Varanasi (or ‘Benares’, as she used to be known before the exit of the British), 300 miles south-east of Delhi and situated on the banks of the River Ganges, can only be described as an assault on the senses.
Never before have I experienced such feelings of pure hatred; never before has one city left such a powerful impression on my soul; never before have I been moved by such a profound sense of humanity as during those ten weeks in Varanasi.
Prepared for the poverty, the heat and the dirt, I was taken by the throat by the one aspect of life in an Indian city that I wasn’t ready for: the attitude of the people.
“Why do you smoke so much?” A complete stranger walks up and asks as I sit quietly writing a letter in the Post Office.
“I don’t think it’s any of your business”, I look up and reply with polite self-control.
I resume my letter. A few minutes later he returns, wife trailing behind him.
“What?!” I snap, before he has a chance to repeat his question.
He retreats rapidly; I’m left shocked, once again, at the violence of my reaction. Do all Indians pry in this way? Or is it just in the cities? Have they no respect for my privacy? Why did I have to be so rude? A child asking the same question wouldn’t have provoked such a response from me.
I continue to write, ignoring the stares of a cluster of young men in the corner mentally undressing me. An older man settles himself down besides me.
“Good-day”, he begins, wiping his nose with his hand. I nod and force a smile.
“So – you’re English – Swedish, German?” A disgusting retching noise follows.
“English”, I reply, putting my pen down. I must manage a civil conversation, I think to myself.
The man enjoys a gut-clearing burp.
“Ah yes, I have many friends in England.”
“Oh really? Whereabouts?”
“Everywhere.” He spits out a portion of the saliva that has accumulated in his mouth. “Where are you staying?”
Before I can reply, the rest of the saliva hits me full in the eyes as he coughs vigorously in my direction. Incredulous, and unable to control myself any longer, I burst out laughing in his face.
"We are very pleased to have you in our country", he continues, unperturbed.
A few minutes later I enter into the intense light of the 112 degrees Indian Spring, having received an insistent invitation to meet the next day for tea and a meal at my new friend's home. Steeling myself for the inevitable battle with the rickshaw drivers, I cautiously approach one, dozing under the shade of the dilapidated, gaudily-painted awning of his cart.
"Er - Treemurrti Lodge?" I query, attempting English with a Hindi accent, as this seems to be better understood.
"Four rupees, fifty pesa."
"Three rupees, I KNOW THE PRICE!" I shout, despairing once again at my consistent bad temper, as I move on to the next driver.
His face registers blankness while his mouth voices "yes". Without bothering to reply to him, I head straight for the next in line. Experience has taught me not to step into a rickshaw unless its owner shows immediate recognition of my destination. Other times, growing more irritable by the minute, I've had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of several dozen passers-by as we've stopped every five minutes to ask for directions.
This time, however, I'm lucky. The third rickshaw man I recognise as having taken me successfully back to my hotel before. Bright red-stained teeth grin at me as he lifts his head up to avoid losing the chewed-up Betel leaves stuffed inside his mouth.
"Treemurrti Lodge, atcha?" He mumbles through the Betel, as he clambers onto his bicycle to act as my human horse. I position myself uncomfortably on the red plastic seat, he carefully winds his brilliantly-patterned red and yellow-coloured scarf in a wild turban shape over his head, and we clatter away.
Rome has nothing on Varanasi: cars, rickshaws, pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, goats and cows galore are all narrowly missed, as bare feet and an old but strong body pedal me at breakneck speed through a traffic system that doesn't exist. No road surface, no lights and omni-directional traffic mean that I fear for my life as we hurtle and bump our way ahead.
"Can't you drive more slowly?!" I scream, as we crash into the wheels of another rickshaw.
The driver turns his gnarled features round to me and smiles.
"Treemurrti Lodge, yes, madam?"
. . .
Ten minutes and a guilt payment of five rupees later, I wind my way into the Chowk, the central bazaar of the city, where my hotel is also located. I glare at the handsome, smartly-dressed men who smile knowingly at me as I push my way through the narrow streets. Why am I made to feel as of I'm a nymphomaniac, just because I'm a Western woman? I've deliberately dressed in the style of the young Indian women to avoid provocation; loose white top, baggy trousers and a white scarf over my head can't be misconstrued as an invitation for sex, surely? What kind of image do these people have of the West? Their women are treated with the utmost respect, so why can't I be, too?
The sudden sight of the 'Golden Temple' in the heart of the Chowk stops me in my grumblings once again: its gold-plated walls, profusion of offerings of tiny yellow flowers, the gleaming copper pots in the surrounding streets and the intense light of the sun combine to make a wonderful mirage. Five or six cows with flowers hung round their necks lay sprawled contentedly in a corner nearby.
I laugh again; these animals are a consistent source of amusement to me: standing gazing into mid-air in the middle of the streets, sitting in front of the cinema waiting for the movie to begin, charging down the alleyways as people scatter to make way for them, oblivious to everyone and everything, they seem to exert far more influence over the running of the city than any government ever has or will.
Still laughing at the thought of the cows, I retch slightly as I pass by the open toilets.
The non-stop barrage of street vendors and young boys confront me at my every step. Fervently wishing I had a recorded message of "No, I do NOT want silk, drugs, a cold drink, boat ride, massage or an astrologer THANK YOU", continuously playing, I stride ahead quickly and ignore them.
My friend 'Guruji' waves me into his shop. Boasting of having made love to over twenty-five Indian men and innumerable Western women during the course of his 58 years, his advances have failed with me and we've become good friends instead.
I'd once asked him - a Sanskrit scholar and highly-respected astrologer - how he would react if his wife were to practise infidelity with the same devotion that he did.
"I would probably beat her a few times, but then, as long as she promised not to repeat her mistake, it would be nothing too serious.
Our Hindu culture is covered by the skin of the cow, but inside there's a tiger: many married people have affairs (the tiger), but as long as nobody else in the community finds out, it's not a sin. The external rules and regulations of my Hinduism must be obeyed. This is what we mean by 'the skin of the cow.'
Today, Guruji wants me to meet a special friend of his. I clamber up the small wall into his offfice, caking my white outfit with mud in the process. My filthy, unironed clothes still seem presentable, however, and I feel glad that I'm not in the West, where appearances are everything.
A signed photo of Goldie Hawn, Guruji's most famous customer to date, smiles down at me. Copies of Lace, the I Ching, books on Christian healing and sacred Sanskrit texts lay strewn about the room.
Guruji's guest of honour stands up to greet me. Clad in a muted orange with National Health-style spectacles, the 'holy vagabond' or Swami immediately insists on taking me out to lunch.
"But first we must have tea", Guruji interrupts. He leans out of the shop and shouts an order across the street.
A 5-year-old boy apppears with tea in clay cups and a cigarette apiece. His huge brown eyes and cheeky, shy smile epitomise the photographs on calendars sent out by charitable organisations.
The pus in his eyes, his matted hair, the snot puring from his nose into the rags hanging on his body, however, purvey the reality of 18 hours a day spent feeding the steaming cauldron of tea boiled up to refresh well-oiled customers like myself from his father's tiny shop.
My heart luches, and feeling like the benevolent Memsahib, I sneak some extra money into his hand.
The Swami is in a hurry to eat. We smash our cups carelessly onto the street outside, striking me as symbolic of the the way that the influence of Western culture has smashed apart the lives of the people in India's cities.
Little wonder that we are hassled so much for money, when we've initiated and perpetrate a craving to consume, as we parade down beggar-lined streets, i-phone swinging from one shoulder and designer bag from the other.
Little wonder that their image of Western women is so hopelesly distorted, when we bare shoulders, backs, arms and legs in a country where these parts of the body are considered to be particularly erotic; when unmarried couples openly share hotel rooms in a culture where 90% of single men and women are not allowed to mix socially; when movies and the media report the West as the lands of 'free love' to a people where sex and marriage must go hand-in-hand.
The Indians in the villages - though naturally curious at the rare appearance of a Western visitor - do not share the preoccupations of their urban counterparts. Hospitable and warm, their friendliness is genuine.
"Come, come, come", Swami, grand and imperious with his flowing robes and wooden stick, grabs me by the hand, sweeps us into a nearby restauraant and ushers me to a table. His status commands attention: we are served immediately, wolf down our meal, hail a rickshaw and are transported to the home of a friend he wishes me to meet.
The friend is not there; I am invited to visit Swami's ashram the next day, told of his adoring disciples in the States who are flying him out to teach them and asked for a kiss.
"Please, please, just one kiss - here", the holy man points to his lips. "Ple-a-se."
He seems astonished and offended when I refuse.
. . .
I escape to the cinema with an Australian friend that evening. Relieved at being able to talk with someone without the exhaustion that comes with being continuously on the defensive, I relax and enjoy the sheer visual extravaganza and over-the-top melodrama of a classic Indian love story.
The streets of Varanasi are almost deserted when finally we leave the cinema at midnight. A few rickshaw drivers are curled up asleep on their wagons, magically waking up when we pass by to tout their services.
As we enter into the Chowk, its dark and silent alleyways seem to take on the aura of a ghost town. A sudden burst of light frames a group of policemen playing cards in their office. I spot the little tea-shop boy lying stretched-out on the street nearby.
We tread our way back carefully to avoid the cow droppings and reach our hotel.
Marvelling at the safety of the city by night, I gaze out across its calmness from the roof-top high window of my room. The tranquil pale blue of the town's only mosque is illuminated tonight by a string of fairy lights, remnants of a wedding held earlier on today.
At 3am precisely, the Golden Temple also makes it presence felt.
The first night this happened, I awoke, startled, and jumped out of bed to see what was happening: a monotonous distorted taped chanting blaring out at full volume, whilst the temple lights flashed on and off furiously, giving the whole building the appearance of preparing for lift-off.
I am accustomed to the nightly ritual by now, however, the lights and prayers serving to add an extra dimension to my dreams, as I slumber on though the chaos.
Next morning, I wander down to 'Shiva Shakti's Cold Drinks Cormer' for my morning ritual: cardmum seeds, ginger, milk and cheap tea are thrown into a blackened kettle which, mysteriously, always seems to take precisely half-an-hour to boil. The tea is worth the wait. I hoist myself up onto the wall opposite and look around. A funeral procession, the body swathed in expensive silks and lifted up onto the shoulders of the mourners, makes its way to the riverside to be burned.
A trail of schoolboys and girls follows, shouting the eternal "'ello, 'ello!" to every white person they see. Their innocent friendliness usually has the effect of irritating me to death, the last straw to break the camel's back in a sea of merciless greetings.
I drink my tea and go.
. . .
Mr. Jay Prakash, national supervisor of Blue Arrow Courier Services, Ltd., sits smoking and drinking bottled beer on the balcony of his hotel.
I crash into his room, exhausted from the heat and the daily fight with the rickshaw driver.
"Damned hot, eh?" Prakash offers me his chair and brings another one out onto the balcony.
At 24-years-old, Prakash is a success. From Bangalore in Southern India, he is educated, earns nearly 400 pounds a month, is a senior professional in an expanding company and appears to be completely westernised in both dress and outlook. His manners, like his English, are impeccable. Choosing his words carefully so as not to offend a member of 'the fairer sex', he has questioned me at great lengths about Western sexual morals and behaviour.
His own future, however, is clear: having fallen in love with a girl from his home town, he has decided to propose to her the next time they meet, opting for a love marriage, rather than an arranged one.
"So, how is Jaya?" I ask.
Prakash has not received a letter from her for three days now, but worse still, he has received one from his father: a girl whose family is well-known to Prakash's parents - but whom Prakash has not seen for over three years - has suddenly expressed her desire to marry him. Her family aproves, and so do Prakash's. He is to come home as soon as possible to meet her.
"What's a guy to do?" He looks at me for advice.
"Well, I don't see what the problem is", I answer naïvely. "You love Jaya, she loves you; just tell your parents that you want to marry her. They can't stop you, can they?"
"No - and they wouldn't. The problem is that I'm not sure what I want. Sure, Jaya's pretty, she's damned intelligent and has a college education too, but ... maybe an arranged marriage would be better for me after all."
I'm shocked and amazed at the deep-rooted conflict going on inside Prakash. Having openly renounced all Indian traditions and customs for Western values, he now proceeds to explain the advantages of marrying someone from the same caste and religion as himslef, whose entire family is known and respected by his own relatives. Jaya is Christian and from a slightly lower caste.
"What's more", he continues, "in India 90% of arranged marriages succeed, but 90% of love marriages fail. I don't know if a marriage can be based on love alone. What do you think?"
What do I think? What experience do I have of advising someone in such a situation? Furthermore, what right do I have to encourage Prakash to opt for the love marriage, when these have such a dismal rate of success in the West? Maybe we could learn a thing or two from their system of arranged marriages ...
"I don't know, Prakash, I'm sorry", I respond feebly.
Feeling inadequate and angry at the confusion rendered by a too-sudden influx of Western standards, I retreat to the tranquillity of the banks of the Ganges later on that afternoon.
There are few people here at this time of day; the early-morning devotess won't return until dusk to repeat their washing, prayers and sacrifices.
A young woman, her back turned to me, is preparing to bathe. She changes her garments modestly, careful not to reveal her body to any onlookers. What must she think of her sisters from the West, I wonder, as they plunge into the wayer in their skimpy bikinis wthout a care in the world? I continue to watch, fascinated, and regretting that I've not had the opportunity to speak to any Indian women in great depth. Language, and the fact that most businesses are run by men, stop them from mixing with the tourists. The two women that I have met, briefly, have only queried me on my education and profession. One was a teacher, the other a doctor. Both displayed tremendous pride in ther achievements. I too, was starting to view things through their eyes, respecting anyone who had even managed to graduate from high school. Their countrymen who had survived in the West would be seen with new eyes, too.
"Boat ride, madam?" A soft male voice jars me back from my musings.
"No thank you - " I turn round quickly and recognise my would-be harasser as my friend Chandra.
"Hello, madam." He bows slightly and looks up at me eagerly.
"Chandra, you don't have to call me 'madam', you know that."
Working directly on commission from the shop owners in the Chowk, Chandra had introduced himself to me several weeks earlier, while I'd been looking for accommodation in Varanasi. Not only had he found me a room without lizards, but he had also haggled with the hotel owner on my behalf to negotiate a cheaper price. Acting as my unofficial guide round the city, he never asked for money from me and didn't seem to expect it, either.
"I do it for humanity", was his standard explanation for his incredible helpfulness.
"So - shall we take boat then, madam?"
"Yes, okay, but I'm not paying some extortionate 'tourist price' to the boatman", I reply, irritable at the the thought of being ripped-off yet again.
"No, madam, of course not, that is because of your greatness", Chandra responds sweetly.
"It's not because of my greatness, but because of my bad-temperedness, Chandra", I sigh, despairing at myself.
It seems impossible to rid Chandra of the uncomfortable 'Master/Servant' attitude that he continously projects. The British might have left over sixty years' ago, dispelling their servants in their wake, but if a caste mentality is in a people's bones, then nothing is going to stop them relating to others as either their superiors or inferiors. Who am I to threaten Chandra's sense of security by insisting that he treats me as an equal?
The boatman begins to slowly row us across the water to the desert-like plains on the other side.
