He passes me the joint.
"It's seven a.m.," I say. Like it matters.
"You don't wanna smoke with Baba? " He sticks out his lower lip.
"Oh, give it to me." I take a puff.
"Why are you leaving Baba?" he asks.
"Why? Because I have to go to Delhi. And I have to get a flight home and I have to find a job so I don't starve. That's why." I grab the joint again and take a long haul.
"You worry too much. Everyday I wake up and say--"
"I know. Today's going to be a good day, I know."
"It's true," he says.
"Well, that shit doesn't work for me."
I have the distinct impression that today is not going to be a good day. I'm leaving. I tell myself. LEA-VING. The day started as usual, with the ants. Every morning I wake up with the little fuckers crawling all over me. Everyday I complain to the front desk guy and everyday he smiles back at me with the giant poster of Osho behind him smiling at me too and the guy says, "I will do my best." A month back, I started to get all paranoid and I was convinced they were sprinkling sugar around my room while I was out, but then I snapped back into reality and realized that I had to get out of here, and quick. That was a month and two miscarried attempts ago.
So the day starts with the ants and I jump out of bed and do a little dance where I swat at myself frantically, and then I hurl insults at the ants, and then I have a little cry and feel sorry for myself. After that, I usually open my window and there's Baba, standing on his little balcony, smiling insanely, arms outstretched, yelling, "Come! Come to Baba!" So I do.
Baba is annoying. I can't even pick my nose without him telling me that I have to BE good and SEE good to FEEL good. He actually believes he's a guru or something. I say to him, "Baba, you live in a hotel, you sell dope to all the scumbag backpackers, and you give massages just so you can get some titty action. Don't you think that undermines your holiness?"
He just goes on like he can't hear me and starts talking about himself in the third person. "Baba loves everybody. Baba sees good in everybody." Suddenly Baba launches himself across the floor and plunks his head in my lap. "Take me with you," he coos. I'm used to this. He says the West needs him. So many people without Baba, he says. He looks up at me with his sad eyes. The whites are yellows.
"Get real," I say, and scratch his head like a dog's. His long hair and beard used to be white, but we were stoned one night with a German lady (who was, according to Baba the incarnation of Kali, Goddess of Destruction) and we convinced him to let us henna him. So now Baba is a pink-haired guru.
"What will you do in Canada?" He asks.
"Oh, I dunno. Work at The Gap maybe."
"What is a Gap?"
"It's kind of like a cult."
"I think Gap needs Baba too." I try to picture Baba as a greeter at The Gap, wearing his white cotton diaper-slash-skirt thingy. He proclaims, "Come! Come to the boot-leg slim-fit low-waist chinos!" An orange light glows all around him, illuminating the chunky knit turtlenecks.
He keeps going on and on about all the European women who have wanted to take him back with them but he always refuses because they just wanted him for sex because he really knows how to please a woman physically and spiritually. But I'm not really listening. Panic is squeezing me. I should know better than to conjure up images of home with talk of the Gap. I picture myself at home, marginally employed, compulsively wanting. Want, want, want. My skin crawls with it, breaking out in hives for lack of alpha-12-fruit-acid-vitamin-C-infused-anti-aging skin cream. I pore over the Ikea catalog for more additions to my Scandinavian minimalist wall unit, while sipping on my double large frozen coffee drink, tapping my kitten-heel mule clad toes. Drowning in debt. Dreaming of Prada bags.
I'M LEAVING. I say it out loud.
The Ganges. Must go to the Ganges before full cranial meltdown occurs. I extricate myself from Baba's embrace, kicking him away like a humping dog.
I live in flip-flops and pajamas. Nobody cares. I shaved my head two months ago and it's growing back dark and spiky. It feels good to touch, but frightens me in the mirror. It's like I've morphed into the basest form of me, stripped away all the layers and have found something unsettling, mad, resembling a hedgehog.
I'm walking my usual zigzag walk to avoid the cow shit. Dust rises up from the road in billowy clouds as a jeep speeds by, bursting with people, the free ends of saris waving in the wind like flags, ragtag luggage teetering precariously on the roof, blurry faces craning for a look at me. Last month a jeep knocked down a Scottish guy, breaking his leg. A rickshaw driver picked him up, took him to a jewelry shop, set him up with a cup of tea and proceeded to try and sell him some sapphires.
I hear the Ganges before I see it. Churning, roaring, like a faraway crowd.
A mist a hangs over the river and figures rise out of the vapor, waist deep, pouring the gray water over themselves with brass cups. Monkeys scamper along the steps leading to the water. I avoid them. One time I opened the door to my room and a monkey was rifling through my luggage. I hurled my water bottle at him and he picked it up removed the cap and took a sip. Perfectly good bottle of water ruined. The monkey gave me a look as if to say, "How rude." I was supposed to leave that day, but I took the incident as a sign. Like the monkey was saying, "Stay! Look I'm unpacking your things for you and everything!"
