The White Temple

The temple attendant tut tuts his disapproval at my shorts and gives me a sarong to cover my immodesty. I am too awed by the ornate white structure in front of me to be embarrassed. I am standing in the presence of Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Blindingly white in the afternoon sun, it reflects majestically in the lake that surrounds it. Yet upon closer inspection, there is something almost sinister in its aspect. Hundreds of sculptured hands that rise out of the ground beseechingly, some holding up skulls or pots, others curved in agony or torment, it is bafflingly malevolent. A path in the middle leads up towards the bridge, a large set of horns on either side, scimitar like, threatening to decapitate one at a moment’s notice. This strange and frightening welcome is further enhanced by the presence of two large gargoyle like creatures, frowning and pointing, swords at the ready.

With shaky hands I take a few photos, and pause for a moment to compose myself. A contingent of saffron clothed monks passes me by, and something of their calm reaches out to soothe me. I put the camera in my pocket cognisant of the no photography rule inside the temple, and follow them.

In the cool, hushed interior, all hubbub subsides, as locals and tourists examine the single, small room that comprises the ubosot, or the main temple. On the facing wall is a huge mural of the Buddha, serene in meditation. My jangled nerves are only momentarily calmed by this vision, as more perplexing murals adorning the other three walls swim into view. In particular the wall behind me. From Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley, from Hello Kitty to the Minions,from the airplane hit Twin Towers in New York to Neo from the Matrix, there is an assortment of Western characters, largely American, that seem to symbolise some kind of prevailing wickedness. On the side walls are murals of boats filled with people heading towards the Buddha. I can only surmise that this is a depiction of man’s journey from ignorance and greed towards enlightenment.

In a shadowy corner, a man sits quietly, paintbrush in hand, touching up a mural. Could this be Chalermchai Kositpipat, the famous Thai visual artist, and architect of this mystifying structure? I am too afraid to ask, and quietly make my exit.

As I walk around the grounds, still processing all that I have seen, I wander into the golden enclave of the museum. Here I chance upon a large statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh being carved. I watch fascinated as they labour over his trunk, carving intricate details into what will one day reside in the environs of this incredible structure.

Like the Sagrada Familia, this is a work in progress. Yet, it is Kositpipat’s vision, funds and determination that propels it forward. His own life, as much as this temple, is an extraordinary entreaty to mankind to shed their earthly ties, and move towards something that is far larger than themselves.

That is a lesson well worth imbibing.

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A spoonful of sugar

The other day I sat with a friend discussing the merits of the latest Bond film, Spectre. She, being an enormous fan of the franchise, thought it was wonderful, exciting, adventurous, clever and fun, with fabulous locales, and the incomparably delicious Daniel Craig. I, on the other hand, was distinctly underwhelmed. Although, having always been aware of the tongue in cheek, wink wink nature of the Bond films, this time round I felt that belief had been stretched beyond the point of credulity. A villain that refused to perish, ladies, young and old, that swooned at one glance from Bond, and irrespective of the fantastic locations, a movie that lacked soul.

If I had to pick a franchise that still ticked the boxes for me, it would be the Mission Impossible one. The latest film: Rogue Nation had all the elements that had made the Bond films so beloved of so many generations of viewers. Topping those were a believable premise, an interesting hero, a kick ass heroine, amazing stunts and a villain who was scary enough, yet not unbelievably invincible.

Essentially though, both films were escapist fare.

Over the two decades that I have lived and worked in the West, I have constantly confronted the allegation that Indian films are just song and dance and hoopla. Boy meets girl. They fall in love and then over the course of three hours, multiple costume changes, and various kinds of obstacles to surmount, they finally get to their happily ever after. All loose ends are neatly tied up, and with (yet another) song on their lips, they dance into the sunset.

While not wholly unjustified, this widespread notion has completely sidelined the incredible films that came out of the stables of say, a Satyajit Ray, a Shyam Benegal, a Sai Paranjape, or a Mani Ratnam. Films that unflinchingly presented reality in all its grimness, its messiness, its mundaneness.

Yet the masses throng to the cinemas not for the latter, but for the former.

