ah, France! I adore
passion, your zest for life, your exuberance, your
ideals, your food, and I will be back for more, again
and again and again...