I looked up and spotted a man in his fifties and in a saffron robe looking at me questioningly. I set down my heavy backpack and my camera, sighed and shook my head left-right and said, “No hablo Espanol”. The interesting question had come from a ‘yogi’. Age fifty five. Country of origin, Mexico. “You got face like a Mexican.” Came the rapid answer to my curious gaze. I was at Raj’s Spanish Café at Sudder Street during a late afternoon.
My exhausted and world-weary mind had suddenly recalled this incident as I was browsing through my camera’s hard drive. The day, I remembered, had been one of the lowest in my life. Trudging down Kyd Street, I had taken a left turn through Chowringhee Lane and into Sudder Street looking for rest and repose and had chosen my preferred destination – Spanish Café when the gentleman in question had sprung his curiosity at me.
Of course, hablo Espanol. And j’adore Espanol. But as of then, I was avoiding too much curiosity and was looking for some quiet. When, “Habla Espanol?”
No hablo Espanol!
I smiled at the elderly gentleman and took a seat opposite him since the rest of the tables were occupied by motley groups of blonde and red haired strangers. I hadn’t shown much interest in his affairs and proceeded with checking my camera and its battery when the voice, yet again, jerked me back to the pithy reality. No ‘habla Espanol’ this time. Instead, it was thus, “Calcutta is very very big than Mexico city. So many people. I hear it’s fifteen million…”
“Twenty,” I had quipped while lighting a cigarette and eyeing the menu card for a Macchiato or a double espresso.
Turned out, Hugo Martinez Alejandro was a ‘yogi’ affiliated with the Yogoda Satsang and was on his third and longest trip to India. Very reluctantly, I had latched on to the mostly one-sided conversation while cleaning my camera lens.
“First time I come to India, very very long back.”
Broken English. Wannabe ‘yogi’. Perfect. Rolling my eyes I pretended to listen but I couldn’t help but feel drawn to the conversation.
“I was very little. Very young. When I saw them – Rama, Krishna, Yesus (Jesus) and Zarathustra. I feel, I want, go to India.”
Now we’re talking.
Hugo Martinez Alejandro was from a small Mexican town called Monterrey in Nuevo Leon. At just nineteen the divine inspiration happened to him when he had seen in his vision Rama, Krishna, Jesus and Zarathustra all together. But his India trip wasn’t to happen till he would be forty six and twice divorced. By then Hugo had already finished reading the Bhagavad Gita and the lives of great spiritual masters like Swami Vivekananda, Sri Ramakrishna and had just chanced upon Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. Yogananda (not to be mistaken with Swami Yogananda, the disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the first vice president of Ramakrishna Mission) was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh in Uttar Pradesh and introduced the Western world to the principles of Kriya Yoga and a life that fuses monastic order, self-realization and modern education. In 1920, twenty seven year old Mukunda Lal travelled to America as the Indian delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals. In America, he established the Self Realization fellowship and thereby came to be known as Paramhansa Yogananda, the propagator of the school known as the Yogoda Satsang Society. Hugo Martinez had found a hero and a reason to come to India.
In 2006, Hugo, already divorced twice and living alone in a small apartment in Monterrey, left his law firm job, foreclosed his pending loans and visited the American Airlines office where he spotted a kind lady behind the desk at the ticketing counter. Hugo Martinez Alejandro said that he wanted to go to India.
“For how long?”
“Er… two weeks. No, three. Make it four. Five. Okay, let’s say for six weeks?”
The kind lady checked the dates and looked up with a serious expression.
“I’m sorry sir, all tickets have been sold out. Do you want to pre-pone the trip?”
“Er, no. Well…”
“You have a lot of air miles on your credit card, sir,” the kind lady was being very sweet. Hugo was unsure what to do. “If you book a trip to India right now, your one-way journey would be absolutely free of cost!” But Hugo’s mind was clouded. He wasn’t prepared to take the plunge right then.
The kind lady behind the desk looked deep into Hugo’s eyes and said, “Come when you are ready, sir. Maybe tomorrow, maybe day after or maybe next year.”
“Okay but who do I talk to?”
“I will wait for you, sir!”
Hugo Martinez Alejandro returned to his empty flat a broken man.
