Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Bumpy Ride to a Broken Heart.

At the beginning of my latest Indian adventure, the twentieth in nineteen years, I had a dream. I was on the edge of a precipice, the drop below me was infinite, indeed it was the Void. Instead of hesitating and quaking with fear at the thought of falling into the bottomless depths, as I’ve had in repetitive dreams of heights, I simply threw myself into the emptiness and dove headfirst without a qualm, letting go, come what may. Landing from an air-plane, that’s how I flung myself into India in late 2015: while tightening my seat-belt I let the chaotic swirl take me, and my Mind tried to swim with the flow.

We cruised in a car up into the Himalayas, to Badrinath, site of a major temple to Vishnu the Preserver and his female counterpart, Laxmi the Munificent. We wanted to make it for the closing Pujah on November 17, for the snow-line was creeping ever closer, but halfway there my friend, Pankaj got a phone-call imploring him to attend a family wedding, in a village high up on a mountain ridge.

We raced up a snaking, pot-holed road, a vertical ascent with a 7 thousand foot drop to the right of us. The driver, Deepak, drove like he was trying to make it to Hell before his time, fast and cocky, as if he were a champion Formula 1 driver, the wheels on the right-side barely skirting the crumbling dirt track. A yellow crescent moon hung on the floor of the distant valley’s entrance, with illuminated mountains holding up the Milky Way twinkling above, and village lights twinkling in reply far below, as if to say “Goodbye!”

I swear I saw a wheel at times skating across thin air. I shat my pants at every bend; I should have said, “Slow down!” For sure enough he hit a curve with gravel and the car skidded, one second and it’s over the edge into the black gloom, in that same second he swerved the car to the left, into the mountain-side, thankfully into a bank of dirt so that the car is hardly damaged, though I cracked my neck at the impact.

One second from death: maybe Vishnu the Preserver was watching over us? I don’t believe in the actuality of gods, but I understand the reification of powerful ideas, symbols, metaphors and mythological treatises. Love, kindness, generosity, strength, loyalty, honesty, compassion, harmlessness, calmness, patience, these values are worthy of admiration and emulation. Epic myths like The Mahabaratha and The Ramayana have layers of existential messages woven within them that all people attempting self-improvement can take note of.

In Hindu mythology Vishnu had flown from the southern oceans where He had been dreaming the dream of the world and existence and at the end of days had flown up into the Himalayas, to create and dwell in the celestial abode, the staircase to which is hidden somewhere in the heights above Badrinath. Rama and Sita, benign king and queen, avatars of Vishnu and Laxmi, reputedly made pilgrimage to the site and themselves disappeared up the Celestial staircase when it was their time to enter heaven. It’s an amazingly high place and we were lucky to get there.

Driving carefully, with a crushed right front, we got to the wedding late, it had descended into a shambles, the peasant men had all gotten drunk and were dancing uproariously, many grabbed a hold of my arms and legs and, in the attempt to make me dance, nearly tore me limb from limb. I hate drunks, they groped, grappled, pushed and shoved so that I had to run for the car and lock myself in with them chasing after and banging at the windows.

We made our escape and headed down the mountain ridge then up the rocky trail towards our goal, only we got stopped about 3a.m. by a roadblock: the cops don’t want anyone roaring off the road in the dark. We couldn’t proceed until dawn, so we slept in the car, glaciers hovering over us. It’s a good thing I was a boy-scout as I was prepared, warm clothes, a thermal sleeping-bag, fruit juice, dried fruit and nuts, flash-light; my friends had only a warm jacket each but froze nonetheless. Not long after dawn we rumbled into the sacred city.

My friends attended the big ceremony for the closing of the Temple hoping to gain some boons for their business ventures; as I’m not Hindu, I neither took a bath in the hot-springs or entered the Temple, merely wandering the area and eyeballing the ascetics who do penance in the cold. Rich babus handed out blessed free food, (Prasad), puris with chick peas and chai. I think we were eating their karma but I didn’t care, it was all magical thinking to my mind and I sure enjoyed the hot meal after the cold night.

Just out of town, on our way back down the mountain, we stopped at a Hanuman temple to pay our respects to the pagan monkey god, hoping some of His strength, loyalty, honor and tenacity would rub off on us. After all, without his help Rama would never have rescued his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the ravages of Ravana, king of the demons; maybe I could get rescued from my own demons as well.

I had many other Himalayan adventures in my rented car such as rescuing two New York Jewish boys who had gone to the top of the mountains and run out of cash as they’d expected to find ATMs up there. They were great company and played Jimmi Hendrix as we zoomed amid the Tolkien crags, music which made my day.

Eventually I set off down south, the only train available was from Nizamuddin, a grungy station some distance from the center of Delhi. I should have been warned, a bad omen presented itself as I got down from my taxi, a dead black cat rotting in the middle of the road... uggghhhh! The station was in an uproar, thousands of passengers crowded in every nook and cranny, all trains four to six hours late. I’d stupidly arrived at 12.30 pm for a 5pm train only to discover to my chagrin that my train wouldn’t come till 11 pm at night. There had been a train crash on the line earlier that morning, with a hundred dead, In Auz they’d talk about it for the next fifty years, in India there’s a train wreck every other day and no one seemed dully perturbed.

And so I sat upon the crowded platform for an eternity, eyeballing the comings and goings of ordinary Indians, people-watching one of my favorite past-times. When at last I lay upon my berth, my express train crawled slowly or halted at side-lines, every other train having priority, we were ten hours late into Mumbai and, not fed on the 2nd day, I was crawling up the wall by the time of our arrival at 2 a.m. in the morning. But that wasn’t the end of the bad luck from the dead black cat, for deep sadness and strife was to confront me in Goa, which I still haven’t gotten over.

My good friend from last year, Ravi, met me in Mumbai. I had looked after him and his family for the last year, paying for his mother’s and father’s medical expenses and then his father’s funeral-pyre for the old boy had drunk himself to death. Ravi had tried working in a hotel in Bangalore, slaving there for six months without pay, the boss always promising the money would come in a month, the bank was holding onto it. In reality he was building a second hotel and not paying the wages of any of his workers in the first hotel, feeding them with promises, dahl and rice.

When the unpaid staff went to the police the hotel owner simply paid the cops a bribe, much cheaper than the back wages, and the complaint was ignored. This is how the poor workers are treated in India by middle-class entrepreneurs, they are slaves with no rights, (as noted in books such as “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga and “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry.) Thus I had to save Ravi from starving, sleeping on the street and getting lost in the vast crowd of impoverished India, that is, I got him back home to his village.

In Mumbai we had a great time going to the movies and pubs and then we were off to Goa on the sleeper bus. For a whole year we had waited with bated breath for the party season and now we were about to go for it. First we went to Curly’s Pub on Anjuna Beach, Ravi got drunk on three bottles of beer and tried to put his hands on a blond English girl and we had an argument over it on the way back to our room.

We got bored and decided to go back to Curly’s, big mistake for I’ve learned from my fucked-up life to never try to repeat an experience too soon after the first as it only gets worse. Going back on the motorbike I espied a white owl landing upon a lamp-post and I should’ve again taken note of this sign from the animal world. The owl is ridden by the Goddess Laxmi and She was trying to warn me to take care, the preservation of my well-being was at stake. (Superstitious nonsense I know, but if one’s Mind is attuned to these things one’s intuition can lead the way to safety and happiness.)

At the Pub the bouncers refused Ravi entry onto the dance floor, they were practiced at spotting drunken fools who might try touching up the girls. He was furious and wanted to fight them, I had to drag him away and again we argued on the way home. He’d been a sweet, polite lad up to this point so I didn’t know that hidden inside was an obstinate rebel ready to break out.

While I constantly nagged him to be careful in Goa, that it was full of goondas, drug dealers and cheats and an innocent like him would be eaten alive, that he should listen to direction from a wise old traveler like me, he smirked and said he knew all about Goa and he could very well handle himself, thank you very much.

Down on the beach, a guy named Surya, (the sun), whom I’d known since he was a child but who had now grown into a shady character, daily harangued me into buying drugs from him. I told him repeatedly I was too old to take drugs, they were bad for my health and managed to fob him off. Not one to give up,  he decided the only way to get to me was through Ravi and was forever whispering in his ear about the wonder drugs he had that would improve the party experience no end, and stupid, excitable Ravi was open to suggestion.

On day five of our long-awaited Goan sojourn the first cool party of the season was to happen, at a funky venue called ‘Monkey Valley’, and we were eager to attend it. I told him not to get too carried away as it would merely be a warm-up exercise for the big parties at Christmas and New Years. But like all hot-headed youth, he wasn’t listening, he wanted to party his brains out the first chance he got.

After much motor-biking around rice-paddy fields, coconut groves and back lanes we found ‘Monkey Valley’ and it sure was a funky party, really going off. We danced for awhile amid the mostly Russian crowd, the best looking Russian hooker even sat next to me on a chai mat and gave me the cheesy smile, and I figured it was all good practice for the coming big events at the Hilltop where the hottest music was soon to be had.

At one point, when we were taking a rest, an Indian twerp in pseudo psychedelic disco gear came up to us and asked us if we had any “paper”. I thought he meant a cigarette paper and gave him one but he refused it, hissing, “No, acid paper!” I could only grumble in reply, “No, we’re not into such crap, so fuck off you fuckwit!”

