O India, You Deceiver
The taxi to Pernem left around 11. I got up in no hurry and packed my new bag, a North Face—or should we call it Norse Faith? It was made in Thailand and cost me $12 after heavy bargaining. The purchase was necessary: my canvas haversack from Varna was falling apart. A cobbler had sowed part of it back together in Aurangabad, but all the stitches came out again. The Norse Faith pack fit my things better, and I could lock the zippers.
I broke my fast on eggs and coffee with the four girls at their hostel’s diner, and met the Quebecois Lola and the Venetian Paula in the alley courtyard of Tom and my apartments. Cat and Tamara would spend another day in Goa and meet us in Hampi later. On the way to the train station I bought a harmonica that I had long considered in passing from a music store on the main road, and I practiced playing chords while we sat on the platform, awaiting a late train. A drunk Dane came up to us and tried to play the songs in his head on Tom’s guitar. He kept pawing at my knees and saying things he thought witty and laughing. Eventually he wandered off.
Tom identified the Dane as a schizophrenic addict, having seen them in the hospital where he was a nurse. He had dealt with a few problems in that career. Just before leaving, a small Korean woman with dementia came in and had to be sedated. “She was a tiny woman,” said Tom, “and we gave her enough sedatives for five people. We tied her in a chair with a belt, but she would worm her way out. We saw her in the hallway and said, ‘What are you doing here Houdini?’ and gave her more drugs. She kept calling me her grandson.”
Our train took us south through the small state of Goa to its colonial center of Old Goa. We negotiated with the tuk-tuk drivers for a long time, and eventually got into a van with a Nepalese driver who hated the mountains and who would wait for us an hour in Old Goa and then drive us to the capital at Panjim. Monstrous churches and merchants’ houses and gardens filled Old Goa, once big as London Town and today silent as a graveyard, and crowded with Indian tourists and pilgrims. Inside the Basilica of Born Jesus, I looked in vain for the remains of Francis Xavier, a famed missionary.
Xavier died on the way to China, and the Chinese buried him with lime to hasten his decomposition; but when his brothers uncovered the remains they found them miraculously intact. Poor Francis did not remain this way. His right arm was sent to the Pope in Rome, where it wrote his name on a piece of parchment. A Goan Catholic woman bit off his right toe. They only found her out because blood sprayed from the wound and left a trail leading from the church straight to the woman’s house.
The Sherpa hustled us impatiently into his van when we returned from sightseeing, and he took us to Panaji. We bought tickets for a night bus to Hampi, a twelve hour trip that left at 7:30. In the time remaining, I wanted to eat some of Goa’s famous cuisines. I asked most everyone we passed, and all of them said, “Hotel Regal. Yes, good food.” We took a table in the cramped restaurant, which advertised itself as having “No AC.”
I split dishes of spicy red chicken vindaloo, milder mutton xacuti, and paneer masala with Lola (Tom and Paula being tragically vegetarian and unable to enjoy such treats), eating the thick dishes with roti flatbread and spoons. We had Kingfisher beers with dinner and rolled a spliff in the parking lot of the bus station with the Mexican that Tom and I had met in Goa; Tom abstained but bought a pack of Valium for 30 rupees, and all this combined made the bus trip to Hampi more tolerable than it would have been otherwise: wedged into chairs under the sleeping berths and over the wheels, our knees at our chins, our window broken and boarded up with plywood, it was like being in a coffin, but what do we luminous beings care?
The bus disembarked a few kilometers from the Hampi Bazaar. A great swarm of tuk-tuks descended from the road as the bus pulled into a dirt courtyard, and they parked themselves all in a mass. The drivers screamed at the passengers as they emerged. Haggling for a tuk-tuk was a grand effort, and we had to wait until most of the other passengers were gone to get a good price. Tom went with Paula to a pharmacy to administer her last rabies shot after a monkey scratched her in the north. I went with Lola through the dusty, touristy Hampi Bazaar to the river crossing.
Mike, the Scotsman who gave Tom his guitar, told us about a bungalow camp in Hampi called Manju’s Place. It was across the shallow River Tungabhadra that passed through that strange landscape, with its forests and temples and rocky mounds. The only way to cross the river was by an overloaded motorboat that went between the ghats on the temple side to a landing on the northern bank, which cost 20 rupees with luggage. The attempted Hampi bridge had fallen into the water, so the closest one was 45 minutes upstream. Every once in a while, men would attempt to offer a cheaper crossing by hand-paddled basket boats, but the mafia always shut down these operations. They still went on in secret.
The northern bank was the calmer, quieter part of Hampi, called Virupapura Gaddi. A road led up a hill from the landing, and broke left past German bakeries and bike rental shops and hotels, on to other roads through strings of villages to the cold lake of the reservoir and the Monkey Temple on Anjenadri Hill. Take the road from the landing straight instead of left and it passed a few bungalow camps and went into the rice paddies, then curved around and arrived at Manju’s Place on a sort of island surrounded by paddies and banana plantations.
Manju was a heavyset and mustachioed Indian in a collared shirt and colored dhoti who prayed every night before the pictures of Shiva and six other gods in the corner of the gazebo that was the center of his camp. It was carpeted with bamboo mats and ringed by cushions and low tables where people usually sat—European climbers there for bouldering and Australian and American hippies lost in sloth. On one side was the kitchen and Manju’s house, and on the other were the thatched roof mud huts, containing beds and mosquito nets, shaded by the lines of palm trees. We booked huts and lounged about in the gazebo, sipping coconut and banana lassies and eating pizza. Our greatest concern was spending too much time there in happy relaxation.
Just north of Manju’s Place, across a plot of paddies, loomed one of the strange stone hills of Hampi. Long ago, glaciers rolled the boulders around as our hands do pebbles, then melted, and left great mounds of rounded stones, infused with India’s verdant vegetation. The countryside rolls and swells with these strange mountains as the sea does with waves, and in the troughs between the land melted into the gridwork glass of rice paddies, divided by earthen lines wide enough for a man to walk, that mirrored the palm trees and the strange rocky landscape. Man had made it even stranger by stacking great boulders in a way that seemed impossible. Gravity should have tumbled those structures, but it did not.
That night we hiked up past the boulderers, climbing walls in their pointed shoes, to the top to watch the sunset. Monkeys played on the rocks below. Across the rice paddies and jungle we could see a gash where the Tungabhadra would be, and on the other side the ghats and the eleven-storied Virupraksha Temple in Hampi Bazaar. The night noises began in the rice paddies, the oppressive concert of frogs and insects, and the delicate mosquitoes emerged to feast. It seemed a fine place.
The next day Lola found some badminton paddles, but we could not find the birdie. The seven-year-old son of Manju’s Nepalese servant told us it was in a tree on one of the lawns. I grabbed some branches and started shaking it. “Hey,” I said, “there are ants here. What? Hey, they’re biting me! Whoa!” The red ants clung to my hand by their mandibles, and I scraped my hand on the grass to get them off, then said, “I’m not doing that anymore.” Lola went up to shake the tree and then she screamed and said, “Ants, ants!” and made the same resolution as I. Then the smiling Nepalese boy produced the birdie from a nearby bush.
His name was Ankit, although for a while I was calling him Hanky. We played badminton and Frisbee, and then Ankit sat in the gazebo and drew pictures while I wrote and some climbers smoked a spliff. The stone got too hot to climb in the middle of the day. Tamara and Cat arrived safely that day from Goa, having had a much more pleasant experience on the night bus than we did. I played my harmonica with Tamara on her guitar, and then we watched the sunset and still had not seen anything of Hampi.
We all came to India for different reasons.
Tom was in India to discover and change himself, through yoga and meditation and self-denial. He abstained from India’s worst points, its attractive vices, and actively sought out its best, the beauty of its villages and its people. He carried a small bag and was an astute, outgoing traveler. But he missed his girlfriend Jessica. “You know what,” he said, “I’m just not enjoying it. I keep thinking, ‘If only she was here,’ and I’m not going to waste my time if I’m not enjoying myself.” He decided to cut his trip short—he would spend a week practicing yoga at the ashram north of Trivandrum, fly to Delhi or Kathmandu and spend two weeks in the north, and bring forward his return ticket with Etihad Airways. (“Jihad Airways?” asked Lola, and Tom replied, “Yes, one in ten are destined!”) He wrote out the reasons for leaving so he could make it clear that it was not Jessica’s fault, that there would be no resentment, and he explained his points to the circle of girls we had around us, who offered their cooing sympathy. Tom was already planning his next trip, with Jessica’s company included.
Tamara was nineteen and from a farm in the Black Forest, where her family raised horses and cattle, and she had left to Africa two months before, to Zanzibar and Tanzania, names she spoke with happy reminiscence, and the coastal countries around. She was a pretty, ebullient girl of middling height. The henna tattoo on her wrist said, “Stay hungry, stay foolish, stay free.” She wanted something different from life than the grind of work, and wanted to see different things in Africa and India. In April she would fly to New Zealand to work on sustainable farms, but she considered pushing her flight back to spend more time in India, and she considered postponing her return home until a full year had passed and it was summer in the Black Forest again. Maybe she would go to Canada and pick apples. Her future was a bright place of possibilities, and she was not worried.
