Trying Really Hard To Like India

Step 3: Getting Spiritual and Getting Medicated
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 29 2004 3:03 PM

Trying Really Hard To Like India

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Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is filled with churches
Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is filled with churches
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

You often hear tourists call India a "spiritual" place. It seems as though half the Westerners here either a) come with the intent to live on an ashram; or b) somehow end up at one anyway.

I appreciate the drive to find deeper meaning. I honestly do. And I'm a huge fan of pantheism. Why limit yourself to one god, when instead you could pick and choose from a sampler of gods? It spices things up. The Brahma-Creator/Vishnu-Preserver/Shiva-Destroyer thing is a badass metaphor, too, even if I don't fully understand it.

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But the truth is, I'm not quite wired to surrender my will to a higher power. And, getting back to my main point, I certainly don't see why India should corner the market on spirituality. Why do we get all mystical and fuzzy-headed the moment we hit the subcontinent?

Look at The Razor's Edge—the W. Somerset Maugham classic I've been reading over here. Protagonist Larry Darrell begins as a run-of-the-mill Midwesterner. Then he goes to India. By the time he gets back, he's received illumination and communed with the Absolute. Also, he has telekinetic powers.

I'm not sure I believe in the Absolute. But I do think I would enjoy having telekinesis. Mostly so I could alter the outcome of sporting events. (Oh, wide right! Too bad!)

To this end, I've decided to get me some spirituality here. It seems there exists a sort of Hindu metaphysics known as Ayurveda, which aims to heal both body and spirit (and, most important, has been championed by Deepak Chopra). I figure this will do the trick. And since they happen to have an Ayurvedic spa at our beach resort, I also figure: Why not seek deeper meaning on a massage table?

I arrive at the Ayurveda center and ask for an appointment. Maybe 30 seconds later I'm buck naked in a small room with a smiling Indian man. His name is Sajan. He hands me a loincloth and helps me tie it. Then he guides me to the table, lays me down, pours a healthy dollop of oil on my chest, and begins to rub his hands all over my body.

Understand that I get slightly uncomfortable when I'm made to hug a person I've just met. I've got a thing about strangers touching me. And when it comes to strangers rubbing oil on my upper thighs, well, I get even more ill at ease. (Perhaps if the stranger were French actress Julie Delpy? But does she count as a stranger? I feel I know her so well from her films.)

Still, I've had professional massages before, and I've mostly enjoyed them (once I'm past the initial squeamishness). The key in the past has been the kneading of my knotted muscles—thus dispersing any stored-up tension. But as best I can tell, there is no kneading in Ayurveda. Just rubbing—and gallons of oil. While I hesitate to use the term "molestation" (and there was nothing sexual about it), I will say that Sajan's hands were not at all shy. I will also say that my loincloth seemed unnecessarily small and loosely fastened.

At one point—while my eyes were closed—a second pair of hands came out of nowhere and jumped in the mix. This alarmed me, insofar as it was sudden and unexpected. Like an ambush. Also, soon after this, the soothing tabla music that had been playing came to a stop, and left us in silence … save for the sound of four well-oiled palms, briskly sliding over my torso.

In the end, my spirit remained undaunted, but in no way was it illuminated or healed. This was the first massage I've had where I felt less relaxed walking out than I'd felt walking in.

Anyway, if I want to relax here, I've found a much better method: prescription-strength sedatives. I'd like to thank Lord Brahma for creating benzodiazepines. And also Lord Vishnu, for preserving a loosely regulated Indian pharmaceutical system. I can walk into the "Medicines" shop in pretty much any town over here, plunk down 50 rupees (a little more than a dollar), and walk out with a great big bottle of 2 mg. Ativan tablets.

This becomes especially key on the overnight train ride from Kerala to Goa. There are cockroaches perched on the wall above my head; across the aisle a man is coughing up phlegm (in a manner that suggests a highly communicable and highly fatal tropical disease); and I'm still trying to shake my traumatic memories of the massage. All of which is making it hard for me to sleep.

I suppose I could call on Lord Shiva to destroy all the roaches. Or the phlegm. But instead I just call on Lord Ativan, destroyer of consciousness. Cockroaches could scurry up onto my face, oil their many legs, and administer an Ayurvedic massage to my eyelids. I'd sleep right through it, given sufficient dosage.