Sardines, Slums and the Sacred

When walking through the dark halls of the buildings, you could see the outlines of garlanded or framed photographs. The tall buildings rose high into the sky and were pockmarked by what seemed like hundreds of small dark windows, out of which leaned men, women and children. Hung diagonally across the windows were clotheslines with multicolored garments blowing in the breeze that carried the scent of the riverside shanties up to the people above. Children played with tools, wrenches. They had matted hair. This was the natural, visceral way of life. The elevator stank, the buttons had been punched out. They told me this was because the elevator was misused. From the banks of the slums you could see the high rises, the towers of the city, almost illusory. Sri Lanka’s tallest building, a futuristic monstrosity resembling Seattle’s space needle, could be seen in the distance. * contrast. The eyes of the men and women followed you as you drifted through the stained corridors, lingering. These were people who had been forcibly relocated, transferred to government housing after their illegal dwellings had been torn down. The tenants made up for the building’s drab exterior by painting the walls of their personal* apartments bright colors such as pink and orange, tempering the dullness of the stairway**. Cheap chrome-colored posters of flower arrangements or teddy bears were hung on the walls with blue-tack.

The first home we entered was that of a Muslim woman. She was wearing salwar and her dupatta covered her head. She invited us to sit one the couch, insisting she sit cross-legged the floor. Fascinated by the environment, the extraordinary of people crammed into such a small space, I asked her how long she had been living there. Ten years in the area, and three years in the apartment, she responded. I wondered how the couple was able to reconcile living a devout life with the chaos and the inevitably haram practices of those they lived shoulder to shoulder with. It wasn’t a problem, they said, because first and foremost, they were all neighbors. “When there’s a problem, we call our family and our neighbors, and our neighbors help us more readily than ever our own family.” It was their faith that taught them to live like this. Living in harmony was more important than extremism. “The Qu’ran said these days would come,” he said. I asked the woman what her greatest blessing in life was. She blushed. “My husband.” She was lucky to have such a caring and devoted husband who respected, she told us. ***

We left, moving through the dark corridors, weaving in and out of crowds of children with their arms linked. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. She grinned when she saw, exposing tiny white teeth and black gums. She had her baby bouncing on her hip, a big black mark on its forehead to ward off the evil eye. She welcomed us all inside, seating us on the plastic chairs in her living room. She hand her child off to the three other women/enumerators, who took turns rocking and kissing her. She sat and watched her mother with wide eyes. The woman was delighted to be interviewed; she was childlike in her mannerisms, fidgeting, crossing and re-crossing her legs. She told us she had grown up in a shanty on the banks below, until she and her family had been relocated to the government housing. She lived with her mother, who helped her take care of her child, as her husband was serving in the Sri Lankan army in Mullataivu. It was very challenging, sometimes, for her to raise her child without its father. Yet, she was grateful that she had such a loving husband, and a mother who helped share the burden of raising her child. Her faith carried her though her challenges, she said, acknowledging the framed photograph of the Buddha above the door. Everything she had learned she felt had sustained her. She enjoyed living surrounded by such an extraordinary number of people. She felt supported, surrounded by community**

We had to get an auto to go to the third apartment. We rose past row after row of government buildings, until we arrived in front of an even taller building. We took the stairs this time, side-stepping crinkled chip packets and discarded plastic bottles. When we reached the seventh floor, we could see a long strip of green receding outwards in the direction of the horizon. One one side, dilapidated little homes leaned against each other, surrounded by a perimeter of refuse. On the other, identical tall buildings rose high in the distance**

The Christian woman’s apartment looked out on this view. She was short and subdued, and she wore a red and blue floral print dress. She had an astigmatism, which gave me that the impression that she was looking right to my left as opposed to directly at me, and she sat with her hands in her lap as I asked her questions. Her daughter, a girl of about eighteen, stood shyly in the corner. She had been living in the area for about five years. Her husband was a cobbler nearby. Many photos of her children were placed all around the small living room, and in the center of the wall, at eye-level, was a large photograph of a wooden cross adorned with lilies. “My sons’ conversions is the greatest blessing; when I really felt God working in my life.”** Her two sons, both in their twenties, had been drug-addicts openly scornful of religion. She prayed for them everyday, and now they were both evangelists. The phrase “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” rang true for this woman as well; she was at peace peace with the inter-religious arrangement. She led a prayer cell group that met once a week, and the different faiths. Fear for her children**

Our last stop was the Hindu woman’s apartment. The doorway was framed by golden tassels, and the interior was the bright, warm, pink so particular to the third world. The vibrant colors were made even warmer by the yellow light from the lamps on either side of the small living room. On the walls hung photographs of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, and Ganesh, the god of *** in golden frames. Right next to the, set off to the side, was a small photograph of the holy family. It was given to her by her father, who regularly went to the shrine of **

She was dressed in a loose dress with orange and pink flowers her two gold chains tucked into the neck. She wore glass bangles and a large red boot between her eyebrows. She had deep dark circles that threw her black eyes into relief, a trait she had passed a onto her son, a quiet boy about twelve who hovered around her. She had two children, a daughter and a son, but she took care of her sister’s children.

Neighbors, after the war. People living so close together. A mere twenty minutes, half an hour to the city. They all had great esteem for their husbands, their families. To them, everything came from God. Harmony among people who lived like sardines. Perhaps living in such proximity helped them understand. Physical closeness eventually transforming into emotional closeness. Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face.

“Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”

Reading Bellow in Bangalore

I discovered Saul Bellow the summer after ninth grade. I was spending the summer in India, boarded up in my aunt’s old room. Herzog lay on a shelf next to the window, and I picked it up because I found the title strange. I called her and told her I had found her old book, and that I was going to start reading it. I had ambitiously decided to finish as many books as I could that year. To my surprise, she encouraged me not to read it. “It’s too grown up for you,” she insisted. And she was right. Bellow’s Herzog lifted the film of innocence from my eyes with his talk of philosophy interwoven with candid dialogue on the harsh realities of existence, inspiring simultaneously a well-examined life and an earnest immersion in community. I was struck reading it in India, especially as I began to draw parallels between the chaos of the land — raw, unvarnished, with the burdened hero of Bellow’s fiction. He wove such disparate aspects of life together, and this mélange of the metaphysical and the material, the concrete and the esoteric was reminiscent of India itself. His ideas were weighty, his descriptions often wrenching, and it was this visceral description of Moses Herzog’s search for substance that encouraged me to pair action with philosophy.

I had felt a discord before, reading Pascal and Plato while men in threadbare clothing and rubber sandals swept the roadside with brooms made of twigs. But Bellow outlined that the search for the divine, for human enlightenment does not just belong to the privileged; it is not a luxury, but a human need and thus a right. “The difficulty with people who spend their lives in human studies,” he writes in Herzog, is that they “imagine once cruelty has been described in books it is ended.” As an aspiring academic, this was a jolt, a timely call to implement what I read and wrote. His didactic writing, his complex works where the subject matter and the characters were common or indigent, elevated them, for they highlighted that these people too had orphic thoughts and profound insights. Philosophy is not just for the wealthy or the well-endowed, but also for the proletariat: Every man is a philosopher.

Bellow’s urge that a writer is a moralist begs one to take part in the world, rather than remove oneself from it. Indeed, the sheer effervescence of India forbade me from becoming a spectator. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs cowers in the face of India, where women starve themselves to feed their idols and not a few of the wandering homeless are priests. He looked at the full man, man in his entirety, from his yearnings and regrets to his ailments and facial features. In By the St Lawrence, he describes exposed pink lungs strewn across the railroad tracks, and the “pellucid drops of fluid” reached out and pulled from my memory graphic images of exposed sores on the scalps of beggars on sidewalks, throbbing lacerations surrounded by flies. In writing that Herzog’s brown eyes were “so often overlaid with the film or protective chitin of melancholy,” Bellow likened the misery manifested in Herzog’s gaze to an insect’s exoskeleton, and through these strange yet masterful comparisons he communicated the importance and beauty, yet also the fragility and transience, of the body. His stories encompassed all the disciplines I love — psychology, biology, philosophy, literature, history — and aspire to pursue with greater depth than ever at university.

Saul was Jewish and American just as I am Indian and American, and through our patchwork cultural identities I felt a particular communion with him. Having grown up among so many different cultures like myself, he understood that the struggle of every man cannot be reduced to platitudes. The photographs of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and finally my mother and father in a row on the piano in our home in Bangalore represent the journey of carving a life out in India, a life held up by faith, trust, community; the painful and careful work of generations.

