Road Stories: The Wedding Fair

old womn 74

Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint).   Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.

 

An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.

 

The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.

 

hqdefault

Hazrat Abdul Latif Qadri “Bari Imam’

 

A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.

 

Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.

 

The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.

 

The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.

Bob Dylan’s Dark Night of the Soul

lincoln

Mention Bob Dylan and the spiritual path and most people think of his most controversial career move–turning into a fire breathing evangelical Christian. For many fans the trio of albums he released between 1979-1981 represent the embarrassing nadir of a genius gone temporarily mad.

 

Personally, I like a lot of the music on Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. But I see the records as religious artefacts more than spiritual tomes. At their worst, Dylan comes across as preachy and shrill, his message, blunt and antiseptic. Ironically, Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ accounts for some of his least spiritual music.

 

As with Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen there is a lode of spirituality that runs deep through most of Dylan’s art. His early protest songs are not dissimilar to Old Testament rants against the ungodly. Virtually the whole of Blood of the Tracks (1975), with songs like Idiot Wind, Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Storm, is a compendium of the many faces of Love.   Isis (Desire, 1976), Highlands (Time Out of Mind, 1997) and any number of other tracks across his entire career are lyrical distillations of man’s search for meaning. One of my great favourites, to which I’ve been listening a lot recently, is Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).

 

Señor is the high point not just of Street Legal (1978) but, for my money, one of the loftiest pinnacles of his entire career. The song is a tale all right, full of vivid images, pithy observations and some of the greatest lines Dylan ever wrote.

 

All of Dylan’s great songs are subject to multiple readings and heated debates about their ‘meaning’. I make no claim that my interpretation is definitive. It is not. In fact, I don’t think any work of art has a single ‘meaning’. There are as many meanings as listeners and what follows is my current interpretation of the song.

0-090905-01

Given what we now know of Dylan’s spiritual journey in the late 70s—his Rolling Thunder Revue band included several committed Christians; his next album was Slow Train Coming, the first of his three overtly Christian albums–the song seems to be a description of religious conversion. But though this may seem plausible in retrospect, Dylan wraps the moral of his story up in obtuse (but evocative) imagery and words, beginning with the very title of the song itself: Tales of Yankee Power.

 

There are those (including me, for some years) who try to pick out a story of American ‘bullyboyism’ and military intervention in Central America here. After all, that’s what the song is called! But herein lies the song’s first spiritual truth: don’t get caught up in labels.

 

This is a song about power, just not political power. And who is this Señor? In Spanish the word means Sir or Master or Lord. A figure of authority. The patron. Let’s say for present purposes, Señor is that shadowy quiet Source that dwells within every person’s soul.

 

Señor, señor
Can you tell me where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

 

Dylan opens with a confused question. ‘Is this just regular life or am I hurtling straight for the end of the world?’   Both outcomes are plausible, at this stage. A drive through a familiar part of town, or Doomsday.

 

Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

 

The singer tries to reassure himself there is nothing to fear. ‘I’ve seen this movie before.’ But the doubt keeps nagging. ‘Can you just confirm that, for me Senor? I’m going to be ok, right. Just like all the other times.’

 

Whether we like it or not. Whether we know where we’re heading or not, we are on our way. Señor is riding out ahead and we’re feeling a bit irritable.

 

Señor, señor
Do you know where she is hidin’?
How long are we gonna be ridin’?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?

 

Throughout my life my dreams have included a mysterious and powerful woman. When I was a teenager she was lithe, and when I was an adult she was motherly. Sometimes she was gentle, other times she screamed at me. Once, as an old hag, she revealed the entire Universe in an instant. But in all her guises I could never touch her. She was just out of reach. And I wake longing to see her again.

 

The song’s second verse is a perfect summation of that experience. In Dylan’s case perhaps this verse refers to his Muse. The 1980s were just around the corner. And for most of that decade he struggled to find the flow of words and images that seemed to come so effortlessly in the 60s and 70s. The 80s—revisionist thinking notwithstanding—are considered to be the weakest period of Dylan’s career. And here in 1978 he’s digging deep: do you know where she is hidin’? He’s on the brink of a crisis.

 

There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”

 

The third verse’s imagery is cinematic and surreal. You can feel the wild wind howling against your body and see the hypnotic swing of that heavy iron cross. You can hear the creaking of the wooden decks of a ship tossed on the high seas. And then there’s a marching band playing for nobody. This is like a scene from a Bergman film in which She greets him with a delicate kiss which in actuality turns out to be a kiss-off, instead. What irony in those three words, ‘Forget me not’. Dylan hasn’t forgotten her, but she has done the dirty on him and is nowhere to be found.

 

 

Señor, señor
I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?

 

The tension is building. Our troubled narrator is scared and freaking out. He senses the monster around a gypsy’s wagon. He can smell danger. It’s lurking, but where exactly? The suspense is killing him. His panic is palatable. Cold sweats have broken out. Can you tell me who to contact here?

 

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
He said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

 

The singer is brought to his knees (in desperate supplication?) and then he blacks out. But just before he does he gets the bad news he’s dreaded for so long. That dragon-loving gypsy who has snared hundreds of foolish souls like his, cackles, Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.

 

Señor, señor
You know their hearts are as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
Just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor

 

Confusion, betrayal and revelation are followed by resignation. The nightmare scenario turns out to be true. There is no point in resistance or even prayer. All the remains is to pull yourself up off the floor and proclaim, ‘I’m ready’. For whatever comes. ‘I submit, my Lord.’

 

Señor, señor
Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?

 

And once the decision has been made, once the point of no return is passed, a certain eagerness washes over the soul. Like Christ overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, it’s time to rip the cables from their sockets, turn off the lights and step into the unknown Next. That familiar place—Lincoln Country Road–where everything made sense is no more. ‘What are we waiting around for?’

 

Much has been made of Dylan’s influences—everyone from Rimbaud and Woody Guthrie to Jesus and Blind Willie McTell—and in Señor I hear echoes of John Donne’s beautiful but brutal holy sonnet, Batter my heart, three-person’d God (1633).

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new

 

Both poems share a sense of violence, foreboding and overpowering spiritual lust. Of wanting to be brought completely to one’s knees and to absolute surrender to Señor.

 

 

The critics were lukewarm to scathing of Street Legal. The musical pandits Christagau and Marcus labelled it ‘horrendous’ and ‘unlistenable’. But as Dylan reminded us way back when the times are always changing and today Street Legal is considered a diamond in the rough. Not as brilliant as his best but certainly superior to the original debunking it received.

 

Regardless of the critics, Dylan’s peers have always found Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) to be a powerful creation. There are a multitude of covers available on the internet from all sorts of angles. Here are three that are particularly good.

Let’s start with a live version from the man himself from 1978.

Willie Nelson and Tucson’s Calexico give an absolutely stunning, Tex-Mex interpretation in the Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There. Nelson’s elastic and worn vocal style is counterbalanced by a sweet Mexacali trumpet trio and his familiar pick/strumming guitar work.

Diva de Lai is a group that combined heavy rock with opera to give expression to their love of Bob Dylan! Karin Shifrin, classically trained opera star sends chills down your spine in this version which takes the songs inherent dramatic, spiritual tension to Himalayan heights!

There was probably no bigger fan of Dylan in the music world than Jerry Garcia (or Joan Baez or The Band or…)  He covered many of Bob’s songs throughout his career with Senor being one of favorites. This is a loving straight ahead telling of the story, nothing fancy but solid and full of Garcia’s characteristic guitar magic.

The Balladeer: Sharif Idu

Harmonium

beyondinner

Sharif Idu is probably the most widely known dhadhi singer in India. Of course, dhadhi is not a massively popular genre. Least of all in the urban, recorded-music consuming markets of India. So the word ‘widely’ needs to be tempered somewhat.

Dhadhi is a genre of traditional music performed mostly in Punjab and some border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana. Its natural audience lives and works in the agricultural villages and small towns of Punjab. While the recent folk music revival in India has given artists like Sharif Idu more ‘fame’ than they would normally enjoy, dhadhi, like so many other indigenous, local forms of singing and playing music is struggling to withstand the forces of digitally-consumed commercial popular music.

Punjab is blessed with an incredibly rich traditional/folk culture which includes a number of distinct styles of singing and playing music. While certain geographic areas of the State are…

View original post 982 more words

Road Stories: Running Home (Pt. 3)

steam_009-1

My bodyguards followed their orders and didn’t allow anyone to talk to me. And neither did they utter a word. From Hardwar to Lucknow, a journey of 15 hours, they kept their prisoners on a tight leash, taking turns at dozing, sometimes whispering, occasionally sharing bidis. Up on the top tier, I was left alone.

 

When the train pulled into Lucknow, our party clanged and shuffled its way across a platform or two until one of the cops pointed at a train. “That one will take you to Pratapgarh,” he said.

 

With their duty done, they turned their detainees around once more and left me to my own devices.

 

An empty train in India is a rare thing. The one I boarded was oven hot and completely quiet. I had the feeling of entering a long steel church. A familiar air of hope and faith filled the space. Hope and faith that the train would soon start moving. A handful of passengers lay stretched out here and there prostrate in the presence of the Sun god. I found a window seat on the shady side of the compartment and waited.

 

Eventually, the train did pull away from the station and onto the dry, scrabbly plain of central UP. I squinted into the wavy horizon. Though it must have been close to 45 degrees, I relished the way the heat burned the monsoon chill out of my bones.

 

The slow swaying and jolting of the carriages comforted me. I lost myself in the clacking of the rails. I was excited now. Just a couple more hours to go and I’d be home.

 

I must have nodded off for I was woken by someone tapping my shoulder. In front of me stood a Sikh ticket inspector in a navy blue blazer with worn cuffs. He had his hand outstretched and asked me to show him my ticket.

 

“I don’t have one.”

 

Perhaps because a representative of the Indian government itself had deposited me, Special Delivery, on this train my fear was gone.

 

‘Why?”

 

“My money was stolen and the Railway Police told me to take this train. My mother is sick in Allahabad and I’m going there.” The further I traveled the longer my opening line became.

 

The Ticket Inspector eyed me quietly for a minute. As he did, my courage wilted. The same panic I had felt after the Russians had laughed me out of the compound, rushed through me. I was sure the moment of my arrest had arrived.

 

“You do one thing,” he said after a while. “Just before we enter Pratapgarh Station, the train will stop. You alight there and walk to the city. There will be no issue of ticket shicket.”

 

I nodded my assent somewhat incredulously. How was it that a man charged with enforcing the rules was advising me on the best way to break them?

 

Several minutes later the train did roll to a stop about 200 metres from the station. I, along with what seemed like every other passenger on the train, hopped onto the hot earth and scampered out of the railway premises through a hole in a symbolic fence that stood 5 metres from the highway.

 

I’ll never forget that Sikh.

 

**

Pratapgarh is a small district town famous for tamarinds and a historic fort. But its main role is as a rail junction and transport hub. I entered a chowk bustling with activity. People were streaming up and down the road toward the station. Buses and Tempos, India’s awkward three wheeler taxi-buses that ferried people to remote villages off the main highway, stood three deep on both sides of the road.

 

Touts shouted out destinations of nearby towns and villages. Hawkers shouted the prices of their fruit and peanuts. Horns blasted incessantly. Loudspeakers attached to trees blasted Lata Mangeshkar and Rafi songs.

 

“Allahabad, Allahabad. Allahabaaad! Hey kid, why not go with us?”

 

A man with sweat dripping from his nose and ears and with a soiled handkerchief around his neck motioned me in his direction.

 

He was standing by a taxi. I couldn’t afford a taxi. I was looking for a bus. I couldn’t afford a bus either but somehow catching a free ride on the latter seemed more feasible than in a taxi.

 

‘Where you going?”

 

“Allahabad.”

 

“Come on. I have one seat left, Rs. 12 is all. Come on, quickly, right over here.”

 

He pulled me towards the Ambassador.

 

“I don’t have 12 rupees.”
“No problem, how much do you have?”

 

“None. But if you stop on Stanley Rd, across from Beli Hospital I can get you some.”

 

“Done,” he said. “Sit down, here.”

 

He pulled open a creaky door and shoved me into the back seat. I joined five other adults. Across their laps they carried a charpai, a country rope bed that had been partially disassembled to fit into the auto. None of them could move from the weight of the wooden legs and the tangle of rope. I squeezed in as best I could, holding the door shut with my arm.

 

In the front seat sat another four adults. Not one of them was the driver. With his taxi now full the driver began to insinuate himself little by little behind the wheel. After some wiggling and numerous requests for reconfigurations in the passenger’s sitting arrangements, he was able to reach both feet to the pedals. His back was mostly resting against the front door which caused him to maneuver the wheel with distinct awkwardness. As if he was puppet with broken arms.

 

Somehow, by stretching and nudging the gear shift with the very tips of his fingers, the driver got us rolling down the highway towards Allahabad. Inconceivably, in every little bazaar we passed through he shouted out loudly, “Allahabad. Allahabad” as if he was the only one in the car. Luckily, no one took up his offer and an hour and a half later just as the hottest sun of the day was turning into cool evening, we stopped in front of Allahabad Bible Seminary.

 

Before I managed to tell the driver to wait while I got the fare, he pushed the car into gear and moved down the Grand Trunk Road.

 

48 hours after leaving Mussoorie I walked into the shady compound of home.

 

**

My parents were expecting me. Mr. Kapadia had called to inform them that while the school didn’t know my exact whereabouts, “I suspect he’s on his way to you.”

 

I spent a week at home. When my folks grilled me about what had caused me to take such a drastic step I didn’t know what to say. For the entire journey I had operated on the principle of forward motion. I didn’t doubt my feeling that I needed to be home and had spent no time analyzing why I had bolted.

 

I had no words to express the oppression I felt inside. The monsoon, the mist, the mountains, the Bible Club, the school, the cold had all worked to make me feel agitated and disconnected. Out of sorts.

 

My sister Beckie had graduated that summer and gone to the States for college. I was the last of my siblings, so perhaps I felt alone and vulnerable. Without an older brother or sister as a reference point boarding school seemed more scary and hostile. All I knew for sure was that I had an overwhelming but inarticulate need for home.

 

After a week my dad put me back on the train. “We told Mr Kapadia that he has our agreement to punish you in whatever manner the school decides.”

 

It was matter-of-fact statement. I didn’t care. My inner battery was recharged.

 

When I got back to Mussoorie I felt strong and connected. And heroic. People that I had admired or been intimidated by looked at me in awe. “Rabe, you actually ran away! Far out!”

 

I don’t know if anyone followed my example but for a brief moment I considered myself a trailblazer.

 

Mr Kapadia informed me that I would be gated for 10 days. No extra curricular activity and straight home after school. I was to serve my sentence in the home of the Harpers, whose son Phil, was in my class. Mrs Harper was a vivacious, and extremely liberal minded woman and she welcomed me with love, a no-nonsense attitude and French Toast for breakfast.

 

“If you ever want to run away again,” Mr Kapadia told me when it was all said and done, “just come to me. We’ll have a talk. If you want a cigarette I’ll let you smoke in my house. Just don’t frighten everyone by disappearing!”

Road Stories: Running Home (Pt. 2)

14676893

The Russians were easy to find. I heard their tipsy, vodka soaked laughter coming from a shady part of the compound. Four or five of them were sitting on adjacent porches of their apartments, their fleshy faces flushed red with heat and drink.

As I approached, silence broke out.

I smiled, hoping it would break the ice. It didn’t.

They stared at me, obviously perplexed and irritated that I had interrupted their lunch break. One of the women whispered something to her friend.

“Excuse me,” I began.

By now I had my tale-of-woe down pat. I told them my mother was ill and I needed some money. “I need to get to Allahabad, about 700 kilometers from here,”

“No. No money,” one of them said.

A couple others joined in the chorus. “No money. Go away.” A man with huge arms and angry eyes said it louder than the others. With real authority.

Having spent 8 years in boarding school I knew a lost cause when I met one. I turned back toward the gate.

But I was dying of thirst. With a drinking gesture I said, “Could I have some water?”

This second request really set them off. Amidst the general clamor of, “No water. Go!’, one of the men made a move towards me. He didn’t follow me but I didn’t have  the courage to turn back and check until I was several meters down the path. When I did turn the Russians were still tense. They glared at me, but as I retreated the laughing resumed.

A mali who was sitting in the shade on his haunches watering a guava tree beckoned me over.

He held up the hose for me to drink. He didn’t say much and I didn’t offer anything. I have no doubt he had been watching the scene play out from a distance. I sensed it was one he himself was familiar with and took his kindness as an act of solidarity.

The thought of a 10 km ride back to Hardwar in the midday sun depressed me, especially as I was no richer for my effort. I was too spent to formulate my next move, but I knew I needed to be in town where there existed at least the potential of assistance.

I must have looked miserable pedaling along the highway because out of nowhere a man appeared. His  well oiled, wavy hair  glistened in the sun. He wore narrow legged pants and a plaid yellow shirt. I can’t remember how it happened but he successfully commandeered my bike, sat me on the rear carrier and began cycling toward Hardwar.

Despite the heat, we got a bit of breeze going which cooled my cheeks slightly. I vaguely remember the Stranger talking to me but can’t recollect about what. Before I knew it we were back at the Station. He dropped me at the cyclewala and even paid the outstanding balance. Then with a nod of his head he disappeared as unexpectedly as he’d appeared.

**

I retreated to the relative comfort of the 1st class Waiting Room. I dozed on a rattan lounge chair with extendable arms that doubled as leg rests, one of the distinctive artifacts of railway waiting halls in those days. But I was hungry. And more than a little anxious about how I was going to make the next leg of the journey.

