The weight of wood

Trip Start Sep 15, 2007
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Trip End Dec 15, 2007


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Flag of India  ,
Monday, November 26, 2007

the things that i wanted to do in calcutta were fairly specific. i was aided in the precision of my plans by my previous visit...i decided that i wanted to see one place that i'd missed out on last time (the park st. cemetery) and revisit another (the kali temple). i'd tried to visit the cemetery on my last day in calcutta 6 years ago, but i arrived just as the gates were closing. the peek of the cemetery grounds that i got as the guards were locking up was frustratingly beautiful. i made a mental note that i would have to come back and see it, not really believing that i ever would, and so i was really happy to actually be able to come back and make my once doubtful note a reality. i've never been to new orleans but for some reason the park st. cemetery strikes me as a louisiana transplant that's been swallowed up by india. so much of calcutta feels pieced together from the outside and then made whole, fused together in india's cultural furnace. the roots of modern calcutta (or kolkata, rather) lie in the old colonial capital, a british invention, a made-up city fleshed out in stone. buried among the mausoleums and pillars of the park st. cemetery are the old colonial elite, their legacy preserved in a garden of graves slowly being eaten by calcutta's voracious humidity and surging plant life. a few of the graves are tastefully quiet but most are ostentatious mausoleums topped with large four-sided pyramids or rife with columns evoking greece or rome. crawling around throughout are paths of red earth and green moss lined carefully with pointed stones. hanging over it all are a variety of large trees that serve to create the shadowed, tranquil space the makes stepping off busy park st. into the cemetery such a delight. park st. itself was built to provide access to the cemetery...its now a thriving commercial district, as though some of the old wealth of those buried nearby leeched into the earth over the years.

the kali temple is in south calcutta but easily accessed by using the metro. well...the neighbourhood of kalighat is easily accessed, finding the temple through the back streets can be a bit more difficult. to help the tourists along, young brahmin boys troll the main street outside the metro exit looking for slightly lost looking tourists to show them the way...and deliver them to the temple priests who immediately launch into a tour without even asking. after briefly inquiring as to the eventual demand for money and being told they accepted donations only - 'you give as you like' - i allowed myself to be carried along by the priest through the relative insanity that almost constantly engulfs the kali temple. the temple is where calcutta probably got its name and it's the holiest site in the city for hindus. the story goes that when shiva come across the charred corpse of his wife sati (an incarnation of kali) he decided to destroy the world. vishnu stepped in to stop him but in doing so accidentally chopped sati's body into 51 pieces which fell to the ground all across india. one of her toes supposedly landed at the site of the kali temple. the temple is ringed by narrow alleyways full of stalls and shops. a massive line of people snaked around the whole mess of structures, people waiting for their turn to offer hibiscus flowers at the main temple shrine. being accompanied by a priest (and being a foreigner) i got to ignore the line-up. the first stop was to remove my shoes (and safely hide them away where they wouldn't be stolen or otherwise molested) and to collect flowers, some incense, and two red rings around 10 cm in diameter. the purpose of taking off shoes is to keep the temple clean, but the area immediately around the temple that everyone has to walk through to get anywhere is incredibly dirty and therefore so are everyone's shoeless feet...and so the temple marble wasn't all that immaculate either. while i was being fast-tracked to the front of the line i walked past the back of the temple where a group of men were all huddled around a goat, offering flowers to it and chanting in low hushed voices. one of the more notorious aspects of kali worship is the sacrifice of animals...whereas most 'sacrifices' offered by hindus are things like ghee (clarified butter) and milk, the goat before me was not long for this world. at the temple shrine i parted with some of my flowers, leaving them on an alter with many others. the degree to which i was allowing myself to be carried through the whole temple process without resistance became clear to me when i didn't stop the priest from putting a small red tikka on my forehead. normally i find tourists with marks on their forehead meant to symbolize spiritual knowledge and blessing (the third eye...although the various combinations of ash and dye can signify caste as well) really annoying, mostly because i suspect that they have no idea why it's there. i know that hindus don't really care and that roaming sadhus can be quite insistent on applying them (for a fee, always mentioned afterwords) but i usually stop anyone from doing it. this time i didn't. next i was led to a large bathing tank next to the temple where i was passed off to another priest who presided over the poolside statue of shiva, kali's (sati's) husband. there i placed the rest of my flowers in shiva's lap in clumps, instructed to bring the flowers to my forehead and say the name of someone i wanted to be blessed for each group of flowers. after that i placed each of my red rings on one of shiva's outstretched arms, saying my father's name for one and my mother's for the other. at this point the question of my donation arose. a notebook appeared and in it were listed the fantastically improbable donations of travelers from around the globe, all in the thousands of rupees (uniformly, without exception). i offered the priest 200 rupees, which was grudgingly accepted. i suspect that an extra zero might materialize in my entry in the notebook before any other tourists get a chance to see it. as i was leaving the bathing tank i noticed the pile of flowers lying behind the shiva statue, dirty and discarded, a seemingly ignoble end for all those many blessings. on my way back to sudder st., in the dark of the metro station when no one was looking, i rubbed the tikka from my forehead.

