Spring, Heat, Rains
A South Indian Diary
April 18, Rajahmundry
It rained here, too. The flat is clean. I unpack. At sunset I sit by the door watching the son et lumière in the sky. Incandescent orange ripens into mauve and dark blue. The builders across the street are spraying water over the day’s tentative confabulation of brick and wood. Peace falls into place, into a waiting, ready space. For a moment, for now, I am at home, with my Kutch goddess on the wall. Sastrygaru, as always deliberate and solicitous, stops by to say hello. It is cool under the fan. Kanakaiah will come, poetry will happen, I can learn, I am speaking, the bougainvillea burns on the branch. A slow burning in me.
The electric power fails in the middle of the morning; the whole street is out. Hours expand, stretch, a boiling mass of unusable time. By midafternoon I am demoralized. Without the ceiling fan or running water, life is mostly a matter of simple survival from one moment to the next. It is quite impossible to read, or even sit in a chair. Smile’s plastic white chairs are on the point of meltdown. Inside the flat, one breathes in the wet air of a stagnant swamp. Outside, walking anywhere is like swimming through a caldron simmering over a slow flame. All that is missing is the mad dance of cannibals somewhere near.
At such moments—and perhaps more generally, now, as the heat intensifies—time is a sticky, undifferentiated mass: what the Brāhmaṇa texts called jāmi. To name the day of the week is an effort; it even feels a little foolish, since chopping up time into such conventional fragments has become wholly artificial. One might stick labels on the burning exterior of a fiery furnace: this segment, let us say, is something called Wednesday, and a similar one will, perhaps, turn up sometime next week—a dubious fiction.
At six, the ceiling fan groans reluctantly, back to life.
• • •
A man walks from South India to the Himalayas in order to see a famous guru. The teacher allows him one question. The questioner wants it to be very precise, so he says: “Can I ask in Telugu?”
“Yes,” says the teacher, “and that was your one question. The rest you must ask your heart.”
The days get remorselessly hotter. At 5:50 in the morning, it is already far from “cool.” The cloud cover helps; I try to make it to the highway and back before the sun pierces the veil. When it does emerge, it is red, threatening, and hazy, nothing akin to the Mediterranean sun that balances its fire with the sea. Nehru road is full of early morning walkers who seem to me to be hoarding shreds of coolness, as if they could keep them alive, somewhere in the mind, at the very least as a memory, for use when they will need them in the evening.
Last night the purugulu attack again, this time in the bedroom. Millions of tiny winged antlike creatures come to rest on my bed; I spend an hour, Sisyphus-style, picking them off my neck, stomach, arms, hair. Again my friends assure me that these bugs know when it will rain—their arrival is a sign. The future exists as a mark, or rather, millions of minute, irksome marks.
• • •
Venkatesvara, lanky bachelor in the flat downstairs, greets me when I come back from the morning walk. Each day at dawn he sits in the courtyard, reading the morning paper. He is a farmer, a devotee of Sai Baba. The Swami, he tells me, has already announced his future avatar as Premababu, who will be born in a small village in Rayalasima. A male devotee will be reborn as his mother. He knows. What about the father? I ask. “There’s no need for a father. Rāma, after all, God Himself, was born from pāyasam, sweet milk pudding.”
• • •
I have come to love the tampura like foundation of reality in Rajahmundry, the ceaseless hum of the ceiling fans—the subtle and dependable brahma-nāda, the buzz of God, that fills the world (that is the world?). Everywhere one goes, if the electric current happens to be working, you hear this faintly metallic whirl. Although it sometimes makes it hard to hear what people are saying, there is a gentle comfort in the drone. The heat continuously intensifies, but you are not alone.
• • •
The woman who runs the store that sells soft drinks, betel, cigarettes, and snacks on JN Road—monolingual, very articulate, and happy to talk—asks me the name of my Jewish god. As usual in such circumstances, driven back to the monotony of Mediterranean monotheism, I say: “He is nameless and formless.” I am not about to attempt to explain the niceties of the Abulafian Kabbalah with its hypertrophy of divine names. But my friend is shocked (as often happens when I provide some answer to her questions). “What use is a god who has no name?”
• • •
Sugambabu’s poems arrive at noon, I find one I like:
Above thisEileen says, when I send her the poem on the e-mail, that we are all of us true illusions.
In this vein, in Kanakaiah’s melodic recitation, Pravara has now met Varuthini.
She was sitting on a raised platformAn unsettling apparition for a naïve Brahmin from the plains. For Kanakaiah, Pravara is always lucid, aware, and controlled. It is inconceivable to Kanakaiah that the pious Brahmin might actually want her. Perish the thought. Kanakaiah thinks desire, kāma, is external to the self, now no less than then. Here, perhaps, is another unexpected continuity with the present, one worth contemplating. So much classical poetry is about pure, mad desire, a distinctive mode of possession; so little deals in love. As for me, I have the role of the un-innocent wayfarer who has wandered into the story and decides to stay.…
May 29, Chennai
Ramakrishnan says that if he had to choose one, emblematic image for what has happened in his city over the last two decades, it is this: “When I visit a friend and am offered a glass of water, I have to ask if it has been boiled or purified.”
Not so long ago, this wasn’t the case; even in the 1980s one could drink the tap water in Madras—to say nothing of his childhood years, when on his way to school he would drink from the street taps, in any neighborhood.
On the other hand, some things don’t change so much. At Kartik Fine Arts in Mylapore, a kacceri—sung by Bhusanakalyanarama; and the accompanying violinist, a young genius, Akkare Subbulakshmi, is a Chola bronze come to life. She smiles regularly as she plays, clearly relishing the music, the moment, her friendship with the other artists. The singing is clean and intense, too much for me; the rāgas they are playing, Kiravani and Hindolam, push me into the abyss. Carnatic music is structured for severe ecstasy, sheer precision enhancing emotion to an unthinkable pitch—but only when it is sung slowly enough, and with a certain lightness of touch. It is strange, but right, to think of ecstasy not as a function of breaking out (as the Greek word would suggest) but as breaking into bonds.
Ramakrishnan speaks of Nagarajan as we work, slowly, through the opening of the text. A tall, strong man who deteriorated through ganja, drink, nameless grief. Loved by women. Each time Ram saw him he would buy him a new dhoti; he slept in the streets, never washed or changed his clothes. “He never gave you the impression that he was unhappy.”
Madras days, all the old richness. After forty-eight hours, my Tamil starts to reemerge. Until then, muteness torments me. I hear the sorcery outside me, a music like no other, liquid, cascading, the sound of truth, but my tongue is rigid, wordless. When the shift takes place, it is like drowning in memory: Mandaiveli, our first home in India. The Carnatic masterpieces Eileen used to sing with exquisite gentleness. Nothing will ever reach so deep.
With Rajamani I go to meet Vasunatan, Personal Assistant to the Minister for Endowments, to seek permission to photograph at Tiruvarur. He is kind, attentive, aware. An old Madras building, a taste of the Raj and its bureaucracy; there are the whirling ceiling fans, thousands of cardboard files—old, dog-eared papers spilling out of them—stacked in heaps on metal shelves, a small army of clerks. A sign in Tamil says that visitors are not allowed to speak to subordinates without the permission of the head clerk. Temple priests in dhotis wander the corridors. Paper cumulates, ferments like a goddess, fades, curls, is filed, dissolves. He promises a letter of permission within the week.
After two days of cloud and sultry heat, today there is sun—but summer is clearly ending. In Kerala, Hyderabad, tremendous rain. I fly out tonight, to some possible, tangential world.
June 12, Berlin
Yesterday, Claudio Lange in the atelier, a new series of paintings on frames. Each time I come to Berlin, I make a pilgrimage to this rather holy spot (Claudio would hate the adjective) where I first read, under Claudio’s tutelage, the little-known poet Cernuda. What galaxy am I visiting? Rajahmundry recedes, and is anyway inexpressible, even to those who are close. For a few hours, I am carried along in the sweet clarity of northern Europe. Objects don’t merge or collide. Space envelopes unobtrusively, not the sticky elastic chrono-topos of India. It is easy and strange. At six I meet Kesavan Veluthat, probably the deepest historian of medieval South India in this generation, at the Hauptbahnhof, another surreal piece of future planted in Mitte.
We walk the streets, take the boat tour on the Spree. Stop to see the South African film Tsotsi at Potsdamer Platz. I am the awkward guide who has not drunk deeply enough. But in the Tiergarten he tells me how when he was twelve years old he stole eight annas from his father and ran to eat beef at the Muslim shop. How did he like it? It was awful, but there was the thrill of transgression—still there today. This was after his grandmother made him bathe a second time because he was writing lessons with a fountain pen that he had taken to school—so the ink was polluted. Being a Brahmin in Kerala, he says, was stifling; he was very angry.
