My spirits rise as we weave into the mountains, stars above and lights below. I immediately feel safer in the well-known streets; everyone, Tibetan, Indian, foreign, seems much more relaxed, friendlier. The sun breaks over the peaks as I sit at breakfast at 6 a.m., fresh off the bus, waiting for a monastery’s guest house to open.
But the friend I’ve hoped to visit is away, and the surge of peace is temporary. It slips away with the afternoon, and succumbs under the final blow — a mistaken meal I knew I should not touch.
It’s the last time I’ll eat in McLeodganj. Once or twice I day, I haul myself out of bed to fetch crackers and ginger ale, then return to continue the complete withdrawal. I reject all stimuli and fall into distraction, total avoidance of any real stimuli. The wallpaper is too much; to look out the window would be exhausting.
Three days of shutdown. Then, slowly slowly, I realize that I can feel again. That I had not let myself feel fear, not since that moment, that night I took the wrong train — waiting for the general ticketing cars at one o’clock in the morning, I shut it off. A blank dark blind pit filling with fear deep in my chest, heavy hurting holding my heart until the theft, until waiting with the police in the darkening city when it broke, overflowing into my mind to be too much, until I felt and purged it. Until I rested and let it in.
Slowly slowly, I woke up into freedom. Liberated, I returned to Delhi, able to breathe, experience, and enjoy.
I didn’t know about the strike.
All the shops and restaurants in Majnu Ka Tilla are closed in protest, I think it is the Chinese ambassador. There’s a rumor that there is a fine if you’re caught open. I’ve invited Charnita to my neighborhood today, but there’s nothing here to see.
Sitting secretly in my guest house’s ground floor restaurant, verifiably the worst food in town, Charnita experiences thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) for the first time. Begun with chopsticks and finished with a spoon, like all Asian noodle soups that I’ve encountered. She’s never used chopsticks before. This fascinates me.
The darkness sits heavily between us. I try to explain why I feel so lost, inexplicably raw. I take her to the rooftop, to sit at the top of those metal stairs for the best view. We share thoughts on life; and in a spontaneous, hopeful moment, I suggest that we dash across the city to Dilli Haat, an enclosed market showcasing Indian crafts. Purely for fun and freedom.
We take an auto rickshaw to protect her strained ankle. The driver starts the meter, and the two of us fall into a deep conversation, roused by his asking for directions.
It’s a test and we know it — he’s taking us the long way, doubling the price on purpose. Confusion. Charnita warns me of his behavior, I see his obnoxious grin in the mirror, the ridiculing smirk. I quickly end that with an aggressive lecture, but I’m the reason we don’t just get out — I can’t believe that it could be that bad. Charnita tells him to pull over, but I hesitate, and he takes the opportunity to take an exit onto a flyover.
Speeding along the highway, Charnita takes a phone call. A moment later, a motorcycle carrying three men dives into our lane, and the two on the back reach for Charnita’s bag — she struggles for a few seconds, and they rip it from her hands, her phone shatters on the tarmac, and the motorcycle speeds away.
Our driver does not speed up, I can’t get the license plate, and the motorcycle is gone.
Charnita luckily had her business phone in her pocket, and calls the police. I sit, wishing her bag, with her laptop, had never been taken. Who eventually arrive where we have pulled over. Explanations. Arguments. Driving back to the scene of the crime. We wait for whoever has jurisdiction over the flyover. Wait on the side of the highway as dusk settles in. The auto driver is with us, and presents an alternative account of his behavior. The cops believe our version, and hit the man, who cries.
We wait to be hit by a car, for the cops to come, for anything. And then we give up, ask for a lift to the metro, explain that we are two unmarried women and the sun has set, we are expected at home.
I break. The fear I’ve not allowed myself to feel, the fear tightly gripped below my conscious mind, deep in my heart, cracks open in a quiet, suppressed panic on the side of the highway.
The next day, I pack my bag and leave for McLeodganj. Back to the Himalayas, to my Indian home, to the quiet place I last felt safe.
There’s no further discussion of reproducing the workshop. Our energy and initiative was stolen with her bag.
In the afternoons at Brahma Vida Ashram, I am free to rest, read, and reflect. I spend my time speaking with the older sisters, the ones who have been at the ashram for decades. This post is a compilation of two interviews with a particular lady in her eighties. She is devout, informed, and dedicated. May I share her words well.
“’I, me, mine,’” the elderly sister tells me, leaning forward from her pillow in earnest, “that has created all the problems.”
Her simple room near the ashram’s gardens is dark and cool in the afternoon heat. She sits on her bed next a table stuffed with books, an alarm clock, a radio, and bits of paper. Her gray and white hair is cut short, a radical style for India; sometimes she takes a deep breath as she speaks, wind in her chest emphasizing her most important points. “A calm state of mind is essential, all the time observing your breath,” I am told. She squints slightly at me, serious but kind. Sometimes she augments our conversation with a book pulled down from the shelves behind her – something on Vinoba, the ashram’s founder, or various aspects of life. The conversation flows from her travels in America to questions about my work. At this particular moment, we are discussing the future of humanity.
“From the moon, there are no lines on Earth. […] The identity of “I” is fake, it has no meaning. When we get rid of the I-ness, I am nothing, I am an instrument in the hands of a power, I want to keep links with that power.” Her eyes are calm but grave. “These wars, the bloodshed, exploitation, trying to find some place for myself, I depend on this person — I don’t depend on any person, I am empty.”
She tells me stories: how she gave away her inheritance after keeping just enough for her needs, how Gandhi was careful to take no more than his share, Vinoba’s simple way of life. Producing a pair of pink pants made from thick, handmade cotton, her hands perform the movements of sewing a patch — for twenty-two years. She owns a summer outfit and a winter outfit. Waving at the things on the table beside her, she tells me, “Objects are here with me temporarily, they will move on,” her hand flings out and I imagine the books speeding away from her. “We have to use objects to their ultimate end, you can’t use and then throw away.” Counting on her fingers, she explains that mass production and consumption mean mass waste.
Our conversation turns to India, its problems and heritage. “India is a land of unity in diversity,” she explains, her voice soft but her words railing against corporate systems, the dangers of globalization, the monopolization of seeds and that variety will be finished, that regular folk won’t be able to get seeds from the fields, as they always have. Vinoba’s peace walk for land reform floats up from my memory; I hear the vital role of agriculture in her words, echoing the man who started the ashram seventy years ago.
Thinking about role of giant corporations in America’s government and economy, I ask the question I’ve carried with me for the Gandhians: how can young people have hope?
“When we see positive and negative things in this world, we get confused. But there is — positivity is in a bigger number than the negativity. And the whole world is standing on some harmony. In human society, negativity is in bigger number than positivity. But because God has created this whole universe, Divinity will be more successful… there is a survival instinct in human beings, in insects and everything. Through violence, we cannot survive, we need nonviolent means. The language of love need not be learnt, any individual animal or insect understands the language of love. […] So our mission of life is to give love, to everyone who comes into your life flow — serve them with a compassionate and loving heart. If I can do that, then my life is worthwhile. You will be so much happy, and so much enjoy. On a certain level, that’s how the Divine power works. People catch our vibrations, and it becomes something magical.”
I scribble notes and promise to write something that my university community back home could read.
When we say our goodbyes, she hands me a book of poetry on nature’s beauty, and takes my hand. “I have realized the significance of your name. Bridget. You build bridges between people.”
Remembering Chicago, the interfaith community, and their nickname for me, I know it is not a great leap to make but I still stagger away from her room in awe of the experience.