Rishikesh Pt. 2 – Chicken and The Rock

 

“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.

Chicken.

The name popped into my head, a name I had long forgotten.

Damn. 

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.

Woah. 

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”

“Thank you.”

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.

No!

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.

“Jump godammit!”

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,

“Saath Mein?”

“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.

But..

Just go.

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.

Go.

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.

Chicken.

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.

 

 

 

Rishikesh Pt. 1 – On Top Of The World

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.”

“But…”

“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.

Dehra Dun?

The heat left over from the day radiated through everything.  From the crushed gravel under my feet to the jasmine tree blooming outside the gate.  The fevered air, with its intoxicating fragrance caressed me like a lover’s whisper, promising the world and of the possibility that lay ahead.

“Sir, where you go?”, the taxi driver asked, pulling me back into the present.

“Huh? Kya?”, I said reflexively, not wanting to leave this memory  just yet.

“Kidhar ja rahe? Lemontree Hotel?” he said, wanting to make sure he was still taking me to the place he agreed to take me an hour before.

“Han ji,” I confirmed.

I was going to Rajpur, a suburb of Dehra Dun, to see what was left of Guru Ram Das Academy, better known as GRD (my second school), where I got to live the closest thing to an ordinary teenage life in India.

Leaving GNFC for GRD felt like a weight was being lifted off my chest and I could breathe again.  Gone were the ever-present threats of violence and the real fear it created, permeating every aspect of the school day.  With the end of this daily fear for my safety, it gave space for a whole new set of issues to arise, more akin to the worries of an average American high school student.  And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

At fifteen, I was in the throes of adolescence and the once forbidden, being able to talk to a girl for longer than a few minutes, was no longer out of reach.  Girls were in the same school, the same class, the desk over.  Not in a separate school a mile away, occasionally brought into the line of sight for special school functions, allowing for sparing glances or the rare exchanged word.  Infatuations and crushes now had meaning and became much more real.

Despite the proximity, there were still rules.  Becoming boyfriend and girlfriend was out of the question.  Holding hands and kissing was verboten.  But considering where I was the year before, in an all-boys school, with way more restrictions, the sheer presence of girls in this moment of my adolescence helped prevent what could have been a much more dysfunctional influence on my notions of romance and love.

The taxi taking me from Mussoorie to Rajpur was an Ambassador, which was fitting, considering it was the most ubiquitous car on the road during my time in India.  Based on a British design from the 1950s, this car was manufactured with very little modifications made to it, both internally and externally until 2014.  Sitting in the backseat I noticed that this newer version had slight updates to the console and windows (and I mean only slightly) from the Ambassadors we would ride in back in the 80s, with much of the rest of the car remaining the same; bucket seats for both the front and back with no seatbelts in the back.  Descending from Mussoorie into the Doon Valley, I kept waiting for the driver to turn his engine off, so he could coast and save on gas.  My willingness to pay for an AC taxi probably prevented him from doing so.

As we wound down Mussoorie Road on our way to Rajpur, I took stock on how much this road had changed.  There were now countless dhabas (open air restaurants) that lined the road, guaranteeing that I would not run the risk of starving for the next hour.  The entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism was in full effect and the insidious nature of marketing (think corporate naming rights for a stadium) was front and center.

Maggie’s Point was once a toll booth with a handful of buildings around the halfway point between Mussoorie and Dehra Dun.  It was renamed Maggi Point after the famous Asian noodle brand and transformed into a tourist trap trumpeting the great views of the Doon Valley below.  While many of the dhaba names had about as much thought and creativity put into them as could be expected, there were a few that stood out.  My favorites were –

Whatever Point – Clearly not sold on the idea of opening a dhaba at Maggi Point.

Munch Selfie Point – Nestle India launched a Munch candy bar line, with the feature bar being called Munch Nuts.  This café did nothing to help the situation.

Murgasm – Hey I got a great idea!  Let start a dhaba and make chicken that will give people orgasms.  Any idea on what we should call it?

My First Coffee Café – A quick rendezvous for any god-fearing Indian looking to cross over to the darkside and escape the tyranny of masala chai, the national drink of India.

Little Heart Café – I get what they were trying to do with the name, by using “Little” to evoke something precious, however, when you are trying to sell food, a certain level of passion is required to keep people coming back.

Down in Rajpur, the taxi pulled up to the gate of my hotel, The Lemontree, which was part of the Pacific complex, an example of modern India doing a great job of what the U.S. had done for so long; co-opt other cultures, without any sense for how convoluted it may look to anyone from that culture.

Using a significantly sized replica of the Statue of Liberty to grab people’s attention, the façade of the Pacific was also plastered with some of the shops’ logos, to help lure the consumers-in-training to the American Mall experience inside.  Maybe there would time to explore this later, but I had other things to see first.

Getting out of the car, I was greeted by my first beggar.  Carrying a baby and dressed in a dirty sari, she had her free arm outstretched.  I pulled a 50 rupee note from my pocket and handed it to her before passing through the gate, an invisible barrier that she seemed acutely aware she could not cross.  It was interesting to see how attentive the guards were as long as you were in their compound, but the moment you stepped outside of that defined area, you were fair game.

Leaving my suitcase in my room, I made a quick exit of the hotel so I could start walking up Rajpur Road towards GRD.  Within five paces outside of the gate I was flanked on either side by beggars, a boy and a girl, both under the age of ten, shoeless, with unwashed clothes, matted hair, dirty faces and looks that could melt the hardest of hearts.  The boy started in on making his case for me to give him money.

With his head just a little higher than my waist, he held his hand open in a receiving gesture, brushing up against me as he said, “Please bhai, paise de do, mere pas shoes nahin hai, main roti khana khao.”

“Paise nahin hai.” I replied haltingly.  My desire to give them money clashed with the certainty that they would not be able to keep it.

Sensing an opening, the boy continued, “Please bhai, paise de do,” saying this as he leaned into me looking up, with the girl closing in on my right.

My pockets were difficult to access, and there was nothing in my backpack that that they could reach, so I didn’t feel that I was at risk of getting pickpocketed, provided I paid attention.  The boy’s continued tactic of bumping into me and repeating his request for money so he could buy shoes and eat bread, elicited an amused look from the guard standing watch over the shopping compound next to The Pacific.

Unused to the heartbreaking poverty of India, I was unprepared to handle this situation.  Not knowing what else to do, I tried to walk fast, but they kept up.  I then stood in one place pretending to ignore them, but they remained.  I felt out of options.

Feeling defeated, I said, “Abhi paise nahin hai.  Main vapas, paise de do,” in the hope that the promise of me giving them some money when I returned would end this standoff.

This stopped the boy’s chant.  He looked up at me.  His eyes were darker than mine, and they lacked the innocence and joy a child of his age should possess.  The sadness and pain I felt for him was palpable.  Every part of me wanted to pick him up, hug him and tell him that everything would be…

“Please bhai, paise de do, mere pas shoes nahin hai, main roti khana khao,” he said, as the bumping began anew.

Resigned that I could not win in convincing them to leave me alone, I began walking up Rajpur Road, with the two right at my heels.  The boy was in mid-sentence, when his voice trailed off.  I turned around to look back and they were gone.  Glancing to my left, they had already made it halfway across the road walking diagonally, deftly avoiding traffic, with their sights locked onto a pair of tall blond European women walking down the other side of the road.

God speed, I thought.  Those women didn’t stand a chance.

Rajpur Road had been expanded quite a bit since my days at GRD and it looked like it had been doubled in size.  Starting at the intersection with Mussoorie Road and going all the way into Dehra Dun there was now a divider, to split the two ways of traffic.  Once past this intersection, heading away from Dehra Dun towards Rajpur, the divider ended and the road quieted down considerably, both in traffic and in the amount of commercial buildings lining its edges.  Passing this point, I knew I was close.

Working against the toll of time, I searched for any scrap of memory, any fleeting visual imprint left of the trees and houses I now walked past.  With nothing registering, I was beginning to doubt if I there would be anything left for me to remember.  That was quickly dispelled when I recognized the banyan tree, twenty eight years after the last time I saw it.  It was the oldest tree on Rajpur Road (which also served as a bus stop) and it looked exactly the same.  What surrounded it was another story.  Gone was the open field next to it, where we played volleyball.  In its place were houses.

Getting my bearings with the help of the banyan tree, I was able to find the house the older boys and I were quartered in for the first few months of GRD until the dormitories were finished on campus.  Staying in the smallest room of this house with four other boys, our beds were jammed together frame to frame against the back wall of the room, with a ceiling fan that could transform the thickest heat of a Doon Valley summer night into cold flowing air.  U2’s Joshua Tree was the soundtrack, blasting from a boombox, on auto-reverse for weeks on end.

During the first month of living at this house, the running joke was to find as many ways to bring up in public conversation where we were staying.  The owner’s name was Mrs. Cock and we took every opportunity to be able to say this and get away with it.

“Yeah, we don’t live on campus just yet.  We’re staying at Mrs. Cock’s house.”

“Fuck, I left my skateboard at Mrs. Cock’s.”

“Are you heading back to Mrs. Cock’s?”

Mrs. Cock’s house was also where the road of drug experimentation for me had begun.  It started with huffing glue, which thankfully ran out quickly (it was American made).  Next up was nutmeg.

When consumed in large quantities, it could induce a similar physical experience to weed, in that it would give your body a buzz, slow down your perception of everything, make you susceptible to fits of laughter and give you the munchies.  On days off from school, I tried consuming nutmeg in multiple methods, starting first by ingesting two or three nuts by chewing them up.  This left a nasty lingering taste in the mouth, so I quickly moved on to making tea, before finally settling on shakes with ice cream, using a blender bought in Rajpur.

Staring at the house nearly three decades later, I was sure Mrs. Cock had long since passed.  Whoever lived there now had let the house fall into disrepair.  The house’s exterior still had the same yellow wash from when we stayed there.  The lychee and pear trees that Mrs. Cock would try in vain to keep us away from, so she could sell these to fruit vendors for extra income, remained behind the house.

 

I wandered through the front and side yards, while the patrons of a chai cart outside the gate craned their necks to get a better view of what I was doing.  After several minutes of this, I grew tired of being watched and was ready to move on.  Besides, I knew GRD was only a short distance away.

In the two years I spent at GRD, there was constant construction.  When I left, a second parcel of land had just been purchased to expand the campus, so I wasn’t surprised to see a secondary gate that allowed access to this area before reaching the main gate.

Back at GNFC a few days before, I had been informed of GRD’s fate after all the Khalsas (us American Sikhs) had left.  Mr. Harbans, who had taught at both schools and was now the headmaster of GNFC, told me that GRD had become a technical college, which it remained to this day.

Before the property had been transformed into a school, it started with just a cozy bungalow owned by a friend of Yogi Bhajan’s (Raja Singh), which was occasionally used by us Khalsas during transit from Mussoorie to Delhi, Poanta Sahib or Rishikesh.  Over the years, I had spent several nights there.  One time was after I broke my glasses.  With Mussoorie not having an optometrist, one of our guides was tasked with taking me to Delhi to get a new pair.  Whether it was intentional or due to incompetence, the Delhi optometrist prescribed lenses that made objects seem much closer than they were.  Returning to school with these glasses, I began miscalculating leaps and drops that were much longer or further than my lenses were telling me, while playing games like Capture the Flag.  Rather than risk a broken leg or worse, I ended up wearing these glasses sparingly until my trip back to the U.S.

While staying overnight as this bungalow, I remember being in awe that the bathroom had a hot water heater, which after taking cold showers for year and a half, was about as luxurious a thing a kid in India could ask for.  As the hot water poured from the spigot, I crouched underneath, letting it cascade down my back and over my shoulders, the heat reassuring me, in that moment, that all was good in the world.

Stepping through the main gate, the bungalow remained where it was, with the same wide gravel driveway with groves of lychee trees on either side leading to its entrance.  At first, I was hesitant to go any further.

When will you ever be here again?  I thought.

This was enough motivation to move me forward.  As I got closer to the bungalow, I could see that it had been given a facelift.  The front wall of the building had been replaced by glass, a popular motif it seemed in India these days.  At the Reception Desk sat two young women, both of whom just stared, waiting for me to say something.

“Hi.  I used to go to this school.”

“Excuse me?” Said the woman closer to me.

“I was a student here before it became a technical college.”

“That must have been a really long time ago,” she said matter-of-factly.

What is up with people telling me that I look really old?  I know I’m not twenty anymore, but it’s not like I’m about to the hit the retirement home anytime soon.  Maybe it’s the beard..

“Yes,” the receptionist continued, “I could see you standing up at the gate taking photos, I was beginning to wonder if you might have come here before.”

“I went to school here when this was a K through 12 boarding school.  Does Mr. Raja Singh still own it?”

The receptionist stared blankly back at me.

“Does..”

“Hain, Mr Raja Singh is the Chairman of the School.” Her contemptuous tone telling me what she really thought, while she motioned to a framed photo on the wall behind her, obscured largely by the glare from all the light pouring in through the plate glass facade behind me.  I can only assume it was a picture of Mr. Raja Singh.

Fuck, this is going badly.

“I even stayed in this building before it was a school.  There were no other buildings behind it.  Just this.”  Both receptionists exchanged glances as if they were deciding if they needed to call security.

“Look, that is still a bathroom,” I said pointing to a closed door on the left down the hallway.  Apparently, this was enough to deem me sane and their concern seemed to lessen greatly after I said this.

“Please sir, have a seat and someone will come out to see you shortly.” The receptionist said, while motioning back towards the couches near the entrance.

Making a quick mental calculation as to the value of the time I would need to spend explaining myself in order to see more of the school, over the time I had remaining to see the rest of Dehra Dun, I did my best impersonation of a polite person.

“Oh, no thank you.  I just wanted to see the school for a minute.” And with that I turned around and walked out the gates.

The town of Rajpur was a short walk up the road past the school.  I was greeted by the familiar sights of roadside sugarcane juice vendors, roasted corn sellers, dhabas and general stores lining Rajpur Road, unremarkable from the others I had seen elsewhere.

I remember there being a public elementary school right off Rajpur Road, that we held classes in, while our classrooms on campus were being built.  Looking down an alley, I thought it might have been this, but with so many years now passed, I was unsure.

Although a fan of hot weather, I had now spent several hours walking out in the sun and I was beginning to think it might be good to stop somewhere along the way back for tea and to cool down.

About halfway back to my hotel, in the quiet part of Rajpur Road, I chose to stop at Café de Piccolo.  The desire to find a place with air conditioning trumped my prejudice against patronizing restaurants with Western names in Asian countries.  Opening the door, the design of the place could easily lead someone to believe that they just stepped into a roadside café in Northern California, or some other area in the U.S. frequented by people of means. Its high vaulted ceilings were adorned with hanging flower pots and cutouts of fanciful cupcakes, matched perfectly with its use of exposed wood in the cabinetry and table tops, with white painted wooden chairs and couches and loveseats upholstered in acceptably modern colors.

Choosing a table in the corner, I unloaded my backpack into the opposite chair and started to read the menu.  That is when I noticed the music.

About after the 3rd whimsical percussion driven whistling song, I began to feel like I was in my very own Twilight Zone episode, in a café designed to make people believe that everything was ok (you must be HAPPY and CAREFREE), eating meals that cost an Indian laborer’s weekly salary, while glued to their iPhones and laptops, oblivious to the horrible disparity outside.

“Are you ready to order sir?”  The waiter with a neck tattoo asked.  Dressed in a crisp white long sleeve shirt, fitted jeans and black Chuck Taylor All Stars, his expensive clothes clashed with his poor taste in body adornment.

“A pot of chai and the check please.”

Back on Rajpur Road and with time running out I had to choose between one of the two remaining places I wanted to visit in Dehra Dun, Kumar Sweet Shop at the Clock Tower, or Yeti Restaurant.  Kumar’s was famous for its offering of classical Indian sweets along with its legendary Mango lassis that I remember religiously ordering on every visit.  Yeti’s was the place to go for Chinese and Western food to escape the Indian food served at school.

