The Mystical, Magical Bubble of Norman

Samuel Nigro, Varanasi, India, Assi GhatSamuel Nigro, Varanasi, India, Assi Ghat

(Flashback: India – part 3 of 5 – My Arrival in Varanasi) … in three sections.

section a 

Unfettered by fatigue, my eyes open at 4 am, as if I was never asleep. Whether jetlag, excitement or nerves engendered by being on the other side of the world for the first time, I am wide awake, and feel the absurdity of being up so early with it still so dark, so cold, on my first full day in Varanasi. I suspect it has more to do with the indeterminacy of my 50-ton of granite art project; but, whatever the reason I am up and it is colder than I ever thought it could be in India in December and I decide I must get another blanket for the duration of my stay at the Kriti Residency. The sun is a few hours below my new horizon line and it is dark, no real light pollution around here, and I have the feeling that I have a backlog of homework to do about not only all things Indian, but also all things Granite. I stand and my feet hit a cold hard concrete floor and I walk to where I remember the light switch to be, but is not a light switch, it is a bank of switches for different lights, different rooms, outdoor lights, electrical outlets, and over head fans. My first click sends the overhead fan into hyper-drive and blows cold air across my body and my already cold feet, papers with a few initial notes I made the night before billow up and float down to the bare floor of my studio room. ‘I’ll pick those up later,’ I think, and ‘forget the main light.’ I click off the overhead fan without hesitation and feel my way over to the bathroom and feel around the wall for another bank of switches.

There are only three. I knew this and, thus, knew my odds at getting a useful light the first time were much better. Click – nothing. I click back, not knowing what I turned on or off. Second Click – zippo. I click back. Third Click – Bingo, baby! Bright light in the bathroom, and I squint and grimace: I’m not tired, but that doesn’t mean my rods and cones work any differently. I step into the bathroom, blink a few times, and my eyes adjust. I pause, stand upright, fix my posture, naked. One transition is over, getting to India. Another about to begin, settling into a new studio. I think, ‘Now that I am finally at the place that I’ll be at for about two months, things will get a bit easier and I can find a new rhythm and new work routine, and hopefully discover a new work mode.’

Teeth brushed, face washed with cold water, dressed with barely enough to keep out the cool, early morning air, I think, ‘yesterday was just hot! It will warm up; it has to.’ I walk outside among the residency buildings to get to the kitchen, feel my way through the darkness, carrying my guidebook for India and I find another bank of light switches, about 20-25 switches plus dials, and I am ready for some trial and error. I turn on and off the switches, trying to suss out the logic of the layout and memorize which switch does what, because I’ll be here for a while and I don’t want to figure out which does what every time I come in here. There are three overhead fans and during my trial and error I discover they all, in fact, work, and they are powerful. I’m glad my feet are clad, and not bare against the concrete like they were this morning with my first surprise fan blast. Some lights are too bright; some are a simple light blub sticking out from the wall and hurt my eyes when there’re on. I settle on a suitable light configuration, and …

‘Oooh, there is a bookshelf!’

I find two different bigger, thicker guidebooks on India.

‘Look there’s a map of the city on the wall. Nice.’

I find breakfast, make some tea and stand in front of the map: I guess my route from the airport and I can’t find Assi Ghat. Not worried: Gabby will show me where it is this afternoon, and I’ll have the benefit of someone just pointing things out to me. I sit and read and compare the three different guidebooks. They all mention kite flying as being a favorite pastime in Varanasi, and my first impulse is that this is something I want to do

{Yes, fly a kite, Sam. Light. Airy, Not Stone, Bernoulli’s principle in action and it will make visible the wind currents high in the atmosphere and …}

“Oh, happy, new experience. Fun! Mr. curly bracket dude … DORK.”

Hey: more interesting than a paper airplane, at any rate – not the density of stone. Besides, this is a thing in Varanasi, so back off. [*I never fly a kite in India, too much else going on, but kite flying is a major currency and activity for the children of the Ghats. I decided I’d rather just watch them do it than to interfere**].

As I go back to my room, there is no sign that anyone else is up. I continue to unpack. There are my juggling balls. ‘Ok. Let’s start this.’ It’s been a while, so I keep it simple: three ball juggling at the height of 5 balls. My ultimate, deadline-less goal is a continuous 5-ball pattern, so I keep the throws slow and deliberate. I focus on the throw as opposed to the catch (process rather than product; journey rather than destination). This is key… ‘Stand comfortably, keep the hands low which will help keep the shoulders relaxed, eyes up looking at the apex of the ball’s trajectory. Focus on making the throws exact so that you don’t have to move your hands to make the catch.’ These are words of a master juggler I worked with years ago that rise up from my unconscious. He also said, ‘Be easy. Relax. No rush and Show no effort. That’s the level of concentration you need: where the juggling looks easy and not dramatic. Concentrate on making good throws. If a throw is out of reach or not where you want it – let it drop. Don’t lunge for it: this only conditions you to “save bad throws” and what you want is to condition yourself to make good throws from the beginning.’

What a relief – I focus on throws. I get pleasure as my eye gets accustomed again to gazing at the perfect hyperbolic arches each ball makes as it travels in accord to earth’s gravitational pull. Joy that each ball is connected to the earth in this way and effortlessly flies past the ball previously thrown, and as an artful throw falls effortlessly into the hand, the joy of the throw, the passing from one hand to another, a ball gets out of reach and the joy in the calmness to just watching it fall, the void of the frantic that demands you catch every ball. I am nervous to let joy fill that void, but some of it gets in without even trying … I watch the fear of letting the ball drop from a wild throw get weaker and weaker. It gets easier, the throws get better and it doesn’t matter either way. Fancy stuff, tricks, wowzie-woo-wee moves are not my focus this trip and for another day, if at all. Then, I stop. I drop it all. On to something else:

I continue to unpack. I see my magnifying glass … an object from a long time ago. My first aid kit – with special ointments and bandages a nurse gave me, duct tape, standard stuff and tweezers … I have five different devices capable of making a fire, but only one of them looks like it can … What??? This just shows I was not thinking too clearly about packing for this trip – too stressed, too worried and brought too much stuff – and I think I know why: I have multiple activities to do here, multiple reasons for being here … “what’s gonna stick?”… There is also a penknife that fits into a wallet and a flashlight that doubles as a keychain, my water purification system [*three items, as it turns out, that were indispensible. The rest – not so much**]. I try to get on the Internet again. It doesn’t work, so still no googling a map of Varanasi or researching the Ghats, just yet.

section b

The morning is gone and now back to the reality of where I am. Lunch, I was told yesterday, is usually at 1 pm and, this first day, Norman is the only one around. He lives in Varanasi, originally from Chicago, and is a volunteer at the Gallery, but used to live in Varanasi (and I guess all around India and the Middle East) in the 70’s and is initially a bit of an enigma to me. I ask him a series of questions about himself, India and Varanasi. He is obviously traveled, worldly, experienced, a wealth of information about India and most things on this side of the world, but not too forth coming, and complicatedly reserved, but kind and expressive and has a sense of humor and readily laughs. It’s a good laugh, and versatile [*there were times that he’d tell a story or comment on an event about India and laugh as a man who straddles multiple cultures, existing in the liminal space, and likes it, or doesn’t care about it, or is above it, or just pushes it aside – I'm still not sure**]. He chooses his words and keeps them general, and offers a prescription for being in India, especially Varanasi for the first time, that I paraphrase: ‘Look, try not to make too many judgments. You travel to see places and people and things you’ve never seen before, to have new experiences; so, have them. Just go out and observe. See what happens.’ I like his concision and agree, even though on day 4, I am daunted with the projects I’ve laid out for myself.

[*During my first two month in India, I learned through trial and error and shock and dismay that Indian cultural attitudes about mealtime are antipodal to Western, especially American, attitudes in particular with respect to conversation and talking as in there is none. That’s right – in some traditional circles and some Indian subcultures there is zero talking, no question asking, total silence, and, thus, no eye contact, and they eat with their hands. I’ve had a number of meals this way. There are variations of this attitude and these behaviors, of course, and different Indians have various levels of tolerance for the Western need to talk and eat. My first few meals with Indians at Kriti, including this one with Norman (who isn’t Indian, but who has lived here long enough to embody the culture), were … well … short, unnerving and ‘What? Did I do something wrong?’**].

Norman does not linger over his empty plate. He gives a short concluding sentence to our Varanasi conversation, gets up without foreplay, places his dishes in the sink (we don’t have to do our lunch dishes, but we are responsible for cleaning our breakfast and dinner dishes; it’s just the rhythm of the residency), and walks out of the kitchen.

I am left alone, so I finish my lunch, place my dishes in the sink and walk out of the kitchen shortly after Norman and quickly change the object of my attention: ‘ok, this is the test of your mettle. What are you going to do, right now?’ First day, Varanasi; fourth day, India; here to work with 50-ton blocks of granite; you already juggled; you have a book on geology, a book on cosmology, a book on Gödel, and a book on epistemology; a studio to set up and work already laid out for the paper you brought with you and bytes and bytes of data on your CPU to get going. You can’t drink the water, not all the food is safe, and you are, however, in a solid place although there are many unknowns, like you just walk out of this compound and there are packs of dogs, feral pigs and cows, dust and honking and poop. Plans to go to the river with Gabby in a few hours. You are basically alone.

I have a simple choice: go back to my studio and engage with all that is there, or try to do something about this floating-in-a-sea-of-unknown and the where-in-the-land-of-scoobie-doobie-doo-am-I-? feeling that is quite new …

You nee.. afsi-offoopoqnm, ox apefak faln …

Um … I feel so detached, unmoored. Dangerous really, because I still don’t know what is going on before me – the air, the sun, Oh there’s a lizard, and a vulture and what were those instructions that Olga gave me about the best way to get all the mosquitoes out of my room every day? Been inoculated for 5 different life-threatening diseases and there are threats of mosquito-vectored Malaria, Dengue Fever and Japanese encephalitis throughout the country and Olga assures me that I don’t have to worry about these Kriti mosquitoes. ‘They are just an annoyance when you sleep.’ ‘Ok.’

Be cal ocuc mulifulknicouts jocom-z. pialium …

The studio can wait. I need to get a better sense of my surroundings, even if it is a small sliver and completely filtered by my own sensibility; of course, what else do I have? You simply have to look around gather more information about where you are, no matter how rudimentary,
no matter how freaked you are right now …

[more information …]

“That’s what you need.”

{… and cut it out you are NOT really freaked out. Get some perspective.}

Of course, you’re right: I breathe. I focus. I think, ‘You need to look. Just have a look around …’

… opfilium aktomiptrery Condunicormory…

I walk to the gate of the compound. From my few looks at the maps in the guidebooks and the map on the kitchen wall, I know that turning right is East and if I stay on this road and keep walking I hit the Ganges River and what is called the Main Ghat, which is roughly in the middle of the River Front that makes up the bank of the city. From my conversation with Norman at lunch, I know that turning the other way, left or west, goes down a bit, a far bit he seemed to imply, and hits a T-intersection. He said, ‘Yeah, not much down there …’

I pause at the compound gate. The road is 5 yards from the gate and is crowded both with moving traffic of an unfamiliar pattern and rhythm and with static make-shift stands of various types selling fruit, coconuts – wow – and there is honking…

“Really, you’re going 5 mph and you’re honking.
No one can go any faster! They are stuck
just like you.”

… and all sorts of noise I can’t figure out where it is coming from.

There are different types of people stationary as well: Mechanics standing around, a bicycle rickshaw taking a break, some guy staring at me, some women in a group – I don’t know what I’m looking at – and then I see a dog sitting on a cow and a dead cat with its head smashed.

[You don’t have to do this now, you know.]

I know, but it is as good of a time as any and I need orientation.

[Ok. let’s go]

Done: I exit the compound and turn right, east, towards the river, and weave around all the dogs, children and tools of commerce, jump about and over various holes, piles and debris. 60 or so yards later, I come to a fork, and from the map and from discussions, I know that the right branch leads directly to the river and the Main Ghat, maybe a mile and a half away. I now see this for myself.

[Good. that’s what you needed to see… turning …]

I make note of the buildings and … chaos … at this intersection and I turn around and head back along the same road toward Kriti. I think, ‘There has to be a better, easier way to walk along these streets.’ I am now over the fact that people look at me for just a touch to long, it’s not really staring but it’s close. At least, they aren’t coming up to me, trying to shake my hand and eager to show me something that they want to sell me or take me somewhere I don’t want to go. I decide to try an experiment, which I described earlier as following a herd of cows that are walking right down the center of the street, but which was really a herd of water buffalo and I apologized to the genus Bos and Bobalus here.  

So, now I’m following this herd of water buffalo, west, back toward Kriti and away from the River. They move slower than I walk in New York and I adapt to enjoy my saunter as we travel down the dead center of the street as traffic honks, crawls and wizzes past us. I am out in the open now, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not like I could ever blend in here anyway. As we pass Kriti, I see that the compound is actually walled in with a gate framing a dramatic mansion that is set back from the road at a great distance, which I find out later is Navneet’s family home. I keep walking and follow these water buffalo for quite a distance, and every now and then, the business buildings and commerce peter away and another gated compound appears with even bigger mansions set way back from the road. Navneet’s family home and compound are well cared for; however, even a quick glace at these other Mansions reveals that these buildings are rundown and falling apart and that the gates, walls and grounds have been neglected. The open trench cum gutter cum sewage-drainage canals filled with putrid water that run along the road doesn’t help my perception. In their hey-day, these mansions must have been opulent, but that day is long gone. I keep walking and the water buffalo turn off the road.

I move from the center of the street now that I don’t have the protection of the herd at point and walk a bit further. During a lull in the traffic I move back to the center of the road, stand on my toes, and peer down this straight East-West Road as far as I can to see. I fix my gaze and shift back and forth from a sniper focus to see as far as possible to a softer, wide-angle vision. In both states, two ways of trying to see a great distance, I relax all the muscles around my eyes and all over my face and try to take in as much as I can. I’m not sure if I can make out the end of the road and the T-intersection, but I’m close. And …

[This is enough.]

… I move out from the center of the road and hop-skip out of the way of a bicycle rickshaw, who rings his bell at me, and I turn back towards Kriti. The sun beats down and now it’s hot and I walk back with haste to the residency for a 3 pm meeting with Gabby and a trip to Assi Ghat.

section c

2:55 pm – I enter the kitchen to meet Gabby just a touch early to study the map of Varanasi on the wall since I still can’t pull up a google map, thinking ‘Don’t worry you have time. You’ll eventually figure all this out, where everything is,’ when … Enter Norman:

‘I’m taking you to Assi.’ ‘Uh … ok’
‘I have sent Gabby to bed. She is not well enough, yet.’ ‘Ok’
‘We’ll meet in a half hour’ ‘Ok’

He walks out. I go back to my studio, and …

… reasse… plonwig be pripr..d ong ..

