Thursday, June 17, 2010

Back in India: Possession

So, I'm afraid this is going to be a wall of text because the real meat of this day happened in the dark/near-dark, and was a kind of semi-private moment. I'll throw in some color if I can, but also, our bandwidth here is not very bandwide, and uploading photos can be an exercise in futility.

I am in India on a very different mission and plan then I have ever been before. I'm with the International Summer School for Jain Studies
and they are organizing and paying for just about everything. We have classes every morning and free time for studying/adventures in the afternoon. Thus far we've been to Delhi (please, no link, you've been paying attention to the blog or the world), Muradabad and now we are in Jaipur, the Pink City. It's in western India, in the middle of the desert state of Rajasthan. Jains aren't very populous anywhere, but there are lots around here. 12 or so of us, with not so important variations in personnel from time to time, have really gelled very well and are having a great time.We started off at Jaipur Foot and while that was wonderful, I need to move on to the evening. These guys provide artificial limbs, free, for 20k folks a year. Good stuff--Jainism at its best.

But tonight, Brad Boileau of Ottawa, student of Anne Vallely, had organized a trip to Padampura. It's a tiny little rural village

with a big, big temple. The temple history is interesting--a naturally occurring image of the Lord Mahāvīra was found in a local field, and the locals all put together some land and built a huge temple.
The place is awash in parrots and peacocks,

and for all we could tell, pretty dead. We walked around and made friends with some of the locals
[that's Kayla ticking off a 'this year in India goal'] and looked around the temple until 7:30ish, sort of nightfall, when the real action starts. Here's where I run out of pictures.

We had come because the anthropological dope says there are exorcisms here. As the evening prayers started up, a man entered in orange robes, and opened up the glass enclosure housing the main image. THere was an area roped off in front, and as far as I could see, 5-6 women placidly sitting there. One older woman in there leaned against a pillar and yelled हमे छोड दें (hame choḍ deṃ, let go of me) a few times, but nothing out of line. I saw one man carry a 10-12yo girl in, and I guess he set her down in that area too.

The pujāri added a crown to his orange robes, lit up a few oil lamps on a metal tray, and people started praying. Someone has some audio of that, maybe we'll see that surface eventually. As the prayers get louder people start clapping, the pujāri is waving around the lamps, and the women in front of the statue begin writhing, swinging their hair around, and beating on the floor. As the intensity of the prayers increased so did their swinging heads. Women with their hair loose and shaking their hips on the floor is pretty licentious for India. This went on for maybe ten minutes. Some of the women also beat on the lower part of the enclosure holding the statue.

When the prayers stopped, a couple of the woman went limp on the floor, but the youngest girl, who had been carried in, jumped up and rushed to another image at the back of the temple, and I heard some rather loud, violent metallic banging.

Most Jain temples have stainless steel tables in front of each image for people to leave small piles of rice for offerings, and also for oil from lamps to spill onto. Until now, I hadn't thought of this, but these things are pretty resonant when banged upon. Two of the girls took up position in front of the tables, and as the prayers started back up, they would punctuate the rhythm of the chanting by pounding, quite hard, on the table. They also continued to swing their heads in circles, whipping their hair around, and the 10yo would bend over double with her head between her legs, banging up and down. There were about 2 minutes of prayers at each station (the temple has Tirthaṃkar images at 8 spots around its perimeter) and the young girl would lead the procession off to the next stop. The other girl (15? 18?) would then roll along the floor along with the rest of the worshippers. After all 8 stations were done, the band proceeded outside to the front of the temple, I think perhaps to reverence the pillar that most Jain temples have out front,
and then on to each of the outlying side temples in each of the four directions.
Each of these has its own Jina image, but brass instead of marble like all the ones inside.

By this point some of the gas had gone out of the afflicted girls' flailing, but at last the band of worshippers--perhaps 40-50 earnestly praying Jains, along with the pujāri, and some family members who were obviously attending to make sure none of the girls got too wild, and a dozen fascinated whitey anthropologists--wound up at the shrine to the kṣetrapāla.
Now, these guys are interesting. They are usually thought of as 'Hindu' or worldly gods, not transmundane liberated souls. They make many Jains a little nervous, but they are also highly venerated and often get more attention than the Jinas themselves, because they are available for petition while the Jinas are now decidedly beyond our phenomenal world.

