Varanasi is still as fascinating as ever. The narrow lanes pulsate with life (and death) marriage and funeral processions, cows, dogs, water buffalo, beggars with babies, all jostling along to and from the ghats. Wandering lines of pilgrims, trailed by guided tours of Asians, wearing face masks to protect them from the dreaded disease. At sunrise over the ghats – pilgrims in boats, sadhus begging, smoldering cremation fires, boys playing cricket along the narrow steps, children selling bowls of fresh flowers to offer to Mother Ganges.
The Sita Hotel staff is welcoming – remembering us from a year ago. Likewise, the amiable, paan chewing Shree Restaurant owner where we eat regularly – because the food is good but more because he plays Indian classical music. Few tourists are as serious about music as Gerard, and the boys in the three CD stores we frequent call out greetings as we pass. They know Gerard is a good customer and will purchase more CDs this year, but they also I believe enjoy talking with him, sharing their knowledge as they advise him on the best musicians and music. Still young, their knowledge of classical music is remarkable. The Muslim beggar, who Gerard favored last year, his right hand a disfigured stump, also seems to remember us: His face lights up, “Salam Alikoum!” “Alikoum Salam”, we reply.
Santosh of Shree is also a patron of art and his restaurant walls are covered with rich photographic impressions of India and its people. Since last year, he’s opened an art gallery next door with excellent pictures taken by a professional. Vivek Desai. Two portraits especially impressed me – one is of an old woman her grey hair in a tight bun, grimacing as she immerses herself in the cold water of the Ganges. The other is of a younger blind woman, also immersed above her waist, her vacant eyes uplifted as she holds her baby above the water, her yellow gold sari reflected in the rippling water surrounding her. I was moved by the conviction of both women in the sacred power of the Ganges. Gerard was particularly taken by a photo taken of the body of another old woman this time laid out on a funeral pyre, lifeless and mouth open. He commented, “No matter what our journey, this is the common end of all our travels.”
At dusk, tourists and pilgrims converge to watch the puja (religious performance) beside the Ganges. But this year, we have to walk through a security gate. Fears of terrorism were realized last December when a bomb exploded during the puja, killing at least two persons, possibly several more, and injuring many. People believe the police disposed of the bodies in the Ganges to minimize panic and scandal. The security seems ineffectual as a further deterrent. The police pay little attention, a cow wanders through the gate ahead of me, and when my bag sets off the alarm no one reacts! Despite the bombing, which was never attributed to any terrorist or religious group, there is still a crowd at the puja each night, extending out into crowded boats on the river – but maybe a little less crowded than last year.
CD stores in the lanes are a refuge for listening to music, good conversation and dinking tea from small clay cups. A stranger sitting across from us at dinner was amused overhearing our conversation. I upbraided Gerard for reaching his 11th CD purchase. But the last one’s a present, he protested. The man was reminded of similar conversations with his own wife. He’s a German humanitarian aid worker. “Keep buying more CDs,” he laughingly encouraged Gerard as we part. I was less amused!
At times, the dirt, noise, crowds all get to me – I don’t want to have to step over another cow flap, see another scrawny dog limping because a speeding motorbike ran over its leg, or have another beggar woman use her baby to evoke my sympathy. I cannot make these things go away. I don’t want to ignore them but in order to be here I have to live with all this harsh reality. Then I go through a letting go process and can handle it again – more to the point, actually enjoy the city.
But this time, neither of us can take the continual noise in the ashram below our window. The music starts promptly at 4 am, high pitched bhajan singing interspersed with what sounds like mournful laments rather than devotional rejoicing. Later, a devotee claps what sounds to be tin castanets at a slow regular beat to aid his concentration; after 30 minutes we’ve had it. He starts again in the evening, considerately timing it with our own meditation. It does not aid my easily distracted concentration.
So we move to a new guesthouse. We no longer hear the sounds of the ghat – the thump, thump from the washer men who begin their work before daylight, the muffled voices of bathing and boating pilgrims. Instead beginning at 3 am, faint chanting accompanied by a harmonium in the far distance; an hour later the temple bell tolls, followed by the mosque call from a different direction. And always the barking dogs. The monkeys don’t begin their screaming till after day light by which time the dogs have gone to sleep, exhausted by their nocturnal escapades.
While I struggle with the less salubrious aspects of Varanasi, others seem to have no problem. Even the most vulnerable have a higher tolerance level than me. A young Russian mother worries whether her three year old daughter is having a good time. “Don’t worry mummy, I love everything here,” the little girl reassures. She loves dressing up in bangles and sequined skirts and greets the cows in the lane outside her hotel with the names she’s given them. Another grey haired English woman is here with her thirty-something son. She has dreamt of coming to India ever since he began coming in his teens and is finally here having a “lovely time”. The way death is handled here in Varanasi especially impresses her. “Everything is in the open, so different to how in the west we try to deny and ignore it” As we talk, a procession passes in front of our restaurant. An old lady’s dead body is being carried on a rope bed covered with flowers through the lanes to the cremation ghat. The boy in the CD store off the music for a few minutes while the procession passes and raises his hands in prayer.
Indians also are very direct about age. “You are old”, they remind Gerard and I repeatedly. “Auntie! Auntie!” the young men call after me. But the ultimate injury is when they call out tauntingly, “A very young couple!” All harder for me than Gerard who is more accepting of his age.
The guesthouse is occupied predominantly by young Japanese and Koreans. I try unsuccessfully to analyze why…Do they come for spiritual reasons? Or with their dyed blond hair and dreadlocks are they escaping the restrictions of middle class life in Japan? I admire their individuality – the young girl who walks down the alley stepping around the garbage in very white, very high heeled shoes, holding her equally white skirt above her ankles…totally impractical and inappropriate. But hey! She felt like wearing them…so why not?
Whatever the reason they come, they are the largest tourist group in Varanasi. The restaurants cater to their tastes, cooking Asian food. This is a relatively new development although the restaurant owner tells us the Asians have been coming here en masse longer than the Europeans or Americans. They do not seem to react to the terrible news of the recent earthquake and tsunami. Asking those in the cafes if their family is safe? “Yes, everyone is ok” – but in the evening, they demonstrate their concern by performing a ceremony Hindu style, with candles in earthen pots on the edge of the Ganges in remembrance of all the suffering in Japan.
Varanasi exemplifies the choice that we have in life – do we focus on the negative – the trash beneath our feet? Or do we raise our head, and see the magic that is everywhere? Other than the visual and audio charms of the city, there’s something less obvious that keeps us coming back. The struggle for life and its conclusion death are so much more apparent here that hopefully we will leave with a better grip on reality.