Travel Stories

INDIA – third venue – Pune

19.  Getting to Town

            When I exit the airport terminal in Pune I am approached by a flock of rickshaw drivers offering their services, and as has become my habit I say yes to the first one to reach me, often a runner for other drivers.  And as now is also a pattern on this voyage, when the driver asks where I want to go I shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know … bookstore, Internet cafe, guesthouse.”

            And, of course, the poor driver,who has absolutely no idea where I want to go, heads into town toward some general area where he has seen foreigners congregating, which is exactly what I want.  In this instance we end up in a beautiful neighborhood with tree lined streets, in an absolutely charming part of town, near the immense and famous (infamous?) world renowned Osho Ashram.  And when my driver asks another driver how to find a guesthouse around there, the other driver jumps into the cab and I am taken by the two of them jabbering famously and shown a number of rooms in a number of once stately private homes turned into boarding houses, and I select the prettiest one.  “How long will sir be staying,” I am asked.  And I say, “I don’t know.”“But how can sir not know how long he will be staying?”  “I don’t know.”  “But where will sir be going next?”  “I don’t know.” “But price depends on length of stay, sir, perhaps you will stay one month,” the runner says.  And I laugh.  “One day at a time,” I say.  “Three day minimum,” the owner says.   And I think, okay, I don’thave any plans other than to get to Aurangabad and to meet Sam in Delhi in two weeks, I’ll stay here three days, sure, once more knowing with certainty that this is what I have been guided to …om tat sat/that which is.  “How much?” I ask. “Ten dollars a day,” the owner replies, twice as much as I paid with a private bath and complimentary breakfasts in Auroville.  “Fine,” I say, and put out my hand and we shake on it. And I give the owner 1,500 rupees.  And the owner gives the runner some rupees.  And the runner gives the rickshaw driver some rupees.  And everyone is smiling, even the guides I imagine, who are delighted to have delivered me to this room that is absolutely lovely, on a tree lined street that is absolutely lovely, and quiet, and clean, well almost clean, in a setting that might as well be Paris, where from the windows of my corner room, with screens, a breeze, a fan, cross ventilation, pale green walls, matching striped curtains, and residual smoke from the crematory grounds, I am bathed in the sweetly filtered sunlight that flows into the streets, and into the homes of Pune, and where I sleep soundly, awaiting the new day, and dwell in peace.

20. My mental state

            I really don’t know where I am, literally, other than to say I am in a rented room somewhere in Pune, India, off of Burning Ghat Street, in the Koregaon Park neighborhood, above the confluence of the Mutha and Mula rivers, with flowering trees, and filtered sunshine that falls on small Indian green grocers where I buy four bananas for a nickel, and barefoot children run among the spirits of those whose bodies were reduced to ashes here at the Ghats along the river.  And I certainly don’t know who I am if measured by either the standard of “who-I- experienced-myself-as-being” before the trip, or by the standard of “I-know-why-I’m-doing-what-I’m-doing,” because I really don’t.  And the depth of my letting go has been beyond anything I could have imagined, and even permits me to say of myself that maybe I actually am on a spiritual journey, and that at this time of my life this is exactly what such a journey looks like.  Om tat sat.  And besides my not knowing where I am, and who I am, as best as I know nobody else on the planet knows where I am or who I am either, and I like that, a man who literally forced himself to leave the idealized comforts of Auroville because it was too familiar and distracting, a man stunned by the comfort, pleasure, and enjoyment he is experiencing, a man who, like the cognitively impaired and simple Urusala, has the sense that this is almost too good to be true, although it obviously is true, this realization of some of my fondest wishes, a gift of my long years in struggle and hope, my commitment to and belief in personal transformation and evolution, the many teachers, lovers, caregivers, children, wives, friends, and therapists who helped bring me here, the presence of the guides and Great Spirit … and, yes,maybe even the Divine. 

