Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mumbai, India

     Piano tuning is an exact science based on the limited capacity of the human ear to distinguish sound frequencies. Many piano tuners nowadays use oscilloscopes to help them sort out and establish precisely the frequencies needed to tune a piano string correctly. The majority of good tuners prefer to use their own natural hearing ability to judge the quality of the sound. The oscilloscope has its uses, but it is the human who determines once and for all whether a piano is ready for a Carnegie Hall concert or not. If the tones and semitones are aligned in perfect, Pythagorean proportions, Martha Argerich and her ilk will have nothing but smiles and expressive frowns on their faces during their performances,.
     There was nothing but consternation among the M/V Tahitian Princess’s pianists when a tuner from Singapore came on board and left three hours later with more cash in his pocket than he’d earned in one day’s work. He also left our three pianos sounding worse than when he first came to tune them. Our ship was on a world cruise, and when the complaints started coming in, not least mine, it was too late to call back the errant tuner. I know that many pianists refuse to play a piano even if just one key is off. Playing an out of tune piano is such an excruciating experience that some pianists will do it only under threat of being fired. Fortunately the ship’s pianists had to play under such a threat so the shows went on.
      It was with a sense of urgency that I asked our cruise director to call our head office to schedule an emergency remedial piano tuning in Mumbai, our next port of call after Singapore. This was how I met the father and son team of Mistry and Son.  Beginning with this gentle duo, I started to get a feel for India as a people and as a nation.
        In India, crafts are passed from father to son and kept within the family. Amritlal Mistry was the latest in three generations of piano tuners in the same family. Amritlal was in his early thirties and trained in Germany. Mistry Sr. came along to help him out and give advice. Under their hands, the piano strings were stretched and pulled to the tensions that enabled Chopin’s or Elton John’s songs to sound full, sonorous, and not honky-tonk caricatures of themselves. Thanks to them, the M/V Tahitian Princess was able to exorcise, for the time being at least, the ghost of that Singaporean huckster masquerading as a piano tuner.
      I’ve always known and heard of Mumbai since I was a small boy growing up in the Philippines. There was then, as there is still now, a very influential and rich group of people in our hometown who were Indian. Together with the Chinese, they owned many commercial establishments in our hometown, mostly dry-goods stores. We called them Bombay. We didn’t really regard them as different, just richer. Some sons and daughters of the Bombay were my classmates at school, and they were as Filipino as could be. In time, we even forgot that they had Indian forebears. They were just part of the community.
     The reason for our town’s open-mindedness was because, for centuries it had lain in a trade route in the Philippine archipelago that was constantly visited by traders from China and India. Some of these traders came and went, but some stayed and married local women, contributing to the racial mix in our town and indeed, in the whole of the Central Visayas region of the Philippines.
     I was now, as it were, returning that favor. I was visiting Mumbai for the very first time, the teeming city that had a population greater than New York’s or Manila’s.  I would also be visiting the country that saw the rise of one of the greatest and oldest civilizations on earth, the mother country of such world religious movements as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. India’s cultural influence on the rest of Asia, and the world for that matter, is inestimable. Most languages in the so-called Indo-European group are said to have their roots in Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. It is mind-boggling to consider that one language gave rise to a host of others, but hey, weren’t we all descended from a common, African ancestor? At the most basic, molecular level, we are all Africans, and at the deepest cultural level, we are all Indians.
   It was with some excitement that I went up to the topmost deck of the M/V Tahitian Princess on the morning that we docked at Mumbai to view its skyline. The cruise ship terminal was a rundown industrial building with a corrugated iron roof. A faded sign said: INCREDIBLE INDIA.  The sign featured peeling paintings of ski slopes, tigers, the Taj Mahal and other scenes from the Indian hinterlands. Domes and cupolas glinted in the morning sun. It was hot and humid and a faint but unmistakable fecal odor seemed to hover over the smoggy air. Great.
