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Vol. XXVII No. 16, December 1-15, 2017

An exploration of India

by Janaki Venkataraman


One more ride (Front cover) copy copy

Tiziano Terzani receives the blessings of a temple elephant

When Tiziano Terzani, acclaimed Italian journalist and writer, known for his extensive coverage of Asia for the European press, is diagnosed with cancer, he stops to consider his past life and how he should spend his future, if he has one.

“I felt as if my whole life had been on a merry-go-round and right from the start I had ridden the white horse. I had gone up and down and round and round to my heart’s content, without anyone to ask if I had a ticket. And, in fact, I hadn’t. All my life I had bummed a ride! Well, now the ticket collector was coming through and I’d have to pay my dues. But with a bit of luck I might just get…one more ride on the merry-go-round.”

After being initially treated with chemotherapy, surgery and radiation at the Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, Terzani gets a reprieve. His cancer is in remission and the doctors tell him that he needs to see them only after a while. Terzani packs his bags and leaves for an unlikely location for a man recovering from cancer – India. “Those who love India will know, they don’t know exactly why they love it. It’s dirty, poor, infected, sometimes thieving and lying, frequently malodorous,” admits Terzani who had a home in Delhi. “Yet once you have met it, you can’t live without it… In India I had no need of any remedy to get back my equilibrium… The remedy was all around me, in every detail of my surroundings.”

There follows Terzani’s long exploration of India in search of not just a cure for his cancer but the answers to his larger questions about his condition. Terzani travels from Reiki practitioners in Delhi to an ayurvedic doctor in Kakinada, to the hiving streets of Varanasi and the tranquillity of Bodh Gaya, and the serenity of Dharmashala. Then Terzani returns to America for a check-up and, later, on a visit to San Francisco, meets Swami Dayananda Saraswathi, who was then in the U.S. Deeply inspired by the Swami’s dissertations on the Vedas and Yoga, Terzani sets out for the Swami’s ashram in the Anaikatti Hills near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.

“The location was beautiful, around twenty miles from Coimbatore… On the way to the ashram… I saw a man squatting (on the pavement) in front of two bamboo cages which contained sparrows. He was waiting for someone to buy them and set them free so as to earn good karma. I bought all the birds he had and released them, delighting in their chirruping and basking in the approving comments of those around me…”The outline of the Anaikatti Hills could be seen in the distance – clear, blue and majestic. There was a time when the whole area had been covered with dense forest and even to this day in the little woodland that remained, the taxi driver informed there are a primitive people who dress only in leaves and have a king as their leader…”

In the ashram in Anaikatti, for the first time in his life, Terzani deliberately loses his sense of what he had been all his life and willingly accepts anonymity and silence as a way of life. Calling himself Anam (the nameless), he falls into the soothing rhythm of life in the ashram for the next three months – yoga practice, lectures on Vedanta by Swami Dayananda, meditation and viewing the simple worship of the idol of Dakshinamurthy (who, for some reason, Terzani calls a goddess!). “In the ashram… there was time to live life paying attention to every moment. We practised acting as opposed to reacting, keeping our minds alert and aware of each movement.” (This included deciding whether or not to kill a mosquito buzzing around his ear, instead of swatting it by reflex!)

Swami Dayananda was, perhaps, the closest entity to a Guru that Terzani acknowledged, but even so his mind was not convinced by all his teachings. There was still the hunger to seek and find. “At the end of the three months, I felt like a spy who had infiltrated the ranks of the enemy in order to try and learn its secrets…,” Terzani muses. Nevertheless there is a hint of affection as he recalls, “Someone asked the Swami for a last piece of advice. He didn’t disappoint them. ‘Live a life in which you can recognise yourselves!'”

Later, Terzani travelled to Kerala and other places where ayurvedic cures were offered. Some years later, when his cancer resurfaced and was found to be incurable, he retired to a retreat in the Himalayas above Almora, where much of this book was written and where, Terzani died.

This is a book* written by a dying man, whose sensitivity, humour and sheer courage, have much to teach the living.
*One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round by Tiziano Terzani, Harper Element.


The Swami would come in through the northern entrance, accompanied by a young brahmachari who would walk alongside him, shielding him from the sun with an open umbrella. The Swami would take off his sandals, mount the wooden platform, climb the three steps up to his podium, wrap the edge of his orange tunic over his head and sit down cross-legged behind a low table covered by a coloured throw. From under that tablecloth, in the course of a lesson, the Swami would produce all kinds of good things with which to illustrate the points he would make in his teaching, as all gurus have done for centuries in their teaching of the Vedanta. He would take a clay dish and explain how its existence depended on the existence of the clay. Without clay the dish would not exist, just as creation would not exist without consciousness. He took out a crystal ball and a rose to illustrate the illusory nature of the rose’s colour when seen through the ball; it is the same confusion created by the self, when it attempts to distinguish between itself and what it perceives. He produced a rope with which to make the classic Vedantic comparison between the rope and a snake: to mistake a rope for a snake is exactly the same as to mistake the world of the senses for the real world. It is confusion of our own making: could the rope be mistaken for a snake if the snake did not exist?


India may be a poor country, but it is also a country in which the people have fewer needs, fewer desires; this is why down, it is also a happier country than many others. But not for long: globalization is bringing the rest of the world’s desires to India too, and eroding its contentment and its peace in the process.

The suspension system of the car – another old Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador – was on its last legs, and every now again it bounced over the holes in the road and threw me around in the most terrible fashion. If I had had an attack of some kind or my hernia had erupted, I imagined the young taxi driver dropping me off at one of the many hospitals or rest homes I saw along the roadside. None of them inspired a great deal of confidence: even the letters in their names, such as ‘Shakti Nursing Home’ or ‘Lord Krishna Hospital’ were falling off. And the treatments they were mostly for haemorrhoids and fistulas!

In the end nothing major happened to me, and I was spared the experience of being a genuine Anam, a Mr Nobody, in the middle of nowhere without the protection of my former identity. We arrived safe and sound in Kottakkal. The Arya Vaidva Sala was well known and everyone knew how to get there; it was the only hospital with an elephant parked in the courtyard.


I too, in coming to the ashram, had ended up in a different kind of India. It was not the India tourists come to take photos of, nor the one usually described by journalists. It was the seekers’ India, the India of the great myths which gave mankind the idea of God and that of zero, as well as everything that lies in between. I had lived in Delhi for years, but I had always moved in political or cultural circles, and always felt I was missing out on something. This was doubtless because I had never taken any serious notice of what is really Indian: the spiritual dimension. It was like being a Martian who landed in Florence in the time of Dante and expected to understand it just by visiting the odd church without studying the Bible. Now I felt I was coming closer to the real heart of India in the most typically Indian manner: by going to live with a guru.

Guru is a beautiful word, which unfortunately has lost a lot of its meaning these days through the way we have abused it in the West, where we speak of fashion, health and even sex gurus. Gu in Sanskrit means ‘shadows’ and ru means ‘to put to flight, dispel’. In other words, a ‘guru’ is one who dispels the shadows, who brings light into the darkness of ignorance. His orange clothing recalls the colour of the flame which burns in the darkness, the force of fire which consumes matter.

This was the real India. My guru was called Dayananda Saraswati, and I was a member of the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, literally the ‘family of the guru of true knowledge’, the knowledge which comes from the rishis or the seers. The location was beautiful, around twenty miles from Coimbatore, the capital city of the textile industry in the state of Tamil Nadu.

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