Nostalgia by the Potomac

“It’s just water!” a teenaged boy calls to his friends, as they step reluctantly out of the shelter of a clothing store on to the pavement. Everybody seems utterly unprepared for this cloudburst; the weatherman predicted a sunny day, and has hardly been wrong in these two-and-a-half weeks.

We first saw the violet-grey clouds approach as we sat in the overgrown garden of the Old Stone House, the oldest unchanged building in Washington, DC. It was built in 1765 as a two-room cottage, and two floors were later added to it to accommodate three bedrooms and a decent-sized dining room, the way it has been preserved today. Old houses in strange places tend to be disconcerting, and this was no different. A slightly sagging bed, children’s playthings on the floor, and blackened utensils around the hearth quite created pictures in your head. You could see the African maid stirring a broth in the large cauldron, while the lady of the house, Cassandra Chew, entertained guests in the parlour. Aproned children spilled the sticks out of the little case upstairs, and a gardener toiled outside to provide vegetables for the family’s meals. Are they still around, and do they miss being here?

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We loitered in the garden for a bit, admiring the flowers and the rich greenery: for a largely commercial area, this well looked after house is an absolute delight. This is about as English as you can imagine, a far cry from the official starkness of the Federal Triangle.

***

Georgetown is like a slice of Europe in America. The grey pavements lined by red brick structures, many of which seem to date back to the nineteenth century, are heavily reminiscent of the Lanes in Brighton: not quite so quaint or eclectic, but endowed with character in their own way.

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Brightonian?

We head, perhaps in the way of most tourists, to Georgetown Cupcakes. Now this is a Wimbledonish experience, because you have to queue for half-an-hour before you can enter the shop and be bewildered by an array of colourfully iced cupcakes. Our selection goes from four to six, and we carry our pink box like two happy children to the banks of the Potomac.

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The Potomac river separates the town of Rosslyn in Virginia from Georgetown. So, when on the waterfront, you arrive fresh from the joys of a quaint little town to a contemporary glass-and-concrete skyline, relieved by a lush island on the river. We watch boats bob by. People lie on the grass and go jogging beside the adjacent Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. A board tells us that this was once a busy thoroughfare for goods carriers, and that this posh shopping district was once, in fact, an industrial area. The blue skies on this placid evening were probably once filled with smoke, and the buildings housing designer wear home to gaunt clerks poring over ledgers.

We eat a cupcake apiece as we watch massive white pillows of clouds mass overhead, almost seeming to drop on the top of the bridge across the river. This town was once the home of a few Native American tribes. In the span of a few centuries, it has changed unimaginably, witnessing various wars and upheavals before being absorbed into the capital of this powerful country. Plaques commemorate a Masonic Lodge, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flourishing of a port town, all clear evidence of a colonial past. Conquest isn’t always fair, and I do not condone the displacement of the Native people, but the growth of America has been nothing short of marvellous. As somebody ignorant of the intricacies of American history, I’m very intrigued about the stories every inch of this area seems to have to tell.

In the Capital

Washington, DC, is grey. The majestic buildings are grey, as are the statues. The sky is leaden and the ponds are dark. And right in time, I see the trees and the tulips: a burst of colour in the neatly planted formations in front of various government offices. The trees are a rich green, the severe grey starkness of Grecian pillars the perfect foil to their summery beauty. Washington, DC, will grow on me.

The US Capitol is unimpressive, covered up that the dome is with scaffolding. Tourists linger in small groups, hoping for something to see, and finally fixing on a “March for Marriage” – essentially, a call to preserve male-female unions. Though there are no obvious anti-gay placards, a little later we stumble upon an unsightly stall denouncing homosexuality. It feels like stepping from one conservative country into another. I think of Brighton, the absolute antithesis to Washington, in its embrace of homosexuality, nude beaches, and naked bike rides.

But we will have nothing to do with an anti-gay demonstration. We head back to our primary attraction, the Library of Congress. G. has been here earlier and cannot stop singing its praises. We walk to the reception desk where a kindly old man tells me that I have to be a Member of Congress to borrow books (hopes dashed to dust), but that I can get a reading card instead. We walk through desolate, labyrinthine tunnels, the constant metallic hiss of the pipes overhead echoing eerily. If the lights went out, I assure you my imagination would direct itself to MR James and not leave me in peace.

