by Tim Adam*
Ay yi yi! India is a place of terror and wonder. For those of us habituated to the detached, homogenized cocoon called ‘Modern Life’ In particular, it encompasses a paradox that both shocks and liberates. I was born in India and spent my early childhood there, but this did not exempt me from either its provocations or its subversive magic.
A few summers ago I took my son there for two weeks. We joined up with others from my extended clan for a family reunion. My parents had been missionaries there for 12 years and 5 of us had been born there. The specific occasion was the 100th anniversary of the British boarding school my brother Daniel and I had attended. Truth be told though; this celebration was not much of an attraction for me in itself. While I did have a cursory interest in seeing what I could remember of the place and was intrigued by a chance to compare notes with former students, I have precious little nostalgia for the place and the four bewildering, and often brutal years I spent incarcerated there. No! It was the chance to return to India for the first time in 34 years that hooked me. That, and the free airline tickets so generously offered by my oldest brother Daniel. Then too, my son Julian had reached the age I was when I left India and I wanted to share some of my curious childhood with him.
All told there were 16 of us. The party included my mother, four out of six of my siblings and an assortment of nephews and nieces, mostly teenagers and young adults although the youngest was just a year old.
We arrived in south India, in Madras, by jet, at midnight. The flight was one of those unreal interludes that airlines so routinely deliver – part novelty, part boredom, part restless dozing between movies. Jets transport bodies efficiently enough but they provide no meaningful transition between states of consciousness. We disembarked tired, excited and totally unprepared.
The Madras airport provided the first real clue that we were no longer in Kansas. Gone were the immaculate walkways, the gleaming escalators, the freshly vacuumed pastel carpets and brightly-lit duty free shops stuffed with magazine racks, wine displays and electronic gizmos typical of international airports the planet over. There was no veneer – no sense of privilege here – just a late night shuffle along grimy hallways, through interminable line-ups and, finally, out into the lingering swoon of the humid night air and the visceral assault of thronging bodies, acrid smells, excited jabbering and the first ripples in that never-ending stream of beggars and hustlers as we fought our way through the crowds to find taxis or a bus.
Through some perverse planning on my sister-in-law Kathy’s part, we were scheduled to depart by train at 6:00 a.m. the next morning for Ootacamund in the Nilgiri HIlls. In order to avoid oversleeping at a hotel Kathy had decided that we would spend the night at the train station. She had, supposedly, reserved a private rest room at the station for us to sleep in.
There was no such room. After an exhilarating, often harrowing ride from the airport in a hired bus with all of us rubber necking and exclaiming aloud at sights shocking or unusual, we were deposited in front of a massive, vaulted auditorium open at one end where the trains came and went. It was still bustling despite the late hour although knots of people had already staked out territory on the concrete platforms near the tracks and were settling in for the night. The only “rest room” we could find was an already crowded barracks with nothing to sleep on but stiff wooden benches under bright fluorescent lights and fans that had long forgotten how to circulate.
This was not the 4-star hotel that we had stayed in just the night before in Singapore courtesy of Japan airlines; the one with a manicured rain forest in the lobby and a swimming pool on the roof. Not at all! Once a grand showcase for British imperialism, the Madras Train Station was now a vestibule in purgatory. There was filth and rats and beggars everywhere and the strong smell of shit and piss outside.
While the others tried to doze off, propped up against each other on the last two remaining benches or stretched out on top of their packs to avoid the filthy floor, I drank several cups of sugar-charged chai at the one all-night stand and wandered about the station and the surrounding grounds gradually filling up with some kind of crazy exaltation.
I walked around and over sleeping bodies, several of them naked young children with no parents in sight. I threaded through little camps of dung fires surrounded by sleepy rickshaw drivers smoking bedees and waiting for that first morning train to bring them customers and coin. I stopped to piss the sugar out in an alley where everyone did their business startling huge rats and an ancient woman picking through the offal for plastic water bottles to recycle. The whole scene was beyond strange. I was immersed in a surrealist dream with no intention of waking up until I had sucked in its entire, perverse splendor. I never did get to sleep that night.
After the inevitable early morning confusion about which train was ours and whether or not we actually had reserved seats, we climbed aboard this everyman’s express and sorted ourselves out onto various benches spaced out between several cars. These ancient third-class cattle cars were objects of intense fascination and not only to the kids. They were, quite obviously, leftovers from the British Rail system, endlessly recycled and probably good for another 50 years. None of the shabbiness mattered.
Off we went. Leaving Madras we chugged our way through a city in obvious, painful decline. The huge, omnipresent billboards extolling middle class goodies did little to conceal underclass despair with derelict shanties of displaced peasants often sprawling out from directly underneath them. Once stately banks and stores had degenerated into slovenly, often boarded up relics, merely a backdrop to the real action on the streets and sidewalks. Sometimes their only functions seemed to be to host sidewalk posters or to anchor clotheslines. And, of course, there was the staggering amount of debris along all the streets and thoroughfares. The main function of the sweeper class appeared to be to create mounds of composting garbage leaving avenues through which the crowds navigated expertly. What garbage was actually removed seemed to end up in the River that flowed through the city. It had been reduced to a lifeless, grey sludge channeled through open concrete arteries. Is this what the world is coming to, I wondered? Is this the future?
But then the city faded away and we were out in rural India where the categories of past, present, and future scarcely apply at all. The scenes that passed before us could have been from a thousand, five thousand years past if one looked past the corridor of garbage strewn alongside the tracks out into the fields and rice paddies where women and children laboured back bents to weed or harvest. Entire villages swept past with no indication that the 21st Century was upon us. There were no cars, no power lines, no billboards, no conspicuous garbage – just earth and wattle huts, a brightly flagged temple or two and the nonchalant movement of people, cows and water buffaloes through the central compounds. Kids waved to the train as if we were sightseers from a different planet. Adults ignored us completely several not even interrupting their toiletries in the shadow of the tracks as we thundered by.
I don’t quite know how to express the timelessness of it all. It was if I was looking out into an expanded canvas that effortlessly combined the accumulated past and a predictable future into a definitive, present, portrait. I got how India is both ancient and immortal. No surprise that traditional Indian cosmologies measure time in vast cycles called Yugas – not minutes, not hours not days. Even the current Yuga, the Kali Yuga, the Dark Yuga will pass and another time/consciousness wave will grow and build and surrender while cows still chew their cud and the rice still yields its seed. I reveled in this understanding but was sobered almost saddened by it too. Everything changes – everything stays the same. Who Am I?
Thank God for kids – they rescue us from metaphysics! Julian was thrilled to be chugging along in this rattletrap carriage – metal doors slid wide open to circulate the air. “Come dad! Sit on the steps!” So we did – our legs dangling out, our faces whipped by the warm wind laughing and pointing and waving. Our legs did not stay out for long though. After wondering about the sudden warm spray that frequently speckled them I finally figured out that that this was pee fanning out from toilets upwind. I had forgotten that railcar potties were no more than a disguised hole through the floor. We both just laughed harder. In India who cares.
But we laughed not at all when we pulled into the next station. Almost before the train had stopped a boy about Julian’s age with savagely deformed legs scrambled up the steps and dragged himself down the aisle stopping to wipe the floor around our feet with a dirty rag and holding up one hand for payment while he toiled. Julian was horrified. “Give him all our money dad!” It was not the time to explain that this was his job; that he probably made a killing off white folks like us although he undoubtedly supported many with his take. We watched him grovel and beg and stuff his mouth with the food that had been so carelessly dropped between our legs. Most of us, did in fact, reach for change and passed it to him just as the conductor spotted him and made a move as if to kick him in the ribs although this was probably more just ritual than abuse. Both Julian and I were to see many more beggars and quickly learned to shun them but we were still fresh and this sight hurt.
We spent the night on the train. Fortunately the novelty of cramming our bodies into luggage racks that doubled as beds compensated for the sheer lack of comfort or privacy. I slept not much at all preferring to spend the night hours talking or playing cards too stimulated, too wired for sleep. I suppose I did eventually doze off wedged between my brother-in-law and a backpack with protruding edges as I came too with an awful cramp in my neck.
Later that morning found all 16 of us were crammed into a Mazda mini bus travelling from the plains up to the Nilgiri Hills, to Ootacamundalum, where the reunion was to take place. It’s a 7000-foot climb that takes less than 4 hours. But what 4 hours! On the way are 39 (count them) – 39 hairpin bends on a road that could only have been surveyed by intoxicated mountain goats. And our driver . . . . He was the Indian equivalent of a kamikaze wannabe. By the way he kept grinning at us in the rearview mirror he seemed convinced that this was the trip that was finally going to earn him his credentials.
He took off and never, ever, slowed down powering past bikes and rickshaws and cows and pedestrians with one hand permanently on the horn the other out the window shaking his fist at anyone with the audacity to question his right to rule the road. At first it was just nerve wracking then it became downright insane. After tailgating a fuel truck emblazoned with DANGER! signs for some time he attempted to pass it on a stretch of road that a generous person might call 1½ lanes wide.
Not on a straight stretch mind you. That would have been far too easy. No! It was at the heart of hairpin number 23. Never mind that just before, at hairpin number 19, we had squeezed past the scene of a fatal accident in which a truck, much like the one we were now passing, had been forced off the road above and plunged nose first into our path at such a steep angle that it was still swaying back and forth on its front end pedestal, rear wheels turning nonchalantly as petrol gushed from its ruptured torso. The Jaws of Life wouldn’t have much helped its particular driver. It would have taken a scraper and a vacuum cleaner to locate all his vital pieces.
Hell, this memory was pure inspiration for our man as he nudged up to the bumper. With a quick glance back at us to make sure he had our attention he shifted down, revved up, laid on his horn and went for glory. I was sitting up at the front with my nephew Ian just behind his seat. Julian was sitting across the aisle with his cousin Jordan. They were in Nintendo heaven! This was the ultimate car chase and demolition derby game rolled into one – in full 3D!
Now I’ve never been a huge fan of adrenaline inspired rushes, so I found it necessary to check in with my guardian angel. She informed me that, yes, I would die eventually, but this was not the time or the place. “In that case”, I thought, “let it rip!” I started whooping and yelling and applauding the driver doing his death defying pass at hairpin number 23.
We made it of course although I did take note of a number of extremely pale faces, even for white folks in a sea of brown, once we finally disembarked an hour later.
The Lushington School for Boy’s reunion came and went. I will not speak of it here. If anyone is interested in what memories may have been evoked by that particular occasion, I refer them to that classic book by Alice Miller on the art of breaking and brainwashing young wills. It is entitled, ironically of course, “For Your Own Good”.
A few days later we were staying on the East Coast of India near the town of Mahavalipurim famous for its massive stone carvings of monkeys and elephants and Hindu gods cavorting in rather graphic erotic fashion. These images dated back several hundred years to some previous grand dynasty but the town was still home to dozens of sculptors who churned out surprisingly good statues of Krishna, Kali, Buddha and even Lady Di for eager westerners to carry home.
We were staying at a rather cozy missionary compound courtesy of someone my brother or mother had met at the Lushington reunion. It was a nice change from cheap hotels, I’ll admit. It even had flush toilets and real toilet paper rather than a stinking hole with a leaky faucet beside it for hygienic purposes. It had became quite obvious why Indian people consider doing any with the left hand other than dabbing at their privates to be in very poor taste.
The compound was right near the beach. Because few Indians can swim and none can fathom the western mania for sunbathing, we had miles and miles of sand and surf virtually to ourselves. The exception was the hawkers that would badger us throughout the day to buy cloth or statues or trinkets. A few purchases were made simply to buy peace but this quickly backfired once word got out that some tourists were buying at inflated prices and everyone came to cash in. But the beaches were truly glorious. The sand was almost black, pounded into fine particulates and heaped into dunes or spread out in inviting inclines by the huge, relentless breakers. Julian and I spent endless hours with the others body surfing but only after we had learned how to avoid being ground down ourselves or pulled back helpless in the receding foam.
One night, I hung out at a rooftop restaurant in the town called the Moonraker; named after the James Bond movie no less. It catered to bored foreigners who were tired of being assaulted by India and wanted hamburgers and beer and rock and roll. I was not bored but I was there with my brother Mark until closing time and beyond drinking up huge bottles of “Raja” beer that cost more each than a night in a hotel room.
Our host for the evening was an Iranian/Swedish hippy who was on temporary leave from nearby Aurobindoville. This is the famous ashram founded by the great saint and visionary Sri Aurobindo some 80 years ago. It has now evolved into an international “City of God” attracting thousands from around the world. Our new friend confessed to being in one of his periodic lapses in devotion but didn’t appear to feel too guilty about it.
Eventually we were joined at our table by a local guru of some repute. Everyone called him Babaji. He too was taking time out from his transcendental calling and staggered up very, very drunk. Initially, I was less impressed by him than by the two, stunningly beautiful, German women he had in tow. I learned that they were from Germany and did not know a word of English.
That night Babaji felt under no obligation to dispense spiritual aphorisms and, instead, regaled us with dead-on imitations of street hustlers trying to work cons on gullible westerners. When prompted, he even imitated Rajneesh and himself on the make for hungry souls, preferably those hidden at the bottom of deep pockets.
All in all, though, it was a Holy Time. I became so consumed with pot and beer and lust and divine inspiration that I danced solo outside on the rooftop patio urged on by the steady beat of Bob Marley and then the Rolling Stones. I sincerely hoped the harem girls would join me in the Dance and that later, on the beach, we could recreate the most interesting scenes from the Kama Sutra. Alas, they weren’t quite up to it or had already been booked for the night with Babaji and I never did see them again.
The next day we were back in the Big City.
Can you imagine streets so congested with bikes, rickshaws, taxis, buses, trucks, hawkers, beggars and wandering cows that you just know that you are no more than an infinitesimal molecule jostling other molecules in an Infinite River? I would sometimes panic in this flow trying to cling to some island of uniqueness, separation and safety.
In India you simply cannot remain wide open without going mad or going native. It is surrender or leave. Or, as so many westerners do, become very, very insular. I now understood why the British and most missionaries lived inside compounds and drank tea at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. precisely. They had to preserve some distance or have their cherished values cremated on the ghats of Mother Ganges, their moral superiority reduced to charred bones bobbing out to sea.
I was affected by India no doubt about it. But I cannot claim, except in moments, to love it. So much of it is harsh and overwhelming. And I am not a Hindu at heart. I have far too narcissistic an ego to surrender to the notion that all of this cacophony is me. “Thou art That” proclaims the Upanishads, that pure distillation of Indian understanding. “No bloody way!”, I reply. “I reserve the right to my own special status as a hero in my own unique drama rather than an extra in a cast of billions.”
I was more at home pilgrimaging up the 727 steps carved out of solid stone leading to the holiest shrine of the Jains a religious sect in India best known for their fanatical aversion to harming any living creature. At the top of this uncanny, bare granite dome, rising from the middle of a vast flat plain is a 67-foot high statue of their founder. It is, reputedly, the biggest free standing, one-piece statue in the world. Every 50 years or so it is totally bathed in ghee and honey tipped from huge cauldrons off rickety scaffolding built high above it by devotees just for the occasion. Or so the guidebook said and the pictures did, indeed, seem to prove it.
Reaching the summit took some effort but I was tireless striding up these steps gaining altitude and vision with each exertion. “This is it,” my soul sang; “my journey is one of increasing definition not dissolution in the whole.” I breezed past all the non-smokers and solemn pilgrims alive with energy and purpose.
Three quarters or so of the way up (518 steps to be exact) was a temple partially excavated out of the hillside and partially cantilevered off the steep slope. Stepping into it out of the blazing August sun provided an immediate baptism into moist darkness. It was simple, almost Paleolithic in design and feel. From the central grotto were 4 extensions like spokes in a medicine wheel leading to 4 rough niches where sat 4 perfect figures in 4 perfect lotus postures each with one with a hand raised in a mudra of blessing. In front of each were candles and incense and offerings of rice and flowers and money. As I journeyed clockwise and reflected and meditated I found myself spontaneously bowing to each statue a deep realization stirring at the base of my being. “These were conscious beings”, I reflected. “They knew!. They knew, fully, something that I have only intimated in the most sublime reaches of my spirit.”
I can’t say precisely what qualities these ancient avatars possessed that had been so carefully immortalized in stone. It had something to do with understanding. It had something to do with compassion. It had something to do with their complete acceptance of themselves, of the way it is, of this whole crazy drama of human life. Hell! They even seemed to accept me as I prostrated before them and I would not even be born for many centuries beyond their time on earth.
When I emerged from this deep grotto, I was thoroughly drenched in an altered reality. I could scarcely talk to my companions who now sounded like jaded tourists already eager for the next attraction. I kept to myself, needing to protect the sacred flame that had so briefly flared before chatter could extinguish it.
Then there was the last full night Julian and I spent in India. Everyone else was staying on for a week or two more but I had just started a contract back home and couldn’t squeeze out anymore time away. All of us went out to a restaurant on the beach for our last dinner together. While the food was being prepared I ventured out into the little village with Julian. We spotted a bunch of kids playing marbles in an alley. They swarmed us, friendly as flies and invited us, in Pidgin English to join in their game. Now when I was a kid in India I had been pretty good with marbles so I agreed. Both they and I were surprised at my skill, which had not been practiced in 3 decades but had not entirely deserted me. I even won a game or two against the local hotshots. Julian looked on a little embarrassed as I frolicked around with these half naked boys.
Back inside the restaurant our food was awful. To appease Julian, who simply loathed Indian food, I had ordered Chinese dishes for us. Obviously the cook had never been anywhere near China or its cuisine. I don’t know what it was he concocted but, except for the plain white rice, it was inedible. Still everyone was in a jovial mood and we managed to salvage the occasion with tidbits pilfered from other plates and lively conversation. Eventually several adults and the younger kids headed back down the beach to their rooms leaving me, my two brothers, a brother-in-law, several older nephews and one niece to carry on.
We were wired. We grabbed a few beers and headed out onto the beach in front of the village which now resembled a makeshift refugee camp with dozens of fishermen staked out near their boats in lean-to’s, under canvas tarps or just sprawled out on the sand waiting for dawn when they would head out into the ocean. When the beer ran out Ian and I went to see if we could find some more. We found ourselves back at the Moonraker; the only establishment still open. There was our hippy friend still hanging out. He greeted us warmly and once again plied us beer and conversation. We settled in forgetting our purpose until, after an hour or so, my brother Mark came looking for us. He too was trapped for a while but eventually we bribed the owner for some take-out beers and wandered back to rejoin the others.
What a night it was! The air was still deliciously warm; the ocean breeze rich with the flavors of wild magic. Although we regretted the lack of a fire it was not the heat but the ritual of a shared hearth that we were missing. Even this desire was fulfilled when a couple of the boys I had played marbles with earlier showed up. They saw the beer and quickly made themselves at home in our circle. When we indicated that a fire would be nice one of them ran off and came back with an old bicycle tire, which he proceeded to light. Once started, the flame slowly burned slowly around the arc until it eventually swallowed its tail and died. It was hardly a rousing campfire but this smoky, stinky conflagration seemed entirely appropriate to India and the occasion.
While it burned the boys tried to impress us with tales of the ocean and the feats of their fishermen fathers earning sips of beer for their best efforts. One boy boasted of how he and his dad had pursued and speared a shark more than 20 miles out in the open ocean. He claimed it was over a thousand pounds and longer than the boat. It had taken them until past nightfall to tow it back in. If true, this was indeed an impressive accomplishment since the boat we were shown was no more than a hollowed out log about 15 feet long with 2 cross braces on which the fishermen stood while they paddled. The boys eventually drifted off to catch some sleep before their early morning start but not before securing a promise from us that we would go out with them the next day in their boats after they were done fishing. For a significant fee of course; this was India after all. But what the hell, we decided, it would be an adventure.
