The Dharma Bum of Bolinas – Ananda Brady
Call him by any one of the names – Ananda, Baba, Khalifa – he acquired on a journey that took him across Asia and into the remotest territories of his own head. Better yet, call him a bodacious hippie, though that label only tells a part of Brady’s story that began in Kansas in 1945 as Craig, led him to Southern California and included a stint as a reservist in the United States Marine Corps.
In 1968, as the world seemed to come unhinged, Brady escaped from nearly everything and everyone: the Brady bunch, Christianity, western civilization and even America. He succeeded all too well.
But like nearly all the pioneering hippies who made spiritual passages to India, he couldn’t help but bring the trappings of the western world with him. In his new book, “Odyssey: Ten Years on the Hippie Trail” (Aventine Press; $26.95) Brady describes his experiments with drugs—LSD, hashish and kif—and his intimate encounters with a variety of sexual partners. Sixties rock ‘n’ roll rarely echoes across the pages of the book, though now and then the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band provides a soundtrack for the action.
“Odyssey” runs to nearly 600 pages. It’s probably too long and too unshapely. The narrative rambles, meanders and ends anti-climatically, but Book Three, “Into the Mystic,” which is set mostly in India, might be accurately termed a masterpiece of spiritual literature. It’s also a brilliant tale of adventure for adults seeking enlightenment. Jack Kerouac would surely enjoy it. So would Harry Potter‘s J. K. Rowling.
The narrator (and main character) describes the beauty he finds in poverty and the poetry found in prison. He portrays drug dealers and the divine, crossing borders and frontiers both real and imaginary. At times reading the book feels like traveling on a slowly moving train that makes local stops across a phantasmagoric landscape. Pilgrims climb aboard, travel briefly and disembark. Soldiers check passports. Brady goes to the end of the line, where he becomes deadly ill. A sense of suspense surrounds him and philosophical questions rise up from the dust and the camel dung.
“Why had I been touched by this madness of the wandering mendicant?,” he asks. “In my heart of hearts I know that it’s precisely this madness that is permitting me to view these cross-sections of the world’s humanity.” He adds, “I’m not a part of it, but I’m seeing it as closely as I can, and meeting it on its own terms.”
Along the way, Brady records nearly everything he sees, hears, smells and touches: “the rumbling, honking cars and buses outside the open window, the scratchy radio, fumes from the traffic, the incense burning on the small shrine.”
The best parts of the book unfold in the present tense. The reader inhabits a palpable world that’s punctuated by dreams, nightmares and hallucinations. Is the storyteller conscious or unconscious? Or has he entered into the bardo, that Buddhist place where “one’s identity is reduced back to zero,” he explains. The pleasure of the book derives from not knowing where unreality stops and reality begins. Even the jobs Brady takes as barber, cook, yoga instructor and jeweler seem like magical explorations into the unknown rather than tasks to make money and delay the inevitable return to civilization.
To write his kaleidoscopic travelogue took 20 years—twice the length of time it took to make the epic journey itself. “Creating the book was as much of an odyssey as the ‘Odyssey’ itself,” he said over hot tea on a rainy afternoon at the Pine Cone Diner.
It wasn’t until 1993 that he began to jot down what he remembered of his travels in the 1970s; a trip to India in 2011 acted as a catalyst and prompted him to finish the manuscript in 2013. Much of the writing happened in Bolinas, which he describes as a kind of paradise for hippies.
“Living in Bolinas for the past 34 years has been like living in a small village in a foreign country,” he said. “We’re a family. We strive to find the best in each and everyone, even if we don’t always speak to one another. There’s a great deal of tolerance in the community and we work to keep the peace and adhere as best we can to the best parts of the hippie paradigm.”
With his white hair and beard, Indian scarf and hand-made rings, Brady could be a dharma bum who traveled with Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, the Beat writers who paved the way for the hippies and their spiritual descendants. With one eye on the past, and another on the present, he muses on his own improbable journey and on the chances of anyone following in his footsteps.
“Kids today do make the same journey that we made in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “But it’s more dangerous now. A war zone can pop up almost everywhere. India isn’t the same country it was when I first went there, either. The middle class has wealth, though when you go beyond appearances you can also find the same bedrock of spiritual life.”
On a recent visit to Benares, perhaps his favorite destination in India, Brady found more trash than ever before and more tourists and tourism. “I didn’t like it one bit,” he said. As soon as he could, he bought a train ticket, traveled north to the source of the Ganges, joined an ashram and found the sort of peace all pilgrims seek.
“When I first saw hippies in Southern California, I laughed at them,” he said. “It took a while for the hippie ideal to sink in, though even then there were so many things about the hippies that I found embarrassing. Now my goal is to follow the enlightenment principle and avoid the self-destructive principle. Life here in West Marin makes that possible.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of “A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature” and a frequent sojourner in West Marin. “Odyssey: Ten Years on the Hippie Trail” is available on Amazon and Kindle; a signed copy may be special-ordered from Ananda, along with $25 cash or a check, to P.O. Box 873, Bolinas, CA, 94924.