Flashback India … people of Kriti Residency

This is a continuation of my Flashback India … series and, as promised, here is a brief introduction
to some of the people I met while in Varanasi at the Kriti Gallery.

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Navneet Raman – Founder of Kriti Gallery

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kriti Gallery, Navneet RamanSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kriti Gallery, Navneet Raman

Kriti Gallery has two identical Royal Enfield motorcycles: Norman rides one, Navneet the other. After my initiation ride with Norman that first day, I got used to riding pillion, and the first time Navneet was to give me a ride to the Ghats, he exits his office with the most excellent helmet I’ve ever seen and wearing a matching leather jacket. He looked fantastic and had an uncanny resemblance to Speed Racer and I told him so. He didn’t know who Speed racer was and I know he won’t do the research on his own, so I’ve included a picture for comparison … I think you’ll agree.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kriti Gallery, Navneet Raman

Navneet is a man firmly rooted in location, in his family’s heritage, the History of Varanasi and the traditions of India. In addition to being the founder of Kriti Gallery and its associated residency, Navneet gives walking tours throughout Varanasi and surrounding areas. He was an immense help in my acclimation to India. I am grateful for all of Navneet’s help as I sought Indian granite to work with.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kriti Gallery, Navneet Raman

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Olga – Director of Kriti Gallery

Olga did not want her picture on my blog, but she was so helpful during my time in India that it seemed inappropriate not to feature her in some way. We went on a pre-sunrise walk along the Ghats one morning in March. As I took these images, she was standing right next to me.

Ppl_Olga_01 Ppl_Olga_02 Ppl_Olga_03 Ppl_Olga_04 Ppl_Olga_05

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Gabriella Sonabend – artist from London, www.gabriellasonabend.com

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Gabriella Sonabend

I met Gabby my first few hours at Kriti. Below are some pics of her exhibit at Assi Ghat, and see more images and the video we shot of this project, Moments of Stillness, here, and see the work as it was displayed one early, foggy December morning at Assi Ghat, Varanasi, India.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Gabriella Sonabend Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Gabriella Sonabend Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Gabriella Sonabend

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Kyle Page and Amber Haines ­– dancers with the Australian Dance Theatre, whose collaborative work is featured at Twine Projects.

Kyle and Amber created an elaborate, energetic dance performance at Kriti called Syncing Feeling, referencing research done on mirror neurons, which are thought to be responsible for our feelings of empathy and our ability to imitate the movements of one another.  Check out the video at Syncing Feeling. It’s well worth it! I felt privileged to see this work develop and am happy to hear that it will premier in Hobart, Australia, April 2015. They got married a few months after they left India, which was so appropriate since they always seemed so comfortable and compatible with one another, on and off the stage.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kyle Page, Amber HainesSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kyle Page, Amber HainesSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Kyle Page, Amber Haines

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Terry Burrows – photographer and painter from Australia, www.terryburrows.net

Terry has been traveling to India and Varanasi for years. When I met him, he had already spent a total of two year in Varanasi, spread out over a few years, and was putting the finishing touches on a book of his photography of the Ghats called Banaras Backs. He also had a massive show of this work at Lalit Kala Akademi of Fine Arts in Delhi, during our time together at Kriti. The show then moved on to the Australian Centre for Photography.

Well done, Terry! And, thanks for showing me some of your hidden hang-outs in Varanasi!

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Terry Burrows Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Terry Burrows

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Elliot Dollie – photographer from London, www.elliotdollie.com, vimeo–elliot_dollieinstagram.com/do11z

I’ve already mentioned Elliot, and technically he wasn’t a Kriti resident, but he was in India for a two-week exploratory project for a film he is working on and ended up taking some excellent photography portraits of local at Assi Ghat and we hung out a good portion of his time in India. I’d play cricket with him any day, but first I have figure out what the rules are  … !

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Elliot Dollie

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Amelia Ducker ­– photographer from Australia, http://edgeofmoksha.tumblr.com, https://www.facebook.com/amelia.ducker

Amelia arrived at Kriti in January. I was impressed by the Amelia’s courage to jump into Varanasi life and to test her ideas. One day I found Kyle and Amber helping Amelia and saw her not only break through Indian social expectations and jump over societal boundaries to see where her ideas would go, but also confront the gritty street life of Varanasi. I identify with her getting dirty and taking risks for her art. Go for it, Amelia!

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker

It wasn’t all work in Varanasi. We did some exploring, too.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Amelia Ducker

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Sharon Horvath and Tom Pappas – painters from New York

Sharon and Tom arrive at Kriti in February, after everyone I’ve just introduced had already left. Sharon was in India on a Fulbright. Here is an article about her work: http://paintersonpaintings.com/2014/09/04/sharon-horvath-on-badal-mahal-of-bundi-palace/ . Shortly after they arrived, I was gone in a flash to Bangalore for a Stone Fair to try and track down Indian granite to work with and when I got back to Varanasi about two months later, they were already gone. We were at Kriti together for such a short time, I only have one picture of them:

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, sharon horvath

Happily, last week, Oct 2014, six weeks after I returned to New York and 8 months after I met them, Sharon had an opening at the Lori Bookstein Gallery of the work she made as a consequence of her Fulbright to India.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, sharon horvathSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, sharon horvathSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, sharon horvath

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David Bruce – painter from America, Cities at Sea.

When I returned to Varanasi after completing my work in Southern India, David Bruce was the artist in resident at Kriti. He was traveling the world for a year on a Thomas J. Watson fellowship, which funds a full year of travels and independent studies to a college graduating senior. David’s project is to visit cities in danger of rising seas due to Climate Change – one of the more important collective issues we have – and to investigate these and related issues with his painting. He was using Kriti as a break from all the traveling to actually make some work. His father decided to visit during this break and then, shortly after we met, David and his father traveled to Calcutta, a city threatened by rising seas, an issue I wrote about in November, 2012.

Definitely check out his site Cities at Sea to see how this project evolves.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, David Bruce Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, David Bruce

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Camila Santo – singer from Brazil, www.interbioart.com

Camila arrived about two weeks before I left Kriti for good. She was in Varanasi to study with her Master Teacher in Drupad Vocals, Pandit Ritwik Sanyal. If it wasn’t for her I probably would not have gone to her teacher’s performance, which introduced me to the beauty and complexity of Indian classical vocals ­– one of the highlights of my time in India, for sure.

She performed after I had left Varanasi and I wish I could have heard her sing, because Olga later relayed to me that her voice is angelic.

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Camila Santo Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Camila SantoSamuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi, Camila Santo

I wish I had the time to write more about each one of these people and who they are and what they do and what we got up to, but the internet is waiting!
I met many more people while in India and all of this will have to wait as well,
for another time, perhaps another venue.

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INDIAN PRICES! … (5 of 5)

(Flashback: India – part 5 of 5 – My Arrival in Varanasi) … in one final clump.

This post is a continuation of my Flashback: India … series and the last part of my arrival in Varanasi story; and, so …

To summarize:

After – what I soon discover is – a typical roundabout unpredictable traveling experience in India, I arrived in Varanasi at the artist residency at Kriti Gallery

and promptly meet one of the other artists

who tells me about Sadhus, Hindu holy men, who eat people

and the next morning

I wake up at 4 am and explore my new surroundings by following a herd of water buffalo and then get a crash course on riding a motorcycle through the streets of Varanasi with Norman, a western man with true superpowers.

He drops me off at

Assi Ghat and I have my first experience with The Ganges, a Sadhu and Hypnosis.

Now for the conclusion of my first full day in Varansi:

I decide to stay in Assi Ghat as it gets dark. This is a cocky decision and I know it.

After I left the Sadhu the second time, I exit the Ghat area and instead of getting a ride back home right then and there I decide to push it and walk to Open Hand Café for a chai, just to say I did it and finish this first introduction to Assi Ghat that Gabby had primed me for. This will put me back at Assi Ghat to negotiate for a ride at dusk and I’d be eventually traveling back to Kriti in the dark, but according to my calculations I should arrive just in time for dinner with everyone at 6:30 pm to debrief about my first visit to Assi and my first walk along the Ganga.

