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Published: July 14th 2008
Young Jain Boy
He has joined the sect at an early age...
The phone rang on his landline at home. His cell phone rings far more often. His primary servant Dinesh, a rather sheepish man, handed me the cordless receiver in order to speak with his boss.
“Richard,” Madhukar called out on the other end, “how is everything? Are you comfortable?”
Well, yes. I have a two servants looking after me, a private driver at my disposal, and an armed guard for protection. The house is my own and the air conditioning makes my room feel like an Arctic biome. Things are looking pretty good. “Fine, just fine, thank you.”
“Look, for dinner tonight, I thought we could make one stop first. An important religious leader has agreed to meet with me, and that is very special. He is one of the most important religious leaders in India. Maybe you would like to see for yourself. OK?”
“I’ll be ready in five minutes. Where do I find you?” He was calling from his office in the center of Jaipur’s business district. It also occurred to me to change my clothes. Whoever I was about to meet might merit a guest in better attire than a t-shirt and jeans. I had erred; it would
Maha Pragya has countless admirers
not have mattered at all.
“Your driver will take you straight to me.” He did just that.
I had no idea what I was in store for. We in the States equate religious sects with cults, reclusive groups that refuse to assimilate into the mainstream. Contact with everyday folks is rare and skepticism of outsiders is the rule, not the exception. By and large this does not apply to the Jains, a significant sect of orthodox vegetarians whose mantra is pure internal happiness and preservation of all life at all cost. Call the practicing monks in Jaipur weird, strange, or even out in left field. Their lifestyle is on the far side of extreme in the eyes of Westerners, but it serves their purpose of lifelong devotion to peace and rejection of any material pleasures. That accomplished, they say, can one truly be happy. The Jains’ headquarters is ironically set in a depression adjacent to a hip mall in Jaipur. Caught off guard by the time I reached the top of the entranceway, I never fully was at ease with these content pacifists.
The first thing that threw me off was the mouth guard on each of its members.
Next In Line
Ready to succeed Maha Pragya in due time...
They wear the blue rectangular piece below the nose much like that of a surgeon. So extreme is their vow of vegetarianism, the mouth guards serve as an extra barrier to ensure they do not accidentally ingest any flying insects. I’ll never look at the holier-than-thou ultra-vegan woman who scowls at my pork chops at dinner the same way again. If not for the linen homespun robes, it would be easy to think that these were first year medicine students walking through the hallways at Johns Hopkins.
A patriarchal organization, Madhukar’s invitation included conversations with a top elder before our audience with their scholarly leader and philosopher, Maha Pragya. Everyone took interest in the both of us. Madhukar’s attitude towards the faction is one of admiration and even awe. In me it was because I was new, an oddity, something that just doesn’t happen all the time. Little did they suspect I viewed them in exactly the same manner. We and seven or so followers gathered in an upstairs room where the relaxed, serene elder slowly waved us into plastic patio chairs. After introductions, I was asked through an interpreter if I had any questions.
I didn’t. Still stunned in
Part of the Job
Madhukar gives an interview in Delhi...
some tingling paralysis, I stuttered through some sloppy English to form a question about eternal happiness. I had come unprepared. Usually I know what I am walking into and would do some research, even perfunctory, before I’d put myself so out of place. What was I supposed to ask? Are you a Sox or Yankees fan? Do you prefer paper or plastic at the supermarket? Or, gee, should NBC renew ER for one more season?
Thankfully one follower began to explain the fundamental rules by which the sect abides. They are rather severe for even the most adamant and true believers. Jain monks do not perform any sort of idol worship, putting them at clear odds with common Hindus. They refuse to touch money, as it corrupts the path to happiness. While there is a place for women, Jain monks primarily welcome men and even young boys. Upon acceptance, all ties with the families that reared and nurtured them from birth are permanently severed in exchange for the new ideological family. Mother, father, brothers, and sisters are unequivocally renounced. When I learned this, I gazed at the deep ebony eyes of a ten-year-old convert and could not come close to
Hire Only The best
Prashant on duty, never far away...
imagining his parents’ anguish when he departed, never to be part of their lives again. As far as these Jains see the world, only when you are detached from your own family can true happiness be attained, an assertion most of us find impossible to fathom.
