Yotam’s second passion is Auroville, www.auroville.org. He shows me a video he has made about chimes, bells and new musical instruments being produced in Auroville, which is an experimental community self described as a “township in the making since 1968” of over 2,200 people living on land spread out over 30 sq kilometers in over 100 “settlements” with names like Courage, Gratitude, and Surrender - set amidst Tamil villages named Pappanchavadi, Perdamudaliarchavadi, and Sanjeevinagar - linked by roads, cycle and walking paths, water and electric service, and having the goal of disassociating from an “old world ready for death” by working for a “new and better world preparing to be born.”
Auroville is truly amazing, comfortable, fascinating, real, and successful. As an old sixties hippie and communard I am in awe of what they have accomplished. The housing is lovely. The roads are dirt and well maintained. There is a public school system. It is spiritual and political at its core. It has integrated into the community it exists in in an amazing way and is surrounded by supportive peasant farming villages that have a decidedly symbiotic relationship to the community. In the local town are numbers of really good bakeries, small fresh food and organic markets, motorcycle and bike rental stores, Internet services, small tourist agencies, and restaurants, all owned by locals who are benefiting from the success of the community. The settlements have good purified community drinking water. There are playgrounds and volleyball and basketball courts, a kindergarten, a soccer field, a weekly community newsletter, lectures, workshops, organic gardens. What most impresses me is how many local Indian people work in and around Auroville, and how some have even become members. It delights me to see peasant men and women walking, biking, and motorcycling in and around Auroville who also share in the sense of being part of the larger community, who comfortably hitch rides, who smile back when you smile at them.
People who live in the Auroville community are encouraged to be “free of moral and social convention,” but not slave to the ego and its ambition if they wish to find the path to inner peace, which in the Aurovillian view can only be attained in a state of disinterestedness. And while there is an immense emphasis on truly being “free,” which in Auroville is not possible without acknowledgement of the “Divine,” there is also a pragmatic commitment to working for the good of the community and each adult member of the community is asked to make tangible contributions to the collective good that are distinct from working for one’s self.
There is something very attractive and beautiful to me about the whole scene, a sense of extraordinariness, immense calm, common laughter, vibrancy, and magic. It is seductive and comfortable. And although my current biases do not immediately draw me to want to join Auroville I do find it immensely seductive, relaxed, relaxing, clean, smog free, inspired, and committed to envisioning and realizing a new world. And it is not as if Auroville is not part of India, it is, complete with cows in the street, women in saris, people balancing great loads on their heads, holy men, beggars, barefoot children, thatched huts, and a very Indian vibe, but being in Auroville is a bit like saying you’ve seen America when you have only been to Provincetown.
A French couple in their fifties or sixties are traveling with an Indian woman in her late thirties. I have seen this odd trio from time to time during my stay in Auroville and the man and I have acknowledged each other with nods. When we meet “accidentally” at the beach the man tells me he is a theatre director, and yes, he has heard of Steve Wangh and Steven’s famous book, “Acrobat of the Heart,” although he has not read it. A friend of theirs in France, who is now quite elderly and infirm, adopted the Indian woman they travel with, Urusala, from a convent in South India thirty years ago. Urusala, who is quite shy and lovely, has cognitive problems, and spends most of her time in a variety of sheltered workshops in France, not really knowing who she is and having no memories of her life before her adoption. The French couple, who have four grown children of their own, as a gift to their elderly friend, have taken Urusala to South India to see if such a trip will evoke Urusala’s memories. It does not, although Urusala likes being among people who look like her, feels “at home” in India, and when she goes to visit the convent she was first raised in recognizes and is recognized by one of the young girls she grew up with in the convent, still living there, now as a teacher, unable as an Indian orphan girl to find a life outside the walls. Their recognition of each other thirty years after their separation brings each of the women to tears, and is described by Urusala as the high point of her trip, something almost entirely incredible were it not true, something she feels immense awe, pleasure, and joy about, although it evokes no other memories for her than that she knew the woman as a girl. Before I leave Auroville I bring out three inexpensive necklaces I bought in Mamalapurum as a gift for my granddaughter Mikaela’s dolls and place them down on a table offering the one of her choice to Urusala as a gift. The necklaces immediately draw a small crowd of Indian women, each admiring the necklaces (which together cost less than a dollar) and trying them on. There is general agreement that the most colorful one is the loveliest, and matches the yellow outfit Urusala is wearing and she chooses that one to keep. The man and I then discuss whether God exists, a perfectly reasonable Indian segue, and he shares with me that it was Descartes who proclaimed the proof of God’s existence was in the doubt of God’s existence. And inspired by the Descartes reference I tell him the joke about being and doing and Frank Sinatra, and he gets it, and we laugh together. We laugh together for a long time.
13. Yoga in Auroville – Shambhu
I arrive at a 6:30 A.M. yoga class with only two other people in it offered by Shambhu, a smallish man with a very thick French accent, who is a member of the Auroville community and an absolutely dedicated yogi, and who suggests four dollars would be a fair contribution for his class … if you can afford it. I take only two classes with Shambhu and learn an immense amount from him, things I have never known, about the sound of Om, about the movement and particularization of breath, and about the space between the postures. It is totally non-aerobic, totally not exercise as I use that word, but a spiritual practice that honors the body and focuses the mind. I cannot imagine taking yoga classes with Shambhu as a regular practice but I want to be his student, want to know what he knows, want to move with the thoughtful precision that he moves with after what has surely been years and years of practice and study. “Who is your teacher,” I ask Shambhu after the first day’s class and Shambhu says, “I am not allowed to speak my teacher’s name.” And after the second day’s class I ask, “Well, if you are not allowed to speak your teacher’s name, could you write it down on a piece of paper?” And we laugh. And he says, “No.” And I ask why. And Shambhu says, “I do not have permission,” only he says “I do not ‘ave ‘e’s permission.” And I say, “I am leaving tomorrow, Shambhu, and would just like you to know how much I have enjoyed your classes and how much I feel I have learned from you in even this short time.” And he says, “And I feel I ‘ave learned much from you.” And we laugh. And we bow. And I leave.
14. Motor scooter
Because everything in Auroville is so spread out most people who live or visit Auroville for a while own or rent bicycles or motor scooters. It is literally many kilometers, and would be a very long time consuming walk, to get from my guesthouse, near the post office and the visitor center, to the solar kitchen, the yoga studio, or to the beach, bakery, coffee shop, and groceries in town. And while driving a scooter in Auroville is significantly different than driving around Chennai or on the Indian roadways - slower, more courteous, fewer horns, a smaller volume of traffic, no big trucks - it is still driving in India and lanes of travel are only minimally respected.
I rent my scooter from a mechanic who stutters and speaks fairly good English. He tells me the price for the scooter will be eight hundred rupees a day (roughly twenty dollars), which seems high, but I like the guy and leave him a one thousand rupee deposit. I am happy on my scooter and it moves me around this playland with ease. We go to the beach, my scooter and me, which is as lovely a beach as you are likely to see, we go to the solar kitchen for late night ice cream, we go to yoga, and the bakery, and in search of the Laboratory of Evolution, which turns out to be a library.
While on the road to the Laboratory of Evolution driving slowly past the Matrimony settlement, which is right after Certitude, when negotiating a very narrow turn, I mistakenly accelerate rather than decelerate with the hand speed grip that is on the same side of the handle bar of the scooter as the rear wheel brake and graze off a small tree, lose my balance and fall into the roadway, whereupon a half dozen Indian people appear as if descended from the sky, complete with iodine tincture, cotton, bandages, laughter, and looks of genuine concern.
I am fine. I mean mostly fine. Nothing is broken. Nothing needs stitching. Nothing is torn or ruptured. But I am bleeding from cuts on both legs and my toes, and I do have a significant scrape/road burn on my left knee, which is what I hit the tree with, knocked me off balance, and that I landed on. After the magically appearing team of what turns out to be Indian cement workers doctor me with great care I continue on on the scooter and have a very nice day, notwithstanding my pains, taking myself to the ocean for a healing soak, driving to a roadside pharmacy where a nineteen year old clerk sells me tinctures, ointments, and bandages and ministers to me with great care, and driving to the Kofi Café where I have a fresh capuccino, a dosa with curried veggies, and fruit salad with yogurt, all of which costs me three dollars. My dinner at the Auroville guesthouse I’m staying in last night with fresh homemade chapattis, rice, and a variety of veggie dishes cost one dollar. (I ate fresh fruit salad in India?) I don’t know why I’m focused on food in this way, but I am, partly because it is unfolding in India and as such fills me with surprise and delight and partially because I know I am dangerously pushing the edges of the envelope, the furthest edges being the pancakes Joy and I ate on the street in Mandalay, the fish and rice I ate seated on the floor of Multhiy’s house in the village of Kovalam, the filtered water I am drinking in Auroville, and tied for tops on my list, the deep friend banana and deep fried pepper I ate on the beach in Mamalapurum.
