Fall 1993, Volume 10.3


Judith Freeman

India Journal

Judith Freeman currently lives in Idaho. Her publications include a volume of short stories, Family Attractions (Viking, 1988), two novels The Chinchilla Farm (Norton,1989), and Set for Life (Norton, 1991) which won the Western Heritage Award for best novel of 1992. She is a contributing critic for the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the New York Times. She has recently completed a book about India, the result of a collaboration with photographer Tina Barney and a travel grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.

In the winter of 1991-92, Judith Freeman and the photographer Tina Barney traveled to northern India. There they lived with a family in the small village of Ghanerao before setting out to travel through Rajasthan by car and driver. The result of their journey is a book, as yet untitled and unpublished, based on the journals and photographs made in India. Part autobiography, part biography, and part travel narrative, the work explores the disparate lives of three women Judith Freeman, Tina Barney, and Sushil Kumari, their Indian hostess. Above all, the collaboration focuses on the idea of family and the way in which one can tell a story about a mother, or a son, or a father, and be understood anywhere in the world.

The following is an excerpt from Judith Freeman's journal, written after leaving Ghanerao. It opens in Jodhpur, at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, now a luxury hotel, but once the residence of the Maharaja of Jodhpur. The Maharaja was Sushil Kumari's uncle. As a child, she was raised in the palace.

3 January 1992
Jodhpur, India

Six o'clock in the evening, back in the room after a very strange, oddly strenuous day. What I find so odd is to be moving about now as part of a privileged class in this poor country. Staying in palaces that have been converted into luxury hotels. Somewhere there must be some middle ground for me in this world. I find that the peace I felt in Ghanerao, sheltered in the little farmhouse, enclosed by the garden with its ancient Banyan tree, has been shattered in just a few days of being thrust into the opposing realms of the ultrawealthy tourist class and the poor of the streets of Jodhpur, among whom we wandered this morning, glimpsing naked children bathing in foul water spewing from a drain pipe, the tattered cloth shanties, the untouchables sweeping streets, the great hawking and bustling in the old market, vegetable sellers seated amid the mounds of produce, a rice seller surrounded by open bags of half a dozen different varieties of riceginger and chillies carefully stacked in symmetrical piles, and everywhere the evidence of meager, harsh lives, the limping animals with limbs broken and healed at odd anglesa leg turned backwardsthe dog with a great mass of glistening gristle where an eye should have been, the stinking foul stalls where men piss openly against filthy stained walls, a dust rising everywhere, filling the nose, the mouth, the eyes, so that every breath is only half-taken, needed and resisted at once, and nobody stops to fold their hands and utter namaste as they did in the village but rather they rush on, a constant stream of seething, pushing humanity, peddling bikes and scooters and honking horns, thin men flogging thin horses whose hooves are split from pounding the hard and unyielding pavement day after day, horses whose ribs show, whose hip bones push up against their hides as if it were these bones alone that were responsible for creating and holding the shape of an otherwise deflated entityand in the midst of it all it's impossible to forget for a moment that singular attention is necessary if one is not to be knocked down by the horse cart or the bullock cart or the motorbikes that appear suddenlyfrom behind, from in front, from both sides at once, and over it all, the flies swarm, the dust settles and the flies land on the mounds of rice and vegetables and collect in the oozing wet corners of the dozing bullocks' eyes, and the girls, ten or twelve years of age, with woven baskets on their heads, stoop and with their small brown hands scrape up the piles of fresh cow dung and plop it in their baskets in one single balletic movement, stoop, scoop, plopdung to be mixed with straw and patted into cakes and dried on rooftops or sun-warmed rocks, spatted against walls and later burned for fuel for the endless millions of nightly firesthey gather dung, as happily and as gracefully as if they were picking flowers in sweet meadowsand a cat, crossing behind one of the girls, carries a fat rat in its moutha great limp lifeless rat, a find, a catch, a meal. And then we come back to the hotel, and amid the moneyed tourists, take lunch on the terrace of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, looking out at the gardens and the stone pergolas and the bougainvillea bushes trimmed into neat clumps of startling color, and there is nothing of that other stinking swirling fly-bitten world left, nothing visible before us except the marbled steps, cold veins of pink running through the lard-colored stone, and beyond the steps the green and perfect rectangular expanse of a closely butchered lawn.

