I AM LYING IN BED when I hear a song from the Ramayana. By the time I wake up, it is gone, and my nephew is trying to attract my attention.
“Sandeep,” I ask, “did you hear the people singing this morning?”
“Yes, Mamayya, I heard them.”
“Do you know where they are? Do you think we can find them?”
“Are you sure?”
Another, less certain nod.
“Let’s go,” I tell him.
“But why, Mamayya?”
“I want to videotape them.”
His eyes light up. He likes to dance in front of the camera. I can involve him in the process and edit out his antics later, if I have to. For the next hour, I follow him around town. He doesn’t know where they are, but I know we will find them begging for alms up the street from Pedda Attha’s husband’s fertilizer and pesticide shop. One of them is clearly Rama; his blue face is framed by hair that curls out from underneath a gold crown. The other, with round monkey cheeks and a tail poking out of his pancha, is Hanuman. I stretch out my hand, full of change, and shake my camera while Sandeep, though he doesn’t have to, translates my excitement into words the singers understand.
Like Rama in exile, they wander the earth acting out a story they have inherited. At night, crouched next to their bundles of masks and tails, they will chat with others who stop to sleep under a temple’s stone roof—yogis, pilgrims, and mystics. Some are born into this existence; others have renounced their former lives for this one. They are points in motion connecting one stone platform to another. One town to the next.
RAMA AND HIS ARMY OF MONKEYS reached the shore of the southern sea. They uprooted mountains, rocks, and hillocks; they piled sand and dirt until their work was done. Groups of monkeys tied their tails around hills and tossed them into the water. On the third day, a bridge reached Lanka’s beaches. Rakshasas said to each other, Look! The sky holds the sand out of the ocean. Ravana’s capital, burnt by Hanuman’s fiery tail weeks before, continued to smolder in the distance. Groves of sandalwood and akhil had turned to ash; the gold used to pave the city’s floors had melted into pools in the ocean.
In a small temple near the Lakshmana Tirtham are the relics from this bridge. In the center of a cement tank float two large pieces of smooth coral that have broken off an underwater reef. The pujari pushes the floating pieces into the tank. See how they float? This is how Rama’s army crossed the sea. They used these magic rocks!
AFTER PICKING ME UP at the BART station, my sister asks in the car, “It’s Rakhi tomorrow. Will you stay in town so I can tie a rakhi on you?”
“Yeah, but I have a lot of work to do,” I reply, looking at the rows of condominiums hidden behind thin patches of eucalyptus. Rakhi is the day when your siblings and cousins tie bracelets—purple and glittery, or sometimes red and shiny gold—around your wrist; in return, you promise to protect them and give them a present. For me, the rakhi would be tied around the wrist of my bãva or an elder sibling if I had one. I asked my mother once who my bãva was since I didn’t have an older brother, and she told me that he was my cousin who had died a long time ago, the year I was born.
A couple of months after you were born, we went back to India. Everyone wanted to see you, so we went everywhere so they could. When we were in Podili, your bãva was going to school in a hostel about 10 kilometers outside of town. He was studious, like your father. He really wanted to see you, so he left at night in a hard rain. He didn’t see the electric wire that had fallen on the road during the storm.
PEDDA ATTHA ALWAYS SAYS that I am like my bãva, her son that I never met. In Podili, everyone has to step over open sewers to get to their front door, and the temple next door to us has broken shards of bottles stuck into the top of the cement walls so that monkeys can’t perch there, like the BART station ledges and shop fronts in Berkeley, which have metal spikes to prevent pigeons and the homeless from sleeping there.
The metal rails.
The shards of glass.
When we listen, our past is littered with elegy.
THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, Thataka’s heart exploded in the forest. Moments before that, she had been soaring towards the sage Vishwamitra and his pupils, Rama and Lakshmana; Ravana had sent her to prevent the sage from performing his yaga. The ritual lasted seven days, but the sage had been prepared—he had brought the two princes to the forest to keep his yaga safe. Pleased, the sage taught Rama mantras to call the spirits to his side. They would turn his arrows into fire. Days later, the three of them approached a lovely grove. The sage chose a place for the fire, sat down, and began another yaga while the two brothers stood on guard like the lids of eyes. It wasn’t until the sixth day that a cloud of arms and hammers darkened the sky.
The dark cloud rained flesh towards the fire. Taking aim, Rama pulled his bowstring back and made a roof of arrows in the sky. The earth was covered with the severed heads of rakshasas whose decapitated bodies continued to move, their arms reaching out for direction. Survivors fled beyond the crashing waves of the ocean, where the crystal palaces of the city designed by Maya, the architect of the asuras, welcomed them home.
Pulling out his last arrow, Rama looked at the sun and prayed. This was the first time he pierced Maricha’s flesh, not knowing there would be a second, years later.
FROM THE ROOF of Pedda Attha’s, you can see the old bus station. There are no signs or markings other than the bustle of people and a stone circle where a man stands, directing traffic. I record the scene for a couple of minutes, right after the singers with cymbals in their hands and skeins of colored fabrics behind them pass by. Then I point the camera towards town. Behind the gopuram of the temple is Jayjayya’s house—where Nayanamma used to sleep, where my father collected stamps.
– California-based writer Amarnath Ravva has performed at LACMA, Machine Project, the MAK Center at the Schindler House, New Langton Arts, the Hammer Museum, USC, Pomona, CalArts, and the Sorbonne. In addition to his writing practice, he is a member of the site specific ambient music supergroup Ambient Force 3000 and for the past eight years he has helped run and curate events at Betalevel, a venue for social experimentation and hands-on culture located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. He holds a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley and an M.F.A. from CalArts, where he was awarded an interdisciplinary grant to help support his documentary work in South India.
Copyright © 2013 by Amarnath Ravva from American Canyon. Reprinted by permission of Kaya Press.