I try to get the Internet to work one more time. I reevaluate my clothes. The sun is out and intense: I take off my jacket and put on a long sleeve shirt instead …

Beoperfungture

… and at the last moment grab my winter hat (brought with me because it can get cold on planes for someone who shaves his head [*as it turns out, this winter hat was one of my most important items of clothing for the whole trip – India is cool in the winter**]) and fold it and jam it in my back pocket – just in case – with my digital camera.

Half-hour later: we are in the kitchen again.

So, Norman, before we go, point out on the map the route we are taking like you said you would, so I have a rough idea …”

Yeah, so if you stay on the road that Kriti is on and walk east you hit the river. And, here’s the Main Ghat.

So that’s about a mile or two …

Uh, yeah, something like … I’m not sure. So, we’ll travel down this road and turn off,
around here somewhere, heading south, and …

He summarizes with exasperation because, as he points out, the map really isn’t accurate and there are a few ways you can go … it depends on the traffic … and

‘… and we’ll wind through a number of streets,’ Norman says as he runs his finger indeterminately along the map. ‘and, we’ll end up here. This is Assi Ghat. The Southern most Ghat of any interest and where everyone goes. It’s a good place to start. You just enter and walk up the river, which is low now so it will be no problem to walk the full length of the Ghats if you want’

Ok. Sounds good.

You ready?

Yup.

We walk out of the kitchen towards the main gate, fully expecting to walk out to the street to hail an auto tukktuk or bicycle rickshaw, and, I’m greeted with a surprise: No tuktuks for us; I am to ride on the back of his motorcycle. ‘Oookkk’

[*Motorcycles are a main mode of transportation throughout India, for people and commerce. I once saw a man, must have been the father, driving a motorcycle with 4 young girls, age range 11-15, and 1 boy, around 7 or 8, all as passengers, smushed, huddled, hanging on as he weaved around the traffic of Varanasi. The best is the transportation of a 30-foot bamboo ladder by two motorcycles each at one end with the driver’s arm or head looped through the end rung of the ladder, and they zip through the streets, changing lanes, taking corners. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: then there was that time where I saw this teenage boy zipping along the outer streets of the city, early one morning, with his buddy riding on the back with a freshly slaughtered pig that was the size of two grown men drapped over the passengers knees.**]

There is a backrest for the passenger and Norman had an experience with an earlier resident who got her leg caught on it when she tried to get off and didn’t think of letting him know what she was doing. So, he gives explicit instructions about how to get on and off, but in a calm matter of fact way and then he gets confirmation from me so he knows I understand, which of course I do. The instructions are simple and straight forward, but he just wants to make sure we both have an understanding about this. I like his approach. I mean: he doesn’t know me or my level of competence with a motorcycle or with ergonomics and – let’s be real – I don’t know his level of competence with a motorcycle and the chaotic traffic that I have seen so far in India is not to be taken lightly. He wants to make sure we coordinate our efforts as I get on and off and as he drives. This is the right sort of planning. He’s cautious, but not uptight – I like this, too, and feel reassured.

We go. Norman pulls out into traffic and rarely goes above 20 mph; yes, there is traffic, but Norman is driving at a calm, almost Zen-like pace, which is, again, reassuring. 20 minutes into the trip, I realize as traffic, both organic and inorganic, zips by and zips by us, honking, churning, mooing, barking and snorting, Norman – [*the only westerner I met in India whom, upon reflection, I am positive has superpowers**] – did not honk. He did not honk, once. No honking?! Norman did not honk. I sit on the back of the motorcycle and upon this realization, my mouth drops open:

{Wow … I’m in the Mystical, Magical Bubble of Norman right now! …
What, Ho? Is this a Man, Beast or God
with whom I sit!?}

As we ride, I glance around and try to remember landmarks, distances and directions. We keep on making turns and I am struggling to create a mental map of all the twists and of the nondescript architecture – everything looks the same to me, but I’m trying to find the tiniest of differences to make memorable distinctions among the architecture and intersections. I think, ‘This is challenging, but I’ll just clarify the directions with Norman when we get down there. No prob.’ but I also think,

“Yeah, but the number of unknowns is mounting and as the complexity of your situation increases with the more randomness that is introduced, there is a higher probability of more surprises and unknowns and perhaps a bona fide breakdown, catastrophe or something even more unexpected happening, unexpected even for here.”

Could be a good unexpected though … who knows …

Breathe

We enter a new urban niche and I guess we must be close. Norman shouts: “That’s the sign for Open Hand Café!” and turns, goes down the street a bit and stops. This is the café that Gabby mentioned to me during our first conversation. Before I climbed onto the back of the motorcycle back at Kriti, Gabby steps onto her second floor balcony to apologize for not going but that Norman had decreed that she had to stay in bed for another day and insists Norman show me Open Hand Café, her haven next to Assi Ghat.

Back to the motorcycle – Norman: ‘This is Open Hand Café. Good place to get a Chai. Safe food. You’ll find internet and other Westerners’ ‘Ok’ We drive on; I struggle to lock in distances, directions and landmarks … We zip around the corner. I notice a slab of stone with Assi Ghat carved in it.

Here, we are. Just walk down this path and have a look.

I get off with Norman’s acknowledgment and he makes to drive off.

Um. Are you coming?

No I’m going home.

And where will I meet you?

You won’t. I’m going home

How will I get back?

Just take a rickshaw or tuktuk…

He points to a little area where bicycle rickshaws are waiting and another where the auto tuktuks are parked on the other side of the street. Four days in India is long enough to know the game that is waiting for me, and I am self-conscious that I am disadvantaged because all of these drivers are looking at me and they know, and I know they know, that I am the outsider, a fresh fare for them to fight over and to try and chisel as many rupees out of me as possible.

You are not to worry about this now …

Ok, but …

Yeah, just go down to the river and have a walk. Just walk up the river. Have a look.

Ok

It’s a nice walk the water is low enough. You can go all the way up to the last Ghat if you want.

And what do I say to the cycle rickshaw driver.

Huh?

Where do I tell him to go. How do I get home?

It’s easy: just say “Awoolindyhop Radideestandium”

The what.

It’s right across the street from the gallery.  Just say “Awll indyhamin Ruundide estanshippiedin”

The “Aoowel InliamRahmaman STalaondm”

NO! THE “All Indyham RandidOOH ESTASHE-un!”

Oh …

I write it down phonetically as best I can: All Indi-RUnan Rhando srTranel.

[Wait, Sam. That makes no sense to you.]

Wait … what? (I think he is saying something in Hindi to me: this is how disoriented I am)

All … India … Radio … Station. The tower is right there across the street from the gallery. It’s huge.

OH the All Indian RAY-DEE-O stay-shun! … Radio Station … OH I get it …

I write it down.

Yeah, you can’t miss it. It’s huge. Everyone knows where it is …

Oookkk…

[Hmm: I missed it … You walked around Kriti and up and down that road
and we didn’t see any Radio tower.
Totally missed it]

“so much for your powers of observation.”

{shut up}

… Yeah, and … and if they don’t … then the driver will just stop
and ask someone where it is.

I tell them to take me to the Indian Radio Station.

The “All India Radio Station” yes. It’s easy …

 The All Indian Radio Station

… Just negotiate a price. Not a problem.

I look around. I am totally out of my element: there’s a calf swaddled in a burlap sack;
there’re two cows licking each other and a dog with a right angle for a leg
not to mention the people coming up to us with solicitations
as we stand and talk. We both periodically have to
shake people away from us.

That’s all I say?!? (“Get more information”) What about an address? What’s the name of the road?

Looking directly in my eyes, Norman is incredulous and sighs, ‘Address? No one knows …’

I mumble out loud, mostly to myself, breaking eye contact, looking away and up ‘That’s right, there are no street signs, no addresses …”

I lower my gaze and a dog trots by. I think, ‘that’s different from a Delhi dog,’
and I am suddenly relieved that I got my
pre-inoculation for rabies …
and say, ‘Ok’

Norman goes, ‘Look the neighborhood is called Mamoorganj. Tell them that. Mamoorganj is the neighborhood. Everyone knows where that is.’

I write it down phonetically: ma – MOre – g – AN– j ‘I need to learn how to spell Hindi’ I think and, ‘God I am unprepared for this’.

He makes to leave.

Wait, Norman …

<<

The number of variables and unknowns – Complexity – is increasing way too fast and it feels exponentially so. I mean:

The city, first day; the location, first time; the language, don’t know it; the environment, not mine, and there is an obvious new order here, if not a special brand of chaos, all around; the animals, are you kidding … I’ve seen The Dog Whisperer and my Brother-in-Law is a Veterinarian and I’ve even wrangled calves with him, but this is on an entirely new level; the people, there are more economic and social strata here than I have bones in my hands; the nature, and just like there is probably no true distinction between Mind and Body, there seems to be no true distinction between Man and Nature and I see it and feel it here; the transportation, and with a gossamer thin tether back to anything remotely recognizable via negotiating with an Indian driver (which I have never done before) to give me a ride back to Kriti, and I don’t exactly know where I am (even though I am confident I could walk back to the residency on my own even if it took me 12 hours: it would be a pain, but I could do it); the negotiations, it’s a game and I will continue to play it and at least the monetary amounts are low – for me, anyway – but I don’t know the rates for this area … heck, even the atmosphere seems different (could it be Deuterium? O18?) … First, I was going to Assi Ghat with Gabby, no, then with Norman, ok, then No tuktuk for us and it was on the back of a motorcycle, How, Now, Danger?!, then Norman was leaving me and not my ride home – all unexpected. There are other surprises that have been popping up this first day that I haven’t mentioned and all of these are not a big deal taken one at a time, but one right after another in quick succession …

I need something … I need something to minimize the risks … Norman was my anchor to Varanasi-World and, fine, now he’s not  … my mind is grasping – no – wandering, flowing, [cogitating …] … I need something … information that is grounding …

I have no anchor to familiarity, except to myself.

and ultimately that is all you need.

{{

Bottom line: I don’t have enough information about what I am about to embark upon, and …

“and that’s just tough: empiricism, contextual knowledge, chaos theory, the science of catastrophic failures … call is what you will. Your living this: Step up.”

{F*ck.}

[Steady]

{Ok. F*cus}

“Slippittee-Doo-Da! Old Boy. Buck up, will you?”

[Remember: 99 percent of what is going on before you is normal to everyone here. It will just take time to experience that for yourself.  You have plenty of skills and competence… plenty to draw from … the list is long]

Yeah, I know that, but the question is will these skills translate to this playing field … the unknowns, the variables … stacking against me  …

{and that’s how you unstack them … with this realization and this awareness … this – you – just changed the equation}

Yes. Exactly.

[Just don’t do any thing stupid like try to ride a bull or start swimming in the pestilence-riddled Ganga …]

Obviously. So, the distinction between a risk-taker and a gambler comes to mind, and …

“Flow, Baby, Flow …”

Trust. You know more than you think. Don’t start planning for contingencies,
and allow yourself to know what to do at each moment …
but ask your question anyway … more information
is good …

}}

>>

Wait, Norman. What do I do if something happens? Where is there a safe place to go … I’ve got no map. I’ve got no phone … I’ve never been here before and …

Here are more points for Norman and his superpowers, because he doesn’t hesitate or judge.

Harmony Books. Right there. Rakesh knows Navneet and is good friends with the gallery.

Where is there?

RIGHT THERE …

I look and yup it’s right there.
I write it down anyway: Harmony.
phonetically: Rock – HAeSH

‘Ok.’ I look at Norman. We make eye contact. He nods. I nod.

‘Just walk along the river. Have a look. Ok?’ and Norman leaves.

Ok.

“Nothing matters. Go.”

{{[ 1, 2, 3 – … ]}}

I turn and walk down the path toward the river. I pass rows of parked motorcycles, pass beggars who are horribly deformed,
others with wizened faces and skeletons for bodies,
and I pass children – children, dirty and disheveled, shoeless – begging along side, in a position no child should ever be.
I step over and zigzag through piles of cow dung, and I pass a monkey chained to a man,
or was it a man chained to a monkey,
not sure …

… just before I thought I was in the La-La Land of the Lost and about to see three moons in the sky and a Sleestak step out from behind the Vishnu Tree,
I am shocked out of my unmoored position
and greeted with a resounding reliability,
anchored back in familiarity:

“hellOOO, Sir!” “Hello, which country?” “Yes. Good time. Yes. Come to my shop …

Have a good looking, Sir …

“Boat, Sir?”

“Boat – Bau-whot. Bau-whot, Sir.
Yes, sir. Come. Coming:

Bau-whoot.
Bau-whoot.

I am instantly surround by a group of men clamoring for my attention
and chanting in hilarious, but urgent disharmony
and dissonance: BOAT

Bau-whot Bau-whot Bau-woat

Biah-OOOt…
Biah-OOOt …

and

Hey Good Looking, Yes, Hello. Have a good looking.

Bau-whoot. Bau-whoot.
Yes, Sir: Come Now. Bau-whoot.

Biah_WHOAT

YeEeS! Biah_WHOAT!?
YeES!?
YESSssssssssss

NO.

Next:

I can trigger a transderivational search at will …

or

I am now a Jedi Master …

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THEY … EAT … PEOPLE

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

(Flashback: India – part 2 of 5 – My Arrival in Varanasi)

‘Have you ever applied to a residency and not gotten in?’ asks Gabby.

‘Of course …’

‘I just applied to one in Brazil …’

‘Well if you don’t get in, then you apply again or find a yes somewhere else.’ I say because I detected a mild “what-am-I-going-to-do-after-I-leave-India” in her voice and I’m looking at her work and have just listened to the many projects she started while being in Varanasi for the last 2 and half months – spoken with confidence and zeal – and unless she wrote her Brazil application in crayon with backwards ‘S’s and went berserk with Little Rascals’ periphrasis, I didn’t think she had anything to worry about; besides, she has not just ideas, but also a care and concern for connection with her art to spare.

‘And, besides your project is good and has potential for growth, so don’t worry about it. You’ll find a place for it … even if you don’t do it in Brazil.’

Gabby is the only artist on the compound of the residency. Five others are traveling around India and will be back later in the week. When I arrived at Kriti Gallery an hour earlier – after a taxi ride that took an unplanned detour that I clocked within a family of experiences that I’ve collected during my first 3 days in India that are both out of my ken and not worth really doing anything about except noting how bizarre, inconvenient and verging on imposing, rude or dangerous they really are – Olga, the director of the gallery, welcomes me, shows me around and leaves me in my two-room studio to unpack.

