Malachi O’Doherty

After forty years … sacked by plastic

It was Christmas Day and I almost didn’t notice. I had been settling into my new home by the river Ganges at Brijghat, where the main road and railway line due east from Delhi crosses the river.

I had a room in the corner of the courtyard of a pilgrim hostel called Teen Bandar ki Dharmashala – The Three Monkeys Hostel.

Pilgrims came here from all over the state and Delhi on four holy days of the month: the full moon, the no moon and the eleventh phases of the waxing and waning moons called Ekadashi, a fast day for the devout.

But I had little idea yet of the scale of the invasion Brijghat experienced in warm weather. December on the north Indian plain was like a half-decent summer for me. To the people who lived there, it was winter. I walked out in a short-sleeved shirt past people who huddled by the tea shops wrapped in heavy woollen shawls.

I had come to India in response to an ad in the personal column of The Guardian to help a Hindu swami to write a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the holy scriptures.

I was there for my own benefit as someone who wanted to travel and, eventually, to write. I didn’t have a lot of faith in the project I was contributing to yet. Swamiji was an imposing and needy man. He strode rather than walked, stroking his wispy black beard, his stomach several inches ahead of the rest of him.

People around us assumed that I would take an increasing interest in Hinduism and meditation and indeed I would.

For now I was tentative but I would mark the day a little ceremoniously in my own way. I was going to take a dip in the Ganges.

“Raj Pal,” I said, “today I will take bath in Ganga.” 

Raj Pal was my closest companion. He ran the hostel. He was a few years younger than me, busy but playful, fascinated by me and determined to be helpful.

“Yes, Mr Malky. Yes.”

I walked along the river every day. It was about half a mile wide there. The sand of the banks was dark grey. Pilgrims set up camp there and lit their little fires on the night before holy days and spent the dark hours chanting under the moon.

There is no official religion of moon worship that anyone will own up to, but both the Muslim and the Hindu prostrate themselves before her. I have seen a Muslim tie his camel to a palm tree in North Africa and bow to the east, to Mecca, the full moon low in the sky, right in front of him. Further east, when they bow towards Mecca once a month, they face the new moon setting.

The river is the Goddess Ganga. Applying a Latinised masculine name to her is an impertinence that Indians are content to overlook but no one ever talked of having a dip or going for a swim. They suggested I take a bath.

By the river I had to steer past the over-curious, the wandering bull and the little family huddle that was right in my path. 

People waded out in their sarees or loose wraps and plunged three times, holding their noses, and said some prayers and came out, the cloth clinging to them, marbling the surface of rippled flesh. I stripped down to my bathing trunks. The water wasn’t too cold. It was murky but Swamiji assured me that it was clean. The holy river is self-purifying.

I was self-conscious standing in the water, realising that Raj Pal expected to see me do something, bow to my god, something.

I joined my palms as in prayer and said namaste to the river then plunged forward, swam for about half a minute and waded out again to dry myself, shivering now.

Up on the bridge cars, buses and tongas waited to take pilgrims home. The tonga was what we used to call a jaunting car in Ireland, a horse and carriage where the fulcrum of the axle makes all the difference to how you position yourself when you climb on. Sometimes there are so many people with baggage at the back that the horse is almost levered off the ground.

The driver flicks a cord whip at his ear to start him off.

There is no joy in being a horse in India.

Instead of going straight back to the hostel, I took a walk and stopped to have chai at a little tea shop where the tea was boiled in an old and blackened metal pot, over a fire in a range fashioned out of dried mud. The ingredients were sprinkled in, the milk added. Then the man squatting on a table by the range in his tartan wrap and woolly hat would pour it into a little earthenware cup like a misshapen flowerpot. It had taken me a while to accept that the occasion’s end was for me to signal by throwing the cup into the gutter for someone else to sweep up later.

The worst pollution in India back then was shit and wood smoke. When tens of thousands of people flowed into the town on holy days they bathed, drank tea at the little stalls and defecated in the drains or on open ground.

The first sight of this is appalling but defecating was a social occasion for some.

On my evening walk out past the cane fields I often saw a group of men squatting together, smoking, their little lothas, or water pots at hand, their bottoms bare.

The custom was not to look, or at least not to stare.

At Three Monkeys we had two toilets but Vajpayee the cook preferred not to use them and often in the morning he would rattle the gate, summoning Raj Pal to let him out so that he could go and shit by the river.

I liked the smell of woodsmoke. In those days the sky was clear. There was a powerful whiff of coal smoke that hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane in Delhi. I was immediately enchanted by it. That was the smell of my childhood. 

I stayed four years in India, and I have many stories to tell, of how I became a disciple of Swamiji, practised meditation and hatha yoga, debated with myself the difference between psychological and spiritual explanations for my experiences, then asserted my independence again and came home.

For years I had dreams that I was walking back to the Ganges, past bullock cart and cane fields and I always woke up before I reached the water’s edge.

In one dream I did arrive at the river and there was a carnival going on, wild animals sporting in the water. I took it to mean that I had lost my yearning and my fascination with the river and that seemed confirmed by the dream never coming back after that.

But last year I got a Major Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to fund a return.

The population had more than doubled since I had left, forty years before. India had changed in many ways and I realised that I knew an India that people under fifty, which was most Indian people, had not known.

I recognised it as a country I could almost feel at home in. I knew what kind of curiosity to expect. The taxi driver from the airport asking me how many children I had, how many cars I had, was just doing what so many others had done before him, placing me inside a hierarchy in his head. He made no effort to conceal his disappointment with my answers.

But before the rush of impressions about the new metro system, the lavish hotel, the migrant workers camped under flyovers, there was the filthy air.

The glory of India that struck me on my first day with a shock in 1975 was the crystalline sharpness of the light. The sun was brighter than I had ever known it at home.

I read a comment from a writer I would attribute if I could remember: that the boys in India wore bright coloured trousers and shirts to compete with that light.

It was gone. Instead a pallid smog dimmed the sky. On my first morning back, I wondered if it might just be a seasonal mist that dissolved the view in the distance.

Imagine letting something like that happen to a beautiful country.

I took a taxi to the Ganga. This was a bit difficult because the receptionist at the hotel in Delhi could not comprehend that I wanted to go to a place that no tourist went to. “You mean Agra?” A man behind me interjected, “No, he wants to go to Hardwar.”

This is an Indian thing I know, people stepping forward to speak for you.

I showed them the map on my phone and they shook their heads.

I said, “I have been there before. I know what I am doing.”

Tourism in India is not about acquainting people with the country but shielding them from it.

I had not understood the privileged access I had had to religious Hindu society in the 1970s. Before I left Belfast I contacted a charity which ran pilgrim hostels and was told there was no possibility of me getting a room in one.

The taxi to Brijghat took me over the Jumna River which was now almost inaccessible though there had been a promenade along a riverside park there and I had watched the dhobis washing clothes in the water and slapping them to dry on a flat rock. I had sat there and gazed out across farm land between there and Ghaziabad.

The river was now a disgrace to the city and we were sheltered from it.

There was no way to shelter us from the sight of the city rubbish dump which rises as high as Cave Hill does over Belfast. Eagles hover in their hundreds, having evolved into scavengers now, the way seagulls have in British and Irish cities.

When I lived there before I was in open countryside as soon as the river was behind me. Now the city and the towns that have grown round it extend almost all the way to Brijghat. The traffic was as chaotic as I had known it; there was just an awful lot more of it, dense over a vaster area. Family groups on motorbikes wove through the trucks and taxi scooters. Where the road was diverted onto broken concrete under the unfinished metro flyover, the shambles of mixed vehicles nudged and beeped their ways through.

In the city the tuk-tuks didn’t tuk-tuk, their engines having been converted to take organic fuel to reduce the pollution. The problem is acknowledged in different degrees in different states

The tea shops along the way served drinks in plastic cups. Each shop front was garlanded in crisp packets. India has discovered cheap snacks.

The road into Brijghat has been widened. There is now an interstate checkpoint that taxi scooters have a feeder lane through. Market stalls selling cane furniture line the roads on the edge of the town as before.

I walked around expecting some kind of curiosity about me and there was none. There were new cafes and shops. I had developed a cough and went into the pharmacy to ask if I could buy an inhaler. The man offered me a choice of two. No prescription needed. It cost about £1.50.

Was I putting people off in some way by my own manner? Perhaps my disappointment was obvious. Forty years ago I had been a familiar face in Brijghat and the shop keepers waved to me and smiled.

The old style of tea shop was gone. There were little sit-in cafes with red plastic seating. Along the river, stalls sold white plastic canisters for pilgrims to gather the sacred water in. The cremation business was big now. 

On my walk there in the following days I would sometimes see a dozen fires burning at the same time. And litter everywhere. I walked up to one of the pyres and watched the incense being spread on the body of a woman wrapped in a yellow saree. Her face was covered but her hands and bangles were exposed. Her family set logs about her. One took a light from the brahmin and circumambulated before touching it to the kindle. The brahmin, like the others was dressed in casual clothes. No dressing up for this funeral.

The next fire along had died down and a dog was settling to enjoy the heat. All along the edge of the water was littler, scraps of cloth, plastic, indeterminate filth.

The Gita says, The ladle is Brahman, the oblation is Brahman, it is offered by Brahman in the fire that is Brahman; who in all things sees Brahman to Brahman attains. It is a poetic description of the divinity of everything, inside the ritual and outside.

Today the rishi would have to write that the litter is Brahman, the dog is Brahman, the plastic is Brahmin, the dead sky is Brahman.

There are now public toilets, so less of the shit; but shit at least decomposes or gets washed away. All that plastic that starts out nice and shiny just lies on the ground forever.

Even the traditional earthenware urn for water from the well is now replaced everywhere with a plastic imitation in a wide range of colours.

Raj Pal has not changed. We fell into each other’s arms without reservation at first sight.

I sat with him in the courtyard as he stripped the stalks from dried chillies and he laughed when I offered to help with such a dangerous job. You will wipe your eye and blind yourself.

In the forty years since I had seen him, he had had three children and his wife had died. I remember her well. They spent their early marriage in the room next to mine and laughed constantly like children at a new game.

I realised that I had never had such love for a man as I had for Raj Pal and yet I hardly know him. I know nothing of his politics.

He took me up onto the roof where I had slept in hot weather or lain awake among other sleeping pilgrims and watched the moon. Now another building blocked the view. Raj Pal took me to a corner, from which we could see past that building, and gestured to Ganga – his face full of pride – joined his palms and bowed to the river. For him this is still one of the holiest places on Earth, where the Goddess washes the land and all the sins of all the humble sinners bathing in Her waters.

Malachi O’Doherty is an Irish journalist, author and broadcaster. Among his most recent books are the memoir Under His Roof (Summer Palace Press, 2009)the biography Gerry Adams: An Unauthorized Life (Faber, 2017) and the novel Terry Rankin Has a Gun (Merrion, 2020). In the 1970s, he lived for four years in an ashram in India, before returning to Belfast, where he has lived since.