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It starts with an ill-fated attempt to walk across India in flip-flops. (Spoiler: That lasts two days.) Then it’s buttock-bruising buses and chock-a-block trains for a farcical journey around the country, across the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, through Maharashtra and Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; to super-cities like Delhi and Mumbai and Kolkata, and sacred spots like Amritsar and Varanasi and Rishikesh, and lesser-visited locations like Madurai and Madikeri and McLeod Ganj. Along the way, Mark sees the awful and the absurd and the awesome, encounters the horrors and riches of India, a country of extreme contrasts that he struggles to survive, strives to like. He has to laugh — it was either that or cry. He meets randy perverts and mystical madmen, sees bodies barbecued beside the Ganges, goes insane when he drinks bhang lassi, wears skinny jeans to a yoga class, and visits the cult of “The Mother”. For a country like no other, it’s a travel book like no other.
Nestled in the forested foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges bisects the town, flowing fast and fresh from the mountains, free of faeces and corpses. On its banks, bells ring and chants float from colourful, ancient temples; ensconced within are sadhus and pilgrims, praying and prostrating, searching for solace, seeking salvation. It’s famed for being the birthplace of the ancient practice of yoga. Now hippie types flock to the town, the faithful and the freaks shopping in India’s spiritualism supermarket. They join the locals meditating and contorting limbs beside the sacred river. The guys are trying especially hard; to impress the ladies, I suspect, because there are no bars or clubs in Rishikesh. Being able to perform a flawless Timewarp under the influence of a dozen Jagerbombs holds no sway here. Unless a guy can touch his toes — without bending his knees — and talk about kundalini for fifteen minutes, he has no chance of getting laid. Around town, every shop and cafe has included a new age word in their name, like Freedom or Babylon or Krishna. Pinned to noticeboards inside are headshots of people purporting to be masters but who are patently muppets. Most wouldn’t look out of place on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. The services advertised are manifold: reiki healing, tarot readings, trilotherapy sessions, consciousness maps, and spiritual awakening, to name only a few. The one offering, “A journey into the time tunnel through soul molecule activation, to appear in different time-space realities of human history,” isn’t a piss take. On the streets, posters promote life coaching sessions with gurus. I’d respect their wisdom on some issues, like how to milk a cow or grow a beard or look good in orange. But question how much help they would be with more worldly affairs, like how to make millions in the stock market, mix drinks without getting a hangover, tell your girlfriend you prefer her best mate.
I had thought to spend a week in one of Rishikesh’s many ashrams; places where you live a monk-like existence and spend all day doing yoga and meditating and sweeping floors. They’re part fat camp — for people who have piled on mental rather than physical weight — and part cult, where you bare your spiritual hole for a bearded bloke to poke. However, it turns out International Yoga Week is next week, and so all the ashrams are booked up with people perfecting their poses and postures in preparation. But I’ll still get my yogic groove on, via some drop-in classes. I haven’t tried yoga before, but I may be a yoga person who just doesn’t yet know it. I like tofu, I like whales, I like sitting down — the signs are there. I decided I’d need yoga pants and went to a shop earlier for that purpose, but when there I couldn’t go through with buying some. I tried a few on, looked in the mirror, and thought I looked ridiculous. Every pair was so misshapen that even Krusty the Clown would deem them too ludicrous. So I’ll attend the classes wearing jeans; the only jeans I have: skinny black ones.
The classes I’ve signed up for are at the Himalayan Yoga Retreat, which has a studio with a glass wall, beyond which is the picturesque scene of the Ganges flowing down from the Himalayas. The first class is Pranayama, a type of breath yoga that incorporates chanting. The instructor, Swami Prakash, looks like Jesus — if Jesus was Indian and sponsored by Tango. There’s only one other attendee, who resembles Thierry Henry in his Arsenal prime. Swami and Thierry have some rapport; he’s evidently a regular attendee. We sit cross-legged on yoga mats; me beside Thierry and Swami facing us, a couple of metres away. Swami mumbles something I don’t catch because of bells ringing outside, and then they both, with eyes closed, start a ten-second-long, synchronised, “Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.” I join in on the second and subsequent rounds of it. My voice range doesn’t go very deep. They’re doing Stevie Wonder “ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmms”, while mine are more Bee Gees: “Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, staying alive, staying alive, ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, staying alive, staying alive.” We do this for ten minutes. I keep one eye half open to scan the room for cameras. I’m paranoid Swami is making a video to send to You’ve Been Yogaed, a hit show on Yoga TV in which instructors play jokes on newbies. After some sitting in silence, Swami says we’re going to do a something-or-other chant. “I haven’t got a printout to give you,” he tells me. “Just listen and try to join in when you think you’ve got it.” I listen intently to the random sounds they produce, none of which are recognisable as words. It’s on par with trying to sing a Chinese karaoke song without even the romanised lyrics on the screen. For the most part I keep quiet, but I chuck in the odd “uh” or “ah” every now and again to let them know I’m still involved. After doing some breathing equivalents of rubbing our stomach while patting our head, we move on to something else I don’t catch the name of. It entails resting my left hand on my knee and adopting a Trekkie gesture with the right, which I use to block one nostril while inhaling through the other. “Slower, slower,” Swami tells me, as I hoover up air as one would a line of cocaine.
