This is one of the most memorable events in my life. The night I took sannyas and became Nirav.
And so started a long, profound, colourful and truly remarkable journey as a disciple of Osho. I would spend the next decades exploring his vision of Meditation, Celebration and Creativity. I would learn and experience so much about myself, about love and freedom, about silence and intimacy, about the mind and the body, about and about and about… Most of all, I had found a family of like-minded friends, and indeed the need to belong was, as I see it now, the core impetus to join the club.
I lived a truly extraordinary life for 30 years in the Osho Sangha. Until a few months ago, more and more sannyasins started to share their personal stories of being abused in different Osho communes while the master was alive. The accounts were so vivid, so shocking, often exposed by people who were kids at the time that my world suddenly came to a halt. More outrageous even than the horrendous accounts of people who were raped in Osho communes by dozens of men when they were children or young teenagers, or of women who were sexually used and then blackmailed by the master himself, is the collective cover-up in the sannyasin community- until today. Had I been asleep all those 30 years? Had I been deceived? For the first time, I started to look at the possibility that I may have been part of a Cult no better than any other; a Cult where sexual abuses of children were far more rampant than in the Catholic Church that Osho had unforgivingly criticized for its twisted sexual expressions. A Cult that finds itself today where the catholic Church found itself 25 years ago when the persistent flow of accusations was still met by massive denial and hope to suppress it all, once again.
As usual in such situations, the younger generation and those abused as children drive the uncovering. Their efforts are often met by fierce resistance from the older crowd. Many sannyasins have spent their whole lives gaining fame, prestige, power and money using Osho’s name -and they consequently have most to lose.
My life as a sannyasin comes to a screeching halt as I abruptly stand in an identity gap I had never dreamt of ever facing. Would I have engaged on this journey had I known what I know today? Would I have been able to take sannyas, surrender to Osho and open up to a life that indeed proved to be extraordinary? The answer is clear. NO, I wouldn’t have taken sannyas. NO, I wouldn’t have stayed. I would likely have run away as fast as I could and never looked back- and Yes, I would have missed the wonderful life I have had.
Today is my 30th anniversary, and as usual, this picture pops up as a touching reminder of an extraordinary moment. But today, unlike in other years, I am shaken by what I discovered in that photo.
Firstly, Osho, who for 30 years I had put on an untouchable pedestal. I believed beyond doubt that he was a most brilliant and compassionate master who was ultimately poisoned with Thallium by Ronald Reagan’s America because he spoke the truth.
Secondly, the woman sitting right behind me in that picture. I was told she was a special Medium with unique heart powers, and she had been very close to the master himself. I fell and surrendered in her arms when the Mala with Osho’s photograph was put around my neck.
And, if that picture had sound, you would hear live music coming from my right and side. The leading musician on the guitar was much loved by Osho, who talked about him in discourses with particular fondness. Osho had made him the music department director, and there he was that night singing love songs during my initiation.
Well, those three people alone were lately exposed beyond doubt for crimes of the worse kinds.
It came out that our notorious guitarist is a child rapist who had sexually abused dozens of young teenagers in different Osho communes over the recent years. He even had a nickname, “The rapist”, apparently used by his close friends. A few months ago, under pressure from many accusations, he published a video on his music site where he publicly admitted all the crimes he was suddenly accused of.
I also only recently discovered that the “Medium” sitting behind me that night had abused scores of young boys and used her power of being close to Osho to lure teenagers into sex. Although she sounded annoyed to have been exposed- she is now a well-known Osho “therapist”- she also admitted.
Today, as I look at myself in this picture, with my eyes closed and my heart wide open, I feel the bitter taste of betrayal. I know perfectly well that I would have stood up and possibly punched both the medium and the musician if I had known. I may have crushed the guitar in a fit of rage, disgusted to see people who belong behind bars play this game with innocent newcomers.
As for Osho, it has become evident that he never was poisoned with Thallium but instead had a severe addiction to Valium and Laughing Gas for many years, which he used in mindboggling quantities. His health allegedly deteriorated as a result, and he likely took his own life. He is largely held responsible for sanctioning the poisoning of people, creating a culture where the raping of children was normalized, and sexually abusing some of his female mediums.
Although I would always want to be informed and know the truth, I am staggered to see how being kept in the dark allowed me to thrive in so many ways for so many years. Was ignorance the foundation of my extraordinary life? For 30 years, I was in a Cult without ever considering for a single moment that I was. I systematically filtered out any suggestion that I may be in a trance as I walked my path with a subtle arrogance and a spiritual sting that must have stunk. Behind the belief that I was exceptionally open and part of the chosen more intelligent few who knew, I was, in reality, hard sheltered. And nothing in 30 years shook me once in that place.
Today I have friends who are caught up in Cults, this one or others, and it is interesting to see this bolted door from the other side. Some genuinely exceptional experiences must be happening behind the shutters. Who am I to judge? Who am I to disturb? I had my days in my own time. Until one morning, by God’s grace, the veil lifted, and I fell flat on my face.
As I wake up from this long trance, I wonder how to reconcile the love and gratitude I have for the path that was mine with shadows of abuses and betrayal that crossed all my boundaries. Who am I beyond the good, the bad and the ugly? Who am I beyond my name and the stories?
I am slowly picking myself up as I look with new eyes at this picture and reflect on the extraordinary life I had as an Osho disciple.

By Philippe Nirav, March 2022

Magical encounters on Indian trains and buses, part 1 Manali to Delhi

For many years Manali was my second home after Pune. There in the Himalayas, I had found the grandiose nature I so much loved, and also a community of likeminded friends with whom I could meditate daily. The way up to Manali was a long 16 hours 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 also be more reliable and comfortable, although with experience I found out that the more modern suspensions would make me prone to seasickness. After a few horrendous trips, however, where I would struggle with vomiting for hours staring 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 the last few 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 and that I would have a sense of privacy and some space to spread. Once over with the guilt, it was a great option 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 on 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 of a stressful time, 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 without having to pay for it.

I recall those very long moments sitting by the window, in the 4th row on the right hand 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 slowly 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, stared at the window, and closed my eyes. I must have looked so upset as if the world was about to end. Indeed, what I had hoped to be a 16 hours journey by myself, with a bit of privacy and space, had just with those few words turned into a hell of a 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 do 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 the next morning by 9. 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 windy mountain roads. I am pissed off still. Thoughts off 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 bad 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 from 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 have no clue about. 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 number 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. What was that? Hours must have 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. 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 goes in that direction. She 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 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, 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 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 to. 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 softly with 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 on the 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 didn’t care. I could feel her warmth, her scent, her inner fragrance. She had said, “I come with you” with such assurance. What was transpiring between us couldn’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 didn’t yet know her name, had not looked into her eyes properly, had not exchanged a sentence, and I didn’t even know where on planet earth she lives and what she does… No! It was 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. We are speeding along and obviously won’t stop so often anymore. An older lady dressed in a gorgeous bright green and yellow Sari had just come in with a huge basket on her head filled with cucumbers. It looks so heavy. She puts it down in the alley 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, which is a long shawl 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 in 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 off my seat and triggered a massive wave of anger and discomfort was now sharing my shawl and holding my hand. Now what? Time had come to say something. A massive crowd of Indians was gathering, dozens of taxi and rickshaw drivers were pushing their way into the bus before it stops and before we could 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 a 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 Paharganj well and will show you around.”

