Shitting India: A Series Of Flatulent Events

The author recounts tales of woe, sufferance and tribulation, nursing a wobbly bowel.

Bangalore City Panorama

Episode 1

Shit is the tofu of cursing and can be molded to whichever condition the speaker desires. Hot as shit. Windy as shit. I myself was confounded as shit...

― David Sedaris

Most of what I do when I rush to the toilet is spill gas into the bowl. Plups of steam-brown turd cloud the toilet water, clinging to the surface tension, swimming around like schools of muddy fish. What goes beneath is lost to the eye, wisping into nonexistence.

It has been 7 weeks. We are still in Bangalore. The hotel manager, kind Ramesh, lets us stay in the double deluxe room on the second floor for off-book prices. Tax free. Airbnb won’t take any of my pounds, nor his rupees. I transfer GBP direct into his account. Exchange rates come and go, like water in an estuary. I guess everybody wins. We are external to the system—awol, MIA, offline renegades living irl.

With 1GB of data each per day, we can watch precisely 6 hours and 37 minutes of Netflix, in colour, provided we sacrifice premium resolution. But on a 12 inch screen, 100 fewer lines of pixels makes little difference. We have only actually maxed out twice. We also read. Anything as long as it is in the vicinity of the bog.

It is a strange thing, almost meditative, to surrender completely to the bowel. Autonomy and liberty go hand in hand, as blessings, but it is well known how the human mind responds to authority. We crave it. We could not have had tyrants without this oxymoronic muscle. We are slaves to hormones and genetics—and the bowel knows how to exploit these weaknesses, with finesse. In Trainspotting, Renton finds pleasure and solace in the simple, choice-free life heroin allows him to lead. Replace ‘hit’ with ‘shit’, and the analogy is complete.

One small fortune is the lack of direct clashes, as yet, in our schedules. I have heard tales of double-teaming, an arse directed between the legs, the hopeful projectile sliding along a thigh, browning it, muddying the waters between friend and enemy. We are still friendly. The closest we have come is a nervous shout, outside the door, followed by a slick wrap-up operation.

“Any chance you’ll be out soon?”
“Yes...”

And then the swift return.

An Alternative Heritage Tour of Southern India

There are some things tourist information companies don’t want you to know.

Kerala, and the states it borders, are known for many things: expansive beaches, breathy hill stations and plump fruits, to name a few. But there is more—much more. During our romps around the area, it was a mild shock to us to find certain things cropping up again, and again, and again. A cultural smorgasbord awaits, albeit a repetitious one. It is accessible to all. We explored the lesser known nooks and crannies of southern India’s cultural mosaic. Here, I present some of the highlights.

 

Coconut Museum, Kochi—3/5

Calicut, Kerela

 

To be clear, this museum does not showcase items of historical significance. These are not artifacts from bygone times. Rather, they are artisanal artworks, constructed entirely, and exclusively, from materials extracted from the coconut tree. Idols of Ganesha, Shiva and Buddha, each carved from a single log; two elaborate models of the Taj Mahal (strikingly accurate), one of wood, one woven from coconut fibres; Patachitra paintings on plucked coconut husks, a vivid portrait of lions and tigers made of bits of coconuts; and a large, majestic chessboard with hand-carved pieces. Unfortunately, the latter was in a state of ruin—heads balanced on shoulders, gammy legs, club foots and so on. Nevertheless, we played.

“There are artisans who specialize and use only a particular part of the coconut for their work, like its husk or sticks or shells alone,” says the sub-editor of the Coconut Board.

It is a true ode to the myriad powers of the coconut.

 

Kerala Science and Technology Museum

[Activity Room & Planetarium & 7D Thrillarium]

Located deep within the bowels of Thiruvananthapuram (aka Trivandrum), this centre for science is a multifaceted monolith, with activities on all sides. It has great potential. However, what it has in ideas, it lacks finesse--and execution--and, I suppose, funding.

The Activity Room contains all manner of activities, perfect for people of all ages. These are science experiments, science facts, demonstrated before your very eyes. There is much to learn! Sadly though, due presumably to a funding deficit, many of the exhibits are falling apart, tearing at the seams, or simply missing parts, and therefore malfunctioning.

The Thrillarium does not quite live up to its name, though does offer a few luke-warm minutes of being fanned, heated or sprayed in the face while being taken, arse first, on a rollicking, Triassic adventure. Good for kids.

