Saturday, January 17, 2009


The designer of Kanteerava, inspired by Legos as a child, limited his expression to boxy crenellations and bland geometry. The structures current crumbling decay makes it appear as if it was a particle board spec of the Roman Coliseum constructed during the bidding process before the designer was passed over for what would later be referred to as the ‘Baby Blue Fiasco’ since the only thing extraordinary about it was the color that stimulated the cornea while dampening the testosterone levels of all who entered. It probably resulted in all the misspent public funding and all the political acrimony usually only enjoyed by light rail projects.

The athletes that spill from the hostel onto the fields and courts encircling the grounds are not so much sinewy gladiators but instead sport the kind of gristle built of roti, idlis, and dosas in tiny, unsatisfying portions which are common meals and nothing more than flour and water in differing densities used to sop up masalas and curries made with vegetables so thoroughly boiled down that it would take a forensics team to identify the recipe. The stuff is tasty as heck once generously spiced, but still it’s all flavor and fill with no real fuel. The liberal addition of chilies is meant to shift attention from bellies burning with hunger to tongues burning with capsicum. It’s why I fear the stray dogs that hunt the grounds since I’m the most substantial prey to the roaming and the rabid and I expect that beyond my meaty frame, they can sense with the honed instincts of the under-nourished that my 400m run times are weak and easily chased down.

I walked towards the back gate of the stadium grounds on my way home from yet another weightlifting practice swinging the key to my apartment which requires no key chain since its so large I feel as if I’ve been granted an honorary key to a small village or perhaps my lock had been salvaged from a catacomb door behind which a cask of Amontillado was stored. My neighborhood is a crowded disorderly row of apartment buildings bound together with laundry strung like prayer flags. Encroaching the street are buildings with the pastel palate and the slender proportions of runway models enticing socialites with the have-to-have spring collection and scooters parked haphazardly at doorsteps like show props, it reminded me a little of Venice if Venice were overcome by the kind of disinterest in upkeep and accumulation of dust that might plague the city post nuclear fall-out and after the canals inexplicably went dry.

‘Do Not Commit Nuisance Here,’ is posted every five feet in a jaunty little cursive along a wall that is hosed down almost continually by a stream of urine from the auto drivers who eat at a Veg stall right outside the gate I was exiting. On my short walk home, I first weave through a flock of drivers who stand about like pigeons pecking Palav off metal plates. I sometimes want to toss rocks to see if they’ll squawk and flap or even mix Alka Seltzer in with their idlis to see if their tummies will explode. That’s only on mean days when practice goes badly.

Where the sidewalk mercifully widens, I’m confronted with the foulness of the splatter-patterned wall that looks like it was the scene of an attack by Super Soakers. Urine runs to the street in eight ounce streams. I tiptoe so that the puddles don’t soak my gel padded Addidas flip flops that have proven to be an unfortunate choice for India. Given that urine is rumored to be a spectacular cure for Athletes foot, my sandals are constantly on the brink of becoming nothing more than a medicinal applicator pad for a fungus I don’t even have.

I was even treated to full frontal nudity as a man squatted facing the street with his pants circling his ankles. He was defecating while waddling slowly forward to leave a broken dot/dash pattern on the sidewalk which I could only assume said something like ‘can you please spare some toilet paper?’ in Morse code. Apparently relieving oneself in public does not fall under the umbrella of ‘nuisance’ in India which I think needs to be defined more clearly.

“’YESH!’” Ganesh repeated for the fourth time only louder and more clearly enunciated, “WRITE IT!” My pen was left circling over paper without clearance to land as I was uncertain how exactly to represent ‘yesh’ on paper. I assumed it was a symbol similar to ‘the artist formerly known as Prince.’ “BUT IT’S NOT A LETTER IN THE ALPHABET!” I repeated between giggles at about the same volume and clarity. We had only tackled the first letter of ‘Sampangi Rama Nagar’, which is the name of my neighborhood, and already there were problems. My official address actually includes the words ‘Across from Kanteerava Stadium’ which has a friendly sort of chatty element to it like it should also naturally include a greeting to my postman and the common inquiry ‘have you had your breakfast?’ It lacks the sort of precision required for a 911 dispatch which in other countries is a reasonable goal for an address.

But then, I got to see first hand what a 911 response looks like here and I couldn’t help but wonder if service that poor is intentional. After all, in a country where agrarian ties are still strong, a practice like culling the herd makes good, practical sense though it would appear heartless if a token effort wasn’t made to respond during an emergency. A fumbled address was not a plausible excuse when one of the Athletes from Kanteerava, which is also across the street from Malya Hospital, injected himself with the medicinal equivalent of a ‘get rich quick scheme’ that in this country could have been a cocktail of veterinary meds, expired antibiotics bought over the counter and a pinch of turmeric. Whatever works especially since no one can be bothered doing the research when it comes to ‘performance enhancement’ schemes. I was horrified when, after he passed out in a room full of barbells, we were expected to hoist him up and carry him out to a jeep ourselves partly because the malnourished and barefoot ambulance crew of one could scarcely lift himself and partly because there was no such thing as a stretcher anyway.

Curious, I did a little cruise on an online PDR to research the black market elixir only to discover that the performance enhancer, though arguably tinkered with oxygen uptake in an agreeable way, also tended to make a person dizzy which seems like nothing but folly if you’re planning to throw significantly more than your body weight over your head in one rapid movement. Though his snatch numbers were high, his IQ appeared to be on the low side and consequently he and my sometimes female coach [or rather my always-female but sometimes coach] were bounced from the stadium program after lockers opened to the light of day exposed a pharmaceutical wet bar though given the run-down and dusty confines and the scattering of smudged bottles, probably more like Sid and Nancy’s bathroom. Athletic careers over, there were rumors of hasty marriages arranged on the next auspicious days after the drama.

This left me and Sharada Siddi to represent Kanteerava in the upcoming State weightlifting competition and though nothing had really changed, I felt obliged to collect the gold metal lost the moment the other female lifter was locked out of practice. And not that I didn’t stick out already considering I was the only white lifter competing, but walking into a meet in the shadow of Sharada – a lifter whose 53 Kilo frame was as solid, fast and fear-inducing as a medieval catapult – implied that I too would be a worthy competitor which wasn’t necessarily true. Like a major league pitcher in his rookie year who has a good arm but an unsettling habit of broadsiding batters with the occasional wild pitch, my snatch was still random and sometimes unrecognizable as one of the three required lifts.

After meditating one day – well, because this is India – I realized that part of my problem was a dysfunctional relationship with my equipment. If it’s true that we’re sending a message out into the universe that’s influencing our results, my message was as unclear to the universe as my English is to most of India. I approached a weighted bar with a kind of trepidation that had me almost sneaking up on it with the thought “hmmm, I wonder what it’s going to do this time.”
Refusing to take any responsibility for how things were going to go, I was letting the bar decide.

As diplomatic as that sounds, you can imagine the kind of results I got. I spent the next couple of weeks in what amounted to couples therapy with my 15K cohort and it started by kissing it hello. This sounds crazy but everybody in the gym, and as it would turn out, everybody at the meet, gave the bar some sort of referential peck. In my own act of American civil disobedience, I opted for a slippery, porn inspired smooch in the hopes that the other athletes would be strategically unsettled.

It was about the time that me and the bar renewed our vows – I promised to communicate more clearly, it promised not to maim or disfigure me – that’s when Sharada and Basava decided what weight class I would compete in and what my opening lifts should be. Basava or Basva which is pronounced ‘Baswa’ picked numbers that exceeded my one-rep-max by at least ten kilos. For the weight class, I’d have to lose two kilos. I tried to smile when he said, “you do,” the way he does. And that’s when all the fun began.

My thumbs, which have ached for at least a month now because they need to wrap around the bar during the snatch and then get tucked tightly under my fingers on the other side, began to throb. They especially complained every time I mounted my hands on my hips, a genetic marker identifying me as my mother’s daughter, and it’s something I do in the slight exasperation experienced when a trainer offers completely unfounded reasons why Arnold Schwartzenegger should be president of the United States other than his political leanings of which they know nothing. And this topic comes up often, by the way.

I’ve stopped listening and/or replying whenever Arnold’s name gets a mention and I think we all enjoy that better. In fact, I’d wager the guarantee of silence on my part is why the topic is so persistent. I just mount my battered thumbs on my hips making the experience all the more painful and try not to imagine that their collective will might materialize in a Schwartzenegger ‘Terminator in Chief’ simply because India made it so. And, not because I know much about Arnold’s political leanings either but because I never want to see that look on all the trainer’s faces that says that Arnold’s presidency alone confirms that silly things like data and facts have no place in an intelligent argument. Ganesh is even now refusing to listen to a word I have to say about body building which he’s decided I know absolutely nothing about for the sole reason that I didn’t know Arnold had four kids until he told me.

It’s times like this that I yearn to scurry off to the dusty, warped plates of Kanteerava and away from the Bollywood Glamaerobics of Gold’s Gym. The trainers are wonderful and friendly but just when I think I’m on the brink of an actual conversation with one of them, I catch their eyes dart to the mirror as they check their own biceps. Yep, still there.

In some outdated textbook somewhere there’s a chapter about how quickly lean mass melts away like Ghee. Since, I’m told, books are almost always stolen in-transit, any efforts to correct that misconception have been lost to the black market. As a result, I expect there’s a Crash Cart and a protocol inspired by ‘ER’ that administers an emergency dose of Dumbbell Concentration Curls to any trainer whose vital bicep circumferential measurements dip below normal. They can’t resist peeling back their shirts and having a little fling with themselves in the mirror periodically and I, a hopeless romantic myself, don’t wish to be an obstacle in the path to true self love. I just stand quietly in my Gold‘s gym T-Shirt and try to pretend that the insignia on the front isn’t encouraging an obscene act – that of an innocent Olympic Bar being curled for the sake of pretty arms. Should you ever attempt to do that in a CrossFit gym, you would be soundly beaten – for time.

Days in which you’ve hit an all-time low are never planned and aren’t scrawled on calendars anywhere in the appropriate pen color that would designate such a thing. They’re more of an interesting road sign that you notice on your way to somewhere else. Take Bucksnort, Tennessee for which I noticed an exit off the highway in 1995 while driving across country. I didn’t go to Bucksnort, had never planned on it but now I know where it is and have a photo taken out the passenger window to remind me. On Tuesday, January 5th I had a meal of egg whites with no salt and Nescafe instant coffee with no sugar. I hit a culinary low and have noted where it is. I can now measure bad taste by asking myself the question, “Oh, this is bad but is it Egg-Whites-and-Nescafe bad or just bad?” It was previously the question, “Is it boiled-peanuts-outside-Atlanta bad or just bad?” but that was a low water mark set in the 80s and the true ‘badness’ has worn thin over time. This new badness will be defined by whether or not I have the urge to lick my own arm between bites just for flavor.

Without the culinary magic of egg whites au natural, it would have been easy enough to lose the two kilos but any drastic cut in calories would have affected my ability to lift which would have made last minute cramming out of the question. The snatch had never been particularly heavy just poorly executed. I could bully it - knock it down and taken its lunch money - but I couldn’t keep it overhead which means I still needed to practice with a good amount of volume. I cleaned up my proteins, removed as much carbohydrate as possible without killing my recovery and shifted to full-gear intermittent fasting which means my last meal of the day was at 2:30p after which I would eat nothing else until breakfast. My caloric intake remained the same which allowed for the training but try telling that to my rumbly belly that kept suggesting tasty little snack options that would pair nicely with my cinnamon tea - suggestions that kept getting between me and my e-mail. Oh, “peanut Chikki” my tummy would coo, “not the brittly kind but the dry, cookie-like peanut-buttery stuff they sell at Thoms Bakery, mmm.” Then, less sweetly, “Hey! Did you frickin’ hear me up there!”

