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I walked half a mile downstream to visit The Beatles Ashram one day, also during my first visit to India. The 14-acre compound sat on a hill overlooking Mother Ganga.
By 2015, the grounds had been taken over by jungle growth. Dead vines and spider webs covered most of the rock and concrete structures that stood in various states of decay. The only remnant of the former roof in the yoga hall was a lone overhead beam. Local artists had covered many of the surfaces with Beatles-themed murals and song lyrics.
I had spent about an hour wandering around the compound and was preparing to leave when an Indian man approached me with an offer of a tour in exchange for rupees. I paid twice his asking price, which was less than the cost of a latte in a U.S. coffeeshop.
With limited English, he did a nice job of explaining the different buildings and their importance. He guided me through the yoga hall, the meditation domes, the private residences, and the home of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
One of the residential buildings had a flat roof topped with a two-story, cone-shaped dome. The interior of the dome was decorated with a colorful abstract representation of Shiva. My guide pointed to the three letters at the bottom of the painting and then pointed to himself. His name was Raj.
I estimated that my new artist friend was in his mid- to late-20s. His face was partially hidden by a goatee beard and mustache. He had a dark green OM symbol tattooed on his neck. He smelled strongly of cannabis, which explained his glossy, dilated eyes. His art was impressive, but he seemed a lost soul.
After the tour we enjoyed some chai at a small stall by the Ganges. He asked for my contact information and then offered transportation services, jungle and temple tours, and rafting trips. He even suggested an excursion to Haridwar.
Later that evening, I received a series of erratic text messages with requests for large sums of money. After repeated calls, I finally answered my phone, only to hear a slurred mess of words. I did not see or hear from Raj again on that trip.
On the first day of my second trip to Rishikesh, I was walking near Parmarth and came across Raj. I approached him from behind as he sat in front of a crude wooden easel. He was adding the final brush strokes to the cheeks of a new tiger painting. I tapped his shoulder and he slowly turned to greet me. It took him a moment, but he widened his smile when he recognized me. His eyes were glazed and his pupils were enormous.
He tried to sell me a painting. I explained that I was there for a month and would not leave India without buying at least one. He then asked me to pay his rent for a month. I did not.
Over the next few weeks, I enjoyed seeing his new works of art. As I got to know him better during our brief visits, I became quite sure that he smoked weed all day to cover some inner wounds. While I still had my own demons, every time I encountered Raj, I was filled with gratitude to be able face them with clear eyes.
Toward the end of the trip, as promised, I purchased a 3-by-2-foot painting from Raj. In this wondrous, Picassoesque painting, traditional vibrant hues are juxtaposed with bold, bending shapes—humans and animals alike seek both purpose and repose. Raj’s painting still hangs in my bedroom, a reminder of the power of art to connect us all in our struggles.