The problem with an Indian ashram is that once the ashram part is over you’re back in India. My taxi is stuck in traffic. My throat burns from the exhaust. My eyes sting. The roads seem even more chaotic than just a few days ago, or maybe my mind, serene and caffeine-free, is more attuned to the heat and dust and noise around me. I’ve always been especially sensitive to noise, a proven detriment to happiness, what essayist Ambrose Bierce called “a stench in the ear.”
Finally, we arrive at a plain-looking two-story building in a bustling part of town. One Shanti Road. It’s owned by an artist named Suresh. I had heard that he rents out spare rooms and that his house is a sort of revolving salon. Everyone passes through One Shanti Road. It seemed like a good way to recover, if that’s the right word, from my ashram experience, and get to know Bangalore at the same time.
Suresh designed One Shanti Road himself. He built the house around a large badam tree. He loves that tree so much his friends joke that he’s married to it.
I stumble up a circular staircase with my bags. The living room at One Shanti Road is chock-a-bloc with paintings and books and Hindu bric-a-brac. Dishes are piled high in the kitchen sink. Flies hover over the mango rinds and coffee grounds like a fleet of attack helicopters. “The maid didn’t show up today,” explains Suresh. Everyone in India has a maid, even struggling artists.
It’s still early in the morning but Suresh’s salon is already hopping. People are sitting around, lounging, smoking cigarettes and drinking copious amounts of coffee, reducing their pranha to dangerously low levels and not giving a damn. The air is thick with smoke and irony. I inhale deeply.
“Welcome to the anti-ashram,” someone says. I’m introduced to Harsha, whose name means happiness, and Vikram and Arjun and others whose names I can’t keep straight.
I’ve walked into the middle of an Indian bitch session. They’re complaining about Bangalore’s exponential growth and what it’s doing to their beloved city. My arrival, fresh from the ashram, has diverted the conversation from traffic jams to spirituality. It’s a sharp turn but one this group handles with ease.
“This is a country based on the God syndrome,” says Vikram, or Viki as his friends call him. He has a gold earring in one ear and is wearing a saffron shirt and is openly gay in a country that is not so open about such things. “People need crutches,” says Viki, “and the gurus are crutches.”
I feel compelled to defend the gurus, mine in particular, an impulse that surprises me. I tell them about the breathing technique I learned and my latent relaxation that resulted.
“Someone develops a breathing technique and then you want all the answers from him,” says a beefy sculptor named Vivek. “You’re increasing the oxygen flow to the brain. You get a high from that,” says Roy, who is a doctor and should know. Roy treats many patients but he’s never met one of them. He reads X-rays for a hospital in the U.S.
Okay, so there is a medical explanation for that giddiness I experienced. Does that make it less real?
“It’s a spiritual pedicure,” chimes someone else. “You feel better for a while but nothing has really changed.”
“Holy people must renounce,” says Viki. “Ultimately, it’s about denial and renunciation.”
I relay to this group of skeptics how Guru-ji accurately forecasted a lush green ashram, when the ground was rocky and barren and the experts said nothing could grow.
Classic guru mythology, says someone. They always announce they will build something or grow something even though the experts say it can’t be done. These revelations are always in retrospect, though. They are articles of faith, there’s no record of them, so they can’t be proved or disproved.
“Why can’t people just sit and meditate quietly?” says someone else.
“It’s too boring,” says Viki.
“Can you be genuine and a fraud at the same time?” I ask.
“Apparently you can,” says Suresh. “This is India.”
“Everything in India is true and its opposite is true also,” someone else says.
My head is spinning. It feels like it’s going to explode. Suresh, sensing my unease, offers me coffee but I demure. Decaf Me has survived three days already. I want to see how much longer I can last.
The conversation ricochets from the petty to the profound and back again. I’m getting spiritual whiplash. The subject of samsara comes up. That’s the Eastern belief that we are born over and over again, until we achieve enlightenment. Then we are liberated and do not return to this Earth.
“Personally, I don’t mind coming back as a dog or a tree,” says Viki. “I’m in no hurry to get off this planet.”
