Early one morning, we met Santosh, his sister Rani and our French friends, Helene and Remy, all with our cameras.
We followed Santosh along the ghats and back through the winding lanes of the city, stopping for chai along the way.
It was a beautiful morning, still cool and fresh. This year, the air in Varanasi has been unusually clear, the polluted Ganges deceptively blue. Santosh has an excellent eye and even after living here his whole life, he still finds what is unique in Varanasi. He’s quite aggressive giving Gerard the courage to go closer.
This year, the big surprise was seeing firsthand the demolition starting around the Golden Temple, making its way to the Burning Ghat. It looked like a war zone. Gerard asked a man standing beside him with an expression of horror on his face, “How are they going to remove all the rubble?” He replied, “Ask Modi. Modi, Modi everybody says. But to me he’s foolish Modi.” The ironic plan is to give a clear line of sight from the ghat to the Golden Temple. But the Temple sits too low to be seen from the ghat! Dissenters of the project say either the Ganges has to be lifted, or the temple has to be lifted. Right now the line of sight is to a large mosque! Like in most countries, the public are like sheep, they just follow and never ask questions.
Gerard has asked several locals what they think of the “beautification program” as Modi calls it, and only one spoke favorably. He echoed Modi’s line that the little temples currently hidden way inside houses will all become visible. At the other extreme, a shopkeeper says it’s the beginning of the end of Varanasi. From being such a historic city, it will become yet another concrete and steel modern monstrosity. A particularly depressing opinion. Everyone in between say it’s a huge waste of the money that could have been used in so many other constructive ways…cleaning the river, putting in a sewage treatment plan, repairing the ghat…and so on.
There’s been less socializing this year in part due to my hearing loss and in part because Gerard caught the heavy cold that is circulating and which spread to his chest precipitating a hacking cough. We visited one of our friendly pharmacists who listened to Gerard’s chest and at our request gave him some heavy duty codeine cough mixture, supposedly now only available with prescription. Twenty four hours later, he was feeling much better.
We missed an evening boat ride with Santosh and family. A new addition to the family is a large but gentle and quiet German Shepherd. Having a pet dog is becoming a trend among the middle class, but it seems strange to us. Keeping a dog housebound, only walking him twice a day, fighting off the stray dogs. What a contrast, these house pets are to the roaming street dogs, living on whatever they can find.
The family set out before sunset and watched the Arti ceremony from the water along with hundred of other little boats. The Arti performed nightly on the ghat is a major event for pilgrims, and also visiting tourists.
Now in our last week here, as fascinating as the city still is, I find it difficult. Just this morning, we met an interesting couple from Canada; I really wanted to talk with her but because of the background noise it was impossible. I have the same problem in Boston but it just seems all the more pronounced here. In our room at the guesthouse, it’s easier.
I make the effort to go out at sunrise because the city is at its calmest. Cool and mystical in the early morning light it’s perhaps the best time to be on the ghat. Locals and pilgrims bathing, sweepers already cleaning away the previous days refuse.