Raj taught me three things before he returned to India. First, everything is an illusion. From the fingers we use to pinch our skin, to the pain of the pinch, to the body that experiences the pain. That sage tidbit made perfect sense when he said it, or at least I trusted it was true because it came from Raj. Since then, it’s grown into a puzzle with too many missing pieces to complete, but the idea stayed pinned on the back wall of my brain nonetheless.
The second was that we choose our illusions. Raj’s was being born Indian and Hindu, but living for a time as resident guru of the Berkeley commune where I grew up. Mine, he’d said, was living in the Eden of that same commune, blissfully unaware of how the disparity between Eden and the ordinary world can suck dry a life and leave a person ravenous for something—anything—of substance. That nugget made no sense to my ten-year-old self, but it wouldn’t have with Raj’s protective aura enveloping me in its golden glow. I sure got it now, the desertification of my life testament to its truth.
The third he whispered when we were alone.
“You are wise beyond your years,” he’d said in the same voice he used when revealing the hidden lessons beneath the parables he told at the commune.
I swallowed the bait whole because he never joked with that tone. I knew that even if I didn’t understand it, Raj believed it, and so should I.
It remained our secret until I blurted it to my mom one day, part of my defense as the ringleader of pint-sized paratroopers who used the clean sheets off the clothesline to slow our jump from the barn window to the soft pile of hay below.
When I said it, Mom tensed. She threaded her fingers through a necklace Raj had given her and clacked the beads together, studying me.
“Well, you’re a wise guy beyond your years for sure,” she’d said once she found her breath.
The next week, Raj was gone. Severed from my life so completely that I declared him dead, and labeled anything he’d said as suspect. He left me shipwrecked on a desolate island with nothing of substance to sustain me.
Twenty-one years later, I was still stranded there.
I’d managed to make a home in desolation after the first rocky year—a year that landed me in the pediatric psych ward, in therapy, and then into a suburban wasteland when Mom and I moved in with her new husband. She’d thought a change of scenery would give me a fresh perspective. But I’d set up camp on my island and survived by scavenging, a friend here, a job there, until I had all the requisite working parts—my own thriving business, a cool apartment, and a girlfriend who hinted that she wanted to be more. I almost believed in the sunny life I’d constructed. Until that illusion crashed down on me like a mud-brick house in a California quake. At a commune reunion party, I found out that the story my mom spoon-fed me about why Raj left was as bogus as the heroic tale she spun about my bio dad. In that moment, the ground I’d built my life on dissolved beneath me.
In the haze that followed, the girlfriend bailed, which juiced me with enough momentum to jettison the rest of the dead weight in my life, until all I had left was my Harley, a plane ticket to India, and a single obsessive idea. If I could find my way back to Raj, maybe I could build a life that I was willing to live.
A year later, I was still searching.
I looked up from the rutted road I biked along to see a strip of pale sky that snaked between billowing monsoon clouds and the verdant Varanasi plains. In an hour, maybe two, it would be easier to swim this road than bike it. Until then, the air was soup. I rubbed my stubbly chin over the shoulder of my t-shirt to wipe away dripping sweat. Glancing back to the pavement, I swerved just in time to dodge a pothole the size of a car tire.
The ashram I pedaled toward might be an illusion. But this illusion would lead me back to Raj. Finally.
I’d visited this ashram a year ago. The priest had commiserated with me when I told him Raj had been my stepfather until he returned to India. I left out the part about Raj’s departure yanking the rug out from under my life, but the priest seemed to sense it anyway. I hadn’t thought much about it at the time. Raj was otherworldly in his ability to understand the unspoken, and I credited the priest with the same proficiency. But then the priest claimed that he didn’t know Raj, after he’d told me five minutes before that he’d lived at the ashram for twenty-five years.
“Raj wrote me twenty years ago and gave this ashram as his address,” I’d said to him. Not that I had gotten the letter at the time. My mom hid it from me, she said, because she’d been frantic about my slide from sanity. I found out about it last year from the guy who hand-delivered the letter to her back then. After he dropped the bomb about the letter, he called me an ungrateful son-of-a-bitch because I never reconnected with Raj.
“If you were here for twenty-five years,” I’d said to the priest. “Then you were both here at the same time.”
The priest looked away. “I am sorry but I do not know him.”
“Hard to believe,” I said.
“It was many years ago.” He shrugged. “So many people come through that I cannot remember them all.”
“Is there anyone else around that was here back then?” I said. “I could ask them.”
“No, I am afraid not,” he said. “The best thing for you to do is return home to Berkeley.”
It didn’t occur until late that night that I didn’t tell him the city I’d come from.
Even without the Berkeley comment, something about our meeting hadn’t vibed right. After gnawing through each detail over the weekend with more than a few bottles of skanky Kingfisher beer, I concluded that the priest had known who I was. That only made sense if the priest knew Raj, too. When I went back to the ashram, his surly second-in-command said the priest had left on a guru tour abroad and wouldn’t be back for weeks.