A middle class family were the only others in the Waiting Room. The patriarch reclined on a rattan chair like mine, staring blankly at a ceiling fan that swayed as it whirred madly. From time to time he lifted his buttocks and farted. But other than that, he didn’t move.

I may have been oblivious to him but I had been watching him for some time. After one of his farts I cleared my throat and in my best Hindi launched into conversation. I learned they had come to Hardwar on yatra (pilgrimage) and were now heading back home. I asked him about his business (the nature of which I’ve completely forgotten) and may have said a nice thing or two about his young child.

As a conversationalist he was unenthusiastic.

“My mother is ill,” I offered, hoping to pique his interest.

He may have nodded, but if he did, it was ever so slightly.

“I need to get home. To Allahabad. But I have no money.”

“Why do you not have money?”

“I was robbed,” I found my mouth saying. I couldn’t believe it. But I was in the water now, so I had to keep going.

“This morning on the way from Dehra Dun, it was very crowded in the bogie and when I got here I realized someone had stolen my money.”

He looked at me skeptically.

“Could you provide me with Rs. 20, so I could get a ticket? My mother is very ill.”

“You must report to the Railway Police,” he said. “If you have been a victim of theft.”

As far as he was concerned the conversation was over. The spinning fan captured his attention once more. I felt foolish but let a decent interval pass before shuffling out of the Waiting Room.

**

Once again, 24 hours after the first occasion, I entered the office of an Indian Railways bureaucrat. I had mulled over what the farting businessman had said. He was absolutely correct in his observation that the Police needed to be notified in the event of a crime. But in this case there had been no crime committed so fronting up to the Police would not be the smartest tactic. On the other hand, I was clean out of options.

The Railway Police office was shabbier than the Station Master’s in Dehra Dun. The man behind the desk had a pot belly and sweat stained his khaki uniform. His closely shaved head sported a choti, the little tuft of hair that identified him as a high caste Hindu. Unlike the Station Master his face lit up when I stood in front of his desk.

“Kya baat hai, baba?” he asked. What is it, lad?

Though he addressed me in Hindi he clearly didn’t expect me to respond in kind.

“Meri ma bimaar hai, aur mere paas ticket ka kiraya nahi hai,” I said, laying down the by now firm foundation of my story.

“Arey! Hindi bolte!” His belly jiggled with delight. “Ay shabaash!”

Before I could continue with my dishonest story he shot a series of questions at me in an attempt to come to grips with the fact that a white kid could speak Hindi.

I told him about me. I was American. I studied in Mussoorie. I was born in India. Rajesh Khanna was a good actor, yes.

Whereas the Station Master had instantly linked my school being located in Mussoorie and my being in his office to funny business, this jolly man didn’t give a stuff. Indeed, he was hooting to a couple of underlings about what a spectacular thing I was.

Somehow in the midst of this excitement I managed to explain my dilemma: 700 kms. No money. Sickly mother.

Before I knew it he grabbed my wrist and dragged me behind him. He marched outside with me in tow. A couple of minutes later we were seated at an open air dhaba that sold tea and fast food to the throngs around the station.

He instructed the dhabawala to give me a plate of curry and a few chapatis. “This fellow is American but born in India! It’s true. And he speaks spasht Hindi! Just listen.” He could hardly contain himself.

Though my mouth was full (this was my first food in nearly 36 hours) I knew this was the price of dinner. A small crowd had appeared or, rather the endless crowd of passersby stopped for a moment to look at me. It was my cue.

I restated in Hindi what I had told the Police Inspector a few minutes earlier, that I was American, born in India, lived in Allahabad but studied in Mussoorie.

People marveled and exclaimed. The Inspector couldn’t have beamed wider had I been his son. He ordered my plate to be refilled. I ate up. He continued to hold court but eventually passersby grew bored and the rhythm of the bazaar returned to normal.

The Police Inspector led me back to his office. I was grateful for the meal but had no idea how I was going to make it home.

He pressed a buzzer on his desk which immediately produced a minion. The underling was sent forth to find others and after several minutes returned with two colleagues who carried rifles and bulleted shoulder straps. They noisily pushed a pair of prisoners into the office in front of them. With their legs and wrists in irons the prisoners shuffled and clanged like cheap robots.

The inspector didn’t move from his desk and in a loud voice told the newly arrived cops that they were to include me in their party. They were on official duty, transporting criminals from Hardwar to the state capital. “You take this boy with you to Lucknow but do not let anyone, and I mean anyone, speak with him.”

With that, the chubby Police Inspector himself walked me to a train and bade me bon voyage.

I was on my way at last. Still ticketless, but with a pair of personal armed guards.

Road Stories: Running Home (Pt 1)

15-44nr_153hardwar

 

When I was 15 I ran away.

 

Like most teenagers, I had a fantasy about running away from home. I was going to escape and ride my push bike 2500 km to the tip of India. I was going to live a life free of adult authority along the Grand Trunk road. I was going to go far away.

 

But when the moment came to make a dash, I ran straight home.

 

**

The Himalayan monsoon that year seemed to have no end. The rains had come early and weeks went by without a glimpse of blue sky. By mid-July, my heart was aching for some warmth and a flat horizon

 

Mussoorie, the hill station where I attended boarding school, was hemmed in with a brittle, misty fog that pricked your skin like needles. Every tree dripped. The narrow dirt trails we navigated around the hillside had turned into rivelets of mud.

 

One Sunday the claustrophobia was particularly intense. The dampness of the trees, clouds and earth had soaked into every pore of my body. I couldn’t get warm and I couldn’t shake the restlessness that had been building up for days.

I and a few friends had spent the weekend in the basement of a friend’s house at the top of a prominent hill in town. On Sunday afternoon, the crowd I hung with attended Bible Club–two hours of singing, praying and Bible teaching mixed with ping pong, homemade cakes and pretty girls.

 

That Sunday I sat glumly to one side, resentlng the endless rendition of “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man”, coming from a keen group of devotees in the main room. Tim Buehler’s electric guitar had been a novelty the previous year. Today it grated my nerves. I wanted to be away. To be far from this place and be by myself. I pushed my way through my friends to the door which I closed quietly behind me.

 

And then I began to run.

 

My mind was blank but my body took control. I sprinted up the dirt path to the chukkar, a concrete motor road that ran around the top of the hill. Within seconds, almost with every step, a plan developed in my mind. Ten minutes of jogging got me to Dr Olsen’s place. I charged into the basement and rifled through the pockets of whosever jeans I could find. I fished out three rupees from one pair. With my sleeping roll under my arm, I half marched, half ran down the chakkar toward town.

 

My heart beat madly. I was exhilarated by my decision though I was not yet sure what it was. I was heading for the bazaar but I didn’t dare think too much about it.

 

One of the rules of school was that students were not allowed in Mussoorie town, one of India’s most famous tourist destinations, alone and without the permission of a parent or staff member, except on Saturdays. I knew if I met anyone remotely connected with the hierarchy of the school–staff, staff’s spouse, school karmachari or friend of a staff member–I could be legitimately questioned about my presence in town. If I had no written notice on me I would be forced to return.

 

I made it down Mullingar Hill, a ski slope of a road that wound through Landour, unnoticed. A few shop keepers eyed me with some surprise as I passed by but none tried to stop me.

 

My biggest fear was meeting Mr Kapadia, the In-Charge of Hostel, the highschool boys residential hall where I lived. In addition to being a strict disciplinarian, Mr K was known to be a raconteur who often went drinking of an evening with his Rotary buddies. What if he approached, gambolling home slightly tipsy?

 

While my eyes flitted like a criminal’s ahead, to the side and even behind me, searching for a familiar face, I realized that this was the first time I had actually been in the bazaar on a non-Saturday. The worn familiarity of the alleys and shops had been replaced by a hostile feeling, as if a friend had turned against me. I breathed deep and kept going.

 

At Thukral’s Photo Studio I sensed victory. It was now only a 5 minute walk to the bus stand. That was the first destination in my half baked plan. What I would do once there I hadn’t yet figured out.

 

I approached the ticket cubicle of the UP State Roadways Transport Service and shoved my three rupee notes across the counter. A man gave me 75 paise in change along with a ticket. He nodded at the appropriate bus. It was empty. Not wanting to take a chance I lay down on the seats and waited for the bus to start. Not many people were travelling that evening and once we started swaying around the hairpin bends I sat up. For the first time in weeks I felt myself relax.

 

**

The bus deposited me at the Dehra Dun Railway station. I knew now that my soul was taking me home to Allahabad, 860 kilometers to the east, but how I was to make the journey remained a mystery. My buying power, all of 75 paise, was limited to 3 cups of tea.

 

Without much thought (my body still operated as an independent agent) I marched into the Station Master’s office on the main platform. The room was long, orderly and brightly lit by neon tubes that hummed as loud as a swarm of bees.

 

A uniformed official sat behind a desk surrounded by phones and stacks of papers. He looked up as I came in. I opened my mouth. What came out surprised me. “My mother is sick and I need to return to Allahabad, urgently. I have no money for tonight’s train.”

 

He surveyed me for a moment. “You are a student of Woodstock School?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Does Mr Kapadia know you are here?”

 

The mention of the name sent a shiver though my body. I must have mumbled something but can’t recall what. I seemed a stranger to myself.

 

He reached for a phone and dialled a number. The game was up. I froze. After a minute he put the phone down and said there was no answer. I backed out of his office. He may or may not have called the Much Feared Kapadia, but he didn’t pursue me.

 

With Plan A foiled I was fresh out of plans. I paced up and down the platform struggling to keep my panic under check. I knew if I could make it to Hardwar, a couple three hours down the track I’d feel safer. I knew someone there, or at least had a name and a face, if no address. Hardwar was that much further into the Indian plain. And that much farther away from the horrid imprisoning hills. But a certain distance had to be traversed yet. I bought a cup of tea and squatted down to contemplate the dilemma.

 

The night came up quickly. Tube lights flickered on. I was getting hungry but needed to hold on to my meagre resources, now just half a rupee. Some trains came and others went. I watched them as years later I would watch planes high in the sky and wish I was on them. The beast within me was restless again. He didn’t like this hanging about. I kept walking the platform, crossing the footbridges and back again.

 

“Where you headed,” a coolie asked me as I shuffled by. He was on his haunches, cupping a bidi in his fist. I squatted next to him and mumbled, “Hardwar.”

 

“That one leaves tomorrow morning, eight o’clock,” he said indicating a dark chain of carriages.

 

I would have shared his bidi if he had asked. I usually smoked Four Square when my friends and I were in our secret tea shops in Mussoorie. I wanted smoke in my lungs at that moment. Heat and fire to match my agitation. He didn’t offer me the bidi but he did yell at a nearby chai wala to give me a clay matka of tea and a nice, soft, cellophane-wrapped tea bun.

 

I slurped the tea, gratefully. As I chewed, the coolie and I chatted. He asked where I was from, who my father was and what sort of service he did. I admired the brass identity badge on his arm with a number that certified his official status as a porter. He treated me as if I was his nephew, not a stranger. After a while, when our conversation slowed he showed me where to lay out my sleeping bag on the platform. “In the morning, the bogie you want will stop right here.”

 

During our chat he had assured me that I shouldn’t worry about not having a ticket. “Do you think all these people have tickets?” His tone indicated what the answer was. “Just don’t jump into a reserved bogie and no one will even look at you.”

 

The following morning the platform was chaos. As I rolled up my gear my coolie friend appeared amidst the melee. He told me to follow him, then elbowed and abused his way to the carriage. He sat me down by a window. Before he disappeared he smiled at me.

 

The train started to roll. This was electrifying. Traversing India by train, perhaps because I did it so little and mostly on holidays, was always a thrill. As the carriages lurched and swayed through the ancient Siwalik range I couldn’t have cared less that I had no money, had not eaten a meal in 24 hours and had no address for my friend in the rather large and rather holy pilgrim city of Hardwar, just a couple hours in the future. The sound, the motion and the hot breeze generated by the coal fueled engine had my heart racing. This was very illegal and very fun.

 

Around mid-morning we pulled into Hardwar. First hurdle was to get past the official who stood at the exit collecting tickets. One option was to press into the crowd and attempt to squeeze through unnoticed. But with a white face, this was a risky stategy. Instead, I held back until the exiting throng had dissipated and the TC with his pockets full of little cardboard tickets, retired to his fan cooled office. With the coast clear I quickly stepped out of the gate and into the heat.

 

My plan, such as it was, was to rent a cycle for the day, and seek out a church where I was certain I’d find someone who knew my friend, a recently graduated seminarian from the college where my Dad was principal. In such a predominantly Hindu town as Hardwar, I figured there would be no more than a handful of churches and that they would stick out like sore thumbs. Everyone would know where to find them.

 

Near the station I found a hire shop and rented an Atlas bike for Rs 1. I gave the man my remaining change and promised the remainder upon return. As I swung my leg onto the seat I asked him where the church was. He shrugged and went back to work. I quickly realized that people came to Harwar to visit a handful of monumental Hindu holy spots and do puja. Churches were not on anybody’s menu of local landmarks.

 

A passerby called out to me and with a twist of his fingers asked  where I was going? “I’m looking for a church to find a friend.”

 

He acted as if he wasn’t listening, “You’ll find your kind in Jalalabad, at the BHEL compound.”

 

“Christians?” I said, sounding like a young Vasco da Gama.

 

“Russians. They run that place. Go there. They will help you.” He moved away into the crowd.

 

This was great news. White people. Russians, sure, but white folks nonetheless. I headed toward Jalalabad and after cycling for some time asked a man how far it was. “8 kms,” he said.

 

My heart quivered. 8 more kilometres!

 

The sun was high. My legs felt like they were swelling inside my jeans. Still, the Russians were my only hope. I pushed on and perhaps half an hour later sighted the huge Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited complex. Tall brick walls with electrified barbed wire skirted a massive industrial estate. Yet the gate was unattended, so I wheeled myself in.

2016 Was a Great Year. Here’s Why

new-year-cartoon

The passing of one year to the next seems to be more fraught than usual this time around.  Am I the only one who has picked up that a lot of people seem to be angry at 2016?  Instead of just welcoming the New Year with hope and expectation, a big bunch of people seem to be kicking 2016 right out the door. And slamming it shut.

Yes, it has been a tough year on many counts.  As a lover of popular music I have been flabbergasted by the heroes that have fallen in 2016: Bowie, Haggard, Prince, Cohen, Leon Russell, Maurice White and Sharon Jones just to mention a very few.

The Brits lost their mind for a moment and left the European Union.  The Indian government eighty-sixed 86% of the country’s currency notes overnight, sending ripples of chaos and bother throughout the economy.  The war in Syria got messier and, if possible, more cruel. And then, of course, there was the horrendously awful American election result.

All good reasons to be bitter and twisted about 2016.

But was it really all THAT bad?

This morning a friend posted an article on Facebook with nearly 100 reasons to rejoice in the year just passed.  In every area of human endeavour, 2016 was full of things worthy of getting excited about, such as: global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels did not grow at all in 2016. It’s the third year in a row emissions have flatlined!

 

And this: in July, more than 800,000 volunteers in India planted 50 million trees in one day. The country is planning on reforesting 12% of its land.

 

And this: Wild wolves started coming back to Europe, and for the first time since the American Revolution, wild salmon began spawning in the Connecticut River. 

 

The article is full of things to feel good about being alive in 2016.  And it prompted my own reflections on what has made 2016 an amazing year.

In no particular order, here are just five fabulous things that happened in my mini-Universe in the past 12 months.

  1. A dear friend found love again. After his wife and best friend of 30 years passed away in 2014 all reasons to get up in the morning seemed to disappear.  His three elderly kids (and the family dog) were a great support to him, but they were young and full of their own plans and dreams.  I tried to support him as best I could over Skype but he was truly down in the dumps About three months ago he was so low I wondered if he was going to pull through.   Just before Christmas we connected again and he was a different man. He sported a new moustache. His face glowed. And he could hardly contain his joy as he told me of how a woman was back in his life!
  2. I lost 8 kilos. Around the middle of the year I decided to start walking to get a bit of fresh air. I wanted time to think and listen and talk to myself. Within days I was hooked. The hour is filled with delightful sounds of birdcalls and gentle breezes off the Yarra River. The endless drama of tiny wild flowers that pop up for a couple of weeks before giving way to another cohort of a different shape and colour is something I look forward to each day.  I’ve made friends with all sorts of trees along the way, too.  When I get home I’m inevitably feeling high and more optimistic and hopeful than when I left.  And I’ve managed to get rid of some weight that for years seemed intractable.  Brilliant!
  3. I’ve discovered the teachings of Abraham, Robert Spira, Alan Watts, Neville Goddard and Papaji. A diverse bunch of thinkers and teachers to be sure. From Indian gurus to Caribbean kabalists, English mystics and the very voice of the Universe itself, these five teachers are responsible for blowing my mind. Though they are as different as chalk and cheese in their delivery and personal styles their teachings are essentially One.  That Consciousness is all there is. That the Invisible is the real reality. That the purpose of Life is to be joyful.  That struggle is a waste of time.
  4. The music of Burkina Faso. A sensational 3 disc box set of ‘Voltaic’ (as in Upper Volta, the name of the country before it became Burkina Faso) music for Christmas contains some of the most moving and exciting African sounds I’ve heard in years.
  5. A successful business. After 12 months of hard work, trial and error, set-backs and a steep learning curve, our home business is well and truly in the air.  We’re still climbing to cruising altitude but the view is already breathtaking.  It appears we have, in fact, transitioned out of the old ‘job’ paradigm to something far more empowering, satisfying and financially rewarding. Hurrah!

If 2017 is merely as good as 2016, it is going to be a ripper!