My shoes lay abandoned in the sand as I waded into the turquoise waters of the Ganges. In front of me was The Rock, a stone formation jutting out of the river 30 feet into the air. Behind me to the right was a yoga teacher from a local hotel playing footsie with a French mother and daughter. Off to the left was a group of Indian tourists forming a human pyramid. Further back was a donkey in search of food and a dog resting in the shade watching all this unfold. Even though it had been years and much had changed in Rishikesh, it still felt like these people and animals were intruders, cavorting and scavenging on my beach without permission.
Knee deep in the river, I put my earbuds in, synched up an album on my phone and pressed play. An uptempo drum beat laid the groundwork for power guitar chords, which led to the eventual opening lyrics of ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’”, the first track off the Eliminator album, a raunchy muscular trip into the id of the 1980s and my album of choice during the winter of 1984.
As I had done with several other places and albums during this trip, I had waited purposefully for this moment to listen to Eliminator, so I could achieve maximum impact in prying loose from my subconscious the memories of those early years, while bringing me back to what it felt like to be eleven again.
By the time the chorus hit, a bittersweet ache, originating from my upper chest began to roll through my body. My lips began to tremble and eyes started to well.
Fuck, I am going to cry in front of these people. Damn you ZZ Top.
I had arrived in Rishikesh the day before in the early afternoon by taxi from Dehra Dun. The road along the way was marked by the unfamiliar, with the exception of two small sections of cut backs designed to ascend and descend a hill that I vividly remember our charter buses laboring up and down so many years before.
Arriving in Rishikesh proper, the driver asked for directions twice, before dropping me off at the entryway to Ram Jhula, a suspension bridge that I would need to walk across to get to my hotel in the southern part of Swargashram, the enclave along the eastern bank of the Ganges famous for its temples and ashrams.
Crossing the bridge with my rolling suitcase, I navigated around packs of tourists, dodged scooters and motorcycles racing in either direction and avoided a few stationary cows. I thought that Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula (the original suspension bridge that crossed the Ganges further north) were designated as pedestrian only. But, I guess as with Mussoorie, the laws had changed or been relaxed, making what would have been a leisurely stroll over the Ganges, into a chaotic obstacle course, with serious implications if I did not pay attention.
Using the map I printed out in the U.S to get to my hotel, I turned right off the bridge and followed the road that ran parallel with the river, past an assortment of carts selling lemon water, sugarcane juice, chai or street food to the pilgrims walking up from the boat ferry, past a covered bazaar with book sellers, jewelers and vendors selling the latest health food craze (honey on everything!) and finally past several ashrams, before turning left down a narrow alley to reach Hotel Yog Vashishth.
Checking in, I couldn’t figure out what was up with the receptionist, whether he was dissatisfied with his job, or if he was just practicing unattachment to the material world through indifference, but the man I came to know as Siddhesh spoke about everything in the same unemotional monotone voice, with minimal facial expression.
Was that a smile or a grimace? I thought looking at him for the first time.
“You will be staying on the third floor,” he said with the emotional equivalency of a voice actor narrating a technical manual. “Yoga classes are held on the rooftop at 7:30 am and complimentary breakfast is from 6 to 9 am.”
Not wanting to give up hope yet in trying to connect on a more human level, despite the transactional quality of our relationship, I asked, “Where would you recommend to eat around here? Somewhere you and your friends would go?”
Siddhesh pondered this for a brief moment before spitting out an answer he probably gave to hundreds of other guests. “Madras Café.”
My heart sank. Madras Café served a wide range of Indian and Continental fare and was one of the first restaurants I saw when my taxi dropped me off at the entry point to Ram Jhula. I was hoping to experience some quality local food, not another tourist trap restaurant, since I had plans to go to one already.
“Thank you!” I said not wanting to sound ungrateful, as I made a mental note to not ask him for further recommendations.
My room at Hotel Yog Vashishth was the cleanest I had stayed in yet and the only one without a strange smell emanating from the sewer pipes in the bathroom. Thanking the many gods, I stripped my backpack of all unnecessary items and hustled back onto the street so I could get to the two places of interest for the day.
Since I was left without a solid lead on where to eat lunch and I was planning to already go at some point, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and eat at Chotiwala, a famous fast paced two floor restaurant located nearby. “Choti” is a patch of hair at the back of the head that is braided and remains uncut, as a way to show piety in the Hindu religion. “Wala” simply translates to a man or person. Combine these two and you get “Man with a hair braid”, a nod to the Hindu pilgrims that largely graced this restaurant before Rishikesh became a tourist destination.
Chotiwala was best known for its thalis, an Indian meal served on a large stainless steel tray with several sabzis (vegetable dishes) and daals (bean soups) in small metal bowls, along with yogurt, rice and flatbread. Whoever invented the thali was a fucking genius, as it was the best way to eat Indian food.
Back in the day, when eating out in Rishikesh, we always went to Chotiwala. After spending the day out at The Rock, we would make our way down to Laxman Jhula, cross over the bridge and follow a quiet dusty road that led directly to Chotiwala. Arriving in groups, we would gather at tables preferably on the second floor, order our thalis and then do what boys our age did for time eternal; make fun of each other, talk shit and laugh. Finishing our meals, we would then slowly make our way over to the ferry, which would transport us across the river, docking a short walking distance from the Tourist Bungalow, our place of residence while in Rishikesh.
I had been looking forward to revisiting Chotiwala. Rounding the corner, I first recognized the restaurant from the shelter that was built over the road in front of it. As I stepped into the shade underneath the shelter, my eyes adjusted and I noticed that there were now two sections to the restaurant. Both sides had a Chotiwala mascot in front, a man painted pink, dressed in simple clothing, with his “Choti” waxed heavily into an eerie horn like shape, jutting out from the back of his head.
Seeing the two sections made me think, Had they expanded Chotiwala? I remember it being bigger. Man, it looks so tiny!
People say that places from their childhood always look smaller when they see them again as an adult. I started to think this was me experiencing that first hand. Standing in front of the divided restaurant, I took a few photos, before deciding to sit in the section on the right. Knowing what I wanted without needing to see the menu, I asked a waiter to bring me a thali and a bottle of water.
Seated next to me was an Indian family who must have arrived just before I did as they had yet to receive their food. Making eye contact with the father, who looked to be around my age, we exchanged smiles. I nodded my head. He wobbled his.
“Have you been to the other side to eat?”, he asked, pointing in the direction of the other half of the restaurant.
Puzzled by his question, I replied, “Isn’t it the same? It’s both Chotiwala, right?”
“Haan! But it is not the same,” he said with a growing smile.
“What do you mean?”
“In 1990s, the original owner died and his two sons took over. They did not like each other, so they split the restaurant in half. One son this side. One son other side.”
“Wow,” was all I could manage. I was stunned. The reason the restaurant looked so much smaller was because it had just been cut in half. This had been one of my favorite places to eat at growing up in India and it saddened me to see it like this. People largely came to Rishikesh to elevate their consciousness and lessen the burden of ego. I found it ironic that this restaurant which served so many of them had come undone by those very things.
A waiter began to bring the family’s food and my thali showed up shortly after, effectively ending our conversation. With my meal costing about $4, I wasn’t expecting fireworks, but the quality was only slightly better than the school food I had back in Mussoorie.
Sometimes it’s best to let memories remain memories.
Finishing quickly, as I wanted to make sure I had enough daylight left to get to the Tourist Bungalow, I paid my bill and scooted out the door. To get there, I had to cross the river. Thankfully, Ram Jhula was just around the corner.
In addition to building Ram Jhula since I was last in Rishikesh, the local government also constructed an elevated scenic walkway along the west bank of the Ganges, which was the route I was going to take to get to the Tourist Bungalow. The summer season was just beginning, so it was a comfortable 90 degrees as I crossed the bridge and walked along the scenic path overlooking the river. The path was largely abandoned, save for groups of local men smoking cigarettes under the covered viewing spots that were evenly spaced out along the trail. Ignoring the all too frequent stares I double checked the map I made and confirmed that I had not passed the road that would lead me to the Tourist Bungalow.
Nope, still on track
As I reached the turnoff road, I recognized a formation of stone blocks that were placed in a semi-circle on the bank of the river, creating a sort of pool which now had become inaccessible due to the path’s elevated construction.
Then it struck me. Oh my god! This was where the field used to be!
On the opposite side of the path from these stone blocks there was a field where we would gather in the evenings to read Rehraas Sahib, a Sikh prayer. I had fond memories of sitting in that patchy field of wild grass and rock in the hazy warmth of dusk, reciting Rehraas from memory, while watching the occasional cremation along the river’s edge, all the while being pestered by ice cream vendors and packs of mangy dogs fighting for control of the field.
The field I was looking at now was devoid of rocks. It was leveled with a school building at one end and enclosed on all sides by a tall white concrete wall. As I descended the elevated path, school children came pouring out of the building, their shouts of joy and laughter greeting me as I walked past.
Reaching the main road, it took a few minutes to get my bearings, until I finally found the Tourist Bungalow’s sign. Its official name was the “Rishilok Tourist Complex” and as I read the sign, the familiarity of that name floated back up from the recesses of my mind, pried free with the help of this visual catalyst.
Rishilok? Of course. How could have I forgotten?
The road leading up to the Bungalow was at an incline and curved to the right. This seemed to resonate with the other buried memories that were still too deep to fully reach. That all changed once the Bungalow came into view.
The Rishilok Tourist Complex was spread out over about a half an acre of land. Adjacent to the road was the Reception Building, a white washed multi-level structure with green trim that housed the front desk on the upper level and the kitchen, dining hall and yoga room on the lower level. Behind it was a multi-tiered garden. On the opposite side of the garden sat the bungalows, a row of two white washed buildings with green trim, stretching along the length and a similar building along the width of the back perimeter. These three bungalows had two floors and each room housed two people.
During our stays here in ‘84 and ’85, it was decided that we would be fed like proper yogis, only eating breakfast and dinner. As hunger was a common theme already from Vincent Hill, it wasn’t too difficult to get used to eating twice a day.
From Monday through Saturday it was mandatory to wake up at 4 am for Sadhna, an hour and a half of Kundalini Yoga followed by an hour of meditation. Nanak Dev would walk around during the meditation hour with a cane to make sure no one fell asleep. If you bowed your back or dropped your head, it was reason enough to invite a swift blow from the cane. I remember the struggles of trying to stay awake during this hour. The warmth of my blanket would be enough sometimes to make me start drifting off. One minute I would be chanting, the next minute, I would be jarred awake after getting hit in the back, the pain taking a few seconds to register while my body woke back up.
We boys were used to this level of discipline, however, it was a shock for many of the girls who ended up being treated just as harshly for not bending to Nanak Dev’s will. One girl was forced to carry a rock dubbed the “Ego Rock” wherever she went, as punishment for talking back to him. She was also forced to stand in one place in the garden for an entire day, being monitored by some of the older boys. Afterwards, Nanak Dev would go out of his way in later yoga sessions to berate her and publicly humiliate her, something I knew all too well.
He would also use the end of our morning yoga sessions to announce daily schedules and projects. During our 1985 stay and I imagine inspired by the success of the “We Are The World” song, Nanak Dev had gotten into his head that he could create a knock-off Sikh version, a song called “On Top Of The World”.
The song went something like,
“On top of the world we live, where the mountains meet the sky, hand in hand we never stop, walk lightly and stay together.”
It continued on with another few insipid verses that I have completely blocked from my memory.
The idea was to record this song with all the India kids singing on it and then sell the tape at the annual Summer Solstice retreat in Espanola, New Mexico. This gathering was the biggest congregation of 3HO Sikhs, with hundreds of members, including many of our parents, travelling from all over the U.S. to take part in the week long Tantric Yoga marathon. I don’t know if this was a get rich quick scheme or if his intentions were altruistic, but it was a terrible idea either way.
Knowing nothing about acoustics or recording, Nanak Dev was convinced he could get a decent take by squeezing all of us into a room, pressing record on a boombox with a high quality cassette and get us to sing our hearts out. As each successive recording produced an equally crappy result, he had us sing this song repeatedly for days on end, switching us from room to room, thinking that the solution would be the acoustics of one of the concrete rooms we were recording in.
“Listen up,” Nanak Dev said, his voice booming as he stood at the front of the yoga room after the end of Sadhna. “I found the perfect room to record our song in. I think we’ll nail it this time.”
This was not the first time he had said he had found the silver bullet to kill the unkillable.
“After breakfast, at 10 am, everyone will meet on the ground floor outside of the girl’s bungalow. Put your hearts into it and don’t fuck this up!”
During this quixotic project, I had developed a terrible cough, where I every few minutes, a tickle in the back of my throat would turn into an uncontrollable itch that ended with me doubled over, coughing to the point of gagging. This being my second year, I knew better than to speak up with everybody around, lest I end up being ridiculed or publicly humiliated. As the other kids began to file out of the Sadhna Room, I approached Nanak Dev.
He was my abusive surrogate father whose approval I desperately sought, and I wanted very badly to show him that I wasn’t the fuck up loser that he had been telling me I was so many times before. I was thinking ahead to try and prevent the inevitable; my cough messing up his recording.
“Nanak Dev..” *cough*
“I don’t think it would be a good…” *cough, cough*
“…for me to be in the room, because…” *gagging cough*
“…of my cough.”
Ahab like in his obsession to have EVERY kid on the recording, he could only see the end goal and damn the costs. He glanced briefly at me, before dismissively saying, “You’re going to be in that fucking room, I don’t care. Bring your sleeping bag and cover your mouth if you have to cough.”
“That’s it. End of discussion.” With that, he walked away.
He demanded absolute obedience and deference to his decisions and I knew better than to say anymore, so I showed up for the recording with my sleeping bag and prayed my cough would not show up on the recording.
I ended up coughing twice.
The next day, after coming back from the morning run, I was sitting on a step outside of the Reception Building catching my breath and struggling with my cough, when Nanak Dev walked out of the doorway talking to a few of the older boys. My body reactively tensed up.
Another boy just returning from his run saw him and asked, “Nanak Dev, how did the recording turn out?”
“Oh great,” he said, “until this fuckhead coughed.” He timed saying “fuckhead” with hitting me solidly in the back of my head, causing my vision to swim and dim momentarily.
Everyone around froze, not knowing what was going to happen next. I was terrified that this was just the beginning, however, he just kept on walking without looking back. I anticipated further retribution for such an enormous fuck up, with my stomach tied in knots and my metabolism kicking into trauma response mode for days, but nothing came.
In the end we did not have to record another take, he ended up using an earlier version to bring with him on his visit back to America. From what I heard, it was a total bomb.