We visit the Business & Science section, a large, high-ceilinged, well-lit room with Grecian panels high up on the walls. This obsession with all designs Greek is something I am yet to understand. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the days of Aristotle and Socrates, a tribute to the early years of debate and democracy (strictly according to a Western worldview)? There is something cold and unfeeling about the atmosphere of this library that I cannot shrug off: a heavy sense of history, a bit of grand responsibility. This is probably true of the entire capital region (or country?), because everywhere you go, you see the US flag hoisted – in gardens, on top of buildings, in front of hotels.

***

The train emerges from the tunnel into Arlington Cemetery, passing by low grassy undulations, just like the train to Brighton snaking out of the South Downs into London Road station. I keep thinking back to England when I see the names of places in Virginia: Suffolk, Middlesex, Cumberland, York. Just like the London tube where people barely make eye contact with one another, the trains in Virginia are filled with sombre people, their eyes fixed on a vague distant point, hoping for quick release from the darkness through which they are being jolted.

The silence is brief. Once out in the open, I am back in that famed capitalist America, home to the vast departmental stores that are a far cry from the humble dry goods stores that they must have once started out as. However, even in the midst of this wealth and bustle, does the ennui that Sinclair Lewis and Edith Wharton described so poignantly ever creep in? Would you ever tire of endless parties or sleepy roads?

Dispatch from Virginia

G.’s office decided that they wanted him in the USA for a few months. I chose to tag along, given that my software engineering degree didn’t come with a free project in the States. So here I am, typing my first dispatch from Arlington, Virginia.

Chennai Airport

G. has a Business Class ticket and we are allowed entry into the lounge with free food and uplifting muzak (I know I’ve nicked this phrase from somewhere, but can’t for the life of me recollect where I first read it), and a mosquito or two, I suspect. The music is punctuated by the sound of people munching on crisps, a wailing baby, and heavy suitcases with worn out wheels being dragged along the polished floor. Punjab and Rajasthan battle it out – on mute – in the IPL. This may not sound genteel enough, but a stone Buddha statue bathed in flowing water sits on the reception desk, dispelling my blasphemous notions.

I naïvely assume that the packed glass room by the gate is a viewing deck; it turns out to be the smoking zone, and if smoking doesn’t kill, suffocation seems very likely to do the honours. Two hours fly by. We watch the match run into the super-over, eat, and repeat the lines in the Lufthansa advertisement to each other. I try to be as level-headed as I can, considering we have a five-hour halt en route in Frankfurt. Germany! I can’t stop thinking of Michael Schumacher and F1.

Frankfurt

The clouds part to reveal neat, manicured fields and small settlements. Are we really in the proximity of a great city? Where are the people? A few skyscrapers appear amidst the forests, looking out on the vast snaking Rhine. Germany!

The woods will have to stand in for the Black Forest for now; the roads will have to pretend they are part of the Hockenheim circuit. All my squinting into the sun doesn’t reveal any Gothic cathedrals or castles, though I do see numerous football fields, justifying the number of Bundesliga stories in the copy of Sport Bild I picked up on the plane, in veneration for the number of times it has supplied quotes from German drivers in English F1 articles.

Velvety hills dot the horizon, sloping gently down to the airport and reminding me very much of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. Even though the temperature is 10 degrees C, the sun shines brightly in a pale-blue sky. We wander around the airport, are directed by a very cheerful elderly German lady to our terminal, and promptly sit down after the long walk to the gate mentioned on our boarding passes.

The area fills up with elderly Japanese couples, perhaps part of an organised tour. They take photographs and talk quietly. There seem to be surprisingly few Indians or Americans, considering our destination. G. goes to investigate, and finds out that our gate has been changed and that we have actually been sitting with people bound for Osaka. Another name, another country I want to visit for all the magic Haruki Murakami, Pico Iyer, and my friend A.’s pictures have evoked.

I watch the flight information board. Istanbul, Copenhagen, Split, San Fransisco. How I’d love to use this boarding pass to hop on and hop off planes, dropping into a new city every few days, making a tour of all the racing circuits of Europe.

Virginia

The plane circles over green fields, not quite as manicured as in Germany, but neat nevertheless. Brown cottages with sloping roofs dot the landscape, and a thick bank of clouds appears in the distance, a translucent white sheet falling from it on to the green expanse underneath. It could be rain: we have just emerged out of choppy, opaque grey clouds. Rows of green trees are incongruously broken by others clothed in vivid purple. We have narrowly missed cherry blossom season, but I simply imagine that some of the trees dressed in light, pale whitish-pink are in fact those famed flowers, so popular and elusive.

