Snapshots Of Pune

Walking is dangerous. Period. The sidewalks are covered in shops, bikes, trees, dogs, people, trash, food… mud. Grime. You have to walk in the street. Everyone does. And everyone rides their bikes, motos, and rickshaws and cars, and trucks, and buses. Lane lines are merely a suggestion, as are red lights. And basically any maneuver you can pull off without dying is OK.

* * *

 

Crossing the street is one of the most horrifying things ever, second to making a left hand turn in a car. You basically just have to keep nudging into on-coming traffic, and everyone flows on around you. And finally, your car is in the way and they have to stop, but they really don’t want to, and they don’t appear to be stopping when you’re in the way. So you just pray that they will and you finish your turn. But size has priority. So as a person, if you want to cross a street, you have to wait for a large car to make a turn and block traffic, and then you can run across!

 

* * *

 

You had buyer’s remorse over a “yogurt fruit smoothie.” It was tiny and crappy and didn’t even have real strawberries, and the guy used milk instead of yogurt. And then… even though it was barely palatable, you sat down and attempted to consume it and then couldn’t enjoy it because a little barefoot street girl in a green dress was yelling, “Hey! Hey!” and making gestures that she really wanted something to eat. You sat there with your pink shake and thought, “For fucks sake! I wanna drink this,” but she was all up in your face. So you tried to walk away, and she followed you. You tried to ignore her and thought if you just kept walking, she’d eventually give up. But oh no. You were big and white and western and she knew from the moment she saw you that you were weak. She followed you and tugged at your shirt and made hungry gestures and you realized you were a giant white ass with a tiny cup of shitty pink fruit smoothie that you paid too much for, but ultimately not very much at all, that you didn’t like very much, and yet you were committed to drinking it because you had spent money on it. And you were upset with yourself for feeling that way about it in the face of this tiny starving girl that hustles people for the smoothies for a living (with her two year old brother who wears a t-shirt and underpants so tattered that his pieces are hanging out in full view), so you took a final suck on your straw and handed her the remaining 25% of the shake and she took it and ran and was victorious while you walked away, shaking your head and muttering to yourself.

 

* * *

 

A woman’s cry of surprise and fear, then—crash, rattle, rattle, HONK! You’d turned just in time to see a couple go down on their motorcycle. Pieces of plastic snapped off the frame and went clattering along the pavement. The man leaped to his feet and then hobbled around on one leg. He was missing a flip flop and you could see he’d really smashed his knee. All the cars and rickshaws and bicyclists and everyone else hit their breaks only long enough to swerve around the fallen couple, and it wasn’t until spectators like yourself went running into the street that the rest of the traffic came to a halt. The motorcycle was quickly wheeled out of the street and the woman was sitting there all dazed and freaked out and rubbing at her face, her head, her arms, at the light road rash. There was red on her face, smeared on her forehead. You grimaced and then realized it was just her bindi. The hobbling man was embarrassed and angry and embarrassed again, and trying to looking like he wasn’t all hurt, but he was in a world of pain. The woman, though, even after taking time to be dazed and dramatic, seemed perfectly fine. Cars were honking, traffic was impatient. People fall every day and the rest of them need to get to work. You turned back to the canteen next to which you were standing and inquired about lunch.

 

* * *

 

You stare at the shrunken old man with a leathery face and a shock of gray, dusty hair. His knees are fanned out widely in opposite directions, and between his feet he cradles a shoe, which he stitches diligently. His feet, all creased and dry and road-beaten are overly dexterous from years of his occupation there on the tarp, surrounded by all the soles and laces and polishes and everything else a person needs to keep their hand-me-down shoes street ready for years to come. You like this man, but the shape and direction of his spine makes you frown. You envy his hip mobility and wish your knees could bend that way. But the doctor says no way, so you move along. 500 meters down the road is another man, sitting on another tarp with his legs and feet splayed apart. Between his legs sits one of his clients, a gentleman in need of a shave. There, all over his face, is white cream and the man runs a blade expertly over his cheek and wipes the blade with a stained rag.

 

* * *

 

Walking to the west, you notice a woman and a man sitting on the sidewalk, surrounding by some bags that appear to be filled with trash, or odds and ends befitting the homeless. They do not beg from you, but they are painfully thin and filthy. Between them is a toddler, asleep with his face directly on the pavement. A thin, yellowish-brown slab of cardboard is the only barrier between his lower legs and the ground. The parents don’t look at you at all, but you feel tension, as though they might be deliberating. You pass and find a bus company and ask about a ticket to Mumbai. On your return trip, you do not see the man or the woman, but there on the ground lies the toddler. You stop. The child is still. You look around. Neither the man nor the woman are in sight. No one is around. The child is still. You approach, wondering if he’s dead. You hold your breath. Then you see… his tiny little back rises as he draws a breath.

 

* * *

 

You hold up a papaya. It’s a big one. Nice and ripe. You’re really excited for this one. But you don’t like buying fruit from the street. Because the man takes the papaya and drops it on the scale. A 2kg weight is placed on the balance and the papaya rises immediately and the weighted side goes thunk. The man waves his hands around like he’s doing a magic trick—tap of the wand here, a pinch of salt there–and finds a 250 gram weight and drops it next to the papaya. The scale nearly levels, still favoring the 2kg. He demands 90 rupees. You balk. No way. “45 rupees per kilo,” he says, bagging it and handing it to you. You hand it back and walk away, and he is not amused. But neither are you. As if waving his hands around and balancing the scale has anything to do with the actual weight of the fruit. It reminds you too much of the teeny old woman who gouged you on bananas.

 

* * *

 

Drums and horns and dancing! It’s Ganesh Celebration, and the people are animated. All around you are peddlers and hawkers and fruit stands and fryers and traveling salespeople. They mill around the edges of the parade. You weave on and off the sidewalk, through some straw, some shredded newspaper, decaying greens, past dilapidated bicycles, and notice a skeleton of a man in white-turned-grey trousers and a pullover to match. He is face down next to the gutter, head pointing downhill. He is still. You stop and stare. The parade marches on. The people dance on by. The fruit sellers cry. And the man lies there. And his frail back does not rise with any discernible breath. You insist to yourself that you are mistaken and walk along. You think about the junkies strung out on heroine in San Francisco.

 

* * *

 

You approached the man in the maroon robe. He was sitting behind the desk at the entrance of the Osho Ashram in Pune, a place you’d visited earlier in the week in hopes of getting on a tour. No dice. They were no longer on offer. “This place is not for tourists,” you’d been told smugly. “The people are here to meditate and they do not like tourists coming and disturbing them. These people are here for a purpose.” It was as though he was guilt tripping you for asking about the tour that had been offered for years, and which had only recently been withdrawn shortly after a German Bakery down the street had been bombed—an act of domestic terrorism.

 

You’d shrugged at the time, glancing over your shoulder at the ashram’s pristine courtyard, its reflection pool and gorgeous landscaping, and said, “Okay. That’s fine. May I see your written materials?”

 

For a couple thousand rupees in administration costs and an HIV test, another 400 minimum for maroon and white meditation robes, and an additional 700 for a meditation day pass, you could see what goes on inside. Totally out of your budget. So you walked away and never looked back. New age hippie groups have never been your thing.

 

But you did go back, except it was only to ask for directions. “Do you have any idea where I can find a cyber cafe or wireless internet in this neighborhood?”

 

The older man in the maroon robe perked up. He put his palms up against the air and said, “Okay, let’s relax for a moment. Let me see… okay, listen, I’ve been here a long time. I am going to tell you everything I know.”

 

It was a heavy prelude for what turned out to be a very short walk around the corner. But he was very eager to help you–one of those hippie ashram folks high on life and love. You made small talk for a bit.

 

Where are you from?” you asked, knowing he was American.

 

He was from Boston. You told him you’d lived there for a year, and that you were from Seattle.

 

You are! That’s great! Here, listen…” he turned around and found his bag, stooped and dug something out of it. It was a wrinkled flier. “Listen, I’m inviting you to my birthday party tonight. Don’t bring any friends, because there’s going to be a lot of people, but I want you to come because you’re American and you will meet a lot of other people. You can talk to them.”

 

That’s fine, because I don’t have any friends,” you said. And what the heck. The party was literally a five minute walk from your host’s flat. You figured it couldn’t hurt. You also figured that the party would be full of people from Osho, which it was.

 

You arrived after ten. It was a very posh place. The door hung wide open and little tea lights had been placed on the floor along with everyone’s shoes. You slipped off your flip flops and entered into a sea of people who’d clearly been celebrating hard. The birthday boy, Krishna, recognized you immediately and seemed very happy and warm.

 

You’re just in time! Go get yourself some dinner. Talk to everyone!”

 

Very pleased by the prospect of a free meal, which (you admit it!) was the number one determinant in your decision to go to the party, you made your way straight to the buffet and got a plate. Then decided to take a seat on the terrace because the hippie drum circle was too loud and you knew you wouldn’t have a chance to make conversation with anyone in that noise.

 

You introduced yourself to a few people in short order. They were all in the ashram together, but knew each other only superficially. You realized very quickly that they were all totally wasted. A very petite, very nice looking women held herself compact on her chair and laid it all out: “Before Osho, I was a lawyer in Mexico. And I was married. And I was so neurotic. You know? I was bulimic too! But now, thanks to Osho, I am happy. I gave it all up!” Now she lived in Australia with her new boyfriend, worked as a caterer, was back in school, and made periodic trips to Pune just for Osho. “Every year, for a month or so.” She teetered in the chair, laid the accent on very thick, and you couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she was just… oozing… sex. “I used to be sooo promiscuous,” she said.

 

Another woman, a dyed-dark-red German, wore a nice red dress with lipstick to match. She sat very upright in her seat, like someone in meditation (like a tube of lipstick standing on end) and luxuriated over her plate. “This food is so delicious,” she declared. It was greasy Chinese food. “They really did a good job with the food.” She’d asked you questions about you for a moment, but stopped listening half-way through your answer and obsessed on her food.

 

One man with a long white pony tail and thick arms said he’d been in India for 33 years. He was from the UK. He immediately made you feel low on the totem pole of spiritual awakenings, since you’d only been in India for a week. For added insult, he scoffed at your plan to go to Mumbai the next day. “Come to Osho! You won’t find anything in Mumbai. Why do you want to go there?”

 

I don’t know. Why not? To see it.”

 

You don’t need to see Mumbai. You should spend a few days at Osho. Just come to Osho!”

 

I can’t afford it,” you responded. It was true only in the sense of your travel budget. Otherwise, totally false. You really didn’t have much desire for it.

 

You finally left the balcony. Then discovered the other balcony. An utterly gorgeous Indian woman bounded over to you. “You’re from Seattle, right? Yes! I knew it! I knew it was you when I saw you. How could I tell? Krishna said to find the girl with all the piercings and tattoos.” She admired your hardware. You admired her face. She said, “So you want to do yoga?”

 

The idea was that Krishna would hook you up with someone who knew about yoga teacher training. Instead, he’d referred a girl who just liked doing yoga. She gushed about her favorite yogi and drilled her beautiful eyes into yours. You didn’t mind one bit talking to her, except for the fact that the conversation wasn’t the least bit productive. When you mentioned a few of the particulars about the certification process, the budget, the locations, the price points, and more, she lost interest. “I’m going to get another drink!” and she bounded off and took her beauty with her.

 

A stocky Indian man took her place and resumed the “Why are you going to Mumbai?” accusatory tone you’d encountered on the first balcony. “A lesson for you. A bit of fine tuning… no one here is in to Osho. You understand? It’s not a thing we follow. Osho doesn’t set boundaries. You are free to do whatever you like there. There are plenty of ways to find your path. You should not go to Mumbai. Come to Osho!”

 

You politely acknowledged his points. But you were getting a little worn out by the “Come to Osho! Come to Osho!” mantra. If those people hadn’t been so high energy, you’d think of them as persistent zombies who couldn’t stop shouting “Braaaiiins! Braaiiins!”

 

Krishna’s birthday speech was sweet but dull. He delivered a few corny jokes and the room exploded in laughter of completely inappropriate exuberance for the punch lines. The people wanted to laugh. They needed to laugh. And to smile. The way a group high on ecstasy just has to work out its energy on the dance floor.

 

And how the Osho people danced! They did not hold back. It was unlike anything you’d ever seen in your life. Ravers and shakers are a sight to behold, but the Osho people literally danced like Pinocchios having seizures. Gyrating, flailing, spirit fingering, breaking it down, busting is out, nearly self-injuring. And the drum circle guys were all over it. Wailing and beating the drums, jazz fluting, and smacking forks into tin plates placed on the marble floor and creating an incredible racket that sent goosebumps over your body. The gorgeous Indian woman danced her heart out. So did the lady in the red dress. And a little Asian girl. And the shifty-eyed frumpy chick in a dress too large and a Tilly hat. They all danced and Spidey-webbed and Go-Go-Gadgeted and Transformered their bodies until the drummers couldn’t drum any faster so resolved to bellow out yips and cries and wails.

 

I just wish I could get that excited about anything,” you later said to your hosts. “I want access to that kind of high without having to take drugs.”

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