Letter from India 2

Day 5

I climbed a sacred mountain.

In the temple at the top

the sadhu sang
his long clear notes

while we sat cross legged,
backs against the stone wall
hypnotised by his song

and the monkeys fought like dogs
outside the temple windows

and we waited for our companions.

6.30 a.m. Josie's alarm goes off. I am already awake but I still groan and moan as I swing my legs out, twist this way and that to get the creaking bones moving. The shower is lukewarm and spreads to cover the entire tiny bathroom and everything in it. I switch to the bucket and scoop. Contact-lens in, sun cream factor 50 on my face and then we are out on the main road and in a tuk-tuk, sorry auto, they call it here – thats ‘ow-toe’ – not the English pronunciation.

We meet at the 'stolen sandals ashram' (Ramana Maharshi) and take off our shoes to walk across, along the marble sacred walkway round the temple, over the compound and out the other side, where we put our shoes back on. Warren has come fully equipped, he has heavy climbing boots and socks. I wear my new 300 rupee (£3.50) sports sandals, the soles are quite thick and they strap behind my heels, as well as across the foot. They are not glamorous, but functional. I also wear a long blue cotton dress, with a dark blue linen short-sleeve shirt over it. It’s hot already, the thought of wearing big boots and thick socks is unbearable.

Jenny leaps on ahead - we are at first walking up a gentle sloped rock path, I see her blonde head, pale green ¾ trousers and long cream cotton shirt disappearing round a corner in the distance. I keep my attention on my feet as the rocks are uneven. I find myself leading the rest of our little group but as the slope gets steeper and my breath is beginning to come in short gasps, I am overtaken and soon am at the back with just Teresa (who had the operation last year) behind me. Where’s Josie though? I think she must be up ahead as I haven’t seen her for ages.

At an opening in the path after about 20 minutes some large rocks are there and a kind of ancient sadhu figure, awaits us, welcoming – he speaks broken English and tells us the story about the Maharishi and how he meditated alone for 17 years at the top of this mountain – Jane has already told us this. We and a prosperous looking Tamil business man with wife and young daughter listen. The sadhu starts to talk in a rehearsed, public address sort of a way. He is dressed in a clean white dhoti and has white paint stripes across his chest and a red smudge on his forehead. He has very bad teeth. Once I have my breath, I wait for a pause in his flow and quietly get up and walk on. The others follow – Jenny has disappeared into the mists above, so has Warren I think.

At the top another old man in a white dhoti tells us to take off our shoes before reaching the temple. I take mine off but carry them with me, he becomes distraught, so I reluctantly put them down near the temple door, hidden. Jenny gives me a look - I frown at her – I don’t want another pair stolen. We go in and on the left is a narrow darkish room with a small window and smooth rock floor where people sit cross legged. Straight ahead is a small doorway – inside is dark, low ceilinged and a few people are sitting in there too. It looks claustrophobicto me, so I move to the left and the others follow. Warren finds a plastic chair and I sit on a small grubby rag cloth between him and Jenny. There are 5 others in the tiny space. We sit in silence and try and meditate – inside that other dark room, a sadhu starts a sing-song chant, his voice clear and pure holds long notes. It induces a trance like state in us listeners.

When we leave we’re guided a different way down – rock steps, past a hawker of small stone carvings. I wonder again where is Josie – a missed shopping opportunity, but if she was behind us somewhere on the way up, we won’t pass that way on this route.The quality of the objects are OK and the hawker does not pester you like they do in say … Egypt. However the same barter rules apply. The hawker quotes a silly price. You offer a third of that price. He appears to be shocked by your appalling callousness, don't you know the workmanship, the cost of the materials, the family to feed etc. He offers the original price with 10% off, you start to walk away, he comes down you look round without expressing much interest. When the price reaches half his original quote, you agree to it if its something you want. I buy a small carved heartstone which starts at 200 rupees for 90 rupees.

When we get to the bottom, we are in a tiny back street. We pass 4 girls in bright coloured saris at a sweet stall with large jars, then a tailor at work on an old Singer sewing machine with a foot pedal in a dusty hut. Jenny says ‘your shirt’s ripped at the back – ask him to fix it.’ I take off the shirt and hand it too him, showing him the hole, near the arm-pit – he does the Indian head nodding thing and turns it this way and that with expert fingers. He respools the cotton on the shuttle fast and places a small patch on the inside seam of the shirt, zooming back and forth with his machine. It is done in a few minutes and virtually invisible. I have only a 100 rupee note to offer as payment, expecting he might ask more. Clearly we are Westerners. He takes it to the stall next door and gets change and gives me 80 back. He has charged me 20 rupees – about 12p! I thank him.

Four of us cram on a tuk tuk, me in front next to the driver, I nearly fall out twice as he swerves to avoid girls in red saris,large lorries and cows with big horns. We get to a coffee stall and our coffee is served in tiny aluminium cups inside a small flat bottomed bowl, it is thick and frothy with what could be carnation milk. The sign says Best Coffee in India. Watching the men who come to buy coffee there, we sit on benches outside, we see that you pour the coffee into the bowl, then back into the cup to cool.Two men are eating something from the stall next door – a kind of hot ball of doughy stuff with vegetables inside – deep fried – we buy some and eat out of a square cut piece of newspaper – straight from the hot oil. It is delicious.

Then we get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. Josie is there in a bad mood. She had not climbed far up the mountain and had waited for us at the bottom, for hours, she is cross (she says ‘upset’). I explain what happened. She stays cross for a while then gets over it eventually. She and I go walking down the dusty side lane to a place that does pedicures. A man in his thirties puts us in a room with two beautiful giggly young girls in saris who work on our tired feet, trimming, massaging, and painting toe nails. Then we go back to the hotel. Josie goes off to get an outfit she has bought in a nearbye shop altered again.
I take a bag of washing down to reception. How much to wash this much I say. The young man gabbles at me, then takes the bag and starts rifling through. I snatch it back,it contains my underwear as well as dresses etc. I tell him he is a man and cannot do that with my washing. A woman in a sari is sweeping the floor – he says something to her, she smiles and picks up the bag, takes it to the back of the wide open reception area and tips the contents on the floor and starts rifling through the contents. It appears she is counting the items and their size for pricing purposes. I am now furious and embarassed – my unwashed underwear amd clothes are strewn across the floor for all to see – I snatch it all up, put it back in the bag and stomp off to my room. I'd rather wash it myself thanks. I am upset (very cross). Later I buy my own washing soap.

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