After the Café I drive to the Internet cafe, the grocery, the bakery, and only then do I drive my wounded bandaged flesh to the guesthouse, arriving before sunset, where I again tend to my modest cuts, scrapes, punctures, and bruises, consume the spinach quiche and exceptionally tasty veggie strudel I bought at the bakery, and indulge in an evening of healing, sleep, writing, reading, reverie, and comf<span>ort</span> (make that joy actually) in my aloneness and solitude.
I am of the belief that in this accident I am more lucky than unlucky. I am of the belief that my healing proceeds with great speed. I am amazed at the power of the body and of the mind … and yes, of the Great Spirit. How else ca<span>n I</span><span> ex</span>plain my laying in bed with my body stinging in pain and realizing I am actually euphorically happy?
On the day I arrive at Auroville I am dropped off at the town near the junction of the road to Auroville where I needed a taxi rickshaw to get to the Auroville Community. The driver of the rig who picks me up is named Sankar, thirty two years old, born in the town, married eight years, with two children, and living with his mother and sister while renting out his own home for the season. And besides wanting a good fare, over my three days in Auroville I come to believe Sankar genuinely wants to be the most helpful and dependable rickshaw driver he can be for me. Thus he waits for me at the guesthouse where I register and then takes me to a motorcycle rental place. And he discusses with me in broken English how I ought not take my rented cycle into Puduchcheri when I go to visit but will need a rickshaw, and that he wants to be my driver. And maybe it’s all an act, but my sense is of Sankar liking me and wanting me to have the very best time I can. And on my last day, when Sankar picks me up to take into Pundi to get the bus back to the airport in Chennai we also pick up his wife and young son and he shows me his house, and his mother’s house, and we take his wife and son along in the rickshaw until we drop them off at his son’s pre-school, and I envy the joking and bantering that goes on between Sankar and his wife, how they are laughing together, how she playfully punches him in the shoulder and says “No Engleesh” when he teases her about the fact that she does not speak English. And I say, mindful of the risk, “Sankar, you are a lucky man, your wife is very beautiful.” And Sankar says to me, “I am a wery lucky man, sir, and my wife, sir, is wery nice, and I love.” And he is smiling, and I am smiling, although I cannot tell whether Sankar has merely made a statement of fact or if I am also being chided about my emphasis.
Puduchcheri, aka Pondicherry, is such a quintessential Indian city I almost feel there is no more I need to say about it other than that. Just picture everything you’ve heard about the clamor of Indian cities, everything you’ve seen in the movies, everything you’ve read in National Geographic, and there you have Puduchcheri; where I sit in absolute awe in a traffic jam on the immensely crowded main road into town during the morning rush hour, caused in part by a man guiding eight spread out oxen who want to explore the garbage left on both sides of the street to see if there is something worth eating that a dog or beggar hasn’t taken first, followed by a big bus blowing its horn, followed by about ten thousand bicycles, motorcycles, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians crossing the street, kids running, vendors of every kind lining both sides of the street, stores packed shoulder to shoulder behind the vendors, their produce spilling out into the street, alleys, cross streets, colors, flags, banners, billboards, street signs, cooking fires, food vendors, piles of shit, flies, cats, goats, loud voices, high temperatures, people eating, spitting, laughing, animated conversation, music, the tinkle of bells, an Om, a symphony, the chaos of life unfolding of a typical morning in Puduchcheri. My sister Sheryl, who lived for two years in rural India in the late nineteen sixties early seventies, tells me that if I want to see the real India I’ve got to get out of the modern cities where there are now even supermarkets and malls. I know she cannot mean Puduchcheri, which is as real as it gets. And I am so glad to have seen it. And even more glad not to have stayed in it.
17. Leaving Auroville
It is quite hard to force myself away from the delights and comforts of Camp Auroville, which is in so many ways totally atypical of India - like South Beach is atypical of the state of Florida - yet totally within India and within the Indian context (and has had such a positive economic and cultural impact on the people of the villages which surround it.) It is as if I landed in Big Sur, or Hawaii, where I’d also have a hard time leaving, but if my goal were to see America I’d have to. And I do. I literally force myself to leave Auroville, which is just too comfortable, too much like a vacation, too European and familiar, too distracting for my current purposes with its many stimulations and diversions, notwithstanding its existing within the very alien cultural context provided by Indian villages, peasant farmers, modest sized towns, and even the city of Puduchcheri, to which Auroville is physically proximate and spiritually connected. And while I can also imagine myself returning to Auroville, not necessarily as a prospective member of the community, but just as a place to be, and do yoga, and go to the beach, and live for a period of time on far less than my modest social security check provides, I also know that I am not looking to be on vacation while in India this time around, that I see this India trip as a broad survey of the subcontinent within the context of a personal spiritual journey, and that wonderful and lovely as Auroville is, and even as much as I was learning in yoga there, I just felt too comfortable and too unchallenged, and in that sense fearful that at the levels accessible to a short term visitor, Auroville was, and I was, instantly a bit stagnant and routinized, even after just two days. I mean if you are looking for some sort of Club Med for retired hippies, or a retirement community that isn’t in Florida or Arizona, I think Auroville could fit the bill just perfectly. Which is why I force myself to leave while I was having just an absolutely wonderful time.
Oh, one more word about the scooter. You may recall that I thought the man who rented me the scooter had said it cost 800 rupees a day and I had left him a 1000 rupee deposit. So when I brought the scooter back I gave him an additional 600 rupees, for two full days, but I could tell he was looking at me quizzically and that something was not computing, which I instantly assumed meant he was looking for more money. “This is wrong, sir,” he said, “It is not the right amount of money.” “I don’t understand,” I responded, “I left you a one thousand rupee deposit, I have the receipt. What is it you think I owe you?” “Owe me, sir,” he said, “no it is I who owe you 840 rupees. The cost of the rental is 80 rupees a day.”
I’ll just state the obvious; you draw your own conclusions. The man already had 1,000 of my rupees. And I was prepared to give him 600 more, a total of forty dollars, not an insignificant amount of money in village India, probably the equivalent of one week’s earnings, if not more. And instead of pocketing my money he returns over 800 rupees to me, keeping merely the $4 he expected to receive. Paul Theroux says through one of his characters in Elephant God: “Though the Indians were difficult, India was not hostile, it was indifferent, a great hot uncaring mob … damaged people scrambling on ruins.” There are many ways this matter of Indian indifference seems to be obviously true – the pushing, the aggression, and the desensitization stand out. But as a one week long veteran of India travels I have also seen great caring, curiosity, humility, patience, trustworthiness, good humor, kindness, and love. And it touches me.
At the bus station in Puduchcheri, where I have gone one day early explicitly to have a face to face conversation with the bus company ticket agent about bus travel to Chennai before I purchase a plane ticket from Chennai to Pune, I inquire when the express air conditioned buses leave for the airport in Chennai, but because the tumult and noise in the outdoor bus terminal is so great, and I can not hear or understand his answers to my questions, we conduct our “conversation” by passing a piece of paper back and forth on which I write my questions and he then provides his answers in a very neat hand with excellently written English. The bottom line appears to be that express buses leave for Chennai every fifteen minutes and that no reservations are needed because tickets are sold on the bus. Fine, I need to leave the bus terminal for the airport by these calculations at 9:30, and to play it safe arrive at the bus terminal a bit before 8:30 the next morning, only to find that while “express” buses leave every fifteen minutes, the next air conditioned express bus was not expected to depart until either 8:50, 9:00, 9:10, 9:25, or 10 o’clock, depending on who I asked and when I asked them. My most reliable informant, who said he himself was taking the express air-conditioned bus to the railroad station in Chennai, and that he did so often, said 9:25. The question for me was whether to wait possibly an hour and a half or more for air con, and if it didn’t come to risk missing my plane, or to surrender to the slower, far hotter and more crowded buses that were leaving now. I decided to gamble and wait. In the end the aircon bus left Puduchcheri at 10:05, the driver moved his large rig with immense skill and a sense of fluidity - regardless of which side of the road he was on - and I did get to the airport in ample time. Sometimes it is as simple as they say in Sanskrit, “Om tat sat,” which I think means “that which is,” or maybe just “it is” – like I am it and it is me - comparable but not quite the same, "same same but different" as the Thai like to say.
19. Getting into Pune
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 rickshaw 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’t have 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, 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 students 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 a single celles ad 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.
I visit the shopping center, a 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
After leaving the very comfortable mall in Margapatta I grab a rickshaw for the ride back to Burning Ghat Road. On our way the <span>driver</span><span> ta</span>kes 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.” 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 <span>par</span><span>t o</span>f, or as Hindus would say, to experience my unity with God.
26. Burning Ghat
I continue to feel as if I’m on a magical trip, overwhelmed with happiness, awareness, sensation, and adventure, just putting one foot in front of<span> the </span><span>oth</span>er and greeting what comes my way as I force myself out the door of my oh so comfortable room and into the wide tree lined streets. I love this room, love where it is located, love the quiet, and the calling of the crows, and have found yoga teachers I truly adore. I also saw my first funeral procession, went down to the crematorium site, watched the flames and smoke, listened to the absolutely mesmerizing music, the singing of the men, the drums and cymbals being played, was moved, and lifted, and entranced beyond what I have known, literally felt I was in a place of new personal borders, edges, and frontiers. And was welcomed as a visitor and guest, invited to sit down, smiled at. Letting go and being opened are gifts in and of themselves. Also learning a little about Hinduism and Hindu philosophy/mythology and the Hindu worldview in a way that I could never have been open to before, on a path I never would have taken before. I am in an amazing personal place. Om nama Shiyava.
