As I write now, I can almost smell Benares—the light breeze that always carries with it the faint, acrid scent of ash and smoke. Much farther down from Rajghat, bodies are burned on pyres right by the edge of the water. I saw corpses wrapped in orange-and-gold cloth and strapped to wooden stretchers, burning at Manikarnika Ghat. Seven or so were already in flames, sandwiched between bunches of wood. A dog chewed on something caught in the rocks in shallow waters. It seemed like a spinal column with a skull still attached to it, some cartilage or flesh holding the two together. I'd read that very large turtles had been slipped into the river to consume organic remains. A twinge of anxiety had come from this knowledge on my first trip.
When I returned to Rajghat two years later, a much greater anxiety came from the fear that America would go to war. Hema was gone and the weather was uncharacteristically cold. I was assigned to a smaller, more hidden bungalow. At night I shivered, and the shivering was from cold and dread, and I couldn't tell them apart. The anxiety robbed me of the deeper sleep I'd longed for, of the sweet contemplations I'd dreamed about, of the inspiration I'd hoped would come. All this had nothing to do with the place, of course. Rajghat was still perfectly beautiful, perfectly calm.
When I set out for the first few hundred times to "meditate," what I had in mind, and later what I had at the back of my mind, was a pleasant trance-like state I'd heard one Tibetan lama call lizard meditation. Once, up in the mountains of Tibet, by his own private cave, where he meditated every day for hours on end, the lama's teacher had pointed to a lizard lying on a hot rock in the sun, its mouth open. "Look," the teacher said, "Lizard meditating." A flesh-colored translucent gecko with tender baby hands guarded the ceiling of my bungalow against intruding insects.
I was researching a book on the subject of gurus, and on the nature of the associations between gurus and a number of students or friends that I'd had the opportunity to observe. Sitting at my desk overlooking the garden, I would write and read for an hour, then get up and, to warm myself, walk at a great pace all around the compound—down the path through the garden, up some steps, along the river and across the wooded school campus nearby, past dormitories and faculty housing, then back through the main gate to my spartan bungalow. Absorption, warmth, quiet, clarity, goodness, ease: I got 10 minutes of those, 30 perhaps, and they ushered in the fear beneath my thin layer of self-possession.
At breakfast one morning, Saraswati, a teacher from a Krishnamurti school in the Himalayas, described to me how to bathe using a bucket in our unheated bathrooms. I was to throw on the floor a towel or an item of clothing that was going to the wash, and stand on it so my bare feet were protected from the cold. The steam from filling the large bucket with hot water should warm up the bathroom, she told me. Then she recommended singing very loudly, because the vibrations warmed the body. I did not try it. Instead, I went to the nearby town to buy a small electric heater and stopped to use a computer at the local Internet café. A young man turned on the overhead fan and the light when I arrived, then came to sit in a chair next to mine, and watched as I typed. The space bar stuck, and every few words the cursor would skip gaily down the length of the screen, so that the message appeared to have been written by someone falling off a tall cliff.
That afternoon I went through the gate at Rajghat and turned right, down an unpaved road, to find a boy with an ox that didn't want to engage with a wooden bridge. The boy broke two sticks on the back of the recalcitrant beast. A man came along, and he was at least able to push the ox onto the bridge, but from there it refused to budge. A little crowd of people formed, waiting to cross the bridge—men on bicycles and women with large baskets on their heads. The animal's haunches were quivering—its nostrils, too. Suddenly, another much younger boy, all dressed in white, picked up the animal's lead and together they darted across the bridge and up the hill. The boy tied the ox to a tree and it was all over. I realized at that very moment that no trace remained of the panic I'd felt only a few hours before.
The friend who had lured me to Rajghat told me that one morning while she was gardening in front of her house in Tiruvannamalai, much farther south, a man passing by had asked, "Is this an ashram?" She'd replied, "For me, it is that," and the man said, "Is this body not an ashram, too?" Krishnamurti said that truth is a pathless land and one definition of ashram is "household of learning." People were to listen to themselves, he said, to find out for themselves what they needed to know.