“Hey, man, you want a room?”
We were sitting on the steps of the Dashashwamedha Ghat on our first day in India. Every hotel leading down to the Ganges River was fully booked, and we were beginning to panic – we literally had nowhere to sleep that night.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
Just as our existential dilemma was reaching a critical point, we were propositioned in such terms by a young man in his early 20’s, who had a gleaming shaved bald head, a pointed nose accentuated by a fine nose-ring, and a razor-sharp goatee. He wasn’t wearing a shirt so we could see his pierced navel; he had toe-rings on his bare feet and around his ankle were chains with attached little bells, tinkling loudly. To complete the picture, he wore baggy rainbow-coloured striped trousers – the cheap cotton variety so readily available all over India – and held them up with a length of rope tied around his slender waist. In short, he looked like an apparition, the genie from Aladdin’s lamp brought to life, and my first thought was that sleep deprivation was causing me to hallucinate.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said do you want a room?” The voice attached to the apparition had an American accent.
“Umm, well, yes, actually we do“.
“I have a room in that place over there” – he pointed to one of the nearby lodges that, when we had inquired half an hour before, had been full – “and I’m moving out“.
This was too good to be true. We followed him up the steep stairs of the Ghat, and climbed into the entrance hall of the lodge, which was presided over by Babu, a huge Indian man with a pendulous belly, and his frail, elderly father.
“Babu, these people can have my room. I want to move out onto the balcony“, said the American.
Babu, a man not prone to unnecessary speech, merely grunted.
“Wait a minute“, I said (with false bravado, because we really needed a place to stay) – “we don’t want you to leave your room on our account. I thought you were leaving Varanasi. We can find a room elsewhere.”
“No, that’s cool. I’m staying in Varanasi for about six months, I need to find an apartment anyway, and I’m getting stale in that room“.
“Well why don’t you stay in the room until you find an apartment?” I asked.
“Look man, if I wanted the room, I wouldn’t have offered it to you. Anyway, I want to see what it is like sleeping outdoors on the balcony“.
I persisted: “But what if it rains and your things get wet?”
“Maybe I want them to get wet“.
“I just don’t want to cause you any hassles“, I offered up half-heartedly, because frankly, as I mentioned, we really wanted the room.
“Nobody hassles me, man“.
Thus spoke our American saviour. Obviously he was not quite on my wave-length, but hey, if he wanted to commune with nature, we weren’t going to stand in his way. I hurriedly negotiated the room rate with Babu and then we followed the American up some winding stairs to the top floor of the building, where he presented us with a truly wonderful little room, complete with large windows facing out onto the Ganges. The room was filled with the American’s things: posters, incense burner, a collection of mostly Indian music cassettes, a small stereo, a sitar, and a few items of ragged clothing.
“I have to pop out now for my sitar lesson“, said our American apparition. “But I’ll be back later to collect my stuff. Make yourselves comfortable. It is your room now. The sheets were changed this morning, so have a lie-down if you want. Just don’t smoke any drugs and don’t steal anything. By the way, the two lizards on the wall – do you see them? –they’re just so cool. They live in the room. I like to watch them at night – I tell you man, it’s like seeing the food chain in action. You know, they eat the flies and mosquitoes. I’ll be back at about four“.
With that he disappeared down the stairs as suddenly as he had appeared, and had it not been for the solidity of the bed we were now about to fall asleep on, I would have put the whole experience down to an amusing dream. I watched the lizards dart around for a bit, but within minutes I had drifted off into a blissful, deep sleep.
And so, we got settled in Varanasi, where we spent the next week.
