Detail of a painting by Ramesh Kumar, Bangalore (Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath)
I’m at the coconut stand, drinking tea, watching reality TV. I like neither caffeine nor king coconut, we’re just here to watch the girls. It’s a peculiar corner. There is a pile of coconuts and a shack. Pregnant goats eat the garbage and kids serve you drinks. This is nondescript, I daresay, but the place is surrounded by foreign women. Me and a friend are sitting there, just watching the show.
Desire elicits a need to understand. Where is she going? What are her thoughts? Who are her friends? … While other passengers gazed absent-mindedly at the scenery, Flaubert fixed his eyes on a woman on deck.
“How quickly you would want to see her naked, admit it, and naked through to her heart. How you try to learn where she comes from, where she’s going, why she’s here and not elsewhere!” (The Art Of Travel, Alain De Botton)
But Flaubert was a bit of a perv. I am a respectable young man, consumed more by curiosity than desire. Besides, this is not the Orient for me. The girls are mostly white. None of this is particularly exotic.
I dig Bangalore. It is comfortably bourgeois. I mean this not in a revolutionary sense, but as a commendable evolution. Dudes are getting paid. There are nice shops and people wear shoes. It’s good man, it’s a good scene. I could see myself living there. I also had to get out.
Today my boredom was terrible. How beautiful are the provinces and how chic are the comfortably off who live there. Their talk is of taxes and road improvements (Flaubert, in De Botton)
That’s not me, but do you see? Flaubert went to Egypt. Me, I caught the bus to Mysore.
Mysore. Who knew. I’ve heard of the buildings and stuff, but it’s also a yoga center. There are a lot of women here, studying. Alas, I am not limber enough to either go to class or feign an interest. I like to go the gym and listen to mind-numbing electronica and gangster rap. I fear this to be terribly provincial.
If one is raised in a particular idiom I suppose it is easy to orient yourself, as Flaubert did, to the Orient. It is not so clear for me. I know these people and, in one case, was actually born in the same place. My family, however, is from here. When I think of yoga I think of my aunt, who I last went to classes with. Not terribly exotic.
At the coconut stand, the closest feeling I can muster is erotic but I fear that I, like Flaubert, long for ‘women with tanned skin and fiery eyes who could whisper to me in the language of the Houris.’
But is that exotic for me, or merely semiotic? That sentence doesn’t make sense, if you’re looking it up. It merely rhymes. Am I exotic to them, or is my Ohio accent hopelessly provincial?
When asked where he came from, Socrates said not from Athens but from the world. Flaubert was in Rouen (in his youthful account, a place drowning in ‘merde’ and where the good citizens ‘wank themselves silly’ on a Sunday from boredom), and yet Abu-Chanab, the Father of the Moustache [his name abroad], might have answered, perhaps a little from Egypt too.
Well yeah, me too. I just don’t know where one finds a woman in all this. Or, for that matter, oneself.