Meeting Cartouche … chapter 1

Meeting Cartouche

THE THREE-DECKED STEAMSHIP HAD BEEN FOLLOWING the contour of the palm-lined Indian coastline since sunrise, weaving its way through flotillas of fishing boats and other small ships until it reached Bombay. The voyage from Karachi was the final leg of a six-month overland journey that had taken me from Amsterdam to what would become my new home.

A deck-class ticket bought you a place on the ship, but not a seat, berth, or cabin. You were on your own when it came to claiming a piece of the deck, usually the size of your straw mat or blanket. The two upper decks soon became a multicolored sea of bedding and people. When I first came aboard, Sigi, a young German, led me to a remote corner of the deck, where I could smell incense and there was a kasbah partitioned with pastel silks into passageways and small camps. This, apparently, was the foreigners’ quarter.

We were pilgrims, refugees, children of the revolution! We came from North America, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and every country in Europe. We had encountered one another at every stop along the way—Istanbul, Ankara, Konya, Tabriz, Tehran, Mashad, Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, Karachi—individuals, groups, and clans, all making the great pilgrimage. Where to? We were on our way home, moving toward the Light, or so we believed.

“Watch out for thieves,” my new friend warned, as we put down our mats at the edge of the little colony. “It’s usually the French. One of us must guard our belongings at all times.”

“Pardon,” said an orange-robed European with flowing black locks, accompanied by several young women. He resembled one of the Three Musketeers, except for his pointed Aladdin slippers. “You are going to India for the first time?” he asked, introducing himself as Cartouche. “May we join you?”

“What kinda name . . . ,” I started.

“Egyptian,” he said, “from my father’s side. My mother is French.”

In what appeared to be flawless Urdu, he instructed the Pakistani coolie where to put each bag, argued over the price, said something that made the man laugh, and then paid him.

“We wanted to share this journey with spiritual people,” Cartouche said, as he explained why they had moved from the Italian section of the deck. Cartouche and the girls spread their bedding next to mine. “You and I must have met before,” he said. “Perhaps in a previous life?”

A man dressed in a green Afghan robe came over to harangue Cartouche in Italian and was the recipient of a long outburst in the same tongue. Cartouche’s scowl turned to a smile as he remarked, “I told him to fuck off, if he wanted to remain attached to the material world!”

Sigi was suspicious. “Why did the Italians force you to move?”

“They are Greens,” replied Cartouche. “You know, Muslims, and they thought it inappropriate for a Hindu holy man to camp beside them. They are making a pilgrimage to the holy places of their Sufi saints before heading down to Goa.”

“I’m going straight to Goa,” said Sigi. “A night in Bombay at the Carlton, and the morning boat to paradise.” He said that he’d had some kind of problem in Germany, and didn’t plan to return there for many years. Everyone seemed to be headed to Goa.

“This is actually what he wants.” Cartouche’s eyes flashed as he pulled a drawstring bag out of another drawstring bag out of a shoulder bag. With great reverence he removed a small statue of the god Shiva, wrapped in red silk. “Swat Valley, maybe a thousand years old,” he explained. “He wanted to pay me shit! And he’s not even a Hindu!”

“I’m going to find me a nice shack on the beach,” said the German, carefully placing his valuables under a makeshift pillow.

“Me, I want to find the ice palace of the Mother of the World, where the gods and goddesses hang out,” crooned one of Cartouche’s young women from under her veil. She was high on something.

“And you, my friend?” Cartouche turned to me with his infectious smile. “Where will you go?”

I thought for a moment, like a child about to enter an amusement park, before blurting out, “I’m not sure. Maybe Goa . . . but I’m looking for something—I’m not sure what yet, but it’s something that we’ve lost in the West. Yeah, I guess I’m also going to India to have my mind blown!”

“Not enough action in your, uh, San Francisco? That’s why you have come?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

“Well, actually, I think I’ve sort of been pulled here.” I grinned.

“That’s the case with all of us,” he said. Cartouche had very old eyes, in contrast to his youthful face and body. He looked about twenty-two years old, a few years older than I, but had the demeanor and maturity of a man at least a generation older.