27. Hare Krishna
I go to the big Hare Krishna Ishkon temple in Pune at the invitation of Pravin, my young yoga teacher, who was recommended to me by Guru Dharmavi. Today is a special event at the temple because the current guru of the entire international Hare Krishna movement, American born and raised Radhanath Swami, nee Richard Slavin, son of Idelle and Jerry, Chicago, 1950, is coming to give a dharma talk. The temple is almost all out of doors and mobbed, at its peak this day hosting over 3,000 people, all of whom are bowing to one another, bowing to Krishna, prostrating themselves to Krishna, prostrating themselves to one another, chanting, counting their mala beads, smiling profusely in greeting, acknowledging me with a warmth that seems engendered by my very presence among them at this communal event, and every last one of us needing to take off our shoes before stepping onto temple ground. And while this may seem an odd place to focus, there is an administrative problem here, because you surely do not want 3,000 pairs of sometimes indistinguishable flip flops lying around with 3,000 people going through them at the end of the day scrounging through a big mosh pile of shoes trying to find their own as they’re leaving, now do you? But there is a simple solution that I admire, and seems so quintessentially Indian to me, I don’t know why, which is to already have 3,000 numbered hooks, and 3,000 numbered cloth bags, and 3,000 number tags, so you can provide a shoe checking service, as opposed to coat checking at the Met, and much quicker too. Plus it’s offered free of charge, which would otherwise really slow the process down.
Then there is the amazing food the temple volunteers serve, both before and after the dharma talk, given out free to the thousands, and I do mean thousands, of people who have gathered here today. Two lines of hundreds of people, a soup kitchen on steroids, men on one side, women on the other, being served, and efficiently served, and served with a smile – rice, sauces, dhal, a dessert, a cup of sweet milk, all on a big tin tray, without utensils or napkins, of course, and without environmental waste either. Everyone eats seated on the ground in rows of people facing each other that seem to have spontaneously formed. When you finish your food you lick your hands clean and then take your tray over to a very long sink where you rinse it, and then hand it to the tray washers, who spin it around in some soapy water, and then drop it into some cleaner water, and then make a wet pile of trays that are transported back to the serving lines for use by the next hungry devotee. Simple. Efficient. Mighty tasty. Generous. Communal. Not up to Department of Health standards.
Oh, the dharma talk. Swami Radhanath seemed like the real deal to me, a man who sought happiness in the pursuit of a spiritual life and found it in his experience of God and in devotion to Krishna. I don’t think Richard will own dozens of Rolls Royces. The essence of what he had to say, at least that which I was able to take in, was that the sincerity of one’s devotion is measured by the emanations from one’s deepest heartfelt commitment and belief, that external forms of giving and prayer were merely that, external, and that what really mattered, both to God and to one’s potential for real spiritual transformation and enlightenment, was the quality of one’s belief and devotion, and that to experience the truth of God’s existence required one to engage in a process of knowing or realization other than what is available through intellectual or sensual knowledge/awareness, what we’d call faith or belief I suppose. Nothing earth shattering, just a simple reinforcing message for the troops.
28. Rupannga Yoga
I have been practicing yoga for twenty years. I have loved, appreciated, and admired many of my literally dozens of teachers, especially Menalek, my first true yoga teacher, Ana Forrest, who I completed a teacher training course with more than a decade ago now, and also Tricia Duffy, Jennifra Norton, and Don Peccorrill, all of Cape Cod, and each of whom advanced my understanding and my practice beyond where it had been. But at seventy years of age I am simply in love with Aparna (age 37, mother of a 15 year old, married to childhood family friend) and Pravin (an amazingly mature 28, college graduate in civil engineering, living with his parents), my two young teachers in Poona (which is so much lovelier a spelling than Pune), and think they have so much to offer the world, beyond even what they’ve learned at the feet of their guru Dharmavi.
What makes them unique, from my perspective, is (a) their use of supportive props, particularly mountain climbing ropes secured to the walls of their studio that permit the student to realize a fuller expression of a posture relaxed and supported by the ropes, (b) their emphasis on breath, breathing, and pranayama practice as an integral/essential aspect of yoga, (c) their emphasis on relaxation, especially of the heart, as a critical part of yoga practice, (d) their commitment to the mental, meditative, mind focusing and mentally clarifying aspect of the practice, (e) the restorative/healing skills they each possess in dealing with injury, and (f) the inescapable awareness they bring that yoga is a philosophy for transcending duality, and that the duality of happiness/unhappiness is often a product of body first and mind secondarily. They charge three dollars per person for a group class and ten dollars an hour for an individual session. When you’re in Poona find them at email@example.com, because I don’t think I’ll get them to the states soon. In fact, in a revealing moment, I said to them, “Come on, especially you Pravin, come to the States, live in Hollywood, you’re gorgeous, and charming, and exotic, you’ll be the fitness guru to the stars, make two hundred dollars an hour, drive a BMW,” and Aparna responded, “But Mr. Bruce, that doesn’t charm us.” Charm us? “What charms you, Aparna,” I asked? “Teaching yoga as a system of devotion to one’s self and to God,” she said. Sounds good to me. Look them up when you get here.
Oh, just a few things more. Aparna prepared a great feast for me on my last day with them. Pravin’s mother made and sent the chapattis. And they presented me with a book on yoga. And in still another revealing moment, when discussing yoga in America and Ana Forest with them, Aparna said, “Money? Money ve do not care about. But fame … and recognition … oh, that would be so lovely, Mr. Bruce.” And she laughed, and I love the way she laughs. I will miss them each, immensely.
29. Moving on
Will there have to come a time when I stop saying I’m euphoric, a despondent side to this mania? Can I stay euphoric in America? Have I simply discovered that I like to travel? Alone? In India? I am already sure I want to come back, although I don’t know specifically when or where, though some time in Pune, especially given the personal ties and yoga draw would be nice, as might Auroville, or some time in a yoga ashram, and Sikkim is high on my list. But I also understand that I have to conclude this journey as part of the journey first, that I have to go “home” and “integrate” first. Yet even as I say that, and although my travels have nearly four more weeks to go, I am already missing India and am eager to be here again.
I also know that some harder traveling, the putting on some real miles part of the trip, is about to begin in earnest: Pune to Aurangabad, Ellora, and Ajanta, then back to Pune to catch a train to Allahabad, all between Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon, followed by the twenty-four hour train ride to Allahabad and then an overnight bus to Varanasi, hoping to arrive in time for the big full moon festival there. Stay in Varanasi, open to what the guides and Great Spirit have in store, possible day trip to Sarnath where Buddha gave his first talk as Buddha, overnight train to Delhi, connect with beloved number one son, Delhi to Agra, to Delhi, to Rishikesh by over night bus, to Dharmshala by overnight bus, to Amistar?, Delhi by overnight bus, then big bird home. Inshallah. I no more want to leave Pune than I wanted to leave Auroville. I like the scene here, the vibration of the city, and I love the gift I have been given here in relationship to my yoga practice/studies. The question is only how I will manifest it. Om tat sat.
30. Ellora and Ajanta
The caves at Ellora and Ajanta, some predating the birth of Christ, are stunning human accomplishments: the craft, scale, vision, and attention to detail, how incredibly beautiful the art, sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Each cave, column, and statue hand chiseled into the mountainsides, in some caves to a depth of fifty meters, and sometimes to an equivalent height, the remainder of the mountain above the cave ceiling, sometimes a vaulted ceiling with rows of parallel stone arch supports and curved rafters or roof beams that have no function other than artistic, all being supported by very functional rows of stone columns which have been left attached to the floor and the ceiling of the temple, monastery, study hall, or shrine, as they were chipped away around, each column stunning in its perfect shape, and in the detail etched into it, every column (and statue) being what has been left of the mountain rock, mostly basalt, with nothing added except some plaster on the ceilings and walls in order to provide a smooth painting surface. The imagination, skill, and effort required to create these structures is absolutely inspirational, and quite literally breathtaking for me. I spend hours and hours at Ajanta, smashing my world record of times per hour saying, “OMG this is absolutely amazing, I can’t fucking believe it, OMG this is incredible,” topping even the pyramids of Ginza, and the temple complex at Angkor Wat, at least for me, although not more amazing than the everyday miracle of birth, or of skin repairing itself, a separate class of creative art and phenomena. There are about thirty caves at each site, some unfinished. It is interesting how the unfinished works add to the appreciation of the completed work. The setting in Ajanta is at a huge curve in a river giving a wonderful horseshoe shape to the complex. And while we live in a world where anyone with access to the Internet can Google this and learn more about it than I can say or show you, I learn here that Lord Krishna was born in jail and Shiva played dice with his wife, and begged her to play again when he lost. I also see a long tailed chipmunk sitting here looking up at a very tall column which is intended to be gazed upon as a reminder of our insignificance. I killed a chipmunk once, for sport, when I was about twelve, with a rifle. That chipmunk has guided my actions ever since and visited me here. And perhaps, like Bhahubuli, who stood for twelve years in one position awaiting enlightenment without success I also need a reminder of the ways my elephantine ego stands in my way. I love the fact that the rock chiseled away from these mountains to create the temples was then used by the local villagers to build their homes, remains of which can still be seen today. And at the very moment I deposit some shards of my departed nephew into the hands of Mahavurah, in the only Jain cave of all the caves (number 32 at Ellora), near the wheel of law, my guide starts to sing, a child in the adjoining temple starts to laugh, and I go to sit under the statue of the wish-granting tree to ask for my sister’s peace of mind.
