Off to See The Wizard (Pune)
Every now and then, one gets tired of having to deal with other tourists on a “spiritual” journey. This story looks at a particularly claustrophobic train ride with some “religious” travelers. Despite our sharing a common goal in India, this encounter results in a clash of wills as we fight over the material possession of a single train seat.
They had expensive brand name backpacks. Their packs rattled from the wire mesh that protected them and the multiple locks that sealed the packs from prying hands. They were “quality” tourists that somehow got stuck riding coach. They offered the traditional “namaste” greeting to the Indians that sat across from me on the train but choose to ignore me in their introduction. I could relate, sometimes I am not in the mood to speak with other foreigners while traveling. It destroys the illusion of being something different from a tourist.
It is easy to build on this romantic idea that one is on some great journey in some untamed land and that one’s own travel has a near cosmic significance. However, whenever you speak to another foreigner it is impossible not to sound like just another tourist: how long have you been in ______ , what did you think of ________ , do you have any __________ , do you know how I can find _________ ? Suddenly, a journey of great personal significance takes on a shade of the mundane.
In these tourist-to-tourist encounters there is a type of courtship period that has a more important meaning than the initial questions asked. If the foreigners are mutually in a receptive mood than a temporary friendship can be readily sparked and they might join together for a while. These mergers can lead to wild and unusual outcomes. At other times they can just remind somebody about what they are trying to escape back home.
This was the situation with the German couple that just meandered into my life. Maybe some conductor thought he was being helpful by seating foreigners together, but the couple was clearly upset by it. Still, they made muffled overtures of courtship to see if I was worthy of conversation. Despite being German, they spoke in English within hearing distance. They spoke about a Rishikesh ashram, various yoga masters, Sai Babba, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and other religious figures. They had been traveling the guru circuit for months. I might have taken this path myself if “the first bus out of Delhi” would have been Rishikesh. However, I went to Manali instead which put us on asymmetrical journeys. As they loaded their backpacks onto their bunks the woman asked where I had been. When I told them they were dead silent, so I opened an Indian movie magazine and read about the recently released movie, “Dil Si”.
The train was bound for Pune. I wanted to visit the Osho community that lived there. They had great infamy in the United States in the 1970s until their leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, was deported for tax invasion and legal action was taken against them after they allegedly poisoned a few people that opposed them. My life had a few threads that connected me to them. I had a girlfriend who once was a member of this religion and I lived in Oregon close to where they were headquartered in the 1970s.
When I studied at Oregon State Universities many stories still circulated about them. Most of which was preoccupied on the perception that they were really just a sex cult. They never outlived this reputation. The Sannyasin community believed that one could find enlightenment after exhausting their desires by living them out. One could go beyond sex after losing desire for it due to over-saturation. Whenever I told somebody that I was going to Pune, they would often dismiss it saying, “You are just trying to get laid”. This statement was repeated so often it started to sound like a mantra. I heard it on four different continents in fact. When a Swedish friend repeated it to me in Korea I knew I had to check it out.
The couple on the train was going there, too. It was another step in their spiritual path. In contrast, I was going the opposite direction to the same location. I was disillusioned by all the trade hustle of vendors. The poverty I had gotten used to, but I could never adjust to being perceived as rich. My feet were very battered from all the walking in various decomposing sandals. I tried not to itch at the fungus and to stop peeling the dead skin off the soles of my feet. The couple wanted to heal their souls but I wanted to redeem my smelly soles. They looked at me with a trace of disgust, which placed me into an antagonistic mood. After they loaded some of their expensive gear on the top bunks they asked me to move so that they could stuff some of their extra load underneath mine. They had a lot of merchandise to be traveling the soul circuit. Still I moved my backpack towards the train window and used it as a pillow.
The train ride was over 24 hours so the couple became rather restless. They would move to the top bunks to read and down to my lower bunk to sit. Meanwhile, three Indian brothers sat across from me telling jokes and holding hands. The couple never asked the Indian brothers to move, somehow I was always the unwitting victim of this demand. On several occasions, all passengers would return to their bunks to take naps. However, whenever I was able to comfortably stretch out, one member of the German couple would always jar me awake so that I would move. Thus I would have to adjust my backpack, lift up my sleeping bunk, and stay awake. After the forth time I was getting tired of this restlessness. I asked the man if we could not exchange bunks permanently, since they both obviously wanted to make use of mine.
