Snapshots of India #4

This is part of a series of posts on the trip I took in India from February to April 2013. They are in no particular order, just moments that stand out from the greater backdrop. 

46 C. The hottest yet this summer, and only April. Pushkar swelters in the middle of the day.

I am crouching on the side of the main road, near the bus stand. In the terra cotta coloured dust that swirls a bit around my feet, caught in some unfelt breeze.A blue and gold sarong tied around my head, my four-continent hiking boots on my feet. I am staring into the eyes of a somewhat leperous-looking calf, telepathically willing it to stop trying to eat the t-shirt it’s chewing.

Even as I do this I wonder, What has India done to me?

Trying to mind read a cow, veiled and crouching, is not the strangest thing I saw a Westerner do in Pushkar these two days. The city is known for its sacred lake, as well as for its proximity to one of the most sacred Muslim sites in the Subcontinent. Only Snake Mountain (yes, that’s really its name) separates the two. This is the realm of the hippiest, earthiest, patchouliest travellers in India…second only to Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills.

Surely, though…If Pushkar were a sacred place, if all those healing crystals actually held power, if all the metaphysical advice in the bookshops were put into practice…surely it would not look like this. The presence of a few well-placed money changers (in the Biblical sense) has sucked the sacred right out of the place. They attack passersby with flower petals, demanding that they visit “their” sacred lake. They know that post-colonial guilt about disrespecting cultures works as excellent leverage to squeeze a few extra rupees out of a tourist. They curse those who refuse, not just cussing but a real “may you suffer” sort of curse.

Yet so many Westerners flock to Pushkar, and attempt to integrate with the spirituality of the place. They bring their crystal balls to sunset. They smoke the local cannabis substitute. They dress in falsely Indian clothing, artfully torn to make it more “authentic.” They play with the babies of the Dalit family selling carved elephants on the corner, playing at being Dalit themselves. All of that is about as effective as my attempted telepathy.

At sunset on the eastern ghats I wondered aloud how many of the young people around us had ended up in India after Occupy Wall Street broke up. The sense of wanting desperately to be counterculture and to change the world and to reset Western culture was palpable. Even as someone who participated in OWS and who considers herself to be a bit of a hippy, it was too much. So much time spent focused on being authentic, thereby ignoring the really shitty nature of Pushkar. The sacred lake is full of crap both literal and figurative, and trying to adopt Hinduism (but only the parts you like) while pretending you can choose to be Untouchable. Maybe it’s authentic to them, but to me it seemed hokey at best and culturally imperialistic at worst.

And yet here I am, dressed as some incarnation of an Indian woman in a kurta and long pants, veiled. Trying to focus enough to tell the calf that he has to stop with the t-shirt or he might hurt his tummy. I am somehow part of the culture-counterculture of Pushkar. The night before I lit some sandalwood insence and stuck it in the ground of the eastern ghats.  A cow walked directly over it, through the sweet smoke. If I were spiritually inclined, that would have been a huge sign. A communication from the sacred cow.

After ten minutes crouching, my telepathy is clearly failing to produce a result. The calf has a hunger-dulled look in its eyes and continues to chew the torn tee. Time to act instead of just thinking. We buy some cookies for the journey on the bus ahead of us, the usual 24 hour bus fast. I take two cookies from the package and lay one on the ground before the calf. He drops the t-shirt and makes for the cookie, and I put one more farther along. Distracted by actual food, he moves away. I grab the sodden shirt and huck it into the ever-growing trash pile.

Our conversation over, the calf moves away.

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