The Baba Downstairs
The Life Story of a
Misfit Indian Saint
City Lion Press, 2022
Chapter 1: In Which the Scene is Set
Chapter 2: Vikram's Story Begins
Chapter 3: Taking Birth
Chapter 4: Stirrings from Below
Chapter 5: Love at First Sight
Chapter 6: Wrestling for Survival
Chapter 7: An Engineering Admission
Chapter 8: An Engineer's Training
Chapter 9: A Marriageable Age
Chapter 10: Married Life
Chapter 11: Becoming Anchorless
Chapter 12: An Awakening
Chapter 13: A New Integration
Chapter 14: Into the Inferno
Chapter 15: Reinstatement
Chapter 16: Eight Year Descent
Chapter 17: The Accident
Chapter 18: The Frozen Signature
Chapter 19: Time's Disintegration
Chapter 20: Ramana Maharshi & Vincent Van Gogh
Chapter 21: The Fakir and the King
Chapter 22: Emptying
Chapter 23: Rebirth
Chapter 24: Life's Review
Chapter 25: The Last Night?
About the Author
Also by Thomas K. Shor
“I felt as if I’d entered a scene I’d sometimes imagined as an opening for an as-yet unwritten piece of fiction...”
This book tells the true story of an Indian man named Vikram, whose strange fate it was to be born with a large birthmark identical to the birthmark of the holy man, or baba, who died immediately after blessing Vikram’s mother to have a son. So from the very beginning, Vikram was raised as the old baba’s reincarnation.
At first Vikram goes along with it. He even believes it. He tries, in his childish way, to play the part. But when he probes his suspicions and discovers he possesses no special powers or insights, his course is set for rebellion. He becomes a wrestler, an engineer, embraces communism and atheism, and explores existentialism. He goes deaf, falls in love, and probes the darker side of human nature, always dogged by the stamp on his arm, his mind attuned to the deeper questions of life and the search for something foundational.
Determined to do everything a baba is not supposed to do, he enters what he calls “the Inferno of the Passions,” a course that leads him to the very threshold of death. Having spent much of his life trying to “kill the baba,” to rid himself of this adjective that was imposed upon him at birth, in the end he himself is transformed with an illumination, an opening to the underlying oneness such as that experienced by the Indian mystics and the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu.
When Vikram moves in downstairs, the author’s quiet writing routine in his home in a sprawling Himalayan village is disrupted. At their first meeting, this odd stranger, now quite old and near the end of his days, shoves a book of mystic philosophy that he himself wrote into the author’s hands and begins his tale. The author listens, takes up his pen, and weaves the stories together into this fascinating narrative, at once entertaining and enlightening.
The Baba Downstairs
City Lion Press, 2022
188 Pages / 6" X 9" (15.24 X 22.86 cm)
Paperback ISBN: 9781957890685
Hardcover ISBN: 9781957890968
eBook ISBN: 9781957890289
Read the Opening Chapter:
In Which the Scene is Set
Even before we agreed that Vikram would tell me his life story in an organized fashion so I could write it, in fact at our very first meeting, when he handed me a book he himself had written, I had a feeling almost like déjà vu. It wasn’t quite a déjà vu in that I did not feel as if I’d been in that situation before. It was even stranger, as if I’d entered a scene I’d sometimes imagined as an opening scene for an as-yet unwritten piece of fiction.
Though I mainly write stories based on real people and events, I do occasionally have ideas for a piece of fiction swimming around in my head. Some of them never go beyond the state of idle daydream. Others I put to paper and work on from time to time. Sometimes they develop into something; sometimes they go away.
One persistent scene I’ve sometimes imagined is an encounter between the narrator of the story—a probably only slightly veiled me—and an older man. Something marks out their meeting, perhaps a coincidence, which singles out the one for the other and lends to the encounter a significance beyond just two strangers meeting, as if some purpose was lurking in the background.
In the course of their encounter the younger man comes to realize the old man is not ordinary, but seems to be a man who knows by experience that for which many strive. It’s as if he’d actually stumbled upon some kind of a modern-day sage.
Usually, the imagined encounter occurs in some city, perhaps in Europe, in a park by a river, maybe on a sunny Sunday afternoon. When they are about to part, the old man takes from his bag a book and gives it to the younger man. Then they part, never to see each other again.
When the narrator gets home, he looks at the book and realizes it was handmade and probably the only copy in existence. It is a record of the old man’s life, a chronical of his experiences, and it holds the key to his unusual understanding.
I never jotted the idea down, let alone wrote the story with this scene at its core. This is because I never filled in the tremendous gaps—such as what was contained in the book. It was just a scene with an atmosphere that returned to my daydreaming imagination from time to time, an old man imparting the gift of his wisdom in such a way.
Now we come to the story contained in the following pages. None of the particulars of my imagined encounter match, yet there is something uncannily similar in the essentials. Dreams have a way of grasping a situation in symbolic form. What is missed in the specifics is captured in the essence. Life can sometimes also take on this quality we call dreamlike when things line up in a meaningful way. That is rather how my encounter with Vikram occurred.
