September 10th, 2015
‘Pilgrims recognize one another by a capacity for wonder, and a gut-level discomfort with bigotry.‘ From Pilgrim’s India
The sun has not yet risen but my mood is already quickening. I dress fast, having prepared my pack the night before and am out on the Gaurikund street by 5:30. It is ‘street’, singular. Well, really more of a lane, too narrow for anything more than a scooter. I find an open chai shop and sip piping hot sticky sweet tea under a greasy 60 watt bulb while half a dozen mule herders conduct their morning meeting. They seem to sense I am not planning to hire them since only one makes any attempt to engage me. I move on to where the dozen or so grocery shops (all stocking the same items: soda, bottled water, cigarettes, crisps, biscuits and washing powder) ends, and am thwarted again by the police.
“Seven starting,” says the jawan, pointing to his watch.
He invites me to wait with him. I politely decline and return to the guesthouse where Palao’s uncle makes aloo paranthas to die for.
I step out again an hour later, and this time the jawan ushers me along. The morning temperature is perfect for hiking. My pack rests gently against my back. My body feels rested and my limbs supple. I try to pace myself as my excitement overtakes. The road is broad, the cement inlaid with flat rocks that provide a good gripping surface. The incline is undemanding. I pass a milestone that puts Kedarnath at 16 km ahead. I wonder if that is the old distance before the re-routing of the road after the floods.
At first I meet no one except for a handful of mule herders—all in their twenties and thirties. They greet me with “Jai bholey!” the mantra of this yatra. Bholenath is another name for Lord Shiva. Bholey means “simplicity” or “innocence”. So “Jai bholey” means something like “Praise to Simplicity” or “Praise to Innocence”. I love saying this. For me, it is a reminder to return to basics. To what we are underneath all these labels we’ve imposed on ourselves and on others.
“Jai bholey!” I return.
“Dollar! Dollar!” one of them jokes and rubs his fingers together in the international ‘money’ mudra.
His antics jar with the gracious atmosphere.
After half an hour, I spot the little Tamil man. He acknowledges my presence in that stripped-down Indian way, with an almost imperceptible nod.
He disappears around a series of bends, but twenty minutes later I catch up with him at a chai shack and he gestures that he is going to buy me chai. I try to insist but it’s no use. There is something super focused about him. It is difficult to describe the impact this small gesture has on me. In India, where so many have so little, foreigners are often viewed as targets —“a wallet on legs” was how one American friend described it. Westerners are all de facto ambassadors of India’s mesmeric and often schizophrenic relationship with modernity, informed by a potent mix of envy and suspicion. Foreign women are dual targets, for both money and sex. I don’t mean just the literal act of sex. Despite the much publicized reports of rape in India, most ‘actual sex’ remains in the category of wishful thinking. I’m referring more to a set of behaviors that can best be described as sexual teasing—‘eve-teasing’ as they call it in India. This is not the same as flirting. What would be called ‘flirting’ in the West is very rare in India, just as what is called ‘eve-teasing’ in India is rare in the West. I’ve only experienced something close to ‘flirting’ from Indians who have spent time abroad. Flirting is one-on-one, whereas sexual teasing is almost always carried out in packs, where individual sexual anxieties can be temporarily tranquilized by the group ego. Even if some women find it annoying, flirting is more sophisticated, playful and respectful than the crude objectifying and vaguely threatening way in which many Indian youths engage women. Foreign women are often assumed to have loose morals, as if they’re ready to strip off and get down to it right there in the street. But you can sense that the bravado in these man-children masks a deep-seated fear, deprivation of physical intimacy, a general state of confusion about the true meaning of power, and an inability to manage their own sexual energies. I often see Indian men treating foreign women like they’re poking a stick at a caged lion; with a clumsy combination of cocky posturing and pant-shitting terror.
In India I am constantly treated as a source of something because I hail from ‘Desire Factory Central’ aka ‘The West’. But the more time I spend in India, the less certain I am that everyone knows what exactly it is that they want from me. It’s a bit like Marlon Brando’s famous retort “What you got?” when his character, Johnny, is asked, “What are you rebelling against?” The programming works to assume that I have something desirable. When a beggar asks me for money, the motive is very clear. But it is not always about money. Sometimes it’s a photo, or just a brief exchange. It is often very cordial, but there is always a subtle imbalance that is no one’s fault but which prevents most encounters from reaching any real level of sincerity. At times, being on the receiving end of this continuous grasping can feel uncomfortable, but it must not begin to compare to what women of colour experience, and what Indian women endure on a daily basis.
