Field Journals II

Entry #1: My shop is your shop

Description: It was a typical Sunday morning around 7am.  We had just walked through the jungles near Navdanya and stopped for a little refreshment before we headed off again.   While the dakanmir prepared the tea for us, his neighboring shopkeeper was preparing for the weekend day.  Wearing light clothes, the young man first bent down to sweep his wicker-stick broom back and forth over the floor.  He piled up dirt, rappers, dust, and various other garbage items into a neat little pile next to the two red, soda cartoons.  He proceeded to sweep for a few more seconds and then put the broom down to go chat with the other men that were sitting, talking and scanning the newspaper on a set of plastic chairs in the dark, right corner of the store.  After the sweeper had laughed with the men, he disappeared into the back and after a few minutes came back wheeling a large, glass display of snacks.  The bees were buzzing happily among the orange squares and white speckled balls of sweets.  Behind him, two older men continued reading the newspaper on a plastic table set.  They flipped through the headlines, glazing the titles and reading a few sentences.

Reaction:  Scenes such as this one are not uncommon in any part of the world; yet, this one struck me because of the elegant way in which this man accomplished his daily chore.  Even though the store was very minimal with a few cartons of sodas and a few shelves of goodies, he made sure to make his shop approachable and agreeable to his customers.  This man was not only meticulous about keeping the store clean and organized, but he was also about not getting dirt on his white clothing.  He looked very put-together in his cool, breathable outfit.  Does he wear clothes like that one his day off?  Is it his personal style? Or was it a type of uniform?

The men in the back of the store seemed very comfortable in their chairs reading the newspaper and commenting every once in a while. It seemed as if this was their usual spot to relax on a Sunday morning… or did they own the shop?  Were the men in the store all related or were they friends?  Whatever the case, this store was a space where a few men could gather to start their day and relate to the headlines in the newspaper.  Furthermore, was this store not busy because it did not have the best snack on the block?  Or is it because most people came eat later in the day?  Or is it just a store for certain people in the community to relax?

Analysis:  Even though, this scene occurs thousands of times every day in India it reveals something about the social life of these villagers living outside Dehra Dun.  Even though the streets, and for that matter the area surrounding the store, were covered in litter, the store was kept spotlessly clean.  Most small town stores, like this one, do not have the capital or need to advertise and so having a clean and relaxing atmosphere is the best way to welcome new customers cruising around for something to eat or drink.  Furthermore, this store relies also on a good reputation by the locals.  Verbal communication is the best way to get this shop crowded.

This store illustrated that through all of our differences, we are all alike and want similar things in life—happiness, community, good reputation, etc.  These universal desires, such as a spotless restaurant, connect our dispersed world.  Though we all have different amounts of wealth and possessions, we all desire to have our house looking good for guests.

 

Entry #2: Temple Time

Description: The sun was hovering low over as we made our way down through the bazaar of Mussoorie.  It was about 5:30 pm on a normal Tuesday afternoon.  A loud, rhythmic noise beckoned to us from a little curve on the street.  Following the noise, we walked up a couple of stairs, underneath a large bell, and stepped onto a stripped marble floor.  We could see a pile of shoes at the end of the large hallway that we were walking.  As we moved closer to the shoes and main room of the temple we got a look at the twenty women who were compactly sitting together in front of the room.  The colors ranged dramatically from pinks and blues of women’s saris to the red and purple rugs they were sitting on to orange and yellow clothing of the goddesses they were praying to.   Once we settled into our spots behind the women (but not too close because we did not want to disturb them), Lisa and I began to explore the room with our eyes.  There were five different chambers off of the room dedicated as space for certain gods.  These deities inside were covered from head to toe with sparkly, vibrant cloaks and bedazzling jewelry.  In front of the chambers were cage doors that could be locked with a key.  The women were facing the largest chamber.  There was a microphone set up in the front of the front row, which played drums to keep the prayers in a constant rhythm.  On the left side, three men, all wearing white clothing, were sitting on a futon reading newspapers. The women sang on.

Reaction:  The main thing on my mind while being at the temple was how to act without insulting anyone.  Once I felt secure in my spot on the rug, I began to appreciate the rhythmic prayers that the women were singing.  They may not have been on pitch all the time or in sync, but I was wrapped up the energy of their voices and simple instruments.  I was mesmerized by the cohesion of this block of women.

