Sarnath reflections 2002

Last evening in Sarnath. That magical time just before sunset I walk out into the wheat fields around the school. The augmenting oppressive heat of the day is waning, as if breathing out from the cracking earth through the hair of sun dried wheat. Village India. They are scything, mostly women of course, using forms and implements thousands of years old, squatting, moving, gossiping, laughing, timelessly. ‘Chapati!’ a man calls gesturing his arms about his field and all around as far as the eye can see, finding a word he’d know I’d know, inviting passing entertainment from a woman who just walked. As I walked I went back to the place from which it started.Where are all the swathes of marigold fields I remember asking in a letter home, November last year. For they must be massive and many to feed the ever needy demand of ritual: packed into leaf plates for the thousands of Ganga floating candles; made into necklaces to adorn an official; part of a decoration around a dressed up god; adorning a dead body bobbing on a bamboo scaffold carried on its final journey 24/7 though the medieval narrow alleys to the burning ghat; and from there unceremoniously caste aside to become a welcome meal for a city cow. Round and round. It is a seamless ever needy market. It’s taken 6 months but I’ve found the fields of marigolds. On my door step. The thing is, they are not massive, but pocket handkerchiefs and everywhere; separators to the ubiquitous chapati fields. At this time in the evening they give off a rich peppery smell. I rub my hands along a stem to let loose the scent.

Turning round I see the school in the landscape – an unusually solid, terracotta building rising out of the agriculture around. Incongruous amongst the mud thatched buildings of the villages, yet not so for the terracotta is warm and around it, always, are children playing.

Every morning I am up there on the roof, looking down on these fields. Rising from my roof-top bed out from under the mosquito net, I begin the day by stretching into some yoga, a few salutations to a rising over the other side sun. Every bodily rise gives a different scene. Girls squatting in the toilet field below for morning shit; women gathering marigolds for market; men bicycling milk in leaf capped canisters; children in sky blue uniform walking to school or playing hopscotch outside. Never a dull moment, even at 6 o’clock sunrise.

While taking a double lassie at Mahadevs, I remembered the odd-balls of Sarnath. Men of course, most of who pass the time of day at this chai stall under the shade of the plastic tarpaulin. Shiram is the only regular today, the story teller. His saddest plight was to leave his beloved rain soaked hills of Darjeeling for these scorching plains. Removed from any family, he is a stranger and an outcaste who can only look to fellow outcasts for companionship, us passing tourists for example. I was one he tried to catch with his net of melancholy. Searching for an editor for his remarkable self-taught English, I soon understood it was not black and white correction he wanted but someone to spend time discussing meanings of words, and time of course I did not have to give, so I dropped his company by a way side, and would occasionally pass him wandering the street with plaintiff words thrown out, ‘My life is meaningless with nothing to do and no one to talk to’, and an occasionally a blunt reference to his incompatible wife who not only had no understanding of his adopted and beloved tongue, English, but is illiterate in any language. Months later, and stimulated by the horrendous quality of writing in the UP board English Reader Text books (compulsory for learning English), I have at last been inspired to ask Shiram to come and read his English stories to the students at the school. It will not happen until I return in October. As I deliver the good news to him, I am half waiting for his cup half empty reply, which comes without hesitation, deviation or repetition. ‘But I may not be here in October….’
‘Shiram, try another sentence, any sentence, without using the word BUT!’, I am laughing as I speak. And when he replies with his tooth filled laugh,
‘But that is impossible, it is always there, this problem…..’

Back at school Tycho has unexpectedly left for Buddhgaya, (the drama of her stolen passport probably taken by the Ex-ministers drug addicted son are unresolved this night), and Marc (an trial Spanish student at the school) has fallen ill. Dr Shukla has immediately diagnosed malaria. I am suspicious at such a swift diagnosis.
‘It is sure to be 80% psychological,’ declares Valentino, putting a further cat amongst the pigeons which I ignore and insist on accompanying Marc to the doctors against Dr Shukla’s advise. In the rickshaw I smile at the rise of a maternal instinct within me, the barren woman; the determination to take care of a child, above all to see he is not frightened that he knows everything will be alright. Nothing, and certainly not the assurance of Dr Shukla that I am unnecessary, can keep me from going with Marc.

‘He is a very duty doctor, with American letters’, Dr Shukla points out to me from the letter head on a quickly written out prescription containing, of course, antibiotics. I am even more suspicious. If it’s malaria, why antibiotics? But Valentino says he must take all prescribed.

‘I’m not having responsibility of this boy being ill, you understand. I’m really thinking of sending him back. He is too arrogant – like all children in the west. All the residential boys they tell me how he is. His nose is in the air. He shuns them, and does not mix with them.’

It is true, he does have an air of western arrogance, and I love Valentino for his challenge (challenge is everywhere these days), but I breath deep and present an alternative case to Valentino. I would have done the same as Marc, I say. He has acted with Darwinian survival cunning: understanding that he must learn English to survive here, he latched on to the best resource, me. Look how well he has done. When I am gone he will be thrown back into the company of his contemporaries. Give him a chance. It’s an enormous challenge for him, as you say, already conditioned in western ways. But there is change. I’ve seen it.
‘I shall consult the Ghose Lama tomorrow,’ are Valentino’s last words.