The monks only travel by foot, refusing motor vehicle transportation. This came to light when I asked the elder if he had ever traveled. Perhaps, I thought in vain, we could share a few common stories. Not a chance.
“Yes, oh yes, I have traveled. Once I went from Jaipur to Bangalore,” some eight hundred miles to the south. An assistant interrupted me and explained with the exception of emergency, that Jains do not touch anything to do with petroleum…it once was part of giving life.
“So, you walked?”
“How long did it take you to get from here to Bangalore?”
“We go about seven to eleven miles a day.” So we’re talking about weeks. And since cars and trains are off limits, he must have taken the same amount of time to trek back to Jaipur along the side of perilous roads of hectic traffic. He and his partners lived off the
Home in Jaipur
Entrance to the life of an Indian civil servant...
offerings of others, eating what was given them.
They will not touch food, much less prepare it. Food has life. Preparation is done for them. Their adherence to the preservation of life is so extreme that even raw vegetables, which contain life within, cannot be eaten. Refusing to come into contact with a debasing money system, they survive off the kindness and pity of others. Clearly their vow of non-violence frees them from any risk of theft; they carry nothing and have forfeited every last possession of the most minute monetary value.
This elder also made a journey from Jaipur to Bombay and back.
Not only do Jain monks forbid themselves to marry, they cannot even come in physical contact with a woman.
Every morning, they rise at around four and enter into long sessions of meditation. By eleven o’clock, they take to the streets to beg for their lunch, none of which can be stored for later use. Between sunset and sunrise they do not ever eat or drink, not even water. Another follower felt it necessary to inform me, “This is all about the path to life.”
Downstairs, Maha Pragya was rather welcoming and unassuming. It is just
Just In Case...
Armed Guard on duty at home...
his nature. Madhukar consistently reminded to me look into their eyes. “See, Richard, how calm they are! Their eyes, they truly are at peace.” Moreover, Madhukar stressed how extraordinary it is for me to get an audience with this man. While I couldn’t argue with him, for the only time during my visit I was ready to question, to say Wait a minute. Yet these were scholarly folks highly trained in philosophical discussions. I got the feeling they could put down my points with loads of enlightened gibberish. The great philosopher peered at me. The mouth guard poorly hid how he felt; happy to see me. His thoughts and sage knowledge have been published all around the world. For a man of influence beyond India’s borders, he was in charge of his own world, the one he designed by rejecting that which I have come to welcome. His, as I saw it, was one of running away from the world’s problems and challenges for arrival at a higher state of being at an unreasonably precious cost. Perhaps by non-assimilation could Maha Pragya attain such a state of self-satisfaction.
“I do not question their contentment, Madhukar,” I later told him in
Home to a signifcant collection of art and artifacts...
the car on the way back to his place, “but like the Hare Krishna’s in Vrindavan, the same sensation came over me.”
“No free will. No one can question what the elders say or how they profess. They are sheep. The individual in them has been quashed for the greater good and a promise that an intangible reward is waiting for them down the line. But they do not control their own destiny, it seems. They surrender that at the door.”
It all about choices each of us make and understanding the consequences before diving into to the deep end of the pool. Both Kiran and Madhukar knew full well the lifestyle changes they would face when they entered the Indian Civil Service. Married now with two children, time has shown that it has come to suit them very well. Life as property of the state is one of give and take. On the one hand, it is a comfortable one of advantages and opens the door to a vast and influential network. On the other, it does not afford them some of the conveniences we take for granted.