“Yes. I come with you,” was her only reply.

I almost felt ridiculous to have told her all that. What did she care about my business, after all?

That is how the journey continued. We jumped into a rickshaw with our backpacks, wrapped ourselves in my colourful Tibetan wool blanket, and zoomed 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 was spoken between us. I flowed 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 loved and so much hated all at once.

Less than an hour later we finally arrived in the middle of Paharganj Main Bazar where for 15 years I produced and bought clothing for my wholesale business. Paharganj market starts across the central and imposing New Delhi railway station. It is an impressive concentration of affordable hotels, lodges, restaurants, dhabas and a wide variety of shops catering to both domestic travellers, foreign tourists and business people, especially backpackers and low-budget travellers like myself. I knew 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 was one of my favourite budget places, and that’s where I got the rikshaw to drop us.

It was now 2 pm, and I had not had anything to eat since we had stopped for dinner in a small place somewhere on the windy mountain road between Kullu and Mandi. One over-spiced dahl and two chapattis are all I had eaten, and I was now starving.

As we got out of the rickshaw, I quickly went over the day’s planned schedule. I had 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 godowns, 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 7pm, 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 what 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 dream.

Why had I offered to come here together? Why had I not merely jumped on that local bus without stopping midway? Why had I put myself in such an impossible situation? As I gave the rickshaw driver a hundred rupee note I went through the situation at the speed of light, trying to figure out a plan B, knowing that there was none, knowing that there was no Why either. This was 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 at 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 metres to the entrance of Hare Krishna Guest House. She 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 on a big table surrounded by an ancient-looking shabby maroon fake leather couch. A lighthearted 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 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 in 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 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 first, “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 were 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. It 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 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 a moment and go and check the 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 up 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 songs. 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 Guest House, 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 tee-shirt.

I give the boy a 10-rupee note and close the door behind us.

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 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 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 sound 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 half a step forward, still gazing into each other, until that momentum 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 was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Hugging Maria sent electric waves spinning through my whole body. I felt myself bursting open; I sensed an infinite number of connections coming together inside. It was so extraordinary. At some point, my appreciation of time must have switched 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 surrendered to the momentum. Maria was 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 relinquished in this opportunity to taste the unknowable in the very most beautiful way I know. Everything around us disappeared. Time became synonymous with here and now.

We were lying on the bed, naked, entangled into each other when a loud and awful sound echoed in the room. The phone was ringing! I laboriously grabbed the handle. “Good evening Sir, your taxi is waiting.”

Maria and I looked at each other, speechless and stupefied. Taxi? Now? How could this be?

It was about 3 pm as we had entered this room and yes, I remember ordering a taxi but for 10 pm tonight. Maria reached to her bag and pulled her watch. “Nirav, it is ten past ten. I will need to go.”

I scratched my eyes, not able to fathom what had been happening. This windowless room had let the sun set and the night take over without warning.

Maria got up without a word, took a quick shower, and dressed while I sat on the bed, completely stunned. We looked into each other’s eyes and hugged for the last time. I then took her backpack, which was still unopened on the floor, and off we went down the stairs.

The taxi driver came rushing towards us, put the luggage in the back of his little green Maruti, and already he was ready to go. “Very late Madam, let’s hurry.” I opened the left door at the back of the car, and Maria got in. I reluctantly closed the door behind her. I could feel Maria’s heart screaming in the silence of the space we had shared.

She went with the flow and left through the night. I never heard from her again.

VULNERABILITY- how we got it all wrong

When I recently came across a quote by B. Brown, where she says that “vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you, and the last thing I want you to see in me,” I stopped for a moment and inquired, especially into what it means for me as a man. Because that is not how it is for me anymore.

If vulnerability is certainly the first thing I look for in you, it is also the first thing I want you to see in me. Why? And how did I get here?

As for most people growing up in this society, I learned very early how to be tough, harsh, critical, independent, even threatening. As a boy, I learned that to be a so-called real man I had to take on this tough guy image and show the world only certain parts of myself that the culture I live in has defined as manly. I also learned that protecting myself was necessary in order to survive.

In the emotionally unstable family where I grew up, I very soon worked out an impressive collection of strategies to protect myself, close my heart, space out, dissociate, and be on guard at all times.

My dad never cried, never talked about his feelings, never showed any pain or emotion. He was and still is as impenetrable as one can be. My Mum, on the other hand, was an emotional bomb, exploding regularly, especially when you least expected it, and usually right in your face.

However, and in the midst of it all, when I was still very young I had a sense that protecting myself in that way meant that life could not really be lived fully. Of course, I didn’t understand it intellectually then, but I feel that I always knew deep inside that being open and real was the only way to be a full human Being.

I have been a spiritual seeker for as long as I remember, at least since that day, as a 4-year old, when, crawling on the bright green sofa, I suddenly stopped and stared at the adults… looking at the dramas going on. I knew that this was a show adults were lost in, and that reality was something else.

Vulnerability is my most innocent and authentic state. It is being open and able to receive life in all its dimensions.

Vulnerability feels like an immense asset, my greatest gift, and as a man the source of my intrinsic strength.

Our current values and ideals in society portray softness as undesirable and dangerous to our well-being. In reality, the opposite is true: our vulnerability empowers us to love deeper and grow stronger.

I spent many years opening and closing, moving between trust and fear, experimenting with being vulnerable and being protected. I had lived my life with the belief that exposing myself without any mask would somehow get me hurt and isolated.

Embracing vulnerability totally, one hundred percent, did require an in-depth experience that permanently terminated my embedded concepts that being vulnerable is dangerous. I had to experience in my very marrow that I had it all wrong and that the exact opposite of what I feared the most would be what actually happened if I exposed myself, naked.

This experience can only happen through grace. For me, it happened in an intensive meditation process. There, by pure miracle, I experienced that the more I opened the more I touched people, even strangers. The more I exposed myself without any mask, the more people opened their hearts. The more I revealed my shadows, the more love was showered on me. The more I was vulnerable, the more I was alive. This was one of the most life-changing and extraordinary inner phenomena I have ever encountered. I had it all wrong, for so long.

From that moment onward, what I always intuitively knew became natural again; since then vulnerability is my way of life and my greatest resource. And as a man, I would say that vulnerability is real strength, one that bends without breaking and that touches people where they most need to be touched. It is my most reliable friend, one that is always available and more intimate than my own breath.

Vulnerability creates connections. It is the source of all connectedness and without it, Oneness can never be experienced.

The day I landed in Kathmandu with 12 dollars in my pocket!

We were in 1989 and I don’t know if credit cards existed then, but I had surely never seen one. Mobile phones and internet were not yet invented and I felt free in a way I certainly don’t feel today.

In the midst of my hippy life, I used to make quick money selling jewelry on the streets in the south of France, and then, after a month or so, I would make my way back to India where I would spend a year, sometimes two. Those days the cheapest way was to travel overland to Greece, often spending time on paradisiac beaches in the south of Crete, and fly east from Athens. I remember arriving in the Greek capital after an overnight ferry trip, and checking out the cheapest travel agents near Monastiraki; I always had 2 basic requirements: the ticket needed to be a real deal, and the flight had to be soon, preferably tonight or tomorrow. And considering that planning in advance was against my philosophy, I didn’t have a visa to anywhere, so the flight needed to land in a country not requiring one. That’s how for a few years, Nepal, which delivered 30 days’ visas on arrival, became my base. That was plenty of time to apply for a 6 months’ Indian visa, go trekking for 3 weeks, collect my passport and travel overland to Varanasi.

