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© D.B. Goman

Going Bananas

D.B. Goman

For the foreigner, if not the local, there are many ways to “go bananas” in India. First, let's hurry, as if over the Howrah Bridge in morning rush-hour Kolkata, through some of the clichés.

The cow dung, for example. Or all the human dung from happy squatters watching trains clack toward the city or counting waves roll in at various beaches in the country. You have to watch your step a lot in Mahatma-land.

Or there's the plastic. The reams and reams of this type of garbage tossed without a care in the world as if Mother India was not a mother, but just another very large trash bin.

Or the poverty and the illiteracy... I'll let the Bangalore IT grads discuss that.

I could mention how corruption is the real raja here, but I'm too busy laying out hafta (bribes) to get this very important article published.

Then there's crush of the crowds, the punch of the pollution, the bombs in my belly... sweet Ganesha, remover of obstacles, why do I keep coming back here?!

© D.B. Goman

Because I've caught the love virus. And when so deeply infected, the lover learns to ignore certain things, sometimes vital things, about his beloved. Just like so many Indians have become experts in blindness, I too have, to some degree, come down with this affliction. In the end, love often triumphs over all the crazy obscenities, and you endure, at least until your visa expires. But you never like these endings, so the affair continues. It can get messy on occasion, but it goes on and, as it does, you really begin to discover that your loved one is, despite the checklist of cons (or perhaps because of it), truly a deep dish. There are even times when it is perfectly acceptable and normal, even encouraged, to go completely bananas. You can't help but intensely love a love like that.

The Shivaratri festival in Gokarna, Karnataka, is a case in point. It's more than fitting that Gokarna literally translates as “cow's ear.” There is more than enough of those wandering the streets or the beaches, soft and perked up as they search the sacred mounds of refuse for a holy morsel or two. They are also intimately connected to the god, Shiva, who, I infer, has temporarily relinquished his role as destroyer in order to allow everyone to go bananas in the best of ways.

© D.B. Goman

This religious festival starts about five days before a culminating fast (in southern Indian's garam-garam—hot-hot—dry season), and it commemorates the time when Shiva in his avatar as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, performed the tandava (the cosmic dance). It really is a beautiful metaphor, I think, for the unfolding of time and a material presence in the universe. I doubt most Hindus see it that way, but it works wonderfully for me. In the Hindu trinity, or trimurti, Shiva as Destroyer, is not the Creator (Brahma) or Preserver (Vishnu), so ultimately he is integral to the cyclical nature of the existence of all things. Think of him as being important for the noble enterprise of cosmic recycling. In the days leading up to the day of fasting, the village is all dolled up. Say what we will about the grotesques of India, Indians unequivocally know how to unleash the spectral colors, the dazzling lights, the intriguing patterns, the mesmerizing sounds, and everything else under Surya the Sun that tease and delight the senses.

For starters, there's touch. I have to confess that I don't usually get so touchy-feely because, well, I'm a Canadian and we aren't really made that way. We prefer understatement or irony or, at best, no statements at all. But that won't put the proverbial ghee (clarified butter) on my table, so just know that I talk about the touch of things under considerable duress. In reality, when you're here in this sort of festival, you really don't have to talk about it at all because you're feeling it almost constantly. A brush up, a bump, a push or a pull, a quick pulverizing of your toes in their chappals (sandals), or a sharp elbow right into your bloated lower intestine. No, not much talking, just a lot of swearing under your breath. The really nice sort of touching happens when a gentle yet emaciated humped cow head-butts you, and you try unsuccessfully to divert her polite request for prasad (an offering) by scratching the wee patch of hide between her horns.

© D.B. Goman

Of course I want to avoid being cute at all costs. But really, taste can be a touchy subject. That's because of the big day of fasting. There are still treats available, especially for foreigners, and certainly lots to enjoy for others outside of this one day. Whether it's a thali (small helpings of various masalas with dhal, rice, curd and chappati) or a dosa (pancakes made with lentil flour) enjoyed with a spicy chai or a fresh fruit lassi (yogurt drink), followed by some magnificent homemade mango ice cream or a panoply of other mithai (sweets), the stomach willingly surrenders to these benign forces of food.

On the other hand, your nose sometimes isn't treated as a welcome guest. In one part of town, closer to the beach, what overwhelms you is the stench coming off the water-depleted yet over-polluted river. It hovers in the vicinity like the miasmas coming from a decomposing corpse. Crossing the bridge, no one lingers too long here for obvious reasons. There are more pleasant aromas up ahead with all the sandalwood and rose incense being burnt inside and around the mandirs (temples), especially the most important Mahabaleshwar Temple, which is devoted to Shiva.

