Hari Om

by Tulasi-Priya on Monday 10 September 2012

At this late stage of the game, I have sold my soul to the devil: I am become a frequent-flyer miles whore. I want to go back to India, and miles-whoring will be the only way I can do it without cleaning out my checking account and prematurely cashing in my IRA.

I am not ashamed of this. Rather, I glory in my new identity. I don’t have to be a cheap whore, though—a credit card application or two, stocking up on supplies from miles sugar-daddies*, that sort of thing—will allow me to attain the object of my desire: a round-trip ticket. Maybe even first class. You’ll not find me slumming in the supermarket for enough pudding cups to necessitate the building of an ark. For the first time in my five decades on this planet, I am seeing the world through miles-colored glasses. The view is not bad at all.

The first time I went to India was in 2003. It so happened that I was to be on the same flight as an acquaintance named Kusha, so in exchange for a ride to JFK Airport, she shared her cab for the ride from Delhi to Vrindavana, aka the dhama, or holy land. Actually, pilgrims consider all of India a holy land, with some places more ramped up with sanctity than others. For Vaishnavas, Vrindavana, the tract where Krishna first appeared on this earth 5,000 years ago, and the place of His pastimes, pins the holy-meter.

With world-renowned taxi-walla Gopala at the wheel, we zipped past flower-painted trucks and swerved around donkey carts down the NH2 to Vrindavana. During the three-hour trip Kusha would occasionally say, “We have to stop at Hari Om’s. You’re going to love Hari Om’s.” I wondered silently what Hari Om’s could possibly have to recommend it. After so many hours of inter-continental flight, I had to restrain myself several times from whining, like a small child, are we there yet?

We had arrived. The open-air eatery was little more than a roadside shack between agricultural fields and rustic brick kilns, virtually empty of patrons, the counterman at the ready to take our order. Dusty plastic chairs were arranged around several tables. I was startled and delighted as a couple of rabbits hopped around the hard earthen (or was it just dusty?) floor. The sky over the fields was beginning to dawn.

Since the menu was not in English and I neither spoke nor read Hindi, Kusha ordered for me while I used the facilities. It was at Hari Om’s that I had my first encounter with a rural Indian toilet, an experience that merits its own essay, but delicacy forbids. I re-joined Kusha at the counter, where I was handed a steaming bowl of what seemed to be thick mung dal soup, a cup of hot milk, and a stack of rotis. Gopala remained at the counter to get his fix of India’s national drug, sweet milky tea.

We settled into the plastic chairs facing the road. Spooning dal into our mouths with little moans of pleasure, watching the sky lighten from indigo to lavender to pink, tossing pieces of roti to the bunnies, sipping hot milk, Kusha and I grew happier by the moment at the thought of entering the dhama. The whole atmosphere was poised in stillness. Even the omnipresent traffic horns were momentarily silenced, or at least softened. At that juncture between night and day, my first day in India, Hari Om’s seemed the abode of all bliss and peace: the rabbits, the scents of sweet milk and smoke from cooking fires, the dawn, the dhama.

And with each swallow of hot dal also dawned the awareness:  I am going to pay a price for eating this. This was, after all, Indian street food I was putting into my stomach, which had yet to be acclimated to a foreign country and had just flown across several time zones. But how could I have said no to my first taste of the India? I drained my bowl to the last drop. It was delicious.

And pay for it I did. I possibly could have been cured of whatever turned me into a faucet within a few days, but bad advice launched me on a downward spiral which took weeks to recover from. During my sojourn in India, I made intimate acquaintance with a wide variety of toilets, while the mosquitoes who frequented them made acquaintance with the more intimate parts of me. That first morning’s moment of bliss was tempered by many hours of sheer misery. If nothing else, India is a land where extreme contrasts are taken for granted, and where even money is not the buffer against reality that it is in America. The pilgrim visits the dhama to learn surrender. We don’t get to choose what form it takes.

I had not simply dug thoughtlessly into that first breakfast in India. The voice of reason had spoken to me, warned me, but I chose not to heed it. And while it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d thrown caution to the winds, it had been a long time since I’d done so. The question arises: if I could have known the consequences, would I have eaten the dal?

A better question to ask might be, “Was the experience worth the risk?”

The answer is yes.

When I was a junior in high school, I had a class on world religions with Miss Contreras, a formidable Cuban with the moniker “Control” who did not mind being called that to her face. During our section on Hinduism, I made a declaration to Control and to the class, a statement whose rationale I am at a loss to explain and which I did not remember until twenty-three years later, in the depths of my gastro-intestinal ordeal in India. I said that I would go to India, but not until I was forty. Control, always ready to take down my natural arrogance a peg, asked why. I said, because India is a place you go when you are through with trying to enjoy life, and I want to enjoy life at least until I’m forty. Her response is lost to memory, but I do recall her jaw dropping. I remembered this conversation with wonder and mirthful rue more than once as I squatted, feverish, over a hole in the floor and the mosquitoes rose up in clouds around me. Control hadn’t brought me down—how could she? I was seventeen!—but the years had, and Mother India.

Still, I’m glad I don’t get a do-over. Sometimes you have to take something—a place, a person, an encounter—especially a first encounter—whole, without reservations, no matter the cost. If I had said no to that first taste, I would have experienced the dhama on my terms, not hers. My consciousness would have still been in America even if my body was in India. I had no idea how bad the consequences would be, but I knew that the worst was death.

How can you live if you’re not willing to die?

 

*Online retailers who give extra miles for purchases. I might buy enough razors, for example, to see my husband into the next decade.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah W September 10, 2012 at 6:48 am

I love your experiences, all of them. And I wish I had miles to give you!

Reply

Averil September 10, 2012 at 10:41 am

You know, if you want to rack up some frequent flyer miles, you can always book a trip to Portland. . . .

Reply

CJ September 11, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Oh I understand this kind of travel and the fear of it as well. So lucidly described. More please.

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