India has changed a lot since my last visit. But then, so have I.
Two days into a recent trip to India, I realized just how much had changed since I last backpacked through there a dozen years ago, as a footloose young traveler researching an ashram guidebook.
The revelation came as I checked my email in the Vishnu Internet Café in Bodh Gaya, a pilgrimage town in rural northeastern India, where an ancient temple marks the spot where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree almost 2600 years ago. Outside, a pony pulled a cart emblazoned with an Airtel ad past a group of Tibetan monks shopping for Nikes. Inside, at a computer topped by a garlanded shrine to Ganesha, the Hindu god of new beginnings, I pored over pictures of my six–year–old son snorkeling with his dad in Hawaii.
Hijacked by homesickness, I logged off and tried to call Skye, but the rural phone lines wouldn't let the call through. Letting go of personal ties is part of the spiritual path, I reminded myself as I struggled with my disappointment. The Buddha himself left a young son behind to meditate in Bodh Gaya. But then, "No problem, madame," the phone–wallah said—and handed me his personal cell phone.
I'd come on this trip to do some last–minute site research for the novel I was just finishing—Enlightenment for Idiots, the tale of a young American wannabe yoga–teacher looking for awakening while floundering through her increasingly disastrous love life. I wanted to update my impressions of places I'd visited over a decade ago, while looking at them through the eyes of my novel's 29–year–old protagonist, Amanda: Rishikesh, the Himalayan town where Amanda goes to find a yoga master and get over her breakup with the cheating boyfriend she's vowed never to see again. Varanasi, the city of Shiva, where devout Hindus come to die and be cremated in open fires along the banks of the Ganges, where Amanda learns that her ex has followed her path to India to try to win her back. Bodh Gaya, where he and Amanda quarrel outside the cave where the Buddha used to meditate, and she gives him the unwelcome news that—well, I don't want to spoil the story. But you get the picture.
I had first come to India when I was roughly Amanda's age, on a guided tour of Buddhist sites led by an Indian friend I'd met on a meditation retreat. Admittedly, I was distracted from my spiritual quest by the fact that I had developed a major crush on my Indian tour guide. I spent most of my meditation under the Bodhi Tree—a fourth–generation descendent of the actual tree that sheltered the Buddha while he eradicated all desire—wondering if it would be possible to lure him into a romantic evening in the baths of the Japanese resort in Rajgir. (Alas, it wasn't.)
My crush melted away as soon as I got on the plane home. But my love affair with India didn't. A year later, I was back, armed with a book contract, a travel–weight yoga mat, and a laptop computer (which I abandoned in favor of a spiral notebook after I blew an ashram's electrical circuits).
Over the next couple of years, I spent almost eight months in India, trekking from guru to guru. I sweated through back–breaking yoga classes, meditated with Tibetan lamas, pranaamed before orange–robed swamis with names as long and curly as their beards. I careened in decrepit buses down roads jammed with cows and elephants and fume–belching trucks, their windshields decked with streamers and images of blue–necked gods. I learned to tie a sari, to go without toilet paper, to eat rice and dal with my hands, and to ask at least three people before assuming that I was on the right train. Hiking toward the source of the Ganges River, I got caught in a Himalayan blizzard and spent the night in a cave with a sadhu—one of the wandering renunciate mystics who have been part of the fabric of Indian society since long before the time of the Buddha.
Then I went home to California—and my memories of India dissolved like incense smoke as the years went by. I got married in a Zen temple in a grove of eucalyptus by the Pacific. I gave birth to a beautiful daughter who didn't live, and scattered her ashes in a mountain stream, wishing that I could have died in her place. I gave birth to a healthy son and learned that green shoots of joy can sprout from the scorched earth of despair.
My marriage unraveled, and I wept and smashed wedding china on the deck behind our house. I divorced and moved to a mountaintop home, where I watched hawks circling on the currents of wind below my windows. My son started kindergarten, lost his first tooth, and had his first piano recital. His dad and I sat side–by–side in the audience and cheered.
And shortly after I turned 40, a character walked into my mind and began to insist that I tell her story: a young woman looking for love—and enlightenment—in all the wrong places.
So a month before my novel's manuscript was due, I stepped off a plane in Calcutta, to see how the new India was different from the country I'd revisited in memory while inventing Amanda's adventures.
In Calcutta, a glittering glass–and–steel office complex called "Technopolis" loomed over the festering slums and dusty, cratered roads. On a freeway billboard, an Indian woman in a skimpy leotard lounged seductively on a giant tub of "India's first probiotic ice cream." Floating down the Ganges in Varanasi in a rowboat just after dawn, I saw a sadhu in an orange loincloth step out of his tent to answer his cell–phone, which rang to the tune of a sacred chant in praise of the god Ram. In a gem shop in Rishikesh, an Indian salesman in a Western business suit dangled a giant amethyst in front of three American women in saris; they all closed their eyes and chanted Om together. I walked past them through a sea of plate–glass storefronts, looking for the little town I remembered. It was like studying my own face in the mirror—as I donned my Indian salwar kameez—and trying to find the traveler I used to be.
But the magic of India that had first enchanted me was still there. Golden light still filtered through a haze of dust, suffusing everything in its soft, dreamlike glow. The smell was still a ripe perfume of burning cow dung, exhaust fumes, incense, and rotting garbage. Rowing down the Ganges at dawn, I watched corpses burn to ashes in pyres lit from a flame that's been burning for thousands of years. On the train from Calcutta to Gaya, I rattled and swayed through rice fields plowed by oxen and men in white loincloths.
Past and present still overlapped in a rich collage, creating the sense that anything—anything!—could happen at any moment. And when I plugged in my Palm Pilot to charge the battery, my electrical adaptor fried with a familiar, almost comforting sizzle.
A decade ago, my entire travel budget was about a hundred and fifty dollars a month—about half what it costs per night nowadays to stay in a business hotel near the Delhi airport. In those days, I never took taxis, even for long rides—instead, I jolted everywhere in three–wheeled auto rickshaws, holding my shawl across my nose and mouth to keep out the choking fumes. I slept on bug–infested mattresses, the bare floors of ashram dormitories, the wooden benches of sleeper trains, the rutted earth of caves. My backpack held just three sets of socks and underwear, one change of salwar kameez, a baggie of grimy earplugs, and a fluctuating assortment of spiritual literature, which I mailed home periodically to my growing research library.
In the new India, though, I could now afford to travel in a bubble of comfort that didn't even exist a decade ago. I got violently ill the afternoon I arrived in Khajuraho, a dusty little town in central India whose 10th–century tantric temples are thick with exquisite carvings that include the world's most famous erotica. I spent one wretched night throwing up in the bathroom of the grubby backpacker joint that Amanda would have chosen. Pigeons nested in the bathroom ventilator fan, their droppings coating the tub. The smell of the sewer wafted up through the toilet bowl. Through the floor blared the soundtrack of a Hindi TV show featuring lots of explosions and car crashes. The next morning, I took a cab to the Taj Hotel, where a flutist played by the fountain in the crystal–chandeliered lobby, and a bellhop hoisted my backpack and asked me, solicitously, if I wanted him to adjust my neck. As we pulled into Rishikesh a day or so later, my traveling companion asked if we should stay in an ashram. I was only half joking when I answered, "This time around, I'm not into service work. I'm into room service."
But I'd changed in more important ways, as well. The last time I came to India, like Amanda, I wandered for months, tethered to my past life by the slimmest of links: postcards, the occasional blurry fax, one or two long–distance phone calls over hissing, echoing lines. This time, two weeks was the longest I could bear to leave my six–year–old son. In an Internet café in Varanasi, with an orange–robed sadhu asleep by a motorcycle on the steps outside, I downloaded a song that he and his dad had recorded for me: Sending you love on incense smoke/so much love that we practically choke…
These days, my heart is anchored to my life back home with roots that Amanda can only dream of. My spiritual seeking has less to do with exotic adventures, and more to do with daily rhythms of ordinary life. And this anchoring helped me appreciate India in a deeper way. Sitting under the papery white–bark branches of the Bodhi Tree, I watched pilgrims from around the world chant, prostrate, and meditate—saffron–robed Cambodian monks, maroon–robed Tibetan nuns, black–robed Japanese priests. Everything changes, the Buddha taught; nothing we love can be held onto forever. The present moment is the fruit of the past, and holds within it the seeds of the future. After more than a decade of love and heartbreak, I understood the power of those teachings from the inside out in a way I hadn't when I sat under that tree before.
On my last day in India, I met a Canadian man in his 50s with brilliant blue eyes, who was returning for the first time to the mountain pilgrimage town where he'd lived as a rare Western sadhu 35 years ago. As I sat with him and his wife on boulders by the Ganges in the blazing sun, cooling my feet in the icy green waters, he pointed to the cave in the hills across the river where he had lived. He told me how he had turned in his passport at the Canadian embassy and headed barefoot into the mountains wearing nothing but a loincloth. He had lived for years on handouts from village people as he had walked from guru to guru, looking for enlightenment. But eventually, one of his yoga masters had told him that he had gone as far as he could go on his spiritual journey as a renunciate. To go deeper, he needed to go back to the world and grow up. So he'd gone back to Canada, married, and raised five children. He'd founded a successful company that sold decking materials.
As we talked, he stared out across the waters, as if he might be able to spot the young man he had once been waving at him from the cave he used to live in. Just downstream from us, a sadhu plunged into the water to receive the blessing of the goddess Ganga, as sadhus have done in this spot for over a thousand years.
I thought of the person I had been when I came to this town before, and of the imaginary character I was dreaming into existence in my novel. And I felt the past bleeding through into the present, like ink through thin paper.
Anne Cushman is a contributing editor to both Yoga Journal and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. She is the author of Enlightenment for Idiots and the co–author of From Here to Nirvana, a seeker's guide to spiritual India. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Salon.com, and have been anthologized in Best Buddhist Writing 2004 and 2006, A Woman's Path: Best Women's Spiritual Travel Writing, and Traveling Souls: Contemporary Pilgrimage Tales. She co–directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
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