© D.B. Goman

Now listen closely. Because the ears generally have a lot to be thankful for here. Understandably, if the throngs of people are especially dense, your eardrums could easily get clobbered. But mostly, for me, that isn't the case. My ears are happily massaged by the supplicants' bhajans (chants) wafting out of the Ganapati Temple. They drift away in a rising tide of the bansuri (bamboo flute). They revel in the sisterly solicitations of women on the streets selling flowers as votive offerings. They get tickled by the giggles of children in awe of the huge and lavishly decorated Shiva rath (chariot or cart) dominating the main festival thoroughfare, Car Street. Yes, all is very well with the ears.

Lucky too are the eyes, for they are enthroned in the mahal (palace). They feel like a royal Epicurean with so many fine delicacies to feast on, too numerous to list completely: garlands of carnations, marigolds and jasmine; pyramidal mounds of tikka powders used to mark a devotee's forehead; high wires of mango leaves strung out over the main street; a potpourri of lights adorning a Garuda-guarded archway to a shrine; or ornate designs by the mehndi (henna) artists on their chosen canvas of female feet and hands. In my avatar as incompetent Monkey-Baba-photographer, even I couldn't fail to take picture after picture of sublime rainbow beauty.

Thousands and thousands of yatris (pilgrims) descend on the village at this time to make puja (prayer) in the multitude of temples. After or before that, they head right into the Arabian Sea, many of the women in astoundingly gorgeous saris sinking down to wash away the clinging filth of a year's worth of sins. I've experienced before the congestion of vast numbers of pilgrims in India, especially years ago when I was in the holy city, Haridwar, by the Ganges River. However, I think this press was at a different level. For most of the temples, the entry queue just seemed to go on and on, demanding, I would think, poor Nataraja to dance a very long time indeed. The stream of other people passing by the queue is no less thick. Sometimes you get a flash of panic when all of a sudden there's this collective shove and you have this vision of being steamrolled into a puri (a puffed up, fried bread) pancake by jubilant Hindus who think that your now-squishy divine self is just another patty of holy-cow manure.

© D.B. Goman

But the panic, like a breeze from the beach, passes. It must. You really have no choice but to give all of your panic to Shiva or his consort Parvati or, as I like to do, to his vehicle, Nandi, the sacred bull. But I have to say, despite the press and fleeting panic, it all mostly seems to work with civility and shanti-shanti (peace) as the river of humanity finds its natural rhythm and keeps flowing. Sadly, though, they no longer allow foreigners into the temples because apparently in the past there were those who weren't respectful in terms of dress or behavior. Understandably, despite my renowned and, of course, profound love of humanity, I am not loving, to use local idiom, very too much this kind of foreigner.

The scenes at the beach at sunrise and sunset are, as they say, utterly butterly delicious. As a religiously fanatical materialist (yes, Baba, the power's in the matter of things!), I think experiencing this is fairly close to what some call rapture. And please, dear Shiva, I want some more.

Over on the southern headland, you see the pink Rama Temple with its black ceramic nagas (snakes) protecting the natural spring that quenches the thirst of many a pilgrim, poseur, or sweaty Monkey-Baba. Above it, if you take the crumbling cement-and laterite-stone staircase, you reach the more modest but quixotic-looking Bharateshwar Temple. With its yellow dome and its box-like base swathed in light turquoise, it sits like a sentinel on the cliff face, keeping watch over the long bow of sand and the more distant rolling hills of the Western Ghats. Down here on Middle Beach, you find many Indian families camped out by the water, fashioning a lingam (Shiva's phallic symbol) out of the sand. Most are simple mounds rising up, but delicate blossoms are often added as an offering; perhaps a dollop of rice will find its place there too, and then, with glowing sticks of fragrant incense purifying the air, mantras are recited by the surrounding devotees. A few lingams, however, are large, more elaborate and sculptural, decorated with colored powders, the same powders that are used for the devotional tilaks adorning people's foreheads.

No one could dispute that Indians, in general, are a diversely beautiful people. And the faces seen on the beach lead you into a rhapsody of beautifully constructed stories. You see an elderly couple untangling a length of bright green-and-saffron silk from a sari. Between them, they stretch it out in the wind in order to dry it after the plunge in the surf. That's when you begin to think there are colors in which you could build a rich empire.

© D.B. Goman

When you see just off-shore in the water a group of boys in silhouette, hurdling waves and flipping like fish over the waves' crests, as the warm, violet juice of the sun squeezes out into the sky, you think that if you were a star, you just might feel so left out of the exuberant play that you'd consider crashing to Earth right there and then. When three young, smiling women, one in a sari and the other two in salvar kameez (trousers with tunic), join hands and immerse themselves in the water, their coconut-oiled hair catching the last bit of sunlight, you see yourself turning into a maharani's cache of henna just so they might enjoy wearing you as an intricate design on their soft hands. Yes, please Shiva, I want some more.

For this festival, they also set up a bandstand on the beach and most nights starting around sunset—and often running till four in the morning—there is classical Indian music or drama. Most of the music is very inspiring and, given the powerful amplification, can even lull you to sleep if you're in a beach hut a kilometer away. However, one night they allowed any foreigner who thought he or she could play or sing something go up on stage. Either these people had smoked too much charas (hashish) or they were just pathetically ill-endowed with self-criticism because the “performances” were shockingly bad, beyond terrible. But thank the gods and goddesses for laughter. That's when I thought that maybe the locals had, in fact, planned this. Now they can just sit back and have a good laugh at the silly firengis (foreigners). Well done then. Pass the paan (betel nut and other chewables) and the chikki (nut-jaggery toffee) because this is getting bad, really bad, and that's really good.

Finally, it's the spectacle of spectacles when the Shivarati festival effectively wraps up. The spiritual tension, so to speak, has been building. Now the climax. If there is ever a time to go bananas, this is it. This is the day when the tower-sized rath, looking like a lingam or a lotus on sunshine-superman steroids, is pulled through the main road of the village. This is an amazing experience despite the strong humidity and the extreme density of the crowd. This, dear readers, is Banana Day, and once you're here, you're gone, but that's just how you like it.

Before the cart gets pulled, people descend upon the scores of street-sellers who, as if on amphetamines, shout over and over in rapid-fire succession: “Bananas, Bananas, Bananas...” Of course they say it in Kannada, the mother language in Karnataka. From a stalk that has a cascade of the small but sweet variety of banana on it, Indians and foreigners alike select and buy their soft, squishy ammunition. That transaction complete, they quickly step away to start hurling their supply at the gigantic rath. They try to get the bananas into the lofty upper reaches or right through the doorway into the interior shrine. There they go. Going, going, going... but why?

Shiva isn't Hanuman, the Monkey-King, dreaming every living second of the delicious fruit from the flowering plants of the genus Musa. Most, then, think it has something to do with generating more good luck. At first, I thought that was the main motivation as well. But it's not. Another beautiful story here. It was told to me by an erudite Indian man.

It's the story of Shiva and his wife, Parvati. According to the myth, she has heard rumors that Shiva is about to take, or at least contemplate taking, another bride. I suppose we're all guilty of this at different times in our lives, so who can really blame Shiva, right? Wrong. Parvati's livid, and puts, or wants to put, her foot down. “This just isn't on, okay silly Shiva?” she probably said once upon a time. Her devotees, being such, are quite devoted to her. They come to her aid by devising a plan. They must distract Shiva so that he forgets everything about this possible marriage. How to do this? Hmmm... That's a tough one.

Perhaps boil Nandi's prodigious bull-lingam in order to show Shiva if he's not careful, who knows, maybe he'll be next? Well, that could be a little too harsh. How about singing? That always takes your mind off other things, especially a tasty treat on the side. Maybe they could get Hanuman to croon a few bars from the Lion King. No, you're right; probably a bad choice: a bit too light, if not anachronistic. What about getting Brahma involved? After all, he's apparently so creative. He could pretend to court Parvati and make Shiva jealous with rage. We all know from our time with the Bard of Bards, nothing leads to happy destruction like raging jealousy. Or is that, nothing rekindles love like unhappy rage? I forget. But no, in this instance, none of that either. In the end, Parvati's minions decide in their wisdom to do, of course, the only sane thing possible and go completely bananas by throwing lots of them (I just hope all the hungry humans—or wise monkeys—can get at the bounty afterwards).