The Indian Civil Service is an immense bureaucratic
The Fort oversees the small town of temples, another fort, and former palaces...
vestige of the British Empire. As many things were once run in the United Kingdom, such is now the case in India. Indians have adopted the parts of the British period that best suits them and discarded that which has proven dysfunctional. The Elite Service employs 30,000 strong and the Interstate Federal Service, to which Kiran and Madhukar belong numbers about 4,000. One half million applicants put in for five hundred openings each year. Isn’t there a higher rate of success at Powerball? Those who make it in are put on track to a job they can rarely lose and become de facto wards of the state. Kiran and Madhukar represent the Federal Government’s interest in their assigned state, in this case Rajasthan. She is based in Jodhpur, he in Jaipur. They both make and execute policy, sometimes with tremendous impact on the lives of thousands. They recommend where buildings can go up, who should be awarded contracts, and deal with issues of law enforcement. Not elected officials, they consider themselves to be at the backbone of the Indian government. Much as in the United States, elected parliamentarians are considered obstacles to work around. Elected officials come and go, but
Captivating treasures within Amber Fort...
they are here to stay for the long term.
The perks and advantages are enormous and disproportionate to what an American bureaucrat of equal accomplishment should expect. Housing is provided, in their case with servants to look after the laundry, cleaning, gardening, and to prepare all the meals. A guard stands at the gate of the home with a loaded rifle, to which a bayonet is attached. I question the need for this, but have not asked what the concrete risks are to their safety and that of their family. In other parts of the world, the fear of kidnapping is a constant preoccupation.
As meetings with other officials conclude, all either has to do is call and request dinner be ready upon their arrival. They open the door, and it is already on the table. When they rise, breakfast is set to go. Packing is done for them. Tea is served per their preferences. Any imaginable domestic need is taken care of. They do not need to lift a finger. In the event they are reassigned, the State picks up all moving expenses.
A personal driver chauffeurs them around at their whim under armed escort. Sirens atop the roof
Up close, details...
at times split traffic like Moses did the Red Sea for their motorcade to push ahead and make better time. Prashant, Madhukar’s personal assistant, shadows him. He is an eight-year veteran of the Rajasthani Commandos, the state’s elite law enforcement unit. When in khaki uniform, dark beret, and side arm on his hip, he sends a message to all around to stay clear and adds further importance and status to his boss when they are in public. One look at Prashant and you know not to mess with the guy. He is an ideal vassal. He does not question orders, he follows them until completion. The little he does say is usually ‘yes’ or ‘no’. When Madhukar is away, he is mildly more relaxed and we can converse. We talk of family and food. But when it is time for business, his personality undergoes a transformation to a no-nonsense professional that gets the job done right the first time.
“Just Amber (pronounced am-AIR) Fort and the Old City. In fact, you can drop me off in the Old City and collect me an hour later.” I may as well have been speaking Norwegian by the blank expression on my
Great Wall of China in miniature...
guide’s boyish face. With only limited English, he had already decided upon a program, under instructions from Madukar to see I receive a tour of Jaipur. Perhaps part of the fault is mine. It would have been for me to tell Madhukar ahead of time. I am a wanderer. I don’t do guides unless I need restricted access or my safety is at risk. And most of all, whatever you do, do NOT take me to a museum! I haven’t traveled 7,000 miles to look at pottery and eighteenth-century Rajasthani shoes for foot soldiers.
Our first stop was at Albert Hall, which houses the Central Museum. We got out of the van and I started to internally grumble. Home to a collection of decorative costumes, painted ceramics and a full force of constipated security guards, Ganesh pushed me through galleries of antiquities. There were even some mummies from Egypt. In another lifetime, I might have cared. Waves of fatigue battered my jaw and my yawns sucked up much of the air needed for others in the room. All I could think about is the vibrancy of Japiur’s Old City carrying on without me while I was stuck looking at knights’ petrified underwear through a glass case. The hall itself is an eye-popping edifice of raised platforms and fountains in the center of marble courtyards. Its domed rooftop is the city’s O’Hare airport for pigeons; this is where they land by the thousands, rest, have a chat with fellow passengers on the way home to visit family after a day of pooping on Nehru’s statue, then transfer for their next flight.
Ganesh escorted me back to the van. “Now, we go to City Palace.” But I don’t want to go to the City Palace. His mind was already made up. The worst part is that the palace is in the middle of the Old City, where I wanted to be. While dodging bovines, bullock carts, and smashed fenders, I fought the urge perform some spectacular stunt film to ditch Ganesh and the driver; I would fall to the pavement and roll just like in the movies, then wipe off the manure and wring the toxic waste out of my shirt. I would be free. In spite of all temptation, I remained in the van.
