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ROBERTS, Gregory David


‘Okay, Lin,’ Prabaker grinned. ‘Day after tomorrow, we come to pick up your many things, and your good self also, in the late of afternoon.’

‘Thanks, Prabu. Okay. But wait! Day after tomorrow — won’t that … won’t that mess up our appointment?’

‘Appointment? What for an appointment, Linbaba?’

‘The … the … Standing Babas,’ I replied lamely.

The Standing Babas, a legendary cloister of mad, inspired monks, ran a hashish den in suburban Byculla. Prabaker had taken me there as part of his dark tour of the city, months before. On the way back to Bombay from the village, I’d made him promise to take me there again, with Karla. I knew she’d never been to the den, and I knew she was fascinated by the stories she’d heard of it. Raising the matter then, in the face of their hospitable offer, was ungrateful, but I didn’t want to miss the chance to impress her with the visit.

‘Oh yes, Lin, no problem. We can still make a visit to those Standing Babas, with the Miss Karla, and after that we will collect up all your things. I will see you here, day after tomorrow at three o’clock afternoon. I am so happy you are going to be a slum-living fellow with us, Lin! So happy!’

He walked out of the foyer and descended the stairwell. I watched him join the lights and traffic stirring on the noisy street, three floors below. Worries waned and receded. I had a way to make a little money. I had a safe place to stay. And then, as if that safety allowed them to, my thoughts wound and spiralled along the streets and alleys to Karla. I found myself thinking of her apartment, of her ground-floor windows, those tall French doors that looked out on the cobbled lane, not five minutes away from my hotel. But the doors I pictured in my mind stayed shut. And as I tried, and failed, to form an image of her face, her eyes, I suddenly realised that if I became a slum-dweller, if I lived in those squalid, squirming acres, I might lose her; I probably would lose her. I knew that if I fell that far, as I saw it then, my shame would keep me from her as completely and mercilessly as a prison wall.

In my room, I lay down to sleep. The move to the slum would give me time: it was a hard solution to the visa problem, but a practical one. I felt relieved and optimistic about it, and I was very tired. I should’ve slept well. But my dreams that night were violent and troubled. Didier once told me, in a rambling, midnight dissertation, that a dream is the place where a wish and a fear meet. When the wish and the fear are exactly the same , he said, we call the dream a nightmare .

The Standing Babas were men who’d taken a vow never to sit down, or lie down, ever again, for the rest of their lives. They stood, day and night, forever. They ate their meals standing up, and made their toilet standing up. They prayed and worked and sang standing up. They even slept while they were standing, suspended in harnesses that kept the weight of their bodies on their legs, but prevented them from falling when they were unconscious.

For the first five to ten years of that constant standing, their legs began to swell. Blood moved sluggishly in exhausted veins, and muscles thickened. Their legs became huge, bloated out of recognisable shape, and covered with purple varicose boils. Their toes squeezed out from thick, fleshy feet, like the toes of elephants.

During the following years, their legs gradually became thinner, and thinner. Eventually, only bones remained, with a paint-thin veneer of skin and the termite trails of withered veins.

The pain was unending and terrible. Spikes and spears of agony stabbed up through their feet with every downward pressure. Tormented, tortured, the Standing Babas were never still. They shifted constantly from foot to foot in a gentle, swaying dance that was as mesmerising, for everyone who saw it, as the sound-weaving hands of a flute player for his cobras.

Some of the Babas had made the vow when they were sixteen or seventeen years old. They were compelled by something like the vocation that calls others, in other cultures, to become priests, rabbis, or imams. A larger number of much older men had renounced the world as a preparation for death and the next level of incarnation. Not a few of the Standing Babas were businessmen who’d given themselves to ruthless pursuits of pleasure, power, and profit during their working lives. There were holy men who’d journeyed through many other devotions, mastering their punishing sacrifices before undertaking the ultimate vow of the Standing Baba. And there were criminals — thieves, murderers, major mafia figures, and even former warlords — who sought expiation, or propitiation, in the endless agonies of the vow.

The den was really a corridor between two brick buildings at the rear of their temple. Hidden from view forever, within the temple compound, were the secret gardens, cloisters, and dormitories that only those who made and kept the vow ever saw. An iron roof covered the den. The floor was paved with flat stones. The Standing Babas entered through a door at the rear of the corridor. Everyone else entered and left through an iron gate at the street end.

The customers, men from every part of the country and every level of society, stood along the walls of the corridor. They stood, of course: no-one ever sat in the presence of the Standing Babas. There was a tap fixed over an open drain near the entrance gate, where men drank water or leaned over to spit. The Babas moved from man to man and group to group, preparing hashish in funnel-shaped clay chillums for the customers, and smoking with them.

The faces of the Babas were radiant with their excruciation. Sooner or later, in the torment of endlessly ascending pain, every man of them assumed a luminous, transcendent beatitude. Light, made from the agonies they suffered, streamed from their eyes, and I’ve never known a human source more brilliant than their tortured smiles.

The Babas were also comprehensively, celestially, and magnificently stoned. They smoked nothing but Kashmiri — the best hashish in the world — grown and produced at the foothills of the Himalayas in Kashmir. And they smoked it all day, and all night, all their lives.