For many years Manali was my second home after Pune. There in the Himalayas, I had found the spectacular Nature I so much loved, and also a community of like-minded friends with whom I could meditate daily.
The way up to Manali was a 16-hour bus ride from Delhi, and in the early days that was often a 24-hour trip as those buses had the infamous habit of breaking down at least once on the way.
For about a decade, I made the return trip once or twice a year, first on local buses, then on deluxe tourist coaches where the seats would recline, and later finally on the Volvo buses. Those would not only recline but were also more reliable and comfortable, although with experience I found out that the more modern suspensions would make me prone to motion sickness. After a few horrendous trips, however, where I would struggle with nausea for hours, starring at the road, wide awake in the middle of the night, I unexpectedly discovered that popping a quarter of a Valium would not only make me snooze but also cancel the motion sickness.
In more recent years, I would book 2 seats for myself, which meant that I would not take the risk of sitting next to an oversized smelly person. I would have a sense of privacy and some space to spread. Once past with the guilt, it was a great option and well worth the extra money.
One day, after a few months in the Himalayas, it was finally time to travel back to Delhi, and I found myself at the main bus stand in Manali village, ready for the long trip down to the megalopolis.
Making sure that my luggage was securely stored in the hold underneath the bus was always a bit stressful, but all looked good, and I climbed into the bus.
This time I had bought only one seat. When I had booked the ticket in the office some two weeks before, I had been told that buses were not very full at this time of year and I had decided to take the risk and save the money. I am very sensitive to space, and having someone sitting next to me for 16 hours is no small deal. I was very confident that the seat next to mine would be unoccupied and that I would be able to spread out without having to pay for it.
I recall those very long moments sitting by the window, in the 4th row on the right and side, watching people arrive, give their luggage to the boy who would store it underneath, and slowly, one by one, walk into the bus and look for their seat. The bus was gradually filling up, but so far no one had claimed the seat next to mine. I painfully held my breath.
With only one concern and one thing in my mind, I hardly noticed when an unusually gorgeous woman got out of a rickshaw, and with a beautiful relaxed smile gave her backpack to the storage boy and walked in. A couple of smelly looking locals had just passed by and to my relief made their way to the back of the bus.
A soft voice reached my ears “I think I am sitting next to you”. I literally jumped on my seat, quickly glanced at that figure about to sit next to me, starred at the window, and closed my eyes. I must have looked as upset as if the world was about to end. Indeed, what I had hoped was to be a 16-hour journey by myself, with a bit of privacy and space, had just with those few words turned into a hellish trip with someone right in my space. Sharing a rattling armrest with a stranger for a long evening, a full night and a whole morning, through the windy Himalayan roads, the horns, the fumes and the crazy Indian traffic was an experience I had promised myself never to have again.
Why hadn’t I bought two seats? I felt terrible, stupid, and really pissed off.
It is now just after 4 pm, it is a crisp November afternoon, and our bus slowly leaves the Manali bus stand on time. If all goes well we should reach our destination by nine the next morning.
The first part of the journey is rather uneventful as we move down along the Beas River towards Kullu. The road is busy at this time, and I am glued to my window. This part of the trip always brings up many memories and emotions; maybe because it is the very start of a long journey, perhaps because I just love those mountains so much, but the real reason is probably that every separation wrenches my belly somehow.
I try to relax. The woman next to me is tranquil actually; she is reading a book, which is something I find weird and I could never do on those winding mountain roads. I am pissed off still. Thoughts of spreading, of stretching my legs sideways, of putting my little bag on the seat next to mine and kind of resting on it, keep running through my head faster than monkeys would. But no, there won’t be any of that this time and my pillow is squashed underneath my seat. Not even space for my pillow, unbelievable! What an idiot I was, trying to save a few rupees. I could easily give her a nasty look, I am pretty good at that, but no, she won’t even get that. I ignore her… Well, I try.
We get through Kullu as the sun is setting.
The next day at noon, wrapped in a colourful Tibetan wool blanket, which has for wool only the name, we are zooming through the busy streets of Delhi. “We” meaning me and my next seat neighbour of the night, whose name I haven’t yet asked and about whom I know nothing but the inner fragrance. How our bodies had filled each other without actually touching, without exchanging a word nor really making eye contact is a mystery I can’t explain. All I know is that slowly and almost imperceptibly, hour after hour, a connection had happened and our body warmth had hooked with each other. Energy it is called!… Until that moment around midnight when suddenly, unexpectedly but unavoidably, as the bus was rolling down through the night she had taken my hand and gently squeezed it.
The bus was asleep, but there on seats numbered 7 and 8 a magical dance was taking place, hands were so softly playing with each other, and powerful waves were shooting along my spine. Was it just energy, was it love, was it past life, was it plain sexuality, hormones, lust? Those questions were hovering over me. This was so enjoyable, so exciting and yet so incomprehensible.
Hours had gone by until all of a sudden just before 5 am, we heard a big noise at the very front and the bus precipitously stopped by the side of the road.
After about an hour of confusion during which the two drivers and the staff were assessing the situation, it was announced that our bus was broken.
The sun was now rising as we all got out to see what the situation was and where we were.
I had not slept all night and was in a bubble of energy with a person I had not truly seen nor heard the voice of. I stumbled outside and looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rice fields. We had obviously left the high mountains behind and taken a shortcut, and we were not yet on the long last stretch of highway to Delhi. Indians were discussing the options, and I quickly understood that our bus would indeed not start again today; something significant in the motor had given way, apparently the central belt.
I was completely blank, in the moment yet somewhere else, floating somehow.
The sun was now rising through the cold misty morning, and we were stranded, about 25 of us; mostly Indians including two young couples coming back from their Manali Honeymoon, a few elderly Tibetans, and a handful of foreigners, including me and… huh, well, my next seat neighbour. Here she is, coming out of the bus, a red woollen hat on. She looks stunning. For the first time, our eyes meet. No word is spoken. Again a tingle goes through my back, my heart feels bottomless. She walks softly towards me and just stands there. We actually all stand there. I guess most of us are in shock. I inquire. Delhi is at least 5 more hours’ drive, and we just need to hop on anything that is going in that direction.
The woman is right here next to me, and I suddenly feel awkward. Should I take her hand? Should I ask her name, or where she is from or where she is going? Nothing comes out of my mouth; it all seems so stupid, so irrelevant. Taking her hand here is also not an option. I just stand there, still, looking at the scene, everyone gathering their luggage and trying to figure out what to do next.
I am about to ask her something, ready to get surprised at what sounds will come out of my mouth, but just then there is a scratching noise. A bus has just stopped in front of ours. Some people rush to have a look, but most come back. It is a local bus on the way to Delhi, it will stop everywhere and take a long, a very long time, and the seats are plain wooden. The conductor hanging at the door calls towards us “Delhi, Delhi, Delhi…” I hesitate a moment, and then I suddenly feel the impulse to leave right now with whatever vehicle is first. I scream back “Wait, I come”. I put my pack on my back and start running towards the local bus. I stop midway, look back at the beautiful woman I just spent the night with, and for the first time speak to her “I am going on that bus. Do you want to come?” I don’t even know if she understands what I say and I have no clue where exactly she is heading. She could say yes, she could say no, but one thing is sure: in less than 20 seconds that local bus will be speeding off towards the highway to New Delhi and I will be on it!
“I am coming with you,” she says with soft self-confidence. I grab her bag, and we both run towards the bus and hop on it.
Now, this is a different kind of a bus than the luxury Volvo Tourist Coach we just spent the night in. The seats are wooden benches, three by two, windows don’t close, and it is indeed a very local crowd.
The bus is hardly full, and we manage to squeeze onto a larger wooden bench on the right-hand side somewhere in the middle. We keep our backpacks in the front near the driver; I will need to keep an eye on them, but at this point, life seems to be conspiring in my favour with an excellent plan, and I am in the mood to relax and to trust. I sit by the window which isn’t, in fact, a window; a cold misty wind is blowing in this early hour, but luckily I have my big blanket with me, and I wrap myself in it.
I look around at the crowd gathered here; we are the only foreigners and the only ones from our broken bus. Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have waited for a better, faster, more comfortable option? I don’t care. I feel my companion’s warmth, detect her smell, her inner fragrance. She had said “I come with you”, with such assurance. What is transpiring between us can’t be named. Energy is a word I always avoid whenever possible and too big a word for this. Love? How could this be love? I don’t yet know her name, have not looked into her eyes properly, have not exchanged a sentence, and I don’t even know where on planet Earth she lives and what she does… No! It is something else, something that rarely happens, but yes, something that India seems to be a breeding ground for. Magical encounters!
Time is passing, and our bus is now on the highway, speeding along. An older lady dressed in a gorgeous bright green and yellow Sari has just come in with a huge basket on her head filled with cucumbers. It looks so heavy. She puts it down in the corridor and sits next to us. My neighbour squeezes closer to me and makes space for the lady. We are now three on this bench. I look around, and again for a moment, our eyes meet. And merge. And melt into a bottomless space. The thought of saying something appears, but no, this is not an option. She reaches under my blanket and takes my hand. She is hot, burning hot. The squeeze is powerful, yet so incredibly soft. I close my eyes and do what I do best. Feel. And feel. By now, my shawl is covering us both in a way that looks casual and fitting the scene. We are melting into each other, our legs and hips are touching, our hands are locked. This magical dance that had started in the night is continuing. The seats are now hard and stiff, the night has given way to the morning sun, and a crowd of haggard-looking locals has replaced tourists and Tibetans. But this dance continues.
Just before noon and twenty hours after leaving Manali we are finally arriving in the imposing Kashmere Gate in Delhi, the largest and oldest such Interstate Bus Terminal in India. The same woman who had made me jump up in my seat and triggered a massive wave of anger and discomfort was now sharing my shawl and holding my hand.
Now what? Time to say something. A massive crowd of Indians is gathering, dozens of taxi and rickshaw drivers are pushing their way into the bus before it stops and before we can get out, everyone wanting to grab our bags and get us into their vehicle.
I manage a “where are you from? What’s your name? What are your plans for today? I am in Delhi for 3 days and have quite a lot of work to do; I will go to Paharganj and get a room there. ”
The bus is now coming to a full stop, and there is commotion again. That was just too many questions, and she can’t answer them all. “I have a flight back to Madrid in the middle of the night. I was planning to go directly to the airport and wait there. But I come with you.”
Oh! I had planned to work today, and I am on a tight schedule as I usually do in 3 days what I should need a week to do. This is the price I am used to paying for spending as little time as possible in Delhi, an excellent deal considering that working under pressure is something I enjoy. Now doing my work in only 2 days seems a crazy stretch. I try to think. I like challenges, but this feels impossible. “I am quite busy today” I reply, “but you can come with me, we can leave our luggage in my room and go out, do our own things, and then meet again for dinner before you leave for the airport. I know Pargarganj well and will show you around. ”
“Yes. I come with you” was her only reply.
I feel almost ridiculous to have told her all that. What does she care about my business, after all?
We jump into a rickshaw with our backpacks, wrap ourselves in my colourful Tibetan wool blanket, and zoom through the busy streets of Delhi towards Paharganj. Delhi is such an overload for the senses, such a mind-blowing festival of sounds, smells and colours, that not a word is spoken between us. I am flowing with the moment, this woman by my side, feeling so many feelings, and letting go into the chaos of this Incredible India I so much love and so much hate all at once.
Less than an hour later we finally arrive in the middle of Paharganj Main Bazaar where for 15 years I have produced and bought clothing for my wholesale business. Paharganj market starts across from the central, imposing New Delhi railways station. It is an impressive concentration of affordable hotels, lodges, restaurants, Dhabas and a wide variety of shops catering to domestic travellers, foreign tourists and business people, especially backpackers and low-budget travellers like myself. I know this bustling and unbelievably alive area like my pocket and had once figured out that put together I must have spent almost a year of my life on that street! Hare Krishna Guesthouse is one of my favourite budget places, and that’s where I get the Rickshaw to drop us.
It is now 2pm, and I have not had anything to eat since we had stopped for dinner in a small place somewhere on the winding mountain road between Kullu and Mandi. One over-spiced Dhal and two chapattis are all I had eaten, and I am now starving.
As we get out of the rickshaw, I quickly go over the day’s planned schedule. I have missed two appointments this morning, especially an important one with my very first supplier, Deepak, to look at new products and to check, collect and pack hundreds of dresses. Checking through the production before buying and sending it, is an unavoidable and extremely time-consuming part of doing business in India. At 2.30 I am supposed to meet Ravi in one of his Godown, a huge storage place the size of a building, in a back alley five minutes from here, where I will need a few hours to go through the 3000 scarves he has waiting for me, and choose the best 500, one by one. Then, before 7 pm, I will need to have the first five parcels packed and delivered to Santosh, my trusted man of many years. The next 2 days are equally full, and squeezing into tomorrow the tasks that I should have done this morning is a daunting solution. I do need to get moving.
I have done this Delhi gig dozen of times, I love the buzz, the craziness of it and the pressure I put myself in. I love it because I know it only lasts three days. I had a few times been delayed the way I am now, and I always managed to do what I had to do. But arriving in front of Hare Krishna Guest House wrapped in a shawl with a stranger is something I had never considered in my wildest dreams.
Why had I offered to come here with her? Why had I put myself in such an impossible situation? As I give the rickshaw driver a hundred- rupee note I go through the situation at the speed of light, trying to figure out a plan B, knowing that there is none, knowing that there is no Why either. This is plainly about letting go into the here and now, flowing with the new and the unknown, facing a challenge and remembering that situations like this one have happened before and are what a life worth living is made of.
One delightful part of Hare Krishna Guesthouse is the open restaurant on the ground floor near the reception, where before checking in, we can sit and have something to eat. I have it all sorted already. We will have a chai and food, I will get a single room where we will drop our luggage, and we will immediately go out again. On my way to Ravi, where I will arrive a bit late, I will show this lady a couple of places where she can hang out this afternoon, and we will make an appointment for 8 pm back here, so we can then have a relaxing dinner somewhere nearby before she leaves to the airport. I suddenly feel delighted to have sorted this mess somehow.
“Keep the change,” I say to our driver as I take my backpack and head the few meters to the entrance of Hare Krishna Guest House. The woman follows me. She seems so at ease, trusting, and appreciative. I feel her support and understanding; I sense her delight in this mysterious happening.
“I suggest we sit here and have something to eat,” I say. “Yes, great idea” she replies. The restaurant is spacious, and we sit at a big table on an ancient-looking shabby marron fake leather couch. A light-hearted Krishna song is playing, and it feels good to finally sit on something cushioned!
I am about to quickly explain the situation and the plan for today when our eyes meet and lock into each other. Time stops for a moment, a long moment until we are interrupted by the boy who checks to see what we want to eat.
“Order?” he asks. There is no answer. Our eyes are softly entering each other, there is nothing to say, and there is nowhere to go. The boy must have looked puzzled but leaves us alone. He is probably used to the eccentricity of foreign backpackers.
As I sit there facing this mysterious woman, I can feel my energy move down to my heart and my genitals. I can feel the fire burning through this body. All the plans I had made in my little head just a moment ago are disappearing like a train speeding off into the distance. I am suddenly left empty- and full at the same time. This connection feels so unknown, yet so intimate.
We just sit there across from each other for what seems an eternity. I recall the bus stand in Manali last night as I was so desperately hoping to be left alone. I remember her “I think I am sitting next to you” and how angry that made me. And then this long, very long journey through the night, the connection that had happened out of some kind of bizarre fairy-tale. And here we are now.
The boy comes again, reminding my stomach that I need to eat. “I’ll have your special breakfast,” I say.” Sorry sir, breakfast is finished!” I look up at the big purple clock on the wall in front of me, it is indeed 2.15 pm. “I will have a chai and your special Thali then”. The boy seems pleased with my order. “And you Madam?” “Same for me” she replies.
I notice that it is getting late and that Ravi will already be waiting for me. My mind is busy again with the necessary schedule for today.
“I need to get moving very soon” I start, “with all this delay I am behind schedule, and I have to work this afternoon. I am running a wholesale business, and this just can’t be postponed”. She nods. “I suggest we keep our luggage in my room upstairs and meet later for dinner” I continue. “What time is your flight?”
She looks at ease, relaxed and trustful, and her smile is gorgeously open. Her flight is in the middle of the night, and I quickly figure out that she needs a taxi from here at 10 pm.
Our thalis are arriving. The food looks decent and generous. Rice, 3 chapattis, a good-looking dahl and 2 little bowls of curries, one with paneer. The salad I won’t touch, but the Kheer I will try. We eat in silence. I sip my chai while eating, a strange habit I got into in Calcutta years ago. Luckily it came unsweetened.
We look at each other. The urge to come closer is becoming more intense, maybe because of the food which is activating my blood flow, I don’t know. It feels good to eat. I want to squeeze her, to feel everything, to melt, to explore, to dive and disappear. Most of my long term relationships started with a connection far less intense than this one, I catch myself wondering. Where will this go? What if we like each other? What if everything else we discover is as awesome, magical and intimate as this? How often does such a meeting happen in a lifetime?
I notice the chattering in my mind, the warmth in my heart and the fire burning through my body. I feel a bottomless space opening up inside.
It is now time to get moving. I excuse myself and go and check at Reception. There is only one room left; it is a small room without a window, but with an attached bathroom. I usually would want to look at it first, but now there is no time for those kinds of details. I take it. “Yes, I am alone, single. No, she won’t stay here; she is a friend. Only keeping her luggage in my room for a few hours. Can you book a taxi to the airport for 10 pm? Ok, good. Please send the boy to bring our luggage up”. “Yes, Sir”. I quickly fill in the page in their entry book with my passport details, and up we go to the third floor; the marble stairs are incredibly steep, and the boy leads the way.
I am now standing in front of room 305. It has obviously just been cleaned; the fan is running at full speed, and the marble floor is still wet. There is a small TV in front of a single bed, blasting some Hindi music. I get the boy to turn it off, I peep into the bathroom, which is basic but looks in working order. The room is indeed small and windowless, which is somewhat typical in this part of the city and not a bad idea considering the noise and pollution outside. I have had better rooms in this Guesthouse, but this will do for two nights.
It is now 3 pm, and if we go out now, I will still make it. I just need a few minutes to fill up my little backpack with the necessary paperwork, use the bathroom quickly and change my T-shirt.
I give the boy a 10 rupees note and close the door behind him as he leaves.
I look around. It is not a pretty room, that’s the least I can notice. Forget about romance. We just stand there. I have not lain flat since I got up from my bed in upper Manali two and a half days ago, and I wonder how tired I truly am. Getting moving and out of here as quickly as possible is the only sensible thing to do right now. “What’s your name?” I inquire. It sounds so weird, asking her name now, here, squeezed between this crappy little bed, our luggage on the floor, the bathroom and the door. We have shared more intimacy, it seems to me, than many couples have in fifty years of marriage, and we know each other’s fragrance at a depth few ever reach in a lifetime. We have experienced the essence of that stuff called love; we have looked, even if for a brief moment only, into the abyss of the other’s eyes. We have felt the bottomless call of our own hearts. “Maria,” she says softly. “Maria?” I must have looked surprised because she smiles back and comes closer. “And your name? “My name is Nirav” I reply, “it is a long story.” We exchange a few formalities, all of which sounds deadly boring and irrelevant. We don’t have time anyway for any of that. We need to go out and mix with the buzzing and colourful life of the market below. A full-on afternoon is waiting outside.
We both catch and stop our unnecessary chattering at the exact same moment. We simultaneously make a half-step forward, still gazing into each other, until that momentum pulls us where, like magnets, we hook into a single field of energy, become glued as one, and finally hug each other.
During all those hours spent together the idea of hugging, Maria had hardly crossed my mind, and I never entertained a picture of how it could be.
In the community where I lived for many years, hugging was part of life. It is an art I had become very good at. A meaningful hug requires the ability to be grounded and fully present, in the body and in the heart, to feel and stay connected inside, to remain alert, open and sensitive, and to say yes to whatever appears. It is the art of moving in and down.
That first hug with Maria in this rather hideous windowless room is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Hugging Maria sends electric waves spinning through my whole body. I feel myself bursting open; I sense an infinite number of connections coming together inside. It is so extraordinary. At some point, my appreciation of time switches off as we let go into a dance of energy beyond our doing. A dance beyond time and space, a dance of two energies melting into what is called lovemaking.
We surrender to the momentum. Maria is so utterly and completely present and connected within herself.
We let go into the timeless, into that space beyond the mind, flirting with that which never dies. We relinquish ourselves into this opportunity to taste the unknowable in the very most beautiful way I know. Everything around us disappears. Time becomes synonymous with here and now.
We are lying on the bed, naked, entangled in each other when a loud and awful sound echoes in the room. The phone is ringing! I laboriously grab the handle. “Good evening Sir, your taxi is waiting.”
Maria and I look at each other, speechless and stupefied. Taxi? Now? How could this be?
It was about 3 pm when we entered this room and yes, I remember ordering a taxi but for 10 pm tonight! Maria reaches to her bag and pulls out her watch. “Nirav, it is ten past ten. I will need to go.”
I rub my eyes, not able to fathom what had been happening. This windowless room has let the sun set and the night take over without warning.
Maria gets up without a word, takes a quick shower, and dresses while I sit on the bed, completely stunned. We look into each other’s eyes and hug for the last time. I then take her backpack, which is still unopened on the floor, and off we walk down the stairs.
The taxi driver come rushing towards us, puts the luggage in the back of his little green Maruti, and already he is ready to go. “Very late Madam, let’s hurry”. I open the left door at the back of the car, and Maria gets in. I reluctantly close the door behind her. I can feel Maria’s heart screaming in the silence of the space we had shared.
She goes with the flow and leaves through the night. I never hear from her again.