Wheels of Life:
keith harmon snow
Hindoostan. Asia’s human vortex. The center that does not hold, where cosmic being is being nothingness. Here is that blast of amorphous geography that heals and bleeds in the shadows and light of the Roof of the World. It is the land of the Rajputs. Of Tantra. Kama Sutra. Refuge of the Tibetan Diaspora. Of the supreme creator Vishnu -- Sustainer of the Universe -- of elephant God Ganesha -- Remover of Obstacles -- of that black seductress Kali -- the Destroyer. It is the heart chakra of the planet.
It is also a land of delusions.
Here is a land of princely splendor and wretched poor that for centuries was humbled by anarchy on a horse. It was those greasy leather-backed Turks and Mongols and Huns, those heathens on their heavenly horses who spilled off the steppes, pierced the mountain shield and rode the sandstorms of Arabian nights to gorge their primal instincts and hairy bosoms in thunderstorms of exceptional violence. They were the portents of western tourism and the multinational corporation: They came. They slew. They trussed up their loot and were gone.
There was Babur “the Tiger” and Akbar “the Great” and Tamerlaine “the Iron Limper.” They were both noble and spineless, with their erotic harems, their audacious architecture and their Imperial propensity to eat and fart and laugh while thousands of impudent peasants were trampled by elephants for trumpery offenses.
Such is the His-story of Hindoostan.
Like those nomadic invaders of old, I , too, will cross the subcontinent in a saddle. Courting my barbarian arrogance and mis-education -- and the intestinal scourge of Delhi belly in all its brutal karmic manifestations -- I am everywhere challenged by my shallow Americaness. I am shackled by ego and attachment, by impatience and ignorance. Such is the state of unwakefullness.
Having resigned my vacuous life as an Aerospace Manager, incessant questions independently co-arise as I crank two thousand miles and a few hundred million people out of the landmass. Who am I? What is reality? Why so many hungry? So many poor? What is my purpose in the universe? What is the meaning of my life?
A speeding motorcade bearing the Dalai Lama, horns blaring, races by in Varanasi where -- in a moment of spiritual fantasy -- I see myself incarnated beneath the wheels of His Holiness. I am run over, later, on Mt. Abu, by a galloping horse and rider. My bicycle is jailed in Sikkim. I see corpses in the Ganges. My Self is everywhere mirrored back to me in its most ugly and beautiful manifestations. Here is my passage to Hindoostan. It will provoke my awakening.
Fresh from Calcutta, Kanchendjunga rises over the terai, the floodplains of the Himalaya. The mountain becomes my quest. I camp under the moon by the Tista River. I follow tiger tracks into grasses much taller than I and when the moon doesn’t rise after sunset, as yesterday, I run back to my camp in darkness carrying a big stick. It’s an easy lesson to learn: The tigers will eat you. (No matter my indiscretion or foolishness, the Bengal tigers elude me, and I them, across Hindoostan.)
Journal entry: Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, West Bengal: "There is only one position from which you are at an advantage when you meet a rhinoceros and that is from the top of an elephant. You ride the elephant into the steaming jungle with a family of Bombay tourists. The husband’s cigar drives off the mosquitoes and the wife’s shrill laugh drives off all other wildlife. When you encounter the rhinoceros he must look up at you and, pugnacious as he may be, he would never attack an elephant. He ignores you, chewing jungle. The mahout prods the elephant out of the forest. The entire affair is a joke, although most people will not see this armored but docile creature. Extinction imminent."
Enter Sikkim: Tiny mountain kingdom. Freezing streams cut through moss-laced forests of juniper, rhododendron, birch and blue pine. They spill and pool on avalanched roads. They make rejuvenating showers, but they cannot wash the smile off my face. Voices echo across rice-terraced chasms. Red pandas play in forest. The sunny mountain vista is etched with pencil-line tracks which trace yesterday’s or tomorrow’s ride: Days thrusting up and up, meditating on loneliness, while souls ascend to heaven on the threads of unraveling prayer flags.
Kanchendjunga looms. I skirt Indian military patrols, bike goat paths torn by rock. A river gushing icy turquoise milk divides me from the sacred mountain but soldiers snag me on a bridge. My bike is jailed overnight in a cell with Mr. Khaparay Tamang, a man who, allegedly, _committed the theft of two bulls during the night. The police lecture me on the dangers of the Tibetan-Chinese-Indian-Nepali frontier. Journal entry: Military escort out of Mangan: "I am creating a new world, a new place, where all things that shouldn’t be aren’t... The Chinese are cutting off the serpent’s head in Tibet."
Darjeeling. City of the clouds, luxury British hillstation. A Canadian woman has joined me. We fly like snakes down a mountain. On the flats we pass a troop of women laborers from the tea plantations. The place hums with austerity and struggle and life. Despair and happiness coexist under the imminent floods of snowmelt and the god sent monsoon. Smiles infect me with a new kind of love...
Climbing a footpath we tent on a bluff in a perpetual gale above the Dudh Koshi river. There is a Sherpa hip-packing a landslide victim out of the hills. The woman groans with each jarring step. Her wrist is fractured, her chest punctured, collarbone protruding. I look inside of her rib cage. Her face is lacerated. She is teary-eyed but brave. They plead for help: It is a three-mile trek and an hour’s bump-and-slam jeep to hospital. We shrug. The diminutive Sherpa hauls her onward. Next day we find her lying in the dirt in a dark hut. She is delirious and suppurating. She cannot pay for transport. We throw our bikes in a jeep and haul her out.
The "I" says it all. I am the Great White conqueror -- the typical Orientalist. I see only what my conditioned mind allows. I order the universe according to an elitist American schema. I climb mountains, ford rivers, traverse deserts, track cats. (I love cats...) All my actions are benevolent, because I am. My presence is so starkly western that I cringe with discomfort even at the first-person retelling of this story. Enlightenment is hindered by the _I_ -- by conceptions rooted in ego. Please forgive me.
My panniers are packed with western privilege. Emotions and states of mind ebb and flow with the human masses and the surprise or horror -- the parade or leper or ruin or intentionally maimed child or cheering crowd -- which lurks around the next corner. Lurking there too is my immature Self: My judgment; petulance; condescension; anger; indifference; arrogance. My monstrous ego. My pantheon of demons.
I daily wake to hordes of wide-eyed locals hovering outside my tent arguing in Hindinglish about what might lurk inside. (Even the sleaziest hotel room becomes a sanctuary: no wonder the names like “Hotel Relief” ...) Half the village is out there. Privacy is anathema. My geer cycle is examined like a cadaver in a medical lecture. The circus has come to town and I am the freak, magician and clown.
I pop out of the tent like a centaur -- there’s a woman in there!? -- fire breakfast, pack and go mobile, exit the morning’s human stage. Children and grown men scatter wildly, hop behemoth Indian bikes, bear down on me like a posse. I ride remote tracks where foreigners are never seen. Locals ride with me in curious ones and twos and in marauding packs. Riders join and abandon as their own lives allow. It is a rolling circus: In good humor, I entertain people for hours, infected by joy. Taxed to my limits, I am a marauding tank. People question endlessly. It is daily a feat of endurance which eclipses the geopolitical navigation of the landmass. Restless with host or scenery or Self -- I ride. It is a love-hate experience. Everywhere I go, there I am...
Journal entry: Anonymous chai stall: "Two million years ago, some galaxy far, far away, might explode tomorrow... That injured Nepali woman was suffering terribly. Why didn’t I help her sooner? I am deeply ashamed of my indifference."
Grand Trunk Road... symbolic wheel of life for Kipling’s Kim and his Tibetan lama-in-tow... a 1500 mile track heinously blessed with some 250 million people...lorries and cars and buses hurtled at one another at locomotive speeds down a one-lane strip of shattered pavement... vehicles weaving and gunning for the ambulatory masses... the Brahmins and Sikhs and Moslems and Buddhists and Jains and harijans (untouchables) and Christians... rickshaws and pony-carts and motorcycles and foreign bicyclists... emaciated dogs and bleating goats and belching buffaloes... the odd camel or elephant... the somnambulant sacred cows... this madness smoldering in eye-searing fumes and tubercular exhaust... scored by the cacophony of industry and prayers and wails.... and threading the eye of the apocalypse are the incessant, mind-blowing, pneumatic blast horns which dopple up and down in pitch and volume as nasty industrial lorries REEM their cargoes through...
And there, seated in lotus, impervious to the cataclysm, a naked sadhu meditates...
It is insane! I am insane. Journal Entry: Allahabad: "Vultures hover in expectation of feast. Raced another pack of incorrigible leeches. Discourage Grand Trunk by bike. Someone threw a brick over the courtyard wall. Still shaking from the dopple-horns. Discourage Grand Trunk by any means. My smile has cracked and broken."
Yasmine has her own version of insanity. "Either I am your wife or I am a whore," she snarls, a week into the Grand Trunk, "and I don’t want to be either." This becomes a hostile mantra, uttered at fresh injustice. Men surround and interrogate her mercilessly. Which country madam? Geeeeeer cycle? Is HE your HUS-band? Do you LOVE him? DO YOU HAVE INTERCOURSE?
"I am SICK and TIRED of their [men’s] questions," she cries another day. We are eating mayo sannies on the polished marble of the Diwan-I-Am – the Hall of Private Audiences -- at Akbar’s Red Fort in Agra. Voices of tour guides echo rudely through galleries where dynasties were decided, brothers beheaded or blinded by brothers, wives and daughters of rival princes paraded nude twice weekly for two years before their torture and execution.
We find _peep_ holes in the walls of hotel rooms. Men grope female travelers as public right or, worse, sport. In a lorry with two sweet, young Hindus, a night journey to escape the shocking human tide, the men feel Yasmine as she sleeps over the cab. It is a disappointment, yet another solicitation for backsheesh -- a payment, gift, or bribe -- or simple unsolicited sexual aggression. We evacuate coldly at the next truck stop. It is a dark, cold twilight. Homeless families squat around sorry flames on a landscape of industrial trauma, hushed by hunger, waiting for their dawn of new hope.
Jodhpur. Yasmine splits. I ride to the sand castle in Jaisalmer. For three days and 150 miles of searing heat I bike with Jonathan, a Nigerian born whitey, educated in England, whose parents live in Karachi. He will get a master’s in agricultural economics, he says, work for England’s Peace Corps in Africa, later direct the UN Program on Agriculture and Food. He is 22.
Our competitive egos breed pain, but we suffer in silence. Jonathan’s impatience with the obtrusive masses upstages me. We stop for chai and biscuits. It is 105 degrees in the shade of camels. Jonathan scrawls a line in the sand and, stick in hand, compels the madding crowd to desist and withdraw. He is rude. They are ruder. I laugh. An excitable boy draws a blunt wallop. The line holds. We siesta in peace.
War breaks out day two. "D’ya see those kids a mile back?" Jonathan hollers, catching me up. I didn’t. "There were four kids winding up to stone you. I chased them off." I am not listening: A hundred yards on, a gang of menacing turbans have barricaded the road. The desert is forbidding. Sand dunes creep over tar. These are no children.
It is literal highway robbery, toll booth extortion. We approach casually. I feign to stop and then plow through a hole. Jonathan has jammed around the rocks and splashed through the sand. Confused and astonished, but too late, the extortionists throw rocks. We take foot and lob them back, laughing. We bike ten miles in leisurely debate.
Journal entry: Rawan: "Long day of mirages and dunes. Very sore. Boy hit me with empty box. More kids demanding “one pen” and “one rupee.” Some vile tourist taught them that. They haunt me like desert apparitions. Three pesky boys with passengers biking up my ass: Ran them into the sand. Little girls, red-saris, demanding pens, threw handfuls of dirt at me. Women sure do yell. Spectacular existence."
Bright saris and copper skin, the women are beautiful. They are also property and slave. Thousands of women were raped or abducted by men of the “other” religion -- and by men of their own -- at Partition (1947). Urvashi Butalia tells how men at Partition slaughtered their women and children to save or martyr them. When the scale became clear -- some 75,000 women were abducted on both sides -- an operation was mounted to recover women. Partition also brought love, sharing, regret: "Regret for violence and the enmity that suddenly stared people in the face."
Yasmine finds me in Jaisalmer. She is hating all men.
At a desert camel fair she was surrounded by camel herders fresh from the Thar -- the rudest desert in Hindoostan. These men have by necessity grown intimate with their camels. They are possibly men who stone women in Allah’s glory. They grabbed her, tugged her clothes, poked and groped, laughing all the while. Her fists were swinging. Hundreds of men fed on her distress. A local tourism director rescued her.
Journal entry: Jaisalmer: "Thousands of Nepali females are lured or abducted into sexual slavery in Indian brothels annually. Many are children. I inspect every woman’s face for clues of torture or freedom..."
At the Superintendent of Police offices in Ahmadabad I tease her: "So which is it today? Are you my wife or my hoar?" She acidly recalls my linguistic ignorance: "Is that spelled H-O-A-R?" Yasmine’s visa is about to expire and the stigma of her whoredom is an unwanted burden in the official visa extension process. "Today I am your WIFE." She spits the word. She threatens me as we enter: "Open your mouth and I will slice off your lips." She has become intimate with my hostile impatience for ineptitude and corruption. "And then I will cut out your tongue."
The Superintendent -- a burly, distinguished gentleman, stifled by policy and piles of disorganization, in quintuplicate, in a shuttered Colonial edifice -- has never served a tourist. He is honest. He pursues a residence permit, then a working visa, and then mutters the standard something about “lack of authority.” Five hours later... it happens. Everyone is relieved. I have retained my tongue.
Outside it is spring. Trees bloom. It has freshly rained. Lions call us. We ride in immeasurable gratitude and soulful freedom. Destination: Gir Wildlife Sanctuary: Last of the Asiatic lions, last of the indigenous Maldhari people. Yet another waking dream: new sorrows and new joys. After the lions we will hunker down on the beach at Portuguese Diu. Smiling people wave and salute. We have crossed Hindoostan.
Caste violence and religious intolerance does not touch us. Ubiquitous sexism does. The beauty and truth amidst deprivation and simplicity touches me deeply. They nurture my consciousness in stark juxtaposition to the waste and indifference of my homeland. Hindoostan is brutal. It is also supremely gentle. It is harmony, and discord. Feast, and famine. It is a lesson in the cycles of life. Fire and water. Desire and renunciation. It is Yin -- dark clouds coiling about the sun -- and Yang -- the flaming sun disk. It is Yab -- male -- and Yum -- female -- in search of cosmic union and infinite bliss. It is hatred, and love. See the triumph of life in my photographs if not in my text...
Hindoostan opened me to an exploration of beingness. "For the unreal there is no being, nor any end of being for the real," says the crown jewel of Hindu scripture. I pondered the Bhagavad Gita as my wheels floated over Sanskrit painted on tar. "Just as a lotus rooted obscurely in the muddy depths of a pool rises to float upon the surface, an image of purity opened to the light of the sun, so too the world arises mysteriously from the depths of the unmanifest and opens itself to the all-pervading light of consciousness."
Hindoostan -- as written here -- no longer exists. This tale is mere fantasy and delusion: Cling to it and you injure your Self and violate others. This was my Hindoostan -- a reflection of who I was and am. Nothing less, nothing more. It is not about place, nor is it about time. It is about letting go. Release.
I have painfully learned that the journey is within. It is the journey to transcend delusions of culture and tribe and historical circumstance. To see light in darkness. To be compassion and peace and humility in a world shattered by judgment and aggression and pride. It is about ever opening my heart. Ever cleansing my mind. And about Being. Here. Now. Without fear. That, I think, is the ultimate end. Awareness is the ultimate beginning. Hindoostan takes you there.
* Submitted to Blue magazine, circa 1999. I wonder if the editor read it? They never replied. Worse, they lost the submitted slides, sent them to some fellow in Alaska, and his to me, though they finally recovered and returned them, after much hassle from the photographer (khs). Such is the state of unwakefullness.