Friday, September 26, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 20

Our journey swept through southern India like the hands of a clock: The early hours were spent on the tropical eastern coast, the later hours following the Cauvery River north through the ever-increasing heat. At midnight we were in Bangalore, now the epicenter of India's emerging economy and middle class, and finally in the wee hours back in Madras under a broiling February sun. "This is not bad," our Indian friends told us of the weather. "In April, it is damn hot. You could not live here. Surely, you would die." I didn't argue.

We were tired and irritable, having spent five weeks hopping from one Rotary club to another throughout Tamil Nadu, visiting the schools, clinics and institutions these clubs support because their government does not. Some of what we saw had a lasting effect on us – images like the serious faces of hundreds of young girls at an orphanage near Hosur (above). Later, I would become a Rotarian myself, and more than a decade after my visit there, our club would send a container with 14 tons of books to schools and libraries in Chennai and the coastal area hit by the tsunami.

You may wonder how I have managed to recall, with such an imperfect memory, direct quotations for this story after so long a time. Upon my return, I wrote a book about my experience in India and called it "Driving to the Center of the Universe." Much of what I wrote in this story was extracted from the book, which was never published. No one wanted to publish my book because it... well... stinks. You've read the best parts; the other 100,000 words aren't worth anyone's time. If I were reviewing this book, I would pan it mercilessly. Reading over passages now – long, whining complaints about travel inconveniences – I am appalled and keep asking myself, "Who cares!?"

Writing the book, howver, helped me sort out the mountain of information that had been crammed into my head. I can see that in this passage from its conclusion:

"...My mind flickered with images: of ravens and painted cows, dark eyes, white teeth and long braids, bindis and beedis, toe rings and nose jewelry, the aroma of curry and masala and of rotting vegetables and smoldering straw and sewage, the curling smoke of incense and the brilliance of winter light reflected in marble.
"We had journeyed to the Center of the Universe, and now we were headed back to the fringes on the edge of blackness. Or were we? I had stood on that spot in that ancient place in Chidambaram and considered the deities, and nothing had happened. It wasn't the place to stand, I realized, it was the act of standing. The Center of the Universe is, after all, not a place but a viewpoint, and I would always be there."


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