While I was wrapped up in the beats of the prayers, my eyes wandered around the ornamental, almost tacky, statues of the deities.  The women were facing Devi and Shiva, but there were various other gods caged along the right side of the room.  Completely opposite these mythological, but personified, figures were the three men, who acted as if they were unaware of where they were.  They turned the page every few minutes as if they forgot that they were in a temple and not a coffee shop.  The white clothing of three men seemed to represent their role in the temple because while the women were creating colorful music to the gods the men were sitting silently with no interaction to the abstract divine.  The room was decorated in a way so that you could picture it plain without the pictures and symbolic decorations.  The decorations enhanced the comfort of the marble encased room, but only in a way where you would feel comfortable sitting for a few hours.  When we were ready to head out, we stood up and took one last glance around the hierophany, a spot where the sacred mixes with the profane, but we made sure not to turn our backs to the gods when we left.

Analysis: This temple illustrates the communal nature of Hinduism. During the Nine Nights Festival, these women joined together to sing and pray.  They felt comfortable in each other’s presence to offer their gift of vocals to the deities.  Temple worship is not segregated by gender, but in this case the women were the sole participants in this form of devotion.  This may reflect the fact that women are often more involved in organizations, especially religion.

Hinduism aims to give guidance to abstract conceptions with their mythical stories.  When we were exploring the Delhi museum, Dr. Shobita Punjab provided an analogy for Hinduism.  She said that in the beginning there was nothing, but then in nothing came rhythm.  This rhythm was like an ocean, and in the ocean came everything from which all of us came.  Everything in the ocean was life, difference spans of life that reabsorbed into the ocean at different times.  It is this cycle that the women are celebrating in their rhythm of music.  As they sing to the incarnations of the goddess Durga they are becoming absorbed into the cycle of traditions and life.  Their prayers represent an abstract form of life.

On the other hand, the men who are not involved in the praying are absorbed in the reality of the world through the newspaper.  Their minds are preoccupied with notions of the profane.  From global headlines to cricket game scores, the men represent the ultimate form of the world around them.  Thus, whereas the women are interacting to the sacred through their singing, the men are epitomizing the profane through their interactions of the profane.  Thus, this scene in a Hindu temple revealed the mixture of myth and reality, or philosophy and clear meanings that Hinduism scrambles together.

 

Entry #3: Electrifying Yamunotri

Description:  The crowd was thickening as we hiked up the long, windy trail in the Yamunotri valley.  The concrete paths created a predictable line to place foot after foot as you hiked up.  The views up were covered by mountains, grassy knolls, waterfalls and… electricity lines.  At one point, there was an electricity line that crossed over the trail and was wrapped around a pole that was struggling to stay upright on the little grassy ledge.  That brown pole that was surrounded with wires contrasted dramatically with the trees and grass lands that enclosed it.

Eventually, after following the electricity lines I reached the top of the ascent.  The cement structures that stood next to the trickle of the Yamuna was covered in black tarps, tin roofs, horse poop, and orange, purple, and blue plastic bags.

Reaction: I was expecting a magnificent place, where the Yamunotri temple was nestled in a valley that allowed the Yamuna River, Hinduism’s second most sacred river, to flow.  It would be a beautiful space where devout Hindus were and are expected to go to implore the gods or goddesses to grant a wish, to purify, or to gain spiritual merit.  Yet, as I traveled up the valley I could not help but wonder how Hindus could be so swept up in the spirituality of the place when there was plastic and electricity lines encircling the whole experience? To me, the ugliness of human impact ruined the otherwise peaceful experience of the nature and the gods that live among her.

In some ways, I believe that people, and in this case Hindus, have lost the idea of a pilgrimage if they are there to buy nail polish, combs, bindis, plastic pictures, etc to give to the goddesses.  Are these items truly necessary?  I agree with temple priest that Haberman met who said that “it is a curse to be a place of pilgrimage” (51).  People are abusing the Yamuna River and in some ways the Hindu religion is blame for this.  The electricity lines surrounding the trails are just as ugly as the plastic waste.  Many Indians are used to the visible pollution that surrounds them on their streets and in town, so maybe they are habituated to the trash.  But, I say this knowing that I have been fortunate with the incredible trekking opportunities I have been given in pure “wilderness” (another human construct).

