Varanasi Part 1- Row your boat, gently down the stream…

Picture me walking towards you across an Indian market by a wide river. It’s early morning and the stalls are empty. My hair is blond, curly and shoulder length. I am wearing a blue t-shirt and knee length shorts. As I come near my smile is replaced by a frown of concentration. I stand with legs wide apart, knees bent, blue eyes straight at you. Suddenly, as my hands mime the beating of a drum, you hear the deep and resonant sound of a drums and symbols playing in time with my hand motions. A huge tambourine clashes as my hands form into a prayer above my head, my arms go out to either-side and wriggle to the rhythm of a sitar that begins to play and the winning of a snake charmers trumpet.

Another pair of arms appear wriggling behind mine and another pair and another pair and another pair.

A base drum sounds once, twice, three times-four, my head drops revealing another person behind me and another and another and another, six Indian men move to either-side of me, each dressed as waiters. We begin to dance in time to the Hindi music that is now in full swing.

The market fills up with people. Women with glittering sarees of purple, green and red carry baskets of brightly cloured fruit singing in high voices. A line of white-robed men with yellow turbans hop and skip their way onto the picture pushing trolleys, singing in deep counter tones. Children run past smiling at you, teeth white, eyes bright, throwing flower petals. Myself and the dances have all dropped low and are kicking our legs out in time to the beat, hands pushed palm out and chanting “ha-ha-ha-ha,” Suddenly, a herd of cows, white, black, yellow and brown come charging from behind you scattering us out of the way.

Once the dust settles, there are seven beautiful girls in sarees of gold and blue who move into the cleared centre space. The music is softer now and the leader of the girls, an especially beautiful young lady, dressed in white and gold sings a song and dances, her maidens twirl their fingers and point their toes mimicking her moves. I roll towards her on to my knees and sing a note in Hindi, clearly entranced. My fellow dancers each roll and sing to one of the girls… Taking note of my t-shirt and shorts she shrugs and skips away, the girls follow her leaving us all crushed.

Then the music picks up again and my dancers produce a large sheet of fabric of spiraled purple patterns that I disappear behind. A holy man hops skips and jumps before you, his brown skin stark against his white beard. He sings a magical word and waves his staff towards the cloth from behind which you can see my clothes been flung into the air.

With a final wave of his stick and a wiggle of his eyebrows, and a rather violent thrusting of his hips, the holy man disappears and I appear from behind the cloth dressed as a prince in white and gold with diamonds glittering in my turban. My fellow dances are each now dressed as rich servants in red and white who follow me and grab you we, conga after the girls…

We dance along the dark and narrow alleyways of the town, between ramshackle buildings, dodging and leaping over dogs and motorbikes, high fiving stall sellers and ducking under baker’s trays laden with chapattis. The girls, led by the beauty in white, conga past us in the opposite direction singing in high whiny voices, ours mid tone, match theirs note for note. A window opens above us; a policeman with a brown face and a huge mustache leans out, grumpily singing about the noise. Above him five more windows open consecutively, each with a policeman older than the last, their mustaches getting bigger and grander and voices higher and higher in note and indignation. Until finally a wizened old head pops out, eyes barely open and sings. Glass breaks somewhere and the music stops. A ball flies through the air and hits the window that smacks the policemen in the face; all the lower windows fall shut knocking each and every policeman back through the windows. The ball falls past washing lines and clothes out to dry to land in my hand. I nod to the band that is huddled inside a shop front waiting.

The music begins again and the seven girls and we chaps following cross a bridge of boats on the river, hop skipping across from boat to boat to the sound of trumpets, sitars, symbols and drums, men in loincloths burst from the water, splashing us each as we pass and mermaids dance and bubbles mutter.

Back in the market place, the whole town is dancing, they lift me and the girl up in a great pyramid of arms and legs, an elephant marches past spraying glitter and rose petals from it’s trunk. The girl impressed with my dancing and new clothes flutters her eyelids and everyone cheers.

In the foreground and quite near to you, a huge tiger is sitting on a stone plinth having it’s paws pampered and nails sharpened by a lovely local girl with doe like eyes. He looks at you and rolls his eyes at my indulgence and extravagance. In the background, un-seen by the cheering crowd a monkey throws a coconut at my head and I fall backwards out of site. The Tiger yawns, then eyes go wide and jaw drops in astonishment as a troop of marvelous mice dance past his feet playing violins.