I continue to push the edge of the “caution you are in India” food envelope in terms of my eating behaviors and thus far am rewarded (not punished?) for my behaviors. I drink hot chai from vendors everywhere, as long as I can see steam rising. I eat in select restaurants, including a veg place in Aurangabad that a Cyber Café owner recommended, which I’m sure had never seen a non-Indian at one of its tables before, and where I had a just phenomenal “king” dhosa. (Don’t ask what was in it, I don’t know, something very spicy and delicious). And at a bus depot, in a moment of late night bravado, somewhere between Ajanta and Poona, I bought a couple of fresh rolls, with some kind of veggie mash that I watched others put into the rolls, and two slightly roasted hot green peppers that came with it and also went into the roll, from a vendor who boarded the bus and hygienically picked the items up and served them on old newspaper. Great rolls and peppers; I threw the mash away. (Yes, out the bus window where I’m sure some dog, goat, cat, crow, or person will find and consume it on the side of the road.) I bought shelled roasted peanuts from a tremendous pile of shelled peanuts that had a pot of hot coals sitting on the top of the pile to warm the nuts it touched and that the vendor periodically mixed with his hand and sold by pouring a handful or two into an old newspaper “cone” he twisted and made on the spot. I ate fresh beets and cukes that Aparna washed and skinned. I bought and enjoyed a pack of mixched anadhalmoo , ng dahl, masala peanuts, pepper chana and chana jor. (I don’t know either.) Eating in India is a bit like my overall India experience itself: mysterious, very spicy, unknown, unclean, a little uncomfortable, but wanting to be tasted. And tied for my peak foodie moment of trust thus far, the lunch I bought on the Poona to Allahabad Express that was made on the train (yes, I visited the kitchen, ys!!!) ikeof rice, paneer in se, somaucveggie mae sala, chapattis, a lelnt criisp, and … tada … some water in a plastic cup with a top on it that said it was “R.O. and U.V. treated,” got to go with that don’t you?
32. Begging and bargaining
The woman with no hands who I see everyday in my neighborhood in Pune is hard to resist, as are very old grandmotherly types who look with pleading eyes and who I believe probably have no other recourse for funds. Pregnant woman and women with young children are resistible, and evoke in me an unkind sotto voce “you made the choice” or “is it something I did” response, although every once in a while I succumb, we’re talking pennies and quarters here, my friends. Giving way food is my preferred response to begging, although I’m not often carrying any. I did give one woman with an absolutely adorable child a small box of crackers right after I bought them, which she took and then looked at me like “Whatdya pay for this, big giver, two rupees?” And I can’t get home with a bag of bananas without doling them out, which makes me feel righteous, but I should buy more bananas if I want to eat any. My favorite beggars moment occurred just as I’d left an Internet café with five rupees change (about a dime) still in my hand, when I was approached by a particularly attractive older woman, with an absolutely stunning face, carrying a small woven bamboo tray with a tin cup and a small pile of the red pasty powder that Hindus put on their foreheads resting on the tray. As our eyes locked momentarily I dropped the change inside her tin cup and, even as the coins were still clanging around the bottom of the cup, she quickly and deftly pressed her thumb into the red powder and then pressed it against my forehead, right between my eyebrows. “Puja,” she said. “Namaste,” I replied. And that red dot made me feel good somehow, like I was one of the folks almost, although I could not interpret the looks I evoked from people in the street once I was branded, or from dogs for that matter, who laughed just a little bit at me and then treated me with the same indifference as before.
Bargaining is just another fact of life in India. So here’s one piece of data. I generally operated in SE Asia as if one third of the initial asking price was what I could get an item for, which meant I had to start even lower than one third down, which for some inculcated reason I found embarrassing and feared it was insulting. But an opening askof10,000 kip, or baht, or whatever the monetary unit of the realm, needed to be met with a response around 2,000 to get it for 3,500. Generally. But in India I was at least once asked initially for 18,000 rupees for a unique Buddha that I didn’t really want and wasn’t going to buy, no matter what, or so I thought, and I refused to bid on it. “Just give me a price, your price, any price,” the seller said, “If I don’t like I tell you.” But I refused to make an offer, because I really wasn’t going to buy it and didn’t want to insult the man. “Okay, last price for you,” he said, “6,000 rupees.” “No, I’m sorry, there will be no sale here, Sir.” “But please, Mister, just tell me price you would pay if you wanted it.” “Okay, 500 rupees,” I said. “What! 500 rupees? You think an Indian man’s labor is worth one rupee an hour? 500 rupees! You must be joking. Okay for you 5,000 rupees. No? 4,000 rupees. No? Okay very last price, 2,000 rupees. Give something more than 500 rupees. I must make something. I paid more for it than that. I have four children at home. What is five dollars to you Americans? Okay, last price. Here I give it to you. One thousand rupees.” So from an asking price of $180 he was willing to part with it for $10, but not $5, at which price, even though I didn’t want it, I would probably have owed it. Like I said, just data.
It reminds me of a sad bargaining event I was witness to in the Souk in Jerusalem when an earnest good willed American friend said to a seller of scarves, “Look, I hate bargaining. I am trusting you. Just tell me a fair price and I will pay it.” And the merchant said without blinking, “Well, this scarf is very, very special, made by a woman in my village, and I hate to part with it, but you have been so forthright with me, I will let you have it for $150.” And the American paid it. And the merchant took the money. And I am sure the scarf was not worth more than five dollars. But as the scorpion who bites the swan ferrying it across the river, causing both of their deaths, said, “what can I do, I’m a scorpion.”
33. Return to Pune
I manage to get back into Pune from Ajanta after midnight, to absolutely teeming streets in a part of town that is completely unfamiliar to me. My rickshaw driver magically negotiates a route to Burning Ghat Road and I am in front of my guesthouse that is locked in almost no time. When I ask the driver to beep his horn he tells me his horn doesn’t work. I actually didn’t know it was possible to drive in India without a horn. So in the still of the Poona night I call out softly, “Baba, Baba,” and I wait, and a door opens and in very short order I am in a comfortable room in a familiar guesthouse and fast asleep. In the morning the guesthouse owner, who knows I’m only staying one night says to me, “Same price as last time.” So I hand him six hundred rupees and he says, “No, sir, 500 rupees,” giving me back the hundred. I have a very good idea who is right about what I paid last time, although there is no way to know for sure, ever. Maybe he felt badly for originally overcharging me, or maybe he just felt 500 was a fair price, but I “know” it was six hundred I originally paid, as I take back the one he doesn’t want.
I’ve seen a sign across the street from my guesthouse in Poona that says, “Yoga.” I’ve gone into the entrance of the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with the sign saying “Yoga” where there is a flyer taped on the wall that says, “Yoga, daily, 10:30 A.M.” There is also a sign painted on the wall inside the entrance to the building across the street from my guesthouse in Poona with an arrow pointing up the stairs that reads, “Yoga.” I have met the man who is the instructor. “You teach yoga?” I’ve asked him, and I saw him nod yes. “Every morning?” I asked, and I saw him nod yes. So it is on the basis of this information that I arrive at his yoga studio my last morning in Poona at 10:30 sharp. The yoga instructor is there, in fact besides me he is only person there when I tap on his open door and, and while he looks up at me, he is on the phone and then ignores me for the next ten minutes until he hangs up and looks at me again. “I’m here for the 10:30 yoga class,” I say. “Oh, it is much too hot for yoga at 10:30 in the morning in Poona,” he says. I bobble my head in what I imagine to be Indian style, and stare at him. He stares at me. “I like hot yoga,” I say. He looks at me as if I must not have understood him. He says, “Too hot for yoga.” Okay, that’s clear, so I say “Namaste” and walk back down the stairs of the building with the sign saying “Yoga” across the street from my guesthouse in Poona leaving me plenty of time to do yoga on my own in my room, get to a book store, and get to the railroad station in Pune over an hour early for my big ride to Varanasi.
