Our train to Varanasi does not leave until 11.30 pm, but we cannot believe how busy the station is – where are people coming and going at such a late hour on a Sunday night? Woman dressed in finery, young girls in pale pink net party dresses, knitted woolen caps incongruously pulled down almost over their eyes to protect against the cool night air. I imagine they’ve been visiting relatives across town for Sunday dinner. A teenage Moslem boy holds the hands of his two timid younger sisters, leading them across the busy station platform. Tired porters stagger by us, their backs laden with luggage. It baffles us how much luggage a single family will travel with. A large group of adults and children settle down on the platform beside us, laying out blankets, unpacking food. I watch them…while they watch me. In India there’s full license to stare. They all do it – as do I.
Gerard disappears into the crowd to buy mineral water. Suddenly out of nowhere, I’m overwhelmed with the anxiety that he may not come back. If he had a heart attack and died right there on the platform, no one would know to come and tell me. What would I do? Who could help me? The elevator man at the Sunflower is very personable but what could he do? Maybe the organist could arrange for a funeral at St John’sChurch? But how do I find him? Where’s the church…without Gerard to guide me? Maybe that extra cup of chai was too much.When he finally remerges from the crowd, I say, “You’re not doing that again. If you go, I go with you”
Shortly after, our train is announced, and we get on without further incident. With the exception of a couple of over-excited children (at midnight?) followed by the customary loud snorer…the journey is uneventful and we’re able to get some sleep before arriving in Varanasi the next morning.
The gentle-faced waiter at Spicy Bites does a double take when he sees us. “So nice to see you again! But you don’t usually come in December?” It’s true; every other time has been in March or April. Varanasi feels different in December – quieter and less crowded. The foreign tourists are all in Goa for Christmas; the Indian tourists and pilgrims we’re told aren’t traveling because there’s an upcoming election and they need to stay home to vote. It’s also too cool for the pilgrims that come in droves from South India. The shopkeepers say business is worse than usual even for this time of year. “2013 has not been good,” we hear repeatedly. They protest against the inflation of food prices with onions hit the worst, as much as twenty times. Many restaurants no longer include onions in their cooking – samosa with no onions??
But the biggest impact in Varanasi was felt from the floods. We’d heard that it had been a heavy monsoon with landslides in the north of India with many thousands killed. Walking along the ghats, we’re shocked at the extent of the damage. The Ganges swelled so much that the waters rose up and flooded part of the city, leaving in its wake thick mud all over the ghats. To make matters worse, the city had done nothing to reduce the accumulation of mud deposits from the monsoons of the past few years. Now they are forced to address the problem, and a very primitive operation is going on, all day every day. Water is pumped out of the Ganges and then at high velocity used to wash the mud back into the river.
Gerard has a stomach/intestinal upset for a couple of days and not wanted to go far from the hotel room, so I’ve spent time wandering around by myself – a somewhat unusual experience for me when we’re traveling. (He can’t leave me, but it’s all right for me to leave him!) We’ve been in Varanasi so many times that I’m quite comfortable especially in the area where we stay. But the narrow maze of lanes surrounding our guest house, Shiva Kashi, are dark and chilly so I walk down on the ghats where the sun shines weakly through the December haze. The locals also like to hang out here in the open space and I’m dodging cricket balls, detangling my feet from kite strings, and stepping over playful puppies of stray dogs. Boat building, bodies burning, head shaving…there can’t be a more dramatic river walk anywhere in the world. A woman alone, I have to deflect an avalanche of requests – pushy Indian boys wanting to walk with me, ‘sadhus’ begging money, children selling postcard s. “Excuse me madam, boat ride?” “Where are you going? Would you like company?” “No thank you, not today,” I say firmly with a smile to everyone, and they move on. But I feel different walking alone. I see my surroundings in a more introspective light. The experience is mine alone… but when I return, I share it with Gerard.
