Chapter Eleven: California Nirvana
Eddie J. Girdner
When Ted walked up to his apartment in Santa Barbara, he was standing in the doorway. Just off the plane from London the previous day at Los Angeles International Airport, Lakshmi’s uncle, had taken up residence with his family for the holidays. This meant that sex with his wife was out of the question. Meals would have to be prepared, nonstop, morning, noon and night. And to entertain him, was not easy. So, to put it briefly, it was great to be home for the holidays, but he would have to spend a lot of time entertaining uncleji, his wife’s dear uncle.
V.D. Verma, who was a Hindu in his fifties, and long time bank clerk in one of the big banks in downtown London, was making his once in a lifetime pilgrimage to America. For orthodox Hindus to leave the holy land of India and cross the kali pani, or black waters, to the infidel west was deeply polluting. Uncleji had no fears of that, as he had lived in England most of his life. But his trepidation and suspicion of foreign lands was not yet completely allayed. Not at all. He cast his untrusting eyes upon all things which might be sinful and polluting to his venerable Hindu soul.
Now he had courageously taken the ultimate plunge and ventured into the truly deeply infidel land of America. He would find out what it was all about. Live dangerously. Of course, anyone who knows only LA and Santa Barbara knows America not at all. But this was beyond his comprehension. There were many things beyond Uncleji’s comprehension.
Between the heavy winter rains Ted worked to get his old Volkswagon running. It had been setting in the student housing parking lot since he left to teach at his university in Mississippi. His wife, who stayed behind in California, did not drive. The battery was down along with a couple of the tires.
Ted and Lakshmi did their best to please the uncle but there were clearly a lot of things that did not go to his liking, having been immersed in orthodox Indian culture for so long, even though living outside of India. After all, west London was a little India. A ghetto. They didn’t call it Little Delhi for nothing. First, his neice had married an outcast, Ted. Having not been born a Hindu, Ted had no caste at all, which rendered him an outcast. That was breach enough of the sacred Laws of Manu. Then Uncleji was shocked at Lakshmi’s shelf of Punjabi books. He asked her why she had so many. “There are no use for them in this country,” he said. And as a Hindu, she ought to be reading Hindi books in the Devanagri script, according to his narrow communalist thinking. In his prejudiced view, Punjabi, written in Gurmukhi script, was a language of the Sikhs, and one would never see a Sikh studying literature in Hindi. This merely exposed his ignorance of his own country, as Lakshmi pointed out to him. There were many Sikhs studying Hindi literature and even writing in Hindi.
One studied for a Ph.D only to make a better living in his view. When Ted pointed out that in America people went back to the university at all ages, just for the purpose of learning and enriching their lives, he thought it was a totally foolish thing to do. What could be the use of it? If it could not help them get a better job and earn more money, they were wasting their time.
After downing his stack of greasy prontas, or Indian bread cakes, every morning, with some mango or red pepper pickles, his stomach would blow up and stick out like a round balloon and then he would lay down and begin to emit foul smelling odors, sometimes in a quite explosive manner. The house was always filled with smoke in the mornings like a Punjabi village, as his wife cooked breakfast for Uncleji and made cup after cup of tea to wash down all that spicy food. She had purchased a twenty kilogram sack of flour in preparation for his arrival and its replinishment would soon be necessary.
There was almost two weeks in which the burden fell upon Ted and the family to entertain their guest from the Old World and this was not easy. He was at a complete loss in America, as if his boat had capsized and washed up on some foreign shore with strange incomprehensible people.
After Christmas, Ted rented a car and took them all to Los Angeles, so that dear Uncleji could get a taste of Disneyland and the true infedility of the urban southland. They had stayed with Lakshmi’s Iranian friend, Nusheen, in Glendale for three nights. Even though saved from paying for a motel, the excursion made a considerable dent in Ted’s pocketbook. But he had no choice. He dared not further antagonize the orthodox. Surely he had done enough damage already by polluting a member of the family beyond redemption. He did his best to make amends. He had toured his guest all around the town, the mission, the Santa Barbara hills, and museums, and shopping centers, to entertain him to the best of his ability. For Uncleji, unfortunately, it meant nothing, nothing at all, all of it apparently incomprehensible, having never developed his interest in anything other than pulling down a paycheck at the end of the month to pay the bills and get on through the four stages of a Hindu’s life. There was no such thing as entertaining Uncleji.
He was now reaching that final stage, where one was supposed to give up all earthly possessions and seek Truth and God, but there was no danger of Uncleji wandering off with his begging bowl to become a homeless sunyasi or truth seeker. His proclivity ran rather in the opposite direction, to plastic table cloths and cheesy Texasware. Such pursuits were close enough to the truth for a modernized plodding upper caste Hindu, a Brahmin like dear Uncleji. His nirvana would emerge not from the infinite Brahma, the infinite soul, but from the plastic found on the shelves of shopping marts. That was the only thing that made his eyes shine, as far as Ted could tell.
