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Visions From Madanapalle

At 2,000 feet, Madanapalle’s summer temperature is cooler than in other towns in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. This is a green part of India. The Indian mystic Mother Meera, considered by many to be a feminine incarnation of God on Earth, owns a farm about 20 minutes’ walk from her house — either along the ridges raised between open fields or through a mango grove, all dappled shade and scattering monkeys.

This farm is a beautiful place. A day-old calf sits, tethered and blinking, beneath a barn’s wooden canopy. Cots are placed in the shade of mango trees, while coconut trees form a separate grove. Cows and more calves are tethered to the trees, waiting to be taken in turn for a drink from the trough. Five guinea fowl move around in close formation. A rooster struts and crows while hens and chicks churn the dust with their feet. Chicks that have outgrown their beauty, gray creatures with long rangy necks, run and jump senselessly over every obstacle. A kitten sleeps in a basket. Dogs, named after characters in the soap opera Dallas , collapse in the heat as tiny mangoes drop around them, pushed from the branches by a squirrel. When Mother Meera is in Madanapalle, this is her favorite place. At the house, whenever she sits on its veranda, devotees and curious townsfolk come and go, chattering, and drop to their knees or lie prostrate in front of her chair as they clutch her feet in supplication. The farm is a pleasing removal from all that mad devotion. She likes to come here to sit in the early morning, and again at dusk. Beyond the low farm buildings stretch the 13 acres of fields. Hired hands come in for the occasional days when swift work is essential — the picking of crops or the planting of seedlings — but otherwise the work is entirely managed by members of Mother Meera’s family. Sugar cane rises placidly out of the ground, small tomato plants struggle through their early days in irrigated channels, while half-a-dozen acres of sunflowers bend their heads with the weight of their seeds. Parakeets whistle from the trees all around, amassing to swoop as green flashes, harvesting the seeds before they can be picked. Mother Meera’s family are gathered to keep them at bay. The father, Veera, is at the far edge of the field, dressed in white, a cloth tied around his head, a medallion bearing the portrait of his daughter around his neck. Bowlegged and stooped, walking slowly, he lets out the occasional shout, and bangs a stick against a tin can. The mother, Antamma, treads barefoot through the sunflower plants, gold rings in her nose and ears, her gray hair tied up behind her head, her short body trim and erect, her cotton sari tied up around her legs. "Whoop Whoop Whoop!" she cries, clapping her hands to frighten off the birds. A couple of ladies step in through the iron gateway of the house and begin to circle each other on the paved driveway. One old, the other young, one tall, the other short, in plain dark-colored cotton saris that cling to their bodies like second skins, their movements are a sinuous winding dance. Silver bells shake on chains about their wrists as their arms reach far above their heads, their hands wind separate dances that mirror the dance playing beneath them, and their fingers trill out rhythms in the air. Then separate waves of motion set in, waves that pass between their bodies as they step around each other, bending each woman from the waist so that their dance becomes a circle spinning on its side. Their hands reach in to clap at the circle’s center, the wrists’ silver bells jangling excitement at the rhythm, and the women sing. The words of their song patter as fast as the barefoot steps of their dance. The tune reaches high and low, high and low, following the stretching of their bodies, their voices shrill to cut through the hot air, voices that can draw audiences from across crowded marketplaces. The women, in fact, are two from among India’s millions of eunuchs known as hijras , sexless men who adorn themselves in women’s clothing, and bring the wildness of their lives to celebrate births and weddings, or the presence of a divine mother. An old lady, dressed in black, her white hair hanging loose like an old wedding veil, stands in the road. Her hands reach through the grille of the iron gate and hang there, the skin of her fingers fitting loosely round the bones. Her mouth gapes small and black. "Ma!" she calls, and the mouth closes again. "Ma!" Her body is still except for her mouth. "Ma!" the call comes, every 20 seconds or so. "Ma!" Toward the close of day young men appear, to sit in the shade of trees or recline on the broad sofa of a branch. Others trace the geometry of the land with their bare feet, walking the ridges between the rice fields. Their heads are bent toward their books, and their lips move around the words they are reading; whole books are breathed in the murmur of their voices. The days of the school exams are approaching. Passages have to be learned by heart, so they can be spilled across the examination pages when the chance arises. Beyond them, blue buses speed along the main road, their rooftops dense with passengers. Young men sprout from every window, hanging on to the bus with one hand while the hot wind dries the sweat from their faces. Julie and Charlie, two dogs from Mother Meera’s farm, come back to the house in the evening. This is the lazy time of day when bodies stir but still are languid. Charlie mounts Julie in the courtyard, the brown dog on the white. She stands patiently through all his lazy thrusting. When the moment comes to disengage, Charlie tugs as Julie stands, but still they stick together. Their efforts to separate are funny and somehow tender. Charlie wheelbarrows Julie around the coconut palms as she curls her head around to nuzzle their genitals loose and free. Patiently, through 15 anxious minutes, she succeeds. Their dance complete, the two dogs collapse into separate patches of shade. Large millstones are heaved into position, and Mother Meera’s house reverberates as they are turned to grind tamarind seeds into powder. Crickets spark into life with the sunset and mosquitoes stream in with the breeze. Birds fill every level of the sky. Pigeons dart around the roof. Parrots swoop their green curves of flight to perch with shrill cries. A kingfisher shrieks with the effort of pulling itself up to a TV aerial, rests, then speeds in a turquoise flash down to the fields. Egrets flap their pure white solo journeys across the center of the picture. And large gray kites, a mass of the birds, spiral round and round, the highest merely distant specks in some funnel that reaches the heavens. Martin Goodman is the author of On Bended Knees , short-listed for the Whitbread First Novel Award, and In Search of the Divine Mother: The Mystery of Mother Meera , forthcoming from HarperSanFrancisco.