Shankar studied the invitation thoughtfully.
It would mean leaving the island for the first time in fifty years. He was eighty-five years old now.
Could he do this?
Coming to the island had been a leap of faith for the young monk, whose studies had persuaded him that not even the life of a temple or ashram would satisfy the call of his soul to deep and private contemplation. He had waved goodbye to the boat and set about making an austere but serviceable home in the one cave he could find in the coral hillock that dominated the islet. There, with a family of bats for company, he was safe from the punishing heat and the monsoon, and slept well on dry bedding foraged from the surrounding forest. He had agreed with the boat-owner that provisions would be ferried over to him from the mainland once a month, and he would pay for his keep from the proceeds of his writing. The boat would go back every few months with a fresh sheaf of immaculate typescript for Shankar’s publisher in Madurai.
At first his income was tiny. Then in his mid-thirties his books began to sell. After twenty years in his hermitage, cut off completely from all but a monthly trickle of news from the wider world, he was surprised to be told that he had a growing following. Not just on his home continent, no; thousands of people who had read his work in Europe and the Americas were taking up his ideas, his fundamental philosophy of non-attachment, and stripping back their lives to the quiet essentials. He had an urgent letter from the publisher asking if he would see a small group of pilgrims who had turned up on the doorstep and wanted to sit at his feet.
“No! Please! I am not Sai Baba! I am not Osho! Be polite to them but send them away. I am only a monk, only a writer. Please do not break my solitude.”
He was left alone, out of sight and sound of the bitter civil war across the straits; alone with the jungle fowl, the monkeys and the manatees.
There was a lot of money. As Shankar continued to live as an ascetic, with no dependants and few needs, little of it was spent. Another anxious missive arrived from the son of the publisher, now in charge of the family business, asking what he should do with this small fortune piling up in the bank as the new millennium dawned.
“Dear Sir, will you not buy a bed? You are no longer a young man and can afford some comfort. Will you not have some new clothes? It is several years since we last sent you a new lungi, and we are all enjoying the ease of modern Western dress. Still you write on paper with a pen, but you can afford to buy a generator that would run a laptop and a printer. It would make life so much easier for us, if we no longer had to transfer your handwriting to our computer. Will you not come to see us? To see all the technological advances we have made? It is safe to come. We could send a little plane.”
He had no concept of what was being offered. He refused.
And now, another twenty-five years later, he held in his bony hand this new piece of paper assuring him that the world had truly listened and lives had been changed for ever; would he come now to the self-indulgent West to see the fruits of his solitary labour, to meet his admirers, and in his old age to receive the thanks of the Great and the Good for his inspiration.
“I am still a reasonably fit man,” he wrote in reply. “Before I entirely lose my wits and my strength I shall, this once, concede to your request. My dear Publisher will liaise with you regarding the necessary transport and my simple needs. I am happy that my words have reached so many to good effect, and I look forward to our meeting at your earliest convenience.”
No passenger on that Air India jet from Madurai to Mumbai, or the connecting flights onward from Mumbai to London and then to Washington, had ever travelled so light.
“Your baggage, Sir?” enquired the clerk at check-in.
“This is all I have,” Shankar replied. One cabin bag. Inside it a change of clothes, a few morning necessities, a notebook and pen. And his newly-acquired passport. Customs were surprised.
“This is all?”
“This is all.”
It took somewhat longer to deal with the Publisher’s son.
There was a huge crowd of people jostling for position in the Arrivals hall. In front of them at the gate were several smartly-dressed men and women, who stepped forward quickly to greet him.
“Shankar, welcome to the USA! It is wonderful that you could come. How was your flight? You must be extremely tired. We’ll drive you both to your hotel at once and you can rest. Then there will be a special reception for you at the White House. It is such an honour to meet you.”
“I am a little tired, yes; but the length of the journey was an opportunity to meditate, and I was able also to sleep. Thank you, a little quiet time would be acceptable. I am not used to such crowds.”
The hotel was very large, very quiet, very cool. In recent years, lobbies and rooms that were once cluttered with plants and ornament had been gracefully remodelled to an elegant, expensive simplicity. The two men found themselves in spacious adjacent apartments, with striking views over the capital. The tranquillity helped the old monk to adjust to his alien surroundings; the bed however was so soft that he couldn’t rest.
He took the bedcover and laid it out on the floor with a single pillow. Then he slept.
A knock on the door summoned Shankar to the official reception. There was a delay while he learned how to operate all the strange things in his bathroom, then in his clean lungi and white shirt he let himself be settled in the back of an over-sized limousine and driven to the world’s most famous residence through traffic that parted before them like the Red Sea before Moses. By the end of the evening he had met several presidents, a prime minister, some European royalty, and many, many academics, religious leaders and philanthropists.
He had listened politely to their effusions. He had said very little. They were all honoured to meet him.
“The honour is mine,” he replied.
There was a lot of exquisitely-presented western food, and much wine. He ate a little fruit and drank cooled water. It was quite sufficient.
It was a great relief to return at last to the hotel away from the press, the cameras, the noise.
Over the following days Government officials had arranged guided tours, accompanied by the Media. Shankar would be shown every corner of the city, and taken into the homes of rich and poor to show him how simply they lived now, as followers of his teaching. Again, the over-luxurious limousine. Again, the motorcades. He was ushered into house after house. Everywhere was white. Everywhere was simple. The very rich and the middle classes had embraced frugality; the poor seemed to be without envy, and were living clean lives.
The President of the United States was beaming at his honoured guest. It was time to leave for the plane. The car was waiting at the hotel kerb, surrounded by officials and Security.
“Thank you, Shankar, for your wisdom. You have taught us all a better way to live.”
As the limousine drew away from the waving crowd the Publisher leaned back happily and shut his eyes; but the old man turned to look out of the windows at the neat suburbs speeding by. As they reached the edge of the city they left houses behind and drove through mile after mile of massive, anonymous buildings whose function he could not ascertain. Here and there he saw men, women and children entering and leaving by almost hidden doors. There were extensive car parks.
“What are these places?” he asked the driver.
“Oh these are our factories,” he remarked between junctions. “And also the self-storage. People don’t like to see all this stuff any more, so we keep it all away from the towns. There is industry all over the countryside now, and units where people keep all the stuff they buy out of sight where they can go visit it. A big business, ever since the millennium. Buying out all the farmers and land-owners. Lots of sticky fingers. Often Government contracts. It’s the same wherever you go now. USA, Europe, Asia ... you’d need to be a hermit not to notice. Not a lot of natural world left, I’m afraid.”
“Turn the car round,” Shankar said.