Friday, June 18, 2004

In the shadow of the mountain I: A silent beginning

I read all the ads pasted in the compartment 6 times. Leftover thoughts from yesterday and the day before, played over and over again of their own volition. The landscape hurtling by was bland and uninspiring. Half a day went by. My watch insisted only 45 minutes had passed. I craved for my usual distractions. But the cell phone was switched off. And I hadn't carried a book. (A first!) Even the few co-passengers provided no entertainment. Thoughts about unfinished tasks, minor woes and future plans continued to churn in the mental sludge. A sliver of anxiety curled into this mix. What did the next 10 days hold for me apart from solitude, silence and a boot camp schedule? The 2 1/2 hour train ride to Igatpuri was slow torture.

I got off the train and onto the congested road adjacent to the station. I dodged cow patties and slushy puddles and stopped at the first tiny store manned by two teenaged boys.

"Which way to the Vipassana ashram," I asked.

"Straight ahead and left from the masjid," he answered and then jumped over the counter. "Come I'll show you where to take the turn."

I was struck by his helpfulness. The self-absorbed thoughts stopped momentarily while I considered his spontaneity. I quickened my step to keep pace with him.

After he left, I walked on for about 10 minutes casually observing small town life. And then the giant pagoda hove into view. I didn't know what to make of this incongruous structure. Perhaps I had expected an ashram with thatched roofs and somehow this gilded, carved edifice jarred. I stepped inside the gates and walked up a winding, foliage-lined path. The air was fresh and earthy, unseen birds called out mellifluously. "Not bad... not bad," my until-recently-jangled nerves declared.

With defences suitably lowered, I walked smack into the bedlam that was the registration counter. Had I taken the turn which said 'Kumbh Mela' by any chance? There were hordes of people. Luggage of every shape and size was strewn around. A serpentine queue wound its way to the registration desk. The crowd was predominantly middle aged and middle to lower-middle class, drawn from Mumbai and surrounding districts of Maharashtra. The prospect of the 10-day silence must have weighed on everyone's mind because they seemed determined to compensate beforehand.

'How many people will there be at this course?' I asked the girl who handed me the registration form.

'Around 300 in the men's course and an equal number in the women's batch', she said, laughing at my incredulous eyebrows.

'Describe your mental state right now' - was one of the questions in the registration form. As I queued up to submit my form, I got a peek at some of the women's responses. 'Stable', said one. 'Good' said another. Jeez, I thought, was I the ONLY one who's mind was 'restless' and 'looking for answers'?

Next, I queued up to hand over my 'valuables'. I handed over my wallet and cell phone, when the girl at the counter said, 'You can hand over your pen also. You won't be needing it.' I recoiled. NO pen! No PEN! Old Advertising conditioning - ALWAYS keep a pen handy in case an idea strikes. Over the years, it had become the 11th finger. And now I was severing it and handing it over along with my other 'valuables'. Now, I felt truly alone.

I completed the formalities and headed to my room. My room mate was a simple Maharashtrian woman from Mumbai who's daughter had done the course the year before. We chatted for a bit and then headed over to the dining hall at 5 for 'supper'. A short initiation followed along with an introduction to the code of discipline:
- strict segregation of the sexes
- noble silence
- discontinuation of any other form of prayer or worship for the next 10 days.

The assistants then led us to the Meditation Hall where we would assemble for group sessions. We pinned our name tags on our cushions, sat in prayerful silence for a while and received our instructions for the next day. At 9.00 p.m. we went back to our rooms.

My room mate didn't look up when I entered. I unpacked, got ready for bed and turned out the lights.

The Noble Silence had begun...

Part II - The Hunter's Dance

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