I had dropped out of high school. I had questions my teachers wouldn’t or couldn’t answer. I had other ideas, perhaps immature and incomplete, but compelling. I had lost my faith in them, but not lost faith. I thought of Manifest Destiny as a pack of lies. I wanted to go join up with the American Indians. But they were all dead.

“Where are you from?” I asked him.

“Paris,” he said.

“You were there in May, the one before last, for the Revolution?” I asked him.

“Non, I was in India at the Kumbh Mela, the largest spiritual gathering in the world, with my guru. The real revolution is to transform yourself, not society. If you can succeed, then society will follow. The world is fucked up, corrupted by capitalist elites, but we cannot hope to win any war on the material plane. Finding the Truth is the only way.”

For many young people, the lines that existed between politics, spirituality, and lifestyle were faint, if they existed at all. We were wildly idealistic and naive. I told Cartouche that I wanted to find a treasure in India that would somehow make the world a better place.

“A better place?” Cartouche asked. “For whom? Is it heaven that you wish to bring to earth, or is it earth you’d like to raise to heaven? If it is the former, you are following a long line of failures. Ask Karl Marx. And my friends who made the Revolution of ’68—one day they will rule France, but nothing will be any different.”

Cartouche had crossed the line and made it to the other side. He was confident and authoritative. He seemed to know India well, so I asked him if he could give me a list of places to visit.

“A waste of time,” he replied. “You’ll find all the right places. That’s how India works.”

“And what’s with this ‘ice palace’?” I asked, feeling a bit stupid. “Come on; is it a real place?”

“Sure it is,” he said, “but you can’t go there. Foreigners aren’t allowed. It’s in the Himalayas, within what they call the inner circle, too close to China. I guess they’re afraid of spies.”

“Have you been there?” I asked.

“Non, but I tried. The police caught me and sent me back down the mountain. My guru had told me that if I would meet him there, he would give me a magic potion that would let me live forever.”

The small group that had been listening to our conversation dwindled until Cartouche and I were alone, watching the moon sail across the sky. He enchanted me with more stories about his experiences in India. For as long as I could remember, I had been fascinated by what, in those days, we called the “occult.” I wanted to meet real shamans and wizards. I believed they existed, but I needed proof. I wanted to find ancient manuscripts containing secret knowledge, mantras, and spells. But that was all surface stuff. I desperately needed some answers. There were the basic questions concerning the meaning of life, death, life after death, and Truth, and there were other less formulated questions that had arisen after I had taken mind-altering substances. In America I had been unable to find a Don Juan to guide me, but my omnivorous reading of the Upanishads, Vedanta, and books on Theosophy led me to believe that I could indeed find these answers in India.

“Don’t waste your time going to Goa, hanging out with hippies. In India there are real masters who can teach the Path and help us understand who we are. The first thing you have to know before you begin your search is that there is no search; you are already there at that place where you hope to arrive, but it takes time to discover that. So, with that in mind, go and search,” he said.

“But where should I start?” I asked

“Hey, enlightenment is not subject to the illusions of time and space. The possibility of transforming consciousness lies only in the here and now. But I’ll give you some addresses,” he replied.

He drew the Sanskrit character om at the top of one of the pages in my notebook, explaining that this symbol would ensure the success of my quest. Then he wrote the names of a few temples and holy places and of some of the big gurus. He explained which temples were dedicated to the Mother Goddess, which to Shiva, and which to the blue god, Krishna. He rambled on about the claims and feats of various teachers, including Satya Sai Baba, who could remember his past lives and materialize objects out of thin air, and then gave me the names and addresses of some sadhus, characterizing each as he wrote.

The last name was of a sadhu in Rajasthan. “Hari Puri Baba is a bit more modern. He speaks English, which my baba doesn’t. I studied with my guru the traditional way, in Hindi and Sanskrit. Still, they say Hari Puri Baba is a gyani, a knower. They say he knows how to read the world.” Cartouche laughed. “Perhaps you would prefer to follow the Path in your mother tongue. Ah, if only the whole world spoke English, no?” He could be very sarcastic.

It was difficult for Cartouche to mask his contempt of Anglo-American culture. He was a spiritual Che Guevara, more so than I understood at the time. He made it clear that I would have to go native if I wanted to experience the real thing. He suggested that I buy a copy of The Universal Hindi Teacher as soon as I landed.