A Soul-Searching Mystery Unravels in Eyal Danon’s New Book

Eyal Danon

 

Harley felt a tap her shoulder and opened her eyes. The passenger sitting beside her had woken her up. The sun piercing through the bus window colored him gold. Raising his arm, he pointed at the surrounding view. “Rishikesh,” he said and looked out the window. Harley stretched, and as she ran her fingers through her tangled hair, they grazed the painful bruise on her forehead. She bit her lip and looked around. On her left, green mountains sloped down gently toward the road. In the opposite direction she saw the Ganges River and a string of white-and-pink temples on the riverbank. The tips of other temples, hidden deep inside the green mountains, glowed in the distance. She recalled this was the very place where the Ganges completed its long journey from the Himalayas and began winding its way throughout India, and her heart swelled.

The pilgrims filed off the bus and headed straight to the river, speaking to each other in brisk sentences. Harley followed them. They passed through an area on the riverbank that was flat and full of small white rocks. Huge purple rhododendrons flowers surrounded them, and the blue-green water flowed quickly down the wide river. When the pilgrims arrived at the edge of the water, they wasted no time before going in, fully clothed. Faces aglow, they rejoiced at having made it to the mouth of the Ganges.

Harley observed them for a few minutes, then took off her shoes and placed them near her backpack. She removed her wristwatch, shoving it deep inside her bag, and walked into the river, still wearing her clothes. The frozen water was rejuvenating. Dunking her whole head in, she felt all the aches from the night ride evaporate and her thoughts become clear and sharp. She carried a silent prayer of gratitude for having made it, for being alive and breathing and experiencing life with such clarity. She had no idea how the adventure she had gotten herself into might end but was finally living the life she had always wanted to live, freely and bravely. She smiled, and the Indians nearby smiled back, happy to see this Western tourist connecting to the ancient ritual of bathing in the holy river.

 

 

After the refreshing dip, the pilgrims sat down and drank sweet hot chai. Harley held the steaming cup and felt a strange camaraderie with the group gathered on the banks of the sacred river. She began walking toward the main road. Rishikesh was bustling and noisy. Buses and trucks passed through with loud honks; peddlers hawked their wares with hoarse shouts; and rickshaw drivers artfully navigated the chaos. This was a far cry from the quiet, peaceful town Harley had envisioned. A rickshaw driver pulled up and signaled her with his weathered hand. She gave him the name of the ashram and he nodded, then loaded her backpack at the rear of the rickshaw. Harley sat in the back and he sped off, honking a loud horn every chance he got.

Within 10 minutes, they arrived at their destination. Harley descended from the rickshaw near a magnificent metal bridge that crossed the river and walked closer so she could examine its beauty. She had long admired beautiful structures and had spent countless hours drawing bridges of every kind. Once I cross this bridge, she thought, I can no longer go back. Engrossed in the moment, she had failed to notice the fading noise of the rickshaw’s engine. She turned her head and saw the rickshaw in the distance, disappearing around the bend. Harley began running toward the bend in the road. There she saw a bustling main street crammed with trucks and buses, all creating a commotion. The rickshaw driver and her backpack were nowhere to be seen. A peddler approached her proffering packs of chewing gum. With a wave of her hand, she sent him away and scoured the street for a police officer. Soon she gave up, overtaken by a sickening feeling. The driver had no intention of coming back. She had just lost all the possessions she had brought with her for the journey, and one possession that was more important than all the others combined.

Harley’s father’s letter was lost forever. It had never occurred to her to make a copy. She naively assumed that his letter was going to accompany her for the rest of her life. Her eyes welled up. Sitting by the side of the road, she covered her face with her hands. This should not have happened to me, she said to herself over and over again. This should not have happened! After some time had passed, she raised her head. A few small children were curiously staring at her but did not dare approach. She wished so badly for some miracle that would make the driver suddenly return but knew he would not.