I know that this kind of transition, a transition from light to dark, from day to night, brings with it more variables, more unknowns: things will look different, not to mention the fact that the rhythm of cities and people and animals and ecosystems of all types change as night falls and this is yet one more thing I’ve yet to experience, yet one more variable to a situation already saturated with unknowns, newness, firsts and culture shocks. Although I am already sensitive to the fact that I am out of my element, I think, “I’m surviving …  let’s keep going …”

[*My experience at Open Hand fueled my sense of dislocation and discombobulation and I’ll leave it at that for now to keep this post going.**]

Belly filled with chai and some Indian brownie thing, I walk to where the rickshaw drivers gather for fares and prep myself to negotiate a ride home for the first time. I connect eyes with a lone rickshaw driver, who is leaning up against his three-wheeled chariot-like pedaling machine, and, as instructed by Norman, ask:

“Do you know where the All Indian Radio Station is?”

He nods yes. I want to make sure. Through repeated gestures, minimal English, showing him my notebook and different ways of saying the same thing, he assures me with each iteration that ‘yes’ he knows. Satisfied, I ask, “How much?”

250 … yeah that price – he was schooled to say that to which I had already calculated a response which was to turn away from him, slowly, and not saying a word. He follows up immediately:

150 … I turn back. That is a real price and negotiations can now begin … with offer and counteroffer and body language on both sides – always calm, soft spoken, slow paced. We get stuck at 80, my price.

I turn away and stare off into space for a moment. I turn my head back and we connect eyes. Pause.

I repeat: 80

His same retort: 130

I draw out my movements to leave – Adagio – slow turn, looking away, one step, two steps, incrementally away and another pause. I let it linger and turn my head, again, and look over my shoulder and wait …

We each give the other our own individual grimace that says the same thing to the other
that I can only translate into American:
“Dude, come on. It’s a good price.”

Silence. Stillness.

Ok… that’s it.

I start walking across the street – Allegretto – to where the auto tuktuks are parked. My head catches up with my body and I face a crowd of men, noticed for the first time, who had gathered across the street to watch the whole negotiation performance. They start as a semi circle around me, all men, four deep, all drivers of one sort, who were watching and waiting. I am surprised by the magnitude of the crowd but don’t show it and when I enter the pack I quickly get surrounded and they erupt:

Yes! I give you ride.

Yes! ME. Tuk Tuk

OH, Here. Where go.

eruptions, eruptions, eruptions all around me. I put on airs of unflappability and state:

The All Indian Radio Station.

I catch eyes with one

500!

Ignore. Another:

250!

Ignore. I look at the next

INDIAN PRICES!

INDIAN PRICES!

THESE ARE … INDIAN PRICES! …

as spittle drips out of his mouth from the Paan packed in there. With stoic reaction, I ignore and ignore and I never look at these men again, even though they continue to compete for my attention. People are shouting and gesticulating. One man rises above the ruckus: he is calm and I can tell he has a greater stature than the others. He wears a fedora hat and holds a tiny notebook [*I later figure out that he is like a middle manager of this tuktuk business and assigns routes and customers to certain drivers.**]. He has a certain kind of power. Our eyes connect, and I know that he is the one I deal with; everyone else is too spasmodic. He levels his voice, well below the din of the others, directly at me, and I hear:

150

This is the correct starting place and I prepare to negotiate, when out of the corner of my eye and at the perimeter of the scrum stands my original guy, waiting. Our eyes connect. He bobbles his head, and, without practice or pretension, I surprised myself with the dexterity I displayed when I bobbled back. [*To be clear, however, it was more like an All-American Spicoli head-surprise-head-noggin-head-bobbin move, and by any measure, I’m sure, awkward. I would not be so presumptuous to think that on my day four in India that I had the Indian Head Bobble down. This is the best place to confess that now that I am back in New York I spontaneously do the Indian head bobble both in conversation and while alone – I have no explanation for this, it just happens, and I know it looks strange in a Western Context (just like the prayer-peace bow I described here), but it just feels good and, you’ll just have to take my word for it, the head bobble helps me create nuanced thoughts and I can’t explain it, I can’t help it, I can’t stop it, I just do it – despite how unexpected and weird this is for me and for other Westerners around me, I do it anyway and enjoy it. Confession complete; back to me and the driver.**]

Our deal is sealed. Presto, we turn in unison to head back across the street and to his rickshaw, and as we do the whole crowd of drivers goes silent, because they all know their fare is lost.

My guy pushes his three-wheeled rickshaw back to get it pointing down the road, smiling. I repeat:

All Indian Radio Station – you know where it is right?

He nods yes and continues to smile. I smile back, because I wanted to take a cycle rickshaw instead of an auto tuktuk as the former are lone workers trying to earn a living and the later are bigger corporate machines and besides I’d rather support a non-fossil fuel using industry. Anyway, this negotiation stuff is not so bad – sort of fun. I should be home in 20 minutes, just in time for dinner. Easy-Peasy.

I jump in the back. He starts peddling, but I don’t let my guard down just yet: this is my first time in one of these rickshaws and it is hardly a buffer from the traffic, bull horns and bricks that pass us by. I keep all appendages inside the perimeter and watch for potential collisions.

Off we go, down the street, exactly backtracking my earlier path with Norman. I anticipate the first turn and …

… He goes as expected: down a narrow alleyway, winding, narrow, crowded, crooked, we continue at a rate dictated by the wheel to wheel, wheel to hoof, line of traffic. I don’t exactly remember all the landmarks but I believe the winding is correct, and as he pedals I am anticipating my next mental landmark I filed away during my motorcycle ride with Norman; and, there it is, a large Vishnu tree

“Yes, I remember! He should turn right?”

and … waiting … he does

“Excellent.”

This is a left-handed driving country. Wide road now, we go and go; all on the left; more traffic, faster traffic, stationary cows, regal bulls, and he turns left: good – again, as expected, and I just have to trust, but I catch something out of the corner of my eye. We go by a sign that says: Hotel Broadway and I crinkle my brow and purse my lips … at the strangeness of it … this was the name of the Hotel I set out to find on my first day in Delhi and got preposterously lost 3 days earlier. [*This may seem like a McGuffin, but I actually pursued a Hotel Broadway as an arbitrary destination my first day in Delhi and now I see another Hotel Broadway on my first day in Varanasi and I am fighting the impulse to say: “Omen” anyone?; or, Foreshadow?; or, “Just too weird.”, but – and this is another reason why I have taken so long to write about this – it may just be … or something.**]

I think we are still retracing Norman’s path, but I can’t be sure and I never did get a chance to turn around when riding on the motorcycle with him earlier that afternoon and get the reverse view of our path and I feel this lack of knowledge. We go and go. I recognize things and half-recognize other things and make-believe I recognize all things, but have the sinking feeling that I’m fr*cked, because we’ve been turning and winding and …

Herdnaws nowsdnftur… n

or , something … Well, I just have to trust. We are heading North and we will need to turn West soon … soon … um … was that the major intersection for the main East-West road that Kriti is on and that runs right into the Main Ghat on the Ganga? … can’t be sure … he must know what he is doing … I see a large, green state-manufactured US-Highway-like sign with white lettering, hanging above the roadway, that is out of place with all of the brown, dusty architecture and dirt roads and dilapidated brick abodes, that sticks out of the darkness because of its reflectivity… and start to think: “Nope. I haven’t been here. Ok, let’s just see where this goes: I’m in it now.” Maybe this is the correct way. He is now winding through more streets: well, Norman did say there were many ways to go, but we’ve been going at this for a long time (should have been home by now) and then I start to see these big green signs, only in Hindi, whereas before they were in Hindi and English. Definitely never been here before: this feels wrong …

… we need to go decisively West eventually … oh boy … we’re not …

I do, however, maintain my orientation. So, when the rickshaw driver finally stops, gets off his seat, sweating and breathing, and presents our location as my destination with a grand, sweeping, open arm gesture with an extended hand pointing towards a large, lit-up institutional building, off in the distance, surrounded by parking lots and a high fence – Huh? – I know we are pointed North, and that is all I know …

My supposed destination: a busy intersection where a barely paved road meets almost close-to-highway-level road – real four lanes and a solid, cement divider in between and all sorts of activities on the shoulders. This is rush hour traffic and it is dark and the minimal street lighting both masks and creates a new kind of chaos that I don’t understand, never experienced before, and, of course, there is the ever-present honk, honk, honking.

