Autumn-winter 2004


  Autumn-winter 2004

«Those of us who contemplate the advantages of cremation think about the crematorium where everything is quietly settled, so that a silver urn is the only thing that appear as belonging there. It is here that one should come to see the burial procession, the ceremony of cremation, and the place where everything takes place. One should hear the cracking of the burning skull and smell the odious stench, which hovers for days over the slums and dumps, and over the great expanses of the unattractive plain—made even more ugly by its people. And, finally, if we talk about the hygienic attitude towards death in general, we must admit that the best solution hasn't been found by the Indians. It is us, the sailors, who have for centuries been sending our dead overboard, sown in oilskin.»

That the man, who was all the time standing by my side, now goes away and joins his herd. And I do not reproach him. I do not even contradict him secretly. I agree with him without asking whether he is right or wrong. It is because civilizations, ideas, books, and world-views are no more opposed to each other on these long journeys where the means of transportation somehow become the traveler's home. Places are opposed. One is the embodiment of our present security (however unstable and tottering on the waves), while another is the menace of the near future, which is not painted in vivid colors.

We couldn't enter the port of Bombay at once. To arrive to the city called the Gate of India, our ship had to wait for permission, a berth, and a pilot. During that time, the enormous picture of India carefully put together by imagination and sympathetic books over a long period of time (and resistant to all warnings and accusations so far) quickly began to fade and to decompose. We had been thinking about the magic temples, but the most impressive building seen from that distance was a hotel. It was the most exclusive hotel in the east. «Taj Mahal», explained the aforesaid second engineer. The Gate of India, a pompous Victorian gate, built to greet such and such British king, stuck to it. This gate forced itself on the city as its symbol and even foisted its name on it. Seen from the ship, Marine Drive (according to the guidebooks one of the most beautiful avenues in India), looked back by some strange things, which the natives maybe could not observe from their side in a proper light. Those things were the blocks made of concrete, which resembled the huge and unnaturally short bones. Piled there to protect the shore from the waves. Their forms had probably been best adjusted to their function, but for an observer who had a different view and who believed his eyes and feelings, they suggested something monstrous, unknown, and unapproachable.

We remained anchored during the night. I wasn't sleepy. My cabin was pleasantly cool, but as I knew that there wouldn't be air-conditioners tomorrow, the one in my cabin looked as something useless, and even as a challenge, a threat, and a mockery. So I remained aboard where the air was humid and heavy, and the heat did not abate in the least until the dawn. That there humidity was full of heavy smells. It smelled of mold and garbage, of human crowd and incense; there was in it the smell of burnt corpses mixed with the odors of different spices—everything was there, or at least I thought it.

We leave the ship hurriedly early in the morning, hardly having enough time to say goodbye to the people with whom we have made friends. The porters with monkey faces and gestures come to take our baggage ashore. Baggage also had to leave the ship immediately, so that we depart without leaving a sign, a reason, or a bridge over which we could return.

The customs officers eat their breakfast taking from tin plates handfuls of rice, which they mix with a kind of soft mash. The slurp it up from their palms, swallowing down the mouthfuls of that thick mixture. Then we drive to the hotel, which has been recommended, as cheap and decent. It is called, «The Sea Face Hotel», and it is situated on Marine Drive, one of the most beautiful avenues in India. Its neat facade almost resembles a palace. All rooms are with a sea-view, there are many mirrors with gilded frames, and the porters wear liveries. In the entrance hall someone speaks Italian on the phone, and for a moment we feel absolutely secure and comfortable. Then I notice that the porters in liveries are barefoot.

