Underneath the watchful eye of the near-complete moon at the New Delhi Railway Station, hope-to-be-Kumbh-goers wrestled for a seat and a chance to be released from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Train to the Kumbh

Any A/C bunks still available?

Through the storm of arms and bags—and the occasional trident—I spotted a pair of western girls and called out to them: “Hey! D’you know how to get on this thing?”

“Not a bloody clue!” one of them replied, her eyes as wild as they were green.

“Let’s see your ticket?” I asked.

The station heaved us back-and-forth while we examined the smattering of oblique lines, numbers, and Hindi characters that passed as information.

“Your ticket is different from mine,” I said.

The wild-eyed girl curled up her lips into a grin, and said with her green eyes and American accent: “We don’t have a ticket for this train.” She turned towards her silent friend with a pleased grin, “we’ve got tickets for a cheaper train… so we’re sneaking on.”

“A cheaper train?”

“We’re on a budget.”

“On a budget? It’s a two dollar ticket? Did you swim to India?”

“Ok… Obviously you’re not going to be much help.”

“Wait, wait,” I said to the girls, but also myself. Always too quick to judge, I thought. The prospect of losing the only two people who spoke my language and shared my culture and laughed at the same things that I laughed at – didn’t appeal to me. Sooner or later, the avoidance of loneliness and the desire to share experience becomes the primary motivator of the solo traveler. “Why don’t we try and get on together with my ticket.”

“Oh yeah, let’s do it.” said wild-eyes. “I’m Katrina, and this is my new best friend Jodie.”

“Right. Katrina, new best friend Jodie. Let’s stick together and maybe we’ll get on this thing with most of our limbs.”

Through the ensuing storm of elbows and knees, I noticed a pair of neon hoops affixed to Jodie’s backpack—a curious thing to carry around, I thought. We jimmied our way toward the door and broke free into the train because people were kind and we feigned ignorance and our skin was white.

The three of us plonked down in a line on my bottom berth. We could just about fit with our bags on our knees. The berth was tight. The train beyond full. Bodies everywhere. Another brilliant idea of mine, I thought. I hate Indian trains.

Hanging out of an Indian train.

Though I guess they have some advantages.

Katrina stood up. “I’m goin’ to do a little exploring, maybe I can dig us up a place to sleep,” she said, and then, just as quickly as she made this announcement, disappeared down the corridor, ducking under out-stretched arms, and stepping over children.

“So—,” I said, turning to Jodie, “is this your first Kumbh?”

Jodie looked down and played with the rings on her hands. Her blonde dreads swayed as the train began to chug. “Our first,” she said, “Pretty excited. I’ve dreamed of keeping a jar of holy water beside my bed.”

She had a London accent.

“Holy water?”

“Well yeah, like tomorrow is the special day right, when the honey drops fall from the sky and the Ganga becomes pure holy water.”

“You mean the Ganges.”

“Yeah, if you’re like the last viceroy of India or something. The holy river has been called the Ganga since before England was called England.”

“Hey, I know the whole story. The gods and demons churned up a honey pot in an ocean of milk right? A honey pot which contains the Amrita: the elixir of immortality. The gods and demons continue to fight across the sky, and every four years a few drops fall in the Ganga. I’ve got big plans for my holy water… I’m just wondering what you’re going to do with yours?”

“Everything. You can sell it at festivals in the UK, people clean and purify just about anything with it, or maybe I’ll just keep it for luck, you know.”

“I understand. So what were you doing before you came up with this idea?”

“I was a stripper in London.”

Only then did it occur to me that Jodie’s baggy Indian-tourist clothes betrayed her true physicality, “Oh.”

“Found someth’n,” Katrina said, popping back into my life. “Can we leave our bags here?”

“Yeah, go right ahead. You’ve found somewhere decent?”

Katrina laughed as she pulled Jodie down the corridor.

I laid on my back with my bag held tight over my chest. My feet hung over the edge of the berth, which people knocked as they moved about the train. On the opposing berth, a man sat cross-legged before an open book, chanting mantras. Great, I thought. I tossed around for a time in pursuit of a calm that I could not reach, unaware that the tuneful mutterings of my neighbour complimented the rhythmic clacking of the rails, and that he was secretly composing the music that would send me to sleep.

Sometime before sunset, the arrival-alarm rang through the train. There is no danger of sleeping through it. The girls showed up shortly thereafter.

“You sleep well?” I asked.

“I think I’m officially dead,” Katrina replied, “maybe we should sleep at the train station until the sun comes up.”

“Let’s see how it looks first.”

The platform held the desperate energy of a sudden refugee camp. True believers and their meagre belongings were scattered and strewn about at every step.

I lifted my feet delicately from the space in between one pretzel of limbs to another. “We should move while it’s still cool. It’s only going to get more crowded as the trains come in,” I said.

“Fuck that,” Katrina replied, “I’m too tired, I can sleep anywhere, this doesn’t bother me.”

“Its really up to you guys. If you really want to sleep, then I’m willing to stay here with you. But I think it’s best if we push on to the river before the crowds get even bigger.”

Jodie looked at Katrina, “Maybe we should push on.”

Katrina crossed her arms, “You win.”

I swatted vainly at a cloud of flies in front of my face. “Nobody is winning here.”

Groups of three—triads, in sociological nomenclature—are generally the most unstable kind of group because of the tendency for two people to gang up against the third. This phenomena is exasperated when travelling because of the constant need to make decisions, even simple ones, that in normal circumstances are made automatically out of habit. Who to trust? When to stop? Where to eat? Where to sleep? How to get there? How to navigate the largest gathering of human beings in history?

The crowd swelled up against the buildings and barricades, channeling the mass of human life toward the river of life, the water goddess herself: the Ganga. The fine services of the Indian Constabulary were on hand, ready and eager to whack any soul that dare move against the direction of their lathi canes. As we pushed and were pushed through a choke point, an officer raised his lathi cane to me. I looked at him in the eyes and his arm froze, held there by the invisible force of white privilege. I almost wish he’d whack me one so that I’d feel in commune with my fellow pilgrims. But that’s the thing about privilege, it’s not that you want to loose it, it’s that you want others to gain it, so that it seizes to be altogether.

We marched forward all morning by as much our own energy as by the crowds, until at last the finger-rays of the sun dug into the Earth and turned India toward her brilliant face, bathing the sky in her fire and her light. We climbed up a dirt mound to get a better view of things. Standing there, the sight before us was incomprehensible. The Uttarakhand state authorities had fenced the earth into a path that zig-zagged back and forth for as far as the eye could see. It made as much sense as squeezing the running of the bulls through a bank queue. Thousands of shuffling feet churned up a sea of grey dust, broken only by flowing blue, yellow, and green saris, enlivening the whole scene…

Humanity for as far as the eye can see.

…with their patterns of colour.

“My god,” I said.

Jodie lowered her eyes.

Katrina shot me a hard look. “Fuck this, we should have stayed at the station.”

“Well,” I responded, “the sooner we get in, the sooner we get out.”

Jodie swiped at a cloud of flies as she moved forward, “Let’s just get on with it.”

I caught up with her. “Just think Jodie, tomorrow morning you’ll be bathing in the nectar of the gods and all this sun and dust will be nothing but a horrible, miserable memory.”

“Why did you come here anyway,” Jodie asked, “you’re obviously not interested in this stuff?”

“What stuff?”

“Basically everything that makes this experience spiritual.”

“Spiritual? Do you think there’s anything ironic about ten million people pushing, shoving, and stampeding over one another for the chance to jump in a river to be good again?”

“Then why bother?”

“Ok, I’ll be honest with you Jodie, I didn’t come to India for the Kumbh Mela…”

“Where’s Katrina?”

“Err…”

“She was right behind us.”

A torrent of life flowed all around us. We strained for a glimpse of the girl with the wild eyes in the wild madness of people.

Jodie summoned her hands to her cheeks, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Wait, wait, wait, maybe she’s at the end. We can cut across and wait for her there … it’s our only hope. It’s her only hope.”

When I first noticed them, I disliked the fence jumpers-and-duckers, those selfish destroyers of order and organization. But now that we felt a keen urge to move quicker, they seemed like the most intelligent people of all of us. Jodie and I quickly found a routine. She climbed over the barricade first using the wooden cross-beams to step over the corrugated metal sheets. Then I passed over the bags to her, and followed. We continued like this for what seemed to be an endless procession of barricades. Police ignored us from the watchtowers as we cut the longest queue ever constructed by humankind.

A swarm of flies buzzed about. There were no washroom facilities, and finding a place to sit free of human beings or human waste felt impossible. So we stood in silence, scanning the colourful pilgrims for Katrina. She was out there, somewhere in that ocean of humanity, lost to the great gathering. We’d fulfilled one of the oldest Bollywood stereotypes: loosing a character to the Kumbh Mela.

“I can’t believe this,” Jodie said, “After the Kumbh, Katrina and I were planning to travel together. She’s the only person that I’ve met in India whose on the same wavelength as me.”

She’s not lost, I thought, she ran away. That’s why she wanted to stay at the station, not to sleep, but to loose me.

“Is that guy going for a wank?” Jodie asked.

A grey haired man sitting underneath the shade of a tree stared hard at Jodie—as most did. He wore only a brown lungi wrapped around his waist, under which, he was having one off.

I pointed and yelled over to him. He sped up. When hard-core hippies talk to me about the spiritual wonders of meditating in a cave for years on end, contemplating the cosmos, I think of that old man, and how Jodie’s sharp cheeks, blonde dreadlocks, and dancer physique, overpowered any reverence that old sage held for the holiest event in all of Hinduism; and that in the presence of female divinity, the nectar of the gods lost all power over his soul.

But then a lot of Indian men have a warped perspective of western woman. Women dress modestly in India, and neither men nor women date until marriage, at least openly. So men being men, look for alternative outlets for their frustration. Some release themselves by wild and reckless motorcycle driving, pulling off daring road manoeuvres that invite death. This is true in India as it is in the Arab Gulf states. Many others turn to pornography. Trust me on this one. The lack of household computers in many villages means I’ve actually sat beside people browsing porn sites at internet cafes. And women from what part of the world are predominantly featured in online pornography? Western women. Couple this fact with the reality that western cheerleaders are flown in to entertain the crowd at Indian Premiere League (IPL) cricket matches and the general promiscuity of western films (as opposed to the more conservative nature of women in Bollywood films); and a certain picture of the western (white in particular) girl emerges in the male Indian mind. To many, a western girl is a chance encounter with a sex-crazed-porn-loving-cheerleader, a chance to explore things that are taboo in their own conservative society.

It’s become a big problem. Every female backpacker in India has a story or two. I remember once a young American girl walked into a dhaba and sat at a table near me, before collapsing into tears. When I approached her to ask what was wrong, she told me how a group of young guys had harassed her from the bus-stop, circling her with their motorcycles, yelling: “you want sex, you want sex?”

Katrina was on her own out there. By her own choice, I believe. I wish she had been straight, and told me to leave. I could have left the two of them together. That would have been the second best outcome. The best outcome would have been for all of us to ‘get on the same wavelength’. But it was too late for that now.

Jodie at last found a place to sit down. I took the opportunity to take my bag off, but stood to keep watch.

“I’m sorry Jodie, it’s my fault she’s gone.”

“Maybe she went back to the station to sleep?”

“We can’t go back now Jodie. We have to start thinking about where we’re going to stay tonight, or we’ll be sleeping in shit.”

“Are you going to stay in a guesthouse?” she asked.

“Well… yeah. Prices are inflated, it’ll be tough to get them down, but there’s nowhere else?”

“There’s the camps? I can’t do a guesthouse, I’m on a budget.”

All the hopes and aspirations of my life in this moment centered on sleeping in a room, sealed off from all this madness. To escape the crowds, the heat, the dust, the shit, and the flies, the flies most of all.

“I’ve already lost your new best friend Jodie. I’m not going to loose you too.”

It was the first time I saw her smile.

I stood up, sticky with sweat. I swung on my bag, for at least one more time, as I was fond of thinking. The straps found grooves of red-raw skin on my shoulders. “Let’s head to the camps eh?” I said, and held out my hand to her. She took it, and I pulled her up.

