Prologue February 2014

We are driving back from Chennai beach through the slum. Ok to be accurate, we are crawling through the fish market on the edge of the slum on the edge of the beach on the edge of Chennai. Even in the locked car with a/c on full recirculation the smell of the fish is penetrating. The fish lie there eyes all milky, guts smeared on the ground below. The flies covering them are like a heaving pepper crust. Stall holders are pushing trolleys laden with more buckets of fish to hawk to the evening throng, the madding crowd. Down by the water’s edge, looking away from the market’s filth there’s a film crew with a press of onlookers and extras filming – on some level I wonder if it’s drama, reality or both? Children press against the car windows begging. Shoppers and commuters patiently wend their way through, each occupied in their own drama, threading between waves and cameras and stalls and traffic and road works. It’s a chaotic whirl, but it’s a whirl that’s outside the secure insulated bubble of the car. And inside my bubble I’m starting to realise I’ve lost my heart.

Karthik is pattering a monologue on change in India, loss of moral values, the concentration of wealth in the upper and middle classes. While some things change, caste is still very bad. Progress isn’t helping the ordinary family who lives and works outside IT. He’s just a poor man who wants to make enough money to go back to the country and live with his kids. He so rarely says much, so rarely opens up about his thoughts, and I’m not listening. Well I’m listening but not processing.

My heart is somewhere back behind us on the beach.

Home is where your heart is, but tomorrow even though I’m on a plane going home, I’m leaving mine here.

All India is change…

Chennai Beach

That was it for 2014 & my broken heart

I can tell you that from Mamallapuram went to Chennai and you’ve had that post already Out of the world, liminal floating. In Chennai apart from walking on the beach getting lost, we did the usual tourist stops going up to Mount Saint Thomas where the Apostle Thomas is supposedly buried. Visited the cave where he was killed. Drove around town getting lost a lot, but it’s all a blur and only the beach seemed real.

I have to confess that I cried all the way from Chennai airport to Singapore. Maybe it was the idiot sitting next to me complaining about all the rubbish on the beach in Chennai, the beach I’d fallen in love with the two days before. Maybe it was leaving my spiritual home. Maybe it was that pained look in Karthik’s face as I hugged him goodbye, although it could have been that my bum bag got him in the nuts. But whatever the reason, I cried, and cried. The flight attendants moved the obnoxious man. And I couldn’t get a song out of my head

Close every door to me
Keep those I love from me
Children of [Kali] are never alone…

I promised Alison I would never contact him.
I am everyday inspired by the daughters of India, and
So I keep coming back to Kali, I’m always coming home

I Can’t Keep Quiet

Soundtrack: MILCK Quiet

Had a crisis of confidence this morning. Is the India of my hopes and expectations a place only of my imagining? It looks so different out the hotel window. Am I indulging in some white colonial fantasy even thinking of coming to live here? What right do I have to speak? Should I shut up, go home, stay in my place. Could I do that?

But no one knows me no one ever will
if I don’t say something, if I just lie still

Since the global Women’s marches last week I’ve been listening to MILCK Quiet. A song written about finding the confidence to talk about mental illness. A song performed in Washington proclaiming that Women cannot keep quiet when politics abuses. It’s an anthem for anyone who has ever  doubted their right to exist, their right to use the planet’s oxygen to speak, to breathe.

Can I keep quiet about what I’ve learned, seen? Should I? Could I?

Maybe it’s time I left my 4.5 star luxury and went out to find the India I love, to find my smile. To find my muse, Karthik’s daughter, and Kali with her sisters.

Febuary 2014
There is a Castle on a Cloud

There is a bookmark on my pillow this evening… “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.”

Today we reached Chennai, last stop on this three week temple tour. I’m in 6 star luxury high up in the sky feeling like the Queen of Sheba (no glass floor or hairy cloven foot, thank you Miss B) and I’m a little sanguine.

I get very close to India each trip, and the occasional luxuries I allow myself become more incongruous each time. We’ve talked about change and India in the IT age is different but it’s not the India I love and seek. The ordinary people I come here to encounter, Malar and Yoda, the people in the villages and temples and markets, they would never see inside a place like this. And from here I cannot hear their voices. After 3 weeks in their world the pretension here chafes.

Today as I ate a 2500 rupee ($45) lunch in splendid isolation, Karthik waited in the car outside the hotel. On the road he lives on a 500 rupee per day allowance. I used the words of Monty Python on Facebook: “Luxury! We had box in middle of road!” He has a car by the side of the road, and even that is not his.

