I paid my driver a small tip while giving a slight head bow that I must’ve picked up from the locals over the past few weeks. He smiled at the money, then floored the gas pedal. The tires kicked dirt and gravel past me. I turned and found a ticket line, long, but moving.
In front of me waited a large family, surely extended. The women and girls were dressed in resplendent golden saris that flattered the afternoon sunlight. Their hands were ornamented with meandering henna. Mother and two daughters matched. The father, wearing a beige shirt and faded slacks stood proudly behind the girls, pointing his finger when one of them got out of hand. He would direct them back to the women with a curt finger wave and bark. Young men and boys circled.
An shirtless man, emaciated under a messy white beard found me and begged for some money, thrusting his empty palms into my face. He muttered something in Bengali and then scurried off as a police officer waved him away with a plastic black baton. The cop looked at me, tilted his head and massive turban forward and flattened his lips out in a friendless smile-like grimace.
When my turn in line came some thirty minutes later, I handed twenty dollars worth of rupees under the plastic protector on the ticket agent's window and simply said, "Varanasi." He looked at the money then me, then back at the money without asking me which class ticket I wanted.
Because the differences in class and race were so salient here, I had become acutely conscious of mine since coming to India, and this mild exchange with a ticket agent encapsulated it all. Instead of articulating the words first class when purchasing my ticket, I let the bills talk. "One ticket to Varansi for this price," they said. "You know which class costs this." The agent slid my pricier ticket under the protector back to me and told me the train wouldn't arrive for another four hours. "Perhaps longer," he added, turning his R into a D in "perhaps."
"That's fine, I guess. Is there a restaurant nearby?" He pointed to my left and shouted what might have been "next" in Bengali.
In the restaurant I paid 45 rupees, about one dollar US, for two samosas that may have been made before I arrived in the country, and an orange Fanta. The food was terrible. A few eyes stayed fixed on me the whole time. This wasn't first class.
I was able to take in the enormity of the train station and crowd for the first time after getting my ticket and satisfying my hunger. And the people. I'd never seen so many people in one place before. Climbing the stairs to the overpass that connected all the rail lines and platforms, I could see the entire station. It went on farther and farther than I thought. There were eight, maybe ten pairs of tracks within view and a wide cement platform between each pair. Across from me was another connective overpass and behind me, turning to check, I noticed yet another. They looked like a grid, the overpasses.
Boys carrying trays on their hips strapped from their shoulders shuffled past yelled in Bengali, then some other language, then English. They were selling things. Sweets. A man ordered one by pointing into several of the bowls on the boy's tray. The boy took a paper cup, then scooped a little from each bowl as requested and mixed the sticky concoction with a popsicle stick. The result looked like trail mix bound by corn syrup. But better. Indian. The man paid the boy and ate the sticky stuff with his fingers. I looked back and saw the same thing behind me. There were a half dozen boys shooting back and forth like a shuttlecock across the woven tracks below me. It was all fast, busy, and beautifully Indian.
I looked at my watch and realized I had another three and a half hours until my train arrived. Maybe more. Nothing in India had been on time so far and there was no reason to think this train would be the exception. I found a space devoid of people and put my pack down in the corner at the end of an opened room overlooking my train's expected arrive point.
I had a perfect view and I took it in. There was yet another poor man at the end of my hall being chased by yet another Sikh police officer. It appeared that all the police were Sikhs and that they were all large men. One in particular looked rude and gruff when talking at a beggar. He used his baton to point to the direction he wanted the beggar to move. The beggar obeyed and moved, then returned shortly after the coast was clear. This dance between the two went on several times before I lost interest.
Three teen boys arrived in my vicinity. Maybe they were in their early twenties, but they looked like they just had their first shave. One made eye contact with me when I turned. He smiled. I smiled back. Then I noticed the others were looking at me. My eyes widened. What were they staring at? They smiled but said nothing. Their six eyes seemed to approve of what they saw, but nobody spoke.
I turned to ignore them, tired of being stared at and made to feel different, foreign, and perhaps even better. I looked at the walls upon which I leaned and saw fading beige paint and the widening of cracks between the panels of concrete which made up the train station. On the ceiling inching toward the sparse light fixtures sat dozens of lizards lying in wait for their prey, bugs of various sizes and colors mesmerized by the humming light above me. First it drew the bugs in, then the lizards' long tongue slid out and gulped them down. Hierarchy.
