At some time in the early ’nineties I was moseying along the streets of Chennai through the jangling zig-zags of hawkers, beggars and cripples, some of them with partly eaten faces. Yet I was buoyed up in my rosy cloud, happy happy in the knowledge that all suffering and pain was really an illusion. I was in a chauffeur-driven air-conditioned car, being taken back to my host’s office. Lunch was to be served to us in our self-contained Guest House and our host Raju, CEO of a prosperous leather goods company, had a break in his morning schedule and had invited us for a chat and a progress report. While I happily babbled about the underlying śruti note of Being which carried on regardless through all the illusory turmoil of the external world, he chuckled quietly in the back-ground and waiting for me to finish he reminisced that I reminded him of his sister Suniti. He’d brought her back a gift of bubble liquid from Blackpool Pier where he’d been pulling pints. She was delighted: sitting under her arbour she’d blow rainbow spheres at the wall squirrels and sun birds, her face glowing with delight, and Raju would run round the garden too. He’d got a secret pin concealed within his fingers and would run after each bubble as the little girl blew it out and prick it as quickly as he could. Suniti would weep. Friends had told her that British Bubbles lasted far longer than Indian ones and now one of her fondest illusions was being dashed.
Now Raju, with just the hint of a devilish curl rising from the end of his lips told me that he now had a more sophisticated pin, and would it be OK if he fine-honed it by relating a current joke to me. Settling back with with my Coke-with-a-Mango-Twist I readily agreed to hearing another of his jocular tales:
“You see”, he said “There were these three politicians: Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and Lalú Prasad. I take it” he added hopefully “that you know a bit about ‘our’ Lalú?” The clan certainly wasn’t very wholesome, but after all Maya was Maya or Illusion. All this, the diseased streets, swish offices and the tubby man sitting in front of me, all this was part of the fabrication. But my soul was tuned to the unchanging śruti string and I was well able to ride unscathed through all of it. So please go right ahead with your tale.
“Very well,” he added. “As I was saying, these three famous figures all happened to die on the same day, and sitting before the Judgement of The Almighty, their pro’s and con’s of all their deeds were summed up and sentence was due to be passed. According to the Laws of Karma the Almighty determined that none of them had been exactly fair in their dealings with men and they were all sentenced to an eternity in Hell. Although these days, he added, Hell has had quite an overhaul. The fires-and-brimstone, sulphurous fumes with their devils’ pitch-forks poised to insert them into unmentionable places — they’re all still there, but mainly kept for the die-hard fundamentalists, homophobic Mormons and their ilk. All this, I’m afraid, is getting expensive. Resources are getting as scarce here as they are in the material world and sadly we still have to keep a few places reserved for several bishops and a few Popes. They took out insurances sealed by Beelzebub, and now everybody in Heaven, Hell and Earth is having to pay.
“All defendants are bundled into an omnibus and delivered to their respective quarters according to the darkness of their deeds. And that was that, until one fine day in the middle of the night when a general communiqué is issued that at great expense A Telephone has now been installed. Residents can now call back home and keep in touch.
“As chance would have it, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela and Lalú Prasad are all adjacent in the queue, with Bill being the next in line. The Booth Man in Hell writes down the number, makes several attempts to make a connection and finds himself speaking down a crackly line... “Hilary?... Howya doing? …. Good, good. No sweat, I am a reformed man..., What... ? No, no, I’m not allowed fly-zips on my pants as I told you before... What?... SURE you remember me promising you that. Look, Hilary, we’ve both been there. Just remember when you kiss Chelsea tonight, be sure tell her that Daddy loves her very much and is working off his bad karma just as fast as he can. Yes, he sure hopes to see her before her 13th birthday.” <Click>
“Bill checks his watch, delighted to see that it was just 1 minute, 16 seconds and receiving his ticket he gasps to see the total of $2,498.35, including aborted connections. Arguing and remonstrating with him, the Booth Man in Hell assures him that the amount is indeed correct. Telling himself that America is quite ways-away, he consoles himself that there wasn’t anything else to say to Hilary anyway and that Chelsea could make do with a Telegram and card for her birthday. He begins to head back to his quarters, but hesitates when he hears that Nelson has just been connected to Winnie Mandela.
“‘Well, m’dear, there’s no need to be quite so vindictive towards those boys... no, DON’T try to recruit any more... What?... Yes, yes, I’ll have a word about removing my video from the next Ubuntu CD... Yes, OK I agree it was hardly a sincere move... Sure...” and for another 3 minutes or so they chat generally about ANC stuff. Bill can’t help craning his neck as he receives the invoice ticket and both gasp when they see the total of $342.65. He gasps at the realisation that Nelson’s call was four times longer than his own yet just a fraction of his own cost. Nelson buckles his wallet and swaps looks with Bill. It’s Lalú Prasad’s turn now. Bill and Nelson can’t help loitering near the handset, unable to resist the desire to ear-wig on his phone chat with his wife. He and his near-illiterate wife Rabri, two lentils in a pod have been managed to keep themselves plump and well-fed despite the kernels crawling with maggots, and the two are soon romping away as they discuss the next rival’s downfall, who’s to be poisoned with arsenic and who with cobra venom, the mounting difficulties in increasing the inflow of black money, and reviewing Lalú’s new team of fresh young, pretty male rowdies.
“All told, Lalú’s call lasts 38½ minutes, and Nelson and Bill are rubbing their hands together calculating what the total Bill for Lalú was going to cost.
“ ‘One Rupee, Sir’ added the Booth Man from Hell, and when they made their protests in unison with the demand for an explanation, the Booth Man added in a bored manner: ‘It’s just a local call.’
“So India is Hell,” added Raju. And Hell is what we’re all living in. Right Here. Right Now. Whatever rosy complexion you may care to put upon it, and when the penny finally drops is entirely up to you”.
In a dizzy sickness I fall deep down into a nauseating, black depressive spiral. Yet when I focus inward and away from the oppressive externals, the śruti note was still there, and then I realised that wherever my foothold may have slipped a rung or notch, the note had always been there.