The City Palace is just that, a palace in the middle of the city. Ganesh’s value was to get me into wherever we were going without paying admission. He threw around Madhukar’s name and on occasion, launched a polite explanation of how much easier it would be if we were let in without delay. At the City Palace ticket booth, here is my fantasized version of the conversation, which of course took place all in Hindi:
Guard: “Tickets!” We ignore him because for us he does not exist. We have to act as if we are above him. We are important, so failure to acknowledge him is the first step in the process. Now rather vexed at the slight, he chases after us. “Tickets!”
Ganesh: “Ah, kind sir, this is a very important American dignitary visiting Jaipur. He is the personal guest of The General Secretary’s High Commissioner of the First Grand Pubah. I am his guide. We will be just a short while.”
Guard: “I don’t care who he is. You pay like everyone else.” Now insulted, he points us to the exit.
Ganesh: “Richard, you wait a minute. I come back.” Ganesh takes the guard to the side and amicably wraps his right arm all the way around the guard’s right shoulder. “Look, let me explain: I must be guide. You must let me in. My boss, very important. Much influence. What can we do to make this happen?”
Guard: “Nothing, you, my dear friend, know that I have to do my job. All people here are looking. What can we do to both look good and for you two fools to go away?”
Ganesh: “Ah, let us smile at each other as so they think we are getting along even though we want to be somewhere else. I will motion to call my boss on my cell phone, then you stop me before the call goes through. We part as pretend buddies and the stupid American and I go inside. Deal?”
Guard: “Yes, you twerp. Then we both save face and I never have to see you again.”
As Ganesh and I enter the palace, the guard removes the turnstile obstacle and we pass without any hindrance. With a few variations to include parking in the VIP lot at Amber Fort, this happened three times in the afternoon. At each instance, the outcome was never in any doubt.
I tried to push through the City Palace as a candidate for a spot on the Olympic 4 x 100 Meter sprint team, minus the baton. Thanks to the insight of Ganesh, supposed son of Jaipur, I left no richer in knowledge than when I entered.
“What is that painting?” I inquired.
“I do not know, sir.”
“And that apartment window…what does it lead to?”
“I do not know, sir.”
“But what about…” And so it went. To compensate for his vast collection of City Palace Trivia, Ganesh read things to me, assuming I was illiterate or as stupid as the stereotype describes my countrymen who tour outside our borders.
“Ah, sir, you see…café. And over there, a tree, big tree.” To emphasize its girth, he spread out his arms about two feet.
All I saw of Jaipur’s Old City was the Palace and the Jantar Mantar, an astrological observatory facility newly renovated in 1901. I gazed around and my annoyance grew significantly. “Ganesh, this is the Old City?”
“Better. Here you can see planet chart.”
The oversized instruments can calculate the position of celestial bodies and their distance to others. Ganesh was very keen on showing me the sundial. It is precise down to the last second. I looked skyward. How fitting: It was a cloudy day.
It’s a great place to get lost. And if that’s not enough, medieval ramparts, a toy set of the Great Wall of China, snake up and down the hills all around a green Rajasthan after a brief rain shower. I have come to share Amber Fort, a beige monster on the outskirts of Jaipur, with the multitudes of Indians who content themselves with the first few enticements within the fortress. I dismiss their collective blindness to littering and the dozens of Dalit workers. Today a team of Dalit women chisel away at the base of carved columns. Their faces are hidden in shawls so they need not acknowledge anyone above them. The chances that Indian tourists would recognize their existence is even lower. Restorers silently sit on shaky scaffolding and meticulously retouch the edges of paintings with fine brushes of chipmunk tail. Off in a corner is the Jai Mandir, a baffling mirrored gallery of individual reflective mosaic pieces. The ceiling is adorned with them. Even I have to stop and take it in. The child in me takes over the deeper I pry into this Mughal monster. Staircases lead to ramps, which descend to patios that look up to the Jaigarh Fort, Amber’s permanent sentry atop a hill. Lefts and rights lead to more climbing and descending into rooms, halls, and patios. More than once do I have to ask myself if I have already come this way. Sometimes, I look up to see if anything is familiar to me. It’s only my shadow, Ganesh. “Look sir, a door” he points out for me.
