“Hyaack thhoo”, the machine spews forth the image. Defiantly spat out, it purposefully settles below my bed. The inky figure resembles a naked man who has deplaned at thirty thousand feet landing head first into the sand. The small print below reads “above please find the image of exactly what we want”.
I freelance doing weird assignments of sorts. A pleasant twist of quirkiness seems to linger here. An Italian art house wants a fakir who will bury himself in sand for two hours at a stretch, three times a day, for eight days. It’s an installation.. additional confusion for the confused art world. Conceptualized by a renowned Italian artist the piece is part of a grand opening for an international art festival in Venice.
I know what they think they want but my search for the fakir is admittedly harder than I had anticipated. I had overlooked a few subtleties. Authentic dreadheads hold a strong affection for marijuana and a rather strange disaffection for money. Screw a free ticket to Venice, these guys can sit naked by a river bank and teleport to Venice in a blink and a puff.
After dispatching a few scouts around India, good news comes my way. A sober fakir has been discovered. My mystic man has finally arrived. Our time has come. In a cloud of exhilarated accomplishment I may have skipped a minor detail…he is an unemployed painter from Bombay who, till three years ago, had been entombing himself for a living under the sands of Juhu beach.
Seems like a rather unassuming man. I show him the image, and film his performance of this bizarre ostrich act. He has difficulty with the pose, revealing that his true prowess is samadhi — where he buries himself completely with only his hands sticking through the earth.
The film of the fakir is approved. The Italians love the hands and the ridiculous headless headstand is thankfully shelved.
After a panic-filled week of arranging the fakir’s passport, I organise his visa on a guarantee to the consulate that he won’t settle down in Venice as an opera-belching gondola driver. All arrangements made, the fakir is missing four hours before our flight. After biting down to my knuckles, I discover him at his cousin’s hut watching television. I am beginning to realize that I have a very strange man on my hands. Although I’ve spent a week with him getting his passport, visa, bag, clothes, he seems to think that the ‘foreigners’ are coming here to see him. Only later do I realize that thinking is not his forte.
The officer raises his eyebrow engaging me to state my business. Struggling through immigration, as if on cue, my subtle fakir casually asks where we are going. I can understand the reservations the officers have — after all, a fakir doing samadhi in Venice? A half hour later we walk away from a bunch of uniformed morons who have burst into peels of manic laughter.
Ten minutes before our flight, le fakiro knocks down a bottle of Codeine cough syrup. Why? He tells me not to worry, he has four more bottles in his bag. Great, the reason behind my fakir not being a pot-head is owing to his spirited fondness for liquor. The flight is of little consequence to him. He thinks we’re in a moving theater and as the syrup blends with a few vodkas, he acquires quite the mystical gaze.
In Venice, I find myself in an exquisite fifteenth-century villa. A romantic chateau with plush rooms, antique furniture, a gourmet menu, obviously to be shared with my charming room-mate.
The festival is impressive to say the least. The exhibits are situated in a four hundred year old infantry base called the Arsenal. The people are exciting, with extremes ranging from artists who work with umbilical cords to male critics in frilly pink dresses. The place is teeming with activity. Our installation is located in a room viewable only through a broken doorway and a side window panel. The floor is overlaid with gray sand and the center of the piece is the fakir’s hands protruding out of the mud.
Admittedly, the exhibit has a strong visual impact. The audiences seem to be going gaga over it. Now it’s time for me to play my role. Naturally I’m the psychic-cum-yoga apprentice. Only I may and can communicate with the fakir. I insist on closing the room with curtains between performances. You see, the fakir has to meditate. Well in a manner of speaking — knock down a peg, have a snack, and chew a bit of tobacco.
As crowds wait anxiously for each opening, I sit inside the room cajoling this debauched man to do the next piece. Now for the tantrums. He has just informed me that he doesn’t feel like performing any more. He wants to get back to the hotel and watch Italian TV, which he claims to have lucid understanding of (after three drinks). So apart from sharing his room, teaching him not to wash his face in the bide, and babysitting him 24 hours, now I have to kiss his butt to continue the job.
Time for the interviews. The questions range from plain curiosity to absurd stupidity. “Is he dead?” My answers are fueled by boosters of Yugoslavian weed, and I seem to impress myself with a proficiency in spewing forth creative garbage. The fakir’s ability is attributed to a metabolic breakdown whereby he drops his pulse rate to half that of a normal human. He requires little air which minimally filters through the porous sand. “But why does the sand move fast sometimes?” Well that’s when he wakes from his inebriated slumber. Wrong answer — so I go with “that’s a technique called shallow breathing which he adapts whenever he breaks out of the transcendental process.” Fortunately, constant regurgitation of the jargon, differently spiced with unsettlingly large words, prevents any cross questioning.
The fakir is an overnight attraction. People come from several places to see him perform. But no one is allowed to meet the mysterious little Indian man. He’s in another realm and doesn’t like mixing with regular people. This does not deter the ‘Energy Society’, who have arrived today. Could be a problem. They seem to want to partake in a group meditation with the fakir. I figure that if they see him, the only high they’ll get is from his breath. I’m sorry, it’s impossible as he doesn’t participate in lower activities such as these.
Absorb whatever vibes you can from afar, concentrating on his hands..you can do that can’t you?
Free day today. I sacrifice my morning taking this joker sightseeing around Venice. He has amazing opinions on everything. They range from the history behind the architecture in St. Marks Square, to why it stays light till nine at night. Leaning on experience, I decide to munch on my sandwich and ask few questions.
I drop him back to the hotel. He’s pretty nervous about being alone. I inform the staff that he must not be disturbed as he has to meditate the entire day. Upstairs, he’s probably cracking open the scotch and watching some redundant game show in Italian.
A week has finally passed. The job has been successful. We have our last breakfast in the magnificent villa. The trip is already appearing to look incredible in retrospect. 7:30am — time to leave. I check my tickets for my connecting flight. All hell breaks loose. My Venice flight has already left at 7:10am. Almost soiling my undis, I start yelling at the receptionist who obviously has no clue what I’m saying.
The plane chase begins. I take a later flight to Zurich, miss my connection, charge through the airport to catch a flight to France, sprinting madly to one of their infinite terminals in the hope of acquiring a seat on a flight to Bombay. Did I forget to mention, my fakir is escalatorphobic. So in between this action drama, this fifty year old dipsomaniac is, at the risk of bursting a few organs, tearing through like a mad man alongside me on all the travelators at the various airports.
Finally, we are back. Like all fairy tales, this one too has a happy ending. The fakir’s three kids have been put into school with the cash he made. And he has opened a bank account where his withdrawals will be monitored by me so that he doesn’t buy a pub for himself. The moral of the story is something I haven’t figured out yet, considering he calls me up regularly, hammered off his face, to ask me when we are catching the plane.