‘Hi,’ a young woman about my age Looked at me, her green eyes flashing with an inner intensity I could only wish for. In an American accent she asked me, ‘Which seat is yours?’
I looked at my ticket and replied it was the top berth. She helped me put my bag under the main seat and I put my smaller rucksack on the top bunk. My unwanted travelling companion clattered in behind me and I looked at the woman with a pained expression. She looked at me quizzically and threw her gaze upon him. He put his rucksack under the other seat and instantly climbed up to the top berth opposite, making sure his guitar was carefully placed beside him. He looked down from his perch at us mere mortals, saw the woman, and in an unmistakably English accent said, ‘Hello, how are you?’
The American smiled, ‘I’m good, yourself?’
He looked at her and said, ‘I am perfect thank you.’
She smiled at the unusual response, 'Well, great!'
'What's your name?' he asked.
‘I'm Geraldine, what’s yours?’
‘My name is Hari Om.’
‘Right,’ Geraldine paused, ‘but what is your real name?’
‘That is my real name,’ Hari Om almost spat out the words, signalling many conversations of a similar nature.
‘Your parents named you Hari Om?’ Geraldine asked.
‘No, my Indian Guru did.’
‘Who is your Guru?’ Geraldine enquired.
‘Oh you won’t know him, his name is Sri Sai Devananda Samarpan Sivananda Saraswati Nanak Mahesh Yogananda Baba.
‘Oh… right,’ Geraldine replied.
Hari Om chose not to continue the conversation so promptly bought a chai from one of the hundred chai wallahs lining the corridors of the Indian train bound for Madurai.
Geraldine looked at me and I tried to smile and shrug, whilst gesturing to the top bunk where Hari Om’s bulk had now laid down, indicating that whilst we came on this train together... we are not together.
More people came into the train compartment and soon the remaining seats filled. Geraldine and I sat next to each other and started chatting. As soon as the train started, we heard snores from the top berth and realised Hari Om had fallen asleep.
Imitable of most traveling conversations, small talk was swept aside and we delved into the important areas of our lives.
Geraldine said, ‘I call myself a student but I don’t have a teacher. Well, not one to speak of. I’ve got people, songs, books, satsangs and stuff to draw upon but nothing that actually says, ‘This is the right way and this is how you do it’. I guess after being stuck in education for so long I always assumed there would be a teacher to guide me, mark me out of a hundred, tell me where my spelling and punctuation mistakes were, that kind of thing, but suddenly it isn’t there anymore… I am left to my own devices.'
Feeling the warm air caress my back as the train flitted between village, temple and landscape in the sweltering sunshine, I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant.
She carried on, ‘I tend to drift into spiritual things, no matter how practical I try to be. I have just always been that way inclined…’ She changed her position on the chair and as an afterthought said, ‘And life - I’m usually inclined towards life too. I feel like I am learning so much about letting go and starting afresh, about being independent and responsible for my own actions, about what is right and wrong for me.’
She looked up at me and I realised she was really beautiful, her dark hair pulled back into a loose bun and her pale skin glowing and wondered how she maintained such coolness as I slowly roasted next to her.
‘Yeah,’ I said, wiping the sweat from my brow with the bottom of my dupatta, ‘but I have met a lot of strange people who say they are following the spiritual path, though I think they may just have mental problems.’
‘Yeah, I guess there are some unusual people out there,’ Geraldine agreed. ‘A bit like that one up there… what’s his real name?’
‘I took a peep at his passport and it’s David.’
‘What are you doing with him?’
‘I can’t get rid of him and he keeps following me about. I have had to listen to a lot of sermons from him about his philosophy on life, I think he wants me to be his pupil or something,’ I told her. After a pause I said, ‘He’s also married.’
‘Where’s his wife?’
‘She’s working at home, looking after his two kids.’ I grin wryly. Geraldine grimly nodded.
I started to tell her my own story and path, how I believed I was probably not self aware enough to know if I was actually learning anything and how I felt confused most of the time.
‘All I know is that I am afraid that if I fall onto the path of spirituality I might just end up sounding like some of the people I have already met who seem like freakish clichés to me, and I definitely don’t want to be like that.’
‘But have you met some great people too?’
‘Oh yeah, I have met some lovely people,’ I replied.
‘And have they been into spirituality?’ she asked.
‘Yeah some of them have, but most of the time you wouldn’t know because they don’t throw it in your face.’
‘It sounds like you are self-aware enough to know what you don’t want.’
We fell into a comfortable silence as the lights faded from the Indian sky.
After a while Hari Om woke up, signaled to the Chai Wallah for another cup and settled down to start his sermon from on high.
‘Remember, love is the engine of survival,’ he said.
‘Excuse me?’ I asked, confused by his trail of thought.
‘Well, you need to love and forgive, by doing this you will be set free,’ Hari Om proclaimed.
‘Please stop patronising us with song lyrics and half-baked philosophies,’ Geraldine said irritably.
‘I know more than you do, I have been to the
University of Life,' he responded.
‘It sounds like you found a guitar, probably learnt three chords and travelled around India. You don’t know anything.’
‘I know more than you. You are just out of your nappies… I have lived longer than you,’ Hari Om retorted.
Suddenly, from nowhere, some Indians came to our compartment to listen. Young children, old men and lots of teenagers who could hear Geraldine’s loud voice gathered closer in on the conversation, much to the delight of the Chai Wallah who was selling tea to everyone who had ringside seats.
Geraldine spoke, ‘Age means nothing, I have lived a full life, and at least I have been open to change and beauty from an early age. I haven’t left people that depend on me at home. Do you know how selfish you are being? Leaving your family because you can’t be arsed to hang around with them anymore? Are you experiencing A MID-LIFE CRISIS?’
I sat back in horrified amazement at her rhetoric.
The crowd started having a conversation amongst themselves and I could see that some agreed with her, mostly the teenagers, but that some of the older men were clucking and shaking their heads.
Geraldine leaned forward, ‘Is your Guru really called Leonard Cohen? I have had enough of older people thinking they know best when they are as clueless as the next generation. You call yourself Hari Om but your real name is David. Get a fucking reality check, man.’ She took a deep breath and sat back on the seat. The whole train compartment went quiet.
Hari Om sat there and we watched his face turn red then purple until he looked like he was about to burst. He got up from his chair, took his guitar and walked down the corridor. As soon as he left, everyone started talking.
An Indian boy comes up to Geraldine and said, ‘You shouldn’t be talking to your elders like that. It’s disrespectful.’
Gerry looked up at him and smiled, ‘If you knew your elder was wrong, wouldn’t you say something?’
‘No, Miss, we would not be shouting at our elders even if we thought they were wrong. We would smile, listen and then we would be doing our own things anyway.’ The Indian boy gave a wide open, white toothed, smile and laughed.
Gerry shook her head and laughed. ‘No wonder India is a complex place…’ The boy shook his head from side to side, sat down in Hari Om’s seat…. or whatever his name is… opposite Geraldine and I and said, ‘Nothing doing. Ganesha will look after the young, there is no need to worry. Would you like some chai?’
Later on while Gerry and the Indian boy, whose name is Jagdish, were deep in conversation about India I discreetly left them to find a toilet. As I walked down the narrow corridors, I saw lots of families lying down on their berths or sitting together having their lunch. Some of them looked up at me and I smiled at them - the returning smiles were like full wattage light bulb moments and I basked in their warmth. Finally I got to the toilets and managed to balance myself so I didn’t pee all over the floor.
After I finished my absolutions, I looked around and saw Hari Om sitting with his legs outside the train door, the landscape rushing past. He strummed his guitar lazily, looking out into the rapid horizon. His face was back to his normal colour but clearly he was still upset, I walked up to him.
He turned towards me and looked me up and down, ‘I guess you agree with your friend back there.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘she did have a point.’
He looked down at his guitar and then back outside and said ‘I guess we have nothing to say to each other then. I have tried my best in this life. I am trying to find truth, whatever it is. If my methods seem questionable then that’s your problem. I am happy the way I am.’ I look down at this unhappy pile of a man and nodded.
‘Sure’ I said and then walked back into the microcosm of India that is my train compartment.
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