Laurence, or Lola, the Moroccan Jew from Montreal, missed her huge, hugely supportive family, who dealt in real estate and imported furniture. She was used to their administration of her problems and even relied on it. They had been surprised when she bought the plane ticket and even more when she left. “Alright, you’ve proved your point,” said her sister. “Now come home.” But Lola felt no need to. She was alone in India, making her own way, getting over the breakup of a four-year relationship. His room became her walk-in closet, the place where she feels the greatest peace. This extroverted girl filled her backpack with cheap Indian bangles and jewelry and contemplated a visit to Kashmir to buy the cheapest pashmina shawls in the world. Haggling was in her blood.
Paula was seeking something—perhaps the challenging isolation of ten days of silence in a vipassana meditation course in Tamil Nadu. “I don’t marry causes,” she said, “I play with them.” She played with a Goth cause in college, where she studied Turkish without learning much of the language. For five years she taught Italian in Istanbul, and now she did not want to continue it. “Were the last five years a waste,” she wondered, “and what will I do now?” Paula’s mother was English but her city was Venice, and she was as cynical, curious, and classy as most Italians. She had a journal that she filled with weird newspaper clippings from the Hindustan Times, and when she got it in her mind to do something, she was rudely tenacious. She struggled to be different, to ask questions that others did not. She asked me, “Have you ever left a place, satisfied that you’ve seen everything?” and after I’d answered said, sullenly, “Me neither.”
Cat was a photographer from rocky Wales. The photos she took for her degree were published in a book by a non-profit organization. “A thousand were printed, if you want to track them down,” she said with that quintessential irony of the Isles. She told Tom, who was practicing with his Nikon, that the best pictures told stories, and she was always seeking the perfect angle to tell some of her own, which she hoped to put together in a book when she got home. This directed her towards many curious situations as she had to get to know people, often the simplest or strangest people, before asking them for a photograph, and she was outgoing in her pursuit of this. She planned on going off on her own to India’s rarely visited rural regions.
“And why am I here?” I wondered each time the soul-searchers I had surrounded myself with brought up the topic. I had to get to Tokyo so I could get home, but India was more than a road for me. I wanted adventures and trials and was afraid of changing too much.
We rented bikes from a place near the river and rode them on through the rice paddies and villages, with palm trees and great mountains of rounded stones in the green, bright country. Indians in colorful clothes waved at us from the mud pathways that gridded the paddies. The size of our party made it slow and segmented, but eventually we parked our bicycles at a store under Anjenadri Hill, the white of the Monkey Temple visible at its craggy peak.
Through the Temple of Angina Devi, mother of the monkey god Hanuman, and past the beggars, a white stairway cut its winding way up into the mountain. Monkeys jumped across it, from wall to wall, on their way to cool caves to wait out the hot afternoon sun. They were already full of the bananas that tourists paid them for a photo—the remains littered the stairway, sometimes entire bunches that had vanished under a simian swarm—but would still stop for another fruit if one were offered or visible. A few of the primates considered the way with sagacious boredom.
The stairway passed under a low rock ceiling and up out of a shallow cavern, scaling steeply to the peak. “Welcome,” said the man seated on a blanket there, alms before him. The Temple of Hanuman was a low, white adobe building with a red stupa on top. Prayer flags fluttered noisily in the steep wind, and ribbons wagged from the sacred tree in the uneven courtyard. The countryside stretched on and on: the winding Tungabhadra, the stoney mounds, the ruined fortress of the Anegondi.
I went inside the Temple, past a squatting sadhu in the anteroom, through the main hall, and into the shrine of the monkey god, where before the colorful idol of Hanuman a Malaysian priest blessed me with a red line on my forehead. Tom and I sat down on the flagstone in the anteroom next to the bearded sadhu, bare-chested in his dhoti and turban, squatting on a mat with a knapsack to his left and a metal tin on his right. They called him Maraji, which means great man. He had left Persia just after the Revolution and had been to many places since then, and the others joined our palaver.
“Why are you here?” asked Paula.
Maraji replied thoughtfully, “I am unusual. You ask these questions, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where are you going?’ but you only hear a little, and not the most important parts, of someone’s life. If I only say a little, you’ll get the wrong idea about me.”
The thickly-bearded Babaji called his disciples in for lunch and had us invited to join. We sat in two lines on the floor of the main hall and ate rice and cabbage with our hands and drank the well water that the monks gave us. The Babaji reclined silently under a blanket on the couch at the room’s far end. His hair went down to his chest, and his bright eyes watched us.
Maraji talked to Tamara in German, having lived in Austria for years, and Tom and I started talking with a Malay who, when we asked him, said that he was from “here.” Hanuman, he said, was an exuberant, youthful spirit, an aspect of Shiva who “jumps and flies,” and so his priests were open to travelers and had a sense of humor. When the Malay was not talking to travelers, he meditated, trying “to realize God, to become God.” He would meditate on the divine while watching incense sticks burn, and he knew by this devotion the time it would take to burn sticks of certain compositions or brands.