Up till now, one or two of the girls would yell out from time to time when the prayers died down. More of that 'let go of me,' some stuff I didn't catch, and also पापी! साला! which literally translates to sinful! brother-in-law! but brother-in-law is a standard street insult, so I'm going to translate that as 'evil fucker!' and it was hard to tell whether this was directed toward the possessing spirit or was the voice of the spirit cursing the Jina.

Now, though, with prayers over and some people starting to disperse, 3-4 women were lying, spent, in front of the image, but the one who had rolled from one station to the next now began pacing up and down, and going on and on. Some of the other scholars got some commentary/translation from onlookers, and it sounded as though she was vocalizing a fight between the deity in the shrine and the spirit possessing her. From time to time she would stop and do the headbanging deal again. At one point she knocked her head off a pillar five times. She took one of the butter lamps off the altar, held the block of burning ghee in her hand and paced up and down. At one point I caught the word 'bitch.'

All this time, a much older woman stood at the altar, rocking much less violently, while her daughter [?] stood just next to her. The woman called out 'release me' from time to time, and her daughter seemed to be keeping up a cheerful and pleasant conversation with her all the while.

By the end of it, most of the possessed got up, tied back their hair, and walked off. The pacing girl, many of us and others agreed, started laying it on a bit thick. She marched up to Brad with his obligatory anthropologist's field notebook, and asked 'what are you writing?' She also said something about 'These guys are going to teach me English, then I can speak English to them." And at this point our drivers showed up crying that they needed to get back for another job [thinly veiled attempt to get home early] and we headed out.

This has been very long, and so I'm going to save all the analysis for another time, if ever. If nothing else the elements of the visual code being used here are worth thinking through, I think. All in all, quite a spectacle and quite a day.

And now Mexico is going to beat France. Hooray.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Hopes were high for a few more plant posts before we leave VA, but in the middle of shooting my pond flowers, I dropped the camera into the pond. *sigh*

So, no more plants, no more pictures and no more camera. I won't get to shopping 'til we're home, but I'd love to hear camera recommendations in the meantime.

Also in the meantime, please go have a look at another blog... International Political Will has quickly become one of my favorites, and above you'll find a link to his very last post. A moving and terribly important reminder...

We're plugging away here - packing and baking and hoping like mad that Chris's visa will come through sometime, ever.

Looking forward to getting on the road, dipping my toes in Lake Mendota, and catching up with all my Madison peeps! But already missing everyone and everything we've come to love here in the Blue Ridge... so it goes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

*Insert Clever Title Here*

So much going on, so much to do, and so little time. Yet in the midst of all of this running around and doing I realize I actually enjoy this sort of season in our lives. Normally there are so many opportunities and choices - things we could or should be doing. Now though, they all just fall away - truly there is very little else that I can do in addition to the many and large tasks in front of me for the next 10 days. I like the simplicity and single-mindedness this allows - the freedom to say no and to skip feeling guilty. Not that I'd want to live like this forever - just enjoying it for the time being. I'm more present to the tasks at hand, and (surprisingly?) finding I have more time for tickle fights with Ben or good chats with Caitlin. Nice.

Among the tasks at hand lately, our last Girl Scout meeting of the year and an end-of-term party for Chris's class.
The Girl Scouts went geo-caching and we found our first cache at good ol' Stonewall's tomb. Dixie was whistled, lemons were counted, and 5 more girls are hooked on geo-caching. (For the curious - our troop is made up of all homeschooled girls, with every age group from Daisies to Cadettes represented. The mix works well for us, especially since our oldest girls seem to thrive in leadership roles. The little brothers and sisters dig it too - the boys have declared themselves "Lava Scouts" and Tuesday afternoons usually turn into a great big kid party.)

And then Caitlin made her first ever cake from scratch - a red velvet cake, no less. Ben tested the frosting, declared it delicious and turned into the Joker. Chris taught Buddhist Meditation this term so Caitlin got in the spirit and frosted an "Om" on the cake in honor of their efforts this spring.

