New York Values, Examined at a Tavern in India

My wife and I got a ride from the ashram back to Mysore on Dec. 29, and the road was awful. For several miles it was made of fist-sized rocks, and the driver crawled along in the sandy rutted shoulder beside sugarcane fields. Then the Indian highway, with its swerving close shaves and exhaust and piss-stink. We got back to our hotel at 5, and my wife was done. She got into bed and I went to the lobby to get her a Coca-Cola.

My new friend Gregory was there. He’s bald and English and has a red goatee. He said his wife Tracey was sick, too. I went around the corner for a thermometer and took my wife’s temperature, then brought it down the hall to Tracey’s room. She was sitting up with a wool scarf around her head. Both women registered 100, a little more.

Gregory smiled and said, “Why don’t we husbands slip out for half an hour?” It was dark. We took a right at the wall pasted with drying patties of cow dung and then a left into a narrow street below the city market. We made for the Shashibar. It was crowded with Indians drinking boilermakers, pouring whisky into their glasses of Kingfisher beer.

I told Gregory about the ashram. My wife’s cousin Betsy had stayed there earlier in 1999. It was in a mountain forest preserve called the B.R. Hills, 70 miles from Mysore, and we took a car there the day after Christmas, finding our way by asking in a tribal village. The ashram gates were gaily painted. A sign said “No visitors, 10-1.” It was 1:30. Inside were spotless gardens with neat drainage trenches dug between the papaya trees. We walked up to a small stone house on the brow of the hill. A woman motioned at us to kick off our shoes.

The swami was inside. My wife went in, and I heard them talking about Betsy, then I went in. They were sitting on the floor under a photograph of Krishnamurti. Both of them were grinning. The swami was tall and handsome. He had wide cheeks and bright eyes, and short hair, he looked like Yul Brynner in saffron. His face glowed like he was sunburned.

Swami said the guest house was occupied, and we should have called. My wife said she had tried but the phone was down. Swami gazed at her mischievously and said you had to keep trying. My wife said she’d tried three times. We were all grinning goofily. My wife kept saying, “Darn,” the negotiator in her waiting for swami to find a solution. Finally he said we could sleep in the tiny round house he’d built for himself when the former swami lived here. Our driver brought our bags in. When he saw the swami he crouched and kissed his feet.

We had lunch sitting on the swami’s concrete terrace, peas and papayas and onion in a red sauce, over rice, on banana leaves. The ashram was a little like Grossinger’s because the swami served us food four times a day, including tea at 4:30 under the picture of Krishnamurti, with banana halva and bread dipped in honey. The swami’s predecessor, Nirmalananda, had practiced silence for 11 years and sought to live out of sight, like a fruit hidden high up in a tree, the swami said. Then two years ago Nirmalananda voluntarily left his body, starving to death. The new swami practiced mother love. Wide-shouldered and lean, he crouched to serve food to us. He was 54 and glowed like a child. He said people from New York kept trying to get him to speak in the United States. “But my U.S. is right here,” he said, shutting his eyes.

Spiritual life is such an ordinary thing in India. It’s everywhere, and of course it’s on people’s foreheads, with the cows on the streets. All the devotion feels a little suffocating, but also liberating. In three weeks here, we’ve checked on our stocks only once or twice.

At the ashram, Swami lounged on the steps as we ate and offered spiritual insights. He said the ashram was peaceful not just because it was in the forest but because he practices three simple rules: no complaints, no demands, no judgments.

I said he didn’t live in the world. He said the world was in my head. I said judgment was necessary in every little choice we make. A little judgment, of course, he said, then go on. Mind must be escaped; it is the playground for ego and prejudice. The yogi’s mind is like a burned rope. Rope is the most useful thing in the world-see how people collect it. Mind is very useful to the world. But the yogi’s mind is useless. Swami is teasing you, he knows your problem is that you live too much in your head, my wife said going back to our wigwam. We sat on our veranda and tried to figure out why he’d made room for us. I said he’s got to make room for Westerners because they pay the upkeep. “No one has said one word about money,” my wife said. “You don’t have to give anything. Can you even follow the ‘no-judgment’ rule for five minutes?”

