11 February 2007

The Unimpeded Distance

Deshnoke; the Karni Mata mandir — the rat temple.

A man with a spectacular, multicoloured turban sits near the front of the bus. The turban seems to be perched on his head — Rajasthani dancerhow does it stay on? He has a white moustache, slightly cloudy eyes, a strong face. I see him at the temple and he acknowledges me and shows me how to pay my respects to the rats.

Which run, climb, scamper, sleep, feed, and sometimes fight, in abundance. Some appear healthy and sleek, most aren't so good, and a few seem very ill. They're all small; certainly, none approach the size of the enormous rats I've seen along the railway line in New Delhi. Many have broken or shortened tails; few lack scabs. Most people I know loathe rats, and although I don't share that revulsion, my appreciation's usually a deliberate, or at least conscious, acknowledgement of the fact they're wild animals. Here, however, I don't even have to think about enjoying seeing all these little creatures scampering about — I've simply become aware of what borders on delight at seeing these small, furry mammals going about their lives not merely unpersecuted, but actively supported and protected. The strength of this feeling surprises me; when I crouch to frame a photo and a little rat comes close to my knee, whiskers quivering, I'm astonished to realise I'm half hoping it will climb up onto me. Meanwhile, of course, another part of me — the western, scientific bit, perhaps, or maybe the fillyjonk part — whispers, "Leptospirosis, disease, bacteria, germs!" The rat turns away and scurries off, leaving me relieved — and a little disappointed.

To see the white rat, they say, is lucky. Soon after we'd arrived and Indian family indicated to us that the white rat was somewhere Rat templeover there, inside the fenced-off enclosure. I'd looked, but failed to see it. Now, later, I go back to watch a feeding barrel full of a seething mass of rats. Somewhere among the melee of bodies... a paler shape. The swarm heaves and the pale form disappears. I watch. There it is again, this time more distinct. This is, without doubt, the white rat. More a creamy-yellow, but nothing would stay white among that. Lethargic compared to the others; eyes closed. I wonder if it's the only albino rat in the temple; how often the temple houses more than one, or none. How many of these rats do the guardians recognise as individuals? How many rats live here?

The more open areas of the courtyard are largely free of rats, which spend most of their time near the walls and food stations. The trays of milk are spectacular — an array of rats, heads down, encircling the clean, white milk. A geometry of belief — the visible demonstration of the belief that these rats are a stage in the transformation of individual human beings — or a geometry of exploitation — the rats taking advantage of that human belief? I feel no need to choose between these interpretations. They're just ways of seeing, ways of thinking. What I enjoy is being able to see and think in these different ways and to know they're only two interpretations among an indeterminate but enormous number. Rat arrayIn other circumstances choosing an interpretation can be critical — for example, if I'm trying to decide whether my fear of negotiating a tricky section of mountainside or a street in India is sound commonsense or simple cowardice — but I suspect the need for such decisions is less common than we think.

To see the white rat, they say, is lucky. Perhaps the luck, for me, is to be gifted the idea that it's not necessary to choose between those geometries — of belief or exploitation — and that what's far more important and worthwhile is to recognise the value of both. But the real luck, I think, is just that I'm here. I beckon Angela and Phil over to see the white rat, hoping they'll share the luck.
Just inside the entrance, three men sit in the shade. Judging from the old, well worn harmonium in front of one and an enormous drum, similarly well used, in front of another, they're musicians, but for a long period they're silent. Then I hear a slow, gentle music begin.Singer The sound of a simple melody from the harmonium, with a soft, deep beat from the drum. Lovely, immensely peaceful. Then it's joined by an ethereal, high-pitched and utterly beautiful, wailing voice. I look over, expecting to see a woman sitting with the three men, but they're alone. The remarkable voice comes from the harmonium player. He sits, moving his large fingers from key to key, working the bellows with his other hand; he looks around as he sings. His lips, slightly parted, move, if at all, imperceptibly. The sound has the almost magical, keening and other-worldly quality of kulning, the Scandinavian cattle-calling songs, and the purity of some Mongolian throat singing. I go over and sit nearby, entranced — almost in the literal sense. Rats scurry along the walls, pigeons fly across the courtyard, the old man softly tapping his drum looks off towards somewhere else — perhaps somewhere in his own memory or imagination. This slow, wailing, ethereal music, here where these detested animals are appreciated and respected, moves me almost to tears.