Insufficient resources and all-too-common neglect have precariously put many of the causeways, dark and eerie corridors, and façades in a sad state of disrepair. If properly cared for many of the walls and observation towers could be of the same quality as the Spanish mission in San Antonio. Amber still retains its glory in spite of the peeling, cracking, and grime associated with architectural leprosy. By the time I reach the far end of the Fort, I am alone: no tourist, no tout, no cocky teenagers text messaging each other. Nothing but arches, blue sky, and a reminder of what was, what is, and what could be if we could wave a magic wand and make it all right again.
“Just take me back, please” I instructed Ganesh. He obeyed my order, and I felt a mild stab of guilt in the tone that I had just used. We were making a bee line back to the residence until he pulled over alongside some unsightly stands and piles of fermenting garbage. What was this? The anger within began to boil. I said nothing. Ganesh flew out of the van and disappeared without informing me. The interior of the van cabin immediately began to broil; I studied the Old City and got outside to breathe and dry off.
Just a few minutes later, Ganesh returned with a genuine smile I disliked. No matter what this was about, it was time I let him know I I felt about his -
“Here, sir. This is for you.”
I unwrapped the warm package of newspaper to reveal deep friend patties he’d just bought for me. Then he gave me a bottle of chilled water. We got in the van and finished off everything. I felt like a fool. He did all of this for me. I couldn’t dislike him now if I tried. Ganesh had disarmed me by being a decent person, which will get him much further in life than any prospects of becoming a tour guide.
Arrangements have been made for me to go west into the desert. Madhukar has made the calls. Someone will be there to get me in the morning. But nothing has compromised my independence or power to make my own decisions. In fact, the privilege and access I have enjoyed since arriving in Jodhpur has granted me numerous opportunities. This overnight train to Bikaner (bee-kanh-AIR) will bring me to the next step.
I do not have to board my carriage for the next thirty minutes. It is the second time, undoubtedly not the last, I am alone on a skuzzy platform hugging my pack at the far end of the dimly lit station. By and large, train stations excite me. But not in India. They are where the desperate meet the aggressive. They symbolize the larger reality between the everyday drama of the street and the haven of the home. Home is where things make sense, where it is possible to shut off and turn away from the dirt and madness of India. The train carriage is the same. Once safely aboard, I can leave behind the stray dogs, rotting fruit peels, teetering burlap sacks of cargo, and forlorn families camped out on the ground. I have learned never to walk near the train on the platform for fear of being tagged in the ear with waste water or well projected spit laced with mucous. As I decide to board, a rat with muscle development of which a thoroughbred would be envious wrestles with a large piece of naan bread. It squeals and I put my feet up on the bench. The squeals call its pals to join in. Five of the beastly rodents quickly devour it and they scatter to the safety of the train’s undercarriage.
My berth this time is a lower bunk. In India, overnight compartments are separated by gender. I am sharing mine with a portly Rajasthani man already twenty-four hours into his trip from Goa. Above me is a sharp-looking young professional from Uttar Pradesh; he is searching out a better ringtone for his cell phone. I have learned to properly make by bed on a train for the first time in twenty years. I never knew the upper flap of vinyl on the berth was for me to tuck the sheets underneath, securing them to the couchette when I toss and turn in my sleep. Ever since my first trip from Madrid to Seville, I had been used to the loose sheets crumpled up into a ball at my feet by morning. I used to take a look around at my other bunkmates and be fascinated on how neat their bedding kept during the night. Crippled with the common sense of a juvenile primate, there is still much for me to learn.
The train eases forward. Soon there are no more lights or buildings to stare at out the translucent and deeply tinted window. The portly fellow does not snore; I am delighted, so much so that I never reach full sleep. The train does not care. Someone turns out the light and I am rocked about my couchette upon two thin cushions of steel.
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