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The One-eyed Sadhu

By Salmon

 

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It’s still early when I walk out of my run-down hotel, a short distance

from a tea stall and breakfast. The temperature is tolerable, almost

benign, but in a few hours the sun becomes implacable, a ferocious

presence, something to avoid.

 

After a second cup of tea I do what I love doing most in a new and

strange place. I head for the old part of the city where I hope to

discover its dim past, and perhaps vestiges of its beginning, praying

it hasn’t totally succumbed to the inexorable and often misguided

demands of progress.

 

Once in the area, I begin to wander, drifting, without direction or

guide book, no particular destination in mind, no special sight to gawk

at. I simply walk, taking it in, step by step. Occasionally, I stop to

sketch.

 

Its past is written in the twisting streets, narrow alleys,

cul-de-sacs, the jumble of eccentric buildings, of faded colors, tiny

dark shops, the clamor, the sounds, so many people, all driven by the

unique rhythm which only this city can claim. Permeating it all is the 

smell of India which can never be confused with any other place in the

world.  This walk can turn into an adventure, touching all the senses.

 

For close to three hours I’ve been crisscrossing the old city. I’m

sweating. My cotton kurta and pajama bottom stick to me. A flimsy red

scarf, bought somewhere in the market, protectively encircles my neck.

My cap visor is pulled down on my head as far as it will go. It doesn’t

help, the sun claws at me.

 

Slung over my shoulder is a canvas bag. It contains a sketch book, a

rapidograph, an old German sharpener, pencils, eraser and a water

bottle. It always travels with me.

 

The heat is exhausting. It’s been a morning full of new and intense

impressions. I’ve reached my limit and have to get off the street, back

to the hotel. I keep imagining how good it will feel to drench myself

under a shower. I won’t even dry, but simply drop on the bed, spread

eagle, and surrender to the magic circle of air from the ancient

ceiling fan clattering above me.

 

Walking back to the hotel is out of the question. I’ve got to find a

motor rickshaw .

 

I’m at the edge of a market place where my search begins for a rickshaw

stand.

 

It is then I spot the sadhu in a small clearing. These ascetic

mendicants, some of whom are spiritually evolved, others rigorously

committed to the most austere self-abasement are, in India, everywhere.

I’m not surprised to see him sitting there. Something about this sadhu,

however, sets him apart, draws me to him.

 

Spine erect, a solitary majestic figure, eyes closed, he sits in a full

lotus position, so tranquil he appears to be sleeping. The skinny torso

is naked to the waist. Some folds of cloth hide his groin. His hands,

palms cradled together, seem to float lightly in his lap. The bottom of

his calloused feet are barely visible. The matted, tangled hair, piled

loosely on his head, resembles a mass of twisted, dirty yarn. Tendrils

spiral and hang loosely from the tangle. The grey flecked beard is

wild, snarled. White ashes, smeared in heavy streaks on his brown face

and body, give him a ghostly look. A bright vermillion caste mark

slashes his forehead. Round his neck hangs a short string of beads. An

empty brass bowl waits for alms.

 

His religious fervor, dedication to some inner compulsive need,

absolute indifference to the sun’s merciless pounding, disconnected and

unmindful of the life surrounding him, is astounding.

 

Around him, like a cosmic dance, rise from the tarmac, shimmering waves

of heat.

 

I fumble in my bag, pull out the sketch book and rapidograph, turn over

a fresh sheet. For the moment the heat is forgotten.

 

It’s so hot the ink on my rapidograph point dries before it touches the

paper. There’s no place to hide. I squeeze myself into a narrow shadow

near the corner of a building.

 

Moistening the corner of a handkerchief with a bit of water, I gently

wipe the tip of the pen. The ink barely flows as I begin to sketch. The

brilliant white sheet of paper a hurls back the sun’s rays.

 

It goes quickly. I am sweating profusely but continue sketching. In a

short time I have almost a sheet of credible impressions to be reworked

later.

 

As suddenly as the inspiration possessed me it vanishes, evaporates, a

momentary thing, unable to sustain itself in the searing heat. Closing

the book I slip it back into the bag, moving once more into the sliver

of shadow, contemplating my next move.

 

Should I drop some money in the bowl? Or, simply walk away? How can he

possibly stand the heat, I wonder? What drives him? What is he getting

out of it, this unbelievable, superhuman effort? It can’t be the  few

coins at the end of day. To these questions I have no answer.

 

Deciding to leave I can’t help asking. Does anything exist in my life

for which I’d  push myself to such limits?

 

I grope in the pocket of my kurta for the little cloth pouch I always

carry. It usually contains the accumulation of two or three day’s

change in small coins. I find it. It’s full, heavy.

 

I’m now less than a foot away and stand between him and the sun. I’m

fascinated with the way his stomach rises and falls slowly, in a

metronomic rhythm as he takes in air, then expels it. What is even more

astonishing is that he’s not sweating. Every detail of his face is as

clear as if it were under a magnifying glass. I search for some

acknowledgment of my presence. None. For him, I’m simply not there.

 

Leaning over I loosen the drawstrings of the pouch, holding it over the

bowl and carefully turn it upside down. Coins thumble out striking the

metal with a percussive rattle.

 

With a suddenness that startles and makes me jump, the lid of his left

eye flies open revealing a bloodshot orb which rolls slowly upwards in

its socket seeking the origin of this intrusion, this unsought

disturbance, this suspect alms giver. All of its vehemence and power is

directed towards my face. Horrorstricken I helplessly watch as he scans

and probes first one then the other eye. I can’t move, it’s impossible

to avert my gaze, or pull away. His eye becomes a weapon of unspeakable

hostility, a gimlet, boring with insufferable pain into my

consciousness. I utter a cry and stagger backwards. The eyelid snaps

shut.

 

During this frightening exchange the pouch falls from my hand. I bend

to retrieve it. The canvas bag in turn, slides along my arm and

swinging outward strikes him sharply on the side. I can’t believe how

badly things are going. A new terror grips me. All I can do is curse my

clumsiness while at the same time expecting an outburst from the seated

figure, or worse, the lid snapping open again exposing that dreaded

eye. Nothing!

 

His refusal to acknowledge I exist or that what has happened has indeed

taken place is so resolved and complete it only adds to my distress.

Shaken, I snatch the pouch, tightly grip my bag and frantically look

for a motor rickshaw.

 

I yell at one chugging by. Making a frightful racket it swerves to pick

me up, I hurl myself inside the cab and blurt out the hotel name and

street. As the driver guns the engine I lean out the side and crane my

neck for one last look at my sadhu, then fall limply back on the

burning, plastic seat cover, riven.

 

He hadn’t moved.

Nothing had changed.

 

salmon 2004

 

 

 

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