I’m not saying there was joy in my heart. I threatened to kill Ganesh daily and meant it. That was especially true on the day that the ‘long fellow’ - because Ganesh isn’t familiar with the word ‘tall’ - passed along a solid misshapen Tirupati Laddu, a mass of baked good, that was heavy, lumpy, studded with raisins and cashews and meant for Ganesh. It looked like a scone that had been birthed. It was ‘Food of the Gods’ brought back from Tirupati where it was made only there but gobbled up all over India when brought back as prasadam. I made disparaging comments about how Indians had simply stolen it off the plate of British High Tea, repackaged it, improvised randomly, called it something else and then got defensive about it if you ever implied it could be made better. “You know, like they do with all their other cheap knock-offs!” I said trailing off my rant as I faced the blank stare and a mustache full of crumbs on the man who lost me three words into my rapid-fire English hissy fit. Really it was grade school hair-pulling and I yearned to swallow it whole. So, apparently, did Ganesh as he indulged in the kind of lip-smacking noisy maceration that would drive my sister nuts. Instead, I just threatened to kill him.

On the last night before the event, finally two kilos lighter and about twenty degrees colder thanks to the distant memory that was my last meal, Sharada called from Mangalore. She had become a really exceptional coach to me in the last few weeks even though, as an athlete competing in the same event, it really wasn’t her job. The man who has that title trains telepathically, I gather. Though I grew to truly appreciate her, I usually screened her calls. We could work most things out in person but her understanding of the English language was very poor and my understanding of Kanada was completely non-existent so that phone calls were impossible and usually ended with one of us sort of randomly hanging up when noise stopped. Given the timing however, I answered and what she said in her clearest English ever was that I needed to gain the weight back before morning.

When I got off the phone, I deliberated. The girl in me wanted to stay lighter, use the momentum to make a bid for my skinny jeans and pack on the difference with water I’d drink right before I weighed-in. The lifter worried that two kilos of water would make me throw up when my belly hit my thighs at the bottom of the squat. My freezing cold hand flipped both of them the finger and tore open a package of peanut chikki with my teeth to shove between my purple lips before I scooped up my bag and headed for the bus. Part of me worried that Sharada would change her mind again. That would have caused stress except that the Sari factory downstairs was in production later than usual because of the daily mid-day power outages and the thump, thump of the loom acts as a sort of pacemaker until my heart rate aligns with the pulse of the silk and gold threads. I only notice it during moments when I can sense stress but just end up feeling out of sorts like a tickly sneeze that wont trigger or when the power goes out and I wonder if I'm going into ventricular-fib.

Peanut chikki, with it’s near 50/50 proportions of sugar and fat, is not a snack that can be easily undone and as it was Sharada did waver a couple of times when news came that the lifter whose weight class I was trying to bail out of had gained weight as well. We talked about it in the morning as if losing the two kilos again before the event was going to be anything other than a miracle. I had already used up my one miracle getting there alive and I was tired from all the earnest prayer through the all-night bus ride. No wonder Hindus make no effort to convert the masses, given that India's roadways are a route to God.

I would have assumed that going from Bangalore to Mangalore is simply a backspace followed by a poke two keys to the right on a QWERTY keyboard but that’s just because I’ve always been a smart ass. By the time I arrived at Mangalore Town Hall I had spent at least eight hours in a sleeper coach and, though I didn’t notice until the way back when I was no longer playing ‘good snatch/bad snatch’ in my head, I’m pretty sure we simply aimed the bus towards Mangalore and drove over whatever stood between Point A and Point B, road or no road. I was so cold both on the way there and on the way back that I was about to gut a passenger and crawl inside the carcass for warmth but one look at the scrawny travelers and I could see there was nothing in my size. The best I could have done is fashion a shawl and some ear muffs.

When I got to Mangalore Town Hall I was confronted with the Indian equivalent of the Pine Grove Grange with a stage and a sign courtesy of Bank of India that read, “Wishing The Function A Very Success.” Um, thanks. One of the organizers greeted me warmly when I arrived which I think was big of him since it turned out he was the secretary of the weightlifting association, had on office in Kanteerava stadium, likely knew the coach was a no-show and had just found out recently that there was a white girl letting herself into the building for the last couple of months. He was not a man with a bald spot but a bald man with a hair spot that originated at the extreme lower corner of his head to the left of the medulla obbligato. It flapped excitedly from time to time and because it looked like a creature in its own right, I watched to see if the movement was caused by one of the oscillating fans or if something was making it happy. He had taken the splotch of hair, weaved it into a lacey mesh and swirled it around his head like soft-serve ice cream. Donald Trump should pay this man to stand next to him in photos.

As I watched the competition commence it appeared that most of the lifters in the low weight classes were skinny teenagers living on meager rations with a dancer’s flexibility and good technique. They had the balls to step under falling weight but not the brawn to support it. Most of them lacked the raw materials for anything other than their opening lifts which is apparently all the propulsion one gets from roti. There were a few lifters scattered through the weight-classes that were solidly built and technically proficient and I couldn’t come near their numbers. Sharada was obviously one of them and ended the day with the Best Lifter distinction as well as her usual Gold with combined lifts of 147 Kilos.

She’s been lifting for fifteen years and works for Karnataka State Police where she is paid only to train and compete which is sad in a way considering that she’s the only police officer I’ve seen that appears to be fit enough for the job. I was able to determine based on the jeep parked in a quiet, shady spot outside the stadium, that the hat worn by officers which is flattened on the left side for what I thought was a stylish flair is actually a practical feature which allows officers to sleep in full uniform lolling their heads to the flat-side so as not to crush their brim.

Before she completed her lifts, she sent me back-stage for the weigh in which I was able survive by downing a protein shake and thinking heavy thoughts. The mood itself was made heavy by the official in charge who was working extra hard to give all the appearances of officiating including a stern inquisition. It lacked any real bite since I didn’t have to produce any documentation or proof of any kind other than, “What, I don’t look Indian? I get that all the time.” ‘How long have you lived in Bangalore? Where do you work? What do you do? Are you married? Where’s your family? Where do you live? Who do you live with?’ Throw in a question or two about religion and salary along with the obvious what do you weigh, soften the tone slightly and you’ve got a replay of the first conversation I have with everyone in India. They appear to be fond of prying questions and passport sized photos. It wasn’t tough to navigate.

The fact that I wasn’t wearing underwear was a much tougher conversation since she wanted me to strip naked and I wanted to leave my pants on, understandably. Not that I’m shy but I was already being stared at like something in a jar full of formaldehyde by a group of skinny teenagers in the corner. It was expected given that the black hair and pale skin is a little Edward Scissorhands under bright light. I had also accumulated angry red mosquito bites all over my arms that were accentuated by a yellow-stain of Turmeric - the cure for everything. They formed a constellation that predicted the rise of Venus over my left elbow any day now.

