gangaji


last-post-from-gangotri

Well. It’s June.

Everything is a pastiche of flux and jumble, as always. This time around, something about the perfume of the mangos and the national elections, the month of pilgrimage in Hindulandia (the holy places alight with religious nationalism, if you can parse that one), the face of the “most sacred river in the world” and all the beggars, renunciants, dams, transformations, mobile phone towers, and superlatives that flow along with it — something about this makes me swim in the cold currents of ideas, criticism, romance. An attempted, aborted, understanding of Power.

I have developed, I note bumping along the state highway from Ahmedabad to Nadiad two months ago, an allergy to construction. My sneezes echo my ever-more-sincere thirst for something constructive, to be involved in a deep way somewhere, in something. Commitment. It has been made clear to me that everything that has happened heretofore is part of a clarifying scheme, is perfect in its unfolding, and yet I still hunger for more, for clarity, for ease, for someone to tell me that This is what you’re going to spend your next X years doing, and you’re going to be independent-minded, and you’re going to love it.

But Construction and Constructive Work. The metallic rubble and blast sites along the holy Ganga, referred to here by all as “Gangaji” or “Gangama”, our holy mother. She’s a sort of Virgin of Guadalupe for India, only many thousands of years older and born not of a peasant’s faith but the meditate penance (for 5500 years) of Lord Bhagiraith.

No joke, we visited the very spot he sat. No dent.

The metallic rubble, the hunks of old machinery. The blast sites and holes in rock face where the dynamite went into the father of India, the Himalayas.

For the renunciants, the saddhus (“the simple, the pure”), the Himalayas are father and Ganga is mother. They have nothing else in the world. At the last Kumbha Mela (the big renunciant party every few years) apparently the water was so polluted at Allahabad that the saddhus threatened to drink it and die _en masse_ unless somebody cleaned it up.

That’s about where we are, I think, as brown people, Indian, humans, whatever: drinking from the filthiest holiest river you can imagine, demanding it be restored to its orginal beauty, looking for someone to do the goodwork, and about three thousands miles downstream of where we should be starting.

So that’s why we walked, maybe. Still trying to figure it out. It’s hard to get anything out and that’s why I’ve been out of touch. That and the mountains and two weeks of Butter visiting and now the paradisiac joy of the mango farm combined with the 125 degree F enforced lethargy.

Let’s call it a meditation and move on.

The rubble. The leaky barrels of petrochemicals next to mandatory hardhat signs and all-English safety announcements to workers who speak none of it. The cycle Vasant and Karuna talk about it complete:

a) the destruction of local sustainability measures and village industries by industrial societies, on the basis of cheapness and convenience
b) the demand of cheap food by urban centers
c) the ensuring lack of labor and unfeasability of small scale agriculture
d) the burgeoning wage-labor pool in cities
e) government funding large “public-works” projects to employ those unemployed by a) and c)
f) the loss of self-esteem by those who haven’t yet fled to the cities

But it’s not just the big dams that make me sneeze. Even the proliferation of mud and brick structures Vasantji envisions here in Mangoland, to house visiting students or host childrens’ camps, and even the 8 x 10 bamboo wall-less hut we built under the old mango tree 200 feet from the house, for me to meditate and relax in the afternoons — even that simple structure makes my eyes itch.

It seems somehow wrong: too foreign, too active, too much. Thee is something inherent in the ability to effect change, to DO anything, that could go disastrously wrong, that could end up scaring and scarring millions, and I have begun to feel very cautious about the existence of and posession of such POWER.

Teachers. Architects. Heads of households. Directors. Politicians. Chefs. We all have it. Musicians.

When first I met Butter, back in January, she was studying something about Africa and child soldiers (anyone less than 60, I assume) and symbolism. Apparently — I think this is in Liberia — Bob Marley is really well known, and his songs and imagery were used (co-opted might be the term) by the “rebel groups” (what are you rebelling against? -> what have you got?) to house their own meanings and agendas. As in, they took the term “One Love” to be their own, and would cut off all the fingers of villagers hands so they could only give a “thumbs-up” sign, symbolic of the “One Love”.

You might see how this could scar me. We’re all used to Marx and Jesus being used to kill millions of people, to the death of the message and the poetry behind the machineries of churchs and states, but Bob Marley? One Love? And the only reason that is an effective technique for a rebel group assaulting villagers and trying to garner support in whatever twisted way they sit it is because Bob Marley and his music and those memes have POWER.

So there’s my spring allergy for you. That’s all I got.

