Stories transmit experience from one generation to the next, like a kind of cultural gene. In this way, they have earned a privileged place in our learning, and the tales we are told as children shape a world-view that is hard to break later in life. Religions have made the most of this disposition, and so, men and women go to extraordinary lengths to recreate these tales of sin forgiven, or nirvana reached. They trod across Spain, gather in the hundreds of thousands at Mecca, and bear crosses along the Via Dolorosa. But only one story has the power to summon people in the tens of millions to one place, at one time. Therefore, if we are to measure the strength of a story by it’s power to animate human beings, then the story that follows, must be the most powerful story in the world.
I was first told the story in Delhi’s Paharganj district, which was undergoing some urban fine-tuning at the time. Delhi’s authorities had decided the road was too narrow, and set out the task of widening it. The only problem with this commendable plan was the presence of buildings. However, this problem was easily solved by slicing the buildings back to a desired distance, thereby enhancing the overall pedestrian experience.
One wonders what other marvellous planning ideas await the good people of Paharganj.
Then late one night, not long after I wandered out of an illegal bar–those Indian gestures toward moral-intention, undone by pragmatism and corruption–where alcohol is discreetly served out of teapots, I ran into a friend, and he changed the course of my trip in India.
The scenes unfolding under the orange street lights had become familiar to me after just a few weeks: merchants shuttered their shops for the night, the homeless and forgotten jostled for the choicest cuts of pavement on which to pass the night, and cows accumulated in the main bazaar behind a ramshackle pen of debris, rickshaws, and police roadblocks. “Moo,” I called out to them, as I imagine every drunk does.
I cut from the main bazaar into an alley. It was empty and quiet but for the outline of a man with his back to me, standing over the small flame of a few newspapers and odd bits of garbage. He watched the fire flicker with both hands at his hip. I watched in silence for just a moment, long enough to take a quick snap.
Then the figure spun around and I saw his face. “Friend,” the man called out, “Are you fine?”
I walked closer. “Adil?”
Adil was my guy in Paharganj. A wise and cheerful shopkeeper, I’d patronized his modest one-desk kiosk for over a week, daily emptying him out of his stock of ice-teas. Part of this was habit. I tended to stick with the first friendly merchant I met in a new place, if just for that fleeting touch of familiarity. The other part was Adil kept his fridge plugged in, which really separated him from the competition. It is not possible for me to recall how many times I have asked a shopkeeper in India, tanda hai? It’s cold? To receive the inevitably reply, bahut tanda, very cold, and then hand me with great confidence a sub-scorching cola. Adil’s ice-tea was bahut tanda, and that alone was enough to make him a person-of-interest to me. But I also asked him questions. About India. About Paharganj. About life. And he gave these wonderfully full answers; such that I would pass the time in a plastic chair outside his shop and listen to his yarns bearing the heat and dust. I think it was part of his overall strategy to increase ice-tea sales.
“What are you burning Adil?”
“It’s not important what I’m burning yaar… only why,” he said, revealing a broad smile with precious few teeth. It amazed me how a man could smile so much with so little. He made me feel silly for once being shy about smiling with braces. India has that effect on you, it makes all your concerns feel petty.
“Acha Adil, then why are you burning whatever the hell it is you’re burning?”
“This is a protecting fire.”
“From the cows right? I notice they congregate suspiciously in the main bazaar at night.”
“Nahin yaar, protecting from everything. People always watching you know. Store doing very well, this is protecting from people, protecting from monkey, protecting from—”
“The store burning down?”
“Protecting from everything.”
The shock of fire took its last breath and surrendered to the embers. With his shop safe for another night, Adil shot me a question: “You smoking yaar?”
“Then let’s go.”
“Where we gonna go, every things closed ’round here?”
Adil wheeled out a well-worn Honda motorcycle from the side of his shop and threw one leg over the seat before pushing the electric start button. “You riding ok on back yaar?”
“Once in Cambodia, up a hill top.” Such was the extent of my motorcycling life at that point.
“You trust me yaar?”
I climbed onto the back, a week is like a lifetime in the world of travelling friendships. He gave her a bit of throttle and threw us ’round the corner and into the main bazaar, sidestepping a cow migrating toward the others for a night’s rest.
The bike kicked up dust as we blazed a line through the empty streets of Delhi. But we didn’t go very far. Adil brought the bike to a rolling stop outside a one-man vendor and exchanged a handful of coins for a pack of cigarettes without ever getting off the bike. I think it must have been on the way back, looking over Adil’s shoulder as he sliced through the warm Indian night that I first thought: this is the way I want to travel.
“This way yaar,” Adil said, after he parked the bike and led me into a courtyard. We sat on a curb so short that I had to stretch my legs forward. Adil removed one of the cigarettes from the pack, turned it upside down over his palm, and began massaging the tobacco out.
“You see all of this here yaar.” The tobacco flakes poured into his hand like the sand of an hour glass. “Not this,” gesturing upwards with his head, “all of this.”
A general aura of failure engulfed the courtyard: a mound of garbage contested for the title of highest pile of shit with a semi-enclosed public urinal, telephones wires hung about in such fashion as to suggest that Delhi operated on cup-and-string communication, all encased by half-hearted miserable attempts at construction, preservation, and destruction.
“All of this—new,” he said.
“You see this bricking,” he said as he tapped his foot on the ground, “new.”
The uneven brickwork was already beginning to separate.
“Nice yaar, before nothing like this,” shaking his head as the last tobacco fell into a neat pile in the palm of his hand. “You see the lights up there, all new too.”
I starred at the apple of Adil’s eye: a big orb nestled into a black metal top-hat attached to a pole sticking out of the wall.
“Soon, Delhi will be like Paris!”
I wondered if Adil has been to Paris?
“Where were you born yaar?”
“For me, I was born up there,” and he pointed across the courtyard.
“No way, you were born above your shop?”
“Yes yaar, and now I live there with my family. Two boys you know. Very good boys, they are not like me, they will not work like me, they get a good schooling and have a good jobs.”
Adil pulled a paper packet out of his pocket and gently unfolded it, revealing a ball of hand rolled Indian hashish—called charas—and smiled. More with his eyes than his teeth.
It occurred to me in this moment that we sat only a few steps away from the place where he was born, the place where he made his living, the place where he had raised his own family, and had lived his whole life. It wasn’t just bricks and lamps Adil was talking about. For him, this courtyard wasn’t just his world, it was the world.
Adil then rubbed the charas into the tobacco and massaged it into a line by squeezing his palm. He pulled the emptied cigarette out of his mouth and held it at the bottom of the line. With a cupped hand, he screwed the hollowed cigarette into the mix of charas and tobacco, every now and again tapping the cigarette against the curb to level it out.
Finally, Adil touched the completed spliff against his forehead, “Bom Bholenath,” he said, lit it up and pulled in a lung-full.
“Why did you say that?” I asked.
“Bom Bholenath? … for God,” he said, raising a finger skyward, “for Shiva.”
He passed the spliff to me in between his thumb, index, and middle finger, and insisted that I receive it in the same way.
I touched his handy-work to my forehead and repeated what he said:“Bom Bholenath.”
“One minute minimum,” he said, holding in his chest by way of example.
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you Adil, how could smoking a joint be good for Shiva?”
“Ah, this is it yaar, this is the whole thing.”
It was then and there, smoking a spliff, in what could only be described as a Parisian-style courtyard in the Paharganj district of Delhi, that Adil the shopkeeper told me the most powerful story in the world: the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
“Long long time ago, before you, before me,” Adil began, clarifying just what constituted a long time ago, “the gods and demons of this world were fighting each other all the time, until a very clever god, Vishnu, came up with a plan to end the quarrelling. He told both the gods and demons that if they follow his instructions precisely, they could create the Amrita, and share it together.”
I tried to pass the joint to Adil, “you finish,” he said, waving it off, “I finish the story.”
Things just kept getting better.
“What is an Amrita?” I asked, continuing to smoke, which I felt was only appropriate, lest I provoke Shiva.
“What do you call for ever living?”
“Amrita is the elixir of immortality. This is a powerful thing. Vishnu was thinking a clever plan, he asked both gods and demons to work together for the Amrita, but once it is appearing, he would trick the demons and give it only to the gods to win the battle.”
There was that smile again, “A clever plan nahin?”
“Oh for sure, sounds rock solid. But, how do they create this elixir of immortality and where can I get some?”
“This is the most important yaar. They have to set things up precisely correctly. First, the gods and the demons get the biggest mountain in the world, and they rest it on the great sea of milk, then they wrap around the mountain the longest snake they can find, and with the demons on one side, and the gods on the other, they take turns pulling the snake, and the mountain turning like this.” Using his index finger and thumb, Adil gently rotated another cigarette back and forth, loosening out its content into his palm.
“Just like that eh?” I said, drawing the remaining life out of the spliff.
I held the last breath of smoke in my lungs—for at least a minute—while some loose connection sparked in the distant ether. This sounds familiar. No, this looks familiar, I’ve seen this image before: in the the relief carved into the stone at the Preah Vihear Temple…
…and the sculpture at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. I exhaled with that great satisfaction that a chain of images from around Asia were coming together in a story.
I listened closely as he continued, “Now, this is the most important yaar. The gods and demons pulled back and forth on the snake for a thousand years, turning the mountain and churning the ocean of milk. Very nice things are coming out of the ocean, but there is a problem brewing…”
“The mountain sunk into the ocean?”
“No, no, no, Vishnu is much too clever, he became a turtle and put the mountain on his back.”
“The obvious thing to do I guess.”
“After one thousand years of churning, the snake is becoming very hot and bothered and starts to spit venom into the ocean like this” and Adil spat three times, marring some Parisian stonework, “and not before long, what happens? A pot of poison pops out of the ocean.”
“This is bad yaar. The poison is very very powerful, so powerful it can easily destroy the universe, and the gods and demons panic. By trying to make the Amrita, they had created the exact opposite: the Hala Hala. The poison that destroys everything.”
“More destructive than alcohol? Man, they really screwed this thing up Adil.”
“Oh yes yaar, they fucking it up very bad. So what do they do, they ask the most powerful being in the universe for help.”
“Vishnu to the rescue!”
“No yaar, Shiva.”
“Oh right, Shiva, this story was about Shiva.”
“So Shiva is coming down and swallows the poison. Which would finish him off, so Shiva is meditating very nicely and stopping it in his throat,” and Adil held his hands to his throat, pretending to choke.
“Creation is saved, but the poison is so powerful that it turns Shiva blue, so this is why we call Shiva, Nilkanth. Nila for blue, and kantha for throat. Nilkanth it goes: the one with the blue throat.”
“Nilkanth,” I repeated, “The One with the Blue Throat,” enunciating with that English penchant for capitalizing titles. “I’ll remember that.”
“Yaar, now listen, this is the most important part—this is why you are here na.”
This is why I am here?
“After Shiva drank the poison and saved the universe, the real Amrita emerged out of the ocean in a pot. The demons tried to get it first, and so a great battle over the Amrita began between the gods and the demons. And they battled across the sky,” Adil said, as he swept his arm in a wide arc, “and as they fighting, some of the Amrita fell to Earth.”
Adil paused to screw the empty cigarette into the mix.
“Four drops fell, maximum, in Haridwar, Allahabad, Uijan and Nashik, making these the holy cities of India.”
“Pretty convenient they all fell in India eh?”
“But not for you yaar, India very far for you, a long way to come for the Kumbh Mela.”
“Isn’t that why you are here, for the Kumbh Mela?”
“No, I came for SAARC, you know, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation?”
“What the fuck is SAARC?”
“Ah, forget that, what’s the Kumbh Mela?”
“Acha, Kumbh Mela means: recollecting the honey pot—it is the continuation of the battle between the gods and the demons. You see, their battle across the sky lasted three days, which is three years for us, so every three years, a Kumbh is held in one of the four holy cities. This is such a year, and so the Kumbh has already begun; in Haridwar. If you wanting the elixir of immortality, there is where you must go.”
“So right now, as we speak—smoke, whatever—some good kumbhing is going on?”
“Yes yaar, some very good kumbhing is going on, but there is only one more bathing day left, you have almost missed the whole thing. Pissing away your time drinking, as you English say.”
“How much time do I have?”
Adil pointed straight up into the night sky, “That is your clock right now.”
“The sky is my clock?”
“No yaar, the moon. The first and last bathing days of the Kumbh are on the full moon.”
Only a sliver of darkness kept the great orb from being complete.
“You should go soon yaar,” Adil said, as he passed me the completed spliff.
I was about to tap the spliff to my forehead but stopped. “You never told me why this helps Shiva.”
“Ah, now remember, Shiva is the destroyer, and since he drinking the potion and turning blue, he has been” Adil twisted his hand back and forth beside his head, “bothered. By smoking, we keep him shanti, shanti.” At peace.
“Let me see if I can break this back down. By smoking this spliff, and a fine one at that—”
“I’m actually preventing the destruction of the universe by keeping Shiva calm, after saving all of creation by consuming a poison, which was churned up in an ocean of milk by a ragtag group of gods and demons pulling on a snake wrapped around a mountain.”
“Welcome to mother India yaar!” Adil said, and we shared a laugh.
I tapped the spliff to my forehead, “Bom Bholenath.”
I drew the story deep into my lungs: and remembered, the gods carved into the Preah Vihear Temple; the golden demons dancing at Bangkok’s Airport; the serpent king and his venom; the mountain resting on a turtle in a milk sea; all of it, alive, churning-churning-churning for three thousand years. It was this story, that gathered people from across the continent and around the world to bath in the Ganges on that special day when a drop of Amrita slips from the honey pot and into her hallowed waters.
But the story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk was only the first, of three gifts, that Adil gave me that night. The second gift, was that in our short ride together through Delhi, I committed myself to buying a motorcycle and learning how to ride it. And third, though it would take me some time to realize, he’d already given my bike-to-be a name. A lucky name. A name I would need in the coming struggle in the Himalayas and in the valley of Kashmir.
But first, the Kumbh.