The Indian Himalayas, July / August 2010
Of the different ways in which yoga should be performed, meditation is the most powerful … At three times – urination, defecation and eating, O king – one should not practise yoga. One should practise it intently the rest of the time.
‘To where are you bound this good morning, kind sir?’
Says one of my fellow passengers, greeting me at the bus stop. It is not yet four o’clock, still very cold and still very dark. We are waiting for the Super Deluxe bus to Manali, a journey that will take two days. When the bus arrives, it looks neither Super nor Deluxe, but I feel quite fortunate. I have two incredibly uncomfortable seats to myself. Enough space to sit cross-legged whenever I want and meditate, listening to my mantra, not to this noisy bus.
Super Deluxe or not Super Deluxe, our bus still looks like a bus. But there is no way the Leh to Manali Highway looks like a highway. Sometimes it does not even look like a road. It looks like a stony track that occasionally disappears, the bus simply heading south across the dusty plateau of Zanskar. Later that morning, we reach the top of the highest pass on the highway. The bus pulls up beside a small Buddhist shrine and stops. We all get out to stretch our legs, visit the squat toilets and have our photographs taken beside the brightly painted road sign, festooned with a tangle of Tibetan prayer flags, that says:
TANGLANG LA ALTITUDE: 17582 FT YOU ARE PASSING THROUGH SECOND HIGHEST PASS OF THE WORLD UNBELIEVABLE IS NOT IT?
Tanglang La (5330 metres) is not a lot higher than a couple of the passes we crossed on our trek through the Markha Valley last week. With the help of the family who run the Oriental Guest House in Leh, where I was staying, I hired a guide, a cook and a ponyman – as well as four of his horses to carry our gear – for an eight-day trek around Stok Kangri, camping at Jingchan, Ganda La Base Camp, Skiu, Markha, Tahungste, Nimaling and Shang Sumdo. Gongmaru La (5100 metres), the pass between Nimaling and Shang Sumdo, is almost as high as Everest Base Camp, while Leh itself (3500 metres) is, somewhat surprisingly, higher than Namche Bazaar.
Guru says, The mantra is simply the vehicle from the noisy world of thought to the quiet world of no thought.
Our bus rarely gets out of first or second gear, taking fifteen hours to travel the two hundred and thirty miles from Leh to Keylong, where we stop at a tent camp for the night. An average of fifteen miles per hour. We are served a rather rushed dinner of warmish dal bhat in the restaurant of some small hotel before being assigned to the tents outside. I am assigned to a tent with two locals from Leh and two tourists from Japan. The cots are damp and the blankets are far too thin for the cold. Heavy rain hammers the canvas tent all night long.
It is only seventy miles from Keylong to Manali, but it takes thirteen hours to travel those seventy miles. An average of five miles per hour, barely above walking pace. Partly because the single-track road through these mountains is particularly poor and partly because the heavy rain last night has caused a couple of serious landslides, destroying unstable sections of this so-called highway. We sit in traffic jams of garishly painted Tata lorries for hours at altitudes of more than four thousand metres. Occasionally, we are asked to get out of the bus while the driver attempts to traverse an especially tricky section of the road without flipping the bus into the gorge below. When he thinks the road is safe enough to continue the journey, we walk single file across that dodgy section of road ourselves and get back on the bus.
Every night the rain destroys the road and every day the Indian Army does its best to rebuild it. The road reminds me of the Do Long Bridge in Apocalypse Now, the bridge the Viet Cong would destroy every night and the Americans would rebuild the following day. It also reminds me of that poem by Elizabeth Bishop, the poem she wrote on her thirty-seventh birthday, sitting at her messy desk in Key West, looking out the window at the mess made of Garrison Bight by yet another tropical storm:
Click. Click. Goes the dredge, and brings up a dripping jawful of marl. All the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful.
Bishop liked the last two lines of that poem so much she had them carved on her tombstone. Awful but cheerful.
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Most images of the Buddha show him in the posture of sitting meditation, in the particular attitude known as padmasana, the posture of the lotus, with the legs crossed and the feet resting, soles upward, upon the thighs.
