Although I’d come to India with one eye on freedom, and the other on seeking answers that could shake me off emotionally, I’d become deeply adverse to the leagues of try-hard western spiritualists I’d observed along the way. They were a dime a dozen, yoga pant-wearing enthusiasts donning beads and wristbands as though the official decoration of the spiritual soldier. Most seemed unable to tell you quick enough just how “into it” they were. I’d been privy to conversations so toxically pretentious, I sometimes wondered if I should check myself into an infirmary.
Many such exchanges took place, but none stood out as much as with one American bloke, who overflowed with pride as he told a room of some thirty people—mostly girls—that he’d found his way back to god by drinking his own piss; his self-serving homily closing with a look as if expecting a round of applause.
These types, I felt, constituted the perfect circle of contradiction, in that they failed with flying colours to understand that genuine spirituality is defined by the degree the ego is dissolved, not fed. That if their transformation from jeans and t-shirts—to loose pants and sandals—was done in the name of impressing others, they were walking through the backdoor of the very house they’d tried to vacate.
Ange was by no means one of these, but was a dignified student in the Earth School. The others seemed to multiply when they got wet, and I knew any ashram would be rife with their kind, hence I wanted no part.
The next morning, nevertheless, Ange convinced me to go for an inspective wander at the ashram over the river.
Leading us away from the racket of the street, we walked up the long entrance ramp, where its vast flowery grounds unveiled themselves like a grand opening. The gardens were dotted with shady palms and tranquil seating areas, and the sound of nearby monkeys carried on the breeze.
Set high above the street, we gorged on the panoramic view of the Ganges. Ange turned to me with a broad smile. ‘Why don’t ye toss the bike idea and stay here fur a while.’
‘I’m tempted, it’s just… I’m not currently asylum seeking.’
‘Och, don’t be such a Jessie.’
‘Me? What about this lot of whitewashers? They look as if they’d be hard pressed to make a cup of tea between ‘em.’
‘Don’t be such an erse.’
‘I’m just not such a fan of these spiritual types, folk into their star signs and chakras, and those who claim to be so connected they can’t sleep during a full moon.’
‘Ah’m like that.’
‘Three words: al-co-hol.’
‘Look, why don’t we go down the office and ask a few questions?’
‘I’ll come for a walk with ya, but that’ll be me.’
We entered the rudimentary office. The fly screen door slowly closed behind us, screeching a melody so unpleasant it could make a dead man frown.
‘Good morning, sir,’ said the man, rising from his desk.
‘Good morning, what’s the minimum stay, please?’
‘Fourteen days, sir.’
I turned to Ange. ‘Nah, that’s a bit rich, I’m going to head into town and start looking for bikes.’
She shrugged her shoulders.
I headed for the door, but it was perhaps from not wishing to hear it a second time that I turned back around. ‘Excuse me, are there any peanuts in the cooking?’ I asked, myself being deadly allergic.
‘Actually, in fact, probably definitely yes or no,’ said the man, in an accent so thick that without a personal linguist on hand I’d have done better with Pythagoras’ theorem.
‘Let me explain more clearly, sir,’ he said, inhaling as though about to launch into a more thorough explanation. But performing a head wobble composed of neither a nod meaning yes, nor a shake meaning no, he fell to complete silence.
The silence drew on, and I frowned and puckered, and puckered and frowned, until some years later he spoke. ‘Have I made myself clear, sir?’
‘Crystal,’ I said, turning back to Ange, ‘d’you know what?’
I’m in Rishikesh, and much to my surprise I’m staying at an ashram. I didn’t really know what they were previously, other than some sort of hippy refuge sought by westerners seeking budget enlightenment.
The word ashram means place of aspiring, so if a crack o’ dawn rise, two times yoga classes, two times meditation sessions, and three times eating the same food each day, defines aspiration, then an aspirant I am.
There are about a hundred inmates in stir. Each gets a small room, a bed with no mattress, and a pillow less comfortable than a chip of Ayers Rock. It’s a bit of a contrast to the motorbike plan, but here goes I s’pose.
We were still standing in the office, when—ding!—the man rang a bell, prompting two other men to enter. Both were armed with keys and blankets, and they eyeballed us with a fraction too much intensity to call friendly.
‘Follow me,’ said one, as the other said the same to Ange.
‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘can’t we get a room together?’
‘Men and woman are separate in the ashram.’
He led me onto a balcony with a generous view of the river. ‘This isn’t so bad,’ I thought, taking it in as he fished the keys out of his pocket. He unlocked the door and we entered.
The room, however, if such cells were worthy of the title, was little more than a white concrete box with a hard wooden bed, a hole-in-the-floor dunny, and metal bars on the windows.
‘Any chance of an upgrade?’
‘Lunch is at twelve o’clock,’ he said, handing me a blanket and rulebook. ‘Don’t be late.’
It was 11:50 a.m., and feeling like a prisoner unsure of his crime, I sat on the hard bed. ‘Because this is far more fun than a motorbiking tour?’
I changed into loose white attire and made my way to the eating hall.
The hall was long and yellow; it had a grey tiled floor, and on the wall was a small music box playing a crackly Hindu mantra. There were as many westerners present as Indians, and all sat cross-legged on the floor, eating by hand from their metal trays.
I spotted Ange in the far corner. I walked over and sat next to her, as happy to see her as though we’d spent a lifetime apart.
‘Good’arvo, my name’s Dave. What are you in for?’
‘Illegal importation of Aussie zoomers.’
‘What’s a zoomer?’
‘Someone of an unstable disposition.’
Sitting opposite was an older western man. He was both handsome and ugly all in one, leading me to think he was French. ‘G’day, Pierre.’ I gestured by a raise of the eyebrows, to which he broke eye contact at record speed.
‘He’s in silence, ya eeejit.’
‘Why? Frog got his tongue?’
‘Cat ya uncultured galoot! Anyway, shut it with yer Aussie piss-fartin’ aroond. We’re supposed tae be quiet and reflective.’
‘Any and all things. Now shut it!’
‘D’you know what?’
‘You’d think they could have thought of a better name for it than sticky date pudding?’
‘Everybody silent!’ said one of the chefs, standing in the centre of the hall. All closed their eyes and fell pin-drop quiet.
As though psyching himself for the gig of his life, he closed his eyes and palmed his hands into prayer position. I kept one eye open, and several long seconds passed before he began singing some mantra. His voice, however, perhaps the very thing used to convert the ashram’s milk into curd, was about as in-tune as a cat being castrated with a can opener.
Trying not to think of Ange, I sat on the cusp of a total laughter breakdown, and I ran a scan of other-things-to-think-about-in-case-of-an-emergency. It would have been to my advantage to think about global warming, or the escalating concern of housing affordability for young Australians. But with the sound of Ange struggling to my left—and the chef wailing upwards as gracefully as a chicken, with a cape, trying to take flight—an avalanche gave way and I spurted aloud.
He stopped abruptly and made firm eye contact.
I tried to disguise my laugh as a cough, by intentionally continuing it and beating myself on the chest. Unconvinced, he held the stare, until after a few long seconds he turned away and recommenced.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said to her when he finished, ‘but it’s like needing a wee during hide-and-seek.’
‘Dear me…’ she sighed, ‘I think I ought tae be reprimanded fur bringin’ a fannyboz.’
Everybody started tucking into their food—a hotchpotch mix of clotted rice, lentils, and stuff that looked like a hybrid of the two.
‘This is pure mingin’,’ she said.
‘Is that Scottish for shithouse?’
‘Not a trace of Viagra in it.’
‘Maybe it’s the very thing that groond the French bloke tae silence?’
The French bloke sneezed aloud, making me wonder if he’d just broken his vow.