At night drums beat feverishly, like a restless heart, even today in the 21st century, echoing from the villages and jungles, pujahs performed to sacralise an awesome Universe, the great stages of Life completed, a child born, reaching the safety of 5 years old, getting married, dying, placating the myriad gods. In 1972 I was only 22 when I first arrived in the Himalayas, dreaming I could find self-realization in the famous town of yogis and seers, Shangri-la, meditating on the banks of the Ganga River. I had been traumatised by an upbringing in conservative, white-trash Auz, where humanity was conferred according to one's bank account, class connections and conformation with the status quo, and I was hoping there was some other way of living and loving, and myths of India had long nourished that hope. (Of course, for the Indian peasant, the handicaps were even greater, but I was a naive, a white sahib and above the dross of daily reality for the natives.)
The beginning of my fall from the heights of yogidom was scoring some hashish from a craggy old sadhu in his hut beside the river and smoking it upon a rope bed in the backyard of the notorious Swiss Cottage, that sanctuary for international freaks who couldn't fit into the uptight regimes of the ashrams. I was spinning away, up into the stars, when I focused on the atavistic drumming reverberating in the near distance. The drumbeats synched with my heart, I was mesmerised, the pulse of the jungle calling to me, like a sleep-walker I staggered out into the dark and tried to locate the source of the exciting sound. I stumbled across an obstacle course of white round rocks and boulders, the Garden of the Moon, upon the widespread banks of the Ganga River, where many years from hence a village would be built, obliterating the wilderness. In 1972 there were no buildings, only occassional groves of precious trees and lone mud huts, and in the dark I fell in ditches and crawled thru thorn bushes, but like a zombie was drawn ever onwards by the primeval staccato of the jungle drumming.
Eventually I came to an isolated thatch-roofed hut with a fenced off compound at the back from where the aggitated drumming issued and, wild eyed with arousal, I climbed over the simple stick fence. In this primitive backyard I found a mob of natives sitting in a circle, with some men pounding away at the drums while a young girl danced evocatively in the centre, her face hidden by a veil of mystique. I was welcomed into the group and a place made for me to sit, and I got carried away with the passionate rythms, swaying and bopping, my limbs itching to jump about. I noticed an old man was shouting instructions to the girl, who stopped every now and then and took notice, then carried on, her movements more feminine, more graceful, even erotic, according to the old fellows advice.
My mind was inflamed, my limbs bounced about, I couldn't resist the call of jungle-life, the call of my heart, and before I knew it had jumped up to join in the dance, me playing the young male part of courting, flirting, loving the young girl. We danced and danced, writhing, undulating, wriggling, leaping, twisting, weaving in and out of each other, and the mob of Indians went wild, clapping, chanting, ulullating and drumming fit to burst, I felt like Krishna seducing Radha and the heavens descended and were like jewells in our hair.
The old dance guru continued calling out, encouraging her to embellish my courtship, ignite my senses and vanquish my soul, and I played the brave warrior, the noble prince, the consummate lover and the capricious boy, while the Indian peasants laughed and clapped and we all melted as one into a thrumming spiritual orgasm at the intense thrill of being alive. Then the drumming stopped, the old dance master shouted an order, the young girl demurely lifted her veil and revealed a moustache on her upper lip, I reeled back in shock, she was a boy, and the crowd of Indians fell about in laughter at my surprise. The boy had passed his exam with flying colours, he could now play the goddess in many festivities, and I felt like Mowgli in "Jungle Book", welcomed back into the embrace of the people, my second home found at last, a dancer of the 'blood' in his element.
Then there was the time I hung out in front of Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India. It was around 1974 and I was on a bus trundling thru the town of Meerut, that hallowed site of rebellion against the British in 1857. Suddenly the bus lurched to a standstill and from out of nowhere swarmed a sea of people, a great mass of wall to wall humanity flooding up against and enveloping the bus till I feared we would be disintegrated and swept away like a matchstick on a lava flow. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what was going on, more and more people squeezed into open market space, a vast writhing throng and me the only foreigner for a hundred square miles, I had the paranoid vision of being torn to bits and disappearing into that ocean of brown flesh.
I hung out of the bus window to get a clear view of the mysterious phenomenon, like a freak storm or massing of migratory animals, why on earth were all these people flocking here, had the end of the world been announced? Then in the distance I saw the crowd part, an expectant hush filled the dusty air, cops on motorbikes churned thru and then, ever so slowly, an open-top limousine cruised its way towards me with a woman in a white sari standing up in the back and waving regally to the adoring masses. No screaming, no cheering, just the thrum of a collective heartbeat upon held breath. As the limmo got abreast of the bus I recognised the famous trademark of the white streak of hair sweeping up from the forhead, it was Indira Ghandi, wow!
The limmo was hard-pressed to make it thru the burgeoning crowd, she had time to wave to everyone, and with me hanging so obviously out of the bus window, blue eyes flashing, blonde dreadlocks swaying, she couldn't avoid looking straight at me, the stranger in a strange land, and for an infinite moment I looked into her wearied, dark eyes. She gave me a wan smile and a personal wave and then floated onwards, giving all of herself to her beloved nation and the sea of Indians gradually swallowed her up. (I think she was out touting for votes, grand elections were coming up and draconian measures required for her to maintain control, and she badly needed the People's support.)(One result of her authoritarian rule was the tiger count went up, on such issues a fractured India needs strong leadership.)
As for me, for those few moments I felt blessed, like I'd had darshan of a great saint, yeah yeah, just a politician, and eventually compromised by her tyrannical "state of Emergency", but what an awesome character, "Mother India", her charisma shone for a mile and it had touched me, my usual great luck, it was the quintessential Indian experience. Once she'd faded into the dust-laden sunset the crowd dispersed as quickly and as mysteriously as it had formed, suddenly all that brown flesh melted away and my bus was able to lurch onwards, down that Infinite Highway, me rubbing myself to make the dream real, and glowing. Yeah, the clear existential Light in India always rubs off on one, where humanity is writ large and life has a sharp, bitter/sweet, exilarating tang, a miracle to be alive and a miracle to survive it.