I’d like to explain things better. I really would.
Today M said that L, being pregnant, will soon have to learn to deal with uncertainty. I liked the way she put it.
After a full day’s work a man walks home in the evening. He’s been doing that for years, walking home from his workplace along the same streets of the same town, his hometown. Retirement is not that far ahead. He’s been living a simple life, his horizon never too large, his goals never too ambitious. Today is the first day of spring that the weather is mild enough and sunny enough to take pleasure in being walking outside. He is high-spirited and enjoys the lively atmosphere of the city, its parks and terraces and bar patios full of happy people and beauty. Walking home from work is the time of the day he likes best.
No time this time.
Murakami’s wind-up bird hides in these trees. It spends the day chirping and singing most rhythmically. Its call fills the background, pup, pup, pup, at short regular intervals. It is so common a sound you barely hear it. It’s only when you hear it that the bird stops calling, intentionally one may think, as if to deceive you. The call is as uniform as the ticks of a metronome, as water dripping from a tap, as a coppersmith striking a horseshoe with a hammer. The bird indeed is known as a coppersmith barbet. It is very difficult to spot and from its hiding place it winds-up an earthly clock with every call.
It snowed leaves yesterday, as I was having lunch, pulled off trees by gusts of wind. It was enchanting.
This happens in the canteen, every morning during breakfast.
The first utterance is soft, whispery. It is spoken by a western scientist who does not fit in this place, his voice almost a resigned sigh. Approaching the counter he will show his visitor card and will skip the formal good morning. No etiquette in his book. His first spoken word of the day will be, of all words, omelette.
The second utterance is loud, emphatic. It is yelled by the local in charge of the counter so that his voice reaches somebody’s ears beyond the canteen’s kitchen door. His face is expressionless, inscrutable. He simply processes the information and gives his command.
The western scientist seems tired of eating his omelettes. The local man at the counter is an enigma. The information exchange is unnecessary. The local knows what to expect, the foreigner knows what to order. Yet the former won’t yell until the latter has whispered.
Amused, I witness this little ritual every morning.
A consequence of my recent writing about my current stay in Pune is that I have read again an old entry I wrote about my 1997 visit and about terrible events that once hit the headlines and about Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. I am posting it below.
Comparisons are always tricky. I have been tempted to modify things in the old entry, here and there, but in the end it seemed honest not to do it.
Incidentally, a few days ago I dropped Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, her latest. Much too thick a plot.
Picture a cow, a dead cow, a dead sacred cow. And picture five people on the run, a kid among them.
In December 1997, on the week before Christmas, I traveled to India to pay my, so far, only visit to this country. And to Asia for that matter. I flew Swiss Air, an airline which no longer exists today. Amazing how something so apparently “solid” as an air company, which allows people to fly from, say, Zurich to Bombay, among dozens of other possible routes, may disappear overnight dragged in the wake of major bankruptcy. I reached Bombay on an early cloudless morning. The final destination of the journey was Pune, further east, where a large bunch of relativists was to gather together for possibly the world’s largest international conference on general relativity. Such meetings take place once every three years, each time in a different location of the globe.
The non-frequent flier is still shocked by the first impressions of the country, despite having watched a good many TV documentaries on the subject. This is definitely Third World arena, an impression readily conveyed from the aircraft window on the few minutes before landing. The early vague ideas, the first suspicions, rapidly become solid as a rock for the passenger arriving in Bombay, one of the largest cities in overpopulated India. Taking a bus for a ride through the city allows one to realize, sharply and fast, and constantly surrounded by the annoying loud honks from all kinds of motor vehicles, of what Misery in capital letters – Big Leagues Misery – is all about: the homeless, the eventual leper with no arms and no legs, the unseemingly real. While leaving the city heading east toward Pune, one can clearly see how miles and miles of the outskirts are literally flooded with countless huts and hovels where the poorest among the poor, the condemned, pile up. The vision is devastating. The imagination, running wild and uncontrolled, increases the effects by many e-folds. One has suddenly Misery face to face, one greets No Future Land without a basic warm-up, without an elementary word of caution, without a badly needed warning. Seeing is believing. But there’s much more to add: seeing is feeling, and feeling bad and ugly as a first world privileged, confused by the unfolding scenery over the flat land awkwardly mixing up with full-blown jet-lag weariness. Reading about it in books, even watching it on TV, comes second down a distressing list. The live show is the very real thing, the breathtaking experience escaping common sense analysis.
Picture five Untouchables on the run. Picture a wild crowd of people, Touchables, outnumbering the former by far.
Somewhere I read a sentence which went more or less like this: India is a country which somehow manages to live in various centuries at the same time. The author of the sentence is Arundhati Roy. Roy is also the author of an outstanding novel, The God of Small Things.
Picture five Untouchables on the run. Picture a mere suspicion, picture a crime. Picture a dead sacred cow whose skin has been peeled away. A chase, a capture, a cold blood lynching by a wild angry crowd. Picture the sad demise of a few Untouchables, five, a kid among them. Their eyeballs had been first taken out, the paper explicitly reported. Trading with sacred cow skin for a living, or a dying, no matter the cows might be already dead, holy dead by natural causes, outliving many Untouchables.
This happened barely a few weeks ago, in twenty-first century India, the country which somehow manages to live in various centuries simultaneously.
In The God of Small Things Roy writes:
As a young boy, Velutha would come with Vellya Paapen to the back entrance of the Ayemenem House to deliver the coconuts they had plucked from the trees in the compound. Pappachi would not allow Paravans into the house. Nobody would. They were not allowed to touch anything that Touchables touched. Caste Hindus and Caste Christians. Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint. In Mammachi’s time, Paravans, like other Untouchables, were not allowed to walk on public roads, not allowed to cover their upper bodies, not allowed to carry umbrellas. They had to put their hands over their mouths when they spoke, to divert their polluted breath away from those whom they addressed.
When the British came to Malabar, a number of Paravans, Pelayas and Pulayas […] converted to Christianity and joined the Anglican Church to escape the scourge of Untouchability. As added incentive they were given a little food and money. They were known as the Rice-Christians. It didn’t take them long to realize that they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. They were made to have separate churches, with separate services, and separate priests. As a special favour they were even given their own separate Pariah Bishop. After Independence they found they were not entitled to any Government benefits like job reservations or bank loans at low interest rates, because officially, on paper, they were Christians, and therefore casteless. It was a little like having to sweep away your footprints without a broom. Or worse, not being allowed to leave footprints at all.
Picture a rape in a small village in Punjab in neighbouring Pakistan. A caste-driven rape. A tribal council, the papers said, condemned an unfortunate eighteen year old woman to be raped by four men. One of those was a member of the court itself. Imagine a reason, try to make sense of the nonsense. Picture the woman’s twelve year old brother having an illicit affair with a woman of an upper caste. Reality surpassing fiction by enormous amounts – the running theme of Roy’s novel itself is nothing but a caste-driven crime.
To punish an innocent woman by an “illicit” act carried out by a male member of her family is no news. It is indeed common practice in some parts of the country. A dramatic example of no news being dreadful news.
Tribal courts, jirgas, are regarded as unofficial by the official Pakistan law and government.
The illegal sentence was nevertheless fulfilled on June 22nd, at midnight, inside a hut. It was cheerfully staged with a background of shouting and laughter by about 500 people who gathered outside the house. An amusing ceremony. A party. An event. The girl “prayed for mercy”, she “pleaded and begged” but the four men behaved “like animals”. One put a gun on her head while the others teared off her clothes and patiently took turns.
Patiently. Took. Turns.
London Times reported what farmer Fareed, the ill-fated woman’s father, said about the event. About how he clearly heard the cries of her daughter while she was being raped. About how he had to swallow his rage, being, as he was, surrounded by a good many armed men from the hostile tribe. About how he picked up his naked daughter from the filthy floor and brought her home amid the stares of a silent, guilty crowd.
More than 300 women are killed every year in Pakistan in the name of honour, the London Times said. People rely on jirgas, and not police, to solve the so-called “matters of honour”. A dangerous place for women.
The girl told the press she first wanted to commit suicide. On second thoughts she said she wanted to live to see the rapists dead.
