Sharp tingling air burns the cheeks on my face and I imagine my flesh turning bright red as I sit pinned to the backseat by thick heavy humidity—my arms glued to my sides by the outer pressure, my thighs, rear, lower back, stuck to the smooth leather. Breathe with difficulty, chest heaving against the invisible deeply stacked pressure of scorching air. My black silk pants and blouse blend into the shadowy car interior—all darkness inside—in contrast to the bright white outside, on the road, in the air. The glare washes the dusty road out pale of detail. Thankfully a breeze cools, trickling in through the open window. Glaring whiteness pierces my dark glasses, painfully illuminating the deep contracting black holes in my eyes.
No shade from trees or shrubbery. No water in sight. No sea, no pond, no well, no water jug or cool drinks stand—entering another dried-mud dusty little village in the hard sun bleached-bone landscape that is this country, India. The cream-colored Ambassador rolls slowly in front of dusty palm-thatched, open-front shops and stops at the side of the road. A glint of light shoots off a softly dusted chrome bumper, an up-down streak of white hot that cuts a triangular trail into the shimmering radiance. Up front three Indian men in a row staring ahead through the windshield glass—back of their heads—not one movement against the heavy heat. The bank loan officer, near the left door, the Director picked up on our way out of Madras. Tall young man in the middle, thick black hair nearly touching the interior roof lining. The Director's chauffeur on the right behind the steering wheel, as always wearing a tan tropical uniform, his thick white handlebar mustache waxed stiff, extending from both sides of his head.
The Director opens the back door on his side, leaves it hanging wide as he climbs out, moves away to the rear out of sight. His secretary beside me remains, too hot to move, or scoot over—just stares ahead like the others, the jangly wedding jewelry I identify her with silent, though her bright red and white floral sari invades my peripheral vision. Her five-year-old son stands quietly between her sandaled feet with his chin and arms resting on the front seatback. It's hell not to be moving. The deadly still air drawn in hot from the sun burns my nostrils. Instinctively I switch over, drawing the hot air through my slightly parted lips, rushing the heated air lightly over my lower teeth, wet tongue, into the cave of my mouth—rolled softly around and cooling before I swallow in a soft inhale just into the upper portion of my lungs. Lightly release in an expanding puff out between creamy hot burgundy lipstick-coated lips. In, out, softly in a cooling pant. I imagine the hot heavy layer of lipstick on my mouth glistening dark melted chocolate. A long thin forked tongue darts from between my perfectly shaped chocolate-coated lips. Long and pale it flicks, flops out in an extended curl down past my lizard chin. Startled by my own vision, still softly panting, the tongue slithers back in to the mouth of a yellow and black spotted lizard with thick reticulated skin, shiny yellow reptile eyes—panting in the dark shadow underneath a rock in a glaring bright desolate desert—ducking its head down peering out from the deep shadow into the bright land.
I sit panting in short impatient breaths in my human form in the backseat—nothing to cool me. Torturous centrifugal force of heat overpowering me. Feel no connection between my mind and limbs. Try hard, thinking, straining, but can't concentrate on the correct thoughts that will raise my arms or lift a leg even slightly. With difficult conscious effort turn my head, pant as silently, secretly as possible. Internal tension winding, mounting, spring-loaded, self-winding, panting harder, winding tighter, faster, careful to keep my breath quiet, secret. Need more air. Fear of suffocation fills my brain cells and face. I think my actions. How in a fit of panic, I’ll leap from the car—propelling my body through the hot brightness, dripping perspiration, stirring up fine powdery dust that instantly clings to my sweaty oily skin. Stumble desperately toward a sign over a door. Push my way into the cool soft refrigerated silence of an empty restaurant. A waiter standing in a crisp white jacket, white cloth folded over his arm, holding a glass of cold drinking water in his hand just for me. I'm already seated at a table, lifting and holding the condensation wet glass against my throbbing temple, when one of them comes in, sent by the Director, to find out what's wrong, bring me back.
But I don't leap out rushing into the heat. It's easier after all to stay put, sitting in the car praying for it to begin moving again. Come on, hold on, breathe. Wait, rather than go off desperately searching like that—crazy, cracked, running around in the heat not knowing where to go. There is no electricity in this tiny village. No A/C restaurant. No glass of cold water. Long hot fingers relax their grip on my throat as my thoughts calm. Fingers loosen on panicked hands not connected to any arms or body. Lightly exhaled breaths release tension. I feel cooler by a fraction of a degree.
The bank loan officer hurries toward a dusty thatched shop, hunching his shoulders, head down, leaning forward—the pounding rays of sun like rain. He quickly ducks into the dark shadow inside the hut. I rotate my face and neck with steady determination to see out the rear window. The Director stands before a pyramidal stack of green coconuts energetically transacting his purchase with a self contained pleasure glowing from his puffy brown cheeks. His golden domed forehead receding far back into thick wavy gray-white hair half circling his head, white shirt collar around his neck, gray suit jacket over one shirt sleeve, black leather belt cinched up around his rich man’s belly, his shirt tucked into ill-fitting gray slacks. Flashes of sun dart from gold rings on his fingers as he raises a brown hand forward through the hot air to grasp a green coconut. The Director turns, moving back toward the car, out of my vision for a moment, then stands in bright light just outside the open car door. White shirtfront over rounded belly, his hands again with a green coconut, straw extending from a hacked hole in top, he passes inside to one of the men up front. Then his left hand receives a coconut passed to him by thin brown hands on thin bare arms. The Director steadies the coconut with his right hand then bends into the car again, passing this one inside. Receives another passes it inside. With a broad grin on his brown face, leans deeply into the car and hands a coconut to me. The Director's deep dark round eyes look steadily, deeply into mine for a long moment. I detect some concern in his eyes. Quickly the panicked fear inside my head leaps aside, away from the tunnel of my eyes and hides in the darkness behind a shiny facade of calm. Satisfied, the Director backs out of the car. Leans back in, passes a coconut to his secretary then one to her small son.
The Director stands outside the car speaking in Tamil, steps away from the door while reaching a hand into his shirt pocket removing rupee notes. The men in the front seat and the secretary and her small son all finish their coconut milk with one long draw on their straws—hand empty green shells back out into waiting thin brown hands. I sip on my straw. Can't drink this thick sweet water too fast. The peculiar taste makes it hard for me to swallow, gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach. I'm still sipping slowly on the plastic straw extending up from the large green shell held mechanically, almost unconsciously between both hands when the Director climbs back into his seat, leans forward looking past his secretary and says, "Mary. You bring. OK? I understand. You take a long time to drink." Then he speaks in Tamil, tells his chauffeur something.
The old car begins moving forward through the dense air, stirring dust, sun glaring and glinting off dusty chrome, dipping forward into enormous pot holes, bouncing back up over rocks that lay exposed in the travel-worn dried mud. Speed increases. At last a bit of cool breeze lightly in through the open car window. just in time, keeps me from suffocating. Slightly cooler air trickles through the hot density to my nose. I drink it in as if through a straw—my sustenance. This cool drink after a long thirst, the only help to hold my panic inside. I quench myself, relax. feel the cool silky air softly brush across my cheekbones and forehead.
Happy Tamil chattering fills the car as it moves in a nearly straight line toward Mahabalipuram. This is my silence; since I don't understand one word, syllable or sound of their language I'm free from following mundane conversations inside enclosed spaces, free from contributing to such talk. I pretty much know what's being said anyway. I've been forced to overhear it all before in my own country. Endure words I didn't want to hear on city subways, in crowded restaurants. Proud words bubbling up, drilling loud into my brain.
The secretary takes time to tell me, slowly, finding the correct English words in her thoughts, that I should study Tamil and Hindi. But I give the usual excuse, joking a little, that everyone wants to practice their English on me, when would I ever get a chance to speak Tamil? Every day, servants run and bring me what I want from the shops, the cook prepares my food, the Director's chauffeur takes me where I need to go. So I have no need to speak Tamil. I know it will be physically impossible for me to stay in India longer than a year—I couldn’t stand the heat, dust, filth in the streets, built up in layers on walls, in stairwells from the touch of thousands of human hands.
