Puri is a very trippy sort of town located in Orissa on the Eastern shoreline of India. It was on the original hippie trail that extended across Asia, and remains extremely popular with foreign backpackers today. Although its population is around 150,000 people, the numbers swell especially around the annual Rath Yatra (Car Festival) held in July. The Rath Yatra is a religious procession where the idols of Lord Jagannath are slowly paraded up a street in an expensively-decked out chariot; it is the only opportunity non-Hindus have of setting eyes on the idols since the temple itself is off-limits to them. The balconies and apartments lining the street are booked out well in advance for Rath Yatra sighting parties.
For dinner a couple of evenings before the famed Rath Yatra, I went to ‘Honey Bee’s Bakery & Pizzeria’, where I ate an expensive, but poorly-prepared, lasagne. However, I was given my money’s worth – paisa vasool – with the conversation at the only other occupied table in that five-table restaurant.
A bald, white man, wearing a kurta, was sitting alone and reading. Another white man, also bald and known to the first, entered the restaurant and joined him at the table.
“Dark Secrets of the Tantric Goddess!” the newcomer exclaimed and wiggled his fingers, when he saw the other’s book. “You know I want to get my hands on that.”
He sat down and the two of them began a spirited discussion about why the religion was called Hinduism, which was the best place to see the Rath Yatra from, and how the Vedas fared when compared to the Upanishads.
“I used to be a heavy practitioner,” drawled the newcomer while refusing the salad his companion had offered him, “but then, I was faced with the question, ‘What do I want to do?’ I could either become a monk or an academician. Then, I got into a really good graduate school, and found that I really enjoyed the academic part of it.”
He went on to talk about his role as a teacher of Hindu scriptures and Hinduism in a foreign university. As I listened, I thought to myself how Americans (for his accent betrayed him to be one) pursue a subject relentlessly, seeking knowledge and understanding. It is a quality I – and a lot of Indians – would do well to appropriate, rather than getting stuck in archaic belief systems which may or may not be true for my situation.
“But then,” the teacher concluded, “if I find my true Guru, all this goes out the window.”
“I have nearly come to blows with ISKCON devotees,” he said at another time. “They were, like, “Jagannath! Oh yeah! He’s a reincarnation of Krishna.” I said, “You take that back right now.” Then, I calmed down, went home and called an Indian friend of mine and said, “You know, they’re saying Jagannath is a reincarnation of Krishna.” For a few minutes, there was a lot of cursing and fighting on the other side of the phone.”
“So, who is Jagannath an incarnation of?” asked his companion.
“Jagannath,” the teacher said in all seriousness, “is most likely an incarnation of Vishnu.”
A little while later, the teacher rose.
“Excuse me,” he said to his salad-eating companion. “It’s beer o’clock; time for me to go get a ‘big boy drink’. I’ll see you at the Rath Yatra.”
And the bald white man left - that teacher of Hindu scriptures and religious beliefs, that defender of Lord Jagannath’s ancestry, that organiser of Rath Yatra viewing parties, that seeker of his true Guru - lighting up a cigarette on his way out.
Written for the Expedia contest on IndiBlogger. Visit Expedia at http://www.expedia.co.in/.