“no, no, no, no, no …”

I shake my head with exaggeration because I doubt spoken English is going to work.

“This is not where I need to be.”

A group of police is on the corner and I have a faint sense of relief that does not last. I speak in a fashion so that the cops can hear in the hopes they will support me in my effort to communicate where I need to go and to gain some credibility with my difficulties:

“This is not where I want to go. You need to take me to the Radio Station. The All Indian Radio Station.”

I take out my notebook and am grateful that I wrote everything down. The cops come over. One approaches the driver. Another approaches me. They all look and listen and watch me as I hold up my notebook, sound out the syllables and I point at my chicken scratch:

“ALL … INDIAN … RADIO … STATION …”

and with open arm gestures to convey BIGGNESS, and although I’ve never seen it, I say

“There’s a big tower, a big radio tower. This is where I need to go.”

They all are looking at me with blank stares. Then I change it up:

“Mahmoorganj. It is in the neighborhood of ma – MOre – g – AN– j. There is a big radio tower. The radio tower – yes – that is where I need to go.”

This seems to register. The police have a look of recognition and talk in Hindi to one another.

The cop closest to the rickshaw driver starts to explain to him, who has, what I interpret as, a worried look on his face as the cop describes where we need to go. I see from the cop’s hand gestures that he is sending us down this busy road and West-ish and he motions in a wide circular gesture that implies veering in a Southerly direction. “Ok. Good. This fits my mental map, because my guess is that we are both north and east of where I want to be … although I would prefer to just turn around to head back the way we came, because I thought that I recognized the busy intersection that we needed turn down to head West. (remember this is my first time here and first time in the city. I know next to nothing about this city, about this culture).

My driver gets back on the rickshaw. I’m not sure where he is going to go, but this is the exact scenario I wanted to avoid: getting hopelessly lost, or worse, due to someone else’s miscalculations. I am now committed to being on this rickshaw until I can find somewhere familiar and safe, because my reality has just changed – I am lost and at the discretion of the rickshaw driver.

He makes to start pedaling, and the cop, who gave him the directions, stands with authority looking out over the landscape of the intersection towards the institutional building across the street, with his hands resting on his vertical four-foot whipping stick, speaks in Hindi that – even I felt – was a command, in that it was almost whispered and minimal with a minor gesture of the head towards the ramshackle, make-shift commerce stands and fruit carts, as if the police/cop/soldier knew the power he welded and that it wasn’t going to be challenged. His command was a simple reminder of what is to happen next.

As someone who knows he is under the lash, my driver slumps and gets down off of his seat; and, my allegiance suddenly changes. I was loud and demanding, more for affect and desire to communicate, knowing my English wasn’t working, than true emotional release, when we first arrived at the police/cop/soldier corner, as I hoped to illicit help from these authority figures, thinking they would set us back on the right path. At that initial stage, I was not really upset or frightened; but, as I now see my driver get off the rickshaw and walk to one of the costermonger’s selling fruit, who is really an undercover cipher and who lifts up a small box, revealing a hidden compartment where my driver places a coin, my attitude changes. I watch this whole thing and am half of a mind to stop it, but – let’s be real – who am I really in this situation? I don’t know what I am looking at and I’ve been in Varanasi for little over 24 hours. I don’t know what is going on, but police extorting money is never good. I feel solidarity with my driver – that, yes, I am lost and not where I want to be, but, it is “we,” I realize, who are in this lost state together – and then the cop who was next to me earlier comes back and speaks with an authoritarian voice and the timing is all wrong…

RED FLAG!!! 

[Yes RED FLAG …]

{“Ooooweee this is a new one for you, BABY! HeHHH-HHAAAW!”}

He speaks in Hindi, I guess, and I don’t know what he says, I don’t try to figure it out, either. I don’t want to know – but somehow I make out the word “card” and “show me” or I imagine that that is what I heard. I couldn’t be sure and didn’t care, and these thoughts flirt by: Does he want my passport? My ID? I don’t have either and I’m not going to play this game and I have a wallet and he is not going to know that or, even, see it, because …

[Steady … my old Marcus-Aurelius-Stoic-Philosopher-Friend … Steady …*…]

{“Start TALK’N, baby!”}

stay calm … eye contact

Starting slow, I build up to shooting rapid-fire American at him: although it gets faster and develops a varied rhythm with a bit of staccato, I lay down controlled declarations and unmistakable statements, in a mixture of Milwaukee and Missouri tainted with Chicago and Ann Arbor, all on top of a matrix of the Great Lakes and covered with a patina of Brooklyn-ease, and I make sure not to soften this strategic flanking maneuver with any New England reserve that I’ve come to love and admire and I hold back the California big guns of chill-obfuscation just in case I need it later. As I finish up my last triple burst of my own, personal American argot, I think back to my studio in New York and of my brethren on the other side of the Hudson River and lob this cop a Sopranos Smile. I don’t wait for his response and turn to my rickshaw driver, who is watching the whole display with a deeper furrowed brow than before and now a more worried look on his face, and I say ‘go.’

The driver hesitates, and this – for me, at that instant – reveals the tension he must feel between competing authorities. I repeat:

GO…

and with out breaking the rhythm, I lean back in my seat and say:

… take me home, to Ma– MORE_  ganja -HA and the All Indian Radio Tower.

hesitation, but I don’t let this change the momentum, and I look at the cop and smile again and say: “I’m leaving. Thank you.”

Me, smile, and he shrugs … a shrug, not a head bobble … [*this shrug, a gesture I never saw again in all of India … this one gesture jarred me then and has stayed with me until now. I don’t know what it meant, but I still don’t think that anything about this interaction was something I’d like to repeat.**] … and a brief thought that I may be a mark within a larger swindle that I was not aware of wafts by … [*and I’ll never know.**]

I turn back to the rickshaw driver and say evenly:  “Now … go … Mahmore GA Hannng- JA.”

My priority is to get out of this predatorial, urban ecological niche, and it doesn’t matter where, just anywhere but here. The rickshaw pulls forward and into the flow of a faster traffic stream. Stranded in a lifeboat not of my own design, I feel like I just got out of barracuda-infested waters leaving a minor trail blood in the form of the driver’s mulct, only to enter a new maelstrom.

The rickshaw pulls onto the highway-like road, busy and dangerous, big trucks clipping along, honking, traffic packed with cows and cars and tuktuks, bikes and motorcycles. I am heartened in that there are at least other rickshaws in the flow – well, more like crammed on the shoulder of the road, wheel-to-wheel, oozing forward – but this is the fastest Varanasi traffic I’ve been in so far. More green highway-like signs: One tells us that in about 758 km we’ll reach Delhi. Ugh … not the direction I want to go in. The shoulder is bumpity-bumpity and I have to hang on with both hands and occasionally lift my body up off the seat slightly to protect my coccyx. My only choice is to accept this maelstrom of traffic, and I espy an off ramp (of sorts) in the distance and pray we get off there.

It’s past 7:30 pm and it is pitch black as we take this exit ramp. We are now on a black, dark country road, no lights around here, and it is cold and I am glad I brought my hat, which I nearly left it in my room.

[*this is now a time of reflection for me, because we are on this dark country road for a while, but if I go into this head space now, this post will be book length, so I just have to say … maybe later.**]

After a little reflection, I look around and begin to access the situation:

It’s cold. I put on my hat and tighten my clothing.
I am neither hungry or thirsty nor sick or tired. Good health. I am alert and aware.
Even though I’ve been at this rickshaw business for about an hour and half, I know that my reality has changed
and in that realization I shift my priorities:
This rickshaw is home for now.

