The tall slender Sal trees of Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park shuffled passed the car window, fast as a deck in the hands of a Vegas card shark. I had heard that these forests either side of the Rishikesh-Dehradun highway are home to around 500 elephants, and that very occasionally they ventured out onto the road and attacked passing vehicles. Eighteen people have been killed by rampaging bull elephants (‘tuskers’ as the Indians rather endearingly call them) along this route, including some who have been crushed to death through the metal frame of their vehicles. The reports like this one from the Hindustan Times are sobering. ‘While Devi’s son and daughter-in-law got down from the car and managed to run away from the scene, the elephant caught her by its trunk. The tusker repeatedly pummeled Devi against the ground killing her almost instantly.’
Prem, my ever-smiling driver, told me that now no one travels this road at night alone any more. The police have set up a barricade after dark where traffic must wait until there is a convoy. At the other end of the elephant road the cars get to go their separate ways. Prem is not a fan of this approach.
“This is more worse than driving alone. If one elephant comes from one side and one from other they can block everyone. And then, can you imagine? This is very danger.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Have you ever been in danger from an elephant?”
“One time. I was traveling in a jeep in Corbett National Park with few Westerners. I wasn’t driving. An elephant charged our vehicle. The driver reversed for over a kilometer. His driving was mind blowing. The girls they did pee pee in their pants. It was a horrible.”
I peered into the pack of trees, imagining that I saw a flash of tusk, a muscle twitch, the flap of a giant ear. But there were just trees and more trees extending into all that was visible. A light grey figure loomed upon us from the roadside, so suddenly that I thought we might to run it down. Then another, and another, four men lingering, at the edge of the forest, covered in what looked like chalk dust, with long matted hair, wearing nothing but tiny cotton dhotis.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“They are bad people. They eat humans.”
I had heard tell of these peculiar saddhus from some boatmen in Varanasi. They are devotees of Shiva (though most other Shaivites consider their practices utterly bizarre) They adhere to the unity of opposites and pursue social taboos to experience non-duality, to the point of losing all discrimination in both thought and action between the vile and the desirable. They meditate on corpses, live on raw human flesh and have been known to chew the heads off live animals. One night a boatman had shown me a video about them on his phone. I was utterly amazed to watch them picking up half decomposed body parts out of the Ganges and tucking into them like they were prime rib at a steak house.
We passed by the group and noticed that the last one was gesticulating towards the passing traffic.
“Is he asking for a lift?”
This road was getting more interesting by the minute.
“Ooooh. Let’s give him a ride!”
I began to ponder all the questions I wanted to ask him.
“No, No! This is not good human beings!”
Prem laughed nervously.
“They wear human bones like jewelry. They eat people!” he added, as if he thought I had missed that singular detail. If a bull elephant had charged out of the forest right then, I thought, his anxiety would not be much higher.
“I know,” I replied, seeing his point, “but how dangerous could he be just sitting in the car?”
I entertained a fleeting fantasy of having this same conversation back in the English suburbs with my Aunt Jean. Prem looked unconvinced, but slowed down anyway.
“Their bodies are covered in human ash from cremations,” he said as a final protest. Hmmm, was he more worried about cannibalism or his upholstery? The aghori snatched a penetrating glance at me as we passed.
“Awww, c’mon Prem. I’ll protect you.”
The subtext went something like, “But if I get eaten I’m never forgiving you.”
The aghori looked momentarily surprised when we stopped. He jogged up to us, and opened the car door. After a brief exchange with Prem, he jumped in. The sudden twinge in my stomach signaled that my bravado had once more over-stepped my courage. But surely, the man wasn’t going to tear Prem’s arm out of his socket while he was driving! Even cannibals must have some code of honour, even if they do fall short on table manners.
“He’s going to Rishikesh,” explained Prem.
He was by far the strangest hitchhiker I’ve ever encountered. His hair was so matted with ash and dirt that it seemed to have fossilized into his head. I couldn’t even see the skin underneath the thick ash coating, that had cracked to form tiny lizard-like scales. He shifted in his seat as if unused to being in a vehicle, and rested his tiffin tin on the floor in front of him, while Prem eyed him nervously.
“Can I ask him a question?”
Prem relayed my request it in Hindi and the aghori consented.
“Why do you need to eat human flesh? Can’t you gain spiritual understanding without doing that?”
While Prem translated my question, the man tugged the rear view mirror in his direction and looked at me through it. His face was caked in a clay of blue-grey ash and dirt. His eyes looked jaundiced. I felt as if I were talking to a ghost. He began to speak, slowly, still looking at me. I wanted to look away from him but he had me transfixed, and I felt he knew it. Prem translated his answer.
“Spiritual understanding does not come so cheap.”
I stared out the window into the heart of the Sal tree forest. Somehow I recalled Buddhist scriptures saying that it was under the Sal tree that the Buddha’s mother gave birth, and it was between two Sal trees that the Buddha lay down to pass away, causing them to blossom out of season. As I continued to look, the trees seemed to lose all definition. It was as if they all became the same tree, or were all emanating ‘treeness’. I turned my observation to myself, and all I could see was ‘me-ness’. I looked at my hand, and there was ‘hand-ness.’ It was like seeing the architecture without the building. But where is the architect? No sooner had this question entered my mind, than the trees, my hands, the taciturn aghori, Prem’s smile, the invisible car-stomping elephants, all began to swirl together like different flavours of ice cream melting in the sun. I wanted to resist, to maintain the Neopolitan certainty of discernible ‘things’, but they kept on glooping into a general sticky ‘thingyness’. The experience was utterly disorienting but oddly beautiful.
It was Prem.
“I didn’t say anything”
Surely my voice was coming from someone else’s throat.
“You said something about spiritual practice.”
“Yes, I was talking to the….”
Prem’s questioning eyes flashed at me through the rear view mirror. My heart began pounding against my chest like a prisoner demanding justice. The passenger seat was empty.
“Where is he?”
“Where is who?”
“We passed them ten minutes back. Ha ha! Forget them. They are bad people I keep telling you.”
“Right,” I said. “They eat people.”
“Yes! Ha ha. You are learning.”
I rested my head back against the seat and watched the trees disappear through the window as a monsoon downpour sent large gobs of rain quivering against the glass, holding on to their identity for as long as they possibly could before being annihilated in the deluge.