KATHERINE LEFT EVERYTHING. She found a place where other devotees lived. They were French. They offered her a mattress in the corner of their room. On the first night she lay awake under her mosquito net listening to the breathing of sleepers and the cries and groans of lovers. Their sighs hung in the air. A gecko with bug eyes scuttled along the wall and from afar came the sound of bells and sitar. As her eyes grew heavy, Katherine felt the mysterious rhythms of the music beckoning, and a tremor ran through her body.
The smell of coffee woke her. From behind the net she watched men and women rise naked from their beds. They criss-crossed the room to the bathroom and back again. Soon the naked procession was transformed into a group of devotees in flowing saffron robes. They laughed and talked, drinking their coffee and crunching on little toasted biscuits, before disappearing through the arched doorway. Katherine wanted to join them, to be swept in an orange swirl to the ashram gates and into the embrace of the guru.
Silence enfolded the room. Then the old familiar panic surged up. I'm alone. Alone and abandoned. The words scrabbled inside her skull while the room began drifting through space. She had to fling on clothes, find people. She had to get to the ashram.
From the darkened coolness Katherine rushed into the street and then stopped dead, realising she had no idea where to go. She felt herself drying up. The sun beat down, sucking the moisture from her body. She struggled across the road to the shelter of a tree. Where was the ashram?
A devotee hurried past. Wait, stop. Indians passed by but she did not approach them. Another devotee. This time she ran, falling into step beside him. Yes, he spoke English, he was Canadian. No, she couldn't follow him, he was going to the market. All she had to do was go that way, and turn left where the road forked. The ashram was at the end of the street. It would take her twenty minutes.
Katherine followed the road. Everywhere people were going about their business. Most were Indians although she saw tow-coloured hair and flashes of orange.
It was hot and dusty and soon her shirt was stuck to her back. Sweat ran down her legs. She came to the fork and turned left into a street lined with enormous trees. There were fewer people and the houses were set back from the road. Mansions with high fences that had once belonged to the British. This was not the India she had expected. The India she'd expected was like the dusty road filled with people, noise, vibrant colours.
The India she'd expected smelt of sandalwood and death.
Death. Katherine whispered the word and felt afraid. She was alone. Before she could panic, a bell rang out, followed by a man's voice. He was repeating the same phrase in what she imagined was Hindi, or some other language she could not even name. The caller emerged from a side street ahead of her, riding a bicycle. Attached to the bicycle was a two-wheeled cart. The man got off his bicycle and began to fiddle with the cart.
I'll have to walk past him, Katherine thought, and she felt the vulnerability of not knowing anything. Surely there was nothing to fear? The man was Indian. He wore a dhoti and a thin cotton shirt. But she knew it was exactly because he was an Indian that her heart was pounding. What did he want?
The bicycle man was transforming the cart into some kind of stall. He'd even taken out a small three-legged stool. Katherine noticed the blackness of his skin. She saw how his spindly shanks emerged from the folds of his dhoti. His hair was as shiny as patent leather. And, when he smiled, his teeth gleamed extraordinarily white. This smile was directed at her.
The bicycle man was gesturing for her to stop. His mouth opened and closed, words were being spoken. Then she realised that the words were English. Lady madam, allow me to introduce myself at the service of your ears, please sit down, he said, and began gesturing with sweeping motions at the stool.
It was her first day in India. All she wanted was to find the ashram at the end of the street. At least that's what the Canadian had told her.
She hesitated and the bicycle man took hold of her arm with the lightest of touches. I'm telling you without a single doubt, my dearest young lady, he said, I am the best and most professional hearing improver in the whole city. Examine please, results of extractions performed daily with the very most excellent professional care. Can you imagine, my dear spiritual lady, once free of all this flotsam and jetsam of the ear, the sound of birdsong, of your beloved's voice.
Look, he had testimonials from people who could hear again after years of deafness. Look, she had only to examine the balls of wax he'd removed, how some of them were bigger than betel nuts. Could she imagine the relief his happy patients felt? Of course he could see that she was not deaf herself, but once he'd removed the wax from her ears, she'd hear the opening of lotus leaves. Without doubt she'd feel a most rapturous beguilement.
Dearest lady madam, make yourself comfortable for soon the sounds of the heavenly universe will be tinkling in your ears.
While the ear-wax remover continued his spiel, Katherine found herself staring at a row of implements like things she'd seen at the dentist, tools for probing into holes and hooking out plaque. Skinny implements with hooks or tiny cup-like attachments, some that ended with sharp pincers. Behind these tools were rows of bottles and jars containing what she supposed were lumps of wax. But some of the lumps were too big to have come from a single ear. Others seemed to have sprouted hair.
The ear-wax remover was still holding her arm and she pulled away from him, shaking her head. No, no, I'm not interested, I'm sorry, I can't stay, she mumbled.
And then she was free, she was already walking away with determined steps. She felt the warmth on her skin where his fingers had pressed. Nothing terrible had happened after all. She found herself laughing.
KATHERINE REACHED THE end of the street. There were the gates of the ashram. Two of the guru's followers were stationed at a side entrance.
One of them beckoned her forward. She knew they were there to make sure crazy people did not enter the ashram. People who wanted to harm the guru. The guard waited for her to speak. I want to see the guru, she said, and felt guilty somehow, as if she was one of the crazy ones. But the guard began to explain that it would take days to organise an audience. It was a test: there would be obstacles. The way she responded to these obstacles determined whether she got to see the guru. There was no right or wrong way to react. The guru could sense a person's spiritual readiness. She had to pass his devotees' tests, which were of course the guru's tests, as he knew everything that was done in his name.
What should I do? Katherine asked. The guard shrugged. You must do everything and nothing he said. And then he told her where she should begin.
Katherine followed the guard's directions and came to a queue of devotees. She took her place. More devotees joined the queue. Many were couples, holding hands. There were Germans and French, Americans, Swiss, Israelis. There were other Australians. Vaguely Katherine noticed there were no Indians.
At last she reached the head of the queue. She hadn't expected it to remind her of a ticket booth at a railway station. A woman in the booth asked her what she wanted. To see the guru, Katherine said. What is your question? the woman asked. Katherine panicked, it must be one of the tests. She blurted out that she did not know, that she had many questions, but the woman cut her off. You must have only one question, come back when you know it. Before Katherine could protest, the woman was beckoning the next person forward and Katherine was pushed out of the way.
She spent the day wandering through the grounds of the ashram. Nobody took any notice of her but she did not mind, she was thinking of the question she wanted to ask. She'd come to escape from her misery, she wanted to be happy. How can I find happiness? That's the question she wanted to ask.
Katherine rose while the French were still sleeping. She hurried along the shaded street. The ear-wax man was there and, as she approached, he began his pitch. This time Katherine did not even slow down.
Inside the ashram the queue had not yet formed. She was the first. When the woman shook her head Katherine was stunned. She had been sure. All she had to do was ask a question from the heart. But the woman shooed her away
Each morning Katherine walked to the ashram. Each morning the ear-wax man was waiting. He tried to take her arm, tugging her towards the little stool. My dear madam, unburden your ears, he begged, return them to the purity of childhood.
Katherine knew that she could easily walk on the other side of the street. It was not necessary to run the gauntlet of the ear-wax man. Yet, when it came to it, she did not cross the road, while all the time thinking that only a fool would let the ear-wax man tamper with her ears. Those wire-hooked implements and disgusting bottles. A recipe for perforations and infection. Why was he always babbling about celestial music when the result was sure to be silence? She pressed her lips together and pulled away from his outstretched hand.
SOMEHOW THE DAYS turned into a week and then two. She wanted to give up. But giving up seemed even worse than going on. Where could she go? Home? No, she couldn't bear to go back. The only thing was to continue until she found the question. What was it, what could it be? How can I achieve happiness? The woman looked bored. Is there a meaning to my life? The woman smirked and waved her away. Why am I alone? An irritated shake of the head. What is the purpose of suffering? An exasperated sigh.
After two weeks, Celeste, one of the French women, spoke to her. What does it matter whether you see the guru or not? Celeste said. Surrender to his spirit, be blissful. And everyone did seem blissful, couples forming and dissolving, their arms wrapped around each other, and everyone dancing in the big pavilion and then falling down into deep meditation. Katherine had danced ecstatically, too, but inside she felt hollow and lonely. She'd come to escape the feeling but it had only grown worse. She lost confidence. Making friends seemed impossible. Some days the only words she uttered were the words of her question, directed without hope to the woman in the booth.
