From Kochin Bazaar to a yoga mat in the Kerala Backwaters
6 January 2013
I’ve landed in a veritable heaven. From the dusty streets of Kochin where the shop salesmen emerged from their scarf and tablecloth kingdoms to descend upon the naïve tourist with a vengeance of a squadron of mosquitoes, now I’m in the tranquil backwater canals of Kerala.
“Hello my friend, come look inside,” was the most common advance employed by the human mosquitoes selling their wares in Kochin a few days ago.
“I’m not your friend,” was my response at the fifth attempt that afternoon.
“Everybody who visits here is my friend!” he replied, flashing a smile garlanded with gold fillings and red tobacco juice.
I snarled, before saying, “You want me to come into your shop to buy something. I’m not your friend. There is a difference.”
His expression would have convinced anyone he was a victim of barbaric cruelty. “Please come look my friend, free to look.”
I waved my hand in a dismissive and exaggerated mosquito swat, hoping this would have more of an impact than it did on his insect brethren. Yes! The human mosquito took a step back.
I was glad to be acquiring the guerilla skills to survive in this jungle.
Fortunately, fifty kilometres and a day later, I find myself in an ashram in the Kerala backwaters, and those skills seem as relevant as present value discounting techniques. My senses awoke at 6 AM, to the sounds and smells of the incoming tide of the Indian Ocean. I looked out of my thatched window in a treehouse, and saw a cow grazing under me in the moonlight. I descended with the help of twilight, worked my way unsteadily across two narrow gangplanks that covered the interconnecting canals; this led me to the ablution block. Sleep still in my eyes, I then proceeded to the seashore and made a staggering trail to the yoga building 50 metres away. The class started at 5.30, I was late. I shuddered at the prospect of how this rigid, aching body was going to embrace all the twists and curls that awaited it. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that was why I was here.
It was a roofless open space on the first floor, accessible by a skewed staircase. Seven bodies were in corpse pose; a yoga mat occasionally fluttered in the Monsoon wind. Thankfully no-one moved as I quietly retrieved a straw mat from a rickety cupboard and lay down, eternally grateful that my timing coincided with the corpse pose. I immediately fell into a deep sleep.
Moments or minutes later Swamiji’s soft voice drew me back to the present. “Now come up . . . stretch hands up . . . bend down. First sun salutation. Surya Namaskar.”
I could swear I heard my disc slip as I groaned my way into the first dog pose. My hamstrings felt like they would rip apart just below the buttocks. I coughed to disguise another groan, but nonetheless watched askance and in disgust, the lithe bodies of every colour that snaked to the floor and sprung back up as if propelled by elasticated coils.
“Second salutation, this time left leg back first…reach up…right leg, down…chest to the floor . . .hold,” Swami’s voice guided the orchestra while I stared around in abject pain and confusion.
‘You can’t follow a lubricated Porsche!’ I snapped at myself. ‘Just do your own thing – you remember the sequence – you did hundreds of them a few years ago! Just do it in your own time!’
I began to guide my creaking Toyota slowly through the myriad of roadblocks. My hips provided the most formidable barrier, stiffened and rigid through months of neglect from being glued to a chair. How did I ever let this old banger come into such a state of disrepair!
My next sun salutation. My hands inched their way past my ankles at the bend, the toes still enviably distant – but definitely an improvement from the last. At the dog pose I arched my neck to look up at the swami. I could barely believe what I saw.
It was the best dog pose I had ever seen. Better than those of eighteen year-old ballerinas made of rubber. His body was the most acute inverted V possible, his stretched arms were almost parallel to the floor. The dreadlocks from his beard lay placidly on his straw mat, his nose a breath away from the floor. Each muscle on his shoulders, arms and legs was sculpted precisely how a fine artist might have painted an ancient Olympic decathlete.
Was this the same swami who sat slouched in his armchair yesterday evening when I arrived, ministering ayurvedic potions to the local fisherman below a creaking fan? Was this the same man that toyed with his dreadlocks with one hand and fondled his rotund belly with the other? There was no doubt he held a powerful aura, judging by the expressions of the local fishermen who hung on his every word, or by the kindness of his intense gaze . . .but where in the world did that bulging belly disappear to?
It had simply vanished: sucked up into the energy of his perfect dog pose.
“Come out now . . . Reach up and bend the back backwards,” Swami said effortlessly, before leading the orchestra up to another crescendo.
“Ears, sacrum and heels in a vertical line. Breathe in.” He paused, allowing the words to sink in. “Surya Namaskar again.”
Encouraged by his fluid grace, I flung myself into my next forward bend. Just before my outstretched hands took my weight, a sudden jolt of electricity surged down my left side all the way from my upper hip to my knee. Before I knew it, the pain had floored me in a flat convulsing heap. Clearly, it was time to sit very still. I gathered my creaking body into the most erect seated position manageable, but I knew too well I was pathetically slumped and hoped no-one was watching. I raised my hands into prayer position, I contemplated the waves in the horizon in a deep meditative pose; inside I prayed that damn electric current would stay out of my leg. Out of the corner of my peeping eye I noticed Swami looking at me, as he curved his prostrate torso upward for the middle leg of that Surya Namaskar. His expression oozed with kindness; there might have even been a twinkle of mirth in his eyes.
