Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Stupid Contemplates India

Mysore is one of the three or four locations I had heard about before coming to India, so when I got there and found it to be not much more than a large, navigable town with maybe three official "sights" within city limits, I was perplexed. There are, I hear, some ashrams, some Ayurveda teachers, and some yoga schools in the vicinity, which may be what has people talking about the place. Whether or not that's it, within hours of my arrival it became clear that the lingo and tools of "spiritual" and "holistic" practices are a signigicant part of the city's commercial sphere.

sidewalk fortune tellers

Talia is a feisty young lady with her fingers in numerous pies, one of which is international real-estate. While in Bangalore, she got wind of some prospective investors for the area, and she wanted to check out some property. I was ready to get out of town, so I took the bus to Mysore in the afternoon, and she took another bus early in the evening; on parting, we agreed that I'd call her mobile phone after finding a hotel. In India, public phones are not coin operated. They are usually attached to a small shop, and after a customer places a call, the shopkeeper prints out a receipt with a price based on duration and location. Public land lines are labeled ISD or STD, and even though I learned that the abbreviations stand for International Subscribers Dialing and Subscribers Trunk Dialing, the 13 year old in me will never stop being amused by walking into a shop and saying, "do you have an STD?"

So, after settling into a large, cheap hotel room with plaster peeling off the walls, a support column in the center, and years of film on the bathroom mirror, I located an STD, called Talia, and went into the shop to pay. Worn out by the morning in Bangalore and afternoon on the bus, and expecting paying to be a long process since the shop also had computers and a travel agency, I sat down at the shop owner's desk and waited for the bill. At that moment a skinny little man with brown teeth rotting down to stumps entered carrying four small glasses of chai in a basket with circles of wire to hold the cups in place. He offered me a glass, and I accepted. I payed the phone bill and while I was finishing my drink the skinny man (of course) asked me that sickeningly familiar question. When I said America he replied, with a conspiratorial smile and a bit of a melody, "oh, born in the USA." During the next few minutes, he worked several song lyrics into the conversation. For example, I told him I'm from San Francisco. OK, I lied, but I was born near San Francisco, so I certainly didn't deserve to hear him say tunefully, "Welcome to the hotel California." It was difficult to fake a smile instead of rolling my eyes, but for the sake of civility, I did. It was around 7:30, and my patience has usually been exhausted by that time of day; I wanted to eat, shower, do laundry, and most of all, enjoy some privacy, so I headed for the door.

Mysore suburb

During my first few hours in Mysore, I was told by at least three different idle young men that there was a special, once-yearly event going on at the Saturday market, an incense rolling competition and essential oil extraction demonstration. At another time, I might have given all that a look, but like I said, I was tired. The skinny guy with the chai, aka Bruce Springsteen, also told me about the market, and I nodded my head in a polite show of interest. As I walked out, he followed me, spouting streams of other information that I wasn't in a state to absorb. The phone shop was on the second floor, and he cornered me even before I made it across the balcony to the stairs. He was going on about an ashram somewhere out of town, then a yogi, then a high-speed internet cafe, all the sights of Mysore, and a general layout of the place. I managed to break away and get halfway down the stairs. He was still following me, so I turned around and politely said, "OK, thank you. I'm very tired and I'm going to my hotel now." He continued to talk, and I tried to exit politely again. His posture stiffened, his lips tightened and he said something to the effect of, "I'm not a tout. I'm not selling anything or taking you anywhere." I felt a little guilty, on the off chance that he might just be proud of his town, and replied, "I know you're just being friendly, but I don't feel like talking right now." That having no effect, he told me about an "Amsterdam cafe," and that marijuana, charis, and hash are legal in Mysore. This time I said, abruptly, "I'm leaving. Good night," and walked the rest of the way down the stairs while he kept talking. He followed me into the street saying loudly, "You have too big ego. That's your problem. Someone give you respect and you have ego. I don't like ego." I was still walking, but his assumption that I owed him attention offended me; I turned my head, and said, "I don't care. Leave me alone." He began walking quickly, complaining about my ego while overtaking and then passing me. Now that I was completely ignoring him, he stomped off talking to himself in a local language punctuated with the words "ego" and "America." He soon disappeared around a corner, but I was offered an escort to the market three more times, marijuana products twice, and an ayurvedic hot-oil massage by a man in the hallway outside my room, in the four minutes it took me to reach privacy.