When I arrive at the railroad station in Pune more than an hour early there are at least 4,000 people already on the platform ahead of me, most standing in the general seating line. I really don’t “get” India. And what is it that draws people’s attention to the tall only non-Indian on the platform a very busy train stations in India, if at all? That I am wearing shorts? My red dot? My shaved head? My big smile? I honestly have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter. I just make this observation, some people laugh when they see me, some stare, and no matter what they are emanating I continue to feel safe, anonymous, accepted, grateful to be here, in Rumi-like “guest” mode, the comfortable recipient of fundamentally indifferent curiosity.
34. A Word of Gratitude
The twenty-four hour long train ride to Varanasi is mostly comfortable. I am provided a blanket, two clean sheets, a pillow with a clean(?) pillowcase, and a fresh towel. I buy a half dozen hot milky teas, tempting the stomach bug gods yet again, and set about reading a wonderfully funny descriptive little bio novel about India called, “Holy Cow.” Hey, are we there yet? And, of course we are “there,” grasshopper, we are always “there.” In fact, twenty-four hours later, half a good, light, revealing book later, a variety of dangerous food consumption activities, not so surprising conversations, and an endlessly flat and fertile landscape later, and we are still here, and I am still comfortable, both in terms of my physical/spatial comfort, and in terms of my deep inner personal comfort in my completely anonymous and self reliant circumstances. For me this is like being an astronaut sent into deep space and simply being comfortable being there. I mean, where else am I supposed to be, and besides which, after liftoff there’s no other place I can be or escape to anyhow. Still, I continue to be amazed, yes, that is really the most appropriate word for it, amazed - followed of course by awed, grateful, and stunned - about this entire experience, both the places I seen and traveled to, but in ways even more than that, the person I’ve been, because the self-actualization and apparent personal transformation I have experienced on this trip evokes in me something verging on disbelief. I have wanted to be comfortable traveling in circumstances such as these for so long, to be free of excess anxiety for so long, that to have actually realized it on this journey is almost miraculous, like a cure at Lourdes, like someone who can see after years of blindness, or walk after years of being confined to a wheelchair unable to do so. There is a quality to it of decognizance, (a word I think I just invented), that is the antithesis of recognizance, some experience that is beyond disbelief or unfamiliarity transformed, something more like an experience almost beyond or incapable of being recognized as true because it has seemed so foundationally not true for so long. The effort required in the Middle Ages to come to accept that the Earth actually rotates around the sun and not the other way around would be an example of this kind of decognizant moment. Deciding one day that the God you firmly and absolutely believed in doesn’t exist (or vice versa), or the realization that the country you so adore acts routinely in an evil manner, controlled not by we the people, but we the corporations, or that there may actually be “life” after the death you believed was so final and absolute, might all be other such decognizant moments. I am just so comfortable, at home, present, self-approving, and free of anxiety on this voyage, and it is immensely unfamiliar to me to be so in this context. And in that sense I am awestruck and immensely grateful. To whom grateful some would ask? And the answer is to my “self,” of course, but also to my commitment to a lifelong struggle that I was never able to give up on, to the awesome power of hope and belief, to trust and belief in the possibility of transformation and healing, to friends, lovers, Lynne, Joy, yoga, therapists, teachers, the Great Spirit, my sister, Miles, my children Maia and Sam in immense and specific ways, all the Steve’s in my life, to the beloved departed Alan B., to animal, plant, and stone familiars, perhaps even to the Divine, and as they say at the Oscars, “if I’ve left anyone out please know I adore you too.” For as I am coming to believe, realize, and even “understand,” while it is self, will, hope, effort, faith, trust, teachers, knowledge, family, friends and so forth that sustain me, it is also absolutely true that it is my partnership with the powers of the cosmos that allows my life to appear in a new light.
35. Getting to Varanasi
It was immensely challenging to connect with a bus after getting off the train in Allahabad late on a holiday Saturday, and only after hours of wandering, waiting, and misinformation, the bus station closing, drunken crazed male revelers dancing in the street, and bonfires lit everywhere, did a cranky old bus appear which ended up being so filled with people that it was standing room only and looked like a NYC subway train at rush hour for the three hour cruise to Varanasi. And once in Varanasi things didn’t get much better, it being 3:00 A.M and hard to find a half way decent room, not to mention the chaotic filth and decay I observed in my travels through the late night streets, which left me trepidatious and reluctant to even step out the hotel door into India when I woke in the morning. Besides which, all of the hotel staff and the hotel manager told me that it was not safe to go out that morning until after 2:00 PM because “people act crazy on Holi Day.” But it seems at times that when warned of danger I want to see it. So out I went into the city, the street virtually deserted, all the shops closed, and the only ones out and about marauding packs of men wearing hideous amounts of multicolored powders, and silver painted faces like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, and carrying bags of iridescent powder and big pump water pistols filled with iridescent powder and charging about on bicycles and motorcycles, stoned, drunk, wild, and spraying or otherwise coloring everyone and everything in sight, dogs, cows, other people who err in being on the street, groping women, driving scarily. I just don’t get India. A teenage boy and his buddy approach me, they want to hug me, they are clearly going to throw powder all over me, they yell “Happy Holi Day” to me like New Year revelers. “Don’t you dare,” I say loudly in English, “Come on, man, this is complete bullshit,” I yell, as I push them away to no avail as my bald head, neck, right arm, T-shirt, pack, and sandals are covered with a hideous powdery turquoise and I retreat to the hotel, a wiser, dirtier man.
The only other guest I meet at the hotel is Heidi, a Swiss woman living in America for thirty years, married to a Swiss man all that time, with two grown children, working her way through the end or not end of her marriage, a serious yoga teacher, in love with one of her students, but not having consummated the adoration/infatuation and not yet sure she will because, as she pointedly tells me, she is “still a married woman.” She’s nice, Heidi, in her sixties, on a personal spiritual voyage in India, fit, a mandala artist, a seeker, someone who has already been to Rishikesh, who has found a yoga teacher in Varanasi she likes and later that afternoon introduces me to, clearly a fellow traveler who in response to our “fortuitous” meeting wants to share with me four principals that guide aspects of her spiritual practice: that whomsoever you encounter is the right person, that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, that each moment something begins is the right moment, and that what is over is over. Not my particular cup of” spiritual” tea, and not intended by her as an offering of anything other than a sharing in wonderment that we have encountered each other, such at least superficially similar souls so far from home.
Varanasi is simply the dirtiest, filthiest, most run down, vile, pit of a city I have ever encountered. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t “like” it, it’s beyond that; it’s that I can hardly bear it, can hardly tolerate being there, feel like retching (and come close to doing so more than once) because I feel so personally filthy there, feel my nostrils and lungs under assault by smells and dust, can’t get clean no matter how often I wash, where even after washing my hands I feel I need to wash them to clean them from the first washing, and then bathe them in hand sanitizer, and then even going so far as to rub some sanitizer into my nostrils and on my lips. And the “signs,” the omens, and the guides are all wrong. I see and hear no crows. The dead bird at my feet doesn’t wake up. The monkey laying in the alley has a horrible grimace on its dead face. The man laying in the street - clearly recently hit by something, a rickshaw, a motorcycle, a van, a truck, who knows - laying face down and bleeding severely from the head, not moving, maybe dead, blood running copiously into the street red and deep, who people ignore, and drive around, and say tsk tsk but do nothing more that I can see. And I’m surely not imposing my values on that scene. Nor can I respond or say anything in the “organic” food restaurant that advertizes their ice cubes as made with mineral water, but has such a pervasive powerful smell of stale piss that drinking and eating there is beyond unappealing. And the streets are unbearable. And I don’t want to sit down on or touch anything. And there is dust and flies and stench everywhere, grown men and children shitting and pissing in public, cows laying in the middle of crowded streets, traffic moving around the cows rather than someone moving the cows out of the way. And the cows so blaze! I mean why else do these nice people put out food and water and even wash me in the river, the cows must think, if I were not meant to be a king or queen. And then the goats, and dogs, and cockroaches who are oh so grateful to have been reincarnated into the bounty and blessings life provides for goats, and dogs, and roaches in Varanasi, where bicycle rickshaws are everywhere because they move more deftly than gasoline propelled rickshaws in the packed and basically gridlocked city streets, where cow shit, goat shit, human shit, and dog shit are everywhere. With fetid standing water. Stale garbage. Piles upon piles of unsorted garbage that flies, goats, and cows are eating, that puppies are playing in, rolling over in, laying in. And we haven’t even made it to the burning Ghats and the Holy Ganges, a river which makes the polluted canals of Brooklyn look as clean as mountain springs at their source. Or the tiny ants crawling around on every available surface. Or the cobwebs I repeatedly encounter with my face in dark passages, apparently because I am just those few enough inches taller than most traffic thru the doorways to disturb dust that has established what it though was permanent resident status. And if the guy who’d served me my chapattis wasn’t the same guy I just saw wiping the floor with a filthy rag I’d be oh so much happier. And I haven’t even mentioned the mosquitoes. Fine.
