“Push your arms! Push your arms! Lift your toes! Lift your toes!” urged Vikas the hotel yoga teacher, as the other student and I settled into downward facing dog.
It was my first morning in Rishikesh and I was taking advantage of the in-house yoga sessions offered by Hotel Vashishth. Many of the ashrams nearby had drop-in yoga classes, but due to the convenience and shortness of my stay I felt that this was my best choice to get in some yoga without dealing with another layer of bureaucracy. Besides Vikas was willing to teach just the two of us, which showed a level of humility and passion that I admired.
Set in posture, I turned inwards, drawing in the healing energy of the prana and then with the apana letting go the memories of yesterday from my visit to the Tourist Bungalow.
Love. Compassion. Be. There is nothing else.
“Inhale! Exhale!” continued Vikas.
The name popped into my head, a name I had long forgotten.
A noise broke my train of thought and I looked up to see a large langur monkey, attracted by Vikas’s exhortations, patrolling the ledge outside the rooftop studio, looking for a window that could lead to an opportunity.
“Focus on your breath! Focus on your breath!” Vikas encouraged as he shut the open window well before the langur could reach it. The langur seeing the game was up moved on.
For an hour and half, we went through some basic postures, interspersed with Vikas instructing us on the Vedic principles of diet, breath and consciousness. Towards the end of the class as we lay in sivasana, he positioned singing bowls in various parts of the studio, gently striking them one after another, creating a sonic architecture framing the room. It was if my soul recognized this vibration as the pathway leading back to the source of all creation and it was ready to go home. As I began to let go, allowing my mind to become absorbed by this sound, Vikas placed a bowl on my solar plexus and struck it, harmonizing the room’s vibrations above it. This changed the direction I was being pulled in, drawing me back into my body through my heart chakra.
I had a few minutes to process this experience before he instructed us to come out of sivasana and we ended the session. Confirming that he would come back the next day to teach (even though it was his day off), I thanked him for his guidance and then set about to get some food.
On my way to breakfast, I passed by the lobby, where I saw Siddhesh seated behind the front desk absorbed in his phone. Seeing me, he stood up, straightened his Nehru Jacket and wished me good morning.
Is that a look of total peace? I thought, or is he high?
“Good morning Siddhesh. Am I too late for breakfast?”
“No sir. It is past our normal serving time, but you can still have breakfast. Also, your treatment is confirmed for 3 pm”
I’m leaning towards total peace. I concluded.
There is nothing like a traditional Punjabi breakfast. Having it for the first time over thirty years ago, this simple meal of stuffed parantha, pickled mango and yogurt served with a pot of chai was still hard to top. A perfect adventure for the senses, it covers a range of textures and tastes, from the crispy surface of the parantha to the soft chewiness underneath, its broad wheat and oil flavors pairing perfectly with the spiced potato filling at its center. Add to this the sharp tanginess of the pickle, with its intense salty heat, followed by a dip of freshly made yogurt, the creaminess of which counterbalances the pickle and takes off just the right amount salt and spice while adding the perfect roundness to the flavor and then pair all this with Masala Chai, a fragrant blend of black tea, milk and spices and you are left with a meal that was built to stand the test of time.
Savoring every bite up to the last, I thanked my server, who was also the bellhop and Gofor for the hotel as he cleared the table.
“Ek aur chai,” I requested, wanting more tea to fortify myself while I planned out my day.
“Theek hain.” He replied as he wiped the table clean.
With the dishes out of the way, I set my laptop up to begin mapping out the day’s route. Having already visited Chotiwala and the Tourist Bungalow, I had one other landmark to see, The Rock.
“Easy peasy,” I said to myself. “I’ll just take the road up to Laxman Jhula, cross over and I’ll be there in no time.”
“Excuse me sir?” the server/bellhop/Gofor said with a confused look on his face, thinking I was addressing him.
“Oh. Sorry. I just was thinking out loud.”
The confused look remained and I realized he didn’t understand what I said. Going over my limited Hindi, I settled on,
“Koee baat nahin.”
This he understood and with a nod disappeared into the kitchen.
Returning to my computer, I went over my plans to get to The Rock. Once satisfied that I knew where I was going, I started going over photos from the day before. Scanning through the ones I took of the Tourist Bungalow, I stopped when I came to the picture of the gully that separated it from the road.
Chicken. That is where we left Chicken. I thought.
The memories brought back during the morning’s yoga session gave this gully much more meaning. When I took the photo, I was fixated on documenting it, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Now I knew.
Chicken was a tabby patterned with orange and white stripes. He had eyes the color of the Ganges, a blueish green that captured the holy river’s life force as it emerged from the Himalayas. For a brief time during the waning days of our 1985 vacation in Rishikesh, the kitten we named Chicken allowed me and my classmates to take a break from the charade we were playing as twelve and thirteen-year-old boys pretending to be tough guys, who could only show affection filtered through the prism of a deeply insecure form of masculinity. This made it ok to punch your friend in the face and call him a shithead, as a way to say you cared, but god forbid if feelings were brought up.
At the start of vacation in November, I was clumped in with four other boys from my class (Grade Six), along with one older boy from Grade Seven. We were put under the supervision of Jote Singh, a childless 3HO devotee, with no teaching experience, who was gullible enough to volunteer to come to India for a plane ticket and the promise that he would be doing God’s work. He gave up trying to control us by week three, letting us run wild and act on some of our worst impulses for the remaining two and a half months.
The adoption of Chicken as our mascot helped to reduce some of the tensions created by this Darwinian environment, specifically when it came to our group dynamic. Gone were the battles for dominance and the constant games played by the alpha boys to assert their authority. Gone were the cliques that we normally fell into. Instead, we worked as a group to take care of this little creature.
Emaciated when we found him, he ate at every opportunity and with the voraciousness of an animal who never knew when his next meal might come. Afraid he would run off and we would never see him again, we kept him with us whenever we could or locked him in one of our three rooms with food, water and a newspaper for a litter box, when we were unable to bring him where we were going.
The first time I had a chance to hold him, he meowed in protest as I put him in my lap. Keeping him gently in place with one hand, I stroked his head and cheeks, which helped settle him and eventually he began to purr. As I continued to pet him, his purr built into a fierce rattle, causing every breath he took to shake his delicate frame. Chicken periodically looked up at me with a softness in his gaze, as his eyes began to slowly blink shut, until they finally closed completely and he fell asleep resting his chin against his front paws. Looking at this kitten fully relaxed in my lap, I felt a lightness in my heart and an opening to a kindness I couldn’t afford to show to others. I was sold.
We took turns watching over Chicken, keeping his existence a secret as best we could, for fear he would get taken away. I shared my room with Sadha Anand. He and I were outcasts, on the bottom rung of our groups hierarchy. Although we had known each other before India thanks to our mothers being close friends, Sadha Anand was nobody’s friend and fit the role of a cowardly bully.
Slightly overweight, with a plain face, he was obsequious to those he saw as stronger and a monster to those he felt were weaker. He continually tested my boundaries pushing and probing to see what he could get away with. For that reason, I spent as little as time with him as possible. I especially tried to avoid him during meals, so I could enjoy my food without worrying about what he might try to do if he was sitting next to me.
Seeing Sadha Anand rush into the dining hall as I was eating dinner, I instinctively tensed up, before noticing that he was out of breath and had a pained look on his face.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Chicken started shaking and then he stopped moving!” He said while choking up. I was shocked. This was the same guy who had gleefully tormented a chained monkey in Sulfur Springs a few months earlier.
Taking a moment to gather himself, in what I perceived was an attempt to control his emotions and not look weak, he continued, “Then he woke back up. Now he is walking around but he can’t see! He is meowing and…” He trailed off and started to cry.
Not knowing what this could mean, other than the one of the few beings that I felt love for was hurting, I abandoned my meal to follow Sadha Anand back to where Chicken was.
Gathered together in a semi-circle outside of the back of the Bungalow, each boy’s face was framed with expressions of helplessness and sadness as Chicken lay panting heavily on his side up against the wall. His eyes were open, staring ahead and unfocused. My heart ached seeing him in this state and I began to think of ways I could help.
“What do we do?” I asked. “Should we ask Jote Singh to help us?”
Mucor looked up, the sadness on his face quickly changing to anger. “No! Fuck that!”
“What then?” I said, willing to challenge the de facto leader of our group.
“Let’s give him another day,” Karta suggested. “Maybe he’s just sick and he’ll get better.”
As if on cue, Chicken stood up, his legs shaking, eyes blank and began to meow. He started to walk in one direction, only to halt quickly and then back up against the wall. Each attempt only seemed to frighten him further, his cries became more and more desperate.
Not knowing what else to do, I pushed past the other boys and picked him up, hugging him close to my chest. He struggled at first, but I held him tight and shushed him while gently stroking his face. Slowly he relaxed and overtime slipped into sleep. Despite wanting to hold him forever and make it all ok, I knew I would have to put him down at some point, as it was not my turn to keep him for the night.
The next morning began with the normality of the day to day routines that punctuated our stay at the Tourist Bungalow. Yoga, exercise, followed by breakfast. It was only after returning from breakfast, when Karta discovered Chicken in his room, unresponsive.
“He’s dead!” Karta announced to the gathered group while trying to not show any emotion. His voice cracked slightly and his face betrayed the sadness he was trying to hide as he lay Chicken on the ground.
Refusing to believe this, I knelt over Chicken and looked for any sign to refute his claim, but his body lay still and unbreathing.
“He can’t be dead!” I said with a conviction that my words alone were enough to make the situation otherwise.
“Really? Then why is he not waking up?” Karta retorted.
“I don’t know.” I replied weakly.
“Maybe if we chant to Guru Ram Das…” interjected Sat Sang.
Guru Ram Das was the fourth guru of the Sikhs. Unlike Orthodox Sikhism, which made no mention of his powers, in the 3HO, he was the go to Guru if you wanted to heal somebody. We had all been taught that performing a simple chant using his name was enough harness these powers, so when it was suggested we try it, no one laughed or scoffed at the idea. Instead we sat in a circle and laid Chicken on his blanket in the center and as natural as we would start a game of Capture the Flag or basketball, we began singing in unison.
“Guru Gure Wahe Guru, Guru Ram Das Guru.”
Our voices connected and sang in harmony, each boys’ voice seeming to strengthen the others’.
I sang with the desperation of a child starved for love, willing to do anything to keep this being in my life who gave me an opening into the window of my humanity.
Please Guru Ram Das, please. I pleaded. Don’t let him die. I’ll do whatever you want. Please.
“Guru Gure Wahe Guru, Guru Ram Das Guru,” we sang over and over.
A meow broke through the chant.
I opened my eyes to see Chicken sitting up on his blanket. His turquoise eyes focused and alert. I stared back in awe, tears of joy welling in my eyes, while the other boys gasped and exclaimed, trying to make sense of what just happened.
“Holy shit!” cried Mucor, jumping to his feet like he had just been electrocuted.
Karta stared in disbelief and could only manage, “Hahahaha!”
“Whaaaaat….” Sri Singh said in his laid back Southern California accent.
We did it! We fucking did it!
Miracle or not, the message of this moment was undeniable. No matter what anyone could say, I believed we had brought this kitten back to life by chanting a healing prayer.
Thank you Guru Ram Das! I thought. I’m going to be a Sikh forever!
Even though the values and teachings I had been raised with were affirmed by this experience, my mind was already working on how to parse my promise to Guru Ram Das, since in my mind he had just proved his existence and I knew he would soon ask me to do something I really didn’t want to do.
For the rest of that day it was as if the outer world was reflecting the magic that transpired that morning. The bus taking us to The Rock left on time. The older boys took the day off from their bullying (a miracle right up there with Moses parting the Red Sea). The best seats were available at Chotiwala and the food was on point. The synchronicity with which all this unfolded was too much for me to ignore. I gave thanks to Guru Ram Das as I finished my meal and headed to the river ferry that would take me home.
Walking contentedly up the hill from the ferry to the Tourist Bungalow, I passed through the gates and towards my room, when I saw my roommate Sadha Anand outside on the step, his eyes red from crying.
“It started again.”
My stomach tightened. “What?” I asked reflexively, but I already knew the answer.
“I came back from Chotiwala and Chicken was shaking again. He’s…” The sound of Sadha Anand’s voice cut off as I raced down the hallway to our room.
The blanket was on the floor and Chicken lay unmoving on it, his mouth covered with foam and fur streaked with vomit.
No! You promised!
Fury and despair swirled in my chest and tears welled up in my eyes as I picked Chicken up. Limp in my hands, I gently brought him to the shower stalls so I could clean his body, the tears blurring my vision and streaming freely down my cheeks.
I don’t fucking care if anyone sees me.
I brought him back to my room and we gathered together to say goodbye.
Chicken died that night.
For half of our group this was the end of their interest. How the body was disposed really didn’t concern them. Vincent Hill had taught us to harden our hearts and generally India was not a place where animals lived long or happy lives.
The remaining three of us knew we were not just going to dump Chicken’s body. Although a burial was considered, we had been taught by our parents that cremation was the best way to free the soul from the body, so we decided that we would find a way to cremate Chicken. Having watched cremation ceremonies a few times down at the bank of the Ganges, the concept was grasped and we decided that the gully in front of the Tourist Bungalow would be a perfect place to perform our ceremony, out of view and protected from the wind.
Grabbing all the paper we could find, along with a torn pair of pajamas and loose branches for kindling, we created the pyre with the help of the fire making skills my dad had taught me in one of our survival outings he took me on a few years earlier.
Make sure you leave room between the branches for airflow.
My father’s words echoing in my mind as I put the finishing touches on the pyre and laid the blanket with Chicken’s body over it. We chanted “Akal” three times, as this was supposed to help assist the soul in finding its way back to the Creator, and then used matches to light the pyre on all four sides, blowing air to feed the fire, until it gathered strength, only stepping back as the flames started to nibble around the edges of the blanket.
It turns out it takes a lot more than a hobo campfire to burn a body. What we ended up with was a well-cooked kitten. As the flames died down and Chicken’s crispy body remained, I cursed at myself for believing that this would be easy. But being children from America, we decided that “going bigger” would solve this problem. The solution would be to get more clothes and paper to use as fuel. Scrambling out of the gully, we headed back to our rooms to grab what we could find. As I rummaged through my duffel, deciding on what I could afford to use, I heard the dogs. The racket they were making sounded like they were fighting over something big. It took my brain a few seconds to realize what that might be.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I said as I bolted out of my room and back to the gully as fast as I could, just in time to see two dogs playing a tug of war with Chicken’s body, with the rest of the pack closing in.
Helpless but to watch as this mangey pack of dogs fought over Chicken’s remains, I felt a deep sense of shame and sadness for failing in our attempt to assist this creature on his journey to the next life. Even for the short time he was in my life, the love he brought me did not deserve this ending.
Looking at this gully in the photo all these years later, I realized that this was the first time I had to deal with a death in my life and the grief that followed.
“Ahh, India.” I said resignedly, closing my laptop and letting out a deep sigh. Sitting at the table in the hotel’s restaurant staring out onto the street, my emotional state coursed with melancholy from this memory as my mind drifted between Chicken and the day’s plans, waiting for my pot of chai.
The walk to The Rock took about thirty minutes from my hotel. Since it was late morning, the roads were still easily navigable. My route led past the two Chotiwalas, up a hill and out of the Swargashram enclave. Between this and Laxman Jhula was a relatively quiet stretch of road with the occasional food vendor.
This was my first time crossing Laxman Jhula going towards The Rock rather than coming from the other way to go eat at Chotiwala. Looking for monkeys, I saw a handful of macaques and no sign of the much-dreaded langurs that used to dominate this bridge, taking food from anyone foolish enough to have it on their person.
Approaching The Rock, the only major changes I noticed along the way were the digs of a well off squatter along the river and a new hotel perched half way along the trail to it. A couple of European tourists were sunbathing on the small beach located on the backside of The Rock. It wasn’t until I descended to the beach on the river’s edge facing the front side of it that I noticed the other interlopers. Trying not to look offended, even though I wanted no-one the beach, I kicked my shoes off and walked into the water to have my time with The Rock.
My memory of The Rock was equal parts joy and dread. Joy in that, it generally allowed us a moment of rare leisure. Dread, in that we all had to jump off The Rock at some point as decreed by Nanak Dev. The common approach was to swim out to the side facing the beach and then scale The Rock up to a point about twenty feet above the water and leap in. Having a minor fear of heights and healthy fear of murky water where I could not touch the bottom (the thought of getting dragged under by a creature of indeterminate origin that I could not see terrified me), I spent several weeks looking at The Rock, watching many others jump off of it and feeling more and more ashamed of my cowardliness. I knew that despite everyone else emerging from the water unharmed, the moment I took my turn, the river monster I feared would be waiting for me in the depths and that would be the end. This outweighed the fear of Nanak Dev’s wrath, until the issue was forced.
Marched to the edge of the water, I was pushed in and told to “climb that fucking thing and stop being a pussy.” The swim to The Rock was a short distance, only about 10 meters, however, my body was going into shutdown mode as it had in earlier traumatic episodes and by the time I reached The Rock, my body was shaking at a nearly uncontrollable level. Clinging to an outcropping just above the surface, I realized that there were no foot holds below and I was going to have to pull myself out of the water. Feeling hopeless nearly to the point of wishing I would get dragged under, a small voice in the back of my head reminded me that almost everyone else now sitting on the beach had managed to scale this thing and that my only way to end this was to do the same.
Using a technique I had learned from swimming, I pushed my body down into the water before reversing the motion and using the buoyancy of the water to propel my body up as far as my arms would allow. My left foot found purchase, giving me enough force to pull myself out of the water. Clinging to the rock face, I tried to calm my body down before making the ascent.
“Get up that fucking thing and jump!” Nanak Dev yelled from across the water.
Shakily I found my way to the designated launch point and turned around to face the Ganges for what I believed would be my dive to certain death. My body tensed in terror as my vision’s depth perception recalibrated, making the distance between myself and the river appear further apart then in reality and in an instant my mind was off to the races pleading its case for self-preservation.
Oh fuck, I am going to die. Don’t jump. Don’t jump.
The blue-green color of the water changed from magical to ominous, as if to tell me that I was preparing to join the other children foolish enough to tempt fate. Minutes passed with me standing on the edge looking down at the water and by proximity, the beach a little further past it, most of the people on it oblivious to my position.
Nanak Dev must have also been distracted, as it took a good amount of time to pass with me standing on the ledge, before I heard, “Jump you fucking pussy!”
This was almost enough to pry me from my perch.
Counting down from three I aborted my leap on one, which was enough to send Nanak Dev over the edge.
“That’s it you motherfucker. You are coming off The Rock now!”
I watched as he said something to one of the older boys, who nodded in acknowledgement, took off his shirt and headed towards the water.
He’s coming to throw me in.
If there was a breaking point for me in all of this it was my shame. Standing frozen up on The Rock was one thing but getting forcefully thrown in the water in front of the entire India Kid community and becoming branded once again with the stamp of being a “pussy” was another. I had all the public humiliation I could take and with that in mind I leapt in.
There was a split second of weightlessness as the water rushed to greet me, followed by the thunderous clap of making contact with the surface, before being engulfed by the cold water and its darkness. The alarm bells of my mind were going full tilt as I pictured the creature racing from his lair to pull me into the depths, while I was thrown off trying to figure out where up was. Buoyancy came to the rescue. I surfaced and swam for my life.
Reaching the shore was not good enough. It was only after getting out of the water completely that I feel like I was safe. Safe from this one danger, I ran right into the next as Nanak Dev was there to greet me when I got out. Fearful of what I thought would happen next, I was surprised to see him smiling with a look of pride on his face.
“I knew you could do it.” He said, patting me on the back of the head. That was about the closest thing to approval I’d ever gotten from him. I could barely contain my pride as I walked over to my towel grinning like an idiot with my head held high. After having been in India for over 9 months, beaten and humiliated multiple times, this felt like the completion of my initiation ceremony and I had now become a full-fledged India Kid. I had been accepted in front of all the kids, including the girls. If I were to believe the ZZ Top cassette I listened to religiously that year, things were about to get even better.
The second song off the Eliminator album, “Got Me Under Pressure” started to play, about a girlfriend (told from the perspective of her 80s dude), who liked the finer things in life, meaning designer clothes, French cuisine, limos and museums. She also had an affinity for cocaine, was unable to relate to other woman, loved whips, chains and other kinky stuff and could beat the shit out of her man.
Damn, I thought, Those are some fucked up lyrics.
Standing knee deep in the Ganges, feeling the wave of emotion from all those years back, I wanted nothing more than to redeem my younger self by swimming out to The Rock and jumping off of it as many times as I could, but I had my backpack. I thought for a moment to ask the French mother and daughter on the beach if they would watch my stuff, but common sense prevailed.
Another trip perhaps.
Shuffling out of the water, I took a long last look at The Rock, which gave me a moment to wipe the tears from eyes, before I set about putting my shoes on. Keeping my head down so as to not betray my emotions, I bumped into a young Indian tourist who was trying take a selfie.
“Sorry!” I said reflexively.
“Mujhe Maaph Karen!” He replied. As our eyes met, he smiled and gestured with his phone.
“Picture?” He asked.
“Theek hain.” I replied as I cocked my head sideways to show approval.
Handing me his phone, he strode into the water and began to pose. I took several portrait and landscape shots of him looking his best with the Ganges, The Rock and Laxman Jhula as the background.
As I handed his phone back, he smiled and then pointed at me and then himself and said,
“Chalo.” I replied, standing next to him so he could take a photo of us together. After he took a few, I waved goodbye and started to make my way back up to the path that would take me back to Laxman Jhula and eventually my hotel. I had an Ayurveda treatment scheduled at the hotel I didn’t want to be late for.
My last day in Rishikesh, started as the day before did, with a yoga class (sans langur) taught by Vikas on the hotel rooftop. After wrapping up I looked at the time.
I have three hours before check out. I thought, doing the math. I still need to shower and eat, before I have to vacate my room.
You have time. Came the voice, reassuring and strong.
Fucking ok then.
Hiding everything of value the best I could in my room, I put on my running gear and left the room with my key and a ten rupee note to buy water.
I ran through the bazaar, past the Chotiwalas, down the dusty road, over Laxman Jhula, past the ballin’ squatter and on to the beach next to The Rock. Catching my breath, I noticed a European sun bathing to my left with a straw hat over his face. A little further up the river, the first boats from rafting tours were just getting under way.
The coolness of the water was welcoming after the twenty-minute run and I reached The Rock in a few seconds. Remembering that there were no footholds beneath the surface, I used my buoyancy to give me the extra help I needed to pull myself out of the water and began scaling up The Rock.
Up, up, up.
Reaching the top, I looked over to Laxman Jhula off in the distance, before turning to face the river.
Fuck you river monster.
I jumped and for a half of a second everything froze. The rowers, the turquoise water, the passed out European on the beach, all radiating with the energy of the universe, connecting with me and all of life, until I hit the water. The force was violent and swift ripping the world away and immersing me in darkness.
Fear crept in and I fought to hold on.
Accept and let go.
The coldness of the water added clarity to this awareness and I stopped struggling, allowing for whatever was to be.
Love. Compassion. Be.
I surfaced to the sound of cheers, whoops and hollers. It took me a moment to realize that these were coming from the rafts and a few seconds longer to understand that they were meant for me. Swimming back to the beach, I stood on the riverbank and looked over to the passing rafters with their oars raised and pumped fists. I raised mine in acknowledgement and gratitude.
Back on the beach I saw that none of this ruckus had seemed to faze the Euro sunbather, who remained in the same position from when I first arrived.
Finish the circle I thought.
Only the bravest of the boys, a mere handful, swam across the Ganges during our vacations in Rishikesh. It was the stuff of legends and gave an aura of badassery to whomever that did it. Now it was my turn.
Feeling an urge to say something before jumping back into the water, to mark the gravity of the occasion, I only had this passed out sunbather as a witness within earshot.
“Adios.” I said finally before starting across.
The current was strongest at the center of the river. Using breaststroke so I could keep my head above water and to see where I was going, I struggled to push through this part. One raft had just passed and another was a minute away. I could feel that power of the current sapping my strength.
Don’t fight it, use it.
I let go of my desire to swim straight across and instead swam with the current, allowing me to quickly break through the middle of the river. The beach that lay on the other side was now reasonably in reach.
A minute later my foot struck the ground and I stood up to catch my breath. Walking up onto the beach, I was greeted by three men who looked to be related, making their way down.
Smiling, I said as I pointed in the direction behind them, “Good morning! Is that the way back to the road?”
The first guy smiled back and nodded. The circle was complete.