In Bangalore there were men with books ranged out along the sidewalk, and one night, while I scanned for something that would strike me as relevant, Talia recommended a title, Rich Dad Poor Dad , by Robert T. Kiyosaki, a Japanese-American from Hawaii. She warned that the book is abominably written, but she also said it teaches sound financial prinicipals. Well, I thought, "Money, that's on my mind in a few different ways." So, I bought it, read it (although it was painful), and pronounced Talia correct on both counts. Kiyosaki structures the book around the lessons he learned from his two "fathers." Poor Dad, his biological father, was highly educated, but he had to work his whole life because he didn't understand money, and Rich Dad, a friend's father who taught Kiyosaki about money, was academically unsophisticated but clever with finance. Poor Dad told the author to study hard and find a secure job, while Rich Dad told him to "make money work" for him. Robert went with Rich Dad's advice in the end, and now he's a multimillionaire who writes books, has patented a board game, and gives seminars, about how to make money, manage money, and have the money you've made and manage make more money. I have to admit, his principles are sensible (if mostly obvious), but the fact that he could have made his point in ten concise sentences rather than 100 gratingly repetitive pages, made me think he should have paid a bit more attention to Poor Dad, at least in terms of education.

oxen don't like backing up

Sidewalk books in India are usually pirated; they have smudged print, and unevenly cut, repeated or omitted pages. I had assumed that the pirating process involved photocopying from the original, but the grammatical errors, strange constructions, and typos in Rich Dad Poor Dad had me wondering whether this book hadn't been retyped by an incompetent or distracted forger. OK, enough criticism; I got some useful ideas about personal finance by skimming the avalanche of illustrations for the point, and Kiyosaki prefaced his ideas with a thought provoking statement about the condition of the world. He wrote that our education system is outdated because it doesn't teach kids about finance, or how to invest, instead it trains them to get a safe job which they will be dependent on for life. I'm not sure about the logic here, but he thinks this system is bringing about the fall of modern civilization by causing an increase in the gap between the haves and have-nots.

coke, tree, and god at the Mysore Zoo

On our first full day in town, Talia and I wandered over to Mysore Palace. The plot of land that the city radiates from has hosted three different palaces since the 14th century; the first was damaged by lightening and then demolished, the second was burned to the ground in a fire ignited during the wedding ceremony of a princess, and its replacement was commissioned of British architect Henry Irwin by the Queen-Regent of Mysore in 1897. Completed in 1912, the Mysore Palace that I visited is described in its brochure as a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic architecture. More thorough sources say it's "Indo-Saracenic" architecture, or a combination of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic styles. Although I found the myriad objects and architectural features pleasing when considered individually, the riot of curving archways, crowding columns, marble staircases, stained-glass, ivory inlay, chandeliers, cast-iron cherub lamps, carven balconies, and pointed domes looked garish, imbalanced, and laughably Victorian (because of the scholarly emphasis on eastern styles) to my non-expert eye. When I passed out of the marriage hall, its light filtered through stained glass peacocks prancing in glass gardens above its massive pillars, and into the royal portrait gallery, lined with serious, well-groomed, opulently dressed nobles of yore, I wondered if the gap between the rich and the poor has really changed much; and if so, how.

