Friday, October 21, 2011

The Motorcycle God

They say India is a land of 30 million gods.  In the rising heat of a Rajasthani morning I was driving towards an encounter with one of the freshman class.  A man had died, and a god had been born in my lifetime.  A tragic event played out on a rural road began the story, and a supernatural vehicle that refused to let go made it a meme of legendary proportions.

The cowboy state of Rajastan is no stranger to bucking theological trends.  In a country with such a bizarre variety of gods there are indeed some rules.  The principle one being that the Brahmin, the priests, set the rules.  From the very beginning, when the caste system was created, they placed themselves at the top of the totem pole.  Rajasthan has gods that the Brahmin do not acknowledge.  They were born and evolved outside of their authority.  They have found different middle men, or none at all, through which to address their followers.  I met the first of these gods as he sprung to life out of a tapestry into the dry night air.

Have you ever known a friend who could recount a monologue from one of the western classics?  Maybe a little bit of Shakespeare or a quote from Homer?  I've got a buddy like that.  Occasionally at social events he'll  perform several lines of Hamlet complete with dramatic inflections and gestures to raised eyebrows and applause.   Now imagine a guy who can recite 4,000 lines, dance, play an instrument, and sing without ever stumbling, repeating himself, or looking at a script.  He can't look at a script.  He is illiterate.  The Bopa of Rajasthan is the bard of the desert and the de facto priest of the god Pabuji.  When he performs his epic in front of a storyboard tapestry (a phad) the god comes to life and addresses the needs of the faithful: shepherds, herdsmen, and farmers sitting under the stars of the open plain.  The bard is accompanied, in the singing portions, by his wife who weaves the tones of her vocals into his to create feelings of haunting, longing, desire, and praise.  The lady I watched, dignified in posture and comportment, sang powerfully from under a red veil which completely covered her.  Audience members who had known this couple for decades had never seen her face.
  "This man is very unlucky," the host of tonight's performance whispered to me, "he has five sons with this woman."
A horde of sons would usually be a dream come true for any man in these parts.  In fact the desire for male offspring is so strong that the most dangerous time in an Indian woman's life might be her months as a fetus.  The threat has more than doubled since ultrasound technology reached a price point the average expectant parent could afford.  No more coming in under the radar.
"This man's tribe is matriarchal," the host explained, "so it is for the son that a dowry must be paid... very unlucky."
I watched the financially doomed man as he pointed to different scenes on the tapestry, explaining plot points to the audience.  The phad is riddled with intricately woven illustrations from the story, dissimilar from a comic book only in its organization.  Major events take up center stage real estate, while minor ones are scattered around the edges.  It is the bopa who trains the audience's eye on the appropriate section.  Now he pointed to a couple standing together in a procession as he projected his voice over the audience sitting in the glow of lamplight.  Pabuji was in the middle of his wedding ceremony when news arrived that some very bad guys were rustling up cattle which belonged to the goddess Deval.  He immediately abandoned the wedding and rode out after the evil wranglers.  Although the cattle were returned, a series of events were set in motion.  Ultimately Pabuji died in battle, never having returned to his long suffering fiance at the marriage altar.  It might not be a storyline that would sell tickets at a muliplex cinema in Iowa, but this theme resonates strongly in the countryside of India.
The performance was flat fascinating, but not understanding the language made it about as interesting as Japanese Kabuki or mass at St. Peters.  The pure spectacle and the knowledge that you are witnessing multiple layers of deep meaning and symbolism manage to keep you engaged for a good half hour;  but then your mind starts to slide into a series of daydreams, your stomach starts rumbling, and the whisper of the night begins to awaken hedonistic cravings.  I've experienced similar drop offs in my attention span at the opera, poorly executed theater, and during long winded sermons... well, all sermons really.  I'd like to say I'd heard the Epic of Pabuji from beginning to end, but doing so would require almost a week of dusk till dawn performances, each one picking up where the other left off.  I take my hat off to the level of skill, artistry, and dedication it takes to pull off a performance of such magnitude.  May the legend and the bopas who sing of it never die.  I looked for an appropriate moment (bathroom break) and slipped out.

As I reclined in the back of the taxi, relishing the clean escape, I noticed the mini shine on my cabby's cracked dash.  Every taxi driver in India has some form of devotional material adorning the front of his ride.  Beads on the mirror, stickers of gurus pasted on the glove box, or tiny plastic altars which light up under the glow of colored bulbs.  They are typically fairly easy to identify once you've got a feel for the land.  In Calcutta you're probably looking at Kali, in Mumbai there is a good chance it'll be Ganesh.  It's sort of a fun game to 'guess the god'.  If you get it right your cabbie will probably sparkle with enthusiasm in the growing rapport between you.  This one I couldn't put my finger on.  Maybe it wasn't a god at all.  Inside a glowing plastic encasement was a picture of a handsome mustachioed fella, posing high school yearbook style in front of a coral pink sheet.
"This man is your son?" I asked, leaning forward.
"No.. no son," he replied waving a finger, "Om Bana."

 20 years ago Om was a small town stud driving his Royal Enfield motorcycle back home late at night, perhaps with a beer or two pulsing extra bravado through his veins.  Like him, I was about to take a Royal Enfield motorcycle up a road...  the highest road in the world.  Hopefully, unlike him, I would keep a better grip on the pavement.  Om lost control that night, swerving a little too wide into an unforgiving tree trunk.  He died on the spot.  James Dean, the Hollywood star, met a similar fate.  While filming Giant, he took a break to cut a public service announcement where he encourages safe driving on the highways, "cause no one knows what they are doing half the time.  You don't know what this guy's gonna do or that one."  Thirteen days later his Spyder crashed head on into 1950 Ford.   His bust is now a one-snapshot sideshow for a fraction of the tourists gravitating towards the magnificently perched Griffith Observatory on the hills overlooking Los Angeles.  Om's memorial, on the other hand, made for a guy with no IMDB credits to his name and no Oscars, is a mob scene.

What I expected the next day, as this same taxi driver took me to the spot, was a lonely roadside altar with some wilted flowers beside it.  I stepped out of the cab to the sound of musicians pumping dusty accordians and leading hymns.  A saddhu approached and pressed a red tikka onto my forehead.   Vendors hawked floral wreaths and coconuts for supplication.  There was a line 20 folks deep to approach a large framed picture of the deceased.  Those who made it to the front either froze in stupefied gazes at the sight of their idol, or murmured prayers and offered tokens of sacrifice.  Soon they were nudged aside by the next row of believers.
How does one go from roadside casualty to the state's most popular new god?  You have to start with the right vehicle.  Most bikes, if you crash them highside, lowside, or straight into a tree will give up the ghost along with you.  As you are carted off to the hospital or morgue the bike will take it's own kind of mechanical stretcher to the garage, where it will sit until you come back to claim it or a new, living, soul decides to put some love into it so it may ride again.  This was not how Om Bana's bike rolled.  It was carried to the police station while Om got a ride to the mortuary.  It didn't like it there.  The next morning the police arrived to find the bike gone.  They searched and eventually the bike turned up, right back at the crash site.
"Didn't we grab this bike last night?" they may have asked.
"Vijay," the chief may have yelled over his cell, "I told you to move the motorcycle to the station!"
 "I did I did," Vijay may have objected, secretly wondering if those two beers he drank last night hit him harder than he'd realized.
So they brought the bike back to the station.  In the morning it was gone again.  Now if you up the ante with a police officer in just about any country he or she is going to up the ante with you.  It doesn't matter if you are made of flesh or metal.  When the officers brought this bike back again they were going to make damn sure no prankster was to make a fool of them.  Heavy chains were brought in and locked around the bike, securing it to solid iron bars welded to the walls and floor.  It turns out you can't keep a good roadster down and when a motorcycle is in grieving, it's best to let it be.  The chains were found ruptured and the bike back at the spot it last saw its master.  The village police corps, along with the village, became believers right then and there.  Instead of throwing another chain on the bike, they threw a wreath and bowed their heads in supplication.  They were in the presence of the supernatural.

The bike stands just behind the enshrined portrait of Om, and it has it's own line, just as long.  I approached with a bottle of Bullet beer.  In a few days I'd be taking the same model of motorcycle over Rotang Pass, the gateway to the Himalayas and a documented killer of motorists who'd slipped off her muddy, twisty roads; or been caught under one of her landslides, rumbling down the mountain on a heartless killing spree.  If alcohol were to join this expedition, it would be for the gods, not for me.  Not until I was over that pass.  "Look after me Om Bana and you Mr. Motorcycle," I stammered as I poured the beer over the concrete foundation raising the bike up out of the earth.  If somehow the spirit of this bike could keep an eye on his relative, the one I'd be riding, that would be a nice comfort; but lets face it, these guys have plowed a hard road.  Om should have had a bunch of small town romances before settling down with the one who caught his heart.  He should have raised a family of little ones.  This bike should have carved up a heap of country roads before settling into old age in Om's garage, getting pampered by polish and mechanical tinkering under the wide eyes of Om's kids, hoping to one day take a spin.  Things didn't work out that way.  They deserved a drink.

As I began my ride up into the Himalayas I started running the odds.  If I collided headfirst into one of these monstrous Tata trucks in a badly timed lane change, or if I slipped off the side of the muddy mountain roads; what are the chances India's children will be visiting my shrine as adults?  I do have a pretty crisp headshot, undoubtedly snapped by a better photographer; though my L.A. Dodger cap pales in comparison to Om's headgear.  I'm not rocking the stash, but I've got a good bit of stubble going on... sort of Miami Vice's Don Johnson to Magnum P.I.'s Tom Selleck if you will.  Where I'm going to fall short, I'm sure, is in the sidekick department.  Every Batman needs a Robin.  Within a few hours my front brake was completely shot and I found oil splattered around the engine.  I wasn't feeling the loyalty here.  I didn't believe this machine would have my back in a moment of need.  Perhaps I pushed the relationship along too fast and left her jaded.  It was only our first date and I already had her 6 inches deep in oozing mud.  Better not crash.  God like status would be more probable if I survived this ride and start a cult in Los Angeles.  With all respect to Om, I'd rather wear that crown premortem than post.