Baba's Place


Last night I dreamt I was in India.  I woke up with the feeling that country gives me; of mystery, of the affront of the miraculous.  Yet when I arrived there for the first time I was played out.

     A tale of the East ought to unfold like an oriental prayer rug that has in it the tree in the Garden of Allah, its nightingales and pomegranates and in it too a flaw that Allah might not be downfaced by the hubris of a mortal's attempt at perfection.  The carpet seller at Masched showed me such, their mellow colours brought to bloom by use, and that bloom drawn they are raised and hung on the walls.  This story has the flawed pattern of truth in it and it has so often been traversed in my mind that it is known like one those mnemonic devices, perhaps a street you know well, on each door or lamp or pillar of which you hang a fact.

     I was sitting on my roll in the bus station in Anantapur when a long tailed grey rat crept out of a gulley beside me.  Rats are not sacred in India.  It was immediately attacked by the coolies and the tonga wallahs and despatched.  A nasty buboe covered beastie.  That allowed a bit of diversion for the post siesta hour.  I went back to my aerogramme from home.  John was dead, the friend of my boyhood, of fishing expeditions down to Drumcliffe and Glencar.  He'd taught me to tie flys.  One we named the `black pudden' dressed as a dry fly with a black hackle, was deadly in streams `that scarce could bathe a trout'.  He was found dead from a shotgun wound.  It was put down as misadventure but as my mother wrote `he was suffering from depression and was being treated by a doctor'.

     I mention this as it was as much a part of my kit as the roll.  Quickly, without worrying about cliche, I wrote a letter to his mother.

     Here in Anantapur, Andra Pradesh; my mind was reaching back through to the mists of Lug na nGall, the rod strapped to the bar of the bicycle, up that little hump at the school then down the long hill to Hudson's bridge where in the meadow was a wild damson tree.  Names that I rolled around, the accustomed counters of a geography, a charm against Bukkapatnam and Puttaparthi.  These were my stages, Anantapur, Bukkapatnam, Puttaparthi.

  - From Bukkapatnam walking you will reach.  You're going Baba's place isn't it, atchar.

     His neck rotated slightly, stiffly official, a hint of the more expansive wobble.  The inspector looked at me oddly when I asked:

  - But who is Baba?

     The creased letter in my bag bore no reference to any Baba.  Let me dissolve to time past as in the movies.  The letter let us say in prose mimesis is now delivered to me uncreased at the Poste Restante in Bangkok.  Its wrinkles and tears on the often folded seam are renewed, it recollects its pristine form.  Beside the clacking typewriters of the scribes in the veranda outside I read what seems to me to be quite a dingy letter.  She has found a peace that reaches below the turbulent surface to the calm depths and a love which goes beyond sex.  Her last words were, 'If it is his wish you will make it here'.  Marvellous I thought, she has got into the clutches of some bogus swami with a turban and glittering eyes.

     That letter was the beginning of my release from her, that cracked acid head mysticism is spurious, I could have nothing to do with it.  I was cured of religion.  `I see God, I see God'.  Oh no!

     Her gone was a void that battened on substance, a full and fat emptiness.  The smells of spices and mimosa, the gaudy temples and their garlands arrived on my empty platform.

     A month later I was in Benares smoking ganja by the river with a sadhu.  We were in a chai house.  I was facing a mirror which reflected the street where the pilgrims trooped down for their salvic ablution - Shiva ascetics with their iron tridents, Krishnavaite estatics pinging finger cymbals, the halt, the lame and the devotees led by sleek swamis with dove like pouting bellies who returned from their bath burnished by the oil of a massage.

     I turned to the sadhu and said:

  - It's all passing before me in the mirror.

     Maybe it was a line from Yeats running through my head?  `Mirror upon mirror mirrored is all the show'.  A breeze from the river?

     Later being carried in a cycle rickshaw feeling worldly and stoned, a legless beggar trawling the pavement on a tray with castors pointed to me and proclaimed MAYA BABA MAYA.  I knew what he meant and it shook me - in this incarnation you are up in the rickshaw, in the next one, on the next turn of the wheel I shall be up there and you down here.  I arrived at my hotel, the gloss of my distance from the leprous multitude marred by the beggar's vatic utterance.

     My beautiful personality was riddled.  Those holes are wells too but if you believe in personality you tap artesian fear.  I needed grouting so I must go to the library to renew my opinions and my sureties.  Sri Aurobindo's ashram in Pondicherri had a good one where I could rest, read, study yoga and meditation and investigate this Eastern thing.

     The idea of visiting S. arose.  No, that was over.  Let go, let go.  There was sharper focus as I moved closer to the present.  Pondi is near Madras, going from Varanasi (Benares/Kashi) you must change at Jhansi Junction.  However the ticket seller didn't tell me that nor did the guard who sold me a berth for the night which I wouldn't have needed.  I slept through Jhansi and the train continued on its way to Bombay.  My concession ticket, got on a bogus student card, did not allow of altered journeys so I was made to pay the full fare to Bombay from Jhansi.  My anger as I threw the few pyasa change out of the window is folded into the arid landscape.

     So Bombay then.  This is the beauty of the road, you may expose yourself to the random and jump the rails of your life.  The road becomes a symbol of your surging heart that desires fullness, the boundless ease that is neither rest nor motion.  I let it lead me.  Why not?

     Bombay Central is a solid station in the King's Cross tradition of railway architecture, oak panelling in the hall has the destination dealt with in plain lettering by each window.  I made my way to the first class waiting room which had, as they usually do, a shower en suite.  The grime of a day and a half in a steam train was washed away.  I lay on a bench with my rug around me and slept immediately.

     The umbrellas that everyone carried were made of tarred canvas on a solid pole, monsoon durable.   Keeping their dhotis up with the other hand they picked their ways about the puddles that might be any depth wearing mauve, puce and ivy green galoshes.  I retreated back to the station to find again a tolerable destination.  I looked at a map on the wall and noted that the broad gauge artery ran through Anantapur on the way to Madras.  Anantapur district was the address on the letter from S.  Maybe to stop over there for a few days, to spend my birthday there would not be such a bad idea.  It felt to lonesome to be on my own for it and I felt free enough of S. to be able to see here again.  It was a delicate calculation.


     Again the stream of memory ripples and I am back on the bus bumping along to Bukkapatnam, Anantapur a dusty town holding down the end of the clew.  People got off at crossroads and putting their boxes on their heads began to walk into a burnt sienna landscape.  Thorn fences marked their fields.  Their was no growth then in late August, rains might come in September or October.

     At the dry reservoir in Bukkapatnam, three of us got down.  One, I think a villager, carried the bed roll of the other.  We climbed down into the earth sided tank that was hardly more that a banked natural depression in the land.   The bearer knew the way.


  - Is it far?

  - Three miles, not more.  This is your first visit?

  - Yes my first.

     Through this sump in the evening which was yet bright we marched.  I felt the traveller's sense of the boundless earth coming to rest in a place, a freedom and an at homeness.  The day of multitudinous sensation was finding its end in the single velvet cool dark.

     We reached a dry river bed criss crossed by bullock cart tracks.  A long way off I saw a polygonal building, a small tower, in a grove of trees.  In the bright day its facets would merge into a circle but now side light shaded it and gave uneven reflection.  I revised my picture of a Baba in a cave to this wisdom eyrie.

     A short track led to the village of Puttaparthi.  Here the bearer was paid off and he padded away in the dusk tying some coins in the corner of his dhoti.  There was no electric light but a few of the larger houses were beginning to fire up pressure lamps, long comet tails of flame flicking out as the paraffin spurted.  There was the smell of cooking, that Indian smell of spices being roasted in clarified butter.  Through the deep rutted street we continued making I supposed for the Baba's den.  At the end of the village surprisingly a new road began which was lined on one side with ramshackle booths selling gaudy pics of Shiva, Krishna and many-armed goddesses.  There were also pictures of one human, a dark Dravidian with an enormous head of afro styled hair.  He was dressed in orange robes.  I became conscious of a far off murmuration, a low chanting that was intermittent.

     Now is the moment looking back and writing the script you try to build up to the point of entry and fall prey to the vertigo of a powerful future but in truth I was just walking along with the pilgrim.  Now it was part chanting we were hearing, steady and strong, the leader with a head voice of a jagged, intensely musical edge.  Crows were roosting in enormous pipal trees, rising and falling, pattering droppings on the smooth leaves.

     We turned at a right angle from the high wall and were at the entrance of an avenue.  It led up to a large rectangular building of cut stone in a neat sandy compound.  The arch leading to the compound of this hall was surmounted by an unsteadily flickering neon sign shooting purple light.  The round charactered writing pulsed its uncertain incandescence.  Outside the hall there was a crowd of a few hundred watching an elephant placing a garland about the head of a man, who by his startling hair and orange robes must be the much figured of the booths.  This was Baba, the Guru from the way the throng were bowing towards him in rapt devotion.  He fed the elephant some bananas from a tray, straight into the twin tusked, fluted, whisker lipped maw.  A brahmin attendant poured water over Baba's hands, he received the long garland from him and withdrew.  The elephant was led away by her keeper.  Real Barnum & Bailey religion, I thought, what next?  Clowns?

     The Guru walked around the crowd which was ranged in a semi-circle in the compound, men on the left, women on the right.  His orange robe trailed on the ground fore and aft.  Some get-up.  This charlatan had a mesmeric grip on the people, they tried to touch his feet when he came near grovelling with a deep abasement.  There was a mixture of the silly and the sinister, but I was removed from it, having travelled for so many days the overloading of strangeness produced the same dislocation as sensory deprivation.

     The sharp mosquitoes recalled me to incarnation.  Baba was now down at my end.  He looked at me with a mild indulgent steady gaze as if to say `so you've arrived, you're here'.

     The service ended when Baba went into the private quarters that were at the side of the hall.  I was sad thinking of how S. could have fallen into the hands of this 420 as I'd learned to call them from Art.420 of the Indian Criminal Code which indicts `cheaters'.  She must be around in the dispersing crowd somewhere.  I was too tired for that sort of meeting, I needed a good sleep in a stationery place.  I asked about.

  - There is the big sleeping shed, tomorrow you can find out the arrangements for Westerners, I think you have special quarters.  Namaste.

     I woke up my forehead lumpy from mosquito bites.  Before the reflexive machine could start grinding everything down to sameness, drawing the world within the shell of my experience like beads or tin axe trade goods or golden globes strung on the thread of my memory, there was just this - a woman with a straw fan flapping across the top of a portable charcoal burner.  Then that was linked to the turkey wing of Mamo and it was lost.  The smoke rose straight up to the girders and the red heart of the fire pulsed.  I rolled up my and left it to find a tap that I might stick my head under.  I got one at the end of the ashram where a tidy warren of cottages, the dwellings of the ashramites were clustered.  The women were making mystic marks on the pavement flags outside their doors.  Most of these I had never seen before except for the interlocking triangles of the seal of Solomon and the touching cones Yeats terms gyres.  With white, red and saffron powder they drew these devices.

     I began my bath.  A person began shouting at me, not in English, but the purport of the message, it's kernel sentence was scram, bailidh leat, jellobai.  I left.  The back gate to the ashram let on to the road down to the river.  The people on the road were carrying the brass pots they use to pour water over themselves and for portable bidets.  Once you get used to it you look on paper as a filthy western habit.  It's a funny thing.  I remember well that Freudian moment in Calcutta when I ran into the force of toilet training - you know, dirty! dirty!  My supply of paper had run out.  I was squatting on the foot shaped concrete cleats.  There was a cracked tin ponny under a tap within hand's reach.

     The river pool was still and it was good and cool, a balsam for the bites.  I learned later that the river was called the Chitravartri which by the ingenious etymologysing the Indian is so fond of becomes `chitta vritti', mind waves.

     S. was still at the ashram.  I met her when I came back.  She was dressed in a plain cotton sari and had put on weight.  She had the placid look of gnosis that irritates the uninitiate.  For the Western mind dynamic virtues are all: the knowing of the right, the doing of the right, and let being take care of itself.  There is a hollow boom to the western spirituelle.  The western spirituelle cares about getting there passionately and will on his vehicle of compassion load any number of pilgrims and lost wayfarers.  So it was very odd that neither S. nor any of the others said anything to me about Baba.  Subsequently I was told that Baba had said `don't have much to do with newcomers'.

     S. was on her way the following day.  I would be alone on my birthday after all.  She had arranged to go to Varanasi for a festival that some rare planetary conjunction made especially significant.  In the dawn she left, taking the early bus to Bangalore but first she woke me where I was sleeping on the veranda and said:

  - Listen to Baba, he knows.

     Wendell Field talked to me:

  - How did you get here?

     People are so interested in construing that route and I understand why.  Well here am I at even though my own life may be material I can't use, I flow right to the edges of it and can't contain it.  Wendell was an artist.  The photo he was retouching into colour was of Ramana Maharshi.  This photo has power, it is charged as an idol might be.  I do not know anyone who is not affected by the energy which seems to emanate from that image.  For this modern age an infinitely replicable idol!  I was given `Who am I' a booklet by R.M. containing the kernel of his wisdom teaching.  I read that all questions may be reduced to the one question and that question is exploded by the force of its unansweribility.

     The dry heat of the hills ridded me of my mucus.  I wandered among them staying out of the ashram routine of morning and afternoon darshans or public audiences where Baba took letters and heard pleas for favours and advice.  For the first time in months I felt at peace and healthy.

     Even desultory reading soon finished the short pamphlet.  In a heap of books I found a life of Baba.  I glanced in it.  He is in the Bombay stadium addressing a vast crowd, lakhs. " I am the same as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and Rama".  It sinks in.  This man is mad.  My peace evaporates.  All the people are rapt by his megalomania.  One Jesus is enough in my life, I must leave before I'm caught up in this madness.

     I sought Wendell out.  I felt tricked by him as though his friendliness was a con.

  - Why didn't you tell me about his saying that he was Jesus Christ etc?

  - If I did you'd have left immediately.  Didn't you see him materialise the holy ash he gives to people?

  - You mean he makes that, creates it from nothing, all I saw was a flourish and him delivering a few pinches of ash to a devotee.  And he creates that?  But that doesn't matter, even if he does do it it's his claim to be go incarnate that I can't take.

     It was dusk, Wendell and I were walking up and down on the bare compound much faster that the monkish tread appropriate to a hermitage. He was speaking intensely.  I was wrought by the question, suppose there is something in this, what he claims is true.  Crazy, I must go, to stay would be to risk being caught up in this nonsense.

     I went to sleep on the veranda.  In the middle of the night I was woken by the sting of a mosquito between my eyes.  I was wide awake immediately, my thoughts were precise, clear, heightened, effortlessly flowing in the way that the truth unfolds in a sustained eureka moment.  Symbols from myth and legend that had been banging about as loose stowage and the flotsam of the `Lost Language of Symbolism' by Bayley were crystalline keys to a world of archetypal being.  At the centre of all this symbolism was the great symbol of the Cosmic Egg or the Shiva Lingam.

     Physically I felt an electrical throbbing coming from the base of my spine and along the spinal cord.  What is it to reborn?  All the pain, hurt and resentment in my life was borne away by a flood of grace.  Everything I knew was wrong and I was glad.  Those tears that I wept were of gratitude and sorrow.

     The backwash of that moment on the veranda was felt when I was 15.  Then a name of God which I'd heard, from the Bible, caused a shudder of inexplicable intensity.  The name said itself in me.

     How long did this last for?  I don't know.  Some one up the veranda said 'Quiet there': one man's ecstasy is another's insomnia.  I fell asleep.

     Today, as the car sticker has it, is the first day of the rest of your life, a truth so true as Coleridge remarked that it has lost all the powers of truth and lies bed-ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors.  Everything in my life had been flowing towards that point.  This was the meaning running through it all.  Now I was not longer an adversary of a brutal and mindless chaos.  The quest into which I had been initiated was the great adventure of consciousness to find its source.