On arriving in Varanasi we reconnected with our French friends, Helene and Remy, from Benaulim. They stay above Shree Café whose owner, Santosh, is an accomplished photographer. We arranged to meet on the Ghat early the next morning to take pictures. As the sun rises over the river, pilgrims do their puja and ritual bath. With so much activity no one notices that we’re taking pictures. Being accompanied by a local helps us to see the theater of ritualistic Varanasi, the most holy city of India, through his eyes. Santosh and Remy are both such good photographers, I feel intimidated. I can either get so immersed in what’s going on, I forget to take the picture or, preoccupied with taking the picture, I miss the rest of the scene. But the city is a photographer’s paradise and being in the company of more skilled shooters helps me to think more about what it is I want to portray through the lens. It’s also inspiring for Gerard to be with other enthusiasts; it broadens his view of both what to capture and how to do that. We both know that, like most other practices, the more you do it the better you get at it.
Santosh and his family have now become friends after many years of a casual acquaintance, which began around Indian classical music and Santosh recommending the names of local musicians we hadn’t heard of. It’s through photography that we’ve gotten to know him better. Whenever we need advice he’s always available, with his soft spoken manner.
Meeting people isn’t hard in Varanasi but being connected to an Indian family opens a door not always available to tourists. Gerard and I were happy when, for the second year, Santosh and Seema asked us to join them and their three children for their marriage anniversary. If you own an excellent ‘pure veg’ Indian restaurant where do you go for a treat? We piled into cycle rickshaws and headed to a fancy Chinese restaurant. After chile paneer and sezhuwan noodles, everyone went next door for gelato.
On the weekend, we again joined the family for an afternoon walk. They arrived with their son, Gulu, brandishing a cricket bat. Other small boys converge and within minutes, a game begins along a narrow platform on the ghat. His mother, Seema, takes charge as an enthusiastic umpire. The game proceeds slowly, with frequent interruptions to search for the ball — on the riverbank, inside a docked boat, or among the ruins behind the steps.
Varanasi has a strong appeal for a certain type of traveler, but one that defies definition. One night our guesthouse rings with Chinese chatter, a few days later there’s a group of 22 Chileans. What is it we all find so attractive? The city is dirty, the lanes congested with oversized cows, stray dogs and noisy motor scooters; the Ganges is polluted (although thousands bathe in it daily without apparently getting sick). In spite of all this, many like us return year after year.
Gerard and I have asked each other what it is that brings us back here. and, each time we try to narrow it down to this thing or that; but it just doesn’t capture how we feel. Overall Indian cities don’t attract either one of us. But Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world, one could say is a ‘living monument.’ It may not be the prettiest of ancient cities, but at least it hasn’t been torn down and replaced with concrete. The stone pavers in the alleys are worn smooth, wooden doors have hundreds of years of patina, and as we’ve mentioned before, for us, it’s lanes are so reminiscent of the medinas in Morocco that we fell in love with some forty years ago. It is the river, it is the narrow lanes, the ghats, the public cremation, the underlying spiritual quest by so many…and the people. Not only concerned with extracting money from tourists, they have time to smile and talk, making Varanasi feel more like a large village, not a city.
In the chai shop we frequent every morning, Gerard said, “I know that man.” And before he had a chance to say to me who he was, Martyn looked over and smiled, “I know you.” Gerard said, “And where’s the rest of your family?” Three years before, Martyn, his wife and two young children were traveling for a year when our paths first crossed in Varanasi. A few weeks later we saw them again in Darjeeling and this time we became more acquainted. All of us continued on to Sikim where we went our separate ways. Martyn is one of those jolly souls who seem to see the positive in everything, making it easy to connect with him. He explained that this year he had come by himself for only three weeks, primarily to have dental work done in Delhi. He had time and briefly thought of going to Goa, but quickly decided on returning yet again to Varanasi. He’s been coming here since 2000. We asked him what it was that kept pulling him back here, and he replied, “I can’t put my finger on it.” But he did say on his first visit he’d planned to stay three or four days and ended up staying a month. He just couldn’t leave, and still hasn’t had enough.
On our last morning, Santosh, Gerard and I went out early again to take pictures. Santosh thought it would be more interesting to go downstream, past the burning ghat, to an area we’d never seen before. The tourists and pilgrims quickly faded; no more “boat ma’am?” no girls selling faded postcards, even the chai wallahs disappeared. Far less congested, you get the sense that this part of the city hasn’t changed in decades, possibly in a century.
Finally we turned away from the river and into the lanes. Winding our way back, through vegetable and fruit markets, cow pens, doors left open for passesby to see in: it’s another Varanasi.
Without Santosh we would never have been able to negotiate the winding, twisting lanes. A great opportunity to be led through this maze and take photographs with a local. He has less reserve to point the lens at an interesting face, which in turn gave both of us more confidence to do the same. It was a great ending to our stay in this city that continues to call us back.