We step into the open and are greeted by a whoosh of cold wind. This is exactly how I felt at Heathrow, I tell G., standing on the grey pavement, fresh from the tropical humidity of southern India. I love the weather and I can’t wait to explore a brand new country. We are driven at a speed that would almost definitely be fatal in India on roads whose silken curves are a soothing sight for sore eyes. We pass the Pentagon, which I’d prefer to see from the air, given that it is otherwise just a series of low buildings with a vast parking lot. The Washington Monument makes a brief appearance through a line of trees. I want to drive into Washington DC and ask for a job in the corridors of power and intrigue.

Of course I’m greedy: I want to see canyons cut by muddy rivers and the mighty Rockies, drive through barren deserts, visit the Beat haunts, go to the midwestern Prairies (solely for Willa Cather), and walk on the Main Streets of nondescript villages. I want to go on long road trips, like Kerouac and Steinbeck. I want to study indigenous history and revel in the gorgeous names of Nevada, Nebraska and Mississippi.

I know I’ll be lucky to get even a tiny, tiny fraction of this done. I can’t set limits on my imagination though, especially now when I’m all harebrained with excitement, taking breaks to stand on the balcony and watching the sun struggle through the clouds, cover the brown apartments across the road in an eerie orange light. I almost weep with joy when I realise that I can cross the road without having to break into a run midway, and that cars will wait politely till I have attained the safety of the pavement. I have had my first ice cream soda and am preparing to cook my first meal, after which I will curl up with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a Christian story set in the midwest. America, I look forward to making your acquaintance.

Asking for Rain

I want to read, or write, but not sleep at all. Fridays do this to me.

The streetlight has spluttered to its death and will not cast its blurred glow through my hazy window-pane. The husband has been lulled to sleep by the fan at full speed, and will know nothing until beads of sweat pooling on his neck wake him up tomorrow morning. I dare not open the window for fear of mosquitoes. All I wish for now is a soft shower of rain, dripping gently off the pink and orange flowers of the tree on the other side of the road. I want to slide the window open – just a tiny bit – and let earth-scented damp air in to wash away the bitter memories of the thick, white-hot afternoons.

Go on, rain. Bring Maugham’s tropics to life. Who cares, after all, if this city is an equatorial island or a speck on a long coastline? I can see the moon shining through palm fronds from the balcony – isn’t that tropical enough, evocative of the blue sea and the white beaches on vacation brochures?

Conjure up the thunderstorms. I grow more demanding by the minute, and I now ask for a heavy downpour. Do your duty by the parched.

Understanding Hinduism in Bali – II

(Like in the last part, I would like to mention that all my knowledge of Hinduism in Bali is extracted from conversations with our travel guide, W. Please do let me know if you have heard different versions, or know something to be incorrect.)

Part I here

The Balinese countryside is richly green. We drove to Ubud, Tanah Lot, Bedugul, and Uluwatu – everywhere we went, our eyes were treated to the sight of gently waving green stalks in large fields, sometimes set off by threatening grey clouds. We stopped for lunch at various village restaurants, one of them perched on the side of a cliff, gazing at lush terraced slopes while we scoured for vegetarian options on our menu cards.

Terrace

The terraced fields of Ubud

On one of these drives through the countryside, W fiddled with the radio knobs till a Hindi movie song came on air. “Do you like listening (to) music?” He told us of the seventies when he started watching Hindi mythological serials and movies dubbed in Bahasa, naming the few actors he remembered: Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, and Hema Malini. While Hinduism rooted itself in Bali some centuries ago, it is clear that a new soft power has made its way to the island over the last few decades.

Arriving one sunny morning in Uluwatu, we found a ceremony in progress. Groups of men and women wearing traditional white shirts over their sarongs watched while a priest seated on a pedestal performed the ceremony. The shrine was decorated with bamboo trimmings, and baskets filled with offerings were lined up in front of the deity. W told us that the worshippers were probably shopkeepers from the village nearby propitiating Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. The chant that filled the air, with cymbals and a large drum keeping time, was ancient Javanese. W explained that the Hindus arrived in Bali in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, mostly from East Java, having fled Muslim persecution. This would probably explain why the Balinese language has a lot in common with Javanese.

Uluwatu

Ceremony at Uluwatu

The Hindus of Bali eat beef. White cows, however, are considered sacred and not slaughtered for food. These exceptions are not limited to meat, but can extend, for example, to the exclusion of bananas or pumpkins by some clans. Most exemptions are acts of gratitude: at some point, the ancestors of particular clans are believed to have been saved by white cows or sheltered by banana trees, owing to which they are preserved to this day.

As we drove back to Denpasar, a chant came on air. “This is the Gayatri mantra,” said W. “We say it regularly at home, when we worship at our shrine three times a day.” This wasn’t the Gayatri mantra as my husband and I knew it. It sounded very different, and we couldn’t quite make out the words. However, some Sanskrit chants had evidently survived on this faraway island and were being kept alive by a people who had struggled for the right to protect their practices.

While we in India like to pride ourselves on our diversity, it is easy to forget that other places are not quite homogeneous. Indonesia, which many of us might consider a small, uniform country, has 400 dialects of its own. The Latin script has conveniently stepped in to unify the country, with all dialects now being interpreted in a manner that permits any of us foreigners with a knowledge of English to read them. This could be a comfortable example to quote in the perennial Hindi vs English debates that a lot of linguistic arguments in India (sometimes entirely leaving out Dravidian languages, as in the latest Atish Taseer piece) lead to. I would be interested to learn what effect this has on the local scripts – do they survive, or are they relegated to oblivion?

I apologise for referring to India so often in a post that is supposed to be about Bali. I can’t really help it, though, especially when I realise that the problems W talks of are exactly the ones that we in India face and, often, scoff at as figments of our hyperactive imagination. Whether these problems exist everywhere or are products of everyone’s imagination, I’ll leave you to judge at the end of the next post, which will also conclude this series on Hinduism in Bali.

Cousins

Motif from the Ramayana

Nights

Madras

We are standing on the seashore, watching the moonlight bounce off the waves, turning them cellophane-y. The moon consorts with a bright object in a straight line from it – with my limited knowledge, I would have called it Venus, as I do any object in the sky that doesn’t twinkle (apart from the moon, naturally). But this is Jupiter, not Venus, says my friend, and we look it up on Sky Maps on his phone. Will I be able to see Jupiter’s moons? Only with a very strong telescope, he says, and so I add that to my list behind Saturn’s rings.

We make a tour of the ice cream carts, looking for one that will sell us something beyond drab vanilla, which is no good without a sprinkle of nuts and a dribble of chocolate sauce. One of the ice-cream vendors produces a magnificent cup of chocolate-chip lusciousness, and I’m sold. Another friend chooses an ice lolly in cola; I taste it, it brims over with the blissful ignorance of summer evenings from childhood, when cold things were particularly appetising after long hours of play at the park.

Singapore

I can’t sleep now, not when the fierce rainstorm lures me to the French windows. I have to watch the thick sheets of rain ripple and run down the glass, blurring the streetlight which blinks in vain, for nobody is out on this unforgiving night. My book has temporarily lost its charm and I meditate on the rain. Nothing in the world comes close to rain in the tropics, to a Southeast Asian storm (if you don’t believe me, ask Somerset Maugham). The words “South China Sea” give me visions of sailors out to explore distant continents, carrying rich cargoes of silk and spices, explorers scripting their tales in exquisite letters, and exchanging treasures with Mesopotamia or Egypt. We will be ancient history some centuries later, so why is the present not as captivating as the past? Why should there be so much mystique attached to the old, when it was probably just as commonplace then as our doings are to us now?

I listen to Sarah McLachlan singing Ordinary Miracle. Is that where I should find my answer?

Falmer

I would sleep, but for fast Internet and the novelty of cold winters – also, the snow has just begun to fall and I cannot bring myself to snuggle into my duvet and lose forever what I might never see again. This is no blizzard, no raging whirl of snowflakes, but a soft, gentle descent to earth. It is just enough to let us fashion a tiny snowman out of half a fistful of white, powdery snow; all that we can manage to gather out of the thin layer that carpets the roads, the grass and the slatted benches by the barbecue pit. We throw miniature snowballs at a friend’s window, and she laughs at us from the glowing warmth of her room.

However, perhaps the happiest of all is the solitary tree outside my window – its leaves have fallen away, leaving only the birds and the squirrels for company. Much as it enjoys their play, wouldn’t it much rather be cloaked in a majestic, glittering cloak of pristine white?

