Sunday, March 2, 2008

India to Atlanta

In Atlanta, I walked downtown along the Bike Path of Freedom. It ended into the Martin Luther King Junior Memorial Park, with its lawns barely worked up to a springtime green and jolly man on a lawnmower who smiled and waved at me as I walked by. The air smelled of mown wild onions, which were growing up tall and green in clumps through the yellowed grass.

I walked down the Civil Rights Walk of Fame, where people like Jesse Jackson and Ted Turner have their names in black marble in the sidewalk, and there are plaques inscribed with beautiful quotes from M.L.K. Jr. that ring true today as much as they ever have. At the end of the Walk, a bronze sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi greeted me. He wears his spectacles and his lungi and his shawl, as he did through his life. And there I was, in my jacket stitched on the plane ride back from India from a simple wool blanket, and in my wool pants from Munna the tailor. The smell of chives in my nose. Bills with Gandhi’s face printed on them still in my pocket. What a strange world we live in.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Margins of error

I nearly ran over a blind man's cane today on my bicycle ride to Sunderpur. Many other near collisions I don't even notice--because they are behind me. Things that I cannot see are outside of my control. The streets here are ruled by little more than the laws of physics, and how badly can you get hurt when nothing is moving faster than 10 mph? But you see blood, almost daily. Cow's hooves cracked, their tails grazed, countless three-legged dogs. There is no margin of error here.

This place seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. Perhaps two months ago on my way to Sunderpur, I saw the most beautiful of load-bearing columns--an impossible column, made of unmortared brick, curved in a beautiful "S" up to the corrugated sheet-metal roof. It fell days later. One slip can ruin a family.

Maybe this sounds dark or bitter. It is neither. Here only is an urban jungle that is characterized by constant struggle for survival. There is something about the rawness that I love, and that I will miss. A very small part of this struggle I have come to embody, and will carry home with me on Monday.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Flight, flightless

Sushma's name means "natural beauty", but she has always reminded me of some injured animal. She is like the calf I saw with the broken hoof, or the black dog with the nerve-damaged leg who lies down in front of cars hoping to be killed. She is the dove with one wing painted red and one painted blue, wheelingg around and around the sky. There are two slices of apple left on the plate, and one broken morsel--"This is you, and this one is John-sir," she tells me, giving me the two slices. "And this one is me." She pops the broken piece in her mouth.

She is my petite weaving teacher, now friend. She has hands of a porcelain doll. Perhaps she reaches five feet tall, but she folds her shoulders in like a pair of neglected wings and appears smaller, still. It used to be that she was afraid of me--I think she is afraid of the whole world. I might be, too, if every close female relation fell deathly ill in the last year and a half--Shushma, 22 years old, slept, curled about her mother until her mother was diagnosed with TB and nearly died last spring. A year ago, her sister suffered a dangerous bout of chicken pox, and then found herself inexplicably paralysed. Her sister-in-law just had her gall bladder taken out. For herself, she tells me, "Physically, I am okay. It is sentimentally I am not okay...."

Our friendship has become such that her smile is real, and I can tell that she is happy to see me. Sometimes she slaps me on the back and I resound. Some formalities remain--the empty glass for my filtered water and biscuits that she brings me when I arrive at her house to weave. The way she blesses herself and the loom every day, before we start working. We take chai at 5pm, just when the sun is sinking lower, just before I trundle back to my home. These formalities I would not change, if I could.

But then, there is the gulf between us. The duties that she bears as daughter, woman, Orthodox Hindu. I am... what am I? American, I guess. Woman and daughter, too, without a subscription to any particular god--but woman and daughter are words I can say without imagining myself in shackles. Sushma dreams a little of feminism, of independence. She's told me so herself. But her family and her religion come before everything else, certainly herself. And how can I judge the way she will live her life? How can I come close to understanding why she makes the choices that she will make? What is so wonderful about the choices I have made--my flight from responsibilities?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

River. And Riven.

Heather and I just saw the largest flock of birds ever. Millions and millions of... swallows? swifts? flying inches above the dusk-clad Ganges, up-river. The flock was quite wide and it took about 10 minutes for them all to pass. They were like a 2nd river, an anti-river; I was awash in easy poetry. Heather kept getting distracted by an adorable and very much dying puppy with a feather stuck to its nose. Death is everywhere here, it's true.

