A note on my three blogs

A note on my blogs

(1) vio; in love with india - this one is the main blog about my Indian adventures, which started in 2005. I don't write much on this blog these days because I prefer to write privately in the confidential blog. But check out the categories and the index to figure out your way. I have kept some older posts not about India but which I still find interesting or relevant in Old words. Also check out my new, fun category Only in India in which I post photos of funny, unique, Indian situations...

(2) vio; sounds of india - this is my blog of sounds, because India wouldn't be as incredible if it was not so vibrant and just so full of incredible sounds!

(3) vio; confidential - this an extension of my main blog in which I post entries I do not want to reveal to the entire webspace for privacy or sensitivity reasons. You must receive an invitation from me and then accept the invitation to be able to read it. You may email me if you are interested in receiving an invitation.


Monday, 23 August 2010

A violin class with real tabla

Today I had a violin class. I love how life here, and my Guruji, never allows me to stay in comfortable realms and challenges me. I feel so scared sometimes with improvisation in rhythm, I want to always just copy him while he plays. This is easy because I don't need the guts to improvise; I know what to play and he's so good at improvisation that all we play is nice and it feels like i am a great violinist. I can play violin well. The challenge is to know what to play. In western music you don't have to worry about what to play; you can read it from a music sheet and play amazing stuff composed by amazing people. It's emotionally easy, because you don't have to open yourself up. I'd happily just play what I'm told to play. Because improvisation feels like someone is pulling the guts out of me; it is so emotional to pour myself out like that, it makes me feel naked. And often I don't like what comes out of me, I judge myself and then I stop. but my teacher kicks my arse and just say "play". "Just play anything but play." That's when I just feel like "Aaaaargh!"

Actually, improvisation is getting better. With time it does flow out more and more, I do hear it. Iin india I'm more in the mood. What is difficult as hell is to improvise and follow the 16 beats at the same time. Improvise while I listen to the rhythm and come back to the right beat. It take a lot of listening to integrate that rhythm; it is very slow. Two years ago I could just feel the general beat, but it was impossible for me which beat I was hearing. It seemed hard like a block of concrete. Today a rhythmic melody is magically shining through; it has become softer and more translucid. For the first time I hear the texture of the beat, different subtleties. But I can hear the beat if I don't play. At soon as I play I focus on playing and I stop paying attention to the beat. Doing both at the same time is massively difficult. But like everything it takes practice and patience and life does the rest for you. One day I will feel the rhythm completely; whatever i play, therewill be a constant rhythmic background in my mind and heart. For now I try hard, although I don't have to try hard. I just have to keep on doing it like a meditation. Still sometimes I close my eyes and concentrate enormously and I do hear the beat more, but the effort hurts my mind more. And that's just a tabla machine; it sounds very artificial and it gives you the beat number too; so that's easy. In real life the tabla player is a real person and s/he can improvise, too!

Today I came to class as usual. We started the warm-up exercises as usual, when three friends of my teachers arrived. The woman was a tabla player. They seemed to catch up after a long time. Guruji suggested she take the tablas out and we play together. Gulp. A hint of anxiety filled me. The unexpected always happens in India, and Guruji knows I would have a tendency to keep with the easy stuff, and he doesn't allow me to me reposer sur mes lauriers. He always kicks me and pushes me to challenge my fears. It hurts inside my tummy, but I know I need that kick to just observe the fear inside me and go beyond. At the same time he offers so much support, always tells me when it's good. And he'll always think it is better than i would allow myself to feel. Today we went through all the steps there are to a piece of indian classcal music. From slow to fast, from beginning to end. It was scary but wow, it was good to feel the real thing a bit more...

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Routine resumed in Kashi, and the loud work of God

And so my Varanasi routine has resumed. I had forgotten all about it and how much I loved it. When I am in Europe and before the routine started again, it was not rare that I doubted as to why I am doing the things I do. Of course society pressure is stronger when I am in Europe and around people who live more conventional lucrative lives. The doubts come fill my mind, although thoughts feel more like a vague background rather than overwhelm and destabilise me. I question myself and consider more conventional life options, although the options remain vague and unphrased, perhaps because I do know, deep down, that they have no weight against the obvious reality. This is very “me” I guess: I've always needed to be reassured, and these kind of doubts just assure me that there is no other way than the path I am walking on. The mind comes and judges while the heart knows, and despite the mind's monologue, the heart directs me on this path. The questioning thoughts of the mind have no power to change the route; I listen to them, let them go and carry on my way. But when I am here in beautiful Kashi - City of Light, when I live in my little home again, when I sit in class with my wonderful violin teacher or in BHU starting Hindi again, the doubting mind dissolve and disappears. Here there is no doubt, there is just what there is. And I love my life in Kashi and this reason alone is sufficient.

Hindi classes are starting slowly, but it seems the department is clearly better organised than it was last year. On the first day we were given our timetable and were told not to come the following day so we would not waste our time like we had last year while the teachers had had to organise themselves. On day three I was given my syllabus, on which teacher names were already indicated against the different topics. Last year it had taken at least two weeks for the teachers to know who would teach what. It seems there are more students in the department this year, with ten in the beginners' level. However I will again be alone in my class, which I am very happy about.

Violin classes have started more seriously. I hardly played any violin whilst in Europe, and hardly until last week because I was away and with friends a lot. I had felt so demotivated from not playing Indian violin as much as I thought I should during my long break. It is always a struggle to practise Indian music on my own when I don't have my teacher support for too long. Exercises are easy but boring after a while when they lose their purpose but mostly, improvisation is tricky as I no longer feel in the “Indian mood”, and I get discouraged working with Indian rhythms because it is difficult and progress is slow. But as always, I just need one class with Sukhdev to be motivated again. He told me he wants me to work harder this year, which I apprehend and look forward to at the same time. If I lack self-confidence I also trust my teacher who has faith in me. I know it may not be easy, as I expect this year of Hindi will also be tougher than last year. However, I have started working diligently with the dreaded improvisation/beats once more and found them less daunting this time. As though a few month of rest and digesting what I had learnt has itself helped me towards progress. As always, I need to allow that rest and stop judging myself for not practising; the road is such and it is right as long as I follow it with my heart.

I was very happy with my class today, because Sukhdev finally gave me the rhythm and bowing exercises I desperately needed to improve with beat integration and playing fast. I don't know how many times he had tried to explain how to play fast on “Jor” (that crazy fast rhythmic bowing he does which I love and desperately want to be able to do) and every time I had understood the idea but hadn't had the slightest idea of how I could actually get started. He would play so fast that I wouldn't hear anything, and consequently I would feel completely incapable of even trying to copy him. But today he has given me some slowed-down exercises which have helped me understand, and which will help me build up to faster speed. It clicked today, and I've been practising the exercises with great enthusiasm and diligence indeed! I have started playing more with eyes closed too; it helps with concentration...

As I type, the ashram next door is still playing its horrible, cacophonous kirtans (devotional singing) full blast with loudspeakers on its rooftop. I had never mentioned those neighbours in a post before although I had many times thought I should. Well, there is time for everything. The street I live in is very narrow, as so many Varanasi lanes are. I have no spatial skills but it must not be much more than three meters wide. On the other side of the lane, opposite my room, stands a big yellow ashram in which many renunciants live, from teenage students to old bearded sadhus. All male of course. Last year when I first moved in this house I thought it would be interesting to live next to an ashram. I was even hoping to have decent conversations with some of its occupants. Haha, the joke. From balcony to balcony, I'd watch my neighbours with curiosity or I'd even spend some time speaking to them. It's quite funny to be on each side of a street but still be close enough to have a conversation without even shouting, as though we'd be in the same room. But of course, I am a foreigner, and a female. I've had time to realise that after a while, chatting with those boys or young men isn't exactly pleasant. There's only one baba I like, whose room is closest to, and on the same level as mine. He has a peculiar voice and I hear him even with closed doors (NRLD: windows are never closed, except in winter!) He is the only one who seems to take no interest in the fact that I am a foreign woman; he'll say Namaste naturally and good-heartedly. For the rest, I feel observed as soon as I walk on my balcony, or even inside my room if the balcony door is open when I sit on my rug between my two doors during power-cuts. The yogi-boys are mostly harmless really, but I'd rather avoid them when I can; thus I try to limit my passages on the balcony to brooming and shaking bedsheets over the rail, and I keep my balcony door closed most times for privacy. And with my new magic rechargeable fan, I no longer need to sit between my doors for airing during power-cuts! Horray!

