There is no doubt in my mind that the people and friends that I met while I was a student at UCSD were, as a group, the most interesting and most formative influence on my personality. My childhood and early youth exist in my mind only in half spoken broken sentences and in heavily patched over tapestries. What should have been the long, dark, and firm shadow of their grip on the succeeding decades of my life is, in reality, stunted, hesitant, and meek. My time in SD, on the other hand, stands as the singular and powerful influencer which is due, in no small part, to the singular characters whom I had the fortune (or misfortune) of befriending there.
There's, for instance, Babaji. The one who was perpetually short on decent clothes and decent hair but who made up for these shortfalls by being supremely passionate about all things outdoors and incredibly sharp, quick witted, and street smart. Stephen Fry once said that a Hungarian is the only man who can follow you in a revolving door and come out first. Over the years I have come to think that this is also the perfect description of Babaji and I am sure that other friends of mine who had the pleasure of interacting with him would agree. To think that this crafty and artful creature began his stint at UCSD with a monumental blunder of the habiliment variety, one which literally relieved him of all his clothes except the ones on his back, reveals to me a truth that I could not otherwise have discerned - that there are creatures smarter and more shrewd than Babaji out there. As humbling and disturbing as that realization is, this incident is more important and significant to me because it is precisely archetypical of Babaji as a unique person. I have known people who had their house burgled and I have known people who had their pockets picked. I have known people in various states of misfortune but I know of nobody else but Babaji who had all their clothes (and nothing else mind you) stolen. That incident became the singular framework for my understanding of him, periodically emphasized, no doubt, by my regularly finding him pottering about in his backyard in his signature red polo T-shirt and black shorts (which, I have always maintained, could have been longer than they actually were).
My friendship with Babaji ran deep and had many facets. Some philosophical, some culinary, but most important of them all was our mutual obsession with the 2-wheeled mode of transportation. I had two successive motorcycles (a yellow Kawasaki Ninja 250 and a blue Yamaha YZF600R) in San Diego and, to my knowledge, I was the first Indian grad student at UCSD during my time to eschew cars in favor of motorcycles - a genius decision in hindsight. Babaji soon followed suit and bought a yellow Suzuki GS500 and thus began a half a decade worth of motorcycling adventures in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Baja California. Almost all of our motorcycling trips ended with either mine or his, but more often his, motorcycle breaking down and they invariably involved the deus-ex-machina intervention of our resident guardian angel, Khatri bhai. But For all the breakdowns in all the random places (Barstow, Mojave desert, Catavina), the memories that I associate with those trips are simply sublime. These include riding non-stop and relentlessly at the redline on those unending Death Valley roads which seemed to continue on to infinity and fall over, vanish beyond the horizon. They include riding at the limit on the fast and sweeping mountain curves in Show Low Arizona. They also include spending the night on the streets of Ensenada as Babaji and I tried to withdraw some money, any money, from the ATMs in order to pay the guy who had hauled his entire family and Babaji's motorcycle on the back of his pick-up truck through 250 miles of Mexican back-country. They include, as well, the harrowing experience of me hauling Babaji on the back of my bike on the heavily trafficked I-15 and in the intense winds of southern Californian mountains. As I was trying to make sure not to veer into the 18-wheelers zooming past, Babaji, I understand, was soaking in the sublime beauty of the endless windmills fields. In that moment when I was doing the hard work he was, as he has often been, supremely serene and happy.