Untouchable: Defiling the Racism of Caste

Of Hinduism and activism, hatred and hope.  Cobblers, cleaners and night soil sweepers meet Jesus, Gandhi and the flush.

Today we drove two hours north-west of Bangalore to the rural town of Tumkur (past the National Silkworm Seed Association, Central Silk Technological Research Institute and silk testing lab) to visit the Rural Education for Development Society.  REDS was founded by Raj and Jothi, a warm and articulate couple who are dalits.  The word “dalit” comes from the Indian Marathi language, meaning to crack, split, oppress, be scattered or trodden down.  It denotes the approximately 20% of India’s population who were previously called untouchables or outcastes.

mulk-raj-anand-UntouchableThe novel Untouchable (1935) by Mulk Raj Anand relates a day in the life of a young untouchable man named Bakha.  He lives with his family in a small one-room shack in a separate suburb, downwind and downstream of the main town and separated by a road, to avoid polluting upper castes.  Raj told us this is still typical in many villages.  Untouchables like Bakha may not use the common well, so they depend upon the sporadic mercy of higher castes to draw water for them.  Outcastes may not wear upper garments, and Bakha’s schoolteachers fear touching him or his books and paper.  He gets on better with the British troops who have less caste prejudice.

On this day his father is sick so Bakha must sweep the village streets.  He forgets to call out and warn others of his approach, lest his presence or shadow pollutes them, and he brushes against a passer-by.  The businessman is irate: he’ll have to return home and wash, missing his appointment.  An angry crowd surrounds Bakha, abusing him until he slips away in shame.  Later on, he peeks inside the temple where he sweeps the courtyard.  Priest and worshippers are alike incensed: the whole complex will need ceremonial purification.  Yet the same priest molests Bakha’s sister – dalit women have no defence.  Bakha is actually lucky.  In some places, untouchables who dared to hear or speak the holy language of Sanskrit had molten lead poured into their ears or mouth.

The novel depicts three possible solutions to untouchability.  Bakha meets a Salvation Army officer and is touched to hear that Jesus accepts everyone irrespective of caste, but he is bewildered by the Salvationist’s incomprehensible hymns and his less welcoming wife.  Then Mahatma Gandhi (who in real life read and approved of Anand’s novel before publication) comes to town.  Like the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus of the gospel, Bakha climbs a tree to see Gandhi over the crowds, whom he must not touch.  Gandhi castigates caste as a Satanic blemish on Hinduism, and says that Brahmins help sweep the toilet in his ashram.  Bakha is inspired, until he hears a worldly liberal pontificating that Gandhi’s idealism is ridiculously outdated.  The true saviour is technology: the flush toilet will abolish the need for untouchable latrine cleaners.

Today the Indian state reserves a high percentage of places in schools and government jobs for “scheduled castes”, but this often helps only the upper “creamy layer” of dalits, said Raj.  Untouchability was constitutionally abolished in 1950, but it frequently continues in practice, especially in rural areas.  In Rohinton Mistry’s historical novel A Fine Balance (1995), an untouchable tanner in the 1960s bravely trains his sons as tailors.  Upper castes resent this disruption of the time-honoured order.  When one son insists on casting his democratic vote, the family are burned alive and the police refuse to register any case.

Raj was born to illiterate parents in the “unseeable” subcaste and nicknamed “excrement” at school, sometimes even by teachers.  His dad converted to Christianity and he got a job in a leprosy hospital, where the missionaries helped him study.  Raj now reads authors from Indian philosopher Radhakrishnan to post-modern French thinker Foucault, but says he learned more from his own people than from university.

He told us a story from the ancient Rig Veda scripture.  It tells of the cosmic man whose body was split to form the four castes with their respective roles and stations in life:

Head – Brahmin – learning – priests
Shoulders – Kshatriya – fighting – warriors and leaders
Waist – Vaishya – producing – shopkeepers and merchants
Feet – Sudra – serving – farmers and artisans

“Out-castes” don’t even appear in this classification – untouchably excluded from the system.  One of the saddest things I learned in India was that untouchables are divided themselves.  There is an ascending hierarchy of acceptability from animal skinning to tanning to making shoe soles to crafting shoe uppers, as the degree of defiling animal contact decreases.  Mistry’s family of tanners despises removers of “night soil” or toilet waste, and bans them from entering their house.  Untouchables themselves reinforce the system you’d think they would abhor – echoes of Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell…”

Raj and Jothi are seeking to unite dalits to fight for their rights against the “racism of caste”.  A poster on their wall proclaims, “Dalit rights are human rights: let us cast out caste”.  Dalits relate deeply to the land but lack Western-style ownership, so they are now 90% landless.  Furthermore, village councils are dominated by upper castes, to whom, in the past, dalits provided “unclean” services – like cleaning, grave digging or funeral preparation – for no charge.  REDS has formed new dalit councils to resolve their own conflicts and represent dalit concerns.  They recently required payment for the customary free services.  At first they met hostility and even death threats, but are now more tolerated and even respected by politicians.

Mahatma Gandhi is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and was esteemed by many British (although Churchill dismissed him as a “half naked fakir”).  So I was surprised to learn that dalits like Raj often view Gandhi as another upper-caste oppressor, even a “Brahmin agent”.  Trying to elevate their status, Gandhi called untouchables “Harijans” or children of God.  Many dalits view this as an insult, as the term referred to the offspring of temple prostitutes.  On 29 October, the daily Times of India newspaper poll asked “Did Gandhi divide India on caste lines?”  49% of respondents said yes, 46% said no, 5% were unsure, and there were heated comments on both sides.  It seems Gandhi’s influence was more complex than I’d realised.

The real hero of India for dalits is Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.  He studied law in New York, clashed with Gandhi over dalit electorates, and helped frame the Indian Constitution, which Raj believes is just, if only it were implemented without corruption.  I saw statues of Dr Ambedkar as we drove through rural towns, and his picture hanging in the booths of cobblers.  While Gandhi is mostly drawn as a skinny, bare-chested man with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist, Ambedkar is heavily built, with black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, mostly shown wearing a light blue western suit jacket and (often red) tie.  Journalist Edward Luce sees Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru as the three most important figures of 20th-century India, whose influence exceeds “all of India’s gods, software executives and nuclear scientists combined.”

Dr Ambedkar described caste as “an ascending scale of hatred and a descending scale of contempt”.  A crucial question is whether Hinduism can exist without it.  The 19th-century Hindu reform movements saw caste as a surface accretion, to be rejected or less cruelly interpreted.  I’ve heard Hare Krishnas claim the original concept simply reflected different human temperaments.  Those of a studious nature, they explained, are naturally Brahmins, those gifted in leading are Kshatriyas, those preferring commerce are Vaishyas, while artisans are naturally Sudras.

It’s an appealing take, but for many Indians it wouldn’t wash.  Unlike Western class, caste divisions go far deeper as they are based on the law of karma.  It is logically both pointless and impossible to help those who suffer.  Outcastes are simply reaping what past lives have sown, as inexorably as Newtonian physics dictates that every act brings an equal and opposite reaction.  Many believe that there is no Hinduism without the caste system, and in the end, Dr Ambedkar agreed.  In 1956 he publicly led 500,000 dalits in converting to Buddhism, which he chose as a home-grown Indian religion that rejects caste.

Other dalits have converted to Christianity or Islam.  I heard one estimate that 70 to 80% of India’s Christians are descended from dalit or tribal backgrounds, and 90% of India’s Muslims.  Neither faith attains its egalitarian ideals.  Moslems stand shoulder to shoulder in the mosque and pilgrims to Mecca all wear plain white garb to show their equality before God, but many Muslim communities are also divided by caste.

St Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and Christ was despised for socialising with the unclean outcasts of the day.  And yet, in most Christian denominations the leadership is overwhelmingly upper caste.  As a friend said, we are supposedly all one in Christ, but some here are one plus and others one minus.  Some churches even have different communion cups, sitting areas and burial sites for dalits, and high caste purity rules prevent women entering church during menstruation or 40 days after giving birth.

There are some stories of hope.  I visited a Christian couple who were excited because their Hindu neighbour, an upper-caste priest’s widow who’d never touched or eaten with them, had recently hugged their daughter when she visited the old lady in hospital.  Another Indian friend told me their pastor often exhorts them to eat with their servants.  But they couldn’t – the psychological barrier was just too great.  To make things worse, dalits who convert to Christianity lose access to state aid, reserved education and jobs because they are no longer officially “scheduled castes” of the Hindu system, and they are often resented by co-dalits as “Rice Christians”.

Anand’s novel almost seems prophetic.  While the historical Jesus may appeal, Christians today have failed to follow his example.  Raj quoted Desmond Tutu (a personal friend): “When the white man first came here, he had the Bible and we had the land”, but after centuries of colonial rule, “we had the Bible and he had the land”.  Gandhi is rejected by many dalits, and revered more in theory than practice by most others.  Technological progress and western urbanisation may do the most to free dalits – American IT companies and global industries are money-driven meritocracies, indifferent to birth.

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Neither Palace nor Poverty: the Middle Way of Buddhism

A six-tusked prophecy and an arrow-pierced swan, chariot shocks and bodhi trees; helping oneself in moderation to pillows and nirvana.

Continuing the series of introductions to India’s religions (see past posts about our classes on Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism), today we visited a Buddhist temple.  Although the Buddha lived in North India around 563-483 BC and his faith spread across the country, by AD 1000 it was reabsorbed by Hinduism – Buddha joined its collection of gods– and is now only followed by about 0.8% of India.  We were told this was the only Buddhist temple in South India (which I found hard to believe).

In the dimly lit hall we sat on a marble floor that reflected shining statues.  A spiky-headed Buddha meditated in the lotus position between respectfully standing lower Buddhas and huge blue vases.

A young bikkhu or monk told us the story of Buddha’s life.  His mother dreamed that a six-tusked elephant entered her womb.  That can’t been comfortable, and then it was prophesied that her son would either be the greatest of kings, or a world-denying sage.  Determined to avoid the latter, his father raised him in pampered opulence, but there were early hints of Buddha’s compassionate nature.  At the age of eight, his cousin shot down a swan.  Buddha pulled out the arrow, stuck it in his own hand to experience the pain, and nursed the bird back to health.  He then quarrelled with his cousin over who owned the swan, arguing that life belongs to him who saves life, not destroys it.

At 16 years old, Buddha’s education was complete.  He was married to a gorgeous cousin who bore him a son.  He had three palaces.  Anything he wanted was his.

At the age of 29, however, he rode his chariot through the streets and was upset by four sights.  He saw an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse, shocking him with the shortness and suffering of life.  On a fourth ride he saw an ascetic saint, serene in the face of the triple horror Buddha had just witnessed.

Leaving wife and child, palaces and pleasures – things that had brought him no peace – Buddha fled to the forest.  For six years he practised extreme asceticism, fasting himself almost to death.  He found no peace or freedom in this way either.  Finally he abandoned both extremes for the “middle way”.  Sitting under the bodhi tree in meditation, one day he attained nirvana: “ignorance was destroyed, darkness dispelled, knowledge had arisen, light had arisen.”  Free from chasing pleasure or destructive self-denial, he was able to love all living things, expecting nothing in return.

Buddhism may be the original self-help faith.  The monk explained that Buddha can’t give us this nirvana.  If you are hungry, someone else can’t eat for you; if you are sick, another can’t take your medicine.  He gave us all copies of the Dhammapada – as I shot golden Buddhas reflected in the floor – which says:

No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may;
We ourselves must tread the path, Buddhas only show the way.

As the monk spoke to us, it seemed an attractive moderation.  Avoiding both silky Armani suits and nakedness in ashes, Buddhist monks wear simple saffron robes – he said these came from cemetery shrouds, the cheapest garb, so there was no fear of theft.  But I was disenchanted to observe several monks enter and take two or even three cushions to sit on.  Surely the middle way between numb-bummed denial and somnolent softness would be just one?  To put it bluntly, how come they sat serenely on stacks of pillows, showing precious little compassion as I squirmed on a single one?

Swords and Salvation: the Spiritual Synthesis of Sikhism

A brotherhood of brush and bangle and blade, a Hindu-Muslim mix; yak hair and turbans, gurus and martyrs, lions and saints.

This morning a bearded and turbaned professor of technology, Harijinder Singh Bhatia, came to introduce the Sikh way of life.  Guru Nanak (1469-1538) was born to Hindu parents in a Muslim area, now in Pakistan, and saw the divisions caused by different names for God.  At 30 years old he had a mystical experience and began uniting Hinduism and Islam.  Like Hindus, Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, and they cremate their dead.  Like Muslims, they believe in a single God with no equals or “sub-contractors”, their temples have no idols, and they reject the caste system.  The Sikh Granth Sahib is the most inclusive of religious scriptures: it includes teachings not only from Sikh gurus but also from Hinduism, Islam, and other faiths.