“What does it mean by freeway entrance?” Uncleji wanted to know, as they, in fact, entered the freeway. To some, it would have been obvious.
“What does it mean by no littering?” Uncleji wondered.
In the food store, he had to ask: “What does it mean by key buy?” “Can I use my Master Card here?”
Ted spent his holiday explaining such mundane inquiries, resisting the temptation to ask him where he had left his dunce cap.
“My dear Uncleji, what your mastercard will not buy in America does not exist. This country is not called America for nothing. Maybe in India the sky settles everything, as E.M. Forester had it. But in America, the market settles everything,” Ted wanted to say.
In the end, what turned Uncleji on, utilitarian to a fault, was the cheapest most cheesy household items in K-Mart, Walmart, Shitmart. These were his key buys warming the cockles of his post-Vedic Hindu Soul. They were commodities which could be bought at the same price around the corner from his house in London, no doubt, but then they would not have fallen from the nirvana which eminated from America in the eyes of Indian emmigrant. Buying them in England would strip them of the prestige and aura which attached to them, having come from America. They might be polluting to his soul, but when it came to material goods, he would take a chance and live dangerously. He would lug his plastic fucking treasures all the way from America back to the Old World, which was already chock full of that shit. Most of it came from China anyway. These were considerations which did not impinge upon Uncleji’s consciousness. He lived in his own little world. He was doing it his way.
When he wasn’t entertaining Uncleji, Ted read stories to his young daughter, Melody, now five. The Night Before Christmas, Mother Goose, Peter Rabbit. His older daughter, Angie, fifteen, and now in high school was having trouble in her classes, having discovered many ways to have more fun than studying mathmatics. He would have to talk to her teachers before going back.
Ted talked to Uncleji about his life London. Uncleji said that it took more than an hour to get to work on the buses or tube, and most of the time, he had to stand all the way on the crowded transport. It was a grind, doing it for years. He admitted to Ted that he never read, so it was not surprising that he was rather dull mentally, his universe confined to his narrow duties in the bank. He did have a car, but his ability to drive was so minimal that it was rather suicidal for him get out onto the roads, even for a weekend drive to the countryside. Ted remembered Uncleji’s bumbling attempts to drive in London one summer when he had been there with the family on the way to India.
It was refreshing for Ted having the LA Times, a real newspaper, which was dropped every day in front of his door. The American South was vacuous in that respect. But Uncleji never looked at the newspaper. It was crowded in their small apartment. Uncleji settled down in his daughter’s room, his wife and the kids got the big bed, and Ted got the cold hard floor downstairs. This was even harder and colder in the damp winter air, as the floor was not carpeted. He fought off the creeping bad cold he felt coming on.
There was a party for Indians and Iranians at the housing site just before Christmas. Ted had cooked a big turkey, upside down, as it turned out, keeping with the spirit of his holiday. But perhaps the fate of the turkey was hardly worse than that of Ted. It was readily devoured by the guests despite its seriously erroneous orientation. Just a hundred and eighty out. Roger that. In any event, a turkey is a turkey as was becoming more clear by the hour.
One morning Ted took Uncleji and Melody for a long ride up over San Marcos Pass and over into the Santa Ynez Valley. They stopped at Vista Point and made some pictures of the scenic view and the sea below. It was chilly in the pass, as if the wind was blowing off snow with the green and brown hills behind, and the blue of Cochuma Lake in the distance. The mountains below were green with the blue sea expanding to the horizon The sun reflecting from the Pacific Ocean below left a shimmer and beyond one could see the mountains rising from the Channel Islands in the distance. Below, Goleta sprawled in the flat strip of beach land. Uncleji was lost in wonderland. Contemplating Brahma? Not likely. Looking at mountains and the sea was also a waste of time for him.
He was also not impressed with the Mission or the Nataural History Museum, which had exhibits about the California Chumash Indians.
After coming back to the apartment, Ted felt tired and feverish. The damp weather was catching up with him and his shoes, his only pair, had become soaked in the frequent rains. He lay down in his old bed upstairs and listened to Beethovan, which seemed a welcome break from all things Indian. Looking across to the adjacent apartments, he felt a sense of deja vu, after being away, and a sense of loss.
It would soon be over for his California residency. He would never really make it in California. He had come to understand that. The place had turned off too yupieish for him. The cutting edge of America. They only had need of the new generation of youth with ideas quite different from his. His mind drifted back to winter days in Punjab when he was in the Peace Corps, when he would catch a cold and have to rest up.
And then he thought of his childhood on the farm in Missouri. He saw a field of golden ripe corn in the river bottom on the farm in Preston. It was a bright Fall day. His father was there in his overalls holding the reins and driving the old wagon with high side boards and wooden wheels, pulled by two big brown horses. Now stopped in the field, the wagon was filling up with a heap of long fat ears of ripe yellow corn, as his father shucked the ears off the dry stalks and tossed them into the pile. The pungent smell of ripe ragweed and horseweed filled the clear sunny air. It was a pleasant and homely fragrance. A cool breeze stirred with the bite of frost. An Indian summer day, before the bitter cold and snow of a North Missouri winter.
