For nearly ten years, we’ve spent most of the winter in India. It has become a home away from home. And a prominent room within that home is Varanasi. Through the years we’ve done our best to convey what this place means to us in pictures and writing. And of course, those efforts fall short. To put it simply, we now feel very comfortable here. The area around the guesthouse is a neighbourhood we feel part of. Even though most of our acquaintances up and down the lane are merchants, Gerard and I are warmly and sincerely welcomed.
Varanasi draws a specific type of tourist, ones that are not easily put off by cow flaps and dog turds in the lane. It seems that we respond more to something that’s harder to put your finger on that’s found in abundance here. So often we spend our meals talking with another traveler and trying to gain their insight on Varanasi, on India, their home country and perhaps the world. Just this morning, we shared breakfast with a young woman from St Petersburg (Russia not Florida) who certainly did not tow the party line. Even though there are people growing concerned about Putin and his power, the question is why weren’t they concerned 17 years ago? He’s been around that long. She called him a thug. Another interesting conversation is with a young woman from Shanghai over our masala chai at the Boatman’s tea shop. Again she is far from typical; 31 and not married, and at this point has no intention of getting married. When Gerard asked what does the society think of unmarried women, she said, it’s completely unacceptable. And what do your parents think of you travelling alone in India? I told them I was in Asia! But what if they want to see a picture of where you are? I pretend that I didn’t hear them! Most upwardly mobile Chinese think India is one of the worst places to go, too dirty and dangerous. They would rather go to Europe or US. Gerard laughed, quoting statistics about gun ownership and violence in the US.
Our guesthouse is near a few small music schools where European students return every year to continue their learning of various practices of Indian classical music. Many of them coincide their visit with the Dhrupad Mela – as we do. Dhrupad is an ancient style of singing that needs to be studied for decades before it can be performed. Its progression is also very slow therefore many Indians and Westerners alike are not attracted to the style. But those who are drawn are very passionate about the music. For me, listening to Dhrupad is a bit like listening to Cecil Taylor, an extreme avant-garde jazz pianist. When I’m there I’m totally involved; if I’m listening to a record it’s harder to get into it.
This Mela is the only Dhrupad festival in India and has been sponsored by a very wealthy Varanasi family for the last 44 years who are dedicated to keeping this music alive. In a small restaurant around the corner from us, a few students, mostly about our age, gather for dinner and speculate on who will be performing that night. By the way, with no advance program, the music goes from 7 pm to 7 am each night, free admission. In the morning, the same group is sitting around discussing who they heard, and how late they managed to stay. We never made it much past midnight. But at the end of the four days, Gerard said that he was nearly saturated. But he’ll still be ready for the upcoming two-day festival!
We’re very happy to be able to meet up with our old friend, Frederic in Varanasi. We met in Himachal Pradesh six or seven years ago and have stayed in contact ever since. He’s a semi-professional photographer and has been documenting dancers at a Kathak school. He manages to find time to have a meal or two with us so we can catch up.
Gerard had the idea that this was going to be a quiet visit with plenty of time for writing. But how could that happen in this place where there’s so many interesting people to talk to! One evening, on our way down to Assi Ghat, and constantly being delayed by Gerard talking to people, Frederic said to me, “Does he also talk to trees?” Please, Frederic, don’t even suggest that! Coincidentally, when we first met Frederic, it was Gerard’s persistence that finally broke through his reserve. Well, maybe at our next destination we’ll get back to the writing.