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The Kumbh and the Covered Casserole:
When the world turns upside down, just relax and enjoy the view.

 

Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.

It's frustrating that these little journals can only communicate the tiniest fraction of all that I've seen, heard, smelled and felt in just five days.

At the Mela, a group of teenage schoolboys surrounded me. "What is your interest in Indian customs?" one asked. "It's not America," I replied. They laughed at that. But that's the bottom line! So much of the normal day's activity in India is just plain illegal in America.

There's the sight of children taking their morning shit in the open sewers of Agra. Public defecation (discreet and ignored by everyone walking by), and of course animal defecation everywhere. Cow pies are collected by hand, dried and piled in neat conical stacks for cooking fuel. Garbage is swept into piles and burned in the open streets.

Speaking of air quality, the pollution levels are almost beyond tolerance - not just machine exhaust and garbage smoke, but dust, dust, forever dust. It makes a lovely haze that softens dawn and dusk into poetic colors ... and brings on deep coughing.

Video games are a good preparation for driving in India. No street lights or speed limits, just dive in on your bicycle or motorbike or rickshaw or car or truck, and go for it. "Use Horn Please," say the backs of trucks and taxis. "Blow Horn. Use Dipper [low beams] at Night. Wait for Side. Keep Distance." If an American driver used his horn the way Indians do, he'd get a finger or a bullet. Here the car horn is simply an announcement of your vehicle's presence and intent to proceed. Nothing personal.

Nothing personal, no problems. The constant presence of cows, pigs and goats supports the "only natural" vibe. They are a reminder that calm contentment is always an option.

I am settling in after 5 days, and feel more confident dealing with people, traffic and money. I have even conquered the squat'n'squirt, splash'n'go toilet technique (no big deal, but a good reason to wear pantyliners). The group of travelers at the guest house has been an enormous help. It's an international collection that shifts and changes nearly every day. There's a French Canadian, an Englishman who's lived in Australia for 20 years, an Indian-American, and a Filipino-American mixed in with the photographers, musicians and sound engineers from all over America. A young couple from our group made it to the front page of The Hindu newspaper, because the girl was wearing tight pants and a tank top. "Scantily clad foreigners arrive at Kumbha Mela," read the caption.

Oh, the Mela? Right, the Mela. As a friend of mine at home said upon hearing about Kumbha Mela, "Won't that just make Woodstock look like a covered casserole!"

And Burning Man like a Happy Meal.

This is a city, folks, built of sticks and burlap and colored cotton. There are the haves, there are the have-nots, but everything is free at the Mela. Anyone can walk into any guru's camp and be welcome, have a place to sleep and eat.

This is a city of God, of 20 million gods, a billion prayers. Politics and economic class are intrusions, probably inevitable but still carrying a stink that even the newspapers notice. The Hindu fundamentalist/nationalist organization picked January 20 to announce its intention to build a new Hindu temple on the spot where a Muslim mosque was destroyed not long ago. You'd think somebody would say "bad karma." There was also a police attack on a crowd of journalists who were protesting to the Mela authorities about unreasonable difficulties and conditions for the media. The journalists had been starting to disperse when the police charged with lathis, this 4-foot long wooden club. Many journalists wound up in the hospital with serious injuries.

And of course there are the terrorist threats, prompting the police to do house-to-house searches around Allahabad. Nobody's knocked at our door yet. There has also been a ban on filming and photographing the bathing ghats, because the Mela authorities found that cameras were always pointed at naked naga sadhus and women. This worries my freelance TV producer friends, but they'll watch their step tomorrow, trusting the craziness of the crowds to deflect police attention.

Me, I'm hanging out in my bright blue vest and purple scarf, smiling a lot and having a wonderful time. This is a great way to realize that one's personal problems are ... well, a covered casserole.

 

Something Utterly Strange | The Road to Allahabad | The Kumbh and the Covered Casserole
Many Rivers, Choose Your Speed | The Road (ouch!) to Khajuraho | Ghat 'n' Heaven
Duck Three Times in the River for Salvation