I shall never forget the Russians in the room, uniformly cropped, one so frail, when he coughed, his ribs rattled like rigging on a horse.
The dormitories were simple: men and women separated into different ones, two long shanks of bodies, a meter-wide corridor in the middle.
By day, there was usually someone around; the Sherpas liked to come in, rifle through belongings and take what they fancied. But mostly, we were up early to bathe, by 4am, down the 108 steps to the Ganges before its waters muddied up.
We were high in the Kumaon Hills, bumped on the side of a rock, the visitors climbing to the festival to make offerings to the gods, unburden the past, during these auspicious Navaratri days at the foot of Mount Kailash.
But I had a problem: although I was there, I wasn’t present, grew sick, languished in bed when I should have been at my chores.
The Irish matriarch, a long-serving devotee, chided me, calling after me as I left a month later that she would see me again, as if we were boxers seeking a rematch.
At least she was. She must have thought she had lost.
‘You’ll be back!’ she shouted.
‘Not on your life,’ I whispered, under my breath.
The truth is I was sick, Delhi belly had left me anchored to my hard, thin mat for days on end. I had a hard, thin Irishwoman on my case for the duration.
But I was also love sick, missing my beloved. She had known I had wanted to come, to explore this part of North India where my family was from, to see if I felt any sense of home.
When the money from her settlement came through, she gave me two thousand pounds, bought me some prayer beads and put me on a plane.
The night before I left, we made love and cried and I was plagued mid-flight with a terrible horniness that refused to leave me alone.
Perhaps she wanted me gone. Ours was a tempestuous love, soul mates for sure but burdened by circumstances I would go on to repeat years later.
My choices were an attempt at resolution, a powerful unconscious drive to recreate a childhood scene, a trauma-inducing dark night that swam after me like a nest of eels.
And here I was, near the Himalayas, not far from where my mother was born, seeking a healing I never could find by human means.
I was on the right track, looking for spiritual aid but back then in 2006, I couldn’t shake the volcano buried inside me so I stayed on the mountain.
Relationships that have the most juice, the ones where the depth of love can carve you out and offer the possibility of deep healing, can also throw you further into the very same vat you’re trying to escape.
Alongside that, there was an easier love running inside me and it did relate to my ancestry and India: I had a thing about eastern teachers. In fact, they had a thing about me.
The first time I spotted it, I was living in a retreat centre at the end of my marriage, an upmarket commune in all but name.
We were a happy band of odd bods, alternatives, seekers. Some of us had had it with mainstream culture, the young ones hadn’t even started yet and I guess some never would.
Slowly, as the shock at the demise of my family began to unwind, I got to know people, wangled myself a job in the kitchen with a young couple, Andy and Helen.
They had spent a lot of time travelling in India and slowly a spell had wrapped me in its loins. Although I’m guessing that was the wrong chakra.
Two older members were devotees of a young Indian teacher who had an ashram in North Wales and had created a type of yoga fused with tai chi.
His parents had worked with Gandhi. A sudden community had sprung up around him while he was a student in Aberystwyth when no-one could gain access to his room as he was often meditating.
Back in the community kitchen, I heard he was on a pilgrimage to Bosnia — this was 1996 — carrying his peace flame and a sizeable entourage.
He was stopping nearby to spread the word and a group of us went to listen to him.
‘Is he looking at me?’ He had seemed to be, so I asked Kate.
‘He seems to be,’ she agreed. There was definitely something afoot.
Suddenly, he asked everyone to get up and swap seats and then look underneath them.
I found myself holding his autobiography. It must have been perhaps the second time in my life I had won anything, even though on this occasion I wasn’t immersed in study.
I was the sole recipient that day and I was encouraged to get in touch, later spending time with him near Bangor.
The pace was incredible. Young people up at dawn, working until they dropped, taking on any challenge that came their way, saying ‘yes’ to everything.
In the mornings, in the dark before prayers, they would draw the curtains back revealing a series of murtis, marble statues of the gods.
As we sang and chanted, I opened an eye and saw one of them moving, winking at me.
Could it be real? Were the murtis really alive with an energy that could shift, even dissolve form?
I had no doubt what I saw was happening.
I had already visited the hugging saint, Amma, shuffling on my knees like a paraplegic crab for hours to get her hug.
At times, I was bored but as she grabbed me and clasped me to her ample bosom and whispered in my ear, a sudden bliss enfolded me.
Later, at lunch, we queued at a large London house to be let in by a little old Indian woman, who with hindsight was less old than grey.
I was a neophyte, perhaps 30, green as can be, conspicuous among a group of old-timers, but as the queue disappeared behind her sari, she stopped and bowed, looked me in the eye:
‘Here, we have a very old soul,’ she said.
I was flattered yet embarrassed, shy and unable to receive much, but of course, I liked it.
So, it made sense on meeting new neighbours who were devotees of Maha Avatar, Babaji, the great soul of India, appearing and disappearing in different forms throughout time, according to Yogananda’s classic autobiography, to take a closer look.
My lover made my journey possible yet soon we were craving one another, both surprised and delighted that texts could climb across continents and up into the mountains.
I don’t know what started the first argument, but I was soon under my woollen blanket late at night on my phone trying to make a point, whatever that was.
I had never really made friends with the Russians who were way more devout than I could ever be — the language barrier didn’t help — but I tried to muffle the ping of the phone.
Every ping had been jarring, my nervous system on edge, not because I was too worried it would wake them, rather I knew it may be an angry message.
When I had been in Rishikesh, I would call her from the pay phone in town, but here we couldn’t speak, our communication drilled down into two senses, the sight and sound of the texts.
It would have been best to say nothing, wait until my return, but neither of us could resist being triggered and reacting, needing to explain.
But it was like throwing oil on a bonfire and our relationship was rapidly going up in smoke.
Instead of being nestled in my heart, chanting and praying as I had intended, I was way up north in my head, unable to climb down, in every sense.
‘Molchi! Molchi!’ It was Russian for ‘shut up’.
In the end I had to let go, but something about the trip was soiled.
When I got home, we made up and went clubbing in Brighton, pleased to see one another, wanting to leave the past back in the hills, in the dormitory gathering dust. So, we smiled and danced until dawn.
We stayed together for another three years, but something had changed, our separate journeys more stark, our age difference telling.
She was still in transition, on a threshold that couldn’t hold us both.
We tried until one day, we were done.
I have still to decide whether to return to the mother country.
© Simon Heathcote