TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter Fourteen

A few hours later I’m feeling completely revitalized, largely thanks to the armfuls of silk shawls in apricots, oranges and yellows (my attempt at sadhu-chic), a dozen tiny bottles of oils promising to bring me patience, clarity and wisdom, and at least ten gorgeous sets of crystal prayer beads that I picked up during my afternoon shopping spree. I feel a teensy bit bad about lying to Peace and for splurging again (although with the prices here you can hardly call it splurging), so on the way back to our hotel I decide to buy another little marigold offering from a street side vendor to atone for my sins. I walk, much more gingerly this time, down the steps to the water’s edge with it. I say another little prayer, basically asking Mother Ganges to forgive me for being materialistic and being generally just a bit crap, and am about to set my offering bobbing off down the river when I realize I haven’t even lit the thing. I’m walking back up the steps to the stall to ask for a lighter when I spot a sadhu sitting at the top of the steps in nothing but one of those little lap-lap things they seem to be so fond of, sitting next to a fire. Bingo.

As I get closer to him, I start wondering if he’s even awake. He’s sitting upright, but his head’s hanging down and his ridiculously long dreadlocks are completely covering his face. I decide to just light my candle to save me speaking to the guy, but just as I’m about to sneak off he looks up. Our eyes lock, and I freeze.

It’s him.

It’s my dad.

I could never mistake that face. Although virtually everything else about him has changed, those eyes have been etched into my memory for over two decades.

I just stand there staring at him for a good twenty seconds. I’m trying to speak but my jaw is just flapping up and down and I can’t manage to utter a single word. His blank expression tells me that he has no idea who I am, and eventually he looks back down again. I find myself turning and walking away in slow motion, feeling for all the world like I’m dreaming. This cannot be happening.

***

“Mags, are you sure it was really him? I mean I’m sorry, but all those dreadlocked dudes look kinda the same to me.”

I’m back at the hotel, lying on our bed, and I’ve just finished telling Peace the whole sorry story. Tears are shooting off my lashes like soggy bullets.

“P, just trust me on this one ok? I’ve looked at that photo nearly every day for the past two decades, and yes he’s changed a shitload – I mean he’s a sadhu for fuck’s sake – but I’m telling you I’d know those eyes anywhere.” I break into a fresh round of sobs, the realization that the dad I knew all those years ago no longer exists, and that the man who’s replaced him doesn’t even recognise his own daughter. “But I just froze, because he had no idea who I was. And now I have no effing idea what to do.” I wipe my dripping nose on the sleeve of my kaftan, and feel another brick of despair clunk down into the pit of my stomach. I never expected it would hurt this much.

“Well, it seems pretty clear to me Mags. You’ve got to find him again and talk to him, tell him who you are and try to, I dunno, get to know the guy a little. You’ve finally found him, after all these years of wondering where he might be, so it would be crazy not to, right?” She gives my arm an encouraging squeeze, but I just push my face further into the duvet, hoping it will swallow me up.

I can’t confront him. I just can’t. If he knows who I really am, he won’t want anything to do with me. If he did, he never would have left in the first place.

“You’ve come this far, you may as well just give it a shot,” Peace says as she rubs my back. “What have you got to lose?”

I almost laugh. My pride? My sense of self worth? My dignity? My mind? I have a million and two answers. But at the same time I know she’s absolutely right. If I talk to him and he doesn’t want to know me, I’ll just be exactly where I’ve been for the past 20 years so it doesn’t really make a difference. And if he does talk to me, then maybe the hole inside me would finally be filled. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so confused and alone all the time. Maybe I could just stop wondering all the time.

I allow myself another couple of minutes of sobbing into the duvet and then I surface, wipe the tears off my face and take a few deep breaths.

“Ok P, ok. Let’s do it.”

***

If I hold my nose and squint my eyes, I could be in Venice. Well, almost.

It’s late afternoon, the air is starting to cool a little and I’ve managed to calm down almost completely. We’re being rowed down the Ganges by a sweet mustachioed Indian bloke in a wooden boat that could for all intents and purposes be a gondola – albeit one with a few plastic buckets and old Coke bottles strewn in the bottom and water pooling around our feet where some slats are missing. From this distance, the stench of pee and poo combined with burning flesh isn’t so strong and the ghats look almost romantic, the temples and ashrams bathed in the glow of the afternoon’s dying light. The water’s sparkling, there are kids splashing and floating around on black rubber donuts in between boats filled with Indian tourists in colourful shawls and saris. Ok maybe it’s not quite Venice, but you get what I’m saying; it’s kind of charming.

When we finally draw up to the ghat we’re after, Peace jumps off first, then holds her hand out to me as I gingerly hop off the wooden boat and on to the slimy, moss-covered steps. I take a deep breath, feel my right cheek quivering ever so slightly – the way it does when I’m really nervous about something – and start walking up the steps.

As soon as we get to the top I see him, sitting in the exact same spot as this morning. My heart immediately starts to thud so hard that my whole body feels like it’s vibrating, and I dig my red nails (painted especially to bring me luck for this afternoon’s expedition), into Peace’s arm. I didn’t expect that finding him again would be quite so easy.

“That’s him?” Peace whispers. All I can manage is a nod. Then, before I know it, she’s pulling me to the top step and over to the mass of dusty brown dreadlocks with its back up against a wall painted with an enormous, faded red image of a tree. The mass shifts a little and the dreadlocks slither round like a basket full of cobras, then from out of the mass emerge those eyes. They look right at me, big blue pools that flick upwards at the corners to create slightly wonky almonds. A thin silver ring perches on the side of his thin, bumpy nose. He closes his eyes and brings his hands into prayer position at his chest, and I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to run far, far away.

“Please, sit.” He motions to the ground in front of him.

Fuck fuck fuck. I’m so not ready for this. I take a step backwards, but Peace instantly grabs my arm and pulls me down to the ground with her.

“Thank you,” she says serenely. Then the three of us just sit there in awkward silence for a couple of minutes while I quietly freak the fuck out.

“You were here this morning, yes?” He looks directly at me and I feel like vomiting.

“Err, yes.” I pause. “I was here because I… well, I wanted to tell you that…” I throw a panic-stricken ‘help-me’ look at Peace but she nods at me encouragingly. “I wanted to tell you that… I think sadhus are just, umm, great! And I was hoping that, that you could teach me something about your beliefs?” I have no idea where that came from, but once it’s out it just keeps on coming.

“Yes. You see, my friend and I were just talking this morning about how silly it seems to be here in Varanasi and to not actually be learning anything from all the amazing spiritual masters here, so we wondered if maybe you’d want to share some, err, knowledge with us?” I can’t even bring myself to look at Peace at this stage. “By the way this is, err, Phoebe, and my name’s… Magdalena.”

He nods sagely. “And I am called Ram Baba. It is the name I took when I became a renunciant 19 years ago.” Right. No longer plain old David then. He brings his fingers into an apex in front of his thin, chapped lips and seems to ponder for a moment.

“I’m pleased to hear that you’re interested in the ways of the sadhu,” he says. “But Ram Baba is a free man. He walks alone.” His hands fall into his lap.

“Who said anything about walking? All I, I mean all we, are asking is that we can be by Ram Baba’s side for a little while and observe his, err, consciousness.”

He seems to like that word. He gazes up at the bright blue sky, a soft smile playing across his lips.

“Consciousness.” He blinks, nodding slowly. “Consciousness cannot be observed. It can only be experienced.” He’s not saying no, so I do my best to keep the conversation going.

“But this experience,” I say, lowering my voice half an octave in an attempt to sound a little wiser, “can it be described?” I sound like a drag queen.

“Morning yoga asanas are one way of getting closer to that which cannot be described,” he says cryptically, then unfolds his legs and gets to his feet. “This pose, for example.” He’s moved his left foot up into his crotch and has his joined hands raised up above his head. “The tree pose, they call in the west, but in Sanskrit it’s vriksasana. It’s a way for one to connect to the Divine energy and the collective consciousness which links everything on this earth, the trees, the human beings, the dogs, the cows, the rivers, everything.” I nod my head slowly, even though I don’t really understand what he’s saying. I can’t even hear most of it, to be honest, because I can’t stop staring at this man’s face. At my dad’s face. My. Dad. Right here in front of me, after all these years.

“You nod your head as though you understand, but your eyes say otherwise,” he’s saying when I tune back in. “It’s better if you try it for yourself, then maybe you will see. I have evening puja now but…” he seems to hesitate for a moment, “but if you come back tomorrow, Ram Baba will teach you this yoga asana.”

And just like that, I’m in.

***

“Magdalena?? You come all this way to meet the guy and then you don’t even tell him who you are? Seriously Mags, what are you thinking?!” We’re sitting at a café perched above the ghats overlooking the Ganges, which has been set ablaze by hundreds of tea lights bobbing along its waters. Peace is surrounded by suitcases. In ten minutes she’ll be heading off on the bus to Delhi and she’s been lecturing me for the past ten minutes about my plan. She thinks it’s a crazy plan. She’s thinks it’s a terrible plan. In hindsight, I actually think it’s a brilliant plan, and one that’s clearly working, but she’s yet to come around.

“I don’t see what the big deal is P, I’m seeing him again tomorrow aren’t I?”

“The big deal, Mags, is that you’re eventually going to have to tell him who you are. And when you do, I doubt he’ll be very happy about it.”

“Jeez P, you’re sounding just like Ryan! Can’t you be a little more supportive? I mean in a way I get what you’re saying, but I just can’t bring myself to have that conversation with David, or Ram Baba or whatever the hell his name is, just yet because I still have no idea what kind of a guy he is and if I even want him in my life at all. I want to get to know him a bit first without the pressure, surely you can understand that?”

That’s not really what it’s about, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself. It’s more that I’m just shit scared he’ll reject me and I won’t be able to handle it. But I can’t say that out loud. I look into Peace’s eyes and see them soften a bit.

“Of course I understand Mags,” she says with a sigh. “I can’t imagine what this must be like for you, and I know you’re doing what you think is right. But I just want you to be careful, too. Promise me you’ll be careful?”

I fold my hands over my heart. “Hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” And this time, I don’t even cross my fingers behind my back.