Berlin, as always, shows the cracks; time, the bad time, oozes readily to the surface. Nothing is innocent, everything skewed and therefore interesting. There is a subtext: the madness then reminds him of certain Indian voices, now. He speaks of the Emergency that Indira Gandhi proclaimed in the midseventies, when civil liberties were suspended; when he was warned by the security goons to watch his words in class. An oral cāṭu verse comes to mind:
yauvanaṃ dhanasampattiḥ prabhutvam avivekitā/That, says Kesavan, was what happened in the Emergency, and is likely to happen again. I think the verse is a focused meditation on political power, prabhutva—a recipe for calamity. Foolishness—its natural companion. Impetuousness and wealth won’t lag behind.
Kesavan discovered Sanskrit poetry only later in his youth, after recovering from the trauma of memorizing Veda. A learned uncle told him he could read Sanskrit books if he wanted to. How? asked Kesavan. You open the first page and read the first line first.…
Wasted hours, too many hours, reading Graham Greene, End of the Affair. I took the book off Patanjali Sastry’s shelf upstairs; an old paperback, stained inside with big blots of mold, the usual condition, admirably suited to the profound corruption of the writing. Perhaps it is the corruption that is so compelling; I couldn’t give it up. Apart from the cruelty, there is the primitivism of his obsession with what he calls God. What religion would predicate everything, or for that matter anything, on belief? Ponet taught me years ago that if you have to believe, you don’t think it’s true. India is good therapy for the Western faithful. Sometimes I think the whole problem in the Mediterranean religions comes from insisting on using the capital letter.
• • •
The Andhra Police managed to kill Madhav, the top Naxalite, in an encounter in the Nallamala Forest—a major victory. Perhaps the terms of symbiosis are being revised. Some say the police have, at last, poked a significant hole in the “Maoist corridor” stretching from Andhra up to Nepal (does this corridor exist?). But today’s paper promises free education, courtesy of the government, to Madhav’s son Kartik (who never knew his father). This, too, is interesting. K. G. Satyamurthy, who founded the whole pestilence years ago, says Madhav, normally surrounded by fierce bodyguards, was not protected by his comrades because of caste politics. Upper-caste Naxalites, that is, were quite ready to allow him, a low-caste man, to die. For an egalitarian bunch of terrorists, the accusation is bitterly ironic; and rings true, another element in the continuing mystery of irresolution.
The mystery has other layers, however. On one side there is the fanatical fury of the Naxal hunters in the police: one hears of police stations that keep labeled bottles containing the pickled genitals of dead guerillas. Apparently Madhav’s body also suffered this treatment; and by the time it was handed over to the family, it was so decomposed as to be unrecognizable. Fierce hatred shapes the ongoing battles in the forest. On the other hand, there is the inextricable interweaving of these two systems, which, some say, goes right up to the top. No party can win an election or set up a government without the Maoists’ support. What, then, do we make of the considerable violence on all levels? You need them, people will say, and you need to show them their limit. It is really a matter of symbiotic self-calibration. To my eyes, it looks like a precise reproduction of earlier periods in Andhra, say, the time of the Reddi and Velama kingdoms (fourteenthûfifteenth centuries), which showed the same interdependence of savagely conflicting forces, the same primacy of the wilderness do-or-die mode. Like then, the modern replay includes an aspect of struggle between coastal Andhra and inland Telangana, the latter supplying most (not all) of the pickled genitals.
• • •
Light rain at dawn on the Kadiyam Road; the colors have changed again. Now, regularly, I see the blue-black skies that Sanskrit calls nīla; and a luminescent green as the crop ripens around the quixotic scarecrow. A new black butterfly has come out of the forest, by the hundreds. The moduga tree is shedding its flowers, the ground glowing with small red flames.
July 26, Annavaram
Charles and Annie arrive by the night train from Chennai. After lunch Krishnayya takes us to Annavaram to meet Kapilavayi Ramasastri, a learned śrotriya Brahmin with unparalleled experience of Vedic rites. Krishnayya’s great-grandfather was a stonemason here at Annavaram. I didn’t think we would make this trip: On Sunday, Krishnayya came to take leave of me, then went off to Dhavalesvaram to see his mother. He told her he was leaving for America for a year. She said: “Don’t go. You don’t need to go. You don’t even need the money.” The next morning she died.
Ramasastri lives downhill in an orderly, spacious house. He sits, legs folded, on the swing as Charles asks him about the ab-ishṭaka-yajña, a rite structured around bricks made of water. Perhaps nowhere else in India is the rite still performed, but Sastri has himself witnessed it (some thirty years ago). He knows by heart the Vedic passages that lay down the rules. There are six different kinds of water to be made into “bricks” (actually held in Nagavalli clay pots), including the first, special category of rainwater that falls while the sun is shining. Together, they make up a kind of altar, water poured over water.
As he speaks, his wife, son, daughters, and sons-in-law hover behind him, and possibly for the first time I see what is meant by brahma-varcas, the bodily radiance of the Brahmin. These people literally glow with a delicate, inner luminosity. Their features are clear, their eyes alive, their demeanor dignified, aristocratic; they know they are the bearers of an ancient vehicle of truth. Gentle confidence, an assurance born of centuries of study and practice, radiates from the way they stand, walk, sit. With his son, Ramasastri sings for us from the Sama Veda, a haunting, winding verse from some moment long before our world was created. An extraordinary, energetic peacefulness permeates the home, their words, their gifts to us, like water poured into water.
I ask him about Vedic education: do they teach the Vedic accents by three separate head movements, as in Kerala? No. One should recite in perfect stillness. They pour lime juice on the boy’s head as he recites; he is to hold himself motionless so that not a drop is spilled down face or neck. What about Paninian grammar—do they learn this along with the Vedic text? Not much. It takes a long time to master it, and they don’t have time. But they insist that the student recite only what he has understood.
In the old days, I say, there were kings who used to support such rituals, give money, initiate them. What about today? Even now it is true, says Ramasastri. Zamindars still give to the Vedic Brahmins, and modern politicians sometimes patronize the sacrifices, to their advantage. I ask about various specific rites—the large-scale Vajapeya and the Asvamedha, the ancient horse sacrifice, with its obscene moments; all these, he says, are forbidden in our time, the corrupt Kali Age.
At five o’clock we go up the hill, where Sastri is to participate in a homa offering celebrating the god’s three-day-long birthday. It is very good, Charles says, to celebrate a birthday for someone who is never born. A party of priests is reciting mantras at the top of its lungs (why, always, so loud?). There are cameras, bright lights, a certain extraneous fuss: someone has come from Hyderabad to make a CD recording such rituals at this temple. We sit for half an hour, then climb up into the temple for darshan. Another two-tier shrine, very modern; you can see the feet of Brahmā, the root, down below, standing on the Vaikuṇṭha-Nārāyaṇīya yantra; then the middle part, a Śiva-linga; and above them stand Śiva himself, a fiercely mustachioed Vishṇu, and Śrī. There is a story to be told here, but it is hidden, for now, under the hypermodern, middle-class veneer. Still, the original, engaging awkwardness or asymmetry shines through, as in so many Andhra shrines. Vanadurga, the Wilderness Goddess, perhaps the original presence, presides over this mountain from outside the temple enclosure.
When we come back to the priests in the mandapam, they are starting the manthana, the rubbing of fire sticks to produce fire for homa. I have never seen this before—the hard uḍumbara-wood pole placed into the aśvattha base, with two bare-chested Brahmins sitting on either side, pulling the pole with green ropes, back and forth, pravritti and nivritti, to generate flame. After a few moments, smoke comes out. Ramasastri is one of the main “churners,” and across from him sit several young, muscular, handsome Brahmins; they take evident joy in this physical activity, attacking the ropes with gusto. The male pole drills and swivels inside the female base, thick white smoke is born, but for some reason—is it the presence of these foreign witnesses?—this evening fire does not appear. There is no sign of the spark that must be latent in the wood:
vahner yathā yoni-gatasya mūrtiḥ na driśyate naiva ca linga-nāśaḥ/They try again and again, they pare and hone the tip of the pole, they check the fire-black receptacle where the tip is placed, they recite the mantras, the Nagasvaram horns and the drums reach toward a climax—and still no flame. They break a coconut to deal with drishṭi, one more try, but it doesn’t work. Just in case it really is our fault, we thank Ramasastri and take our leave.
Pururavas, ancient king and lover, first learned the art of churning fire, a rather ineffective consolation offered by the gods for the loss of his beloved Urvaśi, a nymph from heaven who came down to earth for his sake but was taken back by the gods. Fire connects this world to the gods’ world, but I am sure Pururavas, like any man, would have much preferred the girl. Sometimes even a fiery connection is all too tenuous. Sometimes the spark stays locked inside. We come down the hill in the dark, turn right onto the National Highway, toward Rajahmundry; within moments we pass a melodramatic blaze just off the road. Perhaps the mantras worked after all, though like all other forms of language, they have a tendency to be displaced.