Still Lucky

A long ride in a spine-cracking rickshaw and 10 days of excruciating, lead to a place of slow and surprising recognition in Varanasi India

First published Life and Leisure magazine

It begins with a rickshaw ride, an exasperated whinging vehicle which belches and farts blue-grey soot and smells like a lawnmower, the driver hunched over, thrashing the unresponsive throttle, steering this limping three-wheeler through pounding heat along dry compacted earth, away from the frenetic city of cajoling, beckoning hands and wheedling “Please, sirs.” He wears a loose shirt open to the waist, revealing form-fitting brown skin, profiling each rib. His unkempt midnight hair, glistening with oil, flops over a beaded brow and he reeks of that universal equaliser - body odour - that springs from sweaty armpits, regardless of age or elegance, race or religion, wretchedness or wealth.

Early this morning I hailed his rickshaw. I met his eyes: two fathomless black holes drilled into startling white ellipses. His battered rickshaw with its cracked black vinyl seat stood alongside a dozen others, competing for my coin, each three-wheeler and owner equally deflated, melancholic and forlorn. But this is his Rolls Royce. His cash cow. His life-sustaining engine. His name is Lucky.

We are two gut-jarring hours out of Varanasi, that ancient city of India, where every nook and cranny has religious salvation, incense, a goat, and desperate, unremitting poverty squeezed into it. The rickshaw proceeds with a high-pitched recalcitrant whine, weaving around potholes. We encounter the broken spirit of a ramshackle village. Everything is wretched. Homes are haphazard impotent assemblages, some at perverse angles. A clutch of scrawny chickens peck dementedly at lifeless mud. A pantless girl plays, gunk oozing from one nostril. She is wide-eyed with mouth agape as we pass. Dogs with pointy snouts and protruding ribs watch with languid disinterest. A man slumbers on the ground. His thick calloused feet have chipped toenails and soles that are fractured with a network of fissures - a map of his life. To get a feel for this place, taste the dust that catches in your throat and thickens your tongue and smell the shit that hovers around the edges.

Lucky pushes on. On the other side of the village, in striking juxtaposition to the journey so far, a surreal panorama of vernal freshness unfolds. The road bisects a waving choreography of luscious lime green: field upon field of rice that roll into the heavy mid-morning heat-haze pressing on the horizon.

India is a constellation of a million contradictions. Senses are flooded with food and festival while beggars’ bellies go empty; temples of sublime beauty, richly adorned, back up against slums of shocking ugliness; opulent gold amulets swing on wrists while eyes are snagged by unfettered poverty; women in face-to-foot burqas walk past erotic ornamentations and priapic carvings; elders’ feet are touched while untouchables are not … and on and on.

Over the last two months I've criss-crossed India. When I reached Varanasi, that holiest of holy cities, watching the Ganges sun salutations one grey-toned dawn, I thought: this spiritual place has 3,000 years of Hindu and Buddhist wisdom - what better place for an epiphany? And yet, against a backdrop of Varanasi’s human detritus, this seemed a wisdom studded with absurdities. An elephant god with four arms and swollen belly (Ganesha) alongside a one-legged, empty-bellied-beggar. Nevertheless, Varanasi became a chance setting for an authentic quest for insight.

Lucky is taking me to ten days of silence. Our destination is an ashram, somewhere in these fields of green. Through a meditation called Vipassana, I seek… transcendence, a way to usurp the vicissitudes of life, a journey of self discovery, where the secret workings of sustainable happiness might be revealed. I dream of turning around and seeing my life with new eyes.

We pass a woman carrying a huge load of branches balanced precariously on her head. Her face, a piece of well-worn leather, has the countenance of a life of toil. Squatting women with layers of sari bunched between knees tend the fields using small trowels, shuffling back and forth on calloused feet. It's the small trowel - in the absence of a motorised plough - that keeps them employed. They work until they turn into silhouettes and finally dissolve into shadow.

The ashram comes into view, a bland, utilitarian construction, like some post-war communist architecture, softened only by the gentle ballet of green blades that surrounds it. The challenge ahead dawns on me. What was I thinking? Ten days without speaking or moving! Hour after hour. I seek lasting happiness but now I panic because it seems I'm on the threshold of pain.

