As we climbed up the steep flight of stairs to the Dubdi gompa, our path became so thickly enveloped by fog that we could hardly see the steps ahead of us. I asked the monk if he ever feels lonely having lived a life of abstinence.
“I do,” he said, “But this is the path I’ve chosen. It’s a conscious choice too. Many of the people I studied with never became a monk. They married and lived a happy life. The worst are those who became a monk and began making money. At least the ones who left were honest.
“Because why does a monk need money? The reason you give yourself up to God is so that you give up all your material desires. My guru was a very pure human being. He wouldn’t even touch meat and would only eat what was offered to him. I’m his only disciple who seeks to follow that path.
“Once after meeting a friend who had come to visit with his wife, I told my guru that I wanted to live a normal life with a wife and some children. My guru told me, okay, live that life, but remember that you’re committing a grave sin. Tell me, what’s the biggest sin that you could commit in the world? I told him, sex? He said no. Disrespecting God? Again, no. Killing someone? No. Not saying your prayers sincerely? No. The biggest sin you could commit is money because that makes you do all of those things.
“It struck a deep chord. And then I began thinking, if I marry and have children, I’ll need to make money to help them survive. And how do you make money without negatively impacting the world around you? Nowadays, every kid has a phone. If my son goes to school, he will also want a phone. So I have to make decent money to afford it. Which means I would have to work for a company that makes a lot of money. Every company that makes a lot of money does evil in the world, in the form of corruption, cutting down forests, poisoning rivers, working with evil regimes. So how can I make any money without being wilfully part of that evil? Where do you begin doing evil and when does it end?
“So I decided I won’t have a family. I will live my life the way my guru lead his life. At least then, my conscience will be clear. It’s not been easy and people make fun of me all the time. This young lama I am about to meet in Dubdi is a very good boy and I’m trying to guide him along the right path. People make fun of me all the time but I’m used to it now. When you live the way I do, you also realize how much kindness and goodness there is in this world. Without that, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Then I pointed out that everything he was telling me on this mossy stairway to the monastery contradicted what he told me earlier about the power of China, ruthlessness etc.
“Ah, but that’s because the world is doomed. What I’m doing requires a great deal of sacrifice and the vast majority of the world is neither capable of nor inclined towards it. Over the past many centuries, we have been consumed by greed and it’s only accelerating. Even the monks who have been trained in abstinence and compassion like I have don’t follow those principles. So what hope is there for the world at large?
“But if you have to survive in a greedy world, you have to be greedy yourself. You either have to follow the way of the world, which is that of a ruthless race for survival, or you follow mine. If you follow a middle way, like the Dalai Lama suggests, you will be crushed. So, say the world is going to end in the next 10 minutes, you might as well live well for those 10 minutes. You and I are both going to perish anyway. The only difference is I can die peacefully with a clean conscience while if you are a highly successful businessman in China, you don’t have to worry about conscience. It’s the people in between who are going to suffer. Which is why I don’t preach my way to anybody because it gives me peace. I only talk a lot hahaha.”
As if to confirm the truth of his words, we were showered with a thunderstorm. My slippers were ill-equipped to deal with the wet, cobbled stones on the trail and every time I stepped on a mossy section or one of the million leaves ornamenting our way, I slipped clumsily and fell. At one such embarrassing fall, two giggling girls from a village below passed by and one of them pointed at me, laughed and said, “You walk like a drunken man.” The monk howled with laughter too and said, “If you walk like that, no woman would marry you hahaha.” “Then I could be like you”, I said, with a tinge of anger in my voice. The monk laughed again and said, “No, no, don’t be like me. If you walk well, you can marry that girl also and start a family in Sikkim.”
He then gave me a crash course on walking in the wet mountains by demonstrating the many different ways to skip across the trail. The trick, he said, was to avoid any stones or foliage and hop between the earthy sections holding the stones together. And thus productively occupied with this elaborate tutorial, we reached the lonely stupas marking the way to Dubdi. It was an ethereal atmosphere, all mist and fog, scenes straight out of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s brutal, misty adaptation of Macbeth. For a few moments there, I became genuinely excited by the idea of the monk’s life. Would I be able to live the way he lived? I was halfway there anyway, an eternal nomad roaming from place to place without a home to settle down. I had no wife or children to care for. I didn’t have a ton of friends either. The only material element I was clinging onto was money.
I began thinking of ways one could give up money, live the monastic life and roam infinitely. And then, like a flash, I got reminded of the beginning of the day when I exchanged my crummy dwelling in the basement of the hotel for a more plush, comfortable one. If I couldn’t live in a cheap hotel room, what chance did I have in the dharamsalas and monasteries of the world? I needed money as critically as I needed air and water.
I was exhausted by the time we reached Dubdi. The late-night party of the previous night and the resulting sleeplessness made me dizzy and drowsy. One of the novice monks at the monastery cheerfully invited us into his room at the back of the monastery where we were treated to a bucketful of butter tea. When it stopped raining, the monk, the novice and I stepped out to sit on one of the benches as the mist wrapped around us. The ancient monastery had now assumed a ghostly sight resembling an apparition from centuries ago. While the two were chatting away in their native tongues, I passed out.
I wouldn’t wake up until the evening when an old German man shook me wildly to check if I was still alive. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?”, said the ancient, bearded face with a handycam hung across the neck. “Yeah,” I said, “What time is it?” “It’s 5 in the evening”, his wife said anxiously, “We’ve been here for 2 hours and you’ve been lying there all the time. We wondered if you were sick. Do you need any help? Where do you stay?”
As it turned out, we were staying in the same hotel. So off we went down to the Yak Café in the more material world of Yuksom to hang out over tongbas and conversation.
I was woken up at 6 a.m. the next morning by the loud clattering of guides and porters packing up for another trek into the wilderness. My head was throbbing with a headache from all the drinking the previous night. I said a feeble goodbye to all the boys from the group and popped a paracetamol to numb the hangover. Then I went to the common squat toilet at one end of the basement to answer nature’s call but it had been rendered filthy and unusable by the trekking staff.
Normally, I would have “adjusted” to this situation by controlling the urge to take a dump and waiting for some of the cafes/restaurants to open to use the better-maintained toilets there. But these weren’t normal times. My body was crying for a rest after living on a shoestring for 7 months. I looked at my room whose dimensions were only a little larger than my body and this claustrophobia was only making my headache worse. If I was going to stay any longer in Yuksom, I had to upgrade. So I went upstairs and woke up the receptionist to ask if any of the good rooms were available.
The receptionist informed me in a drowsy drone that a German trekking group had checked out that morning. He charged me a 1000 Rs. for one of them (that was 900 more than my bargain basement room and more than I had ever paid for a room before) but I said yes in a heartbeat. The rooms hadn’t been cleaned and the cleaning staff wouldn’t be in for a few hours, he said, but I could use the toilet if I wanted to. It was just about perfect.
I wanted to take a walk but it was freezing outside. I didn’t have the layers to protect me from the cold. The only place to hang out was the desolate restaurant area. So I whipped out Robert Rankin’s Witches of Chiswick which had helped me kill many an hour in the last couple of days. Just as I was about to finish the first sentence, a voice crept from the chair opposite to mine saying, “Witches of… Kaunsa book hai yeh bhai?” (Which book is this?). It freaked me out as this entity had been invisible when I had opened my book. For a moment I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled off to sleep and was dreaming a lucid dream.
The voice belonged to a lama who was squinting at the book cover trying to get its title.
I put the book down and said, “Witches of Chiswick.”
“Is it a good book?”, he asked in a crude Hindi. (For the purposes of brevity, I’m recounting the conversation in English).
“Yes, it’s very good.”
He shrugged half-heartedly and said, “Ah, you must be from England.”
“No, sir. I’m from Mumbai”, I said with a mix of puzzlement and anger.
“Arre, Mumbai se? How are you reading books? I never see Indian boys reading books. You must be doing a course. Which college are you from?”
“I don’t go to college. I just like reading books. Anyway, this is not the sort of book they teach in Indian colleges.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with the book?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the book”, I said, testily, “it’s just not the sort of book they would teach as part of a syllabus.”
“Why? What is it about?”
I groaned inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the wee hours of dawn after a night of zero sleep was explain the convoluted and twisted plot of Witches of Chiswick and its mish-mash of characters to a complete stranger. So I told him I had just started the book and directed him to the plot summary at the back of the cover.
He read attentively, then laughed heartily and said, “I don’t understand this. But Sherlock Holmes! A man from England once came to my monastery and gifted me his book. Too much tension. Haha. What does he do in this story?”
I said, “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to find out who Jack the Ripper is.”
“Ah”, he said, “Good, good. It is good to read books. Keeps your mind fresh.”
I was feeling crabby and irritable and wished my room would get ready soon so I could get some sleep. I went back to reading my book in the hope that some anti-social behaviour would make the monk go away. But he pulled the chair opposite to mine and sat there staring at me reading the book. This was annoying and I felt like my reading skills were being judged by his squinty eyes. To add to this, I was also guilt-tripping myself for ignoring his presence so blatantly and all that conflict was making me lose track of what I was reading. So I kept the book down and stared back at the monk.
“I used to read a lot of books because my guru also liked to read books,” he said, as if the break in conversation never happened, “He always encouraged me to read more. I was the only student who listened hahaha. I read everything. Charles Dickens, Kipling, Mark Twain, Hemingway, all classic English authors.”
“Who was your favorite?”
“Mark Twain. His stories had a lot of morality and taught you how to be a good human being. The lessons you learnt from his books are applicable even today. Tom Sawyer makes his friends pay him to do his work and tricks them into thinking it’s fun! That’s what big companies try to do today. If you can do what Tom Sawyer did back then, you could be a very rich man. Charles Dickens wrote good stories but they are nothing more. I found them boring.”
“What about Kipling? How do you like the monk in Kim?”
“I don’t like that book. The monk was a very unrealistic character. All mumbo-jumbo about our Buddhism that Kipling knew nothing about. I like Jungle Book more. Mowgli and Bagheera and all those animals. It was more fun to read. Kim was telling lies about our people to the world and the world believed it without batting an eye-lid. Tibet in Western books is either some mystic land or some peaceful utopia. Nobody gave a thought to the idea that the people living there were as human as anyone else on this planet. I think books like Kim and Shangri-La did more harm to the Tibetan idea than the Chinese because they helped them use these ideas from the West to subjugate and conquer the land. Listen, I need a cup of tea. I know a good place down the road. Would you like to join me?”
So we strolled to the tea-shop in the crisp 7 a.m. Himalayan air of Yuksom. This was the first time I was looking at the village in daylight and my first impressions led me to believe that it was just a tiny one street hamlet. Guest houses and small wooden shacks were stacked on the sides of the road and the village was surrounded by thickly forested Himalayan hills on all sides. It felt like a peaceful slice of Himalayan heaven and a perfect place to wind down a long journey.
The tea stall was a cramped, wooden shack that looked like it had been assembled in an hour with the raw materials available at hand. There was a creaky wooden bench with space for 3 people to sit and it was already packed with three men who had covered themselves so thoroughly with all manner of woollens that all one could see was their weary eyes. The man making the tea barked at the people to get up and make space for the monk. The monk ordered them to remain seated and told the teamaker that we would rather have the tea standing outside. “They are labourers from Nepal and Bihar working on a house in the village. They need to rest their bones more than we do. In any case, the breeze outside makes the tea taste better”, he said with a smile.
Our discussion now veered to the Dalai Lama issue. “I admire the Chinese very much”, he said thoughtfully, “The Dalai Lama admires them too but I admire them in a different sense. The Dalai Lama likes the industrious, hard-working nature of the Chinese and he likes them in spite of the fact that Tibetans had to flee enmasse from Tibet because of their policies.
“But I like the Chinese because of their policies. China couldn’t have achieved what it did without gaining control of the Tibetan plateau, with its glaciers and its minerals. Today it’s challenging America to be the biggest power in the world and if it had given independence to Tibet, that would have been impossible. You have to be ruthless to get what you want in this material world.”
I was surprised to see an ordained Buddhist monk so openly contradicting the Dalai Lama’s word. So I said, “You’re the first monk I’ve met who disagrees with what the Dalai Lama says.”
The monk said, “Oh, but you’re allowed to disagree with the Dalai Lama. If I met him, I could tell him what I told you and he would have no problem with it. Some of his disciples may have an issue because they are as corrupt as some of our politicians but he himself would be fine with someone disagreeing with him.
“And that’s where his weakness lies. He’s not ruthless. He’s very wise and says a lot of wonderful things. He gives good advice to people. Everyone in the world should read his books because they tell you how to be happy while being a good person in simple words. But his wisdom only works on the smaller scale. This world is ruled by politics and money and he knows nothing about either. Yes, he’ll advice you to be selfless, donate money to charity, do a good job etc. but he’s not going to tell you how to crush people to do the job better and the world is ruled by people who crush other people under their foot for success.
“If the Dalai Lama had been dictatorial and cunning like the Chinese, he would be living in Tibet right now and his people would have faced fewer troubles. I could say what I did to the Dalai Lama himself but I shouldn’t be able to. He should crack down on monks like me who speak their mind openly but he won’t. He’s too democratic and too good a human being. Which is why his people are still suffering.”
“But don’t you think that’s the reason he’s respected all over the world?”, I said.
“That’s all a tamasha (circus). People make money off his books and his name while he begs for the freedom of his people. Do you think Obama (then President of America) is going to tell Hu Jintao (then premier of China) to get out of Tibet? And even if he does, all the Chinese are going to do is have a big laugh, drink a lot of wine and forget about it.”
“So you think the Dalai Lama should surrender and do what the Chinese tell him to do for the good of his people.”
“No, no, the time for that is over. If he surrenders, they will kill him just like they killed the Panchen Lama. If he had done it during Mao’s time, before he attacked Tibet, something good might have come off it. But Tibet was always weak. It thrived on spirituality and had no idea about politics. The Dalai Lama keeps telling us about the wisdom of his predecessors but they weren’t so wise in negotiating political deals. They made stupid demands on the Chinese leadership. It’s like an ant pleading with an elephant to please avoid squishing it but at the same time, being adamant that it won’t get out of its path. The entire world knows about the Tibetan struggle but you tell me, what has come of it? They’re still in the same place they were when the Dalai Lama fled. They’re keeping it alive only because their entire economy depends on foreign donations and if they say they’re going to end it, that money will dry up too.“
After these cynical observations on Tibet, the monk elaborated more on Chinese progress vis a vis India, why he thought India was lagging behind in development, how shiny the roads and the villages looked across the border, why democracy and lethargy are dragging India down a slippery slope to failure, why the UPA government has been utterly useless in giving incentives to industries, why everything is Nehru’s fault and a litany of diatribe directed at Indira Gandhi.
By the time he was done with his clinical analysis of all the things that were wrong with India, we had spent an hour standing outside that chai stall. The monk now wanted to go visit an acquaintance at the Dubdi gompa and asked me if I would join him.
“It’ll be good for you. I’ll show you the way. Free guide, no money. Haha.”
So off we went to the Dubdi gompa.
I learnt early in my travels that the worst way to blend into a place while traveling in India was to show up there with a bright green top-loading Quechua rucksack on your back and a wide-brimmed hat on your head (the heat was searing and this was my only remedy to protect my head). In Ujjain, this obscene show of anachronism resulted in a group of rickshawallahs mobbing me at the bus stand with questions like, “Hello friend, you want hotel?” and “Which country?” This enraged me no end and I angrily told them that I was fine and I didn’t need any assistance in as good a Hindi as I could muster. This only made things worse as they began analyzing my not-so-chaste accent and tried to put a place to it and inevitably came to a conclusion that it could only be “Madras”. I ran out of the area before they could change their strategies to something more suited to a Madrasi.
Hotel Ramakrishna was that rare hotel that turned out to be a great Lonely Planet recommendation. Although it had some budget hotel quirks like indifferent receptionists, a plumbing leak in the bathroom, peeling paint on the walls and a non-functional telephone connection, it was kept clean with good natural light and after the horrific rooms in Indore, Aurangabad and Ahmednagar, almost luxurious. At 250 Rs., it was practically a steal.
The scorching summer was in full force and it was becoming a bit of a pain to travel around Central India. So I stood in a long, serpentine queue for 4 hours at the railway station to book a ticket out of Ujjain to Dehradun to get a glimpse of the Himalayan mountains. I was famished by the time I got my ticket and went to the nearest restaurant that I could find for a meal.
From the outside, it looked ominous. There wasn’t a soul around and the man in a skull-cap at the billing counter looked terribly disinterested in serving any food. While I was wondering whether to leave and find another place, a man dressed in an immaculately formal attire came up to my table and courteously asked me how I was doing. He looked too well-dressed to work in such a bargain basement restaurant, so I thought he probably wanted to share a table (though why he would want to do that when all the other tables were empty did puzzle me). I told him I was very hungry and he could join me if he wanted. He smiled politely and told me that he was there to take my order.
I apologized profusely for my faux pas and asked for a biryani. The man then did join my table because he was apparently also the owner of the establishment. He had to let go of some of his waiters because of a pay dispute and since business wasn’t going so well, he thought he could handle some of the work himself. Managing a hotel business wasn’t his dream job. He had spent 3 years in Mumbai struggling to make it in the film industry as an actor but had to settle for bit parts in theater for which he wasn’t paid so well. His father, who had been running the restaurant until his death a year ago, was very unhappy with the direction of his son’s career and gave him a “return or perish” order. So he decided to come back and aid his father in the day to day affairs but had neither the clout nor the aptitude his father had for the business. Because he respected his father a lot, he could neither sell the place nor neglect the affairs after he passed away. He said he loved talking to customers but regretted the fact that he had no skill in handling his staff who were moody and demanding and that he was only hanging on for the inevitable to happen i.e. for the business to die a natural death and take a second stab at acting by either joining a theater group in Ujjain or going back to Mumbai.
After finishing my dinner/conversation at the restaurant, I took a rickshaw to the Mahakaleshwar temple, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites (the holiest Shiva temples) in India. The exterior of the temple had been extensively modernized and refurbished with marble tiles and whatnots but one could get a sense of its ancient origins in the underground section. Here, the oil smeared pillars, the dark corridors, the brass lamps lighting the way, the aromatic fumes of camphor and the periodic rush of devotees towards the inner shrine tickled my imaginations to wonder if I was walking on the same stones that the legendary King Vikramaditya once did.
Outside, sitting on the platform, I watched people feeding the million crows that had descended on the temple grounds. An angry family was attempting to bully a priest into giving them a good deal for a puja. The priest wasn’t one to give in and he pushed them away by telling them that they were agents of the devil for bargaining the way they did and nothing good would ever happen to them if they persisted in their endeavors. The family cooled down after these retributive rebuttals and reluctantly agreed to pay the priest the money he demanded for getting their rituals done.
Anyone sitting on the platform was easy pickings for the slew of pujaris on the lookout for potential clientele. Soon enough, an aged pujari with a long white beard and dressed in white and saffron robes sat down beside me.
“You look troubled”, he said, with a look of concern, in chaste Hindi.
“No”, I said, “Why do you think so?”
“Oh, I know these things. You’re sitting alone staring at people and have no one to talk to. What is bothering you, my son?”
“You are the one bothering me” is what I wanted to tell him but since this was his territory, I chose not to be so combative.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just letting the divine energy of the temple guide me on the right path to lead my life.”
“What is life?”, he asked putting on a faux philosophical air, “Your life is just an accumulation of sins that you hope to wash away by coming here because once you die, there is no escape. I can help you purify yourself.”
“I have already washed away my sins in Nashik”, I said.
“Okay”, he said, after taking a deep breath, “What do you do for a living?”
I told him that I worked as an editor in a production house and had just quit my job to atone for the sins that I committed while doing that job.
“Good, good”, he said. “So you make films. Now if you ask me to make films, will I be good at it?”
“I don’t know”, I said, “Maybe you could give it a shot.”
“I will not be good at it”, he said, a bit angrily, “You know why? It’s because I have no training in that area. I have trained all my life to learn the divine verses in praise of Kal Bhairav and do the rituals that wash away people’s sins. And, my son, in that field, you know nothing. So even if you have been to Nashik and had some priest do it for you, you can’t be sure he’s done it properly. Different rituals need to be performed in different places.” After this, he went on to list a litany of things one needed to do in Kal Bhairav’s honour to purify oneself. The only part I could understand was the one where you had to take a few dips in the Shipra river that flowed through the city while chanting some mantras. As if that wasn’t convincing enough, he gave me a long-winded lecture on the mythology of Kal Bhairav, his genesis in form of the nail of Shiva meant to decapitate Lord Brahma and why the head was frequently seen in Bhairav’s hands in the many representations of his form. After about an hour of talking, he ended his discourse by saying, “If you go with me, I can assure you that you’ll be at peace with both yourself and with God.”
It was a good pitch but I was exhausted by his narrative and was feeling a bit woozy in the head having skipped my evening cup of chai. I told him that I had to leave and that I will certainly look him up if I needed any religious cleansing or soul-searching. He shook his head dejectedly and said , “You’re missing a good opportunity. I can’t force you to do anything but I hope you know that chances like these don’t come all the time.” He shrugged and looked mournfully into my eyes. I felt a bit sorry for him because he had after all spent an hour convincing me to go with him. So I touched his feet, gave him 40 Rs. and made my way back to the city.
Around the corner close to my hotel, I saw a small crowd forming. Being a habitual voyeur, I went there and asked a gentleman what the fuss was all about. He frowned and said, “Andhe ho kya? Chai ban rahi hai.” (Are you blind? He’s making tea.) If this was true, it must be some very good tea, I thought. So I muscled my way ahead of the crowd to get a glimpse of the old man making tea at the shop. His process was a treat in itself. He had two massive cauldrons of milk boiling on coals next to each other and kept mixing ingredients into the boiling milk, stirring and tasting the mix all the time. After he was satisfied with the mix in Cauldron 1, a young helper transferred it onto a third set of coals, where he mixed some water, cinnamon, coriander, lots of ginger, more tea, vigorously stirring and tasting the mix all the time. It was more than half an hour by the time he was done preparing it after which a mad scramble ensued to get a taste of the chai. There may have been more than fifty people waiting for their turn but Cauldron 1 was so big that it had enough tea in it to serve everyone gathered there. The chai was worth the long wait and had just the right mixture of sweetness, pungency and bitterness. It’s been over 8 years since I drank that chai in Ujjain and although some of the tea-shops in Varanasi and Allahabad come close, it’s far and away the best chai I’ve ever had.