I’ve often wondered just how stories come. While it is true that my antennae are out—still, it sometimes seems the stories come looking for me. I say this only half in jest. At the very least, an interesting dynamic sometimes comes into play. In this case I didn’t go in search of anything; it was Vikram who moved in downstairs, and at the beginning I tried my best to avoid him.
First let me set the scene. My wife, Barbara, and I have kept a home in the Himalayan foothills just south of Kashmir for the past twelve years, at which we spend a good chunk of our time living quietly and writing. We have the upstairs of a sprawling mud, stone, wood, and slate roof house built in the 1940s by a well-to-do local family. It has three-foot-thick walls and wooden floors and a lot of crumbling beauty. The house has multiple gates and entrances and verandas set around two courtyards. Though situated in the middle of the village, it is surrounded by terraced fields in which the caretaker tethers his cows and, according to the season, has small patches of corn, wheat, and vegetables. This buffer insures that there are few distractions; therefore, it is a perfect place for my wife, an anthropologist, and I to write.
While at other times of the year we have other commitments and are quite social, we come to this Himalayan village for many months at a time. We live quietly with little to disturb us, dividing our time between writing and taking long afternoon walks into the steep wooded mountains above the village.
Our landlord lives far away. Apart from the caretaker and his wife and young daughter, who live on the other side of the back courtyard, we have had the place mostly to ourselves. Occasionally, during the twelve years that we’ve been coming there, our landlord has rented out two collections of rooms downstairs, usually only for a month or two at a time. Sometimes these people disturb our peace, sometimes not. Regardless, we naturally prefer it when the house is empty and we have the place to ourselves. Then we can live with our windows wide open to the mountain silence, punctuated only by the sounds of birds and cows, sheep, and when school is out the sounds of distant children at play.
So perhaps you can understand our initial dismay when Vikram moved in. Before we even laid eyes on him, we heard him—loud and clear. His was a voice that could cut right through the thickest stone walls. As he passed beneath us, we could hear that he was Indian, but not local since he was speaking to the caretaker in Hindi, not the hill dialect particular to this part of the Himalayas. His normal voice, it seemed, was loud as another man’s yell. This did not bode well.
About an hour after things had quieted down and it seemed he had settled in, the silence was broken by the sound of our front door being violently shaken. Somebody was trying to force it open, and it could be none other than our new neighbor.
Barbara and I work at opposite sides of the L-shaped upstairs of the house. We joke that she is in the West Wing and I’m in the East. We met in the middle, at our violently rattling door, a double wooden door such as you find in these older houses. It opens out from the middle directly onto the top of a steep and narrow wooden staircase. Carefully, we unlatched the doors and opened them just a crack, for he was standing on the narrow top stair pressed up against the door with his hands still tugging on the handles. We didn’t want to swipe him off.
We told him through the closed door to back down a few steps so we could open the doors enough to speak. Apparently he understood, for he complied. Because the stairs were so steep, his head was almost on level with our feet. His hair was white and disheveled, his chin showed many days of neglect, and he looked startled. He seemed a bit confused by our sudden appearance so high above him. One hand was clutching the wooden banister. The other was pressed against the opposite whitewashed wall to steady himself. His breath was labored from the exertion of climbing the staircase, which was almost as steep as a ladder.
Though now quite old, and obviously not in great health, he was large and one could imagine he had once been powerfully built. Sputtering something in a mix of Hindi and English about the rooftop and wanting to get a view of the surrounding mountains, he must have realized—as I’m sure we made clear—that there was no rooftop view and that this was our home and therefore a private space. I’m afraid to say we didn’t give him much time for his faltering apology. Since it looked as if he was going to resume his ascent into our front room at any moment, we pulled the door shut, renewing our vow to have nothing to do with him. He could easily spoil our peace.
Ours is the last village before the foothills give way to the high mountains. The steep uninhabited wooded slope above the village yields to ever higher peaks, beyond which are the razor-sharp snowy peaks and glaciers of the Himalayas proper. Most late afternoons we quit our desks and climb into this forest or up the tight ravine through which the river flows from the heights. The only others we see up there are usually a few of the older folks grazing their goats.
As I said, the house has multiple courtyards and exits. To get to the forest we have to leave the house by way of the back veranda, off of which are a couple of rooms, which were now occupied by Vikram.
When we opened the screen door to the veranda, which runs along a good portion of that side of the house, Vikram was walking back and forth across its length. His hands clasped behind his back, his pace slow and measured, it looked as if he was meditating—or doing laps. His eyes were trained on the ground before him, as if he were deep in thought, so deep that he didn’t seem to notice our arrival, even though we let the screen door slap shut behind us.
It wasn’t until he turned that he noticed us.
“Hello,” he called out. And in perfect—though uncomfortably loud—English he introduced himself as Vikram Singh. He told us that he was from the Punjab, and that he would be staying through the monsoon.
