Saturday, June 22, 2013

Channel Surfing with Ganesh

What's On TV?

There has been a lot of press regarding India's spectacular growth since economic trade was liberalized in the early 1990s. However, outside certain urban enclaves, much of the country remains extraordinarily undeveloped. Mostly, it is a matter of bureaucratic corruption, rather than a failure of civic resourcefulness. Though in America it is now common for every room in the house to have a flat screen TV (not to mention computer, tablet, and cellular entertainment), a television remains a luxury item for the average Indian. If the traveler should happen upon a festival, a fair, or large trading market, it is not uncommon to see a large TV hooked up to enormous, outdated speakers, blaring Hindustani epics like The Ramayana on pirated DVDs to an audience of farmers and pastoralists, who, living on the land mostly as their ancestors have done for centuries, still regard the television as a magical box.
          TV is seen by many (including myself) as a cultural id, generally reflecting national predilections.   Museums elaborate on a nation's past; television showcases the culture's present infatuations. Mostly, whether you're in Italy, Japan, or wherever, this is not a good sign, since most programming is beyond terrible. No anomaly, Indian TV has its share of faults. There might be a hundred channels on cable, but most of them feature spiritual swamis, religious reenactments, cricket matches or recaps, melodramatic soaps, and sturm und drang news programs regarding Pakistan.
          I don't come to India to watch TV, but in recent years I've appreciated it as an instrument for decompression. Engaging with Indian everyday life, navigating its crowded, polluted streets, maneuvering through conversations with endless strangers, takes its toll on the traveler. Like many who come here, I am seeking betterment-- not exactly enlightenment or even an epiphany, but some kind of transformation-- one cannot visit India without returning home with more human empathy and gratitude for the small, good things in life. Nevertheless, there comes times, really long days, where I can no longer write in my journal or make sense of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. The television then allows me a short respite. The average Indian wealthy enough to own a television might be anglophone, but among the dozens of channels, usually only HBO and STAR have English language programming. And so last time out, I ended up watching Rocky III, Commando, and Top Gun, three 1980s movies I loved as a kid. I'm more amused by this than embarrassed. Thus, although when it comes to TV I'm more of a detractor than advocate, for all its many faults, it has helped me through the long night.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lakeside Dawdling

Pushkar Lake

Pushkar is a provincial town in central Rajasthan, a half-hour bus ride north of the depot at Ajmer.  As far as inland Indian cities go it is comparatively quiet and beautiful, as the town borders the north shore of a lake and the eastern and western points are crowned by temple hills, dedicated to the Creator God Brahma's wives, Savitri and Gaytri. The lake is holy, and pilgrims, mostly villagers from the Hindu Belt of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar, are daily bused in for worship. A lot of hippies continue to make the journey, young and old, and the tea shops and juice stalls being diminutive and crowded, the traveler often winds up in digressive conversation, in which life story details are divulged.
            Not feeling well when I arrived in India in February earlier this year, I'd come straight to Pushkar to convalesce for a few days. It was my fourth time in the town-- I'd spent a few weeks here on several occasions five years before researching and writing a novel set in India. I was creating a path for my characters, and then spending time on it. A lot of that time found me by the lake, which is not just one of my favorite places in India, but in all the world.
            The first thing one must accomplish, if one wants to spend considerable time by the water, is a session of puja with a priest. Doing so, gets you a "Pushkar passport," a saffron-colored string the priest ties around your wrist to let the others know you're respecting the old ways. When I'd first come to Pushkar, I'd been annoyed by this aggressive stance, for after all, I was not a Hindu, and had no need of the ceremony. But now I've come to appreciate the ritual, and make some effort to find the right priest, one that doesn't care so much about my rupees as much as he might concern himself with my spirit and the well being of my family (the chanting involves naming the members of one's intimates).
           When I leave Pushkar, I don't take the string off my wrist. It reminds me of sitting and wandering by the lake, pigeons figure-eighting in the sky, shrieking children running along the ghats, hippies beating drums at sunset, the smell of ganja wafting in the air, itinerant musicians playing village ballads on heirloom fiddles, thoughtful solitude and improvised companionship, and most of all, the invaluable feeling that while the world might be in the throes of one catastrophe after another, the days in Pushkar have been fine.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Suits

Lately, I've been dealing with the dilemma of identity. What this means is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to work as both a writer and photographer, not because I have a preference for one or the other, but due to the rationing of time. The occasional assignment aside, neither endeavor pays very well and success-- never quite so based on superficial metrics of popularity and earnings-- is usually qualified by my personal satisfaction, that such and such story and photo is perhaps uniquely mine. Nevertheless, I find that lately I have less capacity to devote myself to both disciplines. This means making hard choices and the purging of some indulgences. However, between writing and shooting, I don't know if it will ever be possible to choose one over the other.
            Failing that, and because, lately, taking pictures comes more naturally to me than the complex process of constructing either a story's narrative or an essay's thrust, I'm feeling that the best compromise is to put them together. I've already been doing this for several years with my haiku project, but minimalist poetry is one thing, digressive thoughts inspired by a moment in time, another.
            In March, my wife had a birthday and one of the presents I bought for her was a photobook from Danny Lyon called "Memories of Myself." Lyon is probably most famous for riding with and photographing Midwestern biker gangs in the sixties, but this photobook is a collection of images from different times of his life-- the bikers, of course, but also crossdressers in Galveston, Texas, a lover in Knoxville, revolution in Haiti, and prostitutes in Columbia, among others. The photos, already beautiful, had deeper resonance with some context. Lyon once said, "The use of the camera has always been for me a tool of investigation, a reason to travel, to not mind my own business, and often to get into trouble."
           In the spirit of inspiration, I will try to do the same with my photography here, not exactly saying what a photo is about, but lingering on what the moment meant to me. Not a caption, per se, but a loose elaboration.
           Because most of us don't fit into one suit, but many, or in my case, two.