The Tiger looks at you and shrugs his shoulders…

…I knew I was outside before I woke properly, but wasn’t sure how or why? What I hear before sleep and dreams fully depart are noises normally filtered away by glass and curtain.

Subtle sounds and sensations heard and felt with closed eyes at dawn; The flutter of bird’s wings, the searching tongue and nose of an animal sifting through rubbish, the tightening of my skin and the pulling of my pores as the heat grows. Footsteps, sluggish and scuffing, the yawning of a dog, the splash of a boats oar in water. In the distance a radio turns on, a child cries and a woman silences it with soft words. Nearby someone is washing something, the plunging watery sound is rich and desirable – the roof of my mouth hugs my tongue tight.

The gum that has formed across my eyes slowly tears open. Out of the blur I can see the shape of a man sitting still and cross-legged before me. He wears a robe of orange wrapped about his waist and has a wizened, whitish beard that hangs to his belly is in stark contrast to the wrinkled nut brown of his skin, it’s long tangles fall down together with the locks of his hair to his waist – a Sadhu, a wandering holy man common to the riverside.

We are sitting in the shade of an archway at the bottom of a stairwell made of reddish stone; its coated in the same soft greasy layer of ash that covers all of Varanasi.

He smiles at me, or at least ceases to frown for the fraction of a moment, the deep creasers of his face fold deeper into the recesses about his eyes, he gestures to the right.

Slowly, I turn my head. Before us is the Ganges, grey-blue, still and quite. The red ball of the morning sun, two thumbs widths from the horizon hangs patiently waiting for me to notice it. On the far bank a flock of birds swoop and land on the surface silently. A man stands on his boat in the middle of the river; an oar paused in paddling as he regards the same view. A cloud of incense and hashish blows into my face from the Sadhu’s pipe making me sick.

I try to stand, nausea overwhelms me and for several moments I throw up by my side. My fingers cling to the warm yellow stone floor, as it becomes a wall, ceiling and floor again. My body shakes and what little saliva I have is leaking from my mouth in long strands, a tear falls and splashes in the mess of me.

A dog approaches, or the bare skin and bones of one, it smiles at me both apologetically and with understanding and begins to lick my insides up. I feel, or think I feel someone standing over and behind me; the Sadhu must have come to help. I wave my hand and mumble thanks, but when I swing up right, he hasn’t moved at all. His legs are still folded underneath him in full lotus; his eyes regard me like still water.

I find myself thanking him anyway and apologizing for throwing up so close to his space. From the array of incense sticks and deity statues and pictures it looks as though this is his permanent spot, prime for seeing the Ganges and for being seen by tourists and pilgrims passing along its shore.

After a moment he says something in Hindu, the words roll out his mouth in a babble of noise I don’t understand. Sweat brakes out across my brow and body as I lean back, I look at him through half lidded eyes and try and remember why I am here.

Varanasi Part 2 – … life is but a dream

I wander around the city of Varanasi as the sun begins to set. I am at once appalled and enchanted. It is said to be one of the oldest settlements known to civilisation and I have rarely seen a more magical place. The old part itself is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways created by leaning skeletal buildings that grow out of the bones of those that are rotting in layers beneath.

Here children play cricket in gutters thick with flies and dying animals. Faeces of dog, cow, cat and man mix and patch the floor together.

Dogs, thin and mangy claim any spare space not already taken by cows or passing people. Some lay in dangerous way of the footfall and traffic, as though daring or wishing to be squashed and taken out of the chaos of this life and into the possibility of the next.

The tempo is high and fast. Traders of gold and spices, religious jewellery makers, tourist touts and food sellers all call out from the shadows. Hot plates smoulder and smoke, angry red in dark corners; fried patties and sweet breads fry in oils bubbling on hot coals and gas lit stoves. Men queue in food lines past open urinals bronzed with the stain of ages. In these corridors you breathe through the mouth shallowly.

In the main passages, motorbikes blast their horns impatiently as people pass and go carrying all types of supplies.