Eyesore palace

I'm not sure whether Kiyosaki intended to say that the number of poor people is increasing, or that the distance between the conditions of wealth and poverty is getting larger, but it isn't obvious to me that either of those statements are accurate. Although I don't have any statistics, or even a clear definition of "rich," and "poor," I'd bet that the number of poor people and rich people has increased right along with the world's population. I'd be curious to see how the ratio has changed, and I wonder if it wouldn't reflect that there are more well-appointed people in terms of total population than there used to be. This is, of course, difficult to measure, although I'm sure people on both sides of the question have tried and come up with answers appropriate to the way the initial question was framed. All I can do at the moment is conclude something on the basis of the tiny corner of existence that is my own experience, or what I've seen; and I'd say that the kind of opulence embodied in Mysore Palace is probably available to about the same amount of people (proportionally) as it used to be, while a more modest form of luxury and stability (read Mc Mansions and health care) is available to a greater segment of the total population.

Mysore home

It's frightening to make such a general assertion in public, but if Robert T. Kiyosaki can do it, then so can I. I have to admit that I can't even comprehend numbers like 50 million, especially when they're applied to people, so I dropped the topic, and went to the Mysore Zoo the next day. Established by the inhabitants of Mysore Palace in 1892, it's one of the oldest zoos in the world, housing over 100 species, most of which have ample, unfenced amounts of space allotted for their habitats; my favorite were the impossibly lanky, hilariously constructed, miraculously gracefull giraffes.

Why didn't anybody tell me giraffes have tongues like this?

The world is such a weird and improbable place; the conclusions you arrive at are dependent on where you start, and the starting points are infinite. Mysore Zoo hosts gorillas, baboons, and chimpanzees; and while they all have separate habitats and signs, indigenous monkeys scamper across sidewalks and raid trash cans all over the zoo. To me, all tree-swinging, man-handed creatures are exotic, so I wondered what the captives thought of their free cousins. I guess it's all a matter of context; the trash-raiding monkeys would be on display in an American zoo.

free zoo monkey

On my last day in town, I was walking quickly to meet up with Talia, and a young man greeted me as I passed him loitering on the street. If my huge ego makes me rude because it demands to do what it wants when it wants, it also makes me polite when I'd rather not be. For instance, when a total stranger greets me from somewhere in my peripheral vision, I really don't want to answer, but I also don't want to be disliked, and I don't want to think of myself as someone who thinks she's too good to say hello, so I usually reply. On this particular afternoon, I took the bait, and although I didn't even turn my head towards him, he was suddenly speed-walking right along with me, asking questions, and trying to hold a conversation that I obviously didn't want to participate in. I didn't see it coming, but I hit my limit; I stopped walking, turned to face him, and said in a markedly unfriendly tone, "Can I help you?" Apparently, tourists don't often use the direct approach, because he looked shocked for a second and then shouted, "You are not a god. You cannot help me!" As I walked away he called after me, "You are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

I was less disturbed about being called stupid than I was about being told I have a big ego, maybe because I have a big enough ego to feel sure I'm not stupid, but I was surprised at the violence of the young man's reaction and at the presumption implied by his behaviour. It's a marvel to me that he thought I owed him my attention. I'm confronted with and perplexed by instances of this attitude innumerable times each day I spend in India. When he approached me, it was my 1st world guilt that caused me to respond to him past the initial greeting, and every day it's the same; I get involved in tiresome conversations with people because I don't want to assume that they're trying to sell me something, and because I feel guilty for leaping to judgements. The problem is, those judgements are usually right.

I'm not saying that every Indian wants something from me, but the ones that make an aggressive effort to get to know me in the middle of the street under a hot sun amid honking and hustling usually do. Worse yet, it seems that the clever young men of Mysore may recognize this particular form of hypocritical politeness and exploit it, especially if there is a large pool of earnest yoga practitioners around seeking enlightenment in India; ego is a dirty word in yoga circles. Another possibility is that they haven't considered the implications and strategic benefits of their behaviour, mine, or anyone else's; these predators could be reacting instinctively, trying to get enough bread for the day out of whatever comes in front of them, and if I am stupid, it's for even attempting to make some sense out of the whole situation.


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