By this time it was well past midnight and we started strolling the 2 miles or so back to our lodgings. We were in no hurry, entranced as we were by the night and by the ghostly sound of distant breakers scarcely visible way out at low tide under a new moon. On impulse I stripped bare and went running madly across the sand plunging into the iridescent froth. Within minutes everyone had joined me, even my niece who did not seem the least embarrassed to be the only naked woman in the company of naked, hysterical men, one of which was her father. Not content with just a quick dip we swam laughing out past the broken crests into the gently swelling breasts of the wide-open ocean.
We soon grouped like a pod of whales and lay floating on our backs in water so warm, so buoyant, so comforting I could finally believe the that ocean was my true Mother and I her Beloved Child. Looking up into the infinite reach of Father Sky we immediately noticed that we were in the middle of an astounding meteor shower. In stunned silence we watched as bright streak after streak appeared across the heavens beneath the broad spill of stars. As if in response Mother began to glow phosphorescent green and each languid movement of our arms or legs would leave a sparkling trail in her warm blood. We had entered Dream Time, each moment so perfect, so sacred, that any sound, any word would have been a desecration.
Eventually the tide carried us back to shore and, with the dream dispersing, we began to laugh and play and talk again although it was laughter and play and talk that was pervaded with holy wonder. We found ourselves conversing about who we were, about what we most longed for in life; about what really mattered. Most of us lingered until dawn only reluctantly acknowledging the need for sleep.
Later that morning we returned to the village for our rendezvous with the fishermen. The boys were waiting and excitedly showed us their father’s boats each trying to convince us that their boat was the best and cheapest to rent. Although I would have loved to go out in one of the log boats and bag a shark or two, collective prudence prevailed and we selected a large aluminum boat with a small outboard motor.
A crowd of men and boys gathered around as we all crammed in. Then, laughing and joking they pushed and pulled us into the breakers. We were immediately soaked and swamped by the pounding surf and one of our guides who was standing on the front prow yelling instructions was swept overboard. He sheepishly swam after us and clambered in just as the motor kicked in and we surged out to open sea. After some frantic bailing we eventually settled back to enjoy the ride.
We had heard that there was an ancient Shiva temple, built by fishermen for their protection against the Mother in her darker moods. It had had stood for centuries on a tiny rock outcropping a mile or so out in the ocean before being swept off its pedestal during a freak typhoon in 1962. “Yes, yes, yes! Its still there!” we were assured, although we could not get close enough to actually see it underwater as there were dangerous rip tides protecting it. We got close though. Close enough to visualize this strange edifice now a place of devotion for sharks and fish and crabs and only the occasional, very brave diver.
I was not that brave although I did jump overboard with all my clothes on and in seconds was carried far away from the boat by the currents. I was not the least bit frightened. This, despite the fact that fire, not water has always been my element and once, when I was 7, I nearly drowned in this very same ocean when a strong undertow had tugged me from everything I knew on shore into its secret depths. The previous night’s experience of the ocean as Mother was still resonating and I knew no harm would come to me as long as I surrendered to Her.
The boat quickly followed and pulled up near to me. I was thrown a rope and advice, neither of which I needed but accepted anyway as my link to the world of human considerations. But pretty soon everyone was in the water and we were bobbing about like dolphins under the worried gaze of our guides who were doubtless wondering how they would get paid if we all went down.
But no! Once again we were immortal, beyond time, beyond form, beyond worry in the fluid matrix of the Great Mother. At least I was.
That night Julian and I left and were quickly caught up in the frenzy of crowds and taxis and airports and jets. And, all too soon, immersed again in the sterile amenities and frantic pleasures of modern civilization.
Thank-you India, thank-you Providence, thank-you Mother. Thank-you for that strange, that terrifying, that wonderful; that all too brief reprieve.
*Tim Adam currently resides on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Writing provides him opportunities to explore the richness and diversity of the human experience – embedded as it is in mystery and paradox and animated by a profound yearning for recognition, absorption, expansion and participatory joy.