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Since Feeling is First

Going about day-to-day in India, you discover there's a big dunce cap perched invisibly on your head. You realize you can't make sense or trace the logic of what anyone around you is doing all day long. Laughing at a dry well, shouting at a crippled beggar, speaking softly to a cow. You wonder what they're thinking, and even if they're thinking at all. But once you tire of being incredulous, you conclude that your dunce cap is that of the logician, and under that hat you must conclude that you don't have the full view of how human beings reason.

In the logical West, we have had our feverish bouts with Romanticism, but in truth, we keep our pajamas on, never strip, sweating, to confront ourselves out of doors. When we manage a fever, we don't sustain it long. Logic can at best achieve naiveté, or fanaticism, and certainly bombast, but Westerners cannot be romantic toward life in a sustained and essential way. Our romanticism passes through us uncomfortably and becomes nostalgia or is sublimated as neurosis. We weather our passions with huge sighs of relief when they have passed. Consider for a moment that in all parts of the world, in all variations of human culture, this is not so. Consider also that logic, it's nostalgia and its neurosis, is not simply your own because logic, like passions, cannot be perfected by individuals, only by entire societies. If someone is going to fling himself to the floor or faint away cold, someone else must gasp otherwise its just fanatical and insipid behavior. If someone is to restore calm and order, someone else must fall silent or the act will not qualify as logic. Logic is inspid except that every American knows the movie must end, that less-is-more, and that restraint is the unassailable posture of the enlightened.

Things are not so in India. Feelings come first. Getting whipped up into lather is not only acceptable, it's quite agreeable to others, and I came to suspect that it is an important basis for people to trust one another. There's a government strike in Rajasthan right now. All water into homes has been cut off for the past month. We learned this when we saw a dozen men laughing their heads off one night in the center of town. Yelling up to a man who turned out to be the police, who laughed hardest of all. Soon, someone, maybe one of the strikers, turned up with an illegal water key and switched on the old town well. He was a hero briefly, and rode away on a bicycle. The laughter stopped, and the water was carried home in buckets on heads. More daily mysteries, even at night.

I would rather not try to describe the living conditions I saw as I arrived in Delhi by train. Suffice to say that among the poorest, you are sure to see affection and laughter. It defies logic certainly, but not reason. Of daily mysteries wedding processions have been a good sort for us to learn. Several weddings roll by every evening. Weddings at this time of year occur daily, they're consistent, without subtlety, and quite impossible to figure out. A wooden sled, painted with horses and hung with tinsel supports six crackling bullhorns and is guided by a steering wheel. The sled blocks traffic and rolls through the busiest and the narrowest city streets over-amplifying a keyboard and a crazed vocalist. Tubas, trumpets, valve trombones, and a drum corps round out the band. A dozen women carry full sized chandeliers (you'd have to call them that) blazing with a dozen bulbs each. At the back of the procession a giant generator, bigger than a car engine, is pushed on a trailer, sputtering exhaust into the faces of passersby trapped against buildings. The groom is on his way to the three-day wedding He hasn't seen his bride yet. He is dressed in white, trimmed in gold, and so is his horse. Occasionally the procession stops so that three or four men can dance ferociously ahead of the bullhorn-sled. In Jodhpur, it happened that I became one of those mad dancers. The best-man pulled me in and said "Break dance, damn you." He looked at me fiercely and said "Break dance. You must!" We danced. Just my luck, I was photographed doing it. We were invited into the wedding, ate many fine and strange things, and endured a full-frontal social onslaught. You've never seen faster talking, with more people interrupting to ask your name and start a separate conversation, and just general frenzy with not a drop of booze in the house. The story could go on from there, but the story here is that we haven't been able to get a grip on what has happened, or why, at weddings. The goal seems to be to get worked up, and they're great at it. Feeling comes first. Not planning, not logic, not discernment, not understanding, but emotion. I've thought it might also have been like this in the West, although logic dictates... well, logic does dictate.

Indians are expansive about living. Geography has been the best conceptual model my mind can muster for spirituality in India, not calm, not peacefulness, not wizened besceptred saddhus. If there is a mountain in India, a valley, a strange tree, or just a curve in a city street, there is invariably a shrine there. Even a particularly wide-open space becomes notable, an event, not to be passed over. All space is given it's due. And there are so many blessed places that no one site, or affliction, or mad dance can topple the scale. It is all encountered in stride, no one thing before or above another. Terrific associations to be made with fractal geometry, irreducible space, and maybe even strangeness attractors, but I'd just be getting carried away. Some of this surely has to do with how much geography I am taking in. Miles and miles in slow buses and small bicycles, seeing sunrises and also sunsets nearly every day.

Anyway, feeling is first in India. Not hidden inside each Indian, but it rules each day; emotions govern people. When you grasp the terror of this, you get a start at grasping how terrifying the West may seem, how incomprehensible our hair's breadth divisions of categories and heirarchies, repressions and seclusions, sublimations and resentments must seem. And language bears witness to the degree of difference. I still cannot get an explanation of the Indian refusal to distinguish between goat's meat and lamb. We found a sheep tied up near a goat and I thought this was my chance to find clarity. I queried a group of men nearby about what to call each since the name was the same for both. I suppose the two animals are seldom found apart. I was given a smile and an graceful swiveling head gesture, a common non-verbal communication which might translate as, "Just as you please."

I've overheard and talked with many Westerners who do not like being in India. Mostly I hear them say that they are being ripped off and cheated constantly (of course they never venture far from the shops, or know the actual prices of things, or acknowledge that nothing at all costs more than three or four dollars.) It's strange to me that they expect currency to be the pole star, not the effort of labor, which would seem to be more readily intelligible, or any experiential value instrinsic to the services they are enjoying. No, they came to India and now feel cheated. And so they are if feeling is first. I'm nearly two months into my travels with at least ten more to come and these first questions are just starting to form. It takes more than a month to begin a journey. We just saw today in a newspaper that 40 Indian nationals were cuffed in San Antonio, Texas suspected of visa fraud. That's immigration visa, the nationalist polestar. I have a different understanding of the perceptions of the arrest on both sides than I would have had a week ago. But I am still in comparative mode, still looking from a distance to see where I am. Tomorrow is Republic Day in Delhi. I'm hoping they wheel out their one nuclear missile for the big parade. That way we can keep an eye on it, for awhile. I'm happy to be in Delhi. Glad to be in from the desert-fort cities. I'm sitting right now in the strangest of places. An internet disco or something. Beer on tap (unheard of), loud Indian pop music (talk about a frenzy), and forty computers with fast Internet access.

We sorely miss seeing and hearing and touching family and friends. Gifts won't do it. Sending home souveniers of soft yellow gold and pointy tipped shoes won't tell it. Oops, I see my brother did buy himself a pair of pointy shoes. You have to try, I suppose. We do see kids toys and think they're good to send to the nephews. And think with hope that one day they'll come here, and with wonder at coming ourselves, wondering if maybe feeling is first sometimes in the West.