I have plenty of time, approximately 5 and half hours, before I begin to show signs of fatigue, I can walk 10 miles at a leisurely pace in that time, and if I need to 15 or more, no problem; and, I know that I am capable of stay up all night if necessary. I can also find shelter in any of these rickety abodes on the side of the road and find someone to share a fire with; or, much more likely, I just make my way back to Assi Ghat and go to Harmony Books, the safe haven Norman told me about, or find someone there to help me. It is highly improbable that it will come to any of this, though; however, I need to set a limit though on how long I will call this rickshaw home and let this rickshaw driver lead me around: I’ll give him 2 more hours, max, to get me home. All things being equal, I don’t think about abandoning this lifeboat for the next two hours. It’s generous and much can happen in that time, but what it does is reset my reality. I am fine where I am for now. Let’s see where he takes me …

Ok, all that calculation and refection is good. Now, it is time to stop thinking and start looking around.
Size up your surroundings … even though you are just siting there,
you can actually DO something … the right thing …
pay attention.

Yeah, so what can I do now to better my situation … I look around. There is the full moon that the Sadhu told me about and it looks more foreign and distant and unfamiliar to me than the moon has ever been. There are silhouettes of trees far off in the distance and this land we are on is flat and uninhabited and seems like a road-warrior wasteland: no lights, just the occasional campfire in the distance or the faint glow of a fire within one of the few crumbling single-storied brick structures that dot the landscape and that show themselves by silhouette or by noticing a fine gradation of blackness. Occasionally, there is an outline of some sort of bovine or canine, standing or maybe meandering at its nighttime pace.

My gaze drifts up toward to the moon, again, and then back down and … <pause> … I don’t believe it. I see it …
and Meaning clicks … and my mouth hangs open.

There it is … almost directly south of us … the Radio Tower … way off in the distance! My guess is 5 km away and it has a bold, bright red light on top of it, rising above the flat, unpopulated landscape. What stands between me and that tower is anyone’s guess, but I could theoretically walk straight there and Kriti is right across the street from it. This Tower is my beacon home.

I imagine an East-West line right at the base of the tower and extend it further West. I, next, extrapolate our direction and visualize our road and see that these two paths intersect at a cluster of lights off in the distance further west and south of us. This cluster of lights! – it has to be the T-intersection that I looked for during my walk along the road this afternoon! … has to be … just, has to be …

We go and go.

As we get closer to the intersection, I keep my eye on our orientation to the red light atop of the radio tower. Yes, this has to be the T-intersection and the end of the road that Kriti is on; and, yes, almost home.

As we get to the cluster of lights I anticipate a left turn, and there is and he does – and I feel now free to construct a mental image of this road from both experience and imagination that extends East from my spot at the T-intersection, past Kriti, past a herd of water buffalo resting for the night, past the fork in the road that I discovered earlier and that Norman and I took on the motorcycle in the afternoon and then much further down and, instead of taking the right hand turn toward Assi Ghat, I extend my imagination all the way to the Ganga and the Main Ghat, where I was about 3 hours earlier, where … men wanted to give me a MAH-SAAhh – schjzzz. Yes: the radio tower is directly ahead. Almost home! We are in a more populated area now with lights and proper grid layout of buildings and rubble I’ve come to expect in an Indian City. This East-West Road is busy and through the headlights I see swirls of dust fill the air. If there was half this much dust in my studio, I’d be wearing a mask. Buildings on all sides.

then my cycle-driver makes an immediate right (What?)

[Cogitating … ]

{“HA!”}

wait wait where are you going?

He speeds up, perched off his seat, pedaling faster, going, going the wrong way.

Wait. Wait. The Radio tower is back that way.

I am temped to jump off and swim to shore, but say:

Stop …

he keeps going

STOP …

he stops on this unlit, dusty dirt road in the middle of all these dilapidated, make shift building or are they more like huts, barely lit, and – Holy Sh!t – out of the darkness, in unison, five men emerge and walk straight towards us.

{
Friend-Foe?
Friend-Foe?
Friend-Foe?
Friend-Foe?
Friend-Foe?
Friend-Foe?
}

I know nothing of this city, this neighborhood, the social distinctions, unspoken boundaries, staked out and protected territories, but to be taken to a foreign, ill-lit road – a secluded eddy of a void, for all I can tell – by a stranger and to have five men emerge from the shadows and approach you without hesitation is … well … it’s an Archetypal experience.

[Scanning Area … ]

The 5 walk right up to the rickshaw. I tell myself that my initial read is just information: 5 males, young, fit, well nourished, good teeth, no paan, western clothing, 3 have their hands in their pockets, walking in group-formation, unison, informal, but at attention and hierarchical.

[ … multiple paths of egress available … you are not alone; other locals wander … ]

The tallest one speaks. My rickshaw driver speaks back. Both in a language I don’t understand and I’m not sure if they understand each other.

[ … you have flexibility, orientation … the gift of improvisation … skills … continuing … prognosticating …]

The lifeboat rocks gently and I think: “abandon ship or stick it out … Improvisation is something I don’t want to do especially with these odds, but I will …”

[The rickshaw is your most immediate redoubt and the contextual high ground, and provides psychological separation and your own hierarchical power: stay just a little longer … more information coming in … scanning … continuing … accessing …]

{“But take control of the oars … ! …”}

I say to the rickshaw driver: “Turn around – we have to go to the Radio tower, back there down that road,” as I point. He turns around and looks at me, frightened. The tall one speaks to me in Hindi.

{Ok, just explain the situation in un-fancy American}

I do and don’t care if Potential Thug No. 1 understands or not. Then to the driver with hand gestures: “Turn around.” and I point toward the radio tower. and I look up: another group of people gather on my other side. {“What!”} [Steady …] I see people coming from all directions.

this is bigger than you …

and then more and more and more. People come. I am completely surrounded.

There are now about 40 people gathering around me and my rickshaw driver. The tall one figures out – I guess – what is going on and speaks to, or is it berates, the driver, whose mouth is open, which further weakens his countenance and strengthens his worry. I have sympathy for him, because he is the one who has been pedaling for close to two hours and, from the looks of it, the focus of another bout of aggression. But, all this communication and lack of communication is getting tiresome. I want to get home. I say:

Turn around. I know where to go.

More people begin to speak. I feel the pullulating crowd ganging up on my driver, at least 60 people by now and growing. I think,

“Great?! We are almost home, and my rickshaw driver is going to be lynched.
At what point does a group become a mob?”

As people gather and talk at my driver and to one another. I say, again, “Turn around.” and I make a circular gesture with my index finger pointing down, turning in a slow horizontal circle to indicate the direction I wish him to go. Various people in the crowd chime in, some with increased volume that sounds like self-righteous confidence. And, I want to go home, but I also don’t want my driver to get any more abuse: it is my turn to feel the tear of power.

I am about to hop out, as the mob – yup. it’s a mob now showing now signs of disapating – as the mob pushes in …  which is hampering our efforts to turn around, but instead I play the role of traffic cop from my perch and wave my hands to both get people to back up and lower emotions. I say, “Everything’s Ok …” I probably have little effect on the situation. Once again, I almost get down to help push the people back so we can turn around.

If the Police/Soldiers were like barracuda looking for the scraps left from a wounded animal, this crowd was like a school of curious minnows wonder what was going on in their corner of the pond, and although each minnow can be ignored, their combined mass may just drowned us. The darkness of night is no longer threatening and I repeat:

“Turn this rickshaw around. this way. I’ll show you.”

and I add to address the mob

“Ok. OK … everything’s good … everything’s good … Yes … Yes …”

and I point behind us for the driver and then wave my hands toward the crowd to indicate them to back up. He does. They do. I sit. We eventually get back on the main road and I see dust blowing everywhere, and I can see the radio tower, and it looms large and it means home.

We go.

