India is all about the people I once met as I wandered across the land from Mumbai to Leh.
A few of these people shall live on forever in my mind and though I met them only once – fifteen years ago – and our meeting proved brief, I know I can never forget them.
Even now after so much time has elapsed I still feel compelled to share their stories.
Young men and women escaping the drudgery of a monotonous, routine existence and searching for fresh meaning in their lives.
Wandering around India for weeks, months, years.
This is what makes them stand out – their lonely pursuit for heartfelt meaning in an utterly foreign place.
Lepers, crouched and crammed tight together on doorsteps reach out to me with begging upturned palms stubbed down to fingerless hands.
A bowlegged donkey, plagued with sores, stoops to forage in a roadside open drainage culvert.
An ancient Tibetan woman, wrapped in filthy shawls, hobbles towards the withered animal, feeding it the riddled cabbage leaves she has just scooped up from the gutter.
Grey clouds, shot through with wispy streaks of black, plummet down from rugged mountain perches.
The monsoon season has begun in earnest and the flooding rains churn up the road’s muck into a muddy broth simmering with bobbing garbage.
Coffee shops and guesthouses are enshrouded by the narcotic mist sweeping down fast from the mountains, blanketing the low lying hills and village dwellings far down below.
Blurred poppy-red chorten wheels spin through the mist.
Pain and filth are blotted out for just one brief moment in time by mist and blur.
But once more – the stumped fists and the staggering donkey and the ancient woman shuffling past the coffee shop.
Shangrila Coffee Shop
I met Lorenzo for the first time at the Shangrila coffee shop on Temple Road.
Sprawled on the coffee shop’s doorstep.
Clammy, tar black hair stuck to sweaty brow and temples.
Rolled up to the knees cargo pants.
Grey-white cotton shirt frayed at the sleeves.
Stooped over hands clasped tight together.
Tense, interlocked fingers trapped between his bared knees.
He was still there, squatting alone on that doorstep, hours later, that night, on the pitch-black street.
Alone, weird and aloof, his rugged, worn face only half-visible in the jaundiced glow of streetlight.
Yawning loud, he rose up and stretched his arms high above his head. Barren gums and gouged out teeth. I couldn’t help staring at him. He must have noticed this and I think he too must have been feeling curious for he called me over to join him.
We sat there, on grimy plastic chairs, facing each other across a rough-hewn, wooden table, just inside the coffee shop.
I offered him a coffee.
“Thank you, thank you, very kind.”
His myopia blinded him. He strained his dark eyes hard, narrowed them down to slits with the effort, shoved his swarthy face up real close to mine almost nudging my cheek with his hook nose.
He squinted ever so hard to see by the light of the flickering flame from the burning stump of wax in the ashtray between us.
Thirty-five years old. Ever since quitting his job as a railway station cleaner at Messina Centrale he had been tramping around India – almost two and half years on the road.
“It was not just the routine. Somehow, I could have lived with that, even got used to it. But there was something else much worse and I couldn’t take it anymore.”
One day, he never showed up. He got on a train, then a bus, and walked the last few kilometres to the airport.
He flew to Delhi, his only luggage the same tattered day-pack he now kept nudging with shifting bare feet.
At first, he had been scared and had serious misgivings about the sanity of his plan. The plan for which he had uprooted his life in Italy…
But he said nothing more about his plan. He left it at that.
Away for a long time
Silence. Not even a whisper. Lorenzo kept on staring straight at me.
A furtive, haunted look fleeted through his eyes and was gone again, but I thought I caught a glimpse of the state of his soul.
And I saw one lonely and embittered man who had searched long and yet was still holding out for hope.
Hoping for what?
I could not say.
He gazed into the distance at the forested hills, and clutched his empty coffee cup in both his hands. His grip tightened so, I feared he’d crush it.
“It’s cool tonight. Would you like another coffee? Don’t worry I’m paying.”
He relaxed his grip, and smiled faintly –
“Thank you. You are so kind. I never can afford this much. I have been away for so long. Very little money. I don’t even know how long I’ll be out here.”
He drifted away again. Far away so I had no clue where.
I took hold of his hand.
“Listen you can trust me. If there’s more you need to say I could listen – as a friend. We could talk about things. It might help you.”
I ordered a second coffee. The stocky Tibetan waiter turned round in annoyed surprise. He was standing close by, facing away from us, his massive, fleshy buttocks spilling over the far end of our tiny table. I had interrupted what looked like some personal hygiene routine – drilling down hard into his ears with right forefinger.
Lorenzo stared back at me.
The tension in his taut lips furrowed his cheeks and ploughed a series of rutted wrinkles across his face, etching the skin deep around nose, eyes, and brow.
His teeth were clamped shut tight and even though he had just drunk his coffee a sliver of dried white saliva stuck to his parched lips.
He suddenly relaxed and smiled and looked ready to trust me further.
Right after he got to India, Lorenzo stayed on in Delhi for nearly three months. He was too scared to move.
One night, one wide-awake night, what a night that was…
The pain, futile dreams, anger, frustration, the loneliness of his solitary life in Italy resurfaced.
Needling thoughts and worries kept him tossing right through the night and he felt cornered and hunted with nowhere to run.
The stifling heat and drumming whirr of the ceiling fan above his bed drove him to a wild panic.
And he looked sullen even now as he recalled that night.
I couldn’t believe it – the man was crying!
“I lay there in bed and tossed this way and that. I cried with my face in the pillow. I bit down hard on it again and again. And the sweat, so much sweat, my sheets were soaked. And it wasn’t just the heat – I knew I had wasted my life and ended up in this shit-hole.”
He slammed his cup down on the table. He must have almost shattered it. I shuddered. The waiter was startled.
But Lorenzo seemed to relax once more:
“You know how I felt? I`ll tell you – I felt my life would never change no matter how hard I tried. I had come all the way to India. I wanted to start over so badly. But this hope, where was it now? I couldn’t feel it anymore. I fought so hard to hold on to it but I just couldn’t. Hope was always too far off for me. Just out of reach. Do you understand me?”
“I’m sure I do, you’re not the only one to feel that way you know…”
It wasn’t a passing trivial fear that had taken hold of him. A paranoid hypochondria possessed him. During those first months in India he was obsessed of getting sick with malaria and dengue fever and simply terrified of succumbing to rabies or leprosy.
And even after that sleepless night he was as meticulous as ever about his daily health precautions and always kept on wearing his white long sleeved cotton shirts, no matter how hot. The fear and horror he must have felt that night did nothing to dent his obsessive routine.
He never wore shorts or sandals but always his full-length cargo pants tucked deep into army surplus military boots.
Throughout the day he’d plaster his face with the insect repellant lotion he bought cheaply from a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy opposite New Delhi railway station in Paharganj.
“I couldn’t stand lying there in bed worrying my head off. It was driving me crazy. I got up and went for a walk.”
He walked the streets of Old and New Delhi through the night and finally down a stairway leading to an underground passage beneath the jostling humanity and traffic of Connaught Place just above.
He strained hard to see in the dim light. His spectacles were a yoke pushing down, furrowing his nose. How he hated them!
He half-groped his way and inched forward down the stairs, gripping the wall rail to steady himself.
His foot brushed against something soft.
He squinted down at a bundle of rags just beneath him at his feet. It seemed to be moving! He cursed his weak eyesight and strained his eyes hard all the while and stared closer at the moving thing.
It raised a stubbed hand towards him and he could just make out the white leprous sores searing right through the knuckles. The bundle shrieked at him and begged him for a few rupees and tried to grip his leg with the ruined stump.
Lorenzo fled. He hurtled away and stumbled out of the tunnel into the early morning light.
But Connaught Place didn’t care about his panic and pain.
