Asia | India | Indian Himalayas | Uttar Pradesh | Rishikesh – The Same Coin?
I’m not going to be able to get the whole of the last ten days out in one go. Partly because there’s too much to tell, and partly because of the mood.
Maybe I’ll skip ahead to the present for just a moment. I’m back in Rishikesh, after ten days in the mountains, and everything is different all over again. The mountains were quiet, and beautiful, and when there is nothing more to life than concentrating on where to place your foot next, and how much water is left in your pack, and whether that cloud rolling up the ridge is going to rain on you, it gets very easy to forget the world outside. Blessedly so.
Even the second night, camped in Dakwani meadow a few hundred metres below Kuari pass, when one of the other groups’ porters pulled out an obscenely large boom box and tuned in Voice of America’s summary of the Preparations for War, it seemed a silly, distant thing. We talked about it a little, Erez and I, and Arvind the guide from one of the other groups, and the two Israelis he was leading, and it was a very theoretical discussion.
‘They’re trying to start a war. A Holy World War.’
‘Yes, that’s exactly it. The US has to be very careful not to make this a religious issue.’
‘They need to make it very clear they’re not attacking Afghanistan, just this small group within.’
Etcetera. You’ve heard all this before. Talk passed on to other things, and we warmed our hands over the fire and watched our guide Lal make chapatis. This is strangely fascinating, a little back and forth slapping motion that makes lovely round disks, which are dry fried, then tossed on to the coals to puff up. It takes your mind off other things, makes anything outside of the circle of firelight seem imaginary and ephemeral.
So getting back to Rishikesh was kind of a shock. I checked my email and had 56 unread messages, which is a lot for an unemployed high school teacher. Admitted, nearly half of them were from mailing lists I inexplicably get on, and I deleted those without reading more than the headlines (though these were comforting….it’s nice to know that Freeskool and Organic Grooves are doing a party together, and that the New York swing scene is still going strong, and that Allison is doing another show). But many of the others were more ominous. Pleas to come home from distressed relatives and friends especially.
These are really upsetting, not because they make me feel I’m suddenly in danger, but because I’m just now realizing the far and long-lasting reach these events are truly having. Nothing is ever going to be the same. I used to go off for the summer to wherever and my folks would say Why can’t you go somewhere safe like Colorado or something, and Take care and Be safe, but now they are truly fearful for my life. I’m not, not looking around Rishikesh and listening to the sympathetic words of Indians and other tourists that I’ve met, and watching a thousand people just living the way they’ve lived for years, probably, selling their bits and pieces and making their chai, meditating, teaching and learning. That’s what Rishikesh is for. But that’s impossible to get across halfway across the planet, and if I could, it wouldn’t erase the fear that so many people are feeling for me.
So I strolled across the bridge today. There’s this phenomenal bridge across the Ganga, linking Laxman Jhula where the two big thirteen-story temples are, with the other side where the main road to Rishikesh is. It’s only a footbridge, but it does the whole wide Ganga in one span, a suspension bridge with steel cables and (pardon me while I geek out a bit) arched lateral cable stays and a great view of river and temple and sun and rock. I stood there in the middle of the bridge and thought about this debate I’ve had with dozens of people over the course of years and years, about religion. I’m kind of peculiar, I find, in my continued faith in organized religion as a force for good, at least amongst a lot of the people I meet. My argument has always been that religion is just humanity writ large. A magnifying glass, that accentuates the good people can do, and the sometimes the evil too. My final argument is always something like: If there were no organized religion, true there wouldn’t be any Crusades. No pogroms, Inquisitions, jihads, Partition, all of that. But then there would also be no Requiems. No Notre Dame. No Aya Sophia, Angkor Wat, Last Supper, Sistine Chapel, Mother Theresa. Which would you rather have, both or none? I prefer Requiems and jihads to an empty, flat world.
This is what was going through my mind as I stood at sunset on the bridge today, along with the two or three hours worth of War News I’d gotten from the Hindustan Times this afternoon. Down below, this holy, holy river flowed past, and the bells rang in the temples, a sadhu took alms at the far end of the bridge. And what I thought was this: Could the fundamental human urge that made this river holy, that made this place come into being, full of peace and joy, drawing pilgrims from across the planet, filling so many lives with something they really need, be the same one that made nineteen men take knives and boxcutters and take over airplanes to crash them into buildings full of people they’d never known? Are they two sides of the same coin?
That’s been on my mind a lot for the past few hours, which is a pity, because there really is a lot to tell about the trip. I’ll try again in a couple of days