Editorial Appendix 2
To prepare for ordination all those worldly possessions I'd no longer need had to be disposed of, including my hair.
"I know what you're afraid of," Ven. Dharmapal told me. We watched the barber as he first arranged his tools on a cloth on the bathhouse floor, then filled an ancient jam jar from the tap. The lid had holes punched in it for sprinkling water.
"You're afraid of having your hair shaved off," Ven. Dharmapal told me, and he was right. Lose my beard? My curly hair? It was frightening, this business of giving up. The only thing that seemed more frightening to me at that moment was admitting to Ven. Dharmapal that I could care so much about something as insignificant as hair. Me? I wasn't that vain, not me.
So, "No, I don't care about that," I told him. And, mirabile dictu, from the moment I said it I really didn't care about having my head shaved. Instead I cared about not caring about it.
"Do you want to call off the ordination? I can still send the barber away."
I looked at the barber. He wore a dirty once-white sarong and possessed the wide feet and splayed toes of one who'd never worn footwear. He moved with the servility of low caste and the pride of knowing his place. I was far less certain of my own place. The ordination wouldn't be held until this evening, and I hadn't expected him to be sent for so early. There hadn't been enough time to prepare myself.
"Call off the ordination? Why? Do you think I should?" I'd already considered the idea several times. The uneasiness I felt from knowing so little about the new life I would lead was balanced by the uneasiness of admitting to Ven. Dharmapal that I might not be capable of the challenge.
"I'm not telling you whether you should be ordained or not. But if you don't want to it's not too late to call it off. It's not such a big thing."
"No, it's not that. I just don't see why shaving's so necessary. Why can't I keep my hair? What's so terrible about hair?"
"Nobody said there was anything wrong with hair. That's just the way of monks. Until now your way has been blue jeans, beard, like that. Monks wear robes and shave the head."
"Isn't there a sect where monks don't shave their heads?" I knew there was: I'd seen in Nepal how some of the Tibetan lamas, who were also Buddhists, wore a wooden frame on their heads around which their long hair was elaborately coifed. But they didn't wear blue jeans.
"Robert, this is a teaching of giving up. This isn't a teaching of holding to the impermanent. What of the body can be more impermanent than hair? But if you don't want to lose your hair we can still call off the ordination."
"No, I want to do it. Let's do it."
Ven. Dharmapal told the barber to go ahead. The barber tucked a dirty and patched cloth into my shirt collar (was it, I wondered, one of his older sarongs?), hunkered down on his haunches, and set to work on hair and beard.
"Robert, even in the time of the Buddha this cutting of hair has been the symbol of giving up. It's the mark of one whose life is given over to harmlessness and contemplation."
Sitting still beneath the barber's scissors, I smiled as I felt hair tickle my neck and watched it fall to the cool tiles. Hiding nervousness under an air of determined nonchalance, my smile was a bit forced, a bit defensive. Ven. Dharmapal watched impassively.
"Don't worry so much," he said. "The barber won't cut your ears off."
"It just feels funny. And cold, too."
"You'll have to learn how to shave your own head. You won't always have a barber to do it for you."
"What if I cut myself?"
"Then you'll bleed."
When the barber finished he presented me with a mirror in which to examine my bald pate and chin. I'd expected to find myself merely bald and was taken aback to discover that I was shockingly nude. Not even a stubble of modesty hid that glaring thing that was my skull. I'd never seen anything so naked in my life.
If it hadn't been merely a minor part of the whole ordination procedure, and if I'd been left alone to savor my feelings, I might have managed to work up some coherent emotions. Perhaps a sort of bemused chagrin, I imagine, along with a sense of disbelief that anything could be quite so naked as my skull, all tempered by a feeling of being cleaner than I'd ever felt before. But the inner circle of curious monks and laymen who ran the temple had never before seen a Westerner ordained. They certainly weren't going to miss a thing, and I wasn't left alone to get acquainted with my new appearance.
"Sadhu, sadhu," Amen, amen, several of them murmured.
Until I could accustom myself to those newly-exposed cheeks, to that now-Huxleyan forehead, squared-off Dick Tracy chin and Alfred E. Newman ears, mirrors would no longer offer me the comfort of familiarity.
"So," Ven. Dharmapal said. "Now you're like a baby, eh? No hair, hmm?" And he smiled at me.
After the barber left I showered, dressed in the white clothes I would wear until ordination that evening, and flushed my comb down the toilet.
* * * * *
The barber returned to the street to smoke beedies -- conical Indian cigarettes -- and to wait for another customer, and I returned to my room to rehearse the lines I needed to know for the ordination. But my mind soon started to reel with the strange-sounding Pali phrases and I put the book aside. I gathered together a bundle of things and prepared to leave.
"You're going out?" Ven. Dharmapal asked.
"Yes, I've got to get rid of this stuff."
"When the Buddha first left the life of the householder and became a recluse he tied his possessions in a bundle and left them beside a tree for anyone to take."
"Should I do that?"
"Do it however you like."
"I want to do it this way."
"That's fine. But be back before sunset: we want to take some more pictures."
I walked past the temple gate and into the streets of Calcutta. It felt strange walking about without any hair (could I be arrested for indecent exposure?) but nobody seemed to take any notice of me.
I walked through a maze of back alleys where I could still get lost if I wasn't watchful of my way. At the square on the corner I avoided piles of decaying vegetable matter. Merchants squatted along the sidewalk selling foodstuffs, cure-alls, and oddments, all shouting their wares and prices. Along one block were eight or nine merchants of old bottles, potzrebies, and empty tins while across the street were a bunch of banana dealers. Astrologers and palmists hawked fortunes and futures.
At the corner sat several dentists. Before each was spread a large square of cloth with his hand drill, pliers, and the like, as well as a display of his wares: sample sets of false teeth, proof of his workmanship. I wasn't inclined to investigate their services personally, even though some of them also displayed framed and glassed letters testifying to the satisfaction of previous customers. Some of the signatures were those of famous people: I suspected forgery. I watched them for a while, but no customers appeared. Too bad. It would have been an instructive sight.
Unlike the merchants the beggars were everywhere. By now I'd grown used to their unavoidable presence, their pleas for pennies: paise, sahib; paise, sahib; paise, sahib. I'd accustomed myself to the children who clung lifelessly to my shirt sleeve as they followed me, whining raggedly. Even when they'd given up hope they clung to me, crying: paise, sahib; paise, sahib; paise, sahib. They had nothing else to do.
They were hungry, or afraid, or both. They would stand at the door of the little restaurant where I ate masala dosa and peer in at me, trying to get my attention. I learned, soon enough, to sit facing away from an open entrance. I didn't want to see them standing there, unable to express in their faces the full misery of their being because part of them had to be on guard, lest I send a waiter out to shoo them off. That part of them, endangered, had no time for misery.
Yes -- I was afraid of those clamoring cries for help, and ashamed of being afraid, and I felt my own needs no less acutely for that, and felt guilty about being selfish and felt angry at them for making me feel guilty, and, being angry, I tried to ignore them, to escape from them. And I drove them from me with harsh words or silence except when one of them, with a word or a gaze, touched something vulnerable, or when some unexpected movement towards generosity briefly broke down that inner wall I'd built to contain such feelings, and I gave one of them a coin, or felt that I should have.
No -- I didn't know how to accept the humanity of all those beggars, to allow them to matter, and yet at the same time, with the song of their need -- paise, sahib; paise, sahib; paise, sahib -- become part of me, to survive myself. When one person is drowning we might easily afford to help him board our raft; when there are millions we fear to be swamped by their numbers.
They were drowning in a sea of poverty and filth: the rubble-strewn back ways that I walked stank with the stench of gutters, toilets, rot and exhaust fumes. And when I reached the main street the noises of traffic and work mixed with the cries of vendors and the life sounds of endless numbers whose only home was the street upon which they begged, cooked, laughed, cried, slept, reproduced, and died. I walked down that street carrying a large bundle, seeking beggars.
"You're looking for beggars, man?"
"That's right." I'd nodded to a fellow traveler on the street and we'd stopped to exchange a few words. He wore jeans and a lot of hair and wasn't sure what to make of me.