Even my so-called ‘progressive’ male Indian friends seem oddly blinkered to this reality, and respond to such observations with a kind of patronizing dismissal. One of them I used to meet regularly in Delhi could not seem to get his head around why, when we were planning to go somewhere together, I insisted on meeting in a café or other venue. He seemed to think I was just being difficult that I didn’t want to wait for him on the street, to be bombarded by overt projections and repressed fantasies of hordes of sex-starved men. He had no idea what I was talking about because when he stood on a street corner in Delhi, he experienced an entirely different set of behaviours. I would put good money down that if they were asked to endure such treatment even for a minute, many of my male friends would need to restrain themselves from punching someone in the face. It is not even about understanding. I have come to the conclusion that understanding is over-rated. Indeed, true understanding may be an impossible aim. But it is necessary that we a least try to understand. I can share my experience of men while happily admitting that I have only a vague idea of the inside scoop of the average male. Teach me, I say. Illuminate me! I am Jane Goodall with bells on! I am befuddled by so many otherwise intelligent men who find it hard to admit that they are equally unenlightened about the view from behind a woman’s eyelashes. Collective embarrassment, perhaps?
But the Tamil man didn’t want anything from me. He just wanted to buy me a chai. And this from someone who appeared to have so little. He was walking barefoot and had no luggage at all. Not even a blanket. Tradition states that more spiritual merit is gained when pilgrims on yatra walk without shoes, so his being barefoot was probably more out of choice than necessity. But his appearance and demeanor were of a man of very humble means. The chai was relatively expensive—fifteen rupees compared to ten in the lowlands. He spoke no English or Hindi and I spoke no Tamil. Our communion was reduced to a few simple gestures and a temporary higher purpose.
My surroundings are exhilarating. The way is occasionally interrupted by waterfalls, that slip horizontally across the trail, before continuing to plunge into the Mandakini river. It is impossible to cross them without getting soggy feet and I’m glad for the extra socks I packed. After two or three hours I begin to be passed by other pilgrims riding mules. The ones who look more middle class engage me as a Western tourist. I return with “Jai bholey!” hands together at my heart. Most return in kind. They holler at me from their saddles. What country am I from? What is my name? Am I a single person? Sometimes the order is different, but I am only ever asked these three questions. Except once when a woman leans down dangerously low from her mule to shout in my ear, “What is your purpose in India?!”
I am beginning to feel good about my “fitness level” when a lady in a sari and sandals overtakes me. I notice she is knitting. Here am I all earnest and decked out with backpack, bandaids and special sweat-absorbing vest, and this woman is meandering up the mountain making a sweater! We chat for a bit in my terrible Hindi. She establishes that I am a “single person”, meaning not just that I am unhitched but traveling solo. Indian women seem intrigued by this state of affairs. They eye me as if considering their odds. The men usher them on quickly, as if eager to put distance between them and one who seems to be managing quite alright on her own.
The heat is still manageable and my body is responding to the mountain like a long lost friend. It has been a very, very long time since I have hiked alone in the wilderness. When I lived in California, walks like this were regular therapy. Arguments, anxieties, indecisions, would all get worked out of my system, and I’d return with renewed perspective and vitality. But in a country of one billion people you have to work harder to find solitude. It is also not especially sensible for a woman to walk alone, and company, although pleasant, changes the experience completely. I press on for the next three hours, occasionally digging into my stash of walnuts, figs and amaranth cookies when my energy begins to sag. I come across a shack where a stubbly-faced elderly man is frying samosas in a giant wok-like pan on top of a wood oven. They border on the divine.
About a kilometre further up, a bridge spans the river and on the other side the road begins to steepen. I begin to feel the weight of my pack, but I plod on. Palao had said the trek could easily be done in five or six hours, and according to this estimate I am only two hours away. Two hours later, I am feeling the strain. Fatigue sets in suddenly; loads up my thighs with sandbags and compresses my lungs in a vice. On this side of the river, the sun is blazing, and I am soon drenched in sweat. I am no longer marveling at the scenery and swinging along like a happy idiot. I am nose to stone, fixated only on the next three feet in front of me. I stop to make use of one of the numerous portable toilets that are kept immaculately clean. I’m impressed by the facilities prepared for the yatris that even includes a staffed medical dispensary. I buy a bottle of water at a roadside stall, and start to doze off on a bench. After ten minutes, I have trouble getting upright again. Six hours in and I am still five kilometres from my destination, according to the mule herders, who breeze up and down the mountain in flip flops. I plonk myself down on a bench under one of the numerous sun shelters that line the route. Next to me a middle-aged gentleman in a white vest and matching moustache is chatting to a young man whose job is to sweep away the mule droppings. I am very grateful for the presence of these sweepers. In the few places where the droppings have been allowed to accumulate, the acridity is overpowering.
The man is asking the sweeper how much he makes a month.
“Ten thousand rupees,” is the reply.
The man nods as if making internal calculations, and I sense a professional interest. He looks tired and I offer him some water. We talk a little. He tells me that he is a retired IAS officer from Bangalore (Agricultural Section). He is a very fit 65, his biceps would be the envy of a man of any age, but like me he is struggling. We are being challenged physically in different ways; me with the altitude, him with the gradient. Somehow we both know that we will make the next leg of the journey together.
Almost nobody is walking to Kedarnath. I count eight in entirety. But those that are do so with quiet purpose. I’ve seen Indian families hiking up Triund near Dharamsala. Most look as if they can’t wait to get back. But on yatra no one squabbling over the snack ration, taking selfies or moaning about their blisters. On yatra, Indians will endure almost supernatural hardship, extend themselves physically and psychologically in every way, just to make it happen. Today, however, the vast majority are making the journey on mules that are goaded with sticks and beaten when they falter. Those who can afford it whizz above us in a government-run helicopter that makes about one trip every hour. The private helicopter companies have been temporarily shut down, for reasons I can’t readily ascertain. A man on his way down stops us to ask how much further it is to Gaurikund.
“My helicopter did not provide me with a return ticket!” he complains.
He is out of shape and wheezing heavily, with impatience as much as fatigue. My fellow pilgrim and I can’t give him a straight answer, since we ourselves are unsure. The man tuts and stomps away.
“I don’t have time for this conversation!” he blusters. “My car is waiting for me in Sonprayag.”
It is an odd encounter and we gaze after him quizzically.
“Chalo,” says my companion after a few seconds. Let’s go.
We speak very little. He doesn’t ask me any of the “three questions”. I never tell him where I am from, or whether or why I am a single person. He doesn’t even ask my name.
At times I am a few minutes ahead. At others he is. If he falls behind, I wait for him, and he does the same. It is not up for discussion. It is the natural thing to do. After another hour, we are only making it about 500 metres, about every other bend, before we have to rest. At first, I look for rocks that offer conducive-looking contours. Soon, I am taking respite on any rock that is vaguely arse-shaped. We greet the occasional shelters and benches like they’re desert oases, and rest for longer and longer periods of time. Then one of us decides it is time to move and rouses the other with an encouraging, “Chalo!”
During one rest, I casually ask if his family are happy he is going on yatra. I am not expecting his response.
“Not at all,” he replies. “My wife did not want me to go. My children think it’s a waste of time. They are both university professors. They have no value for such things.”
He is a a true gentleman with a strong sense of duty. He must have wanted this very badly to forge ahead without the moral support of his family. He tells me that after retirement, he had planned to devote some time to spiritual philosophy. He has a strong desire to study Buddhism. But retirement has not provided the time or space he had hoped for. It has been filled to the brim with domestic duties and family pressures. His days are spent baby-sitting grandchildren and mediating family squabbles.
As we’re talking, who comes to join us but the little Tamil man who had bought me chai that morning. He has already been up to Kedarnath, performed puja at the temple, and is on his way back down. He looks proud and happy. There is a blaze of fire-coloured paste between his eyes. I wish I had half his energy. He shows us photos on his digital camera and poses earnestly while I take one of him. He is on his way to Badrinath, another of the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage sites. He has no plans to sleep. The contrast between him and the man we’d met earlier could not have been starker. The other man could afford to travel to this holy place by helicopter and private car, and yet he seemed to have taken nothing away with him, except a temper. The man from Tamilnadu was traveling by the slimmest means possible, yet his contentment was radiant. There are many ways to get to pilgrimage sites, but it seems that not all of them involve pilgrimage.
As we make our incremental headway, we meet more and more pilgrims on the descent—those who went up by mule or helicopter and are now walking down, having received their blessings and said their prayers at the famed Kedarnath temple. For many as well as my companion, a pilgrimage such as this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the general mood is of serenity and completion. As tired as I am, I feel buoyed by this Caravan of Joy. I am still the subject of some curiosity, but there is another connection being forged now. In their eyes, there can be no other motive for me to be on this road than a spiritual one. And this makes all the difference. It is one of the rare times that it matters less that I am a foreigner or even a woman. Something else is being acknowledged. Something beyond the labels. Although Western travelers have made much of how the common greeting “namasté” supposes an acknowledgement to the divine unity within mundane plurality, the fact is nowadays the term is rarely imparted with this spirit. It has been devalued in the cultural marketplace into little more than a “Hey, how ya doing?” But here, walking the pathway between man and God, “namasté” regains its rightful etymology. It is delivered boldly, with meaning and depth.
In India, where every social interaction is characterized by difference, whether it be gender, caste, or the condition of ones shoes, it is immensely refreshing to find a situation where the focus is on “sameness”. In the exquisite book, Pilgrim’s India, Richard Lannoy comments on how pilgrimage temporarily allows for caste to be transcended since all are sinners. But the bond between sinners is not as strong as the bond between expressions of the divine.Those coming down the mountain have been to the source. There is still the scent of unity in their nostrils. It will fade soon enough. Even before they’ve reached the bottom, the distinctions will begin to re-concretize: woman/man, adult/child, this caste/that caste. But right now the distinctions are still in disarray. I can perceive my own private boundaries undergoing a slow unmistakable unification. It feels like space. And moves like freedom.
As we ascend, the scrub forests are replaced by alpine meadows in the middle altitudes, and further up by alpine grasslands. Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest protected area in the western Himalayas but I see no animals except the mules with the ever-present jingling of their harness bells. What is becoming increasingly evident is the environmental impact of the floods and slides of 2013, when the yatra route across the ravine was more or less annihilated. At times I can make out a short flight of steps here, a section of path there, and then—nothing. Just swathes of barren scree. I recall the news footage of people clinging desperately to rocks, to brush and to each other. Over 100,000 were evacuated from these valleys by the Indian military and paramilitary, but for thousands more there was no escape. My heart sinks into the thoughts of such despair, when around yet another bend, the glimpse of a snow-capped mountain makes a majestic promise of the journey’s end.
After another hour, we pass the man and his son who had started with me at Sonprayag. They are on their way down. The man seems surprised to see me.
“You are very late,” he says, looking at his watch. It was two o’clock.
I’m startled by this statement. Late indeed! The affrontary!
“You still have five kilometres to go.”
“That can’t be,” I protest.
We’d been told the same thing over an hour before. The father continues his descent with a ‘have it your way’ backhand wave of his stick. I feel annoyed by this encounter. My friend looks sapped of strength. We are stepping across a glacier but I hardly notice. All I can think about it sleep. We start taking shortcuts across the curves, which since they are steeper, often prove even more exhausting. We come across a bed of clover and without any announcement both flop to the ground. I wake up a few minutes later. My friend is lying beside me, snoring loudly. We have fallen asleep together, side by side. It is so intimate and innocent. And we still don’t know each other’s names. I can’t imagine any other situation where this might occur, except perhaps during a natural disaster.
I wake him with a husky “Chalo!” He pulls himself to his feet, and sways a little unsteadily. When I put on my backpack I suspect some mischievous child has filled it with with rocks while I was sleeping. We stagger back on to the road. By this point, we’ve both lost any hope of actually arriving. I am feeling vulnerable, breathless and disappointed in myself. I am clearly less fit than I had thought. We pass orderly lines of large white tents, and I suddenly realize we are in Kedarnath. It has taken us nine hours. The place looks like a bombsite. Hardly a building is standing. I spot the temple in the distance on the far side of the town. I turn to my friend. It is time to part.
“What is your name?”
“Puttiah,” he replies. “And you?”
I clasp his hands in mine.
“I could not have done this without you, Puttiah.”
I hadn’t meant to sound so dramatic. It wasn’t as if we’d just climbed the Eiger. But the exhaustion and lack of oxygen prove a heady cocktail. I can feel myself tearing up.
He raises my hands to his forehead.
“Same to me. I shall never forget you.
We go our separate ways. Unlikely to ever to meet again. But friends forever.