 

 

Harley peered up at the bridge. She had to continue her journey but lacked the strength to move. A small monkey was curiously looking at her, hanging on a tree branch. When she saw the monkey, she instinctively touched the pouch that her mother had given her back in New York. Taking a deep breath, she turned toward the flowing river. After a while she felt her body begin to calm. The current crashed against the smooth white rocks and her thoughts wandered to a time a few months back, to that fateful morning at faraway Columbia University in New York. She was a student at the college, where, during a morning class about sacred landmarks in India, a single word was destined to change her fate forever.

At the word Gangotri, Harley sat up straight. Something had awakened within her, urging her to focus on what was being said. She surveyed her classmates. No one reacted as she had. She tried to conceal her sudden excitement and looked out the large old windows at the pouring rain. A refreshing breeze gusted through the window screens as Dr. Mark Shelby, a world-renowned professor of Eastern cultures, described pilgrimage sites located in a remote and wild part of the Indian Himalayas. He was a tall dark-haired man in his early 50s with an athletic build. He moved nimbly across the large classroom and paused his lecture to pick up a piece of paper from the floor. He turned the paper over and when he saw that it was filled with scribbles and doodles, he crumpled it into a ball and threw it with a long circular motion toward a green bin in the corner. The ball hit the rim and went in. Behind Harley, someone clapped. Professor Shelby smiled, pleased by the applause.

Animatedly, he continued describing how the mighty Ganges, considered to be the world’s holiest river, begins in an ice cave at the summit of an isolated glacier on the Tibetan border. From there it flows through the Indian subcontinent until it merges with the Bay of Bengal. Indians believed the sky and earth met precisely at that special place and the devout embarked on their pilgrimage in the freezing cold, lacking appropriate gear. There is a special power to that place, the professor emphasized, and pilgrims believe that arriving at the true source of the holy Ganges River opens the door to understanding ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

Someone from the back row called out, “Professor Shelby, did you visit there during one of your adventures?” It was common knowledge that Professor Shelby spent his annual vacation on long adventurous trips across Southeast Asia. A gloomy expression passed over the professor’s face before he replied, “There, I have not yet gone.”

The question interrupted the flow of Professor Shelby’s speech. Staring at an indistinct spot on the wall, he gathered his thoughts and continued his lecture. With his professorial power of observation, he noticed that he had Harley’s undivided attention and turned to her enthusiastically. In the student before him he saw a lean girl with an upturned nose, freckles, and piercing green eyes that were concentrating on him. She did not smile. Professor Shelby was now talking about the ancient temple in Gangotri. Harley knew she had heard of that place before, and that it held great significance. Something about that name took her back . . . but to what?

For some reason, she could no longer focus. Her father’s image appeared in her mind, with his big smile, his arm around an Indian friend, and great snowy mountains in the background. It was the same picture she kept by her bed, the one she spoke to every night before she fell asleep. She thought of the short prayer she used to say before going to bed and began to absentmindedly doodle on the piece of paper in front of her. To her surprise, her hand was sketching the mysterious ice cave, surrounded by towering mountains whose peaks brushed the clouds. The cave looked like a dark hole in the middle of the glacier and Harley felt as though she had already been there, that she knew the place. Deep in thought, she added more details to complete the image. Upon hearing her name, she almost jumped out of her chair.

 

 

“I hope my class wasn’t that boring, Ms. Green.”

Professor Shelby was standing directly in front of her, staring at her drawing with great interest. The students began leaving the classroom, chattering lively. Harley blushed, folded the paper in half, shoved it in her bag, and turned to the professor.

“I am sorry. For some reason, my mind wandered.”

“Sometimes it happens to me during my own lectures,” he said, smiling in return.

Harley headed for the door. She had a feeling that Professor Shelby wanted to converse about her drawing, but she was too disoriented to speak coherently. She said goodbye and began walking home.

 

This is an excerpt from Eyal N. Danon’s new book, The Golden Key of Gangotri (Blue Branch Press). It’s republished here with permission.

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

 

--Sanket Barik (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Prabhala Raghuvir (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Julia Volk (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Charlotte May (Pexels, Creative Commons)

 

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