On the way home through the backstreets of Baluwatar I felt someone watching me. He was tall and extremely handsome. Shining blue eyes, marble white skin, rosy cheeks. A Westerner, wearing a Nepali outfit. He fixed his eyes on me, and his smile filled the grey autumn day with vibrant colours. The houses seemed to loose contours, everything turned bright yellow, orange, purple and red. I felt mesmerised, and just walked towards him as if drawn by an unknown power wondering what`s gonna happen next. When I finally reached him, he said with a radiating smile: “Jesus loves you. God bless you.”
I was staying in Kathmandu in June, trying to recover from a difficult Kailash trip. Couldn`t really do much for about three weeks, just stayed in bed, and read books to immerse in different dimensions of reality to ease the pain. One day I decided to leave my confinement, and aimlessly wandered down on Kanti Path jumping like a grasshopper in my flip-flops to avoid the puddles left by the monsoon rain. The sight of the brightly sunlit brick walls and the steaming pavement filled my heart with warmth, while staring at the people selling oddities on the pavement. I wondered about the strange selection of things, the possible market demand for lime juice, mobile cases, ayurvedic herbs, DVDs and knitted baby clothes. I noticed a bookshop I haven’t visited before and saw with surprise a new Samrat Upadhyay book advertised in the shop window. I got suddenly energized by recalling his wonderful collections of short stories I read the year before, ‘The Royal Ghost’ and ‘Arresting God in Kathmandu’. No doubt, I had to buy the book immediately, called ‘Buddha’s Orphans’.
Samrat Upadhyay is a Nepali author, who is teaching creative writing at Indiana University. He is not only a master of character portrayal, but also a sensitive spiritual being, who understands even the tiniest stir of the soul (or whatever different systems of thought call the core of being). I pondered for a while, how to describe ‘Buddha`s Orphans’, and I found that the first sentence of the book says it all: ‘Raja`s mother had abandoned him in the parade ground of Thundikel on a misty morning before the city had awakened, and drowned herself in Rani Pokhari half kilometre north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that floated up to the surface of the pond later in the week.’ This is the axis of the novel, cause and effect. The story follows Raja’s life to see the effects of this moment in the future, and at certain points it goes back to the past to understand the causes which led to the tragedy. We recognize ourselves in the characters replaying roles inherited from our/their parents, get to know their joy and sorrow, and become familiar with the turbulent events of Nepali history, which provide a fascinating historical backdrop. And when I think about it, it is more than just a backdrop. Political movements and events sometimes push to the foreground to change dramatically the life of Raja. Certain characters, feelings and thoughts burnt their mark into my mind, and after reading the book in more or less one go (only the power cut could stop me:) I felt an urge to look around in Kathmandu and take photos of places where the novel was set, secretly hoping that I might bump into the characters of the story. On a sunny afternoon I walked out of Thamel, down to Thundikel and Rani Pokhari lake taking photos of people and places, thinking of Raja`s immeasurable pain of missing his never-seen mother. At the lake I happened to pass by a young boy, who I thought had a striking resemblance of my imagined Raja. He had so much sorrow on his face, he was so still and enveloped in his painful longing, that it occurred to me for a moment that I might have left my own Kathmandu reality and ‘walked into the novel’. I really wanted to take a photo, but I was so afraid to be noticed. Unnecessarily. He just stared at his own train of thoughts, never realizing my presence. It was a perfect moment when time stands still. After another two months in Nepal I went to Beijing, and from time to time I had a look at Raja`s photo and thought of the novel when missing my friends, places, and the relaxed Nepali way of life in general. The smiles exchanged with strangers on the busy alleyways, the moments of joy when the electricity came back after a long blackout, the fresh monsoon rain cooling the heat and sweeping the streets clean. I thought I should send the photo to the author, but it felt so awkward. I`m not the kind of person to write to people I don`t know, I reasoned to myself. But one day just couldn`t reason any longer, found the e-mail address on the internet and sent the photo to Samrat Upadhyay. His reply was so friendly and nice thanking me for the sudden surprise, that after reading his e-mail a few times I sat with the biggest shiny smile on my face for a whole day as if all the suffering and pain of the world was just fiction of ancient times. Must reeeeeeeead!
Zen Black, Zen White
‘This new bamboo shoot hangs over my neighbours wall
‘You are on waiting list’, I heard from the other side of the check-in counter. ‘What the hell?’, I thought, I bought the ticket online, and it wasn’t a discounted ticket. ‘What’s happening here?’ There were so many things going wrong recently, that I wasn’t utterly surprised. I walked through the glittering corridors of Vienna Airport, and entered the transit hall. I showed my ticket to a flight attendant, who asked me to wait for a while. I’m sitting in the transit, waiting. More and more people come in. It feels as if time has stopped and the NOW expanded into the past and future washing away memories and plans. It feels like being always in transition, and always on the road in the same time, waiting here and there to get somewhere without ever arriving to my destination. Always on a waiting list.
Face mapping in Hongkong
Hongkong. I was really exhausted after finishing the trip, but had to sit at the computer all day to finish the administration. By the evening I was desperate for fresh air and some fun, so headed to Temple street to find a face reader. The idea was inspired by a film I watched recently called Chinese Box with Jeremy Irons and Gong Li set during the handover of Hongkong in 1997. I went up straight to the lady who was sitting just where the old man in my hotel told me she will, and asked her to read my face. She was happy to have a customer, but she didn’t want to draw. She said these days people just want to talk to her, they don’t want drawing, so she is out of practice. But I wanted to understand how it works. She started off with many general compliments. „You are a very kind person. You always have a plan, and never let anyone stop you or divert you.” And then she started analyzing the face ordering certain age and qualities to different parts. „Your ears are big and thick, it means your parents loved you very much when you were a child. Your forehead is full, so you were very good at school. Your eyebrows are long, it means good career. Eyes are beautiful: you do good business. Your nose is long and straight, between 40-50 you will make a lot of money. Upper lips means the period between 50 and 60, you will be doing well, the chin over 60. You have to be careful with water over 60. Especially when you have a bath. And your two moles are bad signs, they make you spend a lot of money. You should get rid of them. The lines under your eyes show that your children will be great, they will always listen to you.” I was striking a face of disbelief, so she asked: „How old are you?” When I said 39 she was shocked. „I thought you were 34. But it doesn’t matter. Signs are signs.” „How many children do you think I will have?” I asked just in order to participate. She became even more serious, and she was checking my face then my palm for a while. „Two boys and a girl.” „Wow!” „And your eyes are shining which means you love travelling.” I couldn’t really deny that, so just thanked and went to an open air restaurant and while writing this, a huge crab walked past under the table. The cook caught him just when he made it to the street to freedom. I was thinking for a while about his chances to survive on the streets of Kowloon. Will he be able to leave the urban jungle and ever make it home? I was pondering over the crab, the divination, the paralels, being caught up in reality which is just a loop in the chain.
Jetleg in Delhi
It is raining all day, the wet winter chill creeps into my bones. Just landed in Delhi three hours ago. It would be best to watch TV while lying in bed under the quilt, but when I turn it on, it`s just humming and buzzing, the screen looks grey and foggy like the weather outside, trying to press all the buttons on the remote, but can`t make it work. Trying to set up things for the coming months, jotting down ideas and lists in my diary, but soon the electricity goes off, and my little world goes black. I don`t remember seeing a window in the room, must be right, I`m blinded by the darkness. I doze off into a dreamless sleep as if I fell into a black hole. A long and dizzying fall. Don`t know how much time I spend in total hibernation, but I wake up hearing the generators starting, as if an old movie was about to start. The music is climbing up slowly after being unbearably out of tune for a while, then the rhythm becomes stable, a melody builds up, and although the sound is cracking, and black lines and spots are flickering on the old film, I recognize it, I’m here again. India 2004.
Yesterday morning I arrived in Calcutta. I was reading The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh on the train, an exciting book on malaria disease, delirium and nightmares, coincidences and synchronicity, all set in Calcutta. As I started my rounds in the city I felt the dynamics the book was talking about. I met an Italian woman, a personal disciple of Osho. She was a natural healer, who gave me an interesting teaching on tantra and relationships and told me she is on the way to the Nicobar Islands to write a cookbook. Her first yoga teacher happened to be Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. Then I went to Kalighat, the place where Sati`s finger fell on the earth, and found a Kamaccha Devi picture on the road. In the afternoon I visited the Birla Art Academy, and saw a market behind, where there was a Bengali painter sitting with his scrolls singing the Ramayana. He was just the kind of storyteller I came here to find (this is his photo:). Then on the metro a guy came up to me saying ‘this is the fourth time I see you today’. It was true, I also noticed him in different parts of the city. (Calcutta has 12 million inhabitants). In the evening I read the Telegraph, the local newspaper where a proud article said that India got the 8th place in a survey where the question was “how often do you have sex?” The article was emphasising how India has a much better rating than Britain in this respect. And who got the first place? You wont believe me: Hungary. It`s hard to imagine when I remember those gloomy faces on the streets of Budapest. This morning when I walked down on Park Street, a waiter stopped me from the restaurant where I had dinner last night saying, that I should visit Mother Theresa`s House, it`s not far. I walked and walked, maybe even for an hour, it felt like an endless hike in the heat, but finally found it. It turned out that Mother Theresa`s beatification ceremony will be this Sunday in Rome and a sister of charity showed me the room where she lived. Then completely exhausted I sat down in Barrista Cafe, where an old Bengali man came over to my table for a chat, and told me his life story and how he met the Dalai Lama in `59, when His Holiness arrived to India. Then I met a young Bengali guy in the Oxford bookshop (had to buy a book by Tagore:), who took me out for a drink, and told me he is a fashion designer in Japan, just came back for holiday, and he would take me around on his bike tomorrow to see some scroll painters and collect some Bengali patterns. Then I went to the library of the Asiatic Society to find a book, but instead I found the Acta Orientalia on the shelf, the great Hungarian academic journal with Professor Wojtilla`s article (my Sanskrit teacher from the university). These are just some of the events of the last two days. I don`t know what I`m doing here, it`s too fast, too random, too much for my brain. Maybe it`s all just a malaria dream.
Nature and imagination
Let It Be
Today is the first day of the strike in Kathmandu. It was imposed by the Maoists. They said if someone violates the strike rules, keeps his shop open, or drives around, etc., they will ruin the person and his business. People are frightened, everything is closed, Thamel looks like a ghost town in a Thai horror movie. The only cycle rickshaw driver who manifests on the street the moment I step out of the hotel, wants me to pay 300 rupees to get to the nearby Durbar Square, because ‘he is the only means of transport today’, he says, but I bargain it down to 40. It isn`t easy though. I’m hanging around all afternoon on the square, which is a little more busy than other parts of the city, thinking what I should tell my group tomorrow when I start guiding them through Nepali history and vision. Huge temples are facing the old royal palace. Some Kathmanduites are sitting on the stairs around the temples, having a chat or reading the newspaper. Tourists try to squeeze everything into their cameras; fake sadhus come up to them to get hard cash for their photos. Kids are asking for biscuits. Guides want to take me around. As the sun goes down I walk along Freak Street looking for dinner. The hippie movement started here in the 70s, and the atmosphere didn`t change much since then. There is no one in the restaurant, but it’s open. The waiter looks at me trying to figure out my mood. Then selects a tape. Let it be.
The rikshaw wallah was an old madman. First he wanted me to buy him new shoes, then had several ideas about visiting shops, it was really difficult to convince him that I am serious about crossing the whole city just for a temple visit. He was entertaining me all the way from Assi to Kotwali by doing all kinds of acrobatics on his bicycle similar to a fake Hungarian wrangler on his horse on the Hortobagy performing for German tourists. We were heading to Kal Peron as he pronounced the name in his Bojhpuri dialect, the temple of Black Bhairav. After a 45 minutes arduous ride we reached a big intersection, and I thought we must be close. I jumped off the riksha, gave the guy the money we agreed on, and hurried down on a small alley. Wanted to get away badly from the crowd, the noise, the busy traffic, the pollution. After a few steps I found myself staring at a little shop selling garlands of small red roses, and a man from the counter was signaling me which way to go. The temple of Kala Bhairav was right there. At the entrance a Puranic description read: ‘This is Varanasi’s Lord Bhairava, who destroys the terror of samsara. The very sight of him removes the sins of many lifetimes.’ Around the shrine people were selling pictures of Bhairav and his cord protecting against illness and evil spirits. It is made of twisted and braided black thread that can be tied around the wrist or the neck. The temple servant offered to beat the `devil` out of me, first by swinging his stick in front of him saying a prayer, then beating my left shoulder with it. He said it keeps away disease and physical pain. Kala Bhairav, the “Black Terror” is widely known as the ‘Kotwal’, the police chief of Banaras. Shiva appointed Bhairava to be the chief officer of justice within the sacred city, because Yama, the Lord of Death is not allowed to enter Kashi, the place of liberation. Bhairava took over the duties of Yama, and he keeps the record of people’s deeds in Kashi. ‘Whoever lives in Varanasi and does not worship Bhairava, accumulates a heap of sins that grows like the waxing moon. While all who die in Kashi are promised liberation, they must first experience, in an intensified time frame, all the results of their accumulated karma.’ This is called the punishment of Bhairava. This punishment is said to last a split second and to be a kind of time machine in which one experiences all the rewards and punishments that might otherwise be lived out over the course of many lifetimes. Pilgrims hope that by visiting Kashi Bhairava, they can achieve freedom from sins and the fear of death. It reminds me of a beautiful short story written by Jorge Luis Borges. I don`t remember the title, I read it in a collection of his short stories called ‘Secret Miracle’. The story followed the rushing thoughts of a man who was about to be executed. From the moment the gun was fired till the bullet reached him. It was such a perfect presentation of how all the events of someone’s life run through the mind in an instant moment, how these events speed up so much that they blow up our space and time limitations, and everything explodes and expands well beyond our physical limitations and dissolves into a timeless spaciousness. The experience of purgatory and purification. I was wondering how it feels. How it feels to see all the joy and sorrow of our life, and how it feels to experience the results of our actions, all the joy and sorrow of a failed future ‘zipped’ into a sudden impression.