Kumbha Mela Post Script
by Bennett Stevens.
"What did you do in the war daddy?"
It wasn't a real war to be sure, but there were times, like when the army decided to get severely nasty with men brandishing high-powered automatic, er...cameras, when it sure felt like it.
What I 'did in the war' was learn a helluva lot about a number of things, myself included. I made a few friend's, accepted a few more enemies into the fold, ingested my body weight in Ganga dust, lost it again in a great gastrointestinal Jihad, helped save a nearly lifeless pup from the jaws of ill mannered street pigs, got vitally introduced to the crisp crack of cane by some of India's finest, and even managed to take a few good photographs.
For this and much much more, I am forever grateful to David Brunn and Alex Johnson whose hatchling this project was. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Ben Brunn for being the sweet and gentle soul that he is, Charlie Sheen Brunn for being so unabashedly who he is, Charles Krafft, Nadeem Uddin and Danny Diskin for being the inimitable characters and cohorts they are, and Zoya Malek, for being my hero. I'd go on to thank The Academy too, but I'm still pretty pissed off about the whole Joy Luck Club thing.
Below is a brief excerpt from my perilous adventures on the camera ban day of Mauni Amavasya, the Big Mama of all holy dipping dates. To save space and accommodate the ever-shrinking American attention span, we pick up the action after the caning, after the procession ejection, and before entering the sangam...
* ...I left the hospital camp without accepting first aid. My wounds were not serious and besides, I felt like bleeding.
I steered straight for the main sangam, determined to make something out of this yet. I'd be damned if I were going to let the bastards get the best of me. I was going to walk right down into the middle of their precious bath water and take some fucking pictures. And if some fat and sagging stretch marked granny breasts intruded themselves into my frame, then I'd take pictures of them too. Apparently there was a market for them in England.
I worked my way through the crowd and eventually arrived at the top of the bank overlooking the main sangam, about 80 meters to the east of the great Energy for Life monolith. I think it's safe to say, without risk of overstatement, that I've never seen more life in all my life, or more energy for that matter. A crowd the size of the entire population of California, nearly eight times the population of Norway-making semi-modest Allahabad the world's biggest city for a day-would bathe here in the coming hours. As I looked down the long stretch of riverbank and out across the shallow confluence filled with the rollicking devout, it seemed like they were all there in that moment. It was a truly awesome and exhilarating sight, the type of which can never be adequately described without an accompanying shot of adrenaline.
You just have to be there, and it's a shame so few outside India ever will. Most Americans have never even heard of the Kumbha Mela, let alone considered reservations for 2013. Never mind that it's by far far far the largest event the planet has ever known. It's also the most ancient, by just as far. This little Hindu get together makes The Haj of Mecca look like a Christian Science pancake breakfast. But who cares about such spectacles when there's still so much shopping left to be done? Then again, what can you expect from a country whose educational system churns out routinely the kinds of minds so frighteningly illustrated on a recent Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Upon being asked possibly the easiest history question of all time-who did the United States fight against in the Vietnam War-a woman disciple of Generation X answered in all earnestness: Canada?
I extracted my camera for a stealth still and immediately the shouts rang out, "No photo! no photo!" The aurora borealis was attempting to take a picture. I tucked it away quicker than the Delhi pickpocket had with my Gandhi wallet three weeks earlier, and attached myself to the ass end of a family of twelve elephant-walking down to the sangam. Actually I didn't quite hook the ass end, as I soon found great-grandma holding on for dear life to the ass end of my sweatshirt as we serpentined our way down the slippery slope to salvation.
There was no respite even in the sangam from the soldier's whistles, which continued to blemish the air of excitement and revelry. One such blemish lay dead ahead, standing in the water where we would have to enter, blowing pilgrims along past him through the surprisingly well moving chaos. I did the only thing I could do, helping great-grandma into the water and making an obvious show that I was with her, that these were my people, and that I would never do something so horrific and sacrilegious as to snap a photograph. Once past the soldier the old woman and I exchanged smiles and namaste's, and I went long.
Once you were out near the fence-line that kept people from venturing too far and drowning in deeper waters, the crowd thinned some. No soldiers were out that far on foot, but you still had to keep an eye out for the patrol boats cruising just beyond the fence. Warily, I began snapping a still here and there, but was soon spotted, not by soldiers but holy dippers. No they weren't yelling at me, in fact they were very friendly and began posing for photos, hoping for 15 minutes of fame they would never see, which was a very familiar but forgotten theme in the midst of this camera ban fiasco.
I obliged one group, then another jumped in on the action, then another and I knew I had to get out of there before The-"No camera! Very bad! No camera!"-Asshole in Every Crowd reared his ugly head, and let me tell you, few and far between are the heads that are as magnificently ugly as this one. He looked like an obese Coelacanth that had just been pulled up from the bottom of the Marianna Trench, only not quite as comfortable with his new surroundings. To punctuate his barking he was waving a fat fin of disdain at me in such a way that might suggest I was Satan's personal photographer sent here to steal the souls of the devout. Or at least their breasts. Of course I turned my back and walked away from him immediately, but he followed and continued to shout and wag that sanctimonious fin. I broke into a jog and still he followed, still he waved. Finally I had to break into a near sprint, running across the water like Jesus showing off for the boys, to finally break free of him. Asshole. Coelacanth.
I ducked in along the fence line separating the pilgrim sangam from the Naga sangam. By this time there were but two old warriors in loin cloths loitering around, tossing a handful of holy water over an arm here, a shoulder there, when a group of pilgrims broke through the flow-through fence. Surely the water on the other side, now that it had been sanctified by thousands of naked naga bodies' worth of dhunni ash and jata grease, was holier. Soldiers with lazy whistles and bored feet herded them out. But it didn't really matter now. The Naga Baba Show had hit the road.
Turning my gaze, two other soldiers were staring straight at me from atop an island of sandbags originally meant for cameras and the ungainly creatures who stand behind them, just as I, in all my ungainliness, had mine half out of the bag. I didn't know if they saw it but I headed in the other direction just in case, continuing my involuntary pachinko around the sangam. Just as soon as their backs were turned I took the camera back out and shot some hasty video footage of the massive wall of humanity that smothered the fifty-foot high bank and stretched for a kilometer toward the Red Fort. There, camouflaged atop its ramparts, Stinger missiles lay in wait for any airborne terrorists who might drop by. They were never invited of course, but had RSVP'd through the papers anyway, then never bothered to call and cancel. So unmannerly, these terrorists.
If I'd had back up equipment, I'd have said fuck all and went into full photo-terrorist mode myself right then and there, shooting everything in sight. But I didn't, and having just narrowly saved my cameras and escaping total nightmare an hour before, decided on discretion and to quit before I got further behind. It was a decision I was regretting even as I made it. I was the only non-Indian in the sangam or even on the bank, as far as I could tell anyway. I did get some shots but they were hurried and not near all that I wanted. The same with the video. Only twelve years until my next chance. My opprobrium had gone, but I was only slightly less exceedingly pissed and fantastically miserable than before.
But a funny thing happened on the way from the sangam...
I stopped. Dead. Suddenly it had struck me. I was standing in the middle of a dream I'd had for exactly twelve years, standing right in the heart of myth and mythology in the making, and I hadn't taken a single moment to stop and smell the marigolds. Good God man! And so I stopped. I stopped right in the middle of what it was all about, and took it all in.
I am not a Hindu, nor am I attached to any religion, not even one that teaches non-attachment to the legions attached to its teachings. But I am, first and foremost I like to think, a spiritual man. Dogma poisons all belief systems, but it cannot touch that which is deepest inside and connected purely to the infinite, that which is without thought and beyond belief, that which was stirred inside me as I opened to the incredible vastness of the moment.
Spontaneously dropping to my knees in the ankle deep water, I cupped my hands together and sunk them into the seemingly effervescent Saraswati. At first I just raised the waters of the goddess a foot or two and let them pour slowly from my hands. I did this repeatedly, my whispering mind gradually, effortlessly merging into the quiet hum of silence. Amongst the whisperings that passed, was how natural it all was, how utterly normal it was to be here in benediction on my never before so public knees. Even mention the word 'God' in pop-public America, even among the majority that believes, and you are automatically suspect. Drop to your knees in that same public and that's it-you're a fruit loop. In India nobody gives you a second thought, or if they do, it is a kind one, an affirming one.
I raised my hands higher the last time, above my head, allowing her baptism to pour over me. It was as if my head had turned to pumice and a million blissfully cold and infinitesimal tingles of watery light went rushing in, percolating, illuminating, softening the pain and anger still clinging to the dusky edges of a spirit too long at war.
"If your heart is open, you will know the myth is true." I had heard numerous variations on this since I'd arrived in Allahabad three weeks earlier. I hadn't believed it.
Lowering my arms and raising my face to the dusty morning sun, I basked the bask of the blissful, and I knew. The myth was true. This timeless place in time was indeed suffused with the supernal, and it had been brought down, not by the dubious Rolex gurus or the duplicitous naga babas, but by the millions of simple pilgrims who, through their long enduring faith and sweet devotion, invited God to a party in His honor. He didn't RSVP, but He showed up anyway, rejoicing in His children as His children rejoiced in Him.
Even the shouts from The Asshole in Every Crowd that blew back in couldn't bother me. I did open my eyes though, and there he was, the great pop-eyed Coelacanth flopping up to the same soldier great-grandma and I had passed earlier and finning in my direction, the fat folds of his neck gasping like gills in all his agitation. Didn't he know where he was? Didn't he know he was standing in the watery lap of God on earth?
I smiled inwardly, laughed softly at all the madness that had befallen me, the joy that lifted me, and then high tailed it the hell out of the holy water.
And back up the slippery slope.