It’s been seventeen days since I arrived at my new hometown of Santiniketan, West Bengal. For the most part, it has largely been a perilous ordeal, and if it weren’t for the fact that I am used things being difficult whenever I first arrive in India, I would have definitely turned back already. I have had only one day to myself so far (day two is tomorrow), and have spent the majority of my time getting dragged by karma-demons through the Hell of Indian Bureaucracy. I mean this quite literally, because when you’re enrolled at a school that doesn’t use a computer-based system for managing its affairs, you basically become a carrier pigeon.
For more than two weeks, I have spent several hours each day walking back and forth between college buildings (invariably located on opposite sides of the campus grounds), desperately trying to get an impossibly thick bundle of forms signed and stamped in the proper order. My arrival at the start of the monsoon season insured that one of these days would completely go to waste when I was drenched by a torrential downpour that destroyed not only my handbag, but all of the documents and assorted forms I had spent the previous three days gathering. I’m not sure which is more disheartening: dealing with that or getting knocked into the mud by a charging bull, fresh from a shower and dressed in new clothes––that also happened. I was walking past the library early in the morning and a bull knocked me right into a puddle of mud. The crowd in the street remained frozen until I started laughing like a maniac and then everyone felt relaxed enough to laugh along with me. What else can you do when something like that happens? Living here will definitely require some challenging lifestyle adjustments, but will surely be quite rewarding; and quite possibly prove to be one of the most important phases of my life.
I had to check in with the local governmental authorities in a town called Siuri. Traveling for over two hours along pot-hole riddled country roads and crossing rickety, unstable bridges in a crowded mini-bus where the collective body heat pushes the temperature well beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit can be a little rough. After finally reaching the dusty town that was my destination and spending a few hours searching for the Foreigner’s Registration Office, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to find out that the school gave me the wrong form and I would have to make the same trip again. By the way, did I mention that it’s hot here? Like, really freakin’ hot. Since India measures temperature in Celsius, I’m not exactly sure just how hot it is; but earlier today when I was applying for my library card, I was asked when it started raining because I was so drenched with sweat that it looked like I just hopped out of a lake. Humor has always been sacred to me, and in the short time I have been here, I have learned much about the importance of laughing at life’s happy little obstacles. It’s all I can really do, otherwise my head would have probably exploded. And yet despite all the difficulties I’m facing during this transitional phase, it would be a lie to say that I have not also been having a lot of fun.
Previous experience has paid off and I am used to the discomfort of adjusting to a new climate even though having my skin constantly break out from sweating so much is never pleasant. My body has enough natural immunities from previous visits that I don’t have to deal with feeling ill periodically as a veritable wild kingdom of foreign fauna invades my guts––within 20 minutes of my arrival I was gulping down water from a train station fountain. No problem! It’s easy to save a lot of money on alcohol here because whenever the nihilistic mood strikes, I can always just relish a glass of questionable drinking water. Mmmmmm. Oh yeah, that takes the edge off.
Classes began a day after I arrived at the home I mistakenly believed I would be able to stay at until I found a place of my own. The countless rounds of signatures and stamps began almost immediately, and I have been struggling to figure out this completely incomprehensible (to me at least) educational system ever since. After a week of spending every day from 9 am to 5 pm trying to get myself registered with the Indian government and sorted with school, I was told that I would have to leave my temporary abode by the 24th of July. It constantly feels like people here generally think everything is easy to figure out––because for them it is––but for an American who has just arrived, being able to find a trustworthy source to rent a home from in less than two weeks is a tall order. It might seem like I was abruptly pushed out, but I only have love and respect for the people who hosted me. What I hadn’t accounted for was the social climate, something which would be difficult for my friends back home to understand. Word travels fast in a country town like Santiniketan, and I am in the inconvenient position of being noticed wherever I go. Invisibility is not an option and everyone’s eyes are constantly focused on me. For the people I was staying with, this was a problem. And so I had to leave.
[Note: A good example of this phenomenon is what I experienced yesterday while drinking a glass of chai at a local stall. Someone I’ve never met before mentioned seeing me boozing it up the previous night... and I was. Without even consciously looking for trouble, I found myself in the shadiest shanty shack in Santiniketan drinking copious amounts of bangla, the local moonshine. I had run across an old friend who invited me out for a few rounds and that’s just the sort of experience I find hard to pass up. Big mistake. Now the entire town’s underbelly wants to have a drink with me. That is exactly what I was invited to do by everyone who was hanging out at the tea stall, so I finished my chai and left as quickly as possible. In the future, I will exercise a bit more discretion now that I have a feel for the kind of scrutiny I'm under and the speed with which word can travel in such a small place.]
Getting booted out so quickly was a major drag, and last Thursday I found myself feeling pretty down after I was informed that I no longer had a place to stay. So I stopped at a roadside stall to drink some tea and mull over my non-existent options when in walks Basudeb Das Baul, a singer who I recognized from this YouTube video:
I introduced myself to him and we instantly got along. After chatting for an hour or so about Baul sangeet, I was invited to attend a house concert at his place that very night. It was exactly the kind of chance meeting I had been hoping for since my arrival, but because of the wretched predicament I was in, I regrettably had to take a rain check. We exchanged phone numbers, and he told me to let him know when I had time so I could stop on by. Being free to do what I want is always best and I wish I could have gone straight away, but this was certainly not a bad development.