English words capture my attention just now as the Director says something, raising his gold ringed hand, rapidly speaks a string of "slow, slow, slow" to his chauffeur, wanting to get a better look at some land or building coming up. Then he and the bank loan officer look out at some structure visible through the right side window, speaking rapid incessant Tamil as the car bumps along. Further ahead duck their heads down to see something out the windows off to the left of the slow moving Ambassador. All that's visible to me are tall smooth palm trunks standing in rows along the road, palm fronds black against the vast bright whiteness of the sky.
I suck harder and faster on the straw protruding from the heavy coconut still clutched in my hands. The human packed automobile bounces and jostles over the rough road and the milk contents of the shell sloshes, the shape of the space within amplifies the sound. Unexpectedly the coconut milk splashes out of the hole in top and quickly soaks into the front of my black silk blouse and the lap of my pants. Silently I study my predicament as the coconut milk keeps coming—experiment, hold the coconut aloft away from my body, arm acting as a spring, which doesn't help. The milk-juice continues splashing up out, flowing down the smooth sides of the green shell. Almost involuntarily I glance over to my left. The secretary's little boy, still standing on the floorboards in front of his mother, silently scrutinizes the soaking process I'm enduring. His little boy gaze observes first the percolating white liquid as it leaps from the hole in the shell top with each jostle and jolt, tips his head, eyes following the juice as it flows over the sides of the green outer shell into my cupped palms and drips rapidly from my hands onto an already wet shirt front. He giggles. The boy's mother stops talking, turns her kind brown face, white bucked teeth protruding at a sharp angle onto her lower lip—attention now on her son. She self-consciously draws her thin puckered upper lip tight, attempting to cover her big teeth. Coconut oil glistens in her coarse black hair pulled back over her scalp into a long heavy braid that hangs down her back, a plaited strand of white jasmine flowers pinned to the back of her head. Her young son turns, climbs into her lap, snuggles and comforts himself.
Then the bank loan officer turns reaching back, hands the boy a package of Britannia Biscuits purchased in the thatched shop at the last stop. The boy lifts his head from his mother's chest, leans forward to take the waxed paper package, grateful for something to do with his hands, then rests his head back against his mother's chest. He carefully unfolds the waxed paper wrapper of the package, then stands again. His mother overseeing the boy's manners as he hold the package forward over the seat back politely offering a biscuit to each person up front, one at a time, carefully observing each man's movements and manners. The boy turns to me last, dutifully, shyly holds forth the package with an arm as long as he can make. He's correct to be cautious, I think. Not only am I foreign looking, but I don't speak and I'm a little crazy, not moving just sitting letting this mere coconut overpower me, getting my clothes wetter and wetter. I extract a cookie from the wax paper package. The little boy watches my fingers remove the cookie, then my lips form the words, "thank-you." The child's face shows relief, his tense shoulders relax. He continues to stand still mesmerized by me.
Won't this coconut ever run out of juice—miraculously it continues sloshing and splashing over me as the car rocks along. The boy's eyes follow mine from the cookie in my right hand to the hole in the top of the coconut. My head and eyes move back and forth from one to the other gauging their relative sizes. I place the cookie over the hole as a patch on a leak, and smile triumphantly at my own inventiveness—press the thing into place. The doughy British biscuit fits perfectly, soft enough to bend and conform to the curve of the coconut shell. The little boy slaps his own forehead with the open palm of his small hand and collapses giggling into his mother's lap. Speaks to her softly in Tamil as she bends close to listen. Says something back to her son, then glances discreetly over at the coconut now resting in my lap. Mother and son look back into each other's eyes then hug laughing in one another's arms. The cookie-biscuit patch absorbs the splashing watery coconut milk—progressively turning into a moist paste. The secretary wants to say something. I make myself attentive to her for a moment. Laughingly she tells me, "It is a custom. The spilling of a coconut . . . before going to a temple . . . you will encounter with a god." I smile my understanding. Think she is telling me that unwittingly I'm performing a ritual to invoke a god by spilling this coconut milk all over myself.
The Ambassador cruising slowly on a smoother road now through a village of dusty concrete buildings and several stone carvers shops. The road paved smooth here but the pavement soon ends as the chauffeur pulls into a gravel parking lot, slowing to a stop amid a few other widely spaced dusty beige Ambassadors. Wide blue water ahead—visible all the way to the horizon line. Not one person on the hot white sandy beach of rising heat waves and pounding descending sun rays. Thatched selling stalls heavily hung with strands of white seashell windchimes, door ornaments and plant hangers, along the edge of the gravel parking lot. Off to the left a wire-fenced compound.
The men in the car all get out. I pull at the door handle. The door swings open heavily. I slide out, legs stiff. Balance the coconut in one hand. My shoes touch flat against the hard ground. I stand upright. Take a few steps away from the car leaving the door hanging wide. Breathe in the cool salty air. An ocean breeze blows over my wet blouse front, cooling my hot skin underneath. I just stand for a moment regaining my equilibrium. A little brown and white spotted goat frolics up to me as if happily coming to meet an expected arrival. I scrape the moist brown biscuit paste from the top of my coconut shell with my fingertips, offer it to the little goat. The strange pale blue-eyed animal gobbles the food with tongue and rippling upper lip—pulls at my fingers with it's mouth as it cleans away all the biscuit paste—then gambols away on straight stiff legs and tiny hooves, without asking or expecting any more than initially given. I let the heavy green coconut drop. The secretary and her son still huddled together inside the car follow it with their eyes as it falls straight to the ground, stops—thud. Mother and son cling together in silence, arms around shoulders, heads together, eyes resting on the coconut.
Around the rear of the car the Director stands talking with the tall Indian teenager, giving him instructions in Tamil. Upon my approach the Director calls out in his singsong English, "Mary, you take fifteen minutes to see the temple," nodding his head toward the fenced compound. "He will go with you." The young man shyly steps beside me as I begin walking toward the temple compound.
No water in sight except the distant undrinkable salt sea. No drinking fountains no water coolers. Battle through the glaring heat of the searing hot sun and hot ground—India is going to suck me dry, I think, as a skinny brown postcard hawker falls in step with us, hands me a card. I take it without thinking. With each step I take on this desolate over-raped dried-out ground something gets sucked out of me through the soles of my feet—feel my feet crease, line, crack, crevice, hardening into the thick type of skin I've seen on the heels of men and women walking on the dusty streets of Madras, some fifty kilometers away now, where, if I stop for just a moment or two, no camera in hand, glancing around looking for possibilities, an Indian man invariably appears as if summoned. Approaches me and asks, "You want American dollars?"
“No,” I say.
“What do you want?” he asks puzzled.
“Nothing, I'm waiting for a friend (or a bus).”
“So sorry Madam. Forgive. Pardon,” he says bowing forward and stepping away moving backward.
The postcards are out-of-register, three color images of the temple ahead, printed on heavy low-grade pulpy paper. It's something like sitting down in a crowded movie theater in anticipation of a film and the guy in the seat beside you loudly tells the story’s ending. I hand the card back. The hawker thrusts another into my hand. I increase my pace and so do my escorts. The rhythm of the thrusting back-and-forth of the cards from the hawker’s hand to mine, back into the hawker's, accelerates. Tension mounts. The hawker speaks rapidly, "Madam. Madam. Postcards, Madam." Stepping at a quick angling pace, we all three arrive at the open gate, but the hawker stops dead—no selling permitted inside. I step through with my escort, relieved to be leaving the pestering hawker behind, standing looking after us, blinking in the sun, our back to him as we walk across the white sand toward the carved boulders.
