By Paul William Roberts

Paul William Roberts's trips via India span two decades, and during this quantity he creates a mosaic, by means of turns tragic and comedian, of the subcontinent and its humans. From the crumbling palaces of maharajas to the slums of Calcutta; from the ashrams of holy males to a millionaire drug dealer's seriously guarded castle on India's border with China; Roberts seeks to catch the trap of this enigmatic land - this empire of the soul.

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As predictable as small towns in the American Midwest, though with barely a fraction of the opulence, these outposts of humanity elicited first despair, then, finally, abject boredom. They were anonymous, miserably interchangeable. I was travelling with a nineteen-year-old girl from Arizona who called herself Joy but had once been Betty. She had been in India for over two years, and had put me on to our driver, a shifty-looking character named Abdul. Joy wanted to ‘share’ the cost of paying him for driving us in his taxi to Puttaparthi.

Most looked as if they also had American Express cards tucked away somewhere, too: Don’t renounce the world without it. ‘Sai Ram,’ she said, hearing my plight. A kindly old woman from New York with white hair and a necklace made of large nuts offered to show me where I could rent a room. Beyond the ashram walls, at the foot of a steep hill, I found Nagamma’s Hotel: six ten-by-six-foot concrete rooms off a bare corridor, sharing a toilet without running water and without any fixtures or fittings except for a hole in the floor.

And I was so grateful that I merely wept more. It was all I could do. Baba then proceeded to basically deliver a summary of my life and a breakdown of my personality in machine-gun bursts that had me reeling, nodding humbly, speechless. ’ It seemed to be his way of reassuring me that there was nothing he did not know about me, and that none of it bothered him. ’ I had to agree. He reassured me that he would sort things out. It was a workmanlike statement. ‘Thanks,’ I managed. He’d moved back by now, and was circling his hand in the space between us.

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