Friday, December 24, 2010

That first crossing into Mexico

In May 2007, I traveled with archaeologists from the University of Arizona to Chihuahua, the large, northern state of Mexico. At the time, I had not visited any country other than India and the United States. I was restless to see a new place, to experience something new. So the physical act of crossing a border had special meaning for me. That it was the US-Mexico border, a volatile place with a reputation for violence, did not bother me. What mattered was the travel – travel to a developing country whose history I was fascinated by.

We started early in the morning from Tucson, Arizona. We were supposed to cross in the town of Douglas. That would get us into the Mexican state of Sonora; a highway through the mountains would lead to Chihuahua, to our final stop, the town of Casas Grandes, where the archaelogical sites were. Most of our drive – and I liked it that way – would be through Mexico and not the US.

But our plans changed immediately after we started. There had been some trouble in Sonora – something to do with drug or human trafficking gangs, whose presence made all cities on the border dangerous. Forty men had attacked a police station and stolen arms. A grenade had been thrown at a newspaper office. A shootout followed as the police and army responded.

The hint of danger gave the illusion that through my travel I was “engaging” with important contemporary realities. The truth, of course, was that I had no idea of what was going on.

Because of the news, our guides avoided the Sonoran route, and instead took the longer route through New Mexico directly into Chihuahua. But this meant that by noon, despite many hours of driving, we were still in the United States. The entry into a new country, which I had been anticipating eagerly, would be delayed. The crossing came at last at 2 pm, when we reached the border town of Columbus. We passed the US customs and immigration station, and the Welcome to Mexico – Bienvenidos – sign.

Suddenly, we were across, in the town of Palomes, in Mexico.

I was elated. It didn’t matter to me that it was a run-down, poor town: the important fact was that I had made it across; I had “traveled”. The main town avenue was split by a row of forked streetlights; and on each side were shops and businesses, painted bright green, yellow and pink (my first experience of the Mexican penchant for contrasting and bright colors). The cars were small and battered looking. The music was loud in some stores. A frail looking man approached me with wallets and sunglasses to sell.

In Palomes (and for the rest of that trip) I focused on every culturally exotic detail I saw and tended to fixate on it. I later realized that this must be how the eager first time tourist orientalizes his experience.

A woman, no more than five feet fall, somewhat stocky, with a chocolate dark complexion and small slanted eyes came to beg for money. She was dressed in a ragged but colorful skirt. Her two children, a boy and a girl, tagged along. They were already expert at being persistent. “Money! Money!” the boy shouted, understanding that the visitors may not understand Spanish.

I saw other women with the same distinct look, height and dress in Palomes. Some of them sold simple souvenirs outside restaurants and stores. They were women of the Tarahumara tribe. The Tarahumara have faced a long history of dispossession, which continues now, with the forced cultivation lucrative drug yielding crops on their lands. Later, I saw a very shy Tarahumara woman seated under the shade of a tree. She sold hand-woven baskets but also allowed herself to be photographed by tourists for a little bit of money. But it was clear she wasn’t comfortable doing this; her head would lower and never face the camera. I hesitated, but I couldn´t resist taking a picture. I did it simply because, being a Tarahumara, she looked noticeably different. The picture did not come out well. In the end I was left only with a lingering guilt.

The trip was only for a few days. Chihuahua had a landscape similar to Arizona – dry mountain ranges and valleys with desert scrub vegetation. We visited the ruins at Casas Grandes and a village (Mata Ortiz) of artisans, who, inspired by the designs on recently unearthed Pre-Columbian shards of pottery, have initiated a flourishing and commercially successful modern pottery tradition. The parks, the traffic, the style of the shops and homes in Casas Grandes reminded me of middle-class residential neighborhoods in provincial Indian towns. We returned by the same route – through Palomes, where I had some trouble convincing US immigration officials of the validity of my reentry claim. My legs shook from nervousness at the prospect of being denied, but the officials (who were polite throughout) eventually allowed me in.


Since that first trip, I have traveled many times to Mexico and the countries of Latin America. Each visit diluted the novelty of travel and allowed me to focus on other aspects. But I am still not immune to the sort of reaction I had when I first crossed into Mexico. In December 2008, when I met the Lacandon, a small Mayan group in the rainforest bordering Mexico and Guatemala, I was awed by the strangeness of what I was doing. And last December, when I met Aymaras in La Paz, Bolivia, my judgment of Bolivia´s recent politics was influenced by wonder of where I was – in a capital city 13000 feet high in the Andes, close to Lake Titicaca – and the exotic looks, mannerisms and the dresses of the people among whom I was traveling.

