Passage to India
As we drove to the waterfall through the hardscrabble Rajasthani land, all scrub, desert, barren hills, the road passed through small villages. In between were stone fences snaking toward the distant hills.
My guide, Mr. Ajit, sat upfront with the driver, and as we came up on a mini-bus with a couple of men riding on top, he’d half turn in his seat, “That’s India.” A few minutes we tailgated a van packed with passengers, two men balanced on the back bumper, holding on for dear life. “That’s India,” Mr. Ajit said. The more squalid, inconvenient, and crazy, the happier it seemed to make Mr. Ajit. As it reinforced his view, that I was not receiving some burnished image of the true India.
On the journey, Mr. Ajit, I could feel, was in his element; he had caught that mystical stream that writers call the “flow” and he was gliding on a slipstream of memory, wonder, and confirmation. He wanted nothing more than to translate his real India to a foreigner.
The last few kilometers the road turned to packed rock and gravel, and finally ended as large slabs of jutting boulders and stone provided a natural barrier. We got out of the car and walked across the landscape of large boulders and stones, an ankle turning terrain, with the surfaces rubbed smooth and polished by the annual rainy season runoff. But this wasn’t monsoon. Not yet and as far as one could see, the land was parched, bone dry. Mr. Ajit explained that we were crossing a river bed. Neither word seemed to describe what was under foot. He led us to the end and we stared down gorge that fell 300 meters straight down. In the distance, Mr. Ajit pointed at a tiny ribbon of water that turned out, to the disappointment of my wife, the waterfall. “That’s India,” he said. It wasn’t much of a waterfall from where we stood. The volume of water against the giant rim suggested a natural equivalent to a leaky faucet. There was water. It was falling. But there wasn’t much of it. He promised that if we returned in the rainy season then the entire rim stretching hundreds of meters would form a single curtain of raging water. That, too, would have been the real India, he said.
The waterfall proved to be the jumping off point for the main adventure, ancient cave art paintings, which Mr. Ajit promised were at least 15,000 years old. He said as we walked through a field of stones, dust and scrub bush, on our right another smaller gorge with a railway track at the bottom, that he had discovered the paintings himself. He gave my wife another of his name cards. On the front was a stickman, tall, lanky, and well, stick like, drawn in red ink on the front. Yes, drawn. Not printed. Mr. Ajit drew a mini-painting on each of his business cards. Business in Rajastan was slow.
Mr. Ajit suddenly stopped and pointed at a footprint in the red dust. It had been left by a running shoe. “Belgian lady. I bring her here two days ago,” he said.
The journey to the place of descend to the cave where the art painting had been made took forty minutes by foot. Every ten minutes, Mr. Ajit rested, pointed at the path, and said, “Belgian lady. She saw cave paintings. Took many photographs.”
A writer tends to look for what isn’t there. The silences. What is absent.
The far we walked, the more tracks we found, and the more I noticed what wasn’t pressed in the dirt—evidence of the Belgian lady’s running shoes walking pressed in the red dust pointing in the opposite direction, heading back to the car. Mr. Ajit, when pressed, said, “We came back a different way.”
To inspect the cave art, required that we lower ourselves down a crevice in the borders, narrow and cold, with the bottom five meters below. One stumble and it was the whole 300 meters. Like most things done the first time, it looked for forbidding that it actually was. Around the corner was the cave. At the far end the ceiling and cave wall were scorched black and the white chalky remains of a fire heaped on the stone floor. Mr. Ajit pointed at the wars, our eyes adjusted to the shaded walls, and the stickmen, stick animals and, just plain stick like objects, appeared. “That’s India,” he said, as if we were looking at men hanging off the back of a van.
The cartoon characters on the wall had weapons. But their anatomy wasn’t something that matched Grey’s. I had no way of knowing the age of the paintings. Reddish colored bows and arrows and deer with a huge rack of antlers, and giraffe creatures. They could have been drawn by a four year old. They looked suspiciously like the drawings on Mr. Ajit’s business cards. “This one is at least ten thousand years old,” he said, pointing at the deer. “And this man, is four thousand years old, and the giraffe, eight thousand.” Mr. Ajit was a man of round numbers and certainty. It seem churlish to question him especially since we needed him to guide us back up the crevice, through the stone fields, past the waterfall and back to the car. Skepticism is great for the city; but in the middle of nowhere in Rajastan, it isn’t necessarily your best friend.
On the return walk, Mr. Ajit found a new source of inspiration for his guided tour: animal droppings. He knelt on the ground, found a small stick, and poked at a small pile of dried shit. “Wolf shit,” Mr. Ajit said, quite proud of himself. “You see this white feathery hairs? Goat hair. Wolves eat goats. You see goat hair in their shit.”
My wife took a picture. Mr. Ajit, stick in hand, kneeling near the wolf shit.
That seemed to encourage him. Clearly he had picked up in the cave that we had some reservations about the source and dating of the cave paintings, and Mr. Ajit had decided as a matter of honor he needed a way to reclaim his creditability. The next pile of dropping was a couple of minutes away. “Goat shit,” said Mr. Ajit, stopping and pointing with his stick. My wife took more photographs of Mr. Ajit grinning beside the goat shit.
“Don’t see the Belgian woman’s running shoes,” I said.
“Many animals in Rajastan,” he said, as if to answer my question with a riddle.
We soldiered on across the rock field, I looking for the signs of the Belgian, Mr. Ajit and my wife, looking for the next pile of animal droppings. I heard them calling me as I had walked ahead thirty meters. I walked back, and Mr. Ajit, hands on his hips, looked proudly at a fairly large pile of small pellets of brown shit. “Antelope shit,” he said. “You know how antelope’s shit?”
“I have no idea.”
“Most people don’t. They shit together, like making a circle.” Mr. Ajit demonstrated by walking around the Antelope shit, stopping to make a mock bowl movement, walking around then repeating the half squat position. My wife continued to take photographs of Mr. Ajit and his demonstration of defecating antelopes.
We never found any returning footprints of the Belgian woman.
We saw vultures high in the sky over the gorge.
My wife and I walked hand in hand, Mr. Ajit a couple of meters ahead on shit patrol. “Do you think the cave art was real?” she asked me.
I thought as I saw Mr. Ajit wave at us ahead, it really didn’t much matter. This was the real India. “I can say this for Mr. Ajit, he knows his shit.”
Mr. Ajit was like many writers. You really couldn’t be certain how much they’d forged reality all that mattered what the writer had convinced you it was real. Mr. Ajit’s lesson had been a simple one. You don’t really need to know your shit—all you have to do is persuade others who know less than your that antelopes dance a ritual around a growing pile of droppings as man etches his memory of what is and what might be against the cold cave face.