(This is the kind of nonsense I have been filling my head with since I was sixteen, and I am glad to realise that I haven’t outgrown it yet. I don’t want to.)

Ghost Stories in Ramnagar

The Kosi in Ramnagar

The Kosi in Ramnagar

The hills of the Uttarakhand Terai glow in the light of the November sun, slopes and peaks radiating a fuzzy softness in the morning, perfectly set off by the golden-tipped ripples of the Kosi. People troop out of the resort in small groups, running or walking or meditating to the gush of the river. They ride to the Corbett Tiger Reserve in open jeeps and return all excited at the sight of “fresh pug-marks”, believing that they would have spotted a tiger if only they had held their breath a moment longer or the group in the next jeep hadn’t been so noisy. What can disturb the peace and detached bliss of this still, cold morning, when winter is just beginning to gird its loins for a full-fledged attack on the Himalayan foothills?

A stench fills the air. A dead vulture, black feathers unruffled on a stiff body, lies on the river-bank. The hills have their ghosts.

***

Ramnagar seems to be the perfect name for a village in the legends. It is the kind of name that rolls off the tongue easily and lends itself to fictional settings for both gory wars and everyday stories of the Malgudi kind. But I’m interested only in that which cannot be seen or understood.

I ask a security guard if he knows any ghost stories. Against the surreal backdrop of games of table-tennis and badminton, he nonchalantly tells me that two spirits hover near the cabin where he keeps guard every night. “They lit a fire inside the cabin one night to keep themselves warm,” he says. “When the door was opened the next morning, they were found dead of suffocation.” How does he know they haunt the area? “I hear voices sometimes. Many people have. We also see them occasionally, walking around like ordinary people.” Is he afraid? “No. Why should I be afraid? You can be brave, or you can get frightened of your own shadow.” He is a practical man.

“You should not go to the river at night,” he warns me. “You never know what happens upstream: there might be a burning ghaat there, and a charred body might just come floating down.” Be careful of physical remains. There might be a subtext to his warning.

Twenty of us sit around a bonfire at night, telling stories of horror and possession. Higher up in the hills, some women are believed to be possessed by the spirit of a goddess when they get violent and begin throwing things around; they are respected and worshipped, but a pundit is then summoned to chase the otherworldly being away. Something doesn’t add up here.

One of our company tells the story of Bhangarh, a village in Rajasthan, which lies in ghost-like ruin, much like Pompeii. It stands still as if frozen in time, and no new settlement has sprung up at its location. Nobody is allowed to enter the ruins between dusk and dawn, according to Government orders. What kind of curse does it carry that it requires an elected Government to intervene and impose strict orders on its borders? (Let us not talk of the Sariska Tiger Reserve now – don’t put a dampener on romantic legends set in sprawling forts.)

***

My appetite for ghost stories isn’t satiated yet. If you’ve read MR James, Ambrose Bierce and Ruskin Bond growing up, it never will be, and you will want to turn sixty quickly so you can retire and settle in the Himalayas, with a garden full of wildflowers and a snow-capped mountain peak framed in your window. So I ask one of the kitchen staff for ghost stories. He is a little hesitant in the beginning, but warms up to the subject after just a little coaxing.

“There is a ghost that sometimes sits on people’s necks when they are lying down,” he says. “A man could be fully conscious and see things clearly, but when the ghost attacks, he is paralysed. He feels a weight on his neck and shoulders and cannot move, much as he may try.” A case of sleep paralysis, perhaps? I ask how often it happens, and to whom. “We believe that it happens generally to those with weak planetary positions in their horoscopes.” He talks further of childless women who are believed to be possessed and need to be counselled by a pundit, following which they conceive immediately.

We then segue from ghosts to gods. “We tend to believe that our gods are also spirits.” Devbhoomi – the land of the gods, where they wander free. The lines between the real and the imaginary blur effortlessly, as is obvious from the crisp reply another man at the resort gives me when I ask him what he thinks of ghosts: “What are ghosts? You can’t see the wind, but it still blows and makes the leaves sway.”

Who can tell what lurks in the dark, or even in the ribbons of sunshine that filter through the branches of tall trees in the foothills on calm, delightful mornings? The forests are full – and we do not know the names or forms of all that “lives” inside.

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