Whatever my soul desired
We come to know the world through its secret spaces—it is not only great monuments that count but seeing and hearing what has been made invisible or silenced by circuits of global exchange. Travelling for me has been an ever shifting relationship between familiarity and strangeness, a challenge to cultural narcissism. The word made flesh and the body made porous and vulnerable to the world’s touch, becoming an object of its gaze, its affects, its desires—almost like a kind of sexual promiscuity—in my twenties I travelled with libidinal excess to Barcelona, Lisbon Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Marrakesh and many places in between with a sleeping bag in hand ready to lay down anywhere, speak and listen to everyone, accept the kindness of strangers. I settled for a while in Barcelona in 1977 enjoying the euphoria of post-Franco Spain and decided it was time for my second Odyssey, beyond Hesperia, looking for the potential to disrupt my vision of the world as I knew it.
I landed in Guyana on August 27 of 1978 in the middle of the night. I was dropped off at the Tower Hotel in Main Street, Georgetown, hailed by heavy tropical rain. The darkness turned silent when the rain stopped and then there followed a surge of sound like a percussion orchestra increasing in intensity and volume—could nature really be so loud? Toads as loud as motorbikes! In the morning I was awestruck with the grace of a humming bird that hovered on the hibiscus bush on my hotel terrace, and my next visitor was a local hustler ready to find me whatever my soul desired, but I was soon rescued by the smiling Dean of Humanities in colourful African clothes. She drove me to the University campus driving barefoot in a rickety old car that seemed about to break down any time—the country’s foreign currency is depleted, there are no spare parts she told me. He won’t even last a year (she thought) he looks so young and innocent—she confessed this to me six years later when she expressed surprise I was actually leaving—you have become so Creole—you belong here..
Why go to Guyana everyone asked? A place you have never heard of or if you have you scarcely remember where it is. It is a space between spaces, part of the West Indies, but not an island, in South America but not Latin. Before arriving I had read Nobel laureate VS Naipaul’s The Middle Passage—his account of failed colonial society will not convince anyone to go there - only to understand why he left his native region behind—he did not even pay tribute to the land that nurtured some of his masterpieces in his Nobel acceptance speech. Nonetheless, there is a special niche for this place in English travel literature, beginning with Walter Raleigh’s account of his search for the legendary El Dorado, which he never found. The English novelist Anthony Trollope in the 19th century thought he found there the Ellyseum of the tropics—the one true and actual Utopia of the Caribbean Seas—the transatlantic Eden. In contrast, Evelyn Waugh who visited in 1933 hated its wilderness and he was duly satirized for his preconceptions in the award-winning novel The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Guyanese writer Pauline Melville, who celebrates the indigenous communities and their robust appreciation of their natural world, their buoyant mythology, while lamenting the threat to its culture by the global economy.
The country began as a sugar colony which changed hands among colonial powers vying with each other-- British, French, Dutch, who eventually divided up the territories between them. The Dutch, unable to tackle the jungle, pushed back the sea giving the coastland the look of a Tropical Holland with canals and dykes, and sometimes like a Tropical England with elegant wooden Georgian style houses with luscious gardens. The hinterland is another story. Its indigenous people-- Wapisianas, Arawaks, Caribs, and other tribes-- still wander freely through jungle and savannah to Brazil and Venezuela with no respect for the borders the colonists imposed. They could not be tamed as labourers by the Europeans who brought slaves from Africa instead. When the slaves were emancipated in 1832, the plantocracy brought indentured labourers from China and Madeira, but most from India. They came in ships in thousands across two oceans for nearly eighty years. The descendants of the Indians now make up more than half the population. The first anti-colonial leader - Cheddi Jagan—was an old Soviet-style communist, of Indian descent. The Western powers tackled him hard—they did not want another Castro in the Caribbean. I met him at a house party once—quite unassuming for a man who had led his country to independence. In his old age, he was finally elected President. I was back in Cyprus by then and we spoke when he came here for the Commonwealth head of governments meeting. He died soon after.
Most Indians live in the province of Berbice, the original Dutch colony with its capital New Amsterdam. I became fascinated with this region—village India transplanted to South America, replete with Bollywood movies, temples, and sacred groves, feasts and panagyria. I had left my sleeping bag behind in Europe but acquired a hammock instead. This was the way to travel in these parts, but travelling was not easy. Yet every weekend I would take the coastal road from Georgetown to Berbice. Why Berbice? I was asked on a radio interview. A Guyanese poet friend quickly quipped: He lost the oracle at Delphi and he´s going to Berbice to find it. In a sense he was right. In early January 1981 I spent three days and nights in a Kali temple - my hammock tied between two trees—I ritually bathed every morning in the river at dawn with other devotees, paying homage to the Goddess Kali. The Goddess spoke to me. I signed another three-year contract with the University. What happened after that is a long story. In 1984, I still did not want to go back to Europe. Karna, my Indo-Guyanese friend said to me in Rasta talk: ‘don’t go back, go forward, come to New York, half the Caribbean is here.’ My Berbice family sent me off after an all night spree of drumming, singing, chanting, stories, rum, tears. I landed in New York at the end of August, like a Berbice villager preparing for the new Babylon.
Blue Moon in Rajasthan
For Priya who sent me on the journey
Once only did I see a blue moon
Shedding a light as pure as the look of a goddess
In Rajasthani skies.
Her blueness shimmers and insists
Wreaking havoc from another realm
Beyond life’s certainties
Lending me her sound
To hear the flesh constantly in flux
On a pilgrimage of broken roads
Trucks trail sluggish cows and scrawny camels
Drivers stub out their love in roadside huts
I stop for hot samosas and instant global cappuccino
Next to a display of Kama Sutras in English and in French
Where is moksha concealed
In decomposition, dust and grime
Or in the lake of my journey born of a lotus
That some careless creator dropped
For us to gather stories with cupped hands
And then scatter them with grain and petals
While white monkeys scavenge
And screech to share in the exchange
In company of others hustling or in need
Or seeking boons
A young Brahmin switches off his mobile phone
To will me into lakeside prayer
And a dispute of whose knowledge and whose agency
Is a boon in the will drawn to chance?
Or in chance drawn to will?
My day is graced with
Five sisters brothers cousins
Surrounding me gleefully in awe
Do I bring with me the smell of the sea?
They shake my hand
Mai and mami smile coyly behind
Which land did I come from they ask
I begin to speak of a faraway island in some sea
Designated the middle of the earth by some
As they await more revelation I think
Of the improbability of my birth
Do I come from any land, I wonder
The European Union, I volunteer
They nod approvingly
Is the encounter their boon or mine?
Our exhilarated farewells
Distract the man pissing on the wall behind
And we drive off through pigs wallowing in mud
Food for outcasts or for export we debate.
A dusky road descends on Ajmer
To the resonance of kettle drums
Syed Irfan leads me to offer my gifts of marigolds
And silk and after recitations of Persian couplets
At Friday evening prayer
I receive sweets for peace
And a candle of bees wax for my island
Flanked by youthful skull-capped priests
I am swept away for celebration at the tea wallah
More handshakes smiles children
Seeking the splendour of
A gift, a rupee, a touch
That will transfigure
A gift that will bring the boon of giving gifts
Dargah sweets stick to my teeth with stories
To swallow and excrete
And with the murmur of the road
And the fragility of a candle in my hand
I evaporate into desert wintry mists
Glaring at the randomness of night skies
I cannot turn away my gaze
Shade your eyes goddess lest I go mad
Let just a residue of blueness trickle through
And a little divination seep from underground
Into my body’s waters
So for a moment I may feel
The untouchable in your visible and sensual touch
(After a journey to Pushkar and Ajmer, January 2004).
Note: At Pushkar where the only temple in India for Brahma (the creator) is found near a lake that arose when he accidentally dropped a lotus from the skies in this desert state. One story tells how Brahma fell in love with his own daughter and creation, Saraswati, the goddess of poetry, and as punishment for his act of incest, no temples were built in his name except the one at Pushkar.
ß 11 km away, Ajmer has for centuries attracted pilgrims to the tomb of the Sufi saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti, also known as Khawaja Saheb or Sharif. As in other Sufi dargahs, all religious communities are welcome, and this has gained special significance in India in recent years as a symbol of hope and harmony in the face of inter-communal violence.