© Copyright 2002 by Raya Alcadi
Bhagsunat - Himachel Pradesh (Indian mountain village)
Woke up with Jemina yelling her lungs off. Her neighbor threatened to tell the police she was making whisky at home. Five hours have passed and they are still arguing. All the neighbors are involved. A verbal battle. The winner is determined by the majority.
I decided to join a
Vipassana meditation course (10 days meditation, clock at 4:00 am, shower
and the day begins. No talking, no looking at others). I could only resist
one day (and night). They attempted to dissuade me from dropping out and
had me talk with the “Teacher”. The Spanish manager glared at me arrogantly
and disdainfully “you do NOT know what Vipassana is - you cannot tell anyone
you tried Vipassana”! He must have been afraid of rumors spreading. The
man’s arrogance (and incoherence to Vipassana philosophy) may be justified
by the fact that he had dedicated a lifetime to this - he must convince
others of its authenticity. Yet I felt no need for an “operation” as the
Teacher nicely described it: “this is like a hospital, people come here
to get cured. She was adroitly perched on a cushion on an altar. Our conversation:
So how about the people who return every year?
They want to be cured or cleansed again. You see, the condition of the human being is such that we must purify ourselves during our lifetime to rid ourselves of the suffering and cycle of lives.
So you think humans are not equal to animals in that the latter do not need to go through a purification process?
They do not have a mind and cannot do this. They are obliged to endure the suffering.
And what does one obtain with Vipassana?
What if one is already happy?
Then you will be even happier.
Before you tried Vipassana, were you unhappy?
Well, I was searching for something.
“I am delivering a message from God to humanity” says John. “The words just flow, they do not come from my own thoughts”. John tried a number of hallucinatory drugs, which would bring him out of his usual state of consciousness. He would live “the trip” to then write about it. Every so often he would get hooked to some drug. John is constantly talking about his book. He arrived earlier last year so as to experience the monsoon period and incorporate it in his story. His entire book is written in “flow of consciousness” style. “Yeah Yeah Yeah” are the words he repeats most often in reply to other people’s statements or anywhere in the midst of a conversation. Tall and thin, with a slightly arched back and hollow eyes, John walks without moving his arms in the least. Once to my “hi” and he rapidly muttered “oh, very well, thank you”. Whenever I see him with others I hear him talking about his book. It seems to be his only scope. “I am in contact with the other world - many people I know also receive messages”. It must be reassuring to receive these messages.
His adopted dog recently delivered four puppies. The monsoon was about to start and John was planning to return to the UK after the usual 6 months abroad in Goa. He could not abandon the puppies. Better the thought of them dead rather than helpless in their struggle for life. Therefore. after days of contemplation on what would be the right thing to do, he mustered up his courage, injected 125g of ketamin in his arm and drowned the puppies in the sea. He claims to have then seen the sun appear from behind the clouds. John started abusing this drug and one day in the midst of one of his trips he fell from his hammock and badly crushed the left side of his face. He avoided people for a while after that incident until he came by one evening and told us what had happened. “I have exaggerated. This was a warning for me to change direction. I must listen to it. Yes, I am grateful it happened”.
The fishermen gather together as the fishing boats gradually approach the shore. They are divided into two groups situated half a mile apart in the center of the bay. The women and children quietly watch as the nets are hoisted. Ten men pull at the ropes connected to a large wooden rod. The water starts to bubble. Blinding sparks of silver shimmer on the water’s surface. As the immense net is dragged to the shore I can see the silver take form, as the fish struggle to escape. In fear and desperation they leap away from the shore, over bodies of thousands of other fish of all sizes. To no avail. The net is now on the sand and they are gasping for breath. The entire net is vibrating with jumping fish and women rush to fill their baskets. That same scene has now dramatically changed impact. The fish are stiffly lying in dull neat rows along the road. Replacing the movement of life is the ubiquitous stillness of death. The numerous ravens hovering about are discouraged from the potential meal by the rotting body of their executed kin, placed as a warning: a dead raven, crucified on a pole.