Gabby is outside at a makeshift workstation, and in the course of unpacking I walk outside and a conversation starts with the typical softballs lobbed back and forth that people toss to one another upon first meeting. She speaks British. I speak American. So, the language hurdle we have to overcome is low. But, the communication is more complex: she is a moderately fast talker (not the fastest I’ve been with but slightly faster than my natural setting), and her interruption cue, the pause in a conversation where people expect to be interrupted or feel it is appropriate to interrupt, is substantially shorter than mine. These are not problems, but just part of the dynamic that has just begun and is something I’ve learned from experience to compensate for by changing my own speed and rhythm and, in this case, usually involves taking shorter pauses in the conversation than I’m comfortable with as I speak or to begin talking, or just listening. However, Gabby is also a moderate question asker, which is closer to my personal communication style, meaning talking begins as one answers a question rather than as one interjects in the middle of a monologue, or a sentence or a thought.

Surrounded by high shrubbery and overhanging branches of near by trees and big-leafed tropical plants swaying in the wind, Gabby’s work area is comprised of a 15-foot stone bench that reminds me of a church pew and at a right angle is another, shorter stone bench, and then a couple of painted, weathered, wooden chairs and a table to match. Gabby is sewing something to something else and has a pile of drawings, roughly 11 x 14”, on the stone bench next to her and at the far end of the table there is a pile of fabric that has been cut and edges sewn into deliberate – trying to be uniform, but whose lopsidedness gives it a personal attitude – rectangular pieces, which are larger than and ever so slightly of a different proportion to the paper drawings and have various repetitive, tessellated, dotted, floral, latticed, damask patterns, and brings to my mind stereotypical colorful aesthetics of India because of the glitter and brightness and boldness of color and design. The conversation flows, Gabby talks, and I eventually sit down at the table right angle to her as she sews – now that I have a closer look – a glittery border around a drawing that is attached to a piece of fabric. We talk for 37 minutes …

{                         “What – 37. Reaaaally, Sam. … 37 minutes?”

Yeah, 37: it’s a cool, memorable number; besides it’s prime … Got a problem with that?

“Alright. Whatever?!”

{{Rubidium, not Deuterium?!}}

Huh?

[Rubidium – its atomic number is 37, and Deuterium is an isotope of Hydrogen and contains one extra neutron that …]

Yeah, yeah – and all of the Deuterium was created at the Big Bang. We know …

[… and when Deuterium is concentrated as at least one of the Hydrogen atoms in water molecules it creates what we call heavy water and heavy water, in a high concentration, not only sinks when it freezes but is instrumental in establishing a nuclear reaction …]

… Ok, fine … and, along with other heavy isotopes such as for Oxygen, it is found in higher concentrations at lower latitudes because of the natural evaporation and precipitation cycles of the planet that distills out the heavier elements and moves different concentrations of isotopes up towards the poles …

[… and – don’t forget – whose concentrations are temperature dependent and when the atmosphere gets trapped in air bubbles in the layers of ice in the Greenland ice sheets and other glaciers, these different concentrations of isotopes are trapped too!, which can be carefully extracted, giving us proxy temperatures for eons gone by …]

… Yes! – and these air bubbles within the ice are like mini-time capsules because they contain not only different concentrations of isotopes but have other characteristics, telling us all sorts of things about the atmosphere of the actual day the air was trapped in the ice millions of years ago!

<pause>

“Well, well … Deuterium … aren’t you all just so ‘cute’ … ‘precious’ really.”

<pause>

… uh … and, as I sit with Gabby … er … I’m wondering how … um … how much Deuterium I’m breathing in … <glup> … because I’m much further South on the planet and in the tropics …

“GEEK!”

{{that’s weird}}

 Weird!? You’re the one who brought up Rubidium?

{{Rubidium is a soft, silvery metal that …}}

[We don’t care about Rubidium at the moment … ! …]

“So, you’re prejudiced! You’re elementally prejudiced!!”

I’m not prej-…

Relax everyone: Rubidium is too much at the moment … so is the fact that you weigh less because you are closer to the equator because the earth is an oblate spheroid and gravity is weaker as you move closer to the equator …

<silence>

… that’s right: I know your thinking that as Gabby chatters on …

Yeah, but – …<sigh> … – Look: you caught me …

… I’m just trying to simplify …

Stop thinking about it, then … Look, everyone: 37 fits the circumstances and not the important issue. Deal with it. So … Gooo Ooon …}

Well, Ok, that order of magnitude anyway: 40ish minutes to an hour or something. I mean: It wasn’t seconds and it wasn’t days. Alright! And, by the way, you will never get anything like that kind of precision in India. [*I’m still waiting for packages (including some of my sculpture) to be delivered to North America: it’s been 6 months and the shipper said 6 weeks. He also hasn’t returned any of my emails.

Stop thinking about it …

OH … Incredible !ndiaAAAAHHH! Ok, that’s it: Moving on …**]

The project Gabby is working on as we sit and talk has taken shape around connecting with the Indian women who come to the Ganga for their ritual, laundry and bathing routines. Gabby is sewing graphite portraits she drew of women at the Ghats onto swathes of fabric. She gave the portraits various monochromatic, acrylic backgrounds that offer a counterpoint to the designs on the fabric and focus one’s attention to the realistically, traditionally proportioned – trying to be faithfully rendered with short, choppy delicate graphite lines – portraits of women she met at the Ghats. She describes in detail a few of the relationships she has formed and is indignant at the separation of the sexes that she sees and the marginalized position women seem to occupy at the Ghats.

My sense is that she has worked on many ideas during her 2 ½ month in Varanasi … trying this … trying that … hooking on something … pushing this … running into barriers … putting that aside … trying again … and then committing to one thing as if to say: “OK. This is what I am going to push to a finale.” It is not the only way a creative process can go, but I recognize this structure and hear it in her description.

She states, ‘I am going to hang these pieces at Assi Ghat, early in the morning when women go to the Ghats to do their bathing and cleaning to have more privacy when there aren’t so many men around … It’ll be this Friday.’ ‘Great. I’d like to see that.’ I say, not knowing what an Assi Ghat is and I think:

Good. A statement of resolution.

It is so important to – at some point – to just commit to a direction, finish a project and then show the art: it is integral to the art-making process, because an artist needs to see other people see the work, to know it is out in the world. It doesn’t matter what the reception is or even how many people see it. You need to know what you have created is being seen, being experienced. And, I know how residencies can go where you are left with loads of stuff or joules of synaptic firing and not sure what will come of it or just plain old indeterminacy. This is another track of the creative process and the resolution may come years later – necessarily so. There is no set formula, and these are only two models that I find helpful in navigating and being anchored within the creative process.

Gabby speaks with a passion that is buoyed by an inner emotional struggle, but tamped down and constrained. I believe that I am not too far off to summarize her India time as shock, turmoil, creativity, striving, struggling, illness, and a quest to meet and talk to as many people as she can and to create connection and community through both her art and her personality with as many residents of Varanasi as she can fit into her day. I would also say her comments are punctuated by indignation for the values she holds close to her heart but sees being unexpressed, repressed and distorted; but, then this indignation is pulled back almost before any hard proscription is shot forth. She says a few times: ‘You’ll see …’ I don’t know much about Varanasi, but given my experience in Delhi, I am not surprised that her experiences have sparked such reactions, and it is clear that she has funneled this energy into her artwork.