As Guru Nanak lay dying, said Prof Singh, his followers quarrelled: the Muslims wanted to bury the body, the Hindus cremate it.  He instructed that each group should lay a garland beside his body.  After three days, the garland that remained unwilted would indicate his choice.  When he died, both parties laid out their wreaths.  Three days later, they lifted the shroud to find the body gone and only the flowers remained.  The Muslims buried their flowers; the Hindus cremated theirs.  Problem solved.

For many Indians, the spiritual ideal is solitary self-denial, living alone in the forest and begging for support.  Guru Nanak, however, taught that true asceticism means not fleeing the world, but remaining pure amidst impurities.  He believed the body was God’s temple, and that saints should stay in society, honourably earning their livelihood so they could help the needy.  As a result, Sikh gurdwaras have huge kitchens that offer free food to all comers.

Rejecting the absolute nonviolence of Hindus and Jains, a Sikh must be both soldier and saint, as shown by the Sikh symbol of two single-edged swords crossed over a central double-edged blade, representing spiritual and temporal in balance.  The British used Sikhs as guards and police through the Empire.  They formed nearly 30% of the British Indian Army, and much of the Defence Force today.

Nine more gurus followed Nanak in succession.  The earlier ones lived peacefully as the early Moghul rulers were tolerant of all religions, but Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707) was more fanatical, eager to enforce Sharia law and convert all his subjects to Islam.  He beheaded the ninth Sikh guru and sent the head to the tenth, Guru Gobind, who was forced to declare war.

Because many Sikhs were defecting under persecution, he needed a test of loyalty.  In 1699, Guru Gobind called an assembly of 80,000 followers, stood with a naked sword and demanded five heads for sacrifice.  One after the other, five devoted men came forward and were taken to his tent.  Each time he returned alone with a bloody sword.  He then re-entered his tent and brought out all five alive – he had slain goats instead.  The faithful five were turbaned and renamed Singh, meaning Lion, to remove caste distinctions – it’s now the surname of all Sikhs.  With a sword Guru Gobind stirred sweet fruits in an iron bowl of water.  He took the sweet nectar, sprinkled five drops on the heads of the five to awaken their knowledge, splashed their eyes to enlighten their vision, and gave them to drink, so their tongues would always remember God.

This was the baptism of the first five members of the inner Khalsa (from Persian for pure) brotherhood, who swore to live by the five “K”s or kakkars (emblems): leaving hair and beards unshorn (kesh), carrying a hair comb (kanga), wearing an iron bangle (kara) on the right wrist to symbolise courage and loose underwear (kaccha) for chastity; carrying a dagger or sword (kirpan).

That afternoon we bussed to his gurudwara (Sikh temple).  It resembled a mosque with plain white, pointy domes but no minaret.  A central inverse onion, lower inside, emphasises humility.  After washing our hands and feet before entry, we knotted on headscarves ­– the poor man’s version of the Sikh turban which can be 5 to 7 m long, of any colour the wearer chooses.  Some also bandage their beard, wrapping up chin and jaws as if they’ve just had serious dental surgery.  No one took offence at my whiskers, so red beard entered free.

The Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, is revered as the gurus themselves.  It lay open beneath a pagoda on a low dais covered in yellow cloth embroidered with gold, flanked by silver lamp stands with 11 tiers.  Nearby was a duster of fine yak hair to brush its cover.  In front of the railing stood jars of flowers; swords and arrows were crossed on the floor.  Sikhs prostrated on the carpet and circled the book clockwise, dropping donations in a box at the front.  In the corner, we saw the chamber where the sacred Scripture is kept at night.

The walls were adorned with paintings of the tortures, martyrdoms and glorious victories of the Sikhs under Aurangzeb.  One painting showed the Sikh origins of the Red Cross.  A labourer wanted to serve the guru but had no fighting skills, so he carried water to the battlefield and cared for the wounded, both friend and foe.  Fellow Sikhs complained that he aided the enemy.  He replied that whenever he hears a groaning man, he looks and sees only the Guru’s face.  The Guru said well done, and continue to bandage them too.

Tools and Turnips: Twin Indias and Two Thanksgivings

Indian contrasts on the street: electronics and idols, Adidas and excrement, harvest and hunger, gratitude and guilt.

This weekend was the Ayudha Pooja festival, when Hindus worship their work tools and give thanks to their means of livelihood.  As in most festivals here, florists make a killing.  Shop fronts, market stalls, buses, trucks, tractors and bikes were all decorated with banana leaf branches; chunky yellow, orange, purple, white flower garlands; glistening tinsel or dangling tassels.  I heard drumming: tractors were pulling wagons through the street, carrying idols buried under bulky floral wreaths.  I saw a man circling an oil lamp and making offerings to his car – candles burning before the front bumper – as to a temple idol.  I spotted a garlanded transformer in a power substation, and was told that office PCs are also praised in ancient rituals.

It’s another taste of Indian contrasts.  Our first lecturer on the course said there are really two Indias: first world “India” and third world “Bharat” (the Hindu name for India).  There’s the educated 40% of middle-upper class Indians who enjoy Western comforts, and the struggling, often illiterate 60% who seem lost in the dark ages.  I’ve experienced this myself on a half-hour walk in Bangalore or Pondicherry:

Behind plate-glass in air-con cool, yuppies patronise Nokia and Adidas outlets, alongside a blaze of sari fabrics and then a superette: Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s cornflakes and Cadbury chocolate; electric toasters and cordless kettles; shelves of idolettes and incense holders, mangoes and milky sweets.   A 21st-century Western city spiced with an exotic tinge.

In front of the glass is a dirt-cum-concrete footpath with missing slabs that expose the aromatic drain a foot or more below.  Stray dogs pick at melons rotting in the heat.  A small boy tugs at your sleeve, a wizened old lady begs for a cent, a young woman moves hand up to mouth and back, entreating food for her baby.  And all around you the civic band is tuning: buses, motorbikes, rickshaws trumpet their sluggish frustration; truck horns blare stuck-record tunes; people cry out in strange tongues.

On a block of narrow shop fronts, chemist counters are packed with bottles and vials and boxes; medical clinics advertise x-rays and tests for stool, urine, blood, sputum; tailors sew trousers; cobblers mend shoes; mechanics fix motorbikes or radios or watches; astropalmists predict your future; flies crawl over skinned chickens beside tottering piles of dodgy DVDs.  All the life of the city is on display like a row of booths in a fair.

Saunter for a minute down a small side street, and you’re in a rural village.  Goats pick over a garbage heap and cows tied under a thatched roof supply the farmyard aroma.  A man urinates, a child defecates, a woman sweeps with a twig broom.  It could be the Middle Ages, if you don’t look up at the drooping tangle of wires.  Around the corner is a religious bazaar.  Through a multicoloured, poly-statued gate, worshippers glimpse a bronze deity by the flickering light of a priest’s oil lamp.  A mosque minaret wails the prayer call.  Turbaned Sikhs gather in a gurudwara, or Christians pray in church.

We attended a different sort of thanksgiving celebration today.  The local Whitefield Memorial Church (founded 1886) celebrated the goodness of God’s creation and the earth’s produce in its annual Harvest Festival Service.  Cauliflowers, marrows, coconuts, pineapples, carrots and corn coloured the windowsills, and a huge pumpkin rested before the altar.  The congregation belted out classic English hymns with gusto.  A salt-cellar, pitcher of water, bunch of flowers, winnow of rice, basket of fruit, unleavened loaf and a decanter of wine were paraded in with matching prayers.  ECC director Dr Chacko preached on the ten lepers healed by Jesus, of whom only one returned with gratitude – “were not ten made clean, but where are the other nine?”

Then was the annual church fete, which also had an English feel with a jumble sale, lucky dip, skittles, and guessing a cake’s weight competitions.  The scrum at the Indian food stalls showed less Anglo-Saxon reserve.  It was a pleasantly fun and festive scene.  As I left, however, I ran the guilty gauntlet of beggars seated outside and I recalled another gospel story: poor, starving Lazarus at the feasting, rich man’s gate.  I made eye contact and smiled at one beggar-lady, who then followed me plaintively down the lane.  Is it better to stride coldly, unseeingly past as many locals do?

I’m recovering from the initial shock of Indian streets and sometimes wonder what my problem was at first – walking around isn’t that terrifying!  Now the tension between the two Indias is starting to emerge in more troubling ways, which may not so easily go away.

Lutheran Looms and Pilgrimage to Pondicherry

Spinning wheels and Lutheran meditation; tsunami fishing, idolatrous infection and the Life of Pi in la France.

In colonial times, Danish and German missions were active in this area of southern India (see yesterday’s post for our first adventures here and photos here).  We were hosted in Tiruvannamalai by the Arcot Lutheran church, whose motto is “not to be served but to serve”.  At their centre for destitute women cloth was being woven on manual looms and traditional spinning wheels just like Gandhi used.  Many of us queued to purchase towels, tablecloths, satchels, decorations.  An American couple, who were on the very first St Olaf Global trip in 1968, shared how they lived simply in the US (with just one bathroom and a second-hand car) so they could retire at 58 years and come here to teach English.  Doug had owned an art gallery, and bumped into a keen buyer just as they wanted to leave, confirming his conviction that life is not random.

The church also runs an inter-faith dialogue center called Quo Vadis, Latin for “Where are you going?”, which Jesus’ disciples asked before his final journey to the cross (John 13:36).  As their flyer says, “life is a pilgrimage where we would like to stop for a while to ask each other where are we going and where are we coming from?”  They have an internet cafe and a library of diverse spiritual books for pilgrims.  That evening we rolled out dough for chapatti bread while sharing our spiritual journeys, before folk dancers – yellow-saried women and white-singleted men – spun, circled and leapt to tribal drumming.

After a long day, the final meditation on the moonlit roof induced more sleep than enlightenment.  As we gazed at a flickering lamp, the leader told us to imagine the light coming within us for a few minutes, which was fine, but I hoped the light would then go out so I could go to bed.  I wasn’t the only one who suppressed a groan when the leader described said source of illumination descending into our bodies, and I realised it was going to crawl for eons through every single limb.

After leaving Tiruvannamalai, we lunched on the cool pillared veranda of the Lutheran bishop’s residence, a dilapidated, 18th-century British East India Company warehouse on the Eastern coast.  The December 2004 tsunami damaged the chapel a few metres lower, and flattened a church school down the road.  The church engaged in emergency tent accommodation, reconstruction, and counselling fishermen afraid to re-enter the sea: their source of life had betrayed them and brought death.  Now the school has been rebuilt and kids enjoyed the playground by the beach.  Vibrantly painted fishing boats, long and slim, were pulled up on the sand.

We spent last night in humid Pondicherry (population 220,000), a coastal French colony from 1672 – 1954.  Our guide mangled street names like Rue de la Marine, Rue Bazar Saint Laurent, Rue des Missions or Rue Dumas, though managed the less continental Canteen Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road.  A long canal separates the former Ville Blanche (white town) area by the sea from the inland Ville Noir (black town).

European Catholic churches were filled with rosary-reciting Indians.  Plastic-looking crucifixes were as garishly painted as Hindu temples, and Pieta statues of Mary holding Jesus’ body were wreathed like Hindu deities.  Our hotel balcony overlooked a demolished building.  Tin-roofed, thatched shacks leaned against the remnants of walls, clothing hung out to dry, women washed their hair and cooked over open fires in the rubble.  On the wall above them was a sign for “Computer Education. Institute of Technology”.

While in Pondy, we briefly glimpsed the ashram of Guru Sri Aurobindo, educated in European classics at Cambridge, where devotees were stealing flowers from his grave.  We boated across a palm-encircled lagoon to wade in the Bay of Bengal at sandy Paradise Beach, where women swam fully clothed.  And we rode the “Joy Train” around the 1826 Botanical Gardens.  Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi (2002) mentions this toy train and begins in an imaginary zoo nearby (see New York Times article “The Zoo Is Fiction, but It Just Might Spring to Life”)

In the evening I went for a stroll.  I bought a pair of sandals from a cramped stall, and chanced upon a small Hindu temple.  Five schoolboys practised, “Hello, my name is…” and shook my hand.  A smiling man insisted I receive prasad – blessed rice and chickpeas on banana leaves.  Some early Christians worried that food offered to idols could harm the soul.  St Paul tackled the issue in his letters and it’s still a hot potato for some Asian Christians.  I was more worried about my stomach.  I wasn’t carrying the alcohol hand steriliser that doctor friends gave me and temples don’t always seem too clean.  After reading of my concern, my friend Grant of the sickness sweepstake called me a wimp:

Speaking on behalf of my bet re: stomach complaints, please do not hesitate to eat anything given in temples.  The dodgier the better.  And forget all that alcohol hand cleanser stuff.  A “Real Man” wouldn’t worry about such things.  Chow down.  Time is ticking and you seem far too well.