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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.
Within the shitcake I’ve been eating, Rishikesh is a sweet, glazed cherry. Nestled in the forested foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges bisects the town, and flows 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 salvation.
It’s famed for being the cradle 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 beside the sacred river. The guys try very, very hard; to impress the ladies, I suspect, because there are no bars or clubs in this town. Being able to perform a flawless Macarena 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 — 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, 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 joke.
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. It turns out, however, that International Yoga Week is next week, and so all the ashrams are booked up with people perfecting their postures and poses. But I’ll still get my yogic groove on via some drop-in classes.
I’ve never tried yoga, 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 that looks out onto 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. 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, “Ommmmmmmmm.” I join in on the second and subsequent rounds of it. My voice range doesn’t go very deep: They’re doing Stevie Wonder “Ommmmmmmmms”, while mine are more Bee Gees: “Ommmmmmmmm, staying alive, staying alive, ommmmmmmmm, staying alive, staying alive.” We do this for ten minutes, throughout which I keep one eye half-open to scan the room for cameras, as 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 pranks on newbies.
After some sitting in silence, Swami says we’ll 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 make, 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. I keep quiet most of the time but chuck in the odd “uh” or “ah” now and again to let them know I’m still involved.
We do some breathing equivalents of rubbing our stomach while patting our head, then move on to something else I don’t catch the name of: I have to rest my left hand on my knee and adopt 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 — looking-the-part twenty-somethings who will one day have kids with names like Peace or Sky. For five minutes, we sit 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 that’s not working. My body just won’t bend that way or that far. 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 concedes that I’m as much a lost cause as a eunuch attempting the Kama Sutra. He starts giving me separate instructions to everyone else: “Everyone do x, y, z. Except you,” and he points at me. “You just stand there and put your hands on your head.”
Next comes pairwork exercises, and I get paired with Thierry. We lock limbs and push and pull each other; the result is 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, as a debacle was always on the cards considering I haven’t even jogged since 2014. 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 after 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 my yoga crime for something which should be a piece of piss: a class on meditation and mindfulness. Swami arrives ten minutes late; he says 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.”
I think: 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 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.
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, and 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 pro — he tells me to stop and lay there quietly with my eyes closed. As I lay there, I feel a warmth that starts in my toes rise slowly up through my body. I think: 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. He’s very precise about how the room is set up: no one can sit on a chair and no one can sit next to anyone they know — and he also says all phones have to be handed in and that we can’t leave until the end. One guy walks out on hearing he can’t have a chair. Everyone else — about thirty of us — sits 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-sounding but lacking structure and specifics. If someone questions his 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. Some make notes — me too. 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 — and by now 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 or father, brother or sister, husband or wife. 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 a bit after this with some random tangents, including five minutes 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 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 feed, but I can’t justify ditching everyone I know for a bloke that 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 with feral hair flowing over their baggy tunics. 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 Brahma.”
“Then who’s that woman with the same surname as you who’s the only one that 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.