Mar 23, 1975

My First Indian Teacher: Shakedown in Delhi

Standing on the street at Connaught Circus, he says “you will come with me to have tea?” It is not a question. I see a young Indian prince with a beaming smile, white teeth, tailored tunic, dignified cut. This is very suitable. I am a young Danish prince as well, fifteen minutes just off the Aeroflot Russian airline from Moscow to Delhi. On his first state visit. I accept.

We drive to old Delhi in a two-person taxi scooter, through more side streets and back alleys than can be remembered. We walk up too many staircases and corridors. Inside a large room my new very good friend asks me to sit down on the floor.

Steaming hot spiced tea arrives in tall gleaming metal cups. Suddenly two humongous men slip in and sit down, flanking the only door. It is Samson and Obelix. They don’t smile. They don’t speak. My host doesn’t look at them. They are just flies on the wall. Somehow this absence of introduction feels even more ominous. Their inconspicuousness takes over mind.

Samson will cut my throat as easy as nothing. It will take no more than one gesture from his master to sic Obelix on me, breaking my brittle Danish neck like a twig between his huge hands. These two monsters will feel no hate for me. They won’t even frown. The famous Indian equanimity is anchored in their bones. This makes the finale: the twenty years of the Danish incarnation; the endless, boring hours in school; the inheritance from my mother spent on the ticket to India; and all the wishes to learn the Dharma in India and Nepal—all of this—is sucked into my mind’s black hole in Old Delhi.

I wonder where this Danish body can be disappeared. Eaten by rats and dogs in a damp cellar? Chopped up and served as mutton curry to non-vegetarian hippies? Who will ever know? Who will care? How could I be so stupid? Are all Danish people dumb like this?

“You must drink tea while it’s hot,” he says, the well-mannered traitor. Indeed. A convict has the right to enjoy a last cup of tea before execution. I agree with him; the tea is quite good.

“You have some things you want to give me?” This again is not a question.

He grins, more a sneer than a smile, revealing yellow stained teeth, like a wolf trying to ingratiate itself to a lam. I see grime on his collar; the sleeve is dusty and wrinkled. In his eyes a mixture of greed and joy, like a child. Like any human child.

After all, he just wants “some things”. Not my body snuffed out and away from this earth, leaving the bones to bleach under the scorching Indian sun. And not the entire existence of I who tried to erase it daily in zazen, unsuccessfully.

And was at not me who several years back convinced my father’s wife to help me cart off my own things collected since childhood and place them on walls here and there along the streets in my hometown for other people to take, if they so preferred? Am I still attached to “some things”? (Of cause I was, but I was still in the habit of pretending to be unattached.) I look over at my backpack. The gracious host nods at it and Samson jumps up and carries it over to us with two fingers, strengthened from snapping stupid Scandinavian necks.

Perhaps Prince Traitor and I can make a pact. A trade of base matter to which the human’s heart entwines itself, in exchange for a life. I’m not sure if my feeling is empathy or cunning. A gentle appreciation for this opportunity. What are my two most treasured items here?

“This is a cashmere sweater,” I say. My last girlfriend gave it to me. She also broke my heart. I divorce this painful reminder. “And here is a finely crafted knife from Finland. I would like you to have them both.” The bodhisattva is now defenseless.

Surprise and gratitude flickers behind his eyes and are gone. Appeasement has been transacted. We carry on conversation as if nothing has happened. His uncles are making fine Persian carpets, employing childrens’ delicate fingers for low or no pay. I hear that it’s a good business. We are friends; I’m just visiting for a cup of tea, like on any other day.

Back on the street near the railroad station, I look at my watch. Two hours and a small eternity have passed since I met my Indian teacher at Connaught Circus. The Danish ego has danced once more his to-be-or-not-to-be tango in the charnel ground of Old Delhi. My luggage feels much lighter.