Ten Rupees a Kilo
Waiting for lunch one afternoon, I dragged a blue wooden bench and an uneven table out back, to eat my thali under the bright, cloudless sky. It was early February, 1999, and I was living in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha found enlightenment 2,500 years earlier and where I was about to find myself pregnant and alone at age twenty-three.
In the hazy middle distance sat the mountain, the one camel hump against the otherwise dusty plains dotted with coconut palms and Sal trees. The mountain was where the Buddha meditated for years before becoming the Buddha, denying himself food and sleep, as was then expected of a renunciant, until he came down to the river to bathe. A young woman named Sujata found him, weak and skeletal, and fed him milk rice. Fortified, he denounced rigid asceticism, deeming it as dangerous as the lazy luxury in which he’d lived as a prince. Discovering the necessity – and the potential – of the Middle Way, he then crossed the river to sit under the Bodhi tree a kilometer downstream from where I was then sitting behind Gautum’s restaurant in the sun.
Though the river still ran fast and high during the summer rains, in the winter, the riverbed was dry and cracked, where men squatted in the early morning to do their business. And that year, after a long time of speculation, there was a new bridge. But although orange goods carriers and red Mahindra tractors rumbled across it from time to time, there was nowhere to go, it seemed, once they crossed. No road continuing on the other side.
I was by myself that afternoon, as I almost always was during those weeks I did not yet know were the fulcrum between the first part of my life and everything that came after. But what seemed to have crystallized itself that day was a palpable, if subtle, contentment with my solitude. A contentment that, within days, I would mourn. But at the time, pinching up tufts of soggy spinach with roti, scraping sour dahi off the stainless-steel tray, I knew only that the winter fog had lifted. That the mountain was visible again.
And so, I was surprised when an agonized shriek tore through the quiet. Wheeling around on the bench, I watched as a massive, wild boar shot out from around a corner. Every part of her, from her snout to her ears to her short back legs, was thick and hairy and covered in grime. Two long rows of full, heavy teats hung along her enormous belly, flopping like a burden. Three feet at the shoulder and running for her life, she was heading toward the bridge.
A throng of farmers followed, their bare feet pounding in the dust. Dressed in knotted lungis, flat, plaid cotton tied into skirts above their knees, the men held hatchets, hoes, and rocks and hollered as they ran.
Out back of a different restaurant, two doors down, another foreigner, a middle-aged white woman, in a long purple skirt and a broad purple hat, was also startled away from her book or her lunch or the blue, paper aerogram she might have been writing. Though I hadn’t noticed her at first, then I saw her stand, blocking the sun with her palm, staring as the farmers surrounded the boar and began pelting it with rocks. I watched as she put her hands on her purple hat and started to scream, too.
“Death is not a single thing,” Allen Ginsberg wrote during his 1963 visit to Bodhgaya, before going on to list his physical discomforts, including scabies and pink eye. While Ginsberg might have been comforting himself, the line could also reflect his understanding of the impermanence and interdependence that form the foundation for all Buddhist thought. The yearning to better understand these truths, in the place where the Buddha himself realized them, has drawn people to Bodhgaya for the last two and a half thousand years.
And yet, during his lifetime, the Buddha barely mentioned the prospect of pilgrimage. He issued no mandates or explicit instructions. Not long before the Buddha died, though, he told his attendant that for the “faithful,” making the trip to Bodh Gaya would “arouse emotion.” But which emotion, he didn’t specify. Almost like a dare, his words seem to promise nothing and everything.
In between nothing and everything and ostensibly studying Tibetan Buddhism, I was, in the jargon of the devout, “doing my prostrations,” laying my body flat and standing back up again, one thousand times a day, or more, in the shadow of the Mahabodhi Temple. Ngondro, the traditional Tibetan preliminary practices, required taking refuge, which required 111,111 prostrations. In theory, I was going to stay in Bodhgaya until I was done. I kept count with stones, then penciled a hash mark in my notebook after every hundred. I envisioned the refuge tree to which I bowed in my mind, in the shade of the real Bodhi tree, with its fluttering heart-shaped leaves, near which I practiced, and I repeated the syllables in Tibetan, the shape of the refuge prayer by then familiar and sweet in my mouth. But despite all that bowing, the certainty with which I appeared to supplicate myself belied the real reason I remained in Bodhgaya, namely that I had no idea who or how or where else to be.
To say that the Protestant work ethic of my Ohio upbringing was so pervasive as to be atmospheric would be an understatement. As anyone who grows up enmeshed in any myth knows, it’s not just that the ideals surround, from the outside in, but also that they are embodied and internalized, personal and pointed. In my case, I grew up so fixated on the illusion of industry that I never recognized the implication of reward, of some distant future in which effort itself would be honored. I didn’t believe in god or salvation, but I was nevertheless fixated on what was to come.
I’d also grown up in the downward mobility of the Rustbelt, in Akron, where my mother and I moved twelve times before my twelfth birthday because we never had enough money to stay put. As a child, I’d always known I was an expense no one could quite afford and a logistical obstacle no one could quite solve, and yet I had no idea how much, as a young adult, every move I made, or avoided, was because I still believed myself to be a kind of general imposition. An incumbrance that I imagined could only be offset by extreme, if fictional, self-sufficiency. And for reasons I believed, at fifteen and eighteen, to be the antidote to all that upheaval rather than a continuation of it, I’d kept on moving, as frequently and as drastically as I could manage. I originally spent several months in Bodhgaya as an undergraduate, and by the time I was twenty, I’d lived on three continents and both American coasts.
To confront the Buddhist notion of the present, then, was both elusive and unsettling. I could arrive, by choice, in a different country, but I could not