i would travel daily to the same spot, beyond the ache of noise to a restful curve in the flow of the river yamuna, daughter of sun, sister of death. at this earth’s elbow, mother yamuna was azure and sweet, touched on each side by miles of yellow flowers. i would cup yamuna’s water in my hands, pour it over my shaved head three times, and thank her for allowing me to travel to her resting place on this earth. i knew she was a river, she knew i was a fool, copacetic.
i loved being alone in india. thrived on barefoot strolls through lonely farmlands, skin burning in the high afternoon sun, my clean dhoti kissed by the dust of walking hours, gently floating into blissful abandon on the banks of one of india’s holiest rivers.
a mile from my preferred spot i would pass the home of a sadhu of advanced years who lived in a small blue tent. he would cook roti on the sand, baked by the sun. he had a tiny gopal deity he worshiped with great love. i truly felt, this gentle soul, all but forgotten by the world had somehow figured it all out. i envied the simplicity, i applauded the devotion. he wouldn’t let me take his photograph and would speak to me continually in hindi. clutching onto recognized sanskrit words, yamuna, bhagavan, devi, surya, i would eat the food of his riverbank bakery, the most delicious bread i’ve ever tasted, surprisingly free from the grit of the earth on which it was cooked. i offered him very little in return. he would not accept money. i suppose all he wanted at the time was a little company (‘wanted’ being the wrong word, as he clearly wanted for nothing).
how did an english expatriate end up in this remote locale? i approached the first anniversary of my university graduation with little to no idea of my purpose or direction having lived in the big apple cavity of new york city for the last 5 years. i would attend audition after audition for plays/films/tv shows i didn’t really want to do, surrounded in waiting rooms by other young, hungrier actors who looked exactly like me but 15% better looking (then right before i’d walk into the audition room, the ideal looking version of myself would walk in, and i’d think “i should congratulate him on the role he’s about to be offered”). so, like any good 22 year old i decided to travel and “find myself”. how did i achieve this noble end? i shaved my head, put tilak (clay from the ganga) on my body daily, embraced the hindu mantras and prayers i’d become attached to over the last few years, and decided i was going to be a monk in india, of course.
and what months those were in the holy lands of hindustan. pilgrimages to the birthplaces of krishna and radharani, the divine couple. late night excursions to secret shiva temples where the deity is dressed as a gopi (a cowherd girl. yes, divine cross-dressing! i think i’m not supposed to be telling you about that place). day long circumambulations of sacred mountains and shrines, blistered feet, ecstatic spirit. the most varied and delicious vegetarian food imaginable, usually eaten off disposable banana leaf plates (even the most hardened carnivore would have been impressed by the eclectic mix of flavors). cows, so many cows, beautiful, peaceful sacred cows (seriously, if you’re ever feeling stressed, hang out with an indian cow at a goshala [cow sanctuary] for a few minutes, it works wonders). and the tears flowed so easily, not from sadness, but joy in witnessing simplicity that seemed unattainable to me, my brain being too bogged down in western complexities.
in the end, this addled mind was my indian undoing. i couldn’t quite leave my artistic needs behind, i simply hadn’t found the right way to engage what i felt i needed to say (note: still haven’t, just more relaxed about it). there was truly no satisfying way to remain an ascetic in the temples of india and be an actor/writer/who knows. after several months of strict spiritual discipline holy india was starting to weigh on me. the romanticism of the excursion had run its course, and i was left with a harsh reality, this wasn’t where i needed to be anymore than new york had been and that running away solves nothing. i needed a moment of silence, away from noise, away from all stimuli. when you need time away from getting away, you know you have a problem. momentarily i found refuge in the shady spot on the banks of the river. daily i’d walk for two and half hours to reach this secluded space. i’d offer a flower, some jasmine scented incense, a small sweet, and a ghee lamp each day, softly singing the yamuna-astakam, hoping i’d find some answer as to what i was supposed to do with my life.
and i decided to leave india.
but . . .
not before a final, defining adventure. on the day i was scheduled to leave, i visited the safe-haven of the yamuna river one last time, and it was here i achieved a level of naiveté so profound it’s taken this entire piece just to prepare myself to tell the crux of this story. i look back on that day and wonder ‘how am i alive?’. a truly devout hindu would say that mother yamuna protected me, the non-religious would say i am just extremely lucky but incredibly stupid. i played with fire and escaped unburned.
now, you have the background, would you like to hear a story?