28 March 2007

Time and life: Jodhpur, Mount Abu

It's been a while, but I did say I wouldn't be updating regularly. Partly it's the difficulty of finding computer monitors I can trust to give a reasonable representation of the photos so I can select them and do a little work, but there are other reasons. Now I'm about to leave India. To travel on to Africa — Ghana I trust, but if they won't let me in (I couldn't get a visa in advance), it'll probably be straight on to South Africa. Wish me luck! As usual, these are just small excerpts (mostly unedited) from my hand-written notes, and the usual qualifications apply about the quality of the photos — I trust they're okay, but every monitor's different.


When Xuanzang said, "Who would wish to enjoy it alone?" he spoke of human knowledge [1]. But the desire to
Bishnoi woman & child share extends far beyond knowledge; it includes, particularly, the emotions, and arises, I think, largely from the deep urge to be understood. Even the enjoyment of solitude can be enhanced by the knowledge that later you'll be able to share what you felt with others. With friends, including family; with people who understand, even if you've never met in person. Is this why I write and photograph? To share, and therefore be understood? Perhaps partly, but I like to believe my motivation's also less selfcentred; that some of the people who read what I've written and see what I do in some of my photos will feel that they, too, are understood. They'll understand that here's someone just as human as they are, asking similar questions, doubting similar things, and they'll feel a little less alone.


On the way back from the market I visited the dyer, who recognised and acknowledged me. I asked if I might photograph him, miming the action. He nodded and paused, holding the brilliant black and orange cloth in his hands as he squatted by the dish. After the photo a young man rushed up, apparently acting as some sort of spokesperson — and apparent
ly wanting some sort of payment. I couldn't work out if he wanted me to provide a copy of the photo or baksheesh, and Dyer, Jodhpurwhen I kept asking, could get no further than understanding that what was being asked was to be handed to him, not the dyer. The dyer's wife, hearing the fuss — several other late teenaged boys had gathered — came over and tried to wave them away, as if looking after me. At that point the dyer gave me a marvellous, man-to-man look, ignoring everyone else, and held out his hand. I shook it — a firm grasp, his brightly stained hand clasping mine — and the boys drifted away. When I walked past later in the evening his wife, sitting in the doorway, gave me an enormous smile.
"Namaste," she said.
I responded in kind, and walked on into the evening, feeling as if every tribulation of the last two months had been absolved.


Acid green doors in a cobalt blue wall; a yellow scarf in a line of laundry. A troop of langurs files across the cliff below the Mehrangarh. A muezzin calls; a woman leans over the rough-mortared wall of a rooftop, looking down at the street below. Perhaps one of the reasons I like Jodhpur is the idea that it's surrounded by desert; that its isolation while relative, is nevertheless apparent; something here says remoteness might still be found. But I wonder — if Jodhpur's
on the fringe of what's remote, is it remoteness from my own land, my own way of life, and from everything I've known since I was a child?


As I sit on the rooftop in the evening, chatting with G and J, a great flock of egrets flies past, just above the rooftops. They fly with their hard stares fixed on the distance and I
hear only theSack mender slightest rush of air from a hundred or more wings. In the dim light the brilliant white birds look like souls leaving the world.

Mount Abu

In the cave below the temple, our guide points. There in the dust near the wall — the pug marks of a leopard.
What is it about these footprints that means so much more to me than the constructed symbolism of the temple we've just left — and which I did not enter; where I waited outside?
Marks left by a leopard. The shape of rugged hills rising through the haze in the late morning sun — outliers of the Aravalli Range. Rock slabs, rounded forms, curved shapes in a landscape of dry grass, wicked-spined Euphorbia, thorny shrubs, a blue sky streaked with faint wisps of cloud. Graffiti everywhere on the easily accessible rock. Broken glass shining in the sun, glinting in the dust. Screes of rubbish; litter scattered first by human hands, then by the wind which flutters the solitary flag.


Reading in the morning sun on the rooftop. Talking with Karina and Andreas. What would Gandhi have thought, on reading the article in The Times of India which described India's enthusiasm for selling the Indian/Russian BrahMos cruise missiles to "friendly" countries?
"'There is a huge market for cruise missiles.
Woman & childBrahMos is unique among cruise missiles due to its 2.8 Mach supersonic speed (all other cruise missiles are subsonic at present) and much longer strike range. It's the ultimate force-multiplier,' said BrahMos Aerospace chief A. Sivanthanu Pillai."[2]

Perhaps Gandhi was an aberration.


Friday 26 January 2007
India's Republic Day.The amplified barrel-organ
music begins at about four in the morning. I'm downstairs before 8; the manager hands the newspaper, which contains a report on a speech by India's President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam [3] — the man mentioned by Amartya Sen as both "extremely amiable" and "the leading architect of India's ballistic missile programme and a key figure in the development of nuclear weapons." [4]. In the last address of his term as president, Kalam focused on crimes against children — no doubt he had in mind the horrific, gruesome murders prominently reported in the Indian media recently. Describing children as India's "national wealth," his proposals for eradicating cruelty for children included, "watchful neighbours, fast action-oriented police machinery, vigilant media and speedy exemplary punishment." He also suggested the need "...to identify people who have such tendency [sic] through modern psychological test aids." The report did not mention whether Kalam offered suggestions about how to identify those who should be tested.


After breakfast Andreas and I walk to the Lake Palace hotel to talk with Charles about a wildlife trek. Charles is not there, the man says. Three o'clock he will be there.
We arrange to meet Charles at three o'clock, and return to the polo ground to watch and be deafened by the the Republic Day celebrations. Dancing, some singing, music — some potentially lovely, some horrendously contemporary, all painfully amplified. Women and girls in gorgeously coloured traditional clothing, faces exquisitely made up; young men with oiled hair and tight jeans, arms around each other's shoulders or waists. One man wears a T-shirt with an almost life-sized image of a shaven-headed African-American man wearing a chain and cross and a scowl. Hugely exaggerated muscles; pointing a pistol directly at the onlooker. Straight from the fantasy world of pulp movies and gangsta rap videos. Overt aggression. What motivates this man to wear this T-shirt? Where does he feel he belongs?

A few metres away, two young women discuss something. One leaves. The other, a small woman, has some kind of spinal deformity, giving her a hunchbacked appearance. I smile at her and she returns it, a beautiful, open smile.


Saturday 27 January 2007
In the dry watercourses at the foot of the range a few pools of water still lingered. Good places to watch for wildlife in the evening, but to
get to them would have been difficult. I searched the hillsides slowly, carefully, but even the birds seemed mostly to be inactive, like us. A few swifts raced swiftly about the sky; a solitary Egyptian vulture cruised above a distant ridge; the pale half moon hung high above us. I looked up atMongoose it and thought how, when I looked up at the daylight moon and wondered, that action and those thoughts drew me closer to someone who, thousands of years ago, also looked up at the daylight moon and wondered — closer than to someone who, right now, might sitting in a gleaming, air-conditioned board room with other people in crisp suits discussing marketing strategies for cruise missiles.
Karina and Danielle talked quietly;
Andreas stood upright and motionless in in the sun and wind, looking out into the distance. These hills are home to bears and leopards, snakes and, reputedly, hyaenas. I continued searching through the Nikons, but there were no bears and no leopards. Certainly no hyaenas. Not even a snake. Maybe the mongooses we'd seen lower down had eaten them all.

Sunday 28 January 2007
In the morning sun, the yellow-green and blue flight of parakeets, a flash of pastel orange, the shimmer of quick wings. In the evening the silhouettes of those parakeets across the overcast sky.
How many generations of human eyes and minds have seen this? How long ago were these things not seen by human eyes? When did some man or woman hear the chatter and look up for the first time to see those birds arrowing across the sky?

Monday 29 January 2007
At nine minutes past midnight a dog howls and yelps, almost screaming. The cause of its pain is unknown to me; the intensity is not.

A few puffy clouds rise above the dirty murk of the plains. Soon I'll leave this place and descend into that murk. I write this in the late afternoon of the 30th,
when I'm feeling tired and worn down and a little alone. Again, a dog screams, perhaps in pain, perhaps in terror, which is a different kind of pain. I never want to hear that sound again, but this is India and I'll hear it again and again before I leave, just as I'll hear "two rupees" and see the outstretched hand, again and again; just as I'll see shorelines that are nothing more than rubbish tips floating on an evil scum. Again and again. The list goes on.

I want to write about the Delwara temples, but the ability to put the event and the feelings into words seems to have deserted me. I remember intricate carving in marble, thousands of individually carved figures and designs, an almost unimaginable effort. For what? For beliefs so alien to me they seem meaningless, and the effort, therefore, seems like an enormous tragedy of wasted effort. This, of course, is only my lack of belief speaking.

But the accomplishment deserves far more respect even if I can't hold the beliefs. I looked along a line of curved pillars to the outside of one of the temples, and the effect was like looking at a reflected mirror — that sense of the scene being repeated forever. Whether this was the intention, I don't know, but the effect was striking.
Elsewhere, the way doorways framed ancient trees or other details seemed deliberate and was certainly arresting. Beautiful, too. Even divorced from the religious convictions, the temples must be admired for their architectural accomplishment.

The main temple centred around an enormous idol,
a figure seated in the lotus position. Red lips, details in black, the bulk of the figure, including the face, white. A white cloth, like a shawl, draped the body. The idol sat beyond a cordoned-off area, in a chamber lit so the figure rested in soft light. Something about the expression on the face kept me standing there, gazing in. Eventually I walked away, but felt compelled to return and study the figure again. The face almost without detail except for the main features — eyes, nose, mouth —seemed so Indian. Immensely serene; eternally patient.

But what delighted us most were the doors at the temples . Old, mostly blue and faded, the paint partly worn off; weathered,
patched, padlocked, some with old chains; set in plastered walls showing the signs and colours of age. Danielle and Scott understood my fascination — they share it. Something about textures, colours, the accumulation of histories, stories. On one door — perhaps the ultimate old door, with its mended, weathered panels — a gecko rested, motionless. The little lizard clung to the top left of the door as if not only owned it, or belonged to it, but had actually grown there. With cameras forbidden, these words must suffice.


The moon, almost full, grows slowly brighter as the afternoon turns to evening. A myna, brilliantly coloured, stands in the sun on the wall
encircling the rooftop, then drops out of sight. A flash of sunlit wings against shadowed foliage. Babblers fly across the rooftop and perch on the waterpipe above my head; they peer down at me with crazed eyes then fly off. The sun disappears from where I'm sitting; it grazes the tops of the flags and lights the palm treesBoys at Kileswar beyond the hotel. Frank, the German man who's been hitching rides with truckies in Gujarat, sits on the table and chats with me. He smiles a lot, and seems relaxed and happy, and a little of his mood transfers to me. I feel encouraged.

Tuesday 30 January 2007
An Egyptian vulture soars overhead. Higher — much higher — an aeroplane, silver and a long way ahead of its sound, crosses the sky. Another passes by, soon after, and later I see yet another, thus more than doubling the number I recall seeing during my entire time in India. Other than the fighters, of course — and my memory might have failed me.

I continue walking. Partway along Bailey's Track a dog lies on a large, flat-topped rock on the edge of the path. I can't tell whether it's sleeping or dead, but some intuition urges me not to continue, not to wake it if it is indeed sleeping, to let it lie. A strong intuition.

I listen, and turn back.

p. 189 in: Sen, A. 2005. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. Allen Lane. 409 p. Sen, an Indian himself — and certainly argumentative — won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics.
The Times of India, Thursday 25 January 2007, p.9.
The Times of India, Friday 26 January 2007, p.5.
p. 253 in: Sen, A. 2005. op. cit.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Bishnoi woman and child, near Jodhpur.
2. The dyer, Jodhpur.
3. Sack mender behind the veg market, Jodhpur.
Rabari woman and child, near Bhuj, Gujarat.
5. Republic Day performers, Mount Abu.
6. Mongoose; Kileswar, Barda Hills, Gujarat.
7. Old door at Kolayat, Rajasthan.
8. Rabari child near Kileswar, Barda Hills, Gujarat.
9. At Kileswar.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor