Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mountain Baba

I have been lead to understand that Rajastan is nominally a desert. At this time of year however, approaching the tail-end of the monsoon rains, it is green and alive. Indeed, surrounded by a low-lying mountain range, with a holy lake, complete with bathing ghats, Pushkar is an absolute gem. Gazing from any one of the ghats, one can see that near or at the top of each surrounding mountain, there is a temple. And while Pushkar is the Brahma city, there are many other temples in and around it.

The three main deities of the Hindu pantheon are Brahma, the Creator (who created and then didn’t do much else afterwards), Vishnu, whose avatars include Ram, Laxman, Krishna and many others, who are born into this world every time the balance between good and evil tips towards the latter, and Shiva, the deity of destruction and regeneration. While there are many others, running literally into the hundreds if not thousands, it is impossible to overstate the popularity of Shiva. His image and temples abound everywhere in India. There’s an element of violence and raw energy to Shiva, and one easily picks up on the power of his cult.

Each of these three deities has his own respective holy city. Pushkar is for Brahma, where according to tradition he created the world. Rishikesh is for Vishnu. And Varanassi is for Shiva. Like the Taj Mahal, Varanassi, while indubitably a fascinating place, is one I’d rather skip. Being the city of Shiva, chaos reigns supreme 24/7, with excited pilgrims stoned off their faces, hoards of beggars, and garbage that hasn’t been collected in a few millennia. Nevertheless, when I met a Breslev (the cult I love to love) family in the Enigma Café, who were on their way to celebrate Rosh Hashanah there, I must admit that the juxtaposition did intrigue me, and I considered making the trek for a moment. But alas no. The New Year will be spent here in Pushkar, the city of creation, with Chabad (the cult I love to hate). My experience with Shiv Shakti power shall remain limited to friends who are devotees.

I have spent most days in Pushkar in the Enigma Café. Like many a traveler who decides to stay on for a while in a given place, I have had the good fortune of getting to know this one’s local cast of characters. The café is owned by a hard-nosed widow with two sons. The younger isn’t really in the picture, but the older one, Monu, figures prominently in the daily life of the restaurant. His task mainly seems to be to play the role of oldest son of owner, which he does well. Other than that, he smokes pretty much endless chillums, and as a result, does not actually manage the restaurant staff, who, not knowing what is truly expected of them, are not terribly effective. This is mitigated by some genuine culinary talent, and by Fareen, until two days ago the head cook (after which there was a conflict that I was unsuccessful at mediating).

Both young men are 23. Both are at that age where defining oneself is of central importance. But Monu is burdened by the asset of the café, his mother, and too much hash. Though brash and charismatic, he won’t be able to realize his own or the café’s true potential until he puts his nose to the grindstone. At that point, the sky is truly the limit. As an aside, he had an old jalopy of a motorcycle, which he fixed in my honor, and we spend many an afternoon touring the region. I have found the activity that rates the highest on my list of favorite things to do: slowly perambulating on country roads.

Fareen, quieter, astoundingly handsome, and with some talent of his own, aspires to design and sell shanti style clothing, in addition to doing more in the restaurant industry. Not exactly ambitious, he is nevertheless making a valiant effort to improve his life, something which I really admire. So we have spent quite a lot of time building an eBay site for him to hawk his wares. I’ve pointed out that failure in this space may actually be more beneficial than success: he’ll learn far more and build a much stronger foundation if he makes lots of mistakes now in this laboratory setting. But I’m crossing my fingers for his success.

Fareen and I also do the doctor thing together. On my left index finger, I had an infection, which developed into an abscess, and subsequently had to have the nail removed for effective drainage. This put my finger into a splint for almost a week, but each time I needed to go to the (impressive) Mittal Hospital and Research Center
, we also went to the dentist for him. One tooth disintegrated. At first we went to Pushkar’s only dentist, in a one-room clinic situated in a rabbit warren in the township. I asked to have my teeth cleaned. He was suitably impressed by my clackers, but only polished them with equipment so antiquated that I wondered if he had dug it up at an archeological site. Apart from charging me a usurious Rs 500 for the privilege, he announced that in Fareen’s case, nothing short of an extraction would do. Before I let this happen, I suggested getting a second opinion in the nearby town of Ajmer. “Why don’t you want to take out?” the good dentist inquired.

“Well,” I began, “it might be a good idea to know the alternatives before leaving a hole in his mouth.

“Yes, one hole,” he replied in agreement.

We went to Ajmer the following day. In any case, the tooth did need to be extracted, and a whole bunch of other dental work had to be done, so together with my finger, every few days we had our joint set of medical errands.

The day after my minor operation, Monu took the bike, me in splint, and Surinder, a mutual friend of the guys, up to a Shiva temple on a mountainside. Rajastan is truly the Indian heartland. The crushing majority of the population are native Rajastanis. Interestingly, there are no small number of gypsies in the region, as well as a significant community of Sikhs, who have a magnificent temple on the outskirts of town.

Surinder is a Sikh, but the first I’ve met who doesn’t wear a turban. Although English is practically non-existent he does not see this as an impediment in talking my ear off. Additionally, he is a fascinating specimen of religious tolerance: keeping his faith, but hedging his bets in the spiritual realm. So when we went up that mountain, Surinder was gung-ho about paying homage to Shiva.

The temple was tended by a real sadhu, or holy man, the first I’d ever had a chance to sit and talk with. We can call him Mountain Baba. No dreadlocks, but with a trademark loincloth, he had renounced the material world, and lived in a tent on the mountainside, taking donations for the upkeep and improvement of the temple. He dispensed advice to pilgrims, told many stories and parables, and was most generous in his hospitality. He also had his own marijuana plantation, with big, green, fragrant buds soaking up the country sunlight on the mountain. It was a sight to behold. And in India, it is perfectly legal. Ha ha. He also had some special bhang on hand (all the way from Haridwar) to make my favorite drink, so leaving Mountain Baba was much more difficult than coming.

For the most part, I have enjoyed reasonable success breaking away from the world of Western overconsumption. All my possessions weigh 20 kg and fit in a back on my back (the Hi-Tech Knapsack goes on my front when in transit). In all honesty, I want for nothing. While I’m a long way from being a real sadhu, I am not a JAP (so much anymore) and I consider this an achievement. On that note, I believe myself to be deserving of a pat on the back, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be heading over to the Enigma Café for my daily bhang lassi.

No comments: