Sunday, March 14, 2004

In countryside 

Second day, thought it would be wonderful to leave the crazy city for a few hours and head out to the countryside. Satya Sai Baba, a teacher with devotees worldwide of whom I knew little beyond the fact that his main message is one of service to others and sports an imposing afro in the photos, has his summer ashram in White Field, a town about 45 minutes from Bangalore. The thought of seeking a place devoted to so-called spiritual endeavors, a place of quiet, if only for a bit, was not without appeal (although much less than on day one, when I craved a few moments of quiet). Also, the thought of seeing and maybe talking to other Westerners also had attractive qualities.

After a breakfast of hot-off-the-skillet rotis (a flat bread) with peanut butter and mixed fruit jam and several rounds of “The wheels of the bus go ‘round and ‘round…” singing and dancing with the Tibetans’ two-year-old (he called me sister and cried as I was saying goodbye), bravely boarded one of the many buses noisily navigating the nearby station. Instinct saw me claiming a seat behind the driver, and it was with some relief that I saw that the front few rows of the bus are the ladies’ domain exclusively. Only the back of me was pierced by relentless stares. I had a seat, and copied the women’s way of sitting as they studied me. Feet together or crossed primly at the ankles, bag on lap, hands folded or clasped over bag. Found myself favoring having the right hand on top, the one that features two gold rings I am wearing that could very easily be construed as engagement/wedding rings. Found myself really wanting to “represent”, to portray a respectable image, to be demure, cultivating that impassive look behind dark glasses that is quickly supplanting first day’s glee-filled smiles and staring back at Those Who Stare. The leers and hungry eyes quickly weaned me of that. Now I hardly ever make eye contact, am somewhat abrupt, regressing to junior high school levels of body language with shoulders forward, gaze down, mouth pursed. Don’t mess with me. But I talk and smile with the ladies, and everyone leans in to listen and watch. Favorite question: “what is your place?” I want to say, I am looking for it. Instead I say, Greece, and if that draws a blank stare I say, Europe. They know I sound American though. Couple of cheeky fellas tried sitting in the front, one next to me, seemingly unconcerned. “Ei!!”, I protest, gesturing to the conductor and prompting them to make their way to the back, laughing. Rush hour in Bangalore is pretty much 10am till 8 or 9 in the evening. Leaving the city center did not afford sweet-smelling breezes- just replaced by industrial smells of tar and dust and construction work. People, everywhere, each a snapshot, each distinct. So happy to be here, much more than I’d anticipated or hoped for.

Of course, even though I’d asked both driver and conductor to let me know which stop I needed for the ashram, it’s not until a nun, dark-skinned and peach-sareed asks if I wanted Babaji’s. She gets off with me, we talk, I give her a lollipop for her favorite student and she deposits me in a rickshaw. 25 rupees, he says (about $.50); no, I protest, too much- 10 rupees. These meter-less outside the city guys. 20 ruppees, he agrees. Assured by the sister that this is fair, I clamber in. The ashram is a majestic looking structure in pastels, with a hospital and an institute of higher learning and not a single westerner to be had. I am handed a shawl to cover my long-sleeved shoulders and told to take darshan- “even though the guru is not here now here is Here Now”. A vast outdoor hall with polished black marble floors in front of a stage with lifesize photos of the guru and signs asking we serve and love others. The only sounds are coming from the marble polishing machine and a tape deck offgrounds. Gratefully, I let my eyes close and let the head and heart clear and quiet a little. Not allowed into the main compound, I make my way to the store/bookshop. Maximalist that I am, indulge in a few 20-rupee books and some incense- “all less than on the outside”, I am assured. Been there, done that, bought the book, she says, hugely relieved she opted for the reconnaissance trip rather than just showing up expecting to stay a day or two. Armed with vague and contradictory directions as to how to take the bus to get the Bangalore-bound bus, I wait for a while with a couple of other respectable-looking ladies, while everyone all around watches this foreign-bred specimen. Beggar-woman with baby descends, insistently standing in front of me, hand extended for several minutes as I shake head, no, hold hand up in a gesture that is new to me but comes naturally and frequently and is just as effective with street vendors and store keepers and also beggars: like a blond Supreme, I do the “Stop, in the name of love” traffic cop hand held up, palm facing away. No-problem. When an old guy smoking not-cigarette starts moving his hand briskly under his lungi, I just walk away. I was waiting on the wrong side of the road, anyway. This not-giving stare-ahead person is not me. Me would be giving candy and warm looks or at least a smile-accompanied “sorry, no”. Somehow I don’t feel that’s the way to go on this. So I barely blink as that blind beggar clacks his cane on my shins, barley flinch as, minutes later, he bumps into me. Step away from the legless man on the sidewalk. Dodge the boy with no-bones legs. All the while staring straight ahead through the dark shades, I am not one of those noblesse oblige folks, “oooh, look at the hungry babies/skinny doggies/hungry ladies” kinda gal and can certainly accept that life includes all of this without too much of a struggle. I see, react, then work on releasing. These are, after all, as much India as the idyllic sunkissed Rams and Hanumans and the blueblue skies. All of this, and that, too.

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