In The Liquid Refuses to Ignite (Hachette India), author Dave Besseling, a 33-year-old Canadian artist and writer, travels across dozens of time zones in search of a certain ‘nirvana’ – even if it’s initially disguised as intoxicated days and orgasmic nights. But let not the inebriated haze fool you. With supremely compelling prose, vivid descriptions of the people and their cultures he encounters, and compassionate digs at their follies, he takes us on a soul-searching mission with humour and insight. Finally, he lands up in Varanasi, India, where a glass of lassi leads to his ‘eureka’ moment.
You’re an artist and writer. When creativity strikes, what do you reach out for first, pen or paintbrush?
In the book I talk about my experiences as an artist in Tokyo, Amsterdam and New Zealand, as well as the reason why I switched to writing. It was a fairly soul-crushing transition that changed the direction of my muse. Looking back, I suppose you could say it’s worked out in my favour, but I do miss visual art.
When did you start writing this autobiography and why?
I guess the book started with the Manali chapter, which was originally an article for MW magazine in Bombay. The editor there asked if my time in Varanasi had also yielded any material. It certainly had, but by the time I was done writing about it, I was about 37,500 words over the maximum word count of 2,500. No editor is going to touch that. But my experiences in Varanasi seemed to resonate with certain episodes of my decade of wandering, and eventually a clear narrative came into being.
What set your Indian experience apart from the others?
India is where this whole idea of having crossed one of life’s non-negotiable boundaries took place. It was just where I happened to be when introspection on a scale of a Dickensian Christmas Carol presented itself, or was presented to me by a dubious lassi. Now that the book is out, I get the feeling that it wouldn’t have come together the way it has, probably wouldn’t exist at all, if it weren’t for me being there, in Varanasi, at that specific time. The book wouldn’t have worked if I’d been in a place like, say, I don’t know, Luxembourg.
Do you still consider yourself as a bit of a ‘stray dog’?
I do. I think I always will. I’ve been living out of a backpack while I’ve been out researching and writing two other books for the last 18 months, travelling through about 12 countries, which would have been paradise at 23, but at 33, I do long for the simple amenities and privacy of my own apartment again.
When are epiphanies most likely to strike?
Where they can catch you off guard. When you’re in a place most un-epiphanic. Or while very high. Mescaline can help you with that. But I think I misbehaved enough in my 20s to last me the rest of my life. All that stuff is nostalgia now, the stuff of memoir.
India is a land of extremes. What struck you most about the inequality?
The first-tour-of-India Dave noticed very much the constant display of all the increments on the societal scale. And once you get to Varanasi, man, that may be the most intense place I’ve ever been. Your senses are assaulted on all levels. It was exhausting. Later, when I lived in Delhi, there were still lots of things to tire you out, but one thing India teaches you if you stay long enough is to establish your personal energy quota. You often need it just to get through your day. What once fascinated you becomes background, what once repelled you is more easily ignored. I don’t know if this is a good thing, but it’s a matter of personal survival. And at 45 degrees C, it’s hard to give a shit about much else besides getting into a pub as quickly as possible.
That glass of lassi in Varanasi that triggered enlightenment and this book: Was it sweet or salted?
Excellent question. Well, the whole thing is that there was no enlightenment. As hard as I tried, the liquid refused to ignite. I guess that was the enlightenment. A satori of a secondary nature. But if anyone is out to see if they can repeat the infamous Haifa lassi experience, go for salt. Sugar is for babies.
First published in Atelier July 2012