Then a pleasant good-looking young man attaches himself and as we walk I steer the conversation to politics and the upcoming election. He tells me how hopeful he is about the BJP competitor winning, given the bad performance of the Congress Party incumbent who has done nothing to address the deteriorating economy. And then, respectful of an older woman perhaps, he folds his hands and we part. A few days later I meet him again, this time with Gerard who picks up the discussion. The man believes population is India’s greatest problem, and then corruption. “But first you have to address population.” When he marries in a couple of years, he will not have children. “You won’t? What about family pressure…your wife’s desire? “Well,” he backtracks, “at least not for two years, and then only one if I am financially prepared.”
On my way back, I meet a couple from Oregon. The following night Gerard and I have dinner with them. We immediately hit it off. Just a decade older than us, their lives have been uncannily similar. They were in high school in Idaho together, several years later met again in San Francisco and married, and now celebrating their 53rd anniversary. Neither had the desire to have children and they were able to maintain a very free life style that was not career-driven. And like us, there was a lot of focus on traveling. Denis and Camile had some amazing stories such as spending 30 days on a tramp steamer to Casablanca. It sounds like they know Morocco almost as well as we do. And every time Gerard mentioned some place in India they’d say, “Oh yes, we were there 20 years ago.” They’ve been coming since the mid 80s and when asked why they continue to come (they’ve been 13 times) Camile said, “Where else can you go that’s so exotic and so cheap?” We couldn’t have said it better.
Camile started hitchhiking in the late 50s; following in the path of such greats as Kerouac and Cassidy making cross country sojurns. We all agreed that hitchhiking was the way to go, and like the 8 track, definitely a thing of the past! As the political landscape changed, they left US in the late 60s to live in England, and then Europe. For those who don’t remember, Gerard left under a similar cloud in 1968. And on it goes…they’re even vegetarians! Everyone is so unique with their individual history –even more so as we get older – it’s rare to cross paths with people who have such a similar background to ours. And as fate will have it, we will be seeing each other again soon on the beach in Goa and look forward to picking up where we left off!
It’s early afternoon and the restaurant is almost empty so Manoj the waiter has time to chat with us. For the second time he tells us his story – this time with more detail. He came to Varanasi from Bihar, the poorest state in India in 1997. The eldest in a family of four sisters and one brother, he left school when he was twelve years old. Envious of those who had more money and were able to stay in school, he left home without telling his parents and followed friends who told him how easy it was to make money in Varanasi. Fate was kind; the owners of Spicy Bites took him in, taught him the trade and sent him to school during the day. He learned English from the tourists and now sixteen years later he’s still living with the family and is working in the restaurant alongside the two brothers who own it. In addition to supporting his own wife and child, Manoj sends the money he earns home to his parents.
Contrary to what we’ve seen among our middle class Indian friends, Manoj makes a strong point that dowry is still a major requirement in marrying off women. With four sisters, and a father who is no longer earning an income, much of the financial responsibility has now fallen on the shoulders of Manoj and his younger brother, who works in Mumbai. The marriages are all arranged by the parents, but when Manoj went to see his future wife for the first time, and her father asked how much dowry was required, Manoj replied, “Only pay what you can afford, nothing more.” He liked the look of his wife and felt that she was a good woman and it wasn’t necessary to demand a lot of money like so many other Indian marriages where it’s all about money. He thought about his own sisters and felt that it was good karma not to request a large sum of money. Perhaps then his father also would not be requested to pay a lot of money to marry off his own daughters. On the other hand, when his parents heard what he had done they were very upset with him. “You could have used this money to start your new home,” Manoj replied, “In my heart I feel this is the right thing to do.” And four years later, he still believes this because he has a good marriage, a loyal wife who takes care of his parents, and has given him a healthy daughter.
Now his wife, Arti, is expecting their second child due in two months. And recently Manoj has been returning to his village every few months to accompany his wife on maternity visits to the doctor. Tomorrow he’s going for only two days to oversee the arranged marriage engagement of his youngest sister. He’s lucky he makes enough money to be able to do this. Based on the experience of himself, his siblings and his parents, Manoj believes that arranged marriages have a greater chance of success than ‘love’ marriage.
Varanasi is the other Indian city we love. More ancient than Kolkata, and not influenced by the British, it is also the most sacred in India. The morning sunrise on the buildings is captured in Gerard’s painting.