Lapsed monk, tireless traveller, prolific writer, Bill Aitken is completely besotted with India
NOT sense of adventure alone. It was angst that brought Bill Aitken, author and railway historian, son of a Clackmannshire village artisan, to India in 1959. Twenty-five summers, the dubious moral certitudes of a Calvinist upbringing were behind him. Ahead lay the long journey to India where he came in search of answers to the larger questions that studies of comparative religion at Leeds University, the philosophic credos of reigning western gurus a la Bertrand Russell, had failed to yield. There wasn't much to carry on that journey to India by ship, train, oil rig, camel cart and much else: just a backpack, £50, and a host of questions about the mystery and meaning of life. The £50 ran out by the time he reached Varanasi, so he travelled ticket less on the train to Calcutta, his final destination, where through a Scottish connection he landed a job as a teacher at the Birla Hindi High School at the princely salary of Rs 400 a month.
That money helped fund his forays into the Indian hinterland where Gandhi, on whom he'd written his post graduate thesis, had declared "the soul of India" dwelt and where he hoped the questions that teemed within him might find answers. Questions about the flawed premises of "an exclusivist western, Semitic, religion whose gods were angry old men with dyspepsia". Intermittently over the next two years this blue-eyed Bedouin with the burning gaze roamed the length and breadth of the land looking for that quiet spot where his unquiet mind could find repose and realisation. It was a quest that would take him to Pondicherry for the darshan of the ostentatious French presiding deity, "The Mother in Mrs Mop bandana", to a Varanasi encounter with an arrogant J. Krishnamurthy who "had the super drycleaned look of one used to owning rather than patronising laundries", to a stint with Gandhi's spiritual successor, the " holier-than-thou" Vinoba Bhave whom he accompanied on one of his bhoodan journeys in Assam and who he recalls with distaste: "Gandhi chose the wrong man to further his vehicle. He had heart, Vinoba was a cold fish. Not the gist, only the gesture counted with him," he says in reference to Bhave's rigid, self-flagellating austerities, the futile 'donations' he received of fallow, unusable lands.
Those disappointing early experiences with spiritual fountainheads, " jagah jagah ghoomna " as this naturalised Indian puts it, in his remarkably unaccented Hindustani, brought him to the reali-sation that the answers, if any, would come from within. A chance introduction in 1960 to Gandhi's disciple, Englishwoman Sarla Behn led to Aitken shifting from Calcutta to her Lakshmi ashram at Kasauni near Garhwal where he spent the next five years in monastic isolation working as farmhand, odd-job man, adhering to a gruelling dawn-to-dusk routine that began with a cold water bath at four in the morning. Those years proved seminal to his personal growth. "One learnt to pare life down to the essentials. Discovered the capacity to find flavour, if need be, in the salt mines of Siberia, satisfaction in being stranded on the moon," he recalls. Also the power of faith, reliance on which alone pulled him through a 40-day bout with raging typhoid when at Sarla Behn's behest he abjured quick fix allopathic remedies in favour of ritual fasting to cure his condition.
But the defining years of his life were to be the seven he spent post Kasauni, working as ashram cook and labourer at the Garhwal abode of his guru, Englishman, Indophile, ex Varanasi University don-turned-sanyasi, Krishna Prem. It was Prem who introduced Aitken to the 'here and now', the 'godhead within' philosophic credo of Gurdjeiff, gently brought him to the realisation that the realm of the senses and the spirit were not mutually exclusive, that the 'atma' he sought resided in the animal self itself. "The scales dropped," recalls the craggy-faced, goateed, still-lithe from all those years of physical labour, Aitken now. "After 12 long years I realised the monastic garment no longer fitted, that I needed less constricting apparel, that there was more to life than denial." Like love, which he found with fellow disciple and Jind royal, Prithwi Caur with whom "he jumped the wall", set up home in Mussoorie, with his guru's blessings.
That second encounter with the world was to prove fruitful. A period during which the restless romantic followed his nomadic instincts. Scaled the heights of the Nanda Devi, trekked to the source of the Yamuna and Ganga, followed the course of the mighty Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Tungabhadra, chugging along on his battered 65 Java motorcycle carrying just a bottle of Dettol, Disprin, tiger balm and Isabghol as protection against the elements. Travelling rough, in classic travel writer mould, documenting, testing the veracity of his beliefs against the touchstone of the world with which he was yet again in untroubled, virile contact. In mountains, rivers, and trees his druid spirit revelled. "They are the more dignified expressions of the divine. More so than the so called homo sapiens that desecrate them."
An opportunity to articulate his passion for nature, his rage at its will ul plundering by man, fresh evidence of which he found on every journey undertaken whether to Ladakh or Arunachal Pradesh. It came by default, in the '70s through Mussoorie friend and neighbour, writer Ruskin Bond. "Ruskin had an arrest warrant issued against him for writing a short story, The Sensualist, for Vinod Mehta's Debonair . When Mehta, who was starting Sunday Observer, asked him to write for him yet again he said 'no way'," laughs Aitken. He suggested Aitken instead. Thus the Scot Sufiwas reincarnated as scribe. Whose byline today appears regularly in premier Indian newspapers, who in one column after another pleads with his readers to save our common natural heritage, bemoans the fate of the asphyxiated Yamuna, the ravaged Narmada, the lunacy of building dams in earthquake-prone areas.
Conscious industry rather than logical inevitability marked his graduation from writer to author status. "In 1982, I decided to do three books in 10 years. I succeeded." The fact that the newly launched Indian Penguin publishing house was looking for authors to add to their stable was a happy coincidence that helped him publish his Seven Sacred Rivers , the writing of which took only six weeks in 1992. The Nanda Devi Affair , another six-week work and Exploring Indian Railways which he wrote for the Oxford University Press in a record three weeks followed next.
Railways are a late passion he can wax eloquent about. The neglect of the historical heritage, the social document they represent saddens him: "The sheer romance of those steam engines phased out by ignoramuses like Madhavrao Scindia worried about foreigners arriving here and saying 'how backward', the marvel of this greatest surviving working collective on earth, one that has survived the Russian revolution, is something to cherish."
It's time for new passions, new pursuits now. Like the book on the Deccan he's busy researching these days. "It has a noble, daunting landscape where people struggle to survive. That probably engendered the resilience that humbled and ultimately defeated the mighty Aurangzeb." At 62, it's also time for wistful introspection, reflection. "Ma, who's 85 now, always thought I was a waster, haring off to India, knocking about ashrams. Was really glad when I wrote those books. She can tell the neighbours I'm not such a write off." She advised him to write "less like Milton, more like Frederick Forsyth". So who does he think he sounds like finally? "I'm no polisher of prose. Just a hack who writes from the heart. Let's just say I'm more like an understudy to Shobha De," he says self-deprecatingly. Never mind. Ma still has reason to be proud.