Busted In Bombay

I'm snoozing in the back of the boxy, black Ambassador taxi lurching down the Bombay-Puna road. In America people are driving Pontiac Trans Ams, Chevy Camaros and Cadillac Seville's and here in India it's still the Hindustan Motors Ambassador, looking just like the first model that rolled off the assembly line in 1948.

It's about 10:00 on a silent, moonless night. There are no lights on the road, which winds south through Maharashtra's Western Ghats, a dusty, hilly range running parallel to the coast along the Arabian Sea, the western edge of the great Deccan Plateau. On any day-trip along this road you can see huge, brightly decorated semi trucks that have rolled off the two lane blacktop, laying on their sides in the drainage ditches like beached whales. Their drivers in dirt-gray lunghis, squat forlornly atop the wrecks, perhaps with a small kerosene lamp as night falls, waiting day after day to be found. They have no telephones or radios to call home so they just have to sit there until they are missed. No one cares about drivers' licenses or tests in India these days. If a driver is needed, they often grab anyone who is willing and stick them in the cab, even if they have never driven before. If they make destination, they can have another go. Sometimes, after a wreck, knowing their bosses will not be forgiving, the drivers just run away and melt again into the roiling mass of India's nearly one billion people.

My taxi is coming from Bombay, returning to the Rajneesh ashram in Puna, about a 5 hour drive south. My driver doesn't speak English but I've explained to him in my street Hindi/Marathi, not to stop at any of the police way-stations along the road, to just floor it and drive on by. This is my common practice and upon the offer of a reasonable baksheesh, he has agreed. The police at these isolated stations don't have any means of transportation, so they can't chase us. They will stand in the road in their khaki shorts and sandals, gesticulating angrily and waving their bamboo lathis as we dash by but without any radios or vehicles, they can't do anything more. I feel pretty confident about this as I've done it many times before and it has always worked in the past - we all do it.

I'm in kind of a half sleep after days and nights of running around Bombay collecting what we need for the ashram. Behind closed eyes I am dreaming of my clean hut and bed back in Pune and maybe some company. I am also thinking about Gyana, my 7-year-old daughter, and how well she is integrating into the ashram. She doesn't seem to miss her mother. Everyone here loves her and she has been taken under many wings and is thriving. I am sure I have made the right decision to move us to India and I am feeling happy when I notice the car isn't moving. As I focus my eyes, the right-side rear door swings open and a police officer leans in, his face a few inches from mine.

"Please get out of the car, sir," in British-accented English.

Oh great! I experience an almost electric shock through my body when I realize what has happened, and a sinking feeling in my gut. In reaction I start yelling and gesturing at my driver. He looks back at me shamefacedly and rocks his head in that disjointed Indian way as if to say;

"I could do nothing. Is this not Karma?"

Fuck me, Karma! I have just spent days in Bombay on a buying trip for Deeksha, my boss at the ashram. In these early years of the Rajneesh ashram in Puna, we have been building a world center for Bhagwan's disciples at a ferocious rate. We have purchased some old properties in Koregaon Park, a once posh suburb of Puna, and are fiercely transforming them into a pristine paradise of marble paths, crystal white meditation halls, living quarters and lush tropical gardens. All this so Bhagwan's hundreds of thousands of disciples from around the world can come and spend time with him.

This monumental effort requires the best of western expertise and western equipment. The expertise is supplied by the stream of Rajneesh Sannyasins from all countries who constantly pour through Puna - professional people, builders, designers, business people, therapists, devotees of all walks of life who have dropped everything to be with Bhagwan and lend their heads, hearts and hands to this vast project of 'building the Buddha field'.

As to the equipment, well, that's where I come in.

In 1978, Indira Gandhi has been Prime Minister of India for 10 years. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, Indira is generally thought of in the West as a benevolent dictator although many Indians would say, a despot. While she, in many ways, has helped drag India kicking and screaming into the 20th century, Indira brooks no dissent in her ranks and many of those who oppose her languish in prison. One of her enforced policies is the economic isolation of India from the rest of the world, ostensibly, to protect India from exploitation. Import duties on nearly all foreign goods are so high (sometimes 5000%) you can't buy anything as insignificant as a pair of tennis shoes or jeans that aren't indigenous. Unfortunately, 'Made in India' means about the same as 'disposable'. The quality of everything is so low, it is laughable and even Indians know it. Consequently, the industrious native commercial sector has created a vast underground black market where anything from the outside world can be had, for a price, from sox to steam engines and everything in-between. We badly need the in-between to build our ashram.

I had arrived in Pune in 1975, during Indira's declared 'emergency' suspension of the constitution and the next year, returned to America briefly and retrieved my 5 year old daughter, Gyana, to live with me at the ashram. Living at the new ashram in the early days wasn't easy but the profound experience of being around Bhagwan vanquished our doubts and imbued us all with practically supernatural powers of survival. Bhagwan encouraged us to find the joy in all things and to celebrate every moment of existence. We worked hard, sometimes 16 hours a day, and celebrated 24.

Supporting myself and Gyana in India was a necessary consequence of my commitment to Bhagwan and surrender to ashram work and life. I had come to India with a few thousand dollars and donated that to the ashram the day I arrived. I kept enough back to rent us a room and get us started but if we were to stay, I needed a means of creating regular income that I could manage in the little free time I had each day and so fell back on my thousands of years of Jewish genetics. Here, in a completely foreign land, it turned out, a little Jewishness was an asset. I had always been an handler, Yiddish for dealer - dope, used clothing, health food, sewing machines rescued from the dump and repaired, you name it.

I was one of the few westerners in the ashram that took the time to learn any Hindi and the local dialect, Marathi, and this put me in the unique position of being able to be an intermediary between Western Sannyasins and local businessmen. Sannyasins were always coming to India for a few weeks, falling in love with Bhagwan (and sometimes another sannyasin as well), and then wanting to stay 'forever'. To do this, they sold anything they could to an enthusiastic Indian public, piece by piece, to extend their stay. Everything they had secreted or bribed or worn through customs - Adidas sneakers, Levi's jeans, watches, cameras, stereos, you name it - all the things they had carefully hidden in their luggage to make their stay more comfortable, became their tickets to enlightenment. I graciously accepted the position of middleman in these transactions and slowly became known to the Pune business community as the "Swami" to see for access to the western goods flowing into and out of the ashram.

I liked the business underbelly of the Pune-Bombay circle. Most of the dealers could be trusted to a certain extent as we had a common enemy, the state. If Indira was going to repress the innate exuberance of the Indian market, what could a businessman do to support his family but invent new revenue streams?

And this was very much about family. I was always being sent to someone's brother or sister's brother, uncle or uncle's cousin. It was very tribal, often with several elders sitting in on a negotiation. In our mandatory, prolonged sessions we often spoke of family and they respected the fact that I was the head of my little family of two. I carried a photo of Gyana who was adorable with her blond curls and orange robes and the wives cooed and the husbands stole aloof side-glances, baffled at why a single man would take the responsibility of raising a female child but grudgingly paying me respect and calling me "Swami Deva". Brothers, cousins, uncles, sisters' husbands - my network quickly grew, even spreading beyond our state of Maharashtra.

I have always gravitated to cities in the middle of the night when you can imagine you own it all yourself. Now at night, when the ashram went to sleep and Gyana was safely nestled with little friends and their parents, I would ride rickshaws through the quiet streets at 1:00 and 2:00 in the morning, meeting contacts who were eagerly waiting for me, drinking chai in dusty stalls or cafés no larger than a western bathroom and never closed. I would extol my wares all the while speaking of the even greater booty soon to be available to my network.