We saw the American fairly often, bumping into him at the door to the shower room, or on the landing, or on the steps leading down to the Ganges. He had returned as promised that first afternoon to collect his things, only a bit later than originally estimated because he had stopped off on the way home from sitar class at the Tibetan Meditation Institute for a spot of late afternoon chanting. And he did in fact move onto a nearby balcony, where he arranged his belongings under a large mosquito net, weighted down at the edges with stones to deter thieving monkeys. Amongst the many snippets of useful information our balcony-dwelling American friend was constantly passing on to us was the fact that Varanasi has a large population of semi-wild monkeys, who live along the riverside. They enjoy some form of protected religious status, and hence can do as they please, including stealing things left unattended in tourists rooms.
One day the balcony dweller cornered me in the corridor, and launched into a monologue on the subject of “Mother Ganges”: “Look, man, you’ve been in Varanasi two days – or is it three? – doesn’t matter really, you guys haven’t like been in the river yet. It is a holy river, you know. I bathe in it every morning, and Mother Ganges carries away my problems. You throw your garbage in her, and Mother Ganges carries it away. You really should at least go out on a boat on the river. It is so real, man – the boatman teaches you Hindi tunes, surrounded by all this holy water. I mean, wake up dude, you’re in Varanasi. Are you here just to be like every other American with a big Nikon, or what?”
True, it took a while to decipher what he was saying, but the guy had a point. Thus far, our days in Varanasi had been spent in one of two ways: sleeping, and sitting in a little cafe on the steps by the Ganges, sipping Coca-Cola and watching the world go by. People watching, and especially Western tourist watching, is one of Varanasi’s great joys, mainly because Varanasi attracts some seriously fucked-up people as visitors.
Each day between about 10am and 2pm the riverfront is swamped with busloads of package tourists – middle-class Americans and Europeans, who get guided around with kid-gloves, maybe go on a short boat ride, stay for an hour, and then scurry back to the comforts of their hotel swimming pools on the outskirts of town.
At all other times of the day, the riverfront is a melting pot of aged hippies, born again Hindus having their foreheads painted by little Indian children (our American friend fell into this category), lone Texans playing bad guitar, groups of Israelis in furious drug-induced arguments, Japanese misfits fleeing the rigidity of life in the Land of the Rising Sun. A lack of body piercings and tattoos made me feel noticeably out-of-place.
After a few days of people watching, we were ready to take the balcony dweller’s advice, and so we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am, and went down to the riverfront to try to arrange a sunrise cruise. We were promptly set upon by a pack of wild boatmen. Each one claimed to have the best boat in Varanasi, and negotiations were fast and furious. We finally selected a boatman, and set off for our little morning paddle on the mighty Ganges River.
Let me say this, the Ganges at sunrise is brilliant. It is something that most visitors to Varanasi do, and talking about how the rising sun illuminates the palaces on the riverfront as Varanasi slowly comes to life will inevitably sound very clichéd. It is all true though. It is a magical time of day in Varanasi, when the first pilgrims arrive for their ritual dips, and when the first corpses are placed on funeral pyres which will burn continually until sundown. Best of all for me, if somewhat voyeuristic, was watching the emotions of the early morning bathers – the deep concentration and utter devotion written all over their faces, the earnestness of their ritualised movements, the sheer joy and happiness of their just being there, expressed in smiles, laughter and occasionally tears.
It occurred to me that non-Hindus can never hope to fully understand what is so special about Varanasi. We can marvel at the architecture, soak up the bustling, festive atmosphere, and participate for a short while in the life of this city. We can, in a detached academic sort of way, learn why the city is so special – how the Ganges River is sacred in Hindu theology, how the stretch of the Ganges that passes alongside Varanasi is particularly holy, how every Hindu’s greatest wish in this life is to be cremated in Varanasi, which enables a believer to jump the karmic queue on the way to Nirvana. But I think a non-Hindu will never be able to feel Varanasi, to be an organic part of the spirituality that fills the air. The best one can hope for is to be a sympathetic, unobtrusive observer.
Such thoughts filled my head as we floated along in the early dawn. Our boatman, in between breaths exhaled with each mighty pull on the oars, tried to explain in his limited English how the Ganges was holy, pure and clean. So clean, in fact, that you can drink it, or so the boatman said, which he then proceeded to do as the body of a dead cow floated past, followed a few moments later by the blue and bloated body of an infant. Camilla and I gasped simultaneously.
In the Hindu religion, the dead are usually cremated, except for babies, lepers, cows and priests. These, along with the charred remains of those whose families are too poor to purchase the wood necessary to fully incinerate the body, are simply tossed into the nearest available waterway. This is considered perfectly acceptable in India, so fervent is the belief that the Ganges is a holy river capable of carrying the dead on to a better world. I must admit, the water certainly looked very clean and clear, notwithstanding the passing bodies, but I still wasn’t going to drink the stuff. Our boatman was highly amused, and teased us about our priggishness for the next 45 minutes, until we arrived at the Red Fort on the opposite bank of the Ganges.
Hang on – 45 minutes? When we had hired the boatman, he had initially wanted to charge us 60 rupees an hour, but we had finally decided on a flat fee of 180 rupees, after the boatman assured us that the ride to the Red Fort would take at least four hours, on account of it being up-stream. He had insisted that he was doing us a special deal only because he liked Australians….
A touch annoyed at this obvious dishonesty, I mentioned the earlier estimate of four hours to the boatman, who protested: “I am a good boatman; any other boatman – four hours; me – superman boatman – one hour“. He seemed to lose all enthusiasm for us, but quickly regained it when I begrudgingly handed over 200 rupees (a deal, after all, is a deal). I even accepted the boatman’s story that he did not have any change on him, and that he would instead deliver the 20 rupees change in person to our hotel. The boatman became so friendly in fact that he bought us each a cup of tea to demonstrate his genuine goodwill and friendship. He toasted our health, tried to crack a few jokes, and sent us on our way in a pleasant enough mood.
To complete the story, we didn’t expect to see the boatman again. However, on our last morning in Varanasi, as we were about to collect our bags and head to the train station, by chance we came across him doing some exercises on the steps of the Ghat. I went up to him and reminded him that he owed me 20 rupees change, which was a bit petty on my part, but I was annoyed: we had in the interim discovered from other travellers, including the balcony dwelling American, that 20 rupees an hour was the absolute maximum rate for a boatman, and that we had been royally screwed.
After realising that no matter how many times he turned to his mates and said “my friend, Australia, kangaroo, ha ha ha” I wasn’t going to go away, he began concentrating in earnest on his exercises. It was fascinating to watch. They comprises of sharp yet fluid movements, kind of a cross between yoga and break-dancing, but highly ritualised with a religious as well as physical content to them. Our boatman performed a series of what could best be described as half-push-ups, followed by swinging a large heavy stone attached to a stick around his head and behind his back.
Fifteen minutes later, I again mentioned the 20 rupees. A pained expression crossed the boatman’s face, and he swore to me by all things holy that he had no change on him, as he had left his wallet at home, which was unfortunately a half hour’s walk away, and as we had a train to catch we’d just have to forget it all. “Perhaps next time you are in Varanasi” he mumbled plaintively. I was in a particularly grumpy mood, and decided to call his bluff, indicating that I would follow him home, and to the ends of the earth if necessary, in order to collect the money. He in turn, thinking that I was bluffing, invited me to follow him home, and to his obvious surprise, I agreed. Camilla looked at me like I had lost my mind, and told me that she would wait by the river while I pursued this ridiculous point of principle to its end.
So we set off and walked in total silence for about five minutes through narrow alleys filled with piles of putrid rubbish. Suddenly – miraculously almost – the boatman located 20 rupees in his back pocket, in the very wallet that he had supposedly left at home. Totally unashamed of having lied to my face, the boatman insisted that he deduct six rupees for the two cups of tea he had bought us (to demonstrate his genuine goodwill and friendship, as you may recall). I pointed out that the market rate for tea was one rupee a cup, and after a bit of haggling we settled on two rupees a cup. I handed him four rupees in coins, and in return I received two tattered ten rupee notes. With hindsight, I am not entirely proud of my miserly conduct, but like I have said before, India gets to you, and you find yourself behaving in ways you could never or would never ordinarily contemplate.
One of the more fascinating “sights” in Varanasi is the funeral pyres. On a walk along the riverfront one day, we passed the Marnikarnika Ghat, which serves as Varanasi’s main crematorium. As we stood observing the funeral ceremonies from a respectable distance, we were approached by a man who offered to take us onto the roof of a nearby building, from where he said there was a better view of the burning pyres. We were hesitant, but after the man assured us that no cost was involved and he was employed by the city of Varanasi to assist tourists and promote a wider understanding of Hindu culture, we decided to follow him. (I know that those reading this will be amazed at how easily we were taken in by such an obvious fabrication, but it must be acknowledged here that Indian hustlers are nothing if not masters of their trade – they make their pitch with just the right amount of conviction, a touch of cool-detachment and professionalism, and a lot of friendly banter – and the virgin tourist, as we still were at this stage, is no match for this cold, calculated onslaught).
We were led to a four-story building just behind the funeral pyres. Our “guide” pointed out that this was a lodge for the poorest of the sick, who, desirous of being cremated at the Ganges, make their way to Varanasi, to stay in the lodge and wait to die. It was a singularly depressing place. The rooms were dark and musty, and filled to overflowing with a ghastly array of sick and dying people. The nauseating smell of burning bodies filled the air, heightening an already overwhelming sense of terror from the overpowering aura of death. With great relief we emerged onto the sunny rooftop terrace, from where we were able to watch the funeral proceedings below us.
It was a strange, almost grotesque, scene. On the riverbank, a funeral pyre was burning brightly. A thick smoke rose into the air, and we were so close that we could see the silhouette of the corpse, engulfed in the flames. Priests tended to the fires, prodding the logs, scattering the ashes, and performing various funeral rites. Standing behind the priests was a party of mourners, and behind them were several other funeral parties, each group tending to a corpse wrapped in a shroud, waiting patiently for the moment when they could send their beloved into the next world.
What struck me most of all was the marked lack of anguish on the part of the mourners. There were some shedding tears, of course, but generally speaking, most mourners were composed and calm, and there was none of the hysterical wailing and weeping that accompanies most Western funerals. Perhaps Hinduism, and its belief in reincarnation, allows for a more positive approach to death, a funeral being as much a time to wish the deceasedbon voyage into the next life as it is an opportunity to grieve.
I thought to take a photo of the scene below, and I surreptitiously began to pull my camera out of my bag. Our guide immediately scolded me, saying that photographing a funeral was absolutely prohibited, and an offense under Hindu law. I immediately realised how insensitive I had been and in shame I put my camera away, at which point our guide suggested that if I made a “donation”, not for him, of course, but to aid the sick, I could take the photo. The sting came when I asked how much, and was informed that the “donation” would be a mere 2,000 rupees. That’s about $400.
So that was his scam: collecting cash for photos, or more precisely the right to take photos, of other people’s funerals. I was disgusted, and on principle now refused to take any photos, even though our guide progressively lowered the acceptable level of “donation”. When it became clear that I was not going to take any photos, our guide demanded a fee for his guiding services. We were now really pissed off, and so we quickly left the building, stopping along the way to hand out a few coins to those who truly merited some charity – the sick, sitting there patiently, waiting to die.
On our penultimate day in Varanasi we realised that we needed a mosquito net. Although window bars had thus far protected us from the marauding monkeys, we had been savaged each night by mosquitoes. Even the combined efforts of Willy and Wally – the names Camilla had given to our room’s resident lizards could not protect us from the vicious little blood-suckers.