Kumar’s ended up winning out, not just for its awesome sweets, but also for the fact that there was a bazaar situated right next to it that I wanted to walk through, if time allowed.

Across the street from my hotel was the taxi stand.  I asked the Rickshaw driver how much it would cost to take me to the Clock Tower.

“150,” he said trying to highball me.

$3 for a 15 minute ride is an insane deal in New York.  I thought, I’m not going to haggle with him over pennies.

“Chalo,” I said agreeing with his ask, throwing him off as he was anticipating the back and forth that would normally ensue.

With the price agreed upon and me in the backseat, the motor rickshaw took off down Rajpur Road, providing me a comfortable shaded position to view all the new development along it.  The divider on the road helped make the traffic slightly less chaotic and the few street lights thrown in along the way, surprisingly kept the traffic flow in check.

The only landmark I could remember that stood out along this road was the President Hotel.  While I think I recognized the space, the hotel was long gone.  Arriving at the Clock Tower a few minutes later, I too realized that Kumar’s suffered the same fate.  Although unlike the President Hotel, the location where it once stood was completely razed.  Nothing remained on the corner where the Kumar Sweet Shop once stood.  The bazaar’s entrance was still right next to where Kumar’s used to be.  After asking a passerby where Kumar’s was and finding out it had moved to the opposite side of the Clock Tower, along the road the rickshaw had brought me down, I decided I would seek it out after I took a quick walk through the bazaar.  Full of cheap clothes, stuffed animals, jewelry, books, household items and much much more, the bazaar was a pleasure to walk through, people watch and soak in a part of Indian life, however brief, that I missed very much.

Located in the newly built Food and Entertainment City complex, Kumar’s was located on the second floor.  Looking like a standard Indian sweet shop, it had barfi in rows of every color, trays of gulab jamuns soaked in sugar syrup, stacks of laddus with various nuts, and piles of deep fried jalebis, bright orange in color.  A small fridge against the back wall held clay cups covered in aluminum foil, which I assumed were take-away lassis.

Taking my turn at the counter, I said the words I had been waiting to say again for years at Kumar’s,

“Ek mango lassi.”

“No mango lassi.  Only plain lassi.” The manager replied.

Goddamn you time. 

Rolling with the punches, I decided to just go with it.

“Achaa.  Ek lassi, aur do laddu.”

One worker put my two laddus into a small to go box, while another came out to the fridge and pulled out one of the clay cups that was to be my lassi.

Rolling, rolling, rolling.

Grabbing a seat on the veranda outside, I was midway through my lassi, when I heard, “How is it?”

Having spent the last few days being largely ignored unless I made it a point to engage, it took me few seconds to realize that I was being asked a question.

Seated to my left was a stunning woman elegantly dressed in a yellow and white kurta pajama with her two children.

“Oh,” I said. “It’s great.”

“Have you ever had one of those before?”

Smiling, I replied, “Yes, I’ve had many lassis.  I used to go to school in Rajpur and whenever I would come to town, I would stop at Kumar’s to get their famous mango lassi.  Sadly, they do not offer them anymore, so I had to settle for this.”

After introducing her children to me, whom both had impeccable manners and spoke perfect English, I asked where she came from, since she looked ethnically Tibetan.

“I was born in Dehra Dun, I went to school in Dehra Dun, I got married in Dehra Dun.  And you?  Where are you from?”

“New York.”

“Well, I am sorry that there are not more friends around here for you.” She said somewhat apologetically.

“That’s ok.  I didn’t plan on coming to India to meet other people.”

“How long do you plan to stay here?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow for Rishikesh.”

“Oh, you’ll meet plenty of friends there.” she said smiling.

Mussoorie : Post Mortem

Mussoorie. That was great. I had three full days to the explore this world of my childhood, to remember more of what happened and also try to put some demons to rest. While most of the time was spent revisiting places of old, I also made it a point to go where I had not (Gun Hill) and try to see Mussoorie through a modern lens.

What had changed? A life time resident I spoke with complained that it had become a slum. Did I see more poor people than I remember? Perhaps. But maybe that was just because there were more people there in general.

What was new? Neck tattoos. I saw way more of those than I was expecting. Was there a Bollywood film I missed where the hero had one? Is it time for me to reconsider getting mine? Or, was this just an indication of how much modern hip-hop culture has spread throughout the world with the help of smartphones (which everyone including the poor had)?

In 1991, the economy reopened to outside investment and business ventures, causing the Indian middle class to explode, giving many millions a better life. This also in turn meant that these millions now had access to motorized transportation. While the usage of these vehicles freed people to become much more mobile, it fundamentally transformed the ecosystem of many towns and cities, which were not built to handle the levels of traffic they were now facing during weekends and holidays.

Mussoorie was no exception, making a walk down what used to be a slow paced and quiet road with pedestrians and the occasional hand pulled rickshaw, into an unexpected obstacle course of scooters, motorcycles and cars, along with significant increase in pedestrian and bicycle rickshaw traffic. Any journey outside of the hotel required me to remain ever vigilant or risk getting run over.

Thankfully horns were used with wild abandon, as a way for the driver to communicate that they were bearing down on you. From the courteous triple tap “Hey, I am nearby, please be aware,” to the more aggressive “Get out of my way, I will destroy you” long single honk.
By Day Three, I had become an expert at identifying vehicles by their horn. The most commonly heard was from the scooter, recognizable by its nasally buzzing beep. Its two-wheeled relative, the motorcycle emitted a flatter, more hollow sounding noise. Many of the cars observed sounded horns that reminded me of an American accent, monotone and unmemorable. The most colorful of all were from the SUVs, which sometimes mimicked a birdcall in its cadence, hitting several notes in rapid succession.

Over the last thirty years, the layout of Mussoorie remained relatively unchanged. By this, I mean the buildings and architecture had not been altered to the point of making the town unrecognizable. Along the Mall Road there were very few buildings that stood out as new construction. Most of the new businesses looked like they just moved into an old building and replaced the sign.  The exceptions were of a combo Nirula’s / Domino’s, which seemed to pop mainly due to color scheme and its signs.

 

Hotel Howard was the other place and it looked like it really went under the knife. The earlier version had a ‘50s Modern design, with a rotating restaurant on top. The new Hotel Howard looked like it drew its inspiration from Robocop, saving parts of the old building’s body while throwing some silver and black pieces over the top to make it whole again. To cement its place into the modern age, Robo-Howard installed a coffee chain in the middle floor, which blared top forty hip hop as a way to draw in the new neck tattooed generation.

The restaurants of Mussoorie were a place for us students of GNFC to take a break from the Indian diet we were largely fed at school. A favorite place for us to eat was The Tavern, a second-floor restaurant near Picture Palace. This was the furthest into Mussoorie we would venture and it served Continental fare, with its specialty being the “Sizzler”. While sounding like it could be a wrestling move, it was more a body slam of spiced vegetables and tofu served in a cast iron dish that came out of the kitchen (surprise!) sizzling. On my return visit, just sitting down to eat at this place was enough. I did not have to relive everything. So, instead of the Sizzler, this time around I opted for their Indian fare going with a Mattar Mushroom dish and Naan instead. It made me happy.

 

 

At Library Point, Jeet Restaurant was the go to spot for Western food. Like The Tavern on my current visit, I opted for Indian food and unlike The Tavern, I immediately regretted this decision.

Outside of Jeet’s there were three other places that remained in Library Point from the good old days. A. Kumar & Co. and F. Nath Jee & Co. were general stores where you could stop on your way in for an ice cold Limca (lemon-lime soda), or a Campa Cola and on your way out to grab snacks to take back to school.

Lastly there was Whispering Windows, a favorite hotel for visiting parents to stay and a place where a langur once robbed me of a loaf of bread I bought to sustain me on a long pilgrimage trip to Hemkunt. I say “robbed” because that’s exactly what it did. The monkey was nearly my size and with fangs several inches long (I know this because he bared his teeth and lunged at me) he was welcome to take whatever he wanted after he rummaged through my bag. In the ‘80s, I remember Whispering Windows being a decent, clean place. It looks like that it had never been updated (the rooms look exactly like they did) and at $20 a night was veering into the world of budget travelling.