The most interesting part of it was that the Malay lived in the temple for only a part of each year, and outside of there was a television executive in Singapore, producing movies and shows, wearing a suit, dealing with contacts, and loving the city, ever his home. “But cities are transient,” he said. “Here, it will be here forever. Here I am free, and here I will perish in my physical form.” The story of how he came here “is an epic on its own,” but the Malay was satisfied that he had discovered the light of belief. He told us, “You give up your body for Him, for your belief, and take what he gives you. It doesn’t matter how difficult it gets, because He is behind you.”
“In your opinion,” asked Tom, “is it possible to connect with God without believing the stories?”
The Malay replied, “There are in fact a million ways to realize God, as long as you do it in the right way.” He respected equally Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, and Hanuman as aspects of God, that the Hindus call Rama. I mentioned the similarities between many messiahs, and he said, “They aren’t similar, they are the same.” Just as the Singaporian TV executive in his business suit and mannerisms was the same as the Hindu sage in his dhoti, scarf around his neck, living on a mountaintop in Karnataka.
After lunch, Maraji and the Malay left us, and we went back down the mountain to our bikes. Cat had gone to a village and photographed the locals. Lola’s tires had deflated. Most of us rode on to the reservoir, up a steep incline since a great embankment retained the water. Tom, Tamara, and I found a rock with a sheer face fifteen feet high and jumped off it into the welcoming cold of the lake. We lay on the rock sunning ourselves and talking to the other travelers there. Lola and Cat arrived in a little basket boat, and Paula came as well. The Venetian wanted to jump, but her terror allowed her only to the edge of the cliff.
“It’s good for you,” said a Briton. “Experiences like this are a shock to the system. They get your adrenaline flowing for an instant. When you do something like jump off a cliff or go skydiving,” he explained, it resets your body’s adrenaline floor. “Otherwise crossing the street or going to work can trigger your shock and become terrifying. So doing reckless things makes you less stressed.”
Our group extended and divided itself on the way back to Manju’s Place. Tamara and I dropped off our bikes at the rental shop and walked back along the rice paddy road, then turned and went up the rocky mountain north of the bungalow camp, where I’d seen the sunset with the others two days before. I asked the German if she liked India, and she said she did and did not. “It is beautiful,” she said in her lyrically earnest accent, “but so ugly as well. I saw poverty in Africa, worse poverty there, but there vas not so much wealth there alongside it.”
India, like Man and like God, is so many things, such a multiplicity of contradictions, and also one. I agreed with Tamara and would say further that it is impossible to put a finger on India without devoting one’s life to its realization.
After dark, accompanied by a cold shower and a chicken fajita, I went with Tamara and Lola to the Tipi, down past the bakeries and bike shops on our side of the river. Some Brits told us there would be a party there, but really it was hard to distinguish from the gazebo at Manju’s Place. Stoners lounged around on cushions, sipping beers and fooling around with instruments. Eventually a band formed, based around a well-plucked Turkish dulcimer, with a guitarist, a drummer, and a flutist. Lola and I had Kingfisher beers, and Tamara, a German who hates beer, had a chai. She saw a chess board on one of the tables and challenged me to a match, and after I had beat her and Lola, a contemplative Spaniard with a thick beard approached.
The two girls took my flashlight and went back, but I stayed to finish the game. Before moving, the Spaniard, who was seated in the lotus position and was very stoned, would breath deeply, straighten his back, and close his eyes. He warned me off a few foolish moves, and then told me, “You know what a sectarian is? It is someone who sees only one sector of the world. You must open your mind to see more sectors. Turn the board around and look at it from my point of view. See what I plan to do.” But his mind was too open. He beat me and shook my hand, and I walked back to Manju’s in the moonless twilight.
Every morning at around 8 Laxmi the elephant goddess descends the steps of the ghat or landing, and is bathed in the waters of the Tungabhadra. The day after we visited the Monkey Temple, our group split up into separate parts. I left early to see the goddess bathe and met Tom at the riverbank where the ferry landed to take us across.
Great flocks of schoolchildren in their uniforms waited on the ghat, not for the arrival of the goddess as I originally guessed, but to brush their teeth in the river water under the guidance of their teachers. They rushed down in groups and splashed around in the shallows. Upstream, women washed themselves and their clothes, men defecated and dumped their trash, and two boys threw in a dog they had shot because it went crazy. They did not have enough money to burn the corpse. It would have cost $1.
We went to the road that ran along the top of the ghat for chai and idli. Paula was telling me about how stories lose their interest the more they are told, same as people and conversations the more familiar they become, and then I said, “Hey look,” and pointed to the great black thing lumbering down the stairs. “Oh my God,” the Venetian cried out, “an elephant!”
We followed Laxmi down to the river, where she weaved between the oblivious washing women. The beast was black with a mottled pink nose between two short trunks, a foot long each and shaped like dull knives. A golden bell hung round her neck, and the remnants of yesterday’s painted symbols clung to her flanks and ears.
