Journey Into The Unknown

For centuries now, every once in three years, "The Feast of Immortality" – Kumbh Mela, takes place alternatively in four Indian centers : Allahabad and Hardwar (Uttar Pradesh state), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh) and Nasik (Maharashtra). Descending from Vedic mythology, the feast represents the victory of the supreme gods (the Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva trinity) in the battle for the sacred (kumbh). It's been said that in the fire of the battles that lasted for 12 days – one day in a god's life equals one year in a mortal's existence- a drop of the magic nectar that gives everlasting life fell on the ground of each of the four cities…The ceremony starts on the 14th of January (Maker Sankranti) and lasts until mid-February (Mauki Arnavasya), and attracts a lot of the Hindu population.The feast's peak was reached on the 6th of February 1989, in the place called (even since the times of the first Aryan people) Prayag, where the old Allahabad was erected; here, in 1889, Jawaharlal Nehru was born. On the outskirts of the town, by the Sangam isthmus (surface: 1200 ha), at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna (at the meeting point, the waters are 2 km wide), 15 million pilgrims, regardless of the caste or social class, stepped for a moment in the meeting point of the two rivers. The ashes of Mahatma Gandhi, Independent India's father and leader of the anti-colonial resistance movement of the 20th century, were spread there in February 1948.All these men, women and children, flowing in by train, by bus, by bike or on foot from all around the subcontinent, have formed, for a few days in February 1989, the largest gathering known in the history of humankind.Not even the greatest movie super production could have ever imagined a 15,000,000 extras sequence… How many cameras, how many directors, what panorama would take it to reproduce the dimensions of a meeting between 15 million pilgrims and the waters of the Ganges and Yamuna!Such a movie seems impossible, perhaps even incredible to be made. Still, reality is alive and convincing.A single remark: it's an Indian reality.No European can ever be sure that he/she is fully ready for a meeting with India. No matter how many art albums has one browsed or how many journey diaries has one read, or how much of the Indian literature and philosophy has one studied, one cannot feel, right then, at the moment of the impact with Indian reality (which may appear, more than once, under a myth's disguise), anything except for the sensation of having descended into a world of legend. I had never thought I would ever have access to it. Until one day when, at the beginning of September 1978, a "Week of Romanian Film" which was going to take place in New Delhi and in two (out of three) "capitals" of Indian movies, suddenly confronted me with India. The few intensive readings (on first or second view), from Eminescu to Vianu, as well as the information extracted from an Encyclopedia could only offer (as I was to discover during my first and each journey to India) an extremely summary aid in deciphering this "other universe." The multi-millenary, multiracial, multinational, multi-linguistic and multi-religious India reveals itself as defying and ambiguous, rigid and dynamic, fascinating and scary, majestic and poor, overwhelming and mysterious, welcoming and closed, proud and humble. Spread across the eternal snows of the Himalayas to the Southern waters of the Indian Ocean, bathed in the West by the Arabian Sea and the waves of the Bengal gulf in the East (at a European scale, it equals the distance from Murmansk to Salonika, on the North-South direction, and between Lisboa and Jassy, from West to East), the Indian subcontinent, divided in 22 states and 9 Union territories, is now inhabited by over 8 hundred million people who express themselves in 60 languages (16 of them are officially recognized) and 1652 dialects. Given only these dimensions, given only the multitude of traditions, climates, landscapes, and also the different degrees of development, one can understand the difficulty of deciphering the meaning of the Indian world. Not even the movies seen until then (some of them completely inconclusive, some misunderstood as far as their true language was concerned), which are often a valuable mixture in revealing certain territories, customs, psychologies, unknown particularities, can be of much help. Unlike Champs Elysees, for example – a landscape that you can recognize after having seen so many pictures of it –, Indian reality and its pictures are very hard to comprehend. Even the newspapers say, under various circumstances, especially when they cannot find the answer to the questions they are being asked: "India is a very big country, nobody can know everything about it." It's a paradox, but I think that what most attracted me at my first encounter with the Asian subcontinent was precisely the fact that India is a country enciphered in symbols, that it reveals itself step by step, scarcely and hardly, to someone who has come from some other place, luring him by an attractive challenge. Contrast, a Multi-millenary LawA first, unexpected lesson was to be forced on me as soon as I got to Delhi. The North and North-East floods, unleashed by the wrath of the river that they call sacred even nowadays, the Ganges, as well as of its affluent, the Yamuna, which hem-stitches the capital's contour, had both reached a peak unseen since the previous century, destroying, during that September, hundreds and hundreds of settlements on thousands of square kilometers.Legends mentioned in Ramayana tell us that at the beginning of the world the Ganges had fallen impetuously from the sky, right over the HimalayanMountains, in order to save the Earth from drought. Those times' wise-men begged the god Shiva himself to ease the waters' fall using his body as a shield, for fear that the Earth would break in two. And now the Ganges was swooping again, forbidding our journey to Calcutta. Dum Dum airport, besieged by water, made the arrival to West Bengal's capital impossible, forcing the hosts into modifying the initial schedule, and organizing another Romanian movie's week, in Madras.The city is Calcutta's rival not only because of its harbor, but especially, as we were to see for ourselves, for its movie production. We also missed the meeting with the