December 2012

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Dead Already

"Before long, alas, this body will lie on the earth, despised, without understanding, like a useless log."

I've been on a strange, dusty hike up to a monastery outside Kathmandu, and now I'm having a pot of masala tea and reading the Dhammapada and thinking about bodies and death. I've also been thinking about blond tourists. There's a certain kind of blond tourist I really, really don't want to become. Except, maybe there's only one kind of blond tourist. I am dirty, thin from trekking and the kind of turista that pours out of both ends at the same time, wild-eyed, and wearing a mala. I've gotten unsolicited blessings from a bunch of holy people at a lot of holy places. I have taken up with some disconcertingly good-looking Nepali friends. I know dirt-road shortcuts around the city. I smell like juniper smoke. Somehow, I am meditating at a temple. I won't write a memoir about this, but that doesn't make it any better. Who knows what kinds of ancient traditions and sacred rituals I've trampled over on my happy blond adventures?

Blond tourists, and white brunette tourists, write memoirs where they get spiritually transformed and then find love. But then you meet these memoirists in New York, and they're neurotic and unhappy. In the yoga dressing room, you learn that they're controlling with their toddlers, or that they're still getting rejected by men they met on the internet. The ones who aren't anorexic are orthorexic. I read trashy market-friendly girl memoirs all the time, and sometimes I don't find out until years later that they're written by my blond and white-brunette acquaintances, the same people who are always at Souen eating flavorless macrobiotic squashes and kanten desserts, trying to stay thin. I can't decide whether the books are exactly like the aging girls who wrote them, or completely different. I can't decide whether they're delusions, or fabrications. I'm rereading chapter two of the Dhammapada, "On Earnestness." I don't understand a word of it. I was explaining to a man I love why I was so into another man I love. I said, He's just so earnest. You know it when you see it. The spiritual transformation tourist memoirs, though: I can't decide whether they're sweet and naive, or cynical -- fantasy, or porn.

Earnestness, according to the Dhammapada, is "the path of immortality, thoughtlessness the path of death. Those who are earnest do not die, those who are thoughtless are as if dead already." In William Dalrymple's Nine Lives, there's the story of a Jain nun exactly my age. She ran away from her rich family, where she was loved for being pretty, and given lots of sweets all the time. She ran away, and had her beautiful long hair plucked out, painfully, strand by strand. She eats one meal a day, and she can never handle money or ask for food. The people around her have to know she is hungry, and prepare a meal for her. If the meal is impure -- if a fly or an ant has been harmed in preparing it -- she cannot eat any of it. She has to wait until her meal the next morning. As she walks, she sweeps every step, so she won't harm any beings.

The Jain nun avoids "all forms of violence, passion, and delusion," things I can't imagine avoiding. To me she sounds kind of passionate and delusional, but maybe I'm turning her world into my world? I think of the blond tourists as the world-ruiners, people who turn all the world's beauty and wonder and magic into things that can be bought and sold. But even the Jain nun is taking handouts from other people, who have worked to pay for the food that she is given for free. If a fly has fallen into her dhal in an accidental death and she rejects the whole meal, isn't she just wasting wholesome food that would be very valuable to all the people in the world who are starving, but not on purpose? All of this must be explained somewhere in the Dhammapada, right? I'm reading the Dhammapada on my almost-dead phone with my dirty fingernails, and a young monk in sneakers rushes in. He doesn't say hi to me, but he puts a pile of things on the table beside me: a book in Tibetan or some other language I don't recognize, an open, handwritten diary, a stuffed wallet, a fistful of beautiful necklaces that look valuable. He speeds to the public toilet at the back of the teahouse. I wonder if he was my kind of turista. Suddenly I feel affection for my blond tourist body, for the things about me that make people feel safe asking for help or directions. For the way I look like I won't steal any wallets or jewelry.

I'm watching a young woman's corpse get set on fire by the sacred river at Pashputinath temple. The river is filled with trash. I shouldn't be watching, maybe. They say that only Hindus are allowed into the main Shiva shrine here, but really it isn't about whether you're Hindu, really it's whether you look vaguely South Asian. My beautiful Nepali friends, in their workout clothes with tikas on their foreheads, are allowed inside. One thing in there that I'm never allowed to ever see is a giant statue of Shiva's penis, rumored to have appeared spontaneously out of the earth with no one building it. I sit on a concrete stoop outside, waiting for them, surrounded by monkeys. One of my friends gets some kind of blessing in a language I don't understand from one of the Pashupatinath sadhus -- the same long-bearded, ash-covered sadhu I've seen in so many photographs in books. He chants something, and rubs ash from his body on her forehead by her tika. I am told that there are ghosts and curses everywhere here, that people practice black tantric magic. William Dalyrymple writes that it's the small, minor gods that are getting lost in India, "falling away and out of favor." In Nepal there are psychedelic shrines everywhere, new and ancient and in-between. My friend says she's both a Buddhist and a Hindu, "why should you have to choose?" She comes from an ancient clan that actually has its own god. She asks me if anything has surprised me about Nepal. I don't know what to answer, because the answer is No. I expected it to be like this, all crazy surprises.

Before I came to Kathmandu, a friend in New York told me, "It's the place where the veil between the worlds is thinnest." For some reason, maybe to keep some part of my dying body in my old world, I'm reading memoirs at night with my head under the covers. Memoirs from the New York Public Library that I download onto my phone when the electricity is working -- memoirs by blond women, and memoirs by white brunette women. In one memoir, a blond woman who used to be pretty enough to be a model talks about her young son's organic cotton bluejeans. She goes on a yoga retreat not too far from the city, and then orders an expensive meditation cushion. In another memoir, a redheaded woman buys new age books and has a panic attack in the New York subway. I do not read Eat, Pray, Love. I've already read it. I do not read Un Amico Italiano: Eat, Pray, Love in Rome, even though it's available for download right away. I'm thinking, are they even allowed to publish that? It reminds me of the North Fake trekking clothes for sale at stalls in Kathmandu, or of the Yakdonald's restaurant in Kagbeni, Lower Mustang -- surely a copyright violation? But then I see that it's actually a book about escorting Elizabeth Gilbert around Rome, boosting her spirits in a way that $18 yoga classes and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors could not.

I don't know exactly why, on this thrilling trip full of unforgettable gods, I crave neurotic-white-woman memoirs. I don't know why I would want to read about their grapefruit breakfasts at the Golden Door, or their trips to Paris with bad-news lovers. I should be reading about philosophy or mythology or parallel universes. I should be finding good novels. The memoirs might be poisoning me, even -- making me see myself in a certain way, making me see an icky but not completely true version of myself, making me put myself inside a story that isn't the whole story. But then, according to the Dhammapada, "He who has no wound on his hand may touch poison with his hand; poison does not affect one who has no wound."

It would be funny if I were reading those memoirs and I'd never been to New York, never drunk its artisanal kombuchas or met its $200 acupuncturists, never waited for a table near any abrasive blond mothers, not so pretty up close, with disabled toddlers and Jain-nun-like dietary proscriptions and lean legs in overpriced sandals, snapping at the waitress like she's not a human being. I would have a reader's vocabulary of New York, the way I had a reader's vocabulary of Kathmandu before I got here. It would be like Kafka's Amerika maybe, like any vision of any unvisited place, but gloomier. When my friend asked if anything had surprised me about Nepal and I almost answered "No," books were the reason. Books and pictures. You can start to feel like you've already been someplace you've never been. You can also start to feel, dangerously, like you're a person you've never been. You write, or read, yourself into the book. At a rooftop cafe, my friend is telling me about the goddess Kali. How she was bloodthirsty and furious, slashing off heads, on a rampage, and her husband, Shiva, threw himself across her path to calm her down. When she realized she had almost attacked her husband, she was so shocked that her tongue rolled out of her mouth and she froze. It's confusing, because Kali is also several other goddesses and some demons -- are they all the same Kali?

"Men are in charge of everything here," says my friend, "and women sweep." The way her face is beautiful is very sweet -- she's young, sensitive. But when she says this she looks mad, hellishly, frighteningly mad, like it wouldn't be safe to stand in front of her. Her face changes almost into a different face, or not a different face but her real one, not sweet, with the veil torn off.

My friend and I are talking about how, at the spooky Dakshinkali temple at the bottom of the valley, we felt intensely transformed, electrocuted, even. "It's like she's just there, waiting," I say, and I'd read somewhere (the Dalrymple book, I think) that the Hindu deities are literally embodied in their statues at shrines -- they aren't symbolic. They are actually there. "I can still feel it," says my friend, and then ten minutes later we're walking down a city road with microbuses and motorcycles roaring by, and then we hear yelling, and there's a cavalcade of open trucks of men reveling, escorting a giant blue statue of Kali. She whizzes by so fast that she doesn't look like a statue. She looks like a woman. Not a brown woman or a black woman or a white woman, but a furious blue woman. It's a normal moment in Kathmandu. The goddess of death and change roaring past the dye shop and past the motorcycle shop and past the shop selling plastic shoes, redeeming the universe. It's a normal moment anywhere in the world, maybe.