Had I stripped completely I fear I would have stopped the show. Instead the official peered down the front of my pants for a few awkward moments and then snapped my waistband a little unnecessarily before scratching down a number. She moved safely back to her seat before she treated me to well-intentioned information regarding the importance of undergarments in a voice loud enough to warn the villagers.

Before I was called to warm up, the two college students loading the bar stopped, rolled the weights off the platform and brought out five black metal chairs with red plastic seats that must have been shipped from a bankrupt House of Pizza somewhere in New England when, after a few short years, the lunch of nitrates consumed daily in the pound of deli meat stuffed in a 12 inch Grinder finally killed all the regulars. The chairs were aligned along the platform and five bureaucrats aligned themselves placing their buts in the seats.

There were speeches and honors bestowed which was evident by the garlands that went over the heads of each official only to be popped off as quickly as the rings of a ring toss at a rigged carnival game. The garlands were more spectacular than those offered free when ordering a Scorpion Bowl at Larry’s Chinese Food in Providence, Rhode Island in the 90s where the food was lousy but you were never carded, yet slightly less showy than anything draped on the Kentucky Derby’s winning horse during the post-race photo shoot. Either way, they were stripped off and tossed onto a coffee table in what would turn out to be the most lively moments of the whole presentation. Nobody was willing to translate for me but given that we were all equally slumped and slackjawed by the end of it, I guess it’s just as well.

There were pieces of plywood thrown on the ground outside in the tent where we did our warm-up. My wooden Adidas lifting shoes made their usual mighty smack which drew a murmuring crowd like munchkins admiring Dorothy’s ruby slippers. This was in spite of the fact that we only had ten minutes to get close to our max weight overhead. Sharada shooed everyone away, secured a place for me at the bar and set up my weights. It was like having a roadie.

The funny thing about poor technique versus weakness is that everything goes up solidly until, within a kilo, it just doesn’t. It made me look fierce in the warm-up which even had the weigh-in official commenting about me admiringly as if I was wearing underwear.

The event itself is as blurry as the audience, obscured by the stage lighting. My name was called and I did what I knew to do with as much control as anyone has over movements that take a millisecond. For that I won gold.

Competitions are never a measure of who we are just a measure of where we are at that moment. But we have to keep making it mean more or who would work that hard, sacrifice that much or subject themselves to all the pain? The coach in me had a pretty good idea of where I was at and what I could do going into the Karnataka State Weightlifters’ Association State Senior Weightlifting Championship / 2008 even without the medal but every now and then I create situations that force me to show up and deal with what it takes for me to show up. I almost never want to for a variety of wheeny reasons that I always have to straighten out in my head and no matter what I’ve lifted, that’s where I get the strongest. The final results may refocus my training but it does nothing really to measure the athlete who shows up every day to deal with whatever there is to deal with and that comes between me and the work if I let it.

At the end of the event, the happy-haired secretary congratulating me and told me that he had expected to see me lift at least 20 kilos more as if he had actually monitored my progress through some regular and secret reporting. I suspect the security guard may have been spying as he had recently learned some English and while handing me the keys grilled me one afternoon with the one question on everybody’s mind. “Have you had your breakfast?”

Thursday, January 8, 2009


On an episode of ‘This American Life,’ Starlee Kine documented her efforts to deal with a break-up by attempting to write the perfect torch song with the help of Phil Collins who she randomly called for insight. Kine and her ex had been fans of Collins’ song ‘Against All Odds’ and at the point her boyfriend ended their relationship, Kine couldn’t help but say, “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all,” earnestly but unintentionally blurting the song lyrics during her moment of heartbreak. At a loss for words of her own, Collins had pretty much summed it up. She didn’t say it, but I’m assuming she wished she could fly the earth backwards for a Superman-style cosmic rewind, Mother Nature in a gesture of understanding cooperating to grant an epic do-over.

As I listened to the show, I thought about my 7th grade crush on Harold Clough and the long march through ‘American Top 40’ on a Saturday morning listlessly lying on the floor in PJs – though I lifted my head occasionally to unwisely shush my mother who was clearly unaware of my devastation but through an act of motherly clairvoyance happened to be making pancakes which offer comfort for damn near anything. They seem to soak up sorrow as efficiently as they sop up sweet, sticky syrup. I was trying to record the song on a cassette player placed next to the stereo speaker so that I could endlessly replay it for the next several weeks rewinding the tape as often as I rewound each moment in my head leading up to my tragedy. I believe the break-up malaise lasted six times longer than the relationship itself but ended just short of the tape being chewed to pieces by the cassette player after it began to warp and wobble with wear.

Oddly the heartbreak I most recently suffered only sort of crossed my mind but maybe that’s because it was less of a ‘falling’ out of love like an accidental trip over untied shoelaces and more of a blind-sided flying elbow off the ropes and therefore not the stuff of poignant love songs and reflections on loss but more of a mugging followed by PTSD nightmares and a fear of crowded shopping malls. This wasn’t the time to fantasize Prince Charming coming back to me; against all odds might I add, for any other reason than to check my pulse and finish me off if by some miracle I still happened to be alive. And that’s not Phil Collins territory, that’s Courtney Love's violent 'Violet' followed by Alanis Morissette after your throat goes hoarse from screaming ‘Go on take everything! Take everything I want you to!”

Since ‘Break-up’ aired, ‘Against All Odds’ has been tiptoeing into my consciousness and because India has me feeling just as awkward and vulnerable as a walk down the hall past Harold’s locker while trying to ‘act normal’, I find myself singing it with abandon even in public. This culminated in a stroll home from work where I sang it so loudly that I could actually hear my unruly vocals over the pretense of the polished pop icon that performs in my head and pretends to be what I sound like. I was an off-key, back-up singer to my electronically-altered ego. I’d pause occasionally to check if I was the source of the shrieking or if it was necessary to dive out of the path of calamity. I’m convinced the apocalypse starts with an unpleasant noise that could quite possibly sound a lot like me.