Last but not least, the Planetarium. This is where it really comes together. Despite being in the local language, the show here was enjoyable for all four of us. Not a dry eye in the house, I'm sure.

 

Chapora Fort, Bardez, Goa—2/5

A stark wind blows from the coast. We are high up, blistering against the rain. Drum, drum, drum, the rain thrums at our ears, pockmarks the ancient walls, beats at the stones of the earth. We are up here, and why? To feel the weather upon us, around us, surrounding us. Belittled by the sky, we almost begin to tremble, but then we remember. We are here for a reason. We have been brought together, to this place, in order to celebrate. It is Goa. There is wine. We have love.

 

Wax World Museum (and Walkthrough Horror Experience) , Old Goa, Velha—1/5

This was something else entirely, and generally not very good. But these things depend in large part on company and attitude, and we were fortunate in both. It was raining outside, and I had told our diminutive, teenage driver to hold his horses. We had not yet learned quite how many wax museums there are in this part of India. They seem to be following us around.

In order to fully experience this wax museum, we were given the tour. To wit: a fierce Indian woman barked us from one statue to another, allowing very little time for reflection. She told us that the Obama statue was of an Indian actor. None of us had the heart to tell her she was wrong.

The horror experience mainly deployed cheap gimmicks; it could have been designed by a 7 year old. There was nothing unexpected—as one Trip Advisor reviewer puts it: ‘There is nothing like horror in this’. Yet, somehow, it shocked two of our party. We came out feeling refreshed, closer than before, interknit, and with a pissy aroma about our persons. We retrieved our shoes and walked to the main road. There was our driver, red cap gleaming, top heavy, waiting to whisk us away to a drier place.

 

Ooty Wax Museum—2/5

I agree that, in a sense, it is a ‘great alternative to sightseeing’, as advertised on the Travel 2 Ooty website. However, I prefer to see sights. This wax museum is owned by the man who makes the wax statues. He also owns and fills a similar museum in Kodaikanal.

Credit where it’s due: this man has made an obscene number of wax sculptures, and invested a great deal of money into the enterprise. Discredit where it’s due: often, without textual aids, it is impossible to tell your Einsteins from your Mother Theresas. And, the only black character is a cartoonish imagining of what African musicians actually look like.

 

Ooty Boat House Triple Whammy—Horror Experience, Mirror World and Jurassic Jungle—4/5 

Yes, we got sucked in once again, to the standard south Indian plethora of fun & games.

First up, the Mirror World. (There are 17 mirrors in the Mirror World)

While the mirrors were just a tad grimy, it was almost immersive in there, and we definitely had a few minutes of what amounted to "fun & games". Positive vibrations coming through the walls. For a second or two, I actually managed to suspend my disbelief to the extent that I could convincingly regard myself as 'lost in the Mirror World'. Well done there.

Horror Experience and Jurassic Jungle. Hmm. Impossible to ignore the overwhelming aroma of urine, throughout these walkthroughs. Now, this is a pity, because this is quite a distracting and, dare I say, disconcerting smell, especially when its potency reaches Richter one gazillion. This was a downer, because these two were otherwise pretty spectacular. The crocodile made Laura jump out of her skin, and there was something uncannily freaky about the gorilla. Dinosaurs were all good too. 

Not a bad score.

Blossom Bookhouse, Bangalore—5/5 

Had everything a bookie can dream of, except Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Can't argue.

Sivananda Yoga Ashram: Review; or, Why We Left

Sivananda

Note: this piece collates research and details personal experience. It extrapolates, to a certain degree, based on the evidence. At times, its style borders on the tongue-in-cheek, but its message is sincere.

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Nestled amid Kerala’s green-yellow foliage, and breathing daily its damp hills, Sivananda (Yoga Vedanta Dhanwatari) Ashram sits, imperious and well-ventilated, overlooking a lake which both contains, and does not contain, crocodiles. Its flowery views of the Western Ghats are sometimes green and sometimes yellow—occasionally, the still, yogic waters are disturbed by a passing puma, or a long snake. Hell, you might even find a potentially deadly scorpion in your room. This is an integral part of living an ascetic lifestyle.

