Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Varanasi by Austin Ryer

“You know, you very much look like Elvis,” the old man said to me. I couldn’t hold back my surprise; being compared to Elvis was new to me. I was wearing aviator sunglasses and had long hair covering most of my face. I doubted this man could even tell what I looked like. But several times before Indians had called me Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks. Once I was even compared to Mel Gibson.

“Why, thank you very much,” I slurred, weakly attempting an Elvis impersonation. Of course he laughed, and went so far as to say I sounded like Elvis as well.
But I wasn’t fooled at this man’s Elvis banter; he was an intelligent observer. Sitting outside of my hotel in the city of Varanasi smoking a cigarette, he sat because he had nothing better to do. Roughly in his sixties, he was a large man with the stubble of a graying beard and dyed blond hair. His stained yellow teeth were interrupted by a gap where his two front teeth should be, and his nose was large enough to be almost swollen. He remained nameless to me, but I knew from our talk of theology that he was an aspiring Christian, who liked Jesus and thought he was a good man. From our talk of politics I knew he disagreed strongly with George Bush’s policies, and would be glad when a new president is elected in America. He claimed to have lived in Varanasi his whole life, and so had his father and grandfather, generation after generation. It was this last fact that led me to ask him what I and some friends should do while in Varanasi. In response he wrote down the name of a particular Ghat, and told us that was where we had to go.

It was not often that I found myself wandering into an unknown city looking for some location based solely on a stranger’s recommendation. However, earlier we had learned that “Ghats” were holy places on the Ganges where a tributary joined the river, and so we followed the old man’s advice. After lunch at a nearby Pizzahut, I and three others caught an auto-rickshaw and showed the driver the name of the Ghat; its pronunciation was way beyond any of our simple knowledge of Hindi. The driver gave us a price, but told us he couldn’t go the whole way because it was closed to vehicles; we would have to walk some of the way. More hesitant now, we still agreed, and entered the rickshaw.

The auto-rickshaw was three-wheeled and about the size of most refrigerators turned on end, shaped into a rounded V. In front was a t-shaped handlebar used on motorcycles, and a small bench seat for the driver. In back, as the vehicle widened, there was a larger bench seat meant for three passengers though I’ve seen many more than that in rickshaws. It had a roof and windshield, which offered some protection, though it had no doors or sides. I sat in front alongside the driver, though half of me stuck outside, narrowly missing passing traffic. Behind me, on the bench, were my three friends, Julia, Dan, and Will, each lost in their own thoughts. After riding through thick traffic for about fifteen minutes, the driver finally pulled to the side, and let us out.

We found ourselves on a main road, with a solid division between incoming and ongoing traffic. Periodically, a side road or alley broke the endless line of buildings on either side. Accompanied by hand gestures to augment his weak English, our driver had told us that to get to the Ghat we had to walk straight for a while and, after three somethings, turn left onto another road until we saw something tall, and then to maybe take a right.

Almost immediately lost, we stopped to ask a man sitting on a cart for directions.
“Excuse me sir, do you know how to get here?” we showed him the paper with the name of the Ghat on it.
“Uhh… no angles?...“ We assumed he meant that he didn’t speak English. Turning to leave, we heard him say something in Hindi to a man passing by. The man stopped, looked at us, and quickly introduced himself.
“Hello,” he said in barely accented English, “can I help you get somewhere?”
He was young, maybe in his early twenties, and wore a white long sleeved shirt with a purple sweater tied around his neck. Though he looked flamboyant, he also looked well off, dressed in western clothing. To us, this meant that he didn’t need our money, and therefore would probably not try to steal from us. That, as well as the fact that we were already far within the city and had no idea where we were, lead us to trust him; we were probably safer with him than on our own.

Raz lead us into what we later learned was old Varanasi. This section of the city is comprised of thin alleyways crowded with people, cows, and debris, overshadowed by high buildings on either side. This deep into the city, even shopkeepers were indifferent, and didn’t chase after us to sell their goods. In this area, everything was built for purpose. Beside countless silk and spice shops there were small restaurants serving chai to passing customers. Religious buildings lacked the grand archways and gates of other holy buildings. Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist temples blended into the city, with nothing other than occasional statues of deities separating them from the cafes and homes next to them. I do not know if we ever reached the Ghat the old man recommended, but we saw more. We saw an Indian city thousands of years old that still operated under the same principles as those of its founders and builders. We saw a life not prepared or watered down or expectant of foreign eyes. We saw life in this city as it simply was, with nothing to distract from the work that had to be done to survive.

Raz, like the old man at the hotel, had lived in Varanasi his whole life. However, Raz was different than most strangers we had met before. He was a perfect example of western culture intruding upon Indian traditions. As we walked, he asked us if we had seen a show aired on the BBC network a while back, because he had been in it. He knew perfect English and dressed in the western style, but as we learned later, Raz worked in a silk shop with his family, a small family owned business passed on for several generations, located in old Varanasi.
We asked him, “But why are you helping us? There must be somewhere else you could be besides showing us around the city?”
“Karma. This is good Karma, helping strangers, and it will help me in my next life. Besides, it’s my day off at work, why not show you around? It gives me something to do, yeah?”

We were not far into the city, however, when we were stopped. As we passed a police checkpoint, an officer called us over. He wore the standard tan uniform of the Indian police, and had a long brown rifle slung over his right shoulder. He was slightly overweight and wore a constant smirk, as if he enjoyed harassing foreigners like us, and did it often. He pulled Raz aside, but told us to go on. However, we were now in the city, and would be even more lost than when we were on the main road. Eventually we convinced the officer to let us go on our way, with Raz leading us. As we walked away, Raz thanked us.
“If you hadn’t helped, they would have kept me there for hours. They see sometimes Indians leading foreigners around the city, pretending to be tour guides and then charging very high prices later. The police are corrupt though, and would’ve demanded that I admit to being a guide or until I bribe them. Why should I say I’m something that I’m not? It’s not right, I will not lie. I have the right to go where I want, and help who I want.”

After the encounter with the police, we eventually reached the river, and came to a place none of us had expected Raz to bring us. We had reached a Crematorium. About 5000 years old, it was the oldest one in the city. We were introduced to a man known as the “Dhoon Raj,” or King of the Dhoons, the untouchables who worked at the crematoriums to break the bones of the burning deceased. Though an untouchable, part of the lowest caste in Indian culture, he was the richest man in the city, and well-educated. He explained how only men were allowed down by the pyres to watch the deceased be cremated, because women were too emotional.

He explained that, rather than the more economic electric crematoriums in the area, people preferred the wooden pyres because it was more traditional, more spiritual. He explained all of this, as well as much more, before Raz lead us away, back into the city.

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