Day 16, (way more than) 500 words, 31 days.
I woke up this morning feeling inexplicably exhausted. Yes, I stayed up working well after midnight, but this isn’t uncommon for me. By 7am I’m usually up and about with my wife as she gets ready for school, debating whether or not I should go for a run, or have a cup of coffee.
Most days, coffee wins out, but today I opted for neither, choosing to prolong laying in bed as much as possible. Somehow I managed to roll out from the mattress and take Shuli to school, bed-head and all. Once I got back, I deliberated upon whether it would be another stay-at-home work day or if I would plan on doing something else with my “one, wild and precious life” as Shuli, quoting Mary Oliver, likes to remind me.
Today is Thaipusam here in Penang, one of the biggest Hindu festivals the Tamil community here celebrates. It commemorates the story of Parvati giving Murugan a spear to kill the demon Soorapadman. I won’t elaborate on the background here, and frankly, I still know very little about it. Going in, I just wondered, and worried, if the violent nature of what was being commemorated would play itself out in ways I wouldn’t be prepared for, should I decide to go anyway.
Truth be told, I had some skepticism about attending this event and witnessing the procession of its participants from one temple to the next. I was under the impression that I’d see men walking in trance-like states, with their bodies and faces pierced by rusty hooks and small spears. I imagined blood gushing out of their skin and shrieks from the crowd that I wouldn’t be able to differentiate as screams of horror or shouts of worship. I was expecting that it would too overwhelming a spiritual experience and too foreign for me an outsider like me.
I also expected the traffic would be horrendous – so I opted for the bus.
After getting kopi and some bao at one of the neighborhood cafes on the corner, I caught the 101 bus heading toward Georgetown. I planned the night before to try and catch the procession where it began from Lorong Kulit temple near the heart of the city. But I read they started at 3 in the morning!. By the time I was actually leaving, which was closer to 10, most must have made their way towards the Waterfall temple, their final destination.
But really, it was the bus driver who unintentionally made it easy for me to decide where to go. I asked him where I could see Thaipusam, and he prepared to give me a receipt for RM1.40. I kept talking and mentioned if I should go to Georgetown. Then he said, “Georgetown, two ringgit.” I thought he must not have heard me correctly – I wanted him to tell me where I should get off. Now he was holding two receipt stubs and of course, I opted to pay more, because I’m silly. I paid the two ringgit, but figuring I’d get off earlier. It still doesn’t make any sense, but at least I figured out I probably didn’t need to go as far as the city to see the procession. It’s not his fault that I mumble.
I should’ve have known that a good portion of the people on the bus were heading to the festival. Without meaning to sound insensitive, I really should have just followed the Tamil to where they were going. In fact, once I decided this was my best course of action, after getting off the bus, I started following this older Indian couple, not so discretely, listening in on the questions they were asking the officers around about how to take the bus back from the festival. It occurred to me that it was probably weird how I was just listening in over their shoulders.
Once I got on Jalan Bagan Jermal, however, it wasn’t going to be hard getting lost. Droves of people from the Indian community here in Penang were headed towards the procession route, with a handful of Chinese locals and a sprinkling of foreigners going the same way. I was surrounded by families whose wives and daughters were dressed in such beautifully vibrant, flowing saris that I told myself I had to just start taking pictures and capture all of this color.
It’s been a while since I’ve shot with the old Canon DSLR camera I inherited from my wife last year – and an even longer while since I’ve gone on a photo-trip to shoot a festival of this scale. I remember covering occasions like this before back in New York – whenever there was some kind of cultural parade down 5th avenue, I’d make sure I was there with my Nikon, two lenses, and hopefully, a fully charged battery. It just got me reminiscing.
Camera in hand, I started snapping away, rather indiscriminately, though as discretely as possible. The aperture priority setting on my camera was helpful, partially because the lighting conditions were sunny enough, nothing was moving too quickly, and I hadn’t fully learned how to use the manual features of my wife’s camera – which is my fault entirely. I also found myself shooting from the waist at times, taking a chance on whether my subject would be in the frame, without them knowing I was shooting.
I was pulling out all the old tricks, and in a way, it felt kind of fun again – shooting out on the street without quite getting noticed. Of course, I started committing the same mistakes again too. My settings, at times, were off. But more than the technical aspects – it was that feeling of voyeurism that began to creep over me again – the intrusive, outsider-looking-in angle I always settle for that discourages me from having to get too close. I work with a photographer now, his name is Matt Brandon, and my guess is, he would have little problem politely, but directly, asking people if he could shoot their photograph. From that would have come, perhaps, a single shot that could capture the essence, the beauty, and humanity of the celebration.
And that’s precisely what I didn’t do.
I settled for the shots from a distance, the interesting angles, the creative framing. But never the portrait. It was frustrating to realize I still couldn’t do the portrait, in public.
My interest for shooting the event started to wane, once I saw the “photogs” and their big telephoto lenses straddling their chests. I watched them shoot, shot after shot, just like I did, and I started to wonder how much this event actually, really, meant, to any of us that came for the purpose of leaving with that “decisive moment”.
Honestly, I was hoping to see what those spears and hooks really looked like, in person – and whether the image I had in my head matched what I would see up close.
It did, and it didn’t. I was preparing for witnessing something so graphic that I took for granted how much this whole occasion was actually quite the family affair. Little kids were here, running around and pointing innocently at the colorful offerings on display along the side of the road. There was free food and refreshments being distributed along the procession route that made it easy to forget how some men were actually walking by next to us whose whole bodies were pierced with metal. They were actually here for a different reason – one that I still don’t quite understand.
Eventually, I arrived at the end of a long line, where people stood with brown, compostable paper trays in hand, waiting to be served with helpings of rice, vegetables, and curry. I was probably one of a handful of non-Tamil people there, so, suffice it to say, I was a little embarrassed. It didn’t help that there was a young, beautiful woman handing out the paper trays, politely, yet not-so-subtly rolling her eyes at the people in line, as if she wondered why those of us who were “not like the other” were taking their people’s food. That’s how I read it anyway, and I didn’t want to keep staring, so I smiled with an over-the-top genuineness, and proceeded to look at my empty plate.
To my surprise, I received a really generous portion, of everything. I was also served by people who I’m sure, were Chinese, and then I thought, I totally had every right to be there. I also thought, that my time for picture-taking was up. With a plate of food waiting to spill over the edges in one hand and my camera in the other, I had to make a choice.
I put away the DSLR and took out my “work phone” for some quick, one-handed shooting, as I briskly walked back the opposite way. I managed just a handful of “keepers”, but at this point, my attention had shifted from finding those “decisive moments”, to avoiding eye contact, to preventing my food from falling, to nudging my way through the people traffic and getting on a bus back home.
I walked, a lot.
Blocks upon blocks, just like the New York days again, and at a blistering pace. I stopped once or twice, just to get my bearings and ask the security officers which way it was to the bus back to Tanjung Bungah. I got several different answers that didn’t make me trust any one of them, so I walked further and faster. At this point, I just wanted to go home and eat my plate of food.
The farther I went down the road, the closer I was getting to what was familiar. Soon enough, after several blocks of brisk-walking, I arrived at the intersection near Gurney Drive, and I knew I had figured out my way home. The bus stop was just around the corner and God-forbid any route changes, I was set.
Everything about the trip to witness Thaipusam today actually went a lot more smoothly than I had anticipated. All the sights I imagined in my head were, I guess, proven true, and yet the feeling I was expecting they would evoke in me wasn’t what I actually experienced, either. Witnessing a celebration that had been so foreign to me didn’t make me any more less foreign. If anything, I was both inside of it, and yet, apart.
And that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with, by now.
But the rush – the thrill of chasing after those rare, fleeting moments, the wonder of being in the midst of something so strange yet so welcoming, the rootedness of traveling about on foot – the rush that came with all of those things…that, I had truly missed.
P.S. Pictures to come, promise.
P.P.S. Pictures here.