Stumbling in Varanasi
Searching for enlightenment on India's crowded streets
The Indian girl couldn't have been more than five years old. Short and sullen-eyed, with black, dusty hair, she stood before me in the fading light as I sat at the top of one of Varanasi's ghats the steps leading to the blessed Ganges River.
"Twenty rupees," she said in a small but firm voice, holding out a little package made of woven green leaves. Inside were marigolds for ceremonial offerings.
I shook my head.
"Ten rupees," she implored, still staring into my face. Again I waggled my skull to indicate disinterest. Even at 25 cents, I had no use for the orange-yellow flowers that pilgrims threw into the dirty brown river.
"Five rupees," she said.
The sun was beginning to set and the streetlights were twittering to life. The girl's voice was higher now. She stood stock-still and I could see the ragged hem of her filthy dress. She stepped closer.
I sighed and averted my eyes. I'd been hit up so many times in India for money, for school books, to buy postcards, for anything that involved getting rupees (or dollars) into an Indian hand.
And so finally, as I sat beside India's holiest river, in one of Hinduism's most sacred places, a part of me snapped. I reached out with my left hand and nudged the impoverished girl's right shoulder in an attempt to get her to move out of my sight. "No, no," I said.
And as the besmirched five-year-old sulked away, my heart instantly sank. Shame set in, and rage; rage at myself. How could I have so coldly shooed away a poor child?
But no one noticed my despair or hers. All around me, India just moved on.
India. "Mother India." The world's next big economic power. The globe's ancient source of spiritual wisdom. A rising, 300-million-strong urban middle class. Six hundred million rural farming poor. "Bollywood" films. More and more novelists Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Pankaj Mishra winning critical respect. India these days is forever in the news, on the business pages, on the cultural scene. "Bride & Prejudice," starring Indian superstar Aishwarya Rai, had hit my local cinema. American pop songstress Alicia Keys warbled about karma in a song by the same name.
After nursing an India obsession for years, one day I'd picked up Mishra's novel The Romantics, an East-West allegory set in Varanasi. Finishing it, I decided once and for all to go. I went in the fall of 2005, on a jaunt through Delhi, Bodh Gaya, Fatehpur Sikri and Varanasi. Perhaps the holiest of Hindu cities, Varanasi was also one of the world's oldest. Mark Twain remarked that Varanasi was "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
It did look that ancient. It was this allegedly timeless India that I wanted to sink into, with all the cosmic significance I thought timelessness entailed. I wanted to see Hindu temples, to gaze at the Ganges, to soak up a sacred atmosphere. Not because I was lost, or searching for something I thought I lacked at home. But because, I suppose, I was drawn to a place where I could step into the past and outside my self.
So I did. But not in the way I'd expected.
Varanasi is the city of Shiva, the Hindu god. It's home to myriad temples and is famous for the hundred-odd ghats. It was along these steps that I spent most of my three days in Varanasi, watching people swim, bathe, play cricket, hold funerals, harass tourists, urinate in public, pray and lounge.
Below the ghats was the same Ganges that has held the attention of writers Eastern and Western for decades, if not centuries. In Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau pays homage to the Bhagavad Gita, the classic Hindu text, and imagines his pond's water mixing with that of a world away:
"I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug... The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
Thoreau's India was cerebral only; he never went. Others did. More than a century after Walden's publication, Allen Ginsberg visited Varanasi and was photographed, with bushy beard and Clark Kent glasses, atop a city roof. It's in India that the war hero Larry Darrell finds enlightenment in W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. Today Varanasi is also a regular stop on the Asian backpacker circuit, offering cheap guesthouses and easy-to-find marijuana to young Australians, Israelis, Japanese and Brits.
I'd rolled into Varanasi on the Doon Express train from Gaya one December morning. Sitting across from me were Atish and Gargi, honeymooners in their twenties. Peering through his stylish glasses, Atish, a software engineer, spied the muddy river that ran below the bridge we were crossing.
"Ganga?" he asked the chubby jeweler sitting opposite me. He pronounced it the Indian way: "Gon-ga." The jeweler nodded.
"So we're nearing Varanasi?" I asked.
"Yes," said Atish, teasingly glancing at his bride. "She can smell it."