And I realized last night that India has broken me down in certain ways. I often feel that I'm nothing here. I'm not good at anything. I sit at home all day struggling to make any noticable progress on a maddeningly difficult instrument. And still, I'm ok. In the past few weeks I discovered that the thing that could most easily make me crazy is illness. When sick for a long time, it's like I'm in a long-distance relationship with myself: I start fighting just to remember what's good about me, what I'm actually like. Heather keeps saying that she and I are very "immediate" people. I suppose I also subscribe to the "one is what one does" theory of being, which is proving problematic. Guess I'll have to start moving towards the "inherent self-worth" theory. Dammit.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bacon, Lettuce, Tuberculosis

I've been sick for a week. Heather and I made the mistake of eating at the only 5-Star restaurant in Varanasi (they even offered a BLT?!) and as a result Heather was sick for a few hours by the northern route while my body decided to take the slow, southern road. Never felt so weak for so long. So damn frustrating to build myself up to a high level of tabla practice only to have the muscle melt away in a matter of days because I couldn't digest anything. Heather's been amazing to me through all of this. She even wanted to stay home with me on New Year's Eve, which I find unbelievable. Phil whooped it up for both of us. I'm getting better now. No need to fret, Mom.

In an effort to spare you all, we haven't been posting most of the bad stuff. Here's a quick rundown:

- Giardia is a hilarious and awful parasite that makes the sufferer continually burp, fart, and shit stuff that stinks like rotten eggs. Times I have had a bout of Giardia in the past 5 months: 4. Heather wins with 6 bouts. We finally found the right antibiotic.

- Heather and Phil have been repeatedly and savagely attacked by the cat we lovingly feed; no rabies, though I suddenly feel justified in my feline indifference.

- I ate what I thought was an Indian sweet, but was really a ball of Bhang. I thought I was dying, terrible puking, 8 hours of believing in death, seeing skulls, etc.

- Heather has gracefully survived 3 sinus infections and at least 5 serious dances with the deadly treenut.

- Every American who has visited us has been nailed by a nasty stomach bug by their 3rd day, except for Phil, who (perhaps because of previous India visit) is impervious to all the bugs here!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Photos [courtesy of Philip Kaufmann]

Heather in the recording studio.

Indian wedding. Back-up singers. Heather in custom saree.

Indian Pop star Mika.

Mika's concert, John is visible beneath the neck of the bass guitar, sort of.

Daler Mehndi's family at his "farm house". Note "Dancing Daler" doll on mantle above fake fireplace.

John and Shamsher Mehndi practicing on the roof in Delhi.

John and Shamsher.

Shamsher's concert. John on drum kit and wedding chair. Fog machine. ?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Abecedarian of Noises

-Animals: all kinds. Cats fighting, dogs mating, cows bellowing.
-Birdsong from the mango tree.
-Cloven-hoofbeats--cows, goats, pigs exploring the garbage pile; herds of water buffalo headed to the river.
-Drums (marching band style) from the school across the street.
-Eagles trilling down from their nest in the mobile phone tower.
-Fire crackers. Sometimes deafening. Usually reserved for holidays.
-Generators rumbling when the power is out.
-Horns of buses and trucks in the distance.
-Insects humming in the evening hours.
-Jangling bells of bicycles.
-Kitchen clatterings: knife on stone, bowl in sink, etc.
-Leela sweeping, daily.
-Monkeys playing in the mango and on our balcony, reeking havoc on the vegetation.
-Neighbor coughing.
-Old drummer-beggar, playing at our gate for coins.
-Pidgeons cooing.
-Quarreling jackdaws along the electric wires.
-Rickshaws rattling down our flagstone street.
-Screech of the gate to our compound closing.
-Tabla.... John does practice four hours a day.
-Uulations in the wee hours of morning from the mosque.
-Venders, crying their wares: "falling god, chocolate!" or "aloo-ah-gobi-ah-tamatar-ah-methi-ah-palak-ah-matar...."
-Water-pump--it's high-pitched whine, filling the tank on the roof.
-eXcess water pouring off the roof, when the tank is overfull.
-Yawn-squeak of the petite cat who has adopted us. She feigns boredom; wants milk.
-Zealous brahmin monks, chanting in their monotone from the temple below.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cycling to Sundarpur

I am trundling myself about town on a rented, ancient little bicycle with a single gear. I feel as though I've unlocked some key to this city that was hidden in plain sight--it used to be that I would feel on foot or in rickshaw that I was holding on for dear life. This feeling was constant until I discovered that the trundle of my creaking steed is the most natural motion of this city.

On my way home one day from Sundarpur, the sun was setting and I saw the most beautiful and crazy curve of a loadbearing brick column. Unmortared, lit from behind by a bare bulb.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

"When in imitation Rome, imitate the imitation Romans" - Philip Kaufmann

- "There are only 7 of these cars in all of India and mine is custom-one-of-a-kind-individual! See, two-tone seats!" - Daler Mehndi while driving us around Delhi in his new VW Touareg.

