Tuesday, 19 March 2013

riding the rails with the Hare Krishnas

the 4am train to Nasik makes a 2 minute stop at Thivim station.

I literally run down the platform scanning each car for the "S8" car. I haul myself and pack up the steep iron steps and plunge into darkness.  Feeling through my bag, I pull out my flashlight.  I had googled "Indian train seating," so I could find my compartment in the dark.  Holding a ticket for Lower Berth 57 made it easy, since it was the second compartment from the end.  I counted "1", "2," and sure enough there's a man sleeping in my berth.  I shine my flashlight in his face.  He's solidly asleep. "Hello.  Excuse me sir," I call out, "but you're in my berth." No response.

I shine the flahlight in the face of the man sleeping opposite him. He stirs, lifts his head, and looks at me.

"So sorry," I say, "but he's sleeping in my berth.

The man mumbles and groggily pulls himself out of the berth.  He shakes the other man, who I find out in the morning, is his son.  The son takes several shakings, proddings and yells before he can be aroused from his deep, train-rocked sleep.  He staggers, still half asleep, and stumbles about pulling up the middle berth and chaining it in place.  He indicates that i can now climb up, but I persist in my need for my chosen lower berth.  He finally relents and hauls his body up to the berth above me.

The rocking, shaking, clanging shake me into sleep and I awake to find myself surrounded by 7 Hare Krishna American youths on pilgrimage to the Krishna temple in Vrindravan, led by one amber-eyed, Croatian monk.

One young, baby-faced, blue-eyed devotee carefully drapes his sheath of pale saffron cloth around this waist, knots it, pulls out a swath of cloth in front of his body, pleats it, pushes it between his legs, grabs it from behind, pleats this end, and finally tucks it into the back of his waist as the Indian 2nd class sleeper train parade begins.

The leader, the chai wallah, struts through the coach bellowing "Chaiiiii! Chaiiii!"He's followed by his brother the coffee wallah yelling "Coffeeeeee! Coffeeeee!"  The circus continues with blind men selling chains to attach your luggage to the metal brackets under the seats.  Following them come men with two 5-foot-tall poles of key rings dangling from branches on either side of the poles.  Samosa sellers hawk hot deep-fried masala potato-filled dumplings.  Other men shout about their deep-fried potato balls accompanied by 2 small square buns and 2 very hot thin green chili peppers.  "Panni water cold drink! Panni water cold drink!" bellow young men.  Behind them a man pulls a huge sack of freshly popped popcorn.  One man carries a cardboard box filled with children's toy.  Another flips a dazzling light-twinkling top that spins its way down the litter-filled aisle.  And at the end of the procession, a aged woman with no legs scuttles along the aisle sweeping the litter before her with a palm frond broom and begging for money for her dubious endeavors.  And no Indian train ride would be complete without the Harijans - India's infamous transvestites, who prance through the train from coach to coach, heavily made up, in colorful saris, clapping hands loudly and demanding money from everyone and not accepting "No," as an answer.

"Man, how are you?" one beefy, disgruntled-looking Krishna devotee asks another who's been sitting crosslegged and mouthing chants, eyes closed.

He opens his eyes and looks at his fellow-devotee. "I'm fine.  You?" he asks.

"Man, I don't know.  Being trapped on this train...I can't concentrate.  I tried meditating, but man, all this 'Chaiii!' he imitates the call of the chai wallah.  "How can I mediate with all these people screaming and bumping into me and all this..." he waves his large-boned hand. "I don't know, man." He plunks down next to me as I sit up and swivel into a sitting position.

"Life getting in the way of your morning meditations," I ask, raising my eyebrows and smiling wickedly.

He pushes his dark-rimmed glasses  up on his nose, gives me an American once over appraisal with his eyes, and one corner of his mouth turns up slightly in a somewhat sneering smile.  He half turns toward me.

"No."  He shrugs and turns away, clearly not willing engage with some provocative middle-aged woman on a train.

But the Croatian leader of the group turns toward me.  We make eye contact, exchange smiles, and I feel instant recognition of a kindred soul.

The problem meditator gets up.  The Croatian sits down. Immediately we're talking heart to heart.

"I'm from Croatia.  A small town near the sea.  Not a crazy, big city, but even so, at fourteen, I looked at the world and it seemed so crazy and pointless and ugly.  And I decided to become a monk and devote myself to the life of the spirit."  His amber eyes are warm and soft.

I understand him completely and flash back to my fourteen -year-old self reaching out my hand for a copy of the New Testament.

A group of  Christian proselytizers used to set up a stand in the all-Jewish shopping center on Saturdays and attempt to hand out the NEw Testament to Jews enroute to buy new clothes or fresh loaves of rye bread from Bogaslavsaki's.

Reading the New Testament on my bed, door of my room closed, I wept with my first taste of spiritual rapture and thought: 'I want to become a nun and devote myself to contemplation of all that's holy and sacred and be a daughter of God, married to Christ.'

So yeah, I understand exactly where he was coming from.

For a Hare Krishna ordained monk he's refreshingly anti-proselytizing.  His interests range from bio-diversity in farming (he's setting up an organic farm outside the Krishna Consciousness Center in San Diego) to politics to health.

"I'm happy doing service where I can.  Doing whatever I can to make the world a little better."

After 2 hours of talk he gets up to help some of his "charges."

A young devotee takes his place next to me and launches into a diatribe on Vedic knowledge.

"Excuse me," I interrupt his lecture in a soft but firm voice and a sweet smile, "Did you confuse me with someone who had requested a morning lecture?"

He looks at me puzzled.  "A lecture," he asks.  "What do you mean?  I just wanted to have a heart to heart talk."

"Well, you weren't speaking to me from your heart - you were completely in your head, delivering information you'd read in a book."

."Oh," he says, "I thought you were interested in Vedic knowledge."

   "I'm interested in knowledge where ever I can find it.  It can come from the chai wallah or the Baghavad Gita, or the trash collector."

"Well, I've been reading the Vedas and for the first timer everything is becoming clear."

"That's good," I say, nodding my head in confirmation.  "So, what's become clear?"

"Well, before...I I used to eat but hours later I was hungry again.  So just eating for taste - it became disgusting.  And my girlfriend - after I saw her - I'd want to see her again and I saw how all these things were disgusting."

I interrupt him.  "We're in a body - this body - it's a gift we've been given.  It has 5 main senses and if we're aware, we can revel in the glory of what a good palak paneer tastes like; the infinite pleasure that comes when a warm breeze caresses our cheek - " Here I close my eyes and gently caress my cheek.  (I'm on a proselytizing roll of my own now) "The sweetness of the song of a bird," I continue.  "The smell of jasmine flowers at twilight.  And eyes to witness the glory of a crimson sunset!  What's disgusting about that???"

His mouth hangs slightly open.  His eyes are lackluster, dead. I can almost hear the wheels of his head turning.

It takes a minute, but he finds the right file cabinet of his brain, opens a folder, and starts reciting.

After several minutes in which he apperas to be speaking withough taking a breath, I again interrupt him.

"I'm sorry," I say.  "I don't want to be doing this.  I"m happy you've found something that works for you.  Good luck on your path.  I want to be quiet now."  I turn and look out the open window, through the 4 blue metal bars out to the hut-like stacks of hay.  At the scarecrows dangling from sticks in the field.  At the strange mountain formations with nippled peaks.

"Pani water!"

A new group of vendors enter at the next stop and the show starts all over again.

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