Analysis: Ah, plastic!  What a useful invention.  Only a small proportion of plastic products can be reused or recycled and I have heard that plastic rubbish persists in the environment for 1000 years before crumbling into polluting chemical dust.  The rivers in India are affected by runoff, industrial pollution, and sewage contamination—the Yamuna and Ganges are among two of the most polluted rivers on earth (as seen by this pilgrimage and the cow turd that floated by as I was in the Ganges).   A segment in the Hindustan Times focused on the situation of Hindu sacred rivers:  “We take great pains to further foul our rivers on religious festivals. […] Are our preachers of religious rituals unaware of what is going on under their noses, but refrain from saying anything on the subject for fear of losing their following” (Hindustantimes October 2nd, p. 22).

On the other hand, this river provides energy for the thousands of people who live up in the hills of the Himalayas.  Often people in mountain villages do not have electricity, but the sacred Yamuna River has given it to them through hydropower.   Without the power of the river, these small villages might not be able to get electricity to use for their toilets, lights, and air conditioning (which is mainly used in the hotels).    Yet, these people who rely on the electricity need it.  They deserve to live as luxuriously as we do.  Yet, the electicity lines disturb the tranquility of the mountains and interaction of the villagers with their environment.  Should you have to choose environment over development?   And vice versa?  Lastly, the lonely plant guides states that “for pilgrims Yamonatri is the least visited and so least developed of the Char Dham temples” (468). If this site is least developed… then how do the other pilgrimage sites interact with the natural environments that they are placed?

 

Entry #4: Edjumacation

Description:  Only half the group was left, since the other half had taken off back to the hotel not knowing what was in store for the other half of the group.  I quickly took off my shoes on top of the stairs in front of the small entrance way of the raised building.  Mata Ji was sitting on a deer skin rug with a wool shawl bundled tightly around her.  She welcomed us all with her smile and questions about where we were from and what we were doing here.  Among Mata Ji’s audience were two little boys holding their Hindi grammar books.  The covers were bent and torn from use.  After we answered Mata Ji’s questions, she began to answer ours.  This woman, who looked to be in her late 40s, explained that she went to America as a student at the University of Illinois and majored in special education studies.  She laughed as she recalled how much American university’s specializes and sub-specializes in various fields.   Mata-ji then proceeded to tell us a story about Marilyn Monroe and how one must find happiness from within.  She explained that someone may be beautiful, but until they find confidence within themselves they will never find satisfaction with life.  She also elaborated on a story she had heard from a local guru on tribal looting.  She explained that the guru told his villagers to bless the bad and curse the good.  The reasons for this was so that the bad would stay in the village that they destroyed, while goodness would spread.

Reaction:  This woman was unlike many of the people we had encountered in the villages thus far.  She had something that not many rural Indians could say they had: an American education.  Not only did this woman speak clearly, but she also presented herself with much poise.  She was curious about our lives, just as we were curious about hers.   While she was speaking I could not help but awe at the fact that she had travelled to the United States and been given a formal education at a State University, only to come back to her rural roots. How did she gain the opportunities that she did? Are there many other villagers like her?  As a woman was it harder to create opportunities like that in a rural village?

Mata-ji also reminded me of the tendency for tourists of our caliber to belittle the Indians we encounter, especially in rural villages.  This woman was someone to be admired.  She was well versed in many aspects of life, such as philosophy and education, but was humble.  The first part of the program unintentionally segregated us from the daily lives of the average Indian and so it was more difficult to relate to those around us.  Yet, this woman was to relate to and admire.

Analysis:   During the British rule, English divided India in two nations—“the ten percent elite who learned English and the 90 percent who did not” (India Unbound, 15).  Today, knowing English, as seen by Mata ji, gives many Indians a competitive advantage in gaining an education in other parts of the world. Her American liberal education allowed her to explore many subjects, as well as specialize in her passion of education.

Furthermore, India presently has one of the world’s highest concentrations of poverty, with almost 350 million Indians living below the poverty line, 75% of them in rural areas (Lonely Planet, 45).  It has been argued that the major cause of this poverty includes illiteracy and a population growth rate that is substantially exceeding India’s economic growth rate.  Mata ji demonstrates the capabilities of education.  She had passion for what she was doing because she left her home to see more of the world and after her adventures she decided to come back and make a difference.  Therefore this woman represents the slow change that India is encountering in order to uplift villages out of poverty.

 

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