I turned my head to see more of these lizards in action and saw the boys still staring at me. Or perhaps staring at me again. I'm not sure which it was. One said "Hi" or "hey" and I returned a smiling but curt "Hi" back to him. His friend hit him on the shoulder laughing when I said this and the third boy smiled with a half chuckle. Then the second boy, the one who had hit his friend, wanted to try. He too said "Hi." I rolled my eyes at this humorless game of theirs and said "hello" with big annoyed caucasian eyes.
They chucked together in unison, huddled and mumbled a few words. This was not new to me. I had been the target of Indian points and whispers since my arrival. They made me feel special at first, like I was not one of the boring masses I had been my whole life but I tired of them quickly.
The bugs above me continued to crawl back and forth and when the novelty of a creature trying to survive wore out, I sought a place to sit. It was nearly an hour so far but there was still time to wait. Too much time. Behind me I noticed a door which occasionally opened to a room with a bed in it. It looked something like a rentable hotel-room with very little privacy. How many people had taken refuge on that bed, in those graying sheets, awaiting trains, only to sit longer and longer? India was a country of waiting. Nothing was done in haste here. Haste takes money. Nobody hurried. Few wore watches. Only the taxi drivers sped, doing enough to make up for the rest of the population. For some reason this bothered me.
Past the hotel room was another door whose sign I finally read. It was labeled the VIP waiting room and was reserved for first class ticket holders only. My feet seemed to speak to me, asking me to enter. I looked inside, saw several open chairs and a few men in the farthest corner smoking. I entered, put my pack down and looked around at the room. It was not luxurious. It was not even clean. But being the highest rung on the social ladder, it had space for sitting and breathing and waiting. We had chairs and an anemic air conditioner hanging out of a hole in the wall near the door. First class ticket holders only.
To separate the inside from the outside surrounding the air conditioner was yellowed foam . It was cracked and from it slipped in the head of a lizard searching for more supper. Two large women in more resplendent saris sat near me fanning themselves and pulling the cool air toward me. I wasn't hot though. It was a pleasant evening now that the sun had slipped beneath the horizon revealing a more hospitable India.
When the women fanned, they lifted their saris to expose soft brown flesh, the aroma of their clothes, and a pastiche of patchouli and anise. It stank pleasantly.
To my right, and directly in front of the door was a large sign in English, Bengali, Hindi, and Nepali (I thought), offering wireless internet service for a fee. I looked at my watch, then pulled out my laptop and credit card.
The internet connection was slow, dipping in and out of service occasionally but it did chew up the minutes before my train was to arrive. I saw on the web that my baseball team had lost yet another late season game, one that would surely cost them a respectable record. Then I heard something pull me away from the news. An accent. Not Indian, not Korean or even Asian of any kind. It had been awhile since I had heard anything this out of place.
It was a tall women whose red hair sat in a messy mound atop her head. She had light skin which looked like tissue paper compared to the mocha-colored woman she talked to. The short woman was a nun, Catholic, in a blue habit. She was in Mother Theresa's order. Each woman spoke in broken English, the tall woman seeming unable to hear the Indian version of English well.
"Eet ees late. Eet will be here in seweral ow-ers"
"I'm sorry. I cannot understand you,” the red headed women replied in what I was sure was either a Dutch or French accent.
I didn't butt in, though. I said nothing and just listened to an interesting conversation I could finally understand.
Several clarifications later the two woman came to an understanding, each appeared to get about half of the other's thoughts. They then sat together and exchanged pleasantries about the weather using empty words like "fine" and "nice" and saying terms like "makes me happy." Nothing was precise; nothing conveyed a thought deeper than something one would learn in English Two A.
Then the nun reached into her bag, a small canvas thing the same color as her skin, and removed a brochure. The tall women took it, said thank you, then looked over to me whom she must have realized was spying and said "ello." French. I knew it.
"Hi," I responded turning back to my web surfing.
"This is very pleasant?" she said or asked while referencing the room with the palm of her hand. Which was it, question or statement?
Listlessly, I replied. “Yes, I guess it is."
"My train will arrive late."
"Yeah, mine too. This happens in India. Nothing's on time," I responded.
"Where are you going? I am going to Varanasi."
“Yeah, Varanasi? Same here.”
"I'm on the 8:00 train. Car twenty...twenty-three,” she said while digging in her purse for her ticket.
"Yeah, that's my train, too. I don’t know which car, but that’s the same train.” I looked back at my computer, closed the web browser, then turned back to her feigning attentiveness. “We’re going to be late? Our train? Did the nun say when the train'll get here?” I asked while nodding in the sister’s direction.
"The nun...that woman," I whispered, pointing across her, "over there. Does she know when it'll get here?"
"She informed me it will be late, however she did not give a time specifically." She paused, looking onto the screen of my computer. "Nice computer," she said. "My model is similar."
"Oh...it's pretty popular. Pretty good. Actually, it's awesome. I love it."
"I'm Dani," she said at this, and held out here hand. "I am going to Varanasi. I will see the river Ganges, and then see the Stupa at Sarnath." Her face beamed with excitement.
I thought it a little strange, serendipitous even, to find an English speaker with the same agenda as me in a smelly waiting room in Siliguri, India. I was planning on seeing those very sites and maybe even Bodh Gaya, the location of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha sat when he found enlightenment thousands of years ago. I too was on a similar pilgrimage as she appeared to be. What was this woman here doing with the same plans? We were white in India, and while that wasn't much in a country of more than a billion people, that commonality was enough for us. Being different together is all it takes sometimes.
"I'm heading the same way, Dani." I held my hand out. "I'm Christopher." We shook hands and then I put the laptop away and spoke to her in earnest.
Her name was Danielle, but she preferred Dani, which was boyish and matched her short hair. She lived in France. Normandy, to be exact. She painted, liked Monet and Van Gogh “of course,” was married, and had a daughter five years my junior who had large breasts. All this was conveyed without warrant as I sat there absorbing her verbal incontinence. She was a spout of information waiting for release. I’m sure that nun would've been her victim if it weren’t for me, me and my white skin and English ears.
The woman found my English to be easily understandable, saying I sounded just like "Tom Cruse," a comparison I'd never heard before in any form. I listened half-heartedly to more of her history, keeping a portion of my attention on the lizard by the air conditioner.
"My husband has sick. He is in hospital now. My daughter stayed there with him. She was planning to come with me, but changed her mind in the last minute. Two days ago. She said she would come, but now I am alone here. In India." She paused. "You are going to Varanasi?” she finally added.
I told her yes again, then told her I wanted to take a walk, down to the platform. I had to get out of the stuffy room, now too rich from evening bodies. I wanted to see the people, the food being sold, the real India outside the "VIP" suite we were currently in. I wanted to be away from Dani already, too, but didn’t let on too thickly. The woman beside Dani, the nun, kept looking over at her, then at me while twisting some pamphlet in her hands. She wanted to jump into our conversation and no doubt say something about her god, about India, about something grand. Something I didn't want to hear. And thankfully she didn't before we stood to leave.
"I'm going to see what’s happening down on the platform. Will you watch my bag?" I asked Dani.
"I can go with you," she said in another half question, half statement. I nodded OK out of politeness, picked up my stuff and went out. She followed.
Night was beginning outside. There was cool, nearly perfect air throughout the station. It was neither hot nor cool, dry nor wet. It was as if there was no weather at all. Perfect homeostasis surrounded me. Us. I walked past the three boys who were still outside the door to the VIP area. They all looked at me, smiling in a jeering way. Perhaps they thought I picked up this woman, flirted with her or something. Perhaps they thought we were related, being the only two white people within sight. Perhaps they thought nothing.
At the bottom of the platform was a large slab of cement. Over the length of it stretched hundreds of people. Stationary families occupied the middle area sitting on blankets between the two sets of tracks but pedestrians of all sorts and castes wandered past. Every so many meters a stand was set up. Some sold fruit. Some sold sweets. Some omelets frying in rancid-smelling oil. The smells mixed and gave my stomach a prod.
I had been eating and eating beyond reason in India. My weight had grown, I was sure, and the irony never struck me at the time. This was a land blessed with spices, herbs, amazing foods of all types and yet most people couldn’t count on a meal each day. Most were hungry and I was gaining weight from the bounty of amazing foods and cheap prices.
Dani turned her head at everything, a smile spreading across her freckled face. She stayed close by my side, however. "Let us sit," she finally said. We did.
Our position was between a pair of families who now had something to talk about and look at. We were unique. Dani was an orange hue, what with her red hair and freckles and I was pink, doughy, ruddy. The family to my immediate left stared at me for a while, then her. I ignored this. I felt the conversation on me, the eyes even, but I let it go this time.
Dani smiled at each set of eyes on her, of which there were plenty. She mumbled a few “ellos” too, but no one responded. They weren’t being impolite, the Indians, far from it. They were just seeing something in person for the first time.
A herd formed when a train blew its whistle from the limit of my vision. We stood quickly. I felt dizzy from this. I grabbed my pack and moved away from the tracks, but it wasn't our train yet.
The passengers on the arriving train left their compartments in perfect civility, exiting in a line without excitement. The throng of new passengers, however, crowded along the side of the train. Many placed their hands on the side of the huge steel vehicle, marking their place in line. Man, woman, child. Nobody mattered. It was anarchy. Each person jostled to beat the others.
Dani looked at me, “This is fun, no?”
I laughed, raised my brow high on my forehead, and agreed with her. Who was this woman who thought everything different was fun? I needed this. “I don’t think it’s fun for him though,” I added pointing. “Him” was a boy who was being pushed out of line by a larger, thin man in shorts but no shoes. The boy cried and then fell back as the crowd pushed farther toward the entranceway, losing him.
The train finally left slowly as though it was being pulled by two camels and not an engine. All the excitement was over and the few people like us who had been waiting for a train, but not that one, moved back into position. Waiting. And waiting still.
A group of four Sadhus sat near me. Us. They were long men with foreheads painted white. Their hair was tied in turbans of sorts, some yellow, others orange, the color of Hinduism, the color of Dani. I tried not to stare at them, but their was such stoic strength in their wiry bodies that I couldn’t help myself. Seeming too long for his body, the man nearest me had sinewy arms with cords of muscle and vein that wrapped around his wrists. He held a walking stick that resembled his own arm and leaned the weight of his torso on it as he looked down the tracks at nothing.
One stood finally and crawled down from the platform and across to the farther track. He squatted, balancing on the metal rail, took his penis out of the side of the dhoti and relieved himself in plain view of nearly two hundred people.
“Well, look at that,” Dani said. “It must be nice to be a man. I have to use a toilet. They are not very clean here. That looks much better.”
“It’s nice sometimes, Dani. I ain’t gonna lie to you.”
“So, do you have a girlfriend,” she asked, apropos of nothing but a Hindu penis.
“No. We broke up. Just before I came here. It was no shock. Things weren’t working and this trip was sort of a marker for us. I'm happy now"
“How long were you her boyfriend?”
“Uh, five months,” I answered after doing the math.
“Oh, well that doesn’t count then. My daughter, she has no boyfriend. I am happy about this. She is too young to be tied down. She should be with many different boys. That is what life is about when you are young. Like you. You should sleep with many girls. This is true.”
“I’m not that young, Dani.”
“What are you, 25, 27?”
“I’ll be thirty in two weeks.” She looked at me when I said this, studying my face.
“Ah. I see it. Your hair is thin. Yeah, thirty. I see it.” I sneered. “My husband has thin hair. He should—he is old now. We are old. Being ill is not good either. He looks too old to have a young daughter. And me? I’m old. I won’t tell you my age. I won’t. A French woman never tells about what she doesn’t have. I won’t talk of my age. But I’m old too.”
“But you’re adventurous. You came here, to India. You came to a third world country alone, at your age. You know they aren’t very modern here when it comes to women. They think things when they see a single white woman walking around.”
“I am not adventurous. I am stupid. I come all the way here to see great Buddhist monuments and with nobody. That is not adventurous. That is foolish.”
“Maybe, “ I laughed. “but fools have more fun, don’t you think?”
She laughed. “Yes. This is true.”
Dani and I had fun for those hours as our wait stretched into the night and then morning. We waited out a monsoon an hour and a half in length, then a few more trains. Each was late. We waited and waited. And when it seemed as though we couldn’t wait longer without suffering severe psychological repercussions, we received news. The nun in blue had come down to find Dani and told her that she had been told that the train would be arrive in another hour. This news seemed trustworthy for some reason.
We waited. And when that hour came there was nothing but the silence of two hundred tired Indians exhausted from the labor of emptiness. The tracks were silent. Not a sound pierced the night from any direction. The only movement was from a pair of glowing eyes belonging to a fat rat walking the length of the tracks near where the Sahdu relieved himself.
We finally heard a whistle, which must have been five thousand miles away but gave us hope, nonetheless. We heard it. It was true. A whistle. I sprang to life, began stretching my legs and back, heard things pop and crack as the rigor mortis escaped me. I smiled like the village idiot moving to the front of the platform and looked behind me to see that I was the only one stirring.
I went back to Dani. “Did you hear that? The train's coming. It may be here in a few minutes. Maybe thirty.”
“Do you think the rat will move out of the way? Or do you think it will be squished?” she asked.
“I think even an animal as stupid as a rat will move from a huge train barring down on it. Besides, it'll probably be shaken off the tracks.” Finally the train came and when I pulled out my ticket in unbridled anticipation, I saw that I was also on car number twenty three. We were both in the sleeper section of the same car. The rest of the people had to remain seated, squished together on benches during the sixteen-hour journey. But I had a good seat and nearby my new...partner? Friend? Who was she, anyhow?
When we boarded the train, we found that we were not only in the same car but also in the same cabin for four. Each cabin had two lower and two upper bunks, seating for four. When two people got tired, they could sleep on the above racks. Dani and I were the only two people in the compartment, so we had room. We each had our own seat with room to spare, and could each choose whichever bunks we wanted. I chose the upper on the left so I could be high above the grime of the ancient train and look out the window at the country yet to arrive. She chose the opposite.
We each quickly fell asleep.
The next morning I woke and found a toilet not far from our sleeper. I went in, lifted the lid to pee and saw the tracks whizzing below. I was afraid to pee first thinking that the wind coming up from the opening would spray my piss back at me, but it was too far down and I really had to go. I peed and went back to bed laying there half awake thinking. It was too early to do anything else.
Dani woke up a bit later and looked across at me saying “good morning” as though we had had sex and it was good. She smiled and stretched, pointed outside the window and said, “Look, India.” I nodded. Then she left the sleeper and came back smiling a few moments later. “Do you know that the toilet has a hole in it. I mean when you go, it just goes down.”
“I know what you mean. Yeah. Pretty gross huh? I mean what if you really gotta go number two, right?”
“I don’t want to think about those things," she said then climbed back into bed, rested her head on the pillow and looked back through the window from where we'd come. “I like it here. I am alone. I have you. You are a good friend, but I am alone. I like this.” Her eyes closed and she faded back into rest.
Was I a good friend? I didn’t think so. I wasn’t particularly nice to her. I was too short with her. I spoke with superiority, and I knew it. I knew I was being an ass, but I couldn’t help myself. But while my words were sharp my actions weren't. I stayed with her. I kept her safe from the patriarchal society, the beggars and pickpockets that roamed the station, and perhaps even this train. I was a Big American White Man and I was here for the scared foreigner. Except we were both foreigners. Neither belonged.
She had said she was alone and this was good. She had said alone was good. But with me, with her, we weren’t alone. True we didn’t talk too much, but when we did it was real. It was the opposite of a typical first meeting. There was no discussion about the weather between us. We never talked about the train being late save for when that nun brought up the topic. We never asked about any movies the other person had seen, or if she thought Obama had a chance of becoming the president of my country. We didn’t go there. We didn't make small talk. We stayed deep, where it mattered.
We did talk about Buddha, Sarnath, and if her husband was really dying or if he'd pull through somehow. I knew about her daughter’s lovers and physical proportions, but not the girl's name. I new Dani painted because it relieved her anxiety especially during her husband's illness despite the sneaking suspicion that she didn't love him and he didn't love her. I knew she liked completing a painting like most woman like multiple orgasms, or chocolate. But I didn’t know if she painted flowers, birds, the Pope, or people screwing. These details were omitted. There was no surface, so maybe that meant we were friends, not just acquaintances. Maybe a friendship was what this was. But I couldn’t say for sure. Not then, anyway.
