Friday, September 5, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 7

Early in the morning, the sun was a burning spot behind the haze of a silver-plated sea. I walked on a path through pines, their needles sparkling with jewels of dew, to a wide beach of reddish sand. I looked at the green surf, the waves crashing on the shore, looked up and down the coast and was startled at how much it resembled the Carolinas. We had been going to beaches there every summer for many years, and this beach seemed eerily familiar.
I walked down onto the hard sand and let the water splash up past my ankles, and it was the same temperature as the surf at Emerald Isle in August. But turning around, all was different. Here was beachfront property totally undeveloped. Stand anywhere in the surf in North Carolina and look back toward America and what you'll see is a continuous row of $600,000 duplexes, owned by Raleigh doctors who rent to middle-aged newspaper editors from Pennsylvania. But at Mahabalipuram, on India's southeastern coast, no buildings crowd the beach. The only structures in sight are the gray, weathered wrecks of fishing boats and a few thatch-roofed shacks.

The beach is not a place where Indians go to spend their leisure time; it's a place for work, and a place where they go in the morning to defecate. As I took in more of the scene that morning, I saw up and down the shore, every hundred yards or so, men squatting in the sand, their lungis hiked up around their waists. When they were done, they waddled down to the water's edge to wash off in the surf.

I had been staring in wonder at undeveloped real estate. I then turned my gaze to my bare feet, sniffed suspiciously, and in the sand in the immediate vicinity saw the fresh piles that made this certainly no jogger's beach.

I mentioned work. The work being done in a village just up the beach was fascinating, mostly because it was being done in the same way it had been done there a thousand years ago, or perhaps two or three thousand years ago. Time in India, we were learning, does not follow the clock, and often it moves not at all.

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