The Age of Enlightenment

McLeod Ganj – 10th May 2013

I remember a story from Zimbabwe, about a young guy who was convinced he had been cursed for some reason. He went to his local sangoma, or witchdoctor, who advised him not to remove his underpants for a month (one can only speculate as to his ailment), and to avoid water for said period. He dutifully did so, becoming progressively more ripe-smelling as the month progressed. He was a student, from what I recall, and lived in a dormitory with his classmates. Eventually they decided they had had enough – he was beginning to smell quite unpleasant – so one night they grabbed him, stripped him of his sacred underpants and stuck him in a shower. Well, he took to his bed after that and essentially gave up: he became convinced that he would die, and after a few days, did so. I heard stories like this time and again in Africa, and it goes some way toward illustrating the power of belief. It was explained to me by an African friend that Westerners had a tradition of rationality whereby their depth of belief was always compromised at some point by seeking logical explanations for things. Africans, on the other hand, had such strong faith in age-old belief systems, older than Christianity and rooted in their cultural sense of identity, that they could somehow will themselves not to live any more.

I mention this really to give an indication of the suspension of belief required to understand how a perfectly healthy, fit young man could literally will himself to death. Here in McLeod Ganj you have the usual assortment of westerners in search of something – some meaning in their lives, some traditional Tibetan cure for their assorted maladies. And usually if the cure doesn’t work, it’s because they haven’t adhered to it rigorously enough. Each has their own individual motive, and yet it’s possible to see certain trends. Russians, for example, underwent 70 years of state-enforced atheism under Communism, and then 20 years or so of the dubious merits of free-for-all Capitalism, with assorted consequent winners and losers. Mostly losers. Communism had failed to provide the promised land here on earth; the Socialist paradise everyone was striving for was pretty evidently still as far away as ever. There was a void of meaning in people’s lives, and so what you saw was the rapid growth of people returning to the Orthodox Church, and the growth of a huge number of cults and assorted New Age belief systems. I remember one group who were discovered last year living in a hole in the ground waiting for the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar, or something. Best thing to do is probably to leave them there. I saw a group of Russians in Vashisht undergoing some basic yoga instruction: they rather stolidly attempted various positions, stretching out their arms and taking deep breaths while facing the sunrise, all with the air of people desperately wanting something to happen while feeling a little self-conscious about it. And it’s quite true that some of the positions are downright undignified; there’s something rather inelegant about the assorted calamitous physiques of the northern peoples crouching down and extending one leg, or trying to touch their toes without their beer bellies flopping out.

The other great ethnic minority in the global backpacking community, the Israelis, have similar and yet slightly different motives, depending on where exactly in India they are. Goa is party town – they go there to blow the walls out on a variety of stupefying or stimulating substances. Parvati Valley – that’s all about the charas, or hash. But nobody comes to McLeod Ganj for drugs – unless you’re talking ‘opium of the people’ kind of thing. The Israelis here are looking for alternative answers to the relentless juxtaposition of religion and state that they get at home, and are seeking answers to the inner spiritual contradicitons that they feel. It’s not a negation of being Jewish so much as a reinterpretation of what it really means.

The Dalai Lama once spoke on the subject of spiritual materialism. Buddhism, he said, was not exclusive to any nationality or cultural context, but it did exist within a specific cultural framework, which was Tibetan. And there were people coming from all over the world who were latching on to this and becoming too fixated on the ‘Tibetan-ness’ of it all, when their own religious and spiritual framework, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, already contained many of the same essential truths. The inner truth, the key message, of how to live, how to connect, already existed – just in a slightly different guise – and so people should in effect start where they are, within their own cultural framework, not abandon everything and chuck themselves into something new, assuming it was the only true path. He gave the example of someone walking round a supermarket, past aisles full of tempting colourful packages, and taking a bit of this, and a dash of that. Then by the time they got to the checkout what they were left with was a disorganised jumble of things in their trolley that made no sense. You see a lot of that sort of thing in India, but especially here in McLeod, given the inseperable connection between Tibetan nationhood, cultural sense of identity, and their own particular form of Buddhism. It’s personal for everybody I suppose, but the gist of it is that you don’t need to walk around in a blanket and dirty feet like a sadhu in order to be spiritual, but if you find that some kind of meditation practice assists you in your day-to-day life, then that is enough in itself. The art of mindfulness, of living in the present moment, not replaying the past over and over, which cannot be changed, or fretting and planning about the future, which is largely out of our control; one has to begin where one is, and come back to the present moment, because it is only there that we truly exist.

McLeod Ganj is filling up fast. It’s the holidays in Uttar Pradesh – which if it was a separate country in its own right would be the sixth largest on earth in terms of population – so there are an endless stream of Punjabis heading to the hills to escape the heat of the plains. McLeod itself has only the narrowest winding streets, totally unequipped to deal with two-way vehicular traffic, and the appearance of a Land Cruiser or similarly large SUV brings the entire town to a grinding halt. I decided, after three days at Green Hotel on Bhagsu Road, to head upwards myself, to Dharamkot – a small village strung out along the hillside above McLeod. Even here the signs of ‘development’ are everywhere – cafes playing rap music or Bob Marley, menus in Hebrew and assorted tattoo parlours. But the higher you go the less prevalent such things are, although each year it steadily encroaches. Bhagsu itself has basically turned into an Israeli settlement; it’s one thing to have a place popular with certain nationalities, like the Russians in Arambol or the Brits in Calangute, but when a group of 30 arrive in a guesthouse, they literally take over. I’ve noticed a numerical demographic at play here: Russians tend to hang out in twos or threes; Brits generally the same. Indians you might get half a dozen or so all together. But the Israelis hang out in groups of a dozen or more. Naturally this has an effect on the atmosphere of a small village. I’m put in mind of the hostel owner I met in New Zealand who said: “One Israeli, no problem. Two, fair enough, if it’s a boy and a girl. Three or more? No way. Because they’ll start a bloody settlement.” There’s some truth in it. Safety in numbers.

I went to a concert last night in Dharamkot, of traditional Indian music with some Sufi qalams. The singer had one of those squeeze-box keyboards I’ve forgotten the name of, there was a drummer, and a gora girl called Emma on violin. They were pretty good really – the singer had real power, and explained each song beforehand to give context to the audience, who were nearly all western. They sat on cushions on the floor in the lotus position, many with their eyes closed, some occasionally swaying from side to side as they were moved by the music. It was all quite amusing, and I tried to work out why. I have no problem sitting cross-legged on the floor – I can do it for hours with no cushion needed – but I prefer to lounge like a potentate while I await the nautch dancing girls. I think the thing that brought a wry smile to my face was the eagerness, the seriousness, the seeking for answers amongst the audience. They hung onto every syllable the singer uttered with that ‘enlighten me’ sort of expression that is not disimilar to a puppy awaiting a biscuit. They sat in the yoga-approved position and tried to hide their shifting in posture as they developed pins and needles in their extremities, with blissfully pious expressions in their urge for meaning, for answers. For want of a better word, it was the very ‘Om-ness’ that I found so entertaining: it makes me want to shake them. And how many of them actually understood a word of the Hindi singing? Perhaps two, if I’m being charitable. But that was no barrier to their enjoyment, so perhaps music genuinely does transcend language. I was rather hoping for a rendition of Khattak’s poem “There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but alas I cannot swim”, just to watch the rapt piety of the Om crew in their total incomprehension.

Having bought ‘Albania’ tissues in Goa, the packet I picked up this morning was branded ‘Estonia’.

Dharamkot lies uphill from McLeod Ganj, occupying the upper ground in a ring round the steep hillsides at the top of the valley. Off to the right is Bhagsu – now largely an Israeli settlement – but upper Dharamkot, despite numerous small backpacker cafes, still has the feel of a Himalayan village, in the stairways and small paths that lead between the houses where it is still possible to glimpse in on family life.

It grew dark at 11am and the sky took on an ominous yellow light. Rain came with a sudden crash, right the way across the balcony. ‘Remember the date!’ yelled the Israeli guy next to me above the roar of the water. We huddled under the tin roof as the rain cascaded off the edge in streams of silver, like being under a waterfall. The sky was boiling. It was an odd collection of travellers in enforced proximity, sheltering from elemental forces. I later met a British guy who had been up on Triond, the nearby mountain. He’d been forced to take shelter under a rock, and as he crouched there, a Japanese girl went past in shorts and a T-shirt, shivering and blue with the cold – the hailstones were the size of grapes. He got her in under the rock with him, and later led her off the mountain. He told me this at 10am the next morning, but I later heard a Canadian regaling a group of Israelis with the story – already passed into local legend. After a while the storm abated and the rain settled into a steady drip, which continued for the next 24 hours, a soft hushing drizzle that pattered on the pine needles carpeting the forest floor, releasing the scent of resin and damp woodland undergrowth. Cows were lowing to each other from their stables beneath the houses, and bedraggled sparrows hopped across the verandah seeking shelter; one took refuge between my feet.

The storm brought a tree down across power lines, so there was no electricity for the next two days. Everybody’s smartphone died, and as one of the few with a watch, I got asked for the time on several occasions. I dug out my old Moleskine notebook and Parker pen to write. The opening page of the notebook says: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons land on the maidan opposite, throwing up small puffs of ochre red dust as they land. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

Rain induces introspection, reflection. Walking in the soft drizzle I am reminded of other journeys, in Wales, Scotland. I remember a downpour in Scotland that went on for a week. Last night I fell asleep to the insistent patter of droplets on the slate roof, and this morning I awoke to the same sound. Pulling the patoo closer round myself I huddled in my own small circle of warmth and wished I was with another. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait.

A three storey house in red and yellow dominates the valley. If you draw closer you see a familiar figure on the board outside: a large black hat, spectacles, an enigmatic smile behind the beard. It is our old friend the rabbi, last seen in Kasol: another Chabad, or Israeli government halfway house / Jewish cultural centre. All the signs as you approach are in Hebrew, underlining the exclusivity in a way: if you can’t read them you have no business there. This was rather underscored by the rabbi in dark suit and hat who just came into the cafe I am in and had a long chat in Hebrew with an Israeli couple. As he left he noticed a Mediterranean-looking girl sitting alone by the door. “Are you Jewish?” he asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Oh, excuse me,” he replied with a smile, and left. He never asked me. Perhaps it was the Afghan scarf.