Throughout the evening Carlos remained silent, staring into the fire, conscious only of his condition of ignorance in comparison to those he traveled with: The Chosen Ones, the mala bearers, they were all here because of their merit. They had all been prepared or undergone years of training in spiritual or esoteric matters to earn their positions. Who was he? A small time criminal, a self serving egotistic fool, a spiritual hitch-hiker hoping to be shown the answers, at the best a freeloader. His sense of inadequacy opened up within him like a dark cold cave and he sat peering into its depths.
After some time Carlos was shaken from his bleak reverie by the sensation of a hand on his shoulder, he looked up to see the face of the old woman close to his, her marble white eyes staring blindly, but somehow piercingly into his own.
‘Carlos, dear brother.’ Her voice was quiet, cracked with age but brimming with a tenderness in total contrast with her prior aloofness.
‘You are our most honored guest, it is you who have brought us all here together. We are all companions on this mysterious journey, none higher nor lower than the other.’ He felt, without doubt, the compassion the old woman held for him, the gentle presence of her hand on his arm transmitted reassurance.
‘I see that you are far from the world you know, I sense your confusion and your pain, we must all help each other, we must all help the world.’
Her face was close to his, framed by a tangle of grizzled gray hair, haggard and wizened almost to the point of grotesqueness, but luminous with a subtle light. Looking into her blind and toothless face and beholding such intense inner beauty, something cracked within Carlos’s breast. He remembered his own mother, and how alone he had felt as a child, he thought of the scathing sarcasm of his father, of the criticism, the secrets and unspoken shame of his family life. From within the dark hole inside him came forth a wracking sob. It was as if all the pain and shame of his life was at last splitting him open, his body was no longer capable of containing it, and another sob burst from deep within him. Hot tears slid down his cheeks, and he let himself cry, he cried like a child, with no sense of shame for those around him. His face was buried in the musty blanket and tangled hair of the old woman, her boney arm around his shoulders, and he wept until the emptiness and darkness within him were gone.
When eventually the storm of his grief had passed, he wiped his eyes and blew his nose, someone pressed a cup of warm chai into his hand, and he took a sip. He felt relieved, still in the embrace of Maha Tara, he felt, he realized, like a happy child, perhaps for the first time, unburdened, innocent and pure. Shyly he looked around at his companions, half afraid to see their reactions to his outburst. But all he saw in their faces, illuminated by the flickering fire, was love, acceptance and compassion, and all he seemed capable of feeling was gratitude and peace.
‘Carlos brother, you have been cleansed,’ the old woman said gently, ‘peace be upon you, your soul has been purified.’
Remaining quiet for the rest of the evening, he accepted his bowl of dhal with heartfelt gratitude and watched the other members of the party converse in low and earnest voices. Nobody commented on his outburst of tears, and he was treated with kindness, receiving more than his share of chapattis and a handful of wild berries.
Unrolling his bedding and lying down, he watched the flames flicker and the sparks dance and spiral up into the night sky. Knowing that tomorrow was the end of their journey, and having no idea what to expect, he felt strangely unconcerned, the simplicity of the moment was enough, let tomorrow bring what it may. Shiv came over to where he lay, and produced a lump of jaggari: raw cane sugar, from a grubby cloth, and divided it between them. Not a word was spoken, but there was an easy and tangible companionship as he smiled his thanks. It dawned upon him that he now understood what it was to go on a pilgrimage, it was not the final destination, but the journey that counted. Inside, he felt empty, but not as if anything was missing, he felt empty but full of peace, somehow it was true; he had been purified. Carlos drifted into sleep to the gentle and mysterious sound of the chanting sadhus, the stars brilliant above, and the glow of the embers reflected in the faces of his companions. Perhaps for the first time, he felt unconditionally accepted for who he was, by those around him, and by himself.
Excerpt from 'The Idiot Messiah'
Ten minutes later Carlos stepped out into the sunshine with three Chivas Regals swirling in his head, and a feeling of intense relief to be away from big bad Bill. The taxi pulled into the forecourt, and to his surprise, he recognized the driver. The lined, coffee colored skin, the salt and pepper grizzled hair, the quiet smile and the wise but mischievous twinkle in his eye.
‘Hey my man!’ Carlos exclaimed. ‘Chance in a million! Good to see you my friend.’
The driver smiled, his gold teeth glinting in the sun. ‘Well, wadda ya know! Life stranger than fiction, get in my son, come sit in the front.’ As Carlos slipped into the front seat a feeling of well-being and relief from his recent stress swept over him. He looked over and caught the driver’s eye, who grinned and nodded, giving Carlos the strangest impression that this man knew exactly what he had been going through. It was an hour’s drive through the smog-choked traffic to LAX, and Carlos let himself unwind, the meeting had not been that bad, at least he was in one piece.
‘Going on vacation? Good idea my son, good to take it easy, nice to have a change, you kinda look like you could do with one. Never underestimate the power of change my friend,’ the driver said as an opener.
‘Not really a vacation, but yeah, a change is what I need.’
Carlos lit a cigarette and exhaled slowly, feeling his body relax and the anxiety in his mind abate.
‘Yep, dude, I need a change, coz things sure can’t continue the way they are, no way! I don’t know what’s going on, but if it continues like this I’m going to end up mad or dead pretty damn soon, and I dunno which would be worse.’ Carlos paused, took another drag on his cigarette, looked at the world-worn, but noble profile of the driver and said: ‘That’s if I’m not already.’
The driver kept his eyes on the traffic, but an undecipherable look passed over his features, he smiled as if at some pleasing secret.
‘Not already what?’ He asked.
‘Mad or dead.’ Carlos replied laughing. ‘Sometimes I think I must be one or the other! Some weird shit’s been going down in my life, which I’m at a total motherfucking loss to explain. I know I ain’t dead, coz here I am sitting in a cab in LA talking to you, but sometimes the only explanation is that I’m stark raving mad, crazy as a loon! I dunno what it is, I hardly know you, but I feel like I can say these things to you, you look like a man who understands.’
‘Well my friend, it’s true you’re sitting here in this cab with me, but maybe that ain’t all you’re doing. It may seem like this is the only thing going on, but life’s like an onion, there’s many layers, maybe this is just the skin.’
Carlos looked quizzically at his companion, and the man continued,
‘What I mean is all we got’s these five senses, these lil’ old five senses, it ain’t a lot, but it’s all we got to tell us what’s going on. Well, just suppose there’s a whole lot going on that these five senses don’t pick up, you know when people talk about a sixth sense, maybe that’s just a glimpse of the rest of the world. So if there’s shit going on that you can’t explain, could be that’s just it; unexplainable shit!’
‘Could be right, man,’ crushing his cigarette in the ashtray he asked: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’
The old guy looked over and grinned.
‘Now why you askin’ something like that? That’s a kinda strange question to ask your cab driver on the Hollywood freeway.’
‘A beer please.’ He asked after squeezing his way to the bar.
‘Lager or bitter?’ The question made no sense, but unwilling to appear ignorant, Carlos replied, ‘bitter.’
‘Pint or half?’ The burly barman asked, as if enquiring of a toddler ‘Poo poo or wee wee?'
‘A pint.’ Answered Carlos, getting the hang of it.’ He handed over a note and took a swig of some scummy brown liquid, he almost choked, not only did it taste like pond water it wasn’t even cold! As he tentatively took another sip a man in a leather jacket and ponytail said. ‘S'qired taste.’
‘Its an acquired taste mate, bitter’s not the beer for everyone, but if you acquire the taste, its mellow hues and amber depth make that yellow stuff seem like piss. Where you from, anyway?’
A conversation struck up, and by the third pint he was beginning to like the stuff. Before long he was in another bar with the leather jacketed man drinking whiskey, by now they had been joined by a grungy looking couple, and a pair of Australian girls, one of whom was so drunk she could barely stand up. Conversation bounced and barged from the worst bands of the eighties, to nuclear war and American international policy, then sliding with ease to the merits of hash over skunk.
‘Yeah, the fing wiv hash is it don’t get yer parra, know what I mean?’ interjected the grungy youth.
‘Yeah, know what you mean.’ Lied Carlos, he could only understand about half of the conversation, but he was having a great time. ‘Try cutting your blow with ludes, it’s great for sex,’ he suggested, to which the guy replied, ‘Eh? Speak English mate.’
