copyright 1967 by Maggi Lidchi
When Christopher awoke from his after-lunch doze he sat on his verandah and lit a cigarette. He knew what he had to do. He could see the main gate from where he sat. He had to go through there . . . quietly. He had already resolved in England that he didn't want to make trouble for anybody. This was a peaceful little community without him. He didn't want to do anything to change it. Only he couldn't stay here eating three meals and washing clothes under the eyes of this crank every day.
The excitement of challenging Irish Swami had dissolved in his sleep. He must be getting too old and weary for that sort of life. Not when he was drying out, no, not any time. He could see the coconut palms, the green grove dotted with mud huts.
Over the land at the back of the ashram he could see the shining estuary and the splashing brown children. This he had to leave; a pity, because he didn't know where he could find anything comparable. He did not know where to go at all because he had slammed so many down behind him. Still, he would close that little gate quietly. There was nothing more important for him now than to spend the rest of his life in peace, without making mischief. He wanted to live in modest dignity.
That was all, but it had always been missing. He pulled cigarette smoke in deeply, and then let it out again.
That was another thing. He had smoked as usual for the first three days, and today every time he lit up he could see that copper-head turned on him like a beacon. Ah no! All the coconut groves and estuaries in the world wouldn't be worth the overt and covert criticism.
He flicked his cigarette on to the sand path. Immediately he remembered how meticulously Paul had swept the path this morning and looked for its landing spot. It was at the foot of the nearest tree, and above it were golden brown rings rippling round the trunk.
|German Swami Gauribala paying respects at the grave of his first mentor, the German poet Stefan George, in Switzerland in the mid-1970's.
|German Swami's kutti residence, the heart of his Selva Sannidhi ashram Summasthan and model for Irish Swami's ashram in Earthman.
Christopher froze, his knees together, his shoulders hunched. The rings spiraled down. Only Christopher's eyes moved, but more slowly than the snake, which was the same colour as Irish Swami's hair when exposed to sun. The cigarette must have drawn its attention. At the bottom of the tree it slithered to full length and made its way through the sand towards Christopher. It slid up the narrow ledge of verandah, came to Christopher's stockinged feet, paused, turned around and went back to the sand path, from which it disappeared into a hedge.
Christopher stared at the winding patterns it had left in the sand. It took half-a-minute for his muscles to unclamp. Immediately he sprang up, yelled Irish Swami and heard his voice gargling feebly. His second cry traveled right through the compound, but before Irish Swami had reached his gate Christopher was loping towards him. The Swami was unperturbed.
That particular snake wasn't venomous. There was any number of them around. He had forgotten to mention them. The remarkable thing was that Christopher hadn't seen one before.
"How do you know they're not poisonous?"
Irish Swami showed him his arm. Near the elbow were two little red holes. The flesh looked as though a pair of dividers had punctured it. A snake had struck from the fence last night. They only bit when they were disturbed, finished Irish Swami, yawning.
"Don't you carry any serum?" asked Christopher.
"Of course I do." Irish Swami waved the big cheroot he was smoking. "This. The only bad snakes around here are little ones. Russell's vipers. If you're ever bitten come straight to me. I'll ram this in." He advanced with the glowing point of his cigar. "It'll hurt but it will be all right." Christopher drank his coffee, suffering Irish Swami's jungle lore in silence.
"You did the right thing by sitting still," pointed out Irish Swami, as though there had been a wide variety of decisions.
"Probably why he turned round. No animal attacks if you can really still yourself. In fact, you can actually bring any animal to a halt by halting all movements in yourself... all the cat family, wild buffalo too, even the sloth bear."
Snarling, growling or charging animals sounded quite innocuous, and a sloth bear positively friendly. The silent enemy was waiting in the bushes and trees and fences and perhaps in the kadjan of this very roof.
"Have you ever been bitten by a poisonous snake?"
"Sometimes." The offhand tone was bad taste.
"And you weren't afraid, I suppose?"
"It's fear that makes you sick or kills you. If you don't have it, if you are completely without it, your system can handle the venom. The more afraid you are the worse it is and the surer you are to get bitten."
"And you've never been sick?" It was the Irish boasting he couldn't stand.
"Yes, I was sick once for two days. I was living in a cave. My guru Anandaswami sent me there. It was dark and I sat on one. I didn't even see it. It got me on the hip. I walked to the nearest village and drank a bottle of arrack. The pain lasted for two days, the longest days I've ever spent. Then it went."
This was the first plausible thing Christopher had heard in this room on the subject of snakes. It enabled him to admit his terror.
"I just got paralyzed. I couldn't have done anything but sit still."
"It was enough. Of course, once they're on the attack you have to be completely quiet inside too."
Irish Swami grinned his big, happy-maniac grin. "All westerners are the same. They come; they want to see a miracle. Then they're off again because they're sure it's just a stunt."
"I don't care if it's a stunt or not. You say that is the only way of protecting yourself and you say the ashram is full of snakes, so I want to know if you've ever pulled it off and how."
"I'll tell you. You slow down your circulation and your breathing. But before you can do that you have to learn to sit still while your shirt is drying." Irish Swami winked and added a staccato "tak" to announce his direct hit.
"Tak," acknowledged Christopher. He thought he had done everything necessary to hide his impatience this morning.
"I never tried it with a snake but I did it with a sloth bear. They're the most dangerous animals in the jungle because they're too stupid to know whether they're in danger so they attack everything. Not very big."
Irish Swami got up and showed him the size of a sloth bear. "Terribly sharp long claws that can rip you open." Irish Swami bent his flexible wrists and fingers into dangerous looking weapons. Then he bent his knees and looked around stupidly. Christopher could see the square footed dazed brutishness of the animal.
"I was getting up after a meditation when I saw him. He'd been looking at me from behind, couldn't quite make out what I was. Probably never seen a man before. As soon as I moved to get up he started running towards me." Irish Swami showed him the slovenly loping gait.
"I wasn't standing up yet. I was in this position and I held it. Then he started sniffing around me. Come on, you be the bear and sniff. I can't do both." Irish Swami was crouching and Christopher, caught by his immobility, closed in as slothbearishly as possible.
"Come on, have a good sniff," urged Irish Swami in a slow whisper. "He sniffed me everywhere."
Christopher turned around the man, nudging him with his nose, threatening him with his paws. Suddenly he felt uncomfortable and moved back a little. Irish Swami's eyes were fixed on the floor and his face set in the repose of a death mask.
What had made him draw back was the absence of heartbeats as he thrust his face into the red fuzz of Irish Swami's breast. He watched it for expansion and contraction, but neither the stomach nor the chest yielded at all. There was nothing about the shoulders or neck to suggest shallow breathing.
Christopher brought his wristwatch up. After five minutes with his face still three inches from Irish Swami's shoulder Christopher saw the first signs of human pumping pushing at the ribs. He moved cautiously away and watched Irish Swami come back. They both sat down. Irish Swami started talking at his usual rapid rate. "You know what happened?"
Christopher shook his head.
"He pissed on me and walked off."
Irish Swami yelled with indecorous laughter and this time Christopher joined in. As soon as he had controlled himself Irish Swami launched into a wild-buffalo story and ended up stripped to his loincloth waving his lungi in the coy, elfish little dance he had done to distract the buffalo.
All day and in the next days Christopher was alternately nailed down by the Irishman's unleashed energy and charm and crucified by his implied and overt criticisms.
It was an acceleration of their initial encounter that marked their outward exchange after the snake episode, or rather the bear episode. It was now impossible to dismiss the table drill, and the lavatory ritual, for which the left hand was reserved, and the interminable waiting at the well as whimsies or local colour. They could be the preliminaries or necessary adjuncts to the system of life by which a man could learn to control his physiological rhythms. Christopher found himself committed not to stay. . . never that. . . but to wait and see.
Irish Swami endorsed this ambiguous position by urging Christopher to read a selection of books from the library in the spare hut with the purpose of discovering the tradition to which he was most drawn. Tradition, he insisted, whether Christian, Buddhist, Judaic or Vedic, was the only access to truth for the uninitiated. Direct revelation was either handed on verbally or sometimes written down by the seer.
Insightful study of these produced commentaries from which evolved rules and disciplines that led to liberation. Only by the unconditional and strict observance of these could anybody hope to liberate himself.
On this he was adamant, Christopher would have said fanatical but for the opulence with which the case was spread before him, illustrated with instances, samples, paradoxes, legends from all major religions as well as Greek epics, Jung and a dazzling blend of physics and metaphysics.
His innate suspicion of conversion faded when he was offered passage to any part of the world where the tradition of his choice could be studied and lived. He had never mid he wanted to be liberated and did not know what it meant. Though he could not listen with anything but complete absorption to the discourses of this most accomplished speaker he reminded himself that, in his twenty-two years of baulking, tradition and custom had been the most effective provocations.
He was intimidatingly intrigued and nervously flattered that Irish Swami should give so much time to a purpose in himself that he was totally unable to descry.
"What difference does it make if you've never heard the word moksha? Of course you're looking. Your little waiter could see. The monks could see it. It's not even worth discussing because anybody with the slightest nous would recognise it. What makes it interesting is that you're stumbling so blindly that you're a demonstration of how infallibly It all works in spite of what you think or don't think, which is a lot of balderdash anyway."
Irish Swami puffed at his cigar and wrinkled his nose at Christopher's thoughts.
"Have you ever heard of the neti-neti method?"
Christopher's answer was invariably no to the have-you-ever heard questions.
"Well, look it up. It's the negative way of the seeker who says not this, not that, until he's excluded every possibility, every known thing but It, which is always the unknown. You want out, out of everything you've ever tried. That's neti-neti."
There was a felt logic to this, and people had pushed and prodded him into an it-pattern for want of a better term since he was off the bottle. This explanation of his actions made at least as much sense as Joan's, on which he had relied for the twelve years of his marriage. Joan was wrong. He was no gifted primitive, no noble savage... no savage at all.
He had not overcome his fear of snakes. Sometimes when he could no longer bear the pressure of new concepts he walked down the ashram path and out of the gate, sure of the long slithery menace hidden in the crutch of every tree. At such times the green and brown on the edge of the estuary became sour and hostile and he longed to be walking beside the Seine. Europe had become a mythically ordered region for him. His tempo was that of the city river or the Mediterranean circuit.
In the afternoon he tried to find his way through Irish Swami's traditions. He forced himself through as much of the recommended reading as possible, Rene Guenon's coolly Gallic affirmations, Suzuki's deadpan koans, the austerity of the Little Vehicle, the extravagances of the Greater Vehicle, sayings of the Hasidim and Sufis, Christian liturgy.
But he could not decide whether he was more drawn to Zen or Catholicism, the Hasidim of the Sufis, Mahayana or Hinayana. None of them held him much unless Irish Swami flamboyantly illustrated a point with story, paradox or mime, or just silence and a finger pointed at the villagers. Christopher had no background in comparative religion or even religion besides his schoolboy years of C. of E. before-breakfast chapel. This was no background at all, not in Irish Swami's eyes or for his present purpose. So he swallowed painfully.
He looked forward to getting away by himself with books every afternoon, for Irish Swami seemed prepared to live his life for him day after day. But he had no foundation, no terminology, no mental acquisitiveness. He could not apply himself. His alert curiosity was reserved for the person of Irish Swami only. It teased him to think of the possessionless Irishman and himself. They had probably started life fairly even.
The one behaved as though he had arrived. Christopher knew himself to be aimlessly wondering. Travel, even with the Swami providing the passage, choice of a new habitation and routine all required effort. It seemed simplest to tell Irish Swami that he would try it his way here.
At the end of the first week Irish Swami took him down the lane to the temple. Remembering his behavior in Notre Dame Christopher tried to back out. He didn't want to disgrace the Swamiji, bowed to by the villagers as well as his own disciples.
He was still looking for something better than a protest when Irish Swami sat down and lit a cigar. Christopher sat apprehensively beside him on the paving. He had not noticed they were in the temple courtyard.
In spite of a series of low parapet walls it looked like a squatters' colony with groups and families idly talking, eating or resting, all in full view of the tea and food and haberdashery stalls which surrounded the low walls on two sides. On the third side the estuary lapped the temple steps, on which women were beating their washing.
Christopher leaned against the wall of the middle parapet and watched. "You see," said Irish Swami. "You're always looking for trouble that doesn't come. Look at that." Irish Swami held out the white inside of his forearm. Christopher had already noticed the dark tattoo of two small curly-script words.
"What is it?" He usually avoided being cornered into questions, but he had been looking for such an opening.
"Summa iru. Tamil. Simply be." He wagged his head village style from side to side in the way which meant a variety of things from yes to I'm off or here I am. It meant anything, and the Swami's face was a complacent parody of his usual happy smile.
"Simply be. What's that?" asked Christopher, amused, curious, a little exasperated. The wacky head movement started again....
"Everything," he pounced suddenly. "What's that, you ask? It doesn't even ring a bell in you because your mind is always on the go, churning up a lot of balderdash, expecting trouble, and so if it doesn't come you make it. If you can stop your mind and simply be you'll have no problems. Just sit quietly here, simply be when you're waiting for your shirt, to begin with. Do one thing at a time and do it properly. Sit properly, eat properly. Be properly. That means no wondering about what is going to happen at the temple, good or bad, or what has happened. You're not there or there."
The cigar pointed behind to the tea stall and ahead to the estuary. "Know where you are and be there."
Christopher took these sudden outbursts in silence. The fellow was nuts. It was difficult to keep that in mind. The man was too interesting, a figure of stature and education. Scholarly achievement too. But the lunacy was part of it. Probably why he was here.
Christopher had never been accused of thinking too much before. Never. There was no other explanation for Irish Swami than that he was eccentric to the point of mental disturbance.
The temple provoked no rejective tension. Nothing was expected of him. He could simply watch the people. Many of them came to Irish Swami, bowed, and stayed for a chat. When they went he sometimes translated and commented for Christopher's benefit. The bare-chested temple priests consulted the westerner on finance and policy, on which he appeared to occupy semiofficial status. Pilgrims and villagers crouched at his feet for blessings. People detached themselves from their little settlements in the courtyard and brought tea back from the tea stall in aluminum canisters. They brought cooked rice and vegetables in multiple tiered copper tiffin-carriers. "They look as though they live here," cracked Christopher.
"They do. See that man? The one chewing betel against the wall. He's had trouble with his mother-in-law. He's staying here until it blows over."
"You mean he sleeps here in the courtyard?"
"Yes, why not? He sleeps here on his mat. He bathes and washes his clothes in the estuary. He buys his food from the stalls. Why not?"
"What about them? That looks like a whole family." There was a tall young man among them who would get up from time to time and walk about the court in precise patterns according to some unpredictable inner geometry that made him turn abruptly when he came to certain points. He fixed them as he went along and sometimes broke into a shy smile as though at some stupendous discovery. Christopher had avoided asking about him directly in case the Swami should insist he was sane.
"This temple (Selva Sannidhi) is dedicated to Muruga, the young warrior son of the great Shiva. It is known for its therapeutic qualities in curing what we call the mentally disturbed." He laughed quietly to himself. But Christopher found this quiet joke more disconcerting than the insane yell of laughter that was much closer to his own style.
"There's nothing wrong with washing and eating and sleeping or being mad in a temple, Christopher. That's what it's here for. It's built for the people. This is where they come when they're in trouble. They don't go on holidays, they go on pilgrimages. Or do you think it should be reserved for Saturday and Sunday?"
"No. No, I don't." Christopher didn't think anything on the matter. He didn't feel restrained here and he liked the idea of a man being able to get out away from a family situation.
The daily visits to this market place cum devotion complex became the most enjoyable part of his life. The stream of devotees took much of Irish Swami's attention, lifting the brunt of it from Christopher. This did not hinder the Swami's intermittent asides, amusing commentaries and translations with which Christopher supplemented his observations to work out what the village was about.
It was in the temple that Christopher felt the first thrust of penetration through the incomprehensible fabric of the villagers' thought. He watched a little old man hopping and skipping in and out of the queue of devotees. This stretched from beyond the outer parapet to the inner temple in a straight line.
The devotees strained over each other's shoulders to see the doors of Muruga's inner temple burst open and the camphor lights flame around him at the climax of the ceremony. At certain intervals every person in the line circled, holding his hands above his head. Many knelt down in complicated prostrations, placing first one cheek, then the other, then the forehead against the paving.
It was at these sacred moments that the little old man became convulsed with laughter, twisting and skipping crazily, almost derisively through the ordered line. Christopher nudged Irish Swami.
"Don't the priests mind?"
"He's been here for years. Never misses this puja." Irish Swami followed the little man's weavings with a smile as though having to see him afresh through Christopher. "Why should they mind?" he asked provocatively.
"After all, he's mad. If he hasn't been cured for years he probably won't be. I mean, he looks as though he's making fun of the whole thing."
"Sacrilege?" offered Irish Swami, turning to look at Christopher witheringly through his lenses. "Isn't that the word you're reaching for? There is no sacrilege here. Everything is sacred."
Christopher barely caught the words above the crescendo of drums inside the temple. Irish Swami's round bronze eyes turned away to find the mad dancer before Christopher could decide what was meant.
"Besides, they're not so sure that he's mad. They know there's more than a chance that we've gone wrong. Perhaps we've forgotten how to dance before the Divine. What would you like for him if he were your father, Christopher? This or a mental home?"
Within the outer parapet was a cluster of women. They had started the puja by swaying their hips slowly in time to the drums. Now two were caught up in an erotic pelvic beat while a third was kneeling and bringing her head towards the paving in a repeated act of submission. It came lower and lower every time.
He caught a glimpse of it as it flung back, ecstatic, eyes staring, mouth wide open. By now he was supplying his own answers. If these were hysterical women why shouldn't they work it out in the temple? Nothing churchy here. The drumbeats were closing in on themselves.
Women were still washing on the temple steps and the man with mother-in-law trouble slept. The little man was writhing his dance of laughter and the woman was pounding her head against the stone. Suddenly the drums stopped. The worshippers pivoted with raised hands, crying "Haro-hara," and stared into the temple. When it was all over the dancer-devotee sat quietly against a wall. A priest walked towards the thrashing woman.
As her head came up he threw sacred ashes expertly into her gaping mouth. The shock of it stopped her dead.
"Well?" asked Irish Swami, turning to Christopher.
He looked around the courtyard for the right word. People were coming out with red and yellow smears on their foreheads. He drew a deep, impotent sigh. What could he say that wouldn't merit a rebuke? What could he say at all? Good, frightful, cathartic? The word wasn't in the adjective category. His whole vocabulary was crippled.
"It seems to work," he said, pleading lenience.
Irish Swami was mystified. "It does."