Magic bus, p.26

Magic Bus, page 26


Magic Bus

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  In each case, Sobhraj’s gracious outward manner won his victims’ initial friendship. He presented himself as an urbane gem-dealer and once bragged, ‘As long as I can talk to people I can manipulate them.’ By 1977, he had cast a pall over the Asian trail and was wanted for at least twenty murders in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Nepal. He was caught only after drugging an entire busload of French tourists at Delhi’s Vikram Hotel.

  During his sentence for robbery and manslaughter in the high-security Tihar jail, Sobhraj – who also used the name Alain Gautier – escaped twice, once by feigning appendicitis and, then, in 1986, by throwing a birthday party and feeding grapes and biscuits injected with sleeping pills to his guards. On both occasions he was recaptured, yet he remained outspoken and defiant, managing to have a telephone and fax installed in his cell. In 1997, after serving twenty-one years, he was deported to France. According to the Nepali Times, Asia’s premier serial killer had now returned and was arrested at the Yak and Yeti Casino on Friday.

  ‘He swore that he never killed good people,’ says Penny, ‘but isn’t there goodness in everyone?’

  The sunken black eyes of a sullen man gaze out from her newspaper. His motivation remains a mystery. Bitterness at the opportunities of Western youth? Revenge against the father who failed to help him to build a future? A lack of feeling or too much feeling? Sobhraj once confessed – then later retracted the boast – that his sadistic murders were ‘cleanings’ for ‘fun’. He never admitted to feeling remorse. ‘Does a professional soldier feel remorse after having killed a hundred men with a machine-gun?’ he once asked. ‘Did the American pilots feel remorse after dropping napalm on my homeland?’

  Sobhraj – a cunning psychopath who brought terror to the hippie trail – was to stand trial and serve a life sentence in Kathmandu, convicted at last for murder.

  But Sobhraj alone had not cast a dark shadow on paradise.

  Many Intrepids reached Nepal and found themselves at a loss. Was the sacred mountain landscape really their spiritual haven? Could isolated Nepal actually sustain a harmonious fusion of East and West? And if Kathmandu, hidden by a ring of snow-covered peaks, wasn’t paradise, then where was it? No one had asked where to go after the End of the Road. Travellers came in search of a perfect society, trusting to find it at the end of the longest bus ride, beneath the white mountains, surrounded by prayer flags and tinkling bells.

  Some of the lost souls of Kathmandu committed suicide. Others turned to heroin, smuggled into the kingdom by stewards on the first Royal Nepali flights from Bangkok. Most simply let go of their disappointed dreams and went home.

  To expedite their return, Western governments forced Nepal in 1973 both to revoke long-term tourist visas and to make cannabis use illegal. America, Germany and Britain had seen enough of their citizens come back with fried brains. Life in the East became not only less trippy but more expensive. Kathmandu’s Chief of Police started demanding a 1,000-rupee bribe every month to extend a visa.

  Penny and Orrin clung to their romantic utopia until 1979. That year – as revolution swept through Iran, as the US ambassador to Afghanistan was killed and its Islamabad embassy set on fire – the original flower child’s ‘best and last’ husband died of cancer.

  ‘We’d prepared for it, of course,’ she says, sucking on a cheap bede. ‘At the monastery, we’d done our samsara – journeying – visualizations and followed the steps through death. But I was frightened. All I had left in the world was possessions…’

  30. Kathmandu

  ‘A fine class of day,’ says Roddy Finnegan, stretching himself awake in the sunshine, ‘with flowers and mountains and…’ An explosion rumbles in the distance. ‘…a few bombs. Into every ointment a fly will crash.’

  Roddy’s eyes are moss-green. His skin is copper-brown. He has a thick white walrus moustache and long silver-grey hair, combed and well kept, which reaches down his back in a plait. His Irishness is worn lightly, like his contentment and good-natured irreverence. He looks a decade younger than his sixty years.

  ‘On mornings like today, I get these incandescent visions of all the things I’ve seen in my life: the Serengeti plain, the dhows on the Malabar coast, the innocence of Kathmandu.’

  ‘Innocence?’ interrupts Penny. ‘Or innocents?’

  ‘Looking beautiful, girls,’ he calls over the wall to a passing modesty of neighbourhood women: swaying floral fariya, chubby babies on slender hips, full-moon lustre in their young faces.

