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Authors: Ariel Glucklich

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BOOK: Climbing Chamundi Hill
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The old man laughed at this—he had no idea what I really meant—and said, “Perhaps. I'm not telling you to go to extremes; just play with the situation as far as you can. Try doing the opposite of what your natural impulses tell you, reverse your habits of body and mind—eat a sweet when it's time to meditate and meditate when it's time to balance your checkbook—get into practice of exposing your rigid approach to life and see how dualistic it is. Do it in minor ways, but do it consistently, and you will start seeing through your mind's entrenched mode of enslaving you. Don't worry about a goal. Forget about spiritual goals—those are also habits of the mind.”

I remained quiet.

Suddenly the guide said, “See that little cave?” He was pointing at the boulder. “Let's take that little path and see what's in the back!” He started moving toward the rock.

“But wait!” I called out. “Is that what this sex-change story is about? Reversing habits?”

“Oh, who cares? Just do the little things. Come on. This is fun!”

“But if that's all I do, how will the big things happen? I don't understand the connection between the little techniques and the big results, which I have to avoid contemplating.”

The old man turned and nodded sympathetically. Then he reassured me that the big results were not so big, and that I did not have to think about them just then. Instead, he said, “Please come back here and tell me about your life after the injury—I hope you don't mind my asking. When did you first come to India?”

The path led behind the rock, around the shoulder of the hill, to a small clearing where I was suddenly treated to a broad view of the countryside west of Mysore. The clouds were amassing higher on the horizon, playing with the light of the sun, which was past its zenith. We found a comfortable spot, and I felt just fine. “By the time I got out of the hospital I was addicted to several painkillers. I was always drowsy, my short-term memory was gone, and, worst of all, I was depressed. I mean, rock-bottom depressed, almost suicidal. The yoga may have helped a bit—but not with the pain. Chronic pain is like nothing else; even when you're not hurting you're a victim. You feel stuck in your own cave, and time stops—not that it matters; there's nothing to look forward to anyway. Your best
bet is sleep—unconsciousness, really—and you fantasize about death a lot.

“Anyway, Rony finally managed to get back from Pune, although the first thing he said to me was that either I went back with him or he was gone. ‘I'm not your nurse—let your mom play that role.' He also said I could try Ayurvedic medicine. It might not work, but at least it wouldn't turn me into a narco-zombie either. So I went with him. Not out of optimism, mind you—there was just no other way. I was sick of my mother's long-distance nursing, the constant fussing, her own depressions. Rony felt like the sun in midwinter.”

“So you went to Pune with your friend?”

“Yes. The Ayurvedic medicine was worthless, of course, but Pune got me through six months, for which I am still grateful. My friend was renting a flat in the Deccan Gymkhana neighborhood. He spent his days in the Oriental Institute, and I just wandered around and explored. In the evenings Rony would show me around on his Enfield Bullet. It was a shiny white motorcycle that ran ‘taga-taga-taga,' and Rony was a spectacle riding it. He's a large, muscular man who favors white pajama bottoms and light blue kurta tops, and he wears biblical-style sandals, which he had made himself a couple of summers earlier when he apprenticed to a cobbler. He drives too fast and would look almost glamorous in a Bollywood sort of way, but on his head he wears a helmet that's no larger than a bishop's skullcap with a pink strap that fastens under his chin. I would just hang on in the back and watch him split the traffic.

“At first the sheer novelty of it overwhelmed me: the smells, the colors, the sounds. And the food—burning hot thali platters for thirty rupees, masala dosa—I loved the food. And the sunrise on the eastern Deccan hills, the film
music from the small restaurant in the back of Rony's place, the cows in the street—it was such a sensory overload I was euphoric for a whole month. For days I would forget my back. But then after about six weeks the thrill gradually began to wear off, the afternoons started to drag. I got sick of drinking tea with Marie biscuits on the roof.

“Anyway, one day I had this unbelievable craving for steak: raw, juicy, rare rib eye, American style, you know. I dragged Rony out of the institute at midday and told him I had to have a good steak. Being a vegetarian, he was clueless about finding one. So we roared around town on the Enfield for an hour and ended up at the fanciest hotel in town, the three-star Blue Diamond. We ate in a polished dining room with a glass wall overlooking the hotel swimming pool. You could see the usual assortment of lobster-skinned Australians, Americans, and Germans. The Aussies were real loud. One of the women jumped into the pool in her underwear, which gave the attendant fits. He ran around the pool, balancing a huge stack of white towels in one hand while desperately gesturing at her to get out with the other. Everyone howled and guffawed at the man's puritanical upheaval. But what really caught my attention were three foreigners, studiously serene in all this madness, wearing orange robes like those of renouncers I had seen near temples. The women had short hair, and the man's hair was shaved, but there was nothing self-denying about the way they carried themselves or the self-righteous way they smiled at each other over the towel boy's petty consternation.

“‘Who are these three? I mean, what are they?' I asked my friend. He had also been looking at them, and he could tell by my voice what I thought of them. Rony often told me that I was not as charitable with people as I could be, but
now he laughed. He said there was a large ashram, more like a holy Club Med, right around the corner from the hotel. ‘The love guru's ashram,' that's what Rony called it. Europeans and Americans come there—depositing huge amounts of cash—for spiritual training and free sex. Seriously, though, he added that they had everything there: meditation, gestalt therapy, group therapy, yoga, massage, a sensory deprivation tank, and of course the occasional glimpse of a holy man.

“‘You should go,' he said during dessert. ‘There's lots to do, and you look like you could use the sex…'”

The old man laughed. “I like your friend, he seems so much more…relaxed than you.”

“I don't find that funny.”

“Did you ever go to the ashram?”

“Yes, I went several times. But I never joined any of the groups, except for yoga for a few weeks. And, I know what you're thinking…I never removed my clothes. I still don't. Rony is the only person outside the hospital who has ever seen the scar.”

“So you practiced some yoga. That's excellent.”

“Well, there was one other thing. One day I wandered into the room where they kept the sensory deprivation tank. There was no one in the tank or in the room, only a sign-up sheet on the door with a few names. There was also a sign to hang on the door, ‘Trip in Session.' So I wrote down my name, feeling very adventurous, but safe from the company of others.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“After showering, I climbed into the tank. It was as wide as a queen-sized bed, and I closed the two doors over my head. The saltwater at the bottom, about a foot deep, was
body temperature. At first I was worried about the scar—I had heard about swimmers with cuts in the Dead Sea, which is about as salty. But the scar was fine. I lay back and felt myself floating easily. I pushed myself gently from the wall and dissolved into empty black space. I heard absolutely nothing, and saw even less. I couldn't even tell whether my eyes were open or shut. For about two minutes it was perfectly still and calm, as I adjusted to this empty environment.

“Suddenly I saw my mother's face. I mean, I really saw it—she was really there! It filled the black space, clearer than I had ever seen it. Her permanent, forced smile, her glistening eyes always on the verge of panic. The lines around her eyes deepened before my gaze, the wrinkles became grooves, and she distorted her face and bared her teeth. Then I realized she was holding her broom, and on the tip was a bright red scorpion. Both of them were staring at me, solemnly, intensely. Then her head and the scorpion in front of it started moving in my direction…I sat up with a start and gasped for air. There was a tightness in my chest—my mother's face was gone, but I felt suffocation. I opened the top and stood up, looking at the clock. Four minutes. I had been in there for all of four minutes! A small eternity inside was four minutes outside, in the real world…

“I sat back down and closed the door, determined to do a full hour, even if it turned my hair white. Even if I became psychotic—my biggest fear of all. It was a nightmarish hour, let me tell you. Every thought exploded into life with exaggerated lines. I lost any sense of what was real and what was in my mind, what
my mind. I saw things I wanted and things I feared, competing images clashing and gnawing at each other like mythical monsters. Whenever something
scared me, fear itself had a face, and when something aroused me, passion had a different face. I can't tell you how cluttered that damn little tank was for one hour; I had not one instant of peace and quiet. The only good thing I can say about that hour is that I felt absolutely no pain. The sheer energy and terror blocked the feeble messages my back may have been sending to my brain.”

The guide was fascinated by this narrative and took in every gesture in my animated telling. He nodded knowingly and said, “Close the doors to the world and the demons come right out, don't they?” He made a spooked face and wriggled his fingers.

“You could say so, I guess. But of course it's all neurocybernetics, you know, input-output.”

“Ah, now there's a nice word, ‘neurocybernetics.' I wonder what face that word might have in the tank?…Shall we go?”


A very long time ago—I think the British were still new here—there was a king who lived not far from our district. He had one hundred wives and not one single son. The king, whose name was Harishchandra, wanted a boy, of course, as all men do. But he was also anxious to have a son for loftier reasons. His advisor, Narada, had told him that he could expect to attain immortality or heaven only
through a son. Not only would the boy bring great joy and pleasure in this life, but he would also be the ferry that would transport the king from this life to the next. But then, after he had said this, Narada added strangely, “Have a son and you shall be reborn! A husband enters his wife, and there he becomes a germ. After a full term, he is born to that mother.”

The king was saddened by these words and asked the sage, “How am I to have a son? I have already tried with one hundred wives!”

Narada suggested that the king appeal to Varuna, his god. And so Harishchandra directly approached the god and begged for a son. In his despair he promised Varuna that, should a boy be born to him, he would sacrifice that very son to the god. To this, of course, Varuna readily agreed.

When the time came, a boy was born to the king and received the name Rohita. On that happy day for the king, Varuna came visiting and demanded his sacrificial offering. But the king delayed. “A victim cannot be offered until he has turned ten days old,” he argued persuasively.

“Fine then. I shall wait,” said Varuna, who was not a greedy god.

After ten days Varuna returned for the boy, but then the king requested that the sacrifice be postponed until the child's first teeth appeared. When that happened he asked for a deferment until the teeth started falling out, then until the permanent teeth grew back in. The boy was growing older, and
the king kept putting the god off. “It is not fit to sacrifice him until he is trained in arms like the warrior he is.”

When that time finally arrived years later, Harishchandra could not postpone the sacrifice any longer. It was time to fulfill his obligation. He summoned Rohita and told him about the promise he had made to Varuna. The young man would have none of it. Immediately he packed up his things and left for the woods. He stayed in the forest for one year, during which his father was struck by Varuna—who had reached his limit—with dropsy. As soon as he heard this, Rohita prepared to return, but just then the king of the gods, Indra, turned up, disguised as a traveling mendicant, and spoke. “Stay in the forest, young man. It's the best life for a future king. Trust me.” The prince stayed away another year and then, as he started heading back, he heard again from Indra. The divine scoundrel again praised wandering as the supreme way of living and convinced Rohita to keep away from his filial obligations. This went on for six years.

One day, while traveling along a marshy riverbank, Rohita met up with a wild and hungry renouncer called Ajigarta. When he discovered that Ajigarta had three sons, Rohita offered him one hundred cows in exchange for one of the boys. Rohita honestly stated that this son would be sacrificed to Varuna in his own place, but promised that the father would get rich. The wild renouncer agreed on the spot, then immediately ruled out the oldest of the three. He went to ask
his wife, and she excluded the youngest. That left the middle one, Shunahshepa, as the victim.

Rohita led his substitute victim—an agreeable-looking boy—back into the city and told his father about the deal. Harishchandra, who was bloated and miserable with dropsy, invoked Varuna to ask if a substitute would be acceptable. Because Shunahshepa was a Brahmin, he was actually more than adequate to replace Rohita, the god reassured him. And he added, “You may anoint him immediately as my victim.”

The sacrifice was a major affair. Several famous Brahmins officiated in the key priestly roles and many distinguished spectators arrived, including the renowned royal sage Vishvamitra. But even with all these officials, no one was willing to tie the victim down. The sponsor of the sacrifice, the king, looked around, and there was Ajigarta, the victim's own father. Their eyes locked, and the ragged Brahmin spoke, “I'll tie him if you give me another hundred head of cattle.” As the agreement was quickly drawn up, the man made himself busy with the ropes. The ritual proceeded. The bound victim was brought to the sacrificial pit and appropriate verses were chanted while fire was circled around him. The distinguished participants watched closely, but no one agreed to take a knife to the boy. Again the king looked around, and again Ajigarta obliged. “Give me one hundred more—that's all I ask—and I shall kill him.” Some more financial details were sorted out while Ajigarta got the knife ready.

In the meantime Shunahshepa was thinking to himself, “They're going to slaughter me like an animal. My only hope is the gods. I shall appeal directly to the oldest among them.” He began to silently recite esoteric verses to Prajapati, the Creator, who directed him to Agni, the god of fire, who passed him on to the solar god, Savitri; from there he went to Varuna and back to Agni, before he was finally directed to the king of the gods, Indra. The boy had addressed and praised each of those gods with great precision. The mighty Indra, who was impressed with the boy's erudition and delighted with the verses he himself had received from the boy, directed the young reciter to the divine twins, the Ashvins, who in turn directed him to Ushas, the dawn. Finally, as he was praising Ushas, each metrical triplet snapped a rope loose, and the belly of the king, still bloated with dropsy, went down. When the boy finished the recitation, the last rope came off and King Harishchandra was fully healed.

In such a way the boy completed the sacrifice that had started with himself as sacrifice, having substituted sacred words for his own blood. Then, as everyone watched in awe, the boy calmly walked over and sat down next to the great Vishvamitra, who had observed in admiration everything that took place. The boy's father, Ajigarta, came rushing over and claimed his suddenly distinguished son, but Vishvamitra refused to let the boy go with his father. “The gods,” he said, “have given the boy to me.”

The wild Brahmin pleaded with his son, but
Shunahshepa said, “You stood there with a knife in your hand ready to slaughter me. Everyone saw you, Father. For three hundred cows you were prepared to kill your own son, something no untouchable, let alone a Brahmin, would ever do.”

“I am so sorry, my son,” said the Brahmin. “Here are the cows. You may have them. I know I've done wrong.”

But the boy was unmoved. “I don't trust your remorse. Anyone who can do once what you just did would probably repeat it.”

Vishvamitra interrupted this exchange. “I would like to adopt you as my own son, my dear,” he declared, shocking the boy who just escaped slaughter.

“How can you, sir?” the boy asked. “We don't belong to the same caste.” The great man repeated his offer and promised to treat Shunahshepa as the oldest among his own one hundred and one boys and to put him first in line for inheritance.

When the fifty oldest sons of Vishvamitra, who were older than Shunahshepa, objected to the new arrangement, their father ruthlessly banished them to the most remote regions of the land. The younger fifty-one gladly accepted their new sibling as eldest and heir to their father's wealth. They were blessed with great riches and numerous children and lived in the most desirable locations of our sacred land.

We were back on the path now, having gone around a huge
Euphobia corimb
cactus with no fruit. The plant made
me think of home—I needed water. I'd forgotten how hot the stone slabs were, and I just wanted to confess to the guide and climb back down the mountain. The steps were strangely polished at this point, five of them anyway.

“These five steps,” he was following my eyes, “represent the five Pandava brothers in the great epic the

I could tell he was leading up to a long explanation and interrupted him, “What do you mean ‘represent'? How can a step ‘represent' anything?”

He looked at me in surprise—I think he suddenly saw my distress, because he took my arm and led me to the shade of a small nim tree. “Things that matter enough to us give us strength, young man, by taking our mind off of the discomforts of the road. For many pilgrims it is the Pandava steps. For you it can be the story I just told you. Would you like to sit down and discuss it?”

It worked. Something about his voice, or his touch. Maybe just sitting down in the shade. Immediately I felt stronger, more focused. “This is the second story you've now told me about murderous fathers—it's a big deal for Indians, it seems! I guess you really are like us after all.”

“You must be referring to that wonderful biblical episode of Abraham and Isaac. You're quite right, we do like to tell these stories.”

“You're probably going to tell me the story is not about fathers and sons at all…”

“What, then, am I going to tell you it's about, my friend?”

I felt his energy level rise, as though he was waiting for the setup to the punch line of a good joke. “You're laying an ambush again, and I won't fall for it. If this is not about the screwed-up father-son relationship, I can't imagine what
else it might be…I see absolutely no way to interpret it mystically, as you like to do.”

“My goodness, young man, you seem to be tied up in such knots. But don't worry. Like Shunahshepa you will soon undo your ropes.” The old man beamed with this cleverness, which made my frustration worse.

“Am I just dense? I mean you have given me the key so many times…”

“No, no, you are not dense at all—it's the key that keeps changing, and I beg your forgiveness for that. In this instance we have a story about cooking. Do you like to cook?”

“Cooking? Are you serious?” That was the one subject I did not expect. “With all due respect, what are you talking about?”

“I shall take that as a no. Frankly, I'm not a big cook either. I have a weakness for roadside samosas, I'm afraid. If you cooked, though, you would know what I'm talking about.” He found his own thoughts hilarious again and giggled in delight.

“Well, I'm lost.”

“All right, let's say you want to eat one of those wonderful idlis you've undoubtedly breakfasted on—we make the best ones in Karnataka. Have you?”

“Yes, they're okay.”

“Well then, you start with the rice grits and the urad dhal, which you grind together, no?”

“I wouldn't know, but if you say…”

“Then you allow them to ferment overnight. Otherwise,” he chuckled, “they taste like McDonald idlis…Trust me, you have to wait till the next day to boil the patties.”

“I still don't see the connection to our story. In fact, I'm more confused now than I was before!”

“Don't you see, my friend? The killing of the son is the grinding of the rice and dhal, while the chanting of the mantras by the boy is the fermenting overnight. That is what our story is about.”

We sat in silence for a while as I tried to absorb what seemed so obvious to the old man. I watched his sharp features profiled against the hillside. Where did he get all that assurance? And how did he come to exert so much influence on me? A retired librarian! I gave up and told him I was still lost.

Of course, he knew I would be. “The story is telling us that there are two ways to bring something about: either crush the cause to produce the effect, which will then be new, or change the cause internally in such a way that the effect is another form of the cause.”

“You mean, mechanical production versus organic growth?”

“That's brilliant, my friend! My goodness, you do catch on!” He tapped his cane on the step and jerked his knees up and down. “But in the story, and in your pilgrimage here, the desired effect is not breakfast or even lunch. It is something mysterious and tricky. As I said before—it does not really exist as a goal.”

“Yes, I follow that. And if the goal does not exist ‘out there,' how can it come about? How can something come out of nothing? That's what the story is about.”

“Good. Do go on.”

“So, mechanical causality is rejected, both in the story—since the killing does not take place—and in real life, because you have shown me that what does not exist cannot come to exist.” The old man nodded approvingly. “And if the cause-effect chain is eliminated in the case of
moksha—or anything else for that matter—then the model has to be Sunahshepa's knowledge and chanting of mantras. It's a new vision of causality.” I was very pleased with myself, but had to add, “But what that means I have no idea.”

The old man was happy with my insight and sighed, “Ah, mantras, those wondrous birds of mysterious power. If you have the mantra, you need nothing else. If you say the mantra, think the mantra, or just blow it out as air—who needs moksha then? The story tells us that what has been will always continue to be, and what is will never cease to exist. The cause does not die in order to give birth to the effect. Both coexist like the breath of the word and its meaning—air, sound, semantics, power—can you ever truly separate them in a mantra?”

“So the fermentation metaphor is like mantras because the change is intrinsic and natural, and the cause cannot be separated from the effect?”

“Something like that.”

“But what about the murderous father? And the adoptive father?”

“You're very persistent my friend, and there is so little time. Just remember this. It's the biological father who kills or expels his children, and it's the adoptive father who succeeds as a parent. It takes a well-trained cook to turn food into delicacies.”

“And no one is born a cook?” I added, but the old man fell silent, and I knew he had said all he was going to say on the topic. I did not feel grateful for this enigmatic wisdom at the time, but I was glad that my physical crisis passed.

BOOK: Climbing Chamundi Hill
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