She tells me that today [*the day I arrive at Kriti**] was the anniversary of a gang rape that occurred in Delhi one year ago that generated international coverage. I say:

Huh … Today? … I remember that it happened last year and when I was wandering around Delhi I had a fleeting thought about where it might have occurred. But, I was so concerned with my own safety and navigation of everything that was utterly foreign to me, I could hardly think beyond …

And, Gabby interrupts, and I drop the thread and besides I have another thread going on internally about why I came to India; and, as my thoughts wander into realms of planetary life cycles, I can’t help to feel relieved that I am finally at my destination and that I feel qualitatively safer and I am able to shift to a lower gear and start thinking about …

{granite, breaking, tectonics, deuterium, connection}

that I’ve put off for a while because of life.

Gabby’s brain, I imagine, is now rapid fire because her speaking rate has ticked upwards just a bit and I read her expressions as a mixture of repressed indignation, necessary cathartic renewal and helpful suggestions, experiences and anecdotes about her own puzzlement and negotiation of Varanasi. We talk about tuktuks, negotiating prices, getting sick in India (she is just getting over two weeks of illness), dealing with India culture, the role of women, being a western woman, being a western man and the necessity of figuring it out.

She speaks with an intensity that is part warning, part catharsis and part shock, and is an outward expression of my own internal turmoil; but, since she has more direct experience with Varanasi, I turn up my listening faculty to gain more relevant information to feel less displaced. She tells me about the Ghats, Sadhus and about Lingas; actually, she asked me if I knew about them and I said not really, sort of, a little … ‘Well, you’ll see them soon enough. Lingas are the symbol of the union of Shiva and his wife, Parvati, and they are everywhere around the Ghats.’

I took a chance to get in a sentence in about my time in Delhi and mention the bird competition for loaf-sized blocks of meat on my walk in old Delhi. She asks, ‘Was it a dead body?’ ‘I don’t know. Probably not. Unrecognizable.’ and leave it at that, because I don’t really feel compelled to rehash all my adventures as a way for solidarity, including the detour my taxi driver just took before being dropped off at Kriti an hour earlier. I mostly listen. My comment, however, does change the direction of our conversation.

We then talk about dead bodies, death and dying [*Right? I know! I’m in Varanasi for an hour!**].
Gabby blurts out, ‘You know about the Burning Ghats?’

I have a vague recollection that I’ve read about them, and say:

Kind-a … uh … sort-a … well, tell me?” and think: man, am I unprepared for this.

It is where they burn bodies … and … You’ll find out soon enough … I’ll show you … and do you know about Sadhus?

(this is the third time she brought up Sadhus.)

Tell me.

They are these holy men who have renounced society.

Who are they?

They are holy men … part of the Hindu tradition and stand outside of … everything and do whatever they want as a way to understand life and … and they can … they can do whatever they want …

Uh-huh …

… they even eat people if they want …

And, this breaks my internal dialogue about how fast the Indian Subcontinent is moving into Asia and whether the erosion of the Himalayan Mountain Range matches the movement of the Subcontinent northward and how even one would figure that out(?!) and breaks my fantasy of imagining the millions upon millions of years it would it take for the whole land mass to finish crashing into Asia and just erode away. And, how would you figure THAT out? Don’t get me wrong: I am listening to Gabby and even enjoy hearing her, I just feel relief that I am at my destination and can engage with my own work, which I am thinking about as we talk because it is the first chance I have. Anyway: I was listening intently enough to know that this was the second time she mentioned eating people in one breath, so I took the bait.

So you’ve mentioned this before… eating people. What are you talking about?

Yes. The Sadhus eat people if they want …

What …

At the Burning Ghats … you’ll see … there are all these … well Sadhus want to break with all perceived, normal behavior and go against any cultural taboos as a way to attain spiritual enlightenment.

But eating …

Look: they do all sorts of things down there…

They … eat …people!

They … eat … people if they want!

Do you mean if I go down by this Ghat, I’m going to see these Sadhus eating human flesh?

Well … I mean …

Have you ever seen anyone eating human flesh down there?

No. Look. at the burning Ghats there are …

Am I going to see this just out in the open, someone chewing on a dead body … uncooked.

Look: there are different types of sadhus. Some of them at the Burning Ghats walk around naked with ash from the bonfires rubbed all over them…

Yeah, ok, but that’s not eating people …

The ash contains burnt and charred bodies.

Ok, but…

They can eat people if they want … they can do whatever they want for their own spiritual enlightenment…

<pause>

… and, they walk around … there’re not all the same … being holy and they (she revolted) and they smear ashes of the dead, from the fires, all over themselves. They can do whatever they want, they are sadhus… You’ll see.

<pause>

I’ll show you.

Ok. well, this is why I’m here … to see new things …

I’ll take you down to the Ghats tomorrow.

All right.

We’ll meet in the Kitchen at 3 …

Good … that works …

Next:

The Mystical, Magical Bubble of Norman

or

Where can I get my own Superpowers? …

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A Feral Pig Walks Between Us …

snSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

 

(Flashback: India – My Arrival in Varanasi, part 1 of 5)

I arrived in Delhi on a Friday, I travel to Varanasi the following Monday. It is day 4 of being in India, on a trip to find Indian Granite to work with.
Delhi was just a mild precursor. Vulnerability, alienation and dislocation are the operative words.
As promised, here is my arrival in Varanasi in 5 parts and in the present tense,
although this is published 8 months later, and, as a reminder,
I will be explicit about my own reflections and demarcate
my hindsight within theses special
brackets [*…**].

My flight to Varanasi is delayed by deep fog that is standard for India this time of year, but a surprise to me. It is so thick that on my way to the airport my taxi drives through white outs and we can’t see the cars or their brake lights in front of us until we are right on top of them. I am amazed that the taxi didn’t rear end someone, or … get this … run down the police/soldiers and crash through the periodic check points that are set up closer to the airport. My flight takes off 2 hours late.

I find a taxi driver with a sign with my name on it and let my guard down a tiny bit because he was sent by the gallery and they know how much this will cost and, therefore, I have more trust that this driver will just take me to Kriti Gallery without game or machination [*Ha!**]. The above collage is of the gate of Varanasi airport the day I arrive, and tells a big part of the story. The counter balance is a stone, a sedimentary stone, most likely a chunk of sandstone. I rush a picture through the windshield of the taxi before we drive pass, because – as an artist whose material of choice is stone – a stone as a counter weight must be relevant, or something.

It is a long ride, mainly due to traffic as we get closer to the city. Two and a half hours long. Three things amaze me: 1. People live on the side of the road in great numbers in every sort of ramshackle abode, as if in a perpetual state of camping while various commerce and their concomitants take up space or wander about; 2. The road markings, when there are any, are merely suggestions – to everything: both directions of traffic, villagers and animals and bicycles and wagons and cows, dogs, which leads to; 3. Honking and the circulation of traffic which seems to flow on and on like molecules following the laws of fluid dynamics, where everyone is patient and there are no outward displays of anger and honking seems to play no recognizable roll in this flow because no one pays attention to it, but everyone is doing it. [*I wrote this paragraph weeks after my arrival in Varanasi. Even though my opinion about traffic life has evolved, I still have questions about the cultural dynamics of how anxiety, anger and violence are funneled and expressed, because they are complex, historical and different than my own. I have more thoughts, ideas and opinions about this, but I am going to keep most of them to myself for the time being and try just to report what happened**].

All this observed, I should make clear, from my rear passenger window as the taxi zips and weaves through traffic; I make a point to remind myself that my monkey-mind judgments are in no way definitive. I remind myself that I am just gathering material. I try to turn up the volume of my inner voice that says,

Observe, just observe. Perceive – that is all. This is not about you.

