When one of the slum children places a rock in my hand, she tells me: "Where I come from they say there is no difference between God and a stone." The girl and I understand that to identify this object as a rock in incidental. What she has left in my open palm is a language. A skeleton key. An instrument that makes a sound known to penetrates deaf ears. She knows that when it leaves my hand to trace its arc, this otherwise unremarkable object, which only two days before could still be identified as part of a wall in her home, will sink like karma into the flesh that reduced it to rubble. About a hundred pairs of eyes are waiting expectantly. I am surrounded and I've lost sight of Vikrum. Someone says what has until now remained unspoken: "Stop the bulldozers."
When I met Vikrum in the Himalayas, navigating through goats and children on the boulder strewn slopes, through occasional small villages of terraced green fields drowning in mustard flowers on the way to the snowline, I could not have predicted that our friendship would result in my being asked to lead a riot in the biggest slum in Asia. But perhaps I should start from the beginning...
As soon as we step out of the airplane in India, we are greeted by a human barricade of beggars. In a half hour of driving we never pass a single street or building that doesn't appear bombed out or on the verge of collapse. The rubble that is supposed to pass for sidewalk is almost entirely concealed beneath the throngs of homeless, lepers, cripples, and fires made from burning cow dung that has been shaped into patties and stuck to walls all over the city. Bodies are strewn all across the street's center divider which is serving as a bed for entire communities of people. In every direction, people are openly pissing and shitting wherever they can, some on buildings, others on heaps of trash in the street from which cows are eating and children are sitting naked from the waist down. Clouds of flies are feeding on the glazed eyes and protruding spinal chords of severed goat heads which have been stacked on carts in pyramids to be sold to restaurants for meat. Gangs of monkeys are stealing food right out of dogs mouths. In fact, there are monkeys everywhere, running across the road, swinging from tree branches, scaling buildings, coordinating sophisticated surveillance from rooftops, sitting on the curb like old men on a park bench, plotting the sabotage of a passing jogging team, even positioned like sentries on the bicycle of someone welding in the street.
We are taken to a treacherous ring of streets known for a particular breed of beggars who sneak up on you to anoint your shoes with a bucket of shit so you have to pay them to clean it off. It's also home to colonies of touts, who look like normal people but are strategically planted nodes of a network invisible to the human eye. The touts are privy to sighs and moans under your flesh you will never hear, echoes of answered prayers in the orifices of your body which they canvas thoroughly with their tongue for a hidden envelope of commissions - "Come have a look at my shop. We're friends right? You are American. You wouldn't turn your back on my suffering would you?" - watching you like the body of that ever elusive Bollywood actress that sings them out of samsara every night from some perch on their wall.
Having spent some time researching the part of India we will be going to, I learn that Bihar and its neighboring state Jharkhand are known to have the worst poverty, inter-caste violence, and "general lawlessness" in the country. There are frequent kidnappings, murder, rape, "acts of banditry," and the roads should not be used at night under any circumstances. In need of a distraction, I pick up the newspaper, only to have the first page inform me that a group of men in Bihar just celebrated the New Year by setting an old woman on fire inside her home.
Our driver Nareesh explains that it is quite common in most parts of Bihar for mobs of people to hide and wait for an approaching vehicle. They will surround the car and force it to stop. Wielding clubs, guns, and rusty shovels with sharpened edges, they will drag us out of the car, even if all we have is one rupee or the shirts on our backs, and will not hesitate to kill us for them. This is a desperate place, where the poverty is severe enough to breed a caste of rat eaters, and even their supply of food is scarce. Our lives will mean nothing to them.
Not long after this conversation, we are stopped by some men on the side of the road toting machine guns. They motion for Nareesh to get out of the car. He grabs some envelopes out of the glove box and disappears with them into some tents where I see more men with guns.
Outside on the river, mourners are already dressing the dead in marigolds and fire while the sun struggles for a competitive hue. Their work is not fortified with the apparitions of dignity that musicians in distant towers conjured the night before. Instead, they labor to the steady pulse of stomachs emptying their contents onto the ground like recalcitrant buglers lampooning Taps. "It is an ayurvedic practice," Wendy whispers, as their great willow of vomit protracts its arms along gravity's arcs toward all the cardinal points. "They are purging the toxins from their bodies."
In addition to the sick and dying, large numbers of sadhus, those sages who have devoted their lives to a spiritual journey through renunciation and wandering, are circumambulating the river, believing they will released from the cycle of rebirth when it makes contact with their skin. Here on the banks of their karma, they seem to be observing how the dying sun crosses this river, its original form no longer reflected on the rippling current, it's light mostly swallowed in the depths, yet nevertheless retaining on the river's surface a sheen suggesting incandescent wings. Many are stark naked, some have their faces wrapped in tattered rags which the sunrise behind them has transfigured into bloody haloes, others are clothed in clouds of cannabis which is also sold by children along the ghats in the form of ice cream or pastilles. A dead cow in an advanced stage of mortification floats by. Lynn notices a dismembered human hand on the tide.
As Wendy and I walk down to the edge of the river to watch chimeras of prayer candles drift past like a transmigration of souls, it occurs to me how sharply these people are defined by their relationship to fire. It was Purusa's sacrifice by fire that gave birth to India's castes. Weddings are not valid unless fire is a witness. Circled seven times at weddings, fire is incarnate at their center from the beginning, and returns to consume the wife when she does not provide a sufficient dowry. When a wife's body is not ensuring a pyre for God's presence in the home, villagers prepare thrones of dung upon which He springs to life to cook their food and forestall the cold. "Fire is the meeting point of God and earth," explains a young boy as his fingers hover over a candle flame like notes trying to return to their string. "You send things up to God through fire, and he sends his messages back through fire." Passing us on the river, prayers are dancing on wicks, and as they begin to recede into unknown distances, they are lighting our way home.
The local villagers are the first to tell me about the bombs. Over the last few days, Naxalites have been laying explosives on the train tracks leading into Bihar, including the major routes from Delhi. Only a few days ago, Wendy and I were in Delhi, attempting to buy tickets for one of those trains to Bihar. Only now are we realizing that our trajectory is being carved out by bombs. It started when the recent bombings in Nepal made me change my course to India. Almost as soon as I arrived, bombs went off in Delhi, causing the blackout which forced Wendy and I to evacuate our guest house, meet Lynn and Carmen, and travel with them here by car rather than by train. So now, as I watch the fires rise from the center of the forbidden temple below us, it dawns on me that bombs are playing a rather paradoxical game with us: they are creating a gravitational pull that has led us progressively toward their epicenter of activity, while somehow deterring us from actually being blown up by them. They appear to be the nucleus around which we are spinning, as if we are sparks continually pulled into and yet ultimately repelled from their flame.
I wonder what role the Buddhist monks will play in this game. From all over the world, they are also gravitating to Bihar right now, mostly on foot, and prostrating themselves flat on the ground after every step as a prayer to reduce suffering and violence in the world. Many have walked for three and a half years, having made several million full body prostrations and worn all fingerprints off their hands to achieve this goal. And here we are, presumably at the final destination of their good karma, only to find that the actual inhabitants of the geographical heart of their prayers are setting off bombs to express that the annihilation of suffering is a luxury they cannot afford. Contrary to the centuries of non-violence embraced by the monks, the Biharis have concluded that their only hope of overcoming suffering will not come from reducing it to an intellectual abstraction to shed from their minds, but by actually becoming suffering's mouthpiece. And fire has proven to be its most universal language. Or at least the only translator they can afford to hire.
Wendy and I return to Bodhgaya, where we learn that we have just missed the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa, who made a procession down the main dirt road of the village only moments ago. They have left their footprints of peace in the same soil where Bihari children, only a few turns down the same road, compensated for their less consequential imprints on the earth with those of the fallen rocks they threw at our heads. And connecting them all like hyphens, are the indentations left in the dirt by bodies of Tibetan monks that have prostrated their way past the village life around them, to reach the tree where the Buddha found enlightenment. The surface of the road is inscribed with more words than libraries, and the story it suggests is that of mankind's varied responses to suffering. Unfortunately, no journalists or camera crews have appeared to lend some permanence to the traces of Bihari suffering along these roads. As usual, even the wind will reveal its bias to the Buddhist view of life, when it carries these delicate outlines of Bihari struggles to an audience of thin air.
As I watch the monks meditate on the sacred geography of this land through an enormous mandala they've made from grains of colored sand, I am interested to find that the barrier separating the visible world from the spiritual world within Buddhist mandalas is always a ring of fire. Fire is placed around the perimeter to incinerate "coarse matter," because entry is denied to the uninitiated. Just beyond this wall of fire, kalachakra deities are supposed to reduce suffering and violence in the world. The only thing standing between this more ideal world and the real world around us is this border of fire.
But as I look up from the mandala to the landscape around me, I see fires telling conflicting stories. Butter lamps burning in the hands of the Buddhist monks say that the only cause of suffering is ourselves, and that enlightened minds pray for that suffering to end. Meanwhile, Hindu fires rising from heaps of cow shit and corpses in the surrounding villages say that a divine plan itself has caused our suffering, and although suffering will not end, meaning will remain as present in it as God is. Meanwhile, Naxalite bombs are sending up their own fires to contradict the first two, saying that it is neither ourselves, nor a divine plan, but other people who cause our suffering, and all the prayers in the world have not been enough to stop them.
Each soul here seems shaped by the belief that the fires they ignite contain the meeting point of God and man, while their neighbors' fires outline the precise border of God's separation from man. If the history of Bihar is the forked path of fire's touch, then even the air is not exempt from communion. With every breath, history descends from its perch on the breeze to inscribe its words on the pages of my lungs.
Here they are, all these people, embers of a larger fire grazing some shape in the air I can only imagine from the hieroglyphic play of its fingers.