A Land of the Living

The Aravalli Range in Rajasthan, India

ONE/The Aravalli Hills

By Steve Watkins

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, 

and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” 

    –Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey


I spent the last night of my first life on the stone floor of a small cave high in the Aravalli Range, deep in a wildlife preserve, a winding 60 kilometers south of Alwar, a small city of a hundred thousand in dusty northern India. I had been traveling through Asia for four months—India, Nepal, Thailand, now back in India–smoking too much hashish and struggling to eat the spicy foods. It was early December 1976. I’d dropped 20 pounds since the end of my summer job as a laborer in a Central Florida phosphate mine, but hadn’t had much of an appetite for weeks. I also had a deep, wracking cough that had started two weeks before, traveling west from Calcutta back to my friend David’s Peace Corps village in Rajasthan province for a final visit before returning home to America, or what was left of it in that bicentennial year. 

The coughing kept me awake much of the night, but didn’t seem to bother the sadhu who sat nearby, tending his small cave-fire. Every time I dozed, and then woke, he was still sitting a few feet away, gazing at the glowing coals. He was impossibly thin, dreadlocks covering his bare shoulders, nothing on besides a loin cloth. When he saw me watching, he pressed folded hands to his forehead and nodded. Strange shadows danced on the cave walls behind.

David, whose village was 20 kilometers to the west, said the sadhu had taken a vow of silence and hadn’t spoken in five years. He only left his cave to offer prayers at a temple nearby. We’d brought food the day before when we rode rented bicycles down from Alwar—choking on dust from a handful of trucks and buses we encountered on the trunk road to Sariska Wildlife Preserve, then straining as we pushed our bikes up into the hills on the one unpaved, rock-strewn road. Rice and chapatis and curry. Dried beans. Spices. All sat partially eaten in bowls next to the fire. 

The cave and temple, isolated deep in the heavily forested hills, were at the base of Pandupol, where David said Hanuman the Monkey God was believed to have punched his fist through the side of a mountain ages before to unlock an underground river, creating a natural bridge with a spring and waterfall flowing free to save the Rajasthan families from drought. 

He had insisted I do the hospitable thing and stay the night with the sadhu, while he rolled out his sleeping bag under the stars. For the past two years he’d mostly slept on the roof of his home in his village. He said it made him claustrophobic without that sky and without those stars. We’d heard stories about tigers in Sariska, and killer baboons, but after all that time in rural India, David wasn’t bothered. If something was going to happen, it would happen, and if not—thank Hanuman, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, luck, whoever, whatever.

That’s how I remember it anyway—the memory as vivid as I write this as if it were just now happening, decades later. The cave. The stone floor. The sadhu. The fire. David off somewhere else, under the stars.

But David says there was no cave. That’s a false memory born of the trauma that happened the next day—a hallucination from the injury and the shock. From blood loss. From organ damage. From abdominal infection. From malaria. Pneumonia.

There are other details about that night and the next day that David says I have wrong as well. Yes, it was a hard, stone ground we slept on, and yes, the sadhu sat up through the night tending his little fire, but David was there, too, in his sleeping bag nearby. We were actually both out under the stars. He says my memory is wrong about how far I fell when I crashed the next morning, too, and how long I lay beside the road while he went for help he couldn’t find. 

For years I told anyone who asked about the deep and vivid scars that form a crooked cross on my torso and a jagged scissure in my back that I fell off the side of a mountain. David says it was a hill. I remember lying beside the road all day while he went for help. He says it was a couple of hours. I can still picture how dark it was when I was finally rescued. David says it was early afternoon.  


In the morning, at the first hint of light—as I remember it, anyway–I crawled out of my sleeping bag and pulled myself up off the stone floor. I felt bruised all over. Everything was stiff. The sadhu was still next to his fire, squatting, staring, contemplating, praying, chanting silently. I stiff-legged my way out of the cave, careful to trail a hand on the wall to keep from stumbling. Then I had to negotiate a narrow set of stone steps to find a path, and a place to pee.

I don’t remember much else about that morning, surprisingly—right or wrong. Did we go to the temple? Were there other sadhus? Did we have breakfast? Chai? Anything? I’m sure I smoked my first bidi of the day not long after waking, though it sparked more coughing, more phlegm, more gasping for breath. I had pneumonia, as it turned out, one lung completely congested, but wouldn’t know that until X-rays much later.

There were more stone steps to climb once it got lighter out—back up to the natural bridge at Pandupol. The December morning was crisp and cool so I pulled an old, ratty, thin V-neck sweater over my t-shirt. It used to be my dad’s. I also had on a pair of threadbare white cotton draw-string pajama pants and what was left of my Chuck Taylors after all those long months of travel. 

The steps rose up and up through the rocky side of the steep hills, the path squeezed between boulders, turning this way and that until at last, out of breath, we were at the stone arch where we stood without speaking, mesmerized by the forest beauty. The only sound was a small stream and the waterfall, the one that Hanuman made, tumbling down its own stone steps. David said the Aravalli Mountain Range was the oldest in the world–1.8 billion years. The Himalayas, where we’d spent a week trekking back in October, were a mere 47 million, so one of the youngest.

I pulled out my ivory chillum, the one I’d bought from another saddhu, a pothead who also sold me an ashy fistful of pot in Varanasi—and then helped me smoke half of it. The chillum had a baboon carved into the side. Or maybe it was a lion.  David pulled a small rock of hash out of his shoulder bag and scraped some off into the bowl. I lit a match.

We didn’t get very high. After smoking so much for the past four months, I was practically immune. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I doubted it had anything to do with what happened next when we climbed back down from Pandupol. 

I read somewhere that you have your particular Hindu god who looks after you, and if so, it would have been better for me if that Hanuman temple at Pandupol had been a Ganesh shrine instead. Ganesh had already saved my life once, months before, when I climbed out a window to get off a packed bus in Himachal Pradesh because I had to go to the bathroom really bad and didn’t want to wait until everybody else–and their goats and chickens and babies and bundles–got off first. We were only stopping for a few minutes, in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the mountain road to the town of Manali in the Valley of the Gods, and I needed enough time to find some privacy so I could take a shit. 

When I dropped to the ground, though, I stumbled and pitched backward toward the side of the road and the dense brush that I didn’t know masked a sheer drop over the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. 

Somehow, defying laws of physics, I was able to right myself, and immediately was surrounded by people from the bus who grabbed my arms, as if I might turn around and jump deliberately, or be unsteady enough that there was still danger of falling. They pointed across the road, to a small shrine. David appeared next to me and explained–it was Ganesh, and he must have saved me. My fellow passengers sang and exclaimed and prayed loudly in thanks for the miracle. 


It was late morning by the time we said goodbye to the sadhu, and goodbye to Pandupol. I smoked another bidi and fought through another bout of coughing. We shouldered our packs and climbed back on our bikes, old, rusty clunkers with coaster brakes and no gears. I felt unbalanced. 

David took off ahead of me. He’d been leading the way for most of the past four months, since he was fluent in Hindi and knew the people and the culture, so of course he would today as well. I followed, flying fast down the dirt and gravel road out of the Aravalli Hills. We were going back to David’s village. We would return to Alwar after that, where his friend Shankar lived now with his new bride. We’d been guests at their wedding the week before. We would take the train to Delhi after Alwar, stay a few days with another friend at the American embassy, eat American things—French toast, pizza, cold beer. And then home. 

As much as I’d wanted to leave America back in the summer, now I was eager to return, worn out from the incessant cough and shortness of breath and dysentery. I missed my off-again, on-again girlfriend Robin and hoped she missed me, too. I missed my family. It was the same old pattern. When I was home, all I could think about was how much I wanted to be away. When I was away, I couldn’t stop thinking about home and how much I missed it. I was tired of the hard travel. Tired of being reminded I didn’t belong here, another privileged Westerner, another tragic pilgrim. They hadn’t invented India so I could come here and find myself. I was just a visitor, just passing through, and needed to tread lightly, disturb as little as possible, find ways to give more than I asked to receive. 

My last shift at the phosphate mine, the day I quit to go to India, a guy I worked with said, “Good luck, man. Don’t let Mahatma Gandhi get you.” Two nights later, I was staring down at the black Atlantic Ocean from my tiny airplane window. It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t sleep. I’d never been out of the country before. Hardly ever been on a plane. The sky cleared and there was a full moon. I saw the lights of ships, but mostly nothing, just the infinite trembling of the waves. 


