Kyle Valenta’s The Flood Next to the Flood
“Are you Buddhist?” the monk on the train asks, pointing at the red thread around my neck. We are leaving the town of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The moon was full. It was a holy night.
“I am,” I reply and wait, before adding, “I might be.” I want him to say something else, to reach out a peaceful hand or offer me a blessing, but he only smiles and nods.
We bunk down across from each other and the train rolls west.
The rains have started three weeks early. Across India, the twenty-four-hour news chatters about whether this is a good or bad thing, but no one has an answer. Crop yields will surely be up, but then the rain could also rot the fields; there may also be landslides and floods.
For now, though, there is only this: the monsoon arrives and does so in the small space of an afternoon. All of the happy, young backpackers in McLeod Ganj are variously drying their undergarments, practicing their yoga, reading their Dharma Bums, and sipping their chai in the high June sun. Big Himalayan teeth chew the sky overhead. The Tibetans bustle about their lives in the markets and the Hindus from the plains blare their horns, trying to make it back home to Delhi before Monday dawns. Over there, a bull jaws at some vegetable scraps left behind by the produce vendors. And then it all disappears. A cloud, slate-colored and hard-edged, moves up from the valley below, seemingly against nature, and everything goes quiet. The lights flicker and cut out. The air is damp and cool and soft, like a wet scarf swaddled around the head, while down below a goat whines. It’s as if we are all and everything suspended in this cloud. Is anything moving at all anymore? It’s hard to know. I wave my hand in front of my face as I stand on my balcony. The floors below are gone, the tall pine next door is gone, the pink and green and blue and yellow houses stacked up to the ridge are gone. There’s nothing but stillness and sound and when it gets like that the mind quickly plays tricks: What if, But when, Forever.
I step inside as huge drops hit the concrete and dirt and roar across the tin roofs. It’ll go on and on like this from day into night and all over again. There’s no telling how much India, or anyone inside of India, can take.
You should know this is not my first time here.
Three years ago, I walked out of an inpatient detoxification ward after being treated for alcohol withdrawal, boarded a Delhi-bound plane. That was my second visit to India in less than a year. I wound my way up into the mountains and, one night, in this same little town, I sat drinking several large bottles of Kingfisher beer, looking down on the main street below. There, a small circle of light, alternating red then blue then red again, flashed on a single spot: a metal cabinet set on four legs, a few feet off the ground, and straddling an open sewer. The left cabinet door was shut, while the other was open. Inside, I saw a pile of thick wool blankets, and inside that pile, a withered man, gray and drawn, his watery eyes reflecting back the flashing, changing lights.
I immediately told myself a thousand stories about why this dying man was here in the middle of McLeod Ganj. He’s been brought out to enjoy the warming night air. He’s the father of the shopkeeper across the way. Was his jaw slack for pain? Slack for horror at all of the noise—the backpackers carousing in and out of the nightclub just next door and the braying car horns everywhere? Or slack because he couldn’t believe it had come to this?
I went home, drunk, to bed, certain that in the morning he’d be gone.
But he was not.
On my way to find breakfast, I saw two Tibetan women in striped aprons and black smocks picking him up by the bones, wiping his sore-covered back with sponges, turning him over and working damp rags across his loose face. This cabinet—this metal box not long enough for any man—was his home. I broke out in a sweat and could no longer fathom eating. Instead, I stood there for a few moments as everyone else walked by, quickly, like there was nothing to see at all—in fact, the whole market road buzzed all around us and it was like I was the only one witnessing the scene at hand, like these three bodies were ghosts. They set the man down gently and placed each blanket back just so. Not one of them said a word to the other, but what I could hear as I drifted closer to him, were the small moans that escaped from the hollow between his lips—high, thin noises, like mosquitoes trapped in a machine.
A car horn blared. I was in the middle of the road. Immediately the world snapped back into its frantic state and I fell in with the men and the women and the cars and the trucks and moved on.
“Loss is where all of this is coming from,” she says, sweeping her arm out over the wet, black road below. We are drinking big Kingfishers on a terrace, watching the other tourists down there scatter and dash for shelter. The lining of my throat clenches, then relaxes, certain that this statement is aimed at me, unaware for a moment that she means us. All of us. This place and everywhere else, too.
I nod and mutter an agreement, my lips parted loose over ground-down teeth. I want to tell them I’ve come to McLeod Ganj this time to sit with the Dalai Lama, to meditate with him, to hear his teachings and take refuge, to circumambulate his temple. In fact, I’ve done all of that already on this trip and I want to say that everything, for me, is different now. No more losing—no vast quantities of time crashing my wasted head into toilet bowls, no nights in emergency rooms with tremors, no more loved ones tearfully gripping my hands and whispering, “You’re capable of so much more.” I want to say that I’m a quiver of arrows unleashed—I’m cutting the air fast and puncturing all well-defined targets within sight. But we are being so honest here, so I say none of that.
Next to me, a Colombian friend that I met a few days earlier pours gin into his second lime soda. We’ve only known this girl from Boston for a few hours, having met her on a hike outside of town. The three of us drank chai in a cool, precious breeze amid grassy, goat-shorn hilltops. We traded the ins and outs of various heres and theres around the globe—so easy, so free—and now these words, this indictment, spilling from her mouth. Out of all of the temple-high piles of seekers and teachers, and the stacks of books on enlightenment and the middle path, and the tomes of various lamas dead and alive, the three of us seated around this table, have each lost—family, or love, or purpose—and we are eager to show each other, and the rest of the people funneling up and down the mountains around us, that we are A-OK. We’ve got this. We are laugh, laugh, laughing right in their faces.
Another Kingfisher, kind waiter. In fact, one for me and one for my good friends here, too.
This is about to happen: You must imagine yourself at that moment in your life when you felt most powerful, Mr. Valenta. There have been studies on this sort of thing.
The career counselor pushes my résumé and sample cover letter across the table toward me. My shirt bears a large diamond of sweat across my chest and I can’t see my back but I know it’s worse. I wanted to appear professional, but I’m failing. She is Indian and there’s a moment where I think of saying that stupid thing that white Americans so often say when trying to establish a link with someone brown—“I was just in India.” It’s a way of trying to overpower what I presume to be this woman’s indifference by establishing common ground, or some deep inner knowledge that I must, by virtue of a few little travels, possess. Or maybe I’m trying to overcome her ignorance. After all, she’s just admitted that she’s never worked with alumni from the prestigious university’s arts school and so she cannot offer any specific advice. But she does have more easy solutions for me, like, “Think of yourself as any other twenty-one-year-old graduating from this very prestigious university.” The thing is, I’m thirty-three and I have too many degrees for all of that.
I want to tell her that at my most powerful I am in an office with built-in bookshelves lining the room, behind brick or flagstone wall, inside of some authoritative, serious colonial or neo-gothic building—indeed, like the ones all over this campus. At my most powerful, I am teaching an eighteen-year-old about French psychoanalytic theory and aesthetics. I want to tell this woman that I’m at my most powerful doing something I’ve never done, and so how can I really know, besides the feeling I have in my gut, that the chance to make that professorial, tenured dream happen is long gone, obliterated by time and my own failure to be admitted to a single PhD program.
Instead, I smile and shake her hand and I say, “You’ve been so helpful.” I walk out the door and go home and drink until tomorrow or the next day or whenever and I can see straight again.
There are meditation classes everywhere in India, but this one, on a hill above McLeod Ganj, is like magic, they say. The free morning drop-in sessions are led by Richard, the Dane, who has scolded the class on multiple occasions for the dull quality of our meditations. He has had realizations and Buddhism cured his chronic pain and so, mostly, we shut up when we are told about the substandard nature of our lowly yearnings.
The rain drips outside and the class is full of seekers. We are here to learn how to accept impermanence and to let go. I try to feel a sense of equanimity towards the room, but there is the girl with body odor swaddled in gauzy tapestries who insists on shutting the windows in the stuffy gompa, there is the woman who coughs through the forty minutes of silence every day, and there is the constant noise of people’s stomachs. I focus my ear on the sound of wetness outside but it feels impossible to nail down only one thing, as we have been instructed to do. I want the placid bronze idol behind Richard’s face to smile its beatific smile upon me and so I fight the tickling urge to shift and move and slap at all of the other sounds that swarm the room. When I leave the gompa to put on my hiking boots, a small chocolate bar has been placed in the left boot. I hold it in my hand because I’m unsure what else to do.
“Someone must love you,” the man next to me says.
“Or they’re trying to kill me,” I tell him.
He is a long-haired Austrian with thoughts on transcendence. Down below, in town, I’ve heard him extoll the wonders of LSD in achieving levels of enlightenment. I hate this man. I most especially hate his confidence, the assuredness that he seems to possess underneath all of his flowing clothes. He’s the kind of man certain of every step he makes in the course of his day—or he’s at least the kind of man confident that even not knowing, he is on the one true path. He stands there, one hand on his hip while the other clutches his walking staff. Spiders skitter across the rafters as large clouds of mist silently collide with the nearest mountains, slipping up and over, into the larger ranges none of us can see. The moisture is so heavy in the air that you swear it slows you down. There he is with his walking stick and his ponytail and there we are with the white light of meditation still radiating feebly off of us and here I am, this candy bar in my hand. Some stranger might love me. Or not.
I leave the candy bar on the temple’s windowsill. A girl holds her hand out from under the roof to feel for drops, as if there was any question at all about the rain.
When I come home, I’ll say things like, “I learned so much,” or, “One day at a time,” or, “Sure, I understand. Next time, then.” One month later I will drink so much that I’ll require an outpatient detoxification for alcohol withdrawal. I’ll mutter swears and write down promises to the man I live with and to best friends and to the family that cares—no more and not again. Two months later I will require an inpatient hospitalization for the same. My arm will shake so badly from withdrawal that I will not be able to hold a foam cup of water. I will hallucinate in a darkened room and be shot with tranquilizers. I will be uninsured, with a quarter-million dollars of debt looming over my head as all grace periods on loans slip away, and there will be thirty—fifty—résumés sent without responses, edit tests completed only to be told that I am good enough, but not good enough to write gossip for tabloids, and back there in some bursting closet are all of those big, expensive degrees.
Buddhists call this saṃsāra. It is a cycle of repetitions. Locked-in and buckled-up and unless the habits one is living are changed, this is life, again and again. It’s a ride and its sole purpose is to make you dizzy. The wheel starts horizontally, but as it gains momentum, the cars are drawn outward by the centripetal force. Then the whole contraption begins to tilt upward on its giant arm, until it is one massive swirl of white, white lights spinning vertically against the night. Lights flash as it whirls and shimmers against a perfect purple and orange summer night. Children scream. Mothers tap their feet or check their baby’s fingernails for dirt as they wait below. The smell of fried dough. The smell of popcorn. Ringing bells and buzzers and fat-headed, seam-busting stuffed animals. Happy, fat hands pull soft pink threads of sugar twirled around narrow paper cones. Ice cream melts. You’re not able to focus after disembarking—you see dazzling, nauseating spots and all around the world is still spinning. Left and right and wherever you look, everyone is screaming and everyone is getting sick and you’re trying to look like you’re the one having the most fun.
The mountains are falling down. Whole towns have gone missing and when I look at the weather map it is a wall of green from one side of India to the other. The rains, everywhere, won’t stop. On the news, a blunt temple spire juts out from a long field of thick brown mud. It is Kedarnath, an abode of Shiva not two-hundred miles east, but there’s nothing left to suggest that any god, million armed and eyed and tongued, could have arrived and saved any of his adherents. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had just arrived in mountain towns like Kedarnath to reap the blessings of the gods. They bedded down in fresh new concrete buildings, with balconies overlooking India’s sacred churning rivers. Or they set up humble tents a bit further afield, still as close to the currents as possible. There were tin-roofed shacks selling marigold garlands and butter lamps, and dhabas preparing huge vats of steaming lentils. There were ascetics and holy men and families and lawyers’ sons—it was the time of year to seek and find and come back renewed.
At first, the news reports just a handful of dead, but it will soon become nine hundred fatalities with five thousand missing. Those missing, after enough time, will be dead, too, and so this rainstorm will wind up killing at least six thousand people. I can only think that but for my wariness of long-haul bus trips and a bout of food poisoning in Delhi, I would have been there. I think that, then, if I survived, it would have meant something—then I’d really be a man.
Picture this: I’m a small boy sitting at a kitchen table. My mother and grandmother discuss the cardinals and nuthatches flitting to and from the feeders just outside the big picture window right next to me. We are in upstate New York. My grandmother curses a squirrel that has just upended a small feeder, having negotiated all of the traps and shields that she’d employed to prevent just such a thing from happening. It’s possible that the word “damn” slips from her lips. This battle is ongoing.
But what I’m doing is holding a black marker and staring down at the table, in fact, at the paper plate I’m holding with my other hand. I’ve flipped it over and I’m drawing a series of tightly packed radii, each beginning near the center of the plate and arcing just slightly as the line is made all the way to the plate’s edge. I repeat this motion hundreds, possibly thousands of times, until the entire surface is covered, leaving only a small white hole, about an inch wide, at the center. It is a hurricane. I’ve named her Mariel. She is not the first one I’ve conceived of, drawn, named, and imagined spinning into various densely populated coastlines up and down the eastern seaboard. They’ve all had names with several syllables and vaguely foreign accents. They are never named after boys.
And what I want more than anything, what I keep secret to myself, is for the big one to hit. I want unprecedented havoc and devastation, news anchors crying or unable to stand up straight in the wind, whole fields of palm trees stripped and snapped like bones in one giant swath of carnage, housing developments washed from their foundations leaving giant maws in odd, geometric shapes for miles in every direction. I want coastlines changed and aircraft carriers deposited inside of stadiums. I feel sorry, immediately, for thinking these things. I mutter rosaries for all of the guilt, and to counter the certainty that because I’ve merely entertained these ideas of total catastrophe, some terrible thing is coming my way.
Hurricanes aren’t the only natural disasters that inspire me at this time in my life. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and tornadoes are also a fixed source of fascination. There I was, anxiously glued to the TV set in our Virginia hotel room as Hurricane Bob churned off the coast, hoping that it might turn just slightly inland. There I am, ten years later, my head sticking out my bedroom window, waiting for the swirling clouds and freight train noises that every survivor of a tornado claims to have heard, as a line of F1s pass just over my house to land in my cousin’s yard, not even a mile up the road. If I witness any of this and survive, it means I’m something big and special and bright. It means all eyes on me. It means I win.
Then, of course, we land here. Now. The lights are flickering. The massive landslides are coming closer and closer, claiming valley after valley. The small stream I can see from my balcony has turned into a brick-colored river, crashing and swallowing boulders. I can’t sleep. My disaster envy fails when it’s presented with its own gratification, in the same way that every fantasy inevitably falls apart when it’s about to come true. Every downpour racketing on the roofs, every drop of rain and the small landslides that have deposited a few boulders and brick-red mud on the road to the meditation center—they make it look like it’s all about to come very true.
I am in the pizza shop. I am chugging large bottles of Kingfisher and staring out the window because the Colombian has gone and the Boston girl has gone and though I’ve made other backpacker friends, I don’t feel like I want to speak to them because, on some level, I just want to be alone with the ghosts and the spirits and the memories. I stare out onto the exact same spot I stared at three years ago. I think, maybe that old man is in a hospital somewhere, maybe he’s living at an ashram, maybe some aid society came to scoop him up and poured foreign dollars all over him and his sores dried up and his flesh filled out and his bones became lost inside of all of that healthy, old body.
But no. He’s dead. The doors and the metal hull of his cabinet have no doubt been recycled, or sold as scrap, or repurposed into one of the small, waist-high stands from which the women sell dumplings and shawls. He’s been replaced by others, bodies that can lurch about town, bodies dragged to the mountains from the south of India because of a boom in construction work in the mountains, bodies that thrust out their hands for coins and clean shoes and mutter incoherent prayers as their fingerless hands work a mala like a miracle. He has been outlasted by the man with two inward-turned half-feet, a wooden staff, and a crutch; survived by the woman in rags without hands and half-inch-thick glasses who sleeps on the patio of the town’s clinic; overtaken by the tall man in blue, carrying a note describing his various treatments for cancer. They are surviving and perhaps they are even doing so with a smile, the smile you’d like to think you can wear day in and day out, even when you’re far away and back home. But when one steps so widely and temporarily outside the scope of everyday life, there can be no expectation to change because the permanence of what already is hangs on the shoulders and about the brow. Instead of real life—the kind being lived by all of the people here, right before your eyes—you inhabit a postponement, a suspension within a hyper-viscous fantasy of long walks to hilltop temples, daily meditation, knowing and easy glances exchanged with the monk and the other monk traipsing down the road, and that clan of monkeys bobbing up and down on their long pine branches, the deep valley crashing away below. You must move along. This is not your world to rest inside of, after all.
Goes through the motions of normal life and gets clean: works at a restaurant, writes cover letters for jobs they say will matter, mutters lists of gratitude to himself at the behest of therapists and monks, reads books by the Dalai Lama, lights incense, buys Metrocards, takes away steaming coffee in paper cups. Thinks someone, somewhere will give him a pat on the back for all of this effort and regularity.
Says, “How are the drinks, guys? You really should try the sea bass.” Tries to put exclamation points on it and to say it with a smile and with teeth, but those words hurt the jaw. They are like a hammer working from the inside out.
Gets out of work late and can’t rise early enough to sit in coffee shops in the bright, early mornings like a real writer, a rhubarb scone crumbling in the left hand, the eyes watching the busy people all around with their own meaningful lives.
Holds onto the cold bar in the packed subway car. Does not hold onto the bar and presses his hand hard into the ceiling, body jacked from one side to another as the car jolts violently over rough seams in the steel tracks.
Keeps the mouth shut for fear of making too much noise.