I was walking along Lambton Quay in Wellington the other day, on the way to buy my niece a present for her fifth birthday. My train of thought was a little unfocused as I tried to think of what she would like: a book? a DVD? a Barbie? Would she want something she already knows a lot about, or a total surprise? Hey, perhaps school supplies would be an appropriately practical gift for a grown-up girl.
My mind is usually this scattered, or even more so.
Suddenly, I noticed a familiar jangling up ahead. As I strained my failing eyes into the distance -- it’s really about time I got some glasses -- I could make out a procession of International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON] devotees. You, as I, probably know them better as Hare Krishnas after their mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
I couldn’t help but smile. Hare Krishnas always make me smile. They’re so unashamedly devotional, even as the world becomes more and more individualistic. It often seems that when bumped into, smiled at, accosted or questioned, we are supposed to keep a straight face and carry on unmoved. To beat a tambourine or a drum and chant your overwhelming belief in and deference to a higher consciousness, on such busy and indifferent streets, is a courageous thing to do.
While I don’t think I could ever join them, I also really admire their clarity of focus. I sure could use a lot more focus in my own life.
As our paths converged, I tried -- and failed -- to suppress my grin. I looked them in the eye as they passed, and they were quite a motley crew: among them, a twentysomething white guy clad in orange and wearing the standard Hare Krishna ponytail-only hairstyle; a short, plump, short-haired, calm-faced, brown-skinned woman; an Indian man in a sweatshirt and a dhoti, carrying books; and a tall, slim, smiling white woman in salwar kameez.
She caught my eye and kind of skipped over towards me as I passed, holding something out towards me with her right hand. I smiled and took it without thinking, thanking her as she smiled broadly back at me. It was a small cookie, wrapped in cling film. My smile broadened.
After she skittered on, the man in the sweatshirt was next to approach.
“Hello sir, do you have a minute to just see some books?”
Again, without thinking, I stopped and relented. “Sure.” Would I have been so easily convinced if I had never been to India?
“Okay, so, I just want to show you...” He shuffled through his stack of books, eventually finding a thick hardcover tome. “...this book, the Bhagavad Gita. Now, have you ever heard of yoga?”
I couldn’t help myself. “Yes I have heard of yoga and the Bhagavad Gita and I lived in India for three years and I love India so much,” I blurted out.
(This is more or less standard practice for former expats-in-India. Given an Indian to talk to, we will do everything we can to demonstrate that we Love India and Indians and everything about India. Dave Prager, author of Delirious Delhi, articulated this urge very well here.)
Fortunately, the man did not freak out at my over-the-top enthusiasm. Instead, he smiled and said, “Oh, really?” with genuine curiosity. “In which part of India were you living?”
“Kerala,” I replied. “Far down south, near to Trivandrum.” And I love Kerala so much, etc. “What about you, where are you from?”
“Me? I am from Pune.”
“Ah. I’ve never been there. But I have visited Mumbai.” And I love Mumbai so much also... Control yourself, brain! “Anyway, tell me,” I said, gesturing towards his fresh, updated version of the Bhagavad Gita.
“Yes,” he said, and prepared to deliver his spiel. “Basically, in Bhagavad Gita, all the answers are there. What all people basically want in their life is to be happy, no? But normally they are getting distracted - with job, money, family problems and all. The Bhagavad Gita actually shows you the secrets of happiness - all the secrets of happiness. This book is all you need.”
“I’ve never read it,” I said, “but it’s part of the Mahabharata, right?” Couldn’t help it. Had to show off.
“Yes! You know Mahabharata? Yes, it’s wonderful.”
“Have you read the whole thing?” I asked in some disbelief -- the Mahabharata is many thousands of pages long.
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “I highly recommend it. Wonderful. But here, feel free to take a look at this,” handing me the Bhagavad Gita.
As I absent-mindedly opened the book to random pages, I noted that the rest of his group had crossed and continued on up the other side of Lambton Quay. “It looks like your friends have left you behind,” I said.
He turned and looked in their direction, then back to me. “Oh, that’s not a problem,” he said with another smile.
My fingers turned to the title page, where I recognised a name. “Oh, it’s Prabhupada,” I said. Still showing off.
“Yes -- you know Prabhupada also?!” He was really thrilled at this. I somehow resisted the urge to tell him all about that one fascinated afternoon I had spent watching YouTube videos about Prabhupada. In a way, though, my earnestness about all things India reflected his, and the rest of his group’s, for Krishna Consciousness.
Closing the book, I handed it back to him, explaining that I wouldn’t be taking anything from him today and had to get on with buying my niece’s gift -- but that I would love to meet him again in future. We exchanged names, occupations and phone numbers. Turns out he was a software engineer by day. I promised I would be in touch, and he beamed as we parted ways.
About five minutes later, I was waiting at a pedestrian crossing for the light to turn green. Three teenagers stood in front of me, two boys and a girl. “I’m so hungry,” said the girl.
She looked like she was always hungry.
“Here, have this,” said one of the boys, handing her a wrapped cookie from the Hare Krishnas. She took it, though she looked confused.
“Where’s this from?” she asked.
“Those dudes over there,” said the boy, stifling a laugh and pointing down Lambton Quay to the jangling procession. The girl’s face dropped.
“Fuck off,” she said in disgust, moving to throw the cookie on the ground before thrusting it back into the boy’s hand. Both of the boys laughed, and she carried on scowling. Somehow, I resisted the urge to tell them how much I love India.
Here, as I finish writing this, I’m eating the cookie the Hare Krishnas gave me. It’s an Anzac biscuit, which is a sweet mixture of oats and golden syrup strongly linked with Australia and New Zealand’s efforts in the First World War.
The cookie is delicious. That girl doesn’t know what she’s missing.
Photo credit: screenwork.nl