Maybe I was more stoned than I realized. Maybe I was too weak from the weight loss and undiagnosed pneumonia. Maybe I just wasn’t watching closely enough to where I was going, except the back of David on his bike, twenty meters ahead of me. I pedaled faster to catch up. There was another steep hill with a sharp turn. I hit a rock.

The front wheel went sideways, jerking the handlebars loose, and I was in the air, holding on to nothing, my pack flung to the side as I catapulted off the road, into space, the ground dropping away beneath me as I flew off the side of the hill. A bed of rocks rushed up at me. I covered my face and hit hard, slamming helplessly onto those rocks.

In my memory, as I replay the moment, it takes such a long time—tearing down that road behind David, hitting the rock, flying over the handlebars, falling and falling and falling, lifting my hands not to brace myself, or wrap around my torso as I should have done, but to protect my face—that the possibility exists that I might never land. But of course, with no Ganesh across the road to bend the laws of physics and save me again, I did.  

There was searing pain in my abdomen. Immediate, explosive, all-consuming pain. A black hole of pain, and I disappeared inside it. I remember black, a long tunnel of black, then raging light and raging sound that was me screaming, clutching my belly, rocks cutting into my back, my side, my arms and legs. One of my ribs—probably the 12th rib, a floating rib, on my right side–had bent instead of breaking. The sharp anterior end—connected to nothing–had torn a three-inch gash in my liver. Blood and bile gushed into my abdominal cavity.

But I knew none of that at the time. I only knew the pain—the way the world  becomes nothing else but that pain, that blinding pain, the sum of existence in those terrible moments.

And then there was David somehow lifting me, carrying me back up the steep hill, climbing the rocks with me back to the road. David holding onto me as I thrashed wildly to try to escape but couldn’t. David laying me carefully on the gravel and holding me and telling me over and over that I wouldn’t be able to escape from this, that I had to go to where the pain was instead—not try to flee from it, but run toward it, go to the pain, breathe and go to the pain, breathe and go to the pain, keep breathing and go to the pain. He said it over and over and over as he held me. He said it was the only thing to do.


The back of my right hand bled for a while. Then stopped. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. David told me later. The pain, slowly, miraculously, mercifully, flattened into something heavy, with dulled edges. I couldn’t speak. I remember sobbing then, my face pressed into David’s shirt, as the realization of what had just happened swept over me, with this understanding that in that moment of carelessness, or distraction, or clumsiness, my life had changed—radically and forever. David tried to sit me up, but when he did the blackness overwhelmed me again, and when I regained consciousness I was lying down, still in the road, the gravel digging into my back.

“Try it again,” he said when I opened my eyes, and again lifted me into a seated position. 

But I kept passing out every time he raised my head above my heart. There were no visible marks besides some bruising and the blood on the back of my hand. But clearly something was wrong.

“I have to find help,” David said. I nodded, unable to speak. The sun was above the trees now, so it was late morning and growing hot on the road. David found my pack, which had been flung loose when I crashed. He laid out my sleeping bag in some shade on the grassy side of the road and slid me over on it.

“I have to leave you here,” he said. 

I might have nodded. I might have managed to say something. I didn’t want him to leave me, but I couldn’t think too much about it. I had to concentrate on where the pain had been and where the heaviness had set in. I had to be vigilant. I couldn’t let my thoughts stray.

David rode off and I was alone. I passed out again. I dreamed, or hallucinated. I drifted in and out of consciousness. I imagined animals coming from the forest. I heard things. Leaves rustling. The wind in the trees. I heard the sunlight, felt it burn my face when the shade no longer held.

I had to take a shit. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. Somehow I rolled off the sleeping bag and pulled down my pants and managed to squat without passing out, holding on to a fistful of grass to keep from falling. I lost the ring I was wearing. Dropping so much weight so quickly, even my hands and fingers were too thin. 

I had to find the ring. I finished shitting—the last time I would go for the next two weeks. I pulled up my pants and blindly patted the ground in search of the ring until I found it. Seven metals, thin filigrees of gold, silver, copper, I didn’t know what. Probably tin. Probably the metalsmith who sold it to me was blowing smoke up my ass about how rare it was, and about what it symbolized. I had bought it for Robin, to give her when we were together again, if we were meant to be together, back in the States. 

I slipped it on my finger and made a fist so it wouldn’t slip off. Crawled to the sleeping bag. Waited for David or Death. 

[Next: A Land of the Living/TWO: The Bardo]