Yesterday i was given a tour of the area I would be teaching yoga to the sex workers at in the Sonagachi neighborhood. i walked behind my guide through the crazy, suffocating back alleys where the sex workers live and work. There were children playing soccor in the streets next to piles of rotting food.
Women sat lined up against the brightly painted walls, in equally bright saris, all staring at me with black eyes rimmed in kajol as they wait to be selected by customers to be paid for pleasure or some fascimile of pleasure. their eyes looked back at me like the eyes of time, dark, glassy, unpenetrable. I feel fear and tightness in my lungs walking through the decrepit alleys that twist and turn, the buildings leaning in towards each other so that it stays cool in the brothel neighborhood, but doesn’t let in much light. The air is thick, moist and sweaty, not able to pass to the sky, it is recirculated through the bodies, creating a feeling of gloominess. Like water that becomes brackish when it can’t flow back to rivers and the sea. Water like that you aren’t supposed to drink, they call it “black water”, it doesn’t flow.
Sonagachi is a fully formed little universe, with all the sex workers and all the businesses that serve the sex workers and business of prostitution. There are chai wallahs sitting on stoops pouring the sweet brown liquid into the red clay cups that are a signature of Calcutta. There are carts full of fresh frying samosas and puri. The sticky smells of spices and sweat cling to my skin. Calcutta, city of joy, the laughter of the sex workers children rings through the alleys. Some of the children have just gotten out of school and are wearing their neat uniforms, the girls with their glossy black hair tied in braids and ribbons, they buy snacks at the street stalls. Lakshman says many of the women got here because someone married a poor girl and then sold them to sonagachi, to the madams and pimps who are part of the eco system of prostitution. It would be easy to descend into madness here, except that this is a place just like all other places, and there is a logic to survival. Above all, we find a way to survive.
I feel a strange sense of dread knowing I am coming back to teach yoga in a few days. I cannot explain this feeling, it feels like the sense of dread a warrior would know when battle is approaching. What battle am I fighting? What secrets of my own subconscious are being churned from deep in the sea within me? When I came last march I was alone. This time I am not alone. Lakshman is walking through the alleys ahead of me, as if god perfectly scripted for me to have a bodyguard, a steadying male presence that calms me. He came to teach them kalari, for self defense. And gabe is with me this time, his support means more to me than anything, that he is here seeing the work I have been doing all these years when he was back at home feeling I didn’t love him enough when I would leave for India.
When we emerge from Sonagachi back to the main road, with all the blaring afternoon rush hour traffic, it is as if we have been spat out of the womb, the thick, brackish air of the brothel opening to the grey Calcutta sky. We buy some roasted corn from a street vendors cart and head back to our guest house where gabe is waiting.
what are we here for?
i mean BIG, what are we here for?
we are here to create some joy in this world. because as i watched the children kick the soccor ball, i thought, how strong is the drive to be alive. how strong is the desire to find joy and happiness however fleeting in these streets, in our own hearts. and i say this whole crazy fucked up ball of wax is mothers song to us, a hymn of heartbreak and love and peace when it descends upon us like the grace of a dove.
so raise your voices, make some art of this existence, why not? let's make beauty out of the chaos.
The blade falls, and blood pours out over the cement, the priest pulls the goats body away and the legs are still twitching while the heads rolls a few feet away.
we are in the kali ghat temple in Calcutta. The crowd to see the mother and get her blessing is crushing each other. People push and shove, no one is acting “spiritual”. We know a priest who cuts us in line, saving us about an hour of waiting. The woman we get cut in front of starts screaming, “why? Why?”. It is not fair, but today we are the ones cutting in line, tomorrow we may be the ones getting cut in front of. We have to firmly grip each others arms so that we don’t get pushed out of line. It is especially heightened as you get closer to the Mother statue. A fat police man starts grabbing people and throwing them out of the sanctuary. People are yelling, there is so much fighting in the temple. I say my prayers when it is my turn to stand before the statue, a primordial chunk of rock with three bright orange-red eyes staring back at me. Blood red eyes. Kali, the mother of birth and death, liberator. Then I am quickly shoved aside, my turn is over.
On the way out we stop at the sacrifice pit, where they are beating drums, burning incense and sacrificing goats. I stand on the steps and watch.
