The dog surfing the cow down the Ganges
I read an interesting painting today. Yes, I read it. It didn’t speak to me in a picture-says-a-thousand-words kind of way, it was just a rather unattractive painting of a middle-aged woman’s head with lots of grotesquely bright images flying out of her skull, and it had five words written over the top of it: “How do we stay enchanted?”
Despite the lingering stench of office workers and the sweet aroma of second hand smoke it stopped me in my stride for a little while as I suspect I waited for the answer.
Enchantment is probably supposed to have a rather proper air to it but for me it conjures images of childhood mischief, adolescent crushes and, as an adult, travelling to India.
To me, enchantment is something that gives pleasure through some kind of illusion. An illusion of something unbelievable or that which is greater than ourselves.
I think adults find that feeling through God, or by becoming a parent or through both. I’m not a great believer in either, which might explain my general tendency towards disenchantment. I think this has left me with two options: drugs or travelling. Some would suggest both. I’m fairly sure if I took up pursuit of the first, however, it would render my mental and financial capacity rather useless to pursue the latter. So travelling it has been.
I’d like to say I found my sense of enchantment in an encounter with a Holy Man in Orchha in Northern India earlier this year. I’d like to be able to say it but it would be a lie. He certainly had the yoga pose, red dot and some kind of loin cloth and I did encounter him upon a rock above a river bridge facing a warm but fading sun shining through a row of temples. But I lost the magic somewhere between him opening one eye to ensure we had thrown a rupee at his feet and him following us throughout the sunset with his cupped hands up to our camera lenses.
I think I very much wanted him to be the spiritually enchanting Holy Man or Sadhu that he seemed in my photos but it was confirmed by a local he was not much better than a hobo in costume begging for money. I’m not sure there is anything all that wrong with that, in a sense he is working for money and he certainly doesn’t deserve to have it any less than I do, but he wasn’t enchanting.
More enchanting were the tribal women a short rickshaw ride away from Orchha. These were beautiful women in colourful saris, working their gorgeous long, black fingers away at recycling cotton to make paper. Something about the way they looked at me, all pale and blonde and strange, that made me look at them as strange in return. I loved taking their photos and wondering about their stories; same again for a tall lanky man with a strong face I later met in the paper-making process. I found them enchanting and kind of wonderful but probably couldn’t shake a feeling of guilt which made the experience overall a lot less enchanting. Guilt that they might resent me for all my cameras and khakis and disposable income to spend on travelling. Guilt that they were quite possibly very happy people achieving great things in their life and I dared internally patronise them with a feeling of pity.
Perhaps the closest I came to a feeling of enchantment was a few days later drenched in sweat dyed a pinky red from my sari, delirious on the banks of the River Ganges.
The night before I had travelled nine hours by sleeper train – six slat beds to a carriage – when I was jolted awake by the feeling of impending diarrheatic doom. After spending a good few hours with vomit clenched fists holding for dear life over a moving train hole pissing from both ends I suspect I was more capable of letting go of my inner sceptic that usually prevents me from feeling enchanting emotions. It was over 45 degrees celsius when we alighted the train, drove for several hours (with a few much needed breaks along the way) then hopped in our canoes up the banks of the holy Ganges River, or River Ganges, whichever you prefer. It felt like days that I was strewn across those wooden slats sipping hydration water watching floating bodies bob past.
Mercifully, I don’t think I had a single thought – other than it had felt like days and “Oh fuck” during one close-call when the boys had to row quite urgently to shore for my relief – in that entire time. That evening the group of us sat on blankets on a sand dune marooned in the middle of the Ganges as it was too hot to enter our tents. When the sun went down the bugs engulfed our orifices and so we ate – me very gingerly – in the dark.
It was about that time the “Hare Krishnas” began.
Our guide explained that someone must have made a wish that came true, and in honour of that he was bound to sing Hare Krisha repeatedly for the next 24 hours. I respected that but wondered why a loud speaker was part of the religious celebration. I also wondered how of all the spots in this rather deserted area of Northern India we had managed to station ourselves near a very happy Indian, his temple and his loud speaker. I wasn’t the only one in our small travelling troupe swearing at our good fortune.
As we lay there exhausted and choking on insects that were becoming glued to our sweaty faces – mine a murderous pink from the wash-un-friendly sari – there was a feeling of elation that came upon us, or at least me, quite unexpectedly. I laughed with such abandon, such delirious surrender I think I reached Nirvana. I don’t remember much else, just unbridled guffawing.
I felt surprised to be alive in the morning and as the sun hinted closer to 50 degrees I was at first unsure whether survival was a cause for celebration. But then an odd silhouette emerged on the water as we readied ourselves for our boat journey to shore. As it drifted closer the unbelievable truth revealed itself: it was a dog. A dog on a dead cow. A dog surfing and feasting on a dead cow along the banks of the Ganges. And as I watched the dog ward off visitors to his bovine feast and commute, the man continued his Hare Kishnas through the loud speaker as a perfect homage to the ridiculousness.
There are various interpretations of the meaning of Hare Krishna. One interpretation I have read is that Hare means the “removal of illusion” and Krisha is the “source of all pleasure”.
On that morning after feeling the utter release of delirium and laughter and as I watched what should have been but what was definitely not an illusion of a dog surfing a cow down a river, I was overcome with a feeling of utter enchantment. I was given the belief, or perhaps the reminder, that life is not a boring, depressing, predictable course and there are many surprising stories within it. The reminder was a very strong source of pleasure indeed.
So, how do I stay enchanted? I still don’t know. But I’m sure I’ll be given another chance of feeling it again. And i’ll Hare Krisha to that – but for an hour at most.