In the same year that Easy Rider was released The Beatles went to Rishikesh in northern India to attend a series of lectures and meditation sessions with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Except for George, they all got disillusioned or just plain fed up with the flies, mosquitoes, food and heat, and decided to go home. As everyone knows, John wrote about his disenchantment in the song that became known as “Sexy Sadie”. In his original version he wrote:
Maharishi, you fucking cunt
Who the fuck do you think you are?
For all his mental acuity and his understanding of the politics of greed and hate, John failed, at the time, to appreciate the spiritual genius of India. He had come hoping to learn transcendental meditation and eastern wisdom and left feeling conned. But that is a valuable experience in itself and his lyrics after India reflect a new depth (especially God) which could be attributable to his angry departure from the ashram. He learnt his stereotype of India was bullshit. India’s wisdom is not found by sitting at the feet of a sham guru looking to exploit cultural stereotypes (the new Indian stereotype is the IT guru); or donning coloured robes and getting all touchy feely (and perhaps later touchy penetrative). It’s not to bend like a sexual athlete and breathe like a panting dog; or to be cross eyed for hours on end while trying to ignore the chronic cramp in your pretzel position. It’s not even to study the Vedas or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Upanishads. It’s not to sit in a cave alone for a month. In my opinion India’s spiritual heart lies in the country’s ability to dole out profound lessons in experience and reality.
Pyschonauts are lonely creatures who take an inner journey of discovery. Often they use entheogens such as acid or peyote to dissociate from the ego and try and get a new perspective on their own thought processes. Looking back on my motorbike journey in India I found myself wondering what was Z really like. At the time he was like a cipher for me – defined by absences. He wasn’t connected to his adopted home of Australia and yet he betrayed no interest in his blood home of Poland. He wasn’t a bragger. He wasn’t a cheese cloth shirted hippy. He wasn’t really a drug dealer since the 100 trips he carried was his first foray into the high risk, high-life style of an international drug smuggler. Only now does his personality come into clearer focus for me: he was a psychonaut – a young man using LSD to try to make silent sense of himself.
How’s this connected to John Lennon, Easy Rider and the bike journey to Bangalore? Good question. Well physical journeys are metaphors of spiritual journeys. John sought eastern wisdom; Billy and Captain America sought a freedom defined not just by financial independence, but also an alternative myth of freedom that transcended money and red-necked bigotry; and I sought a visa extension to stay in India to prolong my indulgent journey and delay the inevitability of going home and deciding what to do with my life. If Z was a psychonaut, I was an India-naut. And the second day on the bike typifies why India teaches not through books, teachers and mantras, but through its mundane, frightening, overloading and many-faced nature that challenges pre-conceptions and reveals mental barriers. What John learnt was that the search for a teacher is another cop-out, another illusion. I learnt that hippying around in India was not a permanent possibility, and another cop out.
Anyway to return to the story of my motorbike journey from Hampi to Bangalore, Z and I woke up the next morning in our hovel of a room and felt the marvelous recuperative benefits of a night’s sleep. The wonder of going to bed with a strangely wonky mental compass and waking up pointing true north again was a blessing never to taken for granted. That is not to say I didn’t have mental reservations the next day about what I was doing. Even after some wholesome chapattis and curry, and a coughy high octane chillum, I still wasn’t overly keen on getting back literally into the saddle and lock and loading some more ergot derivative into my bloodstream. Nevertheless, being young, foolish and ready to deal with whatever this Indian life had in store for me, I duly put my pack on my back, laid Z’s on my lap and ingested another half a tab.
Just as the day before, hitting the open road allayed many of my fears of the trip that lay ahead. Again the road pointed straight to the omphalos, the meeting place of the dimensions and the birth of reality. All around was the arid calmness of flat, uncultivated land: the beauty of space that enriches what it surrounds. The miles trundled by and the recently repaired bike although still not sounding right, sounded sturdy enough to withstand a gentle journey through nowhere. The road was wonderfully quiet and perfect for the mental massage of acid. Tranced out by the road and the geometric possibilities of bumpy scrubbery, I happily whistled to myself and let Z zone in on the road.