“A writer is a reader moved to emulation,” he wrote. As someone who oscillates between very different cultures, traversing India, America and Europe, I have a profound appreciation for both my own life and those of the people I have had the privilege of encountering. Bellow’s descriptions of his characters remind me of men and women I know very well, whether in Rockville, Oxford, or Bangalore. It is because you grow to love these people so deeply, and love them for their quirks, their misgivings, their flaws, their acts of kindness, that you desire to write about them and preserve them. In his eulogy for Yetta Barshevsky Schachtman, Bellow writes, “There is something radically mysterious in the specificity of another human being which everybody somehow responds to.” Envisioning the house in India is impossible without conjuring an image of my Papa’s few, thin, wispy strands of hair and his neatly filed fingernails, his grey chest hair peeking out of his shirt, reading a newspaper in the living room. I recall how our driver Raymond’s medicine for his alcoholism caused his hair to fall out in large clumps, how he’d self-consciously graze his hand against his exposed cranium to feel the missing tufts. I remember Shiva, a little boy in the orphanage who was being teased about his mother who was a prostitute. He came up to tell us about the cruelty of the other children, little tears leaking out of his one infected eyelid, with red rims and crust around the lashes, his open mouth revealing small misshapen teeth. These are people that belong to eternity, whose stories and suffering are worthy of remembrance.

In reading Bellow’s short story Zetland: A Character Witness, I also came to know about the life and work of Isaac Rosenfeld, his close friend and often rival. The brotherhood of Bellow and Rosenfeld, which was in life so vibrant yet so fraught, made such an impression on Bellow that he yearned to paint a posthumous portrait of his friend for the world, which remembered Rosenfeld largely as a flame that promised so much yet sputtered out. I was so touched by Zetland, particular Bellow’s reason for writing it, that it moved me to tears. Bellow loved his friend too much to let him fade into obscurity, and so he painted him, highlighting his brilliance, his quirks, and his charm, in order that he might be recognized more for his feats than for his flaws. Reminiscent of Brutus’ eulogy for Caesar, this act of defending and immortalizing his friend was to me the most beautiful example of the way words can be used to preserve, exalt, and bless another.

Largely thanks to Bellow, I have long believed that writing and reading are a means of redemption, both personal and social. Through the salvation of metaphor and simile, the most tragic life has the ability to be transformed into a gripping portrait, a work with the ability to touch its readers and express what they find to be inexpressible. It is love and care that notices, well enough to describe in rich and moving lexicon, the infinitesimal puckered scar above a pursed lip, or the slight tremors of a bony hand. As an artist, Bellow’s attention to how the soul imprints itself on the body, how the emotional manifests itself through the physical, reinforced my love for portraits, both literary and artistic. I am moved to compassion by attention to detail, as it reveals our humanity and draws on the commonalities between us. A waiter in India once recommended certain cookies at a bakery; “They are really … scrumptious,” he told me shyly. Who would imagine that an Indian man would use such a bizarre, such a peculiarly British term? And who was there to capture these instances of a world changing? The idiosyncratic verbiage of the colonizer was mingled with the sentiment of the Indian. It is at times like these, strange, seemingly irrelevant, that I wish to preserve. “On en montre pas sa grandeur pour être a une extrémité,” wrote Pascal, “mais bien a toucher les deux a la fois et remplissant tout l’entre-d’eux.” One does not show one’s greatness by remaining at one extreme, but by standing at the edge of two extremes and bridging the gap between them. That is what I aspire to do in my writing, to attempt to bridge the gap between people, cultures and ideas in a way that does not dilute them but reveals their underlying kinship.

Life in India at times is akin to purgatory. The scenes one witnesses and the interactions one has act upon the corroded gold of one’s soul like the refiner’s fire. Yet, I believe this exposure to the wretchedness, the glory and everything in between has been vital to my growth as a writer and as a person. If the best writing is based on deeply-felt personal experience, how do you imitate complexity in your work without having lived astride it? How can you write about envy, sloth, lust, violence, deception, infidelity, etc., without having had some personal dialogue with them? To understand a human being is to understand and acknowledge all of these things, to probe the depths of what it truly means to live, and thus what it means to truly love one another. The author is called to live among his subjects, to be immersed in environments as diverse as India and America, East and West. The world contains both purgatory and paradise, and Bellow has served as my Virgilian guide in showing me that an appreciation of the latter cannot be reached without an apprenticeship in the former.

Finally, it is in writing that I am moved to compassion.  You think you should sin to muster up more compassion, “I will be all things to all men,” writes St Paul, “to save some” vs. “I must be all things to all men, the author says, “to save myself.”