I’ll be leaving Varanasi soon—if Kingfisher doesn’t cancel my flight back to Delhi—and today I started making a list the things I’ve experienced here that are unlikely to be repeated anywhere else.
• The time I pulled up sharply because the man walking in front of me suddenly stopped in a very busy, street (busy as in cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, SUVs, tasis, cyclists, school kids, beggars, sadus, street vendors, tourists, cows, goats, bogs, water buffalo and a general traffic jam), takes off his shoes and bows in respect, then replaces his shoes and walks on. Only then did I notice, through a door, a tiny courtyard holding a garlanded shrine.
• Corpses strung between bamboo poles, sometimes covered in flowers, sometimes a thin shroud, sometimes nothing at all.
• Gatherings of apparently unmoved relatives at the cremation sites, standing around staring, as all Indians seem to stare, with no sign of conscious thought in their eyes, distracted, yet tearless.
• Enormous piles of fire wood for the funeral pires, often four times as big as the cycle rickshaw transporting them.
• The aroma of burning flesh that accompanies every plume of smoke.
• Water buffalo being given a bath and having their horns oiled.
• Goats wearing cut-off sweatshirts.
• The Varansi ghetto-blasters (see the piece about Saraswasti being escorted to the Ganga).
• Constant diarrhea (it could happen anywhere in India, actually, but which until Varanasi, I had managed to escape. It’s much harder to keep healthy here.)
• The surprising peace to be experienced by the red shrine on Shivala Ghat.
I could go on, but I’m too lazy… and hungry for my daily ration of dry toast and hot water.
Varanasi: ancient, beautiful (well, photogentic), filthy, intensely sacred, vicious, fragile and unmissable.