          Of course, any recognition/acceptance of the Divine is completely new for me, a still confirmed and committed atheist, and thus seems vastly important to explore as a belief and sensation, not merely the familiar sense of wonderment at the beauty, vastness, marvel, complexity, and magnificence of the world, but something more than that, something that at this point I cannot define with words, a belief, perhaps even a knowledge, that causes me to want to explore further whatever the Divine may be (or not be) rather than just categorically rejecting it as pure myth, as I have done since age ten.  This inquiry is consistent with my last few years of living a more spiritual life mostly alone on the Cape, my devoted yoga practice, and this trip to India where the power of Mother India to touch, to reach inside, and to transform the traveler, as it has apparently done so many times, cannot be denied.  There is a particular quote from The Mother, as Aurobindo’s life partner is known as, that compels my attention, the essence of which is that the only solution for the “falsehoods” we live with is to “cure in ourselves all that contradicts in our consciousness the presence of the Divine.”  I think about this, a student who may be ready for new teachers to appear.

21. Finding Yoga - Guru Dharmavi

          Rickshaw drivers are good sources of information about the location of bookstores and cyber cafes, but I’d not met one who knew anything about the location of a yoga studio.  So I’m more than a little surprised when one says he knows of a place I might like and delivers me to Guru Dharmavisingh Mahida’s studio, which is in an absolutely exquisitely rustic compound at the edge of a park surrounded by flowering trees and where a session is in progress at the moment I arbitrarily arrive.  The problem for me is that Guru Vi is not your average yoga teacher, his “classes” are mostly for individual students doing stretching exercises on ropes, straps attached to the walls, and props that makes it look more like a Pilates studio or a physical therapy rehabilitation center rather than a yoga studio, and he will not take anyone as a student who cannot commit to taking classes with him for at least one month. Still Guru Vi is somehow glad to see me and wants to know how he can be of service.  So I tell him about the nature of my yoga practice, and my goals in practicing yoga and my trip to India within that context, and Guru Vi introduces me to two of his students who have a studio and just happen to be there on this day as part of their ongoing study with him, and kindly says that although I cannot study with him I am welcome to come in one morning and do my routine in front of him and he will offer his observations about my practice, oh, and besides which, in his opinion, no one over thirty five should ever be doing a strenuous asana practice anyway.  So I leave with Dharmavi’s students and end up studying with them at their studio for the entire time I am in Pune, and it is quite wonderful, and I don’t want to leave Pune any more than I wanted to leave Auroville, and I return at seven the next morning to Dharmavi’s for my yoga practice analysis, which, without boring you with details, comes down to deeper breathing, longer out breaths, renunciation of trembling, and opening my chest and heart.  “Come back anytime to practice,” says Guru Vi.  “No charge.  Just use the space.  Watch what we do.  Come back to Pune in the rainy season, it’s so beautiful.  I can help you and would enjoy working with you.  Meanwhile I recommend my student without reservation. You will love them and benefit from them.”  And I do and have been learning so much and am so grateful and can’t wait to tell you about it.

22.  The dialogue.

          I don’t leave yoga with Aparna and Pravin, Dharmavi’s students, until some time after 8:00 P.M, as we seem unwilling to stop chatting.  I check periodically to confirm I am not keeping them, that they are not just being polite listening to an old man’s stories and responding to his questions, but there is obvious and genuine excitement and pleasure we are taking in our exchanges and explorations, especially about God, however that may be defined, and particularly our disagreement about the personification of God whether in Krishna, Brahma, Shiva, Jesus, Buddha, the guy who Mohammed is the messenger of, or the guy who commanded Adam, Moses, and the nut case who was prepared to sacrifice his son Jacob before the burning bush.  Helloooo.  But when we get away from the personified god to talk about “creative power” or “forces” or “energy” in the universe we are on completely different ground.  They believe that my being sent to them is no accident, that they are learning so much from me they say, that it must have been an act of god, and besides which, I am their very first non-Indian client.  And from my perspective I also have no doubt that my finding them is not an “accident” either, and that even if synchronistic, it is not “just” synchronistic, and they and I enjoy a shared set of recognitions and assumptions about the difference between “knowing” and “realizing,” not like oh I just realized that, but more an awareness that is an internal recognition of a truth other than by mental computation, or scientific “proof.”  There are fundamentally different assumptions we have, they do not believe humans descended from primates for example, and they do not believe in the “Big Bang,” but then neither do I.  But we all three believe the solar system and this Earth are about six billion years old, which leads me to one of my finest arguments about why the notion of a personalized god more or less looking like and acting like a human is such nonsense.  “Look, P and A, you both accept that there was no life on the Earth at the beginning, right?”  And they do.  “And you accept that at one point life began as a simple single celled organism, right?”  And they do.  “So where was this personalized god you believe in before life began?  And if life began as a single celled organism what was God doing looking like a human at that time.”  This is a very fine argument they acknowledge, but what was the energy/power that created the universe and created the single celled form that was alive and could reproduce, they ask.  And I say we humans will never know that truth.  And they say the answer is “God.” And I ask, “You mean Brahma?”  And they say yes.  And I say I don’t believe it.  And we are fine together.  And I can’t wait to get back the next morning for yoga.

23.       Margapattaville

          I go to the shopping center, mall I suppose you might call it, that services the Margapatta community in which the yoga studio I’ve been going to is located: green grocers, little shops selling kitchenware, ice cream and pizza shops, Indian fast food joints, restaurants, cyber cafes.  It is Sunday night after 9 PM and the place is alive with people: teens, younger people, clusters of men and women in their twenties, gatherings of women chatting, of men chatting, young couples, young families, young women in jeans, men in shorts, it is all very familiar except for the fact everyone here is Indian, everyone is eating with their fingers and then licking their hands clean, all the signs are in Hindi, the lighting is not quite what we are used to, and I am the only non Indian person there … and very comfortable.

24. Night Market

          Afterward leaving the very comfortable mall in Margapatta I grab a rickshaw for the ride back to Burning Ghat Road.  On our way the driver takes a short cut that brings us into a teeming night market I had not seen before.  I ask the driver to stop, saying I want to get out and briefly explore the market.  He tells me it is “wery dangerous, not good place, good sir.”  But in my ongoing euphorically distorted state I say I don’t care, that I want to walk around and see it for ten or fifteen minutes, that he can wait for me if he chooses, or he can go on and I will pay him for this portion of the ride.  “No, sir, I not vait here,” he tells me, “wery dangerous place.  No good place.  No vait, Sir.”  “Okay,” I say, “but what can be dangerous, look at all the people, the lights, just stop and let me off.”  So he stops, I get out, I reach into my pocket for my money and he says, “I vait.”  “Ten minutes,” I yell skipping off, “fifteen at the most,” as I implement my now well practiced Indian street crossing maneuver of attaching myself to a group of people already in the roadway, trusting that if they don’t get hit by a motorcycle or a car, I won’t get hit either.

          Once in the market I am swept up in its festive air.  It is crowded beyond a 42nd street merchant’s dream.  Loud fast Indian music is being blasted from speakers throughout.  There are vendors everywhere, kids’ rides, men blowing and selling bubble blowing devices, balloons, cooking fires, phosphorescent lights that people have on and are twirling, and even one darkly dressed Indian woman wearing a pair of lit up red devil’s horns on her head that make her into a very eerie visage and signal a change in aura of the scene, because no sooner have I seen the woman with the horns than I am surrounded by a pack of eight or nine hyperactive boys who I gauge to be ten to fourteen years old and who want to shake my hand, hold my hands, touch me, and are saying things in English that make no sense, and in Hindi that I obviously don’t understand, but are all extremely animated (and a little too close and intimate), and … it slowly dawns on me … are asking for or demanding money, I can’t tell which.  But I just keep smiling, giving them high fives, shaking hands, laughing, saying “no, no, no,” and moving deeper into the market.  And soon they are gone. 