Structure/Hierarchy

Hidden from view, the ashram’s seneschal is a mysterious and private director. (He is named on the website simply as The Director) In order to meet him, you must book a 5 minute appointment in advance, within a small daily window. This elusive white man, about whom lurid stories abound (no, really), oversees the acquisition of large sums of money from naive western tourists. He initiates contact only if it is to expel said tourist—a gesture which is made in no uncertain terms, and with very little notice. His work is carried out for him by three primary staff members and several volunteers; the latter pay for their positions.

Its holy/NOT HOLY personages are Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda, the latter of which is best known for introducing the Beatles to yoga in the 1960s. The parent organisation has ashrams in California, New York and the Bahamas, among others.

Public Opinion, in a Nutshell

A Google search for “Sivananda reviews” brings up some troubling results. The very first, entitled ‘Ashram, or overpriced cult...?’, argues that “any place that has 200 students gulping salt water and making themselves sick into a lake may need to be more up front about what you are asked to do while there’. It gives two out of five stars.

The low-scoring reviews are only funny until they aren’t. A cursory glance shows the centre has a very chequered reputation. It is described variously as an “opportunistic commercial centre” with “rigid, outdated attitudes” which makes a “mere mockery of yoga”. Reviewers frequently invoke the experience of a prisoner, or naughty schoolchild, reprimanded for giggling in the brunch hall, or monitored during toilet breaks to ensure they return to the mandatory morning satsang. One reviewer goes further, saying it is “very racist”, charged with “hypocrisy” and “1950s-style sexism”, and that it preys on the naivety of tourists. Some raise the issue of hours spent chanting religious hymns, making symbolic gestures and prostrating before idols.

Others paint even ghastlier pictures. In 2013, a female attendee was taken to hospital and underwent an induced abortion. She received zero pastoral care from staff, was required to pay for the damage to her sheets, onto which she had bled. When she acquiesced, she was accused of stealing them. The only person with any authority who came to her side was a volunteer. In 2015, another reviewer describes the case of an older lady who broke her ankle in the washroom. She was only provided the most basic medical treatment, and received no extra care or personal attention from staff. Incidents like this clearly illustrate an institutional disregard for women who have suffered taxing tribulations while staying at the ashram and, ostensibly, under the care of the ashram staff. The following year, a group of male volunteers was overheard making comments about how they could “feel up foreign girls” while practicing yoga.

That same year, a guest (link to her full write-up below) remarks on how the karma yoga (which, in this context, meant doing chores to assure favourable reincarnation prospects) tasks were divided according to ethnicity. Iranians served tea and Indians cleaned the toilets and served food, while whites were given “white collar jobs” such as taking attendance or assisting in the bookshop. When asked to explain such stark racial stereotyping, the director replied, “Indians are good at serving food”. This was in 2017.

Consistent over the past nine years, such negative reviews are indicative of an institution unwilling to accept and, Shiva forbid, integrate feedback into their program. Responses from the director are often formulaic and fail to actually address any detail of the review. Worse still, they argue back, as if pedantry is a substitute for pro-activity. Reading of these experiences justified the way we reacted to our own.

Why we left Sivananda: Science vs. Religion

Our reasons for leaving were not particularly severe, not in light of the reviews quoted. They were also not trivial. We felt uncomfortable but convinced ourselves to stay. Then, the following day, we felt unable to. Initially, our concerns were to do with the (pseudo-)academic content and manner of delivery, i.e., pseudoscience delivered sanctimoniously.

A compulsory part of a day in the life was the lecture. (Attendance was recorded; three black marks in a two-week period and you’re called up for a meeting with the director) Lectures generally lasted two hours. At first, the anthropologist in me found these sessions entertaining, if not edifying. It was kind of fun to be told that our bodies comprise five basic elements; that stone, when melted, turns into water; that one ought to treat boils (which are wet, as in, filled with water) with powder (which is dry, like earth, like kapha); and that induced vomiting, repeated three times a day for a month, is a stepping stone on the path to becoming certifiably yogic.

But opportunities for amusement wore thin. The derision of science quickly became abrasive. I found myself disagreeing at every other turn. No, yogis did not invent breathing deeply, as the teacher claimed. No, it cannot be said to be “true” that the ‘causal body’ will depart from the physical realm at the moment of death and, in time, inhabit another body. You cannot presume the existence of a soul. And no, the human body is not made up of ether, air, fire, earth and water, just as it is not made up of black and yellow bile, phlegm and blood. We have moved on from then, thankfully, to greener pastures. Please do not teach this as a scientific practice.