At 3pm Karthik collected me for our afternoon walk (I took him the fruit bowl from my hotel room to ease my conscience) and we went to the beach.  Just walking and watching for a couple of hours outside my golden handcuffs… come, walk with us:

There are breakers crashing on a long white beach, the air pregnant with salt and spray. The sun lowering in the sky creates long shadows, we slide away from profane time through the shimmering mists to another between world.

Let the salty mist cloud your harsh vision and tint your dark glasses. Stop looking at the rubbish and poverty. See the human not the beggar. Slide out of knowing on a beach on the edge of time. Feel with your soul.

Not in my castle on a cloud

Through the mists the hotels to the south flatten into a single silhouette turreted by a/c towers and elevator blocks. The radar post looms a high watchtower over the mists. Sand castles guarding, watching the sea.

day-19-img_0914-castles

What horrors they watched on 26 December 2004 as tsunami ripped this beach clean… on the feast of Stephen, when the sand lay round about, deep and crisp and even, uncountable beggars and slums washed away.

For millennia we have been drawn to the edges, to the deep, above the waves, beyond these shores. Into the unknown. Here we pause out of time. In the interstices, the beginnings of life.

I feel safer out here with Karthik than in the locked hotel with its security gates and guns.

Stay out of time with us: boys ride bareback on horses along the beach, gallant knights their sand castles fallen into the sea. Off to find a princess or a kingdom to save. The shell seller blows his conch, troubadour echoing a haunting call across ages, percussion by the thump of the waves. There is a castle on a cloud.

The fairy floss seller a splash of color. Madam madam, Karthik gives a few rupees to a small girl begging with a monkey. Is he thinking of his own little daughter?

Rubbish and crows. Wind all wind. Coconut shells tangled in red cloth, “From cremation” Karthik says. People put the ashes in a mud pot, inside a coconut shell. Wrap it in red cloth and cast it into the sea. Fly, be free… I like that.

Walkers make their way around colored fishing boats pulled high onto the sand. Nets formed in tidy piles like a thousand tumbleweeds frozen in the moment. Men sit and talk, repairing nets by hand. Stand on the sand cliff between the boats and lean into the wind. Embrace the spray. Timeless, safe, at home on the shore, the space between. On one side a road of cars and motorbikes and took tooks race, humanity seethes. On the other the sea roads take massive container ships stately plying the eastern ocean, waves crash and propellers drive. Both made Other in the spray filled mists. Stand safe in the space between, be the liminal. Lift your arms into the wind, for 20 rupees hold a balloon above your head and fly.

Drink the spray. Inhale the timelessness.  Stalls and chairs available for the serious moneyed consumer. But drink time not cola. Breathe.

We perch on the side of a small fishing boat. No more than 5 logs lashed together. Laughing as our weight tips it over and us off onto the sand. We sit. Silent. Different worlds, separate, souls touching. Alive.

day-19-img_0915

The sun breaks through a hole in the sky, spotlights girls dancing along the edge of the waves, sari ends like froth on the waves.

Breathe. A chai wallah walks past. Then ice cream wallah. Coconuts and driftwood litter the beach. Even the rubbish glistens in piles on the sand.

Walk, walk with wind in your face, sun on your back. Walk north. Walk.

The inland flattened hotel castle-scrapers are replaced, now behind the cars and busses and haste are crazy, voluptuous, ice-cream shaped exotica of silhouetted Victorian British architecture, the railway station and university. More continuous motion frozen out of our still silent space. Their world of knowledge, progress and speed.  Here all is timeless and without form, slipping in and out pulsing with the waves, adrift on the spray.

A group of fully clad swimmers laughing and giggling full of joy and salt. Splashing at play. Beach cricket on the edge of the world. “Water is very wet” says Karthik.

Wind blows away words. Wind and tide and time. Shadows lengthen. Long shadows. Walk, walk. Time to turn madam. Which way? Follow the tractor tracks back to the real world. What is real? What is dream? What is in between? He is my guide, and nothing will ever be the same.

 I know a place where no one’s lost,
 I know a place where no one cries,
 Crying at all is not allowed.
 Not in my castle on a cloud.

Though I feel inadequate,
my heart not big enough for the love, the pain,
the hope…

I can’t keep quiet, for anyone, not anymore