Even at that volume on a crowded sidewalk during rush hour with the gargling and throat clearing of diesel rikshaws everywhere along with care horns that sound like referee whistles as if everyone urgently wants a time out, nobody could hear me. And it made perfect sense that in a country that manages to cram six dance numbers into every film regardless of plot brevity, I could squeeze a ballad into a twenty minute walk. Though I passed the bus stop bothering nobody but lip readers, I was still a little disappointed that the women didn’t line up for a moment to synchronize a series of mimed movements that looked a little like housework on horseback. I was pleased to see the low-riding lungi wearers doing nothing but walking carefully forward, however. Apparently American hip hop has a greater influence on the thin cotton sarong men here are so fond of wearing which is sported loosely knotted and saggy-assed with a hem hiked so high that I fear the knobby knees are not the only knobs enjoying the occasional breeze. I can’t get myself to look.

When I stood for fifteen minutes to cross a street with no signal, I giggled a little when I got to the line, “take a look at me now, I’ll still be standing here, but to wait for you is all I can do and that’s what I’ve got to face . . . . .” which I sang at full volume with open arms aimed at the blunt front of busses. And yes, I was being stared at.

What I had to face when I got home however, was the shrill vintage Bollywood movie numbers some kindhearted tenant in the next building shares with everyone that a cheaply made Indian electronic device can strain to reach. Just one octave higher and it would be a problem for stray dogs only. It chased Phil back into the place in my brain where he curls up for naps which is a place I’d gladly follow if I knew it was quiet.

It is believed in India that the universe began with sound rather than light and it is believed by me that Indians have been making a racket ever since. What I keep finding however, is that threads of this culture are woven from ancient wisdom which has usually faded to a point that only tradition, and even the occasional annoying habit, is left inexplicably in place. The fact that everything is damn loud is just the way things are here to the point that you’re blasted into a movie seat like you’re on a Tilt ‘a Whirl by the force of sound alone. In the case of my noisy neighbor, he was unwittingly breathing life back into the trees across the street which would explain why they all didn’t choke to death years ago. This dates back to an ancient practice called Agnihotra which cleanses the environment with fire and then fertilizes the soil with ash but has at its source a powerful sound.

“Dried dung is placed in an inverted copper pyramid, the size of a monk’s begging bowl, stepped like a ziggurat, along with a spoonful of ghee, a handful of rice, and a pinch of redolent sandalwood. The strange assortment is set ablaze – to the accompaniment of a mantra chanted in Sanskrit – as curling pearl-grey smoke rises from lapping red and blue flames to purify, or so the devotees claim, the surrounding atmosphere, miraculously increasing the quantity and quality of fruits and vegetables grown in the area. Agni in Sanskrit means ‘Fire,” and hotra “the act of purification.” This is explained in ‘Secrets of the Soil’ by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird [Pg 245] What’s interesting is that when a Yogi named Vasant V. Paranjpe came from Poona, southeast of Mumbai, to New York in 1972 on a mission to spread the purifying wisdom of the Vedas, he pointed not to the flame itself but to the sound as the source of Agnihotra's impact.

“Asked what he considered to be the formative force in Agnihotra, Vasant replied without a moment’s hesitation: “Sound. If you test Agnihotra with an oscilloscope, you will hear a special sound coming from the fire. It is a sound that heals. All the other physical things are there, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, but the key is the sound. If you are subtle enough, you can detect it. Fire produces sound, but it also reacts to sound. If you sing special vibration while the fire burns in the pyramid there is a resonance effect. Ancient science states that it invigorates the cells of plants and helps the reproductive cycle. Resonance plays a vital part in nature. We have to consider a healing molecular spectrum far beyond the infrared, indeed beyond the whole electromagnetic spectrum.”

Had I not been running into all kinds of places in which Indian culture continually trumps science or at least overlaps it in inexplicable ways, I may have filed this ceremony under ‘Colorful Hooey’. More convincingly though, was this notation from the same chapter, “From Europe we received reports of a group of scientists in Rovinj, Yugoslavia, experimenting to establish just what Agnihotra does, and how. Their interest had been aroused by the discovery that after they had burned the required ingredients in the copper pyramid their instruments failed to pick up radioactivity in the immediate area, an anomaly since the Chernobyl disaster, which irradiated, along with large parts of Europe, even their small Adriatic seaport on the Istrian peninsula in the province of Croatia. The Yugoslavs also learned that groups of subcontinent Indians living within the borderlands of the Soviet Union who used dried cow dung to seal their huts were unaffected by the radioactive contamination.” [Pg 251]

As I’ve mentioned, I have found no shortage of dung afoot. Though I’m not sure it’s reduced radioactivity, I can say with no scientific evidence whatsoever that the shit on my flip flops seems to have preserved my pink pedicure rather nicely. I can’t help but think with all the magical properties of cow dung and all its medicinal uses in Ayurvedic medicine, it begins to explain why the cow is so revered here and why Poojas persist.

Not only does Agnihotra stimulate plant growth in communities that owe their vitality to the crops they grow, but the crops themselves owe their vitality to the liveliness of the community growing up around them. It is proven that plants respond to sound of certain frequency and Tompkins and Bird reported the results of tests done using traditional Indian music played for plants. “The first cassette, using Hindu melodies called ragas, suitable to an Indian ear, and apparently delightful to both bird and plant, induced stomata to imbibe more than seven times the amount of foliar-fed nutrients, and even absorb invisible water vapor in the atmosphere that exists, unseen and unfelt, in the driest of climatic conditions.” And here’s where I laughed out loud after being exposed to many a marathon Tamil movie featuring women’s vocal stylings akin to a squeaky screen door, “But the sound proved irritating to American horticulturalists and farmers, especially women, apart from those few whose tastes for the exotic accepted ragas as in vogue.” [Pg 135] For the love of my Aloo Gobi, I’ll refrain from lubing the throats of Bollywood darlings with WD-40.

As much as plants are capable of reacting positively to sound, they can also be sadly stunted on farms run by raving lunatics so for the sake of sanity, the scientists switched to classical music relying heavily on Vivaldi as his composition ‘Spring’ mimicked birdsong and matched the necessary frequency without driving farmers berserk. In fact, it was bird song that initially stimulated growth but as birds disappeared thanks to the toxicity of chemical farming driving away both the birds and the worms that they feed on, crop growth slowed, a problem that was immediately addressed with still more chemicals.

“Normally healthy and long-lived, earthworms are discouraged if not killed outright by any pesticides and most chemical fertilizers. Copper sulfate, in concentrations near the surface of the soil, even in only 260 parts per million, can drastically reduce the worm population and any nitrogenous fertilizer will quickly wipe them out. Nearly all commercial brands contain high levels of nitrogen in the form of ammonia, which destroys earthworms by creating intolerably high acidic soil.” [Secrets of the Soil Pg 48] It doesn’t sound all that heartbreaking unless you’re a fan of slimy things or in need of bait. That is, unless you understand what night crawlers do.

“One of the principal functions of the earthworm is to consume available mineral nutrients, and, by actions of enzymes in their digestive tract, render them water soluble, easily absorbable by the root hair of plants, to be made available in turn to the cells of plants, animals and man.”[Secrets of the Soil pg 46-47] Yes, your health depends on a steady diet of what is essentially worm poop.

Jerry Minnich in 'The Earthworm Book' explained that Egypt’s advanced civilization along the Nile Delta owed its very existence to earthworms as other areas with equally ideal climates and rich soils were unable to develop complex civilizations because they were incapable of meeting the basic agricultural needs of the people. “An agricultural report on investigations carried out in the valley of the Nile in 1949, before the folly of the Aswan Dam, indicated that the great fertility of the soil was due in large part to the work of earthworms. It was estimated that during the six month of active growing season each year the castings of earthworms on these soils amounted to a stunning 120 tons per acre, and in each handful of that soil are more microorganisms than there are humans on the planet.” [Secrets of the Soil Pg 41]

I’ve been engrossed lately in this topic as I’ve started to examine nutrient density and the content of vegetable matter digging a bit deeper than I’ve dug before – into dirt. “It’s not what kind of food you eat,” said John Hamaker an engineer-farmer and co-author of ‘The Survival of Civilization’, “Man’s intestinal tract is a root turned inside out. The purpose of eating food is to recreate a population of soil organisms in the intestinal tract.” [Pg 193] as quoted in ‘Secrets of Soil.’ With all my talk about the importance of gut microbes, I never considered how much bioavailability depends on not just intestinal mucosa but the microbial richness of the food itself. But just like your gut, you can decimate a microbial population in the soil without apocalyptic results. Well, at least not immediately. So the problem of dead soil can be triaged with chemical fertilizer and, though the crop looks the same, the difference in nutrient density is staggering. When you consider that fertile soil produces vegetables with at least 20% greater protein density, you can begin to understand how in a country with vast numbers of vegetarians, in combination with many other factors, India’s population is suffering from more and more health problems.

Even if Indians adopt little of western tastes thanks to an influx of cheap imported processed foods, they’re traditional meals become less nutrient dense simply by adopting western farming practices. This is something they did in 1961 when India, on the brink of mass famine, looked westward. Mexico had already seen successes working with American organizations to assist in what would later be referred to as the Green Revolution and so India embarked on a revolution of it’s own by importing wheat seed, adopting IR8 – a high-yield semi-dwarf rice variety that could produce almost ten tons per hectare under ‘optimal conditions’, instituting a program of plant breeding, developing irrigation and, yes, providing the necessary financing for agrochemicals.

Just like healing the gut, the first steps in healing our food is to first grow an abundant crop without toxic input so that the output is not only nontoxic but yields bioavailable nutrients. This should cause us to look back at methods that predate the advent of chemicals when the vitality of plant life meant life itself to the native populations. Historically, there were many thriving agrarian populations to draw wisdom from but our history with indigenous populations, especially Native Americans, has not been one of shared respect and cooperation and we’ve been slow to recognize even now what is owed to ancient technology. Had it not been for the early agriculturalists, we may not have had even a place to start.

“Ironically, if the American farmer had to grow only species native to the United States, we would be living off of Jerusalem artichokes, pecans, black walnuts, sunflower seeds, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, and gooseberries. To paraphrase the contemporary Kenyan economist Calestous Juma, the exploitation of tropical plant resources by the United States has turned a continent of berries into a global agricultural power,” wrote Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D. in ‘Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice’. [Pg 16]

“Pre-Columbian farmers, without benefit of the wheel or draft animals, discovered and domesticated more than half of the modern world’s seven major food crops – corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and cassava – as well as tomatoes, peanuts, chili peppers , chocolate, vanilla, pineapples, papayas, passion fruit and avocados. The annual global market value of corn alone is worth $12 billion – more than the value of the gold and silver stolen by the rapacious conquistadores. And the Indians’ agriculture systems are as impressive as their crops. When Dr. Alan Kolata, an anthropologist with the University of Chicago worked with Amerindians in Bolivia to resurrect pre-Columbian farming systems, the crops yield increased sevenfold,” Continued Plotkin. [Pg 17]

On the same subject, ‘Secrets of the Soil’ said, “American archeologists have discovered an advanced system of agriculture practiced by a pre-Inca civilization more than three thousand years ago in the Peruvian Andes. Using canals and three-foot-high raised beds, thirteen to thirty-three feet wide, and three hundred feet long, prehistoric farmers were able to reap bumper crops in the face of flood, drought, and killing frosts, with no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides they were able to outproduce modern agricultural technologies.”

“An article in the Science section of the New York Times of November 22, 1988, describes how modern Peruvians, using nothing but ancient instruments and reconstructed pre-Inca platforms have reproduced an agriculture so hardy and so inexpensive as to form the basis for a new and healthier Green Revolution. The cost is minimal, amounting to no more than the human labor involved. Sediment in the canals from nitrogen-rich green algae and plant and animal remains provides natural fertilizer that in tests far outstripped chemically fertilized fields.”

“Millions more abandoned platforms have been found through Latin America. Dr. Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology/Anthropology, responsible for the discovery, hopes the old Inca system can be reintroduced as a replacement for the uneconomic capital-intensive systems so dependent on expensive machinery and fertilizers.” Page 123

Said Raoul Adamchak, an organic farmer, in a documentary produced for public television called 'Silent Killer - The Unfinished Campaign Against Hunger' which examines starvation and malnutrition globally, “I really was pleased that recently there was an article in Science Magazine about building organic matter in the soils” said Adamchak, “we are talking about people who cannot afford the inputs of conventional agriculture. This article mentioned that fertilizer, which sold for a $100 a ton in England, was $300 a ton by the time it got to the coast in Africa, and $700 a ton by the time it got inland.” In prerevolutionary Paris, propaganda circulated in flyers attributed the words “Let them eat cake!” to Marie Antoinette - though it was something she never actually said - in response to a question of what the peasants would do if they couldn’t afford to buy simple staples like bread. It was meant to sum up her complete inability to understand the plight of the working class but it more aptly sums up the efforts of America’s chemical companies and their understanding of the needs and the means of third-world farmers.

What we often forget is that most technological advancement is commerce-driven which means that when the driver is revenue, things like public health and wellbeing come, at very least, second. In the world of pharmaceuticals, that should be really clear by now. There was a time what a lot of pharmaceutical research was plant-based but there is more money to be made in synthetic chemistry when patents, property issues and profit margins are clear. It mirrors the advancements in agriculture with a similar timeline and bottom-line agenda.

“The plant kingdom has long served as humankind’s primary source of therapeutic compounds. This began to change in the 1930’s with the advent of synthetic chemistry, and was cemented in the 1950s with the introduction of laboratory-bred “wonder drugs,” such as the antibacterial sulfonamides, or sulfa drugs. Predictably, the American pharmaceutical industry quickly lost interest in natural products as sources of potential medicines.” Said Plotkin in ‘Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, “Powerful laboratory drugs like the sulfonamides and the sedative diazepam (better known as Valium) have given some chemists the illusion that synthetic chemistry is the sole future of new drug discovery. Smug scientists congratulating themselves on “inventing” new drugs led the anthropologist Robert De Ropp to wryly observe that ‘some chemists, having synthesized a few compounds believe themselves to be better chemists than nature which, in addition to synthesizing compounds too numerous to mention, synthesized those chemists as well.’”. [Pg 14] In the same way, scientists develop fertilizers and pesticides forgetting at times that these are problems Mother Nature has had a way of tackling all by herself and that ancient farmers were often wise enough to work with in cooperation.

Hans Herren, a Swiss entomologist, has been working in Africa on the biological control of pests and disease in natural and sustainable ways and has won numerous awards for his work. During his interview in ‘Silent Killer’ he discussed his approach to the stem borer, “With the stem borers we were looking for solutions which the farmer could apply without accruing costs, like using insecticides. So we developed a system push-pull,” Said Herren, “We found that Napier grass attracts stem borers and desmodium attracts beneficial insects, and both are very widely grown as fodder for livestock. We tried to bring the pieces together, to rearrange a puzzle within the field in such a way that brought many, many benefits. One benefit was controlling the stem borer. Another one was attracting beneficial insects that are the enemies of the stem borer. We also discovered by chance, that desmodium suppresses striga, which is the witch weed, a tremendous problem for maize and sorghum crops in all of Africa. In addition, desmodium, being a legume, fertilizes the soil as it grows by enriching nitrogen. Desmodium also protects the soil from erosion and increases the moisture retention, because it covers the soil in a permanent way.”

Technology in farming and farming equipment has led to a system that is profitable to some powerful American businesses while detrimental to the farmer as a whole. “I’ve talked to nearly a thousand farmers in these prairie states,” said Fred Kirschenmann, a farmer in South Dakota whose interviews appear in ‘The Secret of Soil’, “and not a single one of them told me: ‘Chemicals are terrific, just the thing we need for farming in the future.’ What they told me almost to a man is that in their guts and hearts they know something is fearfully wrong about the way they’ve been advised to operate their farms. But they shrug helplessly, or stare at the ground and ask what they can do which is nothing. Then they say sadly: ‘That’s how it is. One more bad year and I’m scheduled for service by the sheriff.’” [Pg 76-77]

Kirschenmann converted his fields and is now farming Biodynamically, which is defined in Wikipedia as “a method of organic farming that has its basis in a spiritual world-view (anthroposophy, first propounded by Rudolf Steiner), treats farms as unified and individual organisms,[1] emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system.[2] Regarded by some proponents as the first modern ecological farming system,[3] biodynamic farming includes organic agriculture's emphasis on manures and composts and exclusion of the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include the use of fermented herbal and mineral preparations as compost additives and field sprays and the use of an astronomical sowing and planting calendar.”

“In the Drift Prairie area, costs for fertilizers and weed-bug killers run $60 to $70 an acre, which for a section of land means $40,000 or more. When that cost is compared to Fred Kirchenmann's input of $1.50 for clover seed per acre, plus $3 an acre for the biodynamic preps – a savings of more than $36,000 on his 2,100-acre spread, it is economically puzzling why farmers constantly faced with bankruptcy do not convert to organic or BD agriculture. The main stumbling block appears to be fear of a single year’s failure, for which the bank could rapidly foreclose.” [Secrets of the Soil Pg 76]

That mentality of corn, corn, more corn, and corn only,” Kirschenmann said, “Accounted for why the massive use of herbicides first took hold in the Corn Belt. Weeds love and thrive in a monoculture environment, such as is being widely accepted in cereal-grain regions, even though it is wholly unnatural. Monoculture crept up here gradually when larger farmers were talked into getting rid of their cattle, plowing up their pasture land, cutting down all the windbreak trees so carefully planted after the 1930s dust bowl, and putting the whole of their acreage into cultivation, concentrating on one, or at the most two, main cash crops. The transition, fostered by Extension Service advisers, began to really take hold on the late 1960s and early 1970s. The advisers were telling producers that this was the only way they could survive.” [Secrets of the Soil Pg 75]

I personally worked for ASCS - the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services which was formed in 1961 as an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture which merged with the Farm Service Agency in 1994 - as a first job when I was 16 years old in rural New Hampshire where Vocational Agriculture was a popular highschool elective in spite of the fact that being a ‘Vo-Agger’ was not by any means a route to popularity. Besides being told by my military-molded supervisor, Bruce Lake, to always put my pencil down facing north to cultivate my attention to detail, I was taught to examine black and white aerial photographs to verify corn acreage. Farmers were being paid to grow corn for the sake of ‘soil conservation’ because it discouraged erosion, and then paid again not to harvest it because of the glut of corn on the market. It made no sense to me as a teenager and it makes less sense to me now. It should also be noted that at the present time, I have no earthly clue which way my pencil is facing though given my proximity to the Muslim markets, I could point towards Mecca faster than I can figure out which way is north.

Monocropping, policed with such attention to detail by the ASCS, has generally been accepted practice for American farmers and is the source of many of the problems that crop up later in the season as well as at the market. Australian Farmer Barry Ahearn grows sugar cane and switched his growing practices to produce a biodynamic crop after being influenced by Alex Podolinsky whose central message is “if it’s true that you are what you eat, then at this moment, most of us and our livestock are a complicated chemical cocktail of insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, weedicides, and synthetic fertilizer.” The large-scale movement towards Biodynamic farming in Australia has as much to do with Podolinsky’s advice as the persistent failure of both crops and the chemicals used on them which has driven farmers on a search for alternatives.

Said Ahearn, “Alex explained to me how vegetables can be intersown with young cane plants as an extra-income crop, so long as enough space is allowed them, and that they’d generate money while I waited for the cane to mature. Add to this the fact that the vegetables are being raised biodynamically, which give me a higher market price. It’s all part of getting away from the insane monoculture of sugar cane, a system which only contributes to the degradation of the soil. Since getting into BD about two years ago, I’ve been taking an honest look at things, for the first time in my life. Now I know that all the weeds and ‘rubbish’ coming up in the fields all over the place – stuff you never would have seen years ago – is due to bad farming practices, for over a generation now, such as the continued uninterrupted growing of the same crop, forced by the greed factor. It’s a system that actually suits the weeds.” [Secrets of Soil Pg 68]

These are the sorts of practices we’ve kindly shared with other countries and it’s this type of thinking that has led to disastrous results as we continually fail to understand the cultivar or the local culture. Ethiopia is a prime example according to Pat Roy Mooney author of the 1979 book ‘Seeds of the Earth’ and leader in the effort to promote a wide diversity of seed for the world of farmers. His work is discussed in ‘Secrets of the Soil’, “Teff, a low-yielding but high-protein extraordinarily drought-resistant Ethiopian grain that western scientists, knowing little about, have recommended be replaced with corn or wheat. Pat Mooney has seen fields of it flourishing next to African corn so drought-stricken as to resemble fields of withered onions”.

“A main reason,” chides Mooney, “why people are dying of famine on that continent is because of rotten western agricultural advice. We do it with the best of intentions – not a mean bone in our bodies – but not much humility either.” [Secrets of Soil Pg 155]

Obviously drought resistance is important in Africa as well as other characteristics that are a priority to local producers but not necessarily compatible with high-yield harvesting. “The characteristics that the farmers look for in their crop are very different from a commercial person. And one of the things that they like about my maize is that it’s not bred to be a commercial crop. The farmers do not necessarily think of maize in terms of yield,” said plant breeder and geneticist, Dr. Moses Onim, in an interview for ‘Silent Killer’. Onim completed his doctorate at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and was the first Kenyan to be hired to teach genetics and plant breeding at the Faculty of Agriculture there. He also developed a higher yielding double cobber maize crop for western Kenya after extensively interviewing the women who cultivate and cook it in order to assess their needs. “The moment the maize is green, they harvest it; it is ready for roasting and grain cooking and they need the food. The maize should be tasty and sweet when you roast it or you cook it,” said Onim, taking into account the local preferences.

“The hybrids are very plain, very flat, because they were developed only for grain yield. The commercial person is probably looking for milling the corn into flour and selling it then to supermarket or to other bargain systems, where taste may not necessarily be important. The small growers look at maize very different. When they eat it green, they mix it with beans, boil it, and that is a complete meal. The beans provide protein, the maize provides energy. My maize is different from the hybrids in the quality sense, but is also very different from hybrids in that the seed can be planted again. With the hybrid you have to buy seed every planting season. The farmers tell us they are poor and they cannot buy seed every season.”

“The real heart of the problem,” says Mooney, “is the so-called ‘Green Revolution,’ for which Norman Borlaug won a Nobel Prize in 1970. Its basic impetus derived from the idea that ‘High-Response’ non-self-perpetuating hybrids be exclusively relied upon. While the Green Revolution has been a plague on genetic resources – because it has led to a galloping erosion of native plant varieties in favor of highly inbred imports – it has also been a boon to the world’s seed industry. Cost-free, these industries have raked over the genetic riches of poor countries to breed new varieties whose high yields are assured only by massive additions of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, sold obviously, by the same companies, with their built-in bias for industrialized agriculture.” This is the same Green Revolution that kept India from seeing another famine which had a regular and predictable death toll prior to the modernization of agricultural practices.

What all this makes clear, is that, yet again, nothing is clear. So I’m embarking on a composting project with my sister and my father which will begin next month in my father’s garden in Vermont. It will involve Agnihotra which will align nicely with my sister’s yoga practice and shamanic healing studies as well as aligning rather nicely with both of our senses of humor as we beg the services of our much more down-to-earth father who will undoubtedly struggle with the Sanskrit chant given that he’s mangled the pronunciation of ‘Mumbai’ after the recent attacks and ‘Bangalore’ calling it ‘Balls-galore’ after I attempting to sear it into his memory by making a lewd reference. It will also involve sourcing biodynamic farming supplies which I already know involves a stag’s bladder. It’s an object I’m sure I can buy for less than 10 rupees served fried on a piece of newspaper in Russell Market but I’m less sure about where to find it in Vermont other than to hunt it myself with the help of my nephew Dustin. I also think it would be unwise to ship it from India to my father with a handwritten 'Refrigerate immediately!' warning on the package.

In the end, Stacey and I will discover if we can grow better food, we’ll spend some time reminding my father why an ‘empty nest’ is a really, really good thing and we’ll involve the local community in our project. As long as Agnihotra is updated with a preliminary gin-swilling ceremony, I think we can get them to sign on. As it is, I’ve seen many of my father's neighbors participate in such ceremonies following by chanting in a language which shares some similarities to Sanskrit.