Some years ago…
We are in India, driving deep into the state of Karnataka, the Land of Monkeys. I stare out the van window at the strange, lunar landscape, that seems to emerge straight from myth.
The hilly horizon, sprinkled with vague green underbrush, effuses faded shades of reddish-browns, and beiges. Tawny boulders, some small, some like elephants, are strewn in every direction. Whole hills are made of these massive rocks, like a giant’s child has been playing there, piling them into haphazard bastions and pyramids.
In the ancient Indian legend, the Ramayana, the 10-headed king Ramana kidnaps the hero Rama’s beloved wife. Rama’s loyal servant, the monkey god Hanuman, gathers an army of monkeys to fight an epic war against Ramana’s army of demons.
It is said that Hanuman had the power to lift mountains with a single finger. It is said that in the battle that ensued, boulders the size of houses were flung through the air like pebbles. It is said that the land was torn to pieces in the fight.
It is said that this battle took place in what is now Karnataka.
We arrive in the village of Hampi, exit the van into the thick, sultry air, and are immediately descended upon by a horde of thin, brown-skinned boys. While their heights and ages vary, they all wear oversized buttoned linen shirts and clutch postcards that they push in our faces. They chant, “Only 5 rupees, only 5 rupees!”
They follow us down the wide bazaar of little shops, full of trinkets. We can already see part of the temple in the distance, beige and ornate, crawling languidly upward into a point where it pierces the gathering monsoon clouds.
We march down the avenue past the occasional sprouting palm tree towards the temple. We make a comical parade: harassed looking American students trailed by Indian boys who tumble around us, yelling without pause, “Only 5 rupees, madam these are very nice, you want them please!”
The guard shoos the boys away as we enter the ruins, where the quiet adds weight to the humidity.
We are told a rich, tragic history by a distracted looking man with a droning voice: In the 14th century, this was the heart of the Vijayanagra kingdom, wealthy and opulent. Then it was attacked and conquered. The echo of clashing weapons still bounces along the corridors of the broken city.
In the corner of the temple chained to a column, an elephant with eyes half-closed is standing, covered in faded, cracked paint of many colors. If you pay the guard a few rupees, you can feed the elephant some peanuts. Pay a few rupees more and you can have your picture taken on top of it.
While other students take turns clambering onto the beast and smiling for the camera, I walk alone past the famed stone chariot and lose myself in the dusty corridors. The ornate columns holding up the archways snake upward and then spread outward like the few gnarled trees that have somehow nested into the stone, bringing a bit of quiet life into the ruin.
We leave the temple just as the rains begin to pour, and bustle inside a neighboring establishment for a steaming lunch of rice and daal. Then we sit in silence drinking spiced tea, wrapped in cloaks, while we wait for the rains to lighten and finally cease.
The moment we exit the restaurant, the boys flock to our sides, postcards in hand. Their persistence rattles me after the melancholy serenity of the temple and the rainfall that seems to have washed away all other life from the streets of the town.
They are stuck to me. They circle in closer and closer. I am feeling desperate, so I give one particularly insistent boy with a clever, mischievous look, a 10-rupee bill and choose two random postcards from his stack.
After taking my money, he looks through the cards one at a time, and finally pulls one out – a beautiful photo of the river that winds right past the village. He hands it to me with a smile. “A gift,” he says.
But then the other boys crowd in and start clamoring for me to buy, buy, buy.
Exasperated, I tell them I have no more money. They smirk. I promise them I have no more money. They have heard it all before, and press in closer to me. I plead with them to believe that I truly have no more money. Their faces are hard, calculating, strangely adult, and their shrewd eyes follow my hand as I open my wallet and show them every part of it.
They see for themselves that it is empty.
Then they laugh, tension melting from their faces, and they become children again.
They ask me questions about where I am from and why I am here. They are eager to know and eager to share.
I ask the mischievous boy why they sell so many postcards that are not pictures of Hampi. He says what is on the postcard does not seem to matter so much, and that people who come through the village always want to buy pretty pictures of things they have not seen. I ask them where they get their postcards, and they tell me they are from a factory not so far away. They buy them for three rupees each, which means that for every 10 postcards they sell they make 20 rupees, or about 60 cents.
The boy looks 11 but he is 14. “But what about school?” I ask, and he says he has taken some school. He can read and write. He tells me he has an eight year-old sister, and he wants her to be able to take some school too. That is why he sells postcards.
Joined by three of the boys, I hike up the hill above the main square as the sun, glowing orange, descends. We sit in silence side-by-side, watching the river beyond the town snake through the shadows, as companions.