The next class — Hatha Yoga — starts straight after the first has ended. Three more people join us, all looking-the-part twenty-somethings who I foresee one day having kids named Sky or Peace or Yogamat. We spend five minutes sat with our knees floored and our bodies angled back over our bent toes. It’s supposed to be a comfortable, relaxation posture, but my knee joints are in pain. I’m grimacing; everyone else is smiling. What follows is a super intense session of what is effectively a game of Simon Says.
“Simon says lay on your front, with your hands in front of you, and arch your back.”
“Simon says put your legs apart, with both heels on the floor, and bend down low to your right side.”
“Simon says put your right foot in front of your head, your left foot behind your back, and flap your arms like a chicken.”
The kid in PE class at school who had no hope, like the lard-arse running cross-country, or the wheelchair boy doing the high jump, today I am him. If it weren’t for my earnest, pained face, Swami would think I’m taking the piss. “Your heel isn’t on the floor,” he says. “Get your bottom down. What’s that hand doing there? No, over, not under. Keep your mouth closed. You’re inhaling, not exhaling.” My ears are working; I know what I should be doing. It’s the rest of me not working. My body just won’t bend that way or that far. You might be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but you can’t teach it to meow. It’s not my fault. It’s genetics. My Dad has had both knees and hips replaced. I’m built from shoddy materials. Swami eventually gives up on me, conceding I’m as much a hopeless case as a eunuch attempting the Kama Sutra. He starts giving me separate instructions to the rest of the class: “Everyone do x, y, z. You,” pointing at me, “just stand there and put your hands on your head.” Next comes some pair work exercises. I get paired with Thierry. We interlock limbs and push and pull each other, with the result something between a UFC match and recreations of erotic Italian sculptures. Thierry is, of course, better at the exercises than me. I’m complicating what would otherwise be easy for him. We’re like Siamese twins, where one is in good shape but has an extra head and random limbs awkwardly attached. When Swami tells us to take a rest, I assume it’s the halfway point. I lay there looking like Stephen Hawking, wishing I’d prepared a contingency plan for this eventuality. If only I’d forged a note from my Mum saying I need to leave early for a doctors appointment. Shiva shows mercy on me, though: it’s the end of the class. It would be wrong of me to say yoga is a sham, nothing more than a ploy to shift excess stock of clown pants following the demise of circuses. I tried my best, but it wasn’t a fair test on the merits of the practice. The test needs to be redone by someone more flexible than a plank of wood.
After a few hours interlude, I return to the scene of the earlier yoga crime for something which should be a piece of piss: a class on meditation and mindfulness. Swami arrives ten minutes late. He apologises for his lateness, saying he forgot there was a class at this time. I don’t know how much confidence I can have in a mindfulness teacher forgetting about his own class on mindfulness. No one else has come for the class, so I’m one-on-one with him. After we sit, he starts with a warning: “You must know that meditating can bring up feelings of misery, despair, loneliness.” That might explain the one man attendance. “But these feelings should pass. No pain, no gain,” he adds. He says we’ll work through some unique techniques he developed during a several month stint in a cave in the snowy Himalayas. He has me huffing and puffing, moving my chin up and down, and adopting peculiar positions with my arms. Periods of sitting in silence punctuate each technique. These are my favourite parts. Even I can’t balls up sitting doing nothing. For the last technique, he tells me to lay on my back with bent knees, and make a noise that sounds like “shoe” on every inhale, and a “ha” noise on every exhale: “Shoe haaaaaaa, shoe haaaaaaa, shoe haaaaaaa.” He leaves the room while I do this. I lay there alone for fifteen minutes, keeping it up: “Shoe haaaaaaa, shoe haaaaaaa, shoe haaaaaaa.” When he comes back, by which time I can “shoe haaaaaaa” like a yoga master, he tells me to stop and lay there quietly with my eyes closed. I think he’s trying to get me to fall asleep, so he doesn’t have to do any more work. As I lay there, I feel a warmth in my toes, rising through my body. This malarky actually works. I’m a believer. Then he says it’s the end of the class and to open my eyes, and I open them to see he’s put a portable heater by my feet.