Now, although I am a survivor in many ways, I never ventured too far in the forbidden side of life. I certainly played with my limits and stretched many rules, but I always had a clear sense of where the red line laid. On the hippy trail you hear many crazy stories, but one was recurrent and sounded easy. Buy travelers checks, declare them stolen, get new ones, and sell the old ones on the black market in Katmandu for half its value. Easy. I had heard that story so many times, although I can’t recall someone who actually did it himself.

So, when on a Friday afternoon I walked out of “Alex travels” in Athens with a one-way ticket to Katmandu for the next day, I decided to give it a try.

I had 2900 dollars, all changed in Travelers checks already; those were all my saving which were supposed to last me for at least one year in Asia.

I headed to the American Express office, went straight to the counter and explained that someone had just grabbed my bag and stolen all my money. “I see” said the lady behind the desk “do you have the receipts with the serial numbers?” “Yes I do” I replied, happy that everything seemed to be going as planned.

I handed over the numbers and she went behind a door, came back, and declared “Ok, the declaration of lost is done. Please go to the police station, get a certificate of theft, and come back on Monday for an interview.”

“An interview? For what? Can’t you just issue me new traveler checks now? I have a flight to Nepal tomorrow.”

“Sorry Sir, it is not possible, come back tomorrow morning and we will do the necessary.”

As I walked out of the office I didn’t like what was happening. I had not really understood why I had to come back and why she had not issued new checks here and then as I had expected. Something wasn’t smooth and I certainly didn’t feel like going to the Police. I already regretted my move and started to chicken out.

I decided that I would go back the next morning to the AmEx office with my traveler’s checks and tell them that they suddenly reappeared. It may sound strange and I may feel stupid, but who cared? I had a flight to Nepal in the evening and I was not about to get into trouble now.

The next morning at ten, I entered the AmEx office, went to the counter and explained my situation to a different lady. “I lost my travelers checks yesterday and came to get new ones issued, but I was asked to come back today. Meanwhile I found them, so all is fine, I just wanted to inform you.” I handed my new found checks to the rather unfriendly woman across the counter, “here they are. 2900 Dollars.”

I expected her to say “thank you for informing us, have a nice trip”, but instead she grabbed the bundle of checks, looked at them, and without even counting them, she teared them all into small pieces and threw them in the bin.

Now, I still see myself standing there, completely shocked and stupefied. Those checks were perfectly fine, they were mine and all I had.

I must have looked rather astonished, and she explained “those checks were cancelled yesterday and they can’t be used anymore. We need to issue new ones”.

Ah sure, indeed that made sense. I took a deep breath of relief and just stood there, somehow waiting for her to issue the new ones.

“How long is it going to take?” I asked impatiently. I wanted to get out of there and I hoped it wouldn’t take half an hour to issue my new traveler checks. I felt pissed off getting myself into such trouble.

“It will take about 10 days.”

I Jumped. “You mean 10 minutes?”

“About 10 days, maybe more” she replied nonchalantly, “you first need to talk to a representative in the main London office and only she can allow the re issue. Today the office is closed, tomorrow is Sunday, Monday is a bank holiday. On Tuesday you can call. Her name is MS Trubung and here is her number. Oh, and you can call collect. “

That’s how I walked out of the AmEx Office in Athens, a name and a phone number written on a piece of paper. I counted my money. 12 dollars and just enough Drachmas in coins to get me through the day and into the airport.

Yes, that’s how I landed in Kathmandu a couple of days later after a long journey via Moscow and Bangladesh. I remember exchanging my 2 dollars with a sweet Nepali man on the plane and taking a local bus from the airport to a cheap little den on Freak Street that I knew well and where I wouldn’t need to pay any advance on the room. I changed my 10-dollar bill at the very best rate on the black market, contemplated the 286 Nepali rupees I got for it and figured out that I could walk everywhere, pay my rent when leaving and have 3 rupees a day at the most to eat. That wasn’t much but I was survivor after all and I knew Kathmandu well enough to find my way. I quickly read the couple of books I had brought with me and sold them to the “exchange, buy and sell bookshop” in Thamel, a fancier part of town where straight tourists stayed, and got some extra cash. I found a little Thali place where I could eat lunch everyday with the locals and pay later. On Durbar Square I befriended a beautiful sadhu with dreadlocks far longer than mine who not only gave me free chai but also shared his dope.

I went to the AmEx Office every day. The way to call the mysterious all powerful woman in London who had the fate of my life in her hands, was through the little STS/ISD booth next to the office- but for that the phone needed to be in working order, the timing with London needed to fit, there had to be electricity in that part of Katmandu at that moment and of course MS Trubung had to be available and willing to talk with me. The whole procedure took 17 days, until one morning she finally gave the green light and M. Deepesh issued me 2900 dollars.

Amazingly, that day I still had over 100 rupees in my pocket. I had learned a lot in those two and half weeks, not only new skills in surviving but also and foremost, this experience had taught me to be in the moment and appreciate every small thing as a divine gift. I had learned to look deeper into people’s eyes.

Nepalese are among the poorest people in the world, yet they are outstandingly cheerful and smiley; they radiate an inner peace and contentment rather rare in our modern world, and it is always striking and remarkable to arrive from the west and see so many individuals deeply connected with their heart and the nature and the gods.

Those days in Katmandu taught me a lot about the simplicity of living, and what it actually means and takes to be truly happy. Many essential questions grew roots inside myself and would ignite an inquiry process still alive today.

That story showed me once again that no matter the ordeal, there is a gift in every situation, and that the most precious and life changing opportunities can be very well disguised.

magical journeys on Indian trains, part 7

Commuters struggle to enter a train at Noli Railway Station in Uttar Pradesh

A month or so later, in the late 80’s,  it is Opium that found its way into my life for a very last goodbye.

After a short stay in Calcutta, I had decided to travel to Europe overland. I had packed my bag and waived everyone goodbye.

I had crisscrossed the country a few times already on Indian trains, usually on reserved 3Tier second class compartments, where I had a berth for myself and a minimum of comfort. But today, it is the unreserved general section I am boarding, non-reserved, non-AC, with no sleeping berths and not even seats as such. Tickets are very cheap, and those compartments are usually crowded with the poorer part of the population, but the price is not always the criteria for ending up here. When a train is really full, and there is no way to get a reservation even with baksheesh or connections, this 3rd class section can be the only way to go- and that’s what had happened this time for me.

I am in the Howrah station on the other side of Calcutta, boarding the legendary Jammu-Tawi Express. It is one of the most extended train trips you can undertake in this country; over 2000 km in the distance, and 2 days and 2 nights if all goes on schedule, which, in those days at least, never happened. I am undoubtedly apprehensive, and to be honest, I am not at all excited about it. But I have no choice as I was not ready to postpone my trip for another few weeks.

The crowd is dense and eclectic, but the chaos has something reassuring here. It is part of normality, and there are an underlying harmony and mellowness in it. Disorder in India is a very unique notion that includes a sense of freedom, of free-flow; it is incredibly earthy yet disconcerting by its whirling liveliness.