I cannot express this clearly with words. Beneath this feeling lies infinity. Even as I think of it I am unable to grasp it, just as what happens with dreams sometimes. I feels like I have lived other lives and I belong. It is like seeing a place after a long time, yet from afar. These mountains embedded with palm trees, manifesting the infinite variations of greens. The world suddenly appears so intimate. It embraces me as I shed my identity to savor the sensations of a million lives across eternity. Is that all deriving from my imagination or is it real? What is the difference anyway? I know that with time the memory of this shall grow dim. This is why I must write, although words greatly flatten the experience. I hope they function the way odor triggers memory, indirectly. If this feeling pertains to love, then it is certainly among the most sublime manifestations of love in life.
Manjib works in a 3* guesthouse in Delhi’s Pahr Ganj (main bazaar) where he befriended a number of travelers who regularly stay at the hotel. Coming from a numerous family in the Uttar Pradesh mountain area (Naini Tal), the 12-year old Manjib ran away from home, together with his uncle (aged 11), to find a job and build a future in Delhi. After 1 week of washing dishes in a small, noisy dhaba along a heavily trafficked street they witnessed a dramatic accident. A man on a motorcycle got hit by a truck and literally flew into their shop. They turned around to see a twisted neck, blood squirting and the man’s brains gushing out. That scene was enough to drive them back home that same day. A week later Manjib’s cousin offered him a job in a hotel and he found himself once again in Delhi. This time he would stay there for good. During that time, one of the frequent hotel guests was a young Italian woman of about 30 years or so. Marina was affectionate with Manjib and showered him with gifts. She took him with her on her trips and proposed to adopt him and bring him back to Pisa with her. The owner of the hotel was attracted to Marina and resented all the attention given to the boy. One day he took Manjib aside: “Listen to me Manjib, this lady does all this for you, why do you think she does it? She says she wants to adopt you. Do you want to abandon your family; after all they did to feed you and take care of you? Abandon your country? Shame on you. But I know there is more to this, Western women like Indian children and abuse of them. It has happened before. She will harass you”.
Manjib was mortified and deeply ashamed to even look at Marina. He avoided her at all costs. After a week she took him aside to speak to him. They talked things over and he slept in her room that night. Manjib waited until he thought she was sleeping and then started to touch her. The man’s words were still echoing in his mind…“she will harass you”. Marina immediately turned away but did not wake up. He stopped. The next day she checked out of the hotel, leaving $100 for Manjib together with a letter wishing him good luck. She never returned. After ten years Manjib tried calling her again but to no avail. “What do you want from me now, after all those years”? she once asked , and hung up. He still dreams of how it would have been had he left with her to Pisa.
A few years later. One of Manjib’s friends promised to get him a ticket for the UK and sponsor him. Manjib was elated. It was a dream many young Indian men share - travelling to the US or Europe and making money abroad. The most arduous part would be getting together all the documents required and obtaining the visa. He managed to get all which was required, forging certificates here and there and the day before applying he went to a renowned fortune teller in Old Delhi’s narrow alleys. He was told to proceed with his plan; all would be favorable as long as Manjib would arrive at the consulate very early in the morning. It was still dark when Manjib arrived. He would have to wait four hours. The only man around was making tea in a kettle over a small fire along the road. Manjib went near him to share the warmth. An hour later, a Punjabi arrived together with his porter. He also was applying for a visa. The sight of the well-dressed man with all his golden chains, and fancy clothes depressed Manjib. He was sure he would never be able to get a visa, only scorned and sent away. At the interview, Manjib was asked every question imaginable, including the names of some of his cousins and whether they were married and to whom; whether his parents lived together and what he was planning to do in the UK. The young man replied very honestly and simply, “ Please Sir, it is my dream to visit the UK, I have many British friends in India and I, in turn want to visit their country”. He presented certificates claiming he owned property and a bank account, and to his astonishment was granted the visa - while the Punjabi was declined one!
