Sacred Lake at Manimahesh - photo by Nick Fleming
By Guru Kaur
Food unites us. Food allows us to cross boundaries. Food defines us, creates us, destroys us. Food is a universal concept which happens to be edible, full of flavours, textures and all those culinary buzz words with a twist, a source of pleasure on the palate, a source of guilt on the hip, an unspoken divine love in the heart. Most of all though food, in all its eating, sharing, cooking, washing up, service, clearing up, and shopping, is beyond our comprehension in how it shapes our lives.
Around the Ides of September this year, I came to realise just quite how true this is. My mornings start with yoga and deep meditation, with Millie-Pup curled on my full lotus folded legs, only this particular Saturday that had been interrupted by a phone call before I headed off as usual to our local farmers market, which happens to be the up scale Spa Terminus under the railway arches in Bermondsey, South London.
When Millie-Pup and I finally got there I really thought I was OK, I would be OK, everything would be OK. It was not until Stevie, the gorgeous and other worldly London Honey Man whom Nick has photographed and from whom Nick had ordered a large pot of borage honey - "borage for courage" - for me to collect as his gift to keep me going while he's in India, innocently asked "And how's Nick?" that I suddenly felt the shock waves release and tears stream down my face.
Millie-Pup barked distraught at my distress and Stevie instinctively pushed his shoulder forward for me to rest my head on and hugged me as only someone who knows what bees know and the sweetness of life, could. "He's unconscious". It wasn't until I said it aloud and heard the words myself in my own voice that the peace deep down could bubble up and shake out the tension of understanding what was going on thousands of miles away in real time, whenever there was a mobile signal.
"Nick's assistant, Dalbir, just called: he's managed to get Nick off the mountain alone with no help and they are now putting Nick in a coma in an ambulance." Stevie's warm compassion silenced any fretting. I could recognise in my body the signs of shock and having skipped breakfast but noticed that my breathing was just as long, slow and deep as it had been on my meditation mat long before dawn. Stevie knew exactly what to say, "He is a Very Good Man and He WILL be back. Now may I get you something?" A spoonful of honey please. And with that Stevie dispensed the most healing, transformative medicine that nature produces wrapped up in the most embracing hug of deep understanding.
Deep into that long night, I got an SMS from Dalbir to say that finally Nick, still unconscious, was in Intensive Care in a Government Medical School College after an epic road journey to find medical facilities who could care for him, to put him on a drip and insulin.
My morning the next day had to start as it always did with yoga and deep meditation with Millie-Pup curled on my full lotus folded legs. I simply could not be emotional: the situation now required that I was as solid as a rock, devoted as ever to Nick and his life's work to photograph the daily lives of spiritual communities in Northern India. After all, that's why he had gone on this particular pilgrimage. I knew that whatever happened for Nick now he would be fine - "I will be fine, I always am" were his parting words as he left home with his oh so little luggage. I knew too that as the word spread around the globe he was filled with love and prayers to the very core of his being and that the power of prayer to heal is fuelled by love, goodwill and devoted service. I also knew that whatever happened would be right, and that my happiness did not depend on him, nor vice versa.
That weekend I was teaching Kundalini Yoga at The Circle Spa where the doorman had been involved on the Saturday in helping me try to get a mobile signal to get some news. When I left on Sunday, he came round to the front of the desk to ask in a most paternal way not only if there was news of Nick but also if I'd managed to get any sleep, and, by the way, where exactly was Nick. "Himalayas?!? You must love him so much to let him go." I must have looked a little stunned. "And he must love what he does there so much to go through this for that." My eyes sparkled. Then he delivered the punchline: "He must be a great man." And so it is, that yet again, it's all written on the door, Delphic Oracle Style, if only we dare ask the gatekeeper the way to inner happiness.
Over the course of the next week, I I learned from Dalbir how they had been both made sick by rancid yak milk, that there were no provisions available and the milk, for the porridge Nick had taken with him, was all milk powder with added sugar, which gave Nick the so nearly fatal blood sugar high. Nick's walking boots, hat, clothes and Dalbir's camera and all their camping kit didn't make it down, only Nick, his cameras and Dalbir. Suffice to say that Dalbir saved Nick's life. When I have asked Nick subsequently and respectfully briefly on the phone "was it like Touching The Void"? he simply replied that there were no bones broken, no one got left behind, and he was unconscious so couldn't really comment, but essentially, yes, it was that type of experience.
One evening that first week, as I was starting my final meditation here, Dalbir rang me to take me through the small improvements in Nick's health and why he considers it his duty to serve Nick and Nick's work. I feel truly humbled by his devotion, love and dedication and such a deep understanding of how these tests which Nick goes through allow him to give 100% to his work.
This was the first time that Dalbir had had the time and space within to tell me how resolute Nick was. They had completed the pilgrimage up to well above 14,000 feet, possibly one of the hardest climbs available for non-professional mountaineers, without any support, with no donkey and no porter. Dalbir's awe was inspired by not only the lake at the end of the path they took, but how Nick then shivered and waited and shivered to photograph two women pilgrims bathing in prayers, refusing to stop until the moments he wanted to capture had passed.
Dalbir has needed to withstand a lot of family and social pressure in order to keep working for Nick when we've had enough money for him to go to India. "People ask me why do you work for Nick Fleming. And I say I spend time with Nick Fleming, who teaches me how to be a man, how to be responsible, and how to be a father. That is a priceless gift. Then I say that by God's Grace of all the people Nick Fleming could choose, he and God choose me, and all the time Nick Fleming is tested by God to check that he has 100% commitment. These are tests which you have to go through to be as great as Nick Fleming and to work in the photographing of the spiritual realm. While he is working he is devoted, he has such willpower and inner strength that he is always tested in India. India is a magnetic place for the spiritual and so it sets up tests to ensure the true enter that realm."
Dalbir is my Punjabi Boy, the one who took me in when I was homeless when I lived in Punjab iin 1999. In the intervening years, as well as working with Nick, he has struggled with all the family traumas and dramas which are the bane and downfall of such a great spiritual culture and through them he too has been tested and proven to be gold. To listen to him, now speaking in really fluent and fluid English, about his view of the world, is one of the most inspirational experiences I've had.
Then, finally, one day I rang Dalbir's phone and in the sweetest of gifts possible, Nick answered allowing me to speak to him for the first time. He was still in Intensive Care on a drip and catheter, very, very weak, but could speak a little before the exhaustion overcame him and he just asked to listen. I spoke of the Nicotiana and Cosmos he planted in our garden and were now in full white regalia, of the class which he had so wanted me to teach, and of how much love and support there has been here for us both.
The day before he left for this trip, he told me while we were having a cup of Tea that he could only leave and go to the farthest of his possibilities because he had such a strong home to return to, adding that he had my food to come home to. That was what needed to be rekindled in his spirit. For although he had survived the great test on the mountain, it was going to be the inner demons blinding him which could be even more deadly now.
Churchill is always useful in these situations: when going through hell keep going. And keep going, not keep busy was what was required. I needed to create a longing in Nick for him to make the decision to live through the deep trauma and enjoy life. I just knew, knew, knew that my prayers had to be more than sitting on my yoga mat wishing and hoping. My prayers needed to assume a positive outcome AND be attractive enough for Nick's spirit to remember home.
Since that first day that I received Dalbir's phone call I cooked for many people, even though, apart from the Full Moon and Creative Days I host here I have been alone here to eat it. I have preserved it by bottling it in beautiful Le Parfait jars. Each jar is a prayer, a statement of intent.
On a practical level it means that when Nick returns there is already food cooked ready to be warmed up. We don't have much of a freezer (just a little bit above the fridge) and Nick has had so much food poisoning in India caused by fridges with inconsistent power supply that he would have hated me to buy one and store it in the garage with his motorbike. If Nick goes away he can also take some jars with him and heat them up, even if he uses the camping equipment by the side of the road.
On another level, it gave me another topic of conversation to have with Nick after he started being able to talk again so that we didn't have endlessly to discuss sugar levels and when his next meal was, nor the boring "so what have you been doing today? Oh, the same as yesterday and the day before." I was able to inspire Nick to want to live not for food but not to live in fear of food, to live knowing the food he eats is healing; knowing that in and of itself has helped heal us both.
Bottling is seen here as old fashioned and foreign, out of vogue and almost lost from our collective island kitchen memory. Earlier in the summer I had started to bottle fresh peas after a chance discussion about my fondest food memory of growing up in Paris. Pretentious patisserie with its chic in your face sugar paled into insignificance next to the quietly unassuming Le Parfait jars of petit pois behind Madame's cash register in the Charcuterie next door.
Each summer she disappeared, leaving Monsieur in charge, back to their farming family to bottle produce to sell that winter. When my mother asked me what I wanted as a treat from the market I always chose bottled peas, every time. As our store cupboard began to fill with peas, then beans I thought that would see us through, but no, now there are bottled prayers of cooked food such as Peaches and Redcurrants, Stewed Apple, Autumnal Soft Fruit Compote, Ratatouille, Aubergine Parmigiana, Tomato Sauce, Vichy Carrots, Mixed Cubed Vegetables, Sweet & Sour Casserole, Custard White Squash & Sage Soup, and Beetroot Marinaded with Balsamic Vinegar. I've also preserved Home Made Goats' Cheese, Tomato Concentrate, Tomatoes, Aubergines, Yellow Crooked Squash, all in Olive Oil.
Bottling has crossed the time boundaries of memories back and forth, creating a longing for the future from a looking back at the past. Time stands still and the space between London and the Himalayas meaningless. The power of sugar to destroy and the power of sweetness to heal will always be there, it's just a question of what path you choose.
During the last 40 days Nick has gradually, step by step, begun to return to health, the start of a long path to full recovery, thriving on the outstanding care he's received from Dalbir and his family, the excellent diabetic specialist and the Ayurvedic doctor, and all that love, devotion and fresh buffalo milk, curd, paneer and mixed veg, and his inner daily spiritual and yogic practice so that today he is back on track, bowing at the Golden Temple and ready tomorrow to get back into the metaphorical saddle to photograph his beloved Nihang Singhs as they prepare to celebrate Diwali.
Many years ago now, my Japanese Tea Master gave me a little card which was the translation of the scroll that week in the Tea Room: "This is the way you chose so there should be no trouble for you". The key word, of course, is trouble, as Sensei smiled when he examined me on it, because it is the mind which sees it as such.
When Nick returned two years ago from his pilgrimage to the source of the Ganges, he was skeletally thin but also saintly serene. It was as if he had simply left his emotional baggage there. After all, that's why all these Saddhus go there, so it wasn't really that surprising. I am in awe of what transformation has happened now. It is going within we find the sweetness of life and who we are.
There are simply no words to express our gratitude for all the messages of love, care and support and all the practical as well as prayerful actions which are being proffered. This is the food, the sustenance of life beyond thought, beyond limitation, beyond life itself.
Guru Kaur founded the online course and community Be the Woman You were Born to Be in 2007 (www.be-the-woman.com). This continues daily to inspire women around the world no matter what challenges they face to develop as fulfilled and rounded women learning through the collective wisdom of an intimate global community and a highly insightful and practical 42 day course which can be taken at a pace to suit the individual. Guru Kaur also teaches monthly Kundalini Yoga masterclasses in London. For more information please visit www.gurukaur.com.