Monday, January 23, 2012

Before it fades

Quick, before the new academic semester which starts today pushes aside all in its path, some synthesizing thoughts about my India trip. It's a little hard to pull together into a single narrative, and not just (if also) because it's India, which challenges and charms a person on every level at once. I've been to India only once before, about five years ago (you saw it here), and left the last time thinking India was a necessary place but also that I didn't want to come back right away, because of that all-around challenging bit. I'm glad to have had a chance to reconnect.
This trip happened as a sort of jumble of accidents. The "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya" project (ERSEH), whose dedicated religion-person I am, is a result of such bizarre serendipity it seems like cosmic carelessness. (I felt the thinness of the project when I tried to describe it at the high-power Center for the Study of Developing Societies on Friday; it seemed down-right amateur, which of course is what I am in relation to this subject matter...) Darjeeling and Sikkim are sites for the ERSEH project because of prior and unrelated collaborations with New School. And I decided to go this January less because it will impress the foundation supporting the project ("See? It has deflected the research trajectory of our religious studies professor...!") than because a friend recently-arrived in Delhi seemed so depressed a visit was in order - and because I wanted to give myself a deadline to finish the Job manuscript.
But then, there I was, and it didn't matter how I'd come to find myself there. I guess the professional aims of the trip were two: for me to spend time with the research teams in Darjeeling and in Gangtok as they put together their research methodologies, and for me to get some first-hand experience of the rich and varied religious landscape of the Indian Himalaya. It was successful on both fronts, especially as I was able to arrange semi-public discussions of the topic in both places.
Indeed, recalling the woman in a novel of E. M. Forster's who said "how can I know what I think until I hear what I say?" I got some extremely useful thought-work done on the strange concept "everyday religion" which I inherited here. My shpiel? At the Good Will Center in Darjeeling, Rachna Books in Darjeeling and then at CSDS I laid out three increasingly ambitious briefs for the study of everyday religion.
(1) Ordinary people are the arbiters of what succeeds and persists in the history of religion, so focusing only on prophets, central sites and texts and hierarchies, distorts the history of religion - and, indeed, sneaks in a theological account of this history.
(2) Ordinary people are themselves religious creators: making creative and serious use of what's available to them in response to the joys and challenges of human existence they provide a better model for religion's place in human life, and perhaps of the lives of religious specialists, too.
(3) Ordinary people's religious creations are the truest, because most grounded. As liberation theology, feminism and pragmatism (among other schools) suggest, it is when thought meets real problems that it is most fertile, and when it doesn't need to justify hierarchy that it is most universal and potentially liberating.
I'm still thinking this through. (3), in particular, seems polemical in ways which may not be appropriate to this project. (Indeed, if (1) is correct, then we should expect ordinary people to be among the supporters of the idea of religious expertise concentrated in special canons and castes.) On the other hand, ERSEH's particular concern is the way religious practices cultivate or destroy environments, so a focus on the practical at the expense of whatever non-material things religions also cultivate or destroy seems OK. I'll keep working this out, as generating a theoretical appraisal of the study of "lived religion" or "everyday religion" is becoming my new research project.
But you don't want to hear about this, do you? Nor do I: this will keep. What might not is experiences I had that won't fit into the narrative that emerges of the project. So here are some of them - those which have recommended themselves by coming up in conversations already - in no particular order. (The photos in this post are unrelated to the text, though in chronological order.)
• I won't forget the stillness of that drive in the shared jeep in the starless night above the Teesta River, from Rangpo down to Siliguri, a good dozen of us crammed into a car navigating often treacherous roads as pedestrians emerged from the shadows and returned again as we drove past. I don't know what my presence in the car will have meant to the others there.
• At Rumtek Monastery, across a valley from Gangtok, a young monk practiced his English on me. Five years into an eight-year program of study I suspect he'd really like to end up leading a meditation center in America. He encouraged me to read "A Precious Garland of the Supreme Path." I had already looked through it before he approached me, though, and rather naughtily asked his clarification for 5.3: Since thoughts are the play of the dharmata, do not abandon them. I gather "Precious Garland" is on the syllabus for next year.
• A young Swiss social anthropologist who's been studying Lepcha shamanism for five years was indignant at efforts to establish this indigenous tradition as a religion by transcribing what shamans say (missing the point entirely!). Worse still, they're calling the monster they're creating by a name from an old anthropological study "Boonthingism." With my bookstore host and another friend of his, we had a wonderful dinner of flaming-hot Bhutanese food which ended up with a long discussion of the sincerity of the public mourning at the funeral of Kim Jong Il - and the next day he sent us a link to an article reporting that people in North Korea were being punished for having insufficiently mourned.
• One of my Darjeeling hosts had just become a father the day before I arrived. In an old British bungalow I had the pleasure of meeting his daughter (at that point still unnamed), her mother, and all four of her grandparents - including two who'd flown in from Ireland (their daughter's a human rights lawyer who'd been working of a child labor NGO in Darjeeling). I've never met people as Irish as these, and now they have an Indian granddaughter, and a son-in-law who beamed with a face like a young Dalai Lama.