But Varanasi is also alive. Amazingly alive. Throbbingly alive. Intensely and immensely alive. “Clean on the inside,” a man I complain to tells me. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, older even than Damascus, an ancient city, a genuinely “holy city” whether I like what that looks like or not, a monstrous city arisen from this now dismal swamp throbbing with death and mourning, with burning ghats, with thousands of pilgrims and mourners from all over India walking the narrow streets and alleys of the old city, buying trinkets from vendors, taking boat rides to see the oh so scenic funeral pyres from the Ganges, and behaving pretty much like tourists everywhere, starry eyed and bewildered, or maybe that’s just a personal projection.
And what of the policeman who on apparent impulse buys me a chai? Or the uniformed soldier who puts the red mark on my forehead. Or the endless number of people who say “Happy Holi Day” to me and mean it. Or the barefooted man who leads me on a ten minute jaunt thru labyrinthine alleys to the yoga studio that I couldn’t find and then won’t accept even a ten rupee offering from me? Or the ancient rickshaw driver who underbids a fare when taking me to the furthest, northernmost ghat in Varanasi from where I begin my walk south into the heart of the holy city and who, when I give him twenty extra rupees, looks as though he wants to kiss my feet. And the faces of the people, my god, the faces, thousands upon thousands of classic portraits of humanity as it is, each face more compelling and storied than the next, each a study in character and beauty, of swamis, and ancient rickshaw drivers, and youthful rickshaw drivers, of holy men and beggars, glorious children and glorious mothers, of barefooted soldiers and beautiful women, the flower market, the flower sellers, the regal cows, the prancing horses, the chanting and music which fill a city celebrating life in death, funeral biers moving down the streets with the frequency of city buses on their tired routes, on roads so full of people that walking is as fast as riding, with roundabouts and streets leading off in six different directions, and dark in the daylight alleys barely a shoulder width wide where whatever is underfoot cannot be seen. A place where, for obvious reasons, I am not only uncomfortable, I am nauseous.
37. Burning Ghats
The ghats are burning. The corpses are burning, about ten of them in varying stages of transformation. Chords and chords of wood are stacked against the sides of the buildings that edge the ghats, some to a height of forty or fifty feet, some that run the width of the buildings and extend out from the buildings in piles as much as sixty feet long. The corpses are carried on bamboo litters to be washed in the Ganges. They are carried back to piles of wood that have been purchased for five dollars a kilo weighed out on massive balancing scales. The dead are wearing simple clothes. Most of their jewelry has been removed. A few drops of Ganges water are poured into the corpse’s mouth. Rice is sprinkled into their mouths. Sandalwood chips are sprinkled onto and under the corpse. A priest walks around the body with a smoking piece of wood from the eternal fire five times, once for each of the five elements that make a person - earth, air, fire, water, and ether. The oldest son has had his head and face shaved clean. He is shaking with emotion. Crying. Sniffling. Trying to hold together as he speaks some words about his mother before her mortal remains are consigned to the flames. When he finishes speaking the priest hands him the burning wood with which he starts the fire.
Crowds of people are wandering about the burning ghats and smoldering ashes. Cows are standing and laying around on the steps and in the river. Dogs are playing and barking. Goats are everywhere, eating the leis of stringed flowers that have been left on and next to the corpses. Barefooted young kids are playing quietly among the dead, the grieving, the ashes, and the shit. Animated discussions are taking place among arguing loud men about the services, the order of events, about who does what. People are using cell phones to film and photograph the funeral biers, their relatives, and who knows what else.
I take out my cell phone and snap a few shots of a corpse laying on the wood after she is brought up from the river. She was very old and is very dead. An Indian man who speaks quite good English comes up to me and says with urgent passion that I am not allowed to take pictures, that I don’t have permission, that I have been very disrespectful of the dead and her family, that I have just brought some very bad karma upon myself, but, that for the right contribution of funds to help the impoverished dead and dying I can clear this bad debt I have just assumed. I am immediately suspicious of a scam but also feeling concerned about even the possibility that I have incurred any bad karma. I’ll skip the agonizing details of his and my bargaining about a fair fee to clear my karma. He wanted $70. In the end I gave him $10. And then he told me more than I wanted or needed to know about the consummation of flesh in flame, and I still felt played for the rube I no doubt truly am. But one thing I hadn’t observed that he shared with me I’ll share. “Do you smell the burning hair and the burning flesh,” he asked me. And although I could feel the heat and distinctly smell the smoke, I really could not smell the burning flesh or hair. “No,” I said surprised. “That is because on the holy Ganga, in the most holy city of Varanasi, at this the Mir Ghat, the spirits of the deceased and their bodily remains are taken straight up into the heavens and no one on Earth can smell them.”
38. Yoga in Varanasi with Sunil
Sunil Kumar Jinghan, honors in psychology, as his sign says, as well as yoga pushpa, yoga bhusan, yoga visharad, and reiki master. At forty six years of age Sunil is the real deal, a slightly paunchy yoga master, with an immense chest and lung capacity, surprising flexibility in a man so big, and great strength, who integrates spirituality, breathing, healing, asana practice, meditation, chanting, mudras, affirmation practice, passion, and good humor into his yoga. I spend every minute of my time that he will have me with Sunil in Varanasi, and because his studio is in his home, and he is a gracious man who appears to like me, that turns out to be a couple of eight to ten hour days of yoga, conversation, eating, playing with his infant daughter, hanging out with his young wife and co teacher Bharti (therein a love story), his senior student, Simon, his housekeeper, his cook, the electrician, his brother, his nephew, miscellaneous students, and the monkeys on the rooftop. I even join Sunil one evening as he moves about in the alleys and streets of Varanasi on missions I cannot fathom, Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. It is something beyond ironic, in this city that so repels me, that if I never visited again in life or death would be fine with me, that I should find a yoga guru to whom I am so powerfully drawn that I can imagine returning for a two month teacher training immersion. Is it really true that whatever happens is the only thing that can happen?
I like Sunil’s character, his energy and passion, the breath of his knowledge, his vibrancy and vitality. He has far and away the best yoga library I have ever seen. I read somewhere on this trip that knowledge is the foundation for right action, but that right thinking must be applied to right knowledge to make it of righteous use, and that the final element in bringing right knowledge and right thinking into proper fruition is character. I’d been thinking about that on the trip in relationship to myself and to a number of people I know before meeting Sunil (who I got to thru a rickshaw driver in Pune, who led me to Dharmavi, who led me to Aparna, who led me to Varanasi, and then Holi Day, which led me to Heidi, who led me to Sunil) - about the nature and quality of our knowledge, thinking, and character – and I particularly admire how these elements appear to be playing out in Sunil, who says more than once that, since effect depends so much on what is going on in our minds – particularly during our yoga practice (which relates so powerfully to my experiences and reactions to teacher, tone, language, and setting in my yoga classes) – that that is why affirmations are of such vital importance. Sunil has a number of great affirmations he requests his student to say out loud at various times during class, just as we chant, and breathe, and move. Many of the affirmations are of his personal creation, and many are taken from Gertrud Hirschi’s book, Mudras, www.indianbookcentre.com, which Sunil provides me a copy of. They are all related to specific asanas. I particularly like saying while in spinal twist, “In the form of a spiral my path leads to the divine goal where joy and peace rule,” and in back bends, “My heart leads from time to timelessness.” And although I can’t remember what asana Sunil thinks this is appropriate to I love repeating, “I give my best, the rest is given to me.”
39. Getting to Delhi
The long train ride is again easy and pleasant. Comfortable. I write and read. I sleep. I eat and drink things I worry about, but eat and drink anyway. I have a couple of brief not very interesting conversation, you know, where are you from, where are you going, why, how do you like India, those sorts of exchanges, although one exchange with a twenty-nine year of man who was “in” finance, who had lived in NJ for four months working for Goldman Sachs (you’ve heard of Goldman Sachs, he asked me), who had traveled in the U.S. by car as far as Chicago, spoke quite good English, and wanted to chat me up was noteworthy. We started with the usual pleasantries, although I was also able to ask him his impressions of the USA (“very well organized,” “highways with even numbers going east and west and odd numbers going north and south,” “subways built a hundred years ago with tall buildings on top of them that have not fallen down”). And when we get to the why am I here question for some reason I tell him about Miles, about how I’m bringing Miles’ ashes to India, and Miles’ connection to India. And while I do this in just three or four minutes, he is absolutely wrapped up in the story, and when I finish he is almost on the edge of tears it seems as he reaches out his hand to take mine, he pulls me towards him, and in a slightly uncomfortable hug says, “I love you, man.”
Delhi is shocking, which is no longer shocking. India is shocking. And Delhi is immense, geographically as well as in terms of human population numbers, so it is as hard to speak about “Delhi” as it is “New York” when it is not clear if you mean Queens or Brooklyn, Flushing or Flatbush, the Bronx or the Battery, east 67th or west 67th street. And the bottom line, at least for me, is that there are still too many beggars, homeless people, filth in the streets, monkeys on the rooftops, and cattle in the roadways, notwithstanding the hard to measure bureaucratic efforts of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Municipal Veterinary Department to comply with a ten year old court order to make the city cattle free, which is hard to do when there are over 2,000 illegal dairies still running in the city.
