"On the Hebrew date of the eighth of Kislev, 5758 years after the creation of this veil of tears, 33 years after my last birth, and 29 years after her current incarnation, the wonder-ful Vivien and I married. You might say this was the beginning of our passage through India...but then again everything begins endlessly in everything else and you might say the trip to India began with the way my mother talked admiringly of Israel, and of an elder cousin who had left South Africa to found a kibbutz there in 1948. My mothers yearnings mingled with my own, and at the age of 17 and ten months I went to Israel, propelled by internal forces I rationalised as the desire to belong somewhere, and the simultaneous desire (in retrospect a contradictory one) to individuate and break out of the prison of my parent's fears and limitations.
In Israel I ended up studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem, a theological seminary called ohr somayach or "lightjoy". One of the other students was an American, about eleven or twelve years my senior, who had been involved with left campus politics in the US of A. His name was Raphael, and in Israel he became observant, and met and married his wife, an Australian woman. She had gone to India, interested in studying herbal cures, and somehow met up with a cigarette maker in Bombay, who was regarded as 'enlightened' by many. She had a book of interviews, or rather Q&A sessions, where seekers would ask this man questions and he would respond. This cigarette makers name was Nisargadata Maharaj, and through her contact with him this Australian woman ended up in Jerusalem, living the life of an orthodox Jew. She lent me a copy of this book, "I Am That", and I read it and felt it to be one of the most truth-full documents I had had the good fortune to be exposed to. I copied the book, and read it every day. But Sri Nisarghadatta says don't cling to anything, including my words...so I burnt it...trusting that when I am ripe I too will be consumed. Not surprisingly the year I first encountered Nisarghadatta Maharaj's advaita teachings - 1981 - was also the year his physical form ended.
Some 16 years later, back in South Africa, again for reasons which defied my conscious impulses, an Israeli friend gave me the weekend supplement of an Israeli newspaper and pointed out an interesting story about an Israeli pilot who had dropped out of the air force after meeting a guru called Papaji. The things the pilot said, and the bits of Papaji's teaching which came across from the article evoked something in me, and I instantly recognised the connection to those words I had read almost two decades before. Something in me had perhaps ripened and the idea of actually going to India to visit Papaji began hatching. But by the time we actually did, Papaji had left his body - perhaps I was still not ready for a confrontation with the truth, still needed to be in the market place shopping around - and I contented myself with watching videos of satsang in the Lucknow hall where Papaji had given daily satsang, and kissing photographs of Papaji's feet, in the hope that somehow surrender to his form would bring surrender to the Self which has no form or place. Again, not surprisingly, I discovered a copy of I Am That in the Ashram's bookshop...and read it almost daily for over a year. The words were as sweet and sharp as ever...clearer even - to me - than the same truth expressed by Papaji in Wake up and Roar and the Truth Is. If you're interested in their point-of-view google I Am That. What follows are some hopefully entertaining recollections of our trip.
Breakfast & Bed
"What’s for breakfast ?" The waiter, dressed in schmutters, takes out a dog eared piece of paper enclosed in plastic and puts it down in front of us. It is a typed menu which reads:
"Continental breakfast. Bred, tosted, jam and butter, fruit, eggs (omlett, scrumbled) tea & coughy"
A few of the waiters speak about ten words of English - the rest none. Although my Hindi is coming along famously (until my phrase book falls out of my pocket when we are running to catch a train) we still struggle to communicate. Using hand gestures and smiles we order two continentals. While we wait, Viv and I stare irritatedly at each other. We have been married for three weeks, but lived together for three and a half years before that, so our resentments are already those of a vetran couple - and mornings are the best time for these to surface
The only other people in the dining room (four tables laid with paper place mats, no tablecloths, a few empty tables against the walls, chilly marble floors, bare neon lights) are an Indian family from the UK. They chatter away in English, and we discuss with them the general disrepair of the hotel. Yes, they say, we’re moving across to the Ashok..very nice, modern rooms, air conditioning. Nothing works here."
Our coffee arrives in a thermos. The boiled milk is in a jug either filthy, or else so stained, it looks filthy. Viv orders another one. After ten minutes it arrives, as filthy as the first. We dare not risk another try - the lukewarm coffee will be stone cold by then. The toast arrives neatly wrapped in serviettes. The waiter puts it down and dissapears.
"We don’t have jam or butter" complains Viv.
Determined to be a good husband, I go to look for the waiter. I cannot find him. I go to reception and ask the clerk if he can arrange some jam and butter for us and the rest of our breakfast. He promises to help and hits a bell on the desk.
I go back to the dining room, and wait, and wait, and wait. Eventually we eat the dry toast. We are washing the crumbs down our throat with the dregs of the coffee when another waiter appears and lays a plate with some synthetic looking strawberry jam on our table. Our waiter reappears with eggs and two green and very hard bannanas. We gobble them up, and find everything absolutely delicious, either because it is, or because we’re starving, or because when you’re travelling, you’re open enough to rejoice in whatever comes your way.
We don’t eat again until tea-time. We sit outside in the big garden, catching the luke warm rays of the winter sun. Birds chirp, squirrels forage for crumbs amongst the potted plants (the reason for all these becomes clear when we see a wedding the following night) and monkeys stare curiously back at us. The waiter hands us a menu different from the roughly typed sheet of paper we had seen the previous night. This it turns out, is the snack menu, and a different kitchen, it seems, handles snacks.
We order tea - delicious - and toast. We have learnt from experience, both here in Lucknow, and from eating in Varanasi, that the people who bring your meal are called "waiters" because they make you wait. The average time for one of them to make the 10 metre crossing from our table to the kitchen and return with our request - be it a main course, a glass of hot water, the bill, even just getting to see the menu a second time (unless the waiter has one folded in his pocket) - is half an hour. We wonder if they perhaps sit in the kitchen staring blankly at a clock until the person in charge slaps them on the back and says:
"Right, they’ve done their 25 minutes, you can go back now."
True to form the toast arrives - untoasted - after half an hour. Viv sounds conflicted as she sends the bread back, simultaneously haughtily instructing and desperately pleading for him to bring it back soon. We know the risk involved in sending things back - you may end up sitting a long time gazing at the unladen table while your stomach rumbles for company. It could even precipitate a major fight between us. My nose is running again, and the little pile of tissues on the table grows bigger.
"Can’t you put those somewhere else" snaps Viv.
We are about to begin a new cycle of hack and parry when the waiter arrives with the toast. We ask for the triffle (so spelt on the menu).
"But we had some last night"
"Only when there is a a wedding. There was a wedding last night."
Then supper. We get a waiter who does not understand a word I say. I don’t trust my pigin Hindi enough to ensure there won’t be some major stuff up. A manager crosses the floor of the "dining room" to assist us. (We are the only diners, if there are other guests they eat outside in a sort of boma at the side of the large garden. But we, sick as we are, decide not to risk the chilly night air). Last night this same manager had changed money for us. Now he courteously takes our order. Relieved, sensing the possibility of communication, I try to clarify one or two items on the menu.
"What is onion ghobi ?"
"It is onion with blos"
"Ah. Onion with what ?"
I cannot stifle a giggle. Incomprehensibility always makes me giggle, graphic concretisations of the senslessness of things. I hide my giggle behing my hand and distract from my laughter by pretending to study the menu intensively. (how, coughing, pretend to examine the menu, rearrange things on the table ??), which I am sure he will take umbrage at, as if I were laughing at his English, rather than at the collective incoherence of India to me.
"And the alu rice, what’s the difference between that and the onion ghobi?"
"One is fried and the other is watler."
"Uh huh." I nod understandingly, although I understand nothing.
Our obliging little waiter nods as the manager sends him off. Vivien, who has a terrible cold, has ordered chicken sweetcorn soup. The regulation ½ an hour later the waiter returns:
"No chicken sweetcorn soup."
Viv is so exasperated she can hardly speak.
I am giggling. When I am finally able to stop, I ask Viv if she wants the ordinary chicken soup.
"Oh I don’t know." Deep despair.
I order the ordinary chicken soup.
"How long will it take" says Vivien.
A flood of Hindi.
Vivien points at her watch. The waiter shakes his head in the infinity-sign motion which is the Indian nod of assent. Yet we are unable to say with any certainty if we have been understood.
"Pani Garam. Hot water. Can you bring us that right now. Staight away. Immediately. Yes ?"
He nods again. Whatever happens everyone nods.
Viv orders chowmein and I - fingerchips. We had ordered chowmein the previous night, and it arrived so hot Viv wanted to vomit and had to order yoghurt raita and pepsi to extenguish the flames. I ate some and was able to breathe again after a cold which had completely bricked up my nostrils.
We call the manager. He tells the waiter to leave off the peppers.
We wait 40 minutes, no longer expecting anything. Freedom from desires and expectations is part of enlightenment, and if so, we are becoming enlightened.
Miracle of miracles, the waiter arrives with the right stuff. The chow mein is mild and exceptionally tasty.I am still hungry. We order more chow mein. I go to reception to get help with making it clear that this one too should be without red peppers. The waiter scuttles off, all servility and eagerness to please. He takes so long to return an unwell Vivien goes back to the room while I wait. He eventually returns with chow mein minus the pepper, but minus everything else as well, so its just plain noodles for supper. To change it will take another ½ hour. I ask for the bill. He gives it to me. The soup is overpriced 10 rupees but they left off the chips. I go to reception so that the night clerk/money changer/manager whatever will explain it to him.
The manager shouts at the waiter.
"No need to shout at him" I mollify him, afraid I am going to be the cause of the waiter being fired or worse.
The waiter scuttles off again, an Indian version of Manuel in Fawlty towers, after 10 minutes there is no sign of him. I want to ge up to the room. I go and pay at reception, reception tell me they will send the waiter up to me. He comes, I pay him, we order tea with milk separately, he brings lemon tea.
& Bed...being a survey on the state of the Indian matress, how difficult it sometimes is to secure one, and what we learnt about life and each other while bedded down.
Funeral Beds - often on fire, especially near the banks of the Ganges. proceed with caution unless you're dead.
Railway Beds (Just gravel and granite, like everywhere else...we don't recommend these.)
Railway Bedding - comes in an incredibly dirty hessian sack, filthy pillows, but clean pillow cases, sheets, and blankets smelling of dust and a little heat
Still under construction: Come back soon to laugh and cry with us over the poverty, pity and purity that is India. For six weeks we ploughed this overwhelming land - the sights and sense-ations we brought back will be posted here over the next three weeks - bli neder.
COPYRIGHT IMMANUEL SUTTNER 1998. THE CONTENT OF THESE WEBPAGES MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR.