26. The Nobody

I MUST ADMIT, I noticed him instantly. Perhaps I recognised him as a fellow loner. But I had admitted myself to the ashram determined not to befriend anyone. Still, he was one of the those I couldn’t help but watch – there must have been half a dozen. I was in a state of enforced solitude, although few others were keeping as quiet as I was. And so within two or three days there were a few students I began to watch. The yoga instructor from New Zealand with the high forehead. The Indian plastic surgeon with the square shoulders and the look of gentle sadness. The tall Italian with the V-shaped hairline, the tattoos and a magnetism that drew people to him and gave them pleasure merely in being within his orbit. The Chilean girl I nicknamed the Praying Mantis. In such places – here I include hospitals, trains and holiday resorts – I always derive immense pleasure from watching others, and yet the more I watch the further away from others I feel, so that in the end the mere possibility of speaking to someone throws me into a kind of mild panic. Thankfully over the years I have learned to control this painful impulse. Perhaps this was why I noticed him. Physically unremarkable, a little pale, carrying a small pot belly, long-faced. His movements were a little jerky, or at least not quite as smooth as most others. He really came into focus for me on the third or fourth day at the ashram, while we were all attending the mid-afternoon lecture. These lectures occurred every day in the full heat of a tropical mid-afternoon, and they were invariably on ancient Hindu esoterica that left most of us bamboozled. Thankfully for the teacher’s sake there were half-a-dozen devotees who listened carefully, taking notes and asking questions. On this particular day, the teacher, who was South African, passed around a microphone and asked us to introduce ourselves in turn, explaining why we were at the ashram. Even though we were in southern India, the lingua franca at the ashram was English. English was spoken at all times except when we were chanting - the interminable and insufferable chanting was conducted in Sanskrit, and accounted for perhaps a total of four hours during the day. The lectures were in English and as we introduced ourselves we spoke in English. Most of the reasons given by the students in reply to the teacher’s instructions were given in English, too, an English as innocuous as the sentiments expressed: “I want to learn more about yoga”; “my yoga instructor recommended this place to me”, and so on. The New Zealand yoga instructor told us she’d wanted to learn a different style of yoga. The Praying Mantis told us she'd had a tough couple of years and wanted to take time out to think about things for a while. When, however, the microphone was finally passed to the young man I'd been observing for two or three days – of course I didn’t know his name then, for me he remained a stranger – he said, “No.” The teacher was surprised. “You don’t want to tell us your name?” He replied, with an accent I guessed was Eastern European, “I have no name. I am a nobody.” Over the following days, I kept an eye on him. At morning and evening prayers, he would sit at the back of the room, lounged back against a wall while everyone else tried to stay in the cross-legged poses, staring at something indistinct in front of him. In yoga class, he would disobey instructions so systematically the teachers quickly learned to ignore him. At meal times he would eat copious amounts, always asking for more until he had to be refused. And everything done with those slightly jerky movements. I would even go so far as to say that there seemed to be a storm cloud constantly hanging over his head, speaking metaphorically. I am happy to say that I kept my vow of silence, but on the last day, before I left the ashram, I was determined to say something to those I had watched so carefully and with so much enjoyment. I ran into the yoga instructor and smiled at her, and she returned my smile with a look of bemusement. I managed a conversation with the Indian plastic surgeon, and we discovered we had both spent childhoods in Catholic boarding schools. As soon as I started talking with the magnetic Italian he told me an off-colour joke that was hardly funny but I couldn’t help but laugh. The Praying Mantis I found practising her poses in solitude, which was her typical state, and I found I had nothing to say to her. As for the man with no name, the nobody, I didn’t see him at all – he eluded me, even though he was the one I most wanted to meet, to try to find out more about him, anything, the country he was from, what he did for a living. I had so many theories about him, gathered over surreptitious observation over many days, and yet I knew nothing. I left the ashram without satisfaction. And yet this story – nothing more than an anecdote, really – has a post scriptum. Several years later – only last year, in fact – I read in an English magazine an obituary of the writer Theo Wiebe, a Communist poet who had been viciously bashed in his home by an intruder. The poet’s injuries were such that he died in hospital a few weeks later, but not before he had revised his will. Curiously, the new version of the will stipulated that half his not inconsiderable fortune (mostly inherited from his industrialist father) should go to his assailant, in the event that the assailant was captured. Several weeks after the poet’s death, Dutch authorities arrested a Romanian man in his late twenties, who was charged with, and eventually convicted of, murdering the poet. The man, who pleaded guilty to the crime but offered no explanation as to his method or motive, was sentenced to seven years in prison, with a minimum of four years, and upon his release stood to inherit a fortune of several million euros. Needless to say, the three children of the poet, who were unable to explain why they stood to inherit less than the man who had killed their poet father, were outraged and, according to the article, planned to contest the will in court, but lawyers acting on behalf of the murderer were confident that their client would eventually acquire the sum left to him according to the letter of the law. Accompanying the story was a colour photo of the man, whom I instantly recognised as the man from the ashram years earlier. The resemblance was unmistakeable: this was the man with the no name, the so-called nobody.