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
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
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
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
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
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**