Friday, June 18, 2004

The beggars will be the cause of my Mysore meltdown. For my friend Sherrie, it'll be the rickshaw drivers. For another girl, it'll be the 10-millionth Indian in a day who will ask "What is your name and where are you from?" at precisely the wrong moment.

The "Mysore meltdown" can be one of several things: a temper tantrum, an anxiety attack, a slow descent into depression; or all three, at the same time.

The end result of the meltdown is the overwelming feeling that it's time to get out of India. As sequestered in Gokulam as yoga students are, it's still India, and everything here conspires to push you to your edge.

I've not had the meltdown---yet---but on certain days when nothing goes right, I can see where it comes from. And after a month here, I can see people who are more susceptible to it than others.

If you come here, you will get bit by mosquitos. You will get sick. You will get diarrhea. You will get ripped off. You will get lost. You will get stared at. Any one of these things will happen, or all of them. Unfortunately, the more you try to control things, the more you're destined to fail. You can't make Mysore like Milwaukee. You'll only break yourself into pieces in the attempt.

The long-timers, the ones who have made Mysore their home, seem to have a few common traits. They have significant others here with them. They create a hermetic environment for themselves, and then retreat into that space, emerging to deal with India only on their own terms. And they all seem to be well aware of their limits---they know when to leave in order to recharge and return.

The few times I've spotted hints of my meltdown have been when dealing with beggars. A generic example: It's hot, it's dirty, I'm exhausted from negotiating with a rickshaw driver, and our group is still lost somewhere in the warren of Lakshmipuram. We settle on a likely direction and set off.

It's at this point a dirty 7-year-old detachs herself from a nearby wall, baby in arms, and suctions herself onto me with an unexpected physicality.

It's unnerving, not least because she won't hesitate to wrap her hands around my arm or leg. She'll motion with closed fingers to mouth in the universal gesture for hunger.

I'll say "No!" in a firm voice. But she doesn't leave, and continues to follow our group.

Unsettling fact number one: we'll continue to talk over her head---literally---as though she wasn't there, as though she's ceased to register as a human being on our radar screens.

Unsettling fact number two: Last week I got angry at one of them---angry at this little beggar child for begging, for daring to starve, for shoving her poverty into my consciousness and forcing me to deal with it.

The beggars and the questions they raise are too big for me, too big for my intellectual and emotional depth. It's easier to shut it out, say no, and refuse to see them as people. As always, though, the hard shell will crack. I'm working so that it's not anger that emerges.