We reach a broad gray boulder wall and unceremoniously stop up short. I lift both hands and run my fingers over the ancient intricately excised ornamentation, thrilled—no museum docents or security guards telling me not to touch. I step up further into the entrance of a long shallow room carved into the solid stone—touch capped columns. My young Tamil escort mimics my every gesture with awe, of me, more than the stone. He and I play a game of follow the leader, behind that row of stubby capped columns, into a room with vaulted ceilings cut into the boulder, across the rock room and into a tubular tunnel at the far end and along the passage a short distance to emerge, my escort after me, onto an abbreviated pillared porch cut into the back side of the boulder. I drop on my feet to the sandy ground. My escort jumps to the ground a fraction of a moment later. I allow the outer carvings to lead me around the boulder until I enter an open courtyard.
Up ahead a crowd of young Indian men, a few accompanied by young Indian women in saris, gather to the far side of a life-size gray stone elephant. One miniature man steps up in front and stiffly poses beside the stone elephant, a hand on the trunk, while another focuses on him through a black plastic camera, clicks the shutter button. Next. Another steps up as the crowd watches, each waiting for a turn. Hands amid the crowd holding several of the cheapest kind of plastic SLR cameras upright, lenses forward at all times, as if a photographic liquid might spill out the top.
I quietly approach with my escort beside me, caught up in my own thoughts, my eyes not meeting anyone's gaze, yet vaguely aware of the Tamil murmuring amid the crowd—just meaningless sounds as I reach out and stroke the smooth stone elephant trunk for a moment, move down the side of the sculpture. "Photo! Photo! Stop!" a young man's high Indian voice calls rapidly from the crowd. The words come over and over, "photo, photo!" I deliberately keep my back to the words, not wanting to understand. Continue dreamily down the length of the stone elephant, admiring the broad hindquarters and legs. Stop in surprised recognition of the scalloped toenails carved on the elephant feet, just the way I'd drawn elephant toenails as a small child. Distinctly remember I'd drawn elephants just so I could draw the toenails, always saving that most important detail for last. A drawing of an elephant didn't look like an elephant until the toenails were on. See myself in my childhood body, leaning on small forearms upon a small Formica top table, fingers clutching a gray Crayola, hunching over a sheet of paper working. I bend to touch the carved feet. A high-pitched noisy commotion cuts through my thoughts. I stop, turn my head in the direction of the astonished sounds. Brown faces with similar features, combed back coarse black hair on dozens of small-limbedyoung men—all those pairs of dark brown eyes staring back at my blue. Dead silence. Calmly, casually I turn away gulping down my panicked fear, hoping the crowd doesn't rush forward at me. I pretend to stroll off, while heading in the direction of the entrance gate, stepping steadily over the white sand that covers the hard ground. My escort steps alongside me. Several yards from the elephant I release tension with my breath. For show I blasély glance over my shoulder, call back grumbling somewhat, "I'm not the tourist attraction. Photograph the rocks!" What I really want to shout is "Shoot the fucking rocks" or at least "Goddamn rocks," but restrain myself, for the sake of my reputation in front of my escort, thinking, everyone knows the universal word "fuck" as profanity. "Camera," my escort tries vainly to explain, but I just shrug and glance back again. Thirty or forty slender young Indian men all wearing similar off-white short-sleeve cotton shirts stand gathered tightly to the right of the stone elephant craning their necks in my direction as I get away. One of then clearly calls after me in a desperate dejected note, in one last attempt—"stay there! Photo!"
My steps jar hard as I turn my head back, then forward again, the gate tilting and rocking ahead in my moving vision. My own cameras back in my room where I deliberately left them, locked inside a silver metal travel case, padlocked inside a wooden cabinet—two Nikons, one Hasselblad, assorted lenses. I can't bring myself to flash those cameras around in the faces of people living in such poverty. Guess I'm more of a humanitarian than a lover of images. Not out trophy hunting, but adding information to my thoughts and sorting through so many things already inside me—waiting for the completion of internal changes. I despise those Cibachrome prints of impoverished third-world women, commonly found displayed in white mats and silver frames hanging in long rows upon white gallery walls back in the U.S. Trophies—through the gallery may proclaim it’s presenting some sort of new social realism. Gallery goers gawk at the poverty, or the color, or the Rembrandt lighting. Those images are the easiest things in the world to make. Where's the squatting draped woman grinding her corn inside her mud hut going to go. Big glass lens focused on her. So intimidated by the foreigner and the camera she freezes into a pose. So easily the photographer grabs a shot. Click, whir, then triumphantly marches off for an enormous restaurant meal at his hotel, thinking that one out-of-context shot makes it art, rather than bad or too easy photojournalism.
I exit the gate with my escort beside me keeping a rapid pace. In my high-strung state I'm barely aware of the heat. In a few moments we approach the Director still standing in the gravel parking lot just a few yards from where we'd left him, now in a face-to-face huddled conversation with the bank loan officer. Further ahead another white foreigner, a young guy, probably Australian, with a day pack on his back standing alone at the wood-plank counter of one thatched hawker's stand, buying a stone carving, taking money for it from his front pants pocket. The Director looks up as we approach. Speaks in Tamil to my escort. Intonation and stress on words indicates he's asking a question. My escort responds in Tamil, explaining that the commotion from the crowd came from them wanting to photograph me. I don't understand the words yet know generally what's being said. The Director's facial muscles register awe, there's amazement in his eyes as he looks into my face for a moment—keeps his thoughts to himself, but I can tell he's impressed. I deliberately remain as blasé as possible. Then he nods toward the stands saying "you want to buy something?" Turns and launches himself back into his business conversation.
I take a few steps in that direction—four, five, six, then seven, slender Indian men, older than the ones in the photo crowd, all wearing sky-blue plaid dhotis around their hips, approach me from all sides, holding up small stone carvings of Ganesha the elephant headed god, "remover of all obstacles" in outstretched palms. I shake my head no, "Shiva," I say. The movement of the Australian with the backpack distracts me for an instant as he turns to see the newest commotion, looks at my eyes studying him, then quickly turns away. One small barefoot man separates himself from the other hawkers, indicating we should follow him, stepping backward then walking, turning sideways as he heads for the far left thatched hut. The other hawkers skulk off in all directions and vanish almost immediately in the bright heat glaring up from the hot white sand.
I duck into the darkness of the interior of the grass shop, following the hawker. Three walls surround and confront me with a steep three tiered display densely packed with assorted soapstone carvings of gods in a variety of sizes and postures, some reclining, some standing figures—many squatting Ganeshas, Shiva's son, elephant faces on fat infant bodies. A few Shivalingums, a couple of multi-armed Vishnus. All disappointingly poor quality carvings. Why did this hawker bring me here to look at this junk, I wonder, when I specifically requested Shiva. There's not one Shiva here. The barefoot hawker watches my eyes. I hesitate for an instant, my puzzled attention on one atrocious stone Ganesha resting on the middle tier near where the hawker stands. He quickly grasps, it lifts it with both hands, then deposits into mine. I hold the carved weight with little interest, weighing it for a moment, then set it down on the display shelf.
There is something about the hawker that intimates he works for someone else, someone more clever, and that he's going through the motions of an employer instructed routine. He immediately fills my hands with a stone Shivalingum. I put it right back down. Then he selects an even larger Ganesha from the top tier and hands it to me. I release a noisy sighing breath, glance distractedly toward the exit, then dump the heavy stone elephant god back into his hands. A little smile tightens his lips. He turns quickly, reaches his arms up to the elbows under a wood plank countertop and extracts an item, tucked way back under—something wrapped in a cloth. Holds the wrapped bundle upright, watching my eyes as he peels down the cloth flaps. My thoughts and eyes momentarily mesmerized by the bronze figure of a four armed Shiva dancing in a mandala of flames—Shiva gesturing in dance at the center of the fire of knowledge, his bare torso, costumed hips, four arms in movements representing the unity of artist, scientist, and philosopher in one combined form. "How much?" I ask. "Three hundred rupees. Metal." He raps the hollow cast bronze figure against the wood countertop edge. It rings out.
