Yellow Submarine to Taliwood: 04/11/21

Writing from Chicago as he prepares to return to Peshawar once again, George Gittoes shares reflections on Hermann Hesse's "Siddharta."

I took time out this morining to read Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha (1922) again after about fifty-five years since the first reading. Then I had to write about it.

This sense of a life journey had been a big element of this journey.                                        


The life of Buddha from the young prince leaving wealth and comfort to find inner knowledge, to fasting under the banyan tree and finally to enlightenment is told, stage by stage, in stone at the Peshawar Museum. Many of the earliest Buddhist sites from the Gandharan time were built in Khyber Pakhtunkhwaand these ancient sculptures have survived Taliban destruction by being preserved in the Museum. One broken piece is of Siddhartha the evolving Buddha, when he is fasting and meditating under the banyan tree. The grotesqueness of the emaciated Gautama Buddha has always attracted me. Returning from the famine in Somalia where I had been drawing starving children, in extreme states of malnutrition, I painted a Somali Buddha. 

I began talking to camera as I drew the skeletal Buddha in its museum case, armless and with the head, trunk and crossed legs held in position by hooks but separated. Waqar was behind the camera filming this to be edited as a tourist video. I surprised myself by quoting from Hermann Hesse’s book Siddhartha.

More than half a century had passed since reading Siddhartha. I would have been seventeen or eighteen and I was on a self-discovery journey where a book would pop out of the shelves in a bookstore and tell me to read it. 

We went from the Museum to visit a professor and his family from Peshawar University. The professor holds soirées on the rooftop of his palatial home in an upmarket elite enclave in this poverty-stricken city. His wife is Chinese. They met when he was getting his PhD in Hawaii. He supported his studies by taking tourists on snorkelling excursions around the underwater reefs and caves. One day he was walking along a high cliff overlooking the ocean when he saw her make a magnificent and perfect dive. Although the height terrified him, he repeated her dive and they fell in love almost immediately.  Things changed when she followed him back to Pakistan. I asked his wife how she coped with the restrictions on women and inequality in Pakistan and she said “I never go out – I am like a song bird in a cage.” Then she asked if I would like to hear her sing and she sang a melancholic song in Mandarin. Once she finished, she explained that she agrees with the Buddhist belief that life is an illusion. All we know and see is samsara. This explained how she endured what must be a terrible existence.  

The Siddhartha of Hesse’s book is not the young Buddha, but a seeker who discovers wisdom cannot be taught. When he is very old, he becomes a ferryman and learns from listening to the ever-changing but ever-constant river. The companion of his youth, Govinda, became a follower of the actual Buddha and they meet again, as old men, on the river. Siddhartha has the answer for the Professor’s wife: “If all around us is illusion, samsara, then we too are illusion.” 

A few days ago, I purchased a copy of Siddhartha from the Chicago University bookshop, and waking early this morning I read it again. For most of the book I found myself disliking Siddhartha as a selfish spoilt individual, who lacked empathy and who felt no responsibility to contribute to the rest of humanity through creativity or actions. I could not see what my younger self gained from the book. But the old man Siddhartha moved me deeply.  The river had taught him that if we can discard the notion of time, all of life and existence is a river. Trying to explain to his friend Govinda what he had learnt, he picked up a stone and said, “This is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will be soil and from soil it will become plant, animal or man.”

As the old  friends were departing Siddhartha kissed his old friend on the forehead and Govinda no longer saw the face of his friend. Rather, “he saw other faces – hundreds, thousands which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves . . . he saw the face of a fish, he saw the face of a newly born child red and full of wrinkles and ready to cry . . . he saw corpses stretched out cold, empty . . . he saw the heads of animals – boars, crocodiles, elephants, birds . . . Krishna and Kali . . . he saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating, and destroying each other and become newly born. Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another.”

While writing this I could hear Hellen singing from the other end of the very old apartment we are renting in Bronzeville Chicago. She is singing the classic “Love Hurts” song in operatic style, first in Pashto and then switching to English.  As she came up the hall, still singing, things around me began to vibrate. Hellen plans to record it in Nashville where it was written by the parents of our friend Del Bryant. 

That is the final lesson that transforms Siddhartha from a seeker on a selfish quest into a human who understands compassion.  His former lover, Kamala, meets him accidentally on his ferry while crossing the river. She is accompanied by the son he was never aware of, their lovechild. Kamala dies from a snake bite and Siddhartha is left to mind the boy who he comes to love deeply. The boy does not reciprocate the love but hates his father and all he stands for, steals the ferry takings and runs away. Siddhartha, as someone who has never allowed himself to love, discovers that “love hurts,” but that it also binds all humanity together.

On this journey back to Peshawar from Chicago these thoughts about the life of Buddha, and Hesse’s Siddhartha and humanity’s journey keep flashing in front like brightly lit signposts. The dramatic fears of everyone in Afghanistan and the constancy of the cycle of gun killings in Chicago merge as the signs keep telling me to keep moving forward on this road-river. What is real is very real, especially the suffering of parents and children – and so is our joy when we make someone happy or create something of beauty.

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