We’re super-excited to be publishing this delicious memoir from Ray Brooks. Like all great memoirs, it reads like a novel, but it’s 100% true!
“I am God. Give me one hundred rupees!”
An ash-smeared sadhu stood in front of me, his brass pot thrust under my nose.
“You must be kidding, baba.”*
“Yes, sir,” he said, wobbling his head, “I am not kidding.”
With a dismissive flick of my hand, I stepped out of his way and walked on.
“Fifty rupees, sir!” I kept walking.
“Ten rupees!” God yelled his final offer.
The fruit seller, delighted with the show, called after me: “One rupee days are over, sir.”
The local street vendors in Rishikesh call men like God “money babas” or “bhogis”. They claim that they are not true holy men, just beggars or even criminals on the run. With so many foreigners visiting this small pilgrimage town, it has become a very lucrative area for babas who like to prey on the naiveté of “spiritual” tourists. If you spent any time on the ghats, it’s easy to identify true sadhus by the way they conduct themselves. “True sadhus” live by the will of God, never beg, and accept money or food only if it is offered. They tend to stay away from the busy tourist areas during the day, preferring to spend their time in contemplation and meditation. And those renunciates who live in the forest will come down to the river before sunrise to perform their pūjā* rituals. You would never see a bhogi taking a holy dip in the Ganga at 4 a.m. As the clock tower at Parmarth Ashram solemnly struck nine, the morning sun was burning off the last of the river mist. Hundreds of cormorants sat on the boulders in the shallow part of the river and more were landing. As the birds settled, they spread their wings and warmed their bodies.
Another ashram decided it was nine o’clock and manually banged out an irregular beat. In the distance, I could hear more bells counting out the time. There wasn’t a clock in India that was right.
The “Monkey Punky Gang,” as Dianne has named a small group of the local children, trotted towards me grinning playfully and chattering away with one another. They wore woolen hats that looked like tea cozies, ill-fitting sweaters full of holes, long ragged skirts and baggy trousers that covered their skinny legs. Some wore flip-flops; others, plastic shoes two sizes too big. There would be no school for them today. Today, and most days, they were the flower sellers responsible for the small flower bowls that people floated down the river as offerings to Mother Ganga.
“Sachin!” they screamed when they spotted me and rushed over to see if I had anything for them. “Flaaawar Sachin?”
“No flower,” I said.
“Please, Sachin,” they begged, jostling one another for my business.
The secret to a peaceful life on the ghats, especially if staying a long time, is to avoid buying offerings from the children. If you bought from one, you had to buy from all. I often saw Westerners realizing their dream of meditating on the banks of the sacred Ganga, only to be swamped by children who insisted that they buy an offering. Unless you were firm and told them to clear off, they would never leave you alone.
One of the children spotted the ferry coming. The gang waved goodbye and dashed off to terrorize the passengers.
I looked in the direction of the greeting and recognized a man I’d met on the ferry the previous day. He was on the early morning crossing, and the small boat that went between Muni Ki Reti and Swag Ashram was just pulling out. He’d seen me running to the dock and had called out to the helmsman, who, in turn, yelled to me to wait as he maneuvered the boat back to the rickety jetty. With an outstretched arm the ticket collector managed to grab my hand as I jumped across the rapidly widening gap between dry land and the boat. The passengers commented on my safe landing, and I thanked the crew for letting me on board. I’d just spent weeks searching for a flute teacher who could show me some of the classical India raga on my shakuhachi,* and was grateful I wouldn’t be late for my first lesson.
Among the few people making the short journey, most were wrapped in ragged cloth and blankets, hunched against the cold wind blowing down from the Himalayas. The man who had shouted for the boat to stop was sitting across from me, and he acknowledged my thanks with a nod and a smile. He was distinguished-looking and conspicuously free of the religious paraphernalia so ubiquitous around here. I guessed that he must be of Anglo-Indian descent because of his light skin and unusual blue eyes. He was remarkably well dressed and I couldn’t help but admire his style. He wore a well-cut, collarless navy-blue jacket – the type made popular by India’s post-independence Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the late 1940s – and a beautifully made burgundy pashmina scarf. Despite his silver-grey hair, it was hard to say how old he was – sixty, perhaps, or a well-preserved seventy. As is the custom when crossing this sacred river, the sadhu sitting on my right, dressed in a faded saffron robe, brought his palms together at his forehead and bellowed a blessing to Mother Ganga: “Om Namah Shivaya!” He then leaned over the side of the boat, scooped a handful of water, and threw it over his head, with most of it splashing on mine.
“Thanks baba!” I said, wiping the water from my face. “That should bring me good health in the New Year.” The distinguished man laughed and said, “Not if it goes in your mouth it won’t.”
The sadhu grinned at me and then uttered more prayers before he took another scoop and drank it.
A sadhu sitting to my left yelled “Jai Sri Ram!” and then tossed a palmful of the purifying elixir over his head, drenching me once again.
“It’s wise to keep one’s mouth tightly shut when crossing this river,” the distinguished man said with an accent that was more British than Indian. He seemed to be finding it all very amusing.
“Yes, sacred or not, that’s good advice. Works quite well on land, too.”
“All rivers are sacred,” he said, “but sadly this one is not sacred enough to drink from these days.”
The old Rajasthani pilgrim next to him leaned over the side of the boat and began filling a large plastic container. His tiny wife, withered from a life of hardship in the desert, was talking incessantly about the sacred “paani,” as her husband stretched farther and farther toward the water. Within a second he screamed as the weight of the bottle pulled his skinny body from his seat and wrenched the half-full container from his hand. The Anglo-Indian man instantly reached out and grabbed a handful of his clothes to keep the poor man from falling overboard.
“That was close,” I said, noting his quick reactions.
The ferry landed with a bump. I said goodbye to my travel companion and hurried off to my music lesson.
“Ah, good morning,” I said, surprised to see him again. “That was quite an eventful crossing yesterday, wasn’t it? How are you?”
“Very well. Good to see you again.”
“I see you’ve found the best bench in all of Northern India.” The view across the river encompassed many prestigious ashrams and small hermitages. The giant Shiva* statue at Parmarth tilted, half submerged in the blue-green, glacial-melt water.
“The monsoon flooding dragged poor Shiva off his pedestal again this year,” I said, admiring the impact the great “creator and destroyer” made.
“Yes, indeed it did. Lord Shiva is not having much luck at Parmarth. Maybe he should find himself a new ashram.”
“It’s true. This must be the third time he’s tried to leave in as many years.” “Your name is Sachin?” he asked, apparently surprised that a foreigner would have an Indian name. “No, only the children call me Sachin, after the cricketer. I sometimes play cricket with them on the ghats, though they don’t let me bat any more. I’ve hit a couple of lucky sixes into the river, which means they have to go all the way to the Bay of Bengal to get their ball back.”
“Ah, the great Sachin Tendulkar!”
“Yes. Not so bad being named after an Indian cricket god, wouldn’t you say? My real name is Ray, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Ray. I’m Rudra.” We shook hands. “Are you visiting Rishikesh, Rudra?”
“No, I sometimes stay here during the winter months. But my home is up in Mussoorie.”
“A little village to the east of the mall, called Sisters Bazaar. Do you know it?”
“Yes, I know it well. My wife and I had hoped to make that area home base during the winter, but we discovered that it was much too cold for us.”
“Yes, February in particular can be quite bitter. I’d ask you to sit, Ray, but it’s getting a little warm here. I usually move closer to the water at this time of day.”
He stood and asked which way I was going. I was going to Dayananda Ashram. He was heading in the same direction and invited me to walk with him.
“I can tell by your accent that you’re from England,” he said. “What part are you from?”
“I was born in Newcastle but moved to London when I was 16.”
“I’ve never been to Newcastle but I lived in London in my twenties, in a place called Holborn.”
“I know Holborn. What were you doing there?” “My parents packed me off to university after I graduated from school.”
As we walked along the ghats, I noticed Om Prakash, the owner of Shanti’s Restaurant, and waved. He was standing at the water’s edge and had just finished his morning pūjā, offering Mother Ganga her daily glass of milk.
“How long have you been coming here, Ray?”
“To Rishikesh? For quite a few years. And to India, probably for more than twenty-five years by now. I return with my wife nearly every winter.”
“Yes, we love it, but I must say it gets harder and harder to cope with all the traffic and motorbikes these days. We’re always on the lookout for a new base. Somewhere quieter. India feels like it’s becoming a little crazier every year.”
“Yes, it’s certainly changing fast.”
“Mostly for the better, though. I was in and out of the bank yesterday in ten minutes!”
“Yes, I know what you mean. I just booked a train ticket to Delhi online. Marvelous stuff.”
“Back in the eighties, my record for waiting in a bank was two hours. I remember one time, in Almora, I was trying to persuade the clerk to cash my traveler’s checks when the fuse board on the wall burst into flames.
All the lights went out, the room filled with smoke, and the place broke into pandemonium. The security guard rushed over with a bucket of sand in one hand and his shotgun in the other. I thought he was going to give me the bucket, but instead he handed me the gun and started throwing the sand onto the fuse box. The good ol’ days.”
“The gun probably wasn’t loaded anyway,” Rudra said, laughing.
We reached the spot where he liked to sit. I was familiar with this section of the ghats, which had been partially damaged by floods last year.
“This is probably the quietest spot along this side of the river,” he said, as he removed his jacket.
“Please, feel free to join me, if you’re not in a hurry.”
I was enjoying his company and decided to accept his invitation.
We made ourselves comfortable a couple of steps up from the water’s edge. The bottom flagstone step was submerged in the river and had turned a deep pinkish-red color. The sound of rushing water filled my ears, demanding a few moments of silence. A garland of marigolds and red rose petals floated by, followed by another garland, a plastic bag and a lone flip-flop.
“May I ask, Ray? Why the fascination with India for so many years?”
I stalled for a moment and smiled, remembering my childhood. I couldn’t tell him it all began with a knock on my grandmother’s front door…