Road Stories: Eating Ash


After a breakfast of cold TBJ (toast butter jam) at one of the several ‘hippie cafes’ that lined the narrow tarmac road running along Puri’s beachfront, I walked down to the station to buy a newspaper. When I arrived however, I was informed that as today is the day after Republic Day there are no papers.


On my way back to the café I stopped to observe a sadhu who was holding court outside a colourfully decorated low-ceilinged temple not far from the entrance to the station.


He was toking up when I arrived. The chilam was offered to me but I declined. A group of rickshaw walas and assorted young men squatted in a semi circle near him. Each drew deep on the pipe as it made the rounds.


I asked them if they weren’t afraid that the police would round them up.


This has been purchased under a government license. No problem.


A man with rotting teeth told me that smoking hash was essential to the people’s daily existence. Some people eat paan, others smoke ganja, some like bhang, others charas. Its all for digestion of the food. It is necessary.


I reply that I get paranoid when I smoke it.


They all laugh. Their tired red eyes remain motionless while their faces move in different ways.   Like all addicts, they agree that moderation is the attitude to be employed. But they exclude themselves from their own advice with a shrug of the shoulders.


I am told the sadhu has not spoken for 12 years.


He has four more to go before his vow is complete.


I wonder if he will still remember how to form words after 16 years of silence.


He communicates through gestures and a penetrating gaze but cracks an engaging smile once in a while. His sidekick, also a sanyasi, seems to have sworn the opposite vow: to talk as much as he can in as short a space as possible.


He interprets the silent one’s flailing arms and pointing fingers. He details their recent past and spells out their future intentions. (They are headed to Nepal, next). The sidekick tells of fabulous bright silver coins and good charas in Kashmir.


We sleep wherever we find a spot. A sanyasi has no home.


Do you travel by foot, I ask.


He laughs. No. No. No. We are sanyasis. We go by train. Whoever has heard of a sadhu paying for his travel.


As I leave, the silent one pinches some ashes from his smoldering fire and signals that I should smear it on my forehead, which I do.


Sidekick then rattles, Now swallow the rest.


I hesitate but do as he says. I walk away with a gritty taste in my mouth.



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