An excerpt from American Canyon (Kaya Press, 180 pp.) by Amarnath Ravva
JULY 23, 2003. 6:32 AM > 00:00:00:00
Ravi yells, don’t go too far into the water—it’s deep and the stones are slippery! At the top of the steps, he is looking through the viewfinder of the video camera. He works in Pamban at a hydroelectric project and was sent to help me because I don’t know Tamil, the language spoken on this island off the coast; Ravi, who grew up in Andhra Pradesh, knows both Tamil and Telugu. I stop two steps from the edge and place my glasses on a dry patch of stone. The first step is green, from algae, and slides under my foot. I steady myself. The mandapam at the center of the tank bears the eroding couplets of the Thirukkural above the water.
The water stains the edge of my towel green. I splash it three times at my face. There is no way I will put my head under this water. There isn’t even a lotus flower in the tank. I know millions of Hindus have done this before me. Here. At this very tank. Their dirt floats before it settles. I turn around to see Ravi approach the water’s edge. He gestures for me to immerse myself. I take another step further down, close my eyes, and dunk my head. I do this three times just because of tradition, and one more time, just in case.
THERE IS A WAY to begin a ritual. You first talk to a guide, who introduces you to a pujari, who then approaches the superintendent of the temple services. We skip these steps because Ravi’s boss knows the superintendent. He says we have to be discreet. Everyone takes their share. Signs, posted on the stone blocks of the passageway inside, are in Tamil and English: “No non-Hindus allowed inside the temple.” They are very strict here in Rameswaram; even Sonia Gandhi had to request permission to enter though she was the wife of the prime minister at the time—born in Italy, she was not Hindu by birth, but had converted. The superintendent, whose office is next door to the temple, assigns me a head priest and takes 10,000 rupees.
At night, I return to the hotel, where my friend from Berkeley, Chris, is recovering from a cold. I tell him about my interaction with the superintendent, and he says, The spectre of your uncle follows us wherever we go in India. My uncle, a financial consultant for power projects, mostly hydroelectric, has a developed network of contacts, which includes Ravi’s boss. In the third bed, next to Chris’, Ravi silently reads the paper. Before I entered his life, Ravi would spend the day at the plant. At home, he would sit down to eat idlis covered in sambar, his son lost in the folds of his wife’s sari. At the hotel, the amount of pickle he uses reflects how much he hates the food.
YESTERDAY I FOUND OUT the exact time I was born and told the pujari. Another pujari, across the bridge in Pamban, produced my birth chart with his computer. They discussed the details. Where the stars shone when I was born. How they rested in the sky. They determined over the phone that there was no reason for me to do the naga prathista, but if I was going to do the ritual, I first had to wash away the misfortune of being born in America with the waters of the Lakshmana Tirtham.
MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS AGO in the Dandak forest, Ravana’s uncle Maricha used his maya to become a doe to lure Rama and Lakshmana away from Sitha. When he pranced through their encampment, Sitha called out to her husband. Look! What a beautiful doe. See how it shines in the sunlight, gently nibbling on grass? Can you catch it? Please? I’ll die without it! Lakshmana cautioned his brother: It must be a demon, because no deer could be made of gold with jewels in its hide. To which Rama replied, Haven’t you heard of the seven golden swans? Who are as real as you are? The world is full of wonder. If it is real, I will capture it; if it is a demon, then it will die by the shafts of my arrows! Rama was led deep into the wood before one of his arrows found its mark. The doe fell onto the dark leaves that littered the forest floor and cried out in his voice. Lakshmana, please help me!
Left alone, Sitha prayed for her husband’s safe return. She might have closed her eyes. Or they were covered in tears. In Ravana’s flying vehicle, the Pushpaka Vimanam, she couldn’t watch the woods disappear into the earth below. Would he have abducted her if he had remembered the curse? Four yugas before, he had tried to steal Vedavathi from her husband, Vishnu, in a forest much like this one. He had grabbed her long black hair; Vedavathi cut it. He had reached for her arm—which turned into fire. Before she immolated the rest of herself, Vedavathi cursed him. I will be born again to destroy you, she said. I will be born from the earth.
Months later, when Hanuman led the brothers to rescue Sitha, they stopped at Rameswaram. They took a bath in this tirtham.
In Ravana’s garden, Sitha waited under a Sorrowless Tree coming into bloom.
THE PREVIOUS WINTER, Ammamma came from India to help my mother, who was sick. Her doctors weren’t sure of the cause—complications from giardia from Lake Tahoe years before was one possibility, while another was that her immune system was inflaming her colon because of a bacteria or virus. Ammamma didn’t think that that was why her daughter was sick. It was a symptom of the spirit, not the body. She decided to consult her seer, who was in India, by phone.
He helped them. The seer. But the title she addressed him with, Sharma, is really another name for someone like the pujari sitting before me next to folded silk cloth. Each piece has a use in the naga prathista that is never arbitrary, but rather an expression of balance and order. When doctors look at an x-ray, or when Sharma in meditation gazes at the idea of my mother, they see an expression of another magnitude, an image of uncontrolled energy or a dark mass, a reddening or flash of useless heat.
That summer, Ammamma and my mother returned to India, where my mother’s health recovered. In Benicia, we speculated on reasons why. Now that her children had left, she felt lonely. My sister and father pointed their fingers at the heart. I pointed to nature. Exxon, half a mile away, burned orange over the hills.
IN RISHIKESH, the sky is split with its own light. From the ghat, our flames drift down the river at dusk. The sadhus’ robes cover the steps in orange, and they sing and clap their hands in unison. Their robes were once white. All around them is the smoke of their pyre.
AT THE TRIVENI GHATS, I meet Ganesh, a sadhu who says he draws strength from walking by the water at sunset. Around us, people are gathering to release their deepums, little flames floating in ghee, down the Ganga. The river tumbles out of the mountains, clear with patches of green like the Feather River coming out of the canyon near Chico, California. We see a man lean down and drink water in the cups of his hands, and Ganesh turns to me and says:
See how much faith he has? He thinks it is safe to drink the water because it is holy.
I would never drink the water here. I saw wild elephants last summer on the other
side amongst the trees. They always drink where the water moves fast enough.
So do I.
California-based writer Amarnath Ravva has performed at LACMA, Machine Project, the MAK Center at the Schindler House, New Langton Arts, the Hammer Museum, USC, Pomona, CalArts, and the Sorbonne. In addition to his writing practice, he is a member of the site specific ambient music supergroup Ambient Force 3000 and for the past eight years he has helped run and curate events at Betalevel, a venue for social experimentation and hands-on culture located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.