“For the last years, I’ve preferred to absent myself from my life back home for a few months every year. I leave my home and I don’t tell anyone where I’m going. That way I cannot be disturbed. I go during the monsoon. I prefer to be in the mountains when it rains. I find it peaceful. Maybe one year I’ll truly retire from the world. I’ll simply disappear and not return when the rains are over. That would keep them guessing!”
Vikram laughed, and it was somehow impossible not to laugh with him.
“The caretaker told me you were a writer,” he said, taking on a more serious tone. “I too have written a book.” He rocked his head Indian style to add emphasis to this fact. He looked me deeply in the eye. “This book took me twelve years to write. Who knows? Maybe you will find it interesting.”
When I asked him what it was about, he didn’t respond. He didn’t even seem to register the question. Then I got it. I understood why his voice tended to be unnecessarily loud: he was deaf, or perhaps nearly so.
On a windowsill next to his door was the book in question, a paperback, on the ready, I suppose, for this very moment. He handed it to me and told me I may keep it. I was slightly taken aback. I had hardly just met the man, and it appeared to be his own well-traveled copy. It was badly dog-eared and had various phone numbers and who knows what little notes and addresses written in Punjabi on the title page and on the inside of the covers. It looked as if he had been carrying it around for years. The book itself was written in English. The cover, which was so creased from time and travel that I could hardly make it out, depicted planets floating in deep blue interstellar space. It was called A Grain of Truth. I took it and thanked him. The sun was not long to setting, so we didn’t have much time for our walk. Slipping it into the backpack with the water bottle, we continued on our way.
When we got home, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down with the book. Though he called it A Grain of Truth, I quickly surmised it was some kind of Theory of Everything. It had complicated diagrams, some of them hand-drawn, with captions about the various forms of infinity, about the ‘Actual,’ ‘Virtual,’ and ‘Spiritual’ worlds. I started reading here and there, but found it so dense I wondered whether I’d have the patience. I’m not usually one to go in for these big theories. It was published by some publishing house in London I’d never heard of. I tried reading here and there, but it was thick. It looked in need of a good edit. The quality of the printing and the layout were not particularly good.
I turned to Chapter 1, which opened by saying it might be presumptuous of him to put his thoughts down in a book since he was “neither a writer nor a philosopher, a mystic nor a scientist.” This confession, together with the fact that he was obviously presenting some sort of Theory of Everything, lowered any expectations I might have had. Somehow I got distracted, and got no further.
The next day, I was taking the compost bucket outside to give some pea shuckings to the cows. Again, Vikram was pacing steadily if slowly across the wide veranda at the back entrance to the house. Evidently feeling the need to explain why he was pacing back and forth every time I came down, he told me he had, as he called it, a ‘heart defect’ that tended to cause his heart to ‘malfunction.’ Being at an advanced age, even this slow and measured pacing was about all he could handle.
Monsoon at our altitude can be quite cool, and it had been raining. He was wearing plastic chappals and was dressed in wide-fitting kurta pajamas. He was wrapped in a brown Kullu shawl. He told me it was a kind of meditation for him, to slowly walk back and forth across the veranda.
He explained that some two or three years back he had had a pain in his chest and was rushed to the hospital where he was told he needed immediate emergency bypass surgery. He didn’t follow the doctor’s instructions. In fact, he just went back home, threw out the medicine the doctor had prescribed, and never went for the surgery. Though he had had further episodes, he hadn’t seen a doctor since.
When he made clear just how precarious his condition was, he did so with a certain wink of the eye, a little sparkle, a glint, as if he were making a point—a philosophical point—saying he did not resist but actually embraced the possibility of his imminent and sudden demise, as if it added acuteness to his perceptions. One had the sense he was somehow saying one mustn’t hold much importance to such things.
He seemed a man unusually sure of his place in the world, as if he once had held a position of importance. You can tell it from the way some people occupy space. I could well imagine he was retired from some important post, but his demeanor suggested something more. Perhaps he had left it all behind. His hair was a bit long and wild, as if he hadn’t seen a barber in some time. Little droplets of moisture had condensed on it. It looked as if it had been knotted by the wind.
I knew well the rooms he was renting—a first room with windows to the back garden, a dark bedroom, and a simple bathroom. They faced north, received no direct sunlight, and were damp. Not the place you’d choose for spending the monsoon.
He asked whether I had read his book, and I told him I had been busy and only had time to glance at it, but that it looked intriguing. I had to say something. It was difficult to tell whether he could hear any of what I said or whether he got it by lipreading, but he seemed to get the gist of it.
A thunderstorm was brewing on the mountain, and I had hoped to complete my little errand with the compost before it hit. I told him that I’d be back but I had to go to the cows before the rain. He did not hear me—or chose not to. So I stood there with the overflowing compost bucket, the bank of swiftly moving cloud darkening the sky, and the cows waiting in the field.
He cleared his throat and began speaking. I had the feeling he had been thinking about what to say. “I wanted to speak to you about my book,” he said. “I am well aware that it is difficult in places, and probably incomplete. Still, I believe that beneath its exterior faults it contains at least a kernel of truth. That is why I called the book A Grain of Truth.” He said this with a touch of irony. He even laughed, exposing a set of brilliantly white teeth. Despite his problems ordering his thoughts with the written word, his spoken English had a self-assurance about it. It also seemed he had an agenda.