So I’d headed for Delhi to find Raj’s family business, my only other clue to his location. After that, I zigzagged across India to chase one meager lead after another, until a week of buying after-school ice cream for one of Raj’s nephews sent me back to Varanasi with the proof I needed to get the truth.
Turned out I was right, the priest had known Raj all along.
Since the ashram lay five kilometers beyond Varanasi’s outskirts, renting a bike seemed faster and more convenient than hiring a rickshaw. Or so I’d thought. The bicycle chain slipped when I put my full weight on the pedals, forcing me to inch my way to the ashram in slow-motion time distortion, the kind that stretches the moments before a car crash into a frame-by-frame contemplation of life and death. But my bike was a prize compared to the bicycle coming toward me, which lacked one handlebar and wove side-to-side in the middle of the road as if the rider couldn’t gather the speed to stay up.
An engine stuttered behind me and the driver played a staccato tune with his horn. I veered onto the narrow shoulder—a foot-wide swath of flat gravel that dropped off into a rocky ditch ten feet below. The slate-gray sedan slowed as it passed. Two young girls with black pigtails pointed and gawked at me through the rear window. I didn’t smile or wave the way I would have when I first arrived. After a year in India, I was tired of being a friendly foreign firangi. I felt like I might be stuck there forever, clinging to lucidity with my fingertips, unsure whether I was too hardheaded or too chickenshit to let go.
I steered back to the road as the car sped toward the other bicycle. The sedan’s driver beeped once, then leaned on the horn. The car swung left. The bike twitched right and wobbled as the car rounded a curve. I looked down again to check for potholes. When I looked up, the bike and its rider were gone. That couldn’t be good.
I stood on a pedal to pick up speed. The chain slipped, snapped, whipped through the air and smeared a greasy stripe on my jeans before it clattered to the ground.
I pushed the bike a few feet, but what was the point? Dropping it to the rocky shoulder, I jogged to where I’d last seen the other bike, and scanned the ditch. A gaunt man lay crumpled on the ground. His legs wove though the bicycle frame like tree roots through a fence. Blood streamed from cuts on his head and arm, splattering the front of his dress shirt and part of the orange knee-length lunghi cloth wrapped around his waist.
“You okay?” I said. A feeble question, and in English, too, but my Hindi was a scant hundred words, most of which I’d learned as a kid—the sounds and the meanings slowly resuscitated in the months I’d been traveling in India.
He moaned and raised a hand in a weak wave.
I looked down the road. No cars. With both bikes busted I couldn’t ride to the ashram to get quick help. Below me, the man groaned.
Even as I jumped into the ditch I knew it was a stupid thing to do. My feet slipped on the gravel as I landed, and I slammed into the rocky ground on my side, shredding the leg of my jeans. My chest, arm, and chin throbbed with fresh scrapes as I pushed myself up.
The man’s hand fluttered in the air. He mumbled something too softly to hear.
“Hold on, I’ll get you out of here,” I said. As I unraveled his foot from the bike frame he pressed his fingers against my arm, as if to stop me.
“I’m not stealing your bike,” I said. “I’ve got to get you loose.” I lifted the bike and set it off to the side.
The man pushed me once more, weaker now. He mouthed a single word again and again.
Age? Sage? What was the word? I couldn’t tell, but I tried to hold on to word’s rhythm as I scooped him in my arms. He weighed almost nothing; his skin so thin that the bones of his ribs kneaded my forearm. His head quaked side-to-side as he stared up at me. Then, finally, he reached a hand around my neck and held on.
“Thanks, that helps.” I trudged along the ditch in the direction of the ashram. Loose gravel crunched under my feet. He still repeated the same word, softer, slower, a whispered mantra.
Up on the road, a vehicle screeched to a stop behind us. I turned to see the top of a truck, but the ditch was so deep that they couldn’t see me. Saha…sayo…what was the Hindi word for “help”? I drew a blank. How come I could only remember that stuff when it didn’t count?
“Hey,” I yelled. No response. “Hey. Help!”
No one called back, but I heard whoops and shouts. When the truck passed, I saw two guys standing in the back beside my bike.
“That’s mine,” I yelled, but they were gone. The man in my arms said something I didn’t understand, but I decided to think he commiserated.
“That’s right,” I said. “Those guys are scum.”
The man closed his eyes. His grip on my neck grew weaker.
“Hold on. This ditch has to end somewhere.” I jog-walked for another few minutes before I could see over the side of the gully to the road, and a few minutes more before the ditch grew shallow enough for me to sit on a grassy tuft, twist my legs around and maneuver to standing. The ashram’s vine-draped cinderblock fortress lay just down the road.
“Almost there,” I said to him, noticing for the first time three horizontal lines of sacred ash across his forehead. A tripundra, a Hindu marking that symbolized the tenuous nature of physical life, worn mostly by Shiva devotees. Had his one-word mantra been a prayer to Shiva?
The man’s arm went slack.
“We’re not far. I swear.” I jogged as fast as I could. His head sagged to the side. His body turned to lead.
I broke into a run. His arm flopped against my leg with each step as if urging me on. The ashram’s iron gate stood ajar enough for us to slip through it. I raced along a path heavy with trees that blocked any direct sun. Gravel turned to dirt and then to grass so slick I slipped and nearly fell.
“Amit! Amit! You here?” I yelled once I got my footing.
Darpak, Amit’s second-in-command, appeared, as clean cut and stuffy looking as he’d been last year. His only reaction to the sight of me holding a bloody man was the disapproving furrow between his dead brown eyes.
“Where’s Amit?” I said, still panting from the run.
Darpak’s lips puckered as if overtaken by a rancid distaste, maybe from my use of the priest’s given name rather than the Sri-Something-or-other he went by.
“You cannot be here,” he said. “This is a place of meditation.”
I staggered past him and carried the man toward a cluster of buildings shiny with whitewash. “Amit!”
A stick figure looked out a doorway. Amit ducked inside for a second, and then ran toward me. A vibrant white lunghi cloth kicked out from his knees and strings of beads jumped over his bare chest as he ran. His hair looked longer than last year, grayer, more matted. A scruffy Gandhi.
“Yes, what…?” He froze. “Micah? What are you doing here?”
“He needs help.” I nodded at the man in my arms.
Amit reached out, but stopped short of the man’s bloody skin.
“What has happened?” he said.
“He fell. I tried to…but I think…” The weight of the story pressed down on me, my knees melting wax.
“Go find Doctor Sharma,” Amit said to Darpak. “He is in the last building.”
Darpak scowled. “He is in meditation.”
“And he is a doctor. Go. Now.” Amit turned to me as Darpak stalked off. “Come, put him down here under this tree.”
I knelt onto the shady grass. The man’s arms and legs wilted into impossible angles as I eased him to the ground. I put a hand on his chest. No breath. No movement. Nothing. I brushed a finger over the tripundra lines on the man’s forehead. One. Two. Three. As I lifted my finger from the third, I knew.
I’d run the wrong way.
For a Shiva devotee, any Hindu really, dying within the city limits of Varanasi meant a direct trip to Hindu nirvana, instant release from the wheel of karma and its endless agony of births and rebirths here on earth. I should have run toward the city, but I’d been focused on saving the man’s life, not the consequences of his death.
“Sit. Sit,” Amit said. “You must sit.”
I sank to the grass; the wetness stung the open scrapes on my legs. Amit’s mouth slid open as he looked from my face to my shirt and jeans. I looked down, too. My clothes were splotched red. Blood had started to dry and crack on my arm. My blood? His? My scrapes still oozed, and it was impossible to tell where his blood ended and mine began.
“Oh, Micah.” Amit shook his head. “You were supposed to go home.”
I looked at the man’s hand lying limp by my leg. How could Amit talk about me with a dead guy on his lawn? I blinked away from the dead man and looked up at Amit, who crushed the wooden beads of his necklace into his chest with a wrinkled hand.
“If only you had left as you should have…” Amit said, tears forming in his eyes.
“Maybe I would have if you’d been straight with me,” I said. “Instead, I wasted a year of my life going from Varanasi to Delhi to Bangalore to Madras, where a guy gave me this.”
I tugged a picture from my back pocket and threw it at him.
“You lied to me. Raj is your cousin.”
Amit squatted to reach for the picture, now lying face down on the ground. He picked it up, turned it over, and traced his finger along the outline of a younger him. He wound the tip of his finger even more slowly over the image of the young man next to him. Raj. Amit wiped away a sliver of grass that clung to the temple behind the two men.
“Yes, Raj is my cousin,” he said.
“Then why did you tell me last year that you didn’t know him?” I said. It was beyond a simple lie. Amit had gushed sympathy, even shed tears, when I told him about the six years that Raj lived with us at the commune.
“That I do not know him is not entirely a lie.” Amit stood and tucked the picture into the waist of his lunghi. A man jogged toward us; his sparse salt-and-pepper hair bounced as he ran.
“Doctor Sharma,” Amit said. “This is Micah. He carried this man here.”
“He fell into the ditch along the road,” I said as the doctor knelt next to the man. He brushed his fingers over a blood-free stretch of arm, then pulled his hand away as if not wanting to disturb the man’s sleep. He didn’t inspect his wounds, didn’t even check for a pulse.
“I know him.” The doctor spun toward me, winced at my scrapes, pointed to my shirt and arms. “Is this his blood? Stretch out your arms. Let me see them.”
After a quick look, the doctor stood. He muttered to Amit. Their talk turned to lightning-fast Hindi.
What was going on?
Then I heard it. I looked down at the bloodied body as I recognized the single word the man had repeated over and over. Suddenly, the detonation from the night that sent me to India was a mere slip on the outer wall of a sandcastle. When I finally heard the word, my bones began to disintegrate from the inside. Each time I heard it, my bones ground into a finer and finer powder, until I couldn’t figure out how I was upright at all.
The word wasn’t “age.” It wasn’t “sage.” It was “AIDS.”