I take the figure up, turn it over and over in my hands momentarily overwhelmed. Such intricate bronze sculpture for sale at the beach! Examine the detail, contemplating the deep significance that underlies the figure and the objects in Shiva's upper hands—symbols of both creation and destruction, counterparts, held in opposite hands showing there are both emanating and dissolving aspects of living. The significance strikes me as I realize things about me are dying, so newer purposes can come forth. Shiva's lower left hand held in a dance movement depicting the trunk of an elephant represents, the human power of discrimination, telling us we should use sensitivity and strength in life. His left foot raised and balanced, standing only on the right resting precariously on the back of a dwarf lying face down on the lotus base. The dwarf a horribly ugly creature that symbolizes ignorance. Standing on this symbol of ignorance shows domination over it, while Shiva's face is in solitary meditation, in contrast to his body caught up in energetic creative movements. Inward absorption and outward expression—the yogi and the artist in combined form, burning up energy in complete absorbed attention to what he is doing, mind, body, soul and intellect. This is the highest level of sense perception humans can achieve. This is the secret to living life. Slowly I wake up to the realization that the quality of this particular sculpture is average, oddly smoothed-over intricate details—a rougher version of a more finely delicate work. A copy, made from a mold taken off the real thing. I don't want a copy, so ask, " Do you have any more?" Something flickers in the hawker's eyes—an exchange of awareness occurs. Does he recognize my discriminating powers? I hand the figure back to him. My escort begins conversing in Tamil with the hawker as I slowly drift outside.
He soon rejoins me at the adjacent stall as I stand fondling long strands of bead-like shells. He imitates my gestures slowly drawing the strands of shells through his fingers as if extracting the same magic I do, without really knowing what he's after. An unamused woman vendor stands silently, hands on hips, "Twelve strands twenty rupees," she tells us. The price of fondling or to take these beauties home, I wonder. Is anything attractive or practical ever made from seashells?
The secretary and her young son approach without our notice and stand together looking down at us from a small raised incline. "Come. We are going," the secretary calls wearily. I snap back into a reserved stance, quickly hiding my revelry of dancing with Shiva.
Disappointedly trudge back with them toward the parked Ambassador. Suddenly a dozen gaunt little men, naked except for the blue plaid dhotis wrapped around their hips, descend upon us from all sides, shouting competitive sales pitches, each holding forth uninspired stone carvings for the "American lady" to buy. They press in closer as the secretary and her son, and my escort and I, move steadily ahead. More hawkers join in, their sales pitches grow louder. Several hold identical bronze dancing Shivas. Many copies, but where is the original? I recognize the hawker from the first stall.
He's holding up the Shiva copy I examined there, saying loudly for all to hear, "You promised to buy, Madam." Annoyance flashes from my eyes, cutting into his, immediately silencing him. My attention catches on something. I stop, mesmerized by an intricately formed bronze dancing Shiva sculpture in one of the hawker's hands—different from the rest. I reach out for it, magically take it in my hands. Silence as I turn the figure over, studying all the fine detail. All the clamoring hawkers have stopped and fallen silent watching my amazement. The quality of this sculpture is astonishing. It seems to be an original ancient bronze with a heavy new black patina. It's proportions masterful. The dance costume minutely detailed. Everything tells me this figure is from another time. Why would anyone selling tourist junk bother to finish their work so exquisitely just to hide it under a heavy patina, trying to make it look ordinary when it is not?
"How much?" I ask.
"Five hundred rupees or fifty American dollars," the hawker tells me.
"Too much," I tell him thrusting the figure back into his hands without looking into his face.
The chauffeur opens the car door and I get in along with the secretary and her son. The hawkers crowd up to the car windows along both sides calling out sales pitches in their best tourist English, vying for my attention, "Madam! Madam!" More sellers join the frenzy surrounding the Ambassador in layers of shouting bodies—similarly dressed men with similar things to sell. I sit calmly thinking the price for the figure makes no sense. Five hundred rupees does not come close to equaling fifty U.S. dollars—if I pay him in rupees the price is equivalent to fifteen dollars. That must be what he said—his accent—of course. It's an incredible bargain at fifty, ridiculously cheap at fifteen.
Suddenly the crowd parts to make way for the Director pushing through to the back door—he pulls it open and gets inside his car. The hawkers fall silent again for a few moments as the bank loan officer and the tall young escort get in up front again. As soon as all the doors are pulled shut the hawkers begin shouting again. One hands me the exquisite bronze figure through an open car window. Such fabulous detail in an elegantly coiled snake around Shiva's neck, I failed to see at first. I long to buy the figure—it's beauty takes my breath away. "I don't have much money with me," I tell the hawker, all the rest automatically falling silent the moment I begin to speak. My money belt containing five thousand rupees locked in a drawer in my room back in Madras. The other hawkers begin shouting again. I try to hand the bronze figure back. All the hawkers fall silent again. "How much do you have?" the Shiva hawker wants to know, showing some willingness to bargain.
"One hundred rupees," I tell him.
He laughs out incredulously with a jerk of his head and a glob of spit falls onto his lower lip which he quickly scrapes back into his mouth with his upper teeth. "A lot of work went into that. It's not stone," he tells me.
"Yes, I know. Did you make it?" I ask point blank, rapid-fire. His nervousness at my question apparent. It only adds to my suspicions that it is an authentic and no doubt stolen work of art, otherwise why not put at least the copies out on display? Why keep everything hidden away? What are they afraid of?
"My father made it," he says. I don't believe him, he's too nervous all of the sudden—cast his eyes down when he told me that. If this guy's father were a master sculptor, his son wouldn't be ashamed, nor would he be out pushing his father's work in a tourist parking lot. Obviously the hawker could not fully comprehend the value of what he possessed, at least not in Western terms. Whoever he's working for must have warned him to be careful. I didn't want to buy stolen property or get into trouble with Indian authorities. Possessing stolen gods made no sense to me. I equate it with stealing another's art and calling it one's own, or imitating another talent. If I were to possess a god, one must come to me. I didn't need the figure, yet longed to have it. How could I get even a small bronze sculpture through airport metal detectors and x-ray machines when I eventually leave India? It might be possible to get it out of India by saying it's a newly made piece and getting a receipt from a shop in Madras. I could buy a new clunky Shiva sculpture, then dump it, but keep the receipt. These ideas presented themselves in my mind—but this god I feared. I hated to hand the bronze figure back. "It's very nice, " I said admiring it once more not wanting to let it go. A beauty glowed out from within the figure. I know there's a gorgeous bronze under that heavy black coating. I'd love to buy it, but simply don't have enough money with me. Glad and disappointed.
It would be far too rude to try and borrow from the people in the car. The big rich American lady taking loans from Tamilians. The Director is a rich man but unsympathetic to my desires in this instance. Shows little interest. The others in the car don't even turn to see what it is I'm interested in buying—keep the backs of their heads to me. Five hundred rupees is a month’s salary for some of them. Highly unlikely they'd have that much cash on them even collectively, though the Director always carried a lot of folded rupee notes in his upper shirt pocket and larger denominations in his wallet in his pants.
I'm not sure I want to be guilty of further decimating this culture by taking from it. My own relative poverty helps me keep such virtuous thoughts forward as realities. But if I had the money, then what would I do?
The Director snatches the figure from the hawker's hand, looks up and down the front abruptly, flips his wrist—quick sweeping glance down the back side. "You can get better things in the shops—something authentic," he tells me. Doesn't see the beauty. Briskly returns the figure to the hawker, dismissing him with an impatient wave of his hand. Says something in Tamil to his chauffeur. All the hawkers reluctantly shirk off as the car pulls away in a slow roll over the hard gravel parking lot. The driver turns back in the direction we arrived, back onto smooth paved road.
Well that's that, I think.
The chauffeur cruises slowly through the seacoast village. Thru the car window, up on a ledge, a slender Indian woman in an emerald green sari, a white strand of jasmine flowers pinned to the long black braid hanging down her back, lifts her sari in front as she steps into the mouth of a black triangular cave. We travel past the steep rock face along the road, illustrated with carved low-relief human figures standing in profile, as in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. No time to stop. The car steadily gaining speed.
**A 2005 Identity Theory Nonfiction Contest Winner**