He paused. This time I didn’t even try to interrupt. It was a strange situation, to say the least. Because he was deaf, or nearly so, in his presence I was effectively mute. I could speak, but since there was nobody there to hear, what was the use?
He was collecting his thoughts, looking out over the wooded hills rising out of the mist.
“Even if I were a writer,” he said, “and able to produce a beautifully written book, I wouldn’t expect most people these days to understand it.”
I gestured the question why. He seemed pleased I was so quick to accommodate his hearing.
“It is because these days most people are hypnotized by a certain mode of thought that is both dominated and limited by pure rationality, by the scientific way of seeing. It originated in the West, but I’m afraid it has now infected the East as well. It is a worldwide phenomenon, a mark of our age.”
He was silent for a moment and gave me a peculiar look, as if sizing me up. I had the feeling he was deciding whether I was one of the hypnotized, or whether I was capable of understanding what he wanted to say next.
He made a gesture that encompassed the mountains shrouded in mist, the house, and the two of us. Then he continued in a softer tone, as if taking me into his confidence. There was a look of childlike wonder in his aged eyes. “Look around at our world,” he said. “Everything we see follows certain natural laws, the laws of nature. Watch how water condenses into clouds and rises up from the valley. See the rain falling to the earth. Feel the wind, the weight of your body on the soles of your feet. Knock your fist on a wooden table to feel something solid. Watch how water flows. See it all by the light of the sun. Consider the myriad stars and galaxies. Physicists have examined the universe, from the subatomic to the inter-stellar, and they have reduced it to the interplay of four basic forces or energies—gravity, the electromagnetic, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. Isn’t that fantastic? The whole workings of the universe can be understood by only four forces!
“Now they are looking for the Grand Unified Theory that will reduce the four forces to the one behind them. Yes, they hope to account for everything in a single equation. With this, they believe, they will have the ultimate key, that which lays bare the underlying workings of the entire universe. Even Einstein spent his later years searching for an equation that would reduce those four forces to one.
“But I don’t believe they will ever succeed, not by following the road they’re on. You only have to read what the physicists say about their coveted Grand Theory—that elusive single equation that will explain it all, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the subatomic to the intergalactic—to see that for them it is like the quest for the Holy Grail. It arises from the same longing that has dogged humanity from the beginning, the longing for something ultimate, a final word, an ultimate understanding. They hope to clothe in mathematical symbols that which in earlier times was clothed in theological or philosophical terms. The physicists are looking for the mathematical equivalent to the Biblical I AM.”
A gust of wind rode up the valley and swirled around us. Vikram looked me deep in the eyes. “The quest has always been the realization of this unity. You can’t learn how to realize it. Nobody can teach you to see the underlying unity behind all the division and separation of what we in the East refer to as the 10,000 things. It is acquired in a different manner than the acquisition of any kind of knowledge. The quest for this unity, for this understanding, is unique, and it always has been. It will not conform to mathematics, theology, or philosophy. It will always slip out of your fingers if you grasp after it. It is that which lies beyond. You either get it or you don’t. There is nothing incremental about it. No amount of piling up of knowledge or facts will get you there. It would be like trying to build a tower to reach the sky. No matter how high your tower, the sky would always be above you, it would always be beyond your reach. Science is based on knowledge that builds over time. We speak of the progress of science. And it has been tremendous. One can only wonder at the incredible advances in science that we’ve seen.
“But couldn’t it also be true, as mystics have proclaimed from the beginning, that certain things can only be known as a whole, and come to one in a flash, that there are certain shifts of perspective that no piling up of facts or knowledge can ever reach, insights that come not by education and the building up of knowledge upon knowledge, but come as a tremendous ah-ha, ready-made, complete, and self-evident, due to an experience? Maybe we could call it intuition, an immediate cognition or spiritual perception. What the mystics have by direct experience can never be found by plodding reason. No equation can ever encompass it. Sometimes there are great leaps involved, quantum changes, flashes of insight. Even in an individual’s life. Just think of falling in love!
“That book I gave you, it took me twelve years to write. It was the result of a transformation I underwent, an experience I had—and an insight I gained—that almost cost me my life, quite literally. I had to wrestle it from the very depths of my being. I nearly died in the process.
“Sometimes something has to dissolve before something new can be born. I’m talking not just about an accumulation of knowledge or a new theory, but a transformation as the result of experience. This is how you affect a quantum jump in your understanding. Neither learned nor taught, this can only be known by direct experience. No equation will ever encompass it. And it is only once experienced that a thing is known. This has been the teachings of the sages of India from the ancient rishis to the 20th century sage of South India, Ramana Maharshi.”
He gazed back over the hills, now almost engulfed in the mists. “I don’t know whether anyone has actually succeeded in reading my book from cover to cover, and I don’t expect people nowadays to understand it. Then why did I write it? Sometimes I muse that there may come a time, an age, when as a species we have evolved such that the understanding I wrestled from the deep is reflected in the common understanding of the day. Maybe they’ll marvel, and they will look back in time and say, ‘Somebody understood, even back then!’ “Maybe I even wrote it for that person in the distant future, just so they know that someone way-back-when saw beyond the horizon of their present day and understood a grain of the truth! It would be like finding a manuscript written in the Middle Ages that demonstrates how the earth revolves around the sun, and that the sun is a rather ordinary star imbedded in one out of a million million galaxies!”
He made a gesture, an upturned palm, that made light of everything. “More probably my book will lie in eternal obscurity.” A smile crossed his face. Then he laughed, his white teeth gleaming in the gathering storm.
I took my leave and ran out to where the cows were tethered, distributed the pea shuckings, and ran back inside just as the storm overtook the village.
That night I spent more time with his book, enough to get the gist of it. His ideas were structured on those four forces the physicists have reduced the universe to. He then sees these four forces reflected in everything, from the stages of the individual’s life to the four stages of recurring, cyclical human history.
He was not being overly humble when he said the book was not well written. It seemed to be the product of someone whose ideas were secure, but whose writing was hobbled by a certain inability—probably due to a lack of writing experience. Though not necessarily diminishing the validity of his ideas, it did make it difficult to penetrate. He quoted widely and appeared quite well read, especially in Western philosophy and science. This was because he thought the Western, post-Enlightenment scientific gaze was the latest stage in humanity’s evolution and he was concerned with what comes next. Many of the authors he referred to were almost quaintly old fashioned, yet solid. He wove together everything from Neils Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics to Bertrand Russell. He quoted Emerson, Einstein, Sartre, Camus, Galileo, as well as Buddha and especially Lao Tzu. Although he had full command of the English language and possessed a rich vocabulary, his ideas were somehow veiled by the book itself and by the density of his prose, as if in acknowledgement that words could ultimately express what he had to say no more than science could contain it.
His scholarship was messy in places. This bothered me at first. It made me question the whole thing, his theory of the four forces.
I had to wonder whether the force the physicists speak of when they use the word gravity was really the force behind the first of four stages of life, childhood, when the child learns to overcome gravity by learning to stand and to walk.
Was he speaking only metaphorically when he wrote that when the child becomes a youth and enters adolescence, he falls under the sway of the second force, the electro-magnetic force, with its attractions and repulsions, represented by an adolescent’s sexual desires, accompanied by love and its opposite, hate?
Could the third force, the strong nuclear force, that which holds the subatomic particles in the atom’s nucleus, really be the force behind adulthood, of reasoned thought and the founding of a home and family on this earth?
Or the fourth force, what the physicists call the weak nuclear force—responsible for nuclear decay: does he mean to say it is literally the force that moves us as individuals or as a culture as a whole beyond the realm of reason, where the dominance of rational thought is replaced by intuition and intimations of the return to what he calls the One, the matrix from which we all derive our being?
Despite its flaws and my natural aversion to all such Theories of Everything, despite the difficulty with which he presented his material, I was beginning to be intrigued—perhaps less about the particulars of his ideas than about the man himself. Who was this man who moved in downstairs, and what had I to do with him? Was he a crank? A sage? Something in-between? Maybe an idiosyncratic mix of the two? He was unquestionably sincere and passionate about his ideas.
In one particularly lucid section he explained that his was a mystic vision, encompassing not only the portion of the cycle that lies between birth and death, when we find ourselves ‘entangled’ in the forces of nature (Vikram’s four forces), and subject to a certain finite span of time; his ideas considered what he called the ‘greater circle,’ starting with that from which we came and that to which we shall return, a state of uninterrupted oneness, a non-dual state, such as is found at the core of many a mystical school, from Plato on down, and which he insisted is ever present and can be experienced now.
Whether you believe in such a ‘greater circle’ or not is not important. What is important, in order to understand Vikram’s ideas, is that from his point of view, since we are ultimately to become free from these forces, they are not permanently with us; we find ourselves entangled in them, and one by one we can disentangle ourselves from them and be free.
Each stage in life is under one of the forces and presents its lessons to learn, or as he said on many occasions, one must find one’s center of balance in the force in order to master it; once you do that you will naturally outgrow that force, that stage in life, that particular stage in the big sweep from the One back to the One. By nature, once you find your balance and come to your center in one of the forces you will then automatically start coming under the influence of the next force, which will present new challenges, throw you off center, and force you to master it. Thus, the boy becomes a youth; the old man learns to grapple with the larger questions as he approaches his end in time.
His was a vision of nature without a creator, arising from the very nature and fabric of the universe itself. If there is One, he contends, then there must be many. They arise together. Just as you cannot talk of light if there was no darkness to juxtapose it. Each force engenders the spontaneous arising of its counterforce, every concept its opposite. It is like a ripple on a still pool: if there is a wave, there must also be a trough. How can you have high without low, big without small, birth without death, or even happy without sad? It would be meaningless for one to exist without the other. Within the One is the very seed of the many; within unity is the seed of division—and vice versa. If you have contraction, you must also have expansion. The mighty oak tree gets contracted into an acorn. The acorn expands into a tree.
