Though I landed home two weeks ago, I am still returning from a two-week trip to India, where I spent time primarily in Kolkata (known by it’s Anglicized name as Calcutta), and Shantiniketan, New Delhi and Agra, as well. When traveling it can take awhile for the spirit to catch up to the body. You literally enter into a different realm. Even flying from Tulsa to Kansas City is a miraculous shift. You step out into a different air, a different story. Walking or riding a horse you move about in the land and have time to adjust. From Tulsa to Los Angeles is a more dramatic shift, from Honolulu to Kolkata in a series of flights that took over 24 hours, was a shock.
Imagine stepping out into a population density of 15,475 people per square mile. This is the population density of Kolkata as of seven years ago. It’s grown since. The population density of Okmulgee is 1004 people per square mile; in Tulsa it’s 2,152 people per square mile. It can be overwhelming. The extremes between poverty and wealth are as dramatic. For many from Kolkata, most living in the Okmulgee area would be considered wealthy.
One image stays with me as we were being driven in heavy traffic through the city for a performance. The traffic included ox-driven carts, motorcycles that often carried whole families, bicycles hauling lumber and other stacks of goods, buses, trucks, tankers, and small bicycle or motorcycle motor taxis. We are stopped at a light. To the left on a concrete island is a shantytown of families. A father is very proud of his infant daughter he holds carefully on his knee. She wears a crisp, yellow dress. Behind him his wife and her sister are visiting in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. The few pans are hung with care. They are going about their life in one small room with dignity, though just inches away the traffic surges, punctuated by horns honking. Despite the difficulties, there was dignity. (An immense concept of dignity began shaping my mind there.)
Several languages overlapped: Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, and English as well as other tribal languages. (Yes, English came from tribal languages.) And West Bengal is one of many states in India, each marked by linguistic diversity, so much like our own North America. I began to understand how infected we are with the disease of cultural diminishment in this country. We’ve unconsciously digested the “vanishing Indian” myth. India showed me another possibility. Imagine our country as a country of thriving native languages and cultures, like India. It’s possible.
So I took a look at how we got into this mess, and I found Rabbit:
In a world long before this one, there was enough for everyone until somebody got out of line.
We heard it was Rabbit, fooling around with clay and the wind.
Everybody was tired of his tricks and no one would play with him; he was lonely in this world.
So Rabbit thought to make a person.
And when he blew into the mouth of that crude figure to see what would happen, the clay man stood up.
Rabbit showed the clay man how to steal a chicken.
The clay man obeyed.
Then Rabbit showed him how to steal corn.
The clay man obeyed.
Then he showed him how to steal someone else’s wife.
The clay man obeyed.
Rabbit felt important and powerful.
The clay man felt important and powerful.
And once that clay man started he could not stop.
Once he took that chicken he wanted all the chickens.
And once he took that corn he wanted all the corn.
And once he took that wife, he wanted all the wives.
He was insatiable.
Then he had a taste of gold and he wanted all the gold.
Then it was land and anything else he saw.
His wanting only made him want more.
Soon it was countries, and then it was trade.
Any thought, action or dream
Rubs up against everyone else.
The wanting infected the earth.
We lost track of the purpose and reason for life.
We began to forget our songs, we forgot our stories; we could no longer see or hear our ancestors, or talk with each other across the kitchen table.
Now Rabbit couldn’t find a drink of fresh water.
The forests were being mowed down all over the world.
The earth was being destroyed to make more and Rabbit had no place to play.
Rabbit’s trick had backfired.
And now his clay man was too consumed to run with him.
Rabbit tried to call the clay man back, but when the clay man wouldn’t listen Rabbit realized he’d made a clay man with no ears.
c Joy Harjo 2008
Posted by Joy Harjo at 5:35 AM