"That's like looking for ice at the South Pole, isn't it?"
I laughed. "Kind of."
"What're you gonna do with the beggars when you find them?"
"I've got this bundle of things to get rid of."
"So you're gonna give it to them?" A pair of cutoff jeans was visible. "What's all that, your clothes?"
He looked at my white clothes and shorn head. "Looks like you've been going through changes."
"I guess I really have."
"Glad to see someone is helping them. Sometimes I feel sorry for them, but, Jesus ... what can I do?"
I nodded sympathetically, feeling that I knew, from my new unattached position, what could be done.
Two weeks ago my attitude had been the same as his. I'd looked upon beggars as a hazard to my security, both mental and fiscal. No longer. Now it was as if I'd suddenly discovered myself burdened with a plethora of useless life rafts and needed some drowning beggars to take them off my hands. To need drowning beggars? Just what kind of state was ordination bringing me to, anyway?
"What kind of ... thing ... are you into?"
"It's Buddhist. I'm going to be ordained this evening. I'll be a monk, so I've got to get rid of this stuff."
"So you're giving it away? Just like that?"
"That's right. You need clothes or anything?"
"What d'you have?" He looked through my parcel. "Naw, doesn't look like what I'd want. I've got enough gear now."
"That's what I keep finding. Enough, or too much. All the way from Europe. I'll bet I had fifty pounds in my backpack when I started. This is about all that's left now."
We both looked at the blue cotton sack I carried.
"Yeah? Are you gonna stay like this, Buddhist and all? You gonna do this trip the rest of your life or something?"
"I don't know. I'll have to see what it's like."
"They let you quit if you want to?"
"Sure. It's not a prison."
"What'll happen if you decide to do that? You won't have clothes, you won't have no gear."
"I'll worry about that when it happens." But my attitude wasn't as unambivalent as my words. Part of me still shrank from the prospect of giving up any form of security and familiarity (wasn't my hair sacrifice enough?) and wailed distantly at my own rash folly.
"Why don't you just keep it until you need it again?"
"Because monks aren't supposed to hold on to possessions."
"A vow of poverty?"
"India's the right place for that."
"Maybe for poverty. I don't know about vows. Listen, I just got into town. You know where I can get a good rate for dollars?"
"Sure." But I hesitated, for I knew I wouldn't be using the black market any more, and wondered whether I should even be discussing it; then I continued: "It's been going down lately; last I heard it was around ten. But check around New Market; that's where you'll get the best rates. Right down that way."
"Thanks. Good luck to you."
"You too. So long."
I walked on along the street looking for beggars. Up the street a vendor of posters had set up his stand, where he displayed out-of-date maps and posters of Hindu deities printed in the most tastelessly gaudy colors. Against the drab tenor of the whole area it was always a bit of a shock to see Baby Krishna, dressed in the brightest of greens and yellows, wearing the most glistening purple jewelry, blue-skinned, plump, living in a world that would drive the Technicolor people black-and-white with envy. Another poster showed Kali the Terrible trampling her victims, fiercely black and garishly red, the patron deity of Kali-kata, which the British called Calcutta.
Beneath this poster a burly middle-aged man sat in silence with his wooden leg sticking out. His hopeless eyes were set in a grizzled face. Yesterday I'd have had to avoid looking at him. Part of my world would have been amputated, like that leg, from the necessity of pretending that he didn't exist lest I be obliged to give him alms and compassion. Today as I passed him I pulled from my sack a long-sleeved shirt, a useful thing for a December evening, and thrust it into his hands, and as I walked on a piece of my world was mended, filling me with pleasure.
On another street a pretty and laughing young woman approached me with outstretched palm. Her thin dress revealed the contours of a shapely body; her face was soft and almost alluring. When she said paise, sahib, there was laughter in her voice, not misery, although she wore the same rags as any other beggar. Two weeks ago I might have bargained with her for the body that she flaunted, but now ... well, where would we get it on? In the streets? A beggar's lean-to? At the temple? No, I was already shaved, I was already dressed in white: I felt, already, beyond sex. So instead of coming on to her I handed her the big shaggy sweater that was much of the remaining bulk of the bag I carried and walked on while she stood there surprised.