Sitting meditation is not, as is often supposed, a spiritual ‘exercise’, a practice followed for some ulterior object. From a Buddhist standpoint, it is simply the proper way to sit, and it seems perfectly natural to remain sitting so long as there is nothing else to be done, and so long as one is not consumed with nervous agitation. To the restless temperament of the West, sitting meditation may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, because we do not seem to be able to sit ‘just to sit’ without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence. To propitiate this restless conscience, sitting meditation must therefore be regarded as an exercise, a discipline with an ulterior motive. Yet at that very point it ceases to be meditation (dhyana) in the Buddhist sense, for where there is purpose, where there is seeking and grasping for results, there is no dhyana.
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen
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I plump for a slightly more expensive minibus from Manali to Dharamsala, travelling the one hundred and forty miles of tarmacked road through the foothills of the Himalayas in a little less than seven hours. Or a comparatively brisk twenty miles per hour. Although Dharamsala is known as home in exile to both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government, that home is not actually Dharamsala but the old British hill station perched above it, McLeod Ganj, a further ten kilometres up a steep and winding road. I choose a taxi to reach McLeod Ganj the way I always choose a taxi, by picking the oldest driver. Fifteen minutes later, the driver drops me off at the Hotel Tibet on Bhagsu Road, not far from the main square. I drop my bag in my room and head to the hotel bar for a beer or two. The only other drinkers in the bar are a couple of big bellied Buddhist monks in maroon and yellow robes, who greet me, laughing.
Guru says, The mantra is like a white noise machine, a thought that drowns out other thoughts.
I wake, once again, to the sound of monkeys rolling stones off tin roofs. Most of the roofs outside my window are sheets of corrugated metal, held in place by large stones. Early every morning, monkeys roll the stones off those roofs and, a few hours later, people put the stones back on the roofs again.
It reminds me of the Do Long Bridge. Of a storm and a dredge.
We have had two days of thick fog and heavy rain, but today the clouds lift. I can finally see the mountains surrounding McLeod Ganj. The Hotel Tibet is on Bhagsu Road, so I decide to walk down that road to the village of Bhagsu where, the guidebook says, there is an old Hindu temple and, on the hillside above, a popular waterfall. I sit on a wooden bench beside a small pool outside the temple, where I am joined by an old man with a walking stick. For a long time, he says nothing. Then he says, ‘This is a Shiva temple, a temple for Shaivas.’ I ask whether he is a Shaiva and he says yes, he is.
‘Why do you worship the god who destroys things?’ I ask. ‘Why not worship the god who creates?’
‘I see you are confused, sir,’ he says.
No one worships Brahma, he tells me. Either you are a devotee of Vishnu the Preserver or a devotee of Shiva the Destroyer. But it is not as simple as that. The old man says he worships Shiva as the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. As Brahma, he creates; as Vishnu, he preserves; and as himself, he destroys. For Vaishnavas, it is the same. As Brahma, he creates; as himself, he preserves; and as Shiva, he destroys.
‘Think of your Trinity,’ he says. ‘Let us say Shiva is like the Holy Ghost. Shiva is who he is, but God is what he is.’
‘I think I understand now,’ I say. ‘Shiva is both the puller down and the putter up. Both the storm and the dredge. Both the monkey who rolls the stones down and the man who puts them back up again.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘You are still confused. Lord Shiva is not the monkey. Lord Hanuman is the monkey, sir. Hanuman is the monkey god.’
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Turn around. Walk fast. Walk faster.
Stay away from the nutter running down the path to the waterfall towards you, flailing his arms and screaming something. Turn back around when you hear him right behind you. See that he is swarming with wasps, frantically fighting them off. He tears off his shirt, filthy with wasps, and throws it to the ground. Then he rakes his fingers, wildly, through his thick curly hair, pulling out fistfuls of wasps. Help him remove the wasps from his hair. Then remove the wasps from his flannel shirt. He stands there, naked from the waist up, shaking badly, obviously stung dozens of times.
He tells you his name is Toby. He is an undergraduate student of English Literature at the University of Loughborough, spending the summer backpacking around India. Ask him if he knows your friend who teaches there. He does. Toby says he is one of his tutors. Say (what else?) small world.
