Event Review: Sacred Geography: Dispatches from India by Harold Jaffe

IMG_1614It’s a Friday evening at the San Diego Theosophy Center, and few people are talking. The room is warm despite the open window. Professor Harold Jaffe is all in black, a sensible button-up, tinted eyeglasses and slacks. He approaches the podium gradually, watching for the sudden movement of extended legs as people settle into the still silence of being seated. A single window lets the street noise into the crowded room—the heavy curtain is curled up, the bottom resting on a bookshelf—incapable of cooling the gathering of friends, colleagues, and students, sipping hot tea from styrofoam cups.

He is about to read his dispatches from India, and there is a sense that this is special, important, that we are not just listeners; we are here to contemplate how death and beauty meet, how the sacred can be commodified for the sake of survival, for the sake of modernity.

For every dispatch, a photograph appears on the television to his left. He tells us that “one feels thousands of years of worshiping despite the degradation of the poor.” There is a silent despair as he recounts the thin, dark men, who were barefoot, and self-possessed. He wants us to know about the “cremated body parts bobbing in the Ganges.” He tells us that “sound breaks apart into a white noise” and “untouchables glide by noiselessly,” interrupted by the presence of mobile phones.

The boom of his voice accompanies the rise of his hands as he asks us to consider a digital India—whether or not it can co-exist with the sacred. His mouth aligns with the glow of the podium-light, his words luminous as he details his time in a rowboat, accompanied by a rat and a boy chewing beetles. He pauses to drink, his fingers elongate delicately around the blue water bottle as the audience clears their throats, thirsting for that same water.

To understand the state of India’s poor, Jaffe attempted to discuss dengue fever with an untouchable and was unsuccessful—the man likely felt insulted by the question, Jaffe explains.
One of his dispatches comments on the barrier between his desire to know and his ability to access that knowledge, because he is one of the privileged, merely visiting the suffering.

The idea of barriers is further demonstrated in a photo of oxen with a girl in the center, her pigtails match the shape of the oxen’s ears behind her. Jaffe tells us about the “unnatural unblinking glance” of the oxen—how you give in, allow yourself to see the suffering there, to feel it in your own pair of eyes.

He pauses, and the photo becomes more vivid, the resting oxen less sentient without faces, the little girl vulnerable, because she looks at us, challenges us not to look away.

After spending a year in India 35 years ago, Jaffe tells us that he was drawn back to see it again. With his most recent trip, he wrote 43 dispatches, expressing a concern for the “uncolonized space of dreams,” and the wellbeing of the untouchables.

By the time he is finished, the light from the window is gone—only the grouping of black clouds remain. Jaffe’s parting words: The world is the world. Without deception.

By Erica Spriggs