I make my way through the crowd. Howrah station at rush hour must be one of the most densely populated places on earth. People are everywhere, going this way, coming from that way, looking for their platform among dozens, searching for their compartment in trains that seem to stretch forever. And then there are all those waiting, all those sleeping on the floor, at every possible corner. In the middle of the way are people sitting or lying down, while thousands of others are rushing past them.  Many seem to just live there, most are begging. All age groups are here. Mothers are breastfeeding their newborn, kids are running around, and some old people who may not be that old, but whose life spent on the street has taken its toll. Families are sitting in clusters with all their possessions. My eyes lock with a little girl’s eyes; she is maybe 8, sitting there with her parents, looking around. Time stops for a moment as I stare into a life too vibrant to make sense of. That child is obviously undernourished and sleeping on the streets since her birth. And yet, there is a quality of presence, a light, and openness in those eyes. I can see the divine, I can see life throbbing and love shinning. She smiles. I keep moving with the crowd. I will never see her again, never know her story, never understand what that smile was about; and yet in that short meeting, the divine had transpired.

I get into the very last carriage, and I find a spot on a bench. I sigh in relief. I had dreaded an over-packed compartment where I would have to stand or sit on the floor for what is probably going to be a 3 days’ journey. I stash my backpack in a corner under the wooden plank we are sitting on. People keep pouring in, and we are already 6 sitting on what is a bench for 4. “I better keep my seat” I think, already wondering how I am going to go to the bathroom without losing my precious spot.

This time before departure is always the most stressful, and only with the first jerk of the train moving will the tension ease.

Here we are, the siren is finally announcing the imminent departure, and I can feel a subtle jolting. There are 17 different types of horns or whistles blown in the Indian Railways, each one having its own meaning, but this long, high-pitched one is perhaps the most relieving of all.

We are now slowly moving westward, and I am squeezed between 2 Bengali men, both on their way to Kashmir. There is a family with 3 little kids sharing our bench, and opposite, we have a mixed crowd including an older lady accompanied by her son. She is wearing an oversized pair of very thick glasses, tied around her head with a rubber band. She looks ancient and frail, and it feels almost painful to see her sitting on a wooden plank for such a long journey. I wonder where they are going, what their story is.

Life in this compartment is a rawer and even more human version of what I was used to in 2nd class, it is more crowded and less comfortable. But the most dreaded scenario had not happened. I do have a seat.

There is a lot of commotion around, and people are moving in all directions; most of them still looking for a spot to sit.

Indian trains are extraordinarily rich, especially in the poorest part where I find myself now. There is so much stimulus on the senses from different angles at any given time, so many impressions on the nervous system. It is an ongoing festival of sounds and colours and vibrations. It is often gut-wrenching to see humanity in such a raw and primal state, but there always comes a moment where relaxation happens, and all looks simple and part of a more significant happening. I am slowly relaxing into myself, letting the movement of the train and the passing rice fields be part of the landscape. We are now entering a little station. More people will come in, trying to squeeze wherever possible. Chai Wallahs will go around and sell tea in small clay cups meant to be thrown out after use. Our train now comes to a full stop. I better keep my seat. From peanuts to sodas to samosas to newspapers, anything can be purchased through the bars of the window without leaving your place. I look outside. There is a large clock hanging there above the platform- it is now 11.20.

“We only left one hour ago,” I think to myself. I quickly figure out that I may still be here in 2 or 3 days, and I don’t feel about counting how many hours that adds to.

“Cha Cha Cha!!! “A little boy, hardly 10, manages to place his big aluminium teapot on the floor between all the legs, feet and sandals. My 2 neighbours get a cup and look satisfied. At 50 paisa it is ok, and I also get one. I have a money belt on, where I keep my cash and passport, but I also have a little purse with coins and small change. I haven’t used it for a while, and it is in my backpack, right there under the seat. It should be easily within reach in one of the side pockets. Without leaving my seat, I bend down, open the zip, and feel around a bit, until I suddenly touch something I had forgotten. My eyes must have lit up. Yes, now I remember, it is another cotton purse where I used to keep my grass. I know that I don’t have grass with me, but what I now remember and feel through the bag is really unexpected and exciting. It is a rather good piece of Opium that I had almost thrown away in Varanasi. But instead of discarding it, I had put it in that little purse and forgotten it.

Now our train is leaving again, and I inconspicuously hold that little piece in my hand, assessing the situation and wondering what to do with it.

At other times I maybe have discreetly rolled it into a small joint and smoked it at the door of the compartment while half hanging outside watching the Indian countryside. But here I don’t feel to leave my seat for too long. We are still well within West Bengal, and the journey has basically just started.

I carefully divide the piece into 2, put one half in my pocket and, casually passing my hand over my face, I swallow the other half.

Slowly, almost unperceivably, as the train keeps rolling and life keeps unfolding according to a cosmic law I don’t dream of understanding, the sense of time changes. It stretches, stops, and starts again according to new principles. Villages come and go outside of the window; platforms appear and then make way for more fields and more outstanding nature. Sellers enter the compartment with their goods and leave unnoticed. Little kids sweep the floor and then come back to collect a few paisas. Food is served, and eaten. People look at each other, and eyes stare into the mystery of other human beings.

As I look up, I notice that it’s dark. Night must have fallen already, and I have a little shrug of surprise. It is all very noisy and alive, the kids are running around, and life is in full swing in carriage number 29. I am now part of this little group of approximately 20 people, most of us squeezed on the 2 wooden benches, and  a few sitting or lying on the floor. It’s an excellent time to ask Ravi, my neighbour, to keep my seat 5 minutes while I go to the bathroom. I have been pretty quiet and with myself, but I had connected with Ravi and impressed him with the fluency of my Bengali. The trip to the bathroom is memorable; it is filthier than I have ever seen, and apparently, the water supplies run out. People are sleeping everywhere on the floor.

I stand by the carriage door, hold myself to the bars and swing outside. The air is warm, and the train is now smoothly zooming through the night. I feel one with the wind.

I come back. My seat is taken. I realise that my neighbours had just spread slightly in my absence, closing the little gap meant for my buttocks. They all come closer to each other again, and I sit down. “Was I away more than 5 minutes?” I wonder,” could it be that I stood there by the door for hours?” I have no idea, but I do notice the lightening of the sky outside and the orange shade over the green of the fields.

Breakfast is served. A very long stop at a Station. Lunch. Another toilet break. I doze and fall asleep, maybe. Another day passes, or two I can’t tell. I eat the second and very last bit of that sticky black paste, and time slows further. Another night. Another day.

Suddenly there is an unusual movement in the carriage. People are getting ready. I ask Ravi. “We are arriving in Jammu soon. Last stop” he says. I scratch my eyes. 2 or 3 days have passed just like that, and I am now at the feet of the mighty Himalayas, off to Srinagar and then Pahalgam where I want to see Jesus’s grave.

I soon find myself in a rickshaw in search of a guest house to finally lie down and sleep. It has been the most extra ordinary journey ever in this country. The longest yet the shortest. The most uncomfortable yet the easiest and most relaxing.

My story with Opium ended here in Jammu, and I never touched that black latex again.

