Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Irrational Scientist

The train sped across the one of the worst mountain passes in the world through a torrential monsoon downpour. Water was dousing my face through the broken window. I groaned, my stomach growled from indigestion, and my head throbbed from allergies. On the other side, the dark-haired scientist dozed like a baby oblivious to the world outside, lost in his dreams again. As the train lurched violently from side to side, I glimpsed the deep ravine below us and shut my eyes.

It was sixteen years ago, in my twenties, an age too young to take on an irrational quest like this. I should have been back in Colorado. I should have been home in the Rockies. Capturing the colors of the Fall. Blithely dancing in some Irish bar. Enjoying a ball game from the bleachers with a beer in hand. I cannot believe I volunteered for this crazy trip. 

The train whistled and plunged down a steep, terrifying descent. 

Just two days earlier, on an overcast Sunday afternoon in Colorado, Mark Shamass left a little post-it note on my front door. It was one of his strange habits – leaving funny quotes or lines from his new favorite poem or just an aphorism of philosophy. With a PhD from Maryland, Mark was continuing his post-doc in physical cosmology doing endless hours in 'shapeless research' as he would call it. He struck me as one who always searched for scientific answers for big questions. He wasn’t really interested in religion or God, but he was just so obsessed about the roots of our existence. He told me that his mind sometimes would do a loopy dance: Who am I? Is this real? Where do we go from here? So on and so forth until he snapped out of it, he said, by pinching his eyebrows forcibly until he could focus on the only rational explanation– that in a life that is lived only once, he’ll never get any wiser.

He was always the scientist and a darn good one (as I garnered from his awards). His lucid explanations of cosmological phenomena never failed to fascinate us even if it were in an Irish bar where we should really be dancing drunk instead of discussing origins of the universe.

The note this time was different - there were just three words scrawled in charcoal: Please help me!  

This was peculiar - Mark wasn’t a taker, he was a giver. He was capable of giving, and giving gave him fulfillment. Heck, I’m the taker! I thought everyone knew I have nothing to give, I was completely undependable. What does he need from me? I rapped on his door.

A few grunts from the other side, pattering of feet, and the door flung open.

“You are early! I still haven’t finished the final sketch.”

I barely heard his words, staring at the scene beyond him. Papers strewn around, unwashed mugs, cushions tossed on the floor, clothes dangling on chairs, and him – what a ghastly sight! Unshaven, frizzy hair like Doc Brown’s, and a charcoal pencil spinning in his fingers like a neutron star. This really can’t be Mark – the meticulously organized Mark I know who’s so orderly he even checks and aligns his furniture every week with a laser pointer.

“What the … ?” I whispered.

Mark dived after a sheet of paper lying on the table as books slithered off the surface to the floor.

“Well, let us get you started. You recognize this?” he asked me.

A lightly shaded sketch of an object - “I can’t say. Some ancient musical instrument?”

“Or a sacred Hindu artifact. The sketch is missing some details, I just can’t recall too well.”

“Where did you see this?”

"In my head!"  He said. He saw it in a dream the previous night – for the third or fourth time in his life. He was just eleven years old camping in the Sierras the first time it came to him as a vivid dream and he woke up thinking it was an enigma. Now, he said, he knows it is a calling.

“Mark, you should write the sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind!”

“Cut me the BS. Wait till I’m finished with the final sketch. Sit down, sorry for the mess. I’m not me today.”

As he scratched furiously on his pad, I studied the drawing in my hand. The object was angular with cross bars like frets. Hadn't seen anything like it before.

Mark finished his second sketch and thrust it under my nose. There was an entire scene here: a clean-shaven man palming the object naked as a new-born day, squatting on flat grass while behind him rose a rocky hill somewhat obscured by clouds. His face was inscrutable covered in white ash.

“Who is this?” I asked.

“Me,” he said soberly.


That is me! He repeated. A Sadhu perhaps– an ascetic. I used to carry that object all the time.

“But I don’t understand … “

“Baddy, this will sound crazy, but I cannot explain what I’m going through.” He paused. "I just intrinsically feel that’s me in my previous birth!"

I regarded him with sudden sympathy. He was losing it, the poor sop. Dismantling right before me, there he was – frizzy hair, wide-eyed, talking about memories from a previous life. Surely, his strange family were to blame - he told me once that they were Jewish-Catholic parents who constantly changed religious beliefs like they changed wardrobe in their quest to find “meaning” – whatever it was. They implanted this disquiet in him - of attempting to learn more than we can (or should) ever know. This apple, after all, didn’t fall far from the tree.

