After hesitating for two years and last minute refusals to face the reality that I had really given up my apartment, my job, my life in Amsterdam, and at least for one year all those that I love and care for, even those that I took for granted until I realised how much I would miss even my favourite barmaid, I left Amsterdam.
And what is the program, what is the plan ? One year in India, at least for that year no drinking, no smoking, a year of thinking about me and the rest of my life. Go to Amritsar and find out about those intriguing Sikhs, go to McLeod Ganj and find out more about those Tibetan Buddhists. Go to the Himalayas, hire a donkey, a horse or the combination of the two and go on a long trek. Will that fill a year, will I be happy, will I really be able to give up the booze ? Will I be able for the Indians that never leave one alone ? Will I not go completely bonkers and crawl up against the wall after a month ? And what about my health, and what about my friends, girlfriends ? But I am going, I am going to do it, I will show them that there is still life both in this old body and in the not-so-old mind. To hell with them and their 2.3 children, their second motorcar and their rat race. I am different, I do not need a wife, a God, a job, stability, I am the great adventurer. I do not really need any girlfriend, I am strong and independent, and above all I do not need God, and I can give up the booze without any help. Or can I ?
And thus we land on New Delhi airport on the morning of the 10th of January 1996, only some 4 hours later than scheduled. It is bright and sunny, and rather cold. I pay far too much money for a cab to a far too expensive hotel. In spite of being exhausted I go for my first walk and meet my first sadhu, meet my first Kashmiri hawkers, get an unwanted but unrefusable ride into town by some dodgy fellows, walk around Connaught Place and get an auto-rickshaw back to my hotel. There is a real shower with hot and cold in the room and a television, this is going to be the last room like that in a long time ! Next day to Pahar Ganj, to a hotel off the main market, first 300 rupee for a three bedded room just for me, with windows and attached bathroom, then 200 rupee for 2 bedded same without windows and finally 200 rupee for 2 bedded with windows and excellently positioned opposite the flat roof where they keep the dogs that bark all night. I can also hear the horns of the diesel locomotives at New Delhi station all night.
Things are wonderful and very rotten. Wonderful, because I enjoy the lepers, the cows, the hawkers, the elephants, the soothsayers, the Hindu mandirs, the camels and the down and out Western hippies. My heart is pinched by seeing the kiddies doing very unhealthy looking jobbies on the pavement next to an overflowing drain and crores of smelly 2 wheelers, old cars, trucks and buses passing by, but still I love it. Rotten because I have the big one : spending loads of time in the loo with a bucket in front of me. Going for a meal and after being served and eating two bites leaving in a hurry because I get ‘the feeling of vomiting’ (as the Indian doctor put it). But with the help of a nice Kashmiri boy I find the aforementioned doctor, get antibiotics and get cured. And I take a very serious haircut, because in this hot climate and insufficient hygienic facilities I might as well. And get myself out of Delhi and go to see this Golden Temple. And do not sleep very much, and am rather speedy without the drink. A non-drinking me, Dutch by birth, Irish by choice, can it be done ?
Of course I pay way too much for my train ticket to Amritsar and get unwanted luxury. We only arrive 30 minutes late and I am abducted by a cycle rickshaw wallah to a crummy hotel, charging 150 rupee + 10% tax and not offering too much in return apart from the drunks that gather in the dining room every night. The light is beautiful, the days are very clear, the air is of an almost transparent light blue that in NW Europe only appears on very rare winter days. And on the 19th of January nineteen hundred and ninety six Cornelis Heule, a mere 48 years of age makes his first appearance on the parkarma of Harmandar Sahib. And I am bowled over. The music that is broadcast from the gold-topped building in the middle of the square pond (sarovar) that surrounds it is divine. The beautiful light is there, the marble walkway (parkarma) around the sarovar, the white buildings around that. I spend 4 hours just sitting there, not going into the actual temple at all. And day two I come back for more, and again spend 4 hours, drinking in the atmosphere. Babaji speaks to me, the man who I will get to know very well later, and he points out the 4 open doors of the temple, welcoming every one from all creeds, castes, directions. And I decide to leave my hotel and move into the (free) Ram Das Niwas (guesthouse) of the temple itself. And thereby seal my fate.
In the far corner of room 43 in the dormitory of Guru Ram Das Niwas was a heap of bedclothes, and underneath those was Audrey, Dutch, black, Christian. She took me to the temple, she took me to the ceremony of bringing the Sikh holy book into the temple, and she took me for a Christian as I was reading the Bible. We got on very well and drank in the atmosphere of the place, told each other that the Sikhs were great and got intoxicated on the good vibes. We went for a meal, and we went and talked, and I was speedy and could not sleep. But I was winning. After Audrey there were the German Stephan and his wife, their friend Peter from Tienen in Belgium, John from the north of England who had given up the drink too, and was busy cycling from the North Cape to England going the long way round, Elizabeth from Anchorage, the reformed drunk from Ireland (do not even take a sweet containing liquor in future), and I talked, went to temple morning and night, was speedy and could not sleep. Some nights I fell asleep, utterly exhausted only to wake up after a few hours, and the thoughts would start milling through the head again, and sometimes I was awake all night until at dawn I fell asleep exhausted. And what went on in my mind was incredible, images from a past I hoped I had long forgotten, images from yesterday and even those of tomorrow. There was no stopping it, there was no stopping me, I talked, talked, I talked at a hundred miles an hour, and I could not sleep.
I went to the temple at 5 am for bringing in Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) and at night at ten I took it to its room again. And why ? Did I believe in God ? There was no need to believe in God, whatever God is, I felt the presence in me and around me from day one. Was I a Sikh ? No, but I was becoming one. One day I was sitting behind the temple, and all of a sudden I started crying, and felt great at the same time, and the next day it happened again. And whenever I felt those massive copper bars of the palki in which we carried Guru Granth Sahib on our shoulders I felt something like an electric current going through me. And finally one night after fervently praying (me ! praying !) and asking for peace of mind I walked back to the dormitory and was suddenly overwhelmed by the ultimate heebee jeebees. I had to drink, I had to smoke, all the devils from the seven hells were shouting at me : drink, drink, smoke, smoke. And I ran, I ran to find my friendly Baba ji, who of course was not in his room, I ran back to my room and there was no one there, I went to the room next to me and flung myself on an American (imagine!) who was great, did not say much but just was there. And after 30 minutes I quietened down, and that was it, the final act, I was not a drunk anymore and I knew that something, someone was out there, playing games with me, and nasty ones at that but, I was cured.
Still I knew nothing about Sikhism, and I definitely did not, and do not know what God is. I started reading Sukhmani Sahib, a part of Guru Granth Sahib, I started reading Guru Nanak’s Jap ji Sahib and Guru Gobind Singh’s Jap Sahib, and through their meditations on God learned that even the Gurus, who were so close to God, were more sure of what God is not, than of what God is. And I learned about meditation, I learned that this indescribable, un-understandable God was everywhere, in waters, on land in you and me, in a worm and an elephant, that God was definitively not and old man having a long white beard living in a place called heaven, that God was one, that God is not linked to any religion, country or nation, that God has no family, that we cannot make any picture or portrait of God, and that whatever we do, we should keep God in mind. And no use retiring from the world and contemplate your navel. Live in the world but be not ruled by hunger for money or sex, be not ruled by anger and pride, and recognise all humans as your brothers and sisters, all the universe as His manifestation.
Everyone is welcomed in the temple, everyone has a right to believe in his own way, but if you want to be a Sikh you will have to wear the 5K’s, as ordained by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699. First I thought if that is what it takes I will do it, although I do not see why. Later I discovered that having to face the world as a very recognisable Sikh you will have to live up to Sikh standards, be honest, be fair, be compassionate, and travelling to the very Islamic republic of Pakistan in full Sikh regalia and facing all these Musulman successfully, does add to your self confidence. Do not have personal pride, but be proud to be a Sikh. And, we cannot be like St Peter, we cannot deny what we are, and have to face the questions and sometimes the mockery. Does you the world of good !
Part of the ‘barrah maha’ (twelve month) written by Guru Nanak
In Chet agreeable is the spring and
Beautiful the bumble-bee.
The forests are flowering in front of my door.
May my Love return home.
Pleasant is Baisakh,
When the tree-bough adorns itself anew.
The bride is anxious to see God at her door,
‘Come my Love, come, take You pity on me.’
Sublime is the month of Jeth.
Why should I forget my Beloved ?
The earth burns like a furnace.
The bride prays to her Lord.
In Sawan, be you happy, O my soul.
The season has come when the clouds rain.
I love my Spouse with my soul and body,
But my Darling has gone abroad.
Guru Granth Sahib, p. 1108