Change of plans.
The ticket was to be given to him only on the condition that he would swallow 150 pieces of charras (tightly rapped in cellophane) which would then be sold in the UK. His friend Jo assured him saying it was “nothing”. Jo had done it a number of times and that it’s “only a matter of shitting it out”. Manjib swallowed, despaired and afraid. Getting caught in India meant spending the next ten years in prison. Jo instead took three lumps about the size of an egg and would insert them up his behind in due time. Jo decided to depart a week later which meant that Manjib would travel alone since his ticket was confirmed for that date. He assured Manjib that all would be fine and that someone would be meeting him at the airport. Manjib felt weak and nauseated. Furthermore it was his first time on an airplane and he was dreading the thought of being alone. The plane finally landed. No one was around waiting for him. He waited out in the cold for three hours, with the panic building up. He fished out his address book and made his way to a public phone. Fumbling around, he tried pressing all the buttons - the damn thing wasn’t working! He rushed outside to ask for help and stopped a man with a turban who looked Indian. He told him his story and asked for help. The man spoke little English and no Hindi - he was from Bangladesh. He called his wife who spoke Hindi and explained to Manjib that he needed a telephone card and showed him how it worked. Manjib tried calling almost every UK number in his address book, numbers gathered during years and years of socializing at the hotel. Most did not remember him or were very vague “yeah - come here if you wish, it’s not close to London though, a five-hour bus ride.” After the 20th call ….“Hello, I am Manjib from Delhi’s Krishna Guesthouse, do you remember me? I just arrived to England and do not know where to go. Someone was supposed to pick me up…” Reply “Sorry mate, you see we’re in Bristol, not exactly nearby…” He had already spend £10 in phone calls and thought “this is my last chance, call the hotel in New Delhi and see if my friend is there”. He found Jo still there and at that very moment the other friend turned up. Manjib immediately recognized him and cried tears of relief. For the first two weeks Manjib did not dare venture away from the block where his friends lived. He was terrorized of getting lost and all streets and buildings appeared the same to him. Compared to India these streets were empty ! The garbage bins, his reference points around Delhi’s alleys, were all identical here. After two months in the UK he returned to Delhi, where he still dreams of returning to England and finding a job.
In a palm-fringed bay south of Goa, Pia, a German lady of about 40 years of age, pitched her tent in a strategic picturesque spot, overlooking an immense range of rocks leading down to the sea. She planned to stay there for 6 months and spent most of her time alone. Occasionally she would exchange trivial conversation for the sake of socialising; or perhaps it gave her a sense of security to befriend the neighbours. Her two tents (which she pitched alone) were extremely well equipped. One served as bedroom and the other as kitchen, with two kerosene stoves, table, chairs, all the minimum comfort she would need for the long stay. She would often stop by, on her way to the market, and tell us, in the little English she knew, of occasional visitors to her tent. Indians staring at her or strange noises which would frighten her. She looked vigorous and healthy; short hair, flat chest, prominent chin, clear blue glittering, and happy eyes. She spoke with expression and music, not a monotonous mumbling or soave, soft voice of the “wannabespirituals”. She walked in a determined, rapid pace and was absorbed in art and contemplation. Pia approached me one day after sunset while I was sitting on the cliffs. She looked at my sketchbook and asked me if I had purchased it in Goa. “Dharmshala”, I replied. She had never been. “If you ever get tired of staying here, however improbable that is, you’d enjoy it in the mountains”, I said. “I can’t go to the mountains”, she replied. “I have cancer - you see, there is a story to this. In 1995 they removed my right breast and the doctor told me that in three years my condition will deteriorate considerably and I will be in bed terminally ill. Yet here I am! Four years have passed and I feel healthy ! Of course, I must take morphine twice a day otherwise the pain is too much. So I cannot walk a lot or get too tired. This is why I cannot go up to the mountains”. Cancer was the last association I would have made with such a lovely, lively, solar person. “I love life”; she added “now more than ever”.
Am in the toilet. About the only place I can write. I have been stuck in my top bunk bed for about 10 hours now, with six sets of eyes I catch glaring at me every time I look around. Twenty-six more hours to go. The sun rays reflected on this thick plastic window pane are of a golden-orange color. It should be around 5:30 pm. There is no space on this train. I cannot even watch the sunset from one of the doors. People squeezed all over and lying on the ground. A beggar woman spent the entire night lying on the ground in that filthy stench, in front of one of the toilet doors. It is now more than 14 hrs that she has been lying there. Every time I pass she glares at me. Children crawling across the train wipe the floors under passengers’ feet. They rapidly mop away the filth, merely flinging the rubbish away to another side and then poke at us for rupees. Punjabi boys nearby giggle and crack jokes to see me throwing rubbish in an empty water bottle rather than flinging all outside the window as everyone else. At every stop children jump in the train to earn some money by dancing, singing or playing some instrument.
Soon after I wrote about the beggar woman sleeping in front of the toilet, black with dirt and rags appearing to be glued to her body, she hit me! She glared at me again, hate in her eyes, with a look that clearly said “you are a selfish, rich, white, bitch”. I turned back to look at her, amazed. I didn’t have any change to give her and to be honest, India’s beggars are so unnerving that sometimes one tends to arrive to an extreme and avoid them all; in an attempt to overcome the horror and the guilty conscience trip. Why was I so lucky and not they? What have they done to deserve that kind of life? Of course it is easy to explain all with past lives…what a miserable wretched life. Does one not arrive to prefer death over this? These noisy Indians on the train, the innumerable stenches: old urine, rotten eggs, human feces, people farting away every half-hour during the night. Of course, my place is the top most bunk bed so the gases are all the more intense. Children, 12 yr. and younger travel long stretches to earn a few rupees selling goods and other services. These Indians do not give them one rupee, although they sing along and encourage the children to keep playing. Women of higher castes shoo away the beggars with a look of disgust and disdain on their faces. Why are they yelling so much? Six young men yelling at the top of their lungs in broken English, presumably so that we would understand their discussion. Only humans can be so ungraceful as they boost their egos. No one listens, all speaking. This is not communication, only noise.
Pahr Ganj - Delhi
As usual I stare out from my hotel window to watch the hectic street of the main bazaar. I look down to see a sort of Babel. A lady avoids a rickshaw and drops her bag. Grain falls out in all directions. She squats down and gently piles the grain in heaps, caressing the tar road as she gathers what she can, and places it in her sari to pour all into the bag again. Dried old garlands with orange flowers are strewn over the rooftops, surrounded by piles of rubbish and metal pieces. They are probably remnants of the Diwwali festival. Tourists cling on to their bags and look warily around. These rooftops offer a peek into the daily routine of the Pahr Ganj inhabitants, as the men slowly rise from their beds and mattresses flung on the rooftops and stretch out to greet the rising sun. While unhurriedly brushing their teeth, they sleepily gaze at the streets below. Once again they stretch out to absorb the afternoon sun before a crispy November night takes over. Such pleasant climate in Delhi at this time! Every so often, amongst the rickshaws’ frustrated, raven-like bleats; sellers singing their chants, and the constant ringing of bicycle bells, one can hear the clear arpeggio of a mesmerizing, oriental flute, adeptly reaching 3 octaves in 3 seconds and making its way through piercingly enchanting scales. It stops. Perhaps the flute man is making a sale.