With a hooked stick, the mahout riding on the elephant steered her into the Tungabhadra and submerged her fully, so that it was only the mahout in his turban riding above the current. He took the elephant back into the shallows and turned her on her side in the water. Some servants joined him with brushes to scrub the elephant’s flank, and then she rolled over so they could get the other. The hand-shaped end of her trunk stuck above the water like a periscope. Laxmi rose and washed herself with water from her trunk, and she yawned and hung her mouth open with pleasure as the servants scraped her hooves. She let the mahout back up onto her neck with a raised leg, and then, splashing water with her trunk, the elephant climbed back out and onto the stairway.
Tom, Paula, and I followed Laxmi and the mahout up to a street alongside the Virupraksha Temple, with a deep, empty pool between us and the eleven-storied tower. I went up and pet the hard and bristled leather of the beast’s nose, and Laxmi lifted her trunk towards my bag, looking for rupees or sweets. She must have been ten feet tall. She balanced the mahout’s hooked shaft in a fold of her trunk and sometimes used it to scratch her legs. It was strange being near something so gently humongous and so sacred as the elephant, an incarnation of Laxmi, wife of Ganesh and goddess of wealth.
The mahout, whose name was Raju, came out and told us that Laxmi was a good elephant. With buckets of dye, red and saffron and white, he painted the Om and the eyes of Shiva on Laxmi’s ridged face and on her trunk and ears, and he said she was 21-years-old and had spent her first ten years in a forest before being tamed. Laxmi considered us with wise, lively eyes and swung her trunk playfully or sucked on the tip with her curling mouth. For a coin she would give a kiss. For a ten rupee bill, Laxmi delivered an elephant blessing, laying her trunk in full on the pilgrim’s head. She tossed the money back to her master with the trunk that received it.
Tom went into the mahout’s house, Paula went off to find a newspaper to clip, and I wandered the long, dusty, crowded street of the Hampi Bazaar, which I loved for its hodgepodge and lively character, eating when I felt like it and enjoying the sunshine. I walked up to the temples on the rocky hill south of the Bazaar and played the celebrity amongst schoolchildren, then came down again into the packed noise.
Those who beg for scraps on the streets of India are a ubiquitous part of the country. Every Indian traveler has to come to terms with this poverty, and with a sense of helplessness in the face of it.
There are haggard, desperate-looking women, whose emaciated features and ragged, faded, immaculate saris say, “I will die proudly, if the Samaritan passing by is not a good heart, for that is God’s will.” From their seat on the sidewalk, they smile and hold up wrinkled hands. Their husbands or fathers are dead, and they have no skills but mothering. Some of them hold children, for whom they show an obvious and tragic affection, and they beg with a much more intense desperation.
The children look like monsters with frazzled hair and bare, dirty feet, and they pat their bellies and open their mouths like baby birds. Some carry little siblings in the crook of their arm. Some follow the rules of a Beggar King or Fagan and can only take alms of food, though they will take flowers or treats, too. These are the street urchins. Asking foreigners for one school pen or one rupee is second nature to most of India’s children, who are otherwise its friendliest and most earnest and affable inhabitants. Even the poorest will cry, “Hi! What’s your name?” and give their own with wild grins. They are very polite and wave goodbye.
The men begging in most places are sadhus, holy men worthy of respect, who have taken voluntary vows of poverty in their old age and live off what others put in their begging bowls, their only possessions. They wear orange robes or plain dhotis and cover themselves in ash and never cut their hair. In Hampi three of them wear costumed liveries in vibrant colors, dangling with apparati and ornaments, and they demand money for a photograph. The lazy begging men go to Bodghgaya or Dharamsala, and like statues of dead men they line the paths that the Buddhists walk. The good monks smile and put a coin into each of the hundred cups on their way to the shrine.
Our group did not remain separated for long. Around one I met Paula beneath the tall Virupraksha Temple. Tom rode by on a rented bike. He had just been down to the temples at the far end of the Bazaar, where a circle of sages invited him to join their chillum-smoking circle, and they prayed to Shiva as they smoked. A policeman arrived with an angry look, and Tom snuck out when he was not looking. He was still jittery with fear of Indian prison.
We went down the road to the first restaurant that was full of Indians and sat out front, talking to children. Within an hour, Lola and Cat and Tamara were also there eating with us, and the owner had invited us to learn how to cook Indian food the next day and was playing chess with Tommy.
After the Indian won he challenged Tamara, but he was busy with new customers so I took over and got very into it. All the others had left by the time Tamara and I finished our game. “I’ll have to keep traveling with you until I beat you,” said the German. We went down the road into the Virupraksha Temple.
