Hari Ke Podi at Haridwar.
Beware of motorbiking in India!
Like the dream I’ve had more than 21 times, I flew thru the infinite darkness, across oceans and continents, under heavens into netherworlds, over landmarks and signposts pointing the way to heaven and hell, where a million gods confuse and bemuse. And I land in Delhi, city of djiins, to get lost amidst fabulous structures like Humayan’s Tomb, Quatar Minaret and the labyrinth of Main Bazaar finding old friends to welcome me home with real affection. But beware, one can be fleeced while sleep-walking, by djiins who smile seductively, spirits of fire, fickle, mischievous and cruel. But I'm a survivor, a hardened vagabond, I can find my way out of any dark alley.
I’d promised a Tibetan mate a night out on the town and for me, a movie addict, that meant indulging my hobby of discovering new cinemas, so we caught a took-took out to the edge of Delhi to a 21st century ubiquitous shopping extravaganza called “Ambience Mall” where I was promised bliss at the “Director’s Cut” cinema. We got lost in far-flung suburbia but finally, there out of the darkness, shone a colossal concrete cube with an oval glass-dome on top, the facade covered in fairy lights to disguise its functional rough-concrete ugliness, with a flight of Cinderella steps leading up to the golden doorway into an ambience of spending frenzy. In front was a marble fountain, gardens and palm trees also covered in fairy lights and spaced all around like lit-up mushrooms were sheet-metal phalluses, as if the mall was a site of ultimate fecundity. My poor old rickshaw driver looked quite flummoxed as he dropped us off across the road from the monstrosity, expensive cars zooming around and designer-dressed babus making a hullaballoo while we peasants cringed for daring to enter the Maharaja’s palace.
Inside was four floors of designer hell and as we went up the escalator to the food court at the top I had an out of the body experience, the urge to fling myself onto the tawdry gold-tinsel sculptures hanging from the roof and go crashing down upon a giant gold papier-mache idol of Ganesha, piercing myself upon the many spears he held, performance-art to stop the happy shoppers in their tracks and make their jaws drop.
We marched about the hideous kitsch tiers of shops, the usual Hugo Boss, Diesal, Levis, KFC, McDonalds where I pissed of the staff by helping myself to the juice-fridge and not buying a hamburger. And the usual muzak and cheerful wall-paper art, all to lull the shoppers into a daze of amenability, the new opium of the masses, stoned in the Temple of Consumerism.
We had a “gourmet” pizza with no anchovies (!), perused the 7 customers in the three ultra-expensive restaurants and then cruised into the funky “Directors’ Cut”, photos and Bios of many of my favorite directors on the walls, the décor post-modern art-deco, very cool, easily the best room in the building. Even the toilet was like a chi-chi nouveau-riche disco, black and gold marble, bottles of scented hand-lotion, woolen towels and a sign saying there was a CCTV camera watching EVERYTHING in case you tried to steal something. I couldn’t resist lavishing the hand-cream upon myself as I danced about to the piped techno music, knowing the Security Guards would get a laugh when they watched the videos.
It turned out to be a “Gold Class” Cinema, classic red-lit edges, couches with blanket and bottle of fruit juice, and a hot movie, “Cloud Atlas” by the Watchowski siblings. I read the book last year, pared down in the movie and chopped to bits, losing much of its sense, the through-line of the human spirit always attempting to overcome oppression vaguely evident, to my rebel's delight. Still it went for three dam hours, we got out at 2am and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, luckily always there’s a mob of rickshaw drivers waiting patiently deep into the night, hoping someone will stagger from the Maharaja’s monolith with whom they can earn a buck. I got driven home way across the vast city for $5 and my friend Raxsin thanked me for a fun night for we had taken the piss mercilessly of the whole scene: the theatre of robopathic consumerism that we’re all conned into playing a part of these days, like a new global religion.
Then I cruised up into the Himalayan foothills in a private taxi, doing it easy for once in my life, no chasing 7 modes of conveyance dragging 7 pieces of luggage stuck in traffic jams for 7 hours squeezed into a tight seat with 7 families and their entire household goods. A few times we had close calls swerving around a tumultuous humanity but we made it up that long highway to Haridwar on the Ganges River and past another major landmark, signpost site of the Collective Unconscious, Hari Ke Podi, Stairway to the Gods. Rama, representative of Vishnu the Preserver, came this way with his wife Sita and brother Laxman when they were at the end of their lives and done with this earthly existence, the celestial staircase up to Heaven somewhere high in the Himalayan mountains in the vicinity of Badrinath. I tried to find that stairway when I was a young vagabond and I seek it still, in my decrepitude.
I made it to Shangri-la for Diwali, Festival of the Lights; it was the night Rama came back from 14 years penance in the dark jungle and as a benign, enlightened king he’d been sorely missed and now his people’s lives were lit up again, the kingdom was happy and the land fruitful, like King Arthur healing the wounds of his kingdom with the Holy Grail. And so I did pujah to Rama with a Hindu family I have long loved, put a light on their doorway and watched the fireworks above Shangri-la, bursting like a million new stars in interstellar-dust clouds, only it was cracker-night smog. Exhausted I had to walk up a mountain to get to my room and a man on a scooter came to my rescue and gave me a lift, his name happened to be Rama, a hotel wallah trying to get my custom, and yet…
Shangri-la, paradise from a dream of the Orient, temples, mountains and sky reflected in the flowing green-silver of the Ganges River, another God(dess.) But the river is a wild thing of nature, not a toy for our amusement, the placid burnished mirror of its surface belying what lies beneath, the Underworld, oblivion, opposite to the reality we live in. On the first day of my idyll I went up river and sat peacefully upon a rock in the jungle above the raging torrent of white-water rapids. I contemplated the beauty of the scene, delighting in my good fortune to be aware of the 7th heaven that I found myself in. Many inflated rafts drifted by full of squealing schoolgirls and their river guides or Delhi business associates out on a team-building exercise, all with helmets and life-jackets paddling furiously every which way and being swept by the turbulence into the rock upon which I sat. I’ve done this rafting many times and well know the thrill of hitting a whirlpool and being flung dangerously towards the seething water and so watched amused as they all swept safely onwards, yelling in joy, hundreds of them.
Then came a raft with only three guys in it, all river-guides by the look of them, they were fooling about with a video camera, maybe making a promotion to post on the Internet, and they’d taken their life-jackets off, why the fuck is a good question. They hit the whirlpool and one guy fell overboard, clutching at his jacket but it was torn from his grasp and floated away; his mates reached out a paddle for him to grasp but the raft was swept onwards and he just missed grabbing it; instead of continuing to swim after the raft as I would’ve done he panicked and swam away, into the turbulence, trying for the sheer rock-face from where I watched above with anxious eyes. He scrabbled at the sheer wet rock but couldn’t clutch the slippery surface and went under, he came up and I held out a vague hope for him but could do nothing to help, no rope to throw and I’d drown if I jumped in to attempt a rescue, for there is an undertow there and it sucked him under again from which he never resurfaced.
Before he went under for the last time he looked up and saw me above, on the rock, in safety, in another world, and he looked deep into my eyes, one last look of sheer terror and behind it the knowledge that he’d blown it, was a fool, his one life, so short, so young, and it was gone, and then he was gone. I stared down into the maelstrom hoping he would resurface, other people along the river had noticed the incident and come running from all directions, a veritable crowd formed within 3 minutes and stared down into the water as if they could will him back, but he was gone, gone, gone. I walked back thru the jungle and cried in shock and sadness.
I’ve seen quite a few people die in my life, from accidents and in my job as a nurse and am very aware of the fine misty curtain between life and death that sometimes gets lifted and shows one the truth of existence in this universe, that it ENDS one day. A miracle of consciousness in this world above, an unknowable oblivion below, a fine skein of quantum film separating the two, easy to break through; life’s a balancing act, to be alert and intuit where you’re going, that’s the rub. It’s an intense elation to be alive, the adventure of climbing the celestial stairway to the gods, but never quite reaching the top.
P.S. I very nearly did get to the top of that Stairway to the Gods and topple over into oblivion later in my sojourn when I went motorbiking up in the Himalayas close to the Tibetan border. We hit a mud-slick and the bike fish-tailed, we crashed to the ground and slid down the road, the heavy bike on top of me, techno-music thumping in my ears from my MP3, and for a few seconds I thought, "Here it is, the END!" I'd felt a thwack on my left knee but on jumping out from underneath the bike thought I was OK.
A few hours later the knee stiffened from the cold and swelled up, I'd bruised it badly, yet lucky I didn't break it as we were in the middle of nowhere, glaciers all around, no villages for many miles. There was a hot-springs tank and hotel a hundred klms back down the mountain and when we made it back there I sat in the tank for 3 days till the swelling went down. My Kismet is to keep climbing that Celestial Staircase and never meet the Gods, because I don't fucking believe in them, just Guardian Angels!
Sadhus choofing down at the end of the trail