I spend most of my time here writing, reading, waiting for Sam, exploring just a little, resting, recovering from Varanasi, and hopefully garnering the energy I will need to help make this last phase of this journey a good one. I do so mostly by treating myself to a stay at the high end YMCA Hostel on Jai Singh Street, and doing yoga at the National Yoga Institute – a very trippy, clean, beautiful, flowery, real institute, that is so hard to reach on foot that I do finally pay for a rickshaw to literally get me across the street.
41. Yoga in Delhi
I sign up at the National Yoga Institute to take classes with Master Bal Mukund Singh, a man who’s got to be near or in his eighties and reminds me of Mr. Maguchi in the Karate Kid. Master Singh is such a good teacher, so funny, engaging, good-natured, mockingly reprimanding in a loud stern voice as if correcting and chiding errant children. His classes are taught ninety five percent in Hindi. And Master Singh loves having the tall American in shorts and a sleeveless Celtics t-shirt as his foil. And I love serving him. “So, what is your good name sir,” he asks me loudly. “Brewsh, haaa, a wery good name. Brewsh!” “So why not straighten arms, Brewsh.” “Left leg not right leg, Brewsh.” “Are you seventy year young or seventy year old, Brewsh?” “Ah, wery beeootifool, Brewsh, wery beeootifool, too wery bad not come India younger man study yoga.” And here I am in the master’s class, the only Anglo among fifty mostly overweigh women in saris, and four other men, laughing and smiling and learning a lot. And the entire class is laughing, and, in fact, after chanting at the end of the class, after we’ve held a final pose while the Master takes attendance (!) and everyone present answers “Here, sir,” after the last om shanti om, the whole class stands up, we raise our arms high into the air and we laugh loudly on purpose using a deep yogic abdominal “haaaa!” (Haa is also “yes” in Hindi.) “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!” we exhale using releasing breaths, a bit like kapalabatti breathing but through the throat rather than the nostrils. “Haa, haa, ha, ha, ha!” Laughing yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And then class is over but for the sweet rolling chorus of mostly women calling out, “Thank you, sir. Thank you, sir. Thank you.”
42. Sam in Brief
Sam and I explore Delhi, the slums, the markets, the Red Fort, India Gate, the parliament. He bounces his basketball wherever we go, a 6’5” Pied Piper with crowds of young engaged boys flocking to him, trying to get the ball away from him, many unabashedly asking if he will gift them his ball. One even washes the ball. Strangers yell out to him, “Good height.” And he’s such a good sport, Sam. My favorite moment in Delhi occurs when Sam asks the bicycle rickshawalla pedaling us to the Red Fort to let Sam pedal the rickshaw while the driver gets into the seat with me, which the driver reluctantly and embarrassedly does, and then endures the spirited cheers, jeers, hoots, laughter, and honking that Sam evokes as we ride with Sam serving as rickshaw driver thru the streets of Delhi. To also say that Sam is overwhelmed by the filth and poverty that is in your face in India is only to state the obvious and inevitable. And although India is not his favorite venue, he’s good spiritedly into it, even enmeshed by day three, along with one billion Indian fanatics, in avidly rooting for India in the world cricket championship semi final game against arch socio-political rival Pakistan - that India wins, to face Sri Lanka in the finals.
43. The Amber Fort
Sam and I stop on the very long, flat, hot, and dusty road from Delhi to Jaipur to explore the truly impressive and extensive Amber Fort, where we make what turns out to be a wrong turn and are chased by a swarm of very aggressive very large bees. So we impulsively take refuge in a very dark smoky dungeon where more than a dozen Indian men, women and children have also sought refuge and are cooking smoky chunks of a recently slaughtered goat hanging over a very smoky fire (no thanks, we don’t eat meat). We then try to out run the bees, which Sam has read somewhere can be done, and which Sam succeeds in doing, while I get stung in the head (speed being a relative phenomenon) - and Sam pulls out the stinger - only to discover that the only way back to the fort entrance is exactly the way we came, chased by bees once again into the smoky dungeon, all old friends by now, handshakes and hugs all around, no thanks, we don’t eat meat … and then try again to escape the bees into the heat and dust to the fort entrance.
44. Jaipur to Agra
The architecture in the former Moghul city of Jaipur is really great, but the peak positive moments in Jaipur for both Sam and I are an eight year old Indian magician outside the Water Palace who can do his routine in Japanese, Spanish, German, and English … and is good … and a tiny rickshaw driver named Shaq who we meet at the City Palace and who takes us to the National Stadium at the edge of Jaipur, beyond the city’s eight gates, where the sound of Sam’s bouncing basketball and the miracle of cell phone technology draws some real players, one of whom is as tall as Sam is, all of whom can put the ball in the hoop, and all of whom know very little about defense or moving without the ball, but play hard and enjoy the game while Sam conducts a good natured offensive clinic.
The Jaipur to Agra road is also flat, hot, and dusty, with lines of camels pulling huge wagon loads of grain and feed, interspersed with a palace, temple, or mausoleum or two, and an absolutely unfathomable line of religious pilgrims/worshipers at least thirty kilometers long (no really, 30 kms long), all walking toward some temple, carrying luggage on their heads, baskets of food, bedding, and babies on their hips, who fill the east to west half of the main highway so completely that no vehicular travel is possible in that direction, which results in turning the entire west to east half of the main highway into a one lane mess going each way. And why are these 1000s of people doing this? And what are they thinking? And where will they eat? (Just sitting down in the middle of the road, apparently.) And where will they piss? (Oh just in that field there.) And where have they all come from in their saris and knitted caps, and cowboy hats, with banners and flags and drums? And where will they all sleep, because it clearly takes more than one day of walking to get to the temple? And what does it mean to them? And how do they think about it? And, of course, I will never know the answers to these questions, but I’m told the walk happens on or about this day once every year and is also notable for how many enterprising Indian vendors have placed themselves along the line of march with water and food for sale, and how every scrap of paper, plastic, tin, cardboard and other human waste is just left seemingly mindlessly on the roadway, a practice that leaves some India roads looking as if they have three week old mounds of dirty snow lining both sides of the roadway, that on closer examination is all just garbage, which will not melt away.
45. The Taj
We set the alarm to wake up early to see the sun rise on the Taj Mahal, but smog obscures the sun. And even more disappointingly, no basketballs are allowed on the Taj grounds, so all the crowd action around Sam takes place outside the entrance and at the lockers where we leave the ball. The Taj itself is very impressive, although compared to Bagan, Anghor Wat, and Ellora and Ajanta it leaves me a bit nonplussed. Besides, I’ve really had it with India crowds and am longing to get away to Rishikesh and Dharamsalah, away from things flat, hot, dusty, garbage strewn and endlessly long.
Ah, that’s better. Cleaner, quieter, less polluted, less in your face, the yoga capital of the world, a swiftly flowing river, mountains, trees, a tourist scene, sort of like Telegraph Avenue on the Ganges. And there are couples, lots of couples, and it finally dawns on me that I nearing the end of this journey.
47. Yoga in Rishikesh
I do yoga in the yoga capital of the world, in many different venues, with many different teachers, but the most memorable class I take in Rishikesh is the one I go to with Sam which starts an hour before sunset on the literal banks of the surprisingly rapidly flowing Ganges, a bit in awe that I am here doing yoga outside in nature with Sam, being called Bhu Bhu by the teacher, watched by dozens of interested Indian people and a pack of curious mischievous monkeys, two of whom get into such a serious fight one day, not mock aggression and grimaces, but paw in clenched jaw tearing of fur and flesh, that the smaller weaker monkey literally jumps into the river, floating quite well in the very rapid current where he ultimately grasps onto a post in the river and rests while the bigger dominant monkey sits on the shore growling until he is chased away by the yoga instructor wielding a metal pipe. And the magical formations of birds in flight, the flags blowing in the wind, the pedestrian suspension bridge, the calling of crows, a ferocious population of common houseflies, the chalky dust on our hands, feet, and the yoga mats, washing our hands and feet in the cold cold Ganga, praying to take in the energy of the setting sun, while up river people are chanting, and drumming, and incense is burning, and we say “Namaste” to everyone we meet, and we mean it.
48. A Brief Reflection on India
I find it hard to define what makes India attractive and appealing - almost spellbinding in its raw intensity - given how repulsive it is, people sleeping in the street, peeing in the street, brushing their teeth in public, fields with crops of young boys with their pants pulled down shitting, dirty, dusty, grimy herds of people, cows, dogs, goats, cats, monkeys and an occasional elephant or camel, cars, rickshaws, vans, trucks, buses all having failed the vehicle emissions test, all stuffed with people, overflowing with people, people riding on the roof, overweight women with no teeth, delirious beggars, gorgeous and beautifully dressed women, beggars with children, arguments in the open, even fistfights, endless bargaining, manipulation, honesty, kindness, engagement, indifference, pastel colors, good humor, all the best and worst of humanity. I know it doesn’t sound very attractive. And I don’t know what it is that makes it attractive. I’m tempted to say it’s its spirituality, but I think that too facile and trite. More accurately, perhaps it is the energy and the “energetic” emanations of the place itself. “Mother” India, not “the motherland” or the “fatherland,” but Mother India, a truly beloved, imperfect, grand and glorious, messy, all providing, all consuming, demanding mother, whose children are deeply deeply tied to her as only children can be tied. India is intense. It is in your face. It manifests little of the social space and social boundaries we Americans rely upon and there is only a very thin buffer zone between you and the other. India is experiential and as such cannot be known from a distance, but must literally be entered (and smelled, and felt), because it can only be truly seen from inside. And its innards are just not that pretty or neat either, although somehow the people all seem to be coping fairly well, but what the hell can someone who didn’t even know Indian cows eat banana peels and bananas know after one month. Cows eat banana peels. Sheesh. India even won the cricket world cup.