white marble pearl: Taj Mahal, for Agra was also flooded. It seemed such an irreparable loss back then. How was I supposed to know that in only 6 months I was going to see the miracle of Mongolian architecture? (Back then, in 1978, only 600,000 Indians, out of 600,000,000, had visited the Taj Mahal). For the moment, all's well when it ends well. Instead of Agra, I went to Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital – it's called "the pink city," because of the ruby gritstone slabs from which the buildings are made.Designed over 250 years ago, following the urbanistic conception, still viable nowadays, of its founder – warrior, mathematician and astronomer – the maharajah Jai Singh –, Jaipur has a harmonious architecture. Vast streets, perpendicularly intersected, guarded by institutions, libraries or palaces, are crowned by the famous Palace of the Wind, its façade like a "red lace," spread across five floors. In the neighborhood, there was Amber waiting for us, built in 1592, with other temples, suspended gardens, artificial lakes and the former maharajah's fortress-palace, where we arrived on the back of an elephant that carries his guests seated in some sort of a wooden chair, in a dizzying swing. There where the best dancers used to be hidden from foreign eyes, tourists are now welcome, and they're being introduced to all these art treasures, creation of the foregoers' genius.I knew that one of the most important Indian natural riches lies in the water resources. Here, in the Ganges fertile plain, one of the first terrestrial civilizations was born in ancient times, and this plain can now feed half of India's population. The floods' calamity brutally showed us an essential principle of Hindu philosophy: the association of Good and Evil in one unit. Unity embodied, ever since the first Vedic hymns, by the Hindu gods trinity: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the keeper, Shiva, the destroyer. Brahma personifies the act of creation itself; he has never been represented (with one exception, in a temple from Rajasthan which has been dedicated to him). Vishnu and Shiva assume, one after the other, the part of destroying and creating. These are meanings learned from the very ambivalence of the life and death, blessing and disaster cycle, in their infinite succession. The same constructive-destructive duality is being revealed, in various ways, along the Indian journey, ending by its reflecting in the thoughts of those who get in contact with the Indian phenomena. India – just like its movies – fascinates or repels. There is no middle way. One cannot remain indifferent. There is a notorious example among Romanian scholars. Mihai Ralea and Tudor Vianu, bonded not only by a humanist vocation and common beliefs, but also by a long friendship, visited the new, independent India as messengers of Romania. They were both glad – as they told me after a few years – for being pilgrims in the footsteps of Mahabharata and Ramayana's heroes. But after the first few days, Mihai Ralea, the admirer of Gandhi's non-violent sociologism, felt crushed by the spectacle of the desolating poverty and decided to return home. His reaction wasn't unique by far. Many Europeans had it. Even the Indians transferred from a richer region, with a more pleasant climate, to a more arid and poorer land, told me how difficult it was for them to face the shock of poverty. One of them was the manager of Calcutta headquarters of the Indian Board for Foreign Cultural Relations. Having been born in Lucknow (the princely town where the action from The Chess Players, Satyajit Ray's movie, takes place), he had been living in West Bengal's capital for almost two years when I met him. It was impossible for him to fit in with the crowds, the poverty and the dust, which take over the streets of the imperial metropolis.He found the solution by himself: "Don't look, don't look!" Although, by the laws of contrast, you can also meet the opposite reaction. An American journalist asked once: "How can you deal with so much poverty?" An Indian journalist replied: "How can you deal with such wealth when millions of people die of hunger?" Yes, life is neither simple, nor easy in India. Especially for the people born here. The Street's SoundtrackOne of these contrasts, specific to the Indian psychology, has followed me as well, the happy traveler through India, both in direct meetings as in the screen ones: the pleasure of chatting and the need for silence.On the Indian street, one's hearing is ceaselessly tormented from every direction by a sonorous background which is a mixture of conversations, music and all kind of noises (like in the movies!). Indians are extremely loud and talkative. Whoever assisted to a quarrel between two Indians may find any other one monotonous. In the big cities, the horn seems to be the engine that sets in motion the cars or that spins the bicycles' wheels. The market places and bazaars where traders compete by shouting in order to attract their customers are no less animated. The ones owning mini-shops – some sort of boxes whose dimensions aren't sometimes bigger than a 3 square-meter surface, in which merchandise, customers and trader are crowding – , are less voluble. The wandering traders literally sing out their merchandise from the top of their lungs, in a melodious legato. If you're curious enough as to ask what exactly they are shouting about, you may find out that they are repeating the price: "three pieces – one rupee, three pieces – one rupee…" They do it ceaselessly, all day long, so that their shouting is being perceived as a melody sung on many voices.You can add to this the clients' chatting, the clinker of bells hanging at the dancing bears' throats or the tunes played by a flute in order to force the snakes into raising their heads from the baskets in which they sleep.All this street noise has something melodious in it, which has to do with rhythm and musicality. The English literary historian E. H. Johnston saw in this ability the very specific feature of old Indian poetry. "India's classical poets – he noticed – had a sense of sonorous nuances almost unseen before in other countries' literature. The wonderful mixture of sounds they created is an endless source of delight. One of them even inclines to combine meaning and sonority by composing lyrics with a limited number of consonants, while others have only got one consonant." This association can seem far fetched, except for the one who has listened – even for a single day – the rumor of the Indian street, for there is a natural unity between the street and the programmed musicality, even if they are diverse, both of them becoming an essential form of communication.The street also offers another expression of Indian sociability.The person you might stop in order to ask a question, whoever that may be, seems very glad not only to answer your question, but especially for being able to chat. He is capable of interrupting whatever he was doing and walking beside you, showing you the right way for a longer while, as if he had nothing else to do.An ideal place for meeting new people and starting conversations is the railroad wagon. The train is the most popular mean of transportation around here. Over 350 million travelers are being transported every month by the railroad established in 1853, the first line having been built by the English. In 1985 the railroad was 61,850 km long, and the trains stop in over 7000 stations. In smaller towns or in some villages, people's lives depend on the railroad timetable, and the train is among the favorite talk issues, next to the cricket championships (always listened to on the radio by the cab drivers). The train could be considered some sort of a popular club on wheels. The usual customers of certain routes give "their train" as address and I've been told that the letters and even the parcels reach the addressee. Trains, as well as the streets of Indian towns, are always overcrowded. As soon as they get on board, the passengers' first thought is to get to know their travel companions and find among them conversation partners or, depending on the case, chess partners. Awatar Kaul, a representative film maker of the "new wave avant-garde," has showed, with artistic eloquence, in his only movie, The Train to Benares (1973) – also known to the Romanian public – how important can this means of locomotion be in the Indian's life. The only setting of a family's existence is the railroad wagon. The young hero, now in his thirties, was born on a train, his father was a locomotive engineer, and his wife accompanied him. Along the years, the train was their home and kitchen, a working place and a studying place. The young man's life was therefore spent on trains and in railroads stations. It's there where he met (or broke up with) his girlfriend, where he would read, meditate, seclude. The script's idea seems original, but in fact it merely reveals a current situation, which was the reason for which The Train to Benares was such a huge success among the young generation. The director didn't have enough time for his second movie. The very day of July the 20th 1974, when the radio announced that his debut film had won two prizes ("The Best Hindi Film," "The Best Image"), Awatar Kaul (who was only 27 years old) was drowning, during a storm, in BombayGulf, in his attempt to save a friend, a young journalist who could not swim. A destiny that resembles an Indian movie.Whoever hasn't traveled, even on a shorter route, by train, or hasn't passed by an Indian station, knows very little of this country. Anyways, on trains, in railway stations or on the streets, nobody is in that much of a hurry in order to refuse to chat, might it be with a traveler who wants some information, or with some acquaintance. When you think that your conversation partner has finished talking, he says "acha" and starts all over again…A situation, often repeated, has to be remembered. You're talking to an Indian. You ask him something. He's answering your question. You listen to it very carefully, interested. The next moment, another Indian appears and, without introduction, starts talking to the one you're talking to. Kind to the new comer, "your" Indian forgets about you and continues his conversation with the other one. After a little while, the third one comes along – it's impossible not to be so – and he starts talking abruptly. Now, the predecessor has been abandoned. There comes the fourth and… the scene repeats itself. The circle of those waiting in this "line" increases minute by minute and you can't help laughing (in a movie, this would be called "buffoonery"), if you're patient.Patience is the main capital of each Indian. I confess I wasn't patient. And I noticed that many Europeans were reacting as I did, except for the English, who are used to the Indian customs. The other Asian people were full of patience, just like the Indians. That's how I got a first lesson in patience. An essential lesson for the one who wants to get into the rhythm and into at least a part of the Asian continent's mysteries. In fact, this is an extremely revealing anti-rhythm as far as understanding India and its movies is concerned. If you don't abandon the battleground, meaning if you're patient enough, the main conversation partner is going to give the expected answers to everybody. Of course, in the meantime, the ones gathered there by accident find common topics and chat, making a deafening noise. You get the impression that the need for communication is vital for the Indians. But don't be hasty! 
 The Silence"The thought that I could have been born in Europe scares me. You can't stand still in order to elevate your soul there. This attitude is considered to be a great guilt over there," said Tagore, revealing one of India's secret vocations, which obeys the same law of contrast.Communicative, gay and noisy, the Indians, as I knew them, are also capable of total silence. This freely assumed silence – and in India one may discover that nothing is more mysterious than silence – whether it's about scholars or illiterates, city people or those who have never left their isolated regions – is a way of reconciling oneself with the world, a way of overcoming a strong deception, sentimental disappointment, or financial collapse – of showing one's disapproval with life itself or with an event, of showing one's fury or saving one's pride and last, but not least, of meditating. Silence, as Indians say, separates one from the daily agitation and gets one closer to the profound meanings of life. After having broken up with Maitreyi, Mircea Eliade's hero stood as well, from October 1929 until February 1930, in relative silence, at the foot of the Himalaya. The mythological model exists. Excerpted from: The Indian World and Its Movies, Meridiane, 1990

by Adina Darian