I sat down at his invitation, surprised as I was to find an old white man with a British accent in such a remote ashram.

“I saw you looking at this earlier,” he said. He held out an exquisitely carved lotus flower, its white surface veined with intricate carvings. For a moment I thought it might be made from flakes of marble, but I was startled to realize that the material was actually chicken eggshells interlocked together without joints or glue. The slightest mishap could crush the entire beautiful object in an instant.

“Isn’t it dangerous, carrying around something so fragile?” I said. “Couldn’t you keep it inside?”

“It only took five years to make,” the old man laughed. “Not worth losing any sleep over. I use it for my meditation, to help with balance and coordination. It’s a powerful tool for self-control.”

It seemed like a powerful tool for frustration to me, but I maintained a respectful silence.

“I’ll go ahead and answer the question that you’re too polite to ask,” the man said. “I came here with my wife, a Dravidian who was born and raised in Australia. We met in Switzerland, at an avant-garde drama festival of all places. It was an international festival, and people kept on coming up to me speaking French or German or approaching her speaking Hindi or Bengali. We had never spoken those languages in our life, and gave very little thought to how we presented ourselves; as a result, people made assumptions, cast us in roles just like those wretched plays.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I said.

“That’s all right,” the old man said. “We didn’t understand what we’d learned either, at first. After we married, we decided to try and find a place without assumptions, roles, or masks. We quickly learned that this was impossible. Rather, we sought out a place of peaceful seclusion where we could attempt to divest ourselves of the assumptions, roles, or masks we thrust upon ourselves. It’s been nearly fifty years now, and I think this isolated little ashram is as good a place as any for introspection, don’t you?”

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