Creating urgency, mentioning my connections around the state, I would say,

"Acha, bhai" and rock my head in Indian fashion, "Yes, I can get a Japanese camera, two lenses and 20 rolls of genuine Kodak 400 ASA film. Yes, a Rolex is available, the stainless steel model today, possibly one in gold in a month. You probably should take the stainless now while you can. You know it's a very popular model. But then, perhaps you are interested in this very nice solid 18K gold Omega…"

My relationships in the business community around the state soon changed my life in India and the ashram in an unexpected way. About a year after we arrived, the ashram started using me as a procurer. My ashram job went from washing dishes and fixing broken electric drills to ferreting out exotic supplies from around the state and bringing them safely back. Knowing where to sell things also meant I could find the unique things we needed to build our community at lightning speed. These were good tools and equipment to build a small city, western hammers with handles that wouldn't break, electric drills and saws made in Europe so they wouldn't burn out the first time they were used, building materials that wouldn't degrade in the monsoon, western office equipment, top quality electronics to record and make videos of Bhagwan, everything from chain saws to fine china. Well yes, the china dishes were a perk required by my boss at the ashram, a large and imposing super-organizer named Deeksha. She ran her own little dynasty within the community and had her own devoted worker-bees. Before I would leave on a trip, she would add such items to my shopping lists as a case or two of nice imported champagne, a box of Austrian truffles and other things required by a rich Swiss/Italian heiress.

Within a year I was spending nearly every day scouring the city or traveling to Bombay with long shopping lists. Some of the items were easy to get and some required calling in favors from old customers, almost all more than willing to participate in the two-way pipeline of ashram goods feeding the Maharashtra business community. The ashram even bought me a black and yellow Bajaj, three-wheeled rickshaw to drive around Pune. I would plow through traffic, orange robes flapping, horn constantly blaring, screeching to a halt in front of some lucky shop, filling the back seat up with great quantities of goods we needed and selling my contraband goods on the side to support Gyana and myself.

On this day, I was bringing a taxi load of equipment I had sourced back to Pune after an exhausting few days running around the back alleys of the black market Bombay bazaars, seeing my special agents. These guys loved me. They had never had a customer that wanted so much and was so willing to pay for it. From our point of view, we just couldn't wait, we were on a mission. So, if it existed in India, these walas would find it and get it for me. I don't think I ever tried to find anything I didn't eventually get. Much of what we acquired seemed to have fallen off trucks bound for foreign embassies around Bombay. Where there was a will, there always seemed to be a way.

I would walk into a small, dark Indian shop to which I had been sent, with a few simple machine parts or locally made tools in their dusty street window. On some side street deep in a Bombay bazaar I would be greeted by one or two Muslim men in kufi caps and long beards, sitting stern-faced behind their counter. I would respectfully introduce myself and say I had been sent by their cousin, Abdul Aleem, who thought they might be able to help me. I was looking for some particular tool or other and the light would begin to dawn in their eyes. At this point there was always some trepidation on my part - would they welcome me or might I mysteriously disappear for the rupees in my pockets. Thankfully, my Sannyasin name, Swami Deva, had preceded me through the underground network and by the will of Allah they were now blessed and extremely eager to accommodate the wealthy representative of the Rajneesh ashram.

I would be led through a curtain in the back of the shop, down a tight, dark hallway, perhaps to a basement or attached building and into a room that was like another world, shelves packed with items I had not seen in years. Sometimes it felt as though I was shopping on 47th street in New York - their clandestine store might include electronics, power tools, medical equipment, domestic appliances, western watches and jewelry, tinned foods, perfumes. At a rupee exchange rate of more than 30 to the dollar (also arranged through my friends in the black market), everyone could be happy.

Today I had a fortune in outlawed, imported western tools and machinery locked securely in the huge trunk of the Ambassador taxi. The police stood around the car, miles of open plains and stark hills surrounding us, me in my orange robe and mala, and demanded I open the locked trunk for inspection. The only key to the trunk threatened to burn a hole in my pocket. I refused.

Anywhere else in the world this would have been a simple matter of slapping the cuffs on and beating the crap out of me while they pried open the trunk, but this was India. Indians, particularly Hindus, are basically a peaceful people. They would much rather negotiate than fight. They are also 'handlers' and it's in their blood as it is in mine. The average wage of an Indian mid-level policeman at the time was about 100 rupees a month - the equivalent of about three U.S. dollars. Actually, that was a good salary for a government employee, one on which he could support his family in some relative style, but Indians had seen the writing on the western wall and knew there was more. Their quick minds sought every crack and cranny that might move them up the socio-economic ladder. The head of this small police out-station was looking at one now.

I've never been in the military so I don't know how to tell rank from insignia on uniforms but I decided to call my captor "Captain" and that seemed to suit him well enough. Captain Ajit Patel is in his late thirties, a few years older than I am and very crisp. Indians have an amazing capacity for cleanliness and crispness, even if they live in a sewer. They are able to wash themselves with a single lota of water, which is about a pint, and they do this daily, squatting in the dirt. The clothing of professional people of any level is always immaculately washed and pressed by the local dobi, the laundryman. Captain Patel was keen-eyed and crisp.

As I looked into those eyes, I controlled my breath and prepared for a long and careful contest. I thought about stories I'd heard of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love dealers, with whom I'd once lived, talking themselves out of tight spots in Afghanistan and the few that didn't make it and still languished in eastern jails. I thought about Gyana waiting for me back at the ashram and a resolve swept over me. There were no rules here but there was always a way out and I would find it. I had money with me, a lot by Indian standards, and I chose to believe the ashram would back me up if I couldn't work things out myself. I was on the edge of abject terror as well as contrived bravado and willfully chose the latter.

Patel and I adjourned to the one room station/jail, leaving his underlings milling around outside by the light of a small bulb, wrapped in brown shawls against the chilling night breeze. He ordered special chai for us both and closed the door. This was a good sign. I looked around the station at ancient, once whitewashed mud walls, wood-shuttered windows with iron bars screwed in securely and unidentifiable chinks and scuff marks running up the walls almost three feet from the floor.

We began to talk, ignoring the elephant in the room. We didn't mention what might be in the taxi just yet. We sat over his desk, laying the groundwork, he in is fresh uniform, me in my robe, and talked about life…what it was like for a foreigner in India, for a proud Indian? We talked about politics, carefully showing respect for authority while allowing that a few changes might be acceptable. Captain Patel ordered more chai. The trunk remained locked. We talked about religion and the ashram. Rajneesh was well known among Indians, even to those who wanted to kill him. Everyone was curious about what went on inside the ashram of the most famous Tantric guru. I allowed small details to escape as I might only with a friend. As the tea flowed, a quietude settled over me as I vectored minutely to Patel's every feint. Night achingly turned to day as the sun slowly rose over the plain.

I complimented him on Indian film which it turned out we both enjoyed and noted that the famous Indian actor, Vinod Khanna was a Sannyasin and good personal friend (a slight exaggeration) and suggested that under the right circumstances, if he and his wife visited the ashram, I could introduce him to them. His eyes glistened. And we spoke of our families. We showed each other photos of our children. The room held in stasis. I was not sure whether my heightened adrenal state boded impending, life-threatening consequences or was simply the chai. We continued our exquisitely delicate exchange, time passing while nothing happened. 'Nothing' was good. In a negotiation in the East, simple postponement signals normality. We drank more chai. The lower ranking policemen still stood in their dusty sandals outside the station, drinking chai themselves (but not 'special' chai) from the little stand that completed the isolated oasis.

Thirteen hours after I had been stopped, the sun now scorching the macadam road and the parched plain, Captain Patel and I agreed that between such good friends, it was probably not necessary to make a big deal about this. An amicable remedy was to simply pay an administrative fee for services rendered and be done with it. I slid 400 rupees (about $13 - 4 months pay for him) across his desk and we shook hands warmly and waved to each other as my driver and I drove off. The trunk remained locked.

A cup of special chai (strong black tea with buffalo milk and lots of sugar) has about as much caffeine as two average cups of coffee. When I arrived at the ashram, after nearly 20 cups of chai, I was practically paralyzed and in anaphylactic shock. My heart was pounding so hard I could see it trying to burst out of my chest with every beat. When I explained my late arrival to my boss, Deeksha, she looked at me and all she said was, "Did you get the champagne?"

I went to search for Gyana, hugging her and holding her to my heart until it began to calm.