It took several hours to empty the sack, but finally even the first aid kit, the jewelry, the pocketknife, the sack itself, had been disposed of, and I found myself walking back to the temple with nothing left to get rid of except a small American flag and a watch. In Europe I'd hitched a lot of rides with that flag, but I held on to it now not from sentiment but because I felt ashamed to offer such a useless thing to a beggar. As for the watch, I wasn't yet sure that I wanted to give away anything as valuable and useful as that. I hankered to keep something for myself, as if I were also a beggar. I debated with myself about these two possessions.
As I walked past a plush restaurant a melange of tantalizing aromas seduced me, and I hesitated only a moment before going in. The place was outrageously expensive (by my standards), but this would be not only my last meal as a layman, but also my last evening meal. Monks, I'd been sorry to learn, don't eat after midday. I might be beyond sex, but I wasn't yet beyond an evening meal, and decided to make this a good one.
I expected that not being able to eat after midday would be a difficult adjustment for me. Nor would it be the only change in my life now, though I still had only a vague idea what I might actually expect. The last few weeks I'd been asking questions.
"How do Buddhist laypeople get married?"
"What do you mean?" Ven. Dharmapal had said. "How do they meet each other, or what?"
"No, I mean, are they married by monks?" Because I wasn't at all sure I liked the idea of having to marry people, probably bury others, and preach to the rest. That wasn't at all what I'd had in mind when I'd asked for ordination.
My goals had seemed modest enough: I imagined myself sitting in a grass hut in some picturesque jungle finishing the novel which really, by then, I'd abandoned as a bad job; of cleaning all the chemicals out of my system; maybe even doing a little meditation, getting my head together; maybe even (who knows?) becoming enlightened in some mystical flash ("Anyone can achieve it," I'd been told) and dwelling in that perfect peace and harmony praised by the wise. Then, on some secluded jungle path, coming across this chick who was also into meditation, beautiful, demure, fantastic ...
The prospect of having to perform marriages and dispense blessings didn't fit into this picture I had of my future life.
"Buddhists get married by civil contract, not by the words of a monk," Ven. Dharmapal told me.
"Catholic priests conduct marriages," I pointed out.
"A monk isn't the same thing as a priest. Monks don't minister to the world: they've renounced it. They seek their own welfare. A monk shouldn't even be at a wedding, let alone conduct one. He shouldn't be involved in anything that has to do with family, sex, or attachments."
"What about preaching?"
"Some monks give sermons, but don't worry: you won't be expected to."
No marriages, then. No sermons, no priestly duties. Good. Sometimes I feared this taking of robes would prove to be a mistake. I hoped not, for if it was I didn't know what wasn't. I'd begin to find out in just a few more hours. As I nibbled on a bit of sweet-and-sour chicken I wondered if I'd ever eat this well again.
All I'd wanted was a place to crash; that's how I'd first come to the temple.
Everywhere in India I'd stayed in temples and dharmashalas, pilgrim rest houses. The temples had all been either Hindu or Sikh. A rug or straw mat on the floor was the most typical shelter offered. The dharmashalas would be anything from a simple thatched roof sheltering a few string beds to the gardened tile-and-sandstone multi-story fantasy that was the Birla Temple in Delhi, where I'd had a private room.
Built by the wealthy devout, these dharmashalas are gifts of faith intended to be used by poorer pilgrims and sadhus -- Hindu mendicants -- in need of shelter. Since the Indian definition of pilgrim was broad enough to include me I'd stayed in these rest houses across India, using their hospitality to eke out my meager funds; but in Calcutta I didn't know where to look. I'd asked on the street and been directed, unexpectedly, to the Buddhists.
"You want to stay here?" they'd asked, surprised.
They looked at me searchingly. After the two-day trip from Katmandu I was grubby and unkempt and worn.
"Why don't you go to a hotel?"
"I don't have enough money for hotels. And actually, I'd rather stay with the people."
"Other temples, they let you stay there?"