Put Toby in an autorickshaw at the old temple in Bhagsu. Stop him haggling, backpacker style, with the driver. Tell him you will pay. Feel lucky. The only doctor in McLeod Ganj is home today, smiling as he opens his door. Shake the doctor’s hand and listen while he asks Toby, very calmly, what has happened. The doctor tells you, but not Toby, he is worried about anaphylactic shock, about a severe allergic reaction to all that wasp venom, giving you a prescription for an injection of antihistamine. Ask Toby if he wants anything. Toby says yes, please. A Coke.
A half hour after the injection, Toby is still dizzy and nauseous. And he has not stopped shaking. The doctor says you must take Toby to the hospital in Dharamsala and telephones a taxi. Ask about his fee. Nothing, the doctor says, smiling. No fee. Just like your NHS.
On the way down to Dharamsala, Toby spots two young women walking up to McLeod Ganj. Toby says they are his friends, they are staying at the same hostel. Stop the taxi, pick them up. ‘Oh Toby,’ they laugh. ‘What have you done now, silly boy?’ Say goodbye to Toby and his friends at the entrance to Accident & Emergency. Ask the driver to take you to your hotel. When you walk into the hotel bar, wave to the two big bellied Buddhist monks, your new drinking buddies. They wave back, laughing.
Awful, you think as you stand at the bar, waiting for the bartender to return, but sort of cheerful.
The basic myth of Hinduism is that the world is God playing hide-and-seek with himself. As Prajapati, Vishnu or Brahma, the Lord under many names creates the world by an act of self-dismemberment or self-forgetting, whereby the One becomes Many and the single Actor plays innumerable parts. In the end, he comes again to himself only to begin the play once more – the One dying into the Many and the Many dying into the One.
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen
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While the monkeys in McLeod Ganj woke me every morning playing that strange game with the stones, the monkeys in Shimla wake me every morning by trashing the entire hotel, driving the guard dogs on their chains nuts. I learned quite quickly that the bars on the windows of my room are not there to stop people stealing my stuff but to stop monkeys stealing my stuff. I keep everything well away from the windows now, but that does not stop them sticking their hairy arms through the bars every morning, their long fingers probing my room. The monkeys at McLeod Ganj were kind of cute. Not these monkeys.
I arrived in Shimla two days ago on the overnight bus from McLeod Ganj, sleeping most of the way, curled up on a couple of seats. At almost two thousand three hundred metres, Shimla is about two hundred metres higher than either Manali or McLeod Ganj – and almost a thousand metres higher than Kathmandu. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Shimla was the colonial capital during the hot season, the whole show moving from Calcutta, and then from Delhi, up to the much cooler mountains for a few months every year. Having read Kipling’s Kim, I feel I know Shimla quite well. In fact, it is surprising how little the look of the town, with all its mock Tudor architecture, has changed since the days of the British Raj.
Guru says, Do not chant the mantra. Listen to the mantra being chanted.
There is an old Hindu temple on a hill just outside town, the guidebook says, called Jakhoo Temple. But it is better known as the Monkey Temple, partly because it is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, and partly because it has become home to hundreds of mollycoddled monkeys. The guidebook says the shrine encloses what are believed to be the footprints of Hanuman himself, one of the most popular of the multitude of Hindu gods.
At the bottom of the path to the temple, pilgrims can rent stout wooden sticks to keep the monkeys away. How disrespectful, I think, is that? If I want to visit the Monkey Temple, dedicated to the monkey god, I have to whack a monkey or two on the way there? No, thank you, I say. For some reason, I seem to be the only pilgrim not renting a stick.
There is also a sign at the bottom of the path telling pilgrims how long it takes to walk to the temple, depending on age and level of fitness. Those under thirty years old who are very fit should arrive in less than half an hour, while those in that age group who are unfit will need more than an hour. Those between thirty years old and fifty years old who are very fit should arrive in less than forty-five minutes, while those in that age group who are unfit will need, once again, more than an hour. Those between fifty years old and seventy years old who are very fit should arrive in less than fifty-five minutes, while those in that age group who are unfit will need more than seventy minutes. If you are over seventy years old, the sign says, you are fit if you can walk to the temple.
