Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Shirts Off Our Backs

(Feb. 11) Sainaba was next on our list. Our Government Guest House manager drew a map and given the way things were going, we strode off confident that we could find it. Down some spacious dirt streets with some surprising new houses, many much bigger than seemed necessary. How had this happened? Gulf money. Even back in the late 70’s, young men were already going to the Gulf to work and earn more money than they could back home. That has continued exponentially. 

And so to Sainaba’s new house, easy to spot by the small crowd gathered outside who waved us in. And there she and Mohammed were, recognizable and welcoming. She invited us back to a table and served us an enormous breakfast of rice chapattis, chicken curry and more, coming around for seconds and thirds despite our full-belly protests. Meanwhile, we passed around the old photos and amidst the 30 or 40 people passing through the house, there were her three sons, now in their 30’s and 40’s—Hussein, Basheer and Rosak. And their wives and children. Two of them had indeed worked in the Gulf and spoke a little English, but we were starting to feel the limits of smiles, nods and old photos. So we took some new photos, said our goodbyes and headed back to the main street and the bus to Trichur. 

Faithful Raymond was there as we got off and after a few visits to various shop owners he knew, we arrived at a lovely house, home of Shiney, an advocate (lawyer) taking time off to raise her children. She fed us another multi-course meal and off to the dental office to see her husband’s work. He showed us a computer presentation of before-and-after photos of people he made beautiful simply by filling in the gaps in their teeth or straightening them. He also specializes in root canal and said that some people come from Europe and America to get work done because it’s so cheap, even with airfare and accommodations. With all the dental work I have before me, an interesting proposition!

Then a visit to four government-run places, all close to each other, where Raymond and Shiney volunteer two or three times a week—a place for mentally handicapped children, for psychologically disturbed adults, a shelter for abused women and an old age home. Reminded me of touring similar places in Cuba. The first was the liveliest, as the children sang several songs for us and I returned the favor. Music, again, as the most direct form of communication.

Two more houses of friends to visit, drink tea and chat and then there was supposed to be a Kathakali performance at 6:30. But Narayanan called and said it had been changed to 8:00 pm, the kids were weary and Cheruthuruthy a long bus ride away. So I reluctantly let it go. But pulling into the old hometown, I heard music from the open field by the school house and got off by myself to check it out. It was devotional music with drum, violin, harmonium, cymbals and singer, too loudly amplified, but fun to figure out the form. Mostly a soloist singing the names of various gods—Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Krishna, Nataraja, Govinda and more—in different rhythmic configurations, then answered by the drums and harmonium in echo fashion. Not exactly the whole gestalt of evening Kathakali, but helped me remember the beauty of these nighttime performances in India, in Java, in Bali, sometimes all-night long under the stars or full moon, as much a part of the total feeling of the art form as an intimate nightclub is to jazz. That’s when the magic happens.

Took a wrong turn walking home and walked a mile in the wrong direction before trusting my intuition that something was wrong. Walking in the dark past people who couldn’t easily see my face or skin color and thinking, “I am just a human being again.”

And Raymond, when asked about his religion, answers,  “I am a member of the Human Religion. Take care of the poor, comfort the afflicted.” When we met him at 35 years old, his wife taught school and he seemed aimless, happy just to hang out with us. Soon after, he got some bit parts in movies, often as the villain. And now he has arrived at this new place in his life, volunteering his time to help the needy.

He likes to tell the story of our send-off at the Shornur train station. I was distraught that I had nothing to give to him to remember me by and vice-versa, so right there in the station, we traded shirts. And this somehow symbolized the life he was living now, willing to give the shirt off his back to help those who might need it. And I’d like to think that I would too. Or at least give it to Raymond.

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