- At my second Indian wedding performance in 4 days, I find myself standing next to the swimming pool with a jumbo prawn in one hand and a 12-year-old whiskey in the other thinking, "Alright, this isn't so bad."

- I leave in 2 hours for Rajasthan to do a couple of concerts with this guy.

- In the van on the way to the first wedding, the back-up singers (4 men in white turbans and tiger-striped shirts) ask Heather and Phil and I to sing a song but all we can come up with is part of "Like a Virgin." Then, when the van goes in reverse and the warning beep plays "Jingle Bells" we simultaneously break into song. Knitted eyebrows meet our hilarious laughter.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Tina, Baby

We wake under my makeshift mosquito net in Daler Mehndy's nephew's humble apartment and recording studio. John sings in a heartfelt falsetto, "Ya think you're good enough for me, boy? You're gonna have to wait and see, boy." I am laughter personified.

We allow ourselves ten minutes for serious composing. John's waking lines make the cut. So, here is what American Tina tells her Punjabi admirer:

Think you're good enough for me?
You're gonna have to wait and see.
You're tellin' me that I'm beautiful,
But what's that mean to me?
You're gonna have to make me want you,
If you wanna get close to me.
You're gonna have to make me need you,
If you know what I mean....

(I'm not sure that I know what she means.... and how do you like the rhymes: me, see, -ful, me, you, me, you, mean?)

So, after breakfast, Manprit arrives. We show him our composition, hum the melody (three notes, total--we add a fourth later on). I am wrinkling my nose. Manprit says "great, sounds good, let's do it." I must still be in denial that I said I would try to compose, sing and record a pop song. After all, my voice has just come back from laryngitis, I still have a sore throat, and green snot is clogging my sinuses all the way to my ears.

Nevertheless, we proceed. John is my coach. He has to keep reminding me that the melody only has four notes--why do I keep adding more? But how does a Spanish folk singer sing a digitized pop song? How not to quaver my voice? Manprit keeps telling me to stop tapping my foot. We pause the session for someone to turn off their car alarm in the parking lot below.

An hour goes by. I am sweating nervous sweat. Finally it is done--the songline, the harmony, both, even though my voice persists in cracking on the last note. "No problem," says Manprit. "I'll cut that part off."

He edits it. It manages to sound vaguely professional--enough that I raise my eyebrows. Manprit promises to send us a copy when the CD comes out.

But let this be my first and last foray into the world of pop music production.....

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bombs, Stars, Buffets

Sorry this has been sparse of late, but things are getting more and more strange.

I was to play drums for Shamsher Mehndi's band for a holiday concert (Dev Deepawali) on a huge floating stage in the Ganges river, but some law offices were bombed the same day (and Varanasi has a thick recent history of terrorist acts) so all public festivities were cancelled. But because of this we were able to have dinner at Daler Mehndi's house in Delhi.

Daler Mehndi is an Indian super star, the most successful and highest paid pop musician in Indian history. He also has the most, uh, outrageous music video I've ever seen. I promise you won't be sorry if you check it out: Tunak Tunak Tun.

Anyway, my Guruji introduced me to Shamsher Mehndi (Daler's older brother, and a pop star in his own right) who invited me to play drums at a high society wedding in Delhi since we weren't able to play together in Varanasi. Heather and Phil and I took the night train to Delhi where we were invited to dinner at Daler Mehndi's house. His house is astounding; the largest of any of the Bollywood stars', it has the requisite pool and gardens and gym and music studio and plenty of baffling Indian Kitsch (photos forthcoming). But it's also a self-sustaining compound with cows and water buffalos and chickens and 100% organic vegetable gardens. Armed guards? yes. Giant guard dogs? yes. Did I lounge around on his bed? yes. Daler was giving a concert in Mumbai so we just ate and sang and played music with his charming family. Hard to imagine an American family this wealthy being so functional!

Then last night I played drums for 700 people at an Indian wedding. So strange. So much food. Shamsher Mehndi wanted me to play rockmroll backbeats underneath his punjabi pop songs. There were 3 other drummers on stage so the pressure was pretty low. Oh and there was a fog machine. It was frustrating to have not touched a drum kit for 4 months and then have to play straight rock and roll for 2 hours. But of course the experience was great. Heather was stunning in a custom-made silk turquoise saree. Phil spent 2 sets of batteries on photos. No exaggeration, there was a food buffet 200 yards long.

We could write dozens of pages about all of this, and maybe we will... Check back soon for photos.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Kuch photos

Heather weaving:

Temple post bulldozer:

Night bugs:

Ganga View:

Sunday, November 4, 2007


Heather's been offered a job as sole USA agent for a giant, established silk company. The Queen of Morocco, Scarlett Johanssen, and David Mulford, the US Ambassador to India, all shop there. Their website needs work but can give you an idea (check out the "About - Weaving" section for photos of the crazy looms). Mehta Silk

More to the point, on Tuesday, Heather begins teaching at least 5 Indians (maybe 7) French. They are paying her well. 3 hours per week provides enough to cover all living expenses. Why go home? Oh, yeah, beef jerky.

Allergies in India....

On Tuesday, I discovered that I really am allergic to nuts--

Walking along the ghats after a lovely meal, I start to feel weak. A tingling runs across my skin. My palms and forearms and face become an interesting blotchy red and white. Pounding and heat in my ears. My breathing is compromised. I break out in hives on my wrists, elbow pits, armpits, all pits. I pop two Benadryl and John and I head for the hospital.

In the hospital, a mild and large man informs me that I should keep calm--"one, two days of medicine, you will be okay." There is a sign on the wall in bold stating that all females patients must have complete breast and pelvic exams to be admitted. John and I make eye contact in a silent "my god, what are we in for, anyway?"

To make a long story short--I got to bypass the breast and pelvic exam, was shuttled to a lovely private room (just like a hotel room!), but I never did see a doctor. We were there for over an hour. I was vomiting in the bathroom by the time anyone began to fill out any paperwork. By then, I was feeling better--so we walked out, went down the street, bought a bottle of liquid antihistamines for 85 cents, and walked home. And I did not use my epi-pen, but--I will say that I am so glad that I have it.....

Friday, November 2, 2007


It's beginning to feel like my day-to-day life has become a strange dichotomy of either preparing for tabla practice (eating as much as possible while resting my arms) or tabla practice itself. And I'm only practicing a few hours per day. Honda, one of my fellow students or gurubhai (lit. guru-brother (you know I feel uncomfortable saying "disciple" with any seriousness)), is from Japan and is in his second year of study with Lacchuji. The first "year" he was only here for lessons for 2 months. So he's essentially in his 4th month of study now and Guruji has him practicing 7 hours per day. He lives in a guesthouse and so must put sound-stifling towels over his drums for the first few hours because his practice starts before dawn. 7 hours. He drinks a lot of coffee and smokes cigarettes. My body is in serious revolt after only 3 hours.

An example of a portion of my practice from last week: Play this 7-second phrase (my second kayada) repeatedly for 90 minutes. This ends up being more of a practice in meditation and focus than anything else. After that of course I'm thrilled to get to the second part of practice because the phrase I have to repeat for 90 minutes is more than 2 minutes long, aaah. See how they getcha!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

More on Betel

Sarah asked:
"What's betelnut? Is that what stains the half mile strip of Devon Ave between Western and California [Chicago,IL]?"

Betel nut (Areca Catechu) provides a mildly euphoric stimulating effect. But don't get your hopes up, it's also classified as a human carcinogen, though studies seem to be of low quality and rarely focus only on the nut (it's usually consumed with tobacco, calcium paste to help extract the stimulating alkaloids, and a bunch of flavorings). Strangely, betel nut and the betel leaf it's wrapped in to make Paan are not at all botanically related. Criminy, almost all Indian males of every stripe from homeless richshaw wallas to university professors to court magistrates chew the stuff constantly. It seriously compromises the teeth and gums.

And, yes, as expectorant it stains the streets (walls, toilets, teeth, we've even seen one unlucky dog) an unappetizing shade of red. I had my first and only Paan Masala on Devon Avenue with Phil some years ago.

Scott asked:
"Do you guys know if you can you bring betelnut back to the States or is it verboten hier? Always been curious."

Wiki answered:
"In the United States, betel nut is not a controlled or specially taxed substance and may be found in some Asian grocery stores. However, importation of betel in a form other than whole or carved kernels of nuts can be stopped at the discretion of US Customs officers on the grounds of food, agricultural, or medicinal drug violations. Such actions by Customs are very rare."

Ganga Bath

[John and I have fought over whether to publish this post for a month now.... after small editing and his continued good health, he relents....]

"People do not understand the meaning of Guru Shishya Parampara. It is imperative to serve the Guru with all one's heart. I would sit and massage my guru's feet for hours and when he was happy, he would teach me a new composition." -Kishan Maharaj

We two are not spiritual people. The extents of my spirituality may be outlined by a mild form of superstition, a general and persistent awe of the world about me, and my curiosity in the still-incomprehensible branes of String Theory. John is of a reassuringly similar mind. But India demands recognition of, if not devotion to, its irrefutable spirituality. And if you choose to go deeper into the culture--for example, become a disciple according to old Indian tradition--your guru becomes your unquestionable spiritual adviser. "Do I pray first to my guru or first to my god?" mused Sushiri Mehta, rhetorically. "I pray first to my guru, because it was he who led me to my god." But how can we understand this? The best we can do is respect it as best we know how, and go deeper.

Still, when John's guruji commanded that he bathe in the Ganga River, I argued against it for days. Nevermind that it washes away your sins.

Tuesday we wake. On the roof of a neighboring house we spy perched one peacock and two peahens, sunning themselves. The day is already shimmering with heat. At 8:30AM we are walking, river and sun at our left. We see one incredible creature--it looks like the wild offspring of deer and horse. It is long necked, skittish, with a cropped crest of a mane running down its spine. A small child chased it down the bank and out of sight.

At nine we have reached the Southern-most ghat that we know, upstream from the miles of shit-strewn bank that defines the Eastern border of the city. 500 million people live in the Ganga River basin, and we are somewhere in the midst of these millions. We are downstream from hundreds and hundreds of miles of shit-strewn banks. Then add industrial waste to raw sewage, all of it flowing seaward. But--yes, I know--with one's guruji one mustn't argue; one mustn't lie.

I stand on the steps, five feet up from the water's edge. Sweat is already running down between my breasts and shoulder blades, making my forehead slick. The water is the color of clay and smells like the marsh in my Dad's backyard. John strips to his underwear and wades in. I am still arguing in my head. He wades in up to the neck in this opaque water, then climbs out and tells me that there were tiny fish nibbling at his shins--"if they live here, then I can visit for a minute." In and out, and in the end, he does not dissolve. We go home and John takes a real bath. A few days later, he develops a rather anti-climactic head cold.

I do not admonish guruji when I see him. There are people who drink the Ganga's grey waters every day.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Late at night, crowded street, six children with wooden, shoebox-sized battery packs strapped to their heads. Twin flourescent light tubes protrude 54" straight up from each of the battery packs. The children are walking single file through a festival crowd.

Outside the barbershop, 30 men gather around a 6" black&white TV to catch the cricket match.

Heather greets the baby water buffalo on our street every morning.

I went to the barber, finally. I was terrified, nearly nauseated, but I think he did a good job. Haircuts here end with an amazingly strenuous upper-body massage.

The water we specially ordered smelled terrible and had mosquito larva in it.

We live in a city of 1.2 million people, a city without a public library. The literacy rate here is about 60% at best (strikingly lower for women).

There's also no contemporary dance company in Varanasi, but I think I can do something about that.

Durga Puja (do not read if squeamish!)

On Sunday we were nearly trampled by a giant silver goddess Durga, radiating out silver doilies from her many bloodied palms, and carried on a litter of bamboo poles. Before her went two bicycle carts--one for a wall of speakers, and the other for the massive diesel generator needed to power the speakers and light the silver giantess appropriately. The speakers in turn powered crowds of throbbing teenage boys.

We walked to the river. Other gods set in plaster stood looking out over the water: Ganesh, Shiva, Kali. Men were preparing a way through the boats to the open river, into which the bloody-palmed, silver goddess would plunge.

We walked North to the burning ghat. One month here and I hadn't been there yet--we watched as two bodies were unwrapped of their plastic-golden fineries, reduced to bundles of white cotton. And then the wood was piled, one stack big and one small, both over bright embers left from the last cremations. The families lifted the dead, and placed each on its pyre--knees together hidden inside white cotton, they might have been as big around as my elbows together. That small bundle, she must have been a tiny little lady. More wood is laid on top, and then straw is pushed under; it touches the coals; fires smolder, sputter, take. The smell is woodsmoke, simple. The wind blew it straight into my shawl and mouth and eyes.

We left then, to gaze at the stars (Orion with its flickering-red Beteljuice, Caseopeia, the Seven Sisters) all cupped in an off-center circle of sky, ringed around by haze and light of our city. A temple listed quietly into the Ganga in a pool of flowered malas. In small clusters, men returned from the festivities and all descended to the water. We could hear splashes of them jumping in, swimming a few feet out to the boats, and coming back in, newly absolved of sin.

The bodies were burning when we walked South again to Manikarnika Ghat. The families had left, and the fire tenders were there alone, anonymous with rags wrapped about their heads with only a slit left for their eyes. Flora, narrating--"Oh, see how he is lifting the body--oh, they break the body! See how they break the body! But they must do it; they know how. Now we will see the head...." Flames came, and the cotton that had been untouched now burned, and there was a human head engulfed in flame. "It is our hell," said John. And you could pretend that the figure was wax. But the smell was of flesh, of burning flesh--and the sound was not the sound of wood burning. We stood and watched the shine of the man's face (calm) turn to black and the smell was too much and we wended our way back to the main street and caught rickshaws home to bed.

Monday, October 22, 2007

All Night

Two nights in a row of all-night classical Indian concerts. Some really tremendous music. Heather and I, for reasons neither of us can understand, are designated "Honored Guests" and so have access to the golden eating tent and the golden sleeping tent and the golden tent where my guruji sits surrounded by fawning disciples and bags of spent paan (the man eats betelnuts at an astounding rate).

Both nights the MC calls me up on stage and has me light a 5-part candle the religious significance of which I haven't a clue. The second night, they put a garland of marigolds around me neck and say, "We welcome our honored guest Mr. John. Mr. John is a famous drumist from America." In this case "famous" must mean you play free shows to your friends at little cafes. Cheers. The dying flowers kept my neck surprisingly cool for the entire night.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Pursuit of a Loom

You may ask--and some of you have--what has Heather been doing while John practices tabla many hours a day?

It is a valid question. One month has gone out of Heather's life in this mad city. But--it is not an easy question to answer. Her days cannot be generalized into any sort of routine. Yesterday afternoon, for example, she spent approximately 30 minutes in three bicycle rickshaws, and somewhere in the range of 200 minutes in autorickshaws (which were stopped twice to allow parades pass--the first elephants and camels Heather has seen on this continent). She was going to meet a man at a silk weaving factory; she was in pursuit of a loom. The man did not, in fact, appear... but it was alright. Heather had tea with his father and brother, and surely she expected that the pursuit would take more than one day. (John is encouraging in this pursuit, to his credit, as a loom surely takes up more space than a drum kit and is far less moveable once in place.....)

(But what one day is here--when one day lasts as it does and you see a whole city in a matter of a few hours from the cramped seat, cramped window of an autorickshaw and you want to remember everything: the man crossing the busiest street with the serenity of a monk pulling hundreds of pounds of cement on his cart; the kela-wallah with his cart bending under two feet of green bananas, bicycle-wheel spokes made from rebar; elephants and camels carrying benevolent rounded men; a statue of the goddess Durga painted silver with bloodied hands.... There were more things. I can't remember anymore. Time lasted forever and after so much it just takes on the color grey.)

Ahem. So Heather is in pursuit of a loom for her home. During the past few weeks, she's been exploring the world of the Benares handloom--specifically, the Jaquard loom. She has visited weavers in the Cantoments, in Sunderpur, in Kojwa, downtown, in Bhadaini. She has sat in showrooms on cushions while men have enthusiastically thrust silk and silver sarees and yards of fine and raw silk at her until she is buried like someone might be buried at the beach in sand. She has been learning Hindi slowly, so that now at least she can read menus and tell small children to bug off. And she has, in pursuit of knowledge on the subject of Benarsi brocade, assembled a rather motley army of teachers about her--most of whom, to her disadvantage, speak Hindi and a very limited amount of English. More on them later.

And now she is going to go and search for a stool and a mop. Because try as she might, she cannot sew with her non-electric sewing machine while standing. And cutting on the clean floor is tricky when the dust settles again twenty minutes after the floor's been swept.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Aloo Alchemy

1. A frighteningly numerous troop of macaques (including many large, aggressive males) have been setting some things straight amongst themselves on our rooftop and balcony. Predawn today, one monkey smashed a large flowerpot on our balcony, a flowerpot which was home to a succulent edible plant of which I can't remember the name and am currently mourning. Our landlord has been shouting "Hi-Ya!" and waving bamboo poles and throwing bricks at these rowdy simians for the last two days. Today he decided he'd better escort his wife and teenage son to the street whenever they leave the house. Heather, sitting on the floor and crocheting plastic bags into tapestries just a few feet from a balcony lined with red-assed monkeys, says, "How does Guruji do it? He teases them! I'm just going to pretend they're not here." Never fear, having read Michael Crichton's "Congo" when I was 9, I'm confident I know how to deal with any primate aggressions. I am not afraid of them. I am not afraid of them. Nope.