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Stumble a few steps forward as if you have been shoved, wondering what just hit you hard across the shoulder blades. Turn around and look back up the path to the temple. See nothing other than a peasant squatting in the woods just off the path, doing laundry in a plastic tub beside a small shack built entirely of corrugated metal. He looks up at you, slowly, then goes back to his laundry. Turn back around and continue down the path towards town. Something seems strange. Something feels different. Things look different. Put your hand to your face where your glasses should be. They are gone. Your only glasses are gone.
What just happened? Who smacked you on the back? Where are your glasses? Turn around once again and walk back up the path towards the peasant, scouring the ground for your glasses. The plastic frames are yellow, so they should be easy to spot. Nothing. The peasant looks up at you again, his hands busy with the laundry. Then he looks up into the trees above the path. Spot your glasses in the trees and the monkey chewing on them like a stick of lemon candy. The peasant looks at you and asks, ‘Your spectacles?’ Nod yes. Wiping his soapy hands on his faded red dhoti, he stands and walks into the shack.
He returns with a small bag of nuts. Squatting below the tree in which the monkey is eating your glasses, the peasant looks at the monkey and extends both arms, the bag of nuts on the flat palm of one hand, while the fingers of the other hand, palm down, look like they are scratching some invisible cat. For a while, the monkey just looks at him, your glasses still in his mouth. Then he suddenly drops from the tree, tosses the glasses, grabs the bag of nuts and scampers up the path towards his mates at the Monkey Temple.
Thank the peasant profusely as he presents you with your glasses, using both hands.
‘You are most welcome,’ he says. ‘It happens often.’
Offer him some rupees for the bag of nuts.
‘Please, sir,’ he says. ‘Do not insult me.’
Other than some toothmarks on the frames, the glasses seem to be okay. Well chewed but obviously not as tasty as those nuts. Put your glasses back on.
‘Say,’ the peasant says. ‘Where is your stick? What have you done with your monkey stick?’
Meditation has nothing to do with contemplation of eternal questions, or of one’s own folly, or even of one’s navel, although a clearer view on all of these enigmas may result. It has nothing to do with thought of any kind – with anything at all, in fact, but intuiting the true nature of existence, which is why it has appeared, in one form or another, in almost every culture known to man. The entranced Bushman staring into fire, the Eskimo using a sharp rock to draw an ever-deepening circle into the flat surface of a stone achieves the same obliteration of the ego (and the same power) as the dervish or the Pueblo sacred dancer. Among Hindus and Buddhists, realization is attained through inner stillness, usually achieved through the samadhi state of sitting yoga. In Tantric practice, the student may displace the ego by filling his whole being with the real or imagined object of his concentration; in Zen, one seeks to empty out the mind, to return it to the clear, pure stillness of a seashell or a flower petal.
Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
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The bus from Shimla to Haridwar is a bona fide boneshaker, taking twelve hours to travel one hundred and eighty miles, mostly downhill. An average of fifteen miles per hour, stopping whenever anyone wants to get on or get off. If the driver had turned off the engine and kept his foot off the brake, we probably could have coasted here faster. When we eventually arrive at Haridwar, we are dropped at the edge of town, not at the bus station, since the streets are closed, I am told, for some festival.
I toss my bag onto the seat of a cycle rickshaw and ask the wallah to take me to the Haveli Hari Ganga, a hotel originally built as a royal guesthouse by some maharaja about a century ago, the guidebook says, with its own ghat for private bathing in the Ganges. Haridwar is absolutely heaving, making it hard for the wallah to pedal through the throng of barefoot pilgrims, all wearing saffron robes and singing bhajans. The wallah tells me the festival is called the Kanwar Yatra, an annual pilgrimage during the monsoon season to fetch water from the Ganges. He tells me yatra means pilgrimage and kanwar means the bamboo poles the pilgrims balance on their shoulders, a pot of holy water dangling from either end. What do they do with the water? I ask. When they return home, he says, they pour it on their lingams. Those big willies that symbolise Shiva. Oh my, I say.
When I walk through the sliding doors into the deliciously air-conditioned calm of the Haveli Hari Ganga, I comment on the crowd outside. The receptionist laughs. ‘That is not a proper crowd,’ she says, handing me a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade. ‘If you want to see a proper crowd, you should have come for the Kumbh Mela a few months ago. There were four times as many pilgrims then, more than forty million, they say. They took satellite photos. You could see them from space.’
Guru says, Do not push or pull the mantra. Just follow the mantra and it will take you there.
Despite what the receptionist says, I decide to escape the madness of the Kanwar Yatra for the relative sanity of Rishikesh, taking a day trip there to visit the former ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Rishikesh is only fifteen miles upriver from Haridwar, so the receptionist suggests a Vikram, a somewhat roomier version of an autorickshaw, carrying a half dozen or so passengers, with the Vikram station for Rishikesh conveniently located just around the corner from the hotel.
The driver drops us in the centre of a rather rainy Rishikesh, the wrong side of the river, unfortunately, for a visit to the ashram. I walk a couple of miles up the road to the first footbridge and then walk a couple of miles down a muddy track on the other side of the river to the grounds of what the Maharishi liked to call the International Academy of Meditation. Its life as a popular ashram was short and sweet, with the Maharishi turning the jungle of this steep hillside overlooking the Ganges into a rather funky-looking ashram in the early sixties, leaving Rishikesh himself in the seventies and then closing the doors of the ashram for good in the nineties. Now the jungle is turning the ashram back into jungle, its crumbling structures covered in Beatles graffiti, with the lyrics of the songs they wrote while they were here spray painted on its walls. After a stroll around the tumbledown ashram, the rain still pissing down, I walk a few miles back up the muddy track along the river to the old hippie hangout of Lakshman Jhula, where I eat a big bowl of wonton soup at a soggy thatch-roofed restaurant catering to soggy old hippies. Like me.
When I return to my room in Haridwar, absolutely soaked, I take a long hot shower and pour myself a glass of whisky from the bottle I bought in Shimla, having been warned by the guidebook that Haridwar, as a holy city, is strictly vegetarian and alcohol free. The bottle is getting worryingly low.
I collapse onto the overstuffed sofa and turn on the telly.
CNN says flash floods in Ladakh have killed more than two hundred and fifty people in Leh alone, with hundreds more missing. Both the airport at Leh and the Leh to Manali Highway are closed, with whole villages between Leh and Tanglang La possibly destroyed.
CNN says an estimated three thousand tourists are stranded in Leh, with no electricity or running water, while an estimated eight hundred trekkers are stranded on various treks, with footpaths erased by mudslides and rockslides and mountain passes no longer passable.
I turn off the telly and grab the guidebook.
The guidebook says, ‘The great advantage of Ladakh as a trekking destination is that rainfall is rare. This makes it one of the only Himalayan regions in which it is possible and pleasurable to trek from late June to mid-September, when most other areas are suffering from the constant deluge of the monsoon.’
The Destroyer was obviously a busy boy last night. The Bastard.
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No more whisky. And no chance of buying another bottle in this holy city, not even a bottle of beer.
I decide to play tourist tonight and watch the Ganga Aarti, the Hindu ritual performed daily in Haridwar at both dawn and dusk in which fire is offered to the Goddess Ganga, often in the form of tiny tinfoil floats filled with flowers and tea lights. The crush of the crowd every evening at Har Ki Pairi Ghat, with all its song and dance, would not be much fun, but I do not feel like sitting by myself on the hotel’s private ghat either, especially without a glass of whisky in my hand. So I walk a bit further downriver to Vishnu Ghat, which seems popular with some of the sadhus who have come to town for the Kanwar Yatra.
It is not quite dusk, so no offerings floating by so far. The sadhus are already well into their chillums, perfuming the gentle breeze along the ghat with the sweet smell of hashish. One of the sadhus notices me watching them and, with a couple tilts of his head, seems to invite me to join them. Which I do. They are all obviously devotees of Lord Shiva, robed in combinations of orange, red and saffron, their foreheads painted with the three horizontal stripes symbolising the three prongs of Shiva’s trident. Almost all of them sport seriously splendid jata, those long thick dreadlocks, often worn wound into a topknot.