• A group of Bengali economists, unhappily stuck in Delhi at a promising new university that's stumbling, crammed into the car I'd been given use of parsed their different reactions to Delhi - "I hate it," "I dislike it," "I hate it with a vengeance!" - and the queasy uncertainties of their formless place of employment. We coined the phrase "psychoerotics of uncertainty" to name the sly and shifting terms they used to describe meetings which went nowhere (if they were indeed meetings), discussions which weren't about what they seemed, all framed by an anomalous innovation in status, "resident NRIs" (which I pronounced ornery). They took me to a restaurant called "Oh! Calcutta" (!) so I might savor the fabled hilsa fish, and marveled that a cooking tradition they associate only with homes, not restaurants, could so successfully be a cuisine - though it took someone in Mumbai to think of it.
• At a restaurant I stumbled into 5 hours into a 6-hour trek around Gangtok, I enjoyed delicious kauri - "Sikkimese macaroni," the menu explained, in vegetable broth (non-meat food was a rarity on this trip), even as American Evangelical Christian praise music played in the background (an annoying song presumptuously called "You are wooooorthy!" I heard once when visiting Saddleback!). Turns out the gnocchi-shaped noodles are named after cowrie shells - up here in the mountains, miles from any sea? Aha: Sikkim straddles a trade route...
• About half of Sikkim borders China - to north and east - and Indian domestic tourists apparently all go visit one of the borders to shake hands with the Chinese border guards and pose for pictures with them. Foreign tourists need special permission to go there, so I contented myself with a bazaar of Chinese stuff on the Mahatma Gandhi Marg in Gangtok, which offered plexiglass idols of every religious tradition, Buddhist and Hindu and even, weirdly, Native American.
• A Bihari developer, whom I met at an India China Institute lunch at the Indian International Center in Delhi, described how he was selling a green development to religious Biharis. Each of his towers will have a shallow pool of water on its roof. This will do all sorts of good environmental work but is being sold as a place for an important annual ritual where one greets the sun waist-deep in a pool! They're also making all sorts of vastu calculations - a neglected Hindu tradition of architectural energies recently revived in response to middle-class Indian enthusiasm for feng-shui, India-China relations in action.
• The world's-first Bollywood-meets-Vegas musical "Zangoora: The Gypsy Prince," in a world's fair-like theme park called Kingdom of Dreams in space-agey Gurgaon, was a surprise hit, even with my dejected Bengali economist friend. I'd not appreciated what stamina Bollywood dance requires, on top of remarkable athleticism. Not a great story, but a new genre being born, bringing together Bollywood dance and song with Cirque du Soleil-like aerial acrobatics and luminous Japanese anime=like LED sets - I won't be surprised to see something like it reaching these shores in a few years. In "Culture Gully," the food court next door, with the cuisines and replicas of monuments of most Indian states, my friend asked a bartender if they had wine. Yes, red, he was told. What kind of wine? It's wine, was the reply. But what kind? Wine is wine, said the exasperated bartender, you know, grape alcohol: wine. (I had beer.)
• Next to St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic church, perched along the road just above the Sikkim University Guest House, is a fiberglass model of Mount Kangchenjunga with a grotto of the Virgin Mary inside. Before I dismiss it (it's positioned so you see the actual Kangchenjunga just beyond it - can one compete with that and win?) I need to think of all the Lepchas (descended from the snows of their mother-creator Kangchenjunga) who have become Christian over the years. Everyday religion par exellence, no? Besides, religious doubling and cooptation are defining features of the landscape here. Like in Darjeeling:
• The highest point of Darjeeling town is now called Observatory Hill, but once was the site of a Buddhist monastery (Dorje Ling). Now a Hindu-Buddhist temple complex sits atop it, called Mahakal, at whose center a Hindu pandit and a Buddhist monk sit in a tiny room facing each other, chanting texts each from his own traditions. They flank a statue (in Indian English they actually call them "idols") of Shiva so covered in garlands of marigolds as to be unrecognizable, and devotees of both traditions come to make offerings. The two traditions aren't just practiced side-by-side here, in silent parallel, but face-to-face!
• I figured out that badminton, apparently a common winter sport here, is the perfect sport for hill cities (think about it). Maybe I'll find a way to make it an image of religion in these parts!
• At the security check at Indira Gandhi International Airport on my way home, agents asked me to show them what was in my backpack. "It's a metal statue," I said, unwrapping the yellow silk shawl around the bronze Saraswati I received from the Gangtok book store. An agent held it in her cupped hand and said, reverently, smilingly, "It's a god!"
(Okay, I'll identify the pictures. In the plane, Heathrow-Delhi. Autorickshaw in Delhi traffic.Public library and other buildings of representative build in Darjeeling. A student's imagining of the Darjeeling of the future. A well in the poorer parts of Darjeeling. World cup chart. Sweets celebrating my colleague's wife's safe delivery. Frozen dew near Bhutia Busty monastery. A dog and Kangchenjunga. Top-end tea shop in Darjeeling. Sign in Gangtok. Prayer flags. Tibetan monks in the bowels of a monastery which looked like a public housing project. A monastery I wasn't supposed to take a picture of. Prayer missal of an Evangelical group. Prize-winning fenugreek at Rorathang. View from makeshift restaurant at Rorathang. Representative truck. Tea garden near Bagdogra. Roadside flower by tea garden. Jama Masjid in Delhi. Rehearsal for national day celebrations at Rashtrapati Bhawan, Delhi - notice the camels! Quwwali singing at Nizamuddin.)

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