Everything in India is scarce. Even shade. At one place I saw a sandwich-board which cast a slanted shadow no more than five feet long. Four sadhus, or holy-men, crouched there. I was jealous of them all. The air oozed raw heat. I wet a towel with tap water and put it on my head. 

Exhausted in Haridwar

Oh, the places I’d rather be.

State authorities had erected barricades throughout Haridwar to control the direction and flow of human beings, in some master scheme which I’m sure bristled with brilliance from a map-table, but created dead-ends, delays, circuitous routes for travelling short distances, and utter confusion on the ground. However, the barricades operated with a certain margin of error. At one barricade, an officer interrogated a lineup of pilgrims, checking their documents and pockets, all the while ignoring a stream of people sneaking past him by the clandestine method of walking behind his back. We joined them. At another barricade, a sole officer kept a hundred people from climbing over a gate with his lathi cane. After watching this charade carry on for some time, we observed some rules. First, anyone who managed to climb half-way up the fence would be left to go over, so long as they didn’t dawdle. Second, seniors were allowed to climb over without trouble, and the officer may even help. And third, as we found out, white foreigners could do as they pleased. Nothing about Indian organization is absolute: the barricades and the officers were only to prevent all the people, crossing all the time.

Only after looping needlessly ’round the city, jumping barricades, sneaking by officers, and being white, did we finally reach the campgrounds: a city of tents arrayed in a surprisingly ordered grid-iron pattern. The camps tried to outdo each others decorations the same way American neighbours do during Christmas, with lights strung about beyond taste along with illuminated scenes from the Mahabharata (which together with the Ramayana, form the two great epics of Hinduism).

Jeeps ploughed through the parade of pilgrims. Captained by gurus who presided over them like chariots from their roof-top thrones. Some earned their hallowed status by spending the in-between kumbh years chanting mantras in caves, preparing themselves for what was literally, their day in the sun. Loyal followers held gold-tasseled umbrellas over their heads. A deafening chorus of drums and clanking tins overwhelmed the place. To gain entry into a camp for the night, we’d need to convince one of these high-flyers to take us in. We were now entering the hive’s inner sanctum, in search of a queen.

Haridwar Parade

Don’t worry Guruji, I’ll just take this short-cut through the crowd.

Our first attempt at guru-luring established a discouraging pattern. Worn and filthy we took our shoes off and sat down on the mats inside his camp. There was some relief in getting the bags off, but the incessant flies ensured that there would be no escape from this irritating world.

“Come, come,” a boy said, and he led us to the camp’s guru. The guru sat on a sofa holding court in a makeshift living room. He was bald but for the most impressive comb-over I’ve ever seen in my life. He wrapped the dreadlocks from his beard over top his head, and rewove them in at the chin; the lot of it dyed orange, and giving the general impression of a lion’s mane.

“Chai?” he asked.

Ji ha,” I replied. Yes please.

There was a lot of camps, but little day light, so I got straight to the point: “Possible to sleep here?”

The guru and his hangers-on seemed confused.

“Sleep,” I said, forming a pillow out of my hands, “here,” I said, pointing to the ground.

The boyish chai walla returned with two plastic cups, filled to the brim with sweet steaming hot chai.

“Ah,” is all the guru said, and exchanged some Hindi words at length with his groupies.

After much debate, the chai walla at last translated the discussion for us: “Please drink with us, eat with us, but camp is  full. No place to sleep.”

This skit played out at every turn: a disciple led us to the guru, always on some kind of ornamented throne, couch, reclining chair, stool, or hammock; and in each case the guru used his powers to summon chai. Whereupon we asked about sleeping at the camp and received that dreadful word: “full.”

I came to the conclusion, that in addition to whatever spiritual power the guru possessed, the main source of their temporal power seemed to be their ability to offer chai to anyone, at anytime. I reckoned I could get a little cult of my own going with just a chai walla, dispensing hot sweet brews at my command. “You there,” I would say to the destitute and poor, finger-snap, “enjoy this chai.” I wouldn’t have to carry on long like that before I’d be enthroned on a jeep of my own, the Chai Chariot I’d call it. Spiritual men would run after it like children after an ice-cream truck.

After the forth and fifth and sixth and seventh rejection, the sky turned violet and then pink, and I contemplated how we would manage outside. It would not be pleasant: merciless, unbearably loud speakers blasted prayers without end, scratching the inside of your scull with echo and feedback. The ground, trampled by the herd of pilgrims, had become nothing but mud and stagnant pockets of water, covered food-waste, torn clothes, wrappers, cans, bottles and their companion clouds of flies and mosquitoes; the barren earth blanketed with a higher coverage of feces per-square-foot than a hippopotamus locked in a bird cage.

“How ’bout we eat at the next camp no matter what happens,” I said to Jodie, “even if we can’t spend the night, could be our last chance to get a meal tonight.”

We carried on walking for awhile before she responded. “You don’t look like you’re enjoying this.”

“How could this be enjoyed?”

“Lighten up, this is no different from a festival in the UK. This is like India’s Glastonbury.”

“Remind me to never go to Glastonbury.”

At camp attempt number eight we greeted a man with a curly moustache.

Jodie spoke less Hindi than I, which was so expansive that I maxed it out in one sentence: “Namaste ji, apka nam kya hai?” Hello sir, what is your name?

He replied, “you are speaking Hindi very nicely.”

Tora, tora,” I said, doubling the word ‘little’ to make it sound more like a sentence, an annoying habit of language-stupid travellers like myself. “Tora, tora, tora.”

“Come inside, you are eating na?’

Ji nahi, we are looking for somewhere to rest,” and Jodie and I both pantomimed sleep in sync, as we had done many times that day.

“Not possible. Maximum accommodation, but please please come and eat.”

We stood at the edge of night and had to make a choice: eat at the camp and give up the search for a bed, or pass on what could be our last crack at dinner.

Jodie’s eyes were more sensible that Katrina’s, they said: let’s eat while we can.

Danyavaad ji,” I replied, “we would love to eat with you.”

Jodie and I clasped our hands together and bowed a little.

The campground was five cloth tents circling a fire pit, like something out of boy scouts. The man with the curly mustache patted-down a worn yellow motorcycle as he led us to a tent. Inside, a bed of hay lain about the ground and a galaxy of mosquitoes hovered at the peak. But clean and free of garbage and feces, it was everything one could ever hope for. I eased off my straps, one by one, savouring the release, and when I looked at Jodie, we collapsed onto the dry patch of soil and hay.

“Wait,” he said, and gestured in a way that looked like he was pushing up and down on an invisible spring.

Haridwar Campside

Five Stars: (1) feces free, (2) convenient flag, (3) porch, (4) minimalist, (5) fun.

We laid on our backs in the tent without saying a word, steps away from the rushing Ganga, and watched the steady circulation of hundreds of mosquitoes on the wide canvas above. They stuck in loose groups for the most part. Every now and again one would relocate, disturbing another, and so on and on in endless causality.

Tent Flies

Ok, I’m subtracting one star for the flies.

“Hey Jodie, why do you think all those flies congregate at the top of the tent like that? There seems to be a kind of pattern to it don’t you think? Like they’re having a little Kumbh Mela of their own and we’re the gods smiling down on them.”

Her laugh skipped lightly, elevating in pitch as it progressed. “Why do you think of such stupid things?” she asked.

“Do you ever wonder how gods and demons cooperate with one another when they aren’t fighting over elixirs of immortality? What if one god wanted a service from a fellow god? How would he pay him and settle the debts? Like if Zeus asked Shiva for a favour. If the gods are free of all wants and desires and are able to create and destroy anything at will, what could they possibly use as a means of exchange? It would have to be the most valuable thing in the universe. Jodie, what do you think is the currency of the gods?”

“Silence I would think.”

The man with the curly moustache popped his head back into the tent: “The eating time is coming.”

We reluctantly left the tent. Our moustachioed friend took me by the hand and led me away from Jodie just as a women directed her elsewhere. The camp members had arranged themselves into two parallel lines, facing each other, cross-legged between candles. Women sat together at one end, and men at the other. The full glorious face of the moon watched over the proceedings without a hint of her veil. A disciple led me to a spot near the centre, beside the guru himself, who was easily identified by his silly hat.

I put my hands together and bowed my head. “Namaste ji.”

He motioned to sit beside him, and so I did. Young servants drifted down the centre isle handing out plates made from Areca Palm leaves. The leaves are collected once they fall; washed, pressed, and sun dried into a firm, partitioned plate: the original microwave dinner container. The servers walked in between the two lines, filling chai cups, and dolling out generous helpings of steaming rice, dal, and chapatis.

The guru placed his hand on my shoulder. “Are you a Hindu?”

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

Other pilgrims looked up from their plates. Glints of the sun shone from their eyes by way of the moon, saving them from the vastness of space.

“What religion are you?”

At the far end of the line, Jodie grimaced.

“I’m… well, I’m a traveller.”

The guru nodded and turned to look squarely into my eyes, and through them, to a more distant place. “Oh, and what God do travellers worship?”

His eyes were an image of space: dark, infinite, the ricocheted light of the candles twinkling in the depths like so many stars and planets.

“Humanity,” I replied.

“Ah, then you must be a Hindu also.” And he rolled out a laugh that gathered strength as it rose up his throat.

I caught a glimpse of Jodie smirking down at her plate.

The rest of the meal was a joy, and after everything was eaten and drunk, the guru said those magical words: “Stay as long as you like, and pay whatever you like.”

I exchanged a smile with Jodie, budget secured for the night, and we put our hands together for him. I could have kissed him. It is a great honour to be invited into an ashram camp, and after dinner we hurried off to our tent, ecstatic.

Jodie detached what I thought were two neon green rings from her bag, but was in fact one ring, twisted and turned over itself, like a collapsed number eight. “Do you want to see me hoop?” she asked.

“I’d love to.”

I followed her out into the yard, and she dropped the hoop over her head and held it at her waist. “I’m not like a dancer for entertainment, like ‘whoa, that’s an entertaining dancer,’ there’s more depth to it, like testing peoples boundaries.” She spun the hollowed disk in motion around her hips, floating around her with the methodical sway of her hips.

“This is the easy part,” she said, “now watch.” She moved the hoop upwards to the tops of her outstretched hands, and down to her ankles, and back up.

The guru wandered out of his tent to join us, and I gave him a telling look, but his eyes were fixed to the distance.

“Look,” he said, “the hills are burning.”

I followed his line of sight beyond Jodie, toward two far-off hills bursting with gold and orange.

He tutted. “They burn every year. Ever since the British cut down the local trees and planted pine.”

“Well,” I offered a half-hearted defence, “at least those apple orchards in Manali worked out.”

“It looks like India,” he said.

He was right: together, the pair of burning hills formed the familiar V-shape of the sub-continent.

India on fire.

From colonial seeds, the Partitioned hills burn.

Guruji chuckled. “Pakistan is burning more.”

This upset me, and I asked, “What do you think about Pakistan?”

“What do I think of Pakistan? They are good people in Pakistan, and since we are sitting together, we must cooperate. We cannot get up and sit somewhere else, so we have no choice but to get along. Even if we are bifurcated. The governments of Pakistan and India are the same as all governments around the world, all are interesting only in keeping their own power.” He wiggled his head, “What to do?”

“Do you think partition can be overcome?”

“If you are digging up a little history, you have to dig it all up. If they dig up 60 years, I will dig up 600. If we go back far enough in the history, always there will be some grievance, and I’ll fight on him, I’ll fight on you, I’ll fight on everyone. Where is the beginning? I cannot find it? Dig up all the problems and you will find they have a root cause in one place: greed. Where there is greed, there is no satisfaction.”

I examined the dirty-yellow motorcycle in the yard, worn, but still standing tall on it’s centre stand. I gripped the handlebar and played with the brake. “Is this your bike Guruji?”

“Yes, you may ride it if you like.”

I slung a leg over the well-worn Royal Enfield. A bike that looked like it had seen it all. I took hold of the handlebars and played with the break, throttle, and clutch, not entirely sure which was which. My riding experience up until that point in my life, included a ride up a hill in Cambodia, some small-time scootering around Bali, and a lift from a shopkeeper in Delhi.

From the bars I lifted up my hands, “Do you think one day,” and brought them together in front of my face, “Indian and Pakistan will be one again?”

“It is easy for you to coordinate your hands, but it is harder to coordinate minds.”

I looked at the distant fire. “Maybe… but I believe it will be.”

“Words are not enough. It is to easy to say such things. But it must come from action. Then it is coming from the heart.”

Guruji’s words lifted into the air where Jodie’s electric movements spun a hoop ’round her frame like Shiva, in the form of Nataraja, dancing the cosmos into existence. Beyond her dazzling figure, in the long view, South Asia burned under the wide eye of the full moon, riding high above the Kumbh. It is not enough just to say, I thought, action must come from the heart, and I gave the bike a bit of throttle. (It was actually the clutch.)

The last of the flames licked at the sky as we prepared for bed. I brushed my teeth without water, as had become my habit, and pulled my hoodie over my head and my socks up as high as they would go in an effort to keep the mozzies out. As always, my backpack subbed in for a pillow. Eleven other pilgrims completed our tent, a motley crew of holy men, each with a tilak of red powder smeared across their forehead, along with other white and red painted symbols on their arms and chest, where prayer beads made of rudraksha seeds hung at rest. It is written in Aristotle’s Politics, that people who need neither society nor a state, must be either beasts, or gods.

Jodie and I laid within arms reach of one another, like everybody else. This irritated one of the pilgrim’s sensibilities regarding the division of sexes, and he stood up to protest. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his brisk tone of voice and wild trident-pointing, like an enraged Neptune, made his point clear and I moved to the other side. Neither Jodie nor I wanted to jeopardize our place in a spat over Hindu gender customs. But our split arrangement did not last, as other holy men rebutted the instigator, whom I presume, lost the argument, as he got up and left in a huff. One of the men then invited me to rejoin Jodie on the other side, which I did. I don’t know what was said, but these men were generous to over-rule their custom, especially on such a special night, on account of a pair of drop-ins.

Just as the sun broke the horizon, on the final bathing day of the Kumbh Mela, Jodie woke me up. We thanked the guru for his hospitality and made a token donation (Jodie made her budget).

The guru said, “you are beautiful souls.”

“Thanks.” I felt the sudden urge to throw up.

Jodie and I walked the short distance from the camp to the water’s edge and thundering sound of the Ganga. A concert of pilgrims from across India and around the world dunked in the nectar-laced waters of the ever flowing, ever nourishing, ever loving, sacred Ganga. The Ganga is not just a river in Hindu mythology, but a goddess who left the garden of heaven to cleanse the ashes of the dead on Earth. So powerful was she, that her descent from heaven would have destroyed Mother Earth on impact. But Shiva intervened and bore her descent with his matted hair, channeling the flow of the river into her many tributaries. And just as the four rivers that feed into the Ganga loose their names as soon as they mingle their waters with the river goddess, people everywhere ceased to be Indians, Brits, and Canadians, and became simply human beings.

Bathing at the Kumbh Mela

No river is so revered, loved, and cherished by as many people.

We tried to rest our bags a few times before we found a place without shit. Jodie, wearing only her underwear underneath a blue and purple lungi, descended into the water, joining the great heaving mass of humanity dunking, bobbing, floating, and swimming in a river of honey; where the Amrita had slipped from the honeypot to kiss the Earth, redeeming the karma of their past lives so that they may be heroes in this one. Jodie’s blonde dreads, pale skin, and curvaceous figure brought the once-in-a-lifetime task of purification for many a male pilgrim to a halt. She held up her water bottle with a great smile like Link in The Legend of Zelda. The water scattered the suns ray into a radiant sparkle and I heard that triumphant jingle in my head.

So many pilgrims in fact scooped up water into their plastic bottles that any intelligent life watching from distant worlds might conclude that the Ganga was the only safe drinking water left on the planet Earth, and all this activity was a kind of pre-industrial mass bottling exercise for the distribution of fresh water to the rest of the world. If only they knew the truth, that the largest temporary gathering of human beings in the world was a physical manifestation of a story. A story that brought order and organization to human society. From the number of times pilgrims dunked into the water, to the tridents, beads, body paint, and dreadlocks; all of it, dictated by a story: that mysterious power that governs human affairs. The raw energy of mutually-affirming human organization, the power of communal activity, like a ferocious electricity jumping from one soul to the next, accumulating larger purpose as it linked each with the whole: and I was thankful that in our world there is an India, an eternal place for ever out of my reach and understanding, too beautiful for one person to bare. My eyes welled a bit.

“You’re standing in shit,” Jodie said.

“Happy now, you’ve got your holy water madame?”

“Your turn.”

I kicked off my sandals and stripped down to my boxers. I pulled a metal canteen out of the side pouch of my bag. “You must be rubbing off on me,” I said, “for some reason I’m about to fill-up my drinking bottle with river water used primarily for bathing.” I carried it to the water’s edge and sunk one foot into the holy water, it felt as cold as the Athabasca, or even the Slave, which flow across northern Canada into the Arctic Ocean, such is the closeness of the Ganga to her mountain source at Haridwar.

I could see all and at once, the many curious eyes fixated on me from the river and along the shore, they smiled and waved. One splashed water my way, which I returned with gusto, initiating a larger water fight, which inevitably nobody won.

People tended to cling close to the banks for fear of drowning—and many do—satisfied to pour water over their heads from the sidelines like so many victorious coaches at an NFL game. I moved out far enough so that I had a little section of the river to myself, where the water ran cold and fast—the Canadian section, as I called it. There I closed my eyes, and plunged into the Amrita of immortality.

My legs were already numb, but now the skin on my chest and head screamed with a painful exhilaration, how enlivening it is to join the story that had moved so many millions to this singular spot of sweet salvation, where all the mistakes, failures, and sins of this life and lives-passed, washed down stream, where some unfortunate souls bottled them up. How wonderful it is to be Hindu and have access to the cleansing power of a Kumbh Mela. It seems every religion these days includes some soul-scrubbing pilgrimage. These hold massive appeal for the adventurer, as well as people who have been assholes all their life. Muslims have their pilgrimage to Mecca as a way of wiping the slate clean, as well as racking up bonus points with God (as prayers count extra). Sikhs bathe at the Golden temple in Amritsar. Bahá’ís hike around Haifa Bay. Christians baptize in the river Jordan or follow in Jesus’s footsteps along the Via Dolorosa. But what about those free and independent souls who hath no preset religious path to forgiveness—what pilgrimage lays before them? How do they become good again? Other than of course, to actually face ones mistakes and make amends to those whom one has hurt. Great gatherings seem to work, what about Glastonbury—does that count in the eyes of God as a purifying event? How far must we go, and what must we do, to be good in the wide eyes of Humanity?

I burst into the cool world above, its power to heat and humidify lost on me, and drew in a great breath from the sky. All around me I saw God, a mass of people organizing in mysterious ways toward the unification of our beloved human race.

The hills smouldered in the distance, where South Asia had burned last night. I thought of that tear in the fabric of our species known as Partition: the religious division of the people of South Asia into India and Bangladesh and Pakistan. I was overcome by a yearning to reach the bleeding heart of the conflict in Kashmir. But the highest mountain range in the world stood between me and my dream, which meant, it was time I learned how to ride a motorcycle.

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  • Nabeela Chowdhury

    I think for many people, even 60 years and more later, the partition and its history continue to be like a hidden bruise. The pain may subsided and for some forgotten but it continues to trigger strong sentiment / hurt every time there’s a remote association
    or contact with it. The guru’s comment somehow echoes that sentiment.

    Your description on every bit of the Kumbh journey allows a reader to almost come close to experiencing it while being there. Thats something I continue to enjoy in your writing all through the chapters so far. Its simply amazing how you have captured every bit of the overall essence of the Kumbh and made even the most unpleasant part ( stepping in poop, the heat, the overcrowded trains, the whole nine yards) sound so candid.

    The pictures do great justice in helping a reader sort of imagine what it could have been like.

    I love what you have written about privilege, ” That’s the thing about privilege, its not that you want to lose it, its that you want others to get it, so it seizes to be altogether.”

    What happens to Jodie? Cant wait to read the next chapter Stu.