In a courtyard of stone, the goddess of wealth was hard at work blessing the faithful and tossing their coins and bills back to Raju the mahout, who sat cross-legged in the corner behind her, the elephant’s benedictions enjoyed equally by Western pilgrims with their cameras and Hindus with their red dots and frightened children. Monkeys climbed all over the walls, and Hindus went to different altars in different parts of the complex to receive their pooja, a sort of blessing, by rubbing idols or painting themselves with dye or eating treats or washing the face in smoke and in rose water.
Finished with temples, we walked down to the ghat and the ferry landing. The last ferry left between 6 and 7, and after that, crossing the river became very expensive. Tamara suggested that we had enough time to visit the Mango Tree. We followed the river west on a cobblestone trail into the jungle.
I had first heard of the Mango Tree from a Belgian in Amman. He described it as a place downriver from the temples, a series of tiers under a huge old mango tree overlooking a jungle idyll and a perfect sunset, with good food—he ate all his meals there—and a swing hanging from the arbor. Going south from Bombay, I had asked people who came from Hampi about it and they said, “Yes, I went there, but I never noticed a swing.” It was with great satisfaction and relief that on entering I noticed a swing hung from the mango tree, which had been banned after too many children warred over it.
Tamara had a salad and I a pakota, a savory pie in a fried chapati. Well sated, we went back to the landing and took the ferry across. Fireflies glittered the undergrowth around the trail, and the frogs had begun their din. The gazebo at Manju’s Place was crowded with climbers and hippies and backpackers. I sat within the circle of tables and told stories of the sadhus.
“They are mendicant sages,” said I,—“wise men. When a Hindu turns fifty—okay, around fifty—when he retires, then,”—I corrected myself, responding to interruptions,—“after he’s raised a family, mastered a profession, and all that, he renounces everything and all his possessions except his clothes and a begging bowl and a water tin. He puts on an orange robe or a dhoti, and he stops cutting his hair, and he walks the country, begging for what he needs to survive. He is a sadhu. The sadhus devote their life to personal purification, to improve their karma. Some walk all the way to the holy city of Varanasi to die. If you die there, you escape the cycle of rebirth. They say the roads to Varanasi are lined with corpses and fires.
“Some sadhus do strange things,” I continued. “I heard of one sadhu who held his left hand on his head like this, until the hair had grown over it and it was fused to his scalp. He couldn’t move it at all. There is one who stares into the sun every morning. At first it was only for a while, but every day he would stare for longer and longer, until now he stares into the sun for twenty-five minutes every morning. No, he’s not blind. Apparently a little sunlight in the morning when it’s weak is good for you. My friend told me about a sadhu who drinks his urine every morning—”
“That’s common,” said Lola, adding that the president and several ministers also drink their piss.
“The sadhu says it’s very healthy for you,” I replied, “but I’ve never tried it. He persuaded a Frenchman to do it, at least. Who knows? Maybe it works.”
The next day we rented scooters and drove them all over the roads and temples south of the Hampi Bazaar. Tom had one of the skeletal vehicles and I another, and Tamara drove one with Paula, for despite her heritage the Italian had never learned to handle one.
I immediately took to it and began driving like a maniac without hands or with only one, swerving past tuk-tuks and herds of Sacred Cattle, honking at everyone I saw in the manner of the natives. My experiments climaxed in an attempt to drive the scooter as I would a motorcycle, leaning the bike into the curve and turning the handles away from it, which spilled me out in the dirt near the Elephant Stables. Tom, the nurse, took a look at the shallow cuts on my leg and said, “They’ll be alright.” But when would my pride recover?
We had driven through a dry, rocky, green country south of Hampi and ended up on dirt roads around the Elephant Stables and some old fort, where we parked in the shade of a tree and bought coconuts. The coconut-wallah chopped the caps off with a wickedly curved blade and put straws inside. Once the liquid was drunk, he cut them open so we could eat the crisp white meat. A policeman stopped our caravan as we tried to leave the stables, saying we had to pay for a ticket, but we argued with him for a long time. Eventually I started my engine and drove around him, which was what most Indians did when they saw a police roadblock and wanted to avoid paying baksheesh.
For a while we lost ourselves in the dirt roads trying to get back to the highway. We eventually found our way back to the Hampi Bazaar and settled down at the restaurant where we had lunch the day before. “I feel bad going to the same places over and over,” said Tom, “but once I find a good place, I don’t want to leave.” I agreed, and said, “I’m a creature of habit.”
Tom was not shaving for the whole of his trip, and his beard had got so long that he carried a comb around in his pocket for it. “I wish you guys could see me without my beard,” he remarked. We asked to see his passport photo, and he dug around in his bag for it—but it was not where it was supposed to be! A flood of fears. Where did I lose the document? Who has stolen it? How will I get home? Where can I stay without a passport? Tom left immediately to resolve his anxiety. Travelers carry only a few possessions and must know where those possessions are at all times, especially the essential and expensive ones. (Tom found the passport in an envelope with his tickets home, where he had left it after trying to change his departure.)