And then to top it all off, we learned that today was Morgan's birthday so we added candles, sang, and, um, well, meditated.
Up next: picking up a new car and an Indian visa, another BIG party, and a whole lotta packing. Pond flowers and honey suckle are in bloom, and my roses are phenomenal, so I'd really like to get a couple more plant posts in before we leave town too!

Friday, May 7, 2010

A banner day...

Would a husband by another name (DR. Haskett!!!) smell as sweet?

Unknownae plantus

My yard is a veritable Eden, and I lack the luxury Adam had - naming everything whatever he wanted.... And I've yet to find a good way to figure out what all of these plants are. I ask everyone who comes over to look at the latest oddball to pop up or burst into bloom, but I'm still stumped on a few.

Any ideas anyone?





Calycanthus floridus

Sweet Shurb, Strawberry Bush, Carolina Allspice, Bubby Bush, Sweet Betsy and Florida Spice Bush... would a plant by any other name smell so sweet?

This has got to be my favorite new plant discovery. When warm, the flowers of calycanthus smell absolutely divine - like strawberries, bubble gum, peach yogurt - anything and everything delicious! We have one of these gems along our eastern edge, right along side the porch swing, and boy is it a delight to sit and rock, reading to Ben and enveloped in the sweet wonderfulness of calycanthus.

I asked the ladies of my knitting group about calycanthus and the Southern drawls really stated to drip and lilt as they told stories of picking the blossoms on the way to church, clandestinely enjoying the sweet smells during long sermons or of rubbing the blossoms behind their youthful ears for perfume. I love my knitting group for many many reasons, but listening to the matriarchs of the group tell tales about their girlhood in and around Lexington has been an extra special gift.

Two little-known facts (at least to me) are that the seeds (contained in that lumpy pod below) are poisonous, and that the bark, when scratched smells like camphor. The camphor scent can last for years when twigs are cut and stored in a dry place. Off to scratch the calycanthus and smell for myself!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading is the new plant blogging

Maybe its because I'm super sick and suspect I'm really just suffering from super awful allergies, but I can't bring myself to do a plant post right now. I did go shoot a bunch of things yesterday and then had to go to bed a 8pm - coincidence? I think not.

Instead, I've been reading like a fiend. Thanks to my super sweet friend I had the afternoon to myself yesterday, to blow my nose in peace. Between naps I finished 2 books which I were so good I want to stop strangers on the street and insist that they read them. Immediately. But since we don't do that here in the genteel South, you get to hear about them instead.

First, I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame. What I wouldn't do to be able to go back and give this book to my 14 year old self! I can't wait to give it to Caitlin, although I am grateful that homeschooling and our vagabond life has preserved her childhood innocence a bit longer than most American girls. Ensler, as ever, has captured the potential, the pain, and the incredible beauty of female existence and presents it in gripping narrative, haunting poetry, and fierce war-cries. I'm buying a copy now, for me, and another, to save, for the right moment, for Caitlin.

Second, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth. Chris was fortuitous enough to meet Kashmira years ago when she and her daughter engaged him to tutor them in Sanskrit. Kashmira had three books out then, and was gracious enough to visit our homeschool book group to talk with the kids about her works and career. All of her novels address the experiences of Indian children, albeit in very different circumstances. (She has also published 2 picture books, My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon, which beautifully portray the very special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.) Boys Without Names introduces us to Gopal, a boy from Maharashtra (the second state we lived in in India) who is kidnapped and forced into slavery in a factory in Mumbai. Now before you skip ahead in disgust, let me assure you that Kashmira has a rare gift and is able to portray ugly realities in a way that is safe and appropriate for young readers. Her other books have dealt with the immigrant experience, arranged marriage, and child widows. Each is as accessible, absorbing, and gentle as you could hope, and offers a chance to learn about and develop compassion for children whom on the surface may seem very different, but who are in reality, just like the children reading the books. She is not only broadening horizons, she is opening hearts, and I am grateful to have such books to put into my children's hands.