<<- [[{{ just go, go. I want this to be done.
I want to get home. }}]] ->>

 I give the rickshaw reassuring words that we are on the right track. I am extra alert now because I’m not sure where Kriti is and, being dark and my first time for everything here, all landmarks look different. I, however, see silhouettes of the mansions I saw on my walk this afternoon and although they are pitch black, I recognize the shapes and their compound walls, and I am heartened that this is further confirmation that we are going in the right direction.

Suddenly, we are at the fork in the road that I saw during my first jaunt earlier that day, and know we passed Kriti. I make him turn around once again and go back the other way. At this point am overly thankful that I took that walk back and forth down this main road earlier this afternoon.

We stop at the front gate of the Kriti compound, and I get down. I have no idea of the protocol here. In London, In New York, you wouldn’t even give a taxi the fare after treatment like this, but here it is different.

I pay him and give a tip.
He asks for more.

I say: have a good night and walk away.

I enter the compound. It is basically dark.
I turn toward the Residency section that is itself walled in
and has its own arched entryway and the gate-door is closed.
I push to get in, and it is locked.

I step back and think, “It just couldn’t get more difficult. Could it?”

I stop. Pause and think of the possibilities, and I, then, reach in between the bars of the gate and unlatch it from the inside. I walk along the ill-lit path to the kitchen and enter pitch-blackness and reach for the bank of 20-25 switches I had experimented with at around 5 am that morning. The first click makes a fan turn on at industrial speed. I immediately switch it off and click through a series of switches until I get a light that I can eat by.

Dinner is on the table and there is one plate left. That one is for me: everyone else has obviously eaten and left the remainder of the food for me. This is the protocol of the residency. I sit and eat alone, not knowing who is here or where anyone is.

I do the dishes. Put everything away. Go to my studio. The only switch I know for sure is for the overhead fan and I turn it on just for a sense of comedy and let it run and run. My papers fly around. I stand there in the dark. After a brief mental run through of all of the hilarity of the day, I turn the fan off and find a light. Make my way for bed and I get busy with why I am really here:

Samuel Nigro, India, Sculpture, Varanasi This concludes my first full day in Varanasi …
[*and for the next six months in India, it never let up…**]

epilogue:

It took me a while to discover where this rickshaw driver actually took me and this discovery involved a number of other adventures in themselves, including my first one-on-one experience with Anil, a trip to what I like to call the Zombie Church and a situation where I had to access every ounce of my inner Dog Whisperer to handle a mob of dogs who where supported on both flanks by marauding Goats in Sweaters, stories that I probably won’t publish on this blog … ask if you want … but it will take me a while to explain.

Anyway, I eventually discover that my rickshaw driver took me to the Railroad Station … THE … RAIL … ROAD … STATION … not the … RADIO … Station.
Ugh … Once I figured that out I got an immense sense of relief
and pieces of the puzzle started to fit. Then …

About a week later, I ran into this rickshaw driver again at Assi Ghat, and we laughed about our first meeting and he ended up giving me multiple rides back to Kriti over the next few weeks without incident. He started calling his rickshaw The Chariot of Danger!!! and his name is Sampo.

and then one day he was gone … and I never saw him again.

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

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an interlude – People’s Climate March 2014

Samuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkSamuel Nigro, Climate Change, People's Climate March, New YorkClimate_March_2014_008Climate_March_2014_009Climate_March_2014_010Climate_March_2014_011Climate_March_2014_012

How Hot? How Hard? How Fast? – These are the relevant questions about Climate Change …

I got these questions from Peter Sinclair at Climate Crocks of the Week.

Some other good links are:

350.org

People’s Climate March

climatechange.net

 

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Filed under Featured ..., Featured Idea

Sleestaks – Do they exist? (4 of 5)

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

(Flashback: India – part 4 of 5 – My Arrival in Varanasi) … in 5 sections.

section a 

I enter Assi Ghat, and I am immediately accosted by a large group of men, who want to take me on a boat ride. Apparently, both of these – the accosting and boat riding – are major riparian activities in Varanasi. I have enough experience from being in Delhi for 3 days to walk on by and use body language to deflect some of the advancements and give a few

“no,

no,

and

no”

for the rest. Some try to engage in conversation, others shadow me. I can hardly have a moment to look at what this Assi Ghat is all about.

It is my first time here, and they all know it. I rest easy in that, because I’ll be in Varanasi for at least 2 months, I’ll be back and may even get to know some of these people and I’ll have a closer look around. Even though I exchange a few words with some, I walk up river, North, just to get away from the swarm.

I do have time, however, to notice how far the river is from the actual steps that are meant to lead into the water. There is a rolling field of hardened sediment separating the architecture of the Ghat from the flow of the third largest river in the world as measured by water discharge; and, then, there are groups of men, armed with fat fire hoses, who are spraying river water at the sediment to get rid of it and to clean off the steps and there is something Ouroborosian about spraying the Ganga water at this accumulation to wash it back into the river that dumped it there in the first place. [*this is a yearly ritual: the Ganga floods the city, dumps tons of sediment, essentially from the Himalayas, onto the steps, feeding the riverbank, and the water then recedes, and people spend months spraying river water at the sediment to send it flowing down the Ganga, again**]

I move on to the next Ghat and it is as if the Assi-Boatman swarm can’t cross an invisible line into the adjacent ghat, as if there is an invisible barrier preventing them from following me up river, which is probably close to the truth, because I walk a few yards and I am greeted by another group of men, a smaller group this time, and

Hellooo, Sir. Where you from?

Bia- OOwlt.

BOawhoot!

[*The boatmen have their own turf. The Ghats are owned by families who have some say as to what happens at the their Ghat, i.e. who can dock boats, sell what etc … or, at least, as far as I can tell**]

I could spend pages and pages relating conversations about these sorts of commerce deals and deflections, but I will keep it to my first day, because after having the experience of talking to this second group of boatmen, I decided I needed to explore new tactics. What I was doing wasn’t working to my satisfaction and I am sure I will eventually learn how to handle all of this, but, being my first day at the Ghats and out of my element without any guidance, I needed to think quick, perform some experiments and test some theories.

I move on to a new group of boatmen.

Heolloo!ooo Good looking Here. Bouah-woute! Bouah-woute!

I advance and implement for the first time my new tactic that I affectionately call Tau-Delta-Sigma

Bau O- … Ack!*! …_…

… and it works! Better than expected! My first try!

{WoW!}

The boatman is stunned. He is silenced. Internally, I am ecstatic! Externally, I must maintain level countenance. I walk on as if nothing happened and as if I am floating above the Ghat steps and I pass unmolested without looking back. Then, the spell breaks and I hear him trying to regain his composure with:

ehy .. wha!*@ … – oat?

But, I am already gone. Smiling, I walk on.

Here’s another group. I do the same thing, and it works again! I am amazed.

A third group! I do it again, but this time I add in soft, mellifluous tones: ‘You do not want to give me a boat ride …’ I glance at their faces, and they are confused and looking around and searching their brains for some kind of anchor to make sense of what they had just seen, a transderivational search. They are stunned. Who needs a Harry Potter wand: I am now a Jedi Master and they have no idea what I had just done to them … They take a moment and are barely able to look back and forth to one another.

I think: “Man, this is amazing! It works!”

My new tactic begins with a hand gesture that I slowly and gently wave before my new-harassers. It is sort of like an Obi-wan-kenobie wave as he manipulates the weak-minded Storm Troopers who are looking for two drones – these are not the drones you’re looking for, I think. It also looks vaguely like a combination of the Pope’s blessing of the masses and a wacky, wavy karate chop in slow-mo. But, really, it’s all in the eyes and my internal attitude, or as some would say the energy I bring to the interaction, because it comes out in my face and my posture etc … And, there is an additional part of my new technique which I have to keep it to myself: it is just too hard to describe it, you wouldn’t believe it, you probably wouldn’t want to do it; and, besides, it could be DNA specific, not sure. Anyway, I walk on and I get to a region along the Ghats where there are no more boatmen, and I can just have a look without being bombarded with requests because I am a Westerner.

section b 

I breathe. I look around and walk slowly. I immediately notice the overcast sky and fuzziness all around me,
which is a rarefied fog that you can only make out
by peering into the distance.