For the past few nights, I have been staying in an overpriced hotel room that is inconveniently located above a restaurant. In a hot country such as India, this is generally contraindicated unless you are into sharing your bed with cockroaches. If I hadn’t already visited a few times before and traversed the many hells which can overwhelm a foreign traveller, I might not be able to handle such a grimy situation. Instead, I find myself strangely comfortable with brushing dead insects off of my bed before laying down to enjoy a smoke, while I listen to music and write this entry.
Compared with the seemingly endless stream of frustration I have been swimming in so far, today was pretty damn good. After class, I spent the afternoon with some female friends of mine from school who have been nothing but helpful toward me. Thanks to them, I managed to attend every one of my classes––except for one––this week and feel like I’m finally beginning to understand how this completely unfamiliar educational system operates. Around 6:30 p.m., I gave Basudeb Das Baul a phone call and an hour later was headed to his home via cycle rickshaw. Several people were already there, and more showed up shortly after my arrival. Most of them were musicians, and I ended up being treated to a spontaneous jam session, spanning a few hours, with people trading instruments back and forth as others took turns singing. Although the quality might not be so great thanks to the hum of a large ceiling fan, I still managed to get some relatively clean recordings of Basudeb, his wife, their daughter, and a friend named Shivashankar, all singing different traditional Bengali folk tunes. Everyone was eager to hear what I captured and my headphones were passed back and forth while I played whatever songs were requested for about an hour afterward. Basudeb is a kind-hearted and talented man, so I was extremely happy when he told me that he would not only help me get any Baul instruments I might want made from scratch, but that he would personally teach me dotara if I wished to learn from him. Now that’s an opportunity I can’t refuse and exactly the kind of thing I needed to hear right now! Whether or not I can learn how to play it in three years will remain to be seen, but I can certainly try, and I am sure to meet a lot of Bengali folk musicians while procuring some nice field recordings in the process.
For a little while, things were going so bad that I began to fear I might have to head back to the USA in September. As much as I love being here, school is the last thing I want to be dealing with right now, and I would much rather focus my energy on studying music, learning the Bengali language, and visiting temples. Making a few Baul friends, and spending some time listening to them perform music that I love, was exactly the kind of experience I needed to reassure myself, that, despite whatever difficulties I might be dealing with, I’m definitely in the right place. The prospect of learning how to play dotara not only fills my heart with joy, but makes the hassle of pursuing a degree seem like it’s not such a big deal––with music in my life, I can easily handle anything! Now if I can just find a good Bangla tutor in August, I’ll feel confident that my time is being spent wisely, and everything in my world will be groovy.
Despite the bipolar nature of my experience so far, my mind feels balanced and focused, which it has to be in order for me to succeed while I’m residing here. During the next three years, I plan to pull off more than a few things that I can take pride in for the rest of my days on planet Earth, but that’s not the end game. The ultimate goal is to transform my life into an offering for my ishta devi––the black goddess who eternally dances within the heart of all. Feel free to join me for the ride, it should be a lot of fun.
JAY MA KALI
Decorative peacock, painted on a Santali tribal village home in Santiniketan, West Bengal.
August 18th, 2013:
A lot has happened since my last journal entry, and although I currently find myself sleeping on the floor of a friend’s guest room, I would say that my situation has largely improved. I was kicked out of the hotel for returning after 1:00 a.m. one evening. Everything was locked up, so I resorted to banging on the closed metal shutters in order to wake someone so I could get back in. The hotel owner who came to the door in his underwear was not so pleased, and I was promptly informed that I had to find another place to stay the following morning. Quite a few misadventures ensued, and I even found myself spending a few nights at my friend’s (the guy who invited me out for a few drinks) village mathir bari, a.k.a. mud hut.
As luck would have it, I ended up meeting an Italian man when I was again in Siuri trying to get my residency recognized by Indian officials. We instantly hit it off, and I was offered the house he has been living in for two years, which will be available on September first. So, I am currently waiting things out. School is progressing a lot more smoothly, and I even managed to find a personal Bengali language tutor. I now own a beautiful dotara, thanks to Basudeb Das Baul, and am getting somewhat regular music lessons when our schedules don’t clash too much. Sticking it out was definitely the right thing to do and I am a lot happier about how things are going now then I was one month ago. If things continue to flow in this direction, next month will surely be even better.
The following recordings were made on the nights of August 13th and 17th of 2013. Basudeb liked the sound quality of my recording gear enough to ask if I could record a few tracks for him and burn them to disc, so he could have something to pass them out to friends and acquaintances. When it comes to recording, I’m not a professional, but I’m pretty damn happy with what I have captured so far. After the last month and a half, I feel like these songs are my reward for adapting to an initially uncomfortable entry into the ways of my new home town, Santiniketan. I hope that other people might find enjoyment in them as well.