Maybe it was this that decided him to try and fuck us. Looking back on it all I flashed that probably we were targeted right from the beginning; as a well-dressed old Westerner with a watch on his wrist, accompanied by an Indian, I stood out like cat’s balls. It’s happened to me before, the rest of the grunge-bunny crowd in their tattered hippie clothes looking like they’ve got no money, and “old is gold” the Indians love to pronounce.

Ravi got the guy aside and whispered earnestly to him, they both yak-yakked and gesticulated meaningfully, and then the idiot spun away into the crowd. I told Ravi not to speak to the dickhead, to have nothing to do with him, in fact not to speak to anyone as nobody could be trusted at these parties. He nodded as if he took note but seven minutes later yelled in my ear that he was going back to the room to have a shower. I thought nothing of it except he disappeared for over an hour, leaving me to the mercy of the ribald party-goers, many of whom tried to grab a piece of me, causing me to constantly shift across the dance-floor.

I was quite annoyed by the time Ravi re-appeared, for his job was to be my minder and make sure nobody interfered with me; for all he cared I could’ve been kidnapped and murdered. He announced he was bored and tired, he wasn’t getting off on the party, he needed something extra to keep him going. I asked what his problem was, as a fit young man he should be able to dance all night long, “Look at me, I’m an oldie and can go for hours! I don’t get it?” I soon would. He'd earlier gone off with the fuckwit for a secret conference, not a shower.

The next morning he received a phone call, from his Mumbai friend he said, and I groaned, wondering what goonda was about to turn up. Indians and Euros have all heard the myths and rush to Goa thinking it’s a free for all: sex, drugs, Nirvana, all there just waiting to be grabbed, it’s like an hallucinatory fever that throws good sense in the gutter.

I thought no more about it and was having breakfast in a beach shack when that little shit Surya rushed up to me and squawked, “Where’s that bastard friend of yours? He’s brought the cops down on me and now they’re demanding I pay them one hundred and fifty thousand rupees. You’ll have to cough up half of the money!”

I snorted in shock, “Fuck off! I don’t know what you’re talking about. He’s gone off to have breakfast with a Mumbai friend. And whatever he’s done it’s got nothing to do with me. You won’t be getting any money from me!”

He ran off, face screwed up, and I sat there fuming. A half hour later Ravi joined me, blithe as can be, a cryptic smile on his face. “What the fuck are you smiling about? Surya just told me you got him busted by the cops and he wants money from me!”

“Surya is a bad man, he’s fucked it for everyone. Don’t worry, you’re not involved, he has to sort it out by himself,” he mumbled and then ordered his breakfast. My Goan friends heard all the racket and asked him in Hindi what was going on and they conferred for a few minutes, my friends’ faces growing darker the more he explained himself.

It seems his good friend from Mumbai was the fuckwit he’d met last night at the party and, on being told he could get half of the ten thousand rupees worth of drugs to be scored, Ravi thought of all the blandishments Surya had whispered in his ear and decided to connect the two of them up, and then he could really party. He’d woken Surya from his drunken slumber, gone up onto the cliff-top and introduced them, the Mumbai guy now with another of his friends.

As soon as Surya presented the bag of noxious rubbish, (he was notorious for selling bad drugs to any fool he approached), and tried grasping for the cash, the Mumbai twerp flashed a badge, revealed a gun in his belt and announced the two of them were cops from Mumbai on special assignment to bust drug dealers in Goa. But if they were given fifty thousand rupees they would forget the whole matter.

“Hmmmm…”, I thought, “Surya is a consummate liar and is hoping to salvage some extra profit from the debacle by squeezing a lot of cash from me.” Instead his whole plan of somehow getting to my money blew up in his face and he had to run around the village trying to drum up cash from the locals, none of whom were forthcoming. In the end he had to borrow the fifty thousand from his sister.

My Goan friends were incensed over the affair and declared Ravi to be a stupid idiot who should fuck off from Goa quick smart. They advised me to put him on the bus to Mumbai that evening and wipe my hands of the whole affair. Quite abashed, Ravi agreed to go and, as he packed his bags, informed me that the cops wanted ten thousand rupees from him also so that he would not be implicated. I had to hand it over, plus expenses to get him home to the other side of India.

Our grand Goan idyll had lasted exactly five days, all our plans, dreams, joys lay in ruins, and I cried as I watched him get on the motorbike taxi to be taken to the bus station. That was the last I ever saw of him, his back receding into the darkness, me to face the Goan maelstrom alone and lonely. (We still remain good friends though, talking on the phone three times a week, me backing his latest business venture of running a restaurant in his home village so that he'll be able to look after himself.)

On reading the Goan newspapers I saw a report of two men haunting the local towns, pretending to be cops, flashing badges and convincing people to put their gold jewelry and cash into a box for safekeeping, only to discover later, on opening the box, their precious items missing. I wondered if these confidence tricksters were not the same duo who had scammed Ravi and Surya, an easy way to steal cash for no one would complain to the cops if drugs were involved, all it took was a quick flash of a counterfeit badge and scowling faces. So wandering techno-headz beware, false cops are on the prowl !

I sat depressed for several days, my worst Goan trip ever, even the Christmas party at the Hilltop didn’t cheer me up, the techno music was derivative and the crowd was lackluster. They must’ve all been waiting for the bigger extravaganza that was being erected across the road, the Sunburn Festival, three days of raucous noise clashing from 7 stages and a crowd of fifty thousand revelers swarming to and fro like lemmings with their heads chopped off.

This popular area of Goa, Vagatore, used to be peaceful on most days with just the few choice parties to keep die-hard dancers interested. With the advent of this giant money-making machine Vagatore became Hell as far as I’m concerned. Every dope and their dog rushed in to hand their money over and make “the scene”, to be hip for a day, to live the dream of waving their arms about in abandoned ecstasy, the exigencies of life forgotten, the joys of rubbing up against wannabe fashionistas indulged in. The hippies of the ‘Sixties and ’Seventies didn’t know what they were starting, a party legend that a vast horde in the future would want a piece of.

They came in cars, buses, motorbikes, jeeps and handcarts. There were young, tough razor-haired gangsters clutching at gorgeous mini-skirted models, old Sikhs in turbans and beards hand in hand with broken hipped mamas and wide-eyed kids, Scandinavian blonds and German backpackers, grannies selling fried eggs and fishermen selling fluero T-shirts, businessmen in safari-suits and Babas in saffron robes, all pushing, shoving, ogling, groping under klieg-lights while Ferris-wheels turned and Security guards frisked.

Indians just love to squeeze in like sardines by the hundreds of thousands, usually at religious Melas in some famous temple or cricket maidan. Now the 21st Century version is an overwhelming techno party that is in actuality a license to print money for a tight group of Sikh entrepreneurs who get everyone sucked in with a promotion blitz announcing that they are changing the world and bringing on Utopia. I had a look at the front gates, got trampled by the crowd and cringed at the easy hysteria humanity can be drummed into.

I ran back to the beach to hide out in my friends’ chai-shack and wait for the mess to blow over in three days. I have an absolute terror of big crowds, going back to when I was fifteen in 1965 and got crushed by the sea of fans screaming for the Beatles outside their hotel when they came to Melbourne.

Only a few days after Christmas another disaster struck. One of the three brothers who ran the beach-shack restaurant where I’ve been eating for twenty years, and who are very good friends of mine, suddenly died. He was the cook and had worked himself to death, slaving over a hot griddle with the sun beating down through the palm-leaf roof. I was eating lunch when the waiter came up to me and said, “Pani has expired!” I couldn’t grasp his meaning, I’d seen Pani the day before and all seemed well.

“Expired? He's breathed out? Oh, you mean he’s dead?” I stammered.
“Yes, he’s dead, from a fever! He was only forty years old and leaves a wife and child behind. He was such a hard worker, it killed him in the end.” We were all in shock for the next week, and very, very sad; I cried a lot, he reminded me of all the friends I’d said goodbye to over my long life. This holiday sure was working out to be a dolorous time.

The dear man was wrapped in a shroud and placed in his room with only his face showing, the rest of him covered in Marigold flowers. The women of the family and neighborhood sat around his body wailing while the men stood outside. We each had to go in and have one last look at his beloved face. I was the only foreigner and felt a bit shy but I love the family and overcame my reticence, respect is easy to give when it comes to friendship. His body was then taken to the funeral grounds below Chapora Fort and burnt, and that’s how this wonderful, mysterious life goes on this planet.

I then had to mind the beach-shack for three days while the family was in mourning, thankfully I had Amitav Gosh to read and preserve my sanity, but I cried a lot, for Pani, for Ravi, for my mom and dad who I never really got to tell how much I loved them.

Then New Years Eve came and things improved, the party a the Hilltop was cutting, hot music, fantastic crowd, jumping and swaying, hopping and bopping, and for a few hours I danced my soul electric and let go of the blues. But the beauty of the Goan idyll had been bruised for me and I decided to leave earlier than I had at first planned.

I made it up to the glorious Himalayas again, went on many motor-bike rides to the mountain tops, felt quite consoled as I always do by the infinite vistas of valleys and snowy peaks, the Ganges River winding far below, and I breathed the fresh air, smiled at my companion, and knew how fabulous being alive was. It sure had been a bumpy  ride to get there though.

If you enjoyed this story please go to the WEB address above and consider buying my book of tales about growing up anarcho-queer, rock and roll punter and mystic adventurer in Australia and India of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.