“But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. It is a line out of a song by Bob Dylan, refashioned later by The Byrds. I don’t know why I thought of it on waking. It’s just one of those quirky things that snap into play for no obvious reason. It had its genesis of thought for some reason, damned if I know what though.
Through the window of my hotel room I can see only heavy fog, the noise of traffic alone informing me of activities already well commenced. Fog, haze, and sometimes city smog, has been the general morning feature of my journey. Some of my friends would probably say it has much in common with the 60s, especially the fog and haze parts, and smoke, plenty of it, their mental synapses the worse for its liberal inhalation. But in the state of Orissa by mid morning blue skies dominate.
My tour guide has arrived early and has taken command of the hotel kitchen. At his discretion, and by his creative command, fruit juice, omelette, toast, and a porridge made from corn flakes and hot milk, is served as the breakfast of choice and champions. My stomach suitably filled, at 9.30 am I find myself at the village of Keshna, the village of the stone carvers. I walk the length of its single main street, occasional buses and school children on bicycles passing by. Two newly planted mango saplings are protected from the uncertainties of street life by a bamboo enclosure, ….and here was me thinking plant theft was a phenomenon restricted to Sydney’s urban gardens.
A pervading coating of grey rock dust coats walls, plant leaves and paths. Small stone chips litter the ground. The village is alive with young and old men at work in their craft. Amongst the silent pantheon of roadside carvings are statues of Ganesha, Kali, water buffalo, Krishna and Radha, or maybe it was Rama and Sita. Of the distinction between the statues of the last pair I forgot to ask, but either way they are lovers. The stone is split and picked away at with hammer and a variety of chisels. There is a harmony of sound as the hammers fall to their repetitive task, stone chip reliably following stone chip as the chisels patiently etch out the desired form. One man has discarded traditional tools for the convenience of an electric grinder, the clouds of fine grit and dust that this causes barely held from entering his lungs by a mask of thin cloth. The man is ashen coloured from the work, as if he has smeared his body with the ash of the cremation grounds. In the evening he will spit stone dust, and will die young from the feverish practising of his profession. Just like coal miners do. The statues are medium-sized, large, and very large. In the village of Keshna they don’t do ‘small’, and what they do seems to be carved solely out of limestone. I ponder how I might ship one home, a Ganesha perhaps, then I ponder how it might get broken during transport, and then I ponder the freight price. The one that takes my eye will need a crane and a large truck to position it in my front garden. It deserves more thought than I have already expended, and likely will cost much more money than I wish to spend.
Next we drive to the town of Khiching, my purpose to see the Maa Kichakeswari Temple. Khiching is the ancient capital of the Bhanja rulers, these ruling from the middle of the 9th Century CE to the middle of the 12th Century. The temple is dedicated to the goddess Kickakeswari. Forests, cashew trees, dry paddy fields and cows pass by. We encounter two road accidents, the first a light utility truck with its cabin caved in, the driver and passenger dead, their bodies already removed. Only the bloodied seats attest to their prior presence. Opposite rests a large truck. Its driver has fled and the police cannot locate him. Some distance on a Tata truck is on its side. The grain produce it was carrying is spilled across the road. In the absence of the owner villagers are salvaging whatever they are able to carry. They are in no haste, and seem experienced in their habit.
We park near the temple and walk to its entrance gate. There I remove my shoes, and add them dutifully to the line of assorted foot apparel already deposited by other visitors. A sign notes that the temple was first constructed between 920-925 CE, and reconstructed in 1934. It is over 30 metres high, 100 foot in the old scale of linear measurement as the sign proclaims. An adjacent museum was built in 1922. I walk down a long pathway ornamented by colonnades of stately Asoka trees. There at the temple groups of devotees enter and leave the inner precinct. In the shrine is an image of Chamunda, an aspect of the Hindu Divine Mother. Chamunda is named from Chanda and Munda, two monsters Chamunda killed. The goddess is seated on a lotus issuing from the naval of Purusa, the ‘self’ which pervades the universe, in the RgVeda the primaeval giant that is sacrificed by the gods and from whose body the world is built. Over the head and back rises the figure of the four-tusked elephant Airvata, the mount of Indra that rose from the Churning of the Ocean. On either side of Chamunda’s crown there is a serpent with uplifted hood. Of the goddess’s eight hands the left ones are in the ‘Abhaya’, the mudra of fearlessness, and the Varada pose of charity, and hold rosaries and a head. Two of the right hands hold a dambaru drum and a cup, the other two being completely damaged. Outside, families and friends in their best clothes pose for group photographs. They are young, and I am not. I do not fit into the context of their activities, and in my irrelevance they ignore me.