Calcutta ( chapter 11 )

In 1988 I was living in south Calcutta in Raja’s family home. I had met Raja in my early Berlin days. We were both foreign students and soon became best friends. Raja had taken me to his family the year before already and I had immediately fallen in love with everything I came across in Bengal; his parents, his two younger brothers, the food, the music, the power cuts every evening, the showers at the well, the heat, the incessant singing of the frogs from the ponds that were just everywhere…I loved Bengali language, my brain seemed to absorb it all and soon I could read and write pretty fluently. I had started learning through songs and poems from Rabindranath Tagore and I had decided to leave Berlin and go and study in Shantiniketan, the open air University He created in the Bengali countryside.
Raja was back in Berlin. He had more obligations than I had and was pressured to do well, get a degree and a job. I was amazed that even on our first trip to India he had managed to save a few hundred dollars for his family. By German standards we were poor students.
So there I was, somehow taking his place in his home. His family basically adopted me, and I always felt showered with love, treated, and accepted no matter what a hippie I was soon becoming. As Raja kept sending few notes here and then, the tiny house slowly expanded and one extra floor was built. It was an open house, surrounded by other houses, everyone quite close together, but there was a sense of space. Water and ponds were everywhere, and the sounds of insects, birds, frogs and all kind of exotic animals made for a constant symphony, something I really missed when back in the West. Once a week at the most would a taxi find its way in this area. Otherwise the only vehicles on the streets where bicycles and cycle rickshaws. In downtown Calcutta, rickshaws pulled by humans were common, but not here.
The ground floor was a small and dark kitchen where the Bengali women could hardly stand, and a dining area with a small table in the middle. There 4 people could eat while mother would serve and watch and keep refilling the plates. It is also there that Raja’s father would give private English lessons to a couple students twice a week. Raja’s father I called Kaku – Uncle. My Kaku was a beautiful man; he was educated and had spent his life in the Indian railways. He was now retired. He did look like Mahatma Gandhi, was always wearing a dhoti and would never leave the house without his umbrella. He had a very silent heart but he loved to talk about travels, philosophy, French writers and of course Rabindranath Tagore. At night he had a special place on the first floor where we all slept; His single bed was in the corridor next to a window.
The arrangement at night was something so unique and so far from what I had experienced in my life.
Next to the corridor where Kaku slept were 2 rooms, and everything was door less and the windows were always open unless it rained. In one of the room was a double bed where Kakima, my Untie, was sleeping with her youngest son Opu, who was around 17 at that time. Next to them in a small bed was Didu, Kakima’s mother. Didu was a beautiful, ancient looking woman, well integrated in the house. She was the key keeper and the rice cleaner. She always wore a white Sari, a lifelong reminder that she was a widow. She was usually squatting near the entrance, looking frail but radiating an outstanding grace. She was sharp, and when one of the sons wanted the key of the bicycle, or of one of the many padlocks that are parts of any Indian house, she would test him, ask a couple of questions as what he intended to do with the key. She knew the power she had, and yet never abused it. She always gave the key and made sure it came back. She was well respected and she obviously appreciated that.
In the other room was a large double bed where Rana, Raja’s second brother, and I were sleeping.
Every bed had a specific mosquito net that was fitted on the wooden frame that was part of each bed. It was Opu’s job, straight after dinner, to collect the nets from storage and fit them on each bed.
Dinner was late, around 10 pm as I remember, sometimes even later. We had invariably chapattis. I loved chapattis.
Fatima was the lovely maid who came a few hours a day. She was busy going from house to house in the neighbourhood from dawn till night. Here she came first, early morning, and prepared a cup of tea for Kakima while the whole house was still asleep. It must have been before 6. Once Kakima had had her cup of tea, she herself would prepare tea for the rest of us.
Like many Indians Kakima was diabetic. She would have a proper Cha with milk but without sugar. For reasons I never knew Kaku didn’t drink milk and so special black tea was prepared for him. Of course the only tea entering the house was Darjeeling tea, the world famous hilly region in the north of west Bengal.
The rest of us would get up and be served a normal delicious cup of chai, milk tea with sugar, and 2 small cookies.
Fatima would come and go during the day, but she seemed to have daily tasks. She would broom and mop the whole house every morning, would wash the laundry, including mine, she would go and get water for the house from a safe well a few hundred meters away where there was usually a queue, and she would help Kakima in the kitchen.
Chapattis. In Bengali they are called rotis, and Fatima made the best ones. She would come back after 9 pm to make many of them. She would then keep them warm in a special plastic container. Kaku was very particular about rotis, and when one day, feeling bad to see Fatima come back so late just to make our rotis I convinced Kakima to let me do them. I got my way, and I was very happy with what I did, but we almost had the first drama in the house. Kaku didn’t like my rotis. Fatima was called back and I was never allowed to interfere with the kitchen again.
Kakima always took her food after us. She would stand there while we all ate, checking if we liked it, giving more until she was certain that we couldn’t take in anything anymore. She always looked so happy, proud, shinning with love and devotion. After we had eaten she would sit alone and eat. She was used to this and seemed happy this way. We always ate rice at lunch and rotis at dinner, except for Kakima who only ate rice, for lunch and for dinner as well. I never knew why.
We ate Fish every day. It seemed that everyone in Bengal could afford some kind of fish on a daily basis; poor people would catch small fishes in the ponds, or even in the streams of water that were flowing everywhere between the houses.
Of course we were just right by the Ganga Delta, and even Sundarbans National Park, one of the wildest, most magical places I ever experienced, was very close by, and the variety of fish was certainly overwhelming. At certain times of the year, in those unique waters where the Ganga meets the Sea of Bengal, the very fine, very expensive Illish fish can be found and I was treated a few times.
Apart for a couple of months in winter, life in Calcutta was hot. In our neighbourhood air conditioning was unheard of, and a ceiling fan was one of the most important part of the house. Under them we would eat, sleep, chat, read, rest, gather with friends, have tea….
Invariably, every day at around 5.30 pm as the sun was touching down we would have a power cut that would last till at least 10 pm. For me it was an incredible time. As the night was taking possession of everything, entering every house and every street, the sounds of the frogs and insects seemed to take over. I remember the awe in the air, the sense of magic and mystery, the surrendering to nature, the excitement. Certainly mosquitoes were a serious issue and the heat was often a challenge, but I never heard any real complaint.
At that time, everyone had their unique activities. There was lots of music and singing in our area. The neighbour was giving tabla lessons to one or 2 students every night, across the street girls would gather and practice classical singing, in a mud house nearby a dear friend of the family was practicing Sitar.
At the same time people would gather and meet friends. Women were usually more at home, and would come together in one of the houses. Men typically would go out.
I was hanging out with the boys, Raja’s two brothers and their friends.
Often the 3 of us would get on the one family bicycle and take off to the main road a few kilometres away. After about 20 minutes zooming through the maze of dark and tiny windy streets, we would reach the big, bright and only main road passing through. Diamond Harbour Road. This road went straight south from downtown Calcutta to as far as the land reaches before the start of the immense delta. And here we were living, somewhere on the way, about 20 km out of Calcutta. Diamond Harbour Road rarely had a power cut, even during evening rush hour. We were usually hungry by then and went hunting for snacks. We rarely had more than a few coins to spend, but Opu and Rana knew all the tricks…where to get the best and cheapest omelettes, where to get a free chai, and we would drive like crazy through the traffic to get there. One on the seat, one on the bar between the seat and the handle, and one on the back. Opu was always happy and laughing. I had never come across someone so cheerful, and no matter if the bicycle tire would suddenly get punctured, if the eggs were rotten or if some bad news came, he would always find a positive way to look at the situation. I felt so much love from them both. They were happy to have me here, proud to be my hosts, my brothers. In 4 years in Behala I never met a single foreigner and certainly the vast majority of people here had never seen one in their entire life. Those days I wore a white pyjama and a colourful Punjabi, I had very long beautiful henna coloured hair, big light green eyes, I was tall, skinny and rather handsome. Certainly I soon got used to have hundreds of eyes on me at any given time.
Those evenings were so much fun. Often we would meet other friends and go and hang out, sometimes we would visit relatives, and there we would sit and be given tea and Bengali sweets. When and how to get the message across that I could not eat anymore is one of the most delicate and difficult art I ever had to learn. But somehow I got it and one day I could leave friends’ homes without having offended anyone nor feeling sick from sugar overdose.
Of course I was often the centre of attention. I was such a caricature of a hippy that looking at the rare pictures I have of those days, it is quite outstanding how accepted I was. This tolerance, I came to discover, is a unique quality all over India.
There during those evenings, my Bengali became richer and more fluent, and people loved me so much for not only making such efforts to speak their language but for obviously be madly in love with it. Indeed, I loved it all. Effortlessly I learned Bengali, dressed with everything I was given, ate with my right hand with so much delight; but probably what stole people’s heart forever is when I started reciting poems by Tagore.
Bengal is probably the richest state in India as far as art and culture are concerned, and it is home of some of the very best philosophers, musicians, poets… Bengalis are proud of their culture, and this heritage is present in every home. Rabindranath Tagore is certainly on the very top. It is said that only a handful of people in the world have ever read everything Tagore has written, it is so huge. My Kaku knew such a man, and on one of those evening he took me to see him.
That evening is the very first time I was made to wear the traditional dhoti, a 4 meters piece of white cotton that is wrapped around the waist and between the legs in a unique way. I had been given a few already, but Kakima had kept them locked in her big grey metallic cupboard which was also the safe of the house. Wearing a dhoti is an art, and it certainly takes practice to put one on by yourself. I always wondered how people managed to walk without falling and I never found them very aesthetic, but older men certainly had style and elegance in them. Younger people hardly ever wore them; unless for rare and very special occasions. Today was such an occasion, and it was clear that I was going to surrender. I was made to feel so special and I also became excited. As I recall those moments I clearly see how much I was bathing in an atmosphere of love, how much I was soaking life as it came, how much I had a YES to everything that came my way.
The whole house gathered as I was made ready to go out with Kaku. Rana directed the show as the dhoti was carefully put exactly where it should be. I was asked to take a few steps, and as I looked up I saw a mixture of smiles and wonder. I guess no one here had ever seen a young foreigner wear a dhoti and it was probably a puzzling happening.
Kaku came up, looked at me with a sign of approbation and gave me one of his amused hearty smiles that he had the secret. He handed me an umbrella and said “We are ready, let’s go”.
Unless you drove the bicycle, there were 2 ways to reach the Diamond harbour road; one was to walk for about 30 minutes through the small windy lanes, dotted with one storey houses, some made of concrete like the one we lived in, some made out of mud and cow dung, and also between the houses were ponds, so many of them that it did look like every house had its own private one.
The other solution was to take a bicycle rickshaw and this is what Kaku chose today. The ride would take about 10 minutes and cost 1 rupee and 25 paisa. I sat on the back with Kaku, shy and a bit nervous with my new white dhoti on. I loved this short drive through the villages, so many people doing so many things, such an abundance of colours and sounds and smells. India is still an unequalled festival for the senses. The streets were lined with small houses, and the doors being open you often could glimpse inside into the privacy of Indian families. Small shops were selling everything you need, from soap to sugar to batteries. Chai shops were many, usually just a wooden stove on the street. Chicken and dogs were roaming freely, and people were everywhere. Lots and lots of people.
Arriving on the corner of Diamond Harbour Road was like arriving in town from the village. Such a different world was now opening up. We only had to carefully cross the big busy road and wait for a bus. All of them were heading towards Calcutta.
Well, waiting for a bus actually meant waiting for a bus with space in it. When I was on my own or with the boys every bus had space, and even when it was so full and dangerously leaning on one side under the weight of people hanging, I would always get on board; sometimes actually inside but squeezed to the limit, sometimes outside holding tight on a bar or a window seal, and sometimes on the roof, my favourite spot.
But Kaku needed a minimum of comfort, and so we waited until a relatively empty bus came along. We soon found one where all the seats were already taken, but where we could easily stand.
As I stood there in this by now crowded bus with Kaku on my side, silently wondering where we were going and who was this so special man who had read every word written by Rabindranath, a sense of awe engulfed me. Who was I? What was I doing here, what was this force driving this body through this infinite maze of sensations? I could sense the beating of my heart, I could feel my sweat dripping along the body, and I started to ponder about the infinite number of things going on inside of me. How could I be the doer of it all if I didn’t even have a clue of what was going on inside. And what if the stuff that made my heart beat and the blood flow through my veins was also the stuff that made my brain produce thoughts and even the sense of I ? Without a single break, without mistake and without a complaint, this body was performing an infinite number of actions, day in and day out.
As I was contemplating on the meaning of life, Kaku and I were painfully being squeezed to the back of the bus. An older lady who had come in with a few chickens was desperately trying to get near the door before her stop.
I wondered who she was, where she lived, what kind of a life she had since her birth, and I couldn’t help but imagine what was going on inside of her also. Who was she? Was she different than me? Were we actually one and the same, pretending to be different persons?
The bus kept rolling, stopping every few meters to pick up or drop passengers. I always was fascinated by the ticket collector who seemed to take notice of everyone on board. I watched with amazement how he kept the notes tidily sorted and in order between his fingers and how he every now and again climbed to the roof to make sure everybody paid the ride.
Kaku made a sign in my direction. Our stop was nearing and it was time to slowly move towards the door.

