The trouble, or the most recent trouble I should say, all started with the dahl buckets after dinner last night–nine of them stacked up, greasy and crusted with yellow lentils. We had just eaten the evening meal, which isn’t four-star grub by any stretch, but it’s sustenance, and if it works for the living saints, it’ll work for me. Flat bread, lentils, vegetables–chapatis, dahl, subji–it has almost a poetic ring, even if the chapati are soggy, the dahl watery, and the subji salty.
I was on cleanup detail in the pots and pans division, which I often am and don’t mind, because I’m a guy with the heft for it. But unfortunately, this skinny, older rat named Richard was assigned to work with me. This guy really fries my ass. First of all, he’s been here for about ten years, and he still says "ash-ram"–flat, nasal, straight out of Pasadena, like some kind of pornographic term. I’ve only been here three years, and not only have I mastered the somewhat delicate phonetics of "ashram," but I’ve also picked up more than the average amount of Sanskrit, if I say so myself.
But Richard, well, Richard thinks he’s above it all. However he wants to pronounce things, however he wants to live, that’s okay by me. He can redefine the word "ascetic" for all I care. The man doesn’t even eat the main kitchen’s cooking, just lives off care packages his wife still sends him after all these years (Lipton’s soup, Hellmann’s mayo, After Eight dinner mints, you get the picture). And now, as of two months ago, his twenty-one-year-old daughter Rachel has come to look after him and cook for him–his own fair, personal handmaid–a pert little college dropout who addles me in a whole new way. But old Richie Rich still has to do chores like the rest of us. I know this and he knows this.
So when he came back to our area, having deigned to clear a few plates for the regular dishwashers, I was already at work filling vegetable pots with hot water and setting them on the floor to soak. Folks were mopping down the main part of the dining hall, and the smell of bleach was mixing up ripely with the curried-grease smell. I watched Richard navigate the obstacle course of pots and pans and begin scrubbing his arms up to the elbows.
I wanted to be amenable–weak as he is, he can get overwhelmed, and I’ve seen it–so I said, "Richard, if you do four dahl buckets, I’ll do five." Five’s a lot. It was good, the right gesture.
But drying his hands with a fresh dish towel, he said, "I’m sorry Melvin. I’d like to, but Swamiji said I should attend all of satsanga, every night right now."
"You’re not going to help?" I asked. Frankly, I was astounded.
"I’m afraid I can’t," he said.
"You self-serving prick," I muttered and threw a bucket at the sink. I thought he would move, but he didn’t, and a sharp end of the handle caught the back of his hand before it clattered to the floor.
He sucked in a sharp little breath and examined the skin, then showed me the red line across it, barely a scrape, no real blood.
"Melvin Kreutzer, I don’t have to put up with you and your selfishness–it’s relentless," he whined.
Faucets ran, shoes squeaked, and plates were scraped all around us as Richard rewashed his hand and dried it with yet another clean towel, wrapping it up war-wound-style while I scrubbed the guilty bucket, carefully lest I wound the clod a second time. And he exited seething and silent.
Not one person stopped to help or say an encouraging word as I worked alone, doing double duty now. No one would even answer me when I asked if there was any more soap; a lady I didn’t know just put a beige block of it on the counter. By the time I finished, the rest of the place was dark, and my hands were pruny and pink, except for the web of creases dyed yellow from the curry. I inspected the stacks of gleaming tin and cast iron one last time, and satisfied, I turned off the lights.
Inside the back entrance of the large, peach-colored prayer hall, I faced a computer-printed banner on the wall that advised: Love thy Neighbor as Thyself. Good idea if you can, I thought. But actually, I’ve liked this aspect of Swamiji ever since I first heard him speak in Chicago four years ago, when things were going to hell in a handbasket fast for me. He’s never afraid to call on other religions, childhood moralisms, and even classical philosophy to make his point. "Do good, be good," he said then, his warm, stubby hand on my head as he zapped me into clarity.
I settled into only a half-lotus because of recent knee trouble, and touched my forefinger and thumb together to keep the energy flowing. I closed my eyes on the wall-sized image of the bare, nut-brown head of dead Swami Ramananda in a purple flower mala, with a banner beside it advising: Do Not Put Off Until Tomorrow What You Can Do Today.
"Hari om! Hari om! Hari hari hari om!" I sang ferociously. There’s a way to get inside chanting as if it were a vibrant, cool, cushioned room, and this was all I wanted. I opened my eyes a moment and found myself staring halfway up the room at the back of Richard’s knobby gray head and Rachel’s springy red curls beside him. I quickly shut my eyes again, breathing in deeply through my nose, "o-om, o-om, o-om, om." The sound shot out like a white laser from the top of my forehead.
Soon, the chanting stopped, and I bowed all the way forward to seal in the energy called up by the vigorous singing. When I looked up, the auditorium was more than half empty. Richard and Rachel were on their way out a door farther down the room, and I slipped out the back to meet them.
"Richard," I called and he turned. The fluorescent lights inside showed the tense lines of his face. "I’m sorry if I hurt or offended you. My ego gets the better of me sometimes." The apology was easy, as easy as exhaling or peeling a banana. I waited for the angry mask to melt.
But he stiffened further and held up his right hand, wrapped in a white, sterile bandage, and spread out his long, bony fingers, shaking slightly. "Thanks to you Melvin, a tetanus shot."
"The bucket wasn’t rusty," I said. Rachel pivoted her perfect ski-jump nose back and forth between us, her green-eyed gaze a spiritual poker face.
Richard snorted. "This is India, Melvin, in case you’ve forgotten. It doesn’t take much to get a life-threatening infection." No, I thought, I haven’t forgotten, you supercilious moron. The peace of chanting flew away like an uncaged bird. "Om," I breathed, turning the mala beads in my hands, and finally said, "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit you."
He jerked a curt nod, turned on his heel, and left, Rachel swishing away beside him in her pale pink sari. Of the people left milling around outside the prayer hall, chatting, no one came near me. News of transgression travels fast in an ashram, and I walked off toward the dorm.
At the gate, I raised a hand to Arjun and Rex, the night watchman and his mutt–a sign that I was in no mood to chat. Arjun’s a friend of mine, but he can talk a blue streak if you get him going.
I lit candles around my room, turned off the lights, and organized myself to meditate. I was angry, I admit that, but I knew I could handle it. Three years in an ashram, cut off from your previous life, especially my previous life, is not nothing. Pre-Swamiji, at twenty-nine, I thought I was king of the world, or at least of Chicago: money rolling in from my own vintage car-repair business; women, young and old, in no short supply; and at the end of the day, or the night, as the case may have been, I would go home to Karen. Hot-shit, ball-busting, not unintelligent, though maybe a little clingy Karen. She was a nurse and gorgeous in a regular person’s way, and she had a way of making everything about her seem good, too good maybe. I let her know I was messing around by leaving out a letter from a girl for her to find. And that was the unceremonious end. It was a relief at first, but I also expected her to come back. Instead she took up with my main competitor Benny, an event that got me so distracted he started taking my business too. She wouldn’t return my calls, meet for a drink, anything. Karen never looked back except once when she sent me a ticket to see Swamiji with a note attached: "A guy like this might actually be able to help an asshole like you."
And it was times like this, pre-Swamiji, if I happened to have the presence of mind, that I would go to the garage no matter how late at night. Before Hinduism, cars were the closest thing to spirituality for me. Money was religion, the green nirvana goal, but working on cars was as close as I came to real meditation, even bliss, and staring down into the cool, dark guts of a Porsche Spider, knowing I could make her go, was like looking at a dead person knowing I could bring her back. People towed their babies from Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Iowa City, even Cleveland, to have me work my magic, to pay me too much for my own good.
Now I was using the downward-facing dog pose to bring myself to undistracted concentration, when there was a forceful rapping on the door.
"What Arjun?" I said more sharply than I meant.
"It’s Surinder. Swamiji wants to see you."
I got up and turned on the light. "Now?"
"I’ll be right out."
I checked the square of mirror above the sink. Unfortunately, I looked guilty, gaunt, and unremorseful. I massaged the muscles around my eye sockets, ran my hands over the brown stubble on my head, and pinched my cheeks like a girl.
"Come in," Swamiji said at Surinder’s knock. He was sitting in a ratty little armchair in his receiving room. He wore an orange ski hat and was swaddled in a brown blanket over his papaya-colored robes. I prostrated, three times, forehead to floor, and sat down at his feet.
"Sit here," he said gesturing to a low stool. His sunken eyes were ringed with dark circles, and white blotches of skin showed on his jaw and wrists.
"Swamiji, I didn’t mean to hurt him–"
"Silence, please," he said. I looked down, listening to the rasp and rattle of his breathing. "In my opinion, this rivalry between you and Richard has gone on long enough. The complaints and excuses from the two of you have gone on long enough. And when your fighting happens in public places such as the kitchen, it affects the whole community."
"I’ve tried to make peace–"
"You threw a bucket at him. I cannot have physically abusive people here."
"Swamiji, I was putting it in the sink," I said and stopped. Feet crunched on the dirt path outside. "I should have been more careful."
"Why do you insist on monitoring him?"
"I don’t. I just wanted some help tonight so that I could go to satsanga too."
"And when he told you that I asked him to attend all of satsanga and had to leave immediately?"
My stool creaked as I shifted. "I didn’t believe him."
He actually tsk’ed as he shook his head. "And how often, would you say, do you act in poor judgment with regard to Richard?"
I twisted the frayed end of my belt cord, making a note to fuse it later. "Maybe once a week?"
"How often does he act in poor judgment with regard to you?"
Every time he breathes, I thought. "Not that often," I said, thinking, he’s always stalking off. "But Swamiji, I try very hard to act well toward Richard."
"But you fail. Because you tell yourself not to act badly instead of looking at the illusory root of your unfounded hatred, which is the idea that you and Richard are fundamentally different, separate. He is, in some ways, a more valuable teacher to you than I am." Swamiji pulled the blanket tight around himself, so that he was a compact brown and orange mound on the chair.
I smelled Richard’s American deodorant in the room.
"Did he report me?" I asked.
"A disturbed witness did. I asked Richard to come so I could see his scrape. Melvin, your dishonest life before coming here hinders you now. To mistrust people all the time is not to see the humanity in them or the Brahman in them."
But I see the Brahman in you, I wanted to shout, but I was afraid it would sound like pandering. I contemplated my yellow-stained knuckles.
"Swamiji. I’m sorry. I will try harder to seek out the root of my dislike and not indulge my mistrust."
He closed his eyes and when he opened them he said, "Melvin, for now you must leave the ashram. You may come back for darshan and evening prayers. But in a daily way, I think that you and Richard could use a break from one another, the community could use a break from gossiping about you, and I could use a break from dealing with your squabbles."
"Where will I go, Swamiji? This is my home. I don’t know any other."
"Melvin, the world is your home. If you consider the ashram your home, you have become too attached to it."
"Will you allow me to live here again?"
"Possibly, in a few months."
My heart sank, and I got down on the floor and put my forehead on his small, bare feet. "Swamiji, I will do anything to stay." If only I had some indispensable skill–doctoring or cooking or carpentry–but it doesn’t matter how good a car mechanic I am, and I am unreasonably good, because Swamiji just doesn’t use his Mercedes enough to care what I can do.
"The only way to stay is to leave," he said. "And now I must go to bed." He pulled his feet away, and my head thunked on the floor.
"When do you want me to leave?" I asked.
"Tomorrow, before breakfast. Please get up now Melvin."
"Thank you Swamiji," I said. I made it out the door and sprinted up the hill, taking the long way back along the edge of the woods so that I wouldn’t run into anyone. At the top of the path, I dropped and did fifty push-ups, which killed my back but spread out some of the throbbing in my head. Sometimes yoga doesn’t hurt enough.
I walked down slowly, looking out at the town lining the wide, black river, where a stripe of the moon’s reflection shimmered in bands on the water. A few yellow-lit windows shone in dark ashrams across the way, the black hills rising behind them, outlined against the star-filled sky. I was a long way from Chi-town. The world is my home. Ha! For once, I thought, he was dead wrong.
Through a window in Richard’s apartment, I could see Rachel sitting on the floor reading a book, as she tugged her fingers through her hair and bit her lower lip. In gray sweatpants that she’d pushed up over her knees and wearing a faded green T-shirt, braless, with her pale freckles all over, she made me think of taking a girl, any girl, to the beach on Lake Michigan late at night when everyone else was gone. I wanted to move closer, but I stayed in a tree’s shadow in case anyone came by. Her eyes were sharp, changing as they scanned the page. She was lost in thought, and she wrinkled her nose. Beautiful, I thought. It made me ache.
I didn’t have much to pack. A few clothes, a blanket, a hooded sweatshirt, some toiletries, incense, and a notebook–only one; I burn them when I finish them so I don’t get too self-pitying.
I wanted to leave right then–no sense lingering–and I picked up my canvas pack and stared out past the flood of outdoor light into the dark. Did I see the yellow flash of animal eyes? Nothing was open at this hour, and I wasn’t about to go down to the Ganges and crawl into a cave. I’m devout, but I’m not crazy. I sat down on the low bed and breathed, finally setting the pack on the floor. I got under the blanket and set my watch alarm for five. It’s always easier to make changes in the morning, I thought. Not that I sailed off to slumberland. I woke up every hour or so to check the time, afraid the alarm wouldn’t work and that I would have to leave in broad daylight. Finally, the square numbers said 4:29, and I got up. It was dark and chilly out. Even Arjun was asleep at his post. Rex barked.
"Come here boy," I whispered, and he trotted up to me, dropped and rolled for a belly scratch. I thought of convincing the scrawny pup to come with me–Arjun would understand–but I knew this was no time to be taking on pets. "Nai," I said, and he gave me a quizzical look before he ambled back to his sleeping master.
Crossing the compound, I could make out people going to old Satyananda’s room for morning chants, his sitar already twanging out the window. Beggars slept on the ground outside the main gate, some curled up, knees to chest, others sprawled out as if on a bed, all waiting pathetically for a morning meal. I walked past them down the road toward the big suspension footbridge spanning the river. Ganga Maiyya has always been good to me, and I was glad to see her emerging, a fuzzy blanket of mist still on her. The water’s as pure as it should be up here, direct from the Himalayas.
Following a path of white sand down between two boulders, I stepped over rubber flip-flops set in front of small cave openings–crash pads for men heartier than me. I put down my pack and walked into the cold water, sang the Gayatri Mantra, and belly-flopped in. Bang! An elixir! I swam a few strokes out before heading back–its coldness steadied me like a grip–and when I came out, I changed into a dry dhoti, wrapped a shawl around me, and sat on a flat rock to meditate and warm up in the morning sun. It was a clear, pale yellow and pink morning and the air was sweet, even pillowy, around me. And for the first time in a while, I felt lucky.
Raj and Hari, the two brothers who own the Tourist Bungalow, were drinking tea in the office when I knocked. Hari chuckled as I entered; he knew me from yoga class where we sometimes had a friendly competition on the sly in the back of the room.
"Melvinji, finally you have come to visit our humble inn. What can we do for you at this early hour?" He called one of the boys for a cup of tea.
I thanked him and said I needed a place to stay for a few days. I wasn’t looking forward to being surrounded by backpackers, but it seemed like a better option than going to another ashram, which I knew would only confuse allegiances. And Hari set me up with a single room at a rate that didn’t make me feel completely friendless.
I was doing eye rotations on the prickly lawn outside when I got swarmed by biting ants, and I jumped up swearing and making enough noise that soon hippie kids (or wannabe hippie kids) opened their windows to check out the commotion. I writhed my way down the road out of sight, and past the huge arch painted with gaudy flowers and hands pressed together and the words: Welcome to the Home of Eternal Bliss! My ex-ashram.
Covered in mini welts and mashed ant carcasses, I ordered breakfast at a modest, open-air restaurant–a soft-boiled egg, toast, and tea. "Comfort food," Karen would have called it. Whatever. I wondered if she and Benny had kids, if they’d bought a place in the suburbs to be bored happily ever after.
Washing up at a water barrel after I ate, I glanced in a shard of mirror propped on the shelf. Today I looked like an old thirty-three, sun-lined and hard-featured. "Never to be younger than Jesus again," a British girl joked on my last birthday. What was that supposed to mean? That’s when I saw the kid Siddhartha on the rocks by the river. A lean, brown boy, maybe twelve, with white-blond dreadlocks, he leapt from rock to rock in only a white loincloth leading a troupe of other Indian boys. The product of an astrologically calculated union of a Norwegian woman and a big deal swami on the other side of the river, he was born with spiritual attributes that I'd be lucky to get a few lifetimes from now.
Siddhartha, huh. Maybe I should change my name to Shiva, the destroyer. The dahl-bucket destroyer.
I watched him run and play for a while before I headed up to darshan. Jana waved from the office. Apparently, not everyone knew yet. They would. I sat on the wall outside the meeting room and turned the beads on my mala with a low chant. The sun was rising fast, and I moved in closer to hug the shade of the building. Rachel sashayed up the path in a fresh sari, and seeing me, she fixed her eyes on the ground in front of her. Her hair pulled back, she had a book tucked under her arm, and she glanced at me as she sat down.
"Hello," she said and opened her book–it looked like religious philosophy.
"Actually, it’s Durga now," she said, pressing her finger to the page, not looking up.
"It’s Swamiji’s," she said still pretending to read.
"I’m sorry about your dad’s hand. I didn’t mean to hurt him."
Her brow twitched as if she were unsure if she would respond. A squirrel scuttled across the roof and leapt into a nearby tree. Rachel dog-eared the page and closed the book. Her eyes were watery and her mouth a bitter line.
"Melvin, he’s so miserable here, don’t you get it? He never wanted to come here; he’s not like you. The only reason he came was because he was told to. All he wants to do is go back to Pasadena, but he won’t till Swamiji says he can. And you provoke him. Can’t you leave him alone?"
"Rachel, Durga. Your father is perfectly capable of achieving crankiness without my help."
"You needle him. It’s as if you want to prove he’s not above your pettiness so that he can’t go home. Why do you think I was sent here? I’m interested, or I wouldn’t have come. But still, as I left, my mother said: ‘Try to help your father along, so he can come home.’ Do you have any idea how lonely she is? What our lives have been like?"
I took a deep breath and said, "Richard got here seven years before me. Don’t you think that if he were so close to soul satisfaction, I wouldn’t be a deterrent?" And, I felt like saying, Don’t you think if you weren’t here, I would be making a lot more spiritual progress? Even as she practically spit at me, I thought how pretty she was. Anger had raised the color in her cheeks and made her eyes flash greener. She rubbed a tear away roughly and sniffled.
"Hey. It’s okay." I reached out to touch her bare, freckled arm, and she flinched.
"Don’t touch me," she said.
"Okay. It’ll be all right." I was trying to stay calm. People were coming, and I didn’t want to get into more trouble. But Durga squatted down, away from me, dabbing at her eyes with the corner of her sari.
As people gathered around, the philistines passing through yacked loudest: "Where’re you going next? . . . The best bhang lassis in Agra, they’ll blow your mind . . . The Dalai Lama has a better vibe, but I’m interested in this stuff." Finally Surinder unlocked the door from inside. I was the first one in and sat three-quarters of the way back. Rachel, I mean Durga, sat up at the foot of Swamiji’s empty chair, her back squarely toward me, and took a tape recorder out of her bag.
I would have felt sorry for her if she didn’t believe that I was the cause of her family’s suffering. Would I ever be allowed back in the ashram with her and her father around? Christ.
Swamiji came in, and while we prostrated, I peeked to get a reading on him: He seemed mildly bored as usual, as if thinking, Go ahead throw yourselves down if you need to.
As I arranged myself into full lotus–my knee felt better today–he asked, "Melvin, what are you doing here?"
"You said I could come to darshan."
"Have you found a place to stay?" There were throat clearings and coughs from around the room.
"Yes, at the Tourist Bungalow." More snickers from the holier-than-thou crowd.
"That’s fine," Swamiji said in such a way that shut everyone up, thankfully. Rachel, now composed, gazed back at me with tender pity. I wanted both to cry and to smack her. Swamiji had turned to interview some new arrivals, and I was counting breaths to keep my cool, when the door creaked open and we all turned. A middle-aged Indian couple shuffled into the room, he with black-framed glasses and a worried face, and she with her eyes cast down, her tidy gray hair in a bun, both dressed all in white.
"What’s wrong?" Swamiji asked.
"We have come from Calcutta to see you," the man said. "My wife is anguished because our grown son has been diagnosed schizophrenic." The woman stared mutely out at Swamiji.
"You have traveled a long way to get here. First you must rest. We will talk later. After you rest, recite these prayers." He pulled some pieces of paper out from under his robe, and the man came up to get them. Swamiji put his hand on the man’s head, gave some instructions to Surinder, and the couple was ushered out, their sadness sloshing through the room behind them.
I felt as though I’d been kicked in the chest, hard. Seeing Swamiji care for these people, acting to alleviate their pain, made me see that I had been stupid with the bucket the way I’d been stupid with the letter a few years ago; both were gutless, penny-ante offenses with the worst possible repercussions. If only I could "do good, be good" (or, for that matter, "do bad, be bad" and get out of here altogether), but I couldn’t. There was nothing for me outside. I decided I had to meet with Swamiji, with my renewed faith and new understanding, and convince him of my worthiness to return.
Sensing Richard behind me, I twisted around and smiled at him, but he looked stonily ahead, and I faced forward again. Swamiji was talking about "concentrating on the formless . . . Each bangle is made of gold, they are separate forms, but they are all made of the same material–"
"Please repeat what you said, Swamiji?" Durga asked punching tape-recorder buttons and holding a bean-sized mike in front of his face.
"Put that thing away!" he snapped.
I smirked. I didn’t mean to. It’s just such a rare moment that he comes down on Rachel or Richard. Then I felt the blaze of his eyes.
"Melvin, leave," he said.
"Wha–" escaped from my mouth before I resigned myself. Shaking out my leg crawling with pins and needles, worse than the ants, I staggered to the door and prostrated clumsily there.
Once outside the compound, a tingling took over my body, an old familiar feeling–not awareness–rage. I had put my life in his hands because he said I should in order to stop the bad karma accruing, to make a break from the lies and the vanity and the materialism, to be happier. And that made sense to me. After all, I hadn’t been doing such a bang-up job of it myself. But it was hard work following someone else’s plan for you. And after three years of giving it everything I had, he chooses Richard, that good-for-nothing wimp, and his smug daughter, over me.
On the bridge, I stopped and bought a bag of pellets to fling at the big, ugly fish below, and then I took off down the path on the opposite shore, past the garden of plaster statues of Hindu deities (think Technicolor lawn ornaments waving arms and baring midriffs), past all the ashrams, up the dirt path toward the hills. This was where people wanting real seclusion came to live, and I could see how that worked, without the distraction of others’ sticky egos. Me, I need to be around people, to know I’m not the only one struggling, but right then I craved a fat break from it all.
Sweating felt good as I tramped uphill, following the steep path a long way before I reached a pine-needle-covered flat with a stone Shiva shrine. I sat down in the dappled shade looking over the river and hills, listening to the thudding of my heart. I lay back and gazed at the blue sky through the dark boughs twisting like a spiral staircase up the trunk. Birds twittered, and the wind in the trees sounded like sand being poured. But the sound of twigs cracking underfoot popped me up onto my haunches. I scoped the rutted downhill to gauge how fast I could take it when an old woman came out of the trees. Caucasian, wrinkled, tan. Standing up, I saw she wasn’t more than fifty or so, her gray hair cropped in raggedy tufts, her eyes sharp blue.
She raised her eyebrows. "You look upset." Her voice creaked as if she hadn’t used it in a while. She wore a man’s tattered kurta pyjamas, and her bare feet were thick with callouses and dirt.
"I didn’t know what the noise was."
"And so you became so much afraid that you were ready to flee or gouge my eyes out?"
"No. Yes. I thought I was in danger."
She kneeled before Shiva as if she hadn’t heard me, smeared him with gold paste from a copper bowl, and placed some red flowers beside him, chanting. I picked up my bag to leave.
"It’s no wonder you’ve been kicked out of your ashram, with all that fear and suspicion."
"Huh?" I crossed my arms.
"I can see it in your face. You’re not at ease here, and you’re not anxious to go back down. By the looks of your clothes, you’re not a tourist or a sadhu. Which ashram?"
At least she couldn’t read that from my face. "Eternal Bliss."
"Ah, Swami Vidvanananda." Swamiji! "How is that old rascal? I used to live there until about four years ago."
"He’s fine, he’s good. What happened?" I sat down beside her. Was this why I had gotten kicked out of darshan, so I could meet her? Swamiji works in amazing ways.
"Oh, I liked Vidvan all right. I liked him a lot in fact, but I needed solitude finally."
"Has it worked?" No one called him that, not even behind his back. I decided I had to be careful. I liked her, but I wasn’t sure she was all there. I had seen it before among Indians and Westerners alike: how an all-out search for god could shred their faculties like toilet paper.
"Worked? Yes, I suppose it has." She looked far off across the water and hills. "I feel better than I did. I felt really terrible when I left. Vidvan accused me of running away. But I said he was equally guilty of penning me in. Why have you been asked to leave?"
I picked at a rock in the dirt. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into it with her. "Conflict with another resident."
"Not that old coot Richard?"
"You know him?" Uncanny.
"Sure, he’s a big baby that one. Wanted Swamiji to give him his bottle four times a day when I knew him. What’s he up to now?"
"The same, the same–" I clapped, relieved.
"His daughter Rachel has come to stay and help him and–"
"You’re attracted to her?"
I looked away.
"Does she sit at his feet?"
I nodded. I was starting to get creeped out by how much she knew.
"Let her go. You can’t compete. And then try to accept this: You are weaker than all the weakness combined that you have met in your life, and when you give in to that, it will save you. Goodbye." She turned to go into the forest.
"Wait!" I called. She looked over her shoulder. "Do you need anything before you go?" I reached into my sack and held out money.
She scowled as if to say, "Didn’t you hear a thing I said?" and I felt as if she had given me a shove downhill–I just dropped the money and ran.
I could hear the clicks of the padlock while Jana opened the safe in the back room of the Eternal Bliss office to hand over some of my savings. Meeting that old kook had reminded me I wasn’t going in for the alms thing yet.
I went upstairs to find Surinder to ask him when he thought the best time to ask for a meeting was, but Swamiji answered my knock.
"Come in," he said, and I opened the door. I began to prostrate.
"Stop," he said. "And speak plainly."
"I want another chance. Please let me stay here."
"What’s wrong with the Tourist Bungalow?"
"I’m not among my own there: sex, money, drugs."
"You know the tenets, resist them."
"It’s not just resisting. How can I go forward in my spiritual practice? What’s the point of even being here?" I had never been so frank, or so desperate, with him.
"Melvin, don’t you see, the point is not the point. Forward, backward. There are no such things. All mental constructs. Yourself is not your self. When you begin to dissolve that self–especially these ideas of how you need my support and approval, and how you deserve them more than Richard or Durga–the pain you find yourself experiencing will begin to dissipate."
Easier said than done, I thought.
"As for the temptations," Swamiji continued. "They are real, and you must find ways to defeat them."
"Swamiji, please don’t turn me away. I’ll be good. I’ll work hard. I’ll make amends."
"Maybe later." He straightened his papers.
I stood up. "Can I meditate and chant here?"
"Satsanga only, no more darshan, and do not talk to the residents."
"Can I meet with you?"
"The first of every month."
"Yes, now get out please!"
I jogged down the path till I hit the corny arch and rested behind it, my eyes stinging. Fuck the motherfucker. Fuck him. Fuck him.
Bob Marley, pot, raucous laughter. What did I expect? I closed the curtain but left the window open. I would try to sleep. Maybe a nap would clear my head.
Couldn’t Rachel love a guy like me? Or at least like me?
"No," said a distinctly inflected voice. Was it him? "Melvin, don’t you see that your expulsion is all what you make it? Of course it’s me."
"I thought it was suspension."
"Exactly, it’s what you make it."
"So, what do I need to go back?"
"Patience and faith. Yours is a long, hard road. Everything cannot come at once."
I fell into a thick sleep then and woke up in the long shadows of the room to a pure voice singing, "Went to a party down a red dirt road, there were lots of pretty people there, readin’ Rollin’ Stone, readin’ Vo-ogue."
I pushed the curtain aside to see kids playing cards and drinking tea and beer on the lawn, a girl braiding another’s hair, lounging with their sunburned faces and rumpled clothes decorated with mirrors and embroidery. I needed to make peace with Richard, Rachel, and Swamiji. I knew I could do it. I decided I would start with Durga. Goddess that she was, that look of pity in her eyes must count for something.
Three boys tossed stones at a circle in the dirt at the ashram gates, and I asked one to deliver a note.
"Dear Durga, Would you like to have dinner?" I wrote and signed my name, like a date in the eighth grade, but all I wanted was a truce, and she was my way in, I was sure.
I pointed at the apartment sticking out on the hillside and told the boy to ask for Durga, to give the note to her alone, no one else.
