November 8, 2009
Darkness falls abruptly here. At 6 p.m. it is raining hard and the light is abandoning us. Tucker hangs onto the luggage rack of our ancient 100 cc. Hero Honda with a steely grip as I pitch and weave through the crush of Mysore traffic, wiping the fog from my glasses and searching for any clue as to where we might be. Mysore is laid out like a Mandala, with roads radiating outward from the Maharaja’s Palace. An endless web of crooked lanes link the rays, with confusing traffic circles at key intersections. Watchtower Circle, New Statue Circle, Devaraja Urs Swamibatami Circle. Their names are helpfully scribed in Kannada, the predominant second language of Karnataka state. Occasionally a sign in English will give a vague nod in the right direction, but I am forever disappointed in my hope for clear direction. When the sun is out I know my compass points, but in the dark of night in the rain it is dead reckoning only, hopefully in the primary meaning of the phrase. Still, the fact that Sateesh’s motorcycle has no working lights or horn raises the vague possibility of second meanings.
I have failed to locate the shawl shop, a mission which somehow has slipped to the end of the day, and, defeated by the maze of streets, we are fleeing the darkness for the soothing calm of the Green Hotel and a candlelit table with Mahadeva, our waiter, at our side. Tucker was not really eager to experience the joy of a motorcycle ride through the city with his father who has crashed once already today. I am doing my best to be reassuring and make this an enjoyable outing, but some efforts are doomed beyond resistance. I will now settle for getting us home unscathed. Having passed the same landmark three times, I am ready for extreme measures. I pull over to the curb in front of what appears to be an apartment complex and motion T to accompany me into the garage where we can see an attendant standing in uniform. Soggy map in hand we duck under the canopy and ask the guard for directions.
Rather than take the map I have offered and pretend to be able to read it, he takes the wiser Indian course – he makes his guests comfortable. He walks over to the side, sets out two plastic chairs for us to sit, and thinks through the problem. I see the lightbulb go on and he motions me to follow him up the stairs to the living level. He appears confident, yet deferential, as he knocks on the door identified as the home of Dr. Mahaveda. The teak door is opened by an intelligent looking man dressed well, and I can peer in to a tastefully decorated and softly lit inner sanctum. The guard explains our distress in Kannada. He is respectful, but also clearly possessed of a certainty that not only will this wise man know how to help, but that he will want to help.
The doctor says something and walks into another room of the apartment, returning shortly with his glasses. I point out to him where we want to go, Vinoba Road, and he studies the map for a long time, twisting it to read the tiny street names. I begin to wonder if anyone can find his way about this city, but when the doctor begins to speak I understand that he has been picturing our journey in the dark and wants to lay out the prominent landmarks for us. He has thought this through and realized street names will do us no good. So he points to the playing fields here, a well lit government building there and the stone arch where will we turn left onto Vinoba road. When he sees I have understood, he shakes my hand and turns back to his evening.
It is a small thing, giving directions to two lost strangers, but two days later I am still resonating with the grace and dignity of the experience. I have the inkling that it explains in a small way how this over-crowded and chaotic country manages to maintain its equanimity. There is a gentleness and respect for other humans that offsets the brutality of the poverty and ready loss of life. There is an acceptance, too, that some people are just better off than others. Maybe things will change in the next life.
Warm from our showers and dressed in dry clothes, Tuck and I sit down to dinner under the outdoor canopy and give silent thanks that we didn’t have to find out tonight what that next life holds for us.