"You have children? I bless you with children. In India we have four or more, not like in your country. I have a son who has job with Air India, good job, and daughter studying computer, two young ones also. I am old, fifty-two, but I work for Government.
Government is good job. If I go, my wife gets pension, and after that my daughter if she is unmarried. If she's married....I worked for Delhi transportation, then Government said dangerous, so now no job for a year and then they will find me new job. My wife teaches music, she plays sitar, has twenty thirty students. You are a good person, you need not thank me, you are so kind, you are very welcome. They make comments"--he points to my shorts--"you should cover your knees. I will show you good shop where you can buy proper clothing. I was so happy when Reagan...I think Bush has too much emotion, like child."
Ivan smiled, he was missing a few teeth. "I am from Bangalore, my father and his father worked for government railroad and now my son, at least one, will have job. Government job is for life." Ivan explained that he was a Christian, and blessed me many times as we walked. He led me to a shop where a middle-aged woman showed me a fine garment, all white, which she encouraged me to try on in a room in the back, behind a man who was adding with a calculator. I tried on the outfit and realized I was looking like Nehru. "Cotton, not silk," Ivan said. "Very good, you look like movie star." I quietly asked the saleswomen whether it would be appropriate to offer Ivan, who had been such a good guide so far, some money.
She replied: "Yes, he is very poor man."
"Do you know him," I asked. "A friend of yours?"
She cast her eyes downward. "He has medical ... problems." She clutched her chest ambiguously.
She nodded, although "lungs" or "liver" probably would have generated equal agreement. I agreed to purchase the outfit, at which point the woman began piling other shirts onto my purchase at an incredible rate. I dug for my shirt, paid the price, and made to leave. She pointed to the cash register as if disgusted that she had lavished so much attention and I was through.
Ivan gave directions to a boy, and then pointed to the the Lakshmi temple. I walked with him for about twenty minutes--he protected me as he showed me how to cross a street, Indian-style, brazenly heading across what in the U.S. would be un-negotiable, staring death in the face quite literally, using small gestures of the hands to say, please let me pass, only to find vehicles intensifying their blare (in Delhi horns are used to warn and not to dump toxic aggression) while swerving a micron beyond an exposed limb. Cyclists press on through all sorts of motorized and non-motorized vehicles--a helmeted man in jeans and tee-shirt on the cell phone, with his companion riding side-saddle, without any protective gear, dressed in a pink and red sari, her rubber slippers dangling toward the bare ground.
"Many lifetimes to know whole India," our palm-reader had advised us back in Boston, a handsome, fifty-ish man with a perpetual three-day, gray stubble and dark eyes that held only childlike laughter or stillness. "This visit one month no problem, more is problem, okay two no problem but then home. Otherwise you miss job. You have many jobs coming. That is your right hand. The left hand is her hand, she gets job she brings you luck in finance." We called him "Dr. S," because of the complexity of his surname, a name as rich with repetitive consonants and vowels (mostly a's and u's) as his four master's degrees (M.A., M.A., M.A., M.A.). ......
As I returned to the hotel room, I received yet another call from the booking assistant, this time apologizing but requesting that I settle the bill now, since if I followed the instructions of the hotel staff at the Registration desk, he insisted in a wailing voice, the agony of lifetimes, it would take him "six months" to get paid.
I went downstairs and settled the tab, upon which the booking asssistant gazed meaningfully into my eyes and asked about my visit to the Ashram. I told him it was good, and he began to describe a place near Mumbai in which a ten-day course would teach me everything about my self--about the Self--from head to toe. One had to take the entire ten days, he told me, though later he let slip that he had only taken a day or two of the course at most. He told me, gazing all the while radiantly and hypnotically into my irises, that he found himself deep in meditation (his hands made the sign of Buddha's folded ones on an imaginary lap at chest level as he said this) and that through this course one could view one's past lives and understand who one truly is.
I asked which past lives he had seen in meditation--making sure the question did not offend him, and he then admitted he had not seen any past lives. I was getting used to this rhythm: one assertion put forth as truth with the greatest sincerity ("I smoke only one cigarette per day;" "in this course you see past lives in meditation") only to slip into some amorphous place of endless ambiguity, a linguistic pit as it were, compounded by the Indian half-shake of the head which means both yes and no at once, or perhaps neither, or perhaps neither and both at the same time. This was the India I had read about in V.S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, an India that is simultaneously charming and repellent, fascinating and obnoxious, humorous and repugnant to any sense of ordered stability and integrity. The land of dharma, righteousness, and satya, truth, was also one of epic exaggeration, lies and half-lies and all sorts of fractions thereof, comical self-delusion combined with the most touching sincerity and warmth, a vast con game reverberating in a hall of infinite mirrors, Shiva's magnificent consciousness shaping and giving birth to, simultaneously creating and destroying, omnivorous creations, innovations, assertions, new forms of guile. Bewitching and fantastic and alluring and labyrinthine dead ends--in one breath discussing the peak of human awareness in at-one-ment with the godhead, and at the same time speaking crooked. Is anything genuine? one begins to wonder after a while.
