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

by Erica Spriggs

It is 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 wearing black, a a mandarin-collar shirt, sunglasses, slacks. He approaches the podium gradually, watching for the sudden movement of extended legs as people settle into the still silence. A single window lets the street noise into the crowded room—the heavy curtain is curled, the bottom resting on a bookshelf—incapable of cooling the gathering of friends, colleagues, and students, several sipping hot tea from styrofoam cups.

Jaffe is about to read from his Sacred Geography: 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 converge, how even the sacred can be commodified.

For every dispatch, a photograph appears on the television to his left. He tells us that “one can sense the thousands of years of worshiping despite the official degradation of the poor.” There is a silent shared despair as he recounts the untouchables: thin, black, barefoot. He tells us of the “cremated body parts bobbing in the Ganges.” He tells us that the multiple “sounds break 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 at dawn on the Ganges, accompanied by a rat and a boy chewing betel. The reader 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 attempts to discuss dengue fever with a high-caste and is unsuccessful—the man feels insulted.

One of Jaffe’s dispatches comments on the barrier between his desire to know and his ability to access that knowledge, because he is, in effect, 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 ox—how you give in, allow yourself to see the suffering as part of the movement towards both knowledge and serenity in the midst of chaos.

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.

Jaffe tells us that he spent a year in India 35 years ago and was drawn back to it again. On his most recent trip, he wrote 43 dispatches, expressing, in particular, a concern for the “uncolonized space of dreams,” and the well-being of the impoverished.

By the time he is finished, the light from the window is gone—only the grouping of black clouds remain. The world is the world. Without deception.