     Prior to our arrival to Mumbai, I had been assiduously reading Paul Theroux’s “Elephanta Suite”, a book of novelettes about Westerners visiting and being transformed or in the process of being swallowed up by India. The title came from the name of an island off Mumbai where ancient Hindu temples had been dug and carved out from the hillsides.  The Portuguese had found a huge statue there of an elephant (hence the name) as well as caves containing scenes from the life of the god Shiva carved out from the rock. The Portuguese inflicted grievous damage on these statues by making them the object of target practice. The statues survived, barely.  Elephanta Island is now a UNESCO heritage site and one of the prime tourist attractions of Mumbai. In order to visit the caves, you had to ride across the bay of Mumbai and, once there, walk up one hundred twenty steps to the top of a hill where the caves where. I was going to visit these caves today.
     After the piano tuning session with the Mistrys, I went through the cruise ship terminal smack dab into a line of taxis manned by hungry-looking drivers. I latched on to a pair of American passengers and between the three of us, managed to wangle a ride on a taxi for a reasonable amount (an initial demand for $40 became $15). The driver vainly tried to convince us to take a tour of the city or to visit some souvenir store, but we adamantly insisted that he take us to two destinations only, me to the Gateway of India and them to the nearby Taj   Mahal Hotel.  Up to the minute that I fled the taxi, the driver implored us to take a tour.  We were impervious to his pleas.
     The Gateway of India is a triumphal arch of yellow basalt and poured concrete created back in the 1920’s to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India. India was then the Crown Jewel of the British Empire. It is an impressive structure, and, although colonial in intent, it now stands as the symbol of Mumbai as much as the Opera House is of Sydney or the Statue of Liberty is of New York City. 
     Across the square, the elaborate Taj Mahal hotel stands, restored and operating after the horrific and senseless massacre of guests and employees by Pakistani terrorists in April of 2008. When that happened, I was on the M/V Coral Princess in Central America. Distressed by the absolute evil of the act, I painted an abstract reaction of it in black and red acrylic. That was all I could do as an artist.
My Painting in reaction to the Mumbai Massacre
The Taj Mahal Hotel. On a subsequent visit to Mumbai, I finally  had lunch at the Taj.
     I did not go into the Taj, but instead went to find out how to get to Elephanta Island. A man approached me and said he had a boat that was sailing to the island soon. I bought a ticket from him for one hundred rupees, roughly two US dollars. He conducted to me to water’s edge off to the left of the gate of India where I boarded a decrepit-looking launch. I sat aft in front of plastic barrels of water.  This was an economy launch that reminded me of the outrigger boats that plied the short stretch of ocean between my home island of Ormoc and the Camotes Islands across the bay. Soon we were off, the boat’s diesel engine spewing acrid, black smoke. The sea was brown and filthy all the way to Elephanta Island. I avoided being splashed by the muddy water, afraid I might get some disease or something.  I could not conceive of any sea creature surviving in this obviously highly polluted bay.
    Forty minutes after we left the dock, we arrive at the jetty of Elephanta Island. 
We didn’t actually dock at the pier but alongside another boat that was already parked beside it. The passengers of our boat had to clamber out to the other boat then into the pier, a maneuver best described as an adventure.  Feet on terra firma, I boarded a free mini-train that ferried passengers from one end of the pier to another, and then started walking up the hundred twenty steps to the Elephanta caves.
    Memories of my Inca trail hike pursued me as I trudged up these steps because, whatever else you might call it, a stair is a stair is a stair.  The steps were lined to distraction on either side by stalls selling everything from plastic Ganeshas to sari wraps.  One wished there were no vendors around to hawk their wares in front of you, begging you to stop and look at their offerings, in general impeding your progress in any way they could to get you to buy their souvenirs…but it wasn’t to be. Totally winded at the top of the stairs, I was ready to escape into the promised calm of the Elephanta caves.
     As a foreign tourist, I had to pay two hundred fifty rupees to get into the park, as opposed to fifty rupees if you were local, but I didn’t mind. This unequal billing was a common practice in some countries I’d visited. I entered the park and was greeted by a lot of --- monkeys. Evidently, being the descendants of the great monkey god Hanuman and thus considered sacred, they had the run of the park. They were going about their daily lives like it was nobody’s business: picking out and eating the lice from each other’s hair, males making overture to the females, little monkeys horsing around like little children. I saw one monkey lolling on the grass, drinking water from a plastic bottle. Tourists had been warned that the monkeys can try to steal food from tourists, so we had to pack everything safely away in our backpacks lest they tempt would-be simian thieves.  I saw some monkeys just sitting down on the ground, staring into the distance as if in a trance. 