That was last July. Now the four rapists are indeed dead, after an official sentence by an official court. They were hanged. Pakistan, India, castes, tribal councils, feudalism, Middle Age procedures taking place in the Space Age, in the era of the Internet, cell phones, nuclear weapons and first world comfort. Middle Age vividly bolting into action, instantaneously beamed in our secure living rooms while, absent-minded, we have dinner or play with the kids.
Picture a cow, a dead cow, a dead sacred cow. Picture the lynching of five Untouchables, a kid among them, their eyeballs out of their natural place, elsewhere. Picture a woman’s youngest brother having an illicit affair with a woman of an upper caste. Picture the lower caste woman’s multiple rape as a result. Picture the four rapists’ corpses hanging by their necks from four ropes. Picture the ongoing routine and try to make sense of the nonsense. Try hard.
Life here is very simple. You work a bit, walk a bit, rest a bit, pay your customary visits to the canteen for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The same routine. Each day is a succession of the same bits, the same work, walks, food. I don’t leave the premises. I don’t feel adventurous enough to go out on my own.
Time stretches as a rubber band here.
Time sometimes becomes translucent and twists and bends, when fatigue starts to take its toll halfway through a long trip and you still have to catch another flight in the middle of the night – there is always yet another flight. Time then takes command and events become dreamlike. Picture yourself as a straphanger in a bus being taken from a gate to an airplane at night, swaying uneasily during the long ride, surrounded by red-eyed people and excessive luggage, the outside flashing lights of the airport – red and green and yellow – diffracted by the water droplets on the fogged windows, half-discerning the surreal view of the lights silhouetting the Burj Khalifa in the distance. Time warp-drives the moment the stewardess welcomes you on board with a cheerful good morning when you were expecting a good night. It suddenly strikes you that your night’s slipped away.
My first visit to India was 20 years ago, on December 1997. Then, everything was new. Now, I know what to expect. I am no longer surprised by the chaos in the streets, by the filth and the dust, by the density of people, cars, bikes, three-wheelers or motorcycles, by the incessant blowing of horns, by the slumdogs and the poverty of many. I am now aware of things that perhaps went off my radar when I first visited this country – the exuberant vegetation, the magnificent trees, the screaming birds, the amount of stray dogs, the humidity, the way pedestrians cross the heavily trafficked roads, slowly and confidently, the times when ocassionally a total stranger would engage in a long conversation with me about this and that for the sake of politeness, the beauty of small kids’ brown-skinned faces.
Sometimes it takes me a moment to realize the current month’s January.
From the balcony of my room in the IUCAA guesthouse I watch two guys kicking a ball. They play on the lawn of the inner court of the residence. The guys are PhD students, yet they enjoy kicking the ball just as two little kids would do. It takes me no time to realize their skills at football suck. They should try cricket or badminton, as most of their peers surely do.
Watching them I’m reminded of myself kicking balls as a kid. We, the kids in the neighbourhood, played football games in the street. There was usually only one goal – a metallic sliding door of some garage. Every time someone scored the noise was very loud. Passers-by complained, car-drivers complained, as did the owner of the garage whose door was our goal. She feared we might break it, or bend it, or something.
Relative to most of our small team of street players I was very good at those games. I had some skills, good ball control, and always scored a few goals. I liked the feeling of being the best player.
Remembering those games today, on this saturday afternoon so far away from home, overcomes me with nostalgia. Suddenly those silly games become the symbol of utmost happiness itself.
Years later I would sometimes kick the ball with dad, on the lawn at the house by the sea. Occasionally I would play goalie and would dive for the ball much too theatrically. And when I became a father myself, despite the roles changed the ritual went on – my son also liked to kick the ball with me, on that same lawn, and the feeling was reciprocal. He almost always wanted to play goalie. I happily approved, the years of grass-diving gone for good.
A plain and humble room smelling of naphthalene a tad too much. A wardrobe with two hangers, their wires oddly twisted. A ceiling fan. Mothballs. A kettle. Fifteen bottles of water. Aged furniture. It suits him, for a change. Taking it as it comes. Being thankful. Nights are still, noiseless, the only sound the distant horn from the eventual train. Long blows at periodic intervals, reminding him of faraway nights at home in his childhood. Tonight, hours earlier, sitar music from the patio below filled the air, as a welcoming token, an unambiguous hint of the far-off-ness of the place.