A Season in Heaven:
True Tales from the Road to Kathmandu
by David Tomory
Harper Collins, London, 1996
pp 237, GBP 4.95 ISBN 1 85538 444 2
This entertaining reconstruction of the days of the hippie circuit from the survivors seeks to fix the flavour of the gypsy generation of Western youth engaged in colonisation-in-reverse, of white mendicants demanding cultural alms from the East. David Tomory has edited the diaries and the disaster reports adroitly and keeps the narrative moving in its cyclic fulfillment—back in the West—with linking commentary. But it is a pity that a writer of Mr Tomory´s depth, range and punch did not allow more of his background knowledge to illuminate the field. Nevertheless, this anthology of travellers´ highlights would make a brilliant script for a TV documentary, what with the exotic background visuals of Goa, Manali and Kabul.
As a book, it is asking too much of the reader who has not done the hippie overland beat to come up with the pictures to go with the text. But so colourful was that generation of Kamikaze crusaders freaking out to claim the freedom that was supposed to He in the mystic East, that you find yourself laughing outright at their gauche confrontation with the non-Christian world. However, the very success of this book in conjuring up the idealism and energy of the Sixties diaspora also manages to suppress what is equally true: that for an awful lot of travellers the road to Kathmandu was a season in hell. As someone who came overland on a theological assignment before the Sixties (and stayed on to record with pleasure the continuing success of the freak centres established all over the Subcontinent), I tend to agree that the movement was educational rather than religious. It was more of a Grand Tour of post-war peace-seeking internationalists than a crusade of anti-material revivalists.
It is significant that neither the gurus nor the shishyas of the flower power era have survived. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi went giggling to his Zurich bank and Bhagwan Rajneesh´s final therapy was to break into” gales of laughter. Neem Karoli Baba and his neighbour Hera Khan Maharaj have passed on, made famous briefly by their foreign acolytes. The people´s own choice like Shirdi Sai, Ramana Maharishi and Sathya Sai did not appeal to the cultists from the West, perhaps because their ashrams invoked the discipline of serious sadhana.
“Dead gurus no kick ass,” went a revealing remark. Characteristically, the hippie did the rounds of all the ashrams not. committing himself to any one guru or teaching. Whereas the traditional understanding is that the path to enlightenment is long and hard with plenty of kicks in the ass, the youthful adventurers from Vilayat preferred lectures on Buddhist meditation techniques or, better still, Zen with its promise of instant Big Mac satori.
Thank the Hippy
They were young then, and now through Mr Tomory they look back fondly on their rash presumptions. I am glad this book has brought out their courage and self-belief. Hippies have had a uniformly bad press yet they were the trend-setters of an age. Their liberty-loving ways have now extended, decades later, to even fuddy-duddy Delhi bureaucrats who find themselves wearing jeans and sneakers. India has so much to thank the hippies for. They pin-pointed the best tourist destinations, and created by their enthusiasm an infrastructure that official tourist investment is now seeking to imitate and further.
I hope David Tomory will give us more on the hippie movement and explain its genesis in sociological terms. I note that his contributors have names like “Kevin, Gavin, Calvin and Mervyn” which sound to my generation (born before the Second World War) as Gl-inspired. In other words, their English stay-at-home parents had exotic longings impregnated in their wombs. The insular ideals of islolationism had already been rejected. The great Indian rope trick was how these thousands of angry young offspring of discordantly disposed parents managed to reconcile their disgust at Daddy´s capitalist earnings with spending it on furthering their own prodigal sons´ tours. Forever hostile Daddy always stumped up! Alas, in these accounts we are left to wallow in the assumption that Daddy remained a filthy capitalist pig indifferent to the fate of his draft-dodging heir.
I lived in Almora during the heyday of the hippie arrivals and remember Ralph Metzner´s enthusiastic reference to the area´s “salubrious vibes”. What he really meant was the spectacle of charas growing wild on the town´s edge. At an academic level, Ralph was charmingly convincing, but when he had to explain his creed to a Gandhian worker, he reverted to defensive definitions. Then, one sensed that this was just another enthusiasm whose efficacy even its sponsors doubted. (Tim Leary, Alan Watts, Yogananda, Ronald Reagan. Has anything good ever come out of California?)
The joy of this book is in the understanding of the foreigner´s earthy involvement with the Subcontinent. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the hippy movement was to shatter the colonial myth of the invariably superior sahib. The invasion of white have-nots was an eye-opener to the illiterate Asian brought up on a diet of superman myths. The advent of the hippie, for this reason, infuriated the Brown Sahib. By letting the side down and exposing the vulnerability of the Western civilisation in producing bums and drug addicts, it was India´s middle classes that felt humiliated.
Could it be that the cosmic catalyst of the movement was the advent of Tricky Dick? (Which self-respecting denizen of our planet would not think of opting out of home and hearth when such ultimate affronts were offered?) The King of Nepal apparently considered the first hippies at Dhulikhel a wandering tribe and invited representatives over for a pow-wow. But back then, to live in Kathmandu was like being part of a Brueghel painting.
This book is, too. Lighthearted and moving, it is low on the horror of guys who died of hepatitis or girls who never got out of the desert alive. It is rich in hilarity and the abandoned ingenuity of youth.
So you need a visa and the police chief does not like your face? Go paint a flattering portrait of him to be hung in his office and you have got yourself a visa! This frontier checkpost conversation sums up the improbable mood of this zany exodus of the optimistic in search of the impossible:
Q. “Where is your luggage?”
A. “You are standing on it.”