Tamara and I played another game of chess, and then the German went off to teach the Italian how to drive a scooter. (The scene was as follows: Tamara, sitting on a rock, reading her book, while Paula drives in circles about an empty dirt lot, shouting regularly, “How am I doing?” “Yah yah, gut gut,” said the German, until she got on the back of Paula’s bike for the drive home, and then she cried, “Slow down!”) I took my scooter and drove it down the dusty road of the Hampi Bazaar that ran down from the Virupraksha Temple to a mountainside at the far end.
The road ended into a long courtyard between two ruined colonnades that barely kept back the jungle. At the end of this stood a temple, and beyond that a long, uneven stairway that went up to a sort of gateway in the crook of the mountain: two raised platforms on either side of the trail, each supporting eight columns to hold up the flat roof.
A man was sitting there on the right platform, leaning against a pillar. He wore a checkered shirt, gray striped pants, and a black baseball cap, with a digital wristwatch and beaded bracelets on his wrists. The weariness and energy on his face made his age entirely indeterminable—somewhere between 25 and 40, I’d say. He held out his hand and we shook. Holding onto my hand, he sang a song about animals or something, and then patted the stone next to him and said, “Up here. No, no way,”—as I made to walk around behind the temple, instead urging me to jump up right there—“Up here. Yes good.” He grabbed at my hand, then stopped and said, “Shoes.” I took of my sandals and before he could say anything threw them in the dirt below. The stone would have been fine. (O India, was this the spiritual experience I was so ready to receive?)
Rabi Kumar, for that was the fortune teller’s name, smiled with rotten teeth and vibrant, penetrating eyes, and his words were sure and confidant. We spoke in a sort of pidgin English that the Reader may find a curiosity.
“How long in India?” he asked.
“Three month. Go to Kerala.”
“Three month good. India bigum.”
“Very big, India.”
“Let me see, let me see.”
He took my hand and studied the thumb very carefully and exclaimed, “Ah, eagle. Eagle, very good. Know eagle?” and with hand gestures he explained, “Snake, hsss, eagle comes, schwoot, snake, yah! Away! You are brave man! Strong man!”
After such flattery, I was ready to believe any fortune Rabi told me. Though not attired as a soothsayer, in paint and sagely robes, he held all the merry gravity the Reader expects from one with a magical trade. He looked at one line on my palm, asked me my age, and told me how old I would be when I died. Another crease, confirmed by some swirl on my scalp, told him my marital future, how many children I would have, and whether they would be sons or daughters. “Do I want to know all this,” I thought, “or isn’t it just rubbish?” Rabi told me of the future, but Reader, how can I tell thee? This business of fate should not be spoken of so indiscreetly.
“Money coming, money going. Coming, going. Always money. Ah! Black, black!” cried Rabi, seeing something on my palm and glancing from those lines to my face. “No wear any black! No good for you. Hmmm. Every morning, wake up, drinkum half bottle water. Good, full power. Give you power, okay? In night, cannot sleep, sleep no come, okay? Say, ‘Om nom shivaya, Om nom shivaya,’ say seven times and you sleep well. It’s good. Oh! You be careful of taxi.”
“No, Indian taxi good. America taxi. Taxi in street, you cross street, boosh, yah!” he clapped his hands, then pointed at me. “Three times taxi comes. Yellow and black. Three time, be careful. Trouble for you, I am telling, okay?”
“Yeah, it’s good, you know?”
I asked Rabi about the life expectancy he had foreseen for me, and he replied, “No, no years if no careful. Ahhh!” he exclaimed, seeing some scratches on my foot from my fall on the scooter,—“Whatum this? Careful, careful! You must be careful!”
Rabi told me, “You know mantra? Mantra good, much power.” He drew something on his hand like a necklace with a capsule and pointed to the capsule and said, “Put things in, good things, to power and protection, good luck. You want? Make two, one for wearem, one for home in America. Schwoot!” Rabi told me to return to the gateway the next day with some incense and some kind of explosive white powder that I did not know. “No worry,” he said, “I buy, you no understand. Incense, incense! Ten in morning!”
I shook his hand, got my shoes, and made to continue on up the road. “Monkey temple ahead,” said Rabi. “Give no money, only want alcohol.”
Beyond the gateway the road went on in coarse flagstone through cactus and scrub and the lonely rocks. The scenery grew more solitary and exotic the further I moved from the dusty Bazaar. I found the Hanuman shrine, a painting of the monkey god in a cave, and the two little old ladies in front asked me for baksheesh. The road went on until it came to the other side of the mountain and wound into a vale where there lay an abandoned temple compound, surrounded by the encroaching jungle. It was named Achyutaraya, and it resembled a fable of India.
I went back the next day as Rabi instructed. I arrived at ten and sat on the platform of the gateway where I’d met the fortune teller, who was not there yet. I took out a packet of incense and lit two and dug a hole in the hard dirt for them with my pocket knife and put them there so they looked like a smoking V. It seemed like the correct thing to do. Then I took out my harmonica and played a few melodies. Down below, past the long colonnades, the Bazaar looked clean and calm in the distance and the morning light.
After a while, when the incense had burned down a half an inch, I saw Rabi coming up the stairs. He climbed up onto the platform and sat across from me.
“Hi Rabi. Have mantras?”
“Slowly slowly. Fastly no good.”
“Shanti shanti,” I said.
“Shanti shanti” means “peace peace,” and is the same as the Greek’s “siga siga” and the Arabs’ “shway shway.” Slowly slowly, we must move. With methodical, sacral care, Rabi took a spool of thread and a small newspaper sachet from his shirt pocket. He unfolded the sachet carefully and showed me the two metal capsules inside, like steel painkillers, then carefully refolded it and put the package back in his shirt. He took the string and measured out four lengths of it, each a foot long, and cut it on the coal of the incense and tied the ends deftly so all four lengths ran side-by-side. He did this a second time and then set both lines aside.
Now he took out his cell phone and selected some chanting song from it, which played out hoarsely over the wind through the mountain. The fortune teller took one of the capsules from his pocket and loosened it and gave it to me to open. Inside, he put a line of ash from the incense sticks, and he closed it back up with a grin. He tied one of the strings to it by the middle of the line, so that there was a length of string, each of four threads, running out to either side, and then he tied together the four lines with seven knots, like a Norn weaving my inescapable fate into a thread. He wrapped the mantra up in this braid and waved it through the incense smoke and blew on it.
He did this with the second capsule as well, and wrapped it up in the same bit of newspaper and tied it up with a string. He told me what to do with it when I returned home, and told me not to tell anyone about the rite or it would be “trouble for you, I am telling, okay? Say to no one. Do not tell. Your mother, she will say, ‘What you do?’ Tell her, ‘Shanti shanti, mother,’” and he waved a calming gesture.
The first mantra, though, he tied around my neck. “It falls off,” he said, “no problem. Just throw. After seven weeks, you throw in sea, or in river, schwoot.”
The incense was nearly burned out by this time. Rabi put some of the last of its ash on my forehead. By some coincidence that lends credence to this rite, the ceremony concluded, the music stopped from Rabi’s cell phone, and the embers of the incense consumed themselves, the last of the smoke floating up in lonely, disintegrating plumes, at the very same instant. What had inspired me to light the incense without instruction, so that it timed things so perfectly? The fortune teller smiled and said, “You see?”
“Magic?” I asked.
“No magic!” he cried, offended. “No magic man! Only power!”
The fortune teller took another look at my palm and my scalp, as a doctor will habitually check over the pulse and pupils of a patient who comes in with a sore foot. He pointed out again the eagle and the age and marriage lines, then said, “You travelum. Have good mind, you. Parents no understand good mind. Shanti shanti, okay?”
Despite Rabi’s warnings, I showed my friends my new mantra and the bracelets that the fortune teller gave me, elastic bands with beads and wood. What harm could it cause, so long as I keep the important things secret? “Are those swastikas?” Lola asked of some of the charms on a bracelet. “That’s great.”
The four girls left that day. Paula would go to Bangalore, and from there to some vipassana retreat in Tamil Nadu, and Lola, Tamara, and Cat would take a night bus to Gokarne on the coast. Tom and I would go there the next day, shanti shanti. In the hot afternoon after they left we rented bikes and rode up to the reservoir to jump off the rock and swim, enjoy the cold water and hot sun and the company of a gang of Australian girls. When they arrived they had the rock to themselves, but the tuk-tuk driver who took them up there had called all his friends. Presently, six Indians in slacks and collared shirts watched them awkwardly from five feet away, took pictures with their cell phones and showed them to each other.
A few hippies, with a measure of ritual, passed around a chillum, a tube with a cloth filter on one end and embered herb on the other. They pressed the filtered bottom end to their foreheads before inhaling from it. Tom and I smoked and blasted off down the road on our rickety bikes. We stopped to consider the pretty sunset that worked its way down into the mountains across the reservoir, everything carmined, then steered down the steep hill of the embankment. Our bikes rattled as if they would fall apart. With all that incautious inertia, we sped around tuk-tuks and motorcycles and Sacred Cattle in the busy village marketplace, full of strange activity and blaring horns and people. Children gave us high fives and cheered as we passed.
O India, you deceiver, what are you, really? Are you kind or wicked? How do you treat your pilgrims, your penitents? Where will your roads take me?