This night the beach was beautiful. The beach had been beautiful every night on our trip but tonight the locals had lined the shores with torches and piled bonfires. An alive orange glow, the kinds of which city streetlamps are pale imitations, bathed the sands in warm hues. It was a celebration.
There were so many holidays in this country that it felt like you couldn’t go a week without waking to discover it was the holiest of days for this or that. But tonight I felt it. That feeling you get before a big event like the prom, or pregaming.
Not a minute after the sun had set, the beach started to fill out. Men, women, and children of all ages, both in families and in groups, swarmed the party grounds.
Holy men would roast the foods atop firepits aided by holy women with cooking pans. Then there was the music.
It seemed like every other person had brought an instrument to the beach. Not only that but they all appeared to know the same songs. Soon enough the seaside was erupting with powerful and fanciful tunes.
Drummers sat scattered about on the warm sands, gazing into bonfires and laying the heartbeat down with their fingers. Those who were playing things that resembled flutes, guitars, and other instruments danced about without inhibition.
No wonder people didn’t drink alcohol here—it was superfluous. They didn’t hold things back in the way my culture tended to. Something to learn from. Or so I thought to myself as I finished my third mojito.
As the night wore on, my companions and I went from spectators to participants. All of us had been dragged into dancing at one point or another, which was hard to stop once started.
This was for two reasons. Firstly, when locked in a massive crowd of dancers, they only way you can move through it is by dancing. Secondly, the music and atmosphere could possess your entire being if even you cracked your heart open only a little.
Suffice it to say this foreign holiday on the beach was an uproarious culture shock into a wilder and more beautiful world.
While I sat by the fires hours later, banging mindlessly on a nearby drum as a local tried to improve my helpless skills, I noticed something. Or rather someone. I had seen this person over and over throughout the night but I had only just realized it had been in the same spot each time. The person hadn’t moved once.
Stirred by the boldness that comes from being possessed by a party, I rose from my drumming and strolled over to the stranger. He could have been my age or older. Like many of the young men present, all he wore were a pair of old khaki looking shorts and sandals. But he wore rudraksha prayer beads like the holy men who tended the fires.
“Hello!” I belted to the man, sitting on the stone wall he had been leaning against.
All night this familiar stranger had relaxed at the edges of the party.
“Greetings.” He spoke in very clear English. I was momentarily taken aback at finding a fluent English speaker; they were few and far between in these parts.
He asked me politely if I had been enjoying the holiday celebrations.
“It’s been great!” I replied enthusiastically, “They really pull you into it.”
No one had been able to escape the party that night. Even the cooks and their helpers were pulled up and into the dance by the wandering musicians. Everyone except this man.
“Why is it,” I asked, “that everyone came except for you?”
He looked at me silently and some time passed. I thought perhaps he hadn’t understood my question or I had asked something inappropriate.
A stray ball followed by a giggling child rolled to our feet. When the child noticed my companion, he bowed and touched his feet reverently before running off again.
“I am Shiva,” he replied finally. “They know me as Him here.”
I thought about this for a moment. Was this young man saying he was a Shivite sadhu or that he was Shiva himself? I concluded that there wasn’t much of a difference anyway and held up my hands in the customary salutary gesture for holy people and deities.
“You are Shiva too?” he asked pointedly in a near rhetorical fashion.
I paused for a thoughtful moment and then nodded.
“Good,” he said to himself.
Looking down, I noticed that he had been packing a chillum full of tobacco and hash. Eyes filled with starlight, gazing out to sea, he set fire to the pipe and inhaled the winds of smoke.
He didn’t ask if I wanted any, he simply thrust the pipe into my hands and stared at me ferociously while smoke billowed from his nostrils.
“Bholenath!” He roared, “Smoke!”
My eyes went wide when the biting fumes slung down my throat. He laughed and hopped up onto the stone wall, sitting beside me.
The high hit me so hard I didn’t want to move. I couldn’t move. All I could do was watch the beautiful scene of beach celebration framed by an endless darkness sparkling with starshine and moonlight. Shiva laughing next to me, we sat at the edge of the party without anyone coming to disturb our disturbed stillness.
He thumped me on the back. “Shiva.”
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