In the evening, I attend a talk by a guru — Shri Prashant — at the Tree House Ganga Cafe. Three times today I’ve been given flyers for the talk. The flyers declare Shri Prashant the founder of the Advait Movement and make a couple of bold claims: “The purpose of Advait is for the creation of a new humanity through intelligent spirituality.” And: “His unique spiritual literature is on a par with the highest words that mankind has ever known.” The room the talk is held in is made from bamboo and wicker. Shri Prashant sits at the front on a cushion throne. He wears a yellow scarf and tracksuit bottoms and woolly socks. His appearance and demeanour are that of a baddie in Scooby-Doo; one who plots for world domination but is scuppered by meddling kids and their dumb dog. Shri Prashant is very precise about how the room is set up: no one can sit on a chair, no one can sit next to anyone they know, all phones have to be handed in, and you can’t leave until the end. One guy walks out on hearing he can’t have a chair. Everyone else — about thirty of us — sit on mats in a compact semi-circle around Shri Prashant. He has half a dozen assistants. They were the ones handing out flyers earlier, and now they scurry about as per his commands. He gets them to give out double-sided A4 sheets printed with Bible teachings. He asks us to read the handouts; then he sets about roasting Jesus, picking holes in the teachings. “Don’t focus on the prophets of the past,” he says. “Those like Jesus come and go. You need to be open to new prophets and know that they may have a different appearance to previous ones. Open your eyes; you’re missing what’s in front of you.” I think he means the latest prophet is Indian and wears woolly socks. What he says over the next hour is wishy-washy; spiritual but lacking structure and specifics. There’s much fluff about humanity, salvation, and the like. A lot of it is utterly absurd. If someone questions the nonsense, he closes them down and tells them they don’t understand; that they’re “scared of the truth”. But many in the room have glazed expressions and hang off his every word. I wonder for a while if everyone here is a stooge, except the woman at the back who’s nodded off. Some, including myself, are taking notes. I worry Shri Prashant will see me writing and ask me to share my thoughts. I don’t want to read aloud that I’ve written I think he looks like a villain from Scooby-Doo. Ninety minutes in, by which time a few have walked out, Shri Prashant goes nuclear: “I’m not going to sugar coat it. The people closest to you are those who will prevent your progress along the path. Do not stay attached to the false family of mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, and children. They lead you astray from the truth. Leave them all behind for a new dynamic family. It is the only way for your salvation.” He eases off somewhat after this, following it with some bizarre tangents, including a random five-minute discourse on how squirrels live and what we can learn from their squirrelly ways. I mostly agree with his thoughts on squirrels. I want to stick around to the end of the talk, to catch the final hard sell, and maybe get a free mug or keyring. But my brain cracks three hours in after a twenty minute back and forth about using the word “gain” in a spiritual context. I spring to my feet and make a dash for it. Having Shri Prashant as my only Facebook friend would put a stop to endless baby photos in my newsfeed, but I can’t justify ditching everyone I know for a man who I share some common ground with regarding squirrels.
He’s not the only one in town with a Messiah complex. I’ve seen many wannabe Messiahs here — both Indians and foreigners — walking around barefooted; their feral hair flowing over their sagging kaftans. They must be kept apart; friction is inevitable when they meet.
“I’m the Messiah.”
“No, I’m the Messiah. You’re just a long-haired chump who can’t afford shoes.”
“Your mum’s a long-haired chump who can’t afford shoes.”
“I have no mum. I was sent to earth by God.”
“Really? Then who’s that woman with the same surname as you who’s the only one who follows you on Twitter?”
“Screw you, Dave.”
“I’m not Dave; I’m Davarius.”
“Your name’s Dave, and you’re a dickhead.”
Fisticuffs follow; some scratching, a bit of hair pulling. Then they part; one to yoga class, the other to the time tunnel.