We get into the city proper and it is not a Delhi… both are hot and dusty, but Varanasi is just raw. Everything seems browner with dust.
Fewer trees – in fact, barely a green anything anywhere. Wandering Pilgrims. Skeletal Horses. Permanent shanty communities – concentrated.
Little-to-no pavement. None-to-dangerous-void of sidewalks; and more traffic than anywhere I have ever been. I don’t fit in; I look like no one.
If I were just dropped in the middle of this … well, it would be a challenge. I feel the constraint of being beholden to the driver.
(I’m kicking myself for not studying a map of Varanasi more diligently. “This won’t happen again …”
I think, which turns out to be prescient or is it parody. Oh! … hindsight! … more to come).
We are deeper in the city now and I am paying close attention
to landmarks and directions, although I am lost
and bewildered by what I see
and can’t really make
any meaningful
distinctions.

Time and distance passes, I now guess we are on the main road that the residency is on, heading West out of the city, and remarkably I am correct and see the sign for the gallery, but the driver passes.

I say to the driver, “Um … Hello!? … Kriti Gallery…” and point and wave in the rearview mirror.

He gives me the non-verbals and a few quick Hindi phrases that I am sure are the equivalent of  “YEAH, YEAH. Hold your horses. I know what I’m doing.” But, I don’t think he does. I sit back, and the yellow flag of caution starts to rise, it is coming close to half-masted. I wait. He turns the car and goes around … uh … a block(?) or something. He’s back on the main road again going back the way we came. “There it is.” I say, “Kriti gallery.” as we pass the sign again. The yellow flag blows in the wind, full mast. He speaks to me in confident, bold – loud – Hindi and gestures down the road away from my destination.
I have no way to interpret this. I wait: calm, I see the yellow flag
that has been unfurled.

He turns the car around – again! – and heads in the original direction, but stops at the corner well before the sign I saw and the gate, to Kriti Gallery and the Residency that is meant to be my destination! He pulls over and makes to get out. I think:

“What’s going on! You are tired. You are hungry. You are in the shock of the new. This is not your destination.”

The yellow flag begins to turn to red. I move to act, to speak, but something …

Sam, not red. Lower the flag. 

I do…

Get out and engage with the situation. 

I put my hand on the door handle…

Wait!

What now?@! …

Breathe and smile.

Oh, ok – I follow the directions and make to exit the left side of the car.

I am ready: I open the door and place the full sole of my left foot on the gravel, dirt and whatever other garbage the driver pulled up on. A billow of dust hits my face. I transfer my weight and swing my right leg out of the car. It is hot. I stand and move out from behind the passenger car door and leave it open. I breathe, again. Hot. I give myself a centered, round space and present my full attention to the driver, who is now engaged in animated conversation with a group of men. I think of the smile of resolve and confidence that Julius Caesar must have had on his face as he crossed the Rubicon: I plant my feet, a firm foundation amidst the organic debris, and I am in an ideal position – able to move, shift, parry at a moments notice … legs nibble and strong, hands at the ready; I breathe into my abdomen and lower my center of gravity. Back straight, head up, I focus on the driver and widen my gaze, expand my peripheral vision and push my consciousness out as far as I can make it go and take in as much as I can. Present. Focused. Ready for Godow. I want to know why the driver has stopped and why he won’t take me to my destination that we just passed twice. I stand angled to the driver so to not be too aggressive or to accelerate the brinkmanship too rapidly.  The driver pays no attention to me. He speaks to a group of men who are standing around. And, then, something … doesn’t … feel … quite … right … “Drat! My fly’s unbuttoned.” I have the surprise of a Chris Farley, shuffle my feet, button up and mellow my countenance and my stance is more like Claudius the Invalid than Julius the Caesar. No one notices. No one cares …

Good catch: now, stop joking around and just stand there
and gain contextual knowledge…

Fine. I look and listen. Hindi flies back and forth – hand gestures, head movements. If the driver is lost, then I am in La-La land. But, I’m not and He’s not. The sign for Kriti is right down the road. This place is way different than Delhi. I’ve described this road before, but what I see is traffic, rickety commerce on both sides of the roads and dust and honk, honk, honking … I offer an open-hand gesture and point all five fingers at the 3 x 5 foot sign up the road that says Kriti Gallery and say, “Kriti. This is where I need to go.” A feral pig walks between us. The driver ignores the pig and ignores me. I smile and chuckle and give a little Western shake of the head of incredulity. More Hindi. I think, “What’s going on … Does he need directions? Is he buying something?! Is he getting the latest Cricket score?!?” I have no idea. I say, “Kriti Gallery is RIGHT THERE.” He ignores me. Being distracted by the pig furrowing the ground between us, I miss an exchange: so much for my powers of observation. I think they hand something off between themselves, which way I’m not sure. I have no idea what I’m looking at or what the driver is doing. He gestures to get back in the car. I do, and we drive down 30 yards and pull into a driveway. Whatever this stop was, it doesn’t matter: I made it! This must be it!

Next:

A Crash Course in Varanasi Life

or

They Eat People Here …

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Flashback: India …

By way of reminder, I arrived in India Dec 2013, left June 2014 and went directly to Berlin, Germany
to give myself some time to digest what I had just gone through and to plan how to get
Cairns – Shards – Pieces
done.

Starting in June, the reentry to a Western Culture was well …

1. Out of India – reverse culture shock

2. Adjustment continues …

3. Bread, Granite and Heutegesternmorgenwelt

4. Cogitating … drawing … still adjusting …

5. To Walk, To Mime … (Heutegesternmorgenwelt REDUX)

and I slowly got back into and became able to look at my India material, again:

6. Three Stones from Three Cities – part 1

7. Three Stones from Three Cities – part 2

My posts about my first days in Delhi set the tone and timbre of my whole trip: India got different and I adjusted and learned and grew as my experience with India increased, if for no other reason than I started to see how complex and different and diverse and multi-layered this area of the world really is; but, it never really got any calmer or easier, and I had to decide to hold back on posting so that I could just be there or I’d miss much of what was going on.

If you take those first three posts of Delhi,

1. My first day in Delhi

2. Finding Hotel Broadway

3. Being taken for a ride … in Old Delhi

multiply them by a non-Euclidian field of 3-million-Hindu-Gods-14%-Muslim-population-of-1.2-billion-with-a-handful-of-Christians-and-dash-of-a-few-other-religions-with-hundreds-upon-hundreds-of-languages-spoken-and-with-some-of-the-oldest-evidence-of-Homo-sapien-culture-and-I-am-a-landmass-that-began-it’s-collision-into-Asia-35-million-years-ago dimensional space times the inverse of Planck’s constant, which really means I’m not sure what I just went through, then you get what my un-posted time was like.

But I owe it to myself to finish writing about my adjustment period to India, at a minimum.

So, here comes a 5-part series of my arrival in Varanasi and my first visit to the Ghats … I will try to present it in the present tense
as if it just happened, but I am compelled to fill in the gaps with present commentary using this construction [*…**], which also should be decoded as containing issues or themes
that I have been mulling over and puzzling about and not really sure what to do with
and that have, additionally, slowed my posting momentum.
After the arrival in Varanasi posts,
I will feature the artists I met
at the residency.

