Varanasi: Another excerpt from the novel, "The End of Chet," a story about a young American traveling in India. (Attention: This is fiction.)
The streets narrowed as I wandered deeper into the Old City. It felt as though I was stepping back in time. I thought I was walking toward the river, but I couldn’t seem to get there. I had decided to take a hotel as close to the river as possible, but I hadn’t decided which one. In the half hour that I walked, I asked three different people where the river was. They kept telling me to walk straight, but the streets never cooperated. Finally, I recognized a shop that I had seen before. I turned around and realized I was standing in front of the internet café where I had begun.
Just then a cycle rickshaw stopped in front of me and the young man driving it raised his eyebrows in my direction. It hadn’t been the first rickshaw offering its services that day, but I had ignored them all before this. Without hesitation, I climbed aboard and spoke out my request in simple English, accompanied by crude and unnecessary sign language: “Hotel. By the ghats.”
Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest cities in the world, but of course the Ganges River is older still. In this case, it is the river that makes the city, and not the other way around. The Ganga, which it is simply called by most Indians, is more than a river; she is a goddess. Hindus believe that the waters of the Ganga flow from heaven itself and that they purify the souls of all those who bathe in them. All along the shore of the river, in the city itself, steps have been built to give people easy access to these waters. From early in the morning, people can be seen making their way down to the steps, or ghats, as they are called, to wade into the holy river. As a prominent sign on one of the ghats reads, “Ganga is the lifeline of Indian culture.” The Ganga tells the story of India; it captures the identity of the Hindu soul. This is why Hindus all over India keep at least a few drops of Ganga’s water in special containers in their homes, and they will utilize it to heal or cleanse as the need arises. Many Hindus from far away also aspire to bathe in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. Though the pilgrimage is not prescribed in any sacred Hindu text, it is not dissimilar to the Muslim’s haj to Mecca.
The life-giving power of the Ganga has made Varanasi not only a popular place for the faithful to come and worship but also a place to come and die. Two of the ghats are well known as sites for cremation. It is believed that if someone is cremated here at these burning ghats and their ashes are submersed into the holy waters the souls of these people are thus propelled beyond the cycle of reincarnation and directly attain nirvana, the ultimate state of existence according to Hindus.
I learned most of this from the various guides who offered their services during my time in Varanasi, two of which I actually hired. The others I denied, though I’m sure that I could have learned something new from each of them.
I chose the third hotel I was shown. My rickshaw wala brought me to each of them, one by one, and the price went down respectively. The last two were right on the river, and we could only reach them on foot because the alleys had become too small. The hotel was a simple place, and clean, especially compared to the alleys I had just been exploring. The young rickshaw wala convinced me that this particuar hotel wouldn’t grant him any commission for his services, so I tipped him generously. Still, he looked ungrateful and unimpressed. He did his job well enough, though he began to make me feel nervous with his stare. He offered to meet me later, for a tour, but I decided against it, and said goodbye instead.
It was noon before I emerged from the hotel to survey the ghats. Although from my room I could see out across the river, the building beside the hotel obstructed my view to the shoreline below. I wasn’t planning to touch the Ganga that day, let alone bathe or drink from its divine waters. That day, I had merely planned to stroll and to sit and to observe, and maybe to feel the ancient vibes. I was innocent.
With a couple directions from the hotel manager, I took a few steps down the alley and then found the long dark corridor that led me to the ghats. I made my way as quickly as possible through the tunnel toward the light because the smell of