I fly from Panjim to Bangalore and get a taxi at the airport. I am handed a card with a number to call if I, as a woman, find myself ‘in any trouble’. This card is specifically given to female passengers and the man handing me the card is the taxi stand operator who is putting me in his colleague’s car. I know that this is an attempt at India acknowledging and beginning to tackle its problem with sexual violence towards women, but the act still makes me feel despairing.
Luckily, I don’t need to use the card and I meet Amy in a cockroach infested hotel on the outskirts of the city. We don’t know that it’s cockroach infested initially, but we soon notice flashes of roach scurrying across the bathroom floor, like shock moments in horror films.
Amy has just finished a 4 day long Vipassana (an ancient form of meditation characterised by no speaking or communication of any kind for a set number of days) at The Art of Living ashram. She’s hardcore and has previously completed other, even longer, silent meditations at this ashram so she knows it well and is excited to show me around.
‘Ashram’ for me had conjured images of a rural, commerce-free commune, where inhabitants are barefoot because shoes are evil consumerist commodities, and there is no running water because basking in one’s own filth is purer and natural.
Not the case.
If anything, The Art of Living Ashram is less Wicker Man and more Southampton University Campus. The complex is huge; it’s a network of pathways leading to hundreds of different modern buildings with different purposes. Some house meditation sessions, others are offices, some teaching centres etc. There are also shops, cafes, accommodation and a dining hall.
On Fridays there are free shots for girls at the SU bar and Gilly from Hollyoaks will be on stage saying hi after The Cribs have played their set.
The accommodation on the periphery is strictly for ashramites and students, and as I am neither, Amy and I commute between cockroach city and the ashram for a couple of days and we wander around, eat thalis, drink chai tea, sit on the grass, climb up hills, watch sunsets and hang out with people Amy knows. Two of these people are trainee ayurvedic (a type of ye olde traditional Indian holistic therapy) practitioners which means on a couple of days Amy and I get free treatments – marma and cranial sacral therapy. Say whaaaaat? Yeah I have no idea either, but they sound like they will CHILL ME THE F OUT so I am pretty excited. (I later discover they are forms of ‘subtle therapies’ that use ‘light touches to a stimulate energy points in the body’ and can apparently help with an array of disorders from back pain to depression). Whether or not they work doesn’t matter to me because they are so insanely relaxing that I half sleep throughout both.
In the evenings at the ashram there is ‘Satsang’ – a big get together where everyone meditates, sings and dances. During my visit, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the ashram’s founder and spiritual leader is in attendance. He’s kind of a big deal I learn, so people are losing their shit. During his stage appearance the audience is invited to ask him questions which tend to be spiritual and advice-seeking. Although the odd question will be something bizarre and mindless like ‘which is more important money or love?’ DON’T BE DICKS GUYS. Due to mine and Amy’s lack of fluent Hindi-speaking skills, Amy’s cranialsacral mate is translating for us, but her English isn’t perfect and it’s loud, so we’re still no closer to understanding why everyone is whooping and cheering at various points. I almost boil over from agitated hyper-curiosity.