A few hours later I had finished watching some movie on my computer when Dani woke up again. She greeted me again with the same postcoital grin as before, then screamed bloody murder pointing at my feet. Something was there and it terrified her. I looked. It was a mouse. No bigger than pair of toenail clippers, it scurried back and forth in the sleeper until it came right at her. It stopped. I swear to god it stopped and looked right at her. She said it was cute before it moved on to the next sleeper, apparently satisfied of converting her to a friend. Dani sat down as quickly she had stood when it left and nonchalantly asked what I had been watching. I told her the name, she said she never heard of it, then went back to sleep for a third time.
I had heard once that depressed people sleep a lot. I think this is true, except all the times when depression had overcome my life, the opposite was true. When I get depressed I can’t sleep. I can’t focus on anything. My blood pressure seems to rise and I feel as though I’m always a cup of coffee too deep into the pot. Dani, if depression is what caught her, was completely different. It may have been her husband if she was depressed. That would do it to me. "He was dying," she had said and there was nothing the doctors could do. She'd stayed up nights over this, but now she was here. Sleeping. Across from me and not with him.
When our train slowed for the final time and another piece of India rolled out before us, Dani awoke, smiled as she always had, and packed her things quickly. She was no frills, this was obvious. I never saw her apply makeup, never saw her do much with her orange hair except run a hand through it under her white cap. Her clothes weren’t fashionable as I had heard french women like to be. She was just Dani, suitcase in hand.
Our train jerked to a stop and we got off. I took her heavy suitcase for her and handed it back to her on the platform as she liked. She told me where she was staying. It was a hotel I found in my guidebook. It was a bit out of my price range, which was a modest twelve bucks a night, enough to stretch my budget for the thirty days I planned on being in India. “I’ve heard that hotel's nice,” I told her.
“Me also.” She said. “Where are you staying?”
“I guess, I’ll stay there. Maybe we can see Varanasi together?” I suggested.
“Yes. Yes, that would be very nice. I like being alone with you,” she said. I didn’t know what she meant.
We met the driver of a motorcycle rickshaw thing, handing him the heavy bag which he knew how to position best on his contraption. We climbed in, Dani on the left, closer to the street, and me, hanging over the outer edge, toward the oncoming traffic on the right.
The driver stood and violently slammed his foot on the mechanical starter, winding the small sick-sounding engine. We then drove through the crowded parking lot and toward dusk and busy streets of poorly lit vehicles.
With each violent turn I had to remind myself that I'd survive this trip as I had every other in India so far. I wouldn’t be killed on this scooter turned limo. Not today. Being with Dani prevented me from being ready to die. I couldn’t explain this, but then again I didn’t have to.
We finally arrived at our hotel, which had a water buffalo parked outside it gnawing on vegetation. The massive creature lay in the road occupying a part of it and preventing traffic from flowing. No one cared, though. I pointed at it, laughed, trying to get Dani’s attention in the dark. She looked over and again smiled at me. No words, just a smile.
We checked in and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for breakfast at eight AM.
The next morning Dani arrived at the breakfast table soon after me as I was rolling my shoulders to loosen them. The restaurant was on the roof of the hotel, a white building on the banks of the Ganges. It's sides were clean white stucco which, under the harsh sun, hurt the eyes to look at.
After eating our eggs and parathas, we decided to follow the Ganges' banks as far as they would take us. We had planned which direction we wanted to see from atop the hotel, and when we eventually stood on the steps of the first ghat that morning. We could see all the way up river, to where it disappeared past the bridge we had driven over the night before.
Men shaved each other on these steps. I thought about getting a shave myself, but then figured how dangerous a combination a straight bladed razor, water from the Ganges, and the shaky hand of a malnourished barber would be alongside my jugular. I nodded at him instead and smiled just as Dani had been doing this whole trip.
A boy in his early teens saw us and approached via boat. He offered to take us up river for a reasonable fee. We agreed, jumped in the boat and pulled our cameras out. Dani took pictures of the boy and the men who paddled us about. I took pictures of the ghats all decorated with murals of Ganesh, and other deities. Ganesh was very important in Varanasi and his image dominated the scenery. Every two or three minutes brought us new episodes of people. Very thin men, men whose bones pressed outward against their lean skin, bathed among us.
Our boat crew maintained a safe distance as we took in the splendors of the people bathing in the mystical waters which are believed to purify the soul as it ascends toward heaven. My camera shutter clicked and clicked. Dani sat there in silence. The boy offered, for a few rupees more, to take us farther than we had originally wanted to go. He said there was a burning ceremony that we needed to see. He said there would be an opportunity to help. Dani said, "Ok.” We went.
