For most of the world’s Christian and Muslim populations, the holy-land is a far away and distant place. But for Hindus, the great majority of whom live in India, the holy-land is the ground beneath their feet, the sacred trees in their surrounds, the living rivers that flow through their villages, the mythical mountains that nibble at the sky. So full is India of such religious geography, that the whole of the continent takes on a kind of spiritual person-hood.
It all begins in the high peaks of the Himalayas, where glacial run-off gathers in strength at stream confluences known as prayags. Hindus treat each prayag—where two or more streams become one—as a holy place to bathe. Five such prayags tie together the watery threads of mountain streams, before a single united river flows confidently into the foothills of the Himalayas at Rishikesh, where the river goddess is first said to becomes Mother Ganges, or Ganga Ma.
For some months, I lived in Rishikesh on the east side of the Ganga, at an ashram ostensibly for yoga and meditation called Ved Niketan, which translates to the wonderfully sounding: Abode (Niketan) of Sacred Knowledge (Ved). Perhaps because of its nearness to the medicating caves, where in 1968, the Beatles composed the White Album – playing instruments was popular among ashramites. So was smoking ganja.
There, I found two good friends, whom I have combined here into a composite character. Though this does neither of their personalities justice, it is perhaps fitting, as the vast mythology of Hinduism—the ultimate syncretic religion—came about by the same means. Hinduism has no founder, nor did it arrive as a complete package. It was built up over the ages, one god at a time, as the deities and myths of one village spread with travellers and trade to another, where their stories were arranged into ever more complex narratives. We can get some idea of how this process happened by examining the evolution of comic-book characters. Since their independent origins, Spider-man, the Avengers, the X-Men, and so many others, have had their stories incrementally woven together. And what began as occasional guest appearances grew into cross-overs, incrementally integrating story-arcs and worlds to the extent that the totality of the thing is now said to constitute an entire Marvel Universe. As outlandish as it may seem, this process and its outcome, is not so different from the development of Hinduism.
To compare them fairly, let’s imagine that human beings disappear from the Earth and aliens drop-by to analyze our cultural remains. They would find colourful Hindu statuettes and Marvel figurines, holy-books with moral guidance (do your duty) and comic-books with moral lessons (great power requires great responsibility). They would visit temples dedicated to Hanuman, and theme parks dedicated to Iron-man. In one room of a Hindu family-home, they might see a shrine to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and in another, a shrine to Spider-man (complete with wall-paper and bed-set). They would watch TV series of the great Indian epics, and movies of the Avengers triumphing over evil gods. This being the case: how could aliens know which is the religion? The difference cannot be found in the mythologies themselves. The answer is our relationship with them, and how we give them meaning in our lives. The Marvel Universe and Hindu Mythology are both the product of combining characters and narratives over time, collecting themselves and growing in strength like so many mountain streams flowing together at sacred prayags. It is in this spirit that I have combined my two dear friends where they met, at that confluence of space and time, known as Rishikesh.
Hutch (as I will call their joint-avatar) looked comfortable and wise in the lotus position atop his bare ashram bed. He gave a thumbs-up like the hand on the one rupee coin. “On the first day…” he said in a gruff Manchester tongue, “…you will be like this,” and he took hold of an invisible set of motorcycle handlebars with the innocent pleasure of a child mounting a Big Wheel. Rocking from side to side, knee to knee, he set his dirty-blonde dreads into wild motion while imitating the wonderful adventure of India’s roads. He’d dodged a few rickshaws and hit a cow before he regrouped his dreads with an elastic. “Better.”
“And on the second day…” he said, now joining his middle finger with his index like the hand on the two rupee coin, “you will be like this.” He steadied his gaze and reduced his rocking to a wobble. Suddenly his lips slipped and his eyes widened, as if from somewhere beyond the peeling blue paint of the ashram walls, a memory had found its way through the cracks, and once more he was riding blissfully across the sinuous desert of Rajasthan, watching a cloud of golden sand rise in the distance from the plodding footsteps of camels on parade.
Hutch then held up his index, middle, and ring finger—there is no three rupee coin. “But on the third day…” he said and stretched his hands and fingers like a cabaret singer, as far from his chest as they would go. Then he arced them upwards until his palms joined together above his head. Hutch held them there for a long breath, before lowering them and taking control once more of the imagined bike. He sat transfixed like that, riding a motorcycle in his mind from atop his bed, eyes fixed forward, feet tucked into his knees. “And on the third day” he repeated, “You will become a god… and the whole world will be yours.”
“Ok,” I said with a few drawn out claps, “I’m in.”
Hutch pulled the elastic out of his dreads and shook them out. “But seriously, if you’re wantin’ to get into bikes, you should see Happy in town. He charges a little over the top, but he’ll set you up with a quality bike.”
“That’s it, I’m sold, better get off then,” I said and lifted myself off the floor, “before I start thinking things are more important than experiences.”
“A motorcycle is both a thing and an experience,” Hutch replied.
“Huh, guess sometimes you need both.”
“I’d go with ya,” Hutch said, and leaned down to pick up his guitar, “but I don’t have the botheration.” His fingers plucked their way up the neck before pulling out a quarter-smoked spliff locked in between the strings and the fret-board. In one grand arcing motion, he popped the spliff into his mouth and carried into a strum.
He tended to speak in the rhythm in which he played, lingering on the last symbol of each breath before reaching final aspiration, in the manner of Osho, the famous guru. “You know, music, is all about, vibrations,” he said, pausing for a beat to light the spliff with a match, “and every molecule, of every atom, in your body, is only what it is, because it vibrates. It’s all fundamental.” Then he snapped his jaw, pushing out a train of smoke rings that died crossing the room.
“You hear that?” Hutch asked. “The airspace in each room vibrates to a certain cord depending on its size and shape.” He strummed a few more times until the sound reverberated like it does when you sing in the shower. “My room’s a C… Jodie’s room’s a B major.”
Hutch reached over for his daily cup of frothy green liquid, a concoction of spirulina herb mixed with warm water. It looked like the Ganga. Tasted like it too.
“Ok, I better get goin’ here buddy, before my sandals fall apart on me.” I lifted one up to inspect the hole where the heel should have been.
Hutch nodded, and began to play. His melodies carried me into the courtyard, where they crossfaded with the loose notes escaping from various ashram hollows. The patter of hands on a tabla. A ukelele. And then, as I approached the meditating temple at the centre of the courtyard, all the sounds in my surrounds mingled with the steady humming of the yoginis, and the sound waves reached a kind of cosmic harmony. Om sweet Om, read the sign above the ashram. The baba who minded the gate gave me a hard stare as I walked out—I’d missed the 10 o’clock curfew one too many times.
Babas (which comes from the Persian word for father, but is used in a way that means holy-men) wear few clothes, keep few things, and smoke lots of ganja out of chillum pipes. There are a lot of babas in Rishikesh. I passed a particularly entrepreneurial baba on the way to the cobbler. The baba sat in the lotus-position behind a scale and paper cup, making his way through life on those passers-by who found themselves in sudden need of knowing their weight. I tossed a few rubes into his cup, and he sprung into action like one of those frozen-statue-performers you find at tourist sites: brushing off his scale, bowing his head and craning both arms. The needle didn’t go as far as usual thanks to my vigorous new exercise routine of diarrhea. Pleased with his execution of another successful service, the baba wiggled his head and began chatting to a similarly-dressed (or undressed, it’s hard to say) baba beside him, a conversation which I assumed—given the recent success of his business model—was about franchising possibilities.
I ran into another familiar face on the way to the cobbler: Katrina. I saw her last at the height of the Kumbh Mela, when she disappeared into the great tide of human beings.
“Katrina! You’re ok, what the hell happened to you?”
She mouthed something enthusiastically and pointed to her throat.
“Can you speak?”
Again she said something and held her hands to her throat. That was it. Then she waved and continued down the path. Whether or not Katrina left Jodie and I on purpose during the Kumbh remains a mystery. I watched her walk away, relieved and confused, and wondered if her throat condition was just another method of escape. I’ll never know.
I found the cobbler a littler further down the road. He was like a bird, everyday constructing his shop out of tweed and umbrellas, a nest of shoes and tools underneath a patchwork of shade. The cobbler sat on the ground as he worked. He examined my sandals briefly, before lodging them in between his feet.
“These slippers are your very good friends,” he said, and forced a chisel deep in between the leather strap and cork base. He examined the soles, tutted and said “if you walking only with your feet, they would look like this.” He clenched the sandals together in between his feet, soul to soul and upright, as if to say namaste.
His right hand worked the chisel and he tore the straps clean off before brushing a thick glue along the sandals’ edges. Using the backside of the chisel, he hammered the straps into place, before reattaching them with needle and thread, effortlessly punching, threading, and knotting. Just as I thought he was done, the cobbler produced a pint of red syrup, which he gripped with his feet. The brush took a dive and emerged with a crimson tail.
“Ox blood,” the cobbler said, and with a swirl of the wrist, he whipped up the tail and applied a coat over the worn leather. Dark red beads ran round the edges and soaked into the cork base, and as they did, I saw him again: the Brahman in Bangkok, down on his knees in the warm blood of a thousand Thais, cursing the government. Then the blood came pouring in by the bucket-full, from everywhere, splashing about the floor, over my sandals, over my feet, and up my leg. Those kinds of memories follow you around.
“Finished,” the cobbler said with a sincere and proud grin.
A drop of rain bounced on my forehead and brought me out of a Thai trance. I turned my eyes skyward to greet wine-dark clouds bursting with electricity as they ran up against the foothills. With my refurbished footwear, I made a dash to the Ashram, by the gate-baba, and to Hutch’s room, where I poked my head through the door, and said in between breaths: “You gotta see this sky man.”
Hutch took a big gulp of spirulina before jumping up with his guitar: “To the roof.”
We hustled up the stairs, taking two at a time. Actually, that’s a lie. We moseyed. Ved Niketan’s flat-top roof sprawled out like a stage from which we gazed across the ashram, and beyond it, to the Ganga. Behind us, the rising earth appeared stalled and static to our eyes. A fallacy of our perception, as the mind comprehends time only as it relates to its lifespan. A fly’s short life and slower perception of time vis-a-vis a human being is what makes them so evasive to our swatting (and in India, you will do a lot of swatting). If human beings lived to be a million years old, we might perceive time to be relatively faster, maybe even fast enough to see the mountains in motion, growing like children before us. Alas, to the mountains, our life is but a breath.
Hutch and I laid down on a mattress that had been left out on the roof to roast the bedbugs. It smelt like the sun. There, we lay under the temporal wonders of the misty Himalayas and the spiritual awe of an electric sky, alive with white lances of light that quietly shot from one place to another, as if they were neuron-firings of a great cosmic conscience.
Hutch plucked gently at his guitar. “I didn’t know lighting could go horizontal, like without touching the ground.”
I’m told the Abode of Sacred Knowledge was spiritual refuge, but it seemed to me at times to be more like a cross between a hospital, a prison, and an insane asylum. First, everyone suffered from some serious bowel problem sooner or later. Second, the structure itself enforced the curfew. The central courtyard was enclosed by a C-shaped series of rooms stacked two-stories high, and completed by a 15-foot brick wall crowned with glass shards embedded into concrete.
Legend goes that the ashram was once a great spiritual centre run by an ambitious guru with glasses so golden as to fit a man of his vision. He dreamed of expanding the ashram with a third level, but completed only the stairwell before his death, after which, less-ambitious men took over, and the guru’s plans fell away along with the flecks of blue paint inside the rooms. All that remains of the guru’s ambitions is a staircase reaching into the sky from the roof-top—a true stairway to heaven, a monument to a dream unfulfilled.
I’d settled on the idea that the ashram functioned as a kind of western refugee camp, a temple of recovery for those who fell- (or jumped-) off the school-career-mortgage-marriage-kids escalator we call society. The ashram was a place where people could discuss ‘recharging their battery’, healing stones, and the state of their bowel movements; the kind of place where everybody was running from something. And I mean everybody.
The whole place reminded me of a question an Italian once asked me in Yangon: “Hey Hutch, doesn’t it seem like everybody here’s running away from something?”
He chuckled, “The thing people don’t realize is, that wherever you travel, you bring yourself with you. The past never says good-bye, it just says see ya later.”
“Hey, I’ve got a story for you Hutch.”
I told Hutch the Bangkok Story all the while Indra—the Hindu version of Zeus—threw lightning across the sky.
And when it was over, Hutch said, “I though you were a bit of a prick the first time we met, hey. But then you come out with these classic stories. It just goes to show that you can never tell what experience lies behind a person. Say, I got an old chestnut for you.”
“Let’s hear it buddy.”
“I was fifteen years old the first time I drove a car, blisterin’ drunk and without a license. Me and my mates had been drinkin’ all night and somebody came up with this idea to sneak into one of those campgrounds that you see all over the UK, and steal a car. So three of us rocked up to this campground and broke into a car. I took the wheel. But this dude busted out of his camper van and started running at us, so I slammed my foot down and off we went flyin’ down the road. I was trying to keep it steady, but I’d never driven before, so what do ya expect? I hit fuckin’ everything in our way and eventually smacked right into this tree. We were all arrested.
“This was just the beginning, a few years of that sort of thing and before I knew it I was a heroin junkie, shooting up whenever I could. And things were fine, great actually, life was interesting. My dealer was this small Filipino dude, but kept himself a big reputation. One day I’m over at his house picking up, and for one reason or another he starts flipping out at me, threatening to punch me, and I pull up my fists, and I’m like ‘ok, go ahead.’ But the guy doesn’t know how to fight, and I punch him square in the jaw, and it takes him down. He runs into the kitchen and comes back with a torch, you know, one of those mag-lights, and starts charging at me. I fuckin’ took off down the street with him chasing me.
“He couldn’t handle it after that, started telling everybody in the neighbourhood that I sucker-punched him. He had to take care of me to clean up his reputation. He even offered a huge rock to anybody who’d take me out. Guys I used to shoot-up with were comin’ after me. It sounds fuckin’ crazy now, but when it’s your life, it just feels normal.
“I had no way out, so I bought a plastic gun, a fuckin’ water pistol right, and cruised into this petrol station. I remember I yelled, ‘get on the ground’, like in the movies you know. There was this one guy at the counter, and he was lookin’ at me funny and said, ‘is that a real gun?’ And I said ‘Of course it is you mother fucker!’
“The attendant hands me the cash, and it’s like 80 bucks. Can you fuckin’ believe it? 80 bucks? Anyway, the police identified me from the camera and I was arrested that night. I went to court and everything and they agreed to put me in a rehab program over jail-time. They reckoned there was no point in throwing me in jail, my life was fucked anyway. I was just trying to escape, I had somebody out there trying to kill me. But you know what, it was the best thing to happen to me, because that rehab changed my life, hey. They taught me that I was just holding onto a story. You’ve got a sob story, I’ve got a sob story, everybody’s got a sob story, but, it’s just a story, and once I realized it was just a story, I could let it go. My story was that I was a heroin junkie from a broken family, but that’s not my story now, not anymore.”
I finished skinning up a spliff and threw it onto Hutch’s abdomen. “’So what’s your story now?”
“I’m looking for a new one,” he said, and through the spliff back—it’s customary for the roller to light. “I’ve got a question for yah, the question they gave us in rehab, the one that changed my life. Perhaps the most important question anybody could ever ask themselves. The question is: what’s your most inspiring thought?”
“That’s an easy one,” I said, and struck a match. “To see, in our time, the full, complete, and ever-lasting union of our beloved humanity.”
“How’s that gonna happen?”
“How could it not? Since we first came down from the trees and ran about the savanna, the only constant in human endeavour is that we have organized to a greater degree over time. From individuals we become families that settle together into cities, which link nations, that in our time are forging federations, which our children will bind into a union of the whole human race. And so long as time carries us, we will draw nearer in our organization; until some sunny day, when humanity is complete, and children will be born into a world without war and poverty, and will see no enemies amongst the nations—only brothers and sisters. They will at last see reflected in our political and economic organization, that overwhelming feeling that has sustained us these long years: that feeling that we are apart of something greater than ourselves, the sense of a oneness in humanity.”
I touched the joint to my forehead, Bom Bholenath, and drew in a lung-full. I looked straight up from the mattress, where above us, cracks of sapphire sky broke apart ruby-red clouds. And just like that, we passed the evening, trading little philosophies accompanied by Hutch’s guitar and Indira’s lightning, all the while throwing our lives away to the horrors of marijuana.
I took Hutch’s advice and the next morning crossed the river in search of Happy’s motorcycle shop.