2. I had a good dose of maddening Indian bureuacracy today when, in order to purchase a $27 mobile phone (no contract, even, just the phone and a calling card), the shop required a signed affidavit from my landlord, my passport, my Indian tourist visa, and a new passport-sized photo. On my 3rd visit to the shop in 24 hours, the salesman informs me that my signatures on the forms do not match the signature on my passport and so I'd have to go back down the street and have everything photocopied again. I, through taut jaws and pulling a little too hard on my beard, said, "The photos don't match either, sir, so should I hit the barber on my way back?!" And then I killed him. Our new phone number is available via personal email.

3. Heather made potatoes taste exactly like slow-smoked pulled pork. So freakin' good and patently impossible ...

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Surprise Concert

I've been asking my Guruji to find me a drum kit (even the university here, one of the top 3 in India, does not have one) and yesterday he finally came through. Sort of. Not really.

A fellow disciple, nicknamed Sony, appeared after my lesson and led me to his apartment which also houses his computer repair business. Sony pulls out his "drum set" which turns out to be an old electronic Roland Octapad. Yeah, I'm very disappointed. I end up giving an hour-long solo concert on this piece of junk (using seriously warped drum sticks) to 15 computer technicians and the majority of the residents of the apartment building. Children dancing, teens filming me on their phones, housewives peering illicitly from behind scarves, fellow tabla students trying to instruct me, "No, no, do Dha Dha Tirikita Dha Dha Tu Na." They wouldn't let me leave, though they were not particularly interested in my jazz playing, "make the Western beats, man! Rock'm'roll!!" So I did a rock'm'roll duet with a guy playing guitar the likes of which I haven't experienced since, oh, my 6th grade talent show. He knew two-and-a-half chords. Maybe. But the crowd completely ate it up and everyone gave me hugs and I ended up laughing more than I have in a long time. But the search for a set of "American drums" continues.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Guesthouse to Studio...

Here transcribed are the directions from our original downtown guesthouse to John's guruji's studio, taken down on our second morning in Varanasi because we would have to get home that day on our own:

Go out of hotel, straight 15 paces, turn left, go 2 paces, turn right, go forty paces, right, 1 pace, left, 16 paces, left, 73 paces, right, 71 paces, left, 9 paces, right, 68 paces, left, 104 paces, right, 12 paces, left, 94 paces, cross main road, 38 paces, right, 42, left, 25, slight right, 6, slight left, 48 paces, left, 13 paces, right, 48, right, 2, turn right and go up the stairs.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Formidable Hopelessness of the Away

- A small girl gripping a goat by the horns and repeatedly and very seriously butting heads with it.

- In the market, someone stole our bottle of water from right beneath our noses. I was fuming for minutes. Had to repeat, "Let it go. Let it go. It's a cheap lesson." The girl [13 years old? Betel-rotten teeth.] who'd just sold us some tomatoes tried to contain her amusement.

- My newest syllabic rhythms compositions: "Followed by redundant Parvati-the-witch formidable hopelessness of the away, there's a rapper named Sticky Fingaz, means he's a thief."

- We're considering turning one wing of our flat into an art gallery with monthly openings by ex-pat artists. Imagine, if you visit us, you can have your own solo show.

- A cow (with dull, small horns, thankfully) rammed Heather today. She's completely fine. "It was like walking into a slow-moving brick wall." But why? I think it likes her.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Kedarnath Jossi Home

c/o Jossi
N. 1/225
Nagwa, Varanasi-221005
Uttar Pradesh, India

We've just moved into our flat. It is enormous for the two of us who have little more than the clothing on our backs, and are loathe to accumulate much before we have to abandon it and return to our homeland. It is owned by a jolly and strange professor of astrology. He had me flip a coin to decide whether we would pay a deposit for the flat: heads, we won. Last night, after I asked for a hammer and his son ran and found me a very imposing rock, he told me, "You have conical nose--it means you have good mind. Your nose like father or mother? Father? Accha... it means you take after your father." John is now scheming to become a professor of astrology as well.

We have spent two days cleaning the cobwebs and dust off of shelves, windowsills, door tops. I've stuffed metal screen in each of the holes in the wall, in hope that the rat droppings will stop accumulating inside of the kitchen cupboards. It's not the first time I've shared kitchen space with a rat. Not even the third time. But you don't get used to verminous circumstances--you just become acutely aware. No one wants even the faintest smell of rat poop hanging about their cooking.

I find comfort in the mango tree that shades our balcony, and in the papaya that dangles its green fruit just beyond arm's reach. This afternoon, we will take chai with our landlady and -lord, both more generous than I could have hoped. Already they have loaned us a stove, a sewing machine, a bed. They've offered a TV, a fridge, a table, a computer. Tonight we will cook our first meal here in Varanasi. Slowly-slowly, this space will become ours. This coming week I will start writing a lesson plan that incorporates my favorite arts with learning the English language. And I will start collecting fabric for my quilting-circle-to-be. And I will meet weavers, finally. And we will make this place our home.


My custom tabla have been built and delivered. They are beautiful and they sing richly and quickly and sweetly. Bonding with objects is something I'd forgotten about; I used to rub new pens in hopes that we would bond and I wouldn't lose them as quickly. But bonding with tabla is probably a matter of spending thousands of hours practicing...

I found a set of marching drums that I'm contemplating turning into a western-style drum kit. Giant bass drum and several snare drums of assorted sizes. They're ANCIENT and pretty janky, but they harbor serious warmth of tone and phenomenal character. The skins are all, well, real skins and the snares are made out of sinew. Mark Kaylor would go nuts. The problem is the guy wants 9,000 Rupees for the set ($225) which makes them like the most expensive things in all of India. He must have read the excitement on my face. I'm exploring some other channels to see if I can find an actual drum kit, but if not I'm hoping the marching drums are available for rent as the drumming jones are getting serious.

Oh, and we got a flat. It's big so come-on over. And bring a bass drum pedal and some quality chocolate while you're at it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Blog Notices

- Note the list of links at the top/right. There are many more India photos under the Heather's Photos link.

- Send us the URL's for links you'd like added to our list. If they belong here, we'll add them. Thanks.

- I apologize to readers who have been unsuccessfully trying to post comments for the last couple of days. I have fixed the problem.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Varanasi, Benares, Banaras, Kashi--

Sitting of the banks of the Ganga on a cement bench, under a cement umbrella, the sun sets behind us. This crook of river flows North, before setting out East again. The water is high from rains in the mountains, and the water laps gently halfway up the walls of the bathrooms set into its banks.

The city stretches out North and South like the hollow of a crescent moon. It rises up behind us in sandstone and brick, pungent, earnest, seedy. Electric lines run in lazy droops from one nasty snarl to the next. There is a cockroach for every crevice, and a ficus for every shrine or temple. the alleyways traverse the city like some mad spider's web, barely wide enough for the cows, nevermind the pilgrims, bicycles, motorcycles and -scooters, beggars, hawkers, idle bystanders.

Swifts circle overhead. A devotee, shaved head, bathes in the river, standing on the steps and sumerging himself completely three times in each direction South, West, North, East. Muddy water. A smell wafts up from the water that smells of rot--I remember the bloated-blue body of a goat we saw, caught among the boat lines two days ago--but mostly I smell charcoal burning somewhere else.

The swifts careen helix-style in to roost. A man collects his laundry from where it was drying today, on the top of a neighboring cement umbrella and held in place with bricks. The swifts trill dominates the air.

Friday, September 21, 2007


You wouldn't believe my Guruji. I am only allowed to call him Guruji or else the relationship is over. I can only point my feet in certain directions in his room. I must be absolutely punctual in my visits and phone calls. He has monkey friends. He speaks with them, dances with them, feeds them chickpeas. He takes care of everything for us, what we eat, where we live, what I'm wearing on my back right now... Heather and I have spent many hours with him already, mostly in silence, in his incredible, dark, ancient room. A room that was once utterly luxurious and ornate but seems to have been mouldering for millenia, seems to have housed a great conflagration stoked by fragrant, sooty logs, epochs ago. He hums to himself constantly, hangs his head askew (as if listening to something speaking to him from within his clavicle), and frequently nods "mmmm"s and "um-hmmm"s to himself. Heather: "Do you think he's just constantly hearing and responding to music going on in his head?" Somehow, we both trust him, and like him, very much.

I have only touched the tabla once, the first day, after he said, "I must see your hands." I am waiting for my own drums to be built, under Guruji's supervision: "I feel, just 5-6 days, mmm?" He has appointed us a "boy", a sort of fixer or handler, who is a 45-year-old man named Gopal. Gopal's wife cooks for us and accepts no money. Gopal speaks almost no English but still insists we call his mobile every day. Gopal forces food on us with more vigor than my Ukrainian grandmother.

We were led to Guruji the first day by one of his servants. Guruji was perched, sitting lotus-position, in a neck-height niche in a wall along a ridiculously narrow alley. His mouth distended and redolent with Paan (betelnut), he was dressed in an amazing, skin-like silk kurta that awed Heather. He was surrounded by disciples. He has servants, admirers, disciples everywhere. He is like some wiry Indian Godfather. Every day, when I'm with him, I feel like it's hundreds of years ago. This teaching method, the intense Indian Guru/Disciple method, is nearly dead. Only the old masters still teach this way.

Oh, and on the menu at a restaurant last night: "Chili con Polio"