“Then why do you think he let us in,” I said, “because of Betsy?” “You don’t think it’s because of anyone in your family, do you?” she said. We laughed. My family is Jewish and scientific. The swami’s door has swastikas on it. In a way, I found them reassuring. They’re evidence of what an ancient culture this is, 5,000 years old. The newspapers have been pooh-poohing the millennium as an imperialist vanity.

The guest house was nicer than our house. It had a fireplace and was occupied by a family from Mangalore. Chandra (a pseudonym) was dark and had a fierce manner. His daughter was light and beautiful, fluttering around the garden, climbing the 25-foot bamboo ladder to the treehouse in the mayflower tree. We were at lunch on mats on the terrace when Chandra asked me what I did. I told him, then asked him what he did. Chandra is in business, he said. “A successful business?” I said. My wife clubbed me in the ribs. “I will answer you later,” he declared. “I ask too many questions,” I said, apologetically. “Questions are welcome,” Chandra said with a note of false bravery. The day we left, the swami had us into his house and told us that Chandra had lost 2 million rupees and resolved to commit suicide with his slip of a wife, first putting their pretty child in the hands of relatives. Swami had urged him not to. You must do your duty, this period will pass. I thought of Chandra’s little girl growing up amid the terrible wreckage. No wonder her spirit was so light and charming.

Chandra said to me that the swami was a simple man, and that was true. The swami had had no contact with his own family for 24 years. He held up his hand to remind us that we come into the world alone and empty-handed and leave that way. Possessive attachments were an illusion of mind. I told him that we were still grieving for our dog who died days before we left New York. He said that dogs were dying all over that we didn’t grieve, it was egotistical to expect him to keep on living for what, 50 years? “You enjoyed him while he was with you,” he said. My wife was crying.

The swami gave us bread he had baked, and my wife said we wanted to make an offering. How much do you give an ashram-only everything, right? I put about $75 in rupees and dollars in a plate beside the Buddha statue, then we heard our car coming up the hill, and the swami walked us down through the cardamom bushes. The driver crouched and kissed Swami’s feet again, and then my wife got sick.

At the bar, Gregory and I got liter bottles of Kingfisher. A third full bottle had just arrived when a drunk came up to our table and swiped the beer. We were expecting him to do the inch-away pour method, but he chugged. Gregory cried out, but for some reason I just watched. A waiter struck the man in the shoulder and pushed him into the street. Men at the next table urged us to drink the bottle, anyway, but we passed it along and got a new one.

We talked about the money culture. Gregory does construction in Seattle. He avoids the telephone and charges less per hour than he could command. I thought about something Chandra had said out on the swami’s terrace. Knowledge is of the mind, it is calculation about the world. But wisdom is of the heart and is concerned with values. Wisdom lives in the moment. I told Gregory about the media world in New York, about status, celebrity journalism and friends making out big on the Internet, matters that bedevil me back home. Gregory said it sounded like the film business, in which he had worked for a time. It was all deadlines and urgency and personal connections, networking. He saw the most intelligent, talented people dedicated to creating trifling work. And it made such demands on life and spirit.

“Yeah, it’s a bullshit world,” I said.

“Are you patronizing me?” Gregory said.

He grew up in the midlands of England, he’s close to the ground, and he didn’t speak with hostility, but plainness. It felt like he was shining a flashlight around inside my New York head.

I mumbled something about being genuinely conflicted about these very issues, then we left. It had been a lot longer than a half-hour. I remember standing next to the bed and my wife stirring to say that she smelled beer and smoke. I was thinking of answers to Gregory, further explanations of myself. Then I was asleep.

New York Values, Examined at a Tavern in India