The sadhu who invited me over smiles and offers me his chillum, as well as a small rag he uses to filter bits of burning hash too tiny for the stone to stop. I wrap the rag around the lip of the pipe and cup both hands around it, tilting the bowl up like the bell of Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet. I take a couple of short puffs, then inhale deeply, holding my breath for a beat or two before exhaling a small cloud of white smoke, followed by some telltale coughs. The sadhu laughs, patting me gently on the shoulder as I pass the pipe back to him. Better than whisky, I think, as the first offerings to the Goddess Ganga begin to float by, the flames of the candles reflecting on the water.
It is getting dark now. Just one toke, but I already feel quite stoned. It has been a while since I last sat on a ghat in India, sharing some sadhu’s chillum, Allen Ginsberg style.
The parade of offerings floating downriver from Har Ki Pairi Ghat swells, the Ganges looking like it is on fire, which is probably the point of this puja. The sadhu sitting beside me seems to enjoy the show as much as I do. He looks at me and smiles, then looks at the river again, at the glimmering blossoms bobbing by. I would like to ask him the same question I asked the old man at Bhagsu, which is why he worships a god who destroys things, a god who wipes out whole villages like that, but I do not speak Hindi and it seems the sadhu does not speak English. He looks like a gentle man, like someone incapable of destruction, not a destructive bone in his body. Hoping to answer that question myself, I have been reading about Shiva in the guidebook. The guidebook says God has many faces in Hinduism, too many to count. An attempt to count the number of Hindu gods – or faces of God – stopped at three hundred and thirty million. The guidebook says Shiva also has many faces, not just the face of Shiva the Destroyer. Amongst those other faces, the face that interests me most, probably because it seems to be pretty much the opposite of Shiva the Destroyer, is Shiva the Great Yogi. Or Shiva the Supreme Guru. This version of Shiva often depicts him in the same posture of sitting meditation as the Buddha, his jata tied into the same sort of topknot as the sadhu sitting beside me. Though to be anthropologically accurate, I should probably say the Buddha is often depicted in the same posture of sitting meditation as Lord Shiva, minus the dreads. The sadhu sees me looking at his hair. He smiles and passes me the chillum. The more I look at the sadhu, the more he looks like that image in the guidebook, the image of Shiva the Great Yogi meditating on Mount Kailash. They say when you reach the samadhi state of mind, your mind chimes with the mind of Shiva. As I pass the pipe back, I think, if I could talk to you, I bet you could tell me what they mean by the mind of Shiva. If anyone knows what they mean by the mind of Shiva, I bet it is you. Maybe that is how I should think of Shiva, as both the Destroyer and his antithesis, the Great Yogi. As both the loud and the soft. As both the electric guitar and the acoustic guitar. As both Oh shit! and Om. As both the wasps that stung poor Toby and the kind doctor with his injection. As both the monkey that ate my glasses and the kind peasant with his bag of nuts. Awful, like those flash floods in Ladakh a couple of nights ago, but cheerful, like these tea lights floating past us on the Ganges tonight. I want to ask the sadhu if this makes any sense. Am I talking absolute rubbish? Or am I just seriously stoned? You are a sadhu. Which means you have a guru who gave you your mantra, who gave you a noise inside to negate the noise outside. Your guru was given his mantra by his guru who was given his mantra by his guru who was given his mantra by his guru who was given his mantra by his guru. And so on and so forth all the way back, I suppose, to Lord Shiva himself, the Supreme Guru. I wonder what your mantra is. What is your mantra? When I was given my mantra, my guru said, ideally, a mantra would never be spoken. It would be communicated directly from the mind of the guru to the mind of the shishya. He only let me say it once, softly, just to make sure I had heard the word correctly. Then he said I should never say it again. I bet you have a killer mantra, the latest in a long line of mind-blowing mantras going back thousands of years. You look like you have a killer mantra. You do, don’t you? Would you tell me your mantra? I think I may have a dodgy mantra. Your mantra seems to work better than my mantra does.
If you tell me yours this good evening, kind sir, I will tell you mine.