“Mark, do you really think you were a bald Indian hermit in your previous life?”

“Yes. In fact, I remember my name. It is Aa-cha-ria! Did I get it right?”

“Think so. Acharya? It is a name, all right, and it means teacher.”

“Yes, I was probably a spiritual guru of some sort.”

“I’m sure you were. Great stuff, you probably remember your pet monkey too. Listen, I should be going. Just don’t take all this too seriously. How about a pub crawl tonight?”

He ignored my advice. “Wait, do you see any clues in the sketch? There are details in the background. I don’t think it is very accurate … it’s hard to recall visions from dreams.”

I glanced at the picture again and shook my head. “None. Listen, think about your fiancé. You are getting married next year, for god’s sake! This isn’t the time …“

“Save me the lecture! Just help me – I really need to know where this place is.”

I noticed suddenly the odd-shaped rocky cliff in the background.  There were carvings in it like caves, I had seen it before. Where the hell…  Yes! It was in a tourism brochure online.

“Hey, where is your PC?”

Didn’t take me long to locate the brochure online. It was an old Buddhist site in Western India dating back to 2nd century BC with cave structures carved out of huge rocky cliffs.

I turned to Mark cautiously. “Mark, that hill there looks a bit like a Buddhist site called Pitalkhora.  I am not even sure about that. Now, you may have recalled this from any reading you have been doing on India or Buddhism …”

He jumped from the chair. “Show me a picture.”

After minutes of studying it with his palms on his cheeks, he exclaimed: “That’s it! That’s the place right there! We’re going there tomorrow!”


“Baddie, I need your guidance there. Never been to India. Please! I need to understand why I get this recurring dream about this object and that bald man. I’m going nuts. I will pay for your expenses, help me!”

I politely refused. I shouldn't encourage this insanity any further, besides I was getting a headache. Adios, scientist!

I went back to my apartment, and dozed off my headache. In my dreams, I saw a huge stampede of weed-smoking sadhus and monks covered in white ash. I could see a rocky hill in the distance, and just as I was approaching it, I woke up with a jolt. The phone was ringing off the hook.

It was Jen – Mark’s fiancé who lived in New York at that time. She had an unusual request for me - using psychology in reverse.

We had an argument, he is stubborn! He needs to get this out of his system. Listen, when I’m walking down the aisle with Marko, I want him to be my Marko. Not a monastic called Aa-Choo-Yeah with a crazy object in his hands. Take him to India, prove him wrong! Demystify him, and bring me back my real hubby! Please!

All right, one favor won't kill me. Two days later, we were on a plane to India.

After a petrifying twenty minutes, the train at last exited the old Kasara Ghat, and eased into a rhythmic roll while the people around us started getting up. When I spied the station around the circular bend, I flicked some monsoon drops on Mark's face.

“Wake up! We’re here. Chalisgaon.”

Eyelids fluttered open, situation sank in, and he pushed his hair back and grinned. “Chalice-gown! So soon? Whoa! Boy, we are here! Isn’t this exciting?”

I looked at him coldly. “No, Mark. Speak for yourself. C’mon, we have to catch a bus. We still have thirty km to go to the Buddhist site.”

It was still pouring hard when we bravely jumped on the open platform, crouched in the rain, and swung right to join the crowd heading to the exit stairways. There was construction going on everywhere.

Someone behind us was yelling: “Mr. FOREIGNER!”

I looked over my shoulder to see a man weaving through the crowds towards us dressed in a wet blazer and khaki trousers, and flashing a giant smile at Mark.

“Uh-oh, classic huckster,” I warned Mark, “his bootlicking gene is kicking at the mere sight of your white skin. Refuse whatever it is he is peddling.”

As he approached us, he opened an umbrella in his hand, and hustled us into its shelter. He was a thin man with crinkling eyes, wispy mustache, and a prominent overbite.

“Mr. Foreigner, my name is Jakob, sir. Jakob with a K.  Are you coming for Spirituality with Love? Do you have HIV papers? If you don’t have papers, I can get them for you. I have a test kit in a Maruti van outside.”

“What in the world are you talking about?” I asked him in wonder.

He was taken aback. “You’re not here for Spirituality with Love, Mr. Foreigners? You better be. It is a conference for sex. Hot women and men – MTV kind – from all over. Russians, Portugese, Americans, they are all here for sex. Lots of it inspired by the sculptures in the nearby Ellora caves. Continuous! All you need are the location, HIV papers and the password.”

His voice dropped to a whisper. “I know the location. It is a guest house very close to the Ellora caves just an hour from here. I can get you the HIV papers. I also know the password – it is an old Sanskrit phrase from Kama Sutra.”

