Piotr Ibrahim Kalwas, Poland’s only Muslim writer, has already made a name for himself as a travel writer describing his journeys mainly within Africa, so his latest book is a surprise, because it is all about India. What inspired him to go to this great country full of contrasts? He was not tempted by the cheap mysticism on offer for Western tourists, or India’s famous ancient sites. "Mystic Race" is not designed for the sort of reader of travel writing who is hoping it will be an alternative, literary tourist guide. Typically, in most instances Kalwas does not even give the names of the places and localities he visits. His travels in India are just a pretext for a journey deep inside himself, because as he puts it, "Mystic Race" is “internal rather than external reportage”. For him India is a sort of mirror, in which he tries to see through himself, and at the centre of that mirror there are always others to be found (perhaps I should write Others). It is his encounters with other people that afford Kalwas his most significant experiences. In India he comes across a wide variety of people, for shorter or longer periods of time: they include the three “Holiest of the Holiest”, who have remained in the same poses without moving for years, a street bookseller, the family of a musician whom he met on a train… and so on – there are lots of these encounters. During many of them nothing is actually said, or Kalwas just exchanges conventional remarks with the Others. However, it is not conversation that interests him either, but coming face to face with the Other. It is no coincidence that in this book he makes frequent references to the classic philosophers of encounter and dialogue, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. What is the point of these encounters? Kalwas tries to see his own face in their faces, to go beyond the apparently fundamental differences and find something that brings them together. And as a result, to understand himself better.
Yes, it was a small temple, made of stone, but not bright blue this time, not coated in paint at all. It was located in a pleasant, shady palm grove, where there were also some tombs. Outside the entrance sat a crowd of dejected, dozing beggars and two bizarre, sort of winged lion sculptures with bulging eyes and funny, sticking out fangs like cartoon vampires. And a swarm of chattering monkeys of course. My attention was also drawn to a sadhu who was standing by the temple wall, absorbed in prayer. Before him, just in front of his feet lay a white stone.
Next to the way into the temple there was a large billboard showing a man and a woman smiling, with three children. The message above their heads announced: “Family planning – small family, happy family!”
Under the billboard, on small woven seats sat two old men, who were using needles and thread to embroider elaborate patterns on pieces of coloured material that looked like duvet covers. Right beside them some women were filling a large hole in the road with hot asphalt, with two young girls carrying the steaming asphalt over to them again and again in bowls on their heads, from a metal barrel standing on the roadside. Silence reigned, the strange local silence. I could hear the flies buzzing.
I took off my sandals and went into the temple courtyard. As if from underground, a barefoot old fellow with a white beard and a metal bowl suddenly appeared in front of me. He shook the vessel and chanted in English: “O venerable traveller, may your ways of life be clean and straight, O immaculate stranger, please offer some charity for the holiest of holies, who are praying for you...”
It was incredible singing! It was from a completely different world, not this tropical one. The old man was intoning his song in mediaeval English style, or maybe Renaissance. It sounded like the beautiful, poetic verses of Anglican plainsong. This shrivelled, black old man, wearing a white loincloth and a turban, was singing like a monk from some mediaeval British abbey. He noticed my amazement and pushed his bowl towards me, addressing me in impeccable English:
“I am also capable of intoning my request in the manner of a French troubadour, a German Minnesinger, a mediaeval Christian monk, a Japanese komuso or Russian pop. Two hundred rupees, mister. Our babas need constant care…” It was elegant English with a refined accent.
Two hundred rupees – that was a lot, an awful lot, but the place, and the people, and the situation were all exceptional. Quite simply extraordinary. I extracted two crumpled banknotes from my pocket, tossed them into the bowl and asked quietly:
“Just as the Christian monk, please, mister...”
The Hindu smiled the pale smile of Savonarola, raised his eyes to heaven and chanted: “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Virgo serena…”
And then I went inside the small ashram smelling of flowers and incense, greeted by the lofty, ultra-seriously mystical, marvellous, fervent singing of the half-naked old man, as if I had entered the gates of the Monasterio Benedictino de Santo Domingo de Silos. Above the entrance a notice read: “Under no circumstance, Do not touch the babas! One photo-shot = 50 rupees”.
Then for some time darkness reigned. I tripped over something. The air was heavy with smoke. More smoke, and more singing. Yes, out of the gloom came some calm, low, monotonous singing, a bit like the singing in the temple with the wall lamp. Gradually my eyes grew accustomed to the all-pervading darkness, and the weak light of a devotional candle broke through the clouds of incense smoke. By the walls sat several men, staring at the walls and wailing in gloomy voices. Then I also realised that the old man outside had not stopped singing either:
“Ave Maria plena gratia coelestia…” I could hear the Latin words.
It was quite incredible – a combination of Benedictine plainsong as performed by a Hindu ascetic and this dull, vibrating mantra, sung by naked men. The floor was strewn with hay and dried petals. I swept the clouds of smoke aside and saw a man standing by the wall opposite the entrance. He was barefoot, dressed in a long orange robe, and had a long, tousled grey beard. Drooping down the side of his body, his skinny arm, the only one he possessed, hung totally immobile. He had a red trident painted on his forehead. In front of him, at roughly navel height, hung a small board, fixed to the ceiling, like a child’s swing. He did not stir a muscle at the sight of me. He did not move at all. He just stood there. From outside the temple came the thunderous voice of the old man in the white turban singing:
“Ave vera virginitas immaculata castitas, Ave praeclara omnibus angelicis virtutibus...”
How did he know Latin? Should I ask about that? Should I be wondering about anything else? The eyes of the man standing… his eyes… I had to get a close look at his eyes, it was very important to me. I took a step forwards, and only then did I notice a rope stretched about three metres in front of the standing man with a sign hanging on it saying: “Do not cross!”
His eyes had absolutely no expression. They only approximated life – they were motionless, like all of him, fixed on some inconceivable point in the distance that I couldn’t possibly imagine. The men by the wall took up a higher-pitched phrase of the mantra. Without interrupting the song, one of them took a pipe out of a bag lying in front of him and moved close to the burning candle. I heard some sucking noises, loud inhalations and exhalations, and then I smelled the sickly odour of hashish. I turned my gaze to the standing man again, and just then, through the stupefying smoke, I caught sight of two men sitting in the corners, either side of the standing man. So it all fits – just as the rickshaw driver said, one of them stands and two sit. Bearded, with pieces of material around their hips, festooned in amulets, with their beards painted orange and long tangled hair, they sat without moving, each holding an arm up.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones