Two days ago, we’d been standing barefoot in a temple after dark. The complex was vast – a city of marble. The temple walls blocked out the traffic and horns of Madurai, a city more ancient than Rome, the trading partner of Greeks. On the long walk in towards the dual sanctums, vendors sold offerings, paintings of Shiva’s avatars, and marriage threads. Conversations faded into echoes of whispers, bouncing through pillared halls.
Stand here! Our guide told us. So we stood, and we waited. “It begins in five minutes, but that’s Indian time” he told us. We waited.
From deep inside one of the sanctums – Shiva’s sanctum – past the sign that banned non-Hindus from proceeding further, we heard the drums. Then began a horn, one, then two, then three and four and five. The blasts were each a single, long tone, like six shofars played together. The beats grew closer, the horns deafening. The first man with a horn emerged in a white loin cloth, the marks of Shiva on his forehead in yellow. His long white beard reached down to his chest. Behind him came another dozen men with drums and horns, and four carrying a palanquin, only large enough for a baby, carved in marble.
We followed the procession, our guide hurrying us place to place, crabbing my arm to hurry me along and stop me from stepping on a carpet that marked the path the palanquin would take. We stopped behind an urn with holders for a hundred tiny oil candles. The procession wound around and stopped in front of us, placing the palanquin on table outside the second sanctum, the temple dedicated to Parvarti, Shiva’s wife. Men came out and placed a footstool covered in pounded and worked silver beneath the door of the palanquin. A man sprinkled incense. Another laid three wreathes of jasmine on the stool. A minute passed. Two. Then the drums, the horns and the men recessed into the second sanctum. Shiva had gone to bed.
Now I was watching a perpetual wave in a box lit by a small strip of glowing blue. The box, inlaid in a white wall, shook rhythmically to create and recreate a tide. A white plaque on the wall told me that the artist was Dutch, the attempt was to capture the ocean in a box, and show the impossibility of such a project. I stepped back out into the blinding light of the sun-bleached courtyard, and walked a cement path past some parched shrubs to join Mom and Dad. They were in a room whose floor was covered in thousands upon thousands of photographs of Vietnamese families, all of them faded with time. Floating on the sea of images was a traditional canoe, behind it the image of a shipwrecked galleon flickered on the walls. The artist had fled Vietnam with his family as a child, one step in a long history of men and women taking to the sea to attack, and taking to the seas to seek freedom. An artist from just outside Madurai, near the spice hills of Kerala, created giant bronze structures of alternate earths.
We spend two hours and saw less than a tenth of the Kochi Bienalle.
We would have seen more on the previous Friday. But there were 15 elephants being decorated for a temple fair, and so we went there instead.
The novelist Chimamande Adiche warns of a “single story.” In her TED talk she tells a story from her own childhood: her family, like many middle-class families in Legos, had a servant, a young boy from a family in a village outside Legos. All she knew about him, all she’d been told, was that he was poor – very poor. That’s why he had to come work. So when her family went to visit his, she was astonished when his mother gave her a beautiful basket she had weaved. Artisanal skill like this was not, for Adiche, what poverty had looked like in her head.
Ten years later, she went to University in the States. Her roommate was so excited to have an African living with her. She asked her to play some of the traditional African music she listened to. Adiche pulled out a Mariah Carey tape.
When we only hear one story about a culture, we come to believe it. This is the heart of Orientalism – the West defining itself as modern and dynamic in contrast to an unchanging, static East. This is what allows Westerners to think we know what’s best – the only modernity we know is a modernity that looks like ours, and look! just look at these poor people who don’t have access to our modernity!
We have very few stories about India. We have elephants, and chants, and mystical men with long beards. We have snake charmers, and the holy Ganges, and women in bright saris. And we have this too: poverty, Slum Dog Millionaire, and theft.
Our students were warned endlessly, lavishly, ostentatiously about how dangerous India would be.
And when they came back, they were confused, disoriented, and many of them angry. The night after we reembarked the Explorer I had a craft night with my ship family. Four of my five kids came, and I asked them how their time was. All four said the same thing, “I don’t really feel like I went there.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These are four bright kids, who had four very different experiences. One went on an eco-trek through the Spice Mountains (“it wasn’t camping,” Scott told me, “it was glamping. I didn’t even carry a tent. But it was beautiful?”), one went on the attempt-to-see-a-nation-of-over-a-billion-in-five-days SAS special: Delhi, Agra, Varinassi and Jaipur (no, I’m not kidding), another just went to the Taj (“just” went to a place 1000 miles from where we docked) and the last went to the beach. But what they all had in common was that they didn’t feel like they went to India.
They complained of being coddled, shut off, and not allowed to wander cities. They complained that they’d been made to be so scared about India that they felt like they HAD to sign up for a field program, thinking independent travel would be impossible. And one thing they all thought: India wasn’t what they’d been told it would be. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was a place – a place they desperately wanted to explore, but felt they weren’t allowed to.
Their conclusion was that India was out there and they weren’t allowed in. But thinking back to the Bienalle, and to the temple ceremony, I can’t help but wonder if they feel like they didn’t go to India because the India they’ve been told about doesn’t exist.
Because India is so much more than that.