In turn, the only person who spoke to Katherine was the ear-wax man, although she no longer looked at him or gave any sign that she heard.
The monsoon began. In the afternoon the air became dense until the rain hurled itself out of the sky. It poured in waterfalls over gutters and swirled in whirlpools along the streets, catching everything in its rush –enormous clattery leaves, sticks and branches, plastic bottles and excrement.
The rain was deafening, like the sound of the sea magnified a thousand times, she thought. Each afternoon the rain fell out of the sky and then the roaring sound stopped and into the silence came the sounds of water again – dripping, gurgling, splashing and swirling. After that, a bird squawked, shaking its waterlogged feathers, and bicycles wobbled through enormous puddles, spraying water. And, when the sun suddenly emerged, the water rose up again in clouds of steam.
Katherine was sure the rain would keep the ear-wax man away. Instead he rigged up an awning from scraps of yellow plastic sheeting. As well as his miraculous hearing enhancements, he offered respite from the downpours. Not that she took refuge there. She did not want to be under any obligation to him.
Not long after the monsoon began the French devotees asked her to leave. Other friends were arriving. There was a tiny alcove at the back of the building, she could take that. It was cheaper anyway, and her money was running out. The alcove had no electricity, and she had to cross the dirt courtyard and shit into a hole in the floor used by many others. She began to eat only once a day. Her stomach raged against her and she felt hunger in her guts like a beast, biting and clawing until she was half crazy. In time the beast quietened, and the morsels of food that she allowed herself began to feel sumptuous.
As she lay on her mattress, damp oozing from the walls, she heard, instead of the cries of lovemaking, the blood whooshing in her ears, an echo of the monsoonal downpour.
It took longer to walk to the ashram. Often she had to stop and rest. Sometimes Katherine felt her mind go all cloudy, like a mist descending. Sometimes she felt clear and sharp. The right question and the guru would see her. And, when he did, she would step into the light.
BUT THE DAY came when her money was all gone. Katherine knew she had to leave, her return ticket was all she had. On the last morning she woke at dawn. Something was different. Today she would see the guru. The question no longer mattered. That was the whole point. She wondered why it had taken her so long to come to it.
Katherine dressed slowly. Everything took so long now. She was no longer hungry. Her body seemed quite separate, as if she was watching it from outside herself. It was a body she scarcely knew, full of sharp angles and tender aching joints. It was slow and clumsy and smelt rank as ditchwater. Often she failed to reach the hole in the ground before pale watery shit poured down her legs and then she hated her body and felt disgust for it.
Katherine started out early. It hardly seemed possible that in the early days she could get to the ashram in less than half an hour. In those days she had placed one sturdy foot in front of the other. How heavy and earth-bound she'd been then – her mind filled with desires and longings.
The tree-lined street stretched ahead of her. She fixed her eyes on the distant outline of the ear-wax man. Once she reached him, she knew she'd make it to the ashram.
But when she reached the ear-wax man the light grew dim, even though it was morning. Her legs felt weak too, her whole body a child's rickety construction of building blocks.
She felt the touch of fingers on her arm. The ear-wax man was speaking but all she could hear was the whoosh of blood. She let herself be guided. His hands were firm. She sank down onto the little stool.
She lifted her head and tried to focus. Everything was blurring, like trying to see underwater. She wanted to tell the ear-wax man to let go, she didn't want her ears cleaned, she was fed up with his ridiculous claims. But the words did not come out. She could hear him speaking, it was like water flowing over rocks. The sound was comforting. She was not afraid. But she had to get to the ashram before the woman in the booth closed it for the day. Tomorrow would be too late.
Then Katherine felt his fingers grasp her left ear. She tried to pull away. Her body twitched and subsided. She felt the cold probing tip of an instrument slide into her ear. She felt a terrible burning sensation deep inside her head.
The question, she had to ask the question. Her mouth felt so dry. She tried to lick her lips. She summoned the last of her strength. Will I? Am I? Don't worry, the ear-wax man murmured. She looked into his eyes. The eyes of the guru, huge and dark as the Indian night. She let herself sink into them. Don't worry yourself at all, he said, this too shall pass.