Lunchbox on Wheels
Painful horn, used all the time...
“You choose! This is your India!” he exclaimed. Pasar’s final destination was also mine, though his journey started twenty-four hours before. We had joined up on the same bus from Agra to Mathura, an eighty-minute journey in a lunchbox on wheels. Having stepped into the chaos of the bus terminal, I asked him if it would matter how we should move forward, either by shared rickshaw or grab one of the several private ones on the side of the road. His emphatic answer pleased me. With a youthful tangled beard and white robe fastened at the waist by a red sash, the student of Sanskrit from India’s northeast state of Arunachal Pradesh and I hopped aboard.
The rickshaw driver opened the hood of the engine to strike up the motor with a soiled cord, like how one would start a self-propelled lawnmower. Before he could make his first pull, we turned our heads to the commotion behind us. A mob had surrounded one man and backed him up against the bus on which we had just arrived. The crowd of cursing men repelled all his attempts at escape by pushing him around the compact and encroaching semicircle. Three in all threw
Pagal Baba Temple
Real life wedding cake...
themselves on him and jacked him up against the side of the bus. The victim squirmed and he began to plea his innocence. Now about fifty had encircled him. Escape was futile. Fear engrossed him. Almost hyperventilating, he had already accepted what was to come.
Then the mass beating got underway. First came the disorganized array of flailing fists. Many punches missed, having been thrown like two fighting NBA centers, neither wanting to mess up their pretty faces for next week’s TV commercials. Some did land against his face and torso. He took so many blows that they sent him into the cowering position on the ground. His elbows covered his head and he assumed a position of complete submission. Over the screams of the furious crowd, I could barely make out weak whimpers from him. I don’t know a word of Hindi, but he had to be begging for mercy.
None came. While he was curled up into a ball, some of the most enraged men in the mob began stage two. The kicks landed against his ears, thighs, and jaw. Feet came as high as hip level before they swooped down to strike the hopeless prey. Finally the
From Central casting of an Indiana Jones film?
police came a full two minutes into the assault. Thank goodness, I thought. It’s over. The two khaki uniformed officers swung their batons indiscriminately at the onlookers, who dispersed like stray dogs. Without warning, the police took their batons to the bloodied victim to finish what the multitudes had started. They hacked for a good minute.
Immobile and barely conscious, the attack ceased. A puddle of blood had soaked into the sand. The man rolled and groaned. “Come, Rich,” said Pasar. It is time to get a taxi.” This wasn’t the first beating I had witnessed. I saw the police pulverize two homeless kids on Connaught Place in New Delhi, for the same reason as today’s theft. In both instances, they emphatically enjoyed dishing out paralyzing blows with their batons.
“Wh- What was that?”
“Oh,” he replied nonchalantly. “A robber of some kind.” Pasar shrugged his shoulders and had nothing more to say on the topic.
Pasar was on a three-day retreat to Vrindavan, India’s version of a Hindu Lourdes or Fátima. Temples of all kinds dot the city, and like Delhi and Agra is also on the banks of the Yumuna. I have no deep desire to go
Artisans and transistor radios...
templing; I have done my share. Something else I had learned several months ago about Vrindavan bounced about my mind. If in the right place, I would see for myself if the stories were true. Of the few temples I randomly selected, the first one was well out of town. I slid out of the rickshaw to have look.
By the time we had parted company I was refreshed by Pasar’s kindness. He had asked nothing of me. About penniless, he refused my gesture to pay for his share of the ride. “That is in God’s hands”, he smiled.
“That may be true, but standing between you and God is a driver unwilling to wait for rupees to fall out of the sky.” I put out a fifty rupee note and he refused it.
The Pagal Baba Temple is ten-storey ivory wedding cake with sharp edges and pavilioned pagodas. The complex also houses Spartan rooms, a field of five dozen or so cattle, and a pool of still, forest green water in its inner patio. The pool is ceremonial for adults and purely recreational for little boys. Each floor contains a shrine within to Shiva, Krishna, or some other
He initial interest in me, then went back to work...
Hindi deity. As one climbs, the surface area of each floor is reduced but the view improves. At the top there is hardly enough room to squeeze around the pagoda and pay homage to the shrine closest to the heavens. An attendant is on duty to address the devout as they reach each stage of the climb. The first level is that of an open reception hall that is gated in the center. In it three men sit in close proximity under swirling ceiling fans. Seated legs crossed, they each play a tambourine, an elongated bongo, and a stringy accordion-like noisemaker. One is topless and in a loincloth. The other dons a pink robe as does the third. In concert they produce a repetitive and mindless chant associated with the Hare Krishnas, to which Vrindavan is home. The sound enters a nearby microphone and is splattered all over the complex. Their cadences never change. They make no movement but for striking their instruments and their faces are blank and expressionless. The chants are hypnotic and empty. My ascent separates me from their intensity and I feel my brain renewing its cognitive functions.
Every attendant searches me out and finds me,
Their only mistake was to have outlived thier husbands...
no matter how hard I try to walk by undetected. This leads to a firm order to enter the shrine and make an offering. It is hard to say no. Refuse and be labeled disrespectful. Abide and forfeit your train of free will. I feel that the higher in the temple I go, the more my free will is being sapped from me. The attendants’ annoying eagerness to please is out of manufactured kindness, one which wears thin on me too quickly. On the third floor, I am called over and practically ordered to make an offering to which I comply. The attendant holds out my hands and squeezes them to form a palm. I do not resist. In it he drops a small puddle of perfumed water from a copper cup of flower petals. A priest then applies a thumbprint of red sindoor powder above the bridge of my nose, or a Bindi as it is commonly known. Though still not too creepy, then I am then taken to the edge of the platform. The priest points to monuments, hotels, and far off temples. It is a complete explanation of Vrindavan’s surroundings all within view…in perfectly enunciated Hindi. I nod my head in feigned understanding.
This is repeated with slight alterations all the way up. What was I supposed to do? High tail it and leave? I am not a Hindu, am not vying for memberships in the Hare Krishnas and do not care for the Bindi on my head. There is nothing wrong with it. But what would it be like to persuade a Jew or Hindi to perform the sign of the cross in a church when they arrive as a guest or observer? It is unthinkable. Could you imagine a Catholic priest urging a Muslim accept the symbolism of the rosary?
“Be careful, sir!” The man has just helped me slip off my sandals. “They take glass from your face!” He pointed to my eyeglass frames and then to the mischievous primates swinging from the ledges. I took it as good advice and would mind them very carefully. Less than thirty seconds later, someone else barked out the same warning. Then I seriously paid attention. Twice is enough. If I lose these frames to the monkeys, having them replaced would be an ordeal I could do without.
The dozen or so monkeys will take anything not tied down in the Govid Dev Temple. One has already snatched and taken off with the towels a family would lie on. Within seconds, the monkey had attained an unreachable height on a platform. Say goodbye to that towel. They’ll never get it back, at least not in the same clean condition. On the other side of the platform behind a screen, the cavernous crimson sandstone temple is undergoing renovations as workers toil at the exterior walls. Pilgrims approach the mild incline to the temple’s entrance and turn over a ten rupee note for nine single coins at booths set up by money changers. It reminds me of the episode when Jesus did the same in Jerusalem, only to flip them over and cause quite a ruckus. They make their way through the short, cavernous interior, which could pass as the nave of a large church. Calmly they drop rupees coins for a sip of perfumed water and make their way to the exit. I do the same, put my shoes back on, and do not stab for my glasses until well out of range of the monkeys. Still not vying to become a Hindu, I have taken a liking to the perfumed water.
The gatekeeper at the Rangaji temple looks as if he were on a break between takes for the second Indiana Jones movie. In charge of who comes and goes through the massive steel-reinforced wooden gates, he takes notice of my interest in his tools of the trade. To secure the temple at night, he uses an oversized, toy padlock. Holding it up, it must weigh twenty pounds. The hole into which a skeleton key fits could fit three adult fingers. The man’s gaunt, thin frame underscores the bulky hardware. I do not hesitate showing him his image from the display on my camera. He is smitten with it, on the brink of saying, damn, I look pretty good here! Because of language we cannot converse, but he summons me up to his work area and shows me the rest of his responsibilities: a crowbar, a checklist, and a series of chain links and thick, fibrous ropes.
In the back alleys of Vrindavan, life goes on with a little less piety. I run the length of one narrow street. On one side is the back of the temple; the other is home to small residences and workshops. At one stand, I twice exchange coquettish glances with one young woman. She is in a red sari and silver shawl. The part in her forehead is not dyed, an indication she is not married. At the next opening, I join an artisan deeply entrenched in the stitching of his embroidery. His loom is raised off the floor by bricks and ancient kerosene cans. Having lost interest in me, he punctures the fabric from below with a medium-sized needle and continues his work.
Vrindavan isn’t about temples. It is where the true fervor of Hinduism makes itself known, a firm polytheistic belief system of assigned roles in society for its followers. Absent here are the structure and services of Delhi and Agra, which have deceptively lent me a sense of comfort. It is a savage creation that, as V.S. Naipual put it “traps a man in his own function.” High caste Brahmins sport bright and colorful forehead markings; the easiest way to recognize one is from the three vertical lines between their eyebrows. Apprentice Brahmin priests may be no less wealthy then middle caste merchants or the lowly Dalits or Untouchables, but their body language exhibits a care free sense of belonging; they ooze superiority without having to flash a single rupee. They play and horse around among themselves. They are the ones in training have a small lock of hair sprouting from the back of their stubbled heads. The Untouchables are just as easy to identify. They look depressed, defenseless, and are in dire need of dental work. Dalit women wear their shawls to cover much of their head and face. Some do not even show their eyes to the public. Never does an Untouchable approach a Brahmin, as that would throw the Brahmin into a fit of religious uncleanliness. I have watched carefully as the two share Vrindavan but live in parallel universes. The closest the two come to each other is at a temple. The Untouchable begs at the entrance, but never dares to enter its walls at the time as a Brahmin.
Their only mistake in life was to have outlived their husbands. Fate and an unbending caste system ban them to Vrindavan, hundreds of miles from their pastoral villages in the border state of West Bengal. For most it is their last stop in life and only chance of survival, but with little hope. Some have arrived at the age of twenty and have spent decades in here. Resigned to despair, Vrindavan is where these women come to die.
Upon marriage in India, most wives become the responsibility of the husband’s household. In many cases they are sentenced to menial and laborious tasks around the home at the orders of a mother-in-law who sees it as her duty to inflict the same harsh treatment as her husband’s mother years before. For the first few years, the new wife lives out an existence in line with what Cinderella would come to expect, but with zero chance of a happy ending with Prince Charming. For her, it isn’t that the slipper doesn’t fit. The slipper does not exist in her world. Few pity the newlyweds. Subjugation is a part of this centuries-old culture. They know nothing else and have come to expect the harsh treatment. They endure, but do not consider it hardship. It is the role they must fulfill as a long-term initiation ritual.
If by accident or disease her husband passes away, the wife is left without the means to identify herself in the eyes of others. Consequently, the resident in-laws, no longer having any use for a woman who carries no value but an extra mouth to feed (and in their culture will never find a man willing to marry her) and they unceremoniously expel her. She is given a measly sum of money and told she can spend the rest of her existence in Vrindavan, where she will be cared for, even if it will be on the brink of barely existing at the mercy of others’ charity and in deplorable conditions not suited for a family pet.
It is worthy to note that few Bengali widows suffer this ordeal nowadays. The reality remains, however, that banishment still takes place.
They come to communal homes where others like them seek refuge. Some organizations provide rudimentary care. The women sleep on the floor in neat rows, are malnourished, and have very little to keep them occupied. Some sew or stitchfor a few rupees. For the most part, most full timers in Vrindavan shun them to the same degree as the cruel departure they faced in West Bengal. There is no access to medical care and health issues soon set in. Some are so despondent, they sit each day speechless under a sheet until the dwindling life in them seeps away. If able bodied, they take to the streets and ask for mercy at Hindu temples from the devout. If young and appealing enough, prostitution is the only way to ascertain a meager revenue.
The two that spotted me in the crowd, not a very difficult task, tugged at the back of my shirt. One was deathly thin, her partner even lighter. Their clothes were soiled, very basic, but not ripped. I could see the spot of the sun’s reflection on a forehead. Both had teeth the approximate color of their skin; the rows were incomplete, bent, and incongruous. When we made eye contact, I thought they would drop to their knees. Instead they supplicated themselves into my chest and cried out Hare Krishna chants. Awkward, I noticed hardly anyone else around me in the bus depot even glance at the three of us.
I cannot say how many rupees I gave them. A driver in a nearby rickshaw yelled out “Widows!” to confirm what I had already grasped. I have made it a strict guideline never to give money to anyone in need. NEVER. I have my reasons, among which are that it will change nothing. Often enough the money is taken to an extortionist ringleader. The support of drug and alcohol abuse also plays a role. However in this case, THERE IS right and wrong. THERE ARE moral absolutes. I distributed among them all the money I had in my right front pocket.
Is what I did right? Did I compromise my own affective filter to strain out the misery in order to function in such a community? Is this hypocritical of me? It changed nothing because I was powerless to help them. India has made me powerless to the extremes of the human condition.
The religious fervor of Vrindavan is the first time I have bumped into a value system so unfamiliar, I have been unable to process even its most elementary aspects. Indians ignore the brutal fate of these women who in my world, did nothing remotely wrong to deserve a fate as brutal as this. The devout renew their reverence in the oldest continuous religious system on the planet, a by-product of which is indefensible.
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