The blade falls again and again.
the goats crying stings my ears. Each time they sacrifice a goat I make the sign of the cross over my heart. I was born a Christian not a hindu.
forgive us father, for we know not what we do
after the round of sacrifice ends, I walk to the U-shaped chopping block and put my own neck to the metal where the goats heads were placed. There is still blood on it from the sacrifices.
mother, my life belongs to you
I leave a small rupee coin offering in the dish and we leave the temple.
and that was heartbreaking. one of the women said, "we are the same as you. we are sex workers because we have to be to feed our children. only to feed our children. a woman cannot leave her child. the men have left and now we do what we have to to feed our children. i have no attachment, i do not take the karma, because i am only doing my duty as a mother." i said, "i think there is a great pain in the world that the men are feeling too. how can we change the world? maybe when we raise our children we can change the world with them."
the woman who spoke shook my hand before she left the room. she said, "don't worry, we are with you" i am here to "teach" them, but they see the hunger in me for transformation in a suffering world and they are reassuring me. they are with me, she put her strength in her hand in my hand, she gave me the gift of solidarity. "we fight because we must. life has taught us to fight. everything alive fights to live and we have learned from nature." warriors. mothers. lovers. somehow this has brought me deep peace, a year ago it brought me outrage at the conditions they live in.
The air in south India is warm and there is the smell of smoke rising from the little fire of coals in the kitchen where our hosts are preparing chapatis. Birds are calling to each other and the sound of horns in the distance fills the tropical air. We are in kerala where we have come to conyinue studying kalari with lakshman. We arrived on an overnight bus where I had a fitful sleep in a crawl space above the drivers head, my body pressed a few inches from the roof.
gabe called his girlfriend back in the states today and got some very bad news. His best friend, jimmy, the one who stole my car in the fall, was put in jail for hustling drugs.
That could have been my son.
That is not my son.
My son is here with me in India, he has stopped drinking because he grew tired of feeling fucked up all the time. How does Jimmy’s mom feel? According to gabe she is an alcoholic burn out who has a hard time getting her sentences out because of permanent damage. His dad used to be an alcoholic but quit. And jimmy is a short, charming street hustler who plays the guitar well and has good stories to tell but can’t keep himself from stealing from everyone around him. I hope jail changes him. Gabe says jail doesn’t change anybody for the better. “he’ll just get raped in the ass”. I shudder to think.
What happens to men in jail? My old room mate went to jail, I thought he would get eaten alive, a pale grey haired computer programmer with all the hardened gansters and felons. He told me there was a guy who kept picking on him, pushing to get him mad. They were in their cell one night and the other inmate said, “look up at that star in the window, that’s all you’re gonna see when I’m fucking you”. The guards came by and my old room mate got out and told them what happened and they kept him separated after that. My son could have been in jail with his friend. Young men who go to jail tend to spend the rest of their lives going in and out, they get “institutionalized”, so that jail with it’s regular schedule, 3 meals and a hard bed starts to feel more comfortable and safe than trying to make it in the outside world.
I can’t help but remember when I was in India a little over a year ago in varanasi and I called gabe the day before thanksgiving and he said he was smoking tweak and hung up on me. He said, “why are you in India trying to help people when your own son is in so much pain at home?”. I could not explain to him why I had to go, why I could not stay and give up my dreams to be a good minivan driving mother. I had to go to India because it was the fire of passion burning inside me, it is my path to acceptence of my pain with my own parents so I can love my son freely without the same samskaras.
It could have been the same this year. I could have been here in India trying to help the sex workers and gotten the phone call that gabe was in jail with jimmy. I think I would have died. But this time is different, he is with me, all those years of praying and ritual changed things inside me to make a way for us to have a better relationship.
Gabe feels a little guilty that he has left jimmy behind. I tell him no, he did what he had to to escape that fate for himself. I remember that pivotal afternoon in December when we sat in the IHOP eating a burger and fries and I asked him to come to India with me. He told me jimmy had done heroin for the first time. He said he had to get out of his situation before it got much worse. he saw the train wreck coming and got off that train, thank god. We light a candle for jimmy, the jail bird gutter angel tonight. May he see more clearly, may he be free. You never know what it takes for a person to hit rock bottom and change for good.
how many times when gabe and i were apart have i prayed
at the sundance with the native americans in south dakota
in the dergha with the sufis in istanbul
at the tantrik temple in india
please god protect my son when i cannot
and i was buying time
that i would be stronger through these practices and that nothing terrible,
nothing of permanent damage would happen to him in the meantime
please god, goddess
i asked the universe to have patience with me, with my son, to give us time
and i feel it did happen that way
we are together here now and transformation is possible
some of that really bad shit though, it don't change easy...
the bloodlines of our families and ancestry is carved deep beneath our skin
the patterns and habits that are carried by one generation
and placed on the backs of the next
seem like endless spirals, circles within circles that keep birthing themselves
and yet, the desire in me to transform the pain i carry from my parents,
from the abuses they suffered and then inflicted on me
has been so strong
many times i thought i was losing the battle or fooling myself
i have felt i have been moving blindly,
chopping my way through a chaotic storm for along time,
but i felt some lighthouse in the distance that i could not stop the storm
and i could not turn back
i had to stay on course even when i was blind
but something inside me was not blind, some inner compass was true
is this what we call faith?
all parents and children ache for each other in this way
our blood is our strongest religion
it has been a long 6 weeks in india
i look forward to hugs and sisterhood back in america at the shore of another sea