"Sure. I usually stay at Hindu temples, but I'd really prefer a Buddhist place. I think very highly of Buddha."
"It's not the custom at Buddhist temples to provide accommodations for travelers."
"Oh? I thought I saw a lot of people staying in those rooms on the first floor."
"Those people are refugees from East Pakistan. We're trying to provide for them because they're homeless."
"I'm homeless, too."
"Our energies are directed towards helping refugees. We don't really have facilities to put up travelers."
"Then, do you know where there's a dharmashala around here?"
"No, we've never heard of one around here. Tell us, how long do you want to stay in Calcutta?"
Was that a ray of hope? "Just a little while. Until I get a border permit to cross over into East Pakistan."
"All these refugees here, they're running away from there, they say it's no good. And you want to go there?"
"You can stay in the meditation hall, then, until you find a dharmashala. But people use it in the daytime, so we can't be responsible for your baggage. You'll have to take care of that yourself."
And now I had, except for one watch and one flag.
I finished an after-dinner cigarette, left the restaurant, and continued back to the temple. At Calcutta's huge English park called the Maidan I watched Indian schoolboys play cricket, then took a shortcut through the gardens. Beside a clump of bushes I came upon a body sleeping face down: another beggar. He looked worse off than any I'd seen yet today: ragged, skeletal, ashen. I wanted to give him something. I pulled out the flag, then hesitated. I wanted to be rid of it, true, but it was no gift, sawdust to a thirsty man. No, I'd do it right. I put the flag away and took out the watch. The proceeds from that would easily see him through a month. Then I had another idea and wrapped the watch in the flag: a colorful if unorthodox gift wrapping.
"Hey, mister." I tried to rouse him from his sleep, but he didn't respond. I tried again: "Pssst. Hey," and gently shook his shoulder, but still there was no response. Should I let sleeping beggars lie? Maybe he needed help, though. I shook him more vigorously, with a suspicion that was awesomely and amply confirmed when I rolled him over. His eyelids fell open to reveal the blank whites of eyeballs staring spookily at nothing whatsoever and his throat gurgled gently as a wisp of air was forced along it by the shifting pressures of the body's weight. I held the shoulder a moment longer, staring into his face and uncertain what to do. Then, realizing there was nothing I could do, I let the body fall back heavily onto the ground, dropped the flag-wrapped watch by his side, and hurried away.
I never learned what happened to the watch, but I saw the flag again several days later when I was approached for a handout by a beggar who wore a patched and faded sarong. One of the patches was much newer than any of the others, and much more remarkable as well. The crazy upside-down angle only accented the bright red stripes that ran along his belly, with stars against the deep blue background, which stood out in stark contrast to the rest of his clothing.
I gave him a rupee.
* * * * *
Photo sessions were sponsored by my dayaka. He was the man who'd be providing the robes I would first put on that evening, as well as anything else I wanted while I stayed at the vihara, the temple. Ab-so-loot-ly anything.
Just as Aladdin didn't polish lamps in search of a djinni, but found one unexpectedly, so too my involvement in the patronage of the dayaka system had come about completely unexpectedly, and my attitude fluctuated wildly as I tried to accommodate the system to my own sensibilities. It seemed an eminently unfair arrangement that was entirely to my own advantage and, apart from trying to understand the mechanism through which the djinni, my dayaka, had suddenly appeared to carry out my bidding, my attitudes teetered between extremes.
On the one hand there was the pleasure of finding myself so advantageously placed, with the corresponding rationale that such a worthy and deserving young adventurer as myself ought to achieve recognition as the unique asset to the world that he was. And on the other hand there was the secret sense of injustice that such unfair advantage should be taken of such a well-disposed stranger as my dayaka that he should be made to believe it his duty to support me. I certainly didn't feel that way about him.
About a week ago I'd been summoned by one of the junior monks to the small crowded room of the chief monk of the temple, Ven. Dharmapal Bhikkhu. It was he who had consented to ordain me and to become my teacher and it is to him that "Getting Off" is dedicated. He was seated on the carpet with another man, drinking tea and examining some papers.
"Robert, I want you to meet Mr. Barua. He's one of the most devoted supporters of the vihara."
