It was a very warm Varanasi evening. May. A Saturday. I had arrived from Ladakh the day before into this City of Serene Madness and on this, my second afternoon in town, I found myself wending my way through the back alleys which run alongside the Ganges.
At around 3000 years old, Varanasi vies for top honours as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, alongside the likes of Jericho and Damascus. Its ancient name of Kashi means “luminous one” in reference to the fact it was a centre of learning and enlightenment. Somehow (and I think it’s impossible to explain if you haven’t experienced it) despite mountains of surface evidence to the contrary, there is a special light which still shines here, if you’re of a mind to see it.
Choosing my moment, I headed to the right picking my way through the buildings towards the river. My destination was the Mansarovar Ghat where, I was told, a school had been set up on a boat for local children. A few minutes later, I came across Ganga. That river really is something else. She just is. Breathing in the evening air, I walked a few metres upstream and then, a short way off, I saw a man standing on the gangway of a small but substantial river boat. I moved down the river bank towards the water. He raised his hand and smiled warmly in greeting. I will never be the same again.
It all began a week or so earlier. I was volunteering in Ladakh when four Princeton students arrived for a few days. They had all been living in Varanasi for 9 months learning Hindi and working for non-profits. One of the students shared something of her experience with me – her non-profit, she said, fought human trafficking and forced prostitution. Like most people, I had some awareness of human trafficking. And, like most people, the thought of it had always evoked feelings of revulsion and incredulity at Man’s inhumanity to Man. I was curious to see the work this non-profit was doing and the student kindly agreed to put me in touch with them. A few e-mails and a week later and here I was: standing in the mud next to the most famous river in the world, the ancient city of Varanasi behind me, about to board a little oasis of learning floating on the water.
Lauded far and wide, Ajeet Singh is, by any measure, an extraordinary human being. He and his wife Manju run Guria, a non-profit dedicated to the eradication of human trafficking, slavery and sexual exploitation of women and children. The Week magazine’s 2011 Man of the Year, he has been working on this cause and transforming lives against the odds since he was 17 years old. Click here to go to the article.
In their fight against slavery, Guria’s initiatives span prevention, rescue, reintegration and prosecution. Part of a broader empowerment strategy, the intention behind the floating school is to reduce the vulnerability of the children by providing them with basic literacy education, so they can read and write. Catering to the children of the boatmen community who live along the ghats, the boat is rented for Rs 6000 (NZ$150) a month and provides them with a nice learning environment. After a short time sitting in class with the children, we headed upstairs onto the roof for a chat.
A couple of hours floated by as I sat there on the river that evening. Ajeet told me more about Guria – where they had come from and where they wanted to go. I heard of village empowerment programmes nurturing rural economies and establishing channels to market for village products. If they can help the people can make their own money, they will be less vulnerable to trafficking. I heard of literacy education and information sharing about trafficking and traffickers – “If this man comes and says he wants to marry your daughter, he is lying”. I heard about the rescue of children from the brothels and how they are reintegrated into society with education and training. I heard about the unrelenting fight to see the traffickers prosecuted for their crimes.
I had a tingly feeling all over my body: I was meant to be having that conversation. A little voice in my head said “Luc, pay attention! This is important. You are meant to be here. Right now. Listening to this man.”
Over the next couple of days, through Ajeet and Manju’s generosity, I was able to add an experience to the narrative I heard that night.
“We need more enlightened people. We need more wise people. We need more humane people.” – Ajeet Singh
After sharing pakora with the children and waving them on their way, it was my turn to take my leave. Invited to lunch the next day, I went off in search of my autorickshaw driver who was, I knew, waiting patiently for my return. It was dark.
The river and her banks took on a different personality and my pulse quickened slightly as the edge in the air, which is muted by day, made its presence known. Rather than move quicker, which is what I wanted to do, I stopped still. I closed my eyes for a moment and breathed. Opening my eyes again, my fear had subsided and I almost laughed – giddy at the wonder of the Ganges by night. Keeping my eyes averted out of respect for their privacy rather than fear, feeling the warmth of the fires on my face, I walked past mourners at the burning ghat and made my way into the darkness of the streets beyond.
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