I did not have much time to ponder as I returned to my room only to find the booking asssistant on the phone yet again. "Sorry to disturb you again Sir." I now wondered whether he had dialed continuously during the time I was absent from the room--or perhaps one of his buddies from the business center had phoned to let him know that I was heading back to the room. Perhaps my movements were being tracked like the mark in a Hitchcock film. "Bill is settled, except driver pay seventy rupees for tolls. If you could please settle this, Sir, whenever you come back downstairs I would greatly appreciate this."
I recalled that when I had asked the soft drinks seller at the airport for change for the telephone, she had offered me three one-rupee coins in exchange for a five-rupee coin--swooping a two-rupee profit, the equivalent of four cents--giving me a look that suggested she was probing to see whether I would accept the swindle. Clearly I would not be able to lapse into endless contemplation of Shiva back in my room--I had to meet him downstairs in the form of the booking asssistant and make an offering in the form of toll fees.
When I returned to the room, I found my sacred objects from the ashram arranged in a kind of makeshift puja or altar, on top of the newspaper in which they had been wrapped. A guru's photo adorned the front of this arrangement. The pile of hundred and fifty rupee bills I had forgotten to tuck away had been neatly moved--a kind of transmigration of money--from the glass table of my room to the pocket of one maid.
The night adventures have been more intense than in the U.S. Perhaps it is the shakti of India pulsating through my system; then again, it could be the hallucinogenic side effect of the anti-malarial tablets the doctor who prescribed them had warned about. Dreams are vivid; I awaken and fall into half-sleep again, as if pulled out of my body and taken to different landscapes. Again and again I revisit the people I encountered during the day--not only the ones I greeted, but also the ones who stared from the sidelines. I seem to experience their emotions toward me: some are friendly, many are hostile--it would be as if Donald Trump drove through Harlem in a white stretch limousine, exited to inspect one of his investments, and in response to children with their ribs sticking out, holding their hands aloft for change, rolled up the windows, or perhaps let his driver do the deed for him.
I dreamed from the perspective of one of my cats, Castor, who now comfortably ambled in a "cat spa," luxuriating in a large container with a view of a beautiful lake in New Hampshire. He was breathing in fresh country air, contrast to the fumes of Delhi and Mumbai traffic. He was also having new experiences, encountering new beings--since coming to my household as a toddler, his cat social world had consisted entirely of his brother Castor. Now there were a conglomeration of novel beings--a Himalayan; a blue cat--he did not know that cats, like Lord Krishna, could come in blue; another tabby. A whole world of social possibilities and novel interactions opened up, some exciting, others scary--each as unusual as another delicately flavored Indian dish.
Time and again, in dreamland, I stepped back into the mud of the ashram village. I felt there was a divine purpose in physically putting my foot down into the soil (I had left my shoes at the temple door). On a physical and emotional level, I felt apprehensive about the risks I had needlessly taken--I could have contracted any number of diseases.
The hotel manager had assured me: "Don't worry, God will protect you if you step in His holy places!" I was not sure that God would intervene if one of His hookworms or perhaps the needles used by one of His drug-addicted humanoids decided that the surface of the skin on my foot would make a magnificent home. I hoped I was protected; intuitively I felt that everything had happened for a reason; and the dreams brought me deep into the soil of India at all levels, saturating my system with the ancient essence of the teachings, putting me in contact with the land, the perfected sages, and all who had walked here.
In the morning it was not hookworm, but my stomach. It rebelled against the accumulated peppers and unknown spices and unwashed hands and God-knows-what-else with a case of constipation. At least the expected diarrhea--so-called "Delhi belly"--had not yet manifested; but I had the sense of something (literally) emergent, stuck inside.
It was the sludge of innumerable lifetimes. This trip, I sensed, was about my shit.
Ayurvedic teachings about health reiterated this: a lot was determined by assimilation and elimination--by what we take in, and what we leave behind.
Our tickets were for the best compartment available: second-class air-con sleeper. While waiting for the train to open, I noticed someone lying between a row of barrels. He was inordinately skinny and his breathing was labored. I left a bottle of water by him, but he seemed too weak to lift it to his lips. Many of our second-class boarders passed by him, and looked with disdain that I had stopped. Eventually my wife returned with a bag of provisions--I had not eaten dinner, but how could I hold on to the bag of cashews I had purchased? My ribs were not sticking out--and he eventually sat up against the barrels.
I calmed myself down with ujayi, the yogic breath, combined with japa, the repetition of the mantra Hamsa. Meanwhile our driver grew increasingly frenetic as different helpful locals pointed us in opposite directions, each stopping to ask "where are you from" and engage in limited conversation as the hour grew later.
