Light Pouring Through
by Nina Rubinstein Alonso
We’re approaching touch down when a voice announces, “Doha’s at 49 degrees Celsius, 120.2 degrees Fahrenheit, requiring temporary air conditioning cut due to excess heat load.” The cabin temperature’s rising, hard to breathe as wheels hit the tarmac.
After take-off from Heathrow I’m asleep until something bumps my head. Open my eyes to a man’s black leather wingtips, slide out from under, turn around, see one man snoring, the other, in a gray business suit, slouched in his seat, shoes hanging over my headrest.
“Your feet,” I say, as I’m short, and maybe he didn’t notice.
Sharp gaze, oiled sleek hair, silence. Doesn’t he understand or is he ignoring a talking female object?
I tap Fernando’s hand until he opens his eyes, takes in what’s going on and says, “Excuse me,” in a macho tone, meaning “get your damned feet off my wife.” Without apology, the man takes his feet down, accepting another male’s control of property.
Too angry to focus on my book, and why did I bring Anna Karenina about a desperate, discarded woman who throws herself under a train?
Across the aisle two figures sheathed in black carry designer purses and parcels labeled Harrods of London, arms jingling with gold bangles. But their faces are hidden by brown leather ovals, horizontal slits for eyes, nose and mouth. I’ve seen head scarves, veils, hijabs, niqabs, even burqahs, but leather masks?
Masks must be hot, but do they feel protected or trapped or something else I can’t imagine? Do they think I’m a foolish westerner, face available to every eye? Women in this part of the world can’t drive, can’t vote, can’t go out of the house alone. Did they tour London in leather masks?
The man who had his feet on my head is striding down the jetway into glaring sun followed by these women, maybe plural wives.
Stewards bolt the aircraft doors, the plane pushes back, taxis into the take-off queue, air conditioning roaring on. Fernando notices my gloom, squeezes my hand, “Don’t let it get you. They can’t keep women captive forever.”
“They’re doing it now, and what if the world slides backward?”
“Change has to come. Don’t let them destroy your inner peace.”
I’m leaning on his shoulder, know he’s trying to comfort me. The French say, ‘bouleversé,’ flipped upside down, and I want to be strong, able to deal with the next insult better than the last. Hours later the plane lands with skids and bumps, passes rusted hulks, Indira Gandhi airport, New Delhi.
“Why don’t they remove wrecks?” Fernando asks, raising dark angled brows. “No wonder this airport has no stars in the guide book.”
We get through customs, passports stamped, step into Delhi’s polluted heat, heavy air smoky as a deep fryer.
“Stay with the luggage and I’ll get a cab.” I’m leaning forward, not wanting to lose sight of him, when a hand quick-pinches my right breast, a man dashing into the crowd so fast I only see his back.
Fernando returns with a shaggy-turbaned driver who points us to his dented taxi. We lurch into thick traffic, clutch shuddering, dubious brakes squealing, car and truck horns blasting, pass a flower-garlanded wedding elephant, a scooter holding three adults and a baby, a cart pulled by a wide-horned water buffalo, a loaded bus with people hanging off the top.
When a policeman in dark sunglasses stops traffic with his white glove, a scabby-faced woman sticks her hand through our open window, begging, the edge of her faded blue sari wrapped around a sleeping infant. No chance to react as the policeman’s white glove waves us forward.
At the hotel a tall, pink-turbaned guard points toward the gilded front door, which another tall, pink-turbaned guard opens with regal flourish. Our room has high ceilings, wide beds, white linens, air conditioning and a polished marble bathroom. Fernando laughs, “Palatial, especially after what we went through to get here. Sleep first, shower later.”
“I need loose Indian clothes. While you found the taxi, some man pinched my breast so fast I never saw his face.”
“Welcome to Delhi! Stay close, because no matter what you wear, you’re still a white western female.”
“No surprise after that guy on the plane.”
I shower, sit next to Fernando, want to meditate, but hear tapping at the window, a monkey poking through iron bars that protect the glass who stares at me, then leaps across the roof to other monkeys in the trees.
Fourteen hours on the train, Delhi to Shahjahanpur, my new peach salwar kameez grimy. Thick darkness, no street lights, but Fernando finds a rickshaw to cycle us to the guru’s compound. Bumping along, we see children playing outside, as people doze through the heat of the day, come out when it’s cooler.
The driver pulls the bell cord by the gate until it swings open. I recognize Babuji from photos, a small elderly man in a white banyan and dhoti.
“We’ve been expecting you,” he says, “but it’s late.” Gentle voice, soft eyes, and my heart pings. “The ashram is a few miles down the road. Go quickly, as dacoits prey on travelers at night. Come back tomorrow morning.” The gate closes and the rickshaw wallah cycles up the lane onto the main road past vendor stalls lit by kerosene lanterns.
“It’s okay,” says Fernando, seeing my tears. “He said come back tomorrow.”
I’ve never been here before but everything looks familiar, the road, the vendor stalls, like returning home after a long trip, even the fireflies flickering in roadside trees. Another mile, and we ring the ashram bell. A sleepy looking man opens the gate, pointing to his name tag, “I’m N.S.Rao, North South Rao,” chuckling at what must be his standard joke for westerners. He aims his “torch” down the path toward the dining hall, insists on carrying our bags to the dorm, and says, “Go take food.” Can’t remember when we last ate.
We’re at a table in a low-ceilinged room lit by one dangling bulb. The cook brings roti, plates of rice and dal, then starts shaping dough for more roti, making me think he’s given us his supper as we didn’t know when we’d arrive, no way to contact anyone even if we knew. He didn’t ask if we’re hungry, just brought roti fresh from a wood-fired clay oven, smiles watching us eat, tilting his turbaned head.
In the dorm we meet people packing. “Quelle bonne chance,” a French woman says, “to be alone with Master.” No idea we’d be the only guests, everyone else leaving on the morning train.
The mattress is thin, but I sleep deeply, no hint of my usual insomnia. Waking I find red marks on my arms, but not itchy, dress watching tiny lizards skitter across the ceiling chasing bugs. Fernando’s still asleep.
The cook’s outside the dining hall with a big kettle pouring hot chai into steel cups. There’s no refrigeration, no air-conditioning, no ice, but hot chai feels strengthening against the heat.
I’m alone in the meditation hall except for birds flying through the open doors to nests in corner ledges. Close my eyes and feel time stop.
Fernando wakes, doesn’t feel like meditating, won’t drink hot chai, refuses the only coffee in the kitchen, Nescafe instant powder, annoyed there’s no espresso, no ice cubes. “Nothing here for me,” he says. I love him, the best man I’ve ever known, and we’ve been together for years, but it seems I’m in heaven, and he’s in hell. He agrees to come to Babuji’s compound with me.
We’re on a wooden seat behind the driver of a tonga, a bumpy horse-drawn cart, Fernando holding a steel container of yogurt the cook sends daily to Babuji’s kitchen. One of Babuji’s granddaughters opens the gate, thanks us for the yogurt and points toward the veranda where we sit on wooden chairs opposite a hookah. We brush away flies, watch people pumping water from the courtyard well, hear “He’ll be coming.”
Fernando’s restless, “hanging around doing nothing.” Finally Babuji comes from his room, sits down, picks up his water pipe, looks at us and says, “Hubble bubble.” With a soft laugh he points to the hookah, which makes that sound when he pulls on it. He looks at us again, as if gazing through us, puffing clouds of silence. I’m drawn in, can’t take my eyes away.
After a long silence he asks, “Where are you from? Are you staying long?”
Where am I from? Why am I here? Who am I? Why am I alive? No idea, but say, “We’re here to see you and have all the time in the world.”
He chuckles at my ridiculous answer, because who knows how much time any of us have? His eyes have cosmic depth, like trying to see where the sky ends.
He says, “Please begin meditation,” and I’m in.
When he says, “That’s all,” I open my eyes, feeling blank, can’t even remember my own name. Slowly my name returns, like one name in a stream of many names from many lives. Babuji asks about my meditation.
“I couldn’t remember who I was, my name or where I came from.”
He smiles, “That’s what we are looking for.” I’m trying to absorb the idea that forgetting can be positive, not a medical catastrophe.
After more silent minutes, Babuji says he has work to do, and a young man, his grandson, reminds us that the ashram will be serving lunch soon, and hands us the clean yogurt canister to carry back to the cook. A rickshaw is waiting outside the gate, but Fernando wants to walk as we’ve been sitting for hours. When I stand up, I feel light enough to float. “Thank you,” I say, pressing my palms together, namaskar, as I’ve seen others do.
Fernando swings the canister by its squeaky handle as we walk up the lane to the main road, pass a plumbing shop with white toilets stacked outside, then the Allahabad Bank, the guard holding a rifle. We’ll change money here as there’s no other option. Vendors on the street sell vegetables, potatoes, chilies, roasted peanuts in the shell. I open my scarf as there are no bags here, and a small, bow-legged man weighs half a kilo of peanuts with his hand-held metal scale, ties my scarf in a soft knot, and asks a few paise. We pass the river, see a dhobi scrubbing laundry in a suds-filled hollow stone, twisting and beating fabric. I say, “I couldn’t remember who I was.”
“Like waking up fuzzy headed.”
“But I had a sense of other lives, not sure who I was in this body.”
Fernando listens, says nothing about his own meditation, and I can’t ask, as it’s his experience, not mine. Children at the side of the road call, “Hey, hippie, hi hippie,” which draws his smile, the first of the day.
Babuji’s in his upper seventies, radiant as if a soft light’s pouring through him, with a neatly trimmed white beard and immaculate white cotton clothing. This must be why holy beings have been depicted with halos over the centuries.
As we approach the ashram Fernando says, “Babuji’s the real thing, not a phony or a quack, but not sure I’m into it.”
His words sting, as I love him, hope he’ll connect, but can’t make it happen.
Days pass, difficult to verbalize. Some fragments from my journal:
A rose-peach sunset fills the horizon then suddenly fades to black.
Taste of roti and subji cooked on a wood fire.
Red heat rash on my wrists, can’t wear the red and white bangles N.S.Rao’s wife gave me, but after morning meditation with Babuji, the rash disappears. I ask why, as heat rashes can last for weeks. He says, “Sometimes happens,” as if a cure is of no importance, a minor side effect, not the goal of meditation.
Bugs, beetles, lizards, flies.
Wash my hair under cold tap water with a red plastic scoop. No hot water.
Shashi Dhawan lives in Shahjahanpur and has been meditating for years. She asks if I have problems I’d like her to bring to Babuji, as he’s noticed I’m shy about personal questions. I tell her that when sitting with him I’m so absorbed I can’t think of anything to say, but often struggle with insomnia, though not here. Next day she brings his message.
“When you can’t sleep, Babuji says to make the thought that spirituality is floating down on you like the lightest snow,” perfect for someone who lives where it snows.
Babuji’s granddaughter brings medicine for his stomach pain in a steel cup. He sips some, too bitter, pushes the cup away. He pulls his knees up, stays quiet for long stretches, turns his gaze on us, takes out uncomfortable false teeth, burps innocently as a baby, smokes his “hubble-bubble” hookah.
Babuji glances at Fernando, working on him despite his obvious resistance. We mention the flooding in Delhi, and he charms us with stories of a flood thirty years back, pointing to stains high on the wall, “The water was up to there, over our heads, everything upside down.”
He talks about death and pain in the world, “So suffering,” he says, “so much suffering,” compassion flowing like pure water in the desert. I’m suspended in luminous space I never want to leave.
One day a blackbird falls dead in the courtyard, and a man who just arrived picks it up and cradles it in his hands with a sad expression. Babuji watches, says nothing. A comment on the man? On death?
The days pass, and I’m trying to accept that my path may not be the same as Fernando’s, though he brought me to his friend Jim to try meditation when I was depressed about losing a job. How to understand?
One night after a rain storm we see newly hatched frogs the size of paper clips leaping in a puddle outside the dining hall, and Fernando says. “Tiny guys jumping like crazy!” He enjoys roti and Indian sweets, says, “Babuji is genuine,” but adds, “maybe I’ll be my own guru. Can’t wait to get back to Delhi, go shopping, find some good weed.” I don’t want to leave at all, and Fernando’s eager to escape and get stoned.
To book a hotel room in Delhi we use the only phone in the ashram office, like shouting through an oatmeal box when I was a kid, yelling and repeating, struggling to hear replies. “Maybe we’ve got a room,” Fernando says when he hangs up.
One morning Babuji mentions, “My grandson will drive you to the train station this afternoon.” The feeling here is timeless, though the clock keeps moving. I’m crying, knowing I must pack.
“It’s not good to have too much tension,” Babuji tells me.
“I don’t want to leave,” sobbing.
“Go have breakfast,” he says, and one of his granddaughters leads us to his dining room, walls discolored by monsoon seepage, a weak lightbulb hanging by a fuzzy cord. She brings us thick slices of buttered toast with sugar sprinkled on top and mugs of hot chai, setting them on a much-scarred wooden table. It’s hard to eat, crying. Babuji is my spiritual home, my center, radiating love with no trace of material desire or selfishness. I’ll keep meditating, come back even if it means traveling alone.
We put our luggage in the grandson’s car, and Fernando says, “Wonder what we’ll run into this time?”
What would it be like now, waking up to a man’s filthy shoes on my head, though that scene feels remote, an ugly photo.
The car starts up the lane past dogs barking and children waving. On the main road we follow a flock of goats, a man hauling branches on his back, water buffaloes pulling a cart, women with clay jugs on their heads, trucks blasting horns, a bus overloaded with people, an entire family clinging to one bicycle, everyone heading to the railway station.
“The mad scramble of the material plane,” says Fernando, shaking his head.
“Did Babuji reach you somehow?”
“Maybe,” says Fernando, “Let’s see how it plays out.”
At the station I press my hands in namaskar to thank the grandson for driving us, then shoulder my bag and push into the mob toward a train that may be the wrong one, because it’s too early, unless it’s somehow the right one? I’m in tears, too open and vulnerable, don’t want to leave.
“Quick,” Fernando says, pulling me past a man in a green plaid lunghi coughing and spitting, next to a sign that says “Spitting Forbidden” in English and three other languages.
“We’re back into the whole crazy mess,” I say, but with all the noise, no one hears me, not even Fernando, though he’s gripping my hand, hurrying me toward the train.
* * * * *
Nina Rubinstein Alonso’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Yorker, Sumac, Cambridge Artists Cooperative, Ibbetson Street, Bagel Bards Anthology, Muddy River Poetry Review, WomenPoems, Black Poppy Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, New Boston Review, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, University of Mass. Review, Peacock Literary Review, Southern Women’s Review, etc. She’s the editor of Constellations a Journal of Poetry and Fiction () and has degrees from Simmons and Brandeis. Her book This Body was published by David Godine Press.
"Gender Veils" was awarded the 12th Moon Prize by Beate Sigriddaughter, editor of Writing in a Woman’s Voice. This sequence of poems will be included in Riot Wake, a chapbook upcoming from Gloria Mindock’s Cervena Barva Press.
She’s a ballet teacher at her school, Fresh Pond Ballet in Cambridge, MA (www.freshpondballet.com), and taught at Boston Ballet for eleven years, where she also performed. She studied ballet with E. Virginia Williams, James Capp, David Shields, Richard Thomas, Barbara Fallis, Sydney Leonard, Bruce Wells, Tatiana Baboushkina, and a number of noted teachers in Boston and New York.
She’s been to India a number of times for Sahaj Marg meditation, also called Heartfulness (heartfulness.org) and is grateful for this centering, uplifting practice.