I sat out of sight of anyone who might be looking down from the ashram, and watched a sooty white cow meander up the road, all sagging back and ribs. The boy returned quickly and handed me my note. "Not at home," he said. I gave him five rupees, wondering if it was true.
Outside a restaurant that does brisk business across the river, I heard a high, merry laugh, and I knew it was Durga before I walked in and saw her red curls bouncing around her face. She looked giddy and free, and then I realized her father was across from her, his shoulders shaking with laughter too. And suddenly I got a sick feeling that I knew exactly what they were laughing about. I wanted to escape, but she saw me.
"Hi Melvin," she said, opening her mouth wide and closing it, as if trying to stifle the hilarity rising inside. Richard turned around and nodded. I excused myself and sat down on the other side of the room, my back to them, and waited patiently for them to leave.
As I walked back just after dusk, satsanga prayers droned out of all the ashrams, and when I hit Eternal Bliss, I just kept going. At the Tourist Bungalow, I lay face down on the bed and clutched a pillow over my head as if I could smother the furious thoughts coming out of it.
I woke up with a start and everything was dark and quiet, except for the buzzing call of a bird somewhere. I put on my good sneakers–no leather in them. Ganga Ma would tell me what to do, and I left the hotel compound under the cover of the bird’s steady noise. On the empty road, alongside the river, I listened to the water lap and burble in a way that I never could during the day. And then, ahead of me, was the ashram’s garage, a smeary yellow cube under the orange streetlights. I still had the key to it on my chain, and I rolled up one of the metal doors. The 220SE faced me in the moonlight: sky blue and dusty with her familiar rounded curves. I opened the driver's door, light on its hinges. It was an old feeling, this, like coming home as I slid inside breathing in the warm, salty smell of the vinyl. The worn-down ivory steering wheel with its smooth grooves for gripping, the rounded roomy space of the interior, and the cool knob of the gearshift. I rolled down the window and breathed in the fresh night air and the concrete smell of the garage.
If the car hadn’t been famous throughout the villages of Uttar Pradesh for belonging to a holy man–and she was–I would have just gotten in and gone, taking me back to car trips with Karen, not so long ago really, where we headed out into the wide open space of Iowa, her eating a green apple beside me, the map spread over her knees, sun shining off the bits of blonde in her hair. We’d go due west until the sun went down so that both of us were blinded by the last gold streams of light, unafraid of the world and each other for as long as the drive lasted. That too, I understood now, was something like bliss, but I didn’t know that then.
I popped the hood and got out to study the engine. I found the distributor, and plucked it out, a chunky, greasy spider with its eight rubber arms. When they checked the car for Swamiji’s trip to Delhi next week, and the engine didn’t turn over, they would have to call me. They didn’t know jack about this car. I would work day and night to fix it, and when no one was looking, I would pop the distributor back in, and then be duly thanked, maybe even allowed to move back in to Eternal Bliss.
I felt twitchy with the plan as I closed the garage door, and something like invincible as I skirted the sleeping beggars and ducked through a hole in the fence to the ashram. I thought if I could just catch a glimpse of Rachel, that furrowed brow, all would be right in the world. She didn’t like me yet, but I was hopeful–the way she lit up when she laughed, even if it was about me. But when I got to their apartment, the place was dark, and the spell was broken. Suddenly, I was irritated for every reason at once, especially because I was trespassing where two days before I had every right to be. Those jerks, I thought. It was their fault and that’s what they were and I threw the distributor at the window.
And if I could have hurled myself forward and caught it like a cartoon character I would have. But I couldn’t, and the glass shattered like a dream; the lights snapped on and there was Richard rushing in, easing Rachel to her feet. There was blood on her forehead trickling down one side of her face, and she wore a strange and knowing smile that made me want to step forward.
But then Richard yelled out the window, the opposite direction of where I was standing. "I see you out there! You bastard!" He didn’t see a thing.
"Shh, Daddy, please don’t get upset," she said leaning against him and faltering so that he scooped her up like a baby.
"Help! Someone help!" he called, and lights flicked on around the compound. I bolted uphill toward a gap in the fence, leaping billy-goat style up the firewood trails till I was high above the ashram and the town below. There I perched on a flat boulder, waiting for hours, my ass getting cold, but no one came after me. Finally, in the silvery-gray light before dawn I began to make my way down toward the Tourist Bungalow, hoping I could get to bed before daylight.