Although his ideas were intriguing, I had to wonder just how literally or metaphorically he really took his equating these forces of physics with the development of the individual human being and historical culture. Did he really mean to say history has been cycling through these four forces since time immemorial? Were they merely analogous to the forces the physicists speak of? Being something of a scholar myself, and being married to one, there was a lot for me to swallow.
But then I changed tacks. I started looking upon his book as allegory, as if it were an alchemical treatise. Regardless of whether, ultimately, he was writing metaphorically or not, I took it as such. After all, was the philosopher’s stone really just a stone? Was the gold the alchemists sought really the one found on the chemists’ periodic table, something you could take to the jeweler to be tested, weighed, and sold?
He sometimes used facts like a painter used colors: he would mix them in the pallet of his mind, the one influencing the other as profoundly as blue and yellow combine to produce a new color, green, according to some internal, inherent law. One had the impression that since what he wanted to express was beyond words anyway, he had no problem using words and facts in whatever way he deemed necessary to convey what was inherently inexpressible. In this way he was a bit of a trickster, a chameleon, always changing colors, sometimes using contradiction to get his point across, impossible to pin down.
He insisted one should live such that no adjective can stick to you, so no word could pin you down and define you. His scruples were different than that of a scholar. A scholar forms his or her ideas around the facts. Vikram used facts to clothe his ideas. His book, dense as a gnarled block of oak, made an impassioned case for another way of knowing, one that the rational mind had to be almost tricked into not derailing.
I couldn’t help being moved by the audacity of what his book attempted to do: it bit off not only a chunk, but the entire universe and offered a unified vision. He had obviously had some profound and shattering experience, what could even be called a mystical experience, a vision of wholeness, which his book was written—imperfectly by his own admission—to express.
The first question would naturally be whether his vision was true, whether it offered some fundamental insight, reaching to some sort of ultimate understanding, or whether it was simply the impassioned expression of a man perhaps gone a bit mad by his own inward gaze.
This raises one of the thorniest questions regarding the pronouncements of people who proclaim mystic knowledge. While scientific knowledge is based on rational and repeatable fact, mystic knowledge is based, fundamentally, on individual experience. For a scientific fact to hold true, it must adhere strictly to cause and effect. If the conditions of a particular experiment are met, if the causes are the same, then the results must be reproducible for a scientific truth to be arrived at, whether the experiment is conducted in New York or Tokyo. Mystic experience, by contrast, is by its very nature individual and unique, idiosyncratic, and particular. Perhaps there are no conditions that must be met to produce mystic experience.
Regardless of whether you have ever experienced a mystical insight, whether you believe they exist or whether you think they are a load of bunk and that everyone who has ever claimed one is subject to delusion, one must at least acknowledge that in most every time and clime, in cultures from East to West, from the Old World to the New, from Europe to Africa, from India to Central America, from the 21st century stretching back at least to the dawn of history, there have always been people who have claimed to have had fundamental mystical experience. In fact, many great movements of human culture have been founded by such people, including most of the world’s major religions.
Those who have studied such things have found certain common elements in the mystics’ insights, such as a powerful experience of oneness. They speak of a certain level of seeing, a way of perceiving the world, that comes upon one in an instant, and which lays bare the unity behind diversity, a unifying, binding, and sometimes blindingly powerful force that some have called Love, some God, some Tao, some Buddha Nature. Some simply use the word Truth with a capital T.
Again, whether you believe their experiences are true or not, it is an experience purported from most every time, place, and culture. It is an element of the human condition, a human phenomenon, and therefore, I believe, worthy of examination.
Another common element to the mystics’ path is that it often comes at a cost. The mystic must die to who and what they were, as if a new body and mind, a new vessel were needed to contain their insight. It is even said mystics are the ‘twice-born,’ those who have died while living. It involves a transformation, practically a new birth, perhaps what the caterpillar experiences when it emerges as a butterfly.
The literature is full of people driven to the point of despair, who experience the dissolution of the ego, surrender to something greater, a sort of death and rebirth, often wrestling with the deepest and darkest forces in places most of us would not go—not unless compelled. Think of Jesus in the desert tempted by Satan; Buddha under the Bodhi tree and his encounter with the demon Mara. There are innumerable other mystics, less well known or even entirely obscure, people who base their knowing not on anything learned or what can be taught, but who have undergone similar transformative experiences. They have what they call their direct experience and base their knowing on that, which of course flies in the face of the thinking of our rational age.
Because they have experience, they tend to act as if they know, as if their knowing is unassailable. And it is true, on a certain level, that to truly know something is to have experienced it. Hearing about the sweetness of honey is not the same as tasting it. There is a different level of knowing. While you might be able to use words to describe the taste of honey from what you’ve read or from what others have told you, he who has tasted honey, while he might not be able to express it, he alone will know it. That is how mystics tend to speak, how they write, how they express what they’ve experienced.