Everything seemed to go on as it always did and no one even stopped to look.
Nobody seemed to care about his distress.
We make too much of our own troubles and expect people to put their own lives on hold, stop and notice what is happening to us.
But of course this cannot be so – the thought occurred to him and it calmed him down:
“Life goes on. That’s what I thought right then. Life always goes on no matter what. It made me feel a bit better to think that way, but still, I had to see a doctor. I needed to make sure I wouldn’t get infected! It was useless reasoning this out on my own, telling it to myself, repeating it over and over again in my mind. I could not afford more than ten rupees but I knew this ayurvedic Tibetan doctor in Paharganj. He never charged much and he charged me nothing that day. I was so scared and nervous. The doctor said nothing. He just sat there, smiling and nodding his head all the time! I wanted to snap it off! I asked him if I would get sick, get leprosy.”
“Well what did the doctor say?”
“You know what he said?”
“I have no idea!”
“You didn’t have sex with the leper, did you?“
The ridiculous tease woke him up –
“That doctor he cured me! Of my worry! he cured me of that… I was so relieved! Not just about the leprosy you see. He made me see how I had been worrying for nothing. I was worrying all the time in India. About disease, about failing in everything I tried. I had to learn to relax. I had to believe in what I was trying to do.”
I wanted to ask him right then –
“What were you trying to do Lorenzo?”
I wanted to know why he had travelled to India in the first place.
But I felt it was not yet the right moment so I said nothing.
The thirty percent that matters
“Look at all these tourists. Are you like them? Don’t! I’ll hate you for it as much as I hate them.”
Lorenzo sure sounded adamant.
I grimaced at his sharp rebuke but said nothing. I wanted to hear more.
He pointed rather too rudely at a young and loud Israeli couple walking past us. The guy glared back at us but Lorenzo rudely ignored the challenge:
“These tourists, I hate them. They try to fill here up (thumping hard on his chest) by coming to India. Meditation courses,yoga, trekking. I tell you e tutta merda. It’s all useless! Skin-deep! It doesn’t go deep inside you. Trying to fill up your soul this way is a waste of time. This filling up is an internal state that has always been there… an internal process…. uno e nato signore, non diventa signore.”
He ranted at this sham spiritualism of westerners seeking oblivion and peace here in India. He ridiculed their attempts to purify themselves through some freshly acquired belief in the Buddhist path to enlightenment.
“Why don’t they just go on with their lives? I got on with my life! I couldn’t live my life in Italy so I came here. It’s that simple! I don’t become a Buddhist or a vegetarian because I’m here! I just live. That’s all! You think it is strange that I came here to India, right? I’ve been in McLeod Ganj for nearly seven months since last January. I sit here all day! It’s so different from Italy. Not because of Buddhism or yoga or ayurveda or trekking! Do you know why? It’s because Italy has seventy percent of all it needs but not the thirty percent that matters. It has the seventy percent in hygiene, money and food but not the thirty percent in affection!”
The women who set up their stalls and wares along Temple Road showed him the affection he craved everyday. His routine was simple. He sat all day on the doorstep of the Shangrila coffee shop from morning till evening. No one ever bothered him or told him to leave. They were used to him.
He broke this daily torpor with flurries of activity. He handed out tea from a tray to these women several times a day, helped them to set up their wares early each morning, and roll away the plastic sheets covering their stalls at the end of each working day. At noon, he would go to the cheapest eating place across the road for chai and a plate of rice and beans.
Beggars milled around us. A withered hag recognized him, approached us and reached out to him with both her arms, palms upturned, begging him for money.
Lorenzo took her hands in his and drew her towards him. She did not resist him. He kissed her on the cheek.
And he said, “Sto qui in India da piu di due anni, questa e la mia bella!”
I shall never forget that.
It was getting late and I needed to get back to my guesthouse but Lorenzo seemed to be seriously depressed. He asked me if it was fine for him to share my room at the Tibetan Ashoka Guesthouse.
I had checked into a third floor room with hill and forest views of the Kangra Valley. There was space for at least two more people in the room so I said yes. I thought it would do him good to have some company and a change from his usual place. And we could talk into the night over a dish of excellent momos served by the guesthouse restaurant next door.
“Hey wait!” He did not budge from his chair.
I was already halfway out the door. I turned back, surprised, “What’s wrong, aren’t you coming?”
“I can’t see! It’s too dark! Even with the specs I can’t see!”
I froze. His morose tone of voice cut me to the quick deep inside. I had lived nearly all of my life with my blind father and Lorenzo’s helplessness brought all this back in one blow and it did hurt!
“It’s alright, I’m sorry. That didn’t occur to me, but I should have known. Here just take hold of my arm and we’ll walk back together to the guesthouse.”
He took hold of my left arm just above the elbow and held on lightly as we shuffled down the road.
I could hardly feel his touch.
Lepers were sitting on the doorsteps.
A whiff of delicate perfume –
Two twenty something American Evangelical Christians, wearing ID badges on white shirt breast pockets, strutted past us and the lepers.
We moved on.
I could hardly bear the stench of sewage seeping through the open drains entrenched either side of the street.
Lorenzo’s mood lightened as we walked. He even said a joke about an Italian zoologist who saw a cross-eyed cow at New Delhi Train Station and diagnosed the animal on the spot with fifteen possible diseases at a distance of no less than ten feet!
“I’m nearly blind but I’m healthier than that cow. No diseases!”
I shall always remember him for that.
Lorenzo loved life even though he had abandoned his home.
Even though he had lost all he once had back in Italy and had suffered much and for so long.
We ate the momos in the open terrace outside my room. Lorenzo looked tranquil and happy enough.
I asked him, “You said the Paharganj doctor made you believe in yourself again. Why did you come to India? What were you so afraid of that night when you ran into the leper at Connaught Place?”
He did not reply and kept on staring silently at me.
“You can trust me. I’m your friend. Please do trust me!”
He said, “Maybe you won’t believe this but I came to look for a Tibetan girl… compassionate and loving… per condividere (to share), to love and get married. That night I thought I’d always fail! But that leper and that doctor they made me think different! Because I learnt not to worry so much and to get on with living my life as I thought I should, as I felt was right for me!”
“You mean all the time you stayed in Delhi you were afraid of even trying to come here, to McLeod Ganj to find your girl?”
“Yes that’s right! Not so many Tibetan girls in Delhi! They’re all here!”
“You came all the way from Messina to Delhi and here to try to find a girl? Just that? Nothing else?”
He smiled, “Nothing else, just that. Isn’t it enough?”
“You sit all day on that doorstep. Have you given up? Aren’t you looking for her anymore?”
“One day she will come herself…”
I considered his answer. Such a passive attitude! What shall be, shall be. All striving is in vain. Yet he ridiculed Western tourists out here for trying to live their lives more loosely, less aggressively. There must have been a bit of the Buddhist in him after all…
He would still keep on waiting for his Tibetan girl to approach him no matter what, no matter how long it took. It was unthinkable that he should exert any effort and approach anyone himself! She must approach him! Only this would prove her love. Nothing less. They would then leave India for Italy and he would marry her there and find a job for both of them. This was his plan.
“Do you think this will happen Lorenzo? Do you think she’ll ever come? It’s been over two years already now since you’ve been in India.”
He did not answer right away. He stood up and looked out the window wall.
He looked out at the dark valley petered here and there with the fragile flicker of far off beacons of light from isolated cottages lost in the dark. He did not turn round to look at me but he spoke out to the valley, to the forest and hills.
Maybe the valley carried his whisper, his one wish, to her.
“Yes, some day she’ll come. I know it. She has to come to me.”
Copyright (c) David Bugeja 2012, 2016 All rights reserved