as i was leaving calcutta i settled into a stubborn tiredness where haggling was concerned and decided to avoid all the demanding taxi drivers and make my own way to the train station. i knew from my previous explorations that the howrah train terminal was about level with the MG (mahatma gandhi) road metro stop, MG road itself leading straight to the howrah bridge. the exit i took from the metro station, however, was not actually on MG road and instead of wandering around trying to find it i decided to head west down the nearest alley, confident in my direction sense, the inevitability of hitting the river that separated me from the the railway station, and the impossible-to-miss landmark of the howrah bridge. that confidence evaporated quickly as i walked down the busy alleyway at night, the close space making it impossible to see far enough into the horizon to find the bridge. i imagined myself walking in the wrong direction and missing my train, done in by my own stubbornness, lost in the back streets of calcutta. and then just as i was beginning to think i'd made a terrible mistake the blue lights of the bridge popped out from behind a building. as i enjoyed the relief of discovering that my sense of direction was still bankable i thought about how my willingness to try to navigate through unknown streets, although potentially problematic, resulted in unlooked for discoveries: the swirling mass of people going about their evening affairs, the busy sweet shops full of neat rows of confections, and the men huddling in the laneways selling vegetables from baskets by candlelight...all things that might have otherwise escaped me had i simply taken a taxi.