As we approached this ghat, the fire he spoke of became more visible. I was told to turn my camera off. Pictures were not allowed; it was a "most holy place." I thought of sneaking a picture or two, but then decided not to be a prick. We landed and were met by a large man with a round torso who took my hand in his, shaking it profusely while also attempting to crush my bones. Dani was spared his greeting.
He told us of the man who was ablaze on the litter before us and doused in oils, flowers and incense. Before me a dead man burned. This was his funeral. These banks are where the dead are submersed in the waters of the Ganges until their souls are ready for heaven. Five groups were exempt from this stage of time-consuming purification as they were determined to be closer to purity ready: Sadhus, pregnant women, babies, orphans, and cobra bite victims. They are spared from the ceremony, releasing their souls into heaven without the aid of the river's waters, but using fire instead. The man whose body burnt before me was a Sadhu, a holy man.
Around us people gathered limbs from banyan trees, the type used to make his litter. There were no tears or prayers. There was silence, smoke, and the sugary smell of oiled flesh crackling in flames below us. Then two men pushed the body onto the surface of the river to burn and the gathering of banyan branches continued as the main task at hand.
“This fire,” the large man explained in thick, heavily accented English, “Has been burning for five thousand years. Some body has been atop it continually since then. When the Buddha bathed here, he saw the same fire.” The word "fire" was dramatically enhanced like he'd been a voice actor once.
I translated this speech from accented English into North American English for Dani, wondering all the while the nature of this fire. Was it the same fire? Had the Buddha and I seen the same site, or were these flames the children or grandchildren of the flames he had seen? Is there any way to know whether this site was timeless? My head starting spinning.
The man then beckoned us up the ruins nearby and showed us the platform on which the ancient fire cracked. We passed limbless men who looked out at us with lifeless gazes. One man laid over the breadth of the steps causing me to step over him. When we reached the top of the ruins we could see that the building was indeed old. The bricks, made from huge carved stones, seemed alive though. They were rough, covered with dried mosses and plants in parts and with the texture of weathered stone not found on Western buildings.
He told us how difficult the banyan trees were to find and how difficult it was to get medicine for the sick who come here to die. He told us he needed money. I wasn’t prepared for such a straightforward request and had spent all my cash at breakfast. I had just enough to give the boy on the boat for my half of the boat ride and that was it. I needed an ATM to help the Sadhus die. But I gave him what I could and then Dani gave what she could. The man said it wasn’t enough and then I asked to leave. “That is what we have, sir,” I said on my way back down the steps past the man who would surely be dead by nightfall.
Dani and I climbed back on the boat and left down river back toward our hotel. Put off from the man's asking for money. Angered that our guide would take us there knowing it was part scam. Stunned. Warm from the powers of an unexplainable aura in the place. Neither of us spoke about any of this.
An hour or so later, as we meandered the streets of Varanasi getting lost in the narrow alleys in search of lunch, a young man offered to show us the way to a temple, then to a restaurant. He was very nice and spoke a little french to Dani which she appreciated. He said he worked for a silk maker and that after taking us to a temple, and then lunch, maybe we could stop by his shop and buy something. “The prices are very good,” he promised. We agreed. The friendly company was nice and we were lost, so really there wasn't a choice. Also, I'd found an ATM.
He took us to an altar of Ganesh, whose birthday we learned was approaching. We watched the women before us give the alter food, then say a prayer. It was terribly odd to see people stop in the middle of an alley, narrow and dark, where an altar was cut out of a building. These altars were everywhere, though. Varanasi was one of the holiest cities in India, which ranks it as among the holiest cities in the world.
We left the altar and made our way inside a neighboring Jain temple. Outside the temple, as I readied my camera by changing lenses, a Sadhu approached us asking for money. “Fake Sadhu,” our nameless guide told us, shooing him away with his right hand. “Real Sadhus won’t beg. They won’t even talk to you. They don’t really like people,” he said. I could see that. I could understand a man who had devoted his life to the highest truths not liking people who complain about, say, an overcooked steak. I could understand an ascetic hating a layman.
