After saying there was less socialization this year, our last few days in Varanasi were anything but.
One evening, Karel and Krystyna invited us to visit them at the Krishnamurti Study Center, where they were staying. Described as a place for self exploration and learning, it’s situated beside the Ganges downstream from Varanasi. Compared with the busy ghats further upstream the Center is an oasis of calm. Cottages sit among a garden, overlooking the “quietly flowing” river.
Krishnamurti would stay here when he visited Varanasi. Born in South India, Krishnamurti was adopted as a boy and groomed by Annie Besant, to become head of the Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Blavatsky back in 1875 in New York. But he renounced Theosophy and belonging to no religious organization spoke personally about spirituality and the problems of living in the modern world advising, ‘we tread lightly on the earth without destroying ourselves or the environment.’ I was attracted to him back in the ’70s.
After sitting through an hour long video of a talk on the power of the mind, we were invited to dinner at the house of Suresh, one of the Indian staff, along with Karel and Kryztyna. An Irishman around our age we met a year ago also joined us for dinner. For the last 20 years, he’s spent a month each year at the Center.With a strong Irish brogue and humor, he loves to tell stories. Informed of my hearing problem, he interrupted with, “Well, dear, that’s no loss.You’re not missing anything!” In the family’s tiny dining room, we were served one course after another.We only saw Suresh’s wife after everybody had been well fed and she stopped cooking. Only downside of the evening was the long rickshaw ride there and back amidst the congestion and pollution of Varanasi streets. Staying on the ghats, we manage to avoid this for most of the time.
On Helene and Remy’s last day in Varanasi, we arrived at Shree Cafe for lunch, and were ushered upstairs where Santosh and family live and there’s a few guestrooms. We were included in the farewell lunch his wife Seema was preparing for Helene and Remy who’ve been staying here for many years and became part of the household. Restaurant meals have little comparison to home cooking. You’re served dishes you never find on a menu. The food is fresh and well-cooked at Shree (Because Santosh is a Brahmin he’s compelled to give the daily leftovers to the cows. Not the practice in most restaurants). But the meal Seema prepared still surpassed anything we’d eaten downstairs.
And this wasn’t the end of the good eating. As chance would have it, on our way to visit Rajesh at his bangle shop in the bazaar, Gerard stopped at a clothing store looking for a shirt. It was a shop that catered to Indians, not the tourist trade. The portly middle aged owner greeted us warmly and served tea. He didn’t have the pure cotton shirt Gerard wanted but assured us he could get the material, dye it to the desired color and have his factory make it. Indian salespeople will promise anything but we thought we’d give it a go. Then he invited us for dinner. Two days later, we arrived back at his shop, expecting to pick up the shirts as promised and go to his home to eat. The shirts weren’t ready and he wasn’t there…. we waited. After a phone call, the shop assistant said, “Follow me.” There’s no way of knowing how these encounters will turn out but we had a good feeling. Off we went in a rickshaw through the busy streets. Fifteen minutes later, getting down in a residential area, our host was waiting at his house, a large multi-story building. He showed us his workshop on the ground floor, hotel rooms above (but with no guests). “Next time, you must stay here!” Then he pulled out a harmonium and began playing for us. Time’s going by, I’m hungry. Where’s the dinner?
Just when I was wondering–he stopped playing, led us up to the third floor, and ushered us into his home. Wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, we sat down and the food came out, one delicious dish after another. Again, his wife, Lakshmi, served us until we’d had our fill–and more. Finally, she joined us, as jolly as her husband. His 85 year old mother hobbled out on a walker giving us a big toothless smile. Soon it was as if we were old friends. Photographs, gifts, promises to return next year, and we were in a rickshaw on the way back to our hotel. It was one of those chance meetings that turn into something special.
We first met Uschi six or seven years ago in Shree Cafe, but had not connected for several years.She is often away from Varanasi hosting westerners on sightseeing tours or yoga retreats. But this year, she returned home before we left and invited us to visit her and Varun, her five year old son, at Assi Ghat. After so long we needed to reconnect–and we did, despite the street noise coming in through the open window.
Her colorful apartment was filled with toys, musical instruments, books and the obvious love she had for Varun. It was the kind of home I’d have liked growing up! Over chai, we filled each other in with what was going on. By the time we left, I felt like she was a sister.
Just before we moved on to Orcha there was one more surprise. On our last night, coming back through the lane, we caught sight of Martyn and his family sitting in the chai shop. We first met them in Darjeeling six years ago.
There they were again, Martyn, Lilach and two boys, Noam and Ohad; their familiar smiles, the children grown. They’re staying in India for a year, home schooling the kids all the way. We had the time the following morning to have breakfast together and listen to each other’s travel plans.
Noam and Ohad were extremely engaging and charming for being so young; and obviously feel secure, tripping around the world.
Our stay in Varanasi this year did not begin well for me but I”m glad to say it ended on a different note. I was losing rupees, failing to count my change, stumbling on the ghat, missing out on the music and the socializing. I’d had enough of naked sadhus, ringing of bells, and beggars. All a reflection of my state of mind, no doubt. It was simple…I had to drop the negative ways and pay more attention.
This became my focus…just dealing with what was in front of me. And things began to shift. Instead of seeing the ghat as an obstacle course, I was touched by the peace and beauty of the river.
I felt the genuine warmth of the sadhus waving and and beckoning me to join them…and I’m grateful to have friends in Varanasi.
In all its intensity, I realized I love this amazing city. In a moment, the stench of sewage can change to the sweet fragrance of incense, barking dogs turn into mosque calls, and the rising sun transform Varanasi to gold. It is a city of extremes and constant change.