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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Visit to a Master Dyer

January 23, 1987

I expected to see more colors - more pots of orange and yellow and blue. I expected to see colors externalized.

"No," Ami said. "He does not externalize his thoughts. He thinks of color, and colors, like you with your writings. They are not on the wall for everyone to see! That is why he keeps them in a small pile of samples, on silk. His life's work is in that small package of silk scraps."

. . . .

"A chemical color pinches the eye."

"The greatest problem is yellow. The chemical yellows are all very dangerous. Cancer, birth defects, very, very dangerous."

"Now I have been making yellow from pomegranate skins. This is a substance nobody wants. Even the cows won't eat it. But it makes the most beautiful yellow color."

"My paintings are all made with dyed bits of paper, glued together. They are all dyed by myself."

"Now you take the cow, you feed it nothing but mango leaves for two or three days. After this time you collect the cow's urine. You boil and boil this urine. You add alum, and reduce it to a paste. It produces the most lovely yellow color."

"Turmeric yellow is most beneficial to the skin. It cleanses the pores of dangerous bacteria. Chemical dyes, red and yellow particularly, attract bacteria. Turmeric is a purifying substance. Now which color would you rather wear, the natural or the chemical?"

"Now these are from the onion skin. Now look at this. This is the pomegranate. And this is banana."

"Indigo, when moist, gives off a pleasant perfume. For this reason it is preferred by peoples who live in areas where water is scarce. Their perspiration draws out the stronger perfume of the natural dye. Furthermore, such areas are usually very hot. The blue colors, and particularly indigo, repels the sunlight! So Indigo Blue is the favorite color of desert peoples."

"The Indigo leaves are put into a pot, with water. This ferments for three or four days. The leaves are then pounded for four or five hours. This releases the color, a dark green. Alum is added and the color s

ettles to the bottom. The surface water is skimmed off. The residue paste is filtered in cloth bags, all excess water allowed to slowly drip away. Then we spread it in pans, and allow it to dry in cakes."

"The color fasteners, the fixatives, the preparations, the sizings, all may be natural. The plant world is abundant in such natural chemicals."

"Now this is a mold. It grows on the tree."

"This is a germ, . . .  a bacteria."

"Dye from Jaggery, natural sugar cane, has a tendency of being very odorous. For this reason we must boil it with rusted iron for two or three hours. Even this may not remove the smell.

"Black is a very difficult color . . . we make it with Jaggary, and iron."

"Everything that has a color in the natural world has the potential to become a color we can use."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Arrival in India

Monday December 8, 1986

Early arrival, Ahmedabad. I've been here before.

Low screech over the city, white roofs pristine and glittering in rosy dawn air.

The Moghul Gardens, its famous hexagonal pool filled with crocodiles, the railway station, Victoria Bridge, and Sabarmati river, shriveled to a trickle in a vast sandy dried-up bed, all visible from the air. An unimaginable intimacy with the earth, height is a dimension not understood by earthly beings.

Wings pressed flat, as if to remove creases from a fabric loose against the crust of the earth, we touch, a howl of brakes, engine reverse.

There a dollhouse scale to a giant modern airplane at a small airport beside a tiny cinder block building. Near the terminal, waits a single fuel truck and tank. It also looks like a toy.

I'm reminded of cruise ships towering over Renaissance buildings in Venice, when they pull up to disgorge armies of tourists, or simplified paintings of gas stations by Edward Hopper. The figure in the field was a gas pump, instead of a farmer. The development of the automobile seen in a sentimental light, modernity looked at through the succor of a warm lens.

The Ahmedabad tarmac strip is short for now - bulldozers are already excavating a long extension to prepare for even bigger planes, and more of them.

A mustached man in khaki and sandals waved two signal bars of orange-painted wood, magic wands that conceived our flight from the heavens. The Boeing jet compliantly pulled broadside, and parked. The pilot shut off his engines. Through my window I saw a small crowd inside the building, faces pressed against scratched plexiglass. I waved tentatively at one of them. The wave was returned. Could it be Ami?

Down those narrow steps, bag at shoulder. The air is cool, with a promise of intense heat. There is a slight figure, with a black shawl thrown about her shoulders. Too far to tell for sure, but somehow I know it must be Ami. I wave excitedly. It is. My wife to be.