I sit down on the steps. It feels like all my nerves are exposed. Thoughts turn like razors in my mind. I can't hide out in Rishikesh forever. Arguments and counter-arguments multiply in my head until I'm numb.
Must go. Must return to real life before I turn into one of those crazy middle-aged travel junkies with faces like roadmaps, and a never-ending myriad of tropical illnesses.
"Hiya! Yoo-hoo!" Joy. I cringe at the sound of her voice, sugarcoated and maddeningly upbeat. I have nowhere to escape. I turn my head dutifully. "Hello Joy."
"What a beautiful morning! A gift," she says, lumbering down the steps towards me. Joy is a big woman and the orange pantaloons and giant tee aren't helping her either. Shards of sunlight illuminate her wiry blond hair, giving the impression that her head's on fire. Why are fat people jolly, I wonder. Does this make sense to anyone?
Joy's staying at one of the Ashrams. I struggle to imagine her doing yoga, her fleshy limbs contorted like one of those oversize pretzels they sell at baseball games.
I met Joy at the bookshop. She was ecstatic over finding copy of an apparently rare book on urine therapy. "I hope urine therapy isn't what I suspect it is," I said to her. "Well," she replied, "if you think its drinking one's own urine for therapeutic benefits, you're spot on!" Within thirty minutes of meeting Joy, I found out that she'd been in six-- count 'em--six abusive relationships. "I was caught in a cycle." She said cycle in a low voice like some people say 'gay' or 'cancer'. She also let me know about her bout with gastroenteritis, (which was cleared up quickly by antibiotics, although she felt a bit yeasty afterwards.)
"How's the yoga going?" I ask, trying to keep to topics that don't involve bodily fluids.
"No yoga for me this week," she says "Eve's gift," she adds, cupping her hands around her mouth.
I look at her like she's speaking Russian.
"Our little red friend?" She winks at me.
"You're on the rag?"
"Oh, Kate! You're so direct. I respect your directness."
And I respect that you need to get very drunk and get laid. ASAP.
"I'm leaving today."
"Oh bless," she touches my shoulder, "How does that make you feel?"
"I'm fine," I say.
"Are you?" Wide eyes. Head cocked to one side.
"Really?" Eyebrows raised.
"Drop it Joy."
We sit there silently. Joy keeps opening and closing her mouth as if she's about to say something, editing herself before any words escape. I know Joy. She can't keep this up for long. Finally it pops out, "How's that man of yours?" The words come out like water crashing through a dam.
"You know! The hottie with the piercing green eyes!" She leans in close, fidgeting madly, almost salivating. Her eyes dance expectantly behind her thick blonde eyelashes.
"Oh him. That was two weeks ago, Joy. He left." About once a month I lure a young traveler into my anthill, fuck him silly, and then avoid him until he moves on. Then Joy probes me for details and says how impressed she is that I own my sexuality. I ought to own a vibrator, I tell her. Vibrators don't give you funny looks when you pass them in the hallway.
Joy’s the kind of person who would give a kidney to a convicted serial killer after he cut her family up into little pieces. She feeds chapatis to the cows, even after two of the stupid beasts cornered her in a doorway and poked her soft belly with their noses until she fed them all her groceries. She buys me useless little gifts for no reason whatsoever- sandalwood oil, mangos, a Krishna keychain. She's absurdly good. I hate her.
It's not just Joy. I hate everyone. No one is immune. People are either stupid and insipid or intelligent and pretentious, or they have an annoying facial tick or a ridiculous name like Saffron or Tyler. Sometimes I hate myself because I'm so misanthropic, so I meditate on loving kindness, but then I hate myself even more for becoming a tree-hugging druid.
"Well," Joy chirrups, "it's not much of a going away present, but…" She hands me what looks like cow turd in Saran wrap. "They're cookies," she says, "baked with Himalayan herbs to facilitate a higher mental state." She pushes them at me.
"Thanks Joy." I unwrap them and wince at the foul smell, taking a nibble to placate her. Tastes like sugar and dirt.
"Well," she sings, "I'm off to my pranic healing session."
I sit there chewing at the cookies just to torture myself. I drift into the hazy netherworld of my mind, long dark corridors with row upon row of locked doors. It was here that I got the idea to come to Rishikesh. I was in Delhi, anesthetized by the dog's mouth heat, drifting into the warren of my mind when a door swung open and the word flew out like a trapped bird. Rishikesh. It beat like a totem in my head. Rishikesh. Rishikesh. Rishikesh. It danced off my tongue when I bought the train ticket.
