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A Strange & Long-Winded Story

Jun 30, 2005

On the side of the road that I travel every day on my way to work - that's where they lived in long, straggling pitched tents and each year there was one more tent and much more than one more barefoot child with dirtsmudged face, all of them perched in the heat and dust like bewildered baby birds fallen from their nest. They were here in the deep South all the way from Rajasthan and you could see the exotic otherness in the faces of the women. They belong to the band of traveling artists that the world calls gypsies and always I have felt a sense of being drawn to them- which may initially have had something to do with the tipsygypsyness of my own heart- so anchored in quiet streets and so wanting to wander on the wild will of the wind. Not fully understanding yet that somethings sound far more poetic than they live. When you pitch your life on the streets in plainview of every passerby, its hardened pain and lack of privacy become its poetry. And the hardened poetry of pain is sung sometimes in silence. And so in silence I would pass them by, watching them work. They were always working- the women at least- and what they worked on was Plaster-of-Paris. They cast chalk-white statues of Swami Vivekanada and raised-armed tickle-me-please statues of the Laughing Buddha, statues of Goodnatured Ganesha alongside inexplicable busts of Victorian women with high-piled coiffures and model little girls (the kind you see on sentimental greeting cards and do-it-yourself cross-stitch packages) in floppybrimmed hats hugging their knees. Vast replicated armies standing rank upon rank- the spiritual, the divine rubbing shoulders with the not-quite-quaintly colonial and the clichedly cute. A curious and colorfully painted array. Yes they were all painted. With broad brush strokes and unmistakably fluorescent colors (why fluorescent I am not sure). I would watch them from the window of my world. Wonder at the strength in the legs of the women who squatted for such long hours in their sarees painting these peculiar pieces, the patience of a people who waited for Plaster-of-Paris to set in the sun so they could paint another little regiment. And what made me sad was the joylessnous that soulless copies can bring to the thrill of creation. To see at a glance twenty fluorescent-orange-robed Swami Vivekanandas, heads turned all gazing with blank-eyed, white-faced determination at a future which suddenly seemed-rather dreary. To see children who should've been in school pick up paintbrushes and color within the lines of their poverty. So many times I thought of stopping by to talk to them find out what their names were and what they thought of the orange-robed Swamiji.

(But the closest I ever got to that was one pre-Divali evening, driving past them with a box full of chocolates from my granduncle who still gives out presents to almost-grown-ups like that and the way I figure it is- when you're 86 all the world's a child...in any case I stopped the scooter and when one of them came up- a little boy with questioning eyes and an entreprenurial air- I handed it to him and he took it with a dignity that made me so strangely grateful. Such a quiet, matter-of-fact I understand-why-you're-doing-this gaze- and no greediness. I remember the sudden sense of shame- what right did I have to be there with my self-seeking questions? and now I maybe know but then I didn't so I ducked my head in gratitude and drove away).

Sometimes it is the mundane things that are the most mysterious. The ones you drive past so often that you've almost stopped seeing them- and this is how the familiar grows strange. And maybe this is why sometimes the things closest to you are the ones that take the longest to understand. And I realize now that what I wanted from them more than anything else was an answer whose question was simple, whose question was simply: Can you show me the beauty in your life? because I wanted to believe it was there and my pedestrian perspective was having trouble imagining where it might be. When I looked at them from my window I saw soiled grace. Saw wanderers far from their own homes, eating around a big black pot that never looked like it was full enough to feed them all. I watched them toil with expressionless faces over their labour so deeply devoid of any art. Watched them brush their teeth, bathe their children, braid their hair, drink their tea, wash their pots, wake their husbands, count their change all on that long, lonely busy, crowded stretch of road. Watched them watching a happier, heedless world rush by and I would wonder how that might make me feel if I were one of those women...but there are some places that even the imagination cannot take you.

And now they have disappeared because their road is being widened by men and women who work far too long in the far-too-hotness of the end of June. The tents have vanished and so have the immobile armies. I wonder where they have gone to and for how long? A strange, selfish worry that they will not come back... but- why do I miss them?

There is more of a point (surprisingly) than these questions to this story- a much happier point to this story. And it starts with the Sardarji. The Plaster-of-Paris Sardarji who for years has haunted my trips to work. Yes- Haunted. I was a little afraid of him, a little disturbed by him- and all his all-too-many twin-brothers. He was such a preposterous man in fluorescent pink and green with a plump pomposity and self-satisfied blackcurling mustache. Folded hands over a fantastically polite potbelly and a turban as outrageously painted as the rest of him in (fluorescent) orange (of course). Every time I saw him- and when you're wearing those colors you're a little hard to miss- I would look away. Quickly. Laughing a little but underneath it an upsetness that I didn't want to examine too closely. A question I very Did Not want to have to ask myself or anyone else. (You can try guessing what it was but I'm sure you'll miss- you're likely more charitable than I am in situations like this).

And then there dawned That Fateful Morning... :-)

Crossing the tents I'd crossed so many times before I chanced upon a once-in-a-lifetime sight. A man, not old, not young parked a pale green scooter by the side of the road. Knelt down next to the nearest Sardarji. Looked him straight in the painted eye. And then rose in a swift movement beckoned to the nearest man, pulled a wallet out of his back pocket extracted I don't know how many notes of I don't know what denominations and handed them over before bending down to pick up that Plaster-of-Paris Sardarji, place him gently on the front end of the scooter and kickstart it to drive off, leaving me in an utterly astonished cloud of dust (and that last cloud-of-dust part might be a mere embellishment of memory- because looking back I am aware of my tendency to recall it all in a knight-in-shining-armor-come-to-rescue-dragon-guarded-princess/sardarji kind of way and in the absence of shining armor, dragons and princesses I put in the cloud of dust because sometimes a dramatic touch is called for like that).

And you're wondering where all or any of this is going. Don't you see though- what just happened? What was salvaged, saved, pulled out from beneath the rubble of my blind misunderstanding?

Someone took that Sardarji home. Maybe as a gift for a friend or a relative. Maybe for his wife or his mother- maybe for a colleague at the office who just moved into a new house. Or- maybe he didn't buy it to give away. Maybe he bought it for himself (and in a way that's even better) but this much is irrelevant. What matters is that he stopped, knelt down and looked eye-to-eye at something I saw nothing but Ugliness in and he didn't turn away.

How Can Anyone Care For You?

Not a nice question to have to ask. Anyone.
(No not even garishlynightmarishly dressed polite Plaster-of-Paris Sardarjis on the sidewalk).

And sometimes that sometimes unarticulated question is answered in unexpected ways. Ways like this that make you realize the heart of the world is far wider than your understanding. That you have a longish way to go to be able always to see beauty in life's presentations- 'even when it's not pretty' (yes even when it comes dressed in a most preposterous shade of pink :-)). And there is strange solace in the realization that with or without you- there will always be room enough, time enough, joy enough, heart enough- for Everything to be accepted, understood, cherished even- loved. To know that this wide embrace of beauty is possible in this world and thankfully Always will be.

And I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that this is an awfully strange and long-winded story to drive home such an awfully short and simple point . But if you think about it... Life Is Like That Only- No?


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