Mark said, “I’m sorry, Jakob. We are not interested.”

“Hey, wait a minute,” I protested, “Wait just a minute. Mark, are you sure? Maybe we should hang around with Jakob and go with him to that technical conference. Show them the sketch. Maybe there is someone in that network who can tell you what it is.”

Mark shook his head, tugging me fiercely towards the exit, leaving Jakob frozen behind scratching his head. As we got off the stairway and reached the bus stop, Jakob came running behind us.

“WAIT! Sir, please keep this umbrella, you will be really wet and cold. You can return it on your way back.”

Mark was puzzled. “But you are drenched. Why don’t you use it yourself?”

Jakob flashed the boat-shaped smile again, and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm ok. Your bus, sir!” he pointed behind us.

“Thank you, but you should keep it. We will learn how to manage just like you,” said Mark, patting him on the shoulder.

The last leg took us through four km of wildnerness to the remotest parts of the state. Luckily, the rain had stopped before we arrived at the entrance where a small crowd was gathered. Near the gate, I noticed an ash-covered Sadhu dressed only in a loin cloth leaning unsteadily against a basalt rock wall near the bridge. When we approached the gate, he surprised us by introducing himself in soft English as Abhaya, a Nashik sadhu who dropped out of college twenty years ago to become a follower of the great Swami Mahapatra. He offered to guide us through the caves for twenty rupees. He said he’d do it for free, but he hasn’t had a morsel in over a day.

Astonished, we insisted on a meal before the tour. We sat down at a little tree-café (a mobile van café with chairs and a little portable stove) where we ate chapatis. Abhaya ate with a deliberate composure and he talked along.

“You came all the way from America. Is it only to see the Buddhist Chaityas or do you have something else in mind?”

Mark showed him the sketch.

He studied the drawing as he rolled a piece between his dancing jaws. “It looks familiar. Ancient, that much I can tell. But not more, I’m afraid.”

He looked at us sharply:  “But I know someone who knows the answers!”


“Swami-ji! You are in luck. The Swami-ji visits the Chaityas every day in the rainy season. In an hour, he will appear at the big Anjan tree where you can perform pada pooja and ask him about anything – it does not matter, he will answer if he can. Now,” he said getting up, “let’s tour the Chaityas and the Viharas.”

We just had enough time to tour the crumbling, magnificent Chaityas, the prayer halls, reeling from structural damage over the ages. The main Chaitya hall was sprawling and impressive, but the stupas were bare, in ruins. The Viharas (rooms of the monastery) varied from the simple to the intricate. The sadhu couldn’t tell us whether this was due to a difference in economy class or just a different era altogether. He shrugged his shoulders: “Who cares now? You ask too many questions!”

I nudged Mark. “Any memories? Of a childhood strolling through these caves? Do you remember your little Vihara bedroom?”

Mark ignored the sarcasm. He squatted silently on the floor in one corner and studied the cave intently with his palms on his cheeks.

“This is ancient. Too ancient, isn't this too ancient?” he said and shook his head.

“Well, what did you expect? C'mon, it is time to meet the Swami.”

Time to get all the answers.

The great ascetic-swami seemed to come out of nowhere as he headed a procession of followers into a nearby hill. He was the only one apparently who could embrace Buddhist principles in a unique interpretation that did not conflict with Vedanta philosophy. A slightly heavyset man with long matty hair knotted in the back, he sat down under a big tree and caught Abhaya’s facial contortions.  I had suddenly noticed miming was a form of communication here – Abhaya was miming ‘ATTENTION’ without even using his hands, just showing excruciating pain in his face. The Swami gestured him closer and they both had a whispered conversation during which the Swami frequently looked at Mark and shook his head. After Abhaya withdrew, the Swami smiled at us and pointed to the front row with only one person ahead (who was there presumably to show us how it is done).

As soon as we stood in our place, the teenage follower in front suddenly dived at the Swami’s feet. Like a gecko, he turned still again as held them in his hands for what seemed like an eternity. Then, to my great shock, he vigorously began to kiss and lick the Swami’s feet with long swipes of his wet tongue. After three minutes of slathering, Abhaya motioned to us:

“It’s now your turn for Pada Pooja.”

I trembled. Pada Pooja means literally 'feet worship.' I cannot dive on this man’s feet and lick them! I can’t even touch them now that the other guy has salivated all over them. But I just cannot turn around and leave ...

As I hesitated, Mark pushed me aside and fell at the Swami’s feet doing everything the teenager did and more, quietly and without qualms. I sighed in relief and dumped my flowers at the Swami's feet.