And the kirtan still goes on, full blast and amplified, past half ten at night. Part of me thinks it is the magic of Kashi: its constant religious chants and bells, and its multitude of other vibrant sounds from the daily lives of its countless people living in close proximity. Right now though, the other part of me wants to violently bash the bloody loudspeaker with a stick to destroy it, and to curse all Indians for their lack of neighbour consideration and their poor harmful-decibel-and-other-health-related awareness. This is a slight rhetorical exaggeration of course. On normal days, the renunciants' chants and bells start at 4:30 in the morning and they hardly stop all day. Not amplified thankfully. I hear the constant religious background from my wee room everyday. I don't mind the noise, even though they are far from the best singers in the world. This is the magical ambiance of Kashi. But a few times a year, the ashram holds various religious functions, which usually last a week and are amplified with no less than three loudspeakers for all the neighbouring area to benefit from the work of God. This week the ashram has been running a lecture on the story of Ram from 16:00 to 19:00 every day. It started the day I came back to Varanasi on 14th August, and I am very much looking for its end – last day tomorrow; thank God. It has not been easy to play violin with such a loud background... The talk is over for today; but from what I understand the last three days they are singing kirtans as well after the lecture. Badly sung kirtans accompanied with badly played tablas and harmoniums, made even more cacophonous when over-amplified with loudspeakers. I looked into their hall from the street; I think there were fewer than ten people listening to the talk inside. Magical yet absurd India at the same time, I do love You deep in my heart...

The kirtan is over now; it finished at eleven. All I can hear is the running ceiling fan. Oh wait, the power just went. When the power goes, the sound of the running fan is replaced by street sounds. Right now I hear the faint bark of a dog, some men chatting, and the neighbouring yogis chanting as always. My quiet magical fan runs and I can go to sleep.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Welcome to Sweatyland!

Tonight I had decided to have some rest. I'd make myself a pasta salad, have a shower, and read some Hindi before school starts again or something. I had a busy day, but it was not so much from tiredness that I wanted to rest; it was from sweat. But of course, Life (or some bastard city electricity officer perhaps?) decided otherwise, and today's third power-cut hit. So many thoughts come fill my mind with excessive sweat; it's incredible. More so when I have just had a shower and my skin feels clean (as opposed to yucky) and soft (as opposed to sticky).

At least I have a laptop and its battery is full so I can type this. And my “emergency light” was made in China so when I charge it all night it will only light me for half an hour, but now I've brought this amazing bicycle light from Europe (all Indians can cycle in the dark, but I don't!) and it also works wonders in my room! All I would need is an “emergency fan”; doesn't it sound simple? I don't know why it took me a year to try and get one! The only devices to deal with power-cuts I knew of were either the smelly, noisy, environmentally-very-unfriendly oil-generated generator, and the battery inverter which costs far too much for me. I had considered buying one last year; it could be affordable if I knew it would last long, but it is massive and heavy and unpractical and it was too much for just one little person like me. But today I went to an electrical shop near university and its shopkeeper told me where to find an emergency (i.e. chargeable) fan. Not too far, so off I went on my bicycle. I thought he had indicated a shop, but the more I asked my way and the more I approached the place I realised it was an area of Varanasi. At first it looked like just a street with a few electrical shops with many fans indeed. Every time I asked in a shop I was told to go to the next one. Soon I was directed to another lane off that first street. Oh my God! Fantastic! I think there must have been at least fifty fan shops! Fans everywhere, in all shapes and sizes! Apparently though, only one shop had what I wanted. I went in. A very small electrical shop with not many fans in it, but it kind of looked more “advanced”, or avant-garde or something. At first the shopkeeper showed me a tiny fan; it was an emergency one, but you had to buy a big, unsafe-looking battery with it and I didn't like the idea. Finally the man understood and showed me a brochure with what looked exactly like what I needed. Just like an emergency light that you can charge except it was a fan. Horray! I ordered it.

As I type this the power has still not returned and I bloody hope my anti-sweat treasure will indeed be delivered tomorrow, as promised, because I really dislike sweating especially after a cleaning, cooling, relieving shower!!! Sometimes I think I'd better not shower at all. When you've already been sweaty and sticky and horrible for a while you do forget about your gross condition, because it has become part of you. If you sweat any more there will be no difference anyway! You're gross; who cares!? Everyone else is! You forget what it's like to feel clean. You are constantly wet and smelly. When you rub your skin, small black dirty bits stick to your fingers. Your clothes are always dirty and you wonder where the point is in cleaning them at all, because after ten minutes they'll feel dirty again anyway. But it's alright. When you first came to India and in contact with the constant state of sweat, you resisted, you didn't accept, yuck! But now you live in this environment, it's another reality. It doesn't matter to be wet underneath your clothes. You have let go by now.

And then you decide to have a shower. Of course there is no fan in the bathroom so as soon as you step in your start sweating even more. No problem. It's quite a good thing actually, because your skin needs to be damp so you can rub the black dirty bits off your body. If you don't do this before lathering yourself in soap, after your shower once you dry yourself in your towel (although at this stage you won't know how to differentiate clean water from new sweat, so you should get out of the bathroom as soon as possible!) you'll notice the bits still come off, except they're no longer black. Well, it's still gross and you can shower again. So, once the primary rubbing has been performed you can have your shower. Feel the cool water splashing onto your hot body with great relief. Note that it's best to shower morning or evening, because the water tank is kept on the rooftop, so in daytime the water comes out hot! Noooo!!! Wow, a cold shower. On your body and then on your head. Yum. I'm clean, wow it feels so good! Shower over. Step out of the bathroom wrapped in your towel as quickly as possible and off to your room. Below the cooling and drying fan, wow... I am clean. Nice. And then...

The power cuts! Noooo!!!!!! Grab your manual fan, quick, and shake it as fast as possible in order to avoid the return of the evil sweat! “I will not be sweaty and sticky, I will not be sweaty and sticky, I will not, I refuse!” Oh yes it's lovely to have a shower. But that's when you're reminded that you are not allowed to rebel! Don't even try. You will sweat for another month at least! You had decided to enjoy say, one hour sweat-free. Don't even think about it! And this is not even the worst season. Mid-April to early July are hell; many Indians flee to the mountains and non-Indians back to their countries. If not they'll live by their roaring air-coolers, and curse the power-cuts unless they have an inverter. July was OK actually, to my surprise. With the rain came the coolness and the wind. If the power cut, last month, I could sit on my rug between the two open doors in my room and enjoy the breeze. This month though, the air has been sticky. The sky has been grey a lot so there is no dazzling sun, and it has rained, but there is no wind at all. The rain is cooling but when it stops the atmosphere is very humid, sticky and heavy again. Health-wise I am alright I must say. I find this easier to cope with than the blinding, piercing sun. It is just unpleasant really, that sticky sweat! When I'm dirty anyway, or if I showered long enough ago to have forgotten about its refreshing bliss, I forget about my gross self; I bathe in it; I've accepted it...

Some accessories make excess sweat more bearable though. Most important of all, I can no longer leave the home without my 30 cm-square sponge towel. After a few hours it's is damp with all the sweat I have wiped off my face and neck and arms, but it creates less irritation than wiping yourself with your hands all the time! The other important thing is talc powder. Most Indians apply it daily on their faces after washing and creaming. To be honest I don't see the point in applying cream or oil on my face; my skin is moistured at all times, and when I apply my cream in reality I apply a mixture of cream and sweat. At first I didn't get the point of applying talc powder either. It's nice for about one second, then my face is damp from sweat all over again. Well, it does help to prevent spots actually. Because yes, spots, that's another nice part of the story. Sweat is acne and blackhead paradise! Yuck! Two years ago I got really two disgusting spots and I had the stupid idea to fiddle with them. Remember? I had to go to the hospital in Aurangabad four days before my return to Europe because half of my face had swollen so much that I looked like a semi-hamster. I have learnt my lesson. I no longer fiddle with my spots. Well, almost. I have learnt which ones I can fiddle with (the small, pain-free ones with “white cream” – and the blackheads) and the ones I should never ever touch (the bigger, red and painful ones with – or without – nasty “yellow cream”). I'm not doing too bad with spots now though. I think as my body adapts with heat – dehydrates less quickly etc., so does my skin. Blackheads flourish around my nose and chin more than in Europe but it's invisible if you don't look closely, and talc powder helps. It helps with rashes too. I used to get rashes between my chin and my neck, which was very itchy and uncomfortable; now I prevent it with the powder. What is more notable with me (and this may sound too intimate but I think it's human and interesting!) is the areas between my thighs that meet and rub as I walk, you know, around the crotch. This provokes painful irritations in constant sweat. I'd find long skirts particularly comfortable in high temperatures (remember ladies, it's a bad idea to show your legs in India) if my thighs were thinner! For two years I kept skirts for the house or when the weather cooled down. I need cloth between my tights, i.e. trousers, so they won't rub against each other. Now however, Vijay has given me his old “house shorts” which he no longer wears. Hurray! With small shorts underneath I can wear skirts again; they are so nice because you know – trousers get sticky when even your legs sweat! Actually, I always wondered how Indians can all wear jeans in 45+ degrees, but it seems their legs don't sweat (dixit Vijay). I think my body will need some more adapting before my legs stop sweating...! But hey, talc powder does work wonders with my crotch too. Other funny, mysterious things happen in Sweatyland. When I was in Khajuraho last week, something really strange happened. My right inner wrist felt itchy and I noticed some tiny hairs around it. No idea where they had come from! They were quite stuck to my skin too. I asked Vijay to look at my wrist; he said the hairs look like goat hairs!!! Now farmers do pass with their goat flocks everyday in front of the Khajuraho house, but I won't even try to understand where on earth these hairs appeared from! Since then I've had some small, red, itchy spots, which I sparkle with talc powder...

In Sweatyland I find it quite a task to look after my own appearance. Well I do to some extent, and as I get more and more familiar with this oh-so-different environment, so do I slowly adapt on the fashion front. But I won't wear a watch or bracelets or rings for they provoke more rashes. My silver OM pendent gets black from sweat after two days, and I have learnt to clean it with Colgate powder! Make-up is long forgotten obviously. And I don't like wearing clothes too nice because I know they'll be dirty all the time. I bought a new Indian silvar kurta suit in Khajuraho but I've not worn it yet! (NDLR: I have now and it's really nice and comfy!) Finally, my hair is mostly wet and messy all the time because as soon as I wash it I have to tie it since the touch of hair on my neck is too hot and sticky and unbearable. So it's damp a lot of the time, and around my face the hair is wet from sweat. Indian women oil their hair. Mustard oil, coconut oil, avla oil, ayurvedic mixed oil, yum... I too like to oil my hair sometimes actually, and I know it's good for it, but I'll only do it in Sweatyland because when temperatures cool down I'm too excited about keeping my hair loose and the greasy look doesn't exactly go with loose hair! So, during sweaty times my hair is messy, tied up, wet and greasy. But this too is a good thing! Because with anti-sweat fans running most of the time (when there is power!), the shorter hair on top of my head flies around and in my face, which is really tickling! So sticky hair is good in Sweatyland. And if it looks too bad, I wrap it up in a scarf. One last interesting point about hair: in Sweatyland I lose my hair a lot, and so do all the panicked Europeans I have talked to. I don't know the reason. However, with so much humidity, hair (and nails – which in Sweatyland by the way, I must keep short at all time otherwise they're black with dirt!) grows really fast. In my goth days I used to cut some shorter streaks on each sides of my face for style. Today the streaks have grown naturally, because new hair grows all the time.

To finish off, because the power has long returned, the fan is running, the sweat has dried and it's time for me to go to bed, I shall quickly mention how some daily activities are affected by excessive sweat. Brooming the room is a difficult task because the fan has to be switched off so the dust won't fly off as you swipe it. You'd better broom your room before shower, because you'll be yucky again by the end of it. The following chore (but I only do this one once a week!) is to wipe the floor with a wet cloth. This is nicer because I switch on the fan again so the water (and my sweaty body) dries more quickly! Laundry is another cursed chore in Sweatyland. Obviously laundry here means hard work of bashing and brushing - and sweating - especially as it is done in the bathroom which has no fan and in which, as I said earlier, you sweat even more. You must do your laundry before shower! And during hot season you must unfortunately do it often too... Another thing you should try and do before shower is... poo! That also can be hard work without a fan... however the timing of this activity, unfortunately, is a lot more difficult to plan than laundry. Cooking can also involve sweat, because you need to switch off the fan before you turn the gas on. Otherwise the flames will be diverted and won't heat up your food efficiently (waste of time, money and gas = bad!) Finally, I love to cycle because the speed implies cooling hair. It is definitely a lot easier to cycle than to walk in Sweatyland (Indian traffic unconsidered!)

And then I've written such a fun and interesting and anthropologic post about sweating that I'm actually grateful for the power-cut! Tonight I had decided to run away from the sweat. Instead, India changed my plans as it always does, and I wrote on daily life in Sweatyland! Good night. :)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Karwi 2 - Living in an old traditional Hindu house, baby monkey and auspicious mountain

Gulli, her husband and two young children, Vijay, Rita, Mummy and I all stayed in this room. Every night we laid down the thin mattresses on the floor by the noisy air-coolers for everyone to sleep. Well, there wasn't room for everyone so the couple slept in the dark, narrow corridor before the entrance of the room, aired with a fan. Sometimes, during the day doing nothing the thoughts filled me: I have come a long way to find these (temporary) conditions normal. I slept comfortably on that floor (provided I had smeared myself with anti-mosquito cream, for there was no mosquito net there). Three years ago I would have been shocked but today I am comfortable, although I would indeed have somewhat higher standards for my own home! The days passed. I practised my understanding of the Bundelkhandi dialect while the family argued about whether or not to see a better doctor in Allahabad, or about various spicy family gossips. I kept myself as busy as I could, playing with the children – though reluctantly with Chotu I must admit, because he wears no nappies (though this is a great thing for the Indian environment!) and pees all the time. We constantly had to try and focus his attention away from the kitchen corner, as at one year old he grabs everything up to his mouth. I would sing, or play the plastic tube we'd call a flute. Or we would give him that cheap, pink plastic mobile phone with the unbearable Bollywood tune, which his brother would play over and over again. And Vijay would sit Chotu on the plastic chair and push him around the room as tough it was a car. Days were filled with noise: the fan, both roaring air-coolers, the horrible plastic phone and the unbearable television, the chair-car's legs pulled around the floor, the children crying or shouting, and the family arguing. If power-cuts are unbearable for the excessive sweat, they are bliss – as when fan, air-cooler and TV stop so does the loud, maddening noise, and silence fills the room and one can hear the forgotten birds outside sing again. When I needed a rest from the decibels and a moment to myself, or if I was just too bored of doing nothing, I would hide myself in the book I was too happy I had remembered bringing. Sometimes I thought I should write a journal, but I had no paper, I didn't want to raise the family's curiosity, and my mood was too idle to let me write anything anyway.

Three of the in-law's cousin children kept coming to see me, giggling with excitement or screaming with fear I wasn't sure, as soon as I would turn my eyes to them. After some time I had enough and ignored them, but one afternoon they invited me to their doll house room to show me a ten-day old monkey! His mother had died, therefore the rest of the monkey clan was going to kill him, so the in-laws had rescued him and were keeping him in their room. He was so cute, so tiny! He was scared and screamed some very high-pitched “Hee! Hee!” I didn't want to take him but I touched his tiny hands and head. Almost bald, it felt like a tiny human. But the following day, I was about to go on my daily rooftop expedition, water bucket in hand, when the in-laws stopped me. They all had gathered on the core floor before the steps; “Don't go!”, Bari Mummy said, “there are at least twenty angry monkeys on the roof! Big ones too.” They had come to retrieve their baby in order to kill him. The in-laws had placed the tiny monkey under a big basket covered with blankets and had locked him in their room to conceal his screams. Now they were waiting until the clan of angry monkeys would leave.

On the last day Mummy, Gulli and he five-year old boy, Rita, Bua (Aunty), Vijay and I went to Chitrakut for an afternoon out. We walked along the ghat on which Vijay and I had been staying two weeks ago with Niko. We even met our boatman again; it was lovely. It made me think of Niko and how much freer we had been then. If I love the experience of staying in a traditional Indian family it is for its “heart-softening” aspect. It is not always easy to say the least, especially the lack of freedom and privacy – but I accept go through it, obviously, because despite everything and above all, I deeply love this family. But that afternoon was just lovely. The family does know and appreciate that coming from a western background, living in “hardcore” traditional conditions can be tough for me, and I know they had organised the outing for me just as well as for them, so I can get out of the house and the boredom it can imply. I am grateful indeed! First of all Mummy went to bathe in the river. The ladies kept teasing me, asking whether I would do too. As I approached the water to dip my feet into it, Mummy like a child splashed me with water as she laughed, in a way that reminded me that I had a genuine place in the family. I only understood what our main purpose was when we set off to take a tour of the famous, auspicious mountain. I had heard of this mountain a few time before but not asked for further clarification – as often is the case in India, it is pointless to ask for explanation; you wouldn't understand if one explained anyway. You just have to see when you get there. Reality speaks better than words, and it never, ever, matches your imagination. Especially in India! It is Hindu custom to take a round of this auspicious mountain. What it entails, I didn't know, but I was going to find out. I was worried about walking barefoot on some rough, seven-kilometre path around a mountain, but Vijay reassured me: the path was paved all along, and bordered with temples and shops. Pfew, OK then. And off we went. There were groups of old sadhus sitting along the path, many temples which we entered one by one for prayer (the family) and darshan and to get our forehead smeared with colourful tikas. When the rain started we hid under a shelter for a chai. It seemed an easy pilgrimage road to me, but we saw some men crawling along the path turning around a coconut at each step (or crawl!) make it a harsh austerity!!! I wonder how many hours it took them to crawl the whole seven kilometers in this way!? I had not seen so many monkeys ever before. Monkeys everywhere! Monkeys playing, monkeys eating, monkeys running around, monkeys jumping, monkeys sitting doing nothing, monkeys breastfeeding, monkeys having sex!

We walked some more; the ladies stopped for too long at each saree or bangle or prayer accessory shop. I walked on with Vijay. Towards the end of the promenade we sat under a shelter by a (dried up) pool to wait for the ladies we had long lost on our way. A young sadhu was sleeping on a bench; he fascinated me. He couldn't have been more than twenty. He must have had polio: on of his feet was atrophied and his leg was stick-thin me no muscles. He had laid his wooden crunches under the bench. His dirty dreadlocks were wrapped in a rag of cloth, and all he was wearing was an orange piece of cloth around his waist and another one round his torso. I wanted to take a picture of him sleeping but I was too shy and I took too long. Soon he woke up and looked at me with a soft smile, and joined his hands to me in namaste. I loved him straight away. He accepted that I take his photo, but unlike most sadhus he didn't ask for the ten rupees. He just smiled humbly; he wanted nothing. He smoked a biddi and placed the packet and the matchbox in a folded corner of his cloth. After a moment he offered me a new namaste, placed his alms bowl upside down on his head as though it was a hat and left. Vijay and I started walking again and when we reached the end of the round we went to sit on the steps of a shop to wait for the ladies again. We had walked three hours. The same night we left back to Khajuraho.

Young Sadhu

Karwi 1 - an old traditional Hindu house and the toileting expedition!

After a week in Varanasi, on 31st July I left to Karwi. I had bought some biscuits and bananas for the train journey. When I arrived at the station I realised quickly that tying the plastic bag full of bananas to my rucksack had not been such a good idea: a monkey had climbed from the rail track onto the platform and was walking in my direction! I quickly turned and walked away from him to untie the plastic bag and hide it. Alas my nails were too short and of course, I should just have quickly torn the plastic. In no time the monkey jumped on my rucksack, broke the plastic bag in his flight and landed on to the other side with his stolen feast. I screamed, more out of surprise than out of fear, because half a second later the thief was already eating my bananas with great pride. I stared at him mouth open for a short while, then looked around me. All the waiting travellers had been looking at the scene with great amusement and, indeed, they were still laughing. A little embarrassed I smiled, walked to the nearest fruit stall to buy new bananas and quickly hid the new plastic bag inside my rucksack.

I had booked a train to Khajuraho but I stopped halfway in Karwi, where Vijay, his third sister Rita and his mother had already been for a few days in order to consult a specialist for some of Rita's recurring health problems. They were staying with Vijay's second sister Gulli who lives in her husband's family house. I was pleasantly surprised; Rita was clearly a lot better than she had been a week before. I stayed with them four days during which we visited various doctors for further checks and treatment. This didn't take much time of our days,and the rest of the time we just all stayed in that big, old, dilapidated home of a room in which Vijay's sister lives.

The household here probably represents Hindu's ancient family tradition in the most authentic way that I have come to see. The house is situated in an old picturesque narrow lane off the main road. It is over a hundred years old and resembles a huge labyrinth of interlinked flats all opened to one another. “Flat” is the only word I can think of and may not be the most appropriate to describe sections of the house consisting of just one or two rooms, mostly small, in which each couple of the family lives. Indian women, once married, have to leave their biological families to go live with their husbands' families. Thus, patriarchal families composed mostly of men may become very extended under one roof. In Vijay's house, the paternal grandparents have died, and of their three sons only one (Vijay's father's younger brother) is still alive. Even then, when Vijay's father was alive he left his own father's home to live only with his wife and children. Thus Vijay doesn not live with any of his paternal uncles, and his household consists just of mother and unmarried siblings. In the Karwi house, however, the whole paternal structure has remained: Gulli's father-in-law still lives with his brother, both of whom live with their own wives, their married sons their wives and children, and their unmarried children. Thus Gulli's husband lives not only with his own nuclear family, but also those of his uncle, brothers and “cousin brothers”. Although they live independently in their own little flats or room, all couple live within the same enormous house, door open constantly so they can visit one another at any time.

The property reminds me of an huge, interlinked doll house, organised around a main open area, the rooms around which are occupied by both eldest males occupy with their wives. All rooms, of course, are very traditional with thick painted walls made of bricks and with thick, inbuilt shelves. They are simply furnished, perhaps with a hard wooden bed that serves as sofa or table during the day, a big truck for storage covered with a decorative cloth, some rugs and frames, a television kept on a small table. Often there is no cupboard for clothes; instead they are kept hanging off a thick laundry-type rope, and kitchen hobs and utensils racks have their place on the floor in a corner of the room. On the walls, the stains that have come with age add to the d├ęcor's beauty.

The core of the house consists of a main room in which Gulli's father-in-law lives and which could be considered as the primary, welcoming room. Next door is the main kitchen (although separate couples cook in a corner or small room of their own flats) and opposite is the common bathroom, which really is just another dilapidated room full of many big water buckets and pots for bucket-shower. In this bathroom there is no toilet. One can pee in a corner of the room on the floor that is slightly tilted, so the pee is directed down and underneath an outside door, into an abandoned room. If you must poo you'll have to go on a small adventure upstairs! For this you must put on the untouchable flip-flops dedicated for the operation (which are kept in the bathroom), take a small bucket of water with you upstairs and head off to the rooftop where the two toilet cabins are located. But beware of the monkeys! There can be many of them, an entire family, so you may need to scare them away with a big stick (or ask a braver man to do this for you). Once the path is free, before you enter the meter-square toilet you must pour the water of your first bucket into a second bucket that never leaves the cabin, for Hindus do not mix untouchable and touchable buckets. After you've done your business and washed your behind with the water from the untouchable bucket using your left hand, you step out of the room and take the touchable bucket (which you had left outside in front of the toilet door) with your right hand. Off downstairs and back to the bathroom to wash your hands, remove the untouchable flip-flops, and wash (rince) your feet with water.

The core of the house is still in a reasonable state, but some peripheral rooms have fallen into rubbles. One room on the rooftop has been abandoned because it could break down at any time. To access Gulli's flat you need to walk along a half open, half dark corridor towards one end of the house. On your way if you can look down onto the ruins of what used to be another room long ago, but which has now become an kind of garden filled with red bricks. Gulli's home consists of two ugly old rooms and two small back rooms that are only used for storage,as they have no outside windows and are therefore very dark. I had come to this house about four times but had never noticed those rooms as there doors had always been closed. They have a real toilet room at least though, thanks to which I have been allowed to avoid the toileting expedition describe above. Although, I have not always been allowed to poo there in times of power-cut when there was too little water in the buckets (the water is supplied using an electrical device which pumps water from underground below the house) because they are too close to the habitable area! Back to the only habitable room, it is very old, with cracks in the ceiling and on top of the walls, and layers of dusts and cobwebs in unattainable places and corners, too old and shabby to bear the effort of renovation. At one end of this big room, there's a bed in one corner and a cosmetic area in the other. At the other end, a kitchen corner (i.e. a small shelf and two hobs and a gas bottle on the floor) on the left, and the TV on the right. A big rope hangs across the room on which the daily clothes are kept.