Magic bus, p.20

Magic Bus, page 20


Magic Bus

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  ‘That’s what I say to the Palestinian who watched Israelis chop down his family olive grove. To the Afghan whose village was levelled by American daisy-cutter bombs. To the Chechen mother raped by Russian soldiers,’ he replies, as if slipping back into his routine. ‘The West is arrogant. Muslims have to take up arms to defend their way of life.’ He stands and holds his hands under his stomach, miming the bulky weight of an explosive belt. ‘Hey, does my bomb look big in this? Boom!’

  There is nothing new about suicide terrorism. In the first century AD, the Zealots and the Sicarii, two Jewish sects, sacrificed themselves to kill the Roman occupiers of Judaea. In Iran, I passed near the Castle of the Assassins, training base of the eleventh-century Ismaili cult. The enemies of colonialism in eighteenth-century India and the kamikaze pilots of 1940s Japan died likewise alongside their victims. After the Iranian Revolution, influential Shias adopted a strident view of martyrdom, perverting the precedents set by the Prophet and overlooking Koranic injunctions against the killing of innocents. The extraordinary power of modern suicide terrorism was unleashed by the 1983 Hizbullah bombing which killed 241 US Marines and drove the Americans out of Beirut. The practice was adopted by the Kurdish PKK and the Tamil Tigers, who killed two heads of state, but militant Islamists promoted and perfected it, dressing up their political ambitions in green religious garments. Aircraft, skyscrapers, trains and thousands of lives are being destroyed in the name of jihad.

  In times past, volunteers for death were usually desperate, destitute and stateless. Today, bombers are as likely to be educated, affluent and Western. A Briton named Niaz Khan trained for the World Trade Center attack. The ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid, who tried to bring down a Paris to Miami flight, was born and bred in suburban Bromley. Asif Mohammed Hanif, a twenty-one-year-old student from west London, killed himself and three others with a nail-filled bomb in a Tel Aviv bar. Muriel Degauque, a thirty-eight-year-old Belgian, blew herself up attacking an American convoy south of Baghdad. All the London Underground bombers were British nationals.

  Although not set on self-immolation, the Taliban’s jihadis have included the Californian John Walker Lindh, Yaser Esam Hamdi from Louisiana and David Hicks, a twenty-eight-year-old Australian. A Canadian, Mohammed Jabarah, was party to the planning of al-Qaeda’s first Bali bombing. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, an Englishman and graduate of the London School of Economics, is alleged to have masterminded the kidnapping and murder in Pakistan of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

  ‘Once at a show, I was asked if all Middle Eastern Muslims lived in tents. I said they do, but only after the Americans have bombed their houses.’

  I wonder if, with his quick-fire provocation, he is trying to make me spout idiocies and to demonize him, to exploit the gulf between us. I ask again why he’s come to Pakistan. Instead of answering me, he slips back into his routine.

  ‘America has tried for a century to end racism. Blacks say they can never get a fair trial. Muslims can’t even get a trial. Hey, man, if you don’t laugh, I’ll have you stoned.’

  The carriages are shunted into the station, scattering goats off the tracks. Our trains are announced. Again, he offers me his hand. ‘Here we must part,’ Ahmed says. He seems about to tell me a last joke, then thinks better of it. Instead, he walks away toward the Khyber Mail and the North-West Frontier. I watch him vanish into the crowd, our conversation incomplete.

  The Lahore Express shudders through early morning Pindi, the rising sun touching the tops of fruit trees and the white caps of men waiting at crossings. Children step off to school, books under arm, scarves over heads. Along a riverbank, women wash breakfast plates, the cheap tin flashing a Morse code message in the sunlight. A signalman droops a green flag out of his control box.

  Every year, thousands of Brits of Pakistani origin come ‘home’ for family matters and to attend religious schools. During their stay a very few, lost and insecure in a complex world, embrace a simple, stentorian version of Islam and are misled by zealots who blur the line between theology and ideology. I think of Ahmed and remember Carla Grissmann’s ‘lost souls of the terrorist movement’.

  Both Islam and Christianity preach compassion and empathy. Mohammed brought peace to Arabia by adopting a policy of non-violence. Jesus told his followers to love their enemies. But the scriptures were scarred by the violent times from which they emerged. So, modern extremists are selective in their use of holy books, in their search for divine approval of hatred. The Christian Right ignores the Sermon on the Mount in their support of the death penalty. The radical Islamists disregard the Koran’s exhortations to reconciliation.