after arriving in the morning by train, i left my hotel in varanasi for the first time at dusk. i spent a bit of time wandering around the narrow alleyways of the old city to familiarize myself with how to get around, how to get back to my hotel, and to adjust the mental transparency of my last visit so that it fit over top of the new map i was building in my head in a way that didn't cause disorientation. so many strange things are deceptively familiar while the actually familiar is hidden away only to be startled from the brush by a shrill memory. the sun was setting and groups of well dressed tourists were storming the main ghat for an evening boat ride, having been whisked in from hotels far away from the crowded grime of the old city. at dasaswamedh ghat a little girl approached me carrying a basket full of leaf bowls, flower garlands, and candles. i could already see the weak bobbing lights of river borne candles slowly floating down stream, beautiful in a fragile kind of way, like the back drop to a tragic love story. i decided to buy a candle boat. the tough and sly little girl, already well versed in the ways of street merchants, asked for 50 rupees. i said 10. she said 20 and i made as if to leave. she said ok...but the smallest bill i had was a 20 rupee note. she said buy two. i couldn't help but smile and acquiesce. i realized that i didn't have a light...she sold me a box of matches for 5 rupees and then turned to her friend with a victorious smile, chattering away, i assume, about how much of a sucker i was. for some reason that made me smile too. most people send off the candles from a boat in the river but i didn't want to go for a boat ride. i started walking along the ghats looking for a spot free of boats from which to launch my two candles. i had to dodge old men wanting to give me ayurvedic massages on the hard steps and offers of opium and marijuana. the last of the drug dealers to approach me was the most persistent, a man about my age called sanjay. when he finally realized that i wasn't buying his hash not because i was questioning its quality but because of abstention he become apologetic and friendly. he tried to explain to me that selling hash wasn't his real job just something that he did on the side. his real work is the study of weaving and tailoring. i waited impatiently for the request to come and visit his shop but it never came. he saw the candle boats i was holding and brought me down to the river to show me how to send them off properly: shoes off, wash hands in the (dirty, dirty) water of the ganga, light the candles and send them out one at a time. he asked me questions about my life and my family and then asked me if i wanted to see the cremations at manikarnika, the burning ghat. we where already halfway there, and it seemed like a good time to go, the multitude of little flames on the river leading the way to a place of endless infernos. as we approached manikarnika, the fires blazing away in the night, sanjay told me (needlessly) that looking was ok but not to take any pictures. when he further explained that i should climb up to the top of a nearby building so that i could watch without disturbing the families little alarm bells started going off, a discomforting sense of having been here and gone through this before. given the difficulties of getting a dead body across the vastness of india to varanasi in a timely manner, many of the devout come to hostels for the near dead and dying built right behind the burning ghat. there are many other rivers where cremations take place, but varanasi is the most holy. most of the people staying in these hostels are very poor and generally separated from their families. the building that sanjay was telling me i should climb to view the cremations was one of these hostels, and the alarm bells were because i'd already run into this trap before: after having viewed the cremations for a time, the hostel volunteers start hassling you for donations, asking for enough money to buy one of the residents an amount of wood for their cremation (when the time comes). a cremation can be very expensive, the wood required costing hundreds of rupees per kilogram, and a lot of wood is needed to properly burn a body. the cremation ghat is full of wood sellers, their massive piles of banyan wood (used because it effectively disguises the smell of burning flesh) sitting by the large scales used to weigh it out. the volunteers ask for 10 kilos, 20 kilos...essentially thousands of rupees. it's razor sharp manipulation. the volunteers are very helpful and friendly, providing all manner of useful information about the running of the cremation ghat. they introduce you to the residents, wizened old poor people, destitute but still friendly. and when the time comes to confront the demands for these massive donations it's almost impossible not to feel like an asshole even if on a rational level it makes no sense to feel that way. even with my foreknowledge of the situation i still managed to deal with it poorly. i think part of it was that the whole space i was in had put me into a withdrawn state of mind. looking down on the fires, the night air glowing with the heat, i was watching something that felt unchanged for millennia. there was almost nothing to give away the 21st century...i left like i was watching a scene from the distant past, its ancientness weighing heavily on me. i thought of my father and his cremation -  sanitized, vacant. i still have plans to bring his ashes to the waterways of northern ontario, but i can't help but imagine an alternate past, one where we'd loaded up a cedar canoe full of wood, laid his body on top, lit it up, and pushed it out into lake superior. it's more viking than hindu i guess...but still, my mind was floating somewhere over the ghat, lost in the smoke and sparks, when i was pulled back to the realities of traveling in modern india. i got angry and frustrated...i got quiet and withdrawn. i made some of the volunteers uneasy and others angry. i just didn't want to have to deal with it. i finally paid 200 rupees and then left, trying my best to shed my frustration and annoyance, but not really succeeding. sanjay followed me out, being friendly, trying to understand and assuage my anger. i felt buoyed by his kindness...until he became what i had assumed him to be in the beginning and asked me to visit his shop. i said that there was no point, that i wasn't going to buy anything. he replied with the tried and true stock phrase of looking being free. i said that looking was pointless because it wasn't going to turn into buying. but he wouldn't give up and i crumbled before his insistence, my will to resist turned to ash at the burning ghat. i followed him to his shop, but by this point it was apparent that it wasn't 'his' shop at all...and that he wasn't a student of textiles either. he made money by getting commissions on items purchased by tourists that he brought into the shop. the shop owners began the usual routine of unfolding large amounts of silks and cashmeres in front of me and then asking me to tell them for each item whether i liked it or not, creating a large 'no' pile and a tiny 'yes' pile. i wanted to tell them at various points to stop unfolding things because it was just a waste of time and they'd just end up folding them all up again...but i kept quiet. in the end there were two items that i actually liked, one silk scarf and one cashmere knitted scarf. both were too expensive, the silk 800 rupees and the cashmere 2400 rupees. i didn't have to heart to haggle with them because i knew that the amount i was willing to pay was far too little, mostly determined by the fact that i didn't really want them. they refused to accept that as a valid response. in frustration i got up to leave and was met at the door by an old man, the senior salesperson, who up to this point had been silent. he asked me if i was angry...i said no. he said, 'i say one million rupees, you say one rupee...is ok.' i didn't need to have the concept of haggling explained to me but i didn't want to explain my growing sense of futility to him. i said 400 rupees for the cashmere. he said, 'i'm happy...i'm not going to give it to you, but i'm happy' and then let me leave. sanjay followed me out again, pointing me towards my hotel and then asking me for money. i said no as many times as i needed to for him to give up. he said goodbye quietly in english and said something aimed at me in hindi under his breath as he turned away...it was very obviously unfriendly. i tried not to think of him as a liar and a parasite, tried to put his life into proper perspective with mine. but as i made my way back to my hotel, winding through the narrow alleys of the old city, i was only partially successful.
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