     I went into the main temple cave, the best preserved on Elephanta Island. It was dark inside. The only source of light was sunlight streaming in from side doors. 
Without artificial illumination, the caves were presented as they were hundreds of years ago. As my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw the Trimurti - a gigantic carving of Shiva as a three headed deity: Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. This was an image familiar to me from my days when I collected stamps from exotic places, India being one of them. 

The quality of the sculptures was astonishing. A major artist was at work here whose knowledge of the anatomy of the human body was keen and superb. There were floor to ceiling carved panels depicting events in the life of Shiva, many of them defaced. There was Shiva as man-woman, Shiva as a dancer, Shiva as Warrior. Columns supporting the cave ceiling were in the shape of sensuously carved guardian deities, similar in function to the Greek caryatids

In a side temple, still intact in its own stone enclosure and adorned with present-day offerings of carnations and chrysanthemums was a lingam, that inscrutable, plain, somewhat phallic block of stone sacred to the Hindus. Even in the darkness, you could feel the power of Hinduism and the strength of the faith of the ancient people who carved these statues from the depths of solid rock. I was impressed and humbled by the sheer amount of work that must have been expended to excavate and then decorate these temples.
    I noticed a white man half-hidden in the shadows, his back pressed against a column, . He was looking intently at the Trimurti. Unlike the other tourists, who thankfully were very few, he did not bother to take pictures of the statues. I asked him to take a photograph of me standing in front of it. He gladly obliged.
     His name was Vernon from Vermont, USA. He was in his fifties. He was an itinerant magician. He had just come in from Nepal, entertaining kids there. He had been to the caves before. He was back just to look and meditate on the Trimurti which he found beautiful and wonderfully calming. He had a kindly face and looked grizzled from travel.  He was happy with what he was doing. There was not much, if any money in it, because the areas he visited were quite poor, so he paid his own way most of the time.  He loved to travel, and doing magic acts for kids was one way he could indulge in this passion. He was going to other places after this: Thailand, Cambodia, other parts of India. There was a calmness and tranquility about him that belied the image of the ugly American.  Somehow he seemed to fit in with the surroundings.
      I tried to visit the other caves, but they did not have anything comparable to the main cave, so I decided to return back to Mumbai and took the 5:00 PM launch. Despite the fact that I paid roundtrip on my first launch, I decided to go on another, more decent-looking two-story boat with a viewing deck. It even had lifeboats in it.
    The sun was setting when I arrived back at the Gateway of India. Just as before, the passengers had to clamber up into another boat in order to get to the pier. This was a bit more risky because we were going to transfer from the second deck of the boat to the other. I lifted my foot from the ledge of one boat and placed it on that of the other, praying I wouldn’t slip into the filthy waters below. I felt sorry for the old women and children who had no choice but negotiate this patently dangerous maneuver Ah, Incredible India.
     I started walking along the sea wall promenade from a point slightly past the Gate of India. One thing must be said about India: it is a very colorful country and its citizens love to dress accordingly. All Mumbai was out this afternoon in all manner of garb and finery: men clothed in white dhotis and caps, women in bright multi-colored saris, Muslim women swathed from head to foot in black hijabs and sometimes in blue burkhas, little children dressed in traditional ethnic costumes. Purples, reds, tangerines, greens and saffron greeted my eyes as I walked slowly down the unkempt promenade. Silver carriages with caparisoned horses rolled about seeking rides. In front of the Taj Hotel, I saw tall turbaned doormen in Sikh uniforms. At the end of the promenade, I turned right and found myself on a busy street lined on either side by stores, hotels and restaurants. A perfume shop lured me in with its flagons of perfume lining illuminated glass cases. I bought a small bottle of a patchouli scent for 250 rupees. 
 Down further I was hooked in by a rug merchant into his shop which had beautiful but overpriced goods. He held me practically hostage until I managed to wrest away myself from him. He ran after me for a block but I refused to give in to his desperate plea to buy at least one thing from his shop.
