My room at the ashram wasn’t big. It had a stone platform with a thin mattress that one had to employ as a bed and there were two tiny wooden brackets on the wall acting as makeshift shelves to keep some of your belongings. The message being sent to potential guests was that if you wanted to stay here you better not bring a lot of luggage or have any back issues. For our daily ablutions and nature calls, there were 2 squat toilets and one little enclosure for bathing at the end of a long corridor that had to be shared with 30 rooms. The bathroom ceiling was so low that if you were any taller than 5 foot 5 (most of the guests at the ashram were), you had to wash yourself while sitting on the floor.
The ashram was always full, so there was a long shit-queue early in the morning which made it one of the socializing hubs for the denizens of the ashram. The shit-queue also meant getting to Swami D’s 7 a.m. lectures became a bit tricky. Swami D wasn’t one to take too kindly to people coming late to his pearls of wisdom. So if you woke up any later than 6 a.m. you were probably screwed and would have to fear one of Swami D’s eviction drives. Every single day, I would curse myself for staying there and resolve to look for some other place to stay. But then I would go to the shit-queue and look at the pained faces of Jasbir, Dave, Ranga, Joseph, Pierre, Carol, Jessica, Steve, Linda, Kei, Matt etc., all waiting their turn, all friends I had made in a week at the ashram and all united in their agonies, and I would say, maybe tomorrow.
One of the handful of people who didn’t have to attend Swami D’s lectures was my neighbour, a 78-year old man from Bhadohi named Shambhu because Swami D believed he already possessed all the knowledge and wisdom that he could impart. He was the only ashram guest who had the honour of having chai with Swami D. Shambhuji didn’t have a lot of teeth left and had been staying in his dingy little room for over 4 months. On my first day at the ashram, I slumbered out of bed at 6 a.m. to brush my teeth when I saw Shambhuji standing outside his room looking fresh and dapper ogling at the 6 and a half foot German girl Brenda staying in our row of rooms filling up hot water from the tap in the corner. Jasbir must have seen a scandalized expression on my face because he came up to me and said, “Woh kya hai ki Uncleji ab bhi zindagi mein choti choti chizon ka aanand lene mein vishwaas rakhte hai.” (The old man still believes in taking pleasure in the little things in life.)
Shambhu heard the snide remark thrown in his direction, opened his mouth wide, shook his head and said, “Itni lambi! Itni badi! Hey bhagwan.” (So tall, so big, oh my God)
Shambhuji had spent his entire adulthood working for the Indian Railways as a signalman. Every conversation with him involved at least one story of how he miraculously escaped a derailment and a certain death all thanks to Lord Kishan Kanhaiya. His eyes would well up with tears and he would join his hands to look up to the framed poster of Lord Krishna decorating his shelf at the end of every climax. He had 7 children (4 boys, 3 girls), 18 grandchildren (all married) and 2 great grandchildren and was predictably conservative. He would boast often about how he married off his girls by the age of 16 to give them more time to grow boys because – “…pehle do toh hamesha mahila hi nikal thi hai jaise hamare saath hua. Agar putr nahin hua toh vansh aage kaise badega?” (…the first two always tend to be girls like it was with me. If you don’t have a son, who will extend our family line?)
Nevertheless, the platform outside Shambhuji’s den became the place “the ashram group” hung out every night. The core group, who had been staying in the ashram for at least a week comprised of Jasbir, myself, Shambhuji of course, Jessica – a 19 year old girl from California in Rishikesh to learn Patanjali yoga, Kei – a Japanese guy whose ineptitude in English was matched only by Shambhuji and who was learning tabla at a local hackshop, Joseph – a jilted lover from Goa who was in Rishikesh looking for “new experiences”, Carol – a 40 year old woman from France who was planning a move to India and Matt – a guy from New Zealand who was backpacking round the world and was taking a cheap break in Rishikesh to recover from travel fatigue. Apart from us, there was a constant ebb and flow of backpackers and everyone inevitably landed around where we were because that was “the” place to be.
Shambhuji and Kei never joined in the conversations but perhaps felt a degree of comfort and warmth in human company. Kei gently stroked his tabla every once in a while to keep himself busy. Shambhuji sat on a chair and stared into space with his thick spectacles.
The warmth went missing one quiet day when the ever-mischievous Jasbir took advantage of a lull in conversation, looked up to Jessica and said, “You know, Shambhuji has big family. 10 brothers 20 children. “
Jessica – “Really? Why does he have to live here then?”
Jasbir (to Shambhu) – “Pooch rahi hai ki aapko yahan rehne ki naubat kaise aa gayi?” (She’s asking why you have to live here)
Shambhu – “Bas mahaul accha hai. Log acche hai.” (I like the atmosphere. People are nice.)
Jasbir (to Jessica) – “He saying he likes here. He likes you. Hahaha.”
Jessica, with an expression of mock disbelief – “I can’t believe he said that”.
She turned to me and asked – ‘Did he really say that?”
Me – “No, he didn’t. He said he likes the place and the people here.”
Jessica rolled her eyes at Jasbir who blushed and looked away. Jasbir had a not-so-secret crush going on Jessica, something he had told everyone in the ashram except Jessica. She must have had a hint because she made it a point never to be around with him alone.
Jasbir to me – “Saale kabab mein haddi mat bano. Shambhuji ko jaane nahi ho tum ab tak. Inki jawaani ab bhi jhilmila rahi hai.” (Don’t spoil all the fun I’m having. You don’t know Shambhuji yet. He’s still very young.)
Then he turned towards Jessica and said, “I tell him Shambhuji still very young. He like beautiful people.”
Jessica just ignored him and said – “Before I came to India, I read a story about old people abandoned by their familes. So I hope he isn’t, like, one of them.”
Jasbir, with growing desperation to gain her attention – “No, no, he very happy. He like this ashram.”
Shambhuji who seemed lost in thought all this while now broke out of his reverie, looked at Jasbir with all the intensity his 78 year old eyes could muster and with his aged drawl said, “Raj dharm kya hota hai jaante ho? Tum yahaan jo apna poonch hila kar phirte ho, kuch pada karo apni sanskruti ke baare mein. Sabse ooncha, sabse pada likha, sabse zyada dimaagwala raja hota hai. Hum yahaan ke raja hai. Raja ke jo padosi hai woh uske dushman kehalaate hai. Dushman ka padosi raja ka dost hota hai. Tum hamare padosi ho aur hamare dushman bhi. Yeh jo angrez hai saare woh tumhare padosi hai aur hamare dost. Dekh lena aage se agar koi zurrat ki toh humse bura koi nahi hoga.” (Do you know what the duty of a king is? Instead of wagging your tail around here, you should make an effort to learn about your history and culture. The king is the tallest, most knowledgeable, most intelligent man in his world. I am the king here. The king regards his immediate neighbours as his enemies. And the enemy’s neighbours are his friends. You are my neighbour here and my enemy too. These foreigners here who happen to be your neighbours are my friends. If you misbehave ever again, I will make sure you’ll pay for it.)
There was a pin drop silence after Shambhuji finished and while no one other than Jasbir, Joseph and I could decipher what he was on about, this anachronistic monologue from a man who was the gentlest and quietest people in the group, appeared to shock everyone.
Matt broke the ice as he let out a mighty yawn and said, “Time to call it a day then?”
And on cue, we all said our good nights and left for our rooms.
Jasbir, for all his swagger, got spooked enough to stay away from Shambhuji from that day on and would only meet us outside the ashram.