  ‘For sure, this is still a grand place to live,’ he says, aware of the bombs, stretching again and turning back to us. ‘With little kids, old temples and teenage girls who I wish would take off their clothes so I could adore them one last time.’

  On her final journey, Penny wanted to see ‘wonderful, magical Roddy’, her friend, fellow Intrepid and Nepal’s most musical foreign resident. We arrived not five minutes before, after an eventful ride from Pokhara. On a wooded stretch of the Prithvi Highway forty miles short of the capital, a small band of armed Maoists had stopped the bus, taken off all the passengers, apologized for the inconvenience and set fire to the vehicle. The guerrillas claimed to have seized the countryside and encircled Kathmandu. With the air of busy and confident hosts, they then flagged down the next bus, installed us aboard and dispatched us to our destination. We reached the city four hours late, descending a tortuous road over jumbled foothills into the valley. A taxi delivered us around the army’s barbed-wire barricades to the white house at the foot of Swayambhu. We woke Roddy, hedonistic guitar-picker and freak-next-door, who leapt, long, lean and naked out of bed to embrace Penny.

  ‘I find it hard to convey my exhilaration today,’ he enthuses, touching her cheek, ‘seeing you again, remembering those days.’ He has thrown a sarong around his waist. Penny sits between us in his terraced garden above the spreading plain, listening to cooing doves and another explosion, looking from Roddy to me and back again, her eyes glistening with pleasure. Our chairs are set in the sun around a kettle of tea and tatter of music sheets. Behind us rises Swayambhu’s sacred hill, its lines of fluttering prayer flags like birds’ wings suspended in flight. ‘For sure, it’s fine to see you again,’ he adds for good measure.

  ‘And for you two to meet,’ Penny says, nodding in my direction and mentioning my book.

  ‘I will tell you for a start why we could never communicate with our fathers’ generation,’ Roddy volunteers, offering to fill me in on the origins of the sixties. ‘Because of the war. Because of all those young years wasted in that spectacular war.’

  ‘Which one?’ I ask.

  Vietnam? Palestine? Afghanistan? Gulf One or Two? Nepal? The proliferation of wars along the trail has foreshortened my long view of history.

  ‘The Second World War,’ Roddy says without pausing for breath, ‘when eighteen-year-old boys murdered with sanction and fucked French girls in dusty barns for the price of a cigarette. After which they went home to Dresden or Donegal crying out, “Give me suburbia.” They wanted to forget their horrible memories. They wanted to watch their children grow up listening to bland music on the phonograph. Our generation was born under the shadow of that war, under the mushroom cloud, listening to Doris Day. It mutated us.’

  ‘Write this down,’ Penny tells me, pointing at my notebook, basking in the glow of Roddy’s excitable monologue.

  ‘The sixties were the last gasp of the spiritual age,’ he pronounces, adopting a learned air. ‘God swept his hand across the world and gave us the cosmic break of our lives. Along with the monkey virus.’

  ‘The monkey virus?’

  ‘That first run of the Salk vaccine was a trial,’ he hisses with delightful drama, sitting forward on his chair, brushing a line of talc across his chest. ‘The scientists hadn’t finished the research. All around the world, millions of God’s children were injected with the stuff.’

  ‘The polio vaccine,’ I realize. Roddy has muddled the facts. In 1952, an American medical researcher,
Jonas Salk, discovered how to prevent poliomyelitis. He didn’t use primates in his research, but another scientist, Albert Sabin, improved the vaccine by experimenting on more than 9,000 monkeys and 100 chimpanzees. According to Roddy, scientific innovation and divine intervention conspired to create the counterculture.

  ‘During the research, a virus crossed from monkeys to humans and took away our ambition. It diluted our respect for authority. It turned us off the consumer society. It made us want to lie together in a big heap and not wash. In fact, it made us hippies.’

  ‘That was the cosmic break?’ I ask.

  ‘As the mushroom cloud rose above us, God looked down and gave us three great gifts,’ he replies, lifting his hands toward heaven. Warmed by both our attention and the sun, he grows even more animated. ‘First, He gave us the electric guitar. Second, He gave us Chuck Berry. He saw we had no attention span because of the monkey virus, so he gave us short songs.’