I sat down and looked at Mr. Barua. I'd seen him around the temple but we hadn't spoken. I greeted him with the traditional Indian salutation: palms joined and raised, and head bowed. I intoned the greeting: "Namaste."
Mr. Barua looked back shyly. He was middle-aged and wore the loose-cut white muslin trousers and blouse of his tradition and black sneakers without socks. He was solemn-faced, as if he had some great sadness in him, perhaps some deep feelings of compassion forged out of a great personal loss which wasn't yet faded from memory.
"Robert, Mr. Barua wants to be your dayaka. Do you understand that word, dayaka?"
I tried to remember if I'd heard it or read it. Was it a word I ought to know by now? Ven. Dharmapal explained its meaning.
"Mr. Barua will provide for you all your material needs while you're a monk here. He'll also give you the requisites you'll need for ordination."
Ven. Dharmapal saw the dubious expression on my face.
"You know, Robert, the monk has eight requisites he must always have. If he is ever without even one of the requisites he must try to replace it somehow."
"I don't know what these requisites are."
"There are the three robes. You see, I'm wearing one outer robe and one inner robe, and a belt, like so."
He opened the outer robe and I could see how the inner robe covered him from waist to ankles, leaving his brown hairless chest uncovered. The cloth belt went around the waist of the inner robe.
"The third robe is the cloak robe, for cold weather."
He pointed to the robe-rack in the corner where the cloak hung.
"There's also a needle and thread for repairing the robe. They count together as one requisite. There's a cloth for straining water. We don't want to drink the bugs, because that would kill them. And there's an almsbowl. Almsbowls are hard to come by in India."
"Where do you get them?"
"From Ceylon and Thailand. But we have an extra one in the temple, so it's not a problem for you."
"That's good. The almsbowl must be very useful."
"Yes. Now the eighth requisite, Robert, is a razor. Before he buys you a razor Mr. Barua wishes to know what sort you prefer. Like this kind, or like this kind?" And Ven. Dharmapal showed me two samples.
"I prefer the safety razor." The alternative was a wicked-looking "cutthroat" straight razor.
I looked over at Mr. Barua. "Thank you." I felt awkward in the face of such unexpected generosity.
"Thank you," he responded, I didn't know what for. "If you are wanting any else I am wanting give to you. Just you are asking me, I am trying get for you."
"Robert, what Mr. Barua said, that was his formal offer to be your dayaka, your provider."
"Does every monk have a dayaka?"
"No, you're very lucky to be having a dayaka, believe me. And right from the time of ordination" -- for that was when Mr. Barua's offer would become effective -- "instead of having to wait a long time."
"Do you have a dayaka?"
"Now, yes. But I had much trouble after my ordination. For six years I didn't have a dayaka." Even if I got sick there was no one to provide medicines. To have a dayaka from the start, that's good fortune."
"Thank you," I said to Mr. Barua.
"Thank you," he replied.
"Also, Mr. Barua asks me to tell you that as long as you're in Calcutta he will provide all meals for you."
I didn't know what to say.
"Thank you," I said.
"Thank you," Mr. Barua replied.
I didn't know what to make of this totally unexpected, but not totally welcome, turn of events. I didn't totally welcome it because I didn't like to feel beholden, and also because it seemed too good to be true: there had to be a catch. It wasn't until later that I developed a self-serving rationale which I couldn't quite believe and a corresponding attitude that didn't quite fit me: I must have done something right. It was their trip, this giving, not mine. I hadn't forced it on them. So why not make the most of it? Anything I want? And all that's necessary is merely to ask -- nay, tell; for Mr. Barua ever afterwards radiated an anxiety to provide -- and poof!, there it was. And the joker of it all was that absolutely nothing was expected from me in return. Progress on his own path was my dayaka's reward, for merit was gained by helping another on his way to enlightenment. That, too, I then thought, was only a poof! away.
I asked, as it turned out, for no more than a few inexpensive necessities: under those conditions it required either greater courage or less conscience than I had to make demands. Mr. Barua never refused any request I made or objected to the cost of anything, but for all that the seriousness of his demeanor made me feel that I hadn't been planned for in his budget. Even after I'd given away all my possessions I still didn't feel needy enough, and was reluctant to use his generosity.
It was, I think, to have a sort of evidence that the photo sessions were organized. Mr. Barua was laying out a fairly substantial sum of money, by his standards, to provide for me and, although he knew the merit gained would eventually evidence itself, he perhaps felt better having some sort of tangible and present proof of the act, like a promissory note.
"Robert," I was summoned by Ven. Dharmapal when I returned from giving away my worldly goods.
"Come, we need to take some more pictures."
"Didn't we take enough this morning?"
"You had your hair then. Now you're shaved."
But if my hair was so insignificant why did they want to photograph the difference? I submitted in bad grace.
This was the second of three photographic sessions organized that day for Mr. Barua and me. In each photograph Mr. Barua appears the same: upright, benevolent and snapshot-stiff, with a long scarf dangling from his neck. I appear progressively changed: first bearded and frowning, then shaven and bewildered, and finally berobed and spaced-out. It was the second of these sessions (shaven and bewildered) that was now being organized by the half-dozen upasakas (lay followers; not necessarily supporters) who involved themselves in it.
"We'll go to the roof," Ven. Dharmapal said.
"Let's take one in the shrine room."
"Too dark. We can't waste flash bulbs."
We walked across the cement courtyard to the drab yellow building in which the monks lived. Each monk had a small room opening out onto a loggia: I'd move there tonight, after ordination.
We climbed to the roof. When we weren't in the shadows of the scudding clouds we were touched by bright lukewarm sunlight. I looked down onto the courtyard where refugees from East Pakistan were preparing family meals. Women squatted over primus stoves or beside charcoal fires and in clay pots they cooked their rice and curries. They wore shawls over their heads against the late-afternoon chill, and for modesty's sake. Up here I could look past them and over the high brick wall surrounding the temple out to the city.
The reflection of the sky was caught in the windowed walls of plush skyscrapers at whose base sat the beggars. Mr. Barua belonged to India's small middle class, for he owned a small business and lived in a three-room apartment with plumbing, and so was infinitely better off than the generations spawned on the streets, desperately hopeless. Looking at those skyscrapers, at any of the comfortable wealth of that city, was a sure reminder of the pervasive poverty, the ocean that surrounded those islands of safety.
Positioned squarely in front of the stairwell box, faced towards the sun so that we were obliged to squint, the photographer -- one of the temple members who owned a box camera -- lined us up and prepared to click away.
"Just a minute. There's a better way to take pictures. If we stood over here, with the sun on our side, we wouldn't have to squint so much. We'd get more interesting shadows. The way we are now we're squinting, see? And the light on our faces makes us look flattened out. So let's all stand over here, and you" -- indicating the photographer -- "stand over there by the edge of the roof and we'll take a good picture this way, okay? Why don't you all come over here now? Come on, will you? Hey, uh ..."
I couldn't understand why they didn't want to come. I'd explained it to them so clearly. The photographer obviously didn't know anything about photography except the same tired dictum I'd been taught when, as a youth, I'd snapped my first pictures: don't point the camera into the sun. But they resisted my suggestions. And I told myself, as I had many times before, that that's the way Indians are: their sense of tradition is so strong that if an Indian has always done something this way it's just about impossible to get him to try doing it that way. He just refuses to learn a better way, even when it's made evident to him. I couldn't understand why they couldn't see how much better was my way.
I didn't notice, of course, that the photographer was not merely inept but was also quite proud of his talents, of his ineptitudes. Nor did I notice that Mr. Barua and the other gentle people whom I was with didn't want to injure the photographer's feelings by appearing to know more than he did. It seemed to have escaped my notice, too, that the photos were not intended to be portraits (which reveal a subject) but documents (which record an event).
I persisted, and after the documentary photos were taken one more was done my way, as a portrait. It was a study of me standing beside Ven. Dharmapal. That photo shows his face: soft, gentle, smiling and wrinkled, light brown, with slightly Burmese features. When I returned to the temple five years later he looked exactly the same, and greeted me then as if I'd just returned from a short stroll.
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