In the Land of Souls | Melissa Webster

We were driving north towards the Himalayan foothills of North India, away from the hot dusty misery of the New Delhi summer. We had been driving for hours, racing ahead of the tire-melting heat in a second-hand, soft-top, un-air-conditioned, kidney pounding, police issue, Maruti jeep, completely unsuited to civilian use, when it dawned on me in the hazy manner of post-hangover afternoons that we had been going around the same large traffic circle for a while.

I was travelling with my husband and his childhood friend who was visiting from South Africa. We had left New Delhi a couple of hours later than planned, our best intentions for an early start thrown off by a night-before of two many cheap Indian beers and knock-off American cigarettes.

Our destination was one of the famous “hill stations” that served as summer refuge to the British during colonial days and now well-to-do Indians and expats like ourselves. We would be staying at a rustic, luxury hostel called The Glass House situated on the banks of the great Ganges river, near the town of Rishikesh. At that point the air is clean and the water runs clear and strong, before the pilfering and polluting of agriculture and industry down on the plains turns it brown and flat. The Ganga – as it is also known – is the heart-blood of the sub-continent and its mystic waters offer spiritual redemption. The river bank, especially up in the hills, are lined with auspicious sites that generate a steady, bustling ebb and flow of pilgrims.

My own quest was for just a moment of relief from my dreary, privileged life in one of the hottest and most polluted cities in the world, but I had yet to learn that every journey is a pilgrimage in this strange land of souls.

According to the Footprints, India Handbook we consulted, our trip was a little over 200km and, anticipating some traffic delays, we expected to be on the road for 4 to 5 hours, but we had been driving for the better part of 8, through gritty-teeth, sandpaper-throat dryness and bone rattling traffic chaos.

It is hard to overstate the discomfort involved in driving a Maruti, with its flapping canvas canopy, and absolute lack of suspension in the summer heat, on the highways north of New Delhi. Or the stark hostility of the landscape, made worse by the fear of imminent death wrought by the chaotic goings-on on the roads.

Fellow travelers, mostly in enviably good spirits, swerve and weave around each other in everything from trucks to donkey carts and in an alarming range of shapes, sizes and un-roadworthiness. Piles of straw the size of houses sway above carts pulled, very slowly, sometimes by tractors, sometimes by camels, while large, tinted, air-conditioned vehicles, presumably belonging to very wealthy or very important people, race by, skidding around obstacles, causing uncomfortably sharp intakes of breath in observers and showing no inclination to slow down for any reason. Sputtering scooters with whole families – including both parents and several children -balanced precariously on top, wobble and lung along. Occasional elephants trudge, with apparent indifference, on the searing asphalt, dwarfing the brown-skinned Mahouts on their backs and the pedestrians that meander around their tree-trunk legs and even the cars that speed up behind them and then charge and retreat, charge and retreat, ‘til their charge finds a gap in traffic large enough to allow them to squeeze in and wiz by.

But without a doubt the thing that gave me the most pause, was the total disregard for designated direction of travel on any stretch of road. On a multilane, single-direction highway with speeding, joyfully decorated trucks clunking and honking and rattling by, you may, at any time, find one rushing straight at you.

The first time that happens it is surreal, like a mirage in the quivering heat, you can’t believe your eyes. But they are as real as tons of metal can be and their drivers don’t see the need to get out of your way, or even slow down, just because you happen to be travelling in the right direction. We once got stuck in a traffic jam on a 4 lane single-direction highway when 10 trucks, 5 going one way the other 5 going the other way ended up nose to nose in a long double row, no-one wanting to be the one to back up, until the impatiently honking hordes behind them had wiggled and squeezed their way into all the available space and everyone was well and truly stuck. After half an hour of horn blowing, arm waving madness, some people edged a few inches this way or that, others climbed their vehicles over curbs and up embankments and slowly, slowly we came unstuck. But that’s India.

This particular trip was defined most by the heat and dust. It was just before the monsoon, when the parched soil is at its most gritty and it seems that every last drop of moisture has been sucked by a vicious scorching sun from the beaten earth, from every shriveled plant and from the very skin of the dusty brown humans dotting the barren roadside in clumps. The hot wind stung our faces and cracked our lips. We had long since run out of drinking water and by now, reaching the cool waters of the Ganges was becoming much more than a quest for comfort, it was beginning to feel like a matter of life and death.

And then quite suddenly we found ourselves on this circle – which, according to the map, wasn’t meant to be there – going round and round, in a new kind of space. All around us were fields, green and lush and quiet. The world seemed still now as we slowly unfurled our wound-up selves and looked around, noticing each other properly, in the soft shaded light, for the first time since we had sped away from the city hours earlier, a little moisture now soothing our blinking eyes, taking the sharp edges out of the world.

My husband was driving and he stopped the jeep and looked around trying to find some clue to our location. There seemed to be no-one around, not a car, not a person. Where had they all gone? Our eyes drifted to the opposite side of the circle, where stood a cow, her back to a small squat tree that sheltered her like a living umbrella. Not just any cow. A Hindu cow, tall, white and graceful and beautifully decked out in wreaths and paint and a big shiny nose ring. Her horns sported little bells and plaited ribbons of vivid colors: pink, orange and purple. She was spectacular.

“Perhaps we should ask her the way” my husband said after watching her for a while.

I tried to summon a chuckle from my parched throat but he turned the car and headed slowly towards her.

“Don’t frighten her” I said, although she did not look like one who could be easily rattled. She was completely composed, accustomed, I’m sure, to far more threatening vehicles barreling by. In fact she barely looked at us, gazing off into the distance chewing and chewing in that slow and trancelike way.

We pulled up alongside her, very close. I leaned out, thought about touching her but felt, strangely, that she might be offended.

My husband, sitting in front of me, stuck his head out of the driver’s window and said, “Namaste.”

Now my husband is practical to a fault and cannot be described as an animal lover. Although he would never condone cruelty, one might say that he is extremely unsentimental – bordering on indifferent – about the animal kingdom. But here he looked, for all the world, like a man quite sweetly, and respectfully greeting a cow.

He smiled at her. “Do you know the way to the glass house?”

She turned her head a little to look at him, and then stepped slightly to the left and, drawing a graceful arc through the air, pointed her glinting nose toward a road that slipped off the circle to her left and headed off, through a field of some mysterious crop and into the distant green hills.

It was an extremely unlikely choice. We were on a fairly major route headed toward a town that would be crowded at any time and positively overrun at this time of year. The road she seemed to be indicating and which the three of us were now peering down, was small and unmarked and bore not a single vehicle of any description. Nevertheless we took it, after thanking her of course. What else could we do?

It was not the road we were looking for but a better one and it took us directly to the Glass House rather than through the throbbing center of town. And that night, after we had settled into our beautiful private villa with its mosaic floors and stained glass doors that lead through a mango and litchi orchard to the cool soft beach on the river, we sat on the porch of the dining room drinking lemonade and Gin and tonic, to the sound of the peacocks calling in the garden and talk drifted to the cow. My husband and his friend laughed about what a quaint co-incidence it was, so singularly Indian. And as I rested, eyes closed in a hammock chair, listening to them, I remembered, or imagined, as from a dream, the sadhu sitting behind her, hidden in the deep shadows of the small tree, with grey dreadlocks that hung down like ropes from his head to the sandy ground and draped over his criss-crossed legs, seeming to draw him into the earth. It felt unimportant to say, or even to understand, that it was not a coincidence at all, but something else, something un-named.

Melissa Webster was born in a very small town in South Africa, and has since lived in various big and small towns in Europe, Asia, and North America. She has been an editor, lettuce picker, clerk, cleaner, book seller, factory packer, waitress, and chicken farmer, among other things. For now she lives, with her husband and three children, in Harare, Zimbabwe, and she is a writer. 



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