I left Mughal Delhi behind me with some relief, saddened to hear 14 Eunuchs had died in a fire at a community hall. Because their families had disowned them, only their fellow Hijra, (trannies), came to claim their bodies. Many of them were old and couldn't outrun the flames and it was their young chelas, (acolytes), to whom they belonged. I was surprised to note that many of them were previously Muslims.
Though I was happy to be on that
infinite dusty Indian highway, I got the heebie-jeebies as the bus trundled through Haridwar, Gateway to the Gods, where at the city's famous temple, Hari ki Padi, a week previously, their had been a stampede during evening Pujah prayers, and 20 women and children had been trampled to death. The prayer group had been trying to overcome rampant sexism and empower the women by letting them lead the prayers for once, and that's why most of the deaths were female.
With 1200 million people life and death are writ so large it tears one's eyeballs out at every step, and for all the immense wealth piling up in India many poor flock from miles around when free food is to be given away, they'll squat and wait patiently for hours, patience is an Indian necessity.
On the road to Gangotri, source of the Ganges River, we found an ashram belonging to a mystic named Pilot Baba, (yes, he was once an airline pilot); he has a huge Russian following who built this vision for him and he now lives in Russia.
At last we broke through civilization's gates and were flying up into the high Himalayas, those magnificent mountains of mystics who have meditated there for thousands of years. As we drove through the jungle I noticed forest rangers walking the road with rifles slung over their shoulders. A rogue elephant had killed 5 people in the last few months, only recently dragging one poor fellow off his scooter and crushing him. They were hoping to tranquilise the brute and then shift him to a far-off jungle where human encroachment will not infuriate him as much. He's getting some animal revenge on so much human predation I guess. I wished him well as we cruised on by.
(Manu and I at the magic Temple to Nature.)
Up, up we flew, towards the snow-capped crags on the back of a golden motorbike, round hairpin bends and into hurtling traffic, monstrous jeeps that jostled us aside, through streams and over rock-slides, places where no road existed at all, an extreme sojourn so exhilarating it was worth any danger. We passed marvelous temples, the architecture of folklore, and a line-up of gods so manifold there seemed one for every person alive. We rode above the Ganges River turned into an endless lake by the Tehri Dam and yet again I pondered upon my youth when I did wander the valley paths and medieval villages with my mentor Compassion and beloved friend Serenity way back in the '70s, a landscape now all drowned beneath the turquoise waters.
We crossed the cable bridge into grungy, romantic Uttarkashi, town of my dreams, where I cream in my jeans, who all year I yearn for and always return for a night by her streams. But Time cascades on making all an illusion and I have to let go, next day we zoomed to Gangonani, with its huge tank filled by a hot-spring, supposedly the fountain erupting from Siva’s head, a healing embrace for my sore bones no matter the mythology.
It was at this small village clinging to the mountains side that I first met Manu, maybe seven years ago. He was from a tiny village 7 kms down the road called Buki but he hung about Gangonani most days hoping to find work with the passing tourists, offering to guide them to Gormukh, a site at the foot of the Glacier that is the source of the Ganges. He stepped forward from the crowd of ignorant peasant boys speaking fluent English when nobody for 70 kms could speak a word of it. He was honest, sincere and sweet natured and we became friends instantly.
He could never find enough interesting work to occupy his inquiring spirit, he felt he had greater potential than just toiling in the fields as his forefathers had done, he was made for bigger things but he knew not what. He was bored and restless, he’d outgrown Buki Village and knew there was a greater world out there, below the mountains yet had no means to attain it. Every year he told me his mind grew more clouded, his spirit more depressed, he was losing hope that there could be any future for such a misfit as he. I tried to give him pep-talks, encourage him to go down to the plains and take on the world, no matter the hardships but it seemed beyond him. I suggested he could turn his family farm into a miracle of modernity and eco-friendliness, his despondency found it a banal idea.
I brought him books that talked of the history of the world and might open his horizons, he ended up throwing them in the river, they hurt his brain with their difficult words and mind-bending concepts. There is no Medicare in the mountains, no shrinks with their anti-depressants and no money to pay for it, just priests and shamans whom he eschewed as backwoods mumbo-jumbo. Last year when I left I asked him what he wanted me to bring him next time I came and he requested dark sun-glasses, a very simple gift.
He became unpopular at Gangonani hot-springs for cracking onto the foreign tourists and taking the custom away from the locals, they were jealous of his language skills and thought him too big for his boots. This year he had a fight with the fat, gronky hotel owner; he must have beat the old grouch up for the police were called and he was put in some mountain jail for two months to cool his heels. I’ve never known anyone to come out of an Indian jail the better for it, it destroys the little spirit and stamina they might have harbored going in. I had great fears for Manu’s health and said so to my motorbike companion as we arrived at the hot-springs. Usually Manu was waiting there at the chai-shops, ready to greet any arriving tourists but this time he was nowhere to be seen.
We put our bags in at the wooden-chalet hotel and then drove back to Buki to see if we could get word to him through the old men that sat hunched over their brazier in the chai-shop there. We mentioned his name and they said he was finished, gone, dead, having committed suicide by drinking poison only three days previously. I couldn’t believe it, three lousy days too late, if I’d left a week earlier I might have picked his spirits up, with more pep-talk and the dark sunglasses he so desired. I stared down at the ancient cable-bridge that led over the nascent Ganges to the path that wound up over the mountain to his primitive village, a column of smoke issued from the place and I sadly imagined it to be the left-over haze from his funereal pyre. The old men of Buki shook their heads and indicated that his mind had gone, there was nothing to be done about it.
The next day we cruised all the way to Gangotri, sacred pilgrimage town lying below a stupendous snow-capped peak named Siva Lingam from whence the Ganges River flowed. We paid our respects at the great temple but I wanted to avoid getting caught up in any rituals as I don’t believe in them, find them tedious and time consuming, night was setting in, we were freezing and I wanted to get back down the mountain to the hot-springs. But this old Baba roped us in, promising us hot chai as he led us across the river to the small mandir he was in charge of where he made a great show of lighting up a chillum and shouting up to the gods. Before I could say no he’d opened up his little temple and proceeded to bless us with red tilak on our foreheads, water on our heads and manna in our mouths. His particular god was Hanuman, the monkey cohort of Lord Rama and thus I got a blessing from what I take to be the spirit of my evolutionary forebears, we’ve all still got millions of years of ape-men in us, and only seven thousand years of civilization.
Hanuman symbolizes strength, courage, loyalty and cleverness, all attributes I would need on my Indian idyll, he is the guardian of bachelors and protector from ghosts, which suits a queer adventurer like me just fine. I don’t believe in the reality of any gods but positive vibes and meaningful metaphors can’t hurt any. We thankfully said our goodbyes and cruised off back down the crumbling mountain road, passing a small herd of wild Himalayan mountain goats on the way. Not far off is a town called Dirauli and there built into a pit is a primeval temple to Nature, my favourite temple in all the world and to which I give myself a challenge to visit every year, if I can make it there I can make it anywhere. No God, no Master, no Intelligent Designer, just an awesome natural phenomenon that is Life and consciousness emerging from the quantum flux of this expanding Universe.
I had visited this temple with Manu some years previously, it seemed to lift his spirits as it did mine, to walk seven times around it and pray to the Universe, of which we were a conscious part, that It would take us to Its heart in safety, love and ongoing hope. It was not to be for Manu but it continues to be so for me. I’ve reached the miraculous age of 62 after countless hardships, it’s not easy being a ignominious queer pauper libertarian pagan adventurer cyber-punk artist, I’ve contemplated suicide throughout my life’s long journey, grand Oblivion always looking over my left shoulder, the promise of it reassuring enough not to need it.
The world can be such a sad, destructive place, especially in India, the newspapers tell me Jihadi Mujahidine are massing in Pakistan and India and we foreign tourists are “sitting ducks” for their pathological hatred. Yet India counters death with a great verve for life and this energizes me and gets me surfing the wave of chaos ebulliently. After all, I'm a baby-boomer from Auz and as such am very privileged, far better off than maybe 7 billion other souls wrestling with their existence on this planet.
I was so depressed when I arrived in India this time round I thought surely this would be my last adventure, somewhere amidst the snow-caps of the Himalayas I would do myself in, I feel so tired and dead-beat I just can’t go on. Sweet Manu did it for me, and I have to carry on for him, till the very end, wherever that may be. I can't say I won't finish my life tomorrow, chaos may take over and do me in, but for NOW I will persist, I am still Alive, miraculously Alive. This story is in Manu's memory, for few will know that he also once lived and was Alive.