The babas and the doggy biscuits
Trip Start Aug 15, 2005
5Trip End Ongoing
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Sitting in Sonijee's shop, drinking coffee and talking about Sonijee's guru, I failed to understand the concept of Indian wealth. If Sonijee has so much money, I later asked Peter, then why doesn't he do something with it? His entire day seemed comprised of sitting on his stool, smoking cigarettes and ganja, and drinking the odd glass of chai. "What, you think he should buy a big house and a sports car?" said Peter. Well, yes, I guess so, I replied. "Why should he have to do anything with his money?" said Peter, sighing; "Sonijee has daughters and four sons, he's got big responsibilities, and he has dowries to pay and a future to think of - there's no pensions in India. And what is this Western notion that you have to do something with your money, always have more, always buy things, never be satisfied? Sonijee lives in constant view of the Ganga; he has his guru, his wife, his business - what more could he want?"
We were walking towards Ram Jhulla, a half hours stroll through shaded woodland, past wandering cows and scabby donkeys and monkeys with big orange arses. I was taking photographs of anything that moved, trying to fathom my complicated camera. Rishikesh is truly a beautiful little corner of the country, shaded from all sides by a sweeping valley that forms a chain line of hills all the way into the Himalayas, and the water, if you are brave enough to jump inside it and redeem your sins, is icy cold as it runs down from the mountains.
I was contemplating this as we approached the maelstrom of Ram Jhulla, and the pilgrims congregating around the main temple, the cassette stalls blasting out devotional bhajans, hawkers with face paint and peacock feather fans, and cows and dogs and even donkeys, nodding through the crowds and idling up next to the colourful Baba's.
Yes, the Baba's. It is impossible to grasp anything of the character of India without an awareness of the Indian holy men. Sadhu's, they may be called, or Sanyassin's, or simply the Baba's, and they mostly wander around the country from pilgrimage place to place, often with nothing but their orange robes and a shoulder bag or tin for their food. "Bom Bolinat, sabkesat" is their famed refrain, meaning 'May Shiva (God) bless us all'. But not all of them are to be trusted; marijuana, or charas, opium poppy seeds and brown sugar, it is often the Baba's with the shiny eyes who deal the drugs around the Rishikesh ghats.
Peter, as a man long experienced in dealing with every kind of Indian, took me to 'ghat number three' to see where many Baba's spend the night. Nearly all are dressed the same, in orange lungis, or orange shawls, and often turbans to shield the sun and dreadlocked hair. Nagarananji Baba was striking in his attire (if that is how you spell his name - there may have been a few more syllables). He told us that he had travelled all over Europe, and in Italy married a Western girl who often comes to visit him in India (see below, on the left).
Who knows. But in a country like this, where even the concept of atheism is unknown to most, then the pampered, materialistic Western mind is often a hindrance to understanding. I could certainly not live like a Baba - a flooding shower I could deal with, maybe, and the dirty floors and walls and the lines of ants, but a lifetime of homelessness, of handouts and contemplation, and of sleeping on concrete floors like ghat number three... but surely I was missing the point? It wasn't just once that Peter became exasperated with what he called my "linear, journalist questions". "Look around at these people," he said; "Now these are what you call men, there are no boys in this place. Each one of these has had to fight for survival; who knows what they've been through. They're like those stray dogs; they're just skin and bone, just about surviving on what they're given."
But no, I still don't quite get it, and I probably never will. Just like the stray, bony dog I fed biscuits to by a chai stall on our walk back to Laxman Jhulla. He looked like his birthdays had all come at once. "He'll have dreams about that tonight," laughed Peter, "Doggy biscuit dreams! That will be your good karma, that will." And we discussed the attitude of tourists in giving money to sadhu's and beggars. "See, you've got to give notes," said Peter, after I'd just handed a sadhu a tenner, who returned it with a nod of appreciation. "You see these tourists giving one rupee - what's that? No sadhu will even look you in the eye for one rupee. But we're millionaires, we come over here with enough money to live like a Maharaja. We should all give 10 per cent minimum of everything we have; 10 per cent and you don't even notice it. What's that to us?"
It was good to see Peter again and to listen to his spiritual orations and soliloquays, but my unplanned diversion has turned into a week already, and my suffering stomach is finally seeming to recover. I've been on spinach and tomatoe soups since Thursday.
So tomorrow it's time to move north to Khullu, a long 20 odd hour bus ride until I make to Parvati Valley. From there, I will find a little house somewhere with electricity, a desk, a somewhat view of the Himalayas, and a distinct lack of other tourists - these are the only provisos. And then a few weeks of writing until it begins.
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