COLUMN: Discoveries from an Indian excursion

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There is a quote I’ve always loved that, if memory serves me, was born in the mind of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the greatest Sufi thinker: You are raw until you travel – until you bring yourself into the world and join yourself with existence; then you are cooked.


Anyone who has gone beyond the proverbial benchmarks of comfort, familiarity, and the isolation of one’s “homeland,” into a corner of the Earth that has initially felt extremely alien, knows how true these words can be.
This summer has for me been one of intense burning – both literally and metaphorically.
Just days after getting out of classes at Western Kentucky University, I somewhat impulsively boarded a plane to Gujarat, a water-stressed, semi-desert state in India that borders Pakistan and the Arabian Sea and is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.
I had never been out of the country. At that time, I had never even traveled past the Mississippi River. I closed out my savings account, took out a loan and spent nearly three weeks in Dhrangadra, a city of 70,000, with a group of anthropology students from WKU.
Though three weeks may sound like a brief excursion, lifetimes may be experienced within any duration of time, no matter how small.
I’ve been working for The Spencer Magnet as a freelance journalist since I graduated from Spencer County High School several years ago, and I was asked last month to write about my summer travels.
The best I can do with this space is offer a tapestry containing one or two woven moments that I know will echo across my lifetime and may be of interest to a reader in Spencer County for whom India is maybe more like a foreign planet than a foreign country.      
I joined the group of American students through a study abroad program called “Ethnographic Video Production in India,” which was brought to my attention by Dr. Lindsey Powell, an anthropology professor who headed the project.
I had had several years of previous filmmaking experience and was asked to join the team at the last minute, despite not technically being a student of anthropology.
Our group was invited to live in a centuries-old palace inhabited by a man named “Bapa,” an old friend of Dr. Powell’s who, for part of the year, is an anthropology professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University and during the other part of the year, is a prince – the son of the late Maharaja (one of the most respected religious and political figure of a local region) of Dhrangadra.
Without going into too many details, our team’s task was to shoot an ethnographic video – a type of documentary that covers one or more aspects of a culture – about a group of nomadic cattle herders called the Bharvad. These pastoralists (as they are called by anthropologists) have lived in and around Dhrangadra for centuries.
Almost 30 years ago, an important ethnographic film was produced which illuminated the customs and life ways of this people and focused on a bitter quarrel that had arisen between them and a local group of farmers (agriculturalists). The conflict: landholding and water access rights in an environment often stricken by drought and scarcity, and the government’s open support of the farmers and tepid ambivalence toward the Bharvad – a story that strangely evokes Cain and Abel.   
In a crude nutshell, the evolved state of the Bharvad predicament (the 1983 film was, in fact, called “The Bharvad Predicament”) after three decades formed the subject of the film I helped create.
Almost as soon as we stepped off the plane from a 24-hour flight into a choking heat, we began capturing our time on video. When we weren’t thinking about the Bharvad and the sacred herd, we were visiting weddings, Hindu temples, ancient ruins, noisy market places, funerary sites, a haven for elderly cattle, dance ceremonies and performances of music and theatre – a total immersion into a vibrant culture.
One could say I immersed myself a little too deeply for my own good on a few occasions – one in which, during a breezy evening visit to temple, I sipped Hindu holy water, unaware that it probably contained cow urine and water from the holy river Ganges. Everyone, including me, was astonished that my unaccustomed American stomach did not throw a hissy fit over this.  
On another night that I won’t soon forget, the Americans were invited to participate in an outdoor dance party that would take place the day before a wedding ceremony. In India, the wedding ritual is a major event that lasts over several long nights.
I have no illusions about my own abilities (or inabilities) in dance but that night, one couldn’t help but be seduced by Indian music and the hypnotic verve of the garba, an extremely popular dance in Gujarat. The steps were not terribly difficult to pick up and soon the dance floor was alive with a unified human pulse that made any kind of culture gap undetectable or immaterial. I completely lost myself to the trance-like energy (or maybe I gave myself). The feeling produced could be likened to a Western “rave.”
According to Rumi, I was simmering.
I didn’t rest for five hours – though there were moments I thought I would keel over in my sweat-drenched kurta (a loose-fitting shirt for men that goes down to the knees). I did eventually have to stop and come back to Earth and face my physical limits – nausea and an ecstatic delirium. Never in America had I ever been able to release or even find energy inside me that high on the Richter scale.
Before I left India, I was privileged enough to spend one whole day alone with two young Bharvad cattle herders while they took the herd on the daily migration through the rocky desert on the outskirts of Dhrangadra. I brought my video camera to get potential footage for the new documentary. When my battery died, I cried no tears; I was no longer separated from the experience by the camcorder.
The boys spoke not a word of English and I knew just as little Gujarati. Still, this didn’t stop me from understanding their many gestures of curiosity, compassion and good will – offers of water, food and rest. We developed a language of physical gestures that suited these basic needs.
If I learned anything about myself in India, it was this: the deepest spiritual experiences in life are brought about by the most intense physical experiences occurring at the very edge of life.
When I put my body in a position of vulnerability and push it past the usual point of exhaustion, spiritually something is liberated. I feel as though I’m more in control of my destiny. I suppose I become less attached to the material world for a moment. In the context of the dance story, music does help a lot with this detachment.
But for people in that part of the world, every single day is that – having to engage physical extremes head on and acknowledge the fact that death is lurking around the corner, a hair’s breadth away at any one moment.
From noon until dusk, the temperatures in that region of India soar and even the insects know to be wary of the dangers of that kind of heat. If you don’t know where the water holes are, or if you don’t have a large reserve of bottled water, that hair’s breadth narrows.
Just a few minutes under the unfamiliar sun was enough to slow everything down in a disturbing way. That land completely upends the way you experience the feeling of water in your mouth. Fortune smiles on most Americans for whom access to clean water is not yet an emergency issue. In the Indian desert, you would forfeit every possession you had for a cup of cool fresh water.
After high noon, we finally arrived at a stopping place – a large semi-grassy area for the cattle next to a farm owned by more hospitable people who spoke no English, but offered me my thousandth cup of hot Chai tea and kind, accepting smiles. I was encouraged to rest on a bed for a few moments underneath the shade of a tree while my Bharvad friends bathed in a nearby pond.      
I stared at the quiet sunbeams bouncing off the globes of sweat on my pale arms, the sounds of pure tranquility all around me.
I thought: I’ve discovered my Indian self.  

Joel Fickel is a Spencer County resident and student at Western Kentucky University. During summers home, he works as a freelancer for The Spencer Magnet.