And just because someone has had experience of what the mystics speak, it doesn’t mean he or she has either the wish or the capability to express it. The experience can come through anyone, literate or illiterate, high born or low; one time it could be a poet-philosopher, the next a carpenter. It could even be someone who to all the world appears an idiot. Yet they redefine what the human organism is capable of, what understanding is possible, often sputtering near unintelligible words of oneness, of love, of unity, sometimes imagined as a land beyond cares, what some describe as a place of bliss.
Some say we all knew this state in childhood and that we can see it reflected in a baby’s face. Plato says all true learning is but a remembering of what we knew before the trauma of our birth as separate beings. Wordsworth wrote his poem about the child’s intimations of immortality, saying babies and young children still know the paradise we are searching for, before it ‘fades into the light of common day.’ This is what Vikram would call the oneness from which we come and to which we ultimately shall all return, which, because it is unitary, arises concurrently with its very opposite, the manifest world and all the separate things and creatures that inhabit it.
The way to this understanding is not easy. It is not likely many will undertake such a journey. For instance, I am myself probably too comfortable in my skin and with my life to burn it all away. Usually, if you look at the life story of a mystic, you will find something that compelled them to go so far. Often it is pain, some maladjustment of their selves with the world, something that forces them to dive in such deep and dangerous waters.
Mystics are rare. Their paths are by definition idiosyncratic by the very fact that they have passed through, overcome, or simply disregarded what the existing social and societal world expects of them. They dive deep into the borderlands of human experience, deep into the ocean of being, and come back with a vision, a notion, an insight, or a boon. Mystics are varied and individual. They have plowed their row so deep that they hit some sort of gold. Some go mad in the process. Some are certainly cranks, people with an oversized opinion of their place in the world.
The next morning I met Vikram again on the back veranda. My interest had been piqued, and though the compost bucket was only half filled, I took it out, hoping he would be there. I felt something was perhaps happening. We had lived in this house for good chunks of the year for the past twelve years. I had been despairing a little of late—wondering when, where, and even whether the next story would come. I had told myself many times that for a story to be yours, it will have to come naturally. You cannot go out looking for it. Nothing had come for quite a long time. I had recently been wondering whether it ever would. There was no guarantee. There was nothing I could do.
When I opened the door to cross the back veranda he was there again, pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back, his steps deliberate. He smiled when he saw me and stopped.
He began talking. Again, I had the feeling he had been thinking of what to say. This time he wanted to speak not so much about his ideas, but about his life, and he started at the very beginning, with his birth. I didn’t quite know why he wanted to tell me all this, but he was determined. It seemed he was a man of tremendous will, and was used to exerting it. It almost felt as if I were being ambushed.
“I was marked from birth,” he began, “stamped you could almost say, labeled with an adjective with which I’ve had to wrestle my entire life. You see, quite literally from the moment I was born there was the expectation put upon me that I would become some kind of holy man, an enlightened saint, what we in India call a baba. It was all because of this,” and he pushed the loose sleeve of his cotton kurta to his elbow. Extending his arm, he showed me the underside of his forearm, which was dominated by a long, oblong-shaped thick black birthmark with straight white hairs growing out of it.
“This birthmark was identical to the birthmark on a saint’s arm who had recently expired at a very advanced age. Naturally—if you know anything of Indian culture—they thought I was him, the ancient sage come back into the body of a child.
Just imagine what this was like, being raised as if I had special mystic knowledge. My mother even consulted me as an oracle. But, being an intelligent boy, I had to ask myself, especially as I grew older, whether I really had that direct connection with the god, the force, or whatever mystic knowledge they thought it was that I possessed. So you see, even as a boy, I had to ask the deeper questions. It was imposed upon me along with this birthmark on my arm. It forced me to ask the deeper questions from an unnaturally early age. Such was the force of the label that was placed upon me.”
Vikram got a glint in his eye, mischievous, as if he was imparting a secret. He lowered his voice: “Live such that no one can make an adjective stick to you. That’s what it taught me. Accept no one’s label. In fact, confuse them. Act one way one moment, and another way the next. Make them wonder. Make them guess. Is he a good man or a bad? Could he really be a saint? Or is he a rogue? What is he? Is he a mystic, or is he just a fool?
“Yes, let nothing stick to you, and be stuck to nothing. Then you will be free—free to be spontaneous, free to be who and what you originally are, free to act on the great stage without undue identification with whatever role the moment calls upon you to play. That is the real freedom. It has nothing to do with the chains another man can put you in. It is the chains you put yourself that are the most difficult to loosen. They are invisible and often unconscious.
“If they can define you, if society can make a label stick, if they think they know who or what you are, then, quite naturally, and perhaps unconsciously, you will begin conforming to that expectation. You’ll start fitting into their box. In one stroke, you will have lost both your freedom and your spontaneity. Yes, better to be a shape-shifter and keep them guessing. If even one adjective sticks to you then you are not traveling as light as you can, and you cannot pass through.”
