30 August 2008

Letter 3.17

(From Kabul Mikhail, Mirotchka, and I took a rickety bus over a hair-raising mountain road to the valley of Bamiyan; a half day's ride from the city. In a rose-colored cliff there is carved the largest Buddha image in the world. Bamiyan was once a great center of Buddhist culture and learning; then Genghis Khan came to study. Mikhail was particularly awe-struck. That night back in the Gurudwara, I was cutting my toenails, which, in Mikhail's eyes, were apparently flying around the room like a fragmentation bomb. 'You have the most ferocioustoenails I've ever seen!' he ducked. Next morning he explained he'd dropped his first tab of LSD for the Bamiyan trip.

Our paths diverged from there -- he to Taxila, Srinagar, Katmandu, among other places; Mirotchka and I ending up in Shantiniketan, Bengal (once Rabindranath Tagore's ashram; now the site of a fine arts college), where I got down to work on the first draft of Worthy Bones. We lodged with the Datta family, Mr. Datta was a retired civil servant who had worked with both Tagore and Gandhi. Mikhail came from Katmandu to visit us there, staying a few days, before going to Calcutta, where he was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk. At Shantiniketan he spent a good deal of his time playing chess with Mr. Datta. Mr. Datta had become very good at the game while serving a jail term with Gandhi. He was very surprised that Mikhail was his match. Maybe, it was his Russian blood, but Mikhail was a superb player, who probably could have been a master had he devoted himself to it. He once told me that the best computer will never beat even a good chessplayer, because the computer 'can't make use of mistakes, get inspiration from accidents'. As a man born with legs as stiff as they come in the West, I envied how he could sit in lotus position for hours at ease over the chessboard.

One day after he left we got a note from him inviting us to visit him in Calcutta -- he had a few things he'd like to give us (at the time we were quite open to receiving anything that might be converted into, say, food) -- with the note were two train tickets. We noted the address -- the Bengal Buddhist Association, Buddhist Temple Street -- but thought no more about it (We all stayed in all sorts of temples -- free digs, for one thing).

When we got to the temple, we asked to see 'Bob Smith', and got a curious smile from the abbot, then we were ushered into a room full of monks sitting around on the floor. We just saw a small sea of bald heads and orange robes, not a Russian black beard in the lot, and turned to leave, when a picaninny voice at our elbow, piped, 'Is me, boss!' Before we jumped out of our sandals with surprise and delight, I coughed up, 'But is you is or is you ain't?'

That became the traditional one-liner I'd post to Sri Lanka or wherever over the years, when I didn't hear from Bob for several months. He never did answer it, when he answered. Until he, sadly, didn't answer it and didn't answer. -- Hūm)

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