Of course, there is nothing particularly wrong or bad about all this. After all, the joy of travel is in experiencing that which is new. I guess it is only when we continuously stress the differences and are unable to go beyond them that our perspectives suffer.

Friday, December 03, 2010

In search of an agraharam

My family’s ancestral temple is in Swamimalai, a small town in the district of Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu. The temple is unspectacular. The malai of Swamimalai promises a hilltop setting, but there is nothing of the sort. Instead the slight elevation is simply a matter of climbing a few steps. The town itself is quiet; except for an institute that teaches the centuries old art of making bronze icons, Swamimalai is indistinguishable from other towns along the fertile Cauvery delta.

“Ancestral” is meant in the patriarchal sense. My paternal grandfather had been born in the same district, though he had moved early to Madras to work as a typist for India Pistons. There was a hardly a chance, given all the movements of the last century, that any members of his community would have stayed. Yet, I was curious: for this was a community of Brahmins that, in the generations before my grandfather, lived in special communes called agraharams.

Agraharams were meant exclusively for Brahmins, with a view to maintain purity in ritual and daily life. Though an apartheid like idea, the houses are not like what you see in the walled off gated communities of today. As a child I had visited an agrahararam near the city of Erode, at the bank of a tributary of the Cauvery. The families were tightly knit; the rooms small and austere; and there was a temple round the corner.

Understandably, there are few such communes in Tamil Nadu today. Agraharams were splintering even the early part of the twentieth century, when Brahmins in Tamil Nadu dominated the administrative jobs in the British government. Families chose cities and the comforts of modernity. In the classic Kannada novel, Samskara, set in the 1960s, UR Ananthamurthy artfully describes the moral decay of Brahmins in agraharams. More fundamentally the idea of an exclusive upper caste commune seemed anachronistic in the new world that was taking shape.


Last July, I visited the temple at Swamimalai with my parents. I wanted to trace the agraharam my grandfather’s grandfather had lived in. My relatives had mentioned the village or town to look for. I had assumed that it would be walking distance from the temple, the temple being the place of worship around which the activities of the community revolved. But it turned out to be twenty odd kilometers away, between the city of Kumbakonam and Thanjavur. The road between the two cities follows the course of the Cauvery River, but through the interior, so the river is not visible. We passed countless farms and the occasional town with party flags and large posters of much deified political icons.

The road narrowed when we came to Ayyampettu. This was the small town we had been told was close to the agraharam. The demographic seemed to be majority Muslim. Mosques were at every corner, some of them very new. The men wore white caps and the women black chadors and head scarves. I was surprised. Every Indian town has a Muslim quarter, but I’d had a predetermined idea, a very Hindu idea, of how my ancestral village might look like. I wondered how long the place had been Muslim. If it had been like this for many generations, perhaps even centuries, then the agraharam would have been adjacent to mosques. The communities would have lived side by side but, in a manner that is repeated all over India, would not have interacted much.

There were two agraharams near Ayyampettu. We drove through smaller streets and fields of sugarcane to the first. A board and a square arch with religious icons proclaimed entrance to the commune. There was a small temple immediately beyond. The houses were in two rows on either side of an unpaved street. They looked old, the red tiles of their sloping roofs fading to black. The ledges of the verandahs had alternating vertical stripes of red and white – similar to the stripes I had seen painted on the walls of temples.

My parents stayed in the car, but I knocked on one door and was invited inside. The interior was simple and barely had any furniture. An elderly Brahmin couple lived there. They were welcoming and smiled at me. They had just finished with their prayers. It all felt very quaint and I realized then that this how the agraharams of today probably were. Devoid of modern comforts they seemed like places of antiquity where only elders lived.

The ancestor I was looking for had been a prominent judge. I mentioned his name and asked the Brahmin couple about him. They did not think he had lived here, but said I could try the commune on the other side of town. That place was called Agramangudi. The drive took us through more Muslim quarters and narrow streets. But the exact location eluded us. We found eventually that there wasn’t an agraharam anymore – at least not in the formal sense of the term. Instead, the street where Brahmin families had once lived was now in a state of disrepair. The dilapidated houses were the site of makeshift living arrangements by the poor of the area.