Who am I ( chapter 14 )

During the many months when I stayed in ‘Charu Villa’, Didu was usually living with us; she held an important part in the family. Her place in the home was so different from what I had known in Europe, where very rarely do grandparents stay together with children and grandchildren. I was just experiencing for the first time the extended family and initially it was strikingly awesome. How such a frail old lady could prompt so much love and respect fascinated me; she had a magnificent presence and she was constantly alert and was watching every move around the house.
Kakima’s younger brother, Dilu, was living in a small village in the middle of West Bengal, with his wife and daughter, and every six months he and Kakima would take turns taking care of Didu.
The first time I saw Dilu, he came and visited for a few days only, and when he went back Didu went with him; she would switch home and stay with her son for the next few months. Dilu was a simple and very lovely man; he was a clerk in the small post office in his village, and he insisted that I come and visit. I would travel with Rana and stay a few days.
And so one evening, after a very early start from Charu Villa and a full day first on the cycle rikshaw, then on the overcrowded bus to the huge Howrah station on the other side of the bridge spanning over the Hooghly river on the other side of downtown Calcutta, a 4 hours train trip, another bus and finally a ride on top of a cart pulled by a bullock we arrived right in front of Dilu’s small house. The sky had just turned into all the shades of red, the air was thick, thousands of mango trees were full and birds and insects of all sorts were going wild in the sky.
Didu is the first person I saw; she was squatting on the porch near the door, under the bamboo shade, in her same white sari and with the same smile as I had always known her. This was now her home for the next 6 months.

