Dear New Delhi,
I’m sorry. I spoke too soon. I take it all back. You are NOT chaotic, shambolic, or mad. You are a model of decorum and tranquility. Yes. I have just met your sister: Varanasi.
As I stood waiting to collect my luggage at Varanasi airport, a woman standing a short distance off looked at me. “This is your first time to Varanasi”. It wasn’t a question. The fact it was evident at 5 paces that I was heretofore unseasoned with the Varanasi blend of spices was a little concerning. It called to mind the conversations I had had with Indians both at home and in India when I had mentioned my intention to travel to the Holy City. Almost without exception, the response has comprised a little head wobble, the querying statement “Oh. Varanasi?”, then a mysterious smile eventually giving way to outright laughter. I couldn’t work out whether they thought I couldn’t take it or just that the image of Luc confronted by realities of the place was one they found particularly amusing. Probably both. Anyway. Never one to waste an opportunity to crow, I have to tell you – I loved the place. And I mean LOVED it.
This isn’t to say that the drive into town doesn’t make one suck in one’s cheeks a little. Far worse than Delhi, I’m not even sure “drive” is even the correct verb in Shiva’s City. It’s more a series of motorised lunges between points with use of the horn replacing the road code. Yesterday, I found myself lunging towards Sarnath (where Buddha gave his first sermon) on the wrong side of a traffic island – my driver (who was amazing, actually – great guy) deciding that his horn would immunise us from the fact that we were ON COMPLETELY THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD. Oncoming traffic swerved good-naturedly out of our way, tooting helpfully to alert others of their next erratic manoeuvre.
Wait. I’m not being fair. There is one class of road user in Varanasi which moves in a stately, predictable manner. The cows are fine. Thank God for the cows. Hang on, what?!?! Yeah. Wandering the roads. Cows. Lots of. Sacred to Hindus, Varanasi cows pretty much have a free run – grazing on rubbish and whatever else they might find, including the stock of the odd dreamy vegetable vendor, brought out of his reverie with a yelp. Imagine walking up High St on your way to work in the morning, your takeaway coffee warm in your hand, bracing Winter morning air in your nostrils. You cross Victoria, wander calmy past 7 or 8 cows lying down in front of Sheinkin and fall in next to another couple of cows heading towards Wellesley. Seriously. The place isn’t short on character, that’s for sure.
When most people think of Varanasi, the first thing which comes to mind tends to be the river. The Ganges. What to say? I first encountered Ganga at 5.15am the morning after arriving – she really is at her most beautiful as she rises for the day. I had the second breathless moment of my trip. I experienced a whirl of emotions – like the city itself, I felt full of contradiction. I felt so sorry for those living in obvious poverty – and then embarrassment for feeling that way as these people rose from their ‘beds’ smiling. While coming from a good place, feeling sorry for them was actually based on an arrogant assumption that they must be unhappy because they don’t lead a life that looks like mine; that my picture of success must be the same as theirs – and if it isn’t, theirs must be wrong. I imagine a billionaire looking at my life with a tear in their eye feeling sorry for me because I don’t have what they have… what I would think of them and that sentiment is unprintable.
These people didn’t want my pity and, more than that, I didn’t get the sense they felt there was anything to be pitied for. Much deprivation partnered with a lot of dignity. I cringed at the vulgarity of tourists photographing people going about their morning ablutions in the river and then realised that this place has been the subject of visitor curiosity since time immemorial. Nobody there would remember a time when there *weren’t* people gawking at them – just about as much part of the ritual as the ritual itself, I imagine. I felt guilt, then shame for feeling guilty, then kinda reconciled. All of these contradictory feelings were backlit by the pink light of dawn on the water.
The river banks were heaving with life – children splashing siblings, Mum and Dad looking on with affectionate smiles; people taking their daily sip of the river; others standing up to their knees washing sheets by beating them expertly against stone; some asleep in dinghies and on the decks of small boats; others meditating, facing the rising sun; and women in colourful sarees standing, eyes closed, palms pressed together in thanks. So much energy, so much life!..
And with that life, of course, there was also death – the flames and smoke from the burning ghats an ever-present reminder. A bare-chested priest crouching down next to a pile of ash, smearing it on his forehead; a group of men submerging the body of a lost relative in the river – a final cleanse before being consigned to the flames; others gathering wood; children moving about among the fires. All of this next to people paying their daily respects to Ganga, waking, washing and working.
Life, death; guilt, absolution; deprivation, dignity; loud, contemplative; frenzied, measured; friendly, edgy. A rich tapestry of contradictions, I loved Varanasi. I know that this was in no small part because of my host – Harish of Homestay Varanasi. He made my stay. Made it. Totally. No exaggeration. We were having dinner one night and I remarked on all these contrasts. He replied, “Yes… …I describe Varanasi as being ‘the city of serene madness'”. I couldn’t have put it better.