Saturday, December 09, 2006

Of Bad Babas and Sweet Devas.

Money makes for the magic carpet ride, it can take you anywhere, comfortably. I got talked into hiring a car, at "mate's rates", which in India means extra expenses for the mate and an interminable wait for the car to be ready, a week of spinning about the back-alleys looking for a digital car-stereo system in an analog backwater, at least I got to prowl the jungle's edges at midnight and see some wild elephants crashing thru the brush and streaking across the highway to beat the traffic. Most of the hanging around was for paperwork that never eventuated, we drove off with no insurane and then the car broke down at the first town.

Stuck in Chamba, a medieval dump perched on top of a mountain, where Tolkien meets William Gibson as in cyberpunk goblin-grunge. Mercifully, with India's huge workforce, there is a mechanic every 700 yards, the broken fan was fixed and we were off on my much anticipated cruise thru the glorious Garwhal Himalayas. Car-driving up on the ever-disintegrating, narrow roads is a extreme-sport here for tumbling rocks and landslides can sweep us over the edge at any moment, trucks rush at us from nowhere, our nearest accident was when a horse came racing down a precipitous slope to skid under our wheels, us braking hard just in time. I used to do this trip on a motorbike, really out in the elements, the car is a cripple's dream, so cozily contained. Where once was the low-road that past thru old Tehri and deserted villages, now we go the high road for the Tehri Dam has engulfed the Gangetic valleys and drowned all, sunk under a vast man-made lake, never to be seen again, but I'd seen it before the mountains were moved, the ecology changed, now it's cyberpunk, hydro-electricity and water skiing instead of Shiva's shakti and temple trekking.

Tearing around the hair-pin bends, infinite vistas of mountains and valleys spread before us, snow-caps above and the Ganges river a 1000 ft drop below, hardstyle techno music thumping, I had an epiphany as the sun broke out and beamed hot white light into my brain. Yes! This is what I've gone to all the trouble to get here for! A day of high-altitude speeding got us to a hot spring, Gangonani, dedicated to Shiva, He once supposedly meditated there, and many Rishis have lived there over the centuries, beaming the place ecstatic, for the gorgeous warmth of hot water above the snow-line. By the side of the huge steaming tank I was met by a sadhu-baba with evil eyes and saccharine exhortations to join him at his dhooni, (campfire), to smoke and be regaled by his many wondrous tales. He was dressed in faded saffron rags, a pseudo-swami with a rat's face peeping from under an orange turban wound around his dreadlocks. I've met many sleazy babas in my life and saw this one coming a mile off and told him I wasn't interested. My driver informed me the sly fellow was infamous in Shangri-la as a "smack baba", he hung out by a grotesque statue of Kali outside town, it looked fit for human sacrifice, and he imbibed and pushed brown sugar in the village till he was told to fuck-off, and had now fled to the upper regions to hustle the unwary as a pretenscious holy-man.

We stayed at the hotsprings for 3 days, going on drives high above the snow-line towards the source of the Ganges till the snow banks allowed us no further. And everywhere we went we heard the soundtrack from that latest of Bollywood shlockbusters, "Dhoom 2", the signature song being "Dhoom achale!" ("Let's Go Party!"), the Indians love to party, alongside many international freaks like me, life as one long party with tedious work-spells to pay for it all. Back at the hotsprings the "bad baba" continued to importune me, whenever I looked up from my swimming in the hot-tank, I found his hungry, sly eyes upon me. In the bath I was surrounded by the locals, like sweet, innocent angels who have flown down from some celestial region, when I sang my song of joy they leaned in close to catch my every breath. Soaking alongside me were hardworking, honest, hospitable Garwhali farmers, their cherubic children and the immigrant workers from all over India who drill the rocks to make new roads or toil relentlessly to clear those roads of the interminable landslides for us maharajas to pass by without a care. I love sitting with them in the chai-shops and listening to their tales of danger and death, they work for a private company with no security and low wages, yet were ebullient about the wonder of being alive.

One of the facets of the Indian psyche that fasinates me is their sacralising of the entire universe, every spring, tree, turn in the road has it's resident spirit or godhead, sacred music always lilts in the air, and every 7 yards some aspect of the divine needs to be propitiated. I also see the entire universe as sacred but I don't need any god or spiritual symbolism to bolster my awe. Yet I like to recieve the blessing from their sacred hotspots, trying to weave myself into their fabulous fabric, to kind of make my passage easier. So I went up to the Shiva temple to get my blessing for my Indian sojourn, I tip-toed the perambulation around the central icon fearing I would run into the "bad baba" and, just when I thought I had escaped, I tripped over him laying flat out upon the warm granite behind the altar like a Gollem waiting to be resuscitated.

He sprang to life with alacrity, at last the firangi, (foreigner), was ripe for the picking. He insisted on doing the blessing ritual, mumbling mumbo-jumbo while he put tilak on my third-eye. When I informed him I wanted the red string bracelet that signifies I'd completed a pilgrimage he searched wildly amidst the altar bric-a-brac, tossing icons and sacred paraphenalia willy-nilly, tearing the place up in his avidity to please the rich white maharaja, finally amidst his tornado-like efforts some red-string was found and I was twice-blessed with it twirled about my wrist and he with 51 rupees. I wandered off befuddled that I had now been sacralised by a notorious "smack-baba", but I reasoned that it's the place that counts, not so much the fallible human who lurks there.