Marc comes up stairs and lays down on my bed, exhausted, pale, and spending more time on the toilet than on the bed. ‘Where does all the kaka come from? I have not eaten for 24 hours?’ ‘What happens when I sleep, will I do kaka in my bed?’ he asks. It is his first experience of Indian running shits. I like being present at beginnings, they remind me of my own. And I like his unhindered practical questions.

One final turn around the Mahabodi vihar, passed the surprising zoo of caged rabbits goldfinches, flamingo’s, crockodiles, announced in hindi, latin and english, out passed the fenced in deer’s, the famous ancestors from the Buddha’s time (that Sugata cannot remember existing back in 1950, which makes me suspicious of their ancestor status, rather than a contrived tourist pull) and to a lake bordered by a sward of grassland punctuated with 2 benches where lovers meet for an early evening discourse.

Last watering of the planted seeds at the Chinese monastery. They have started to flower. Success. Nasturshams, Borrage, sweetpea – an English country garden flowers here in India. Some will cast their seed for another year. Negi, with his off the shoulder summer monk outfit (I notice he shaves under his arm), is keen to monitor my departure as I have promised him my head torch back in December. It’s been a long wait and he does not want to fail at the last fence. Glancing back up at the yellow painted balcony (where underwear must be hung on lower rungs, omitted from monk view) to various rooms where I resided at different times, I bid goodbye to the Enfield smoking monk, the black dog who I once fed biscuits to, the (maybe) Chinese monk loitering (with intent to capture rupees from generous pilgrims according to Negi) outside the yellow gates. Chi Chan of post modern existential philosophy is nowhere to be seen. I leave a note and a statue of the Virgin Mary given to me by Valentino for my birthday (where does Valentino get his ideas from?)

Back into village India. Families stretched lazily on charpoys waving neem branches as their anti-mosquito repellent. My in breath is heady with memory, fertility and earth. Memory, I meander in my thoughts, perhaps of when I lived closer to the earth, perhaps as much as by 1 meter, when I played with its firmament and pondered it’s mystery before the hautiness of words and mind and eye to eye interaction of other human beings distracted and I grew up and away to a removed and so called higher level. It feels that far back.

Somewhere close to me is a rustle of corn. I can see nothing, but know that inside the mass will be a squatting woman scything. Running bare foot over the stubble, some children come. I know they are aiming for me; always inquisitive and wanting to play they will come to the stranger who just walks and no doubt ask questions. But taking my hand they lead me to Kiran Pal. Ha! She is both my success and failure. Kiran Pal, Class 7, bright eyed with interesting answers (‘pomegranate red’) and always dressed in trousers. She is one of the four students I selected to teach computers to intensively with the aim that they could teach the rest. In this I have failed. There were of course many hindrances. With her straight gaze she says to me: ‘When will I learn computer?’ When I return in October, I say meeting her look directly and she waits for me to stop my writing, (for, yes, I am writing in the middle of a her family harvested field). She waits for me so that she can walk together back to the school. As we walk she asks if there are wheat fields in my country, and what family I have, and if I am not depressed without family, because who do I talk to? A computer, of course. Yes we have wheat fields, I try to remember what we have, but they stretch from those trees over on that horizon to those trees over on this horizon, and there are no paths in between, and no one goes through these fields or visits them except machines to plant, fertilise and harvest. There are no children playing, no cows meandering, no one squats to shit, or stands looking across at the sun setting as they chew a neem twig to clean teeth or write in a note book. There are no crossing paths to walk goats or buffalo from one place to the next. There are no puja rituals to give thanks to the rain or for a good harvest or for the new seed. Bring a photograph of your fields Madam, she asks me. Yes, I say, I will.


Mosquito dusk I return to the school. An evening class is in progress, the theatre group rehearsing a moral story that they will take round the villages like a medieval mystery play. From Valentino’s room comes the click of the keyboard – he is writing another book or on internet. I retire to my computer and write these few last notes. Marc occasionally passes by once vomiting on the ground which I clean up, unfazed, like a good mother I may have been. Joseph comes by do a bit of juggling practice. Yes I have mastered juggling with them with three balls. The electricity goes, the fan stops, leaving only the noise of ants eating my wooden bed – it is like an army of teeth, and surprisingly loud. It is time to ascend the stairs to my bed on the roof. I will climb under the net and, looking up at the stars, contemplate what have been the mysteries of this time:

From where are all the marigold fields to ‘what the fuck am I doing here? Let me not pretend altruism or philanthropy – let me not deny self-happiness as the prime motivator. It is not ‘selfish’! To be unprepared is to be prepared. Keats and his Negative Capability: ‘When man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…’
At four AM one morning at the Chinese monastery I read: ‘Tat tvam asi’ That you are/exist or You are that / I am that, which was enough to keep me awake all that night.

March 2002

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