The jacket would not leave me alone. It wasn’t just how the golden grassy fibres made an open strong weave, it was the patches of regal-gold and blood-red silk on the shoulders. It gave the armless jacket a ceremonial air. It looked like it was born there in the Himalaya. Woven and smuggled from the Tibetan plateau. Being a hedonist in the 1970s, I thought it should spend the rest of its life with me.
“Oh, no, no, sir! That is not being possible” reasoned the Indian stall holder in Manali’s market. He wobbled his head to emphasis the impossibility of it. “I am in business to make money and if I sold this jacket to you at this price, sir, I will be losing money. What is your best price, sir?”
I had walked to Manali for my weekly supplies and, once again, to haggle for the jacket. And once again, we didn’t reach a compromise, so I went to my next weekly appointment – sharing a chillum, packed with the famous rip-your-head-off Black Manali hash, with the sadhu in the main street.
The blue aromatic smoke wafted through his waist-length dreadlocks and over his face, painted with white and red markings, giving him a mystic, almost heavenly aura. An effect that grew with every toke.
That made buying the weekly supplies of rice, flour, and vegetables an entertaining affair. I carried them the four kilometres back to my mountain-side cabin, high on a narrow ridge, up past Little Manali. All the while thinking about that jacket while watching the Himalayan vultures rise on the thermals.
Only after two months of haggling did the stall-holder’s resolve weaken. “OK. OK. My mother will cry and my children will go hungry but if that is your best price…”
Auspiciously, the first time I wore the jacket was the first time I applauded a building. It was a month later after an electrical storm at the Taj Mahal.
A nearly full moon cast cloud-shadows. The white marble’s glow was almost blinding when the lightening cracked the sky. It threw shadows and light at every which angle. The thunder claps wrapped themselves down the tall minarets and onion-shaped roof, through the soles of my feet and up into my potato head.
Within 20-minutes the storm passed, the clouds parted, and the Taj Mahal glowed unrelentingly in the moon light. So spectacular was this light and sound phenomenon that the hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indians, and me, broke into spontaneous applause.
The jacket stayed in my bag until Lake Pokhara, West Nepal. The eight-kilometre-high Annapurna massif seemed so close in the clear October light, I instinctively reached for the peaks like low-hanging fruit as I floated on my back in a canoe in the middle of the lake.
Toward the end of my six-week stay, I took to wearing the jacket as groovy day-wear. Immediately, some of the locals start treating me with unparalleled respect. Many stopped, pressed their palms together at their forehead, muttering a mantra, bowing in a slow and determined way. I returned the courtesy. On one occasion, a couple prostrated themselves. This made going anywhere a lengthy and embarrassing process.
It became more embarrassing, no, humiliating, when the Nepalese guys who ran my favoured restaurant explained to me the jacket’s significance. They said the jacket is only bestowed on a Buddhist who had completed years of study and meditation and is well on the road to nirvana. Perhaps even, they said, of the Dalai Lama “themselves”. Further more, the man who sold it was, “a very bad man.” This jacket was earned, not bought. The kept asking, “do you understand”?
Being a pseudo-Lama was too much even for this hedonist. The jacket stayed in the pack while I dithered longer than a stoned committee about what to do with it.
Meanwhile, the amebic dysentery was proving more difficult to shake than the jacket. I thought a couple of weeks on an Israeli kibbutz with its Mediterranean climate, healthy diet, and outdoor exercise would do the job. Three months of light duties and no end of prescribed drugs later, I recovered.
To celebrate, I spent time along the Red Sea, (before it became a part of Egypt). Sitting alone under a date palm on a postcard beach, no one in sight, I contemplated whether the man who sold me the jacket could have not known of its significance. I thought how much longer I could travel from the money I could earn by selling the jacket. I had had offers. I considered what a magnificent gift it would make. I fantasised returning it to the Tibetan plateau. Knocking on the door of a monastery, presenting it like folded laundry – yeah, right. So I buried it. Deep.