'Your shawl, your shawl', I whisper, meaning, my God you really are Indian, what a different life you've had. How is it possible we share so much?

"I was cold," she said. "Sorry to wear black." She is smiling shyly. In almost a week I've forgotten how beautiful she is.

Tuesday December 9, 1986          Toy House, Panchshil Society, Ahmedabad, Gujerat

Morning. Bathed, ladlefuls of hot steamy water from the cauldron, stooping in green tile frog-like with green neem soap frothed around my ears.

I look outside through mosquito curtains, a lacy feather filter of fine dust towards mammoth trees and piles of bricks.

"Dollars ninety," So says Indu-ben. She's the family cook and she meant rupees, the cost of the bricks. I'm supposed to build a terrace with them. A wedding terrace.


It's warm here during the day but at night it cools off. Perfect for wax sculpture, if I can just find the right material. Haku-bai, a friend of the family who is an expert in local crafts and sculpture, has some ideas. He says there is a village in Maharashtra where the men make bronzes, as a seasonal occupation. In the winter they make wax originals, in the spring they invest them in a mixture of cow-dung and clay. In the summer they melt the bronze and pour, and in the autumn, which in India is early winter, they chip out, finish and patina their year's work.


Yesterday Ami and I went out and bought two bolts of heavy khadi, or hand-loom cloth, to make kurta pyjamas, or shirt and trousers. We also bought a pair of sandals.

There's a tall Mali working outside in the garden. He wets the earth and pounds it with a steel disk fastened to a bamboo pole. He works at an extremely slow pace, accomplishing in a day what I imagine could be done in an hour. That vanity only explains the reason for my bad back, and irritability. He works hard, and paces his duties evenly from the beginning of the day around ten until evening when he departs carrying a small packet of sticks rescued from the earth beneath the trees - firewood. It looks no bigger than a dozen pencils - with these he'll cook his evening meal. He's good humored, reads the Gujarati newspaper, and writes during his break hour in the middle of the day. He also washes his clothes. At present he lives in a squalid slum outside of town with twelve other men from his district in Rajasthan. They are victims of the expanding desert and failure of crops, and must come to the cities for work.


Dear All at Home:

You probably imagine the problems of writing a first letter to anyone from a place as complex as India. That task, flatly put, is knowing where to start. Compounding this is that I haven't much time, even though writing you a note has been a pleasure I've looked forward to.

So I'll take the time I have, and give you the details I can:

Paris is probably appropriate for the beginning of this story, as I set off from there two nights ago, to come here. As expected it provided a welcome rest. I slept for four days. The combined effects of a physically and mentally demanding job kept me up late until the last minute, with the toils of moving our of our late hellhole on Mott Street, salted by the anxiety and fuss over trip preparations. It had, to no surprise depleted me. The rounds of alcoholic salutations on the eve of my exodus accelerated my fall into Stygian dark. Ami's and my drive with Pop to the airport was the last blip of an extreme heart-race. Our plan was simple, put both Ami and myself on the plane to Paris, I would stay there and recoup for a few weeks, while Ami flew on directly to India. The trip began with a rocky start. Ami's delay in packing almost caused us missing our prepaid flight. We got stuck in terrible traffic. Dad risked driving on the shoulder, as well as getting lost in the Bronx to get around the snarl ups, but without such innovation from Dad we definitely would have lost our flight. Moments after hopping out of the car it seemed we were at our seats in the airplane, as both our names were being paged the moment we entered the terminal. The jet roar and acceleration as we pushed back into our seats ended a frenetic chapter of our lives, and began another. In the calm cold night over the dark Atlantic we began our new lives together, filled with uncertainty, but also promise.

Please excuse this blather. I have for the past few days been surrounded by doting females, all speaking tongues and dialects of which I not the slightest knowledge. How far from Rome one longs to hear Latin. Alas.

Ami's home in Ahmedabad is a small but beautifully sited building beneath large trees in a delightful neighborhood. One awakes to raucous crows and chirrup of squirrels, which sometimes venture into the house. The place has that friendly and comfortable sense of neglect that one finds for instance in an old library, or study. Books are everywhere. A kindly old woman, called Induben by the family, presides over the house and kitchen. She has a strong face and immaculate teeth, and also a very pretty granddaughter who comes to help her in the mornings. That poor little urchin has suffered though, according to Ami's mother. Induben's son in law is a bit of a wastrel, and it is evident in the child who apparently was malnourished when she was young. The grandmother has taken over rearing the child.

Ami's father, is very studious and works long hours with two secretaries both wearing long saris, who assist him in his study at Ashish, another house owned by the family located in a not too distant neighborhood. Since Toy House, Ami's family home, is so small, I have since moved to Ashish. The place is noisy at present with father and future son in law both typing and team of ten or eleven painters scraping and whitewashing the walls in preparation for the wedding.

Mr. Bhatt, who I know as 'Ramesh-bai', does not concern himself with much else besides his work. This is typical and admirable of everyone in this family. They hew to their tasks and once placing a matter of household practicality into the hand of servant or contractor, scarcely give it another thought or word, or glance . . . "


" . . . Nearly all of India it seems has servants, except the poorest of the poor. Even the servants of the people who work as servants, have servants at home to help them with the task of getting on. In India, you do not, cannot, do anything alone, or by oneself. For me to dream of bringing over my bachelor life and cooking for myself is unthinkable. Every single task requires the help of a staff of others.

For instance, there is today no way to look up who supplies any basic materials or supplies. Yellow Pages? They do not exist. Even a proper map of the city center does not exist. Yes one may journey into the crowded souks and markets to try and locate a single stall where a man may arrange for instance, for the delivery of sand or bricks to a construction site, but if one were to attempt such a purchase without introductions, without knowledge, one would lose on the trade, and lose big . . . "

The western life of the individual, the self-sufficient human being, is a fiction, undreamed of by Indians.

Everything here, relies on people.

That simple fact is built into the language. For instance, I would never think of calling my future father-in-law 'Ramesh', without adding the respectful suffix 'bhai', which literally means brother, and must be added to show humility, and gratitude. Similarly Indu-ben is shown respect with the suffix 'ben' which means 'sister'. In Gujerat, if someone's name is not known, one may simply address them, "Bhai" or "Ben", . . . brother, or sister.

Flowers of respect are in the syntax, and also the script. Gujarati, which is amongst the Indo-European rooted languages of Central Asia, was heavily influenced by Arabic, and the centuries of Islamic rule. The language of the Moguls, Urdu, an ultra-polite form of Hindi, is embellished by so many flowery tokens of respect and decoration so much as to be a bit extreme. Urdu, spoken by elder Muslims of the area, and by most of Pakistan, is extremely difficult to speak well for this very reason. Knowing when to add this politesse, or that bit of softening . . . "

I'll mention that Ami always said that Madhur Jaffrey, whom Ismail has starred in quite a number of his films, speaks Urdu 'perfectly". I remember Madhur coming into the cutting room on "Heat and Dust" to coach the scripting of additional recordings we were to make of Urdu speakers, at one of the Nawab's lavish dinner parties. Of course almost every Urdu voice was Madhur, or one of her close friends.

The Urdu influence enormously influenced Gujarat. It fascinated me to watch Ramesh-bhai in his morning ritual reading the Gujarati newspapers, They were much more pleasant to look at than the Hindi papers with their heavy Sanskritized typefaces.

Very few photographs. Quite a number of columns, some of them very funny. Ramesh-bhai had worked as the paper's publisher for a brief tour.

All this, over biscuits and tea.

So it is no surprise that Mahatma Gandhi, when he travelled back from South Africa with the creed of racial repression burning as a bitter memory in his mind, he returned to his native Gujarat with the thought of ending discrimination against the Muslim minority, and against the lowest castes, the Harijans, by renouncing the entire system.

Gandhi symbolically transformed the entire social order so by renaming Harijans, "Children of God".

Caste it was said, would take a thousand lifetimes to try and understand, without profit. There is no single mythos pervading a society that ever was quite so complex. Perhaps that which cannot be easily understood is just another way of spelling cruelty, or injustice. In India, caste is steeped in the Hindu concept of reincarnation, birth, rebirth, and karma. It's older than apartheid or slavery American-style. But slavery it remains, to many, though it is many other things as well. Caste is part of the social order, the cycles of births and deaths.

I thought of our American South, and the literary apologists for the racism prevalent there. "It's so complex." William Styron and his drunken rants through justifications for the old South.

India's geography is, quite simply designed like an old fashioned fish-trap made of wire mesh. There is a funnel, a small opening, let's call that for the moment the Khyber Pass, and a spacious interior. Immigrants navigate the funnel, swim through the opening, but once on the inside cannot escape.

India is complex because peoples that migrate to India by land, tend to stay there. It has been historically and geographically, difficult or impossible to leave. The funnels that lead to India were the Arabian peninsula, if by sea, and a few passes over the Hindu Kush.

One does not forsake a fertile land such as India's western coast for the dry dunes of East Africa or Saudi Arabia. One will starve without farms ready to harvest. So that route of migration was essentially, for millennia on end in early human history, one-way.

Another funnel, and one that dated even further back in time, were the highlands that lead through the Khyber Pass, Afghanistan, and the deserts of what is now Pakistan, and Iran.

Again, once having crossed a desert one does not forsake fertile land that one has found at the end of a journey, to return to arid beginnings. These are the openings, to fertile India. Once gaining a toehold in a new land, one stays. As one would stay on an island.

The subcontinent gathered people like a furious storm. They were forced to get along, and subdivide its resources.

The result, over many millennia was that India received wave after wave of immigrants, wave after wave of settlers, each bringing something new, a language, a religion, an expertise. Each wave took something left over, something unwanted, or fought their way to the top. So generations of settlers each, found a way to fit themselves into India's enormous productivity as a land.

And in this model and metaphor for what India is and has become, so I began to understand England.

That island was populated also, by successive waves of peoples. The Celts, followed by the Saxons, and the Danes. The English have it all organized into a similar system of caste, a ranking a "Who's Who" according to who came when, except that the first occupants, the Celts were treated much like the Dravidian natives were treated by the Aryan invaders.

They were subjugated.

Caste is an invention of the first conquerors, not the first settlers.

But the caste 'system' is the outgrowth of those waves. Populations of farmers isolated themselves from waves of invading metalworkers, for instance. They shared commerce, but the initial mistrust became institutionalized. Caste entered India's entire system, including laws, rights of property, marital customs. The history of coming to India, became caste. Caste was history, and history ruled, instead of laws.

Gandhi and his followers, as I read it, wanted to escape those terrifying clutches of history. He and Nehru wanted a new democracy, a new nationalism of the spirit to replace the grip of history. Ami's mother and father, who had accompanied Gandhi on his famous salt-march - could not have thrown themselves against a greater pillar of Indian culture.

Yet he did, and because he did, they did, and so the limitations of caste even today, are breaking down. This unleashed a new set of laws. Capitalism has tried to replace caste, and the new social order is to be re-scrambled by the profit motive.

So it seems. Yet in India, anything that seems to be true and self-evident, any wise Indian will tell you, is an illusion.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bufo marinus

One Bufo marinus who got to know Jesus,
Amplexed before sex, on females he seized.
Bufo this Cane Toad, took a fast-track to Australia,
And aspired to sainthood, on the backs of femalia.

Bufo marinus, or the Marine Toad, is also known as the Cane Toad. It was imported to Australia from the Americas, where it has since taken over.
Amplexus, "is a form of pseudocopulation in which a male amphibian  . . . grasps a female with his front legs as part of the mating process." [Wikipedia]

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Mantis Shrimp


I knew a pimp, a Mantis Shrimp, 1.
Colorful, but decidedly fierce.
He met a sea-horse, a metaphor of course,
For his lover, who liked to get pierced.

1. Mantis shrimp or stomatopods are marine crustaceans,  ... also known as "prawn killers" in Australia and now sometimes referred to as "thumb splitters" – because of the animal's ability to inflict painful gashes if handled incautiously. Mantis Shrimp sport powerful claws that they use to attack and kill prey by spearing, stunning, or dismemberment. Although it happens rarely, some larger species of mantis shrimp are capable of breaking through aquarium glass with a single strike from this weapon." [Wikipedia]

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