Dusk had almost fallen by the time Hugo got to this point in this long list of ‘wonderful experiences’ that have occurred in his life. It was winter and I could see guests around me holding on to their coffee mugs tighter than before. The chill was sharp. I tightened the grasp of my muffler around my neck. Hugo told me that he has two daughters from his two marriages. “One is called Govinda and the other is Parvati!” “Govinda is a strange name for a lady, Hugo,” I had pointed out. “It is the name of Krishna! And Krishna is inside everybody!”
A year later, in 2007, Hugo Martinez Alejandro had returned to the same American Airlines office and had headed straight to the same counter where the kind lady sat. The kind lady’s face was the same except for one or two telltale wrinkles at the sides of her eyes. Her smile was wider. “I was waiting for you, sir! Are you ready to go to India?”
“Oh, yes I am!”
Hugo had surprised even himself by saying, “now.” Hugo almost flew free to India. He had encashed all his air miles!
“First time I come to India? Crazy! All crazy! So much sound! So many people! So many cars. All going here, there!”
Hugo’s reaction on his first visit to India was stereotypical. The first place he visited after his arrival at Delhi was Kurukshetra. Ancient Hindu texts reveal that the boundaries of present day Haryana in North India correspond roughly to those of the land of Kurukshetra. This is a land of great religious and spiritual significance. Named after the King Kuru of the Bharata Dynasty, Kurukshetra is the land upon which the great battle of the Mahabharata was fought. “I had read so much about this place. This is where Krishna had related the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna…” Hugo’s eyes grew moist. His voice almost broke but he quickly controlled himself by telling me how he visited the great shrine of Lord Shiva (Hugo kept pronouncing Shiva as Cheeva).
Hugo made many friends in the first month. One of them, a travel agent in Uttarakhand, agreed to help him out. But Hugo was a bit too late. Kedarnath shrine had already closed for the year. Because of extreme weather conditions, the shrine remains open between April and November. Hugo made the northward journey in late November.
“I stand in the cold in the tiny office of my travel agent friend. I say, ‘Please, I go to visit Cheeva.’ He say, ‘No, too cold up there. Bad weather. Heavy snow and strong wind.’ But I go.”
Hugo waited for five hours in the howling wind as his Indian friend was preparing to shut shop for the season and move to warmer climes. Just as Hugo was about to leave sad and dejected, a huge armoured truck stopped in front of the travel office.
“They all military. They carry big guns. They wear dark glasses. They come in and say something to my friend. My friend be afraid.”
One of the officers had spotted Hugo waiting on the bench. After a huddle and a series of very serious discussions, the officer had beckoned to Hugo, “Hey, here.”
Hugo, then forty six, face flushed red thanks to the cold gushes of air, had walked obediently towards the officer.
“You, meet me here at 5 am tomorrow. We go to Kedarnath.”
“I… so happy! I not sleep at all. Wake up at 4 am and wore my fresh white kurta and I go to my friend’s shop. From there four military man come and take me to helipad on a big truck. I was so excited.”
Hugo had the good fortune to ride the chopper with one of India’s very highly placed ministers (he told me the name in his broken, accented English but I ain’t gonna reveal that!). He had been strictly instructed not to take photos and record videos on before, during and after the chopper ride but once inside the snug confines of the helicopter, Hugo had let himself loose and yes, even on the minister, posing with him and taking selfies too!
“It was so funny, this experience – before getting on the helicopter, the military men make me naked!”
I choked on my espresso.
“They put their hands here and there and do the searching.”
Ooh, frisking! Dear god!
Without knowing, I ended up spending almost three hours with this funny yogi from Mexico that day. I wonder where he is now and what he’s upto. Hugo Martinez Alejandro had lifted the clouds that were bothering me that day and helped me clear up considerably. It’s never too late. His India-mania was realized at forty six by becoming a yogi – false or genuine is not the question. The point is Hugo had a zest for life and a keen curiosity for India, Indian-ness and ancient spirituality and Hinduism most of us rarely possess.
Before I got up to leave, that day, Hugo recited these wonderful lines from a poem by Pablo Neruda. I didn’t really understand what they meant but they sounded really nice.
Quien escribe tu nombre con letras de humo entre las estrellas del sur
Ah dejame recordarte como eras entonces cuando aun no existias