Hindu tourists mingle with pilgrims buying flowers or incense for offerings at the cities many temples. Armed police linger at every corner with antique guns and little interest. Chanting and bells ringing call who-knows-who from and to unseen places.

I look around me as the gloom gives way to night. On the stone shelves and doorways; skin and bone people curl up and claim spaces warmed by dogs by day, they use their knees for blankets.

A shadowy form detaches itself from a doorway, trails me asking if I want Heroin, his eyes are hungry with desperation for someone to share the ride he is on. I turn to the shadow, reminded of a former client of mine at the homeless shelter in Earls Court.

He’d had Heroin-numb-tortured eyes with ghosts for veins that tried to hide from him and his unstoppable needle, fading away, day by day. He had nothing left but that hunger. It took everything from him and gave shame and guilt back, trapped on a merry-go-round of self-hate with breaks that could not be oiled. Such is the agony of an addict, our criminalised sick, instead of pain numbed, it’s stored up and delayed for later when in sober thought.

The man asks me again.

“Herion? You want my friend?”

“No.” I say, my British’ness escapes my lips before I can stop it, thanks him though for asking.

He returns to his dark doorway and I seek out the light.

A noise causes me to turn and I step aside.  A troop of men carrying a wooden frame with body on top charge past. The body is wrapped in a shroud that’s come lose about the face, a dead eye catches mine, I do not wink.

I come across a press of people forming what could be called a queue to enter a temple beneath a metal detecting doorframe. The atmosphere is excitable, frantic and threatening to spill over into something more… pressing. It reminds me of the restrained lines of eager and anxious partygoers waiting in lines in London’s alleys or football fans on the way to the ground – Religion Hindu style, it pulses in the veins of those who worship, it is alive and feverish,  a far cry from the empty pews and cold stone churches of home.

As dark and grimy as this city feels it has an authentic ordering to its rhythm, as something that has evolved by process of evolution. Those that walk these corridors have earned their right by fight and survival to be here now in this place, walking the warn flagstones, washing in the river over lives and years, they know how to live this life, a community thriving on the passing-through-pilgrims.

It is in the new city that the contrast strikes hardest. Where the light of politics shines, with its infrastructure and education and a developing style of life.

Once out of the labyrinth I am assailed by the babble of a hundred thousand voices of cars and bikes and people. Taking a cycle rickshaw to the station, I see a man, hair shaggy, curly and wild, he wares nothing but an oversized pair of jeans that he clutches at the zip to hold them up. He walks without seeing or caring across the chaos of traffic. Amazingly nothing hits him. Once across, barefoot and shirtless, he fights off two dogs to scavenge through a rubbish pile – The apex animal going to feast. From nearby getting in line a dog, a horned curve necked cow, a half clothed child that watches with nothing in her eyes, the pecking order established – Modern India making way with no plan for the old.

Back into the wandering winding ways I follow a narrow stairway that leads down to the chalk like water where pilgrims and locals wash, waste and burn bodies in the holy waters. Huge crowds thousands strong gather after sunset. They swarm the Ghats, first washing, then singing and clapping as priests with painted brows, in ritualised movements burn clouds of incense that drift across the water to the accompaniment of chimes, bells, drums and clapping.

I walk away and follow the river to the Burning Ghats passing huge buildings of red, yellow and white stone that crowd the spaces with archways and pepper pot windows.

I reach one as the last of the sunlight disappears. Seven fires spaced out burn bodies. Gangs of family men stand nearby; the presence of women is forbidden since grief stricken wives are known to throw themselves or be thrown on the fires.

To be burnt on the Ganges is to free yourself from the cycle of re-incarnation. The four forbidden from burning are Holy men, deemed already pure, those bitten by a cobra the mark of Shiva and pregnant women and children.

Another body is carried to the water to be cleansed before burning. Fresh wood is stacked to build a pyre.

In the darkness an array of fire-lit faces observe the proceedings. Cows, dogs, goats, all stand interspersed with people bearing witness. It’s like bonfire night crossed with the Nativity – only at the other end of life.

Clouds of burning human and wood billow in the air, sparks fly up into the night, whilst men with hammers break up the ashes and bones left in old and cooled pits.

There is no smell such as I thought, not above the ash of wood and cow dung and human piss. Wherever you turn you’re likely to see a man pissing somewhere in India.

My roommate earlier protested the rule that a tourist isn’t allowed to take a photo at the burning Ghats, yet an Indian can piss near a pyre burning someone’s remains. I ask him how he would feel, if a tourist turned up at his relatives funeral taking photos of him grieving? He asks how I’d feel if he pissed at that funeral? On the river, a boatload of tourists observes from the water, cameras flash like a concert crowd. I feel like taking a piss at them.

After the burning I seek the silence of the river, needing to think, needing to be alone. But a constant barrage of young Indian men approach me, repeating the constant mantra a tourist must first hear, then like an old track on the radio, come to know off by heart.

“Boat? You want boat? Hashish, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine, DMT, heroin, anything you want, you want something my friend?”

Frustrated and disappointed, must I wear an orange robe to gain some solitude? Supply follows demand so who to be angry at, them or tourists? But this is not Ibiza-India for good times; it’s a place where life meets death, is that the reason sought for escape?

Varanasi is an uncompromisingly honest place and beautiful for it. Illusions we wrap around ourselves in like a shroud are stripped away here. Up close and personal, no amount of makeup, sun-tan or skin lightening cream or designer clothing can disguise you, no air-con, luxury hotel nor status will let you escape the truth of what we are in this world – A temporary, living-breathing thing of flesh and bone and shit and sweat that will pass away one day.

Death cannot be locked in a box, transported in metal and glass on wheels to be buried like a treasure, hoarded for a rainy resurrection day.

Death and Life are the same game, it’s in the room, in the air, in the present moment and those that have gone before and care are free to be in the trees that grow and the breeze that blows away our grief, because once grief passes, Love remains.

Sitting by the river at night I wonder why Indians call the Ganges Mother.

I decide to phone mine.

She asks if I am having a nice time.

I don’t know how to answer, what kind of a time am I having?

In the absence of information, she goes straight to the heart of things.

Are you eating properly?

Was there ever a more pure, sincere and divine expression of Motherly Love?

I wander all night long, until lost and too tired to find my hotel I sit down under a sandstone archway where the Sadhu’s sleep near the flowing river, carrying all its life and all its death.

Sleep comes slowly to a place like Varanasi, it settles down in stages, like a dog walking in circles before finally collapsing. There comes a point where you can hear it snoozing, the soft sigh of wind disturbing dust, the patter of a cats feet, the gentle flutter of a white owl flying between boats. Above the archway stars peek at you from behind ash clouds, checking you’re awake, the red eye-like glowing of the Sadhu’s Charas pipes in the dark watch you too as you drift off, whispering up your nostrils with promises of…

… The sun is rising higher, I can feel the shade retreating across my face.

The Sadhu speaks again to me, a babble of Hindi.

“He says, that it is now you are dreaming.” Nearby a boy sits on his haunches watching me, watching the Sadhu.

I look at the old man. He regards me with those deep, still eyes and speaks again.

The boy translates.

“Now you not awake, the dream begins again. Now you dream is the life, but in life we must be waking up.”

He nods, offers me his charras, I thank him, hands closed together, yet decline.

I look at his turban, thinking about glitter firing elephants.

“It gives me funny dreams.” I say.

Watched by the Sadhu, the boy and the dog, I walk to the waters edge and stretch.

A breeze blows off the water, it ruffles my hair.

I will be leaving this place today, a decision to make by the Mother Ganga.

To the right She grows and flows for many miles more, becoming wider, heavy and pregnant with India’s matter which she pours into the Bay of Bengal.

To the left She washers and waters arid-lands green for miles as She comes down from the Himalayas and somewhere, up there, she must narrow to a stream, a trickle under a single stone from snowmelt.

Shall we seek the end? Where it appears to disappear yet in-fact merely merges with something infinitely greater than itself, opening up into a new ocean of possibilities, breeding a new kind of life.

Or to seek its source and origin and perhaps then in discovering what came before, better understand what comes after?

Which way?

A group of seven girls walk past me along the riverbank in Sarees of all colours. One, a beauty catches my eye. She casts a look over my dust covered t-shirt and shorts and dishevelled hair and continues on her way.

I look at the Sadhu and at the boy and at the dog that all look back at me.

Does it matter which way we go, isn’t life only a dream?