Halfway through a two-month-long trip backpacking through the south of India, I went to an elephant sanctuary. I was taking pictures when a man casually asked if I would like to meet God.
“How far away is he?” I asked.
“Very close. We have a van and we can take you. Only forty-five minutes.” He motioned toward the rest of his party, another Indian man and four Eastern European women.
A curious smile spread across my face as my mind flashed back to my near drowning two days earlier.
“Ok, I’ll go,” I said shrugging my shoulders and laughing out loud.
The small, white van was from the early 1980s and had three rows of seats. The front and back were benches that could fit three across. The middle bench was not as wide, to give an aisle next to the sliding door, and could only fit two. I sat in the front between Ravi and Mumumbai, the two middle aged Indian men in our group. They wore short-sleeved collared shirts, had the typical dark skin tone of the area and, like almost all Indian men I had met, had thick black mustaches.
When Ravi pressed on the gas and we sped away from the elephants, everyone broke into song. I didn’t recognize the language, but everyone knew the words and swayed their heads back and forth in unison—and I had the distinct feeling that I had just joined a cult. I smiled at the improbability of the situation, of how one thing inevitably leads to another.
The four pale-skinned women sat behind us. The oldest in the group seemed to be the one in charge. She was stern and said she was from East Germany—a nation that hadn’t existed since the fall of the Soviet Union. She was the only woman the Indian men spoke with. They called her Mom.
All the women wore a thin cloth to cover their heads, but only Mom didn’t let any hair spill out over the sides or back. It looked as if she may have actually been bald, but I never asked. No one in the group spoke more than a few words of English, so other than inquiring how much time I should budget for the journey to God, I didn’t ask many questions.
Two of the women were young sisters from Russia. They looked like they were close to my own age, somewhere in their mid-twenties. They each wore a long flowing silk dress that covered their entire body, save for their bare feet in sandals. I found the one in pink, with her jet-black hair and light pink lips, rather attractive in that you’re-in-a-cult-I’m-in-a-cult-I-wonder-what-else-we-have-in-common sort of way. I smiled at her longer than the rest when we struggled to exchange names and countries of origin. She smiled back, but shrunk her head into her shoulders when we broke eye contact. The fourth woman was from the Ukraine and quiet. She was older than the sisters, but a few years younger than Mom.
The men spoke to each other in an Indian language, probably Malayalam. The women spoke Russian among themselves. I had no idea how they had come together, speeding down the Arabian Sea searching for salvation, but I was interested in finding out.
After an hour, we stopped and piled out of the van, but it was just a Hindu temple we had stopped to look at. The men stayed next to the van and smoked cigarettes. I went inside with the four women. There was a concrete ramp that went around in circles as it slowly climbed upwards—the kind they usually have at stadiums in the United States. Every fifteen or twenty feet there was a small statue tucked into a cut-out in the wall. Men with six arms, elephants on two legs and women sitting, well, Indian style, with their hands clasped together in front of them. Next to each figure was a plaque in Hindi, or some other language I didn’t understand. The women walked up to each of the small statues alone and studied them as curious children would. Sometimes, they moved on quickly, and sometimes they moved their lips, as if talking to themselves, and bowed their heads forward. I tried to mimic them, and whispered one-sided conversations to the figurines. I didn’t believe I was doing more than talking to carved stone, but I thought I should try and fit in. Growing up in a Catholic family, the ritual reminded me of doing the Stations of the Cross when I was an alter boy a lifetime ago.
Returning to the van, I climbed in the back door and sat in the middle seat next to the quiet Ukrainian woman. The pretty Russian girl moved to the back and sat diagonal from me. She smiled at me again when she sat down.
An hour later, we stopped at another temple. I tried to ask where God was, reminding them that forty-five minutes had long since passed, but it was difficult to communicate and I’m not sure anyone really understood. The only responses I got were, “soon” or “He is close.”
I never asked again and debated abandoning the group to continue on my own. I had barely spoken with anyone and didn’t know why they had asked me to join, or where we were going, or how it would all end—but part of me reveled in the mystery. By this time, I had decided that the women were kind souls and I felt none of the apprehension or fear one may expect when joining a cult on a whim. I was comfortable and had nothing else to do—plus, there was the cute Russian girl—so I got back in the van and strangely looked forward to the ride ahead.