As usual, this temple doesn't move me much — certainly not like the Karni Mata temple. Is it partly the absence of life? I struggle to appreciate the beliefs that created this — perhaps I'm only seeing the stone and tiles, mirrors and paint, and not the people lost in their devotion? Or, maybe the ritual, the dogma, around which this temple was created is more than I can understand at an emotional level, leaving me only with the logic of knowing these are things others believe? How does this differ from the Karni Mata temple? I wonder if the little furry lives at the Karni Mata temple somehow impart a far more Old drummerconcrete, unassailable quality than do arcane beliefs. The diversity of beliefs and the degree of detail of each set within Hinduism are reputedly enormous, and perhaps it's that characteristic that leaves me feeling as if the basis for belief has become arbitrary, or simply a matter of which version you were born into. In contrast, there's nothing arbitrary about a rat — unlike a marble and gilt building, it's much more than a product of the human mind.


An old, spreading tree; a dog growling. The dog lies with its head up, paws in front, Sphinx-like; like the Sphinx, the dog is blind — both eyes are gone, leaving small, dark sockets. It growls, I guess, because it hears strange voices. Two pups frolic, and an old, turbaned man with a white beard and bright, wrinkled face sits by the blind dog. He talks to us, but we understand nothing other than he's talking about the dog.

On the bus; Bikaner to Jaisalmer

I look across and out the window to the desert, where the fading light suffuses everything with a soft, violet-pink hue. It's easy to imagine the unimpeded distance might continue forever; that it would be possible to walk on beyond the horizon and find only more desert; to travel at last into the great silence of oblivion.

The white rat

On the way out from the Desert Cultural Centre I chatted with a retired teacher of English. He told me how he'd once translated a poem from Hindi into English; a poem about a beautiful woman from overseas who had come to visit the desert. She'd asked an old tailor to make a traditional dress for her. This required the old man to measure her — something he'd never had to do for a woman before, as he'd always taken measurements from old clothing. The English teacher grinned, and his eyes sparkled behind his spectacles.
"The old man's hands trembled," he said, and went on to explain how, when she visited the village, "the young men twirled their moustaches."
He mimed the action, and repeated the phrase.
"That was many years ago," he said. "The poet doesn't know if she ever returned. He doesn't know who she was."
He looked away, out across the busy road, towards the encircling desert.
"She came to explore the desert," he said.


In the fine dust on the side of the track at Gadisar Lake a lean, sleek dog with golden eyes tries to lick the residue from the inside of an empty glass jar. The low sun reflects, brilliant and dazzling, from the water. Flocks of house crows scavenge among the thorny scrub. I walk back to the fort and eat stuffed tomatoes and chapatis on the rooftop at sunset, looking out over the city towards the desert.


Altitude and solitude. Here on the roof of the Little Tibet, with the sun on my back, I have a degree of the former and a small, relative, and inevitably temporary amount of the latter. I find myself constantly qualifying statements about my situation here; Mr Sharmaconstantly using the word "relative" and the phrase, "but this is India". Sometimes I think nothing in or about India can be said in relatively absolute terms except when speaking of excess.

Altitude and solitude. Her phrase, years ago now — a different world, a different life. How do I now differ from that person I was; how have I changed? What have I accomplished?

A house crow visits the nearby table — beautiful, silvery grey, the black shining head and bill, a touch of iridescent green on the throat, the morning sun a brilliant point of light in its eye as it cocks its head to look at me. A pigeon flashes past, over my right shoulder and into the big, empty air beyond the wall a metre away, over the entrance to the fort. The bird carries me with it — I feel the fluid air under me, the sudden, giddying depth beneath. The exhilaration of altitude and flight.

Then a jet fighter thunders in from the desert, from the direction of the Pakistan border, and circles the city. Jaisalmer fort dates back to the 12th Century; after the better part of a millennium we still kill each other and call it defence. Later in the afternoon I read The Times of India and learn that by 2009 India hopes to have two "carrier battle groups" each with "two to three guided missile destroyers, Pigeon yogatwo multipurpose frigates, two attack submarines and a tankers, among other warships". The aim, apparently, is "to project force as well as act as a 'stabilising influence' in the entire Indian Ocean and beyond" (The Times of India, 9 January 2007, p. 13).


Something seems wrong. It's not just that the visitors come here in their hundreds every day to gawk and photograph and record — the man standing conspicuously in front of the palace with his camcorder held out, panning slowly to fix everything and everyone has become ubiquitous — it's the way Jaisalmer has responded to that influx. Even if I felt like buying something here (I don't) I'd doubt whether the price would be fair, or at least in line with what I'd be charged somewhere less internationally famous; I'd doubt the quality — had this item been manufactured "efficiently" for the tourist market? In short I'd doubt the authenticity of what I'd be offered. What I AM offered.

The closer I look, the more I begin to question the authenticity of much of what I see. The basic structure of the fort and much of its impressive detailing surely dates back to the fort's construction, that is, the original building and some subsequent additions. But there's the catch: when do these later additions and changes cease being "authentic"? The concrete floors, plastic flowers, electrical wiring in metal conduit, the careful floodlighting at night to enhance the fort's "golden" character — these Kite huntinghave their own kind of authenticity, but it's that of modern India; it has as much to do with the fort-as-survivor of a long gone time as do the giant windmills slowly turning on the horizon, supplying never quite enough power.

But it's not just places and physical objects, it's the relationships between people. Denise and Rosa had noticed this too, and, if I've understood them correctly, felt a little let down when they discovered that the enjoyable conversation and enthusiastic interest they'd encountered seemed so often to lead eventually to a request to visit someone's shop, or buy something, or even to a request for baksheesh. I've experienced much the same; sadly, I find myself becoming increasingly guarded, even suspicious, when treated with what, elsewhere, I usually regard as genuine friendliness, most likely arising from curiosity. The sort of pseudofriendliness that disappointed Denise and Rosa also disappoints me; it's like the sudden, deflated feeling that overcame me when I discovered the woman at Naini Tal was actually interested, not in me, but in the possibility of converting me to the Full Gospel Church. These kinds of ulterior motive degrade relationships — what appears to be mutual interest turns out to be self interest. The relationship is not authentic. Many religions Woman and calfseem to have this capacity to degrade relationships by reducing genuine interest and compassion to the building up of credit for some kind of afterlife. Even in its seemingly less self-interested form, that of expressing concern for others because it's the will of god (or other diety), the relationship seems less genuine, less authentic than a relationship filtered by nothing other than an openness towards the other person.

Now for the qualifications. First, this particular form of inauthenticity is by no means always the case. Even here, in the tourism hotspot of Jaisalmer, I've enjoyed wonderful, uplifting exchanges, like my encounter with one of the residents outside the hotel. I walked past, and, catching her eye, said, "Namaste," with the formal gesture of hands joined.
"Namaste," she said, smiling. Then, "Hindi?"
"Only 'Namaste'."
"No Hindi?" she said, thus exhausting her English.
I thought for a moment.
"Aloo gobi," I said, grinning. The equivalent of saying, "spaghetti," to an Italian.
She thought this was wonderful.
"Aloo gobi!" she called out to her friends, with some kind of commentary. She turned back to me, enjoying the joke.
"No Hindi?" she said again, as if hoping I'd managed to acquire a working knowledge of the language since she'd last asked.
"No Hindi," I said, and looked remorseful.
She looked disappointed, but still smiled at me. When I saw her the next day and said, "Namaste," the enthusiasm of her response — a lovely, deeply expressed, "Namaste," in return — meant more to me than any of the conversations I've had with overtly friendly shopkeepers and others trying to lead me towards a purchase or a camel safari. What the vendors don'tJaisalmer sunset realise, of course, is that I'm a lost cause — you can lead a camel to water but you can't make it pay to drink.

Second, and perhaps less obvious, is that from another perspective maybe it's quite possible to be genuinely and deeply interested in a potential purchaser not just as a source of income, but as another person, a human being. For some, this might be one of the joys of selling trinkets to tourists — the joy of having an endless supply of (sometimes) interesting people to chat with. To see these conversations simply as a sales pitch is to insist that no other perspective can be compatible with that view; it's dualistic in the sense that it requires you to accept only one of several possibilities. I don't know if there's a cultural aspect to this, but suspect there is; moreover, I'm sure there'll be times when, back in New Zealand, I'll find the polite invitation to browse without harassment to be dull and impersonal.


I eat at the Surya, on the rooftop, where a German woman mistakes me for someone she'd seen in Nepal. But I haven't travelled there. Not yet...
She'd heard me pronounce "desert" and identified me as a New Zealander.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Dancer at the Bikaner camel fair.
2, 3. At the Karni Mata Mandir, the "rat temple" at Deshnoke, near Bikaner.
4. The singer and harmonium player.
5. The old drummer at the Karni Mata Mandir.
6. The white rat. I hope you get to share the luck.
7. Mr Sharma, founder and curator of the Desert Cultural Centre at Jaisalmer.
8. Pigeon doing yoga at Jaisalmer fort.
9. Black (pariah) kite hunting pigeons; Jaisalmer fort.
10. In Jaisalmer fort. The calf was 9 days old when I photographed it.
11. The rooftop of the Surya restaurant, Jaisalmer fort, at sunset; 13 January 2007.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor