The opacity of a society, the translucence of a body

by measuringcoastlines
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What is happening to time?! I’ve got barely two weeks left in India, and still feeling like there’s not enough time to do all the things (including doing nothing). And including blogging – I’ve still got three of the five senses left to write about, dammit. I’ve got a followup post in mind about Missy and Rorschach that would read like a soap opera. And yet another week goes by, vroom.

BougainvilleaIt’s been a weird few weeks, actually. I had some kind of unpleasant digestive stuff going on – not food poisoning, but obviously something had thrown my system out of balance and I couldn’t seem to figure out how to right it again. I’ve been preoccupied with it. This led me down a few merry garden paths: for starters, going to an allopathic doctor who asked me maybe two questions before prescribing multiple antibiotics, and got huffy when I asked to have a test done first. “Not necessary, these pills will fix.” I’ve heard that Indian doctors will automatically prescribe antibiotics for just about everything, and that it’s becoming a huge problem causing antibiotic resistance, but to actually see the casual disregard with which he was willing to give them out like candy at Halloween was stunning. I pushed for the test, and he grumbled and gave in, and the results came back negative for anything problematic – including bacteria.

Trustworthy science having failed me here, I started down the path to the Ayurvedic garden; I had a lengthy consultation with a Westerner who explained that all my life, I’ve essentially been eating the exact wrong food for my body type. I’m actually taking this more seriously than I would have back home, because there was a sense of a holistic truth to it, tying together several mysteries of my existence. So I’m being very careful where and what I eat for the rest of my time here – ditching some of the more factorylike restaurants that give you tasty but greasy food, and either cooking for myself or going to a few of the places here, like Rangoli’s or Ragini’s, where all the cooking is done by one lovely Indian woman who takes great care with the ingredients and process. Rangoli’s in particular is sattvic or mild food that seems to make my body happy. I’m starting to learn that the way things are cooked are as important as what the things are. We’ll see how things go; it’s been a bit up and down still, but it seems like the “downs” are, coincidentally, when I ignore the advice I’ve been given.

I also started going to an Indian-run Ayurvedic clinic for massages and physiotherapy, trying to make sure my wrist stays in fighting form. I went five days in a row, which ate up about two hours every day. Interestingly, even this clinic seems to have a somewhat allopathic approach to issues – treating my complaints symptomatically rather than looking at the big picture. The Westerner I’d met with who learned Ayurveda later in life actually studied my 16-page intake form in great detail, prepared a report, and had a two-hour session with me. The Indian clinic has taken some haphazard notes, not always accurately, and are missing swaths of information on my life and diet that might actually be relevant. Also apparently I am an addict now.

Tea and coffee

All the other kids were doing it

Even just looking at this image, I realize now that they are treating me for nerve pain in my neck, which is not the problem that I have. This explains why they have been asking me about my neck all along when I haven’t had a noticeable problem there.

It’s a step up from the depressing physio at the orthopedist I had been seeing, but I still feel like a bit of a circus freak there since I’m so white I’m practically translucent, and I speak no Tamil. It gives you a real perspective on what immigrant life is like; the feeling of sitting in a room with people who you know are talking about you, and being completely unable to understand what they are saying, is something uniquely uncomfortable. I know I’m oblivious to some cultural norms, and feel like I’m flailing around like a bull in a china shop. I see when I am thought of as slightly dumb, because I have to ask everyone to repeat themselves even when they do speak English, and we all have to speak to each other in simple, broken sentences or stray words to be understood. (I met an American woman here who said, “I am an English major, but after 20 years in India I only speak in present tense.” You have to sacrifice a lot of detail and verbosity to be understood here.) I’m sure the reason they’re treating me for the wrong thing is because a description of pain and aches require a subtlety that I simply can’t convey – they have interpreted my description of an occasional pulsing ache in my wrist as a zap of nerve pain radiating down my arm.

Arunachaleshwar Temple

Arunachaleshwar Temple

And yet, unlike most immigrants to Canada, I have a certain degree of privilege even in India only because I am white and Canadian, and am still more likely to be taken seriously in some respects, even without speaking the language, even coming across as a doofus. This is simultaneously a bit of a relief – since it gives me a vague sense of safety – and deeply, deeply uncomfortable, because I’ve done nothing to deserve status here and it doesn’t feel right. I know that there is, in many townspeople here, justifiable resentment of us Westerners who show up here as seasonal visitors for a few months and take off again, driving rent prices up, messing with traditions, and blustering about making nuisances of ourselves – at the same time as other locals are grateful for us bringing not just copious business and opportunity, but new ideas and friendliness, and welcome the variety we bring. I’ll see one local look at me with undisguised curiosity, another with a broad warm smile, and another with a slight scowl, and I never can be quite sure if it’s about me or not. There’s a lot going on here that is completely hidden from my awareness, a great deal below the surface that I cannot see but only hear about in passing comments and rumours, usually from long-time Western residents here who deal with the Tamil community more directly.

Also unlike most immigrants to Canada, I get asked for selfies just often enough at the ashram that I feel like a minor celebrity. This too is a weird feeling. Recently I was sitting on a bench brooding by myself and a family came up and posed their three children right around me for a picture without asking, like I was a figure in a wax museum. Naturally I made weird faces at the camera, and they looked startled and laughed. (They did at least say “thank you”.)

It is getting hotter now, and the season in Tiru is ending; Maha Sivatri, the big Shiva festival, is usually the point at which people start heading home, or migrate up to cooler climates like Rishikesh. By the time the next two weeks are up, I’ll be a puddle of sweat and more than ready to go. But I’ve got a fine itinerary ahead of me:

  • Three days at Vasanta Vihar, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation India, in Chennai. Seeing as how I spent a month at the Krishnamurti Educational Centre of Canada, I couldn’t miss a visit to a major centre in the city I’ll be flying out of. Though I’ve read and watched more than plenty of his talks, actually being in India will impart a different feel.
  • A week in Japan! I have always been curious about Japan, and seeing as how I’m already on this side of the world, it felt like time to give it a try. It’s only a week, but I’m going for depth rather than breadth and spending it just in the Osaka and Kyoto areas. As an added bonus, it’ll probably wreak havoc on my brain, coming from the filth and chaos of India to the immaculate order of Japan. Since I expect to experience major culture shock coming home to Canada anyway, why not add an extra culture to be shocked with on the way home?
  • I get back to Vancouver on March 21, spend some time staying with friends and family, and then in April I’ll be renting a place on Bowen Island, just for the month, while I figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life.

 For now, I’ll make the most of the mountain and the ashram while I can, and start getting ready to pack up. This leg of the journey is coming to a close. Like any good journey, I’ll still be learning from it long after I leave here.

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