The Pilgrimage Part Two

Thailand to India

February 23 2012

It’s on.

I’m up early and it’s painless. There’s a taxi waiting outside as I’m checking out, and he’s happy to take me to the airport at a reasonable rate. There’s no traffic. I giggle with the woman checking me in about how my departure date coincides perfectly with my visa’s expiration. She claims that the flight isn’t full and offers me a seat at the back with no one in the neighboring seats. Immigration is pleasant. Everyone is helpful. I begin to recognize foreshadowing.

It’s not until I board the Indigo flight (Indigo! Get it! India…Go! Clever!) that I begin to recognize that Kali’s chosen literary motif of the day will be juxtaposition. I walk through the doors and notice, first as a visceral sensation, and then as hard visual evidence that I am, barring the two stewardesses, the only woman on the plane. Twenty some odd rows of gold pinky rings, dark sunglasses, turbans, pointy leather shoes and whatever other Bollywood cliché you can conjure. I look at my seat, hemmed in between the solid rows of man and I just don’t wanna. I hang back, sit in a vacancy and watch. Another tribe rolls in, sunglass-ed, jean-ed, black shirt-ed and baseball capped, their seats are at the window. Someone is already sat in the aisle. They try to push past.  He refuses to accommodate. One of them simply lap dances over him. Gesturing, excited talking, glares. One guy slaps the other. O, fuck this, really.

I go to the stewardess cubby. I talk to a woman with impossibly hot pink lips. She smiles, understands. If there’s anyone sympathetic about the conditions created by Indian men it’s an Indian woman. “Of course, Madam, I also wouldn’t want to sit there!”

My seat doesn’t recline, but I’ve got the whole row to myself. I watch the slapper try to pull the snack cart in front of the bathroom that his friend’s just entered, laughing to himself like a gargantuan child. I recognize my newly adopted reality, not just tradition, holy places, beauty and ritual, but also a culture which is familiar yet unknowable. In India the primary practice is surrender. It is not going to be what you wanted. It might be something infinitely better and it might be something much worse, but it will very rarely follow any recognizable pattern and the easiest way to cause yourself suffering is to wish that it did.

I’ve been to India maybe six times….this is the first that I move here, this is the first that it’s the final destination. I think about the noise and the dirt and the reality that I didn’t choose this. Everything lined up to suggest that it was the right decision, the only decision…but it wasn’t a choice. I didn’t want to come to India, I’m simply following the yellow brick road.

Don’t get me wrong, I love India. It’s been one of the places on the planet that have given me the most inspiration and transformation, it’s magical like nowhere else has ever been, it’s rich and deep. It’s the birthplace of everything I believe in. It’s a place where one can still have access to unadulterated ancient teachings. It’s free and lawless, it’s the place where anything can happen. It’s just also the place where you need to cover your shoulders, even in the sweltering heat, where you will always be just a woman, where the honking never stops and the food is mostly poisoned. All the richness has a price, and its price is comfort.


Something happened as the plane was landing. I looked out into Delhi’s visible pollution, air ochre and hazy, and as we neared land we dipped over a giant Shiva statue and people worshipping, there in the middle of nothing, not in a temple, not because of something, just a statue. And something happened to my heart. It’s the thing that India does, it knocks you off guard, rattles you and catches you when you least expect it, suddenly wide open. And I cried. Just like that. I don’t know about what thing I was crying, just that something moved me, just that suddenly there was a shift and again India was a yes. Of course I want to be here. How could I want to be anywhere else?

Main Bazar is quite possibly the most chaotic place on the face of the planet. A thousand smells and infernal noise and the crush of more bodies than could ever reasonably fit in one space, and the hawkers and the filth and all of it at once, and as I walked through, pushed and hassled, the only thought was yes.

Day 5

The pilgrimage looms and I realize that I don’t even have a story in my head about what to expect. I have put one foot in front of the other, I have road, rivered and railed, I have crept slowly toward this thing, but I have not yet fully comprehended what it is.

Part of that is that I lack a precedent, I am going to a place I have never been, to see a man I have never met, to do a sadhana I don’t know anything about. All I have is imagination and heresay, all I have is rumor and tall tales. I understand the components, but I lack the whole picture.

I’m taking this on lightly. Perhaps this sadhana really is in three days undoing what would normally take seven years. Perhaps this Guruji really is the real deal. Either way I am privy to an experience that few would ever be and am grateful for just that.

I have deep trust in the capacity for consecrated action to burn karma, I was raised Catholic, after all, and have inherited the belief that suffering absolves sins, and so I pilgrimage as an act of contrition. One half self flagellation, one half wide-eyed excitement at the prospect of catching a glimpse of an ancient tradition in practice, I allow myself to continue to be pulled toward this thing.


Tomorrow is Tarapith, the final destination. From all corners we converge in Kolkata, faces I haven’t seen in months and years.

Reunited and it feels so good and also skitchy and nervous and starting to be tired. They have a Domino’s and a ‘supermarket’ when we walk in to arm ourselves with as many biscuits one might need for a three day sojourn Sean Paul’s ‘Get Busy’ (DJ Tiger Remix) blares. I worry about Tarapith, we have heard that there are nothing but subpar and inhumanely spice heavy dhabas and even in the best of moments questions about eating conditions are always looming on the subcontinent. What will we eat? The body has nothing to spare with which to fuel the worry and sleep starts to be unavoidable. 

In Tarapith we’ll do the sadhana (or practice) in a cremation ground, it’s a Kali pilgrimage after all. Meditating on death is ever so much easier when you’re actually faced with it. We have an early morning train and we gather on it like metal shavings to a magnet.

And here she is. Kali Ma. Ready to hack off your illusion. 

And here she is. Kali Ma. Ready to hack off your illusion.