  Yet, at the end of the Islamic stage of my journey, I don’t feel downhearted. I think of the generosity of the Iranians and their impatience for change. I remember Sanjar’s optimism. I am inspired by John Butt’s faithful, constructive equilibrium. I know that Christians and Muslims share a common value system with Jews. Mary, the Jewish mother of Christ, is the most honoured woman in Islam. Abraham is the father of the Arab nations through Ishmael, his first son. His second son, Isaac, is the father of the Jews. To Christians, he is the father of all who are faithful to God, according to the Bible. Islam believes in the prophets, including Christ; whether he is God incarnate, who experienced death and rose again, or an immortal man untouched by Satan who ascended to heaven, is a matter on which friends can surely agree to differ.

  Beyond the sooty carriage window, station porters balance battered suitcases on their turbans. A buffalo dozes in its mud hole. An American wrestling movie is playing on the video screen in my carriage. I reopen my notebook.


  23. Joy to the World

  The heavens open at the Indian border. The whipping tail of the monsoon catches me there, dropping out of the sky and washing away monkeys and dead wood as well as twenty-eight people and hundreds of houses. As the summer heat hisses out of the earth, I cross the length of Uttar Pradesh, which sickles across northern India from Himalaya to Bangladesh, in a single twenty-four-hour train ride. Along the rail line, hundreds of trees are down, their red trunks revealing rotten cores. Rivers swell into flood. A jeep lies on its side, its passengers crouching blank and numb in the protection of the wreckage. The rain pounds on the roof of the carriages and I lean out of the window to feel it on my face, to fill my lungs with cool, fresh air.

  I’m making first for Varanasi on the River Ganges, most sacred city to all Hindus and home for two years to Allen Ginsberg. Here, in 1962, at the age of thirty-one, the poet explored his passion for the East. Then, as a genial Hindu guru and icon of the counterculture, he went on to dominate a movement that reshaped Western consciousness. Dylan considered him to be the single greatest influence on the American poetic voice since Whitman. The Beat poet Ferlinghetti called him ‘the great spellbinder’. In his search for new methods of expression, he moved his poetry away from the memory of past visions toward ‘the actual awareness of now’. The Intrepids were his free-spirited and hallucinatory foot-soldiers, weaving in his footsteps toward enlightenment. Now, my trip on their tails begins to share their sense of regeneration.

  A bare-legged sadhu in raw saffron cloak, a turbanned Sikh with a purple parasol, a flamboyant bridegroom in a candle-lit temple under a flyover: India’s shifting splendours thrill me after the outward privations of Islam. In Amritsar, hundreds of tiled shrines and thousands of television shops, all with their sets tuned to different stations, spiral around the Golden Temple. In Tangra, parrots quarrel on strings of winking lights. In Jalandhar, the pilgrims wear flip-flops in goldfish shops. At Laksar station, neither the rains nor the crush of travellers disturbs the sleep of a toothless grandmother, snoring on her sacking bed. In Lucknow, a beggar sits next to the ash-covered torso of a dead baby on a toy trolley. No sight can surprise me, even if a sacred cow stands on its hind legs and takes to the air.

  At dawn, my train reaches one of the oldest cities in the world; ‘… older than history, older than tradition, older
even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,’ wrote Mark Twain on his visit in 1896. Varanasi, he went on to record, is the beginning-place of Creation, where the god Vishnu stood an upright lingam – a phallic symbol representing the male and female energies of the universe – in the midst of a shoreless ocean.

  This morning, the whole world seems to be cleansing itself. Parts of the city are submerged under the monsoon’s waters. In the half-light I climb into a low open skiff near the station and am rowed through the narrow lanes, past the upper windows of tiny shops, over the tops of sunken handcarts. The flood, according to the boatman, is the worst for a decade. Out of the liquid shadows rise the sounds of drums, cymbals and chanting. Around me, bells ring and firecrackers crack to awaken the gods. Murky swells lap against balconies and spill over temple walls, creating a clangorous Hindu Venice of sewers and saints. Then we sweep out of the swamped warren, away from the stunning stench and on to a grand curve of the Ganges.