That look took away a lot of my unease at being a yogi charlatan. I certainly had my work cut out for me in the next five days. Hell, this was going to be far tougher than I thought.
24 December 2012
Notes from a train ride in India
On the train and extremely grumpy with the whole journey. I currently have an amazing lack of appreciation of the ‘charm’ of everything. Extremely pissed off and with this environment and stuck on this dump on wheels for the next 28 hours. Stuck. What in the world was I thinking when I bought a 1,200 mile/30 hour ticket which virtually traversed the subcontinent, from Mumbai to Cochin. And I am amazed at my incredible grumpiness with these people. There’s a seismic anger towards any self-righteous men or women; ‘Aunty’s’ attitude as she walked in just got my goat, and it’s stayed that way.
This woman spent the first four hours of the journey trying to arrange everybody’s seat so that she could have her family in the same cabin, as opposed to a cabin a few metres down. Her tickets allow her and her son into the cabin I find myself in, but she wants the others too – other aunties – and so everyone else has to move. ‘Some internal adjustments are needed’, I hear her say to her husband on her mobile. Well, we’ll see.
Such little respect for personal space. The borders that demarcate personal boundaries in the West are crossed without the slightest awareness. But why would they be aware, how could they care – with one billion people living on top of each other, it would be patently impossible. The second class, ‘Sleeper A/C’ (Air-Conditioning) convokes an image of space that is completely alien to the cramped carriage I find myself in; unblinking fixed gazes fall upon me from every vantage point: above, aside and asunder. Unabashed stares.
Are they still terrified of me, after the short angry outburst I directed at the growing throng of ‘Aunties’ who had decided to use MY cabin as a meeting point? My curt query asking for their tickets, an authoritative reminder that the extended family had no rights to the single Seat 34B opposite me.
“How many seats do you have in this cabin?” I asked the alpha-female Aunty, after another attempt at her ‘internal adjustments’.
“Two, one for me and one for my son,” she answered, wagging her head importantly and pointing to the young boy lying in the top berth in my cabin.
“Well that means you have two seats in this cabin of four. There’s no place for your cousins and nephews. I paid to be in a cabin with four people, and that’s what I’ll have. If you want me to call the railway official about it I will. Your extended family can go somewhere else, and if you want to be with them, go join them there.”
Poor Aunty looked poleaxed, but still shook her head in abject disapproval.
Yes pretty rude I know (rude selfish foreigner is probably appropriate), but the issue at stake exemplifies a bigger problem. India doesn’t have rules, or at least the rules are very flexible. Aunty feels she can bend them, and her aim is to bend them to suit her. The problem is that her personal interest is thinly veiled as ‘caring for others’ and it implies I’m being selfish in not accommodating her, in allowing a family to be together. However it’s her family she wants to unite for the ride, and it impinges on my space, space incidentally that I’ve paid for and need to work in.
Aunty has been trying for the last four hours to regain some dignity after my offensive. She scurries stealthily between the two cabins, rallying any supporter who might listen, her innocent plea of caring for India whilst this arrogant foreigner only cares for himself (my Hindi is good enough to decipher ‘sooo selfish yaar!’). However ALL her offerings of tangerine slices and sweetmeats to me have been met with my curt and polite refusal. It’s as if her self-image as a caring, likeable, know-it-all Chief Aunty has been placed in jeopardy.
As for her twelvish-year old son, he just cowers if I glance in his direction.
Oh well, I’m consigned to my role as the selfish, foreign ogre for the ride, so I’ll play it. Dammit.
Let’s start with diet. I know eating spicy food is part of their culture and all that, but do they have to exercise their rights even in public confined places like trains? The air after lunch definitely took a turn for the worse. Wouldn’t a hint of turmeric or green chilli have sufficed in their lunchboxes, rather than a lorry load? I speculate if we’d all been lined up correctly after lunch, a minimum effort might have propelled the locomotive forward, using an unconventional kind of ‘internal combustion’. But I digress.
Then there’s the man opposite our cabin, beyond the open-curtained aisle (where chai wallahs pass every thirty seconds, with a precision Swiss watchmakers would envy); he sits crossed legged and sips tea constantly, with one hand probing his toes. He must think I’m an action-packed new film blockbuster, judging by his intense focus. (And yes, I am absorbed as I type.) His meticulous rubbing of toes must have peeled off six layers of epidermis by now. Clean off. For the interests of his feet I hope he’s not going all the way to Cochin – hopefully he’ll get off somewhere earlier in Goa. He should still be able to walk by then.