I’m sharing emotions of course, not yet analysis — but that will come, guided and inspired by the present to understand what I am feeling. Something here, I sense, is tied up in the rushing flow of that Mother Ganga, at once blue green grey and brown, washing away the sins in its pure cold deeps to the flat decaying plains of central Mangolandia far far away.

In the midst of all this, a full month in the Himalayas, we actually walked 8 days and 100 kilometers, from Uttar Kashi to the source of Gangaji at Gangotri. More on that to come, when Denali can figure out his pictures, clean them up, comb their hair, and let me share them with the public. But I will say it’s like no other river I’m seen or swam in, something terribly inspiring and, yes, powerful about it, something that allowed me to sit in Gangaji for long stretches, in movement or meditation, despite the coldness of the water and my memories of hypothermia. Some sense of care, of motherhood, of belonging.

Worth the walk.

Now, a month later, I have once again lost the thread of time, the desire for place. It happens, I notice, every time I can stop resisting and fall back into that deep calm of selfhood, at peace with whatever and wherever I have become, because somewhere in that assured lack of concern lies the very peace I stopped searching for. I could be here another year or leave tomorrow and it seems very much the same, very much the right thing, very much appropriate.

But, alas, the schedule continues and will one day penetrate the mind. I’m helping to lead the Inspire Summer Program this July, from June 26 in Ahmedabad to August 4 in Delhi.

After that it’s a book reading at Bluestockings in NYC on August 9th, officiating the wedding of Holland McTyiere Smith III in California on August 15th, and saying a few words at Vanessa and Jesse’s wedding in Sequim on the 22nd. The rest is written carefully on the beach at low tide, as it should be.

9-gangotri-1

Humans, mangos, dolphins,
You are with us, and we are in Gangotri, and so you are in Gangotri. We got here on the 6th, after 8 days of padyatra (including one day of rainy rest in Gangnaani hot springs, delicious healing). Ankur has gone to bring Kate from the plains. We (4 of us) head upstream for Gomukh and Tapovan day after tomorrow, inshallah. We are drinking lots of masala chai, even Ankur, for the cold.

We have found a tree robed in paper! No more killing trees, this bhojpatra tree sheds paper for us all over the forest!   [Malavika]

9-gangotri-2

And so we have arrived. This far, at least. The cold is bitter at times, and the sun is brilliant and warm at others. Gangotri is full of pilgrims who come on buses for a few hours, sadhus and beggars who line the streets, workers hauling stones and sand to build more ghats, trekkers preparing to leave for the really high country, people here to meditate, to pray, t bathe in the holy (frigid) waters, to explore the hills, and more… Through the middle of it, the rushing waters of the Ganga, murky brown with glacial salts, crashing through the rocks all day and night. Soon we set out for the glacier, , to the true source… [May 8, 2009: Denali]

6-Three Little Pilgrims

Three Little Pilgrims

7-high-road-low-road

You take the high road

I’ll take the low road

And I’ll get to Scotland

before you

Walking, Climbing

May 1, 2009: 3 days from Uttar Kashi

After 3 days of walking upstream from Uttarkashi, we have discovered the following:

“You have to take the main road, there is no footpath on this side of the river,” or “the footpath only goes to the next village, then you have to cross back to the asphalt,” or “You can’t do that,”

all actually mean “I wouldn’t take the footpath myself because I’m afraid of it,” or “I’ve only taken it as far as the next village,” or “I have no desire to do that myself,” respectively.

Nevertheless, we have walked all but two hours of the last three days on the footpath, with no cars or buses, no dust or smog, and no engine noise. Up and down the valley walls, through thick forests we only lost the trail in once, in tiny villages where perfect strangers feed us and put us up for the night and bring us tea in the bed in the early mornings. Life is too glorious. The road just keeps climbing, and Gangaji keeps on roaring down below.

Human-hand

April 27, 2009: Uttar Kashi

It’s really hard to be in need
& have people treat you poorly
when you know how poorly
you’ve treated people in need.
That’s why a majority of humans
do everything in their power
not to be in need
of other people. [Ankurbhai]

Learning about giving & receiving, expectations & offerings, what it means to walk together, & how big together can be. [Ankurbhai]

We ate a lot of cucumbers today. No potato chips. We saw a sadhu buying potato chips a few days ago. But I drink chai. Perhaps I should not be given to till I purify myself? I don’t think it works that way, friends. [Malavika]

But what’s wrong with chai? Besides, Ankur shaves. We all have our vices… [Denali]
Human-hand-text

baadaam-sheikh

April 23, 2009 [baadaam sheikh]

Denali’s newest AVTAR — Badam Sheikh [Ankur]

Or, “almond chief”, in Hindi-Arabic-English.

