30 July 2008

Letter 2.53

Katunayake airport -- in place of the bus stand which it resembled when I flew in to Colombo in '67 was now a small but tastefully-constructed modern building. While I was sitting in the lounge waiting to board, a purser walked by carrying a small box with a large label reading 'HUMAN EYES'. Rather startling. Even eye-opening. Once on board we barely had time to take off -- smoothly -- rise above the turbulence of the clouds, have a cup of tea, and fill out landing forms, before we were circling over the Madras airport.

Madras airport, of course, has not changed: India has an atmosphere of non-change, and the red soil -- a pale reddish brown -- looks as old from the air as it does from the ground. Riding into Madras on the airport bus I felt, again, the turbulence and dynamic undercurrents of India and already Ceylon began to seem a quiet provincial backwater. Symbolic was the billboard sign ('The right bank in the right place') posted just outside an old ruined building. Although the ruin was not, in fact, the bank, the impression that it might be lingered. Outside a Hindu temple -- one of those very solid decapitated-pyramid style South Indian fantasies with figures cascading down all the sides in a mythological unifying embrace of all extremes -- was a sign advertising 'The Greatest Show on Earth'. It might have been advertising all of India. And I had forgotten the sacred cows that roam the streets trying to nip vegetables from the market stalls. Madras has a baked (100°F. by late morning) colonial air to it still, mingled with the South Indian culture -- the North appeals more to me, where the cultural development has been more through accretion than refinement, yielding more diversity than subtlety -- but the native culture is probably felt more fully in some of the . other places -- Tanjore, Madurai, etc. -- that I've not seen, so perhaps my feelings about it are not well-based.

The train trip -- of two nights and a Hay -- to Calcutta was uneventful except for the peculiar fact that on the morning after we started the sun rose in the west. There is no doubt about this: we were travelling northwest, and facing the direction the train was travelling the sun clearly rose on our left, and continues to rise higher in the sky, all morning, on our left. 'Putta and I notices this independently of each other, and mulled over various explanations, pondered possibilities, considered probabilities, and mused many a musing for about three hours, when we turned from contemplating the bright patch of sunlight pouring in the western windows, and discussed what possible -- or impossible -- phenomena might account for this. Apparently only the two Buddhist monks on the train han noticed this -- or if anyone else had noticed it they had not noticed anything odd about it -- or if they had noticed anything odd they had had the good sense to keep it to themselves -- and the only explanation we could come up with which did not call for immediate rejection was that 'This is India, man.' At noon the sun reached its zenith and slowly descended as it had risen -- in the west.

Oh yes, one other thing happened in the afternoon of the same day. Two we dresses Indians boarded the train and sat down near me. One of then asked me where I was from, and we began talking. The other Indian said nothing at all, so I conversed with the first Indian and found him quite alert, interesting, and open-minded. He, like some other Indians whom I've met, seem to be very interested in the 'Krishna Consciousness' movement, which they all insist is 'very big in the States'. (Is it? What is it?) But I rather enjoyed our talk and was glad to meet a fairly intelligent man. At the next stop, however, our talk was cut short when the fellow abruptly rose from his seat and marched off the train, leaving all his magazines and newspapers behind him. The second Indian gathered up these papers and picked up his valise, preparing to leave also. Just before going he turned to me and said, 'The person you were just talking to is mentally disturbed. I'm his warden, and I'm taking him to the insane asylum nearby', whereupon, he too, got off the train, leaving me feeling somewhat disconcerted. After all, one hardly expects to hear such things of a person one has just been pleasantly talking to. The obvious explanation, of course, is that he was the last sane man in India, and had to be locked up before he did any damage.

In any case, I find the spirit of India very much a refreshing coolness after the hot and tight attitude of the Sinhalese for almost 5 years. An initial release of energy (which may account for this long monologue) may be nurtured and developed in India, where the entire culture is much closer to the days of the Buddha than Ceylon ever was. Everyone can do their own 'thing' without evoking any surprise, without arousing other people's hangups (except, perhaps, the fellow who was being taken off to the asylum -- but I don't know his story: maybe he wants what he's getting -- presumably so, since he went through whatever one has to go through to get it), or, indeed, without even being taken seriously, and all through North India the culture is set up to accommodate people who want a life without social bonds and ties--the society is organized to support those who haven't the slightest interest in supporting the society (whereas in Ceylon the Sangha exists largely as a pillar of society rather than -- as it was originally intended to be -- as an association of people who have given up the lay life), and as a result is more fluid in its own way.

Such is life inside a pinball machine.

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