We took a few pics and left. The three of us wandered about a bit before finding that place that served lunch. We ate heartily and when the bill came our guide, that nice young man who offered to show us about town, looked at it as I picked it up. His hand stayed put, never reaching in the slightest to see what damage his stomach cost my wallet. I payed his part, which was about two dollars US, and we left to go see what kind of silk his "boss" sold. Dani saw what took place and looked at me with a queer face but smiled. We both knew to be on the lookout for a scam in our midst. But then again, it was only two bucks.
His "boss" was tucked into a small room a few streets away from where we ate, which I felt was a bit too convenient. We entered the small room ducking and took our shoes off as our guide scurried toward the back wall to receive several rolls of shining silk. He placed them against the dark wall and rolled them out precisely. It wasn't the first time he had unrolled these scarves and table clothes. We weren't the first Westerners in this dark silk shop and I was sure at that moment, the way he unrolled the silk, the way he spoke as all salesmen do which gives them away, that I was not the first white guy to buy him lunch at that restaurant.
Dani bought two items and I bought three despite knowing that I was being foolish right there. We paid in cash and as we walked out someone asked the other about taking us to Sarnath on the following day. Our guide agreed, Dani agreed and eventually I did when I finally paid the conversation some attention.
The next day -- after another silent rooftop breakfast -- Dani and I stepped out of our hotel to meet the pleasant face I bought lunch in a stubby little white car. We slid into it and exchanged greetings with the driver, a short man in his late thirties with skin the color of teriyaki sauce. Our guide sat up front next to him with Dani and I in the back giving each other a look of precaution that we may be in for another day of absorbing unnecessary costs. She turned and simply said, much to my amazement, "Wow, we are going to Sarnath."
Sarnath is the place where the newly enlightened Buddha gave his first teaching some two and a half thousand years ago. We had already seen the ghat on which he had washed his feet after attaining enlightenment, and now this. The only piece of the trifecta that we missed was the actual location of the bodhi tree, ficus religioso, in a place too far off the path known as Bodh Gaya.
"Yeah, this should be something," I replied, relishing in her often misplaced optimism. The car stopped some forty bumpy minutes later and out we crawled into the dusty parking lot and into a throng of sad children, and begging children, and entrepreneurial children selling a myriad of necklaces and bracelets. I bought a bottle of water for a fool's price and moved on toward the museum of Buddhist artifacts nearby.
Inside the museum lingered several guides, offering their services for a small fee, but most seemed to know little more than the information placards already offered. I declined each man, feeling a bit sad that I had become so jaded, so tired of people trying to make a buck by taking advantage of me. It had gotten old fast. Dani on the other hand, and being an artist herself, floated through the small museum. She seemed to have found a lightness in her that I'd yet to see. Gone was the blank faced expressions she held when telling me about her husband or daughter. Her smile, the one I had been seeing the whole time, was contrived. I now had this genuine artifact against which to compare it. She'd been fooling someone.
She had been fooling me with her optimism. She had been trying to fool herself in actuality, but this moment of bliss betrayed her. I watched her from across the museum, the opposite end of mine and chose not to say anything to her about the art, the lingering "guides," or anything else. I didn't approach her at all. I just let her be. Nothing I could do would help make this moment better for her.
She was dipped in the waters of Buddhist art and being present and needed nothing more. Her dying husband whom she may or may not love and the daughter who was going to come, then wasn't, mattered not to her. She was separate from them and from whatever caused her to sleep beyond reason on the train and 'smile' at anything anyone said or did. This was where she needed to be: on this pilgrimage.
When we were each done looking at the art, we met where the museum exited and the grounds began. To our right was the stupa built over the stage on which the Buddha had spoken and directly ahead of us was a robed monk giving a lecture, I supposed, to a group of students. We walked past, looping around the ruins saving the famed stupa for last. Neither of us had anything worth saying.
We doubled back to the car after we had circled the stupa and seen all that needed to be seen there. The Buddha wasn't there. The Dharma wasn't there. There were only rocks and ruins and green grass on a hot orange day, but something had changed. We didn't talk. It would have ruined everything. We just slowly walked back to our car where two smiling Indian men waited for us. We climbed in, closed the door and drove back to our hotel.
That night I told her I didn't want dinner. I then checked out of the hotel without saying goodbye and made my way to Agra. Alone. It was okay to leave her now. I understood what she needed and what India had allowed.