Towards the end of the nineties, after leaving Ko Hsuan in Devon, England, Surendra found himself in Rome, Italy.
One thing I noticed during my first weeks in Rome was that my sphincter had relaxed. This in spite of the fact that I had been forbidden by my girlfriend to go out in an unironed T-shirt. I was learning that Rome was a place for letting go and living, but the most casual clothes still had to look smart. In the summer of 1997, Kamya invited me to leave Ko Hsuan school and stay with her in Rome and I grabbed the opportunity. We lived the good life in her convenient apartment close to the Basilica San Paolo in the southern section of the city. I had a lot of free time to pursue my photography and explore this exuberant and ancient metropolis.
Although I am not a particularly auditory person, various sounds did assail my ears from the start. There was a profusion of scooters roaring up and down: main roads, side roads and especially the alleys where the ‘varoommm’ bounced back and forth between the tall buildings. The noise was all hours except during the mornings. Then, those who were able to, slept, and those who could not, were far from fully on.
In the central part of Rome there were very few car parks as most of the buildings are old or even antiquities. Whenever an attempt is made to extend or add a station to the subway, invariably an ancient building or part of one is unearthed. Work comes to halt with a preservation order and a different kind of excavation begins. So people parked on the roads. This centre of the Roman Empire where there was a passion for parades meant that the main roads, though lined with buildings, were often wide. Double parking became the norm and triple parking for special occasions. Of course, people parked in the vicinity of where they were going but spaces outside the venue of their appointment were rare. In order to call the person whose car was blocking you in, you had to use the horn – long and loud. Shorter ‘toots’ would be ignored. They were just part of the background noise.
Italians love to talk and confined in the car, they use the horn instead for self-expression. Italian is the language of opera and the Italians sing and gesticulate throughout their lives as though on stage. Opera has high levels of pathos, tragedy, comedy and sentimentality. Think of the clown in Pagliacci putting on his smiley makeup while his heart breaks at losing his beloved. It is all human drama in exaggeration. Gelido in ogni vena: I feel my blood like ice coursing through every vein. When coupled with great music and exquisite voices it is hard not to feel moved.
At a much later time, when I arrived in Milan train station for a five day visit, something felt wrong. It was quiet. I had moved north where rules are serious and people more purposeful and contained. Apparently, when you get down south to chaotic Naples, traffic lights are viewed as mere suggestions. Rome was towards the middle but opening the train door on my return, I was overwhelmed by the pulse of life and laughter. Everyone was talking, chuckling or shouting – all at the same time.
Years before, I was invited by a friend to a family dinner in New York: an Italian family dinner. The arrival of food brought us all to the table and suddenly, it was on. All four brothers talked over each other in loud voices about their new phones, cars, girlfriends. It was a competition to force someone to back down and listen. The true opposite of some typical English family meals where the awkward silence is broken only by, ‘Would you pass the salt, please?’
Never forgetting their pagan roots and loving the pleasures of life, many Romans walked the streets eating: ice-cream, pizza, nuts, cookies. When not enjoying themselves, it was sweet to do nothing: dolce fa niente. This applied to uniformed officials as much as everyone else. It could be lip-bitingly frustrating when trying to get a permit for something but occasionally, it worked in my favour. Photographers needed a special licence to use a tripod: as one keen young police woman told me, without, ‘it is impossible!’ Mostly, the police were not so conscientious about this rule. I often set up my gear within their sight and noticed how they stared, debated internally or with a fellow officer, and then turned a blind eye. The idea of moving was just too much, let alone crossing a busy road to make a foreigner understand a minor regulation.
Rome was also the place where parking bumper to bumper literally meant that. You might just squeeze a credit card in between but a finger, never. There are a lot of car thieves in the big Italian cities so car alarms are very important. But, guess what? The dodgem style of parking where you gently batter your car into position meant that alarms were going off throughout the day and being Rome, most of the night as well. Everybody had got so used to the noise that, like the sound of the horns, it was ignored. But it made it difficult to sleep when you finally got to bed. With unbelievable traffic jams on some major roads at 2am, even getting there could take quite a while.
Kamya taught mornings in a nearby elementary school and I was encouraged to enjoy my leisure and continue taking photographs. Every time Kamya came home from work, she found a lunch ready for her. Great at first but after a few weeks, Kamya blurted out, ”Sometimes, I just want to eat a bit of fruit or snack on something I fancy!” Once every couple of weeks Kamya had to attend a meeting after work. Returning around 7.30pm, as she opened her front door that went straight into the living room, she was greeted with loud music from the Evening Meditation going on right in front of her. This could also be too much when she wanted to sit down quietly and chill out after a hard day.
Years of commune life with planned working hours and fixed mealtimes had got to me. But it was more than that, it was part of my character. I was one of those people who tended to organise his days off as vigorously as his working hours. Now I was in Rome, where there are no such things as routine and regularity and nobody gets to an appointment on time.
Once, we drove through the middle of the city in the evening rush hour to meet a carpenter. After waiting the usual thirty minutes, we decided to call his cell phone. He was very indignant, ”Why are you calling me, I am in Florence!” The mention of our missed appointment made him even more angry. The structured side of me gradually protruded more and more against this backdrop of accepted disorder.
Kamya, on the other hand, was a true Roman, spontaneous and changeable. She loved the city late at night. When I was desperate to get to bed, she would think nothing of stopping off for a cake at 2am on the way back from a party. My joy was not eating in the early hours but going for walks in the evening. In this location, it meant wandering randomly for a few miles around the city. Kamya walked to get somewhere and found only distress in moving around aimlessly. At least she wanted to end up in a cafe at some point. ”I am not a dog!”, she declared emphatically.
Apart from middle of the night snacks, I could not believe how late people were eating dinner. Scheduling a restaurant party was an excruciating joke, especially if it was a large group. Once, a table for twelve was booked at 9pm for a birthday. A few of us arrived before 9.30pm. Most people got there by 10pm but we held off ordering until the birthday girl arrived at 10.30pm. After orders were taken, food arrived between 11 and 11.30pm. Embarrassingly for Kamya, after that, I made sure I always ate before we went to a restaurant with a group and just had a drink with the party.
For Romans, not the night but the morning was the difficult part of the day – when the trains, buses and subways were quiet as their occupants waited for their slowly awakening metabolism to purr into action. On bad days, they needed their medication of a double espresso first.
Kamya was great at personifying our conflicting character traits: Nazi Officer and Antica Romana. She wanted to find little dolls that each of us could use when we felt the other was going towards the extremes of their sub-personalities. If I tried to regiment our day she could wave the little swastika adorned figure at me. I could bring out the reclining, indulgent female in a flowing toga when things were drifting completely out of shape – Jawohl! We never found the dolls but we did use the terms quite a lot, recognising the attraction within this opposition. In some ways it was cool versus hot.
Going to the nearest seaside in Ostia in the milder sun of December, Kamya was astonished by my dash to a sunshade haven and had to lie outside to even feel warm. Choosing items for a room, I went for off-white, Kamya, an aura soma therapist, liked the intensity of primary colours. Later, when I finished painting her new apartment, throughout in light cream, she pronounced, “I call this colour, the fear of colour!” We had chosen it together but she could not fully envision what it would look like on the walls.
Time went by and I was still enjoying my Roman holiday without a thought of money. After a couple of months, Kamya asked me if I had ever considered making a financial contribution to our life. Strangely, I had not but I quickly found work teaching English in a language school. This was part-time and still left space for photography. Wherever photographers are, we can usually find something to grab our attention. There was not a lot of green in such an ancient, urban location, so I became enthralled by the curvy sculptures to be found all over Rome. Piazza Navona was a favourite venue where the vibrant work of Bernini had pride of place. There were juicy bodies everywhere, albeit in marble; cherubs grappled with frenzied horses while nymphs wrestled sea serpents. Before 8am, apart from the spewing mouths and fish ejaculating streams of water, while the pigeons cooed and pooed everywhere, I had the square to myself.
Kamya’s parents lived on the eastern side, close to the Cimitero del Verano. This was a large burial ground that had many sombre sepulchres. Being Rome however, the angels adorning them were often very beautiful in their dramatic poses. So whenever there was a visit to Mum and Dad, I went along for the ride. The standing joke for Kamya’s parents was: “Where is your boyfriend, in the cemetery?” Perhaps the silent land of the dead was my antidote to the cacophony of the Roman streets. There was also the Cimitero Protestante where Keats and Shelley were buried: all the English Romantic Poets seemed to have loved Rome. This smaller burial ground was walkable from Kamya’s apartment and another camera hangout for me. As well as the sculptures, it teemed with feral cats. The macabre side of me wondered what they were feeding on as they scurried between the tombs. I found out that women came every morning with parcels of food to look after them – so much for the imagination! Most of the corpses were long dead anyway, only dry bones by then.
Eventually everything changes and the intense relationship between Kamya and I was coming to an end. To mark the occasion, torrential rain flooded the city and washed what were the beginnings of a darkroom on the roof into the kitchen below. I can only imagine what it might have been like working in that small brick, unshaded structure in the thirty three degree summers. In any case, the planning officers had been tipped off. It was half a metre longer than the original storage building and had to be pulled down. Instead, the weather did it for us.
I had been in Rome for about nine months and it had been an enthralling and enriching time. The vitality of the people, juicy and alive, their love of humanity and joy, had impressed me deeply. Similarly, on a recent trip to Florence, there was a long queue to board a bus. The seats filled up and as the standing room began to congest, the driver ran out of tickets. With a beaming smile, he waved us all aboard without charging a penny.
One thing is certain: without the Italians
the world would have never been so beautiful,
would never have been so interesting.
Italians have contributed much.
My brief solo move to a room in a sannyasin apartment naturally became more about meditation. A stimulus came from the early morning daily clash of broken glass. At the closing of a local bar, around 5.30am, staff brought car loads of empty bottles to the recycling bins located just outside my window. Suddenly wide awake, it became my time for Chakra Breathing. Endings can be painful and I had oodles of support from many loving Italian friends who rallied to the rescue in every way they could. My son, Suchet and his mum, Lochana, already living in Italy, came to Rome and we had a holiday in Sardinia together before I left. What fortunate and vivid lives we sannyasins lead! So it was that, with much gratitude for many memorable experiences and an exciting uncertainty about the next step, I said goodbye to Italy and moved on. Throughout my stay in Rome, I had developed my film as I went along but without a darkroom, never made any prints from the negatives. That came much later when life was more settled. A selection is shown here.
Quote by Osho from Tao: The Golden Gate, Vol 1, Ch 4
Text and photos by Surendra
A former Reichian therapist, British Surendra took sannyas in 1976. He lived in Osho’s communes in India, USA, UK and Japan from the early 1980s on. In Pune 2 he looked after the painting work in Lao Tzu House, and then worked in Osho Publications. From 1991–1997 he taught at Ko Hsuan in Devon, UK, and after a sojourn again in 2001 he also became a passionate photographer. In 2013 he relocated to the Japanese Alps with his partner, Amrapali. All articles by this author on Osho News. surendraphoto.com