Dull Gray Dawn in Vijayawada Explodes Into Something Else Altogether
By Robert Masterson
[Ed. Note: Most of us who’d seen him at the Albuquerque Press Club last August, thought Rev. Prof. Robert Masterson had retreated to his miserable squat beneath the tracks of New York City’s Grand Central Station. Apparently not. Get an atlas. We did our best to decipher and clean up the random verbal splashes…]
From the Alibi Flying Foreign Desk, Vijayawada:
The Interdisciplinary Global Seminar on Exploring the Cultural and Literary Nationalism of the Fourth World (Natives / Aboriginals / Dahlit)
Sponsored by UGC & APSHE
December 14 – 16, 2012
Department of English
Acharya Nagarjuna University
Andhra Pradesh, Guntur, INDIA
Foreign Gunslingers: Prof. Lee Maracle (Canada), Prof. Jay Hansford C. Vest (U.S.A.), Prof. Bruce Pascoe (Australia), Prof. Hone Sadler (New Zealand), Prof. Jo-Ann Episkenew (Canada), & Me.
VIJAYAWADA, DV Manor, MG Road: Dawn in Vijayawada brings nothing so much as more. And in India, more is more than enough. Enough is more than enough. Enough is too goddamned much. Or, to put it another way, nothing is better than everything.
Somewhere out there in the rising cacophony of coughs and hawks and two-stroke engines, a peacock is crying but where, to whom or to what, and for what reason? He’s the last peacock awake in the city and he’s looking for a date. First light means last call.
Just yesterday’s ride from the airport was a capsule tour of everything I’ve ever seen or turned away from in every social studies documentary, Sally Struthers infomercial, every poverty pornographic yet uplifting tale of favela, barrio, ghetto, shantytown, hardscrabble urban life. Dust; diesel fumes; real honest-to-god pariah dogs, hairless and covered with scabs; naked and/or crippled beggars; an escalating verbal conflict; 17,000,000 shrines & temples & mosques & churches & monks & dervish & nuns & priests & gurus; soldiers/police/private security all slinging assault rifles; jitneys emblazoned with religious iconography (Hanuman seems to be the patron saint of motor vehicles and/or batshit crazy drivers), with the Sanskrit “om” on the bumper, with the absolutely redundant suggestion to “Please Honk Horn Please Or Die” like anyone here ever refrains from leaning on the blower every 1.5 seconds. I saw a guy pulled over on the side of the road wave and honk his jitney’s horn as a friend passed. It’s a way to talk to each other, to say, “Here I am and I’m not stopping” to each other at 30 m.p.h.
Buffalo, singly and in groups, hobbled with a length of timber strung round their necks and dangling between their forelegs. Bicycles, tricycles, scooters, motorcycles, jitneys, busses, cars, pedestrians, counterfeit rice-burner road racers with all of the cowling and none of the power (they seem to top out at around 150cc) —all on the wrong, the British side of the road and some, maybe most, in the wrong lane, British system regardless, all of it, some of it, traffic, is pedestrian and/or oncoming; many men pissing on the side of the road; a naked toddler squatting to shit in the middle of the road; a dog doing much the same thing later on; barber shops and tea shops and coffee shops and cell phone shops and god-only-knows shops; clouds of smoke from roadside fires; sickle wielding women crouched in some kind of field cutting some kind of grass wearing turquoise and silver sari; kites (the birds) and jackdaws (I think they were jackdaws. Not sure really, but I’ve never typed the word “jackdaw” before and now seems a good time). The most basic of lists covering the most superficial of all the Indian stuff on or near that Indian “highway” in the middle of nowhere particular, India would take thousands and more thousands of words, and none of them are nearly enough. Buy your own goddamn National Geographic. I wish I could write that well.
Six out of seven foreign delegates to the “Fourth World/Indigenous/Dahlit” seminar are indigenous peoples—Native American from the U.S., First Nations from Canada, Maori from New Zealand, Aboriginal from Australia. I got to watch Indians who are actually from and actually in India meeting misnamed Indians from North America. We talk about the room around the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle in New York City where the brave and adventurous could climb all the way up to the top and discover him, Columbus, standing around in his room. That was fun.
Somebody said foreigners love Ganesh, and it sounds reasonable considering how many Ganeshi are sold at tourist shops in airports compared with how many flexi plastic Hanuman, the flying monkey god with plates of sweeties in his hands, hang from rear view mirrors, and it looks like he’s flying around the mini-van offering up a plastic pastry. There is a drive-in theater in Vijayawada that’s really mostly a walk-in with loudspeakers instead of car-speakers. Every morning at dawn, hundreds, thousands of people gather at the river to bathe and wash long sheets of aching color, the sari for today or tomorrow or the client. Twice now, I’ve raised my camera to my eye and then lowered it. Why even bother? How could it even be possible to reduce what I’m seeing to an electronic imprint of what I saw? Better to let these sights and sounds and shivering water burn themselves into my brain, a permanent magic-lantern slide inside my skull. Bruce Pascoe, another foreign delegate, describes the same failure of technology.
An atheist insinuates himself into the symposium and we ponder aloud how difficult it would be to be an atheist in a place like this one we are in, Vijayawada, in the middle of India where it’s dripping with the iconography and images and calligraphy from dozens of religions and sects. I start looking around to ask him, the atheist, but he’s disappeared. After reading his tracts and pamphlets, it turns out the atheists have regular meetings and leaders and maybe even a few rituals just like everybody else. Makes good sense, really.
Our last evening, when the rule for this trip had become, “It just gets weirder,” in the pitch black night, the mini-vans veered away from the hotel and down a neon-lit, landscaped esplanade, the road to Haailand, the only Buddhist themed theme-park in this or any other plane of existence. Closed to the public and shutting down, we nonetheless got in, saw the mural of Siddhartha attaining satori beneath the bodhi tree, saw the last of the tourists getting their picture taken next to Siddhartha, and as the lights went out with alarming frequency, we saw the circular lay-out if the park, the wheels within the wheels, the water slide, and somewhere out there, instead of Alice’s tea cups, spun the spinning lotus flowers. The Buddha Bar served cocktails and snacks. Another place served other snacks. There was a shopping mall. Then, totally lost in the circular park, returning again and again to the beginning in the hope of finding an end and if not an end, at least peace and compassion while wearing a bracelet that said “Entry Only,” we finally did find the mini-vans and the mini-vans took us back to MG Road.
Really, it’s airport, airport, airport, bus, hotel, school, bus, hotel, school, bus, hotel, school, bus, Haailand, bus, hotel, bus, school, airport, airport, airport and home. It seems but a beautiful dream now, and I am, sadly but obviously, getting too old for this. Still, it’s really weird to be in one place and then another place and then back to where I started in such a short period of time. And it wasn’t like going to Bowling Green, Ohio, which, weird as it is, can’t come close to India, man. India.
Post Script: I want to know why the time zone in India is one hour and thirty minutes different than its neighbors’. It’s just weird. Ninety minutes. The People’s Republic of China has one time zone for the whole country which is a total pain in the ass except in Beijing, but it’s still on the hour. Leave China through the east and there’s a big jump back into real world time, but it’s still on the freaking hour. Where do those thirty Indian minutes come from? Who put them there? How come? Or did they shave thirty minutes from an hour and, if that’s what happened, where did those minutes go? Who’s got them now?
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