The “WTF Mussoorie?” award goes to the decision to move the Gandhi statue from its proper place in the traffic circle at Library Point (Gandhi Chowk) and replace it with a statue of an Indian three-piece band (outside of Jazz and Primus, I didn’t know this was a thing). Now Gandhi stands sidelined above a look out point, populated by selfie taking tourists and a whistle vendor. Whomever heads the Mussoorie Arts Committee needs to be fired for this and the many of the other half-baked pieces of artwork that now line the Mall Road.

Gandhi looms ominously as if ready for a comeback (They Call Me Mahatma).

In the heart of the Mall Road, the other hold outs from my childhood were two bookstores, Chander and Cambridge Book Depot, which were way ahead of the curve using depot in their names. Sandwiched together, it was at these two stores that I discovered three publications that would greatly affect my life, Commando Comics (WWII stories of British daring, stick-with-it-ness and a good catalog of German words expressing surprise), Archie Comics (Betty is Veronica with blond hair!!!! Figure it out Archie!!!) and the Joy Of Sex (a book that made me feel things I did not yet understand, nor would for many more years).

And finally, there was Chick-Chocolate. How the mighty have fallen. I think I can speak for most American kids when I say that this store held a special place in our hearts. Before the opening of the economy, foreign snacks (i.e. M&Ms, Coke, Doritos, etc.) were largely unavailable. Chick Chocolate was the one place in Mussoorie you could buy these foreign brands at an exorbitant rate and they made a killing. They also sold soft serve ice cream, toffees and plenty of Indian snacks as well. But, this was the place you went to if you were feeling a little homesick and you wanted something to help ease that pain. I imagine they had to rethink their business model, once we left Mussoorie and with the opening of the economy, which brought many more Western snacks into the Indian market.

Stepping back into this place, the only things still the same were the sign, husband and wife owners and a small selection of U.S. branded snacks. They expanded the space and transitioned into more of a café setup, serving burgers, pizza, coffee and other Western food and drink. I imagined with places like combo Nirula’s / Domino’s and other chains making their presence known in Mussoorie, they have to deal with some stiff competition.

Walking up to the cash register, the husband gave me a weary smile. I told him that I used to frequent his store as a child and it was great to be back.

Whether he had heard this one too many times or he just didn’t care, he smiled thinly again and said, “That’s nice.”

Seeing in the glass case a packet of their toffees and having such good memories from eating them, I asked to buy them without really thinking. As he pulled them out of case, I realized that this was the only bag, which likely wasn’t a good sign. When are you going to be back here again?   I thought.  Just buy the bloody things.

Hours later after dinner and sitting in my hotel room, I remembered I had bought the toffees. Excited to experience a childhood favorite, I pulled one from the bag and attempted to unwrap it. The parts of the wrapper that were not directly attached to the toffee tore away, with the remaining paper glued to the toffee.

Goddamn it, I thought. Chick Chocolate was going to really make me work for this memory.

 

Day Two, Part Two And The Electric Boogaloo

The security guard at the gate took his job seriously.  At first hesitant to let me in, I let him know I was here to see the Principal, Mr. Tiwari.  After answering a few other questions, this seemed to give him enough reassurance to proceed with the second phase of entry.  This required me to fill out a visitor slip, which I then had to bring over to a man, who I assumed was some sort of manager, standing twenty feet away.

Biting my lip on wanting to verbalize my thoughts on the unnecessary bureaucratic double work, I instead thanked the guard and presented my slip to the man as instructed.  Taking the slip, he led me into his office, a building a few feet from where we stood.  It’s façade, including its doors were made of glass.  Inside, was a wooden desk at the far end, flanked by rows of leather couches on either side.  Motioning me to sit, he then went around the desk, so he could call down to the school’s administrative office.

A few seconds after dialing he started speaking Hindi to someone on the other end.  “Han Ji! Vahan ek aadami Shri Tiwari ko dekhane ke lie yahan jata hai.  Han, former student.”

Being in situations like this before, where my fate lied in the hands of another, there was always part of me that was afraid of rejection.  As I waited for the reply from the Administrative Office, those fears began creeping into my head.

Will they turn me away, telling me I am not welcome?  I thought.  What will I do if that happens?  Try to sneak in?  How would the school react?  Would I get arrested?  I know Indian Jails are horrible…

“Thik hai,” the manager said finishing the call and hanging up the phone.  I held my breath.  He looked at me and with a slight wobble of his head, said, “Ok, you can go see.”

Relief.  I wouldn’t be forced to try to try something stupid to get into the school.

“Thank you so much!” I said, shaking his hand.  Without wasting another moment, I walked out of his office and started to make my way down the hill.

The path had the same design as I remembered.   It was made from poured concrete and divided into four-inch segments.   Indentations separated each segment, to funnel water off the path, so it wouldn’t become a functioning stream during the monsoons.

The last time I walked this path was when we left for Winter vacation at the end of November 1988, the plan was to return to GNFC the following March.  Unbeknownst to us, larger issues were at play between the school’s administration and 3HO, which would force us to move to a different school the following year.

The path down to school consisted of five switchbacks.  Interspersed between these turns were the living quarters for the teachers and school administration.  Along the way were signs with quotes that were either inspirational, extolled tough love, or encouraged thought.  After the last switchback, the path spilled out on to the far end corner of the Main Field, a large gravel-covered expanse, used for athletics, school functions and a place for the students to line up before entering the Dining Hall.

Several students were standing at this confluence and a few others were walking across the Main Field.  From looking at the school’s website, I already knew that the student body consisted mainly of Indians, sprinkled with a handful of expat Sikh children from Southeast Asia, so I wasn’t surprised that my appearance elicited several double takes and long stares.  I smiled and said hello to all I made eye contact with.  Sometimes this was met with a shy smile, with the student quickly looking away.  Other times it was a gleeful hello.

I walked at an angle across the field towards where I remembered the Principal’s Office to be.  Most of the buildings surrounding the field looked the same, with a few small noticeable changes.  The addition of a second floor above the Dining Hall, and a rooftop covering connecting it to the Kitchen.  The Bursar’s Office looked different too but I couldn’t quite figure out why.

For the last six months I had thought a lot about this moment and how I would feel.  If I were to take my queue from movies, I would be lead to believe that in a situation like this, returning to the place where so many powerful memories remain, it would result in a big cathartic release.

At that moment, on the school’s Main Field, I had no Wayne’s World-like wash to a flashback or I didn’t fall to my knees, ala the opening of Saving Private Ryan, where a man so overcome by the pain of his memories, collapses at the grave of a fallen comrade.  Then after crying, begins a flashback.

Perhaps the emotions didn’t hit me right away because I started working on healing these traumas last year and had done my fair share of crying (ok, a ton), while trying to process and forgive.  If I just showed up without doing the work, who knows how far across the field I would have gotten before losing my shit?

Walking off the Main Field I had a chance to test my theory.   Between the Assembly Hall and Library, to the left was a place where I had one of my initial traumatic experiences at GNFC, the spot where I had met Nanak Dev for the first time.

It was my third day in India and Nanak Dev was in his fourth year as the head guide for the Americans.  He was seated at the aforementioned spot, a concrete bench that was built along the outer wall of the Library, facing the Main Field.  Several American boys surrounded him.  As I approached, they gave way so I could be brought in to face him directly.  Dressed in the trappings of a traditional Nihang Sikh, his dark eyes and angular face were framed by a vibrant blue turban and an impressive black beard.

Despite my homesickness, the familiarity of the beard, turban and clothes, paired with his charismatic smile and the smell of sandalwood oil gave me the sense that everything was going to be ok.

After confirming that I had been given the lay of the land, he said, “Ravi, we have a game that every new kid has to play.  Give me your hand.”  Smiling, I obliged.  He placed his right hand around my knuckles and used his left hand to hold my forearm.  In the middle was my wrist.  He began to roll my hand.

“Have you ever had a wrist massage?”  This elicited a chuckle amongst the kids.  Even at ten I recognized the sound of malice.  The hairs on my neck began to rise.

He looked around with a knowing smile and continued, “I’m going to bend your fingers to your forearm, and your goal is to not cry.  Ok?”

At ten, not really not having the capacity for critical thinking, I did understand this; I didn’t know any of these people.  I wanted them to like me and if I didn’t cry, they would like me.  I would gain acceptance.  I nodded my head and hoped for the best.

He began to bend my wrist and I tensed my body in anticipation.  Very quickly, pain shot up my arm and I instinctively tried to pull away.

“No, no.  Stay right here,” Nanak Dev said, looking at me as if he knew how this was already going to end.  He pulled me in closer and applied even more pressure.

I resisted the urge to cry, by exhaling through my open mouth, until my lungs emptied.  On the inhale, the pain sharpened and I felt like I reached my limit.

I asked in a trembling voice, “Please, you’re hurting me.  Can you let go?”

He laughed, pushing my fingers closer to my forearm.

Coming undone from the pain, I felt completely helpless and with nothing left, I began to cry in earnest, pleading that he let me go.  Unrelenting, he continued to hold my wrist in this stress position, pushing even further.  I had never felt pain like this before as sobs began to wrack my body.

“Ravi,” he finally said, “you are a fucking pussy.”  A laugh rolled through the surrounding kids.

With that he released my arm, hit me across the head and pushed me away.  The pain began to subside and shame began to creep in.  I had failed my first test, which set the tone for the coming failures and social ostracization over the next few months.  Pain by the hands of this man, followed by crying and public humiliation.

Looking at this concrete bench thirty-four years later, the memory played through my mind, without the intense emotions that had been attached to it in the past.  I was able to acknowledge this memory and let go.  So far so good.

Walking past the Library towards the School Bell, a short man in a pullover sweater walked along side of me looking at me as if he was expecting me to say something.

Obligingly I said, “Uh…I’m here to see Mr. Tiwari.”

“Yes sir.  My name is Mohan.  Come this way sir.”  He said.

With that he led me into what used to be the entrance to the dorm rooms of Atari House.  In the hallway he took the first right, which opened up into a waiting room, with offices further down the way.

“Please sit sir,” Mohan said, “I will let Mr. Tiwari know.”

Seated on one the couches, I looked around the room.  The wall to the right held various trophies and a list of the special guests that came for Founder’s Day, the school’s annual anniversary celebration.  To the left were some photos of nondescript landscapes.  Directly in front of me was a faded print of the school’s namesake, Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru.  This was the most common painting of him.  In it, his eyes are heavy lidded, which I perceived was intended to show a man at peace, while also giving you the sense he was a someone you did not want to mess with.  Like the Mona Lisa’s smile, there was a mysterious element about his gaze.  Ecstatic reverie in the divine, or just sleepy?

“Hello,” someone said, breaking my transcendental moment with a man who died almost 500 years ago, yet was responsible for me being born.  I looked down from the Guru to see a young bespectacled Indian man standing by the entryway of the waiting room.

“Hello,” I replied, “are you also here to see Mr. Tiwari?”

The man chuckled. “No, I am a teacher here only.  I am teaching commerce, from grade ninth to tenth.”

“Oh, I see.” I said, slightly taken aback by how young this teacher looked.  I thought it interesting that the waiting room also functioned as some sort of Teacher’s Lounge.

The teacher then said, “Are you here about the teaching position?”

“No, I am a former student.”

“Wow!  That must have been a long time ago,” he said with such earnestness that I couldn’t help but smile.

Just then, Mohan re-entered the room.  “Mr. Tiwari is ready to see you.”

Mr. Tiwari was gracious and accommodating.  We made small talk asking about each other’s lives and tried to make connections where we could.  For the five years I was at GNFC in the 80s, he was the House Master for Atari House.  He had become the Principal many years later and suggested that he would be retiring in the near future.  After about an hour conversation he wrapped it up by saying I was free to go around the school on my own.  He suggested I explore the upper part of the school before joining him for lunch, which was in thirty minutes.  After lunch, I could then head down to see the rest of the school.

Now I could get down to business.  Walking out of the Administrative Offices, I turned left towards the Senior classrooms, three rooms accessible from the thoroughfare I was on by a concrete walkway.  Just past this to the right was the School Bell, a real bell used to constantly remind you of where you needed to be during the day.  Further on, was a small garden shaped in a half oval, punctuated on the far end by a metal fence and two flagpoles bearing the Sikh triangular yellow flag.  At the end of the garden was an amazing view of the Doon Valley below.  I spent the rest of my time before lunch walking around this area, enjoying the sun and letting the memories float back.

There was a perfect hiding spot just below the flagpoles we would use to skip out on mandatory evening prayer.  It could fit three kids at most, so you had to be careful who you clued in on about the place.  It became popular enough that sometimes it would be full when you got there, forcing you to try to find another place, where you usually ended up getting caught and punished.

Just around the corner from this garden used to be the Cafeteria, a shop that sold snacks, a miserable hole in wall that every kid had such a love/hate relationship with.  Love for the fact that when it was open and you had money, it helped stave off the constant hunger that was faced from being underfed.  Hate for that it was rarely open and the employee who was hired to run it had absolutely no incentive to sell anything.  He moved at a glacial pace, causing huge lines to form some days, tempers to flare and often kids getting left without the chance to buy a snack, if they didn’t reach the window before the appointed closing time.

My last classroom in 1988 was on the far right of the three Senior Classrooms.  Sarib, the patron saint of skateboarding for us American Sikhs was in the class ahead of me and he cut a space out of the wood shelves in a cupboard of the classroom, allowing for enough room to keep my skateboard there so I wouldn’t have to carry it down the hill.  One evening towards the end of night study, I had my skateboard at my desk.  Deciding to put it away before study time finished, I dropped it to the ground and rolled on it over to the cupboard.  Outside in the dark I heard some cursing in Hindi and looked over to see the School Captain, Balraj emerge from the dark, storming into the classroom with a field hockey stick in hand.

Yelling while lifting the hockey stick to strike he said, “Saala, you think you are bloody special?!  You think you can do just anything?!”

I began to reply, but by that time he was already swinging the stick at me.  He started by hitting me multiple times on my legs, before they gave out and I crumpled to the floor.  Undeterred, he continued raining blows ferociously along my side and back.  He finished by giving me solid kick before rejoining the other school prefects out in the dark, where he was congratulated for his efforts.  I had trouble walking and lying down for the next few days.  Balraj was 17.  I was 15.

The bell began to ring, bringing me back to the present day and signaling to the school that it was time for lunch.  Quickly the students gathered to form lines on the Main Field and were let in the Dining Hall to eat.  The Dining Hall had been remodeled as well, becoming one single room for all four Houses.  Joining Mr. Tiwari at his table, we stood until, somewhere on the other side of the hall, the prayer that I knew so well began to be spoke,

“For what we are about to receive, oh Lord make us truly grateful.”  With that lunch was on.  We had twenty minutes.  Eating the school food for the first time in 30 years, even though we used to despite it, I must admit, I enjoyed quite a bit.

With lunch being finished, I began my journey down the hill to the dormitories.  Although so much had changed, there was still many places with memories.  The ghosts of my childhood haunted every part of the school and it was impossible not have some memory or feeling rise up wherever I went.

Having a chance to walk around the entire campus on my own, there was so many things I could continue writing about.  Stories about friends, the games we would play, the fights we would have, the ways we would make up.  Rigorous studies, crazy teachers, ridiculous school functions.  Trips to Town, where we would stay until we spent all of our money or managed to eat so much that we could no longer perform basic functions.  The traumas perpetrated by adults and on each other.

One day, I will write more about this, just not today.

I left the campus after saying goodbye to Mr. Tiwari and several other teachers I had met.  Outside of the gate, I walked back over to where I could get a clear view of the school from the road, so I could do one last thing.

Having recently begun practicing several Buddhist technics of meditation, which I have used as a way to work through my trauma, one of the more powerful ones has been Tonglen.  The essence of the practice is that you are taking in with your breath all the negative emotions of a specific situation, person, or on larger scale, the pain and suffering of all humans and in turn breathing out the opposite; positivity, love, acceptance and compassion.  This is done for those that have harmed you directly, for the hurt you have done to other people and for the pain caused to others by others that you will never know.

Standing on the road, I brought my hands into prayer and inhaled the pain and anger surrounding Nanak Dev and Balraj, exhaling love and forgiveness.  I breathed in the violence and abuse I passed on to other kids and breathed out healing and compassion for them.  I breathed in the collective pain for all the children of GNFC and was doubled over with the depth of sadness that struck me.  As I bowed and began to exhale trying to transform that feeling into joy, the loneliness and sadness of so many children separated from their loved ones combined with pain of abuse and how it was passed from child to child was too much to bear.  Tears for all of these things could not be held back and I began to weep uncontrollably.

The clanging of a small tin bell broke the spell and I looked over to see a cow ambling towards me, swaying gently and chewing its cud.  Somehow this had a calming effect, as if the cow was telling me that everything was going to be ok and that I needed to try again.

Repositioning myself, I breathed in once again, taking in all the pain I could imagine from every boy whom had every gone to this school and breathed love and kindness back into the world.

 

 

 

 

Debate: The Case For or Against Gun Hill

At GNFC-Vincent Hill, as part of the Inter-House competitions we had every year, English language debates were held, where two Houses would get picked to be for something and the other two would be against. Often, the American kids at the school were chosen because they spoke English as a first language.

One year, due to there not being any other Americans in my age category for my House, I was selected. The issue I was arguing, was for more Pocket Money, a weekly allowance given to us to spend at the school Cafeteria.

As was customary, my argument had been written by an older American student. Me being a complete duffer, I was incapable of grasping the logic of the argument, so I ended up learning it through rote memorization. When it was my turn at the microphone, I stared blankly at the audience (the whole school) for what felt like forever, before shouting my first lines into the microphone. This caused an enormous amount of feedback, followed by dead silence, making me even more nervous. Needles to say, I ended up making complete word salad of the rest of my debate. Yet, somehow I finished 7 out of 8.

On this return trip to Mussoorie, I had the opportunity to go to Gun Hill for the first time, a tourist attraction with views, games and food that is reached by sky tram. There I took a video of the whole place, which is at the beginning of the attached blog. If you have time, it’s about ten minutes long. After that I thought it’d be fun to try for redemption on the whole debate thing and fantasize what I would write for two kids arguing for or against Gun Hill.

The Case For:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chairman, I thank you for the opportunity to speak today before this respectable audience on this subject.

For five years of living in Mussoorie, I never made it to Gun Hill.  Looking back, its hard to see how I justified not going.

First, in order to get to Gun Hill,  you had to take a sky tram from the Mall Road.  WHO doesn’t love a sky tram?  Scared little boys and the opposition, that is whom.

 

Second, once you are on Gun Hill, there are amazing views in both directions.  On one side you can stare down into the Doon Valley.

And on the other you can look across the seemingly endless peaks of the Himalayan Mountain Range.

I ask my esteemed colleagues on the other side, why is it that you hate Nature so much?

Third, for those who are inclined to like games and entertainment, this place has it all.  You can dress up in costumes!  You can feel like a man by shooting guns or a bow and arrow at balloons!  You can toss a bloody bamboo ring onto a juice box, win it and then drink it in front of your friends like a boss!  You can get your picture taken next Doraemon and some dinosaurs and then post it on Facebook!  How modern-cool and hip is all this?

 

Finally, if you get hungry after drinking your juice box, the world is your oyster!  Choose from four different restaurants, highlighting vegetarian and non-vegetarian food.

In conclusion, it is impossible not to love this place.  So much so, I am nominating to change its name from Gun Hill to Fun Hill.  Thank you.

 

The Case Against:

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker, I come before this august crowd today, not to convince you that sky trams are scary, or that shooting guns at balloons is very lame.  I even like dressing up in costumes from time to time.  Hell, I ate religiously at Jeet’s for five years.  How much worse could Gun Hill’s Pure Vegetarian Restaurant be?

What does concern me however, is that the case is being made for Gun Hill is not based on solid fact.  My opponent speaks of views.  I had a hard time looking down into the Doon Valley because there were so many goddamn trees blocking my view.

We too don’t hate nature, we are just asking the Mussoorie government to mix in a chainsaw every now and then.

My friend across the aisle speaks of social media.  Who wants to post a photo on Instagram of a valley seen through a bunch of trees?  Oh, that’s right, someone who thinks Facebook and Doraemon are still cool.

Speaking of other things that are outdated, how about that prize machine playing acid trance from 1990?

In closing, the best view we found, was the one we had when we took the tram back down to where everyone should be, on the Mall Road eating at the combination Nirula’s / Domino’s.

Fun Hill you ask?  More like Done Hill.  Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bunk Bed And Other Life Lessons

Outside of the cupboard, the steel framed bunk bed was the closest thing to ownership that I had in the dormitory.  Coated in chipped white enamel the two levels of the bed’s steel frame supported plywood planks, on top of which a knotted cotton mattress was placed.  Whatever bedding went over this was up to the student to provide.  The final piece was the bed cover.  Identical for all beds in the dorm, this was an unimaginatively designed, color appropriate striped sheet (in my case it was dark blue and white) that was used to wrap each student’s bed.  This gave the impression of an orderly environment, despite the sometimes urine stained, often unwashed sheets and sleeping bags that were underneath.

The Ajit House dorm I lived in had four rows of bunk beds, each ten bunks in length.  The two center rows were placed against each other, with a wide walkway that separated these from the outer two rows.  Every bed in a row was equally spaced, with just enough room on either side to squeeze through.  To get to a top bunk there was a bar welded just below the center of the bedframe’s head and foot, which was used as a foothold.  No handholds were given, making any attempt to scale these bunk beds, especially for the smaller kids, a dangerous endeavor.  Often kids would use the bedding of the top bunk to hold onto while climbing up.  If the bedding was not properly anchored or tucked in, it would shift or slide, causing the student to lose their balance and tumble to the ground, or worse, crack their head against the frame.

The bunk bed’s metal frame also conveniently served as the perfect instrument for waking us up, and our Dormitory Supervisor was a master at playing it.  His morning performance began with turning the lights on at 6 am, followed by a scream I imagine he perfected while fantasizing about being a soldier in the Indian Army and charging Pakistani defensive positions.

“Wake up!  Wake Uuuuup!  Waaaaake Uuuuuuuuuup!” 

Using his wooden cane, he would beat it back and forth against the metal frame of each bed until he felt the child in that bed was sufficiently awake.  Some students would play for my time, by sitting up until he passed, only to lie down again when he went on to the next row of bunk beds. 

For these hardcore sleepers, who refused to be rousted by the Supervisor’s first act, the finale was guaranteed to do the job.  The show culminated with the virtuoso ripping away the covers of any student remaining in bed, while yelling, “Saala!  Mader Chod! Waaaaaake Uuuuuup!”

Once satisfied that his work was complete, the Supervisor would vanish as quickly as he appeared, leaving the students to groggily go about their business, heading to the bathrooms or beginning to get dressed.

The first day of the school year was crucial, in that once you picked a bed, either a top or bottom bunk, this remained your spot for the rest of the year.  So getting it right was important.  If you happened to get into a fight with your neighbor, they would remain your neighbor, unless you could talk another kid into trading places.  Like much of boarding school life, you quickly learned from your mistakes. 

The choice in choosing a bed had two considerations.  The first was location.  Learning from the mistake of being too close to the dorm’s entrance the first year, as this was where the Supervisor started his wake-up routine, in following years I always chose a bed on the furthest corner away from the entrance, so that his yelling wouldn’t be so jarring and I’d have a few minutes to wake up before he got to my bed.

The second thing to consider was to make sure, no matter what, you got a bottom bunk.  The obvious reason was getting in and out of a top bunk could prove much more dangerous over the year.  Having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when you were in a top bunk involved a much higher level of alertness and therefore less sleep.   The other reason was the ability to block out light.  Since you had no say when the overhead lights were turned off (the Dormitory Supervisor controlled this) and you wanted to go to sleep a little earlier than that time, having a bottom bunk helped.   If you had a top bunk you were at the mercy of these lights AND the rising sun on Sundays, our one day off a week where we could sleep in.

The American kids often slept in groups which helped further control the light on Sundays.  On Saturday night a group of us would push our beds together and use our bedsheets as curtains to block out the early sun, by tucking them under the top bed’s mattress and running them along the sides of the bedframe.  This also gave us the feeling of privacy, which was relished, as living in a dorm room with eighty children you were afforded little of it.

Looking back, it is interesting to see how much we rolled with the punches, doing our best to get by while making damn sure we made the right choice on things we could control. 

 Only one day off a week from school? Ok.  Living in a room with eighty students?  No problem.  Top bunk for a year?  No fucking way, I will kill you. 

Although at times I fixate on things I cannot change, I do my best to let go of these and focus my energy on fighting for the things I can.  Lord Bunk Bed has granted me this wisdom.  

Day Two, Part One: GNFC (Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary) Or Bust

 

The Savoy was offering a free yoga class at 7:30 am and I was trying to pull myself out of a melatonin induced fog so I could join.  Travel tip for those who suffer from jetlag and have not tried melatonin to help normalize their new sleep cycle; 3 mg per night had me sleeping like I was twenty again with no care in the world.

Holding the morning’s yoga session in an area on the hotel grounds inappropriately called the Beer Garden, I was joined by an older couple from Pune.  The yoga teacher was a middle aged Mussoorie native with a mixed Scottish and Indian background.  In between a lecture on “What is yoga?” (it’s about connection apparently) and a few stories about the debauchery that used to go on at The Savoy, we went through several asanas.  I wasn’t expecting much, considering it was being catered to the ultra-wealthy elites on Holiday, so was happy to walk away from it feeling balanced and awake.

This was followed by a complimentary breakfast buffet served at the Main Lodge, which was definitely a step above your average hotel buffet fare.

I must admit, it was slightly unnerving to have three servers constantly hovering nearby, waiting to carry out your every wish.

“More tea sir?”

“How is everything sir?

“Are you needing a new plate sir?”

“Sir, you are god-like.  Please stand on our backs so we can lift you home to heaven.”

Ok.  That last one didn’t happen.  It was me reading into the subtext of the dynamics playing out between the guests and staff.

With breakfast wrapping up, my time at The Savoy was nearing its end.  My carriage was about to turn into a pumpkin and I began to prepare for my departure to rejoin the common people.  I would be staying at the Hotel Vishnu Palace, a three-starred establishment across the street from The Savoy.  It was built down the slope of the mountain, with my room at the very bottom, on the 4th floor.

After dropping my stuff off in my room, I was anxious and ready to get on my way.  There had been intermittent thunderstorms rolling through Mussoorie starting at about the time our yoga teacher was telling us why The Savoy used to have a bell that rang at five every morning (so the pious could pray and the sinners could get back to their rooms before everyone else woke up).  As I left the hotel, rain began again and I had to duck in to a café at Library Point to avoid the downpour.  Ordering a masala chai, I nursed the tea while waiting out the storm and listened to a European woman carry out a lengthy conversation in perfect Hindi.

With the rain ending, my tea drank and the desire to continue eavesdropping diminishing, I set out on my way to find a cab to take me to Vincent Hill.  After the Picture Palace incident, I did not want not rely entirely on memory.   I figured a couple hundred rupees ($4) would be a worthy investment to get me to Vincent Hill in a timely fashion.

All taxis took The Long Way back to school.  This was a road that wrapped around the mountain, passing an Indo Tibetan Border Patrol station (ITBP for short) that demarked the halfway point from Town to GNFC-Vincent Hill.  Another way to school was The Shortcut (we were very literal with these names).  This went up and over the top of the mountain, ending with a path leading down directly to the school’s gate.  The third and rarely used way, so rare that it wasn’t given a name, was a road that wound up from Mussoorie proper, through an area called Waverly, past the girl’s school, Shangri-La, before arriving from the opposite direction of The Long Way to the gate of  Vincent Hill.

Sitting in the backseat of the taxi, I was happy I chose this option, as the road out of town that turned into The Long Way was completely unrecognizable.  That was until we reached the ITBP station.  It had the exact same sign and iron gate that I remembered, with the road making a sharp elevated turn at its entrance wrapping itself around the bend of the mountain.  This triggered the proverbial flood gates of my subconscious to open, with memories of The Long Way beginning to rush back.

I remembered Bird and I taking a horse back to school at night from Town.  Early on the journey home, we got caught in a torrential downpour that never let up, soaking us to the bone, and with thunder and lightning so fierce that any sensible person would be afraid for their life.  The thought of getting electrocuted didn’t really bother us that much.  What did, was that we had convinced ourselves that we were being stalked by a tiger.  I imagine we had never prayed as hard or chanted as loud as we did that night on top of that horse for Guru Ram Das (4th Sikh Guru) to save our asses from this creature we imagined in our minds.

I was also struck by the memory of a mandatory jog that the entire student body had to go on every afternoon, to the ITBP station and back.  That was until a Brahmin bull went berserk, probably as a result from seeing a sea of kids running directly at it.  One boy, Sri Ved, ended up getting what looked to be gored in the crotch and nearly tossed over the side of the road.  Many of us watched in horror as he held on to the railing for dear life and screamed at a pitch that sounded like he had just lost his testicles.  Once the bull finally let him go and moved on to chase other students, it was discovered that Sri Ved had escaped any serious injury other than to his shorts and his tough guy reputation.

Our arrival at the gate of Vincent Hill snapped me back into the present. Excitement with an undercurrent of melancholy flowed through me as I paid the driver and stepped out of the cab.  Just then I noticed the guard at the gate coming out to greet me.

It was too soon for me to engage with him.  I was not ready to enter.  Doing my best impersonation of a guest at The Savoy, I ignored the guard and started to walk the other way.

They changed the gate!  I thought.  And they painted the support wall on the opposite side of the road white with red GNFC logos!

I began to walk along the road that continued in the other direction towards the girl’s school.  This would give me a clear view of Vincent Hill below, while simultaneously allowing me to see the residence for the American guides, two families who had been tasked with keeping us alive.

It was about a 100 meters distance from the gate, before the school came completely into view.

They changed the fence along the road! It’s way higher than before.  Is it supposed to keep people out, or the kids in?  I wondered.

My memory may be dodgy on some things surrounding the school, but not the school itself.  You could show me a picture of the school years from now on my death bed, taken from the spot where I now stood and I’d be like, “I leave everything to my brother.  Vincent Hill.”

A storm had just passed and the sun was now shining.  Standing in its warmth, I looked down at the place I called home for five years of my childhood.  For years I dreamed about this moment and wondered how it would feel to look upon this school again.  Surprisingly, a calmness I have come to know as love and acceptance was all that was there.  Glancing briefly over at the Guide’s Residence, it looked the same, just a little worse for wear.  Kind of like me.

I was ready.

Day One: The Adventure Of The Portable Cell Phone Charger

 

Holy Crap.  That was hard.

I thought it would be a simple flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun, followed by an easy taxi drive up to Mussoorie, before ending with a leisurely stroll to my “too good to be true” priced hotel.  But I forgot.  This was India.  Instead, it was a quick refresher course on the sheer random chaos, simple cons and bureaucratic shenanigans that goes along with most any day here.

It started with the mundane; taking a taxi from my hotel in Delhi to return to Indra Gandhi Intl Airport.  As I was in line to check in for my flight, I noticed a sign stating that all portable cell phone chargers were not allowed in carry-on baggage.  Realizing I had mine in my carry-on, I quickly transferred it to my bag that I was checking in.  A few minutes later, I was on my way to security, with my bag checked and ticket in hand.

Unlike the U.S. where the TSA provides instructions on how to clear security (remove laptop from bag, take off belt, no liquids over 3 oz, etc.), here there was nothing to inform passengers on what to do.  Add to this the fact that there were plenty of people whom had never flown before and this helped to create a security line of epic proportions.  I watched as they pulled bag after bag for having bottles of water, fifths of Johnny Walker, a bottle of indeterminable green liquid and many other beverages.  The family with the large bottle of green liquid refused to forfeit it, but instead passed it amongst themselves until it was finished.  For every bag that was being pulled, a security officer had to create a handwritten log, noting in a book that I’m pretty sure no one was ever going to read, the details of each passenger.

After a half an hour of watching this play out, I finally made it through the bottleneck and made my way to the gate.  At the gate, there was a vending machine full of Indian sodas.  Feeling nostalgic, I bought a Thums Up, a slightly sweet cola with a big red thumb on the can, found a seat and began drinking it.  Halfway finished, they called my name.

“Ravi Singh, Ravi Singh.  Please come up to the boarding gate desk.” The attendant said.

I stood up and began walking towards the desk.  Raising my hand to get his attention, I said, “Ravi.  That is me.”

Ignoring me, he continued repeating his announcement.

“No dude, that is me,” I said a little more forcefully, presenting my boarding pass, as proof for my claim.

Incredulous at first, it took him a few seconds to process that this was really my name. The reactions so far from people hearing my name after seeing my face have been hilarious.  The best part about it though, no one misspells Ravi.  No Ravee or Robi. Shaking this off, the attendant then informed me that there was an issue with my checked in luggage and that I need to go to Gate 27 to clear it up.

At Gate 27 I was told that my checked in baggage had a item in that was not permitted, a portable cell phone charger.  They said if I had it in my carry-on, it would have been fine, but now that it was found in my checked luggage, I could not keep it.  Furthermore, they were not allowed to remove any items from a passenger’s luggage (completely understandable) and that I would have to be brought to the bag to do it myself, so I could then turn it over.

After a good face palm, I did my best to accept the situation.  I misread that poorly worded sign at check in and now had to deal with the consequences.  I and a gentleman flying to Jaipur were lead to where the bags were kept with items not permitted to go on a plane; a basement room all the way across the terminal from my gate.  In order to get to this room, we had to pass through a secured door.  There our boarding passes were noted by a security guard, who took this information down by writing them into a very large book.

Down in the basement, I zipped open an outside pouch on my bag, removed the offending power source and handed it over.  I signed a form releasing ownership and then had to watch as an inspector dutifully created another handwritten log to record my relinquishment.

Thinking this would be the end of it, I was led back up to the security door, which thankfully did not require another log to leave and began to walk towards my gate. Luckily I had gotten out in time to overhear the announcement over the intercom,

“Ravi Singh.  Ravi Singh Kreow-sun.  This is you last chance to board your flight for Dehra Dun.”

“Fuck,” was all I had left in me as I broke into a full sprint across the terminal to get to my gate.

Halfway there I started gasping, exhausted from jetlag.  I also had to fight the urge to vomit, mostly thanks to the Thums Up I just drank.  But like a badass, I got to that goddamn gate in time and made that flight to Dehra Dun.  My bag, however, did not.

Next to the empty bag carousel in Dehra Dun’s Jolly Grant Airport, a representative of the airline explained, “Yes, Mr. Ravi, your bag did not make it because there was something keeping it from getting on the plane.”

My heart sunk.  Thoughts of having to fly back to Delhi to clear up whatever else needed to be taken out of my bag started to creep in.  After several back and forths we finally got the core reason why my bag was not put on the flight.  If you guessed handwritten paperwork relinquishing my ownership of my cell phone charger, you are smarter than I.  Despite my initial protests, telling the representative that I had already signed that form in Delhi, I knew the best way forward was to be cooperative rather than belligerent and do whatever I had to get my bag.  Another form was signed, stating that I was relinquishing my cell phone charger.  Four hours later, I was reunited with my bag.  Here is a photo of the Dehra Dun airport bathrooms that I got very familiar with during that time.

Bag in hand, I was elated that I would not have to live out the next two weeks wearing the clothes I had on.  I booked an air-conditioned taxi to drive me to Mussoorie.  Although a ton had changed along the way, you could still see much of old India, some of which is pictured below.

 

 

With my taxi reaching Mussoorie, I disembarked at Library Point, the far western side of town and proceeded to make my way to where I thought my hotel was located.  The funny thing about trying to remember where a place is after 30 years, is that it likely isn’t where you thought it would be.  My hotel was supposed to be located on the opposite side from Picture Palace, a movie theater that anyone like myself, who had spent time in Mussoorie knew.  Now either it moved, or I just knew the name and never went.  I could of sworn I saw a movie there, called Crossfire in Caracas, a latin take on a Blaxploitation spy film.  Well whatever the case, senility or moving shop, Picture Palace was well past where my mind had placed it.  After dragging my roller suitcase for a good couple of miles, I reached the famed movie house.  Using the map I printed out, I found the side street my hotel was located on and walked down to check in.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, I identified the hotel that was supposed to be next to mine.  However, there was no other hotel next to it.  I looked at my map and crosschecked off all the other businesses located nearby.  I was definitely in the right spot.

When in doubt, ask the locals, I thought.

I went in to the adjacent hotel to ask if they knew of my hotel.  No luck.  Exasperated, I resorted to using my international wireless service, to call the number of the hotel chain, only to be told that this hotel did not exist in their database.  Someone conned Hotels.com and in turn me and now I had figure out where I was going to stay for the next four days.

Not having data for my phone so I could search for available hotels, I began to start making my way back towards Library Point, stopping in hotels and asking if they had any vacancy.  Mussoorie had become a discount tourist destination for middle class Indians, so finding a place that wasn’t a complete shithole proved to be harder than anticipated.  Running out of options and beginning to feel the pull of jetlag, I checked the time in NYC and felt 8 o’clock on a Sunday wasn’t too early to call a friend for help.  Thankfully Flora picked up.

After filling her in on the craziness of the day, I asked, “Hey, can you help me find a hotel?”

“Sure!” she replied. “I am not familiar with Mussoorie, obviously, so you’ll have to bear with me”

After going through a list of hotels either too far away or without Wi-Fi, I had almost made it back to Library Point.  Perched high above all else, was a sign for The Savoy, known in Mussoorie for being THE luxury hotel.

“Fuck it, ” I said surrendering to my desire for comfort and the ability to check my emails,  “See if the Savoy has any rooms available.”

“They do.  It’s expensive,” Flora said, “are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t care right now.  Please book it and I’ll call you after I get checked in.”

“Cool.”

“Thank you so much.”

So for my first night in Mussoorie, I stayed at one of the fanciest hotels I’ve ever been in.  Dated?  Yes.  But still crazy, bend over backwards service and much, much more (on Day Two).

Although, you’d think at $260 a night, they could afford an extra “E” for their sign.

Thoughts On A Plane

Once a month, on a Saturday, I take my 10-year-old self to breakfast. There I get an egg scramble. He gets a stack of blueberry pancakes. I picture my younger self, sitting in the booth across from me with his turban tied low, just above his eyebrows, wearing a stained white kurta pajama, a blue pull over sweater and Pony Velcro sneakers, happily eating his pancakes. In this moment he is complete again. He is safe with me.

In March of 1984, at age 10, I boarded a Boeing 747 jet at JFK bound for New Delhi so I could attend school in India. Not only was I was saying goodbye to my parents and the life I knew in the U.S., but also part of my childhood.

For the next seven years I went on some of the most amazing adventures, scaling remote mountains in the Himalayas, inner tubing the Ganges, exploring the cities of Rajasthan and so much more. It was in India where I learned to fend for myself, treat others with respect and create bonds with other kids that made them family.

It is also where I learned that love and compassion for others when they were hurting was not available. Weakness, nor vulnerability were traits well looked upon. I was traumatized by systematic abuse and public humiliation.

This is a tough age to absorb these “lessons” as they are filtered through an immature mind, which doesn’t necessarily extract the right way to view what has happened. Rather they are buried and left to marinate in the subconscious. Until recently, my only experience with these traumas would be when they bubbled to the surface, through other traumatic moments, or trigger moments.

A year after one of these moments and 34 years after that first flight, I am once again on a plane in New York bound for New Delhi. What I will find when I return remains to be seen. I hope you will join me on this trip down memory lane as I share the places that make up such a large part of who I am today.

Love,

Ravi