A few minutes later, we pulled over onto a dusty shoulder next to a roadside teashop. The men got out and sipped chai. The women stayed inside or close to the van and offered me their food. We drank water and ate plums and nuts, sucking mango juice and smiling at each other in silence. When our break ended and the van rolled forward again, I nodded my head and exaggerated a smile to try and tell Mom that I was thankful.
The men seemed as if they were working, hired locals paid to transport the religious pilgrims, and so it became the women that held my greater interest. They each had a tranquility and serenity to them that I had rarely seen before. Whatever it was they were after, part of me wanted what they already had.
We drove for a long time. A few hours, I guess—I don’t think any of us had a watch. Finally, another Hindu temple, but this time a well-dressed man standing at the entrance denied us admission. There was a sign in English that read “Only Hindu Allowed.” I thought we were Hindu, but I guess the doorman didn’t. Mom was upset, but Ravi was able to persuade her to get back in the van without making a scene.
Hinduism holds a large umbrella with many Gods, and while everyone prays to Shiva, Ganesha, and a few other big ones, different Hindus do not all believe in the same deity. There is a lot of overlap, but the religion and specific idols worshiped differ from one person to the next. I had thought Mom and the rest of them just happened to be particularly devout to one of the Gods who also happened to be living. If they weren’t Hindu, I don’t see why we would have stopped at all those temples, but there was a lot I didn’t understand.
When night fell, we went to the house of one of the other members of the sect. The area was extremely rural and heavily forested, and the van slowed to a crawl to allow it to pass over the bumps and drops of the empty dirt roads. As we pulled up to a small, indiscreet house, a middle-aged man and woman greeted us—as if they somehow knew the exact moment we would arrive. The woman had glasses and wore a silk wrap that featured a flower pattern. The man was bare-chested and had a thin, white cloth wrapped around his waist. They didn’t wear anything to cover their salt and pepper hair, and both had what looked like orange colored chalk drawn in a messy circle on their foreheads.
Inside, there were two rooms; one had a table and folding chairs, and the other was mostly bare, save for one cushioned chair and scattered boxes. In the corner of the second room was a photograph of an elderly Indian man. Beads were draped on the picture and fresh candles were burning on top of a pile of multicolored wax from the dead candles before them. I wondered if he was God. I didn’t get a chance to look around much before I was ushered into what seemed to be the only bedroom in the house. When the couple showed me the bed, I realized they meant for me to sleep there.
“Oh no, I couldn’t.”
“But we insist; you are our guest.”
Or at least that’s how I interpreted the hand movements and unrecognizable sounds we threw at each other. I’m not sure where everyone else slept, but I think I had the best spot—and my bed was just a dirty sheet draped over planks of wood.
Staring into the darkness of the unknown house somewhere in rural India, I was happy to be alive. Two nights before, I had gone swimming in the Arabian Sea. It was dark, the water was rough, and a riptide swept me out in to the open water. There were no lights on the shore, and the waves seemed to be crashing into each other rather than toward the land. I didn’t know where the beach was, and I didn’t think I would make it back. Though at the time I considered myself agnostic, I prayed to God to spare my life. I had the conscious thought that death was approaching—and I trembled before forces far greater than my own understanding.
I woke up to people talking outside at sunrise. We sat in the folding chairs at the table and ate rice, fruits, and nuts before getting back in the van and leaving the couple alone in their house again. No one showered or changed clothes. The only bathroom I ever used was a cluster of trees outside the house, and as far as I know, that’s all there was.
We drove and drove, stopping at another temple, then drove some more. For lunch, the men went inside a roadside restaurant. I stayed in the van with the women and ate more mangos, plums, and nuts.
In the afternoon, we stopped at a train station and went inside to look at the schedule. Ravi told me, “God is on a train,” before we started driving again. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but God was beginning to seem distant, and I was no longer sure we would catch him, even by train. The train station was in Palakkad, the first city we had been in during our thirty some odd hours together. We hit a red light at an intersection downtown, and I decided to make that my end. I grabbed my bag and said “Thank you” slowly and clearly three times, opened the door, and walked away without looking back.
First published in the Spring 2013 issue of Lowestoft Chronicles