I've never written about this seminal experience, although I've told friends. What was it? A peek behind the beyond of that dimension-concealing curtain of reality? But I was inspired by seeing for the first time the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk, and her description of her own excursion into alternate realms of perception as a result of a stroke. My own experience was unprompted by drugs, or stroke, but merely by rite of passage...
When I set out to backpack in India, I was just 19. I landed before dawn in Bombay, and was astonished by two things: I wasn't stopped by anybody as I passed customs and into the wide Indian world – and then back again in search of a lost bag; and I was startled by the pavements that seemed to come alive like a liquid earthquake as my bus drove towards India Gate in the tremulous light of dawn. It was no pavement, of course, but thousands of people sleeping as they always did, beneath cardboard and blankets.
For six months I traveled all across the north of India from Mumbai to Calcutta, Delhi to Himachal Pradesh, and out as far as Jaisalmer in the Great Indian Desert, making only one foray south to Goa.
I wrote long diaries about my travels. For the first time, I was my own person, unchained from familiar social expectations, cut loose among an unfamiliar people I'd always been drawn towards. I found the Indians mostly remarkably kindly and tolerant of a fey and callow traveler, and often even curious and warm, despite my blank canvas persona.
After six months, I forayed into Nepal, where variously I encountered murderers on the hiking trail; a blizzard that almost swallowed me whole in its white maw; vast avalanches that guillotined whole valleys and changed the course of rivers, killing a party of a dozen fellow hikers; entrapment for a week by snows at base camp in the Annapurna mountains; the mountains and cities aflame with revolution, and mass shootings by troops; a fall over a cliff; and a bout of amoebic dysentery that left me unable to walk, and in the wonderfully warm arms of an Italian film starlet who nursed me back to health with pots of fresh ginger tea in Kathmandu.
El Greco, Santiago el Mayor, 1609-10
As violence overtook the streets, foreign travellers combined to escape. Contacted by her father, my Italian took refuge in her embassy at my insistence (we met again years later in Ascoli Piceno). With few options, and still weak from hunger and fever, I made a dash to the Indian border town of Gorakhpur. There, exhausted, unslept, and dizzy, I was robbed on the railway station platform by deft dacoits who plundered my backpack and shoulder bag, taking all my belongings – my diary, camera, passport, and all my money. If not for the clothes I wore, I would have been butt naked.
My first reaction was hollow, frustrated, incendiary rage. I stalked the platform as my train to Delhi pulled away, looking for somebody to chase or take hold of, to wrestle back my bags, to punish with my fists. I couldn't quite grasp that my secure luggage had been so nimbly vanished within seconds, that my journey had come unstuck and my plans were as good as the dust I scuffed as I stomped the platform. I had nothing but the clothes I was wearing.
The afternoon passed. I filed a police report with sympathetic officers who soothed and tutted, and apologised for the theft, holding it a 'national disgrace.' Back outside the long India summer light dragged on into evening. As the day cooled, my temper dropped, and my view lengthened into the shimmering heat that hovered like coloured ribbons across the rooftops. I lay on a bench on the platform, ignoring the people who endlessly shuffled past. My breath was no longer tight, my body seemed like calm water.
After all, I was perfectly intact. My limbs, my hands, my feet, my eyes which drew in the scene around me like inhalations, slow and steady in a world that had drifted to a frame-by-frame view, all was there, and I was complete. Yes, I had nothing, but I was well, strong limbed, and confident that I could, for example, paint Brahmin houses, or pick fruit for a farmer, or stock goods for a shop. I, the naked me, unburdened by the paraphernalia of the Western traveler, thus enlightened, I would survive.
Francesco del Cairo, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, c. 1650, private collection
I wandered into a nearby field. Butterflies hovered above the crop. The breeze played about my face and thonged feet, and as I extended my hands towards the coloured insects I felt the air pass through my body. I could not discern a difference between the sky and me, the earth and my feet, the insects and my own beating heart. Sound and colour and sensation bled into each other as the canopy of stars seemed to blend with the earth and wind. I, and it, and they were simply one at a molecular level that appeared to be just a river of whole, currents of substance and time indiscernable from each other.
This ecstatic glimpse beyond the constrains of my familiar conscious dimensions persisted for weeks. Years later, what did I make of it? Did it affect my life much at all I wondered, this glimpse into the achingly beautiful? I'm afraid not. Instead of pursuing this vision of the universe, I took myself into career, work, love affairs, the raising of children, into fear, doubt, anxiety, competition, and the profane, with unthinking alacrity.