I feel once again that sense of being a stranger to myself, that state described by Miguel de Unamuno and quoted by Henry Miller at the opening of Black Spring:

Can I be as I believe myself of as others believe me to be? Here is where these lines become a confession in the presence of my unknown and unknowable me, unknown and unknowable for myself. Here is where I create the legend wherein I must bury myself. Finished To the Lighthouse tonight, just as it was growing dark. I held on to the book at the end, reread pages, went backwards as well as forward, putting off coming to that final page and those remarkable last words, "I have had my vision."

One sentence clung to me toward the end, about a father's terrifying silence at a dinner table.

Was it better that Tina should have had a father who rarely shared an evening meal with her but instead consigned her to eat with her sister and nanny, waited on by servants, than for me to have had a father, who was present, his heavy body there at the table, hunkering over his food silently, a man with a thick palpable discontent creating a shroud about him whose dark shadow, ever so regularly, night after night, lengthened across the table and brushed his children's faces?

4 January 1992

Sitting, early morning, in the basement of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, next to the pool where Sushil used to swim as a child. Snake-charming music buzzing in the background, fuzzy over a loudspeaker. The Zodiak poolas it's calledis a round pool blue tiles with signs of the zodiac embedded in a mosaic on the floor surrounding itthere are big tiled columnsdecaying paint peeling off wallspictures of bubbling fishthe air humid and fetid, smelling faintly of something like unwashed socks. I try to imagine her in this placeSushila beautiful little brown girl with slightly oversized earsthe favorite of her aunt, the Maharanisplashing in this pool. Last night, a fat pink man was swimming back and forth in the pool when we came down for massages, and a film company making a low-budget Hindi movie was shooting a scene next to the pool. The star, a large man, overweight, like Victor Mature on steroids or Elvis in the late bloated drug daysElvis with a second chin larger than the firstwas holding a dozen daggers in his hand. He held the daggers by their tips and fanned them out like a deck of cardsand looked menacingly at the camera, for take after takewhile extras stood by and the fat pink swimmer moved back and forth in the blue-tiled pool. Very surreal, very Felliniesquea scene of trompe l'oeilwhat was real and what wasn't? Who was in the movie and who wasn't? And I'm calling to Tina who has come down after me and can't see me for all the pillars and movie peoplemy voice echoes and she calls back, Where are you? She thinks I am in the pool.

In the "health club" next to the pool, a strong, bad odor hits us and the feeling of slime under our feet. The masseuse is unctuous and disorganized, the place overrun with half-naked tubby menwe take one look around, and cancel the massage.

Driving toward Jaisalmer the next day, we convince our driver Anand to make a detour when we see the name "Osiyian" on a map. Osiyian is the village where Sushil was born and even though Anand is being paid by the tour company to take us certain placesand those places onlyand is reluctant to alter our travel itinerary, he finally agrees to a side trip when we agree to pay any extra costs the detour might entail.

Turn off the main road. Pass gas stations that offer air, water, and "first aid"I wonderwhat kind of first aid? All the gas stations have charpoys string bedssitting out front in the dust which truckers and travelers can rent to sleep beside the road.

Pass pink slabs of slate rock embedded upright in the ground to make solid enclosures for animalsmustard fields behind slab rock fencesround thatched-roof huts made of slate with red chillies drying on the roof. Fields are spread with drying chilliescarpets of deep red. The desert begins abruptly.

Finally, mid-afternoon, we reach Osiyian. We tell Anand, whose command of English is modest but functional, that we are looking for the house of a particular woman, though we aren't sure of her father's name, only that her aunt married the Maharaja of Jodhpur and went to live in the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Can Anand help us find the headman of the village, who might be able to point out Sushil's family's house?

The village is a maze of narrow streets, not quite so narrow as Ghanerao: Anand takes us to a Jain temple where a young priest, who speaks a little English, tells us it will be difficult to find the house we are looking for unless we know the family name. Perhaps Kumari, we say, and he shrugs. But he offers to take us to talk to his uncle who is older and may know more.