“Somewhere in the universe, someone has been given a speck of time. We are that person, it is our speck of time,” says Suresh, enigmatically.
Viki’s brief burst of optimism has dissipated and he’s griping again. “Do you know what the best business in this country is? Religion. I’m very cynical,” says Viki, as if there were any doubt. “If I have a problem I go to see my best friend, not a guru. They are making a mint, these gurus. I don’t think there is any such thing as a real sadhu. They’re all fake.”
In India, a man’s home is his castle. It is a porous castle, though, with no moat, and prone to invasion by friend and foe alike. At my apartment in Delhi, a perpetual parade of humanity passed: plumbers, electricians, delivery boys, holy men, government clerks, taxi drivers. It can be awfully annoying; sometimes you just want to putter about in your underwear, unmolested. This endlessly flowing river of humanity, though, also means that you are never alone in India.
At One Shanti Road, the conversation meanders like the Ganges, sloshing from one subject to another with no discernible pattern. One recurring theme, though, is the change taking place in Bangalore.
“We’ve become like owls,” says Viki. “People stay up all night, working or partying. Why is everybody running around in such a hurry? And the traffic is crazy.”
Don’t forget the mobile phones, someone says.
“Everyone has one,” says Viki, in the same tone of voice he might use for “Everyone has tuberculosis.”
“Do you have one, Viki?” I ask.
“Yes, I do,” he says, sheepishly, producing a shiny new model from his pocket. “But I growl and snarl at it. I have the right attitude.” He makes a snarling expression with his face.
“These people, the cyber-coolies, will burn out by 30, 35,” someone says. “They will wake up one day and realize that life has passed them by.”
I’m trying to figure out if these are valid concerns, or merely sour grapes, when Emma arrives.
She bounds up the stairs carrying two huge suitcases. The flight from London was a nightmare. She’s been traveling for 24 hours. No, she doesn’t need sleep, she needs a cigi and coffee, stat, and Suresh promptly produces both.
Emma is a hedonic refugee of the first order. When she was five years old, growing up in London, she would tug at women’s saris in restaurants. One of the first words she ever spoke was “India.”
She finally traveled to India at age 25. She flew into Delhi and hopped into a cab, plunging into the craziness that is an Indian street. Most people find this disconcerting, terrifying, but not Emma. She sat in the back seat of that cab and felt a deep sense of calm wash over her. Maybe she cried, maybe not. She can’t remember. One thing she knew for certain, though: She was home.
Properly caffeinated and nicotined, Emma plops down on a chair and joins the conversation. “What do you love so much about India?” I ask.
“I love the sound of horns tooting, the rickshaws, the women balancing pots on their head, the peanut wallah calling out, the bells at the temples. I love the Indian accent. It’s endless, really. I love everything. ”
I can’t help but notice that most of the things she listed are aural. India is a feast for the ears. Maybe that will change, as India grows richer because, to be honest, there is nothing more deadly dull than the sound of prosperity. The dull hum of an air conditioner or the muffled clicks on a keypad simply can’t compete with the sing-song call of hawkers at an open-air market or the rhythmic clickity-clack of a sweatshop’s sewing machines. Even Third World traffic, with its symphony of honking horns and tinkling bells, beats the monotonous whoosh of a modern freeway.
Emma used to live in Bangalore. That’s how she knows Suresh and the gang. Now she’s back in London but still returns to India often. A round of Indian geography ensues. They talk of people they know, connections, degrees of separation. A billion souls in India and the residents of One Shanti Road seem to know them all. This country is a chain of infinitely intersecting circles.
Emma opens her suitcases and I can hardly believe my eyes. Inside are dozens and dozens of bags, each one neatly wrapped in plastic. Emma is in the bag business. She designs them at her studio in London and has them made in Hong Kong and here in Bangalore. I tell her about my bag addiction and her eyes light up. It is the look of a crack dealer who has just been introduced to a hardcore user.
I ask Emma to analyze my bag addiction. As you recall, I own more bags than most people, including most mental-health professionals, would consider normal. “Hmmm,” she says, like a psychoanalyst who’s been presented with a particularly challenging case. “It’s a safety thing, a security blanket. Plus, you carry things in bags, baggage. So your obsession represents an extension of your emotional baggage. That’s it, you need some place to put your emotional baggage.”
Not bad, not bad at all.
I’m introduced to Chandra, a roly-poly guy who lives in the apartment downstairs. His head is large and bulbous and he’s wearing a green kurta, which hangs down to his knees. He reminds me of a friendly Martian. In fact, Chandra is a cultural geographer, which is a perfect thing to be, as far as I’m concerned. He lived in the U.S. for 18 years, in places like Waco, Texas, and Fargo, North Dakota. To this day, mere mention of the word Fargo is enough to make him shiver. He’s also developed an affinity for Seinfeld reruns and an unnerving feeling every morning that he needs to be somewhere, anywhere, by 8:30 a.m. “And it’s only in the past year, that I could take an afternoon nap and not feel guilty,” he adds.
Someone once told me that if you want to know India, just stand on a street corner, any street corner, and spin around 360 degrees. You will see it all. The best and worst of humanity. The ridiculous and the sublime. The profane and the profound. Here at One Shanti Road you don’t even need to spin around. From the terrace, I can see it all. In one direction is a shanty town. A jumble of tin-roofed shacks that, at first glance, looks like a garbage dump. Only when you look more closely do you realize that people live there. Look in another direction and you a shiny glass building, an office for Cisco Systems.
As I said, in India everything is a sign, especially the signs. Like the one across the street for a company called Sublime Solutions. I have no idea what the company does, probably some sort of software firm, but I love the name.
I step back inside and rejoin the conversation, mid-stream.
“It’s all true. And all false,” someone is saying, and everyone concurs.
Emma is on her fifth cup of coffee and seventh cigarette. He eyes have grown big and she is talking very fast now. Suddenly, the lights go out and the ceiling fans glide to a halt. I start to sweat almost instantly. No one misses a beat, though.
“Bangalore is the capital of power outages,” someone says.
“What about the high-tech companies?” I ask. “How do they do business with all of these power cuts?”
“Oh come on,” says Viki, as if I were terribly naïve, which of course I am. “They have super generators, triple redundancy. They’re on a separate grid, their own grid.”
“The entire IT world is on separate grid,” says Chandra, and he’s clearly not talking only about electricity. The high-tech workers, those who have made it big, live in gated communities with names like “Dollar Colony.” They shop in malls, which also have their own generators. They worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Shani, the goddess of aspiration.
Every old building in Bangalore that is torn down is replaced with an office park or a shopping complex. When the term shopping complex is translated into the local language, it emerges as, literally, “shopping complicated.”
“Yes,” says Chandra. “It certainly can be.”
I ask Emma for her happiness number.
“I’m a five, no a four. I think, maybe a 3.5.”
She’s dropping rapidly the more she thinks about it, which, as any Thai will tell you, is precisely her problem.
“I should be happier, but fear has wormed its way inside of me and my confidence is gone. When I was a painter, when I was younger and had nothing, I was happy.”
Researchers have found that happiness forms a U-shaped curve over the course of a lifetime. We’re happiest in youth and old age. Emma is at the bottom of the curve, an emotional trough. I don’t have the heart to tell her this, though. I fear it might push her happiness score even lower.
Emma tells me that the energy is better here than it is in London. There’s that word again, but this time I don’t cringe. Spoken here, by a chain-smoking bag-making hedonic refugee, it somehow rings true.
My life at One Shanti Road falls into a pleasant routine. I wake up every morning before dawn, a bad habit I picked up at the ashram, and do the kriya breathing exercise. Okay, so it’s just a hit of oxygen and nothing transcendental. I don’t care. It makes me feel good. It gives me energy. (God, now I’m using that word.) And since I’m off coffee I can use all the energy I can get.
Afterwards, I step onto the terrace and watch the sun rise over the shanty town next door. The poor live their lives more publicly than the rest of us. A child is squatting, defecating, a woman is giving a man a bath, pouring buckets of water over his head. Another man has a splinter or something stuck in his foot; and a small crowd has gathered around him and are, I imagine, discussing the best way to remove it. Another man is brushing his teeth. Most of these people have jobs, earning about $3 a day. They are not at the bottom of the ladder in India, far from it. And that is the beauty of life in India, no matter how low your rung, there is always someone beneath you. An infinite ladder.
Next, Suresh and I drive on his motorcycle to one of Bangalore’s parks—Bangalore was known as the Garden City before it was the IT city—and we go for a walk. It’s still early, but the park is crowded with people walking, meditating, defecating, doing yoga, laughing. On the way back, we stop to pick up some idlis and other spongy items that pass for breakfast in southern India.
The rest of my day unfolds lazily. I sit around reading and thinking about coffee. Mostly, though, I just sit. Indians, and Indian men in particular, are great sitters. World class. I can’t compete with them, but I do my best.
At some point, Chandra, the friendly Martian, will suggest we go to Khoshy’s, a coffee shop, and continue our sitting there. Khoshy’s is a Bangalore institution. It’s been around since 1940, seven years before India gained its independence from Britain.
It’s hardly changed since. The walls are mustard yellow and in desperate need of a paint job. Ceiling fans spin but not too quickly. Nothing moves too quickly at Khoshy’s. Not the waiters or the chefs or the customers, and that is precisely its appeal. People spend hours and hours here, meeting friends, sipping the ginger punch, and eating Khoshy’s signature “smileys,” fried potatoes cooked in the shape of smiley faces.
On this day, we’re meeting Chandra’s friend, Meena. She writes a column for a national newspaper. She has short grayish hair and a fierce wit.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Meena says, looking at me in the way she does, head tilted at a slight angle. “Gurus have their uses. They’re just not for me.”
I never thought of it that way before. Gurus have their uses.
Meena once spent six months in the U.S., working for the Baltimore Sun. She couldn’t wait to leave. There’s too much distance between people in the U.S., and by that she means more than physical distance, though that, too. She found the streets eerily quiet. Where are all the people, she wondered?
“Americans are so busy,” she says. “If they’re not busy working, they’re busy relaxing.”
I order a fresh lime soda. Meena does, too, plus the peanut masala, no chili.
“What can Americans learn from India?” I ask Meena.
“You could learn to relax, to live overlapping lives. We are an ad hoc county. We accept a lot of imperfections. You could be more like that.”
If anything, though, it is India that is aping America. Shopping malls, gated communities, fast food. They’re all here now. Meena doesn’t care for India Shining. She prefers India dull, which was never all that dull, actually.
“The Indian middle class is distancing itself from poverty and that is dangerous,” she says. “The old path you took to God was through suffering and renunciation, the way of the sanyasi. That doesn’t appeal to the young crowd. Everyone is into the insta-guru now.”
Chandra agrees. “There is no sacrifice required with these new gurus.”
Chandra offers me a ride back to One Shanti Road on his scooter. We are two men of not insignificant heft, and the underpowered scooter wobbles precariously. The traffic is so close I can feel the hot exhaust from the cars on my shins. The accident I witnessed some days ago has unnerved me. I see signs of pending danger everywhere. An ambulance passes, sirens blaring, and I realize this is the first time I’ve ever seen an ambulance in India. Now, we’re passing a sign for “Brain and Spine Care” Oh God, I think, another sign. We’re going to crash. But a few minutes later Chandra pulls up to One Shanti Road. I’m fine.
That evening, I step onto the terrace. The air is soft and cool. I look at the shanty town—it’s impossible to avoid—and I see a few kids picking through a pile of trash, looking for something they can sell for a few rupees. A few years in India hardens you to such sights. But there’s always something that pierces your armor, no matter how thick it may have grown.
I see a girl, she can’t be more than four years old, picking through the trash with one hand and holding something in her other hand. What is it? I squint and see that it is a stuffed animal, a dirty but otherwise intact little bear. My armor dissolves. This is not happy India. This is the country where, as Mark Twain observed, every life is sacred, except human life. Indians may care deeply about their families and circle of friends, but they don’t even notice anyone outside that circle. That’s why Indian homes are spotless while just a few feet outside the front door the trash is piled high. It’s outside the circle.
Emma has just returned from a visit to her factory. On the floor, she has spread piles of bags. They are everywhere and they are beautiful. I’m tempted to get naked and roll around in the pile, but restrain myself. This is a forgiving place but even the inhabitants of One Shanti Road have their limits.
I walk into the kitchen and notice that the sink is now spotless, the flies have retreated. Suresh’s maid, Mona, must be back.
I hear Mona before I see her. The bangles she wears on her wrists and ankles jangle musically. I had heard that Mona was extremely happy, even though she is dirt poor and lives in one of the shanty towns I see from the terrace. Mona knows only one word of English—super—so I ask Suresh to translate.
“Mona, are you happy?”
“And what is the key to happiness?
“You should not think too much. You should not have anything in your mind. The more you think, the less happy you will be. Live happily, eat happily, die happily.” And with that she flings her arms into the air with a flourish. Mona and the Thais would get along beautifully.
“But Mona don’t you have problems? Don’t you have money issues?”
She flings her arms again, this time much more forcefully, indicating that I’m thinking too much. Talking too much, too. The conversation is over. She has work to do. She walks away, her bangles jangling in the soft evening air.
I’m not sure what to make of Mona. I’m well aware of the dangerous myth of the happy, noble savage. They have so little but are so happy. Statistically, that’s not true. The poorest countries in the world are also the least happy, and that is certainly true of India. It ranks in the lower end of Ruut Veenhoven’s happiness spectrum.
But Mona is not a statistic. She is a person, and, she claims, a very happy one. Who am I to disagree? Poverty doesn’t guarantee happiness, nor does it deny it.
A few years ago, happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener interviewed hundreds of street people in Calcutta, the poorest of the poor, and recorded their happiness levels (again, based on self reports). Then he did the same with a few hundred homeless people in Freemont, California.
Calcutta’s destitute, it turns out, are significantly happier than those in California, even though the Californian homeless had better access to food, shelter and health services. Biswas-Diener attributed the surprising result to the fact that Calcutta’s street people may have little in the way of material wealth but they do have strong social ties. Family. Friends. I would go a step further and say that no one is really homeless in India. House-less perhaps, but not homeless.
There’s another reason, I think, why Calcutta’s poor are happier than America’s. If an Indian person is poor, it is because of fate, the gods, or some negative karma accumulated in a previous lifetime. In other words, they are not to blame. If an American is poor, it is seen as a personal failure, a flawed character.
One day, I find myself alone at One Shanti Road, a rare occurrence. I’m lounging on the day bed, reading a book and listening to Hindi pop on the radio, when I hear Mona’s distinctive jangle. She’s balancing a bucket of laundry gracefully on one shoulder. And then we have a conversation, even though we don’t share a common language. Not since my pantomimes with Luba in Moldova have I experienced such a thing.
Mona “asks” if I would like some tea. I decline but she persists. You really should have some tea. Should I turn on the ceiling fan? It’s a good idea. It’s hot. Maybe that’s too high a speed; I’ll turn it down. Mona indicates—in her clairvoyant way—that it’s best not to do two things at once. She turns off the radio. A few minutes later, she tells me my tea is getting cold and I really should drink it. She conveys all of this with musical flings of her arms. I decide that, statistics be damned, Mona is happy. Wise, too.
Diwali has arrived. Traditionally, it’s known as the Festival of Light but these days it’s the Festival of Loud and Obnoxious Firecrackers. Every street is converted into a free-fire zone. The dogs are traumatized, as am I. For three solid days, my ears are filled with this awful stench. Pop. Boom. And the smoke! It wafts over the city, which now feels like one giant war zone.
One the terrace, Suresh and Emma are preparing for the holiday. Emma is making a Diwali bowl: candles and flowers floating in a pool of water. We light a few sparklers. Mine won’t stay lit. Suresh tells me his favorite Hindu god is Shiva, the destroyer, “because you must destroy in order to create.”
Emma says she never feels impending doom in India, even though that would be a perfectly rational thing to feel.
“But back in Britain I’m often scared to death.”
Suresh puts together a package of cookies for the neighborhood kids and Mona delivers it in a shopping bag. We’re sitting under the aging badam tree, which hangs over the terrace like a ceiling.
“Suresh, don’t you ever get tired of all these people coming and going constantly? Don’t you want to be alone sometimes?”
“No, even when people are around I can be alone. It’s a technique that I’ve mastered.”
My flight leaves soon. I have time for one more trip to Khoshy’s, where I’ve become a regular. I’ve arranged to meet a professor named Sundar Sarukkai. He wrote an article about happiness that caught my eye. In one short paragraph he managed to capture a paradox that has been nagging me for some time.
“Desire is the root cause of sorrow but desire is also the root cause of action. How do we counter the paralysis of action when there is no desire to motivate us?”
Exactly. Hinduism—indeed, most Eastern religions—tell us that striving, even striving for happiness, is self-defeating. The moment you try to improve yourself, you’ve failed. Game over. Yet just lie there like a zombie and you lose, too. What to do?
Sundar seems like he might have some answers. He has advanced degrees in both philosophy and physics. He has shoulder-length hair and, it turns out, is related to Guru-ji.
We grab a seat in the corner. I like him immediately. He has Guru-ji’s twinkly eyes but not his overt godliness. I’m eager to talk about ambition, the one noun that, more than anything else, has sabotaged my search for happiness. It is the source of my success and my misery. A contradiction that, I figure, only an Indian can wrap his mind around, and not have his head explode.
“Everyone is ambitious. It’s human nature. The question is, what price are we willing to pay for the ambition? Not just an economic price, but a social price.” And, he says, the average American is willing to pay a higher price than the average Indian.
“But don’t Indians want to succeed?”
“Yes, of course we do, but we deal with disappointment differently. Our attitude is, ‘Okay, you’ve done your best, now let the universe decide.’ ”
“What do you mean?”
“What some people call chance we call God. But let’s call it unpredictability. You do the same thing ten times and it doesn’t work. On the eleventh time it works. The entire universe is chance and probability. So we accept everything.”
There it is: that Hindu belief that all of life is maya, illusion. Once we see life as a game, no more consequential than a game of chess, then the world seems a lot lighter, a lot happier. Personal failure becomes “as small a cause for concern as playing the role of loser in a summer theater performance,” writes Huston Smith in his book, The World’s Religions. If it’s all theater, it doesn’t matter which role you play, as long as you realize it’s only a role. Or, as Alan Watts said: “A genuine person is one who knows he is a big act and does it with complete zip.”
We sit there at Khoshy’s and talk for a good hour or two. There is no rush, no agenda. It’s unpredictable, but in a good way. Time feels expansive. This, I realize, is what I love about India. Not the official ashrams but the unofficial ones, like One Shanti Road. The hidden little gems amidst the grubbiness and the squalor and the greed. I am, dare I say, happy.
“One Shanti Road is the happiest place in India,” Emma had said shortly after she arrived. At the time, I didn’t know what she was talking about. Now I do. Shanti, it turns out, is a Sanskrit word that means “inner peace.” Maybe One Shanti isn’t the anti-ashram after all. Maybe it’s just another kind of ashram.
My flight leaves in a few hours. Bangalore is anything but peaceful. Diwali is in full swing. Firecrackers are going off everywhere. The air is thick with acrid smoke. Suresh hurries me out a side exit to a waiting cab. I feel like I’m boarding the last helicopter out of Saigon. I give him a hug, and tell him to be happy. Then the taxi pulls away and One Shanti Road disappears in a cloud of smoke.
I am relieved to be leaving this craziness behind. I want to stay. A contradiction? Yes, but one I can live with, and even learn to enjoy.