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Finding celebration in adversity: A realization in the Himalayas!

by P.S. Wasu
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Joining a group of ascetics singing a Kabir song, the author shared the euphoria where individuality dissolved into collective elation

It was sometime in the mid-1990s that I conducted a Zen-Tao workshop for a company at an ashram midway between Uttarkashi and Gangotri in India. It was not much of an ashram but a simple boutique hotel. It was given the moniker ‘ashram’ just because it was in the Himalayas on the bank of the Ganga. 
The so-called ashram was sandwiched between the Ganga flowing downward toward Uttarkashi and the Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway going upward toward Gangotri. When the 3-day workshop was over, I decided to stay there for three more days to experience the Himalayan vibes a little more, explore the area, and be with myself. It was one of my earliest workshops, and I was glad it had received good feedback beyond my expectations. 
On my first idle day, I started walking uphill on the road toward Gangotri just after breakfast. After walking for 5-6 kilometers, I saw a small, faded sign on my left, which read ‘Kabirpanthi Ashram’ with an arrow pointing upward. I looked up and saw a decrepit cottage at some height on the hill. 
Intrigued, I started climbing toward that ashram. The four residents of the ashram had seen me climbing and were waiting for me at the door. They welcomed me warmly, and we settled down in the front room on the matted floor, cross-legged. They served me the drink Rooh Afza in a steel tumbler, and we started talking. They were starved of conversation as they hardly ever met anybody over there.
As an unexpected guest, I was a godsend to them, and they started telling me their respective life stories—how they came under the spell of Kabir’s teachings in their youth, how they left home and decided to live as ascetics, and how finally they ended up at this remote sanctuary. Coming from disparate corners of India, they now bonded like brothers. Some meager funds came to them from some foundation, but those were sufficient for their minimalistic living.
At some point, one of them brought a harmonium and sat down to sing a Kabir song. Others also joined in the singing. The words were:
‘Bhala hua mori gagri phooti, mein paniya bharan se chhooti, more sar se tali balaa!
Bhala hua mori maala tooti, mein ram bhajan se chhooti, more sar se tali balaa!’

(Good that my pitcher broke; I am relieved of the task of filling water; I am liberated from the horrid evil that possessed me!
Good that my rosary snapped; I am relieved of the task of praying; I am liberated from the horrid evil that possessed me!)
The word ‘balaa’ has no exact equivalent in the English language. It can be translated as ‘albatross’ or ‘a heavy cross to bear’ but the connotation of ‘balaa’ is much stronger than these expressions. Hence my choice of ‘horrid evil that possessed me’ for the purpose, which I hope is closest to ‘balaa’, if its wordiness is excused.

A realization in the Himalayas!

“Good that my rosary snapped. Now I am relieved of the task of praying; I am liberated from the horrid evil (balaa) that possessed me!”

It seems the maverick weaver-guru Kabir believed ritualistic prayer to be some kind of balaa.

The question arises as to why Kabir used such an extreme expression to describe an everyday ritualistic task. I guess there is nothing deliberately hyperbolic about it. The maverick guru truly looked upon the so-called tasks as some kind of ‘balaa’.
All four of them started singing at a slow pace before gradually quickening their tempo. Soon, their performance surged with fervor—a display of open-throat singing at its finest. Singing with total abandon, each one of them poured their heart and soul into the melody, echoing jubilation over the shattered pitcher and the snapped rosary. 
Their bodies swayed, and their faces were aglow with sheer joy. Their voices ebbed and flowed like a wave, carrying the contagious energy of their spontaneous enthusiasm. The room pulsated with a sense of exhilaration as they belted out the whacky song. 
It was not mere singing but an immersion—a shared euphoria where individuality dissolved into collective elation. It was a sight to behold—an ecstatic celebration of the broken pitcher and the snapped rosary. 
They beckoned me to join them in the singing. Swept by their exuberance, I found myself shedding my inhibitions and joining them in their chorus. Very soon, I became as immersed as they were. We were not singing, but singing was happening by itself. It went on and on. Time lost any relevance. We were entirely consumed by the moment, oblivious to the world around us.
Now, the heaviest of rains does let up at some point. So, a moment came when our rhapsody too came to a halt out of sheer exhaustion. We were out of breath. It was akin to a runner who collapses at the end of a marathon run. 
It occurred to me that the singing was so intense and passionate because the singers were fully soaked in the celebratory emotion of the song. And, of course, the subliminal effect of the intense and passionate singing was that the celebratory emotion sank deeper into our hearts!
We all had goosebumps.
There followed a period of silence. As we sat quietly, one of them left to prepare lunch. Unnoticeably, a wordless realization seemed to dawn on us: no matter how ghastly a calamity, we were here to celebrate it. This was what taking a calamity by the horns amounted to. 
When the lunch was ready, we all ate together, sitting in a circle. It was a frugal lunch, consisting of roti, moong lentils, and mango pickles, and yet one of the most delicious ones I have ever had. The frugality of the meal was overshadowed by the richness of the ashram residents’ spirits.
They said apologetically that vegetables and milk were not available anywhere near the ashram. They went to Uttarkashi twice a month, bought lentils, wheat flour, and spices, and ate the same combination twice a day, day after day. 
After lunch, I asked for their leave. Overflowing with affection, they accompanied me down on the narrow gravel path. When we reached the highway, they implored me to visit them once more before I went back to Delhi, and I promised as much. 
Now, our minds work in strange ways. As I walked back to my temporary adobe, a forgotten ditty, corresponding to the mood of the moment, sneaked into my head out of nowhere, and I found myself humming it even as my heart danced. 
“Aag lagi hamri jhonparia me, hum gayen Malhar!
Dekh bhai kitne tamase ki zindgani hamaar!”
(My hut caught fire and here I am singing Malhar {a raga in Indian music}!
See, brother, what fun is my life!)
As I saw it, the meeting with those beautiful people was a quirky reminder to find bliss and revel amidst adversity. When things go wrong, rejoice! Sing Malhar when you find yourself down the proverbial rabbit hole!

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