"Varanasi... oh I LOVED Varanasi!" That's a common response. How can it be so, after all this filth and poverty and stress I've gone on about?
Starting small: you see and hear crazy, amazing, ridiculous things in Varanasi. A mother monkey supervising her squealing child outside the window... A boy on a ladder, beginning to paint a deity on a tower to match the elaborate one already shown opposite. The baby goat with outsize ears living on one of the quieter ghats, along with an older, bearded one Rich nicknamed 'sadhu'... An orange-robed human sadhu with white paint on his face and an impressive grey bush of a beard standing by himself at one ghat, doing nothing but stand and look bewildered... The grinning sitar and tabla players who posed happily for a picture with their instruments in the low-tabled, cushioned music room of the Brown Bread Bakery... Tourist Godaulia in the evening becomes a sea of warm, candle-lit, incense-smelling nests above the polluted streets, like candles launched onto the Ganges. I fondly remember the monkey couple we surprised one day over a doorway: I stopped, pointed, and we gaped at them, and one of them, distracted from picking nits out of his sleeping companion, sat up, and his mouth dropped open in the same astonishment: won't you look at them!
Not all who wander are lost?
For every seven touts you want to strangle, there's a kind word, even a kind person. Near our lodge was Fuji Ganga Restaurant, whose affable owner created our first great Indian curries (vegetarian palak, or spinach, goodness), and who stands outside his shop not selling or pressing, just offering advice. I've said that the owner of the Brown Bread Bakery runs a school; we also met Somit, the eager and smiling owner of the Saraswati Education Centre, a charity helping to care and educate street children. He seemed a cheerful, irrepressible guy, undaunted by the scale of the city's problems. Having taken us up one of Varanasi's crazily tall, many-storeyed buildings, Somit sat us down and revealed some very Indian ingenuity: we could potentially volunteer at the charity school, we could eat at Bowl of Compassion, a small in-house cafe offering meals cooked by street children, we could do yoga, we could learn massage, Hindi, meditation, sitar and tabla, Indian cookery, anything. This last we took him up on and through him spent an evening helping, but mainly watching, a local mother and daughter cook us a delicious meal (ah, Indian food!! In Varanasi, hampered by my digestive system, we discovered a whole new flavoursome world of vegetarian curries based on palak, alu (potatoes), gobhi (cauliflower), [/i]channa [/i](chickpeas), etc. Damn you, intestine!).
Our teachers, in the process of showing us to make Indian masala chai, alu gobhi (yummy potato and cauliflower curry, dry and spicy) and alu paratha (chapattis stuffed with spicy mashed potato), seemed to me to represent the rapid, crazy change this place is going through. The mother spoke very little English; her daughter explained that she was a housewife, and that was that. The daughter, meanwhile, spoke perfect English and had studied at Benares University - something media-related, something that made me think of 'the future', whatever that means. We ate the Indian way - scooping up the curry with the paratha with our hands.
But my favourite person in Varanasi is Raju, who teaches Hindi through his business, Pragati Hindi. We had only two classes with him in the end thanks to being so ill, but I loved them, and I loved the language. A kind, careful teacher, he cracked jokes and was generally funny (gesturing and saying "what the hell?" when a screw fell out of his wall fan) and helpful. He warned us to be careful in Agra, told us that "Uttar Pradesh is the worst state after Bihar" and that Rajasthan would be wonderful. He spoke persuasively of Deep Diwali, due to occur a week later, with the Ganges a liquid gold from floating candles and the city alive with an all-night music concert... but that meant staying in Varanasi for longer. And, as Raju laughingly taught us, "Varanasi saf nahi hay" ("Varanasi is not clean").
All year round there is indeed 'life and death' to see on the ghats - a special vision of life and death. Wandering down them we found children trying to sell us postcards, men washing bulls, strange elaborate graffiti that encompassed poetry and gods, and smiling, silent sadhus. The sadhus I saw didn't seem to be the money-grabbing type encountered at Muktinath, and at one point we were tempted to talk to them, to find out about this section of Indian society that has no accepted counterpart at home... but it was such an isolated stretch that we didn't, unsure about how to disentangle themselves. (If I'm there again I WILL try, no matter how much 'karma' it might cost me). Spirituality is the metaphorical heads of the Varanasi rupee, if you're at all interested - and I was and am.
On an early morning boat ride we saw, at one ghat, hundreds of Indians in vibrant colours pouring milk into the Ganges, bathing, and lastly standing rapt until the sun rose (a dull copper coin emerging from a film of low cloud), and then crying out in jubilation, laughing with joy as though it didn't happen every day. And on the ghat next to them, the Burning Ghat, people huddled silently beside the 24-hour funeral pyres.
Sunrise plays to a large audience in Varanasi.
On an evening boat-trip we watched people - so many people - bathing, pouring, even play-fighting in the Ganges, and when the sun departed we launched small candles on beds of paper and orange flowers, before watching the evening puja ceremony performed by the brahmins (the priest caste) on the main ghat. From the river these strange white figures could be seen, making waving motions with incense and pots of fire, in a sequence and ceremony totally opaque, and from our huddle with other boats any sense of spiritual meaning congealed largely from the combination of music and light on water.
So much smoke and mirrors?
But another evening we saw the same ritual on the ghat itself, wedged between Indians and camera-happy tourists. The white figures became solemn-faced boy-men with the otherworldly expressions of stained-glass windows, dressed in elaborate costumes of gold shirts with white sashes and trimmed wrappings beneath, who performed their gestures in front of small gold tables laden with mysterious objects. The waving remained as opaque as before, though this time we could see their faces as they spun to face the different corners of the crowd, see the petals fall after they'd flung flowers into the air, observe that the pots of fire were intricate affairs where the flame appeared as the target or produce of a graven serpent's head. Spectacle still, just more visible. Then we reached the point where our boat had turned around the previous evening and cut our observation short. After more arm-waving and flourishing and dramatically picturesque kneeling, foreheads to the floor, the brahmins picked up small conches from the gold tables, cupped them to their mouths, and blew. The line of young brahmins stood, aligned, all blowing at the same time. And in that, in that strange trumpet-like regal call, something changed - I felt something, in a second imagined how long they'd been doing it, however many hundreds, even thousands of years here, at Varanasi.
On another wander along the ghats I saw a Westerner ahead of us coming the other way, dressed in a beautiful salwar kameez. I realised that we were approaching the lesser burning ghat, the quieter and less tout-infested of the city's cremation ghats. There are no ominous towers there - nothing but the steps down to the water and the piles of wood and their supervisors. I considered whether it would be inappropriate to ask where she had got the salwar kameez from but didn't see any bodies, so I intercepted her. She seemed a little flustered andblurted "Goa" before walking rapidly away. I saw that Rich had drawn on and was waiting for me, looking uncomfortable. Then I spotted the slack foot poking out of the further fire. I walked on and did not stare, but I did look - and I saw the corpses's head: hairless, eyes closed, teeth shining through the blackened skin of the right cheek. It looked like a model from a documentary about Egyptian mummies - unreal, too strange to be frightening. Afterwards I writhed a little - surely only I could do something as ridiculous as ask someone about frivolities like clothing whilst standing next to a dead body! On reflection that discomfort is a Western, European import. Above that same body sat a group of old men on the steps above, chatting, clearly not feeling anything amiss.
Ye kya hay?! What IS that?? In Varanasi - or Benares, as it's known locally - you will ask that a hundred times a day, whether at another's sunset or at people neck-deep in water that might kill them, or at old men who have decided to search for their gods on the streets... and especially of the spirituality that survives it all. What the hell, you might say. Ye kya HAY?