The temple is in the Orissa ‘Rekha’ style, and though I know little of Indian architecture the grandeur of its design is impressive. I walk around the base and lower tiers of the temple photographing the detailed carvings, explicit in their portrayal of sexual embrace and posture. I marvel at the innovative physical dexterity displayed in some of the poses, envious of the inferred lack of lower back complaints. None of the visitors are intimidated by the scenes graphically depicted, no parent shields the eyes of their children, no one giggles in half averted gaze. It is at strange odds with the constraints and modesty of the Indian film industry. A vendor offers me postcards, the clarity and intent of their reproduction precise. Reproductions of images of high cultural and archaeological merit that they might be, nevertheless Australia Post is rigorous in the application of moral standards for items it deems appropriate for shipping. The police guardians of the New South Wales Crimes Act are even less lenient in their interpretation of history and pornography, so I thank the vendor but decline the purchase, and retrieve my shoes. Besides, I already have a backlog of postcards to mail, and have yet to find a post box.
I visit the museum located off to one side from the temple. The exhibits are mainly busts and statues and were found during the excavation of the temple grounds preceding its reconstruction in the early 20th Century. They are delicately carved, some overtly amorous capturing in stone ephemeral intimacies of human anatomy. I contemplate the result of the stone mason’s misguided hammer blow and dwell on what thoughts weighed on the mind of the artisan responsible for the final polishing of the more delicate organs of the human body. I suspect he aged early and went to his grave long before his time. I am especially taken by a small collection of ancient iron caltrops, early anti-personnel devices made from two or more sharp nails, such that one point is always upwards, the other three providing a stable base no matter which way the caltrop lands. This cruel weapon is named from the Latin word ‘calcitrapa’ meaning ‘foot-trap’, and serves in warfare to slow down horses, war elephants and foot soldiers. The effected result is to impale the feet of anyone and any creature unfortunate enough to tread on one. Modern derivatives of the design include hollow sharp-ended tubes that pierce the self-sealing pneumatic tyres of armoured vehicles, and caltrop-like concrete blocks that interlock when piled up and are used in the construction of sea defences along eroding shore lines, such as are found at Mumbai on India’s west coast. In sex and war we expose our ingenuity, and we do it so well.
Though I resisted the temptation of the erotic postcards, and accepted the frustration of not being able to purchase a caltrop, I could not refuse the temptation of a hot glass of spiced chai from the hole-in-the-wall cafe near the temple gate. The proprietor heats the chai in a saucepan, the charcoal fire over which it is brought to the boil force fed air by a hand operated forge blower, the kind that modern blacksmiths use. Five minutes later, having happily parted with 15 rupees for the privilege of the refreshing liquid sustenance, I am comfortably sitting in his establishment watching the world of the town outside parade past. I sip slowly at the hot brew, and then order a refill.
The road from Khiching, to wherever my guide and driver are taking me, leads past a small primary school. Our car stops outside its gate and I, and those with me, are invited to enter. The grounds are immaculate, the buildings are painted pink, the window shutters bright blue, there are well tended vegetable gardens enclosed in fences made from lengths of split bamboo, and paintings of Indian Independence heroes adorn the wall of a shaded verandah. I guess three out of six, my one ‘faux pa’s being to confuse Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan; an embarrassing slip of political geography met with polite understanding by the school’s head teacher. One of the portraits was that of the eloquent Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, who during the Second World War came to lead an Indian Government-in-exile and the Indian National Army, or I.N.A.. The I.N.A. was largely constituted by Indian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese during the Malayan campaign and later battles that took place in Burma, however, civilians were also recruited. Many captured Indian soldiers who had fought in the British army joined the I.N.A. simply to escape harsh imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese.
Bose was ousted from the Indian National Congress in 1939 following differences with other leaders. He was later placed under house arrest by the British but escaped from India in 1941, reaching Germany via Afghanistan and Russia. Disenchanted with the lack of support from Germany for his plans for a free and independent India Bose returned by submarine to the east, there making contact with the Japanese. Bose was an enthusiastic supporter of independence for his Indian motherland and believed the Japanese would treat him with due deference as a Head of State, and formed under Japanese patronage the Provisional Government of Free India. The Japanese were prepared to use Bose’s men as infiltrators and spies but were distrustful of them in any military capacity. The compromise was that small units of the I.N.A. were attached to Japanese formations though larger formations would also fight under Bose’s independent command. The contribution of the I.N.A. to the Japanese war effort was a failure, their performance in battle poor, and their success in subverting Indians fighting with the British was in general negligible. At the end of the war they came in starving and in rags, defeated and demoralized. Waging war against the British ‘King Emperor’ was an offence punishable by death but Bose considered himself head of a free government in exile, and that he was fighting a just war in a legitimate cause. Neither he nor the members of the I.N.A. thought of themselves as rebels. Everyone knew that at the end of the war India would gain some form of freedom. The British saw themselves as fighting for the freedom to give India freedom, but Bose was fighting to take the freedom which the British were intending to give. So was it wise to consider Bose, and his followers, as rebels? From the British perspective Bose and the I.N.A. too easily filled the role of traitors. But this was not the Indian view. The fate of Bose is uncertain, and the place of his supposed death at the end of the war is open to conjecture. A memorial, and cremation ashes attributed to Bose, is located in Taiwan but the validity of the remains has been questioned. Bose has entered the realm of mystery and of the hero. At an I.N.A. parade in Singapore in July 1943 Bose said:
“I have said that today is the proudest day of my life. For an enslaved people, there can be no greater pride, no higher honour, than to be the first Soldier in the Army of Liberation. … . It does not matter who among us will live to see India free. It is enough that India shall be free and that we shall give our all to make her free. May God now bless our Army and grant us victory in the coming fight”.
The children demonstrate their class work, each notebook carefully tended and exhibited proudly. The script I take to be Oriya. The girls at the school wear uniforms of bright blue, the boys shirts of white matched with black shorts, each perfect in their presentation. My days at primary school were days of shirts half hanging out and undecided as to whether they were being buttoned or unbuttoned. Ties hung loose, if they hung at all, clothes crisp and clean when sent out through the gate, were received grubby by my mother on their return. My mother washed them without complaint.
This school was a school of smiles and joy. I entered a junior classroom and was met by children prostrating themselves in greeting. For them such an act reflected cultural practices of honour and privilege, but I reacted as if they were performing an act of submission. It was a cultural schism, the only problem being me. And besides, I was not that famous, and I came from a cultural background where the accepted title of greeting was ‘Hey You!’ the appellation of ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ being applied more as one of derision than one of respect.
The children’s meals were subsidised, these being prepared on site by a nice lady, all beaming eyes, who cooked whatever she was cooking that day in two gleaming metal pots, these positioned over a small wooden fire. This she carefully fed from a bundle of faggots alongside. Whatever was in those pots smelled good, really good. At length I departed, one antique Australian ‘kangaroo’ penny the poorer, yet richer all the same. I waved goodbye, the children waved goodbye.
We pass again through Kendujhargarh, this time the destination being a large treed public park just on the outskirts of the city. It is a weekend and the park is full of families and teenagers. Many take their turn at posing in front of a waterfall. Devotees and brethren of the Universal Graffiti Movement have preceded me, initials and even whole mobile phone numbers written in white paint on the surrounding rocks; ‘Bubu Weis Subasini’, ‘Bapun’, ‘Banja’, whoever or whatever they were. The script didn’t mean a thing to me. At the edge of the park is a large rubbish bin in the form of a kangaroo, its pouch wide open in expectation of the receipt of rubbish. Other nationalities might have taken offence, demonstrated outside the embassies of the offending countries, or burnt effigies. I just saw the humour in it and enjoyed the moment. There is nothing inside the bin, so I make a token deposit of a discarded food wrapper for all to see and in the hope of changing the world. For a wise man, actually I think it was me, once said “that by grains of sand we make a beach”. Then I pose for a self-photo, a memento, just me and the fibreglass kangaroo, a long way from home.
I sense both guide and driver are tiring so I ask them to deposit me in the city. I will walk the main street for an hour, they can collect me later and return me to the hotel before darkness falls. This was possibly a mistake on my part for I soon sensed I was in a cowboy town, a ‘truckies’ town. I was the only foreigner on the street, well nearly, and it was peak hour. There was nowhere to hide, so garnering what fortitude I could muster I walked first one side of the main thoroughfare, then back down the other. My one detour was a side lane that ran past the Sri Jagannath Sewing ‘Mechine’ repair shop, past stalls selling rope and sundry cordage, past straw baskets full of sun dried fish and happy flies, past open jute bags displaying fragrant herbs and spices, past piles of bright red coloured bed spreads and cushions, past herds of stationary black and yellow autobicycles, and past vendors of mixed fruit and vegetables; grapes, apples, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes being those that I could identify amongst their range of perishable wares. On the other side of the main thoroughfare was a flower shop, its bunches of flowers ablaze with colour, the one perfect photograph I tried to take of it ruined by the untimely passing of an Ashok-Leyland truck owned by ‘Shree Logistics’. I should have taken his number but my umbrage was diluted by a kindly Sikh gentlemen who directed me to a street, too narrow for trucks, leading to a small temple. There I took photos aplenty.
But it was then that I enhanced my mistake. I walked to the wrong side of town. I walked to where there were lots of parked trucks, and lots of people gathered around gypsies forging small metal trade items, axe heads seemingly their basic stock in trade. I stood out, and my camera didn’t help. I started gathering more stares than photos and was about to depart when an off duty female police officer said that the most distant of the roadside blacksmiths was offering a good deal in ironware. So I went there and lingered, and I lingered in view of two gypsy girls. But in reality they proved demonic shape-shifting ‘raksasis’, of the kind whose ancestors had once held Rama’s consort Sita prisoner in Lord Ravana’s island fortress of Lanka. The gypsy raksasis yelled for money, and I took this as a call to depart forthwith, but I departed into the clutches of an angry man. He asked, not so politely, where I was from and me, naively thinking the conversation was all to be about sport, I told him. I was Australian and he took issue with reports in the Indian news media of Australians attacking Indian students, his attitude having nothing to do with India’s loss at cricket at all. There was an aggressive tone to his voice, the tone that all too quickly would devolve into an all-in pub brawl back home. But I wasn’t home, and I was getting more outnumbered by the second. I had the feeling my senior citizen status was not going to be an ally. People started to gather about, and other people gathered about those already gathered. And none were on my team. The air had that foretaste of blood to it. Mine.
Then the gods intervened, and mention again of my Sikh family doctor saved the day. I swiftly followed this up with comments about how the attacks were all about being a victim in the wrong place at the wrong time and nothing to do with race, how they had been misreported in the Indian press, how India and Australia were like brothers and sisters, how we had fought off British imperialism, how both countries were strong democracies, and how on most days we had sense enough to drive on the left hand side of the road. I threw in for good measure about India and Australia jointly nominating the fledgling state of Indonesia as a member of the United Nations, and I mumbled a reference to our respective countries sharing the same date of our national days. I was a bit uncertain on the accuracy of the last point so I quickly thought through whether I should bring up the subject of a shared mistrust of China, and I considered it strategic to avoid the subject of cricket in case I reawakened his passion. So I settled for the tactic of offering a handshake instead, the right hand. It worked. We were the best of mates. I promised to say hello to several of his distant nephews when I was next in Melbourne. All was good, all was wonderful, all was forgiven, and waving goodbye to the assembled crowd, me in the guise of ‘semi-hero of the moment’ status, my skin still intact, I fled by foot to my pre-agreed rendezvous with my guide, elsewhere in town.
Neither guide, driver, nor tour car were there. It was a long ten minutes before they arrived. As I waited I had the feeling each Indian eye that passed by was aimed just at me. I might as well been wearing the Australian flag draped about my body, with the word ‘Target’ tattooed in bright paint across my heart. This was the second time I had built bridges of international understanding for the Government of Australia. I figured they owed me money.
And as I pondered more the possibility that Australia and India shared the same day of the year for our ‘national day’ one reality burst out aloud; India celebrates a day of independence, but Australia celebrates a day of invasion.