It’s April, and Gokulam is slowly being drained of its foreigners. The yogis, as the locals exaggeratedly call us, are leaving. The yoga season is winding down, Sharath Jois’ school, known as the main shala, closed at the end of March, and by May, all the main teachers will be either away or taking a break. Room rents plummet by fifty percent or more, cafés whose main clientele is foreign claim not to have change for five-hundred rupee notes, and the coconut-water sellers seem just that little bit keener to sell you an extra coconut, intoning their, “One more, sir?” just as you’re gulping down the last swig from the one in your hand. On my recent first visit to the rooftop restaurant Art Trattorias, the Tibetan owner squeezed my hand as I paid the bill, and released me with an insistant, “See you again!”
And so my regular haunts are emptying, I no longer run into acquaintances at every street corner, and the hot hours of the day seem to drag on. There is lethargy in the air, things are slowing down, and even the locals seem to feel it. The road by Pushpir’s espresso bar and organic store, where workmen toiled just days ago to lay sand and roll gravel, still awaits its tarmac, there is resignation in the rickshaw drivers’ half-hearted, “Sir! Boss! Where you go?”, and even the yoga teacher Chidananda has arrived slightly late for class a couple of times.
Is it because of this that I seem more attentive to things around me? Undistracted by fellow yoga students, not expecting conversation and left to my own devices, I seem more aware of the goings on. There’s the deformed beggar for example, is he really in the area more often, or had I just not paid attention? With legs set in a permanent squat, his feet twisted outwards, he gets around by lifting himself off the ground with his arms, hands clasping the handles of two coarse wooden blocks. Although he’s never gestured to me for money, I usually give him a small note when I pass, and each time I do so he receives it with a hearty chuckle, before raising it to his wizened brow. Seeing the toothless grin, and the creases in his greying stubble, I am reminded once again that suffering truly does stem more from our thoughts than from a situation or condition. Has he harnessed an inner freedom that eludes me? I don’t know, but he seems present in the moment, and even though I may give him something one day, he never seems to expect I will be forthcoming the next.
And there are the dogs. There’s one I often see near the Ganesh temple, with a beautiful ginger-brown coat, which he is losing by the day from mange. It hurts to see him desperately scratching away, twisting into contortions to reach each itchy spot, and with bare patches all over his chest and flanks, he looks distressingly forlorn. Having spent many a night tormented by the onslaught of mosquitoes, I can imagine the torture of his plight.
Perhaps because I have become a minority, the local people seem to talk to me more. By the bus stop two days ago, a portly man, with wife swathed in a glittery sari in tow, asked me where I was from. I replied, and he announced gruffly, “Two hundred years, British ruled India!”, before offering me the flesh of his coconut. He asked me which town in England I was from, then exclaimed, “Oh Texas,” before realizing he’d confused the UK with the US. The baker I’ve been to almost daily for weeks, ignoring the plastic bag I held out for re-use and wrapping my spicy buns in a fresh one, asked me my country, and then, “What work you do here?” And I smiled to myself, for what kind of work would leave me free to wander by several times a day, when his own trade keeps him tied to his oven and miniscule open shop for most of his waking hours? At the Sri Ganesh Juice Center, where I purchased a paper cup of pineapple juice for twenty rupees, a couple of fashion-conscious youths with styled hair approached me. They enquired of my country and my purpose here. When I explained, one retorted, somewhat provocatively I thought, though perhaps it was just genuine earnestness, “Do you love yoga?” and I found myself at a loss for an answer – a simple “Yes” seemed too corny, and also an insufficient response.
These fleeting conversations are usually cordial, but they remind me of the obvious fact that I am only a visitor here. In early February, at the height of the season, when foreign yoga practitioners were everywhere, the legitimate lives of the local people had somehow ended up forming the background of my existence, and it was easy to feel I belonged here. We foreigners were swarming in and out of eateries, congregating on the steps outside Ganesh’s juice, drinking coffee and occupying all the benches at the Depth and Green espresso bar, whizzing around on shiny rented scooters, shopping, for essentials, food, clothes, gifts, and waiting our turn for coconuts. Now, Gokulam is itself once more: in the buzzing atmosphere of the streets, ordinary Indians go about their normal lives, and I am just an outsider, able to be here only thanks to extraordinary good fortune and my privileged karma. Perhaps there is safety in numbers, because although Gokulam is a safe neighbourhood, and the Indians here mostly courteous and friendly, now and again I find myself wishing I was less noticeable.
So although drained of its “yogis”, Gokulam is, of course, far from empty. The more I awaken to my surroundings, the more seems to be going on, the more intertwined lives I am drawn towards. I see a small boy riding a rickety red bike round a corner, with an even smaller sibling perched on the luggage rack; a thin, elderly man in a grubby longhi walking slowly, pushing another bicycle, with threadbare bags laden with herbs hanging from the handlebars; at Amruth cafe, cigarettes and chai are selling as fast as eager hands can grab them; two young women with toddlers riding on their hips tug at my sleeve, and raise pinched fingers to their mouths, begging for money for food; a man rides merrily across the crossroads with only one hand steering his scooter, with the other he holds his child on his knee; further on, labourers with sun-bleached dhotis and sweat-soaked glistening skin, scoop sand into bucket-pans with their bare hands, then hoist their load onto their heads, and trudge with bare feet across a construction site; outside the Ganesh temple, a bare-chested, overweight young man with an impressive belly, receives money from worshippers with flower-garlands for some service; vehicles grind ruts into the gravel they scatter from the unmetalled lane still awaiting its surface; and the traffic flows as usual, in waves, and with the customary degree of anarchy.
The “yoga bubble” has burst. In a way it feels like I’ve finally fully arrived here. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time I sense the first stirrings of a desire to move on. With the lazy days comes a certain vague heaviness. Soon, no doubt, I too will be ready to jump ship, and head elsewhere to replenish my soul.