Charu Villa was located in a very organic and lively suburb south of Calcutta and it always felt extremely peaceful, yet alive with people and nature all around.
But here in Dilu’s village it was suddenly a completely different experience. There was so much space all around; the sky seemed to stretch to the infinite. We were right in the Indian country side and it was impressive. I loved it.
In Dilu’s home I slept alone on the veranda outside, on a thin mattress put over a bamboo mat, and of course under a mosquito net. I was in heaven under the open sky. There didn’t seem to be as many ponds as in Calcutta, but frogs were part of the night. I loved watching the stars before falling asleep, I loved the thick air of May, the abundance of night smells and sounds that were all so new to my system. I drank it all.
One afternoon I wandered on my own through the little village and headed towards the river. The land was slightly hilly and all I had to do was follow the path towards the sound of flowing water. I walked along with buffalos, a few stray dogs, some villagers and herds of goats and sheep.
The river was actually a meeting of 2 effluents of the mighty Ganga, and the sight in front of me was gigantic. As I reached the topmost part of the hill I was suddenly and directly overlooking the merging of the two rivers, and there on that special area was a gathering of people. I sat on a big rock with a direct and outstanding sight over the whole area, and I watched.
From further down were farmers arriving, probably from some other villages. I noticed that most of them were carrying some piece of wood or a branch of some sort. I could hear singing, drumming, and an energy unlike anything I had experienced so far in India. The atmosphere was grave and deep, and yet people were playing music, drumming, and dancing steps I could not understand. In the centre of the gathering was a stretcher carried by 8 men, filled with flowers. A corpse was covered with a white linen and the head of an older lady was in the open, in full sight. Someone had obviously died and was going to be cremated here on the bank of the river. “What a place” I thought to myself.
We were in the midst of the afternoon on a hot summer day, with temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius. Sitting on that huge rock, absorbed in the nature, alone, I was about to witness my very first open air cremation.
In the decades that followed I watched hundreds of people burn in India; some were close friends, some were acquaintances, some were complete strangers. Each one would be a unique reminder of my own unescapable destiny and my own death to come. But in a similar way that I remember my first lovemaking experience under the roofs of Paris, this first direct encounter with death remains carved in a special soft spot of my heart.
Drums were being hit faster and harder, and the rhythm was increasingly maddening. It felt like people were going on a trance, connecting with the energy of the earth while opening their wings into the vast sky. Those villagers seemed to sink deeper and deeper while taking off into new heights. The pyre was just being lit, the rhythm of the drums intensified, screams filled the air, and smoke grew thicker and thicker. Even from the distance where I was sitting, I could feel the heat of the flames adding to the heat of the scorching sun. A warm breeze was playing with the smoke and the whole scene was out of this world. It took me a while to figure out what was smelling so unusual. I wondered if they had used kerosene to start the fire, or some kind of plastic, or maybe it was the wood of unusual trees? When suddenly the wind shifted and smoke flew into my face I did realise that I was indeed smelling something I had never smelled before; flesh, blood and everything that makes a human body.
The sun was slowly moving down behind the mango trees and the light in this late afternoon was outstanding. At this time the crows were competing with the volume of the drums, the breeze had stopped and the river kept flowing as if nothing had happened.
Everyone was so immersed in this cremation that I was left alone and unnoticed. As I sat there cross-legged on the rock for hours, absorbing the whole experience in my own time, I became aware of the extreme privilege I was being granted.
The sun was now setting on the other side of the river over a horizon of coconut and mango trees. Behind me, almost unnoticed first, a full moon was rising brighter and brighter, flooding the whole land with a light that kept pulling me inwards. I took a breath and relaxed, realizing that there was no hurry to leave now and that the night would be bright enough for me to find my way back to Dilu’s home.
The drums had stopped and the fire had left place to a mass of ashes.
As the villagers were busy with rituals I didn’t understand, I could feel myself sinking deeper inside. I was left in a state of no mind I had rarely experienced, plunged into my destiny and my own death, contemplating a mystery I would certainly have to encounter one day.
As I stared into the pile of ashes, I thought of the old lady who was brought on the stretcher a few hours ago; she certainly had been alive this very morning, and I wondered what kind of a long life she had had. I wondered what was left of her now. No matter how I looked at it, I was facing myself, facing the fact that I didn’t know anything about the only certainty of my life.
Starring into a burning body is the deepest experience I know. It is diving into the mystery of life and encountering the only question worth asking. In many ways that afternoon by the river set a new pace to an already intense longing that was aching in my heart for as long as I could remember. Who was I? What will be left when I am all ashes like this lady today?
As I made my way back to Dilu’s home I knew that I would never leave India before those questions were answered.

The day 500-euro bills swirled around me

It’s a chilly but sunny morning here in Corfu and I am pulling out my favorite sweater, a navy blue cardigan that has followed me everywhere since that morning 10 years ago, when I had just checked in and was settling in to my room on the 17th floor of my hotel in Bangkok.

Although I certainly have the Money Line, cash is something that I always had to work for and create. Except maybe that one day!

Let me backtrack a few hours and take you to New Delhi where I had just arrived from an extended stay in the Himalayas. It had been a long bus trip down from the mountains; we’d been delayed by a few landslides and a punctured tire, and it was near about midnight. I had a flight to Thailand the next morning and just needed a room for the night.

Exhausted, I made my way to the Paharganj main Bazaar that I knew like my own pockets. I hesitated between a couple of places as the rickshaw zoomed through the night, but “Take me to Hare Rama Guest House” is what came out of my mouth as we approached the bazaar. My words were met by a “Yes Sir, no problem, Sir,” and my driver soon stopped in front of the sleepy guest house. Hare Rama was a cheap den, rundown, gloomy, but I knew that their two rooms upstairs were usually available and that the bed was comfy enough for the night.

Indeed, room number 502 on the fifth floor was available. After the usual formalities, I walked up the steep marble staircase with my backpack, opened the door, turned on the fan, locked the door behind me, and fell on the bed delighted to finally be horizontal after a long journey…

I was pleased with my room; it had no windows, no a/c, no nothing, but the bed was as I remembered it, rather new and unusually comfortable. The white sheets and the pillow were also nice. I got up and took a cold shower. I could have easily called Reception and asked for “hot water please” and magic would have probably happened and hot water would have finally run through my shower – but how long it would have taken no one knew – and I could not be bothered.

As I got myself ready for bed I did something I don’t recall ever doing before – and something I would never fail to do after that night… I put my two hands under the edge of the mattress and lifted it. I don’t know what I thought, maybe I was just checking the quality of the mattress or was curious about the wooden plank it was sitting on. As I let go and the mattress fell back into place, a vacuum was created and one paper note swirled out and fell on the floor. I scratched my tired eyes, hardly believing it – it looked like a 500-euro note. I lifted the mattress again and whooooosh… here flew another 500-euro note from under the mattress.

Now, flabbergasted, I lifted up the mattress again and kept it in the air, properly checking what was hiding there underneath. Another perfectly flat, crispy, purple note was lying there. I inspected it with the other two more closely – yes, 1500 euros in total.

Hardly believing my luck while already dreaming of more, I searched on the other side of the bed also. No, that was it. “The previous person probably left in a hurry and forgot his stash,” I thought. Hippies like myself staying in this cheap part of town were famous for carrying cash, sometimes the full amount of what they needed for a six-month stay in India. And of course those 500-euro notes were extremely convenient and lucrative when exchanged on the black market.

It was getting late and I decided to get the sleep I needed and keep the bills on the bedside table until morning. I looked at them again, dazzled yet aware of the many thoughts running through my head, from “Maybe I should take them down to the reception now” to “Maybe I should hide them in case someone comes looking for them.” Leaving them there until morning felt like taking a smart middle way, and that’s what I did and I quickly fell asleep.

A knock at my door woke me up in the middle of a dream. “7 o’clock sir, your taxi is waiting,” said a voice on the other side of the door. Oh, yes, I remembered that I had ordered a taxi for 7:00! I sat on my bed, turned the light on, and quickly assessed the situation. The three notes were still there on the little plastic table, my bag was basically ready and I had plenty of time to get to the airport and catch my flight to Bangkok. I would have a coffee and something to eat at the airport. “Ok, I will be down in 10 minutes,” I replied.

I stood up and got ready, put on my pants, secured my money belt around my waist, and looked at those three big notes again, thinking… I put them in my pocket, planning a final spontaneous decision in the next five minutes. As I reached Reception, haggard, with my pack on my back, I was handed a small cup of sweetened tea and asked to sign the entry book with my time of departure and next destination. As I filled in the details I looked a few lines above mine to see who had been in room 502 before me. Gunter Schmid, check-out yesterday at 8 pm, next destination Frankfurt. OK, I thought, the owner of those notes was probably airborne to the West, and keeping the cash felt the only sensible thing to do. It was a gift from Existence, and I sighed in relief with a smile in my heart.

I paid my 350-rupees hotel bill, the taxi driver put my pack in the boot, I waved everyone goodbye, and off I went to the airport.

A few hours later, still exhilarated by my good luck, I was sitting in a full Thai Airways aircraft en route to Bangkok. The trip to the airport had been smooth as Thai silk, the flight left on time and I was now looking forward to my next adventure. Thailand was always my favorite place to hang out for a month or so while I renewed my Indian visa.

Sitting in a window seat, enjoying my lunch, a beer and the delightful Thai hospitality, I reflected upon that weird find in the Hare Rama Guest House last night. I couldn’t help but imagine the story behind my discovery, what had happened to that mysterious Mr. Schmid and if he had yet realized… I imagined him about to land in Frankfurt, short of 1500 euros. I also recalled the times I’d kept my own cash under the mattress and had to leave a hotel room in a hurry, maybe not yet well awake after a short night’s sleep. Had I ever left something behind?

“We are now flying over flooded Bangladesh,” announced the captain over the speakers, bringing to a standstill my fantasizing mind in full swing. I guessed that we were already halfway to Bangkok and it was time to stretch my legs. I stood up and slowly made my way to the back of the aircraft. The four toilets being occupied, I opted for another stroll. I remember feeling my money belt under my shirt and already planning to look at my three unexplained purple bills while in the lavatory. Somehow I was still in a kind of wonder and a part of me probably expected them to no longer be there.

Back at the lavatories. Above the doors, two lights were green, two were red. Hmmm, I thought, which one? Without time to inquire into the process that would see me push one door rather than the other, I pushed the one on the left.

I entered the cubicle. Aircraft lavatories have always fascinated me; the striking contrast between the tiny physical space and the considerable sense of privacy they provide. Aside from doing the obvious, here is a space where you suddenly can, as if by enchantment, make faces in the mirror, rearrange your balls, and check your wallet. I opened my money belt and pulled out the three notes I had carefully placed behind my own stash. There they were, still. I smiled, looked into the mirror and mumbled, “I am really lucky, I wonder what comes next?”

My eyes suddenly fell on something greenish behind the plastic hand cream dispenser. I reached out. Five notes nicely folded. 500 dollars in total. Now this was too much! I looked around and behind, looked on the floor… but that was it. No wallet, no ID, just those five notes. Had the passenger before me sorted her money and forgotten it there? Who was it? What to do now? What was going on?

Had it been in a wallet or with an ID next to it, I would have certainly taken it to an attendant, I thought, but just cash? I considered… Someone knocked on the door! I guessed I had been in there long enough and that it was time to go out. Was it the person whose cash I’d found? I put the five notes into my pocket, opened the door, looked at the man about to take my place and said, “Did you forget something?” I still remember the look on his face and his “No, I just need to shit.” OH? OK… sorry for asking such a question. I went back to my seat.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. I didn’t get up again but kept my senses open in case someone was looking for their lost money, and I decided to keep my treasure until someone asked for it – but eventually no one did and I landed in Bangkok with 500 extra dollars in my pocket.

I finally arrived at my longtime favorite condo just 10 minutes from buzzing Kao San Road. The lady at Reception simply gave me the key and told me to get the lift to the 17th floor and find my apartment. I would need to bring my passport down later, she explained, but there was no hurry. The flat looked delightful, with a large window and balcony overlooking the Chao Phraya River. It was beautifully clean and the floor was still wet. Someone had obviously checked out not long before.

I jumped on the big cozy bed. Wow, what a journey, I thought, so happy to be here! I would have a good shower and head to the streets in search of fruits and coconuts, and I would eat a green curry. It was my ritual on my first day here. I was hungry.

Coming from India, Thailand was a delight in many ways, and one of them was the safety box in each room. There it was, between the huge flat screen and the fridge. This one had a number lock, which meant one less key to carry and to lose. I fiddled with the door and the numbers, bent down, reached inside with my hand and there… a bulging wallet, huge, full to the max. I looked more carefully inside the dark metal box, went over the black velvet and emptied it. A few elastic bands and plastic pins and a pencil… otherwise nothing else but this wallet. I opened it. Travellers cheques, credit cards, dozens of big notes in Euro and US dollars, a bundle of 1000 Baht notes. Herr Rolf Honegger. Berlin.

A few crazy thoughts went through my mind, but I closed the wallet and put it back where I’d found it. I would keep it there as if I had not seen it, put my own valuables somewhere else and see what life had in store for me. I could not understand what this was all about. Was it a test? A gift? An omen?

For the third time on such a short trip, money which didn’t belong to me had appeared in front of me. Had this ever happened before? No, never.

I was so absorbed in my thoughts, staring at the safe and its mysterious wallet, feeling my rumbling stomach and floating in the magic of this inexplicable happening, that I almost didn’t hear the phone ringing.

“Hallo Mister!?” I recognized the voice of the lady at the reception.

“The person who checked out this morning just called,” she continued. “He was on his way to Ko Samet, but forgot his passport in the room. He will come back very soon. Do you mind if we come in with him when he arrives?”

“Yes of course, no problem,” I replied.

“Thank you, Mister, see you soon.”

I looked at the safe. “That is a lot of money in there,” I thought. But this time there wasn’t much to cogitate, the owner was on his way and would soon knock on my door. I emptied my bag onto the bed and started putting my few belongings away. As I opened the cupboard to hang my shirts, there was a gorgeous navy blue jumper neatly folded on one of the shelves. I looked at it, tried it on, and immediately fell in love with it. Perfect fit. I folded it back and put it where I had found it.

A knock on the door. “Excuse me for disturb,” said a middle-aged gentleman, “I forgot my wallet this morning, my taxi is waiting downstairs, do you mind if I come in?” I let him in and he walked straight to the safe, bent down, put his hairy hand inside and pulled out the wallet. “Here it is, thank you so much and enjoy your stay.” He must have trusted me because he hardly went through it.

“There is a blue jumper in the cupboard,” I added. “You must have also forgotten it.”

I took it from the shelf and handed it to him. “Oh, yes, but I don’t need it. You can keep it; it is brand new.”

I shook his hand, wished him a lovely trip to Samet and closed the door.