      I saw a crippled woman crawling on the ground, rubber slippers protecting her hands. A man was peeling and selling sugar cane stalks. Emaciated cows roamed about, a sight that is startling at first to a first-time visitor to Mumbai or any part of India, but which one gets used to after a while. I have yet to step on a cow pie. I heard they were used as fuel by the poor people. I also heard that it was used, not just by poor people, but by certain cooks who liked to flavor their food with the ordure of cow manure.  Everywhere there were sellers of every imaginable merchandise. The sidewalks were crowded with shoppers. It was bedlam. The heedless traffic compounded the hot sweaty chaos. Cars and buses tried to maneuver into every little corner they could steal from one another. The smell of gasoline exhaust was insufferable. The heat, even at this hour, was stifling.
    I stopped by a sidewalk stall, attracted by little booklets and book markers made of handmade paper. I am a sucker for handmade paper.
   The seller’s name was Shamir. He was from Kashmir and looked thirtyish. He was thin, wore horn-rimmed glasses and sported a Trotsky goatee. In his store he sold colored glass lamps, jewelry boxes made of stamped silver, and those cards and bookmarkers made of handmade paper. He wore the usual Indian white dhoti and had a fez on his head.
      I paused to admire a jewelry box with a star design. He called inside the shop and had other boxes sent out.  I liked one with a double-elephant design.
      “190 rupees,” he intoned.
       “150?”  I countered.
       “Sir, all our prices are fixed. There is no bargaining.”
         190 rupees was around four dollars, a steal even without a discount.
        “OK, I’ll take it,” I agreed.
        “Where are you from sir?” Shamir asked me.
       “ Philippines,” I replied.
      “Ah,” Shamir exclaimed, his face brightening. “I was in Manila in 1978. I remember looking down from the plane and seeing everything so blue.”
       Shamir probably meant Cebu, but, compared to Mumbai Harbor, Manila Bay was a pristine body of water, so maybe he was in Manila after all.
     “I liked Manila. I think Marcos was still your president then. I went on a harbor cruise to an island. I stayed three days in Manila. I’m sorry, my memory is hazy, and it was a long time ago.”
     “There are many Indians in the Philippines,” I said.
    “Yes, "he said, "the Indian shopkeepers were quite happy to see us.”
      I admired some boxes with etched marble lids depicting houris in Paradise.
      “Beautiful. They must be expensive,” I said.
      “Sir,” said Shamir, “if you don’t need it and you’ve bought what you wanted, you don’t have to buy anything anymore.”
       “Really?”  I said.  “No hard sell?”
      “I know you probably think it strange for me to say this, but I always advise my friends to safeguard their money and watch what they’re spending. We’re in an economic crisis right now, not just in Mumbai but all over the world.”
       I took a second look at white garbed Shamir, unable to believe what I just heard from a shop keeper who should be strong-arming me, a tourist, to buy more! More! More! At that moment I sense that I was in the presence of a swami, a wise man posing as a seller of silver jewelry boxes and paper book markers.
      In the chaos of that street, among the beggars, the sacred cows, the peddlers and the chaotic traffic, with my brief spellbinding encounter with the carved gods in Elephanta Island still fresh in my mind,  I found the India I was looking for in bespectacled, bearded Shamir: no-nonsense, dignified and wise.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Late Afternoon in Echo Park

     ECHO PARK LAKE is a water reservoir in the middle of Los Angeles just off the  Hollywood freeway, technically, the 101. A cement path loops around it. Grassy border lawns,eucalyptus and palm trees separate it from the streets. A Japanese bridge arches over one corner of the lake. The bridge looks like the one in Monet’s garden at Giverny although this one is painted a Chinese red instead of green. There is a lotus garden here, too, filled today with magenta blossoms. This patch of water is home to migratory birds. I see wild ducks, geese and coots. Park visitors delight in feeding them, despite a sign advising against it. Two fountains soar in the middle of the lake. There is a boathouse from which one can rent pedal boats. Today the boathouse is closed.
      A man wearing a rumpled Hawaiian shirt sprawls lazily on the grass. Two motionless terriers watch over him. A nylon cord attached to a fishing pole secures one mutt by the neck. They look expectant and forlorn.
     A small-boned girl briskly walks past me, setting off a slight disturbance in the air that softly touches my skin and then flaps away like an invisible moth. 