Though not finished in the last 24 hours, I also want to mention A Young People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, with Rebecca Stefoff. Caitlin has asked for it for a birthday gift (yay, homeschooling!) and I'm looking forward to reading it (and re-reading A People's History of the United States) along with her this summer. Zinn describes the book best himself:

My history... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.

I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.*

Last, I want to mention two novels that I have recently loved. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko and Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. There are the obvious similarities - both written by Native American women, both unrelentingly dark and both pulsing with the aftermath of the European theft of the Americas, but the differences are worth noting as well. Almanac is truly an epic, while Shadow Tag is gaunt and sparse. Where Almanac is fantastical, Shadow Tag is grittily, brutally real. As the reviews surely point out, neither book is for everyone, but for me, they are two of the best I've read lately, and perhaps in the case of Almanac, ever. (Bear in mind though that I love Wolfe and Bukowski and Garcia Marquez and Fuentes, and that magical realism will never ever be a dirty word in my house...)

*Roll your mouse over the Zinn quote and you'll discover all of the people he mentions, plus the Declaration of Independence and the Filipino massacre are all linked to the appropriate Wikipedia article - just in case you want to brush up on your history right here and now!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Rhododendron Tsutsuji*

*There are something like 10,000 named varieties of azalea, and it is far beyond my capabilities to figure out which we have. However, azaleas are divided into two sub-genera - deciduous and evergreen. As far as I can remember, mine are all evergreen, hence the "Tsutsuji"

At long last, azaleas! The drive-in, Charlottesville, and a Chuck E. Cheese birthday party were all a bit much and I needed to lay low and recuperate these past few days... Also found out I have to get my wisdom teeth out. So not so much with the plant posts.

At least a month ago, in hot pursuit of admittance to the UW, I was talking to a woman in a now-forgotten administrative office who asked me if the azaleas were blooming when she heard I was in Virginia. At the time they weren't and I couldn't fathom why she'd be asking. Like so many other plants here, I'd never knowingly seen an azalea before. (It occurs to me that I may have had a rather sheltered horticultural youth... that, or perhaps my strengths lie in other areas?) Anyhow, the azaleas are now very much in bloom and I can understand why she asked. The sight of huge hedges in brilliant color is not one I'll soon forget.

We have maybe 4 big azalea bushes out front - a bit hard to tell since they all grow together. And then another big bank of them in the back, just below Chris's office windows. Various shades of pink, plus red and a lovely light purple too. The red ones bloomed first, then the pink out back and just in the past few days, the purple guy. Such loveliness - I'm afraid my photos are not equal to the task...

I learned that in Korea folks make a liquor from azalea blossoms - something called Dugyeonju. (Tugyongu? Seems to be some disagreement about how to transliterate Korean into English... welcome to my world.) The liquor is moderately potent, but one has to be careful to use only the petals as the other reproductive structures are toxic. Especially to horses. Best of all, dugyeonju has been designated "Important Intangible Cultural Property 86-2". (I feel a Korea-theme bubbling. Did you know there are Korean wines made from all sorts of flowers? Acacia flower wine, anyone?) I think I'd like to live in a country that had Important Intangible Cultural Property. Wouldn't you?

Friday, April 23, 2010

"an ambivalent art"

Tonight I don't feel like plants or photography or plant photography. I feel like a poem.

Poems, even. At least, sort of.

But lest I stray to far from my self-imposed blog structure, I googled 'azalea poem' and found something so lovely, I had to share. This is by the Korean poet Kim So-Wol.


When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
I'll send you off without a word, no fuss.

Yongbyon's mount Yaksan's
by the armful I'll scatter in your path.

With parting steps
on those strewn flowers
treading lightly, go on, leave.

When seeing me sickens you
and you walk out
why, I'd rather die than weep one tear.

Now, even better is the page where I found the poem. Please go have a look. You'll find an article first published in Modern Poetry in Translation. If you're not one of my many word-wonk readers, just scroll down to the various translations, read and compare. But if language or literature is at all your thing, the article will be five minutes well spent.

Tomorrow, if Charlottesville and the drive-in (first ever!) don't do me in, I'll have real live azaleas for you, and not one of them strewn beneath the feet of a departing, disgusted lover. (They're so much lovelier that way...)