Today we bathed in the Ganga at sunrise, in silence, with only a few other pilgrims around us at the banks near the ashram we slept in. Two hours later at the main bathing site in the city we watched hordes of people splash around like a carnival. And we gave thanks for our early morning of solitude. [Denali]

baadaam-sheikh-text

There is no owner

April 23, 2009
Ganga Ma bathed us today. And we now sit in an orchard of jackfruit, guava, mango, mulberry, and a chipmunk experimenting with sitting on Ankurbhai’s knee (whose new pilgrim name is Swami Poojitji) [ie Just Poojit]
Tomorrow we walk, really walk, packs and all, and you all, Beloveds, come with us.
Love, (signed) Malavika, Ankur, Denali

3-no-owner

There is no owner

1-green-sunrise

[Please think of this picture as lying down — its head to the right… -tara]

April 16, 2009
Shikshantar is fertile for imagination; an ocean sunrise can be green. Denali and I, trying not to wonder what would have been if we had spent our 7 months here, but grateful for at least two days, and all that we have learnt elsewhere. [Malavika]

But the road beckons, ever onward… no matter how calm the waters, we cannot anchor here… [Denali]

Rise up, lonely suns! This is just a glimpse of the worldly carnival! Your true heart lies elsewhere — find it! Find it! [Ankur]
1-green-sunrise-text

[From Ankurbhai, Malavika, Denali]

2-wheels

Rajasthan is made of ROCKS. That’s why the meals are so hearty and the people so hale — even their turbans and veils are crafted folds of stone and the sun is flaming granite.

We are inspired everywhere we turn. MKSS (organization for workers and farmers) is a portrait of humble constructive work, set at the feet of the people as an offering.

No end to gratitude.

2-wheels-text

Here I sit again. Perched on the edge of a plastic chair, ready for the next hot wind of destiny.

We’re in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Malavika, Denali, and myself. Surrounded by heat and moustaches and rocks and the clay-cooled buttermilk of the Indian summer.

Rajasthan is made of rocks. Hard smooth faces, their beauty as regal as their name (raja- sthan, the land of kings, i’m guessing). In such a land, hot and dry and harsh and stony, will piles of rocks (or sometimes each pile just one huge rock) for mountains, trees are a virtue. Worshipped, prized, even married at times (It’s unlucky to marry a woman for your third wife, so better to marry a tree and then the next woman you marry will be your fourth…). These trees — neem (azadirecta indica), pipal (ficus religiosa), vat (ficus bengalensis), tulsi (ocimum sanctum) — draw the shaded lines between life and death, between hot stones and burning coals below your feet.

Your feet ready for pilgrimage.

But first, a few notes from the last few days, a few images and quotes, snaps of the worlds we have been blessed to have received us in our brief journey North from Gujarat.

A.

At Shikshantar, the people’s institute for rethinking development, we read the following on the walls:

‘wherever roads are made / i lose my way
in the wide water / in the blue sky
there is no line of a track

the path is hidden / by the birds wings
by the star-fires
by the flowers of / wayfaring seasons

and i ask my heart / if its blood carries the
wisdom of the unseen way’

– tagore

*

We consider our choice of healthy and organic food as the best form of health insurance.

*

‘Working ‘within the system’ – if you beath them at their own game, you’ve lost’

– crimethinc.com

*

‘In our society, growing food ourselves has become the most readical of acts. It is truly the only effective protest, one that can — and will — overturn the corporate powers that be. By the process of working directly in harmony with nature we do the one thing most essential to change the world – we change ourselves.’

– Jules Dervaes

*

‘Love is a flame that, when it is kindled, burns everything away:
Only God remains.’
 
– Rumi

*

‘Beauty must be defined a what we are, or else the concept itself is our enemy.’

– crimethinc.com, poster

*

‘What you people call your natural resource,
we consider our relatives.’

– [ankur forgets]

*

So. Shikshantar is two rooms of your house. The first is a library with mats and rugs to lie down and play concerts and eat lunch and otherwise laugh. Every book written and bound to play with and break your fragile notions of society and self sits willing on the shelf, and you may find yourself, like so many magnetic shavings, movings towards exactly what you need. The next room is the same room, and the next room, at once. It is full of musical instruments made from ‘garbage’, handlooms and spinning wheels, curtains designed from old photographs, homemade ayurvedic medicines and mosquito repellents, and pictures of smiling people. It is for the day after, when you wake up with discomfort at your ready-made clothes and read-made relationships, ready-made food and ready-made transport system, and you want to take your freedom and power back from where you left it. They have all the tools you need to see, once again, that we have all the tools you need.

B.