I cannot now remember precisely how we came to the idea that I would hear and perhaps write his story. But it happened that day, as I stood there with the compost bucket half-filled on the back veranda. Maybe I don’t remember how we decided because it already seemed a foregone conclusion, the logical outcome of his living downstairs and me upstairs. It was as if we both knew that’s what it was all about. It was a natural match, a writer looking for a story and a man with one to tell.
All I know is that by the end of our encounter that day on the veranda we had agreed that I would come down the next morning at ten o’clock, and that we would take up his story in a more serious and consistent way.
And so it was that during that entire rainy season I came down for one and often two sessions a day. We sat in his front room on two old wooden chairs separated by a small round wooden table, his windows open wide to the intermittent and sometimes heavy monsoon rain. When the clouds came low, or rose up from the valley and the fog entered the room we were literally steeped in it. Monsoon in India, especially in the rural mountainous areas, is a peaceful and languorous time of year. People don’t travel. It is too wet to work the fields, too wet to go about. That’s what added to the remarkable situation: even though it was the monsoon, I didn’t need an umbrella or mud boots to go to him! I’d just kick on my chappals, gather up my paper and pen, and, often balancing a hot cup of coffee, go downstairs to the back veranda.
Knocking gently on his screen door I’d let myself in. Usually, he would already be sitting in his front room and with a gesture invite me to sit. And without chitchat about the weather, unless it had been extreme, he’d clear his throat and just start speaking.
It always seemed obvious that he had been thinking about what to say, even though he often picked up far from where he left off the day before. Early on, I tried to keep him on track and ask him such innocent questions as, “And then what happened?” But because of his hearing, normal conversation was not possible. If I interrupted him, as I often tried to early on, he either wouldn’t notice or he would stop his monologue to listen and lipread and guess my meaning, but it was often a struggle.
We had these strange and often useless conversations, like when I interrupted him to ask his age at a particular point in his story.
“What was your age?” I asked.
“What page?” He cupped his hand around his ear to better hear.
“No. Age. What age were you?”
“What was my name?”
And on and on. So whenever I had a question or comment that was important enough to merit an interruption, I would hold my hand out to signal him to stop, tear a page out of my notebook, and write the question out. Then I’d hold it up to him. He would put on his reading glasses and read it, then answer—or not, according to his fancy.
The entire process of stopping him, writing out my question, then showing it to him broke his flow to such an extent that I interrupted him only when absolutely necessary. He was well able to speak without a break for an hour or two at a time, and to continue unabated until I had to stop him to tell him I had to go to lunch or whatever it was I had to do.
He was a great and enthusiastic story teller, gesticulating the whole time, often breaking off into laughter, in turns serious and treating it as if it were all nothing, of no importance whatsoever. His hands were seldom at rest. This was all in such contrast to his written word, where his words tended to veil and obscure his ideas, probably because the written word has pretenses to permanency. He once said that this entire life, it comes and goes, and that we should not give in to the illusion of permanence. All of life, he said, is like writing on water.
And what was even more remarkable was that though he read English books, even the English poets and philosophers, and even though he wrote in English, he had only rarely had the opportunity to actually speak it. English for him was like a scholar’s Latin, read, but rarely heard. His vocabulary was superb, and he was well capable of expressing difficult ideas and all the emotions of his tumultuous life.
His accent, however, was difficult. He tended to add a syllable at the end of his words, often with a vowel sound, much like Italians sometimes do when speaking English. So it took quite some getting used to, and a lot of concentration.
Since he directed the flow of the narrative with minimal intervention on my part, the ordering of his story was almost as individual and idiosyncratic as he was. He picked up and dropped themes and phases of his life in what could only be termed an organic manner, the hidden threads of narrative known only to himself. It sometimes left my head spinning. Since it was so difficult to interrupt, I gave in. I listened attentively, took notes, and trusted that in the end I’d have a record of the whole story from beginning to end and from top to bottom. What else could I do?
Although we were engaged in a project with a common purpose, namely his imparting to me the stories that made up his life, we had different reasons for spending the monsoon doing so. I was interested in perhaps one day writing his story, even though from the start we were clear that although we were both expending an extraordinary amount of time and energy, I was under no obligation to do so. From his side I often had the feeling that by telling his tale, by laying it out in all its details as he had never done before, he was in some way coming to terms with the strange and sometimes unsettling course his life had taken, that it somehow fit in his own evolution, that in the telling there was also a reckoning. It sometimes seemed I was recording his confession.
In the pages that follow I have worked Vikram’s story into a coherent whole, occasionally filling in the gaps. Given my preference for true stories of real people, you might well ask whether what follows is fiction or non-fiction. The most accurate and honest answer would be that though the stories are his, the words, while retaining his voice, are mine. I have shaped his story, and tell it mostly upon the chronological ordering of events. In other words, beginning at the beginning.
Now that the context has been provided for the story that follows, I will retreat to the background and let Vikram tell the story himself, just as he spoke it to me, that is, without interruption. Therefore, I hand it over to him, and I will return in the Epilogue.