"Accepting ourselves as we are, with all of our shadows and shine, we understand what it is to be human. Here begins the journey of properly relating to others with empathy - for this is how we truly come alive."
(and now for that first chapter, phee, it isn't too long....)
Ten thousand eyes bobbing along the pavements took in tourists, but ignored him. This ought to have made him feel at home after all he knew about the country, yet he felt alien. Several incomprehensible languages clanged his ears. Radios fought yelling vendors who sat cross-legged on the pavement, calculating profits on-screen after each transaction. Perspiration trickled down his cheeks, soaking his neck, tickling his chest. Undoing a shirt button, he took a deep breath, held it, let the polluted air out - an Aikido trick which normally worked, but his heart kept racing.
What a whirlpool - there a barefoot man in traditional clothes, here a brisk woman gabbling into a smartphone and that old couple in acres of flowing cotton strolling across a buzzing road whilst scrolling the news on a shared tablet! Coconut oil in women’s hair momentarily replaced smells he couldn’t define, some sweet, some which itched his throat, others making him retch. Two dogs fought in a cloud of dust. In the tree above screeching parakeets dislodged a purple flower which floated down and tickled his nose. Damn my protruding nose!
His head spun as he struggled to sync this invasive reality with the ancient land he had absorbed at a distance since childhood. He looked at his watch. Why? Time no longer matters. ‘Routine is a thing of the past… I can do or become whatever I want, but, used to discipline, this freedom frightens me.’ Leaning against a wall, he scanned the bustling streets, seeking a hotel, not that his leather courier-bag was heavy, he’d packed lightly, convinced life as a fugitive would keep him moving. Half an hour before his plane landed, waking from a troubled night, he had sketched a fellow passenger. It was nervy, yet satisfying - brown wriggles tumbling over slender shoulders, moody eyes searing his paper; beneath it he’d scribbled: What a mess I’m in! Closing his sketchpad, he’d looked through the oval portal. Sparkling teeth bit the dawn and ripples of elation flowed across his tight chest. Wow, The Himalayas!
A sharp voice, “Relaxing good!”
Ewan’s eyes shot open, “Sorry? Beg your pardon.”
"Ho! You looking rich local, but voice foreign! You liking here? Much to see. Many ruin. Too much choice. Come! Me show you many place.”
Blast! but be polite. This is my first conversation here. “Err, thank you, but I only recently landed. Sorry."
“Sorry excellent if I sick mother having, or my car broken. This instance, no need sorrying. I muchly happy taking many place."
“Err, no thank you, I’m, err, rather occupied.”
Ewan blinked, guilt ridden with ancestral crimes. “Unfortunately.”
“No unfortune. Without your excellent type, this country bamboozled. Snowflake in sun."
"Hmm..." Trying to ignore the yapping, Ewan took another deep breath.
Noticing the stilling exercise, "You like drug? I having excellent drug.”
“Gosh no! NO thank you.” The guy’s a pain, why be PC?
“Don’t drug? So seeing special shop,” the tout smiled at the alliteration and, inspired, continued. “Exceptional export expertise. Brilliant bargain bundles! Plenty present purchasing.” The man laid his hand on Ewan’s bare arm, “Come.”
The hustler jumped back. “No offencing! Simply making money - childs many. You childs?”
“Leave me alone!” Ewan stomped along the traffic-crazed avenue. Gosh, it’s hot and still February. No wonder my ancestors made for the hills. Tying to gather his jet-lagged brain, he focused on a point ahead, took a deep breath, held it, let it out as he walked. Nothing. What to do when everything you have treasured and known has gone because you have fled to another continent? Your personal history has no relevance anymore. You stand alone, without purpose.
Drivers honking, yelling, waving fists from open windows as they entered or left a circular road. A man in a three-wheeler streaked across the mayhem, risking his flesh to gain attention. Shaking his head, Ewan turned from the man’s half-mad stare and saw, held beyond the frenzy, a park. Knowing an unfortunate driver who had hit a holy cow could face mob rule, Ewan crossed with a grey beast which was oblivious to the deranged traffic.
Leaning against a stout tree, he unzipped his large leather weekend-bag. His sticky fingers lingered on a cool plastic folder containing photocopied sections from his ancestors’ letters, diaries and artwork. During his depressing childhood, they’d become friends and had inspired him to work for international cooperation, they’d made him wish his life wasn’t bound by his rigid family with its long and often disturbing history.
He removed a neat rosewood box, released a silver clasp, lifted the lid, withdrew a silk pouch. Out slipped a miniature Mughal painting. For the umpteenth time he removed a yellowing note tacked to the back-frame. His ancestor’s ink hand was beautiful. "Our ideals and the systems they create have done much damage throughout history. These arrogant walls have closed us off from life, preventing us from seeing what is.” Ewan gaped at people in exotic clothes as he puzzled over the next sentence: “How much better to discover the intelligence behind measured emotion, for it puts us in the midst of things, enabling us to devise a natural morality based on empathy.”
The words troubled him. Father used to bark: “Emotion weakens resolve!” Yet what feeling churns in my chest now, HELP, stop thinking! Stepping over tired grass, he headed for a stall-on-wheels. Wondering what the term Bhang meant attached to Lassi, he bought a glassful. The cooling liquid soon made him light headed. Hmm, must be a sort of yoghurt-beer. Really refreshing. He had another.
“Whoohoo, life’s great!” He did a skip. ‘I feel bright, safe. Have I ever felt this free? Am I hypnotised by the country? Is it because I’m unavoidably released from everything which bound me? Ha! Maybe it’s the Bhang-Lassi?’
The smell of food caught him, he moved to a man squatting by a pyramid of eggs. Using signs, he ordered an omelette and watched the man break four eggs into a bowl, mix in blended tomatoes and spices, pour them over an iron plate laid over live coals. Excited, Ewan leaned closer, absently fiddling with his signet-ring. Without warning the family stamp slipped from his perspiring fingers and fell into the white-hot fire. Damn! He’d worn it since slipping it off Father’s cold fingers. Using tongs, the cook removed the crest generations of Ewan’s family had used. Ewan gawped at the unimpressive lump of gold containing shards of charcoal. He shrugged, Ha, ha! Family tradition melted. Hmm, I’m not usually so carefree, must be drunk.
The flecks of black pepper, diced chives, onions and tomatoes made him want to paint the omelette with the water-soluble blocks in his bag, but hunger drove him to squat and feast. Wow it’s good, moist, full of taste, perfect. In a whizz of excitement, he handed over his distorted gold as payment to the astounded man. Ooh! Why am I behaving uncharacteristically? He drifted along with the fizzing swell of people in the park. Startling a man in a safari suit, he sang loudly, “This land’s so good they named you twice! Bharat so ancient prancing beside microchip India!” Delighted with himself, he skipped like a clown. Hmm, I’m normally quite serious. Bhang lassi! Bhang lassi, what a great drink!
The sun struck anything unprotected and Ewan scurried from one patch of shade to another as the light shivered off dusty bushes, bounced from tired heads and was gripped by the path. Stepping from the swarm, he passed a gardener walking behind two grey cows pulling a mower across a smooth lawn. Elated, Ewan did a little dance. Interesting? I’m so upbeat! Brushing aside scarlet flowers, he settled against a tree in bloom, relishing its shelter. But a moment of angst swamped him, Damn my accidental crime! I’m adrift. My frailty is bared.
Fearing the emptiness of his unplanned exile would make him crazy, before leaving England he had decided it was a chance to reinvent himself by drawing and painting his forebears’ movements across the Indian subcontinent. Ewan took out his sketchbook, but the intense light and unfamiliar subjects made him cautious, Hmm, my eye’s attuned to England’s grey shades and demure topics, easier to start with detail. His hard HB pencil caught sweaty lips, lacquered lips; drooping moustaches, peaky moustaches; tight beards, burly beards; rapid studies of people drinking: drips falling from clay cups or bottles which didn’t touch their mouths. Ah. Germ free, how clever.
More at ease, with a softer 2B pencil he outlined silhouettes of smart office workers lingering in the shade, simple contours of families nibbling snacks under the trees. He got used to the exotic conditions and topics; his sketches contrasted women’s colourful saris, bare arms, low necklines and exposed bellies to their menfolk virtually covered in white cotton. With a pen, he caught people buying glasses of tea from children bearing aluminium kettles. Child labour! Oh yes, loaned from debt-bonded families to that man to whom they keep handing loose change. Wishing to ease their troubled lives, tearing pages from his pad, he gave cartoons to these urchins and they giggled at themselves collecting empty glasses or wiping the used vessels with dirty rags.
The heat sapped his energy, he felt lazy, rather peculiar.
“Sahib-looking-tired.” The woman tendering head massage reached him before the foot massage man. Ewan could think of nothing better in the intense heat and he reclined against the tree watching the masseuse. Eyes drooped with fatigue, she dropped her wooden box on the grass, hitched her worn but clean sari-skirt at her waist, flicked the battered lid open, removed a small bottle of oil, extracted the cork with her teeth, let a few drops fall onto her right palm, twisted her head to reinsert the cork, set the oil down and rubbed her palms together. Ewan flipped off his linen shirt and with his arm crooked protectively around his beloved bag, let her work his scalp and shoulders and her expert fingers soon had him lose sight of the park.
An arm encircled his neck. His eyes shot open, a fist expanded before his eyes, pain, a foot struck his lower back. Red mist flooded his perception and, free as a leopard, he sprung after three men.
“STOP!” bellowed an old monk sitting in the lotus position.
Ewan’s heavy bag swung round his torso.
Ewan slumped to the grass shivering uncontrollably as adrenaline swept through him, his sweat glands were in overdrive and he was gasping. The sadhu retrieved Ewan’s discarded shirt and sandals, an act of humility in a land where it was degrading to touch another’s footwear. Perhaps monks are beyond such rules? Quivering, Ewan fumbled with his leather bag. What luck, it hadn’t been cut into.
Wow, I cast off three men when all I could see was red! OK, Aikido and rugby help, but is there more to it? And how did the old man made me halt? Oh yes, it’s like a sergeant’s high-pitched tone cutting through battle.
Taking a rag parcel from his shoulder bag, the sadhu winked, “Bhang?”
“Bhang relaxing you.” The rag held a cone-pipe filled with dried grass.
“Bhang!” Bhang lassi! Help, I’ve drunk a drug!
“You shaky muchly. Bhang stopping… helping-mind slowing.”
“NO! I’m not taking drugs.” Ewan stood up.
The sadhu wrapped the moist rag around the chillum’s thin mouth, held it to his forehead and chanted, “Om, Ma Kali.”
“Kali? The Gurkha goddess!” Recalling Father’s tales, Ewan lingered.
“Kali my god.” The old man held a lit match over the cone, puffed and dense green spilled from his lips. “Bhang taking sadhu… beyond-earth-mind. Bhang… calming.” A rush of words, a head wobble, wide eyes.
The sweet cloud ignited a confusing memory. Working late in his London office to have Fridays off, over the years Ewan chatted to a young cleaner who loved reading. One evening a week ago, watching her mop the parquet floor, he realised how attractive she was. Unusually, she took a pack from her hip pocket and, opening a sash window, began rolling green shreds between two cigarette papers which she licked together. Heck! Smoking’s banned. Stopping work, he watched thick smoke trickle from her nose. Beguiled, though confused by her uncharacteristic irreverence, he went over to enjoy her company. The smell, reminiscent of an autumnal bonfire, not the irritating tang of tobacco, was strangely alluring. Unexpectedly, she stepped forwards, traced his mouth with her forefinger. He gaped. Unused to young women due to boys’ boarding school and a predominantly male working environment, he’d never noticed her hints. Parting her lips, she blew the heavy smoke into his open mouth; thrown by the unfamiliar turn of events, he gasped several times as she kept blowing. Quickly light headed, flustered, his innocent lips pulsing, he leaned towards her. A cleaning trolley clanking along the corridor stopped. The young woman dropped her roll-up out the window, huffed out the smoke. The office door partly opened, peeking in, her superior asked her something. Damn! Denied my First Kiss at my age. How sad is that!
The old smell and hurt softened him to the sadhu’s billowing menace and alarmed his body was still out of control, he weakened. “OK, one puff.” It took several attempts to get the technique - cupping both hands round the cloth and stem, sucking through the gap between thumbs; a violent coughing fit. The sadhu giggled. Each time he ingested a little more the dope eased his nerves, enveloping him in a haze of happiness. When the chillum was offered a second time, delighted, he accepted. “Yiihaa, haa!” I’m escaping my SOS - Stiff Outer Self. He chuckled, “Boggling bhang’s like being merry on bounteous beer.”
“Beer? Sadhu drink NO!”
Ewan chuckled. With his mind cleared of adrenaline, he mulled over his astounding response to the attack: instant animal adrenaline instantly turned off by an old sadhu. “Imagine harnessing that with Aikido!”
“I-kid-no!” The old guy stammered, “Sadhu... telling truth.”
“He, he. We’ll get along fine.” Ewan tried a high-five, but missed.
“Weli-com India,” the old man joined Ewan’s half mad giggle.
Waving his hands in the air, Ewan sang: “India’s been in my girth, since before my very birth.” Startled by his barmy behaviour, he stopped. “Well, well, SOS certainly is slipping!”
“What this sos?”
“Silly old Self,” chuckling, Ewan removed the rosewood box from his bag and withdrew the Mughal miniature. What pleasure those strong colours, clean lines, and the image itself. His first memory was of floating in to this masterpiece which always hung above his bed, of drifting round the twin domed temple, settling on those rounded rocks parting swirling waters, and dreaming of those sparkling Himalayan peaks.