  The sun soars tangerine-red above the Amazon-wide river. Miniature oil-lamps scuttle on the current. Garlands of marigolds catch in the ropes of flat-bottom ferry boats. Old Varanasi towers above the torrent, a press of buildings crusting a hill with slim minarets and temple towers. Beneath the pilgrims’ platforms which flank the city’s riverbank, thousands of bathers – dressed in white, in rags, in no clothes at all – descend the ghats’ steps and, waist-deep in water, eyes closed, lips moving in prayer, face the rising sun.

  To bathe in the holy Ganges washes away a pilgrim’s sins. To die here releases Hindus from the cycle of reincarnation.

  The boatman puts me ashore at Dasaswamedh ghat, a few alleyways from where Ginsberg lived. I push through the glistening mass, flanked by wet skin the colour of chocolate, parchment and paper, and step on to thick muddy steps littered with broken clay offering-pots. Oily incense smoke curls through the leaves of a banyan tree around which the faithful circle, as does a street-sweeper brushing up their red hibiscus offerings. A barefoot flower-vendor turns away and a goat steals lotus blooms from her stall. Beyond a shrine to Sitala, goddess of smallpox, one of the city’s thirty civic drains discharges effluent into the swollen river.

  Ginsberg called India his promised land, writing in his journal, ‘it’s like a new earth – I’m happy.’ In a prayer hall, he experienced ‘a kind of Euphoria with my body relaxed cross-legged and eyes fixed and mind happy and aware of the long trail from New York to Tangier to that spot of wet on the floor’. Like Hesse and W. B. Yeats, he found ‘in that East something ancestral in ourselves, something we must bring into the light’. His journey was key to the emotional and intellectual counterculture renaissance.

  He lived in a whitewashed, nine-doored room with a long balcony open ‘to trees, monkeys, market below one side, beggar street to ghats on the other’. As dawn widens into morning, I set out to find it. I follow a press of water carriers, copper pots balanced on their shoulders, climbing the steep steps. I duck into the maze of filthy lanes, pass one-chair barber shops and cubby-holes serving thimble cups of milky tea. At a café, I pause for breakfast and consult my copy of Indian Journals.

  Over fried potatoes and onions, I read that Ginsberg’s room was both a few alleyways downriver from Manikarnika ghat and in a Brahmin’s house above a path leading to Dasaswamedh ghat. The contradiction doesn’t make my search any easier, but it is my first lesson on India’s view of certainty. Unlike Islam, Hindu theology accepts that there are many roads leading to nirvana. Hinduism, a tolerant, all-encompassing 4,000-year-old religion without central authority or rigid moral code, never countenanced exclusivity.

  The sun sears the cobblestones, driving naked children and pigs into the shadows. Washing dries around post-box shrines. Hovel shanties obscure stagnant temple pools. All morning, I snoop beneath hundreds of balconies, count doorways, circle every ‘green ganja sadhu leper’s park’. I try to find the ‘huge black tree’ which loomed over his window and obliterated half the square. I listen out for the street sounds which he recorded: the tin pan and rat-a-tat drums, the bicycle bells of the rickshaw wallahs, the clattering pails of a milk shop. I find the son of Chai baba – ‘Mr Tea’ – who once owned a tea shop in Chaumahni at the Assi crossing. His father, a handsome man who wore natural oils ‘which smelled like the soil after the first rain’, knew Ginsberg, as well as Alain Delon and the Beatles. But the sweet-smelling old man is long dead and his son has no idea of the address of the nine-doored room. So I search on, watching a pilgrim with sparse topknot bargain for a single apple, idling past squatting radish-sellers, gazing at Ginsberg’s black-and-white photographs and realizing his stained balcony could be anywhere in this city.

  But if not the man himself, at least I find his legacy is all around me: in the posters for an Indo-pop fusion concert at the Bread of Life Bakery, in Sunil Ganguly’s poetry at the Book Net Café, in the hundreds of Westerners who live here, not far from Madonna’s and Sting’s houses, learning Sanskrit or the sitar, in the airhead speed freaks who forget both youth’s promise and the lyrics of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’.

  The sixties travellers arrived in India with a feeling of homecoming, as much to themselves as to the country. After the long and narrow overland trail, the road broadened out into the subcontinent’s hundred cities and thousand choices. The Intrepids, carried forward by Ginsberg’s first article on India in City Lights Review and Kerouac’s vision of a Rucksack Revolution, fanned out, slowed down, looked to find a place of their own. Some headed south to Rajasthan, with its pink medieval city of Jaipur rising out of a yellow desert. Others went north to Kashmir’s lakes. Most travelled straight to Delhi, usually asleep on third-class carriage luggage racks. There, the inner quest usually began at the Crown, a rose-scented, bug-infested hotel with shacks on the roof. Almost everyone turned up, tuned in and dropped out. Drugs were thought to prepare the mind, to initiate the transformation away from the physical realm toward self-knowledge, assuming one wasn’t thrown off course by an overdose or a fortnight in prison. A smouldering chillum helped to fuse the newcomer’s fragmented awareness, as well as to pass the time while waiting for money from home or queuing at the railway booking office.