A group of old men are sitting in the morning sun next to a house when we walk up to them. The priest explains what we are looking for, and we hear the name "Bhati"and "Ghanerao," then the priest says, yes, now he can take us to the house, now he knows which family we are looking for, though the house, he says is empty now and has been for many, many years.

He leads the way, we walk behind, through the dusty streets until we come to a small temple, very old and very beautiful, built in the 7th Century the priest tells us. Next to is, as if part of the courtyard were actually partially including the temple, is the house of Sushil's family, a large crumbling compound.

We enter through a stone archway and come into the courtyard. The place has a long-abandoned feelinga square dirt enclosure with blackened stone walls and white mortara great tree, stark in its deadness, stands in the middle of the courtyard. We find the front entrance to the house, two heavy carved doors studded with metal and painted blue with red and ochre trim. They are, of course, locked. Pieces of carved sandstone ornamentation have been knocked to the ground, and Tina and I each take a little minaret-shaped piece, painted a bright pure blue, as a memento. We peer through latticed portals into weed-blown rooms. All is still around us.

The tree in the courtyard is the starkest testament to the death of this place. It is perhaps three of four hundred years old. The young priest tells us Sushil's father, who was a colonel in the Indian army, abandoned the place many years ago. He knows that Sushil's mother has recently died. He said many people from the village, including himself, made the trip to Jodhpur to pay their respects to the family.

We drive through the village. Osiyian is much bigger than we thought. There is an ad for Lifebuoy soap on the side of a shop"the family freshness soap." We try to buy nuts, without luck, and settle for oranges and bottled water.

And then we are back driving in the desert, flat sand stretching endlessly. Gazelles and jackals appear occasionally. Outside Fatopukar, we stop at a train crossing and wait for a train to pass. I get out of the car and stand in a hot wind. The voices of singing children drift out from a little schoolhouse sitting off in the sand.

It takes us seven hours to make the drive from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer through a desert that reminds me of the Mojave, the stretch between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, only there are no houses, no settlements, no catci or rising hills, just the dun-colored sand, flat, featureless, except here and there when it is funneled high into dancing, conical dust-devils.

The hotel in Jaisalmer is new and disappointing and the manager rude. We take a walk into town, meet Anand, who takes us to see the old sector of Jaisalmerthe great abandoned houses of the once-prosperous merchants of the city who made fortunes transporting goods along the old silk route that passed through here. In the evening we meet the English girls, Allison and Diana, for dinner at an inn that was once a caravan stop. The girls have taken a train from Jodhpur, all night through the desert, riding an airless compartment with the windows boarded up against sandstorms. They are sick and dispirited. After dinner, we have drinks, sitting under a portico, and listen to three local musicians and watch two women perform highly erotic and stylized dances.

5 January 1992
En route to Bikaner.

The camels graze in the trees, there's nothing to eat on the barren sandy ground. All the trees have straight-edged bottoms, the camels having uniformly trimmed the leaves. Everything muted, monotonous. The gray cattle look blue against this landscape. We stop for wateran old man comes up to the car to beglong grey beard, worn staff, soiled orange turban. Anand gives him a meager orange and the beggar looks disappointed.

Signs in English on the highway at a railroad crossing: "Do not try to reach sooner or not at all," and "Life is short don't make it shorter."

At one point, driving along in silence, Tina speaks up and says, You know what Indian men do that Western men don't? I can't imagine what she's going to say. They stoop down when they take a leakshe says. But then they're more used to bending their knees, she adds pensively.

The desert dry yellow short grass, a layer of lavender smog, and an uncanny silence when we ourselves stop and walk out in the desert behind a bush to relieve ourselves.

It's my father's birthday today. I thought of him last night while listening to the musicians at the inn in Jaisalmer.

If he had a passionand I believe he didit was certainly music. He played both the violin and the drums, though I don't think it can be said that he played either instrument very well. A resonant baritone was his real gift. His love of music came from his school days in Snowflake, Arizona, where he was encouraged by a teacher who had the same first name as the boy in Agee's A Death in the FamilyRufusRufus Crandall was the many my father credited with instilling in him a life-long love of music.

I think the times I remember my father being the happiest have to do with music. Some part of himself came to life around music, as if the slumbering part woke suddenly. When he was singing or playing his drums or leading a church choir, I believe he felt he was somebody then, he became a man who had something to give to the world, he engaged a vibrant universe, full of nuance and possibility and beauty, a world very unlike the one in which he normally dwelt.

Once I remember meeting him and my mother at Bryce Canyon for a visit. It was October, the weekend of my birthday, and the weather had already turned cold in the high plateau country of Utah. I made the trip with three close friends, driving all night from Los Angeles. When we arrived late the next afternoon, we found my parents sitting in the lobby of the old Bryce Canyon Lodge, their chairs pulled up in front of a great stone fireplace, waiting for us. We went immediately into the dining room and had a steak dinner. My father insisted on paying for the meal. He was charming, as he could often be. He had dressed in his corduroy western suit and cowboy boots and a gray Stetson, which hein true Western styledidn't bother to remove during dinner. Around his neck he wore the bola tie with the large turquoise claspthe same bola tie I remember him wearing since I was a child. He wore these clothes not to effect some bogus look, the way people now wear boots and bola ties in cities everywhere, but because these clothes were him: he was above all, a Western man, raised in the yawning desert spaces at the edge of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. I thought, sitting there in the dining room at Bryce, that we were once again together in a place where we always used to stop on our summer pilgrimages to my grandmother's house. It gave me a good feeling, to be reunited with them, to be with my friends, to see my father so happy and charming and generous. It felt like a reunion not only with my parents, but also with the memories of the child I had once been.

After dinner, we went to our cabins, walking under the stars in the cold and pine-scented night. We had booked adjoining rooms, my friends and myself staying in one cabin, connected by a doorway to the cabin where my parents were staying. I remember we ended up in their room later, sitting on the two double beds, and somehow, without premeditation, a kind of impromptu evening began, in which we each provided a part of the entertainment. My friend Alan had written a poem and he read it out loud. His wife, Susan, sang a songOh Tannenbaumodd and wonderful to hear it in October perhaps the only song she could remember all the words to. Digby recited something from his music hall days in England, a long, rhyming, bawdy piece, brilliantly rendered. I had book with me, a collection of short stories by Willa Cather, and I chose one story and read it aloud. I remember only that it was about Egyptians building the pyramids subject matter so unlike anything I associate with Willa Cather that it seems improbable but there is firm in my memory, one of her early stories. My mother then stood up, and clasping her hands in front of her, began reciting a poem from memory something she learned as a child. It was called "The Two Dimes," and it took her perhaps five minutes to recite. I had never heard this poem before and I remember feeling astonished that she had this capacity to recall a long poem so vividly. There was, of course, a moral to the poem, as there would be with anything she might bother to memorize. It had to do with the cruelty of children and an old man and his shoes left at the edge of a forest and how the children think of stealing the shoes, and instead end up leaving two dimes in them. In many ways it was the sort of sentimental poem that can make you feel uneasy because deep down you know that the sort of goodness it promotes is never so easy to achieve, that the world is a much more slippery place. What impressed me wasn't the words of the poem so much as the way she said them with such utter shining conviction, as if she herself was convinced such goodness was not only possible but everywhere evident, and the fact that she could remember these words and call them up from some cavernous reaches of her memory, dusty articles, so unused she might easily have lost them. They should have faded over the yearsthis is what I was struck by, and what I think of now of this extraordinary display on my mother's part, her feat of memory.

Finally it was my father's turn, the last performer, and he chose to give us that night his rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." It wasn't simply a matter of singing it and being done with itno, this was a moment for education, elucidation of the principles of enunciation. He would sing a few phrases and then he would stop and explain the importance of giving each word its sharp and precise vocal contours, the necessity in order for any song to be strongfor giving each word a fully modulated beginning and ending. The temptation, he said, was to slur words, to run them together. This wouldn't do. And so he sang and stopped and explained and sang again until he had said all he wanted to say, and sung all he wanted to sing.

Sometime later that evening, when our collective mood was still running pretty high, I remember my father saying something which I've never forgotten. In the middle of some conversationperhaps we were still discussing music, I don't remember nowbut he suddenly turned to us and said, "You know evil came into the world with syncopation. That's when it all began. People started moving their hips. That's how it all started."

