Something stirs in the perennial heat of Rishikesh – it is preceded by a scream and a riot of sheer panic in the clogged streets of colour and smells. Two bulls (these sacred bovine beasts that indolently dominate every traffic junction in India) are clashing, horns against hide, hooves against faces. The alpha sends his rival hurtling across the streets into a tiled bench of old ladies in sarees – they scream at a higher octave and pull each other to the safety of an elevated garden – littered with cigarette butts, coke cans and other detritus of third world consumerism.
Two men, one a fruit hawker and the other a sundry shopkeeper, rush out with wooden rods fashioned for the singular purpose of whacking the hierarchy of human dominance back into the hormone-flushed brains of these sacred bovine demigods. They flee in the direction of the highway.
J and I stand hesitantly, just inches away from this chance occurrence of a daily street catastrophe – by sheer luck, we were in the opposite trajectory of this mating contest, and by the love of the Gods, not one of the old ladies were hurt. Rapidly, the street reverts to its lively insouciance – hawkers return to their makeshift stalls, holy men resit themselves on their cardboards, and pilgrims again clog the streets with their consumerism. 100 rupee ear-diggers, children hawking prayer candles, honking autorickshaws drivers and yogis with advertisement banners. Transactions are more frequently encountered here than religion. But no doubt, the many of these transactions, from satchels of marijuana to telepathy workshops with money-back guarantees, would bring one closer to an apotheosis with Lord Khrisna.
“Where are you from?” – a young holy man speaks in perfectly-accented English to us from amidst the impassable humdrum of pedestrians.
“Ah, Singapore! Are you guys looking for some guidance?” – comes the beginning of a routine, rehearsed-to-perfection sales pitch, followed by the insouciant understanding that comes with our polite rejection. He knows us already – mere tourists, not travellers trying to find themselves. Unprofitable. And he disappears back into the street.
Somewhere along Laxman Jhula, an ancient iron suspension bridge of a tiny gauge no less named after the brother of the eponymous Lord Rama in the Ramayana, we make one of our many dozens of regular criss-crosses across the Ganges. A British woman is locked in an embrace with another holy man on one of the iron railings, clogging the motorcycles whose every honk is an indiscriminate barrage of aggression at herds of pedestrian traffic – “… the next time you come to India, I’ll teach you how to kiss properly like…”
Below the wooden decks of the bridge, adventure rafts (more money flowing from the Global North to South) ply the silver surfs of the grand Ganga. It’s a river with flows both mercurial and mercury-coloured, like the long, knotted locks of the holy mens’ hairs – sacred and abundant. Here, God(s) is in the colour of the red sunset, in the paneer whose fragrance surmounts even the staunchest ascetic, in the click of camera flashes on a motorboat throbbing past half-naked pilgrims in an ablution on the banks, in the shops selling cheap cotton pants tailored by the sweat of unschooled children, in the multi-coloured sheen of a calendar with Ganesh emblazoned across its cover, and in the blank Wi-fi logo that reminds me that I have not updated my Instagram in the last 48 hours. Here, one man’s mundanity, is another man’s sanctity. Here, the Gods consort with vice and sin.
Dusk falls indolently and the October heat is replaced by a humid threat of rain. Wi-fi is found only in the bars after a transacted drink or two.
J and I are about to leave a bar, having finished our glasses of mint chai, drunk to a playlist of The Beatles – the White Album on repeat (the many drug-induced, yoga-inspired songs therein produced right here in Rishikesh some five decades ago). We spent the night in conversation with B – he had introduced himself as a Tibetan exile who works in the Dalai Lama’s office.
He provides us with a farewell epigraph – “In life, you should aim to be a man of virtue, not a man of success.”
And thus, having received his blessings, we make a 3km trek back to the dingy hotel that our college housed us at. We fly home tomorrow.
Midnight Rishikesh is a town without colour and a town of squalor. The familiar must of burning marijuana wafts across the intersection of the road and Ram Jhula. Two holy men are crouched by the closed shutters of a stall, yellow-dotted, saffron-robed with the red amber of a smoking joint in each of their parched lips illuminating their moment of religious communion. They nod at us, inviting a joint each for a few rupees. But we have not the time for blasphemy.
Amidst the darkness, we detour around fighting bulls and masses of resting cows. A highway stretches for miles without electricity nor a drum of an engine – we are alone, without company nor the Gods themselves.
As we close to the banks of the Ganga, a girl, perhaps ten years-old, squats by the lapping waters and floats a polyurethane bowl of flowers, a prayer candle lit cautiously in the navel of the bowl. It floats perilously, carried away by the currents of the Ganga, bearing her hopes and her prayers. The light of the little flame is now all we can see in the encroaching darkness.
But even that too, is quickly, if not pathetically, extinguished by the currents.
Photo taken at Rishikesh, October 2017