TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Nineteen

“Namaste, and welcome.”

Bloody pinkie. She’s sitting in a circle with about twelve other dirty-looking hippies and a few turbaned sadhus, David included. A few tea lights and a whole fistful of incense are burning in the centre of the circle, along with some scattered drums, tambourines and bells. Everyone’s sitting on little BYO blankets; I must have missed that memo. I reluctantly unwrap my fuchsia Hermes wrap from around my shoulders, fold it into a little square, say a prayer to lord Buddha to keep it safe and clean and squish it under my bum as I sit down.

“Thank you all so much for coming,” says pinkie, placing her stubby hands on top of a random wooden box sitting in front of her. “It means so much to me that we can all congregate together and create this beautiful energy. It’s a reminder of how, even though we might come from completely different worlds, in the end we’re all part of one collective consciousness.” Lots of slow nodding around the circle.

“Now. I’d like to begin tonight’s Kirtan devotional practice with a song dedicated to Lord Shiva. It’s a beautiful heart-opener, and the perfect reminder of why Kirtan is often described as the beating of the heart of the soul.” She flicks her revolting pink hair over to reveal the shaved side, and I notice another small tattoo of a butterfly on her neck. How very original.

“We’ll start off with a simple call and response. So when I say Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho, you say, Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho. Then when I say Mahadeva Shambho, you say, Mahadeva Shambho.” She smiles, revealing those nicotine-stained pegs, pauses a moment and then she’s off, singing in an off-key whine. Eesh.

Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,
we call back softly, like shy first graders at choir practice.

“That’s perfect, well done. Ok so let’s begin.” She closes her eyes, places her purple wrap over her head like a veil for some bizarre reason and starts pulling and pushing at the box, which is some sort of musical instrument that sounds pretty dirge-like and depressing, and yet oddly relaxing.

Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,
sings pinkie.


Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambho,
we reply.


Mahadeva Shambho,
sings pinkie.


Mahadeva Shambho,
we reply.

As the song starts to gain momentum, some of the hippies pick up the instruments and start timidly tapping away. A lanky dude with short dark hair, glasses, baggy orange poo catcher pants and a kurta printed with om symbols bashes away at a pair of little cymbals, just slightly off each beat, while a tiny Japanese girl expertly shakes a tambourine. I remind myself that I’m meant to be focusing and falling into the moment, so I close my eyes and try to concentrate on my singing.

Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambhooo, Shiva, Shiva, Shiva Shambhooo,

Mahadeva Shambhooo, Mahadeva Shambhooo, we warble.

The song reaches a crescendo and I start rocking back and forth, shaking my head and clapping my hands to the music. The girls at work would never let me hear the end of it if they saw me right now, but you know what? It’s actually starting to feel pretty damn fabulous so I keep going. The music’s washing over me in waves and I’m lost, swirling around somewhere above myself until the song starts to slow down and get quieter, then eventually stops altogether.

We sit, quiet and still, and I’m filled with a weird feeling. It’s something uplifting and bubbly, something I haven’t felt in a really long time.

“That was amazing!” I can’t help it, it just comes out.

“I’m so happy you felt that,” says pinkie as she starts clicking her fingers in a bizarre kind of mini-applause. “I think we’d all agree that the energy we created just now was pretty special.” She brings her hands to her heart. “You know Kirtan, and actually singing in general, has been scientifically proven to enhance the level of certain neurotransmitters responsible for the creation of things like oxytocin or serotonin. It also helps us understand things with our heart-mind. So even if you didn’t have a clue about the meaning of what we were just singing, spontaneous joy and compassion can still gush from your heart.” A couple of shouts of “jai!” from around the circle, which by now I’ve realized must mean something like, “hell yeah!”

“So the second song we’re going to sing tonight is in celebration of the divine feminine, or the Shakti energy.”

“Woohoo!” shouts the galumphy German girl opposite me. How embarrassment.

“So we’ll be singing the words, ‘Jai Ganga, Jai Ganga, Jai Ganga Maa,’ which we’ll repeat four times, followed by the words, ‘Ganga Maa,’ also repeated four times. After that it’s ‘Amma, Amma, Amma, Jai Ganga Maa,’ four times. Alright, so here we go.”

The song starts off just like the first, only this time I feel myself let go immediately. I let the chants sweep over me and wash away all of my inhibitions. By minute three I’m crowing up into the night sky, eyes closed and palms raised. I’d forgotten how much I love to sing. My voice lifts and strengthens and I’m away, soaring up into the night sky and flitting around the stars like a mad night bird.

***

“You were really going for it there Margaux,” says pinkie, sidling up to me when it’s all over.

“Yeah, I kind of surprised myself. To be honest, when I sat down I didn’t really know what I was in for, or even if I’d be able to do it.”

“Kirtan is for all people,” she says, scraping her oily pink hair over to one side again, just to make sure I’ve seen the hard-core shaved part I’m sure. “There are no experts, there are no beginners. The practice itself is the teacher, and it guides us to ourselves. I like to think of Kirtan as allowing us to enter into a mystery world – a world where all the logic of our minds, all the conditions and the learning’s are left outside. And in this mystery we create a temple inside our hearts…” God she really is full of it, I think as I tune out for a moment, letting my eyes rove around the little group until they land on David, standing just a few metres away with a couple of other sadhus. My stomach muscles attempt a double knot as I remind myself why I’m here tonight.

“He’s pretty amazing, right?” I tune back in as I feel Pinkie’s calloused hand alight on my arm.

“Sorry, I was a million miles away, what did you say?”

“Ram Baba, he’s amazing. I saw you watching him just now.”

“Oh yeah, he’s great,” I say distractedly as I watch him start to wander to the edge of the group. I can’t let him leave before I talk to him, tonight’s the night and I can’t let him slip away. “Anyway I’d better head off, thanks so much for…”

“We actually had a bit of a… a moment this afternoon,” Pinkie butts in, clutching my wrist and speaking right into my ear, her sour breath wafting around my face.

“Sorry what? Who are we talking about now?”

“Ram Baba, silly. Anyway it was all pretty hot, and I’m not sure if anything will come of it or whatever, but…”

I back away, shaking my hand free of pinkie’s grip, my heart beating wildly. What the hell is she saying? David’s a renunciant, he doesn’t…

“But that’s not possible!” I blurt out as I stumble backwards, bashing into someone as I go. I spin around, and there he is.

“Namaste Magdalena, wonderful to see that you’re well now. Did you enjoy the kirtan?”

I just stare at him for a moment, my insides clenching.

“How could you?” I whisper, tears welling up in my eyes.

“Excuse me?”

His face is blurring into oblivion with my tears until one sploshes onto my cheek. He’s clear again, and I see confusion on his face.

“You and Daisy, how could you?” My voice is clearer now, the volume rising with every word.

“How could I what? You’ll have to explain yourself a little more clearly young lady.”

“How could you fuck her?!” I shout, and a few heads swivel our way.

“Keep your voice down! You’re clearly still unwell.” He grabs my arm roughly and pulls me away from the circle and to the top of the stairs. “What on earth could give you the impression that I, as you so gracefully put it, fucked Daisy.”

“Oh don’t give me that shit, she told me all about it! And YOU told me just yesterday that you have a friggin’ broken penis which you clearly just completely LIED about!”

He sighs deeply and turns to face me, piling his dreadlocks up on top of his head in a knot as though he’s clearing the way for something.

“Now Magdalena, you’ve gotten yourself terribly worked up over this so let me explain myself. When I said yesterday that I was a renouncer…”

“You mean when you LIED yesterday about being a renouncer…”

“Shhh, please just let me speak. Now when I told you that, I did it because, well, because I thought you may have been falling in love with me. And sorry but I just don’t think of you in that way, so…”

“Oh my God David, don’t flatter yourself!”, I say, turning my face to the sky to hide the red that’s starting to flame onto my cheeks. It’s not until a few seconds have passed that I realise what I’ve just said. Oh gosh, this was definitely not how this was supposed to go down. Maybe he didn’t hear me properly. I slowly shift my gaze back down to find out, and when I see his strangely contorted face, I realise that yes, he definitely did hear me. He’s shaking his head, and a single dreadlock slithers out of the bun and down his neck.

“What did you just say?” Now he’s the one whispering.

“I said, ‘don’t flatter yourself’?” My cheeks are really burning now, and I’m looking everywhere except at my estranged father’s face.

“No you didn’t. You said, ‘David don’t flatter yourself.’ How the hell do you know my name? Not a single person here in Varanasi knows what it is. How do you?”

I take a deep breath, knowing with a certainty that’s tingling right in the marrow of my bones, that now is the time for the truth.

“This… this wasn’t meant to happen like this. I was planning to tell you tonight, honestly I was, but then I spoke to Daisy and I just…”

I look up into David’s face, just in time to see it contort from confusion into utter shock.

“It’s you. It’s actually you. You’re… you’re Margaux. I can’t…” He just stares at me, eyes bulging in a look of shock that as the seconds tick by transforms into a cheek-flushing, nostril-flaring anger.

“How could you? For all these days? How could you deceive me like this? How could you make a complete… mockery of me like this?!” He furiously shoves the rogue dreadlock behind his ear.

“I said I was going to…”

“And then you just ambush me with these… these accusations, making me feel like some kind of criminal who has to defend himself?!”

And just like that, anger swoops down on me too.

“Excuse me but I don’t need morality lessons from the guy who left his wife and daughter high and dry when she was still just a fucking baby! When she still needed him! The guy who thought that attaining spiritual enlightenment or his true self or whatever the fuck it was, was more important than his own flesh and blood!” Hot tears are sloshing steadily onto my cheeks now and I don’t even attempt to push them away.

“Please child,” says David as he stands, clutching his loincloth in one hand and putting the other hand up in a stop signal. “Do not disrespect babaji, after all he’s done for you. He never asked for you to come here. He never wanted you to.”

He turns his back on me and starts walking away.

“You’re the one who needs to not disrespect your own DAUGHTER! You’re a fugitive of your own LIFE, you arsehole!” I yell after him. He turns around slowly, a crooked cruel smile playing onto his lips and his eyes gazing pointedly down at my left hand.

“And may I ask you, Margaux, how what you’re doing here in India is any different?”

And with a whip of his thin hips he’s gone, off into the silvery night.