Oh humanity, where are you going, what do you know? In an infinite universe there’s no high or low, just us in the dust swept along with the flow…
I have been exploring the Himalayas since I was 22 in 1972. Byways and highways, backroads and dirt tracks, always something beautiful, wondrous, even mind-blowing to discover.
I’ve been all over the mountains on motorbikes and scooters, buses and share-jeeps, friends’ cars and taxis. I even went on foot in the 1970s when such vehicles were not available, walking the old pilgrim paths to get to sacred sites such as Badrinath above the snowline, abode of Vishnu.
Recently I visited a small temple perched on a mountain’s edge which I’d driven past 49 times but never looked close at.
On going down to it and peering inside the mandir I discovered it was dedicated to a snake god – 7 snakes had appeared on that spot over a hundred years ago when they were constructing the first proper dirt road to Gangotri, the source of the Ganges River.
I now zoom about on a perfect asphalt highway but the reverence for the snakes still exists, and it stuns me that Indians often find the number 7 in many of their numinous sites and happenings.
I’m in nirvana in these high mountains and am always sad to come down…
In 2022 I decided to go somewhere I hadn’t been before so I chose Nainital, the Goddess of the Lake, in the Kumaon Himalayas. I had tried to go there once before, in 2003, on the back of a motorbike with an experienced biker, a German friend.
Halfway there a young Indian fuckwit on a motorcycle ran straight into us and broke my leg, horribly, and we had to turn back.
(Read about it in the third instalment of my trilogy, “The 7 Lives of the Punk Poofy Cat”, the story “Escape from the Jungle but Not Without My Leg.”)
I hired a car and off we went, me determined to make it this time, though as usual the Indian psychodrama descended upon us like a flock of excited swans.
At one point we got stuck in a traffic jam in a grungy, medieval/cyberpunk town, me squabbling distractedly with the driver over money. The car jerked slowly forward in the crush of vehicles, motorbikes, buses, trucks, rickshaws and buffalo carts.
Amid my tight-arsed bargaining a fat man of about 50, wearing a dirty turban that unravelled as he ran, squeezed through the slowly moving traffic and rushed up to my open window waving two arms that had been severed at the elbows.
He thrust the two stumps into my face, wailing his existential downfall while I tried to out-yell my demanding driver and reach for my wallet. One of the stumps poked me in the eye, the other threatened to enter my gaping mouth as I yammered in annoyance, the poor turbaned beggar also screaming for mercy.
Before I could hand him some rupees the traffic opened up and our car shot forward, leaving the poor fellow in the dust, a look of utter desolation on his face…
Cruising up a newly built highway we came to a roadside dhaba, old style, thatch roof and dirt floor. Finally, I could have a break, maybe even a cup of milk coffee, Nescafe!
My Indian friends had their paranthas for breakfast, stuffed chapatis, while I nibbled at the edges of mine as I hate chillis.
Just when I was starting to relax, the cook who was making the chapatis in front of me suddenly dropped his fistful of dough, snatched up a slingshot, looked up into the ceiling and shot a monkey sitting directly above us. It screeched, fell, but managed to hang on by one arm and swung about.
I spat out my chapati, anxious about the shrieking monkey that looked as if it was about to drop onto my head and into my plate. But all was well as it scampered away into the rafters and we continued our breakfast, me not as relaxed as I hoped I’d be.
We made it to Nainital Lake – an old British Raj hill-station for the English elite to retire to when the summers got too hot down in the plains. My friends went into the temple to make pujah to Goddess Naini, an aspect of Durga who is the female half of Siva. I waited outside in a cafe and had a blessed vanilla milkshake, wondering why they were taking so long. All that pleading for divine intervention sure dragged on.
At last they exited, yellow paste dripping from their third eye and satisfied smiles on their faces. We spun down the hill to the retreat of the famous Hindu saint, Neem Karoli Baba, now long dead.
The retreat had once been a quiet jungle abode with few visitors, then around 1969 Richard Alpert visited…
When Richard showed up in his huge, expensive 4-wheel drive the Baba asked him to give him the car, which he duly did, and thus was in like sinful Flyn. Getting converted into Baba Ramdas – Broadcasting his newly-found enlightenment to the world in a famous book titled “Be Here Now”, an obligatory read for all us hippie seekers of “The Light.”
Richard / Ramdas also promoted Neem Karoli Baba as the hottest thing since they put holes in crumpets. Years later even Steve Jobbs and Mark Zuckerburg drifted into the ghost’s Samadhi pavilion to hopefully suck up a bit of left-over charisma.
I imagine if I arrived in my 1970s ragged Ali Baba clothes and bare feet, I’d be shown the door, told to exit through the toilets, the story of my life…
(Richard Alpert was the leading proselytiser for LSD, along with Timothy Leary, as a radical means of changing the selfish, warmongering West into a utopia of peace and love. Secretly he was gay and known to live at American homosexual beats, sucking a lot of cocks, but now he was a Baba, possibly beyond all that foolish maya.
Hey, we all gotta try to rise above the muck somehow.)
Now this retreat has become a bustling, commercial town – Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, fashion shacks, honking traffic shoving taxis right up one’s nether regions. What a circus.
Hordes of desperate looking people crowd in to get a blessing; for there’s a legend that says anyone that makes a wish in front of a marble statue of Baba Neem Karoli will receive success in their endeavours.
I watched Indians of all shapes, ages, classes and castes stand fervently praying, intense hope radiating from their panda eyes. I myself felt nothing and was quite bemused by the commercialism of the site, everyone giving money in the hope of getting more in return.
As we drove fast back down the mountain road, away from Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, I thought of my early travels in India in the early 1970s and all the Big Babas I sat in front of…
In some ways Timothy Leary and his “Politics of Ecstasy” catapulted me onto this Jungle Book path as I wanted to complete my journey in the parallel universe of LSD and I hoped India would do it for me.
After my ordeal with Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s “Family” at her cult’s clinic, Newhaven, I needed to overcome the “bummers” that I suffered there. She had conned me into four sessions of strong, pure LSD supposedly to “cure” me of my homosexuality and then snatch any babies I might produce, but the trips were screaming nightmares that turned me off her set-up.
After a booster shot for my final trip with “The Family” I finally broke free of the demons and danced with the angels.
Still, I wanted more “experience”, Jimi Hendrix told me so…
(As young professors Leary and Richard Alpert had set up a college of experimental LSD tripping for students at Harvard which they called Newhaven.
It caused a scandal and the two them were kicked out of the University.)
Every decade seems to experience a wave of cosmic soul-searching, bordering on religious hysteria, psychological breast-beating and intense dissatisfaction with contemporary civilised lifestyles – Warmongering, over-consumption and exploitation of the environment.
The irony is that in the quest to overcome the narcissism at the heart of modern life and the individual’s contempt for it he/she seemed to indulge in even more narcissism when seeking “self-enlightenment.”
1965 to 1975 was a particularly intense period of “Self-awakening.” It was hip, cool, de rigueur to grow one’s hair long, wear meditation beads and find a guru, even sojourn to India and get lost to find oneself.
By 1968 I was traumatised, confused and anxious upon realising, at 18, my queer sexuality was permanent and my future looked bleak.
At 21 I figured I either had to find the strength to overcome my given nature, through the discipline of yoga and asceticism, or find the strength to accept my queerness and live it in the face of maddening social opprobrium.
Perhaps a life in India would set me on one of these paths…
I lived, studied, danced and tripped there from 1972 to 1976 – I sat in front of most of India’s Big Babas of the 1970s: Rajneesh (Osho), Prabhupad (Hare Krishnas), Satya Sai Baba, Guru Maharaji, Maste Ram Baba, Tatwallah Baba, Yogeshwaranand, Chidananda, Satchitananda, but few of them gave me a spark of “knowledge” or “nirvana.”
Yet there were two who blew my mind…
I was 22 in 1972 and lucked out in the first two weeks of my arrival by being taken to meet a wild old man living by the Yamuna River in a hut built on stilts. He was called Devraha Baba, the ageless one, reputed to be 700 years old, and he gave me 7 oranges, a blessing that set me up for my whole life.
Indira Gandhi visited him and asked him what the future held for her.
He replied, “You better watch your arse madame, great danger is near.”
The other and most impressive saint was a woman, India’s most famous, Anandamayi Ma (Mother of Cosmic Bliss.) She had been discovered sitting in nirvana as a child – Her relatives thought she was out of her mind as she was always happy and so entranced, she never put her mind to the chores she was given.
She was married off at the age of 12 but when her husband attempted sex with her all he saw was a vision of Death so he abstained and she remained a virgin her entire life, he becoming one of her most devoted disciples.
I was fortunate to be taken to her ashram in Haridwar in early 1975 when she was 78. I sat in front of her for half an hour and, no kidding, went into an ecstatic trance merely from her smiling presence, her eyes rolled back in her head.
Before I knew it, I was hustled out the door and into a courtyard where some Indian drummers were going full throttle banging huge drums in a mesmerising beat. I couldn’t help myself, I was thrown into a joyous dance, the dance of life, more manic and erotic than Nijinksky.
As I came out of my trance I looked up and saw Anandamayi Ma watching me from a window with her handmaidens, and she was smiling beatifically upon me.
In later years I discovered she had a particular enthusiasm for dance as a key connection between people and an awesome, sacred universe.
She died in 1982.
(Read about my adventures in India in the early 1970s in the first book “Vagabond Freak”, of my trilogy, “The 7 Lives of the Punk Poofy Cat.”)
I pondered these mysteries and strange meetings in the 1970s as our car hurtled away from the mountains and back to Rishikesh…
Suddenly my driver stopped and got out of the car, wandering down a dirt track to mill about a makeshift tent with other men, all of them distracted by something in the thatch and plastic structure.
I ambled down and asked him what was going on.
He then related a strange story that only India could come up with:
Some 20 years previously a mad woman had been found living naked in the jungle, apparently never eating, the wild animals steering clear of her.
The natives imagined she was divinely mad and called her “The Seer of Chirripurr” (Meeting Place of the Birds), and as an auger could predict the future from within her insane ravings.
They then ensconced her in this dilapidated hut with a blanket around her to cover her nakedness and spread the word that a fortune-teller was in residence.
They swore she never ate or slept and a fire burning outside her tent was never attended to or extinguished, it burned eternally.
Her greatest talent was to produce from her babbling a number, given to every supplicant who knelt before her, a number they believed could win them a lottery.
I peered through a hole in the grass-thatch wall into a grungy room full of expectant men. One was on his knees grovelling before her and she babbled and raved while putting her hand on his head. He gave her a two-hundred rupee note, ($4) which, uncomprehending, she dropped to the dirt floor and it magically disappeared. Getting some kind of prompt from an unseen attendant behind her she mumbled a number and the supplicant thanked her effusively then crawled backwards to be replaced by another hopeful fellow.
I talked to a young man who was wandering about outside the tent and he told me he’d received a number 6 months previously but none of his lottery tickets had won anything. This, he said, was because he didn’t believe enough in her powers, now he did believe and had come again to apply for another number.
As we left in the car, my driver waxed ecstatic over the saintliness of the woman and lamented that he didn’t get a number from her – He was forever gambling on his smart phone.
I went into hysterics of laughter, realising they were all mad, not only the woman with the matted hair.
I myself share that madness for I have bothered to live in India much of my life and love it so.
I live in wonderment at India’s crazy capriciousness, the human condition writ large, the human heart breaking and re-igniting constantly, all of us struggling as if within a magic spell…
We made it safely back to Rishikesh, our feet back on the ground, me with both my legs intact.
How sweet it was to hug Pankaj’s son, my soulson, something tangible and real, where life must go on, irrevocably…
In case you’re wondering, I’m not religious or “spiritual”, I’m a rationalist and an atheist. But I’m interested in mythology, comparative religions, the semiotics of cultural narratives: deconstructing the myths to get to the underlying existential meanings, the psychological underpinnings and history of any specific culture, in this case Hinduism and India.
I contemplate the human condition in all its perverse, glorious, sad, absurd aspects, and translate my impressions into my art and writing.
I’m a wanderer, an observer, a participant in the joyous festivities of whoever I meet, dancing, singing, laughing, story-telling. Sometimes cynical, always with an eye to the “dark comedy”, the “divine madness”, human folly.
I agree that the universe, life and consciousness are sacred and awesome.
I try to have compassion for all the foibles, mistakes, downfalls and sorrows humanity experiences, and I try to forgive myself for being a narcissistic f#ckwit.
- Toby Zoates – 2019 Interview via The Aither
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All images supplied by Toby.