But before that, here is a selection of images:

Seconds prior to these cobras almost biting me, I made the connection between the horribly melted, bandaged, rotting, wounded people I saw lying about, immobile, begging, with the fact that they had leprosy, which forced the connection between all the deformed bodies hobbling around everywhere and the scourge of polio. All three of these things – cobras leaping at me, and the realization of people inflicted with Leprosy and then with Polio – occurred within a few steps of one another as I wander the market area around the Main Ghat of Varanasi helping Olga, the director of Kriti Gallery, shop for the residency’s weekly food supply:

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

Me with my first forehead dot – it was bound to happen some time and this was hardly planned. I discovered an enormous tree at the edge of the city, and walked over to investigate. The priest befriended me [*He told me all about Shiva Power and that the tree was 800 years old, and have to leave it at that**] and, before I knew what was happening, he swept me up into this ritual of placing a bi-colored tilak on my forehead. Seeking some kind of cross-cultural bonhomie, I let him do it. I immediately went to take a picture, but I didn’t realize my phone was set to video, so I inadvertently got my first 4 seconds of reaction …

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

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A Gecko.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

A lizard.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

A Monkey.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

Two birds.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

A Goat in a sweater.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

another

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

another

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

-

another

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

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another

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

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another

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

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and two more

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

… and lest this gives you the impression that Indians are species-biased …

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

and
Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

yup …Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

 

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Three Stones from Three Cities – part 2

In part 1 of Three Stones from Three Cities, I discover a series of mysterious broken stones
in Mauerpark, Berlin, Germany, as my friend, Helena, and I walk around one Sunday afternoon,
looking for a place to stand
to watch Karaoke in the
ultra-crowded
amphitheater.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The next afternoon I was compelled to go back to Mauerpark with my camera because of the mystery of these puzzling breaks, the Unexpected Field of Trauma as I call it.  The Karaoke singers and gawkers are gone. The park, once a strip of No-Man’s Land when the Berlin Wall was functional, is nearly empty. I walk the full length of the dead-straight road, which is about the length of two American Football fields and runs the full length of the park, parallel to where the outer and inner walls of the Berlin Wall used to run. The eastern facing, or outer wall is to my right as I walk North up the road, and a section of this wall is still standing.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

After my inspection along the whole road, I see that the only area of trauma, these strange fractures in the cobblestones that I described in the previous post, is where I initially saw them – by the Karaoke amphitheater.

“Hmm … interesting.”

I kneel down to look closer: yes, the breaks are mostly on top, fractures on the surface and some of the stones are worse than others and the breaks sort of go around the stone, and then there is the softening of the sharp edges, similar to how the sharp edges of ice, as with an ice cube, soften as it melts.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureThree_Stones_2nd_Frame_02Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The pattern of breaking has no radiation out from a center, as what would occur with an explosion or a downward blow of a hammer. Nor are they directional, like let’s say if a force ran over the top of the stones in one direction, breaking the top layers, like I fantasize would happen with a tank tread or some piece of machinery capable of directing a powerful, continuous force. And, significantly, the stones aren’t disturbed within their housing. However these breaks happened, they didn’t happen in a way that disturbed the position of the stone. My guess is that this happened a while ago, i.e … at least not last week … debris has filled the cracks. But, how? Still not convinced it is the natural cycle of freeze and thaw, I snap a few quick photos. It begins to rain. I run for cover and then leave the park. I take shelter at Friendly Society, a Boutique–Coffee–Bar–Gallery, that is a few blocks away. I talked with Gregor, one of the co-founders, as I sit out the downpour. (If you’re by Mauerpark, take a special detour to have some great coffee and to see their line of clothes you won’t find anywhere else!)

I go home and I forget about the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauerpark. I have other pressing issues. Two days later, I am looking through the 5000 plus images I took while in India, because the real reason I have cloistered myself in a Berlin sublet for the summer is to come down from these India Travels, clarify my own questions and develop what next for Cairns – Shards – Pieces.

A significant aspect of India – and it is rather extreme in Varanasi – is that everywhere you go, to one degree or another, people are living or lounging outdoors, essentially camping, and that includes all the concomitant activities such as building fires of all sizes and for various reasons. It is like there is a fluid, but perpetual, state of camping all around you. With few exceptions, even I could have built a fire just about anywhere and just hung out, with impunity. In one of my images of the ghats, I notice someone had built a campfire right next to the ghat steps and, to my surprise, the stone was fractured to the point of not really being a functional step anymore: the heat had burst and broken the stone,
making them … not steps … rather a slope … and … Wow … That’s it …

“How, Now, Watson: make the connection…”

Yes. Fire breaks stone in this way …

“…Excellent!”

… I know, because I’ve done it with an acetylene torch early in my art career; I also have made plenty of campfires that have heated stones and fractured them. Yes, that’s it: a campfire! People built campfires along that cobblestone road in Mauerpark. Fire is the answer. Fire breaks stone, and that’s what caused the Unexpected Field of Trauma. Has to be! It’s my inference to the best explanation, at any rate; and seems to conform to Ockham’s razor.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, SculptureSamuel Nigro, Berlin, Drawing, Sculpture

The wall comes down. No-man’s Land is no longer No-man’s Land. People reclaim the space and turn it into a gathering place. The park is built, the amphitheater is built, the cobblestone road is built and the strip of land is reinforced as a natural gathering point. People hang out here, late into the night; at this time, Berlin must not have subtle, oppressive cultural powers executing rules of arbitrary propriety and people make campfires for their fellowship around the amphitheater and on the cobblestones. That has to be it. I’m sure of it. I go back that afternoon to confirm, but will spare you the analysis.

So, this Unexpected Field of Trauma was created by campfires build on top of the stone road. Although all three are important, neither material nor history nor action links the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauer Park to my cobblestone in New York City; but rather, it is a question: how did it get that way? And, that is the connection.

The real reason why I write this post is that there is another undercurrent to this inquiry. That is I had another notable, albeit at present unexplainable, experience with another stone while in India. It is an approximately 6 x 2 foot paving stone at one of the Ghats that I discovered during my first walk, ever, along the ghats, during my first day, ever, in Varanasi.  It, like all the stones that comprise the ghats, is subject to the yearly rise and fall of the Ganga where it is covered by Himalayan sediment and then, when the river recedes, the people clean it off by spraying river water at it. For some reason this stone got singled out and I haven’t been able to write about it, I haven’t been able to process it, I haven’t been able to make sense of it – I still can’t – I don’t know what questions to ask! India was too overwhelming, and there are too many factors beyond my own empirical and anecdotal evidence collecting that makes me truly uncomfortable because I just don’t know enough about them. Some of these factors revolve around the socio-economic forces at play in India as well as the country’s conquered and colonialist history. All of this has inhibited any rapid-fire posting (of the sort social media is biased for) during my travels and is partially what I am referring to when I say that I don’t know what I am looking at.

I won’t try to explain the Indian paving stone; except to say that this discovery is a cross between the punctuation I experienced with the New York cobblestone and the puzzlement of the Unexpected Field of Trauma at Mauerpark, times the first 7 primes in the base 12 number system and a Goat in a sweater (or something). That’s it. That is all I can say. It is at Rana Mahal Ghat, and here it is:

Samuel Nigro, India, Varnasi, Drawing, Sculpture Samuel Nigro, India, Varnasi, Drawing, Sculpture

The next dozen or so posts to follow belong to a set I call Flashback: India, where I will make good on my promise to tell you about my first day in Varanasi and my first walk along the Ghats, and I will introduce the other artists I met during my time at the Kriti Gallery Residency, as well as a few other things. I write this post to you today as a way to ease my way back into writing about and telling you about my India experiences and the things that caught my curiosity …

Next:

Flashback: India

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