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Francesco Clemente's India

Now and then Prema called me along the way. She must have been gratified that I was adhering to her schedule, down to visiting the tinware seller, the silversmith, and the antiques dealer she had recommended. In Kanchipuram, Mr. Virappan's sari shop had three little rooms and a cupboard containing neat piles of handwoven silk saris. Mr. Virappan drew a happy elephant for me on a sheet of paper, and a peacock, before retrieving from a chest the design Jackie Onassis had picked out some moons ago. In Kumbakonam, Mr. Gopaldas's shop had a gold jewelry department where women sat while salesmen behind glass cases showed them merchandise. Above their heads were large photographs of gurus—Aurobindo, the Mother, Ramana Maharishi, and then, unexpectedly, Jesus Christ. When I asked Mr. Gopaldas the reason for this display, his answer was practical: "People come here to buy very valuable items sometimes, and I think they are reassured if they see the image of their favorite saint."

Mr. Kalidas, from whom I purchased a dozen tin tumblers, had accompanied me to Mr. Gopaldas's shop. When we left, he said, "Do you want to have dinner or do you want tiffin?" I said tiffin because I liked the sound of it and was curious to discover what that might be. He relaxed into a confident smile. "If it's tiffin you want, I have that at home." There we were met by his daughter Apurna, who has a degree in corporate business but plans to get married now and "settle down," and by his very young and radiant wife, who had a diamond flower in each nostril.

Tiffin had been laid out on a round tin dish for each of us, except for the puri that Kalidas's wife fried there and then, along with some crackers shaped like ribbons and nests of noodles. There was sambar (lentil stew), dal, lentils with tamarind, sweet rice with curd, red jam. The two women served us, since they had already eaten. I did my best to eat properly with my fingers, and only with the right hand, feeling once again like a clumsy three-year-old. Kalidas scooped sauce and rice grains deftly into his mouth. Apurna slipped a spiraling "friendship ring" into my hand.

In Thanjavur, I walked around the immense vaulted halls of the art museum in a delighted daze. One sculpted Shiva was naked, a dog jumping at his feet, a cobra coiled around his loins; he held a drum in one hand, a bowl in the other. An entire hall was dedicated to Shiva Nataraja in all stages of the dance, from still to ecstatic, his left leg raised higher and higher as he progressed through the dance. One Shiva had his consort Parvati cocking her head from behind his shoulder. Another with "his one-half as Parvati" had a rounded breast and belly to indicate his feminine half, but his face was the same on both sides. At the exit, a large sign asked for contributions from "the viewing personages" to preserve "these icons…which are meaningfully mute with wordless expressiveness."

Thanjavur's Brihadishwara Temple on a Saturday evening: a courtyard and a colonnaded gallery of Shiva lingams—in just the first stretch I counted 122, but then the procession continued around the vast perimeters of the temple grounds, in different sizes, black and oiled. (I'm still not used to this phallic notion of grace, but it is so human: the deity's "body" is simplified into a carrier of grace, an erotic view of the world without which the world wouldn't exist.) Music on the loudspeakers. People streaming in, some sitting on the grass, some in the first court by the grinning black Nandi bull. The immense lingam enclosed in a dome made from a single piece of granite weighing 81 tons. The priest, too, portly, good-natured, and altogether less ascetic and drawn than the ones encountered so far.

Driving up to the Dakshinamurthy Temple in Alangudi, I couldn't help thinking of Pop art: two rows of elephants on the façade—larger ones on the bottom, tiny ones on top, all proceeding, tail to trunk and clockwise, around the little building. They were black with white tusks and eyes, on a green background, wearing yellow, turquoise, and red sashes on their backs. Above each elephant was an immense, six-petaled yellow, red, and pink flower (shaped like Warhol's). The door frame was turquoise ornamented with orange flowers, and the steps to the temple were in wide red-and-white stripes. It was like a fantastic toy house, and all around the clearing on which it stood were red earth houses with thatched roofs.

"Go to Chettinad," Clemente had told me. "There are some outlandish Roman villas with Italian marbles and teaks from Burma built in a deserted landscape, owned by industrialists who hardly ever live in them and whose children are mostly abroad." Sekar turned left, following a sign to AMM House, which, I noticed, was pronounced "Ay-yem-yem." It was a large cement mansion with a colonnaded portico. I was shown into the shady interior, all intarsia and geometrically tiled floors. The owners are manufacturers of toffee, fertilizer, and abrasives who live in Madras and come here "for functions—any function, good or bad," so the bailiff Iyengar, who's worked here since 1961, informed me.

Past the dowager's room with a wooden cot covered in straw matting was a courtyard with jackfruit, mango, and lemon trees. Three families can use this as a common house: by opening all the doors, you get a string of hallways spanning three houses. Two to three thousand people fit into the dining hall. Across the road, there is another house. "Relatives," Iyengar muttered.

I kept to Prema's strict dictum—"Even if you are starving, eat only idli, dosai, steamed rice, sambar, lentils, and bananas. Do not take chutneys or raw vegetables"—and I returned to Madras safe and sound.

On my last day, she took me to see the Krishnamurti Foundation. The vibrant stillness of the meditation hall again took me by surprise. Prema had known Krishnamurti, another extraordinary being, who used to tell his students in Ojai, California, "How can the mind be still when all the time it is chattering, chattering, chattering?"

I went to the Gandhi cooperative and bought cotton sarongs in every color of the rainbow, the legendary green and blue Madras checks, and fine, braided leather chappals. Then I asked to see a white shirt. A pile of lavender ones was brought to me. I said I liked the style, and did it come in white. "But madam," the salesman replied patiently, "this is white." Indian bleach turns whites a pale lilac. From the moment you become used to this possibility, that white can be lilac, the world and its seemingly rigid realities start to float pleasantly.

Did I get zapped?Yes, and the mind stopped chattering.

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