     Three men, gang members from the looks of them, pause from their chatter as I walk by them. They cast expressionless eyes at me, and then fall back into their conversation. I am no threat to them. A friend has cautioned me not to walk here after dark. I could be mugged, even murdered, here, he warned. I have been in the park at 10 at night, and not come to grief. Perhaps the crime here is merely perception, or the result of the roll of the dice.
     Echo Park is a haven for artists and artisans. The eclectic mix of architecture present in the neighborhood, the brightly-colored murals adorning the walls of commercial buildings, and the appearance of an art gallery here and there proclaim as much.
     Once, while strolling among the surrounding hills, I came upon a small house with a Palladian portico. Only an architect versed in Venetian architecture could have come up with such a sophisticated and knowing design. 
     The area of Echo Park avenue towards Sunset Boulevard out into Freeway 101 seems to be an area of working-class Mexicans and Asians. Up towards the hills Echo Park has a contingent of attractive, upscale abodes. One particularly palatial villa rises on a hill above the far end of the street. It is visible from the Glendale freeway. A movie producer is said to live there.
       When I first moved into my apartment here, I heard a vague rumor that a Vietnamese family living nearby had been robbed and killed by a gang, also Vietnamese. I never could verify the truth of the story. At night I’d hear popping noises, but they sounded to me like cars backfiring. Maybe that's what I wanted to believe. I learned to ignore them. 
        The park is bordered towards Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado by the domed Angelus Temple where  Aimee Semple Macpherson used to preach her fiery brand of gospel back in the 1920’s.  Across Echo Park Avenue is an Orthodox church that looks like an office building. Facing it, on Alvarado, is a hillside crowned by apartment buildings. Before his movie star days Leonardo di Caprio used to live hereabouts. A new bunch of artists searching for cheaper digs are spilling over into the Echo Park district from nearby Silverlake. Right now they could be toiling in their studios, their gentrifying presence enriching this pulsing world of bodegas, gangs and Latinos. 
      There is activity all around the park today. A vendor is selling roasted corn. A dark-skinned man dispenses ice cream (helados) from a cart. Sweet bread (pan dulce) delights the niños and niñas. Something celebratory is in the air. Tomorrow is 4th of July. 
     I meet a couple who seems to have wandered out of  a Botero painting. The man takes a sympathetic look at me, exchanges knowing smiles with his companion, rubs his ample belly and mutters: “Gorditos...” 
      I meet a woman pushing a pram with a baby in it. The baby is chewing its right foot, leg bent clear up to its mouth. 
     A man in a worn dark suit pushes a grocery cart filled with empty cola cans. He shuffles towards a garbage bin, peers into it with the air of a connoisseur, and delicately, almost apologetically, rummages inside it. 
     A yellow bicycle piloted by a growling boy of probably four or five careens wildly down the path. It misses me and other promenaders by a hair. I hear muttered curses, including mine, all around. 
     On the corner of the lake where the lotus bloomed, two girls in Gothic black sit on the grass. Only the wind hears their whispered secrets. 
      A young man leans against a tree, shut off from the world by his Walkman. As I pass by him, he turns his face slightly towards me and our eyes meet. A word seems to be forming in his mouth and he gives me a half-smile. Perhaps he's just thought of a joke, but can't quite come up with a punch line. 
    I encounter the Chinese girl again. She has turned around and is walking towards me. She turns out to be a middle-aged woman, her face crinkly with crow’s-feet. Sixtyish and looking like a teenager from the back! Good for her, I thought. 
     The sun washes over a gentle poem on the wall of the building housing the park’s restrooms, a mural that I found on a later visit to have disappeared under  scrawls of lurid graffiti. The mural features Mexican botanica and anthropomorphic renditions of the sun and the moon - El Sol y La Luna. A poem in Spanish describes the painting. In brief it says that somebody has travelled everywhere only to find that what he was looking for was right back there where he started from. It looks and reads much better in Spanish, but I forget the actual words. 
    I make two circuits of the park and then wend my way back to the public wash where I must fetch my laundry from the dryer. People along Echo Park Avenue are outside their houses, sitting on stoops, hands draped over their fences, engaged in talk. The sounds of punta and norteño fill the air. 
     In a moment like this, you’d think you were in Mexico, and not in the heart of the second largest city of the United States of America.