I start reading The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene. Some parallel universes, he writes, "are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time." Others are "hovering milimeters away." For others, "the very notion if their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning... A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes. In some, the laws are the same as ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we've ever encountered." There are tiny, psychedelic shrines to forgotten and unforgotten gods on every unnamed street of this city -- the goddess of death, the god of transformation, the goddess of smallpox. There's a goddess of writing, and I wonder, in this place with sky-high illiteracy rates that are lopsidedly higher for women, whether there's a goddess of reading. Reading, a quantum-mechanical magic to shift universes fast, and I'm so lucky I know how -- so why would I read something cynical, thoughtless, not-earnest? Sometimes thoughtfulness is scary, I guess. Sometimes it's epic and vertiginous for the body to travel just a few milimeters, even if its quanta are traveling that far all the time.

When I think about bodies and death, I think about books. Books are full of corpses and holograms, bodiless spirits, and ghosts. People who existed, but died. Imaginary people, or imaginary versions of real people. People who are governed by the same laws that govern me, and people who don't live according to any familiar laws at all. People who are light years away from me, and people who are separated from me by a paper-thin veil. People who are me, versions of me, the versions of me that inevitably pop up in all the infinite universes I can't see. If the world, according to the Dhammapada, is a bubble, a glittering mirage, darkness, then what's the book world? What are the mechanics of the difference between those memoirists and their memoirs? "All forms are unreal," says the Dhammapada. As far as I know, there's never been an actual, real human body in a book -- not the kind of body you can burn by the river. "All created things perish," says the Dhammapada, but is that true?

I am told that there's a library here in Kathmandu, a library in a beautiful garden, where I can sit and read books. But it's in the tourist ghetto, and I don't ever want to go back to the tourist ghetto, with its crush of touts and its "dance bars" and drunk Americans making out with drunk Swedes. There must be libraries at the monasteries here. I want to read something other than the Dhammapada and those New York lady with orthorexia at the alternative healer books, but it's hard to find the books I want. I want memoirs of women summiting Everest. I want Allen Ginsberg's Indian Journals. I want Graham Greene, enough to pay an outrageous 950 rupees at an expat bookstore, but I can't find any Graham Greene books anywhere. I want books by Alexandra David-Neel, or some living version of Alexandra David-Neel. Finally, thrillingly, my wifi search for library ebooks turns up Savage Summit: The Life and Death of the First Women of K2. I can read about women, blond or not, white or not, who are not like me. Who are not just tourists. Who are not acrophobic. Or who, even if they're acrophobic, climb.

I go with my friends to a psychedelic monastery, with golden statues of Buddhas and dancing gods, with paintings full of images I recognize from the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art covering the walls and ceilings. The three of us sit on a scrap of carpet in front of a row of three monks. One of them is chanting and never stops chanting. He does something with a peacock-feather broom, he hits a small drum, it sounds wonderful. Sometimes, he pours orange Fanta into a small, two-tiered metal fountain. Each monk has a pile of silk-wrapped, handwritten mantras on the table in front of him, in a language I can't read. One of my friends is under stress, she gives the monk in the middle her birthday according to the Nepali calendar. He pulls a book out from under his robes, a battered paperback, and he tells her that based on her birthday, she's like a bird. He points to one of the huge golden Buddha statues and tells her how that particular Buddha will protect her, as long as she prays every day, as long as she believes. The translations are patchy, I'm mostly just staring at the book and wishing I could touch it, wishing I could read its strange script, I'm mostly just loving the chanting. I'm at peace. I can tell from looking at the statues which one would be mine. The monks make a necklace for my friend. They bless it. The monk in the middle touches the palm of his hand. He tells my friend she wants everything to happen now, now, now. But change will take patience. The book says that my friend might have problems with her ears or with her heart. The book says that my friend is usually lucky, but not now. The book says things about my friend that she doesn't translate, and I don't ask. I don't tell the middle monk my Nepali birthday and I don't find out, from that book or from any book, who I am.