It’s dawn. I must have finally nodded off in my top berth (that I didn’t share with anyone, Brahma forbid) with the jerky undulations of the train. Aunty and son (and no doubt extended family) have left without my notice. They are replaced by a couple, in their 60’s. She has red hair, probably a henna experiment gone awry. He has a bright purple shirt, the viscose-like material making it even uglier under his large spectacles and shiny bald head. It reinforces my view that Indians in western dress are probably the most style-less people on the planet.
During the two hours that I watch them from the seclusion of my top bunker, all I hear is the man’s grunts, ordering his wife this way and that. She complies, often stooped subserviently in submission. Soon after arranging his desired pillows and blankets, she has extracted a respectable range of curries from her plastic dabbas, and with the help of her home-cooked chapatis, they dig in. More grunts from man. I can’t but help wonder when last a kind word was exchanged between them. Aah, the pleasures of nuptial bliss, Indian variety. Does the globalisation of this phenomenon have no limits?
I climb down, sit next to them, and dig into the curry/rice meal purchased from one of the railway ‘boys’. The redhead old lady is stealing furtive glances at me, and ventures to remind me that my tea – placed on our little counter (which they have monopolised) – is getting cold. Her husband’s stare and grunt forbid any further communication.
I nod and sip and order more from the chai wallah as soon as a cup’s finished. For the princely sum of 20 US cents for a small cuppa sweet, cardamon perfumed tea, I can afford to be extravagant.
When the couple’s plates are empty and cleared away, the man reaches into her handbag and takes out a blue plastic container, the size of a small hardback book. He unlocks the covering to reveal an array of tiny compartments, much like a mechanic’s tool box, which would be filled with different screws and nuts. This toolbox however, contains a myriad of different pills. He methodically opens and closes little compartments, taking out a yellow pill here, an orange pill there.
When he has about eight pills in his hand, he places them in front of her on our little counter, also placing another assortment in front of him. Without a word he grabs their bottle of Birley mineral water and glugs down his combo, about four pills I’d guess. He offers her the bottle, but only after he has drunk to his heart’s delight.
“One day last year she started snoring after taking some western medicine, for arthiritis ,” he explains to a curious chai-wallah looking at the toolbox. “And since then she has been having stomach problems. Too much gas, I tell you. We’re going to a 28-day Ayurvedic course for her.”
The poor lady scratches her red head. I feel just as miserable.
A fanside’ lecture with Swami
8 January 2013
“The science of Ayurveda is an all-embracing or holistic concept of healthy living,” Swami began in his theory class that evening. His glasses, tilted to the edge of his nose, were redundant as he wasn’t using his notes. His eyes swept the room, stopping momentarily on each of his nine students seated around his messy desk in two circles. Although it was 8 PM, the air was still hot and humid; the creaking efforts of the fan hovering above him like an aura did little to move the air.
“The aim is to make a life healthier,” he continued, “with the practice of a lifestyle that brings the body, mind and soul into harmony. In this respect it is very different from Western medicine which is palliative, or attempts to address ailments. For example, if a patient comes in with stomach pains, the Western doctor will prescribe medication to alleviate pain, maybe even purge the system. An Ayurvedic doctor will ask the patient what he ate yesterday and the past week; enquires will be made on how this varied from previous diet, with much detail of his bowel movement . . . what stresses the patient is currently undergoing, if he is sleeping well, does he exercise enough, how healthy is his sex and family life…”
Swami paused for the Japanese tour guide to translate for her group; they seemed to rock in sync with the creaking fan as they scribbled furiously.
“In this respect it is a holistic system – you cannot isolate a sickness from the overall wellbeing and lifestyle of a patient. Ayurveda attempts to find balance in the three basic substances in our body: the wind or vata, fire or pita, and water, also known as phlegm or kapha. Basically health decreases if the equilibrium in this triangle is out of balance.”
A rooster strutted tentatively past the chairs and sleeping dog; it passed Swamiji’s desk and headed behind him into his office and bedroom, pausing respectfully below the large portrait of Sai Babba in his afro hairstyle before continuing. I’m the only one who seemed to notice.
“We strive to find a healthy balance between good food, healthy exercise, good sleep and an active sex life. These are the pillars of a healthy Ayurvedic life. But not just for ourselves, but for for all beings. The natural consequence is not to harm others, humans or animals and lead of life of non-violence, or Ahimsa.”
Swami paused for the Japanese translation, but she seemed to hesitate. Finally she asked, “Is that why we should not eat meat?”
“It is not explicitly forbidden, but the more one delves into the nature of things, the more one realises it is our duty not to harm any other living being. This realisation will happen naturally as you explore the deeper essence of life.” He looked pointedly at her with his deep brown eyes which harboured no doubt; it erased any in the room.
He continued in his train of thought. “I’m always puzzled at the English expression that ‘you fall in love.’ We believe most energy like food energy falls downwards, but heart energy leads to a higher state of consciousness, which lifts one to a greater awareness of our oneness. So we believe we ‘rise in love’.”