LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO A GREEDY CANNIBAL IN INDIA
By JACKSON BARNETT
Your favorite part of the human body to eat was the fleshy part of the inner thigh. You slapped your own leg drunkenly as you said it and the handful of yellow teeth you still had crept out from behind your smile. Nothing could compete with your stories, not even the pounding monsoon rains on the tin roof overhead.
Delhi had roasted me. The relentless noise and humanity that I both loved and hated about the city drove me to the hills for a weekend escape. The Himalayan air you called home was a welcome reprieve from the trash fires I had been working in the week before.
I had come to India to photograph schools for Sshrishti, a local NGO educating some of Delhi’s most underserved children. Between my assignments in the city’s fringes, I sought a story I had caught wind of on my last trip to the sub-continent two years before. Trekking in the high mountains I heard tales of the Aghori, cannibal holy men who follow a path to God through ritualistic impurity. I wanted to understand their devotion rather than revel in their exoticism as so many seem to do.
The search had to be paused while I recovered from the smoldering city. That is when I met you.
Your bed and breakfast sat far above half-paved mountain roads of Mcleodganj, a little town nestled in the Himalaya. Its entrance only marked by small, wavy handwriting that advertised fresh bread and a place to rest. Thankfully my two Indian travel mates knew the way up the muddy trail to find you.
Judging by your dirt-speckled pajamas and the deep furrow in your brow, I don’t think you expected anyone that morning. The blanket of dust in the guest house seemed to confirm you had not been expecting anyone for many mornings. By the time we returned that evening with a bottle of the local rhododendron wine, an old, wrinkled smile had replaced your furrow and a 90s-esque blue and white rain suit your pajamas. You seemed glad we had come.
When you joined us, your stories dribbled out in the mix of Hindi and English we both half understood. “I am an ex-sadhu” you said, using the Hindi word for the men who renounce the material world to wander India in their orange robes on journey to God.
You said you were a gift. Your poor, farming parents already had enough kids to work their parcel of land. So they gave you–their extra mouth to feed–to the local ashram to be filled with food and religion. Apparently rice, sweets and mantras soothed the abandonment you must have felt so many years ago.
You spoke about your barefoot journey out of the ashram to God with a twinkle in your eye like you were talking about some ex-lover. You sought a path to God, but following this path led you to a different kind of divinity: a woman. A blonde, sourdough-loving, German one.
You returned to the material world to run that bed and breakfast with her; she made the fresh bread and you built the place to rest. But, although a businessman, you still hated money. To you, money was almost evil.
The monsoon clouds blotted out the last rays of sun. Cloaked in the afternoon darkness and almost finished with our second bottle of wine, I asked, “Were you an Aghori?”
You told me, your alms bowl was not brass, but a human skull. You did not wear the traditional orange robes, instead clothing your naked body only in the ashes of cremated Hindus, your bed their still-warm pyres. When you needed an extra few rupees you would wrap your penis around your wooden walking stick, rolling it up and twisting till you had literally tied yourself into a knot for the delight of photo-snapping tourists.
I had found the aghori I had been looking for. So badly I wanted to fill my notebook with the details of your life: the tantric path you followed to find God but that instead led you to a woman and eventually to us sitting on your mountainside porch very wet and very drunk.
As the last drops of the wine slid down your throat you chuckled, excited by my friend’s smiles and my intrigue. I peppered you with questions in broken Hindi from the edge of my plastic chair, you responding leaning back in your own.
In front of me you dangled the names of the magazines and reporters—you said—that had come to interview you before. A Lithuanian magazine, a crew of Indian documentary filmmakers and a Brit named “Jonathan” who had come to write about you and now was your student. I asked if I could write down some of the things you said, but you told me that if I wanted to join the list there was a cost.
For a photo: rupees by the thousands; an interview: hundreds of thousands; a video: more. Even with the favorable conversion from rupees to dollars, you wanted a round trip ticket from India to the U.S. several times over. Your words suddenly had a price tag. But it was ok, you assured, I would make so much money on your photograph that the investment would pay off. Even with my American pocketbook, I couldn’t financially or ethically pay. And I think you knew that.
My eagerness triggered an epilogue of un-truths. Who knows, maybe you did sink your now yellowed teeth into someone’s fleshy inner thigh. A part of me still wants to believe you did.
Maybe I had only convinced myself that I had some noble goal of seeking and recording a more complex truth than most, but I loved hearing the easy one. Maybe your truth was that you were just a businessman preying on free wine and eager ears.
The monsoon’s pounding turned to a light dribble on the roof above us. Your stories, too, trickled to a halt, as you sensed our skepticism and exhaustion. When our night together ended, you walked back down the muddy path towards the sign for fresh bread and to your own place to rest. You almost duped me and I almost wanted you to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackson Barnett is the editor-in-chief of the CU Independent and formerly worked on Off Assignment’s launch team as a photo editor. His work has also appeared in Westword. Find him on Twitter at @jacksonwbarnett and see his photographs taken in places from North Dakota to northern India at Jackson-Barnett.com.
Header photo by Jackson Barnett