I still think of this once in a while. Evil coming into the world with syncopation. Boom diddy boom diddy boom diddy boom. There you have itevil staring you smack in the face, hips swinging everywhere, people out of control, a wigglin' and a swayin' like demons. In truth I like this explanation. It makes more sense to me, and it's less sexist, than that old business about Adam and Eve and the snake. Only I wouldn't call it evil, what syncopation summoned into existence, I'd call it something else, although I can't think of a word right now the name for that thing which is neither good nor evil but has the power to release in us all the sensual lusty longing for the life of the senses the opposite of all this is prim and straight and confined, the antithesis of proper and regimentedwhatever that force is that brings us to the brink of liberation. I know my father felt it when he listened to music syncopated or not although, like anybody else, certain beats probably sent his molecules to moving more than others. I know at those moments music freed him, made him ageless, lifted him out of his fettered existence and above all made him happy and he claimed this happiness as he claimed music and Tina claims photography as the agents of our liberation, things we are connected to in a fibrous way our realms, our countries, our lands, always ours and forever ours the well the place we're meant to dwell, the world within the world that each person knows exists and exhalts in discovering.

This is how my father felt about music, right to the end of his life. A few nights before he died, he dreamed he was conducting a choir in a performance of Handel's Messiah. In the morning, when I went into the room to see him, he lay in his bed, exhausted, and told me about the dream. He had been working so hard all night, he said, conducting that choir. He was so tired. Oh, he said, you can't imagine how tired I am, and closed his eyes and drifted off again.

Once he said to me, I could have been a famous musician if I'd devoted my life to music instead of having eight kids. I could have gone to Hollywood. This seemed to me an astonishing statement. It wasn't that he was saying he could have simply become an ordinary musician say a second violinist sawing away with the Cleveland Philharmonic. No. For him, it was the idea that he might have become famous, gone to Hollywood. Somehow it fits with what I know about him now, and what music meant to him. He was caught in such an ordinary life, and like so many others trapped in intolerable ordinariness, he saw within himself the unsown seeds of his own greatness. Modest dreams are never enough for Willy Lomans, these figures who, struggling to bear the inflicted burdens of unworth, shore themselves up with impossible dreams.

So he did not become a famous musician, not in Hollywood nor anywhere else. Instead he spent a few years during the 1940s singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Later, he joined a barbershop quartet and contented himself with conducting the singing in church. He sang at funerals, often with my sister whose alto voice harmonized well with his. And then finally, toward the end of this life, he formed a little combo with a piano player named Mario, and a bassist who was alcoholic and often unable to play, and a tall, thin woman named Leota who wore thick glasses and played the flute. Mostly, they entertained at the Senior Center in Ogden, Utah, providing music for the old people who came there to dance at lunchtime before the meal was served. Once I went there to hear him play. A ninety-year-old woman named Mary took to the dance floor with her partner. My father kept winking at her, and each time she passed the band, she would wink back at him.

Last night at the Narayan Niwas Palace in Jaisalmer, an hour from the Pakistani border, in a hotel sitting squarely on one of the oldest trade routes in the world, I thought of him and how he would have enjoyed the exotic musicians and the beautiful dancing girls with their swaying hips and perhaps sensed a little of that delicious evil leaking into the world. He would have recognized the strength, the passion of their movements and in the drumming of the men. I felt even then, as I do a day later on my father's birthday, that in some way, it was a concert for him.

I write this in a room in the Lallgarh Palace in Bikaner, where dim lights burn overhead, casting shadows on the walls. The ceiling is highthere are twin brass beds, heavy English furniture, a wardrobe in mahagony, a dressing table, and two overstuffed chairs facing a small table where a candle burns. Three times tonight the electricity has gone off, so we leave the candle burning to avoid being plunged into darkness. The room is cold and dank; heavy curtains cover a window and two doorwaysthere are nature prints over a small fireplace and a landscape that looks like California. Yet the feeling of the room is of a dreary English sitting room. The only reminder that we are in India, and not a bed-sitter in Earl's Court, is the calendar on the wall, showing a picture of the Maharaja Sri Ganga Singhji Bahadur with his daughter Princess Chand Kanwarji and son Maharaj Kumar Sri Sadul Singhji. The father is handsome in a pearl-bedecked turban and handlebar moustache. The children are beautiful: The confidence of a privileged life shines on their faces.