  I’m making notes now, scribbling down the words as fast as Roddy utters them in his soft burr, losing count.

  ‘Short songs was the third gift?’ I ask.

  ‘The third gift was… dope. That was the greatest gift. The greatest moment in rock ‘n’ roll. We breathed deep and annexed time. That is where the sixties – and so the overland trail – began.’

  Roddy was born in Ireland, probably Dublin, but he won’t say exactly where. In 1960, aged sixteen, he moved to England to work in a Bird’s Eye fish-finger factory and – with the monkey virus pumping through his veins – he bought a guitar.

  ‘And an amp. No fucking acoustic for me, man.’

  Two years later, he returned home to form the Wakeful Finn, the first – according to him – Irish rock band.

  ‘We wanted to make music like Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, big black heroes who’d been in jail for murder, playing saxophones and twelve-string guitars.’

  In no time at all, he found Ireland too small. He took off again, first for Sweden, then Ibiza, which was already ‘a bit crowded’ in 1964. He missed Ginsberg in Tangiers but fell in with the Beat poet Gregory Corso in Athens, travelling without destination or money, inventing the unpackaged tour.

  ‘Those mutated genes had kicked in, and I abandoned every-thing: my parents, money, television. I was good at rejecting crap.’

  In 1965, he settled in London for a spell, hanging out with Barry Miles at the Indica Gallery (where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono), working with Mark Boyle and the Sense Laboratory, doing the light-show for Hendrix and Cream’s farewell concert. His Ladbroke Grove flat was busted on the day Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde was released. As the drug squad tore open pillows and emptied boxes of cereal, Roddy walked through the feathers and flakes to change the record, ‘because it was a double album and it was so good.’

  ‘Being an Irishman, I like words. I sing lyrics that move me. I

  don’t do songs which are glib. That gift of music is a grand thing, a happy thing, for sure. Mr Molotov and Mr Kalashnikov may get their names in the history books, but couldn’t they have invented something a little better for mankind?’

  By 1968, Roddy was restless, a shadow of pessimism and acquisi-tiveness lengthening across London and toward the ‘Me’ decade. The music was ‘showing signs of strain’ too. Then, kids started coming back from India, skinny, smiling, wearing pyjamas and chitrali hats and saying, ‘Have a little toke of this shit.’

  ‘I did, and I woke up a day later. “Where did you say this came from?” I asked them. “Masr? And how much did it cost? $15 a kilo?!”’

  Roddy was back on the road.

  His first trip to the East was by air. He bought a one-way ticket to Bombay for £48 on Basco, the South Yemeni airline. Its puny, overloaded DC-6 barely cleared the perimeter trees at Brussels. At Cairo, the pilot was refused permission to land because of unpaid fees. He ran out of fuel above a military airfield in Luxor. The crew and passengers were arrested as spies and the aircraft impounded. Roddy and six other freaks stumped up the cash for bribes and fuel (the Indian businessmen had hidden in the toilets). In Aden, they made an unscheduled stopover to replace an engine. Three days later, the DC-6 touched down in Bombay.

  ‘The door opened and I smelt India – a mikniva of shit and urine. I walked around Colaba in wonder, watching the puja, seeing the light, feeling no fear, thinking I’d landed in my mother’s lap.’

  For a year, Roddy tripped around the subcontinent, hitched back to Europe, returned to Asia, his cool Carnaby Street boots patched and ‘Indianized’. He hung out in Rishikesh, floated down the Ganges, sat on beaches and himals, passed around chillum and guitar, reached through drugs and music for a spiritual life beyond Western materialism.

  ‘The road was a great leveller. It took everyone: guys, girls, poor, posh. No one had heard of AIDS. It cost us nothing to live. Those days were like a warp in time.’

  Roddy turned up in Kathmandu a few months after Penny and Orrin. The air smelt of jasmine. Bougainvillaea bloomed by wayside shrines. Ponds were full of blue lotus flowers. On their walk into town, the only buildings passed were clay-and-thatch Newar farmhouses. Scavenging pigs wandered in and out of Boris’s Hotel. Orrin opened the Dreamweaver gallery on Freak Street. Penny painted the garuda, lion and peacock statues in the monastery. Roddy resurrected the Wakeful Finn.