The mist seems to be thickening and I can no longer see the figures In the water. I can't see anything. It's like I'm in the dream sequence of a bad film. I hear a voice.
"KATE!" The voice is familiar.
"KATE!" The voice is big and resonant and echoing, like the voice of God. But it's not God, it's the voice of the guy from The Price is Right. Not Bob Barker, the other one, the come-on-down-guy. The sound seems to be radiating from me like I'm a human megaphone. There's no chance of ignoring it.
Before I can say "Get a grip", I'm in the water. The current tugs at me, urging me on with its watery hands. I'm standing there in the murky water and the voice is calling out my name, calling me down and I think, "What the hell." I mean, I've been waiting in the antechamber to madness for months now, I might as well take the plunge. Literally.
I'm eating water. Flailing around, being sucked down into the Ganges. The sound is tremendous, like thunder, like thousands of drums beating hypnotically. I'm dying, I think, and I panic, struggling madly.
"TAKE A CHILL PILL!" the voice says, which pisses me off since I'm expecting something more profound.
I'm tired. I stop fighting.
Then I see her. It's my mother, hovering in front of me, all diaphanous and ghostly. I want to ask her what she's doing in the Ganges in her negligee, but I say, "You've lost weight," instead. She's smiling strangely, like she does when she's been drinking Manhattans all afternoon.
"The other is you!" she says in a creepy whispering voice that echoes through the water. I'm surprised since my mother usually says, "Be quiet dear, The Bold and the Beautiful is starting," and little else.
"The other what?"
"You know, the other," she says, waving her fingers around in the water. She looks so fragile and benign; I have the sudden and irresistible urge to hug her. Guilt crawls up through my body, remembering the last time we spoke, when I called her a "donut for brains, Oprah watching boozehound". I reach out to her, but she dissolves into kaleidoscope of light at my touch.
"Don't go!" I cry, but all that's left is the sound of her voice trailing away.
I hear her say,"I like what you've done with your hair-rrrrrr."
I'm breathing. I'm breathing water. This is either very special, or very, very bad. The smell is not what I expected, considering the Ganges is like the septic system for a few hundred million people. It's floral, but not air-freshener-floral, it smells like the inside of a flower. There is no other scent.
"Am I dead?" I call out.
"Hey! AM I DEAD?"
"Hold your horses!" the voice says.
I squeeze my eyes shut, willing myself to wake-up, but things are stranger still when I open them.
The faces are everywhere, suspended in the water like piñatas. I jerk my head around. More faces. Hundreds of them. Joy is there, grinning madly, and Baba, my fifth grade teacher (the one with the dandruff problem) and a waiter from the Tex-mex place I worked at in college. They are singing. I'm thinking, "Does my descent into madness really need a soundtrack?" But the song is hypnotic. I can't help myself; I begin to groove along with the disembodied heads.
There's a tiny voice, somewhere in the back of my mind telling me I've lost my mind, but I don't care. I'm feeling the love. I am at one with the universe. I’m in touch with my inner child and she’s saying "Work it baby." So I do.
I'm aware of kind of greenish cosmic ooze exiting my body through my solar plexus. The faces are moving aside so as not to get hit by it. I don't blame them. It's grotty.
My union with the universal divine essence is abruptly broken by the sudden intrusion of hands into my glowing aura. They are scratching at me, tugging at my clothes, pulling me away from the faces, who seem unconcerned by this new development. I struggle against the hands, which increase in number and strength with my efforts.
I'm looking up at a new set of faces, who stare down at me like masks bearing the same ambiguous expression. Something between intrigue and disgust. My lungs ache. I cough up some phlegmy Ganges water and everyone jumps back. Children with kohl smeared eyes cower in the folds of their mother's sari. A withered old man in his underpants, covered from head to toe in soap, squints at me. The foothills of the Himalayas rise all around us and the air is fragrant with marigolds and incense. Rising to my feet, I brush some twigs and ashes and flower petals off my clothes, press my hands together, and bow to the bemused crowd.
Walking back to the hotel, I stop at a roadside stall to buy a papaya for Joy when a sudden sensation grips me. I brace myself for another Himalayan cookie hallucination, but it's just my stomach. I crave beef. Raw beef, thinly sliced and artfully arranged on the plate. A clean plate, presented by a waiter slash actor whose forearms undulate when he grinds the pepper. The thought makes me quicken my step, the ground cool under my bare feet, the birdsong and faraway howling of dogs follow me and join with the voice that chants in my head. "Leave, leave, leave," it croons, slow and steady like the pitch and roll of a train.
Potentially, might be ...