TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Seventeen

Later in the evening, I’m sitting on the hotel patio enjoying a cool breeze from the river and slurping down a very runny dal. The post-evening puja candles floating down the river are twinkling, matching my mood. I’m still on a complete high from finally acing meditation today and connecting with David. I genuinely dropped into myself there for a while, I felt the space between things and forgot about all the drama going on in my life, and he noticed. He could tell, just from looking at my face, that I really went there, which means we have a definite spiritual connection. Pretty soon I’ll be able to tell him the truth, and then our real father daughter connection will begin. I’ll be able to bring him home to meet Ryan, and when that happens Ryan will finally understand why everything has been so… difficult for me lately.

Between bites I’m downloading photos from my trip so far onto my laptop. The ones of the dark, winding back alleys, filled with cows and bicycles and turbaned sadhus. The ones of the evening puja, incense snaking through the air and the young boys ringing their bells over and over. Even the ones of my poo-stained butt that Peace thought would be hilarious to take without me knowing. I suppose they kind of are. I know I’m meant to be eating mindfully and all that, but I guess I’m not cured of my multitasking ways just yet. And then, just as I’m about to shut down, a Skype call comes through.

It’s Peace. Oh crap.

“Hey lady!” Her exquisitely made up face pops up on my screen as I accept the call. Two swipes of navy blue glitter stretch towards her temples, one from each eye, her fro’s glistening with a million tiny sequins and she’s wearing some kind of fabulous, shimmering jacket in pale green ombre sequins.

“P, you look incredible!”

“Pretty crazy, huh?” she laughs, giving a little shimmy. “It’s for this shoot I’m doing for Vogue India, they’re calling it ‘all that glitters’. It’s all metallics and glitzy accessories and all that kinda drag queen stuff I love.” She giggles, taking a gulp from a champagne flute.

“Jeez, you work hard for the money, don’t you?” I say sarcastically.

“Seriously, you don’t know how hard this actually is. We’ve been shooting since 6am, I’ve been in makeup since 4.30, we’re all absolutely shagged and half pissed and I‘m just desperate to go to bed.” She rubs her face, smudging the blue glitter down her left cheek in the process. “Anyway look, I don’t have long, we’ve still got two bloody shots to go. But I just called to ask how it’s all going? How did your dad react when you told him?!” I knew this would be the first thing she’d ask me, always straight to the point.

“Well I’ve spent the last two days with him and it’s been amazing, we’ve been doing yoga and meditating and everything…”

“Oh no. You haven’t told him yet, have you?”

“The thing is P, we’re really starting to connect. He’s really starting to respect me and I can tell he likes me as a person. So I don’t want to potentially ruin things just when they’re getting good.” I stare straight into her face, to let her know I mean it.

“Mags let me tell you right now, things will get a whole lot more ruined if you don’t tell him the truth as soon as possible. Trust me, I know you’re scared but I honestly think it’s what you have to do.”

“I’m not scared! Seriously, I’m not, I’m so ready for this now but I just want to make sure it’s all perfect when I tell him. I was actually going to tell him today, but for some weird reason he wouldn’t talk. Like, not at all. C’mon P, have a little faith.”

“I do. You know I do Mags.” Her voice is soft now, her champagne glass empty. “It’s just that you’ve waited for this for so long and you’re so close. I know you want to take your time, but I feel like it’s my job to remind you that you actually don’t have much of that. And also, I just wanna make sure you don’t get hurt.” She suddenly swivels her head around, then turns back to the screen in a cloud of sequins and glitter. “Look Mags, I’ve gotta get back to it. But I’ll be back in two days ok, and I know you’ll do what you need to do by then. Love you.” The screen goes blank and I collapse back into my chair, a wave of… of what exactly I’m not sure, rising in my belly. Fear? Guilt? Anxiety? Probably a mixture of all three. Deep down, I know Peace is right. I should be planning to tell David everything as soon as possible. But I really meant it when I said I’m just enjoying the relationship we’ve been having these past couple of days so much that I haven’t wanted to spoil it. I stretch my arms above my head in an effort to physically push this icky feeling out of my body.

And then, even though I promised myself I wouldn’t check emails today, I click open my Gmail account. My eyes quickly scan down the list.

An email from my bank. Spam from Netaporter. A notice from Optus telling me that I haven’t paid my phone bill in two months. An email from Lizzie that I just can’t face opening right now. And there, underneath it all, Ryan’s name.

My heart jumps into my throat and I slam my laptop closed. Ohmygod. Is he writing to apologise? Has he written me an angry manifesto? It could go either way, really. My heart’s thumping like crazy. I’m not sure I can even deal with this tonight, not on top of everything else that’s going on. It can wait until tomorrow.

No it can’t.

Yes it can.

No, it really can’t.

Slowly, inch by inch, I open my laptop again and click Ryan’s email open. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and prepare to start reading.

It’s an electricity bill.

A bloody electricity bill that he’s forwarded me. AND THAT’S ALL.

He hasn’t even bothered to write anything at the top of it. Not please pay, not thanks, not one for you, nothing. He’s just shot it through for me to pay like I’m his bloody secretary. Clearly he thinks it’s more important to keep the heater running than, oh I don’t know, checking if his wife hasn’t died in a plane crash or something!

I trash the email immediately. That dick-flop can freeze for all I care.

I stomp down to my room, throw the sodding computer on the floor and, in the absence of any form of alcohol in this whole goddamned city, pop a Valium and crawl under the covers with The Yoga of Sleep and Dreams book that I bought after my dreams chat with David. If I can casually mention some of what I learn from this next time we meet up, I know he’ll be so impressed.

“One can, through the practice of yoga, become progressively conscious during sleep, thereby replacing more and more the ordinary subconscious slumber with a sleep of inner experiences…”

Unfortunately, that’s as far as I get before I plunge behind the veil of a deep, yawning slumber.

Hours later I wake, gasping for breath. I can’t seem to figure out how to draw enough air into my lungs, but after about ten seconds it all comes flooding back in a deep, refreshing gust. My heartbeat starts to slow down and I look around at the rumpled, damp sheets and Yoga of Sleep splayed open near my feet. I guess I’m not quite there yet, I think as I pull myself out of bed and head to the bathroom to splash my face. It must only be 6 in the morning but it’s stifling in here already.

After a light breakfast of toast and tea with jam (I haven’t quite worked myself up to the full Indian breakfasts yet) I amble down the putrid path to David’s ghat. The pre-monsoon clouds are gathering in the sky, locking the heat into the atmosphere and sending the humidity soaring.

Today’s the day, I tell myself as I walk. The day I’ll tell David the truth. Nothing can distract me; I know what I have to do. My annoyance about Ryan’s email last night has at least given me the drive to sort out one area of my life, so that it isn’t all completely screwed up at the same time.

I’m boiling hot and out of it but I press on. At one point I accidentally step on one of the obscene pink dogs that’s lying, exhausted, on the hot stone. Pink because long ago he’s lost all but a few hairs and his raw, aged skin lies indecently exposed to the kisses of the flies and the sun. He yelps. I feel bad and wonder if it’s a bad omen, but I don’t dare touch him so I just keep walking along like a zombie.

After what feels like two hours, and what possibly could have been two hours at the pace I’ve been going, I stumble up to David, who’s sitting cross-legged in his usual spot. I slump down next to him in the shade and catch my breath, letting a fat droplet of sweat trickle down the bridge of my nose and drip off its pointy tip.

Plop.

Five plops later I hear him yawn deeply beside me.

“Namaste, young lady,” he says.

“So you’ve finally decided to talk to me now, have you?” I guess the annoyance hasn’t been completely walked off.

“My apologies. I forgot to explain to you the day before yesterday that yesterday was a Tuesday, which means that yesterday was the day Ram Baba does not speak.”

“Riiiight. And may I ask why he does that?” This third person thing he does will never not be weird for me.

“In the ancient Vedic verses, sadhus were often called the silent ones. Today, many sadhus still take vows of silence and don’t speak, sometimes for their entire lives.”

He adjusts his loincloth. It’s yellow today, and it reminds me yet again of how bizarre this whole situation is. One month ago I was happily sitting at my desk at Aspire, trying to figure out how best to describe Ellery’s latest collection, my marriage happily plugging along, thoughts of my dad tucked safely away in my subconscious, not giving a shit about much at all, really. Then some friggin’ planetary alignment makes me start questioning absolutely everything in my life, and I go and tip it all upside down and inside out. And now here I am, sweating like a pig in India, my marriage in tatters, sitting next to my dad in some skanky harem pants while pretending to be some stranger called Magdalena. It’s completely and utterly ridiculous, and I wonder for the gazillionth time since I arrived in Varanasi why I started any of it at all.

“Magdalena? Magdalena!”

Suddenly I tune back in, nodding and pretending I’ve been listening to every word.

“Sorry Ram Baba, you were saying?”

“I was saying,” he says with a sketchy sideways glance at me, “that while eternal silence is not the path for me, I do choose to pass one day a week in silence to remind myself how insignificant words are, and how they cannot come close to describing the essence of ourselves and the universe. I find that on the days I don’t talk, I can feel energy vibrations much more strongly.” He pauses, looking me right in the eyes. “Yesterday, for example, when we meditated on the steps, I really felt your energy and it was very calm and very centered. I think maybe those monkeys stopped chattering for a moment.”

“Yes, they did stop!” I know my ego’s not meant to be playing into this but I’m thrilled he noticed. “Everything stopped, actually, the moment I stopped putting so much pressure on myself to try to be perfect at it. I think it helped having you there, too. I find your vibrations very… calming.” I shoot my gaze down to my fiddling fingers. “Can I ask Ram Baba a question?” I say it almost in a whisper.

“Of course, young lady.”

Here goes. “I’ve just been wondering how you came to be here in Varanasi. You know, what made you decide to become a sadhu?” That last part came out as a squeak I think, although I can’t be sure. My heart’s beating so loudly I can hardly hear a thing. David remains silent for a few moments and I can’t bring myself to even look up at him as I wait for him to respond.

“This is not a question Ram Baba can answer easily, young lady. The answers are long and complicated,” he finally says. “But, it can be said that when the realisation that societal entrapments – wealth, possessions, family and the like – are a hindrance to spiritual growth occurs, one cannot continue living life in the normal way. One must renounce, if one is to realise the true nature of existence.” He finishes his sentence and I let out a deep breath, which I realise I’ve been holding the whole time.

“But surely you… surely one still has human emotions? Surely, when one renounces, they still think of the things they… left behind?” My eyes are still on the ground, thank goodness, because a hot tear has started inching a path through the dust on my face.

“Sometimes, young lady, it is possible to ask too many questions,” David says as he suddenly gets to his feet. “Now,” he slaps his hands together, “we will try vriksasana again.”

I hurriedly wipe the tears from my face.

“But Ram Baba didn’t answer my question…”

“No excuses, up!”

With a sigh and the recognition that I’ve got just about all I’m going to get from him today, I get to my feet. Clearly he’s not going to rest until I do this.

I pull my right foot up into my crotch, steady myself, then bring my hands into a prayer position at my chest and slowly raise them up to the sky. My eyes are focused on David’s leopard-print drawstring bag that’s lying about a meter in front of me. I’m using it as my dristi, but I can’t help thinking how crazy it is that all his worldly possessions are in there. I’d need at least four shipping containers for all of mine, and that’s even after the Big Cull.  “Okay, now you can slowly come down,” says David after a couple of minutes. As I do, I hear someone clapping behind me, and turn around to find a girl – probably just a bit older than me with acne, hot pink shoulder-length hair that’s completely shaved on the left side and a silver sleeper nose ring – giving me a round of applause.

“Nice focus,” she says with a thick English accent. As she does I notice a big tattoo of a star blossoming over her shoulder and another of a flower-covered vine snaking along the outside edge of her right hand. She throws a cheap purple shawl over her shoulder and adjusts it with her chipped black fingernails.

“Reckon you’ve got room for one more?” she asks.

“Oh, this isn’t an actual class, I was just trying something,” I say, probably a little too quickly. But the last thing I want is to have someone else getting in the way of me continuing my conversation with David.

“You’re most welcome,” cuts in David, walking in front of me and Namaste-ing the girl. “Ram Baba was just about to start doing some pranayama, you might like to join him.”

Dammit.

“Oh I’d love to do pranayama with babaji,” she says, rubbing her grubby hands down the sides of her hideous red and black patterned poo-catcher pants. “Only if it’s ok with you though?” She turns to me and I shrug my shoulders and force a fake smile. I don’t have the faintest idea what pranayama is but I’ll be damned if I let this chick know that.

“Come come,” says David, ushering us into the shade. He places his cream blanket on the ground and the three of us sit down in a tight circle.

“I’m Daisy, by the way,” the girl whispers to me.

“Margaux. With an X,” I whisper back without looking at her.

“Pranayaaama,” says David slowly, turning to Pinkie. “What do you think of, young lady, when you hear the word pranayaaama?”

“Well,” she pauses, chewing the inside of her acned cheek. “I like to think of pranayama being like what the heart is to the human body.” She shrugs and raises her eyes up coquettishly to meet David’s. The bloody cat that got the cream.

“Yeees. Yeees!” says David, nodding his head and stroking his chin. “I like that a lot. And you? What do you think of?” They both turn towards me expectantly.

“Me? Well for me pranayama’s just, like, everything! I mean, when I hear the word pranayama I’m just like, wow. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I can dig that,” says pinkie. David simply ignores me. Ouch.

“Pranayaaama, at the most basic level, is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath, with retention,” he says. “Normally, the flow of breath is unrestrained and irregular. Observing these variations, and conditioning the mind to control the inflow, outflow and retention of the breath in a regular, rhythmic pattern, is pranayama.”

“Totally,” I say.

“Jai!” says pinkie, raising her hands to the sky.

What the hell?

“Prana is the energising force which creates a magnetic field in the form of the universe.”

“Jai!” repeats pinkie, flinging her arms above her head again.

God this girl is annoying.

“It fills each of us, as well as the entire universe, and it acts as sexual, spiritual and cosmic energy as well. In fact, everything that vibrates in the universe is prana – heat, light, gravity, magnetism, vigour, power, vitality, electricity, life and spirit. They’re all forms of prana.”

“Jai!” says pinkie once again. One more time and I swear I’ll pinch her on the arm.

“We can use pranayama to stabilize both our energy and our consciousness,” says David, closing his eyes and resting his hands on his knees. “As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.”

“Jai!” yet again, from guess who.

“Shhh!” I turn to her with my index finger pressed to my lips. She frowns at me, and I notice that her eyebrows have been drawn on, and not very steadily either. Gross.

“We will now do a simple pranayama exercise. It is called kapalbhati, or rapid exhalation,” says David. “You must sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your hands placed gently on your knees.”

Pinkie folds her legs one on top of the other with the cracked soles of her feet facing upwards. Show off. I can only manage regular crossed legs.

“Take a long, deep inhalation,” says David as he draws in a deep breath. His eyes flutter back into his head and his stomach hollows out until his ribs jut out. “Insiiide full!” he squeaks, followed by a long, deep exhalation.

We do as he does.

“Take another long, deep inhalation, then on your exhalation start short, sharp contractions from the lower abdominals, pushing air out of your nostrils at the same time.”

I don’t really follow, so I wait for pinkie to start and, with one eye open a crack, copy her, making sure I go just a little bit faster to let her know who’s boss.

It’s really easy.

For about twenty seconds.

Then it becomes utterly excruciating.

My back starts to hurt, my neck starts to hurt and my throat’s getting dryer with every exhalation. But I’ll be damned if pinkie does it for longer than I do so I just keep going.

“Goood, young ladies,” says David. “Veeery good. We are detoxifying our bodies, making them more pure, more vital, more divine!”

Ooph, ooph, ooph, we puff out our nostrils.

“Once the new light of knowledge has dawned through practicing pranayama, the mind is fit and competent to move towards the realization of the soul!” shouts David.

Ooph, ooph, ooph, we puff in response.

My stomach’s starting to cramp and my head’s beginning to swim. David’s spouting some more mystical wisdom but I can no longer hear him over the sound of blood rushing around in my head.

Ooph, ooph, ooph…

Then it all fades to black.