  ‘We made Nepal our home and stuck a dagger of pure fear into the heart of the Machine,’ he roars on, the sinews in his neck bulging. ‘“No, Da, we’re not coming back to buy a house and improve the economy. No, we don’t need an answering machine. We want to talk to people.”’

  ‘We studied Buddhism, Hinduism, Tantrism, the tabla…’ says Penny, beaming at me.

  ‘You may even have put your foot on the right path for a moment,’ I venture.

  ‘We grabbed hold of the hem of heaven and danced. Danced,’ exclaims Roddy. ‘I’ve not been back to Europe since the day the Sex Pistols broke up.’

  Morning melts into noon, tea is transformed into rice and daal, Roddy shifts his chair across the garden and we chase after him and the sun. As he talks, he twists in his seat, stands up, changes accents. He winks at Penny, strokes her hair, claps an arm around my shoulders. He appears carefree, impulsive and healthy, his day unfolding like ten thousand others before it. I know I’m envious of him and his liberty, of the flash of years when an optimistic generation first opened their eyes, of their recognition of opportunity, of their ideals rippling across the surface of a pool of cool water: shallow, perhaps, yet alive.

  ‘I always knew that when I got sick, I could come back to Kathmandu and Roddy would look after me,’ Penny says, suddenly serious. ‘He’d arrange for the lamas to cremate me properly.’

  ‘Are you sick, girl?’

  ‘What do you think? Living in a dark box in London.’

  ‘Until you abandoned it,’ I point out.

  ‘This is kali yuga,’ she tells us.

  According to Hindu philosophy, kali yuga is the last era before destruction and rebirth.

  ‘What you need is a bed, Penny, not a burning ghat,’ Roddy replies, taking her hands, fussing her to her feet, cupping his palm on her bottom to guide her into the house. ‘You should cop some Zs.’

  Five minutes later, he returns without a smile. He’s thrown a cotton shift over his torso and suggests a walk to buy food for the evening.

  Beyond the gate, Kimdol, once the domain of tigers, reveals itself as a neighbourhood of cobbled lanes and old Tibetan burial grounds. A grocer sells cauliflowers from his bicycle. Housewives look up from grinding lentils to smile.

  In Roddy’s eyes is a new, sober look.

  ‘I’ll tell you a story,’ he says. ‘No one ever spent winters in Kathmandu; it was too damn cold. Everyone went south to Goato catch some rays. The first year, Penny, Orrin and I sat together in a circle on the beach playing guitars. The second year, some new guy brought a cassette deck and rigged it up to a car battery. The third year, another guy came with bigger speakers, then with amplifiers. In the fif
th year, a stage was set up and some kid asked me for my backstage pass. My backstage pass! What happened to our sacred beach, man? It was time to move on.’

  ‘And now from Nepal?’ I ask.

  ‘Kathmandu’s full of people reading the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam. They sit in internet cafés sending each other text mes-sages. I mean, at their age we wanted to get into each other and society, not to live in a meltdown world. We didn’t have guidebooks, we didn’t even know the name of the next country. “What’s this place called? Bhutan? Where the hell is Bhutan?”’ he shouts, his voice filled with angry energy. ‘We’d see a new city from the back of a truck. We’d see the lights. We’d think, “Behind one of those lights is a little room, and a bed, and maybe, if I get lucky, a warm body.” We were dropped off. We trusted in fate. We were blowing in the wind. Now, a big jumbo jet dumps you at the corner.’

  We reach the foot of Swayambhu’s conical hill and climb the stone steps of the great Buddhist temple, past deities smeared with vermilion and rice, to the platform and sweeping view of the city. Before us, a broad valley of terracotta roofs and bone-white concrete spreads in every direction toward the ring of hazy mountains, visible through the leaden veil of polluted air. Red-robed monks pad around the alms bowl dome which contains nothing. Above it, the spire rises through thirteen gilded rings representing Buddhism’s thirteen steps to enlightenment and nirvana.

  ‘They say you come to Nepal for the mountains and stay for the people. When I arrived, I fell in love with those peaks,’ Roddy says, nodding in the direction of the Himalayas. ‘I wanted to know the name of every one, and the names of the gods who live there. Way over there somewhere…’ he gestures towards Tibet ‘… is Mount Kailasa, the spiritual centre of the universe. Man, it’s from there that the gods descend from heaven. A stairway from heaven to my doorstep.’

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