The voices seemed to merge and roar like waves in the packed room, which was full of cut glass mirror and old adverts for mysterious products named Oxo and Pimms. Friendly glowing faces laughed, talked and drank, an atmosphere of jovial camaraderie prevailed. Carlos felt accepted and at ease.
‘More whiskey! More whiskey from your LA bad boy, ain’t no motherfucker gonna stay sober tonight!’ he declared, slapping another note on the bar. The grungy looking guy kept on declaring the merits of various drugs, whilst his girlfriend grinned and agreed, occasionally rattling her tongue-stud against her teeth. One of the Australian girls kept slurring; 'Yeah, but back home mate…’ and seeming to forget what she was saying, repeat herself. The leather jacketed man was telling Carlos about his time in America, when he rode coast to coast on a Norton 850, and the other Australian girl gently swayed, eyes half closed, occasionally mumbling ‘Yeah mate.’ Carlos was talking animatedly to the leather jacketed man, who’s name was Henry, when the drunker of the two Australian girls, with a look of stupefied panic, vomited all over his shoes, gallantly trying to stop the flow with her hands, she only managed to spray it further, hitting a nearby table and splashing in several peoples drinks.
‘Time to go!!’ Exclaimed Henry, heading for the door, and indicating Carlos to follow. Out on the street they were all laughing hysterically, Carlos wasn’t sure at what, they had been joined by a tall blonde, who could have been a transvestite or a somewhat androgynous woman. The cold of the street was replaced by other crowded, noisy locations. Whiskey flowed and surroundings changed in a dizzying swirl, till Carlos found himself under multicolored lights and flashing strobes, soaked in sweat, shirt undone, stomping and gyrating to the thumping baseline and high pitched tweaks of hard house.
This was great! This was London! Dilated pupils and unnatural grins surrounded him, gorgeous girls of all races shook their hips in micro skirts and bra tops, he was rushing like a roller coaster. Standing at the bar, buying drinks for total strangers, knocking back whiskey and talking to an impossibly skinny girl with incredibly bright eyes, he could hear his blood pumping, he guessed he must have taken something. The beat pulled him back to the dance floor, he saw Henry, stripped to the waist, tattooed torso covered in sweat, punching the air and gurning. Dry ice and sweat conspired to confuse his vision; the night became a swirling vortex of lights, sounds and bodies. Dancing close to a tall black girl, Carlos slipped his hand around her waist and their mouths locked together, their thin, sweat soaked clothes hardly dividing their aroused bodies, she was leading him by the hand, giggling and pushing through the crowd, to what seemed to be a mixed sex bathroom. They were snorting lines of something, the muggy air infused with the smell of sweat, urine and hormones. He remembered seeing Henry again, drinking more whiskey with the blonde possible transvestite, listing to one side and grinning drunkenly. He remembered stepping into the cold night air with his companion, her short gold dress riding up her deep brown thighs, he remembered her pushing his hand away as he drunkenly groped to get in her panties, and then he didn’t remember anything else.
Squashed against the barred window by the crush of passengers and clutching his backpack on his lap, Carlos peered out at the apparent chaos of Indian traffic. Brightly decorated trucks belching foul fumes careered amongst rickshaws, bicycles, buffalo and incredibly overloaded buses. There appeared to be no traffic rules, just a full-on melee, comprising a constant series of near misses. The road was lined with people, walking, squatting, standing and lying. The word ‘crowd’ was totally inadequate, he had the impression of an ocean of humanity, great tides of populace, ebbing and flowing. Women in bright saris carrying burdens or babies, men in turbans or dhotis or colourful shirts, riding bicycles or driving cows, or just squatting by the roadside. Entering the urban sprawl of Delhi, slums of makeshift dwellings stretched as far as the eye could see, dotted with stagnant pools where buffalo wallowed, and cows wandered, emitting gassy pungent stenches. And everywhere, the milling mass of humanity, he saw men squatting in open air performing their morning ablutions without a care. The bus careered and lurched, roared and honked its way through the vehicular and human traffic, as Carlos stared slack-jawed at this anarchic onslaught of color, sound and smell. The heat inside the bus was stifling, as was the pressure of the other passengers, and he was glad to reach his destination: Connaught Place.