About three hours into the trip a far-out serenity was replaced by the intense reality of intimidation and fear. At first we thought nothing of slowing down to a halt because of two trucks parked diagonally across the narrow road. Break downs are common for all motorized transport in India, as are tea breaks. The truck drivers were milling around the trucks smoking high tar fags and chatting. Nothing seemed particularly unusual or out of the common until a gang of 10 or so youths appeared from the periphery of grey bush. The oldest must have been about 16, the youngest 10. They immediately surrounded our bike and snarled like angry dogs. The oldest jumped from their circumference into the centre and deftly found the button to kill the motor on the bike. Things were escalating quickly and we were struggling to respond, like someone just waking struggling to comprehend the morning. A younger lad flashed in from the side and grabbed at Z’s pack in my lap. I took a firm grip and ripped it from his little fingers. Z was starting to boil over. He shouted something and was attempting to get off the bike, obviously intending to fight. His show of bravura goaded the lads and they snarled with readiness. I found myself shouting to Z to stay on the bike and get it started.
The moment seemed to hang in the air, like the graceful moment of being in a car crash before you come to a jarring, banging halt. In that moment god intervened in the form of one of the truck drivers; a beefy Sikh who oozed authority. In one mighty stride he had broken the circle of predators and was before the bike. He boomed out a command to the pack of youths and they stood down. Z regained his cool, started the bike and with the driver’s help slowly squeezed past the parked trucks. We hurriedly thanked our saviour and high tailed it out of the there, both just wanting to put some miles between us and the kids.
Five minutes later we came across a shack which sold petrol. We gratefully stopped, refueled and went behind the shack to squat in the dust and pack a heavily laden chillum. The adrenalin mixed in odd ways with the LSD and made my whole body flutter uncomfortably. I had walked through the slum towns on the outskirts of Delhi, I had seem the squalor of Calcutta, I had been harassed by beggars with sci-fi type disfigurements, I had slept rough, I had had my feet kissed by a naked mendicant but I had never felt physically in danger in India before. I had thought that poverty, hardship, massive disability, homelessness were taboos and folk devils of western invention that I intended to meet face on. Let my bourgeois roots confront the awful but human reality of want, neglect and neediness. This episode taught me that playing with poverty can be playing with fire (as anyone who has been to Johannesburg will tell you). Of course the better angels of our nature can be found in the quagmire of poverty, but so too can be found the fallen angels who fight, steal, kill and rape to pull themselves out of the muddy slough of penniless despond.
Just as many episodes of South Park end with the refrain, “I learnt something today,” so indeed had I: I had learnt about the calculus of risk and reward, and how one might not be so lucky next time. I vowed to myself while hunched over the pipe with Z (who said very little about the event) that I would ditch the bike and Z when I got to Bangalore. The romance was over, just as John got wind of the Maharishi making moves on Mia Farrow and felt a supreme disappointment, so too had I realized that for all the locals talk of God and Maya, and the hippies fondness for living like an Indian and abandoning western hang-ups, it was all a sham, a masquerade to make a fool of everyone. I had sat at India’s table and feasted heartily on the Bosch-like picturesque and had felt I was getting somewhere. Now I knew it was another illusion, another filter distorting reality. And that’s why India is a spiritual place because it will teach you these and many other things.
The last 50 clicks or so into Bangalore passed without incident. Entering the outskirts of the city was one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever witnessed. The sun was setting. It cast soft pink hues upon acres of parks that lined either side of the road. We cruised through a canvas of light and colour giving the lush gardens of Bangalore a flushed subdued glory.
We found a cheap hotel, a garage to re-repair the ailing bike, and an awesome ice cream shop selling 1 rupee bags of iced mineral water where we sat for 1 hour drinking bag after bag of water and smoked one gold leaf fag after another. Z and I chatted in our characteristically unmemorable way. Later in the hotel room I looked in the mirror. The blackened, peeling visage and dilated red eyes didn’t bear much resemblance to me. I had a long bucket shower put on clean clothes and began to feel a bit more normal. It was my final night with Z. Just before sleep he said in a new serious tone, “I know the secret,” he paused, “there is power in silence.” I could only respond with a nod and silence. He was indeed a psychonaut getting lost in LSD induced inductions.
I never did get that visa extension. I tried but was defeated by Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Instead, I took a long train journey to Delhi, promptly feel ill with undiagnosed night sweats, paid an overstay fine and flew home. I spent a month in hospital in the UK on antibiotics. They never did find out what was causing the night fever, it just went away by itself.