22 August 2008

Letter 3.10

(At the Iran-Afghanistan border crossing, I first met Bob -- although, as he said, he didn't remember seeing me in Israel, he did remember being seen by me. [1] The Customs man peered at my passport upsidedown, then observing my awry --though not upsidedown -- appearance, asked me -- perhaps, mixing up his English phrase-book phrases: 'Who is your barber?' With the proper deference all petty officials demand, I replied, 'My barber is my tailor.' Not a crack appeared in his solemnity though he did right my passport, and, evidently, was no more convinced by the photo. Bob, however, next in line, cracked up, and then I couldn't hold it anymore, and, for some moments, our gales of amusement held up the traffic at the border. Perhaps to stop -- or atleast get behind him -- our laughter, he shooed us past.

At sunset the bus stopped in Kandahar. The muezzin's last cry of the day and a peculiar fine smog hung over the blue mosque; apparently, after the last prayer everybody in town lights up a pipe of hashish. We walked into a tea house with funny smiles. Seated down the table from me, Bob rolled an eye at me and nudged some head next to him, 'What' that guy on?' 'Pencils,' I chirped. ‘You could die of lead poisoning,' he commented. 'I chew but don't: swallow.' We broke up.

So we bummed to Kabul together. My first impressions of the man: an uncommon gentleness; a thoughtful suffering; a wry humor; a literary bent. Maybe what attracted me most I can't explain -- karma? kismet? who knows? But I knew I sensed one thing about him that I found very appealing; a kind of muted astonishment tinged with aghast incredulity at not only being who he was, where he was, but being at all.

In Kabul we dropped our rucksacks at a Sikh Gurudwara or temple, which allowed the modest traveller to doss down in a big carpeted room for free. My first sight of Bob there was him snoozing on his unrolled sleeping bag in a corner. Beside him was a kind of mosquito coil for flies, I guess, because around it was a pile of dead flies. Between ourselves -- me and another new travelling companion a Ukrainian-Canadian woman named Mirotchka (who would marry me a few years later and divorce me a few years later) -- we called 'Mikhail' (as he called himself) 'Flies'. I remember being impressed about how 'out of this world' he appeared in sleep. Later I had other occasion to remark how soundly he slept; plumbing the depths of Morpheus' realm. [2] Perhaps his experience of sleep suggested his facility to meditate. I remember he sometimes could drop off rather unexpectedly. He once mused aloud about the possibility of having a touch of narcolepsy -- some chemical imbalance. At the time, some chemical imbalance was self-induced: a troubled time; his quest for relief getting a desperate edge -- the perennial recipe for radical decision.

After leaving Israel until he took the monk's vows in Calcutta -- for about a year -- he experimented with drugs. 'Experiment' is the operant word here -- I remember seeing him gently stoned, but no more, and I doubt he harbored any romanticism about being a junky; besides, it had already dawned on him that everybody was already a junky, a junky of their delusions, and he, with or without drugs, was trying to find a way to get, in the deepest sense, 'straight'.

Still I sensed the well of sadness he carried with him -- from Israel and, no doubt, before -- and its chemicals atleast were telling on him -- so when he took the robe and renounced dope of all persuasions, my relief was only second to his – Hūm)


[1] In a letter to his father from Afghanistan Bob mentions 'an American writer, a serious avant-garde type whose plot and style are a wild and rushing means of dealing with themes that strike me as unfortunately banal -- questions of existence and reality' -- mea culpa – Hūm

[2] His father's mother escaped from Czarist Russia: with a baby, she was smuggled out of the country in a group with a guide; marching at night, sleeping, hiding in the woods during the day, putting morphine in the babies' bottles so they wouldn't cry -- Hūm.

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