At MKSS (the workers and farmers empowerment organization, perhaps translated) I saw a type of town meeting I’d never seen before. I’ve been to plenty of Gandhian rallys, political rallys, educational camps, medical camps, etc. They all involve well-dressed well-intentioned well-educated people going to the villages to give, to teach, to offer,  to ask, and to tell.

But this was different. The MKSS has been working for years and a rural right-to-employment program, that is now nationwide and offers anyone in India the chance to work 100 days a year at 100 rs a today, for a total of 10,000 rs. Don’t worry about the conversation just yet: It’s a lot of money. What has happened in the past, due to bureaucracy and corruption, is that certain people would work and not get the money, certain would not work and get the money, others would have never heard of the program, and others would stick their finger in the cream.

So the MKSS goes to this village not to ask the villagers for anything or tell them to live in a different way, but rather to share the work they have already accomplished and see if they want to get involved. And the way they do this, the way they break through a cultural and power barrier that at times seems (literally) worlds apart (there are many worlds in these worlds, here), is through PUPPETS.

One gentleman gives the speech in the hot sun under the shade of the neem tree to the few hundred villagers (and our threesome band of trippers), giving the details of the employment program and how to get involvement. Another sits off to the side, at the milk shop, with his hand up the kurta of a beautifully hand-crafted puppet (glove-style), interrupting the speechgiver at will and fancy, asking as the questions he knows, from 20 years of experience, people could be thinking and not asking. He asks them through a puppet dressed like a villager, with an outrageous village accents, such that everybody is laughing and greatful and gets all the information spelled out in exactly the way they’re accustomed to learning. It’s a genius technique.

Later that day we go to the MKSS headquarters — two beautifully restored earthern goat sheds run off of solar power in the middle of nowhere — eat dinner, and hear local folk musicians. Everyone in the NGO has been working there for 20 years it seems, and everyone of the employees — those who need it and those who don’t — draw an equal salary equivalent to the government minimum wage: 100 rupees per day.

And that my friends is enough to make me cry in hope, for the day when all government and social-service organizations, and all of us who claim to work for justice and equality, take the minimum wage and live with it, to get a sense of what’s really going on.

Or, as Denali blesses our food “Let he who hungers have bread, and let he who has bread have the hunger for justice”

C.

The Tilonia Barefoot College.

I humbly request everyone who’se made it this far without fever, through scorching paragraphs of 120 degree heat and no neem leaves in site to ward off those swirling desert angels, to go to your favorite video tube site and look up “barefoot college”.

There is a woman named Bata Bhurji, whom we met, who has made dozens of incredible films about this little college in Rajasthan, ignorant of degrees and certification, training women from villages all over the world to install and repair solar energy equipment in their hometowns in Mali, Sierra Leone, Bolivia, Bhutan, etc. The movies we saw were the most incredible examples ever of local people organizing themselves with appropriate assistence from foreign organizations, learning from each other in a spirit of openess and fearlessness.

When we gave our concert at Tilonia, there were dozens of women from 7 different countries in Africa, singing and clapping along. They will be in Rajasthan for six months, learning solar engineering through SIGN LANGUAGE, and will go home and electrify their villages.

I’m leaving aside the issues of electric light in extending the working day and other responsibilities to focus on how Gorgeous and strong these women are, who had never left their village and are now in the middle of India (!), learning solar engineering when most of them are illiterate and have never been encouraged to learn anything outside of their homes (and possibly fields).

Not to mention the inventor in his early 20s who ran a community radio station at the college, building multi-thousand dollar radio transmission equivalent for pocket change, and making it available to all the students who came through. He told us he could barely write his name, but he could fix any electronic gadget he had never seen, and wasn’t even sure how.

D.
There’s been a lot of inspiration and I’m too blown away by the hot winds and good work that I have little in me to wax poetic or reflective about it. But seeing all this definitely makes me question the idea that I could even answer the question “And what work do you do” honestly — it is very clear me that, no, I don’t do any work at all, but, if it be the will of the prophets and space shuttles, I sure would like to soon.

With that, we undertake pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges, in honor of all water on earth, carrying with us the hundreds of people who have looked deeply into my eyes and asked me to take ‘darshan’ of the holy river for them. I have no expectations of that river or those mountains, and hope they feel the same of me.

Either way, we train tonight and begin walking tomorrow, from Haridwar onwards. The route is as always unsure, and the destination bathed in mystery and fog. But we’re all very excited about walking slowly, playing with the children, daily practices of music and meditation, and of course, sleep.

Blessings to all of you. And I’ll be back online in a month,
Enshallah.

– ankurbhai