The Halloween Puja
I’m going to be a boxer. I walk to town and ask my tailor to make me a baby blue bathrobe with a hood. This requires a fair amount of pantomiming and gesturing. Then I ask him to make me a pair of red boxing gloves.
“Boxing gloves?” asks Rajesh. He sends a boy out for chai. As we sip the tea I attempt to describe the gloves. There is more pantomiming, some shadowboxing. In the plains of Central India, in the state of Bihar, in the town of Bodh Gaya, there is little need for gloves, let alone big red ones. A few days later, when I pick up my outfit, I find that the gloves have no space for my thumbs. They are made of a shiny red satin, and are essentially oblong pillows I can slide my hands into. They are perfect.
Our program is throwing a Halloween puja for us, a party at a Tibetan restaurant in town. We need this puja. After two months of dawn meditation, of cold showers and squat toilets, we are ready to let loose. We have been living with monks, roosters, and a mangy cabal of adopted street dogs in a Buddhist Monastery. We have been learning to slow the swinging pendulum of our emotions, to achieve equanimity.
We are ready to rock the pendulum.
The day of the puja, we put on our costumes and head across the street to the Old Pole Pole, a restaurant housed in a large tent. Bablu, the cheery proprietor, has agreed to procure beer for us. Inside the tent a goat nibbles at scraps on the dirt floor. Bablu is not back from the market yet, says his friend Krishna. We head to a clearing behind the restaurant and Bablu meets us there with ice-cold Thunderbolt beer. After weeks of hot chai and lukewarm water, weeks of heat and pervasive dust that now coats everything—our sandals, our mugs, our mosquito nets—the beer is revelatory. It is the opposite of dust, infused as it is with frigid bubbles. We suck down the Thunderbolt with glee, a boxer, a hippie, and a rickshaw wallah sitting on a bench in the earthen radiance of the afternoon sun. The village kids gather to watch.
Sam, dressed as the rickshaw wallah, has rented a rickshaw for the night, and when it is time for the party he sets up on his steed outside the monastery gates, jostling for position with the other wallahs. Another student and I procure his services for the ride across town to the puja. The wallahs have given Sam some of their paan, tobacco wrapped in betel leaf, and he chews the paan and spits red globs into the dirt, pedaling through the heart of Bodh Gaya, a boxer and a ninja turtle seated behind him. As we near the restaurant Sam struggles up a hill. Suddenly, he turns to the side and vomits. Then, wordlessly and with great dignity, he keeps on pedaling.
At the party we dine and dance, revelling in an atmosphere of release. There is a buffet of Tibetan food, which we ignore, opting instead to flail and dance together until, lured by the promise of cold beer back at the Old Pole Pole, we make for the exit, climbing the restaurant steps to the darkness of the street outside. But Marvin Gaye echoes from the restaurant speakers, and we are pulled back, racing down the steps to the puja, combating impermanence. We sing and sweat, a cacophonous hive in the hushed night that has descended like a veil over Bodh Gaya.
We finally do make it to Bablu’s. When Bablu smiles, his boyish cheeks become as round as his belly, and he smiles now, shuffling shyly on the dusty dance floor. Krishna is smoking his pipe, breathing homegrown marijuana through a rag. He passes the pipe and people take turns mimicking his technique, the smoke filling the tent. A glass shatters in the dirt. Bablu has one of the village boys sweep it up.
I exit the back of the tent to relieve myself by the river. The riverbed is completely dry, an ocean of sand. The story goes that the Buddha was nearing starvation when he arrived at the village and was given milk by a local girl. The milk gave him the energy to cross the river where he settled in the shade and achieved nirvana, extinguishing the burning flame of desire. And now, looking up at the latticework of stars illuminating the sand, an incandescent web piercing the black sky, it occurs to me in a rising, rapturous wave that I too have extinguished the burning flame of desire. I’ve really done it! The resulting euphoria is a feeling I’ll chase for years, possibly forever. Tomorrow I’ll be hungover, I’ll feel guilty and I’ll meditate with increased conviction, with repentant fervour, but right now, in this moment, my my, there is nothing lacking, there is nothing at all lacking.