Friday, December 24, 2010


When travellers speak of India it’s always with that irritating knowingness which suggests that, though you may have travelled widely, you’ve never experienced anything like India. And whether or not that’s true, to hear it repeated, mantra-like, inevitably chips away at my own belief that, whilst it may have its own eccentricities, it is just another country. Isn’t it? What people are getting at when they talk about India is the intensity of the experience. Well, we’ll see. If first impressions are anything to go by then the border patrol is as benign as border patrols get - upon arrival in the ‘office‘, there are five Indian gents enjoying a mid-afternoon chai as one instructs me on how to fill out the customs form whilst dabbing away pastry crumbs from the corners of his mouth. Welcome to India indeed.

First stop Varanasi. And it’s ancient, but uniquely and wonderfully so unlike Cairo, say, which is ancient and a dump. The old city looks as if it’s just emerged from the aftermath of a tsunami, red shit and dust clinging to every building in the old town. And there are people everywhere, a fact exaggerated by the city’s narrow, labyrinthine streets which are amusingly impossible to follow.

It quickly becomes clear to me that younger Indian men have adopted an unofficial uniform which at least 50% of them wear. It features all of the following; a pair of bell-bottomed pants, a vividly coloured mohair tank-top with added sparkly bits and finished off with a shirt which clashes best with the aforementioned tank-top. It’s like walking into a Bollywood version of Boogie Nights. With last week’s bomb blast in Varanasi, or with the appeal of wintering in the warmth of Goa to the south, westerners are few and far between here. Those that are here are of the Carlos Castaneda variety, bedecked in love-beads and kaftans and who’ve clearly come to India to lose themselves. This will be easy in Varanasi's back streets so they're in the right place.

And that red shit I see on the ground everywhere isn‘t actually blood, it‘s paan. To the uninitiated, the sight of all adult Indian males spewing globules of red shit projectile-like from their mouths on to the street, is potentially a disturbing sight. What they’re doing is getting rid of the paan which they’ve been chewing as an after meal digestive or stimulant. Paan-wallahs, the men who make it all happen, (paan handlers would be more apt surely?) are to be found everywhere and they’re in huge demand judging by the pools of red gunk to be seen splattered all over the streets. Paan contains nut, katha (which gives paan its red colour), chuna (slaked white lime) and, frequently, zarda (chewing tobacco). This is all wrapped in a leaf, made into a triangular wedge and shoved into the mouth for enjoyment of the users and the disgust of others. It leaves all Indian males who chew it with a teeth stain that’s a hundred times worse than red wine. It isn’t a good look.

Varanasi, of course, is a place where Indians come to die by the Ganges and, for the outsider, it makes for a thrilling spectacle. The riverside is dominated by the flights of steps or ghats and it’s here that, each morning, Varanasians come to bathe. In fact the Ganges serves as laundrette, toilet, bathroom and, judging by the state of the water, a dump for the locals. To the locals its waters are an elixir, to me it has the appearance of an outside toilet.

The belief in this most religious of Indian cities is that death here offers instant enlightenment, hence the cremation rituals by the ghats. And it really is an enthralling spectacle. Most of the cremation happens at Manikarnika ghat and it’s an unmistakable place, both because of the vast wood piles which fuel the pyres and for the smell of charred skin. The bodies - and there are several, brought with frightening regularity from the streets of the old town by stretcher (you hear them chanting Police Academy style before they appear)- are stripped of their ceremonial robes, left shrouded in a white cloth and place upon the pyre. One of the family members lights the fire and that’s it. The most thankless job here is that of the men responsible for stoking the fires. I watched once as one of them got his stick, placed it carefully under the head of a burning corpse, flipped it over like a marshmallow as the body snapped in half. There’s a definite absence of mourning here, in fact, there exists almost an air of celebration that the ashes will be returned to the Ganges. And for those who find the whole ritual strange, is it really any stranger than placing a body in an expensive wooden box, digging a 6 foot hole and burying it?

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