When Shiva finally shows up at Parvati's door, he must answer a series of questions so she can be convinced that he has no intention of taking another mate. Naturally he tells her that he never had any such intention in the first place, and that his troubling absence from Parvati has a simple explanation—he was off hunting. Ya, right... “hunting”... more like burning and pillaging and... uh-huh, “hunting.” For sure, Shiva, especially when it clearly states on your resume that you excel, first and foremost, at “hunting.” Of course you might expect Parvati to have some doubts. But no, this is myth, certainly not the more painful spin of contemporary reality. Unable to grasp the concept of hunter as metaphor, Parvati accepts his explanation and they live happily ever after (until next year—just like every marriage).

When the Brahmin priests at the foot of the Shiva chariot are finished their prayers, they pull up their white dhotis and go up the steep stairs leading into the rath's shrine. Soon they're accepting a steady stream of privileged Indians who no doubt have paid dearly to receive the blessing. Of course, I'm not overly cynical about Indian so-called spirituality. In fact, I'm quite realistic about it compared to other foreigners. Maybe, in part, this is because over the years I've heard or read enough savvy Indians themselves poke fun at, or drop a figurative explosive on, the hypocrisies.

I was watching this scene with one of my local bhaijis (brothers), when he ran sardonically through some possible items on a devotee's extensive wish list, hand-delivered to the shrine's priest: please, just three lakh rupees for that new extension to my house, please coming my way any day now; yes, thank you very too much, my next child must be a boy; if only my boss would relocate to America or be caught in an uncompromising act, that high-status promotion would be mine. No, not a distrustful bone in his skyward-pointing, middle finger. And needless to say, no special staircase for the women to ascend to offer up their own special manifestos to bring them one step closer to moksha (release from the cycle of death and rebirth).

Through all this, coconut offerings continue to be smashed on the large wooden wheels of the Shiva chariot. Then horns suddenly start. Soon followed by the drums: the double-sided mridangam and the hour-glass timila. Like pied pipers, the musicians lead around the rath a retinue of men carrying an icon of the deity ensconced on a palanquin and protected from the sun's powerful rays beneath a deep crimson velvet chhatri, or canopy. After a couple of merry circles round, the long stairs are taken away, the blocks holding the wheels in place are removed, anaconda-sized ropes are picked up, and everyone in the crowd starts intensely chanting and screaming, at times as if the banana baskets were empty and the rich were eating cake.

The mighty, festooned Shiva rath with its hefty wooden wheels is off. Going, going, gone. And so am I. So is everyone else. The street is jammed with people. We inch along at a pace that just might impress a sunbathing snail. Overlooking the road, balconies and rooftops are crammed with excited families or swami acolytes, their necks craning to glimpse the spectacle. Every square millimeter is seemingly accounted for. The rath goes, and I follow, up Car Street to the journey's end. This is where the Venkataraman Temple is located, which is right next door to the local post office and my favorite fruit-monger. The rath stops here, and then goes back the same way.

© D.B. Goman

The chariot is too large to make any turns. This is a pity. If it could turn right (or south), it's maybe just a hundred meters to reach the Koorti Teertha, the enormous temple tank filled with murky water which surrounds the shrine at the basin's center. Despite its square shape and its ghats (steps) leading down to the water, the shrine could remind me, as I'm sure it does many Hindus, of a lotus with its alluring jewel at its heart. I say could only because of the desecration by plastic waste, even in the tank. That said, if the streets were wide enough, it still would have been dazzling to see the rath turn and do one devotional circuit around the Koorti Teertha. But it's really okay. I don't want to get greedy. I've had my head turned plenty on this day and, indeed, for all the days of Shivratri. But there's one more turn left which, in complex India, is appropriate after the beauty and pleasure of this type of “going bananas.”

There's a saucy Brahmin kid in the rath's interior shrine whose self-appointed task is to toss the blessed fruit back out into the crowd. At the wrong—or for him, right—moment, I turn my head and take a banana right in the nose. Given the height of the toss, quite a sting, but more harm done to my dignity than anything else. No nosebleed, so blessed be, Shiva. Uh, I think.

At least until I see that kid's face again with the devilish smile front and center. To be honest, the look says he's enjoying himself way too much. Thank Shiva one last time. Because if it wasn't for this downy Cow's Ear in Karnataka, along with all the rest of her delicacies hemming me in right then and there, I might have just rushed the rath.

Now that really would've been bananas.

D.B. Goman, a Canadian educator, activist, and singer/songwriter, has an M.A. in history. He has travelled extensively, working in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent; he currently lives in India. His poetry, stories, and travel essays have appeared in various publications including Ditch, Eye Magazine, Jones Av. , Outside In Magazine, Poetry Montreal, Quarry, Storyacious, and The 2River View.