I stare at an object floating on the water some fifty or so feet away. A dead cow? A discarded rickshaw, perhaps? The object draws nearer. My mouth drops open as an upturned human corpse, stripped white of all flesh by the two vultures perched on top of it, brushes alongside our boat.
"Bad karma", Chandra observes, as he continues to smoke his hashish.
My mouth stays open for another five minutes. In a state of shock, the full horror of the image will not hit me until I'm alone in my hotel room later on that night.
I slowly sip the tea served to us by the owner of the shack on the other side.
"This tea isn't made from water taken from the river, is it?" I suddenly realise what I might be drinking.
"Oh no, the water's brought over specially from the town. No problem, madam", Chandra gulps his tea back nonchalantly.
The tea-shop owner interrupts.
"This is very fine, holy water, fresh from Ganges."
A shower of boiling liquid hits the ground as Chandra chokes on the contents of his clay cup.
. . .
After seven weeks in Varanasi, I woke up one Sunday morning to find that acceptance had replaced hatred. The early morning sun blistered my head as I smiled and joked with the commission touts, shop owners and rickshaw drivers who assailed me on my way to the river,
Lalou's tea-shop, where I was heading, was a popular attraction with the tourists, due mainly to the gentle and open friendliness of its owner, a 40-year-old Indian with movie-star good looks.
Lalou serves me tea, closes his shop and invites me for a swim. I check for corpses and agree.
Resting by a side of a boat in the centre of the Ganges, he relates to me his story, repeated to any tourist with an ear to listen:
An unmarried Brahmin - one of the highest castes in India - he was a virgin when Roselyne had walked into his shop some 18 months previously. A passionate and intense affair had followed, with Roselyn doing the seducing. Lalou was concerned about their different social status: " I tell her -'you rich, I'm poor' -but she tell me, 'with love, you don't need money or richness."
They married in court, any other arrangement compromising the deeply-held beliefs of both Lalou and the culture in which he lived. Three months after the wedding, she returned to France, saying that she had work commitments to fulfill, but assuring him that she would come back soon.
Roselyne never did return; Lalou received a letter from her every day for the first three months and then - nothing. E-mails, letters and messages via friends returning to the West were sent, imploring her to contact him.
She finally wrote back, six months after their marriage, a brief, curt note, informing Lalou that she couldn't live comfortably on an income provided by tea and biscuits and that she was sorry, but she had met another man in Paris.
"Now, " Lalou concludes, "I feel no bitterness towards her, but I feel I have lost something, my innocence maybe: before, if pretty girl comes in shop and I see a little of her leg or chest, I feel nothing, but now, when I see this, I have strong feeling to go to her and make love to her. What can I do?"
I look over at the Indians beginning to bathe by the banks and wonder what else we've done to rape their soul.
Catherine Nagle says:
Thank you for your wonderful essay that has truly given me quite an education here! My heart, too, felt as though I was with you every step of the way.
Assault on the senses, describing your visit to Varanasi, has awakened my soul with compassion here, so much more. I can understand why the imprint has stayed with you.
I appreciate what you have shared. I feel I have "grown" from your wonderful, inspiring, deep, and moving visit to Varanasi.
I know I said this before, but, I have to thank you again, because you have made quite an imprint here!
Sun, 10/25/2009 - 3:40pm
Claire Elizabeth Terry says:
Thank you for your very kind words. I am really touched that it made an impact on you, as indeed the city did on me!
Look forward to being in touch!
All the best,
Tue, 10/27/2009 - 10:57am
Terin Miller says:
Ah, Varanasi. Was a tough choice for me between Varanasi and Madrid. In the end, I chose Madrid, as I know Varanasi, having lived there a year and visited since and even use it as a location in my debut novel.
And I have to say, your blog post captured it well!
So, thanks for doing that...:)
Terin Tashi Miller
Mon, 10/26/2009 - 8:10am
Claire Elizabeth Terry says:
Thank you Terin! I look forward to finding out what your novel is about!
Tue, 10/27/2009 - 11:00am
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