Finally we found the yoga shala: a magnificent house, three stories and spacious, in a middle- to upper- class neighborhood (by Indian standards), with a bronze plaque announcing what it was. We knew the guest house was a five-minute walk, but in which direction? Again we circled, pausing for directions from people on passing motorcycles, rickshaws, scooters, or padding by in shoes or barefoot.
One man in a seventies silk shirt, Kissinger glasses and a grin climbed into the front passenger seat, offering to show us the way. Again we launched across town, finally landing a half-hour later back at the yoga shala. The man climbed out of the car and began banging on the iron gate. I tried to stop him, but the driver insisted that we stay in the car. The man rang the buzzer and made enough of a ruckus that lights came on and a woman emerged, carrying her infant in her arms. Meanwhile, the driver and the volunteer with the Kissinger glasses got into a heated argument. The driver finally put his arm around this man, told him off, opened the passenger door and out his guest spilled.
Our yoga master gazed from a top window as our car rumbled into the distance.
"Where is the guest house?" we asked the manager.
"Cannot reach," the manager replied.
"Last night," I said, "a crazy man jumped in our taxi and banged the guru's gates at midnight."
He smiled, nodded his head diagonally in a show of great understanding. He had simply redrawn in crude form the map I had given him earlier, downloaded from the website of the guest house.
"I'm looking for specific directions. We don't want to repeat that experience," I added, hoping this might contribute to his instructions to the next taxi driver. Meanwhile, our car had pulled up. With great fanfare, we were saluted out the door. My wife thanked the woman in the sari for trying.
"No problem," the woman replied. "It is our duty."
When I reached a forward bend in which it had taken me months to be able to bend at the waist and hold my toes, the teacher appeared beside me and said: "Lock?" I gathered by her arm motion that she meant the seemingly impossible task of getting my entire hands around the palms of my feet and interlacing the fingers. I gave her a quizzical look that probably asked, are you serious? To which her only reply was the firm pressure of her hands on my back. With a sudden exhalation, I was surprised by the squoosh of the bridge of my nose on my knee.
In the distance, coconut sellers and vegetable vendors began trekking up the roads with their pushcarts.
The gate swung open and the dash for mat space began. I spotted a space in the right-hand corner near the front of the room, placed my mat down on the carpeting, and folded my hands in namaste, when I heard: "This is my usual spot. Will you move?"
"I like the wall. It helps with headstand."
"You're supposed to go in the locker room for headstand," he pointed out, then added, frustration rising in his voice: "I've been coming here for six months."
"It's just a spot of rug," I snapped.
The cremation ceremonies continued into the next morning, so that when I did my early practice on the guest house patio (I missed the four a.m. gong of our Zen clock and skipped the "led" class), I realized I was inhaling someone's ashes.
My friend the ox on the corner: sunk low after the weight of the bar across his shoulders. Swatting flies with his tail and ears, but still they penetrate his anus and eyelids. That is his life, one of burden and immense suffering even during the few moments of rest. He lugs a cart loaded with goods and people and is whipped all day. I looked into his eyes--the soul stared back. I wanted to caress him, to make physical contact, to touch and send blessings through the touch, but someone else "owned" him, he was someone's livelihood.
Behind him, a gray-haired granny worked the stones into gravel with a pick-ax.
I mentioned the lecture I had heard at the local Indian branch of the International Association of Pranic Healers: animals passed more quickly than humans through the astral plane, and either helped or hindered humans according to the karma passed on earth. Here, we were 'masters,' but there the roles were reversed. I certainly felt a soul connection to this dog and that he knew, from the day we arrived, that we would be instrumental in helping him through some passage. I felt--hoped--he forgave me. I suspected there was a deeper relationship than the immediate physical connection. I recalled case presentations at the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, in which classmates had done healings with comatose, autistic, or mentally impaired patients, only to find the spirits of those beings communicating high-level teachings on an etheric level.
"Who knows," I conjectured, "if this dog isn't a higher being that came into this body in order teach us love?"
"Love," my wifesaid. "We'll call him Love."
He was sitting in a field behind barbed wire. We called to him with a whistle and he came. He was docile and sweet as ever, his tongue hanging down the left side of his mouth, his entire jaw falling limp; it appeared as if the teeth had been eaten away. Elaine placed the leash around him--which he meekly accepted, though when we tried to lead him he let out a yelp. I knelt down beside him; I sensed he could feel me and that we knew each other on a soul level. "We're taking you to the hospital," I said. "You'll be all right, I promise. You'll get treatment there so you can eat."
We coaxed him gently up into the rickshaw, the three of us holding him, as the vehicle sped away over speed-bumps and potholes.....
On the soul level, Love and I remained in the eternal space, beyond my departure and the condition of the diseased body in which was now incarnated.....