49. Dharamsalah – McLeod Ganj
McLeod Ganj is a truly magical place and a remarkable finale point for the journey, instantly calling me back to it, or more likely to Tibet, well within the foothills of the Himalayas, filled with mountain weather, sunshine, cold rain, intense birdcalls, green green trees, gardens, flowering plants, snow capped mountains, the gurgling sound of water, and, of course, Tibetans. And although it required a brutal fourteen-hour overnight bus ride from Rishikesh to get here, even that had its fascination in crazy late night roadside stops and hairpin curves taken by an ancient bus at breakneck speeds.
The thing that is most compelling for me, of course, is the Tibetan character of the area, along with the overall ethnic mix of people, the character of the shops, the topography, the endless steps up steep mountainsides, the temples, the prayer wheels and the prayer flags, the sense of a community recreating itself in exile, and the political ambience that accompanies all that. And at the risk of being seen as naively enraptured, the fact is that the Tibetans are lovely, lovely people, devotedly Buddhists, with a large population of monks, taking pleasure in small rocks and the honoring of sentient beings, one example of which, is that when His Holiness the Dali Lama proclaimed a commitment to the protection of endangered species all of the Tibetan people destroyed whatever clothing, tools, and artifacts they possessed that had originated from the identified endangered plants and animals. Besides, McLeod Ganj is also clean by Indian standards, breathtakingly beautiful, cool in temperature, and charming (in an “Alpine” way). I also deeply appreciate the manner in which the Tibetan community has been welcomed and succored by the Indian Government.
And all this said, I’m ready to leave within twenty four hours, the journey at its end, all but for the ending.
Miles Everest Dale –
I want to share some thoughts about my nephew Miles, who has been so present with me on this voyage. (See Miles Poems for more detail).
My sister, Sheryl, married an Indian man who was raised in India and whose mother was Indian, but whose father was a British soldier, thus rendering Patrick in essence a non-caste person. I know nothing more about his mother, and neither apparently does Patrick (although I always find that hard to believe). In any event, growing up as a non-caste child right after World War II, in Calcutta, by his ninth birthday Patrick was a creature of the streets, living in the streets, begging, stealing, you can see him in the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, or Calcutta today, everyday, and yet somehow either noticed sufficiently for his particularly troublesome ways, or connected enough, through an uncle or something, I really don’t know much of his story, he is sent to an Indian reform school from which he runs away and ultimately the Indian Army, which he despises and runs away from to Nepal where he meets my sister who has gone there to teach after two years in India as a Peace Corp volunteer. He comes to America with my sister and they marry, much to my parent’s dismay and disapproval. And while many Indian people who come to America are quite happy and successful, my brother-in-law is not, not able to take advantage, not wanting to go to school or take more training, deeply depressed and fatalistic, he works as a garbage collector and is fired from that job, after which he works for the railways as a laborer, mostly just laying track, moving ties and gravel, using a pick, shovel, sledge hammer and his back. A coolie I think he would be called in India.
Sheryl and Patrick have two sons. The first boy is very quiet, but also quite athletic and smart. He graduates college with a teacher’s degree but chooses to work as a big equipment operator and truck driver for the town he grew up in. His interests are narrow, he is not married, he seems depressed, but he is honest, good-natured, hard working, responsible, trustworthy, easy going, has a circle of committed friends, and is respected by all in his work and all who he encounters; a handsome, fit, strong, big, genuinely nice guy. Their second son is troubled from birth, perhaps even suffers a birth trauma in which he is temporarily deprived of sufficient oxygen, has a modest but apparent speech defect, is limited in his academic abilities, and is behaviorally very oppositional, uncooperative, obsessive, and difficult to deal with. He is also very needy, fearful, and quite sweet, and I like him immensely, as long as I am not bearing the brunt or being burdened by his negative behaviors. His father is impatient and occasionally cruel with him. His brother is annoyed and embarrassed by him. His mother dedicated and exasperated by him. By his teenage years he is drinking and abusing drugs, partly because that’s what a lot of American teens do for a variety of complex social and psychological reasons, but in Miles’ case clearly as a psychological aid and buffer that modulates his mood, his fears, his obsessive compulsive behaviors, and especially his anxiety and terror.
I have written a poem about the 15 places where parts of Miles’ earthly remains were left during our voyage and appended the poems to this site elsewhere for those interested in reading a 15 page long “poem.” But I do want to expand on the ending.
I carried Miles’ ashes around with me in the tiny plastic bag my sister had given them to me in along with the small, testicle sized purple felt drawstring pursue she had given them to me in. And when the ashes had all been liberated, in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and India, and the plastic bag had been stretched and torn like a placenta and offered to the Ganges, there was still the matter of the purple velvet drawstring purse, which I was determined to leave in India as an offering as well. And although I initially had no sense of how I would dispose of the pouch it came as a good idea to me that I would fill it with cash and give it as a gift to an Indian beggar, as I felt would befit Miles’ spiritual inclination. And after the last of mis ashes were disposed of, I filled the pouch with 28 hundred Indian rupees, one hundred .
A few little known India facts and vignettes.
I go into a very busy coffee shop on one of the main street in Pune and order a grande cappuccino. Two days later I go back in and as I approach the counter the young clerk says, “Grande cappuccino?”
I’m in a cyber café. Kids are playing some video game, talking very loudly in Hindi, interspersed with periodic shouts of “No way, dawg!”
Highway sign: "Avoid Rash Driving. Do Not Over Speed," i.e., speeding is okay, but over speeding is not.
An Indian man sits down across from me at a restaurant I am eating in, until then seated at the table alone. I try to make eye contact and strike up a conversation by asking him what he has ordered that looks like a delicious combo platter. He gives me a one-word answer. I ask what brought him here. He says, “business.” I ask him what line of work he is in. He says, “business.” Then, after a silent five minutes or so elapses, he asks, “Are you traveling alone?” To which I reply, “yes.” And he asks incredulously, “But how can you have any fun traveling alone without family or friends?” And I laugh out loud because the question strikes me as so funny given the wonderfully unfettered time I am having alone. And his face takes on a look of shock, perhaps because he thinks I have laughed at him (?) and we lapse again into silence. And when he leaves the table it is only I who say, “Be well” and “safe travels,” drawing no reply.
I bring my sandals to a roadside shoe repairman seated on the ground with two friends. I point out the tear in the side of the sandal I want repaired. He nods yes. I take off the sandal and give it to him and then sit cross-legged on the ground so as to not be towering over him as he works. He and his friends converse animatedly and then looking at me all laugh. I hear the distinct word “Buddha,” and when I look at the repairman quizzically he points at me and we all laugh. It is not the only time this has happened in my travels but it is somehow the loveliest.
I discover I am the only person left in an Internet café on the other side of town where I have gone to a bookstore when the café owner tells me he usually closes forty minutes earlier but didn’t want to disturb me. I close down immediately, thank him profusely for his courtesy, and leave the shop as he locks up. “Where are you going,” he asks, and I tell him generally speaking the neighborhood I am stay in. “I will take you,” he says. And, not knowing exactly what I have said yes to stay where I am while he goes off presumably to grab his car. Back two minutes later, he is on his motorcycle, his friend is seated behind him, and he motions for me to get on as the third un-helmeted rider. I try to beg off. I say I will find a rickshaw. I say I am too big to add to his bike’s load. I say I want to walk and see the neighborhood a little. And to each of these excuses he says things that mean "no, please, I want to take you, and if you don’t let me take you I will find it very strange and will feel deeply insulted." So I get on his motorcycle and we are off, the good news being that we are traveling mostly on very sparsely trafficked late night streets thus reducing the arithmetic probability of encountering another vehicle in ways I don’t want to, the bad news being that we are traveling mostly on very sparsely trafficked late night streets, which means he can go at speeds above 55 mph. The Indians also laugh when I look for seat belts in rickshaws.
OSHO - think Rajneesh – think opulent, beautiful, well designed. Think purple robes that even a visitor must wear (and buy at $15 a pop), plus entrance fees totaling about $50, which includes a mandatory AIDS test with instant results. Also think genuinely smiley people, a good vibe, and silence. Or visit www.osho.com/tour. The core message: “What we are doing here is very simple, very ordinary, nothing spiritual in it, nothing sacred. We are not trying to make you holy persons. We are simply trying to make you sane, intelligent, ordinary people, who can live their lives joyously, dancingly, celebratingly.”