Richard from Texas has some cute habits. Whenever he passes me in the Ashram and notices by my distracted face that my thoughts are a million miles away, he says, "How's David doing?"
"Mind your own business," I always say. "You don't know what I'm thinking about, mister."
Of course, he's always right.
Another habit he has is to wait for me when I come out of the meditation hall because he likes to see how wigged out and spazzy I look when I crawl out of there. Like I've been wrestling alligators and ghosts. He says he's never watched anybody fight so hard against herself. I don't know about that, but it's true that what goes on in that dark meditation room for me can get pretty intense. The most fierce experiences come when I let go of some last fearful reserve and permit a veritable turbine of energy to unleash itself up my spine. It amuses me now that I ever dismissed these ideas of the kundalini shakti as mere myth. When this energy rides through me, it rumbles like a diesel engine in low gear, and all it asks of me is this one simple request-- Would you kindly turn yourself inside out, so that your lungs and heart and offal will be on the outside and the whole universe will be on the inside? And emotionally, will you do the same? Time gets all screwy in this thunderous space, and I am taken--numbed, dumbed and stunned--to all sorts of worlds, and I experience every intensity of sensation: fire, cold, hatred, lust, fear . . . When it's all over, I wobble to my feet and stagger out into the daylight in such a state--ravenously hungry, desperately thirsty, randier than a sailor on a three-day shore leave. Richard is usually there waiting for me, ready to start laughing. He always teases me with the same line when he sees my confounded and exhausted face: "Think you'll ever amount to anything, Groceries?"
But this morning in meditation, after I heard the lion roar YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW STRONG MY LOVE IS, I came out of that meditation cave like a warrior queen. Richard didn't even have time to ask if I thought I'd ever amount to anything in this life before I looked him eye to eye and said, "I already have, mister."
"Check you out," Richard said. "This is cause for celebration. Come on, kiddo--I'll take you into town, buy you a Thumbs-Up."
Thumbs-Up is an Indian soft drink, sort of like Coca-Cola, but with about nine times the corn syrup and triple that of caffeine. I think it might have methamphetamines in it, too. It makes me see double. A few times a week, Richard and I wander into town and share one small bottle of Thumbs-Up--a radical experience after the purity of vegetarian Ashram food--always being careful not to actually touch the bottle with our lips. Richard's rule about traveling in India is a sound one: "Don't touch anything but yourself." (And, yes, that was also a tentative title for this book.)
We have our favorite visits in town, always stopping to pay respects to the temple, and to say hello to Mr. Panicar, the tailor, who shakes our hands and says, "Congratulations to meet you!" every time. We watch the cows mill about enjoying their sacred status (I think they actually abuse the privilege, lying right in the middle of the road just to drive home the point that they are holy), and we watch the dogs scratch themselves like they're wondering how the heck they ever ended up here. We watch the women doing road work, busting up rocks under the sweltering sun, swinging sledgehammers, barefoot, looking so strangely beautiful in their jewel-colored saris and their necklaces and bracelets. They give us dazzling smiles which I can't begin to understand--how can they be happy doing this rough work under such terrible conditions? Why don't they all faint and die after fifteen minutes in the boiling heat with those sledgehammers? I ask Mr. Panicar the tailor about it and he says it's like this with the villagers, that people in this part of the world were born to this kind of hard labor and work is all they are used to. "Also," he adds casually, "we don't live very long around here."
It is a poor village, of course, but not desperate by the standards of India; the presence (and charity) of the Ashram and some Western currency floating around makes a significant difference. Not that there's so much to buy here, though Richard and I like to look around in all the shops that sell the beads and the little statues. There are some Kashmiri guys--very shrewd salesmen, indeed--who are always trying to unload their wares on us. One of them really came after me today, asking if madam would perhaps like to buy a fine Kashmiri rug for her home?
This made Richard laugh. He enjoys, among other sports, making fun of me for being homeless.
"Save your breath, brother," he said to the rug salesman. "This old girl ain't got any floors to put a rug on."
Undaunted, the Kashmiri salesman suggested, "Then perhaps madam would like to hang a rug on her wall?"
"See, now," said Richard, "that's the thing--she's a little short on walls these days, too." "But I have a brave heart!" I piped up, in my own defense.
"And other sterling qualities," added Richard, tossing me a bone for once in his life.