With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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The Parisians are smoking hash again and playing guitar on the terrace. I decide it’s a good time to walk to the top of the hill, where a white temple perches among the pines. I’m feeling a bit lonely today, a bit lost on this subcontinent. I can’t even remember why I’ve come to India, but I know it wasn’t to eat hummus and pita and get high.
The dog at the hotel follows me, as he has for the past few days when I’ve walked down the hill to Green’s Cafe. Now he leads the way up the rocky footpath beside the stream. Many paths converge onto this one, and all manner of characters are said to wander these foothills. There are rumors of bandits, of criminals on the run, of drug dealers, and of misguided American hippies. But I feel safe with the dog at my side. He growls at everyone who crosses our path: a young shepherdess, a Japanese photographer, a lone horse.
The dog stops to drink from a pool beneath a small waterfall, and I sit on the rocks and watch the butterflies. My companion stops in midgulp, looks up, and unfurls his ears to their mangy tips. Then he trots off the main path. I follow, mostly because I don’t really have a choice: I’ve lost track of all the turns we made to get here. The white temple has disappeared. Strings of multicolored prayer flags stretch from one pine crown to another.
I soon realize that we’re following someone. I see a flash of brick red robes, a bald head nicked with shaving cuts. A monk. The words of the hotel owner come to mind: “Never trust a monk. Anyone could be hiding beneath those robes.”
The path grows steeper, rockier. The monk crosses the stream up ahead and then looks down toward us. He smiles and turns to shimmy across a shale ridge. The dog follows, and I shuffle behind, sending loose rock clattering down the hillside. Finally I stand before an adobe hut, trying to catch my breath. The old monk appears, breathing easily. “Chai?” he asks and holds up a teacup. I smile and nod. The dog wags his tail. The monk points to a thin cushion on a stone bench, then stoops to pass through a wooden door frame carved with symbols.
I sit with the sun on my face and look out across the foothills. A flock of sheep, shepherded by women in bright saris, zigzags across the terraced hillside. The monk returns with the chai. I take a sip, and he waits for my reaction. “Delicious,” I say, and I mean it. From gaps in the wall he retrieves an onion, half a cabbage, a tomato. Then he disappears inside again.
I drink my chai, close my eyes, and listen to the soft hiss of a gas flame from the hut. When I open my eyes, the dog has gone. I panic for a moment, wondering how I’ll find my way back. But then I realize it’s OK. Suddenly everything is OK. I even begin to remember why I came to this country: a man from Ohio told me, “Going to India is like taking your head off and putting it back on in the opposite direction: you have to learn how to see again.”
Soon a bowl filled with fragrant rice arrives. The monk smiles and ducks back into the hut. From the other side of the door, I hear the scrape of spoon against bowl. I eat, too.
The women come every morning, perched on the prows of wooden boats with scarves tied around their heads. They dip long oars into the lake and glide toward the marsh. I open the shutters of my room and watch them disappear into the reeds, calling to one another like songbirds. They are collecting lotus leaves to feed the cows, to keep the milk sweet. I hear the slap of giant leaves on water as they shake mud from the roots.
The sun breaches the mountains. Rafique should be here soon with my breakfast, and I am not dressed. I’m the only guest staying on Shangri-La Houseboat, the only person who has stayed here in quite some time. Tourism has been almost nonexistent since six Western hikers were kidnapped by insurgents in 1995 and one of them was found beheaded, the others presumed dead. The Canadian government regularly issues a red-alert travel warning to those considering a trip to this northern region of India, which is plagued by grenade attacks, land mines, and bombings. The Indian government has designated Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim state in a predominantly Hindu nation, a “disturbed area.” But a travel agent in Delhi assured me not to worry about coming here. “Governments like to exaggerate,” he told me. And for some reason I believed him. “Rafique will meet you at the airport,” he promised me. “You’ll be perfectly safe.”
Rafique is the eldest son of the Shallah family, the owners of Shangri-La. He has spent all of his thirty-five years on this lake and learned to speak several languages fluently during the days when Kashmir was touted as “paradise on earth.” You wouldn’t know from the condition of the houseboat that tourists are rare. The crystal chandeliers sparkle, the mahogany tabletops gleam, and the inside air is as fresh as the afternoon breeze. It’s as though the boat’s original inhabitants, members of the British Raj of the 1800s, were expected at any moment. Politics and strife seem to have disappeared into the marsh, like the women collecting lotus leaves.
Every morning Rafique delivers my breakfast on a silver tray: a boiled egg, toast, marmalade, and a pot of cardamom tea. His mother, whom I’ve yet to meet, prepares these in a small house on the tiny island to which the boat is moored.
I hear Rafique lower the gangplank and slide open the houseboat door, then the clatter of china in the dining room. I’d prefer to eat on the veranda and look at Dal Lake through the ornately carved screens of cedar. But Rafique insists I eat in the dining room, sitting at a table for ten with my feet on a finely woven Kashmiri carpet. He will sit in the corner of the room and watch me, ready to attend to my every need. His dark eyes are bordered by dark brows, and he rarely smiles.
I sit down and take a sip of tea. The slap of lotus leaves drifts in through the windows.
“Is it sweet enough?” he asks.
“What are your plans today?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. Every day for the past week he has suggested a tour of the Mughal gardens or a cable-car ride to the snowy peaks. But I didn’t come here to see the sights. How can I explain this to Rafique? How can I explain that my wedding ring is fake and I’m not really a famous writer? (“What is your profession?” he asked as I signed the guest ledger. “I’m a writer,” I answered too quickly, hoping to impress for some reason, or to explain my solitude. “Are you famous?” he asked, and I smiled instead of telling him the truth.)
I spread some marmalade on my toast while Rafique watches from his chair. The women glide past the window, their boats piled high with leaves.
“Today’s the first day of Ramadan,” he says.
“Does that mean you’re fasting?”
“Of course,” he says a bit sternly and stands up to collect my dishes.
Later I sit on the velvet-cushioned bench on the veranda while the sun edges its way around the lake, and I admire the carved wooden screens. Every day I see something new hidden in their design: the wings of a bird, the center of a flower. Rafique appears on the gangplank with a silver tray laden with tea and cookies. He sits on the other cushioned bench and stares out at the water.
I nod, then open my book and read, hoping he’ll get the hint.
“What are you reading?” he asks.
I hold up the cover: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi.
“What’s it about?”
“India,” I answer. “The independence of India.”
He continues to stare out at the water. “I never learned how to read,” he says.
The sun rounds the houseboat, and I shift to face it head-on as I tell Rafique what I’ve read about Gandhi’s early life.
“Do you know who did these carvings?” he asks me, interrupting my story about when Gandhi booked a steamer ticket for Bombay. “I did,” Rafique says, answering his own question. “During the war.”
I put down My Experiments with Truth. “Did you do the ones inside too?” I ask.
“All of them,” he says. “It was a long war.”
I ask to look at the other woodcarvings again, with the artist by my side. We walk through the entire houseboat. The chair legs, the mirror frames, even the carved ceiling panels are all his handiwork. “The schools were closed down. There was nothing else to do,” he explains. I run my finger along a tendril of vine. “I taught myself as I went along. You can see where some of the designs are a bit rough.” But I can’t see any roughness. I see Rafique with chisel in hand drifting on Dal Lake while gunshots echoed across the water. “I was too young to fight,” he explains. “And so I carved.”
Every day I walk down to the Ganges River for a swim. Along the way I pass a small cave chiseled out of the rock. There’s an old man living there, a holy man. He’s usually crouched low over a fire, snapping twigs. I try my best not to let him see me looking inside his home. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I’m curious. I’ve never seen a holy man’s living quarters before. Sometimes, when I think he’s bent low enough, I walk slowly to catch a better glimpse of life inside the cave. I’ve seen a battered pot, a wool blanket. I’ve spied an altar at the back: candles burning, pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses.
Today the holy man is sitting very still at the mouth of his cave, gazing at the lemon trees. It’s difficult not to stare at his long, neatly combed white hair and intense brown eyes.
Every day, when I get to the river, I wait behind the rocks until the groups of white-water rafters have bobbed past, and then I come out and dive straight into water fresh from the Himalayas. The cold is shocking. At the ashram where I’m staying, they joke that I must have Canadian blood to swim up here in November. I humor them, saying I come from a people who run naked into oceans in subzero temperatures on New Year’s Day. To be honest, my blood rebels against the water temperature, and the cold numbs my every cell. But still I swim in the Ganges.
The river cures everything eventually, I’ve been told: Rheumatism. Cancer. Snakebites. Broken hearts. Bad karma. For ages people have found their way to its banks and prayed to it, adorned it with flowers, burned their dead beside it, swum in it. Millions and millions of people. I like to float along in its current, thinking of this. I like to imagine my body as a sieve and the river straining through me, the rapids crushing any molecules of disease. I like to imagine my broken heart coming dislodged and floating downstream like a dead branch, my bad karma sinking to the bottom with the silt. Like the silt, every day it seems to pile higher. Every day I remember some new misdemeanor: Lies. Jealousy. Unkindness. It’s all there. Cringing in the cold water, I think back on turning thirty, and on my twenties, and all the way back to my teens, to the worst thing I’ve ever done — something I’ve never spoken of and probably never will. Do we all hold one such secret? I float there, thinking about that night I’d rather forget, and wait for the river to swallow me whole. But it doesn’t.
After my swim I walk along the beach and shiver. Sometimes I see the holy man farther downstream, making elaborate gestures with a stick of incense. Other times he’s just sitting and looking at the rapids. If it’s a sunny day, the flat rocks will be covered with his laundry: cantaloupe-colored sarongs, matching handkerchiefs, and towels. If he’s close enough, I smile broadly, place my hands in prayer position, bow slightly, and say, “Namaste.” The holy man always seems amused by this, but he never returns my greeting. I’ve been told by the ashram’s meditation leader, Lalita, that he’s taken a twelve-year vow of silence. I’ve also been told to avoid contact with him at all costs. But I figure even holy men like to be smiled at now and again.
I confess that, while he’s busy with his incense stick at the river, I take advantage of his absence from the cave and linger for a few moments at the threshold, looking more closely at the gods and goddesses and his neatly kept fire pit, until I start to feel guilty and walk quickly back up the hill to the ashram.
I’ve overstayed my time here. A one-week retreat to learn the basics of Hinduism and yoga has turned into three. I’ve self-tailored the past two weeks to suit my own spiritual needs, which include reading novels, writing poems, and, of course, swimming in the river. Luckily the ashram is slow this time of year, and Lalita is happy as long as I keep quiet. I think she sees me as a bit of a lost soul, too fragile to return to the rigors of traveling alone in India. I think she’s right.
As the river becomes colder, Lalita begins to talk of closing for the season. Though I worry the Ganges hasn’t cured me yet, I decide it’s best to leave. I walk five kilometers into the village and buy a bus ticket to the deserts of Rajasthan. On impulse I buy the holy man a bag of oranges and leave them by the mouth of his cave.
On my last day at the ashram I walk to the Ganges for my final swim. I see the holy man inside his cave, bent over the fire, snapping twigs. The moment my footstep falls by the cave entrance, he turns and gestures for me to enter. I look nervously back toward the ashram. He slaps the ground hard with a twig and fixes me with a scowl. I go inside.
He leads me to the altar. There, beneath the portrait of Shiva, balances a pyramid of oranges. He points to me, to the oranges, to Shiva. He places his hands in prayer position and bows his head. Then he rubs the spine of a cabbage leaf onto the dirt floor and begins to write with its juice in English: Breakfast. Tomorrow. 7 A.M. He looks to me for a response. I nod. He claps his hands together twice, smiling so widely I can see that he has only four teeth. Then he turns his back to me, bends over the fire, and snaps twigs.
When I arrive the next morning at seven, the holy man is stirring a pot over the fire. I offer him the only item I have left in my chocolate stash: a Kit-Kat bar. He claps his hands and smiles, gesturing me toward a cushion atop a bamboo mat. He busies himself with the pot, and I fidget on the cushion, growing more and more nervous, but my nervousness is soon overtaken by curiosity. I’m at leisure to examine every detail of the cave: the holy man’s bedroll, the symbols written in ash on the wall above it, the package of incense, the books stacked neatly in a recess. He walks to a shelf made of branches lashed together by twine and extracts an assortment of bags from a large box, then returns to the fire.
Finally the holy man presents me with a mysterious concoction in an ornately patterned copper bowl. He sits in front of me and watches as I take my first spoonful. I’ve prepared myself to love it no matter how horrible it tastes. But when it reaches my tongue, I raise my eyebrows in surprise, then take another bite, and another. I can’t stop eating. It’s as though he’s captured every flavor I’ve ever loved. The sweet, the savory. It’s all there in the copper bowl.
He laughs and gives me more. He points to Shiva, to the pot on the fire, to me. He goes outside and returns with the spine of a cabbage leaf. Deva, he writes, pointing to me and then to the center of his forehead. I see you, he writes. I must look confused, because he squeezes his eyes shut, opens them, and then writes: Good heart. I see you. Inside.
I panic for a moment. Can he read my mind? I try to think pure thoughts, and he laughs again. Suddenly his expression changes to one of pain. Suffer, he writes quickly, the cabbage stem turning to mush. Too much.
“I’ve suffered too much?” I ask, and he nods his head. “Yes,” I say. “Yes, I know.”
The holy man claps his hands and smiles. He throws the cabbage stem aside and picks up a twig. Good is coming, he scratches into the dirt. He points to every word. “Good is coming,” I say, and he claps again. “Good is coming,” I say, enjoying the feel of the words in my mouth.