  Then, with a (forged) student card in hand, the typical Dharma bum set off to search for a guru, God and a long, slow Tantric fuck. He – or she – might begin in Varanasi, in a houseboat or ashram on the banks of the Mother Ganges. Or at Rishikesh, like the Beatles. Or in Pune dressed in orange robes as a disciple of Bhagwan Rajneesh, later to become Osho, in whose hedonistic community thousands bonked their way to spiritual fulfilment. Or they checked out Hardwar, where the plump, thirteen-year-old Guru Maharaj ji promised to Give Knowledge (and graduated to hiring the Houston Astrodome to spread his teachings). Other spiritual tourists might head for the northern hills to study Buddhism or ramble south to Puttaparthi, where Sai Baba conjured holy ash – vibutti – out of thin air before rows of astonished, white faces.

  Of course, not everyone came to India for Truth, dope and sex. Many came just to keep up with their friends. In 1967, Norman Flach, a nineteen-year-old from Rosetown, Saskatchewan, went travelling because he admired story-tellers and wanted to have his own tales to tell. After two years on the road, working on a kibbutz and singing Tom Jones hits with Turkish bus drivers, he walked into a tiny Delhi ice-cream parlour and two former classmates. ‘Hey, man, want to share a banana split?’ they asked him, as if meeting after school at the Rosetown Rio.

  No one knows how many young men and women followed the overland trail between 1962 and 1979. The Indian government estimated there were ten thousand ‘youthful’ foreigners in the country in 1967. Five years later, after the Beatles had popularized the route, that same number crossed the Wagah border from Pakistan in a single week. In 1973, there were 250,000 French nationals alone in India. In Varanasi, I met an old hippie who guessed that close to two million Intrepids had – like him – reached India by land.

  My first Ganges day ends as did so many of Ginsberg’s,
sitting inside the red-stone eyrie above smoke-stained Manikarnika ghat. An awareness of death, or of life’s transience, pervades the embankment. Here, mortality meets immortality, sanctity cohabits with poverty. Here, also, the question of whether to live as one has always lived or to decide to reinvent oneself and start anew is easily addressed. Behind me, axemen hack and split tree trunks into fire wood. The oily pilgrims’ shed, a poor house for the dying, rises on my right, overlooking the burning platforms.

  It is the hour of aarti, when the gods are praised with incense and fire. As I watch, a green bamboo stretcher is carried down the narrow lanes. The corpse is tinsel-wrapped in a vermilion shroud. The doms, the ghat’s funereal outcasts, spread branches on top of the body, as well as ghee and five combustible, sacred elements. A young male relative touches a thick straw taper to the wood. The curls of smoke shiver the muslin shroud, flashing its golden foil lining, and the flames lick the sole of a foot.

  ‘Burning, some red juices dribbling out of nose or eye, down cheek, dropping off bright red hot ear,’ Ginsberg wrote more than a generation ago. ‘Scalp split and cream color skull still smooth and dry in the heat peeping through the blackened hair.’

  As he watched the Manikarnika cremations, he imagined the fires burning his fear away, ‘burning the dross inside me’. He contemplated release from the Wheel of Existence and trips to the ‘ultimate unknown’.

  I don’t think I would have much liked Ginsberg, the first holy soul, jelly-roll, drop-out traveller. He was a cocky self-publicist, exaggerating his connections, doing so much morphine that his head spun. He liked to have himself photographed with beggars. His stay in Varanasi ended in disappointment; alone in the nine-door room, cold and exhausted from a cocktail of abuse, suffering from kidney attacks and ‘washed up desolate on the Ganges bank’. But in India and afterwards in America, he remained alive, an original, transcending traveller full of hope and – through his writing – regeneration. He was the glittering link from Thoreau and Whitman, by way of Nietzsche and Kerouac, on a journey from Romanticism and idealism, through numb and mindless nihilism, from death to ‘this now life… this here life’.

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