The man looked astonished at the proposal. He stated, “You don’t understand, that is my bunk”. He pointed to it and, to add further insult, produced his ticket to demonstrate his claim to the bunk. I restated that if we traded they could have both options during the afternoon and I could return to the lower bunk at nightfall. Perhaps utilizing the skills he had learned at an encounter group for assertiveness, he raised his voice, “The top bunks belong to us”.
This went on for a few more shifts and readjustments. Finally, I was placed in a cranky enough mood to put an end to it. I told them I wasn’t moving anymore and they should remove their backpacks from under my bunk. It was a silly argument but I was bored and willing to have a confrontation just for entertainment. The man made some odd surprised sound almost like a tabby cat sneezing. He protested, “If you don’t like to move than why the hell did you come to India?”. Now I was angry because I hate when westerners claim to speak for a country when its own citizens are sitting close by. I retorted, “If moving is something one must do in India than why don’t you move to the lower bunk so we can switch”. He became enraged and tried to bring his girlfriend into the argument. He puffed, “I can’t believe this guy. I have never experienced anything like him in India”. His girlfriend didn’t take the bite and when he saw that I wasn’t moving he rapidly swung back to his upper bunk after warning me of my bad karma. It reminded me of a monkey.
Eventually, his girlfriend wandered down to me to make small talk. She even spoke with the Indian brothers a bit. After a while I asked her if she would like to trade bunks. She turned down my offer politely. I was almost willing just to forget about the confrontation because it really wasn’t an important issue, however something had been broken in our encounter and it was now festering. The man laid in his bed brooding. He refused to come down even to eat. After six hours of pouting his girlfriend also became angry with him. I could hear her insisting in German that he be a man about it and show some kindness. The issue inflated in importance to him. Occasionally, he would glare at me from the top bunk. In a sick and twisted way I started enjoying his suffering. I started speaking with the Indian brothers about India, which totally enraged him. His face turned red and he broke out in a sweat. The tension was getting thick.
The Indian brothers were in love with their family. They were absorbed with each other’s company. I enjoyed watching their affection for each other. Watching them I decided to surrender and to depart from the train at an earlier stop. I climbed out of the train only to find out that I couldn’t transfer without having to buy another ticket. I seriously gave it thought but decided that I couldn’t afford it. When I boarded the train once again the man was firmly planted directly where I had been sitting. At this point it wasn’t worth the hassle so I just grabbed a random spot. The man talked to his girlfriend loudly in English. He indirectly made it clear that he met many gurus in India and witnessed a number of spiritual things. My impression is that somehow he was trying to impress me with his spiritual righteousness. I was just a tourist but he was on a spiritual journey. He still refused to address me directly but at least he wasn’t sobbing in his bunk anymore.
At the next stop the beggars and lepers climbed on board for a round of panhandling. One girl sang a traditional song so I tipped her. Seeing this the man also gave her money, making sure that it was more than my donation. A few minutes later another child, in an over dramatic gesture, locked her arms around the woman while pleading for money. The Indian brothers gave her some so that she would leave, but the man took it away from the girl and returned it to the Indians, saying, “You shouldn’t encourage them”. Later when a porter tried to cheat them out of a few extra rupees on a meal, he made a big performance of handing his lunch back half eaten.
He was amusing me again. I tried to make small talk just to irritate him. He flinched when I spoke as if I was hitting him. Finally, when the train stopped in Pune the couple quickly sprinted off without saying a word. They were off to see the wizard and I was just another flying monkey on their spiritual path.
My visit to Pune was less meaningful. The city has become very westernized with a large expatriate population. I made it to the Osho commune only to find that it had no vacancies. The place was huge. They showcased elaborate health spas and meditation centers. The area was packed and I needed to make reservation months in advance. I could take a tour for a few hours the next day but it would have cost too much. I would also need to pay for an AIDS test (extra if I wanted immediate results). It was also implied that I would need to purchase a red robe if I wanted to stay because street clothes were prohibited. However, if I was seriously interested in the Osho community, they volunteered, I could buy one of the books and cassette tapes in the lobby. The catalogue was enormous. I couldn’t believe the prolific selection. They had stacks of merchandise to buy. All of them with a price tag too high for my taste. I meandered around the lobby looking foolish. I came all this way only to find that there wasn’t much to do other than buy something. Meanwhile, the German couple might have felt total bliss that they were able to go inside while I waited on the scrimmage line.
I was on the next train out of Pune a few hours later. I was in Delhi quicker than a mantra could be chanted under helium gas on a 45-RPM vinyl record. As the wind blew through the solo train window, I humorously pondered over the comedy of it all. Here I was, craving romance in a foreign country - and I couldn’t even get laid by a sex cult.