One house, though, had been renovated. It was large; the walls had a deep yellow shade and the verandah ledges were brightly painted with the same vertical red and white stripes I had seen earlier.

Ravi Iyer and his wife lived in the house. They were the only Brahmins in the neighborhood. And it turned out that my ancestor had indeed lived here. Ravi recalled from his own grandfather the name I mentioned; he also seemed aware that the ancestor had been a prominent judge. The house immediately adjacent to Ravi’s had probably been his residence. So we had arrived at the correct place.

Ravi was in his late sixties or early seventies and was an imposing person. He was tall, had white hair and sported a bushy and equally white mustache. He was wearing a half-sleeve shirt and a white veshti (a skirt-like wraparound). He invited us in. The house was spacious and well kept. There was a beautiful shrine to Vinayaka, the elephant god, his idol surrounded by concentric white and orange circles. The teak furniture, the almirahs, the tulsi plant on a raised slab in the inner courtyard, and the smells of the kitchen and the prayer area reminded me of the Brahmin homes I had visited as a child.

Ravi had been in the navy; he had lived in Delhi, Agra, and Rajkot. In 1990, he had decided to renovate this house that his father had left him in Agramangudi. He and his wife had lived here ever since. He had strong views on those that had left and never came back. He seemed unhappy that the world that he had known – the Brahmin world of agraharams – had collapsed.

“These days, Brahmin kids don’t care about anything. In our generation, they used to go to Bombay or Delhi. These days, kids go abroad. They forget everything! Look at this place, Agramangudi, and you’ll know what I am talking about. Not a single Brahmin family here. They have all fled.”

To Ravi, all this suggested a moral decay in society. It was something I would hear again and again – from my father, from my other elder relatives. Society was far more selfish now, more vulgar; there was no room for compassion. The West was, unequivocally, the principal villain in all this. That was where the seed of decay had been sown. My uncle, whom I met the very next day, would tell me, “Think of why elder people are living alone in nursing homes now. That is a very Western idea. The very idea co-existence, which used to be strong earlier, has been demolished.”

I had mixed reactions to such denouncements. Partly because none of my relatives had actually lived in the West. And partly because things had been changing all the time, not just the last twenty years. Even the world of Ravi’s adult life – this was back in the 1960s – had been in a state of flux. That was the time when the Brahmin exodus from Tamil Nadu to other metropolitan areas of India and abroad began. The exodus was in response to a growing political power of the Tamil middle and lower castes – expressed through Dravidian progress parties, the DMK for example.

Ravi said: “If at that time the Brahmins had stood up to these DMK fellows, things would have been different. But we were weak. We just fled. In contrast, look at the tulukas (Muslims) that live here. This town is full of them. Look at how, despite going around the world, they always return back to build homes, businesses and mosques.”

This was getting too serious. Luckily Ravi’s wife, a tall, jovial woman, less concerned about grand ideas of moral decay (or perhaps aware of the futility of discussing them), served us coffee. She shifted the conversation to the more mundane – the heat outside, temples we had visited, and marriages (or, as is often the case these days, the delay in getting married). Ravi went with the flow.


Before we left, we were taken to the house that had been my ancestor’s. It felt special that I had managed to trace the place; yet it wasn’t that special. Each one of us has four ancestors if we go back two generations (paternal and maternal grandparents). Go back four generations and there are sixteen. I had merely traced one of the sixteen; and he had been accorded a special place because of the patriarchal system. If I were to sketch an origins map of all sixteen I wondered what I would find. It would probably point me to agraharams in different parts of south India. And there might be some surprises in store – perhaps purity of caste, which the community was always proud of, would not withstand the detailed scrutiny.

The house was in bad shape. Large blocks of concrete were missing. There was a string cot near the entrance. From the doorway, I could see a clothesline and a woman peering at us. The home, like others in the neighborhood, was the makeshift residence of a poor family.

An agraharam could not have been here without a small temple, and there was one at the end of the street. This then was the real ancestral temple, not the one we had seen at Swamimalai. There was some construction going on. A truck had emptied a mound of broken stones and there was debate between the laborers and the supervisor on whether the unloading had happened at the right place. A green and saffron BJP flag – surprising here, in this rural corner of Tamil Nadu, a state where the BJP had never gained a strong footing – fluttered on a nearby lamppost. It probably meant nothing.

We paid our respects at the temple and were on our way to Thanjavur soon after.