In every culture there exists some kind of escapist cinema. Something that allows us, just temporarily, to relegate to the background all our worries and heartaches. Why does Hollywood churn out multiple superhero films? Because the child in us wants to believe that this one person/super entity can be the solution to all our problems. Why do we admire a James Bond or an Ethan Hunt? Because they are the ‘good guys’- repositories of all our hopes and fears. In reality, there are no super heroes. Spies are not suave, Martini swilling gentlemen, but shadowy figures that in all probability do as much harm as good, pawns in a political game.

As for the eternal love story factory called Bollywood, the very same producers and directors that churn out these films are well aware that the headiness of falling in love and fighting for love is a brief moment in a lifetime likely to be peppered with disillusionment and disappointment. They capture it over and over on celluloid, in endless permutations, to let us relive that which may never ever happen to us again.

If life is a bitter pill to swallow, then movies such as these are the spoons full of sugar that we willingly ingest alongside. Let the cynics laugh. As long as celluloid dreams exist, we can live vicariously through our heroes and their adventures.

So whether it is a Bond seducing you on screen, an Ethan Hunt taking your breath away with his death defying stunts, or a Shah Rukh Khan beckoning you into his arms, let no man or woman come between you, and that which momentarily lets you escape a life where men are decapitated, women raped, children abducted, and you are powerless to do anything. If this momentary respite from reality lets you recharge enough to face another day without caving in to despair, so be it.

Long may the Dream merchants spin their webs of fantasy, and long may we stay in their thrall.

 

 

IT

The scratching started again last night. Just behind the wall, behind the sideboard I’d pushed there to keep it from getting inside. I didn’t dare mention it to Andy.

The last time he’d turned the house upside down for me. Then, with an irritated shrug, left for the pub.

Between the scratching and Andy’s snoring, I’d gotten little sleep. This morning I’d looked for the sleeping pills and found none. He’d gotten rid of them again.

I put my duffel coat over my pyjamas and walked to the neighbourhood pharmacy.

Rina looked up from the prescription she was filling out for the old man.

“Chloe! It’s been months. Are you okay?”

“I think there’s a rat in the loft. A big one. Those super rats they are talking about on the news.”

“What…? Have you been taking something Chloe? What rats…what are you on about?”

“Super rats! BIG ones. 2 feet long and immune to everything. We have one living in the loft. I hear it, scurrying about, scratching, sniffing”

Rina sighed. “Come on, let’s go grab a coffee. Julie, take over from me for a bit.”

She ushered me out. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, all wild hair and crazy eyes.

“How’s the book coming along?”

“I’m not writing anymore. That stopped after… after…”

She put a hand over mine. Her beautiful scarlet tipped nails in stark contrast to my filthy, bitten ones.

“We don’t need to talk about it. I’ve been worried about you. Andy said you didn’t want to see anyone, so I didn’t call.”

“I need to get some poison. Strong stuff. Something that will kill it. I can’t concentrate. I keep thinking about it. It’s eyes peering at me through cracks in the wall. It’s teeth waiting to gnaw off my finger…”

She laughed. “No wonder you’re a writer. Such an imagination!”

“Andy doesn’t believe me. He can’t hear anything. He thinks it’s one of my episodes.”

“Is it?”, she peered at me concerned.

“No. I’ve put all that behind me.”

“Okay. Let me see what I can find. I’ll bring it over when I’m free. Try and get some sleep darling. You look like Hell.”

 
I perched myself precariously on the top step of the ladder leading to the loft. Poison in one hand, torch in other. This time I would find and kill the rodent. I started to place the poison around the edges at first, side stepping the insulation. Then I threw it like grain, all around me. Blue flecks that rained like toxic snow.

That won’t kill me. You know it won’t.

He sat in front of me. Grey and large and smelly. His black, beady eyes, staring straight into my hazel ones.

I’ll still be scratching and sniffing and waiting for you.

“No, you won’t!”, I shouted, “You won’t control me again!”

We stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity. Then slowly, deliberately, I placed the pellets inside my mouth. The End.