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LAce Posted Monday, February 2nd, 2004
Practicing Asia: Feet are the Original Shoe of India
Nicholas Beem

India is patiently dissolving my Western upbringing, and the new forms emerging bear a curious resemblance to childhood longings.

I have always fancied going barefoot. I wore Velcro shoes as a child, because my feet were just one simple pull away from freedom. Despite the threats of bees-in-the-grass and broken glass, I romped and continue to romp around in just my feet whenever I have the chance.

So when I arrived in the southern metropolis of Chennai (once Madras), and I saw that perhaps 1/3 of the people on the street did not have footwear, part of me felt like I’d arrived in my ancestral home. Rickshaw drivers put skin to metal, cyclists literalized the “ped-” in “pedal” and pedestrians navigated the ruptured, dusty pavement with apt and unflinching steps. It would have been absurd for me to doff my pricey Western sandals and follow suit. Wandering holy men are the only ones who choose to go barefoot – everyone else either lacks funds (as a benchmark for Indian poverty, flip-flops cost about $1) or they’re in a no-shoe zone.

Houses and temples are traditionally shoe-free, which I reckon as mainly a hygiene strategy. Hindu culture thinks poorly of the feet, so you might think that they would be encased when walking on holy ground. Yet in the few temples and ashrams that I’ve visited, I find that going bare definitely heightens my experience. Gingerly stepping along the streets of the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, the combination of vulnerability and sensitivity gave each beggar and passing cow a holy glow. In that same town is Mt. Arunachala, said to be an incarnation of Shiva. Both circumnambulating and climbing the mountain are karma-burning acts best performed in bare feet. Lela and I ascended in our sandals and watched in awe as family after Indian family passed us by, clambering over hot, jagged rocks in nothing but feet. It seems even the well-off Indians who can afford shoes still have soles as tough as Vibram.

At the base of Arunachala is the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, a famous guru who prescribed meditation on the question “Who am I?” as the most expedient route to enlightenment. We ate our meals at the ashram in the traditional South Indian style. All the ashram guests file in to a large hall and take a place behind one of the banana leaf and cup place settings which are arranged in long rows. Once a row is full, bare-chested and smiling men come rushing down the line with buckets of food: rice, vegetable curry, pappadums, curd, buttermilk, warm milk, a sweet gingery rice pudding, a banana, depending on the meal (simple food to help calm the mind). Unless you make a gesture of refusal, they slap some on your banana leaf or pour some into your cup from an astonishing height. You eat with your right hand (left hand is the bathroom hand; more on this soon), which is not as simple as it first appears. Mix rice and curry, form a scoop with your three middle fingers, lean as close to your banana leaf as you can, quickly bring food to mouth and use your thumb to guide the food into your mouth. The other big aspect of this eating style is speed. You never know when a bucket man will come down the row, and if you want what he’s offering you’d better have an empty cup or space on your leaf. Also, your hand is covered in food so you can’t really do anything but eat. Chewing is superfluous when you’re eating rice and curry, so an enormous meal can be inhaled in maybe 10 minutes.

I cannot describe how deliciously transgressive it feels to eat in this way, which violates every table manner I was ever taught. On the floor, with your hands, at top speed. When you finish, you fold your banana leaf in two and go outside to wash your hands. The ashram cows and monkeys take care of the garbage, and a quick hose-down cleans the dining room. It’s probably the most efficient way to feed a lot of people that I’ve ever seen.

And then there are the bathrooms. A squat toilet, a tap, a bucket, and perhaps a sign that says “No toliet paper in toylet pleaz!”. Sometimes this plea is accompanied by a wastepaper basket, but often there is nothing. If you are lucky enough to have remembered to bring toilet paper and a plastic bag to carry it, then you’re all set. But eventually, every Indian traveler is stuck with the need to wipe and nothing but a small plastic bucket full of water. Assuming you can’t just pull up your pants and “wait until the next shower,” you have little choice but to venture into the most taboo of all regions and wipe with some deftly-scooped water and the fingers of your left hand.

Yes, it is gross at first. Most Westerners only know their feces from occasional pre-flush glimpses. But after weeks on a squat toilet, with your shit staring you in the face, Western feco-phobia starts to wear thin. And after months in India, and the inevitable bouts of diarrhea and god-knows-what-else, plus the aromatic ubiquity of dung and human sewage, the “forbidden” becomes a regular topic of conversation, and yet another cultural construction bites the dust. This is a powerful transformation.

I love India for many reasons, and hate it for others. The cows on the beach, the smiling beggars, the breathtaking poverty, the murder-fantasy-inducing Bollywood music at 4 a.m.; all these will fade into memory. In a land where there are countless temples for the god of destruction, but only one for the god of creation, it is suitable that the lasting impact of India is what it has taken from me: my assumptions about how life should be. I approve of this robbery. The less I require from the world, the more freely I can move through it, peacefully eating off the floor and patting the cows as they stroll through the restaurant.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by jocelyn johnson on Wednesday, February 4th, 2004 at 10:41 AM
I loved reading this peice. I love its title. Having just gotton back from India, myself, I also recommend the diverse subcontinent for its many possibilities in transformation and deconstruction. In Hyderdrabad, in Hampi, I kept realizing that many of the things cluttering my life in Virginia just weren't neccessary by India standards. Shoes, T.P and eating utensils for sure, but that's only a beginning. In india, we didn't need chairs (adults happily sat on a floor for hours in an ashram in Kerrala), bathing suits (indian school children swim in their full uniforms), trashcans or trash (except for the influx of plastic bottles sold to tourists), Personal space, peace and quiet. The list goes on and on.

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