When we finally reach the ashram, I haggle with Lucky about payment. I'm being ripped off and now I’ve gone into pissed-off mode and my jaw is clenched and things get heated. Lucky’s voice is raised. He paces back and forth, his broad bare feet kicking up puffs of dust. His stomach tenses inwards, like a greyhound’s, and then... all of a sudden his shoulders slump, and he snatches the crumpled notes from my hand and begins his long whine back, in the searing mid-afternoon. Later, later in my room, I feel bad. For Lucky it's an exhausting six-hour rickshaw ride. For me it’s a few extra rupees.

My room is small and austere, made of concrete, with bars on an unglazed window. Jammed up against one wall is a metal bed with a thin blue vinyl mattress surrounded by a mosquito net. An even smaller adjacent room has a hole for squatting and a plastic bucket for washing. No embellishments, no distractions.

It begins. Each day, at 4am. With feet wedged under me, I remain statue-still, silent, eyes closed, a self-imposed isolation, with two 15-minute refreshment breaks, resuming the position until 9pm, during which time I’m hijacked by small irritations, swelling with each passing tick: a wrinkle in my sock, at first a caress of cloth, later a branding iron; an itch above my right eye that laughs, then throbs and rants and raves, and another, under my foot tests my resolve, my mind, my commitment; a drop of moisture, delightful and delicate and translucent, then pregnant-heavy, and, freed from its pore, rolls slug-like down my neck, another down my forehead, coming to rest on a hair follicle; stiff knees and backache and tiredness and hunger - an ever increasing, inescapable malady of tortures exacerbated by observation, and all the while words reverberate ad nauseam inside my skull: why am I here? because. yes but TEN days? breathe. you might as well. do this. stop thinking. breathe. don't say stop. say nothing. just breathe. don't say ‘breathe’ just breathe. stupid narcissism. shit, ten days here. TEN DAYS. breathe. let go.

Nothing is easy.

I want to be released, to find the world beneath the words.

Breathing is my portal to this world. A mobius strip of breathing. I begin a slow, silent intake, then a lingering audible exhale, a sigh - white noise upon which I clip my mind to still the monologue, narrowing my awareness to the tendrils of air passing in and out of the nostrils, astonished and elated at the discovery of rose perfume that - oh my - reaches me from a garden twenty metres away, and other scents unfold, hitherto unnoticed; and the element of time and pain drops from consciousness; and the air traverses the trachea, cooling the sides, expanding lungs, exiting blood-warm, each outgoing breath an exhalation of mind so that it empties - of noise, of ego, of future and past narratives - so empty that where once there was an identity now exists a formlessness. And in that void, a new, borderless, hypersensitive being is born, a new mindfulness, a living in and acceptance of the moment, and entering this new-found reality, this buffer against life's headwinds, this amelioration of suffering, this pathway to happiness - springs Lucky. Shit. God-damn those bloody rupees.

I've messed up. Confused the dance steps. The epiphany, like life, is a soap bubble. The world beneath the words collides with the world outside. What about Lucky? And the other rickshaw drivers? Or the girl with the snotty nose or the beggars with tremulus amputated limbs that, like a human balustrade, line the snaking colonnade that leads to the Haji Ali Mosque, chanting paisa, paisa, paisa - money, money money? Present moment living? Acceptance? This disjunction between worlds creates a psychological collision. But wait: perhaps this is my epiphany.

When I arrive back in Varanasi I dump my bag on the hotel bed under the whirring fan, and, after a salted lassi on the rooftop overlooking the tea-coloured Ganges, that shit-floating carpet for corpses where Brahman bathers anoint their souls with rituals of purification, and where in the distance, following the gentle arc of the waterfront ghats, tendrils of undulating smoke from a cremation drift greywards, I exit the hotel and head past the brightly garbed guru sitting cross-legged with snaking waist-length dreadlocks and turmeric smeared forehead (offering salvation for a rupee), the bleating goat complaining about its droppings, the bleating beggar tapping a tin bowl while others pontificate over his previous life perversions, the street barber stropping his steel, giving a once-a-week wet shave - which I’d like after ten days but can't in case I receive an HIV cut - to the Assi ghat, where the long line of rickshaws wait for rides. I see Lucky, hands behind his head, black holes staring at life's margins, and before I reach him, other drivers galvanise, ready to hustle a gora for a rupee-ride. I don't want them to see what I'm doing, so I lean in close. Lucky lifts his flipper-feet off the handlebars, and I slip him a clutch of cash.

“Here,” I say, “take this.”

He looks startled. Then shy. Then he smiles, with surprising softness.

He thinks I did it for him. I know I did it for me.

I walk away and stand on the ghat and turn around slowly, a full 360 degrees, the sun playing across my face. I see my life through new eyes.

Lucky’s eyes.