After the tour, a Beatles pilgrimage
Dramatis Personae: Correspondent, playwright and actor John Kishline; his spouse, actress Deborah Clifton; Sam Kishline, their stage manager and son; offstage, actor-director Edward Morgan and actress Kriti Pant.
We played our play in India’s great cities: Delhi, Mumbai (which used to be Bombay), Chennai (which used to be Madras), Kolkata (which used to be Calcutta) and Hyderabad. The names have been changed to forget the guilty.
Quite a lot of Indians seemed to like our play, Success. The people from the U.S. State Department, who did a terrific job of making all of this happen for us, seemed to like it. I believed them all when they looked me in the eye and shook my hand and smiled and said nice things about the work. But it’s India and I must remember to dodge the bullshit.
People here take off their shoes when they enter a dwelling. I just figured out why: India’s been dodging bullshit for thousands of years. Cattle pretty much wander wherever they please and deposit whatever they please wherever they please. (We take care of the sacred cow problem in America by eating them.) My “aha” moment came yesterday, as I stepped carefully around another deposit and considered the state of my relatively new deck shoes. Is that new sheen bullshit? Surely, some of it is. Does this say anything about my play, Success? Or my life, for that matter? Such questions does an artist, on vacation in Rishikesh in September of his 63rd year, consider after the tour of his play.
Deborah, Sam and I decided to stay an extra two weeks after the the tour. We had no schedule or plan. We asked people who live here where we should go and what we should do, and they enthusiastically told us. Deborah researched the hell out of it; candidates rose and fell. This vast beautiful country with 47 languages offers an embarrassment of riches to torment travelers.
When we all returned to Delhi at the end of the tour, Edward Morgan taught a few classes for the Embassy School and flew to Thailand and the Golden Triangle for kick boxing. Our Indian actress, Kriti Pant, returned to work with her theater company. We found a hotel and booked a car for early the next morning and went to Agra. I couldn’t pass on the Taj Mahal, not at my age. It’s better than advertised. Look at the best pictures you can find. Not even close.
The Indian people are polite, beautiful, kind, generous and trying to make a buck like the rest of us. But they don’t use waste baskets much. That’s evident as we drive to Agra, in Agra, and anywhere else. Places of speechless beauty and serenity float in an ocean of refuse and the racket of a hundred million car horns.
But in I’m in Rishikesh now, and I’m going out to the balcony to listen to the Ganges boil over the rapids below and look up to the budding Himalayas for guidance. Back soon.
I just watched an Indian mason perform his morning ablutions in the river before setting to work. Same as it ever was. Thousands of years.
We are ensconced in the Divine Resort in the town of Rishikesh, home of Yoga, serenity and vegetables, booked last-minute. A planned trip to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama now resides, broke up in turbulence when trains and planes were full and we could not book a return to Delhi and the trip home. So we threw money at a travel guy named Romey, at Delhi Tours, and took the worst car ride known to this man to get up here. Our driver, Prem, is a little younger than I. He drew upon his entire professional experience to keep us from dying many, many times. The road is a major Indian highway. We covered 140 miles in just under 6 hours — fast, for India.
There are no driving rules. None. Zero. You can try anything. You’re on a four-lane divided highway; a semi’s coming at you on the shoulder doing about 30, flanked by a squadron of motorcycles, one with four riders on it. Crazy.
Deborah, Sam and I had been on tour for almost a month: travel, arrive, meet the local liaison people, see the space, talk to the press, workshop, set the stage, lights, sound, costumes, perform, and hope like hell the show makes the journey with a little class. There was never time to acclimate and explore. So when Romey showed us the picture in a brochure in the tight little office in the center of steaming Delhi and said we could have that very room with that view, I threw down the plastic and we ascended to Rishikesh to ensconce and explore.
On the ride up, we discover that Rishikesh bans alcohol and meat. We stop at a liquor store. We have to keep it hidden, like Prohibition.
We perch on our balcony. It’s the last days of the monsoon, and the Ganga (Ganges) is running 8 knots over the rapids. We find serenity in contraband correctives.
The elephants are being shy and the monkeys just keep on coming. We walk. Jewelry and scarves for sale fill narrow, dark, steep passages. The Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula suspension bridges (open to people on foot or motorbike and to dogs, cows and monkeys) span the Ganga. A gorgeous falls spray Himalayan glacier water upon you, if you sit in the right pool in your boxers. The climb is a bomb and so are the views. There’s this café — there’s always this café, isn’t there? — where we ate last night across the river from our hotel. The place never made it out of 1968.
And then there’s Mahesh Yogi’s old ashram.
We went out on a little jaunt the other day in the steaming heat of the afternoon and crossed the Laxman Jhula and wandered south along the east bank. I bought a Nepal wool vest. We walked past the ashrams, which are everywhere. People know peace here.
We were killing time before the 6 p.m. flower ceremony on the river. We turned down a narrow alley and traversed a junk pile to find a road that rises away from the river. In ultimate humidity that wasn’t quite rain, we asked a taxi driver eating his nan and dal if the whereabouts of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s place.
The Beatles came here to dry out as they were disintegrating in 1968. They wrote most of the White Album and a chunk of Abbey Road here. We entered and climbed the long, mossy, winding path to the huts, the larger buildings and the 60’s gazebo with benches around it. The yogi moved to the Netherlands in 1992 and died in 2008. The land, climate and bugs are eating his old place in India. But it is a rare thing to stand in the incipient rain to see the building where the Beatles stayed and changed and wrote, and to hear those songs in your head. Mouths agape, we took photos and laughed and slapped mosquitoes and remembered. Sam, born in 1987, felt it too.
We wandered back across the Ram Jhula and taxied up the long hill to our hotel.We made our contraband cocktails and sat on our balcony above the boiling rapids of the Ganga and congratulated ourselves on a day well spent. And we laughed, again and again. We knew a little about success, and looking for truth, and disintegration. It all led us here. Nice place, India. Let it be, John.