[*it took me many weeks to figure out that this fog is barely noticeable but imperceptibly affects your vision of your immediate surroundings. I see that there are no buildings on the other side of the river, but, again, it takes me weeks to realize that this is an instrumental and structural part of the symbolic import of the city: the other side is the spiritual side, where the dead travel to (River Styx, anyone?), and not where the living are meant to reside (I initially assumed symbolically, but, since Varanasi being one of the holiest sites for Hinduism and to die in Varanasi means to break your karmic cycle and to not be reincarnated back into this physical world, and since many want to die here for this reason and many bodies are not burned but rather thrown into the river, I eventually learn that bodies accumulate over on the other side, away from where the tourists go, out of sight).  So, built into the very layout of the city is the stark differentiation of the living and the dead and that there is both a physical and symbolic transition between the two. The whole city revolves around this idea and embraces an attitude of whatever happens as the will of God and that the Ganga flows by and is God. It is worth noting that during my time in India most prominent objects, at some point, by someone, was declared God and not just The Ganga, but also: cows, trees, sky, water, mountains, oil, spice, iconic imagery of all sorts – but, significantly, not dogs … they stood for something else:
Do Only Good**]

I am at a different sort of Ghat, now. It has longer deeper shallower sloped steps, giving a more expansive space between buildings and river. There is a herd of the same beasts I followed earlier in the morning  (as I subsequently learned, these were water buffalo and how I will refer to them from now on) lounging about and a few people scattered throughout the area. Space seems to be plentiful. [*Being the middle of the week and late afternoon, the Ghats are not crowded. This is a calm and quiet time along the river**].

I stop and look around, trying to take in everything. The only connection I feel was a few Ghats back when I heard a characteristic clickity-caw-clack of a kingfisher and thought: ‘No, it couldn’t be?!’ The concept of seeing something familiar was so jarring to me as I walked. Hearing the Kingfisher, I get rooted in reality – for a brief moment – in that I think about how life exists throughout the planet and that species can spread through out the world to populate similar niches and that all of life on our planet is related, connected by our common chemistry, and evolving concurrently.

I hear it, then I see it fly along the Ganga. The markings and colors are different and it is a bit smaller than the North American versions I am familiar with, but there is no mistaking the majesty of this tiny bird. The kingfisher is a regal, small bird and beautifully designed for diving into water to catch small fish. They are playful, joyous, brightly colored birds and I have fond memories of being deep in the mountains at secluded lakes in North America, where there is a sole Kingfisher announcing its location with its distinctive, rapid-fire clickity-caw-clack. It flies over the alpine lake, master of its dominion with me as its guest. The memories are fleeting, and I am filled briefly with fondness as I recognize the bird fly by and then click back to the reality of Varanasi as I remember that I am on the other side of my world, walking on some deserted Ghat.

Samuel Nigro, Berlin, Varanasi, India, Sculpture

I stop my forward momentum and I am slowly turning around and around, surveying the area, and I become conscious that I am adjusting my shirt and that I am ringing my hands. Not in a guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth way, but rather in a “Ok. I’ve done it to myself once again … what I am I doing here? NO really: what I am I doing here?” sort of a way.

I wasn’t lost along any X-Y-Z or temporal axes. ‘Lost’ may be the wrong word, so is disoriented or even dislocated or discombobulated or bewildered or even confused; it was something else.

If there is a word that can come close to what I am feeling at this moment it is Heutegesternmorgenwelta German word whose literal translation is Today-Yesterday-Tomorrow-World and means the experiencing of time as a non-linear dynamical system: I don’t know what else to say about this moment, except … reality … my reality … my direction, my reason, my plans all seems warped to the point of not being there – Heutegesternmorgenwelt – and unnerving and disorienting and a non-linear chaotic dislocation of time present and time past which are now both not really even here because I just forgot what I wanted for time future – or something and probably it would be easier to write more about my special boatman Jedi mind trick I just pulled or, even, to argue for the existence of Sleestaks …

sleestak… than to try and explain anymore.

I’m just not anywhere that is a where within a battery of questions all of which stem from who, what, where, when, why and how – I turn around to look at where I had just come from anyway (a common practice I’ve adopted to get accustomed to unfamiliar areas and to help prevent me from getting lost, because presumably you walk back the way you’ve came when in a new area and you get to see what the salient landmarks are from another perspective, i.e. when you turn around and have a look at where you just came from, it is a way to get a better idea of where one is and to build up one’s mental map of the area quicker), which in this case seems besides the point because the river gives such a strong north-south orientation that it seems hard to get lost – again, in a topological sense – and, I glance at a man sitting on some platform, staring at me. A hand full of other men, who are sitting and lying down, accompany him on this stone platform. He pats the area next to him and beckons me to sit down.

“Does he want me to sit down next to him?”

He pats the stone platform, again.

I walk over to him and sit.

section c

The man could be in his seventies, maybe a bit younger, and has Hindu make-up markings. Long hoary hair, long hoary beard – He is donning subtle hair decorations of some kind, a red dot on his forehead the size of a US George Washington quarter, three thick white bands across his forehead and three similar bands around each forearm, and a yellow shawl draped over his shoulders. His English is not my English and his pronunciation is difficult for me. Every act of communication has to be repeated at least three or four times. He gives me a few Hindi lessons and talks about Hinduism. He gives me a mini-lecture on the founding of Varanasi and draws out a rough diagram of the city that is demarcated by three rivers (Varun to the North, Ganga to the East and Assi to the South). Our conversation wanders about the makeup he is wearing, the stuff he puts in his mouth that looks like some kind of tobacco mixture and he spends some time drawing out the directions of the compass and giving me the Hindi names for these directions and I glean that all this has religious significance to him and Hinduism, I think. He tells me he has other foreigners who regularly visit him and consult with him. [*this is one of the events of my first day at the Ghats that have caused delays in my writing and posting about My Arrival in Varanasi. I am not going to go into great depth with our interaction otherwise this post would be book length and not get done this year; but I am compelled to explain this one part …**]

After multiple attempts with me mirroring his gestures and sounds in an attempt both to gain understanding and to convey my honest intent to understand, he describes the three bands of white on his forehead and which are also repeated on both forearms as representing Mother Power, Guru Power, God Power. When I finally got it, I let him know with a hearty, “Oh, yes … I get it … yes … I understand” it seemed appropriate to give him that extra affirmation since I had him repeat himself at least a half a dozen times. So, we both are nodding at one another, and I repeat what he said and then he says it again for good measure:

Mother Power,
Guru Power,
God Power ….

and as he does this he counts them out on his fingers … 1 … 2 … 3 …

and I freeze … the way he counts with his fingers! … my mouth hangs open and I restrain my reaction because a series of questions start to fire through my head [*and over the coming months a couple of waves of fresh questions keep coming**] it would be too much for me ask him, to change the direction of our conversation … so …

I just stare at the man with white hair, a red dot and a golden shawl … The communication is slow, and now I am just staring, wide-eyed, motionless … I am floored that he counts this way … his way of counting with his fingers implies a Base 12 counting system rather than a Base 10 that I was taught, that basically everyone is taught … and am left with … well what does this really give me … I don’t know, except a whole list of new questions … and there will be another time to go deeper into this … but … and … I don’t want to make a scene with the man who just invited me over to sit with him … a scene like,

“Where did you learn to count that way?”

“How do you do addition and multiplication?”

“Can you show me how you write numbers?”

I could have easily taken over the conversation and made this scene, but I didn’t…. because … well … initially I really didn’t know what to think and it has taken me 8 months to finally write about this and you, the reader, probably are like “He counted up to three using his fingers? What’s the big deal? what are you talking about?” (thanks for reading by the way) and if I did start to ask him about his counting system I don’t think he would have cared, but I suspected my line of questions may have gotten in the way with why he called me over in the first place and I thought that I’d go along for the ride a bit longer. Again, this blog post is going to be long enough as it is so … I’m gonna keep it going…

But, I do think it is appropriate to explain why I am interested in the way he counted to 3 using his fingers and how it is so different than the way I count, here it goes:

Westerners usually count with each finger representing a number: we have 10 fingers, we can count up to 10 using both hands. Our mathematics is Base 10 and it is just natural that we would think in counting up to 10 with our fingers as self-evident and elemental. But, this man … this man … counts … in a way … that implies … Base … 12 … and, more to the point of my excitement, I see how he’s doing it! And, this has been a lingering question for me for a while.

Before I go on, there is nothing self-evident about a Base 10 system of mathematics or to simply use your fingers to count up to ten. There are other cultures, which use other systems, let’s say Base 5 where you simply count up to five using one hand and forget the other. More significantly, many cultures and ancient languages don’t have words for all the numbers we use, and the evolution of the number line is a vast, fascinating subject and too big for this post. I will point out, however, that there are some languages where they have a word for ONE and another word for many, and that’s it, they don’t need anything else; and, then there are other languages that have a word for ONE and another word for TWO and another word for everything that is more than that. However, newborns from these cultures can be put in New York City and taught English and Base 10 mathematics and they would be find, they could do it; likewise, you could learn how to count using different systems as well as learn a language that uses no numbers. In short, all humans are pretty much the same in that we all have a capacity for language and a capacity for counting, but are they the same thing? Interestingly and some what tangentially, there have been studies about the etymology of words and the historical changes of words, where it was discovered that the word for TWO has changed the least over time and across cultures and languages than other words for other numbers, which implies that the concept of TWO is somehow more important and more central, older, than the other words that represent other numbers or concepts, but this is about the extent of my knowledge about this and going in another direction as well, so I will drop it now.

So, there is nothing self-evident or inevitable about 10 being the basic unit of a counting system, or even the best way to structure a mathematical system (although I haven’t studied this to any great depth). There are well documented and well studied cases of cultures who have other counting systems, such as the Babylonians who used … get this … are you ready? … Base 60! AND, there influence is still felt to this day in our system of tracking time: 60 seconds make a minute; 60 minutes make an hour; and, there are, of course, 360 degrees (6 x 60) in a circle. So how did this Base 60 come about? We ultimately don’t know, but it is fun to fantasize about, and here is one theory: two tribes with well established cultures, languages and counting systems come together – one who uses a Base 5 system (remember: 5 fingers on one hand) and the other a Base 12 – and they merge. 5 times 12 is … 60. Not clear, yet? You use one hand to count to 12 and the other hand to keep track of the cycles of 12. But, how do you use one hand to count to 12? Using your thumb as the marker, you count not the number of fingers, but the number of digits of the fingers, i.e. a section of a finger stands for a number. There are 4 fingers, each divided into 3 sections, making 12 … It is just as easy (and perhaps easier) to count up to 12 using 1 hand than it is to count up to 10 using 2. After I discovered this about the body, the history of numbers and the differences between counting systems, I never looked at my hands the same way again. However, even though it is perhaps just a matter of convention, I continued to wonder how people who actually used Base 12 would count with their hands, meaning which finger and which digit would they start with???

And, as I sit with this man, on my first day in Varanasi, my first time at Shivala Ghat, I see how it is done: using his right hand, number 1 is indicated by touching the thumb to the tip of the pinky finger; number 2 to the middle section of the same finger; and number 3 is the base of the this smallest finger of the hand. This is what I saw as he was counting out

Mother Power,
Guru Power,
God Power ….

that stunned me so, which resurrected some of my wonderings from years ago …

[* … and opened up a whole new series of questions that I’ve been mulling over for the last 8 months. I have decided to post this without grand explanations except to say I find this so fascinating, because it touches upon important linguistic, mathematical and artistic issues and on how the brain functions with respect to language and counting and higher abstract thinking as well as to visual and spatial thinking, such as what are the differences and similarities between language and art as a language and math as a language. I don’t think these are self-evident questions and this blog is about finding things that I am curious about and not so much about answering every question I have.

Feel free to skip this << – … –>> section, if you want. it is rough and really a way that I can plant some flags in things I am interested in:

<< –

Very briefly, a further line of thinking could be: Is this man’s computational system the same as mine? Does he think in Base 10 or is it Base 12 or potentially Base 60? Or is his way of counting with his fingers just a different outward express of the same counting system I was taught or, at least, of the same computational mechanism within the brain, call it the “counting faculty” for convenience that every human has? Clearly, you can be taught different counting systems, just like you can be taught different languages, but can you be taught a different way to make art? There is clearly a difference between art as a language and math or language as a language. Moreover, you take any newborn child and put it in a different culture than it’s parents belong to, and it will learn the language that surrounds it, including numbers, but the manipulation of numbers as well as the manipulation of form, material and imagery – and I am totally speculating on this one – may be a different issue; they need to be taught that. It is my understanding that drawing is part of the natural developmental process of a child, but then most people stop drawing as they get older, whereas they don't stop talking; rather, and this is a special part of language, they will keep on generating more and more sentences, even if these sentences aren't spoken or written or, even, recognizable and “correct.” Not so with numbers or drawing or other types of making and creating. A newborn has this language capacity and maybe a counting capacity and maybe, even, a creative capacity: Are they all the same thing? Or are they separate? Does one generate the others or are they independent? Is it even meaningful to talk about a creative capacity and when can this capacity “make art?” Or, is that concept too broad to be helpful. A child will have to learn the counting system the culture uses. BUT, it will just acquire the language that surrounds it. And, what about higher abstract mathematical concepts or more complex visual and spatial understandings or any other repetitive mental process for that matter? Are all these off shoots of a language faculty; or, are all of these activities, which are (as far as I know) only shared by humans, a product of one specialized function of the brain or are there multiple parts of the brain that interact to make these sorts of thoughts possible? Does one of these faculties – the language, the art, the math faculty – dominate over and is responsible for the others? Or is what makes us human, some other brain functionality from which then these other capabilities arise? In addition, we have the ability to express – to get out of our heads – these thoughts using all sort of communication that can be labeled language, art and math. What are the relationships to one another and – here's the real fault line – what is more important: the outward expression or the mechanism that allows it to happen in the first place.

Here’s another fault line: is all thought made possible by language; or, is there a part of the brain that is responsible for language and you have all sorts of other kinds of thoughts separate and distinct from language that can then find expression outside of your head and outside of language such as in art, math or some other pursuit we call creative? Even though all of this could be said more succinctly and has been, I don’t think any of this is self-evident.

Put another way: Humans have some kind of infinite digital computational system in our heads that can continue to generate, let’s say new words and sentences and speech, that can get people to repeat over and over some activity or similar articulations of some manufacturing process (such as the kind that allows you to make something). Is there just one type of computational system responsible for all this – for all counting, all math and highly abstract thinking, all creativity and all language in general, or does each of these expressions come from a different mental functionality? And, how does the outside influence these inside mental computations?

And more to the point: what does it mean to say that art is a language or mathematics is a language: what do you gain, what do you lose by defining them as such … is there a meaningful distinction between language, art, mathematics – they are all clearly different kinds of communication with different influences and outcomes, but do they come from the same generative impulse of the brain; or are there different elements of the mind responsible for these different thoughts and thus these different expressions? Is it accurate or even meaningful to call art a language or mathematics a language … Ok: big stuff, and I never promised to answer all questions in this blog, only to find more to ask.

Although I couldn’t articulate this 20 years ago, I want to pose these issues now, in at least this rough form, because it was these kinds of thoughts that is what motivated me to break my first stone and pursue my sort of art in the first place.

Got to leave it at that … or … this will never get this posted, and, besides, I am pushing to go beyond all of this …

Moving on …

–>>

**]

… one of my first thoughts as I sat with him is

‘well, well, well … I travel all this way and get an answer to a buried question I’ve had from years ago,
which opens up a huge range of questions for me to pursue and  … perhaps that’s why
I’ve come to India in the first place … and … so … I can leave now …
and, I can begin anew …’

Then,

{You’re not leaving India, now}

[You've been here for 4 days: you have more to do]

“Yep-per-di-do-da … ! …”

Patience …

and, then:

‘If thought structures exist as let’s say species exist, I have the feeling like I am looking at the outward sign of a dinosaur thought structure
that we only had an inkling ever existed, but that now a living specimen sits right before me.
I am stunned, shocked really… I feel like I know something.’

After seeing the way he counts, I feel compelled not to leave. I sit for such a long time with him even though I realize that both of us are using joules and joules of mental energy – just burning calories – with (or is it ‘at’) one another and little real communication is taking place. Anyway, I stay for so long that the other men with him (younger men, his disciples? his helpers? I don’t know) stand up behind him, so he can’t see what they are doing, and they begin to wave me off, first gently (I don’t get it) and then vigorously until I acknowledge them and get clued in. I stand and make to move on, and I thank him for his time. He gives me a traditional Indian bow. I give him a solid American hand wave of  “see ya later.” (Shaking his hand didn’t seem appropriate [*and it wasn’t**], and, in fact, is not the Indian way). I stand and turn to continue my walk up river. I leave the Sadhu.

section d

I simply have to bullet point the next series of events and leave a fuller description for a later date or this post won’t get done:

• I continue to walk north up the river. I then come upon the Indian paving stone I wrote about earlier. [*and, like I said then, I’ll leave it at that**]

• Then, I come upon the Main Ghat, which is a hustle of activity and I have a fleeting thought to go up the stairs to see this road that will take me back to Kriti, and I eventually continue up the river, but only after …

• … I notice that this Ghat has an order of magnitude of business ventures and tourists and pilgrims a couple of levels beyond every other Ghat. The place is packed with people, bulls with huge horns standing in regal immovability and  “BAOH –WHOOTE” is everywhere and my newly developed Jedi Mind trick is not going to work: the place is too overwhelming. I don’t even try. Men come right up to me and try to shake my hand and it is simply creepy. I have a few conversations (have to keep this brief). People try to sell me flowers with a candle in the arrangement so I can light it and float it down the river (for good karma, I’m told). Men want to give me a shave (To be fair, I am a bit scruffy). There are multiple shops, and gobs of people wanting to drag me into them and there is a new twist:

MAH-SAAhh –  schjzzz … MAH-SAAhh – schjzzz

Huh?

You look good time

MAH-SAAhh – schjzzz

Uh … no thank you?

Now, men want to give me a massage – and absolutely no way am I doing that …  ‘NO, no and DOUBLE no.’ Part of me thinks, “who are these guys and how do they know how to give a proper massage? There is no way I am letting them touch me.” They are persistent with BOATS, HAVE A GOOD LOOKING, BUY FLOWERS YES AND MAH-SAAAAhh – schjzzzzzz … it really is on a different order of intensity from anywhere else I’d been in India so far.

• I pass one massage guy and turn from him and I feel his hands on my shoulder and he grabs my arm.

• A line is crossed, and I see an opportunity for a fruitful cross-cultural exchange: I turn and impress upon him in a particular brand of unshakeable American vigor that touching me is an excellent way for him to have his spatial orientation changed from vertical to horizontal – with celerity – whereby he may even gain a new level of consciousness (without the use of any religion) somewhere within the ‘un-’ variety. Because our languages are different, I take a special care to make sure the communication is successful through other non-verbal means. I am assured that he understands, because his demeanor changes from groper-salesman to vacancy and his mouth falls open revealing a mouth full of crapped up teeth darkened red from daily use of Paan, a kind of chewing tobacco that has psychotropic qualities, and drool spills out of his mouth. I walk away and he does not follow.

• I make it to the first burning Ghat and initially don’t realize what I’m looking at [*my conversation with Gabby from the day before is absent**]. I think,

{Oh look: someone made a nice bonfire … how swell is that … Well, it’s not that cold. I wonder why …}

I move closer and … something … is … not quite right … a log that is not burning …

{Ooohhh … that’s a body … Ooohhh … look … I’m warming myself by the heat of  burning flesh … isn’t that just swell …}

• There are about five bonfires going. I could write more, like about the guy who eventually says to me:

How did you get such beautiful eyes?

Huh?

And, your nose. So beautiful!

Um … You’re basically standing on top of me. Please, step back and regain your composure.

His Grandmother is wrapped in festive clothing, laying on a stretcher, dead,
ready to be incinerated atop of a pile of logs
that is being stacked as we talk.

• I walk even further up the river and make it to the second Burning Ghat. This is a huge, multi-level Ghat with cords and cords of wood stacked everywhere and bonfires going on at every level, probably around 20 big balls of fire raging altogether. I meet a young man whose game is so good, I let him give me a tour of the Ghat – I let him lead me down the Rabbit Hole. As it went on, I knew he was going to ask me for money, but his schtick was honed and I wanted to see where it would lead. [*this is yet another event of this first day in Varanasi that I don’t know how to fully express and have to leave it at that. There is a whole story about my first walk through of the Main Burning Ghat, and I just can’t write about it now, 8 months after the fact. If I don’t leave it at that then I will never finish posting about this first day. Moving on … **]

section e

Finally, I turn around and start walking south, back toward Assi Ghat

[That’s enough for one day]

{You said it …}

I pass my paving stone, and think: ‘I’ll be back …’

Samuel Nigro, India, Varnasi, Drawing, Sculpture

I make it to Shivala Ghat, where I had the conversation with the Sadhu,
and wasn’t sure if I wanted to see him again.
He wasn’t there. No one was there,
just water buffalo.

I keep walking south, now with the river to my left, through a few empty and deserted Ghats … quite a distance … but after a bit I was walking with anticipation … and then it happened. I’m on a set of stairs above the river and from a docked boat I see a head poke up and

Bau-whote

Bau-whote

He is far away and I can ignore him.

Then I realize I am getting closer to Assi Ghat
and my path has to go through the various
groups of boatmen, and I ready myself
with tactic Tau-Delta-Sigma.

Bau-whote.

I do the Pope-karate-chop move and …

‘What is this,’ he says as he parodies my signal that clearly had too much Pope in it.

I scurry along. My tactic is loosing potency, but at least I don’t get anymore “BOAT” from him.

Then on to the next Ghat and the next group, I decide to put less Pope and more karate-chop into it, but before I can implement my tactic.

‘Hey, none of this’ and he mimics my hand gesture from earlier with both of his hands before I get a chance to cast my spell.

The boatmen are like the Borg and they have adapted.

Hey, What country?

Huh?

What country from?

Take a guess.

Russia.

Ok. Good guess.

Russia?

No.

England?

I sigh.

Canada?

Good enough.

Bau-whote?

‘No boat, today. Thank you.’ and I move along. He follows.

Tomorrow?

Tomor…? I don’t …

Yes, Tomorrow. Same time. You come. Boat ride good time.

Um … not sure … probably not.

Next Day, then? … Same Time?

I don’t … Maybe …

Yes?!?

and I scurry along, leaving the Tau-Delta-Sigma tactic in the dustbin.

Now I approach Assi and there are the men: boats, shops, yes. I ignore and am committed to looking at the Ghat.

Then I see the Sadhu again. He sits at the bottleneck where you enter the Ghat
from the walkway I originally came down from where I left Norman
and where one negotiates for a ride
and where Harmony Books is.

He pats next to him, again. I sit. A few exchanges. I am self-conscious that I stayed too long with him the first time and don’t know what is appropriate.
Then, he goes: ‘It is cold now. Tomorrow, come to the Ghats and bring me a blanket.’

‘… er … Uh-huh …’

Next and Last:

<<- [[{{ you will go to an Indian jail and this cop will loose teeth before you give him a single rupee }}]] ->>

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Indian PRICES!!!

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Filed under Art, Images, Sculpture, Story

The Mystical, Magical Bubble of Norman (3 of 5)

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 it 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, once in the kitchen, 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’ve been loosing at it so far, but now it’s for real and I will continue to play it and at least the monetary amounts are low – for me, anyway – but I lack the experience of 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?’

Ok.

and Norman leaves.

“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:

Sleestaks – Do they exist? …

or

I am now a Jedi Master …

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