We decided on a simple white cotton mosquito net, hopped into a rickshaw, and with much difficulty we explained to the driver what it was that we needed. He nodded authoritatively, and we set off on what turned into a farcical romp through the streets of Varanasi. We must have called at well over two dozen fabric merchants, none of whom could provide us with what we wanted. They all offered to produce me “magnificent and superb” three-piece suits in under 24 hours, but only six of the merchants had ever even heard of a mosquito net, of these only three had a mosquito net in stock, and of these all were synthetic monstrosities with a distinctly military camouflage colour-scheme.
At one point in the afternoon I paused to take stock of our situation: Camilla was seated cross-legged on the floor in one fabric store while a salesman unfolded oversized green nets in front of her, some of which had holes in them so large that anything smaller than a shark would have had no problem getting in. I was across the road viewing pile after pile of different fabrics and producing sketch diagrams of what a mosquito net looked like, in a futile attempt to get a tailor to custom make one. And our rickshaw driver zipped back and forth between us, supplying endless cups of tea, providing utterly useless translation services, suggesting yet another store that he knew of which was “just around the corner“, and all the while making damn sure that the shop owners knew that it was he who had brought these Westerners to their shop, and thus it was he who would be entitled to a commission on any purchases that we might make. After four long hours of this Mission Impossible, we gave up, and resigned ourselves to another night of being human pin-cushions.
Despite this surplus of memories from the pilgrims, hustlers, funeral pyres, crackpot Westerners and the hunt for a mosquito net, it might thus sound strange that when I think of Varanasi, I will always associate the place with cricket.
For those not familiar with the sport, cricket is a thoroughly boring English invention, a lot like a really bad game of baseball, just all the moves are in slow motion. Cricket is played almost exclusively in former English colonies, although in India it has become the national sport, if not the national religion. Indians are, to put it at its simplest, cricket fanatics. Players on the national team are media superstars, newspapers contain pages and pages on the subject, and every young boy in India aspires to one day becoming the next great cricketing hero.
It just so happened that on our last day in Varanasi, The final of the World Cup Cricket tournament was being played in Lahore, Pakistan, between Australia and Sri Lanka. This is the ultimate in the world of cricket and like the Olympics, it comes around only once in four years.
Everywhere we went that day we had seen men huddled together in animated little clusters, around televisions and squawking radios, eagerly following the progress of the game. So it came as no surprise when we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon to find that the television was tuned to the cricket, and a group of Indian men had gathered to watch the game, with the enormous Babu, as always, presiding.
I have never been a cricket fan – in fact I really can’t stand the game – but Babu insisted that I sit and watch the last few hours of the game with him and the gang. It was completely unfathomable to him that as an Australian I would not be interested in this, especially since “my team” was playing in the final of the world cup, no less. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, I sat down. Camilla, being a woman, was excused from these patriotic duties, and so left to do some packing.
Despite my initial misgivings, it turned out to be a lot of fun. The game itself was fairly average, and Australia lost, much to my chagrin given that most of those present were supporting Sri Lanka. A victory would have allowed me bragging rights, but instead Australia’s pathetic showing meant that I was subjected to the most merciless ribbing imaginable.
For me, the real pleasure came from watching the game in the company of utterly devoted Indian cricket lovers. They ooh-ed and aah-ed with every ball, they kept up a tireless running commentary, they analysed and discussed each player’s form in scathing detail, they swore endlessly in appalling English, they clapped and cheered, they drank a lot of beer, and they generally had a roaring good time.
So I won’t be remembering Varanasi as the spiritual heart of India and the Hindu religion. In my mind Varanasi will always be summed up by this group of ordinary Indian guys, enjoying a day at the cricket, and concerned more with whether Shane Warne will bowl from left of wicket than how they’ll be reincarnated in their next life.
We left Varanasi at noon the next day. As we were checking out of the hotel, the balcony dwelling American approached the reception desk to inquire of Babu whether there were any rooms available. He apparently had grown tired of living outdoors with the monkeys. Seeing that we were leaving, Babu offered him his old room back. “No thanks“, replied the American, “I’d like a room where I can come and go through the windows“.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 3: Darjeeling]