I asked the couple if, as Hindus, they'd been to Varanasi to take their ceremonial dip. Atish shook his head.
"Only Ganga cannot wash away sins," he told me. Gargi concurred.
"My mother believes that," she said, handing me some pound cake across the aisle. "Our generation is different."
But activity along the ghats and in the river was intense. Strolling along the ghats, I met a family of men who were scattering their father's ashes; a scene, one could imagine, straight from a story by India's beloved R.K. Narayan. The littlest, a boy of perhaps six, squirmed as a barber shaved his small head, according to funerary custom. I looked on as the seated barber pinched the crouching boy's head between his legs and cut off lock after lock until the kid was almost bald. Here was one of the essential Hindu rituals the significance of which might have resonated with Thoreau.
But the moment I'd turn away from scenes like these, a different India would appear; something fantastic and oddly unsettling. Boys would approach and offer to lead me to temples or steer me to their silk stalls. Warily taking one boy up on his offer, I followed him up a set of steps to a small Shiva temple, no more than eight feet high and containing three small icons.
The pandit (priest) sat outside and sprung up when he saw us approaching. It had the feel of a pre-arranged meeting. And so it may have been after explaining the icons to me, the pandit asked for money; demanded it, almost. I forked over some small bills. But I hurried immediately away, feeling scammed. The wild-haired boy clung to me, insisting that I buy some silk from him. I said I'd bought some from a Muslim shop earlier that day. Hearing that, he offered me this assessment: "Muslim is fucking people!" This from a boy of about twelve.
Nothing I read no guidebook, no novel prepared me for the peculiar verve I encountered along the ghats. From the little girl selling flowers to the boat men my age pestering me to hire them, the ghats were alive with hucksters, nags and touts and maybe worse. Walking back to my guesthouse one night, I felt I was being followed by two men. I walked quickly, seeking out the lights, to shake them.
"We travel most," writes Pico Iyer, "when we stumble, and we stumble most when we come to a place of poverty and need." I was forever stumbling in Varanasi, more than anywhere else on my trip. The mendicant children and the hapless men burrowed into my conscience like no one has since or before. I was seized by their urgent begging, but I couldn't simply hand out money to everyone. Where, I often mused, should compassion end or start? Would giving away money make any difference anyway?
It's a cliché that Western seekers "find themselves" in India; that they figure out, as it were, life's spiritual quandaries. Maugham's Larry Darrell is a prime example. Traveling throughout the subcontinent, the hero winds up in an ashram in southern India. After some two years of study, he goes to a forest retreat to celebrate his birthday, and finds the Ultimate.
"I had a sense that a knowledge more than human possessed me, so that everything that had been confused was clear and everything that had perplexed me was explained," Darrell tells a friend.
But in Varanasi, I often found lines like these simply absurd. I couldn't imagine finding peace amid the cacophonous streets, the stinking garbage and the feces-strewn ghats. Yet still the Australians and Germans strode about wearing their Shiva t-shirts, sporting newly affixed tilakas (sacred Hindu markings) on their foreheads.
The casual association of India with enlightenment began to strike me as a farce. Who could expect a metaphysical revelation with grubby kids pressing themselves in one's face? Varanasi, I felt, was the antithesis of spiritual tourism, and a stark reminder that the most elusive epiphanies are those we seek out.
The East has always been a certain kind of Westerner's repository of hope and escape. It's the supposed feminine flip side to masculine America or Europe; a patchwork of Shangri-Las where no shadows are cast.
But the other side of the cultural looking glass can make us dizzy, too. Nowhere does this dizziness find a better embodiment than in the debut novel by the young Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. The Frenchwoman Catherine in The Romantics personifies the dashed hopes of the would-be exception to Kipling's line about East and West never meeting. Catherine winds up leaving Varanasi (Mishra uses its older name, Benares) at the conclusion of the tale, taking her Indian boyfriend Anand with her to Paris. Their affair dissolves soon after. A mutual friend tells the novel's hero, Samar, that Catherine "wanted children, security, stability, all those middle-class things. All that bohemianism had gone."
At times, I'd feel like Catherine or like Samar's English friend Miss West, attracted initially to India but ready finally to bolt unable to fit in and no longer wanting to. Once, even, I felt violent toward a man only a bit younger than me. He'd met me inside a big Hindu temple into which I'd cautiously stepped one evening. I didn't know how welcome I'd be, as a non-Hindu, simply popping in off the bustling street. But after buying a small bunch of marigolds, I was admitted in and immediately set upon by a young huckster.
"OK," he began, "this is... " and proceeded, unasked, to explain the interior to me; the blackened walls, the Hindu icons. Bells clanged loudly around us as my socks (I'd removed my shoes, as instructed) began to seep up water from the wet floor. My guide whisked me through the temple as sari-clad women hurried through the complex doing their puja (prayers).
Suddenly we were at the back of the temple, where a pandit sat cross-legged, receiving flowers. I gave my marigolds to the sitting man, even as part of me remained discombobulated and somehow feverish in this too-fast, ultra-foreign environment. As I gave the pandit my flowers, he beckoned for me to bend down. As I did so, he smeared his thumb on my forehead, affixing a golden-colored tilaka directly in the center. I'd been blessed.
But I hadn't wanted to be. I'd been goaded into it by my pushy guide the same guide who was now intently requesting money from me. Frowning, for I hadn't wanted his services in the first place, I reached in my wallet and pulled out some small bills. I gave him about 20 rupees. Fifty cents.
"No," he said, and looked away.
"No?" I asked.
"I can't take it." He meant it was too little. I felt my right arm clenching up. For the first time in recent memory, I really wanted to hit a man. I was being exploited, ripped off and in a holy place. I'd come to see sacred India and what I found was a sanctimonious con artist.
"Yes, you can," I said. I thrust the bills into his hand and walked out. Outside, back on the street amid the vegetable sellers and somnolent cows, I wiped the tilaka off my head and threw my wet socks into a gutter.
The bitter memory is sometimes the one that lasts, whether of a lover or a trip to an unknown land. But just as I was ready, on occasion, to write off Varanasi (or the whole of India) as hopeless, I'd happen onto something that lightened the darkness I'd felt beset by.
Like, for example, the Muslim silk-sellers at J.K. Textiles, across the street from Satnarayan Park in Varanasi. They'd invited me to sit with them in their shop and offered me hot chai before we got down to business. I bought four scarves for the women in my family and posed with them for a keepsake snapshot.
Or the little girl named Pinky who I played with two days in a row. I'd met her and her mother, who spoke good English, on the street in front of my guesthouse at Assi Ghat. Naked from the waist down like many poor Indian children, Pinky ambled near the fruit-sellers and lazing water buffalo. Her mother put a pair of pants on Pinky as I approached and said hello. Pinky spoke no English and I no Hindi. But as I hoisted her on my shoulders or spun her around by her outstretched arms, something fell away from me.
That something was the notion of "India" itself. All the preconceptions, all the foreignness, all the alleged exaltedness I'd found in Maugham or Thoreau. There was only a little girl and me in my dirty clothes, spinning and spinning, in the moment and happy.
I was scheduled to leave Varanasi on the Marudhar Express, bound for Agra. Gazing at the train from the platform on the evening of my departure, I noticed all the identifying signs were in Hindi. A passenger assured me the train was indeed the one I wanted. Walking the platform, searching for my car, the train began to move. I panicked for a moment, then jumped on board as the wheels creaked and the whistle blew.
It took me the better part of two weeks to recover from my trip to India. I'd seen so much misery that my desk job in Washington seemed absurd in addition to cruelly sedentary. On my first night back, I'd sat bolt upright in bed, dazed, and growled at my wife, "Who are you? What do you want?" I was talking in my sleep. Maybe I'd been haunted still by the little girl selling flowers in Varanasi, by my coldness toward her, by the self I'd found and didn't like. I think of her even now.
But what I came to understand, with weeks of hindsight, was that I'd truly traveled in India. I'd flown into the foreign and come back changed. Much of what I'd seen was sad, yes. And yet I was grateful to that sadness for confronting me and showing me life as I had never known it. In the end I stood taller for having stumbled so far. On the other side of the globe, I felt, my eyes had been opened anew.