They lead us to our room over a back staircase and we find ourselves in a huge dark hole (an atrium, perhaps) which is enclosed by the four wings of the building; we pass by the rooms without the doors, by the couches left on the ground or leaned against the wall, by the obscure figures who move to and fro or just lie on the couches, through the dust of the crumbling walls and floors. The dust merges with the dim light, with the hardly lit darkness, and so it finally creates the atmosphere of this place. But the room is decent, although its door is shaky and one must use a padlock to lock it. It is poorly furnished, but full of light, with a balcony from which a view opens over the sea and the Marine Drive. It certainly is not very clean, but there are also few pieces of furniture in it that the dirt has practically no place to be. However, the bathroom is different. There is an ancient bath with four crooked legs on it, and it is clear that everything that can be found in such a place has been shoved within the narrow space between its bottom and the dug-up floor. The electrical system predicts the certain death at an attempt to use the hot water. There is a hole in the wall close to the bath, and it must be open from without because a drowsy and immobile bird, fairly big, sits on her eggs there.

Tranquility comes only with the evening. Although we have been told that the streets of Bombay are full of horrors during the night, from our balcony we see familiar and soothing things, the lit up town, lines of cars, neighbors who play cards, talk or listen to the radio in their rooms, women who hand the laundry out. It is true that the streets are full of people who sleep on the pavements. Some of them lie on the ground, others are wrapped up in old blankets, and one can see even a bed here and there: a wooden frame with crossed jut ropes instead of a mattress. The richest cam under the jutted balconies—they hire those places from the house-owners. But all of them are quiet now. Their coughing and snoring are heard only when the noise of traffic abates for a moment. The world is again in its normal and everyday state, while in darkness we begin to prepare and we are to rest unappeased by its uninterrupted existence. Except for the noise which comes from without, the silence of our room is disturbed only by the buzzing of the electrical punkah and by the rustling of the big cockroaches which begin to leave their hiding places when we go to bed and put the light off.

The long sea-voyage ends there; but the tale of the sea doesn't end until later by a temple on the shore, in the town which the European sailors of old times called The City of Seven Pagodas. The name of the town is Mahabalipuram. Before my journey began a friend told me that the temple on the town is Mahabalipuram. Before my journey began a friend told me that the temple on the shore was the most beautiful thing in the state of Madras, so rich in monuments, possibly the most beautiful sight in India, and maybe even the most beautiful sight of all. He must have been charmed by the sea—as many of us are. For that temple certainly does not deserve so much admiration. The cruel simplicity of its make-up and form has more to do with archeology than with art. Its value cannot be compared to the nearby bas-relief, carved in the rock. But, for all that is wondrously beautiful with the sea around it. The white foam and dark blue background of the sea are its ornaments; the indistinctive forms and vagueness of its sculptures caused by the polishing work of the waves are its value; and the tale of the three temples sunk without a trace (this one alone has remained to defy the sea for twelve centuries) is its accompanying music. But writing about the temple, I am not writing about beauty. I am trying to write about the revelation, which didn't occur to me when I tried to find the picture of Attica, which should have included temple, the sky, and the sea. Neither did it occur in Pisa where I felt disappointed because I couldn't see the sea from the leaning tower; nor even in Ravenna where I was delighted to hear the ship's whistle in the middle of the flat, fruit growing country.

I arrived in the afternoon, and spent a long time watching the bas-relief in the rock. The guides said that it was the largest in the world, but it certainly was the most familiar looking among the great works of art—and not pathetic at all. And perhaps the art of the temple seemed worthless because I turned to it after watching the bas-relief. But the combined impression that the temple and the sea left was very strong. It was late when I came to the temple. It was growing dark, and a kind of brownish mist was in the atmosphere. The mist was gathering over the land so that one could see only the temple and the sea that was behind it. Then I suddenly felt thrilled and excited. I had known that excitement before, but I used to describe its session (which would suddenly overcome me) as an experience of beauty or of admiration. That time, however, I discovered in it a clear and burning wish—a wish to stay there and never leave that place, to sink if necessary. It lasted just for a moment. And I knew that the temple on the shore was no more than a sign, a symbol, a short-cut through which the primordial longing surged, older than that for the darkness and warmth of the womb—longing for the dark depths of the water.

Translated by Bogdan Rakić