Prairie Fire - - TABLE OF CONTENTS -

I MET PAUL MY FIRST MORN­ING in Rishikesh. It was also the morn­ing I saw the al­most naked men cross the Lak­sh­man Jhula bridge over the Ganges. The men were bone-thin and wore ochre-coloured loin­cloths. Their hair hung in long dread­locks, in­ter­min­gling with their scruffy beards. Some car­ried staffs, oth­ers small in­stru­ments; al­most all were smeared with white ash. The Sad­hus, Hindu as­cetics or prac­ti­tion­ers of yoga, had re­nounced worldly life to achieve mok­sha, lib­er­a­tion. They came off the bridge, kick­ing up dust as they passed by the café where I was sit­ting, their clam­orous bang­ing of drums fill­ing the air with ri­otous, joy­ful noise. Then they passed and there was just the quiet mur­mur­ing of the river and peo­ple chat­ting at the café ta­bles. I stirred my tea and watched a line of ants march from the sugar bowl across the table­top and into the straw weave of the café walls.

The other trav­ellers in the café talked about the nearly naked sad­hus, ex­cept the guy at the next ta­ble, Paul. He con­cen­trated on a chess board. I had no­ticed him ear­lier be­cause he wasn’t wear­ing the usual hippy fish­er­man’s pants and printed shirts or the leather jew­ellery most back­pack­ers wore. He wasn’t even wear­ing san­dals. He wore jeans, a white wife-beater tank top and a pair of mo­tor­cy­cle boots. He had the bright­est red hair I’d ever seen, cut mil­i­tary short, and on his arms, and weav­ing un­der the tank top, elab­o­rate multi-coloured tat­toos—fish and birds and wild plants. He looked older than most of the other trav­ellers, maybe in his late twen­ties.

I didn’t think we’d meet, but then a young woman with long brown hair and a strappy sun­dress flopped into a cane chair across from him and an­nounced, “I dreamt the devil stole my soul.” She had a Bri­tish ac­cent and her pretty face looked trou­bled.

Paul looked up from his chess­board. “I told you to stop tak­ing that Lariam shit.” I ex­pected his voice to be a low growl, but he had a soft tone.

I cocked my ear to lis­ten more care­fully, still pre­tend­ing to be in­ter­ested in the river. I was also tak­ing the malaria drug Lariam, and I too was hav­ing hor­ri­ble night­mares. Most nights since ar­riv­ing in In­dia I’d wo­ken in a sweaty state of dread. These weren’t my reg­u­lar bad dreams of miss­ing flights or not be­ing able to find my car in a park­ing lot. These were dreams of a whole other psy­che­delic realm, full of grotesque im­pos­si­bil­i­ties that woke me in a state of heart-stop­ping ter­ror. I dreamed my brother be­came a gi­ant Kafkaesque in­sect, that a witch mas­querad­ing as a neigh­bour had tried to steal my sis­ter and then melted in my par­ents’ front hall like the Wicked Witch of the West.

“What about malaria?” the woman asked Paul.

“Have you seen any mos­qui­tos?” He had a Bri­tish ac­cent too. The woman slumped in her chair. “Not ex­actly.”

“I think you’ll be all right then,” he said in a quiet, steady voice. I couldn’t help my­self. I leaned across my ta­ble to­ward theirs. “Ex­cuse me,” I said to the woman, “but are you say­ing Lariam gives you night­mares?”

She nod­ded. “Ap­par­ently.”

“Me too!” I felt re­lieved and ex­cited at the same time. I had thought trav­el­ling on my own was caus­ing such vivid black dreams. The woman, Ni­cole, and I be­gan com­par­ing our dreams. Our mu­tual prob­lem, com­bined with the in­ti­macy trav­el­ling seemed to give com­plete strangers, had us telling our Lariam-trig­gered vi­sions as if we’d known each other weeks rather than mo­ments. For both of us the drug seemed to ex­pose un­known anx­i­eties. Mine were en­tirely about my fam­ily. Ni­cole’s dreams cen­tred on her body. She dreamed her limbs shriv­elled and fell off or grew to huge pro­por­tions. Some nights she had no eyes or tongue. Paul leaned back, arms crossed against his chest, and lis­tened to us with a faint smile.

I joined Paul and Ni­cole for break­fast and we in­tro­duced our­selves. I was from Canada and had spent the last two years since grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity teach­ing in Ja­pan. They were cousins trav­el­ling in north­ern In­dia be­fore head­ing down to Goa for the win­ter. Ni­cole had worked in a restau­rant in Lon­don un­til she quit to come to In­dia. Paul was a welder on an oil tanker in the Pa­cific for months at a time, and then was off work for long stretches. Ni­cole was chatty

and lan­guid and smoked cig­a­rettes with her cof­fee. Paul was qui­eter, soft-spo­ken, ut­terly un­like his brash ap­pear­ance. He chuck­led at Ni­cole’s sto­ries about a mon­key that stole her toast, about work­ing in a restau­rant.

Paul had a mo­tor­cy­cle, an In­dian-made En­field, and he and Ni­cole planned to ride up the river to a place you could swim. They in­vited me to join them. I said I would jog up the road and meet them.

I ran along a sin­gle-track road, the river flash­ing be­tween the trees. From time to time I passed a soli­tary sadhu. Half an hour later, I ar­rived at a rocky beach in time to see Paul dive into the wa­ter and then shake his head like a dog, droplets fly­ing off his red hair. He swam in a pair of fit­ted black trunks with his sun­glasses on. His body was im­pres­sive, chis­elled, his chest, back and arms cov­ered in tat­toos. An elab­o­rate dragon spread over his up­per back, the head curv­ing over his shoul­der. This was in 1998—be­fore ev­ery­one had a tat­too— but they suited Paul, bal­anced his bright hair.

“You aren’t wor­ried about swim­ming here?” I asked. My fa­ther had sent me an email the night be­fore claim­ing his friend Lynne’s friend’s daugh­ter’s cousin, or some such re­la­tion, had swum in the Ganges, got sick from bac­te­ria and dis­solved. His email ended, “Please don’t swim in the Ganges.” It was part of a se­ries of short, sim­ply worded emails warn­ing me about the dan­gers of In­dia. Dear Leanne,

he wrote when I was in Dharamsala, up in the moun­tains, There isn’t much oxy­gen over 5000 me­tres. Please don’t climb higher. Love, Dad.

Paul shrugged, “Looks all right to me.”

He was prob­a­bly right. This wasn’t the pol­luted Ganges of in­dus­trial In­dia, but a moun­tain trib­u­tary, fresh from a glacier. Still, I was con­tent to watch Paul and Ni­cole splash in the shal­lows, to ob­serve the women across the river beat their laun­dry on the rocks.

I was cu­ri­ous about Paul’s work, about liv­ing on a tanker for long stretches. Did he get days off on the ship? What was there to do on those days?

Paul sat on a turquoise sarong be­side me dry­ing off in the win­ter sun­light. “Sea life is pretty bor­ing. Mostly you work long shifts and then you’re off a long time. This is my third time in In­dia.”

“So, you like it here?” I wasn’t sure I did yet. The crowds and beg­gars over­whelmed me. Rishikesh was heaven com­pared to Delhi, but the day be­fore I’d got­ten in a shared tuk­tuk and the woman across from me was hold­ing a mas­sive snake wrapped in a burlap sack.

Paul nod­ded. “Yeh, I love In­dia. It’s cheap to travel and there’s in­ter­est­ing things to see.”

“Do you keep an apart­ment back in Eng­land?”

“Neh, mostly I travel when I’m off.”

“Oh, but what about your stuff?” I asked.

“Stuff?” Paul looked at me over the top of his mir­rored sun­glasses. “Yeah, like clothes and books and pa­pers.”

Paul shook his head. “I don’t have much of that. I keep a few boxes at my da’s.”

I nod­ded, im­pressed. Paul re­minded me of a short story by Paul Th­er­oux about a trav­el­ling sales­man who had only one small suit­case and ag­o­nized over which of his be­long­ings were worth keep­ing. Yet Paul was the op­po­site of that char­ac­ter. I wanted to be like him: not held back by per­sonal be­long­ings. I was con­stantly ob­sess­ing over the con­tents of my back­pack, wor­ried about the bag I had left in stor­age in Delhi, the box I had mailed from Ja­pan to Is­rael. Would my com­puter sur­vive the jour­ney? Was I stupid to have given away my rain­coat to my friend Kiy­omi? I even kept a run­ning list of all the things I knew were back in my child­hood room, down to the draw­ers of my desk, even though I hadn’t lived in that room for seven years.

In the af­ter­noon I said good-bye to Paul and Ni­cole. I planned to visit an ashram I might stay at. Paul rolled his eyes. “Be sure to ‘feel the en­ergy’ while you’re there,” he smirked. I nod­ded po­litely, but felt be­wil­dered. Wasn’t I sup­posed to seek out spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences in In­dia? What was Paul do­ing in­stead?

Dur­ing the week while I took the oc­ca­sional yoga class—first at a lit­tle hut with some Is­raeli women from my ho­tel where we did odd breath­ing ex­er­cises that in­volved a lot of pant­ing, and then later on the roof of my ho­tel where I stretched through more fa­mil­iar yoga poses­—Paul hung out at the river and rode his mo­tor­cy­cle around the sur­round­ing area. While I tried to breathe my way to­ward equa­nim­ity and be at ease in the world, Paul seemed al­ready to be there with­out try­ing. He seemed at peace with his days, let­ting each un­fold with­out any real plan. I was al­ways scrib­bling in my jour­nal, try­ing to fo­cus my trip. I didn’t know where I was go­ing next in In­dia, or what I was even do­ing in In­dia. Paul didn’t have a plan be­yond driv­ing south for the win­ter, but this didn’t con­cern him. I was deeply en­vi­ous of his lack of anx­i­ety about his trip. His spon­tane­ity was a plan it­self, a kind of clar­ity.

The af­ter­noon be­fore I planned to leave Rishikesh, Paul of­fered to take me on his mo­tor­cy­cle to a nearby town, Harid­war. I jumped at the chance even though he didn’t have a hel­met for me. I’d never

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