It was apparently deeply surprising that any of us western laypeople should know the names of more than five organs. Likewise that any of us actually think about breathing in our everyday lives—to breathe consciously and mindfully is practised only, and only ever, by yogis. We were told that no form of exercise other than aasana practice clears the mind—“But are you really relaxed when you’re at the gym? Are you really?"—and that creative energy takes 30 days to regenerate. All in all, our teacher’s rejection of science was based on a narrow view of western medical practice. It was rendered simplistic and therefore easy to criticise. Being given the wrong drug is not a failure of science: it is human error. Similarly, suffering terrible back pain three days into a yoga vacation does not mean yoga is at fault—it means the institution is at fault, for creating an environment in which that happens, repeatedly. Doctors are imperfect. So are managers and instructors.

Injuries are frequent

An acquaintance of ours, while we were there, sprained his wrist while attempting one of the aasanas. We were told of the commonality of neck braces. Several guests experienced acute back pain, including my partner, who had to duck out of two yoga classes. We attributed this, at least in part, to the lack of guidance and tuition offered to individuals, regarding specific postures. (Also, to fatigue caused by the rigid, 05:30—22:00 schedule, during which we spent at least six hours sitting on the floor) We were also told, in hushed tones, of multiple suicides which have occurred within the high walls of the ashram. Evidently, people stay in a place like this in order to process darkness they hold within them, to ‘deal with shit’. Fair enough. Please, Mr Director, provide pastoral support for the people who struggle along the way.

Vacation vs. Religion

For us, the draconian implementation of outdated policies outweighed the benefits of staying. That, and the exploitation of certain tenets of an ascetic yogic lifestyle. Karma yoga is transliterated to become working the bins, mopping the dorm room floor or serving your fellow ‘vacationers’ during the half-hour eating periods. Devotional practice, the spiritual practice of worshipping a personal god, an inner god, becomes call-and-response chanting of unknown Sanskrit words, prostration before an altar and pretending to rub fire in your hair; and so on. For a non-religious institution its religious elements were pervasive.

Despite the twice-a-day chants, prayers and prostrations, and the weird bit where we self-blessed with a sacramental flame, the operation is peddled as entirely nonreligious. Congregations, idols and nibbles from a silver bowl taste like religion to me, especially when surrounded on all sides by images of mythical deities and watched to make sure I don’t leave. The cultish dogmatism and strict regime were a far cry from the ‘vacation’ we signed up for—nomenclature is important—and further still from the open, spiritual journey we were continually promised. The giant statue, referred to as an altar, was another giveaway.

The Importance of Pastoral Support

But the incident which set us both particularly on edge was the flat, non-negotiable refusal, by one of the more willing volunteers, to allow my partner to leave the premises. Sure, this was in line with regulations, which we all sign on the dotted line on arrival. However, denying a woman of 30 the right to a private walk, who is visibly distressed and shaking with sobs, who wants to feel less entrapped and spied-on, is a clear marker of institutional neglect for the feelings of the patrons it attracts. This is an organisation which makes large sums of money from often naive or mentally fractured westerners—it is a retreat, or vacation, after all—and does next to nothing to assist them in dealing with the issues they might face during an incongruously regimented spirituality camp. Bizarrely, the place of solace – of refuge – to which my girlfriend was taken, was a rooftop within the compound. In a twist of irony, or satire, she was left up there, not checked on, until she came down. What if she had been deeply depressed?

Last words

We had intended to stay for 14 days. For my part, I have always been able-bodied and flexible (I have always been able to get both of my legs behind my head—a neat party trick). I had been practising yoga in some form for six months, and my partner, the other half of ‘we’ in this piece, had done so for a number of years. We are by no means unfit. But we do value autonomy, and we hold compassion in very high regard.

Individuals should be treated as individuals; there is always room for that. Years of scathing reviews, the most troubling of which concern the hardhearted treatment of women in distress, should serve as a clarion call for structural change. Offering free basic counselling training to all volunteers would be a good start. That way, they would feel empowered to approach guests who are struggling. Allow people their freedoms or stop calling it a vacation.

 

Further reading:

For a more thorough analysis, with regard to actual yogic practice and an understanding of the Sanskrit element, read—Why I left Sivananda Yoga Teacher Training course within five days on yoganama