The last rays of sun disappeared behind the tops of the red tiled apartments and the evening began to fall quickly. He had come a long way from Missouri.
And then there was the dinner at Harban Singh’s place in Goleta. He and his young wife were Punjabis from Hoshiarpur. They were treated to a video of their wedding in Punjab. Uncleji quickly grabbed the opportunity to gobble down some bacon, another serious sin. But what the hell. His family back in England would never know. He even wet his lips with a glass of California wine. His gluttony, not surprisingly, brought on another round of gaseous explosions in the small car as the family made its way back to the apartment.
This outing was followed by the New Year’s get together of local Indians, where the men absorbed themselves in a mindless Amitabh Buchchan film and the women from West Bengal sang hymns from Rabindranath Tagore. Amitabh crooned Hindi songs while dancing across the tops of cars in a parking lot. The film props included enormous goggles or sunglasses, a staple of popular Indian films. Ted soon had his fill of that, but his karma was to endure the torture. He fled for relief to Rabindranath’s odes but that too left something to be desired.
Then there was the visit to the enormous ostentatious Hindu temple in Malibu and blessings from the pundit. Ted could have used them if they had cut any ice.
In Los Angeles, they went to the Krishna Temple. There was a vegetarian meal in the evening after the chanting of Hari Krishna, Hari Rama. The guests sat down on small mats on the floor with just a small platform in front of them and then simple vegetarian food was served, lentils, rice, vegetable, coconut juice, and a sweet dish. A young woman sat in front and gave a talk, admonishing the devotees to be more fervent in their worship of Krishna, to “let Krishna come into your life if you believe that Krishna is God.”
“Live your lives in Krishna Consciousness,” she admonished them.
Ted thought about what that would entail down in the Mississippi Delta.
“It is very unfortunate that chidren are being given a materialistic education in the public schools,” she asserted in forboding tones. “What the world needs is more religion.”
It was a rejection of secularism. Substitute Jesus Christ for Krishna, and one would have a typical Christian sermon. Ted thought. How many times Bible thumping preachers had bent his ears with that torturous and inane clap-trap when he was a kid and then made him think he was going to drop into hell for his grevious sins against God before the end of the night. The Christianization of Vedic religion had almost reached this level. Was it a result of the Ramakrishna Mission as Agahananda Bharati, that Austrian who became a Hindu Monk, thought?
It grated on Ted’s nerves. He knew what was going on in India. There was no shortage of religion. Was it what they needed? Coals to Newcastle. They had religion dripping out their ears and everywhere else. Not only was it often dogmatic and reactionary, but it often produced communal riots. Now it had entered the heart of politics itself. The rabid communalization of politics. All of these devotees seemed to be very naive indeed about Indian society. Where were people more materialistic than there? Why did Indians rush to America except to get rich. It was a Yankee go home, but take me with you mentality. They found their Nirvana in Silicon Valley. These young white devotees were a group of Indian lovers who knew what the books and the pundits said about India, but did not know India. Did not go to the roots. They had not endured the heat and filth and degradation, the ruined lives, in the hundreds of thousands of rural villages. They knew nothing about it. They had not seen the reality. It was instructive. He pointed this out to them, but they rejected it totally. There was no bursting their big pink Hari Krishna baloon. They were true believers.
That is dangerous, Ted thought. Just as dangerous as any other dogmatic ideology, and rather blind in asseretions cut from whole cloth, rather than based upon sociological analysis. The opiate of the people, recycled.
Back home, relations between Uncleji and Lakshmi were becoming more icy. They had already had several fights. He began to ignore her. Sometimes he talked to Ted, but mostly to his older daughter. He reminded him of Lakshmi’s mother, who had died some years before. Exact same face, in essential features. In his room, he continued to let his roaring farts, periodically. Indeed, what could prevent it after all those buttered up prontas and belly tickling Indian pickles, even though he spent long and frequent periods in the bathroom. Ted sometimes wondered of he had indeed merged with Brahma, the infinite soul, never to emerge again.
Fixing Uncleji up with tea, was a major headache when they stopped at McDonalds. It had to be made with a bag, so un-Indian. First the water would not be hot enough, so Ted would have to truck back and buck the line for another hot water. Then Uncleji would want a spoon to stir the tea and Ted would have to make another trip back up the line for that. Back and forth, and the dear man so helpless. Why was he so incompetent? Why couldn’t he get it for himself for once? And why did he never spring for anything? Stoicly, Ted endured until time to head back. Carrying his Christian cross was not enough. He had to bear up this Hindu one too.
As it turned out, the Pundit’s blessings at the Temple were not completely in vain. One morning Uncleji boarded the bus for LA Airport. Ted carried Uncleji’s bags out and bid him farewell. Half an hour later Ted got a ride with his wife’s friend down to the train station to start the long trip back to the Mississippi Delta. Ted had survived and performed his filial duties but at the expense of his holiday.