          I am reminded here of a sweet note I got recently from my high school friend Susan Levine who said she would never do what I am doing on this trip, but perhaps, she speculates, I get away with it, or think I can get away with it, because of my size.  Who knows? 

          In short order I’ve explored all I want to explore of the market, have really enjoyed my little foray, and am headed back out through the crowd when I encounter the crowd of young boys again, still screaming, still a little too frenzied and bold, only now swollen to a pack of about fifteen or twenty youths.  An event I witnessed in the Bronx 60 years ago, which I have not thought about for decades, flashes with remarkable detail as I recall a pack of kids I knew of the same age as this group of boys attack a much larger nineteen or twenty year old man.  As I saw the event then, and even as I think about it now, my initial inclination would be to bet on the far bigger stronger man, not believing then, or even now that I have been proven wrong, than the pack of much smaller young boys could beat and bring down the bigger man.  But they did, and I see it with great clarity.  Maybe the man was adverse to the fight, or maybe the boys drew blood early and it scared him, or maybe at first he didn’t take it seriously, or didn’t want to hurt kids smaller and younger than himself, and clearly in hindsight he shouldn’t have backed up to the parked car as he did, thinking perhaps that he was protecting his rear flank when in fact the car provided a launching pad for the younger boys to climb on and jump on him, and take away his height advantage, and deny him room to move and swing freely and turn.  I really don’t know.  But I do know the younger boys won that fight, and bloodied him badly, and dropped him to the ground, and kicked him until he was curled in a ball crying for mercy, and no one intervened to save him until then, speaking of indifference.  And it is here in my reverie that I also make a mistake in the night market, because, still acting as if we are all just having a jolly old time, I impulsively reach into my pocket, take out a Kit Kat bar I had purchased earlier, and hand it to the kid I perceive as the leader of the pack, saying at the same time, in what I intended to be a joking manner, “Now show some respect to an older man.” And the boy yells loudly,“Now show some respect to an older man.”  And the throng of boys chants responsively, “Now show some respect to an older man,” and the leader calls again, and the boys respond again, and have started touching me, and grabbing my ass, and pressing on the small back pack I’m wearing, and in my pockets, all the while as I move toward the entrance, waving at the vendors who care to look at the unfolding event, swatting boys’ hands away, holding on to my wallet, passport, and cash in my left front pocket with my left hand, waving and swatting with my right.  And smiling, of course.  And trying to keep the mood jocular.  And hoping the rickshaw driver is still there as I use the throng of boys to move blindly forward into the roadway, reaching the rickshaw, getting into the rickshaw while five or six of the boys try to get into the rickshaw with me, each saying words akin to, “Take me home with you,” as the driver starts to move forward, easing into the roadway, where the boys are forced to peel away, and the driver shakes his head and scolds me, saying, “I tell Sir wery bad place. Wery bad place.”  And after putting what he considers to be an adequate distance between us and the market says, “Sir check money and bag,” and I say, “No, no, it’s all good,” and am really feeling good.  And even as I write this I cannot tell you whether it was all in fun, or threat, or something else we will ever know.  And while it may be “odd” to say this,from my perspective I mostly enjoyed the overall experience -that’s mostly -and was mostly comfortable in it, and I would do it again.

25. Idanna mum – nothing is mine

          Hindus believe, I learn, that at each stage of life an individual should be mindful of his or her obligations, whether it is to gain a good education and learn self-control in our youth, or to procreate and raise a family, or to attain union with the Divine.  In this regard it is assumed that after an active life as a householder/wage earner one will withdraw from active community life to pursue more spiritual engagements, followed by a stage of complete renunciation and freedom from attachment.  It is with more than a sense of idle curiosity that, as I learn of these categorizations, I consider my own renunciation of career and community, and my obvious longing to feel and otherwise experience my identity with the larger whole we are all so obviously a part of, or as Hindus would say, to experience my unity with the Divine.