8 Lessons You Can Only Learn in India
Trust: Alone in Gaya at 2am
A Buddhist traveler on his way to Bodh Gaya. My train from Calcutta is hours late. Two rickshaw drivers, young and hungry looking, are trying to wedge my old body into their auto rickshaw. I imagine being robbed, beaten, tossed into the empty night. “I want just one driver,” I say. “Two,” they insist. They talk quietly all the way to Bodh Gaya without once looking at me. The Buddha laughs in my ear. What we carry, carries us.
Crowds and the test of crowds
My crowd phobia is always being tested in India, with its population of over a billion. The crowds I wait with at Mother Teresa Sarani in Calcutta for the lights to change are big enough to fill the Rose Bowl. My palms sweat uncontrollably, my breath pounds in my chest. I half expect the multitude to turn into a machine that will swallow me up and leave nothing behind. But almost everyone waits patiently, with weary dignity, hip to hip as far as the eye can see. My phobia makes me the most unruly one among the many.
Heat: Revelation in Tamil Nadu
It must be 115 degrees when I arrive at Ramanasramam with its clusters of monkeys and peacocks. I have to remove my sandals at the gate. It is as if someone has set the ground on fire. A lover of Sri Ramana and this ashram from afar, all I want to do is take the first bus out.
Later, explosions of thunder tear apart my light sleep, and the rains arrive. They arrive with their great pent-up drum rolls of fury, and do not stop arriving. I weep as if I have seen the face of God.
Security, more or less
At the airport in Agra, on our way to Varanasi, seeing my backpack on the luggage trolley, I turn to my friend Gary and say, “Oh shit!” I left my writing notebook inside.
They pile the luggage near the tarmac. A tiny shambling man oversees the stack. I tell him I must open my backpack.
“Sure. No problem.”
I get the notebook and thank him, and he thanks me. “Easy,” I say to Gary.
“Yeah, easy.” He slaps his head with his palm. We dare not speak our thoughts. We laugh and laugh, turning suspicious heads, all the way to Varanasi.
Wisdom is messy
I once wrote, “When the wind moves through the trees at Bodh Gaya, more than the leaves move.” People come from everywhere to sit under the Bodhi Tree, and perhaps taste for themselves a bit of the Buddha’s enlightenment. But when the Bodhi leaves swirl down to earth, many rise up from their mats to chase after them, going from the pursuers of wisdom to the collectors of leaves. Sometimes even monks join in. The consumer culture flexes its muscle even here. You can’t hang silence on your wall.
To live and let live: Cohabiting with the Animal Kingdom in Tiruvannamalai
We live in the cabins, they live in the trees. They being the monkeys of Ramanasramam. Gimlet-eyed, they monitor the rhythms of our intrusion, while we, in the gracious spirit of Ramana Maharshi, at first tend to be neighborly. Then, the break-ins begin, the food munchings, the orgies of overturned bedding. I am mugged by two monkeys on the hill after worship, thrown to the ground, my bag of bananas stolen. Devotees from London and Long Island threaten the monkeys with sticks. The monkeys hiss and piss and remain undeterred.
I have to laugh. I have to put more salve on my torn skin. In my heart, I unfurl a large white surrender flag.
Changing money in Rishikesh
It is my karma to have him attend me whenever I need to change money at the State Bank of India. As a clerk, he is similar, in the enormity of his boredom, to hundreds of other Indian bank clerks. But he has one outstanding, unnerving mannerism that is his and his alone. Every time he opens my passport, he contrives simultaneously to raise above it, somewhat shakily, his cup of tea, always filled to the brim. I imagine the tepid brown liquid obliterating my official face as it obliterates my equilibrium.
I tell him to cut the crap. He pretends not to hear me. I breathe in deeply every time he lifts his cup. I breathe out deeply every time he lowers it. Meditating at the Ganga is child’s play by comparison.
On the night train from Gaya
Night outside and night inside. One of those nights that crowd out inner light.
In the lower berth across from me there is a very old, frail, wheezing man in a dhoti who takes my mind off my unspecified misery. In the middle of the night, a young man, perhaps a grandson, awakens to take the old man to the bathroom. He holds him with the primordial tenderness that fills this old man with longing. India’s generational bond still alive in rapidly changing India.
The boy returns with the man, sets him on his belly, and massages the dry ravine of his back with liquid from a jar. My darkness opens to let in its briny smell.