These men spend most of their day on the roofs of these dark buildings, amidst unrecognizable, rusty metal objects of every size imaginable and lines of dusty clothes hanging out to dry. Every so often, some descend to the mains street in search of some lost looking tourist to rip off: “can I help you madam?” Tourist eyes glaring in every direction. If I could fast-forward the scene, it would remind of crows eating. How unnerving it must be to be constantly on guard. It hurts the neck to imitate them at their speed. One peck, scat to the right, another peck, scat to the left, over your shoulder then back to eat. Vultures are abundant, so are the pigeons. All these animals, particularly the cows, dogs and rats, seem to be Delhi’s real street cleaners. The solemn, calm, resigned faces promote this “fatalistic” approach leading to acceptance, to karma - that which lures many of the travelers to India. Yet most tourists (the term “travelers” will generate less contempt) still have to deal with facing poverty, react to clinging beggars, the continuous sales harassment and rip off. A beautiful, young girl with unbraided black hair and a bright red bindi is standing on the roof. Her chin rests on her hand as she leans on the wall and gazes below with a rather sad, melancholic expression. A man with a large belly bursting from under his dark-gray heavy cotton shirt, arrives soon after and places his arm over her shoulder. She remains impassive and they both gaze down at Pahr Ganj. She then pushes him away, puts her hand in her hair and pulls it back, frowning, as if to hold her tears back. He says something to her insistently yet she does not reply. Again, he tries to embrace her yet she pulls away. He insists for some time, then they both disappear. Astonished by how sunlight at different hours completely transforms this same street I was watching an hour ago, I dive into the orange shades, while a pale pink color stretches across the horizon; a hawk sails in circles with the usual crow wildly struggling vertically to reach that height and peck at the majestic bird.
Rumtek - Sikkim
During a walk around the mountain side, we came across a kitten lying near the road in the sun. It wasn’t moving but I remember noticing how sick it looked with its dull and stiff fur. After 5 hours we returned on that same road and the cat was still there. It couldn’t move. It was shivering and looked as if it were about to die. Leave it to nature or take it somewhere? Where? We stared at it for about 5 minutes, thinking of some solution when suddenly it moved. With tremendous effort it lifted its wobbling legs, shuffled a few steps toward us and fell on the ground again. Indian cats rarely approach humans. One of its paws was entirely twisted. We wondered how long it had been lying there, with no food or water. To burn under the midday sun and freeze during the windy nights; prey to the wild beasts. We could not leave it there - even if only to alleviate the creature’s last hours of life and liberate it from the terror of the coming night. My German friend gently put the kitten in his hat and we walked towards home. We gave it a piece of sausage, which it nibbled after some effort. I shall never forget how it purred after that. We left it with the Tibetan monks at the Rumtek monastery.
Darjeeling, West Bengal
Last night I had another panic attack. I started to lose breath and my heart beat faster. I felt pangs of fear at the feeling of suddenly (or worse - slowly) being separated from my body, from this existence and from all that I knew around me. To bring me out of that state I tried forcing my mind to accept death by associating it with positive thoughts. It was a terrifying experience. So easy to claim fearlessness when sober and healthy, under the sunlight, with life bustling around. It takes more than words to truly embrace and believe. It takes unfaltering faith in God (or other) to have the courage to face the inevitable event. Dawn and sunset. How trivial all else seems when death manifests itself. Like an anaesthetic one becomes numb to all.
Slowly getting acquainted with the narrow alleys and ghats. A medieval city. Especially at dusk while the boats glide along, surrounded by floating candles. Every day, a man goes to the Hanuman Temple to feed the dogs. A beggar stands and stares at him throwing chapatis and then stares at us. I know that look.
I think of India again. So inspiring it fills one with awe. It forces contemplation, as the moment becomes an overwhelming force, imposing its presence. I recall the soft patter of coconut flowers showering on the ground and the music of the palm leaves flicking about. Sunrise and sunset. During these hours of the day, every minute brings a different light; a myriad of colors. At dusk all is mystical and the shades of blue, gray and black seem endless. As the night encloses one side of the earth, fronds glitter under the moonlight.
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