“What can I do for you?” The Swami asked in Marathi with his problem-solving smile. His voice was distant as if it came from an echo chamber.

Mark fished the sketch from his pocket.

“Can you tell us what this object is, Swami-ji?” he implored.

Swami Mahapatra stared at it for a few moments and spoke in Marathi.

“If I’m not mistaken,” he said through Abhaya’s translation, “this is the Pali mantha.”

 He whispered into Abhaya’s ear and nodded his head.

“You can go now.”

Mark couldn’t wait until we were out of earshot. “What the hell is the Pali mantha?”

“Well, your quest is over, my friend. We will see it shortly. Wait here.”

Abhaya climbed three rock steps to an overhang where a young Buddhist monk was washing his face. He spoke quietly which caused the monk to laugh and dive into his bag at his feet. He pulled out an object and gave it to Abhaya.

Mark began to move forward. “I need to see it,” he whispered urgently.

Abhaya met us halfway down on on a narrow step. He stretched out his arm and opened his fist. In it lay a triangular shaped object with a single fret. It looked much like the letter A, but the fret was curved.

Mark picked it up and twirled it in his fingers, studying its surface with his tips. I couldn’t see his face, he hid it in the shadows of the wall.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It is a Buddhist tea stirrer,” said Abhaya. “The Pali mantha it is called. Some use it for stirring tea, others use it to scratch an itchy area. I hope no one used it as both! You can keep it. The monk said he has many.”

Mark finally turned around. He wore a look of slight disappointment. This wasn't the answer he was looking for. 

On the way back to Chalisgaon, Mark’s continued silence was annoying me.

“So, you saw it. You don’t really understand it. Maybe it looks familiar. But it is over. It is time to go home. At least, you found it. You should be happy. It is a tea stirrer, when you were a kid, you probably saw someone peddling it in a mall, you had recurring dreams about it and you erroneously concluded that in your previous life you were a monastic hermit who grows vegetables in his own poop. C’mon, get over it!”

Mark shook his head again. "Too small!" he said.

We got down from the bus just to learn the return train was cancelled. Our only option was to take the next bus to Mumbai if we didn’t want to miss the flight. As we waited, we heard a familiar yell: “Mr. FOREIGNER!”

Startled, I turned around. It was our dear friend Jakob weaving his way through the crowd displaying his giant smile.

“How was your trip, sir?” he asked.

“Thankfully short!” I said.

“You shouldn’t leave today, sir. There is so much to see here in Chalisgaon. I could take you around. It is a developing place. Look at all the construction going on.”

“What is that?” I asked him, pointing to a new building. It had a very peculiar architecture.

“That is going to be a museum, sir.”

I suddenly felt a cold grip on my arm. Mark was staring ahead. He raised his finger and pointed it at a hoarding on the building. A giant hording we missed all day.

The hair on my neck began to raise. Painted on the right corner was the very same object. I looked down at the sketch in Mark's trembling hands. Identical!

“Jakob,” Mark asked in a strained voice, pointing to it. “What is that?”

“That is the Yasti Yantra, sir.”

“What the hell is a Yasti Yantra?” I asked.

“It is an instrument, sir. Made by the greatest Hindu scientist who ever lived - Bhaskara II. The same man who conceived calculus five hundred years before the Europeans who are credited for it.”

“What is it used for?”

“To measure the angles and distances between objects. Bhaskara II used it for astronomical calculations. He was the director of astronomy at Ujjain University. But he lived right here for most of his life. They say near Patnadevi a place very close to Pitalkhora caves that you just visited this afternoon.”

Oh shit! He was an astronomer too?

Mark asked him: “Why is he called Bhaskara II? Is his father also famous?”

“Oh no, sir. Bhaskara I was many centuries before Bhaskara II. It is just to avoid confusion. In fact, some call him Bhaskara II. Others call him by his given names.”

“And what is that?”

“Bhaskara Acharya, sir.

Mark straightened up. Acharya, isn’t it?

I touched his arm lightly: “Mark, the bus is coming.”

Mark smiled and his eyes shined. You better go, Baddy. I’m home. Don’t you worry about me!

“But, your fiancé … “

“She will understand. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to buy a ticket to Ujjain. I have some unfinished business there. Thank you, Jakob. You are an amazing man!”

Ten hours later, I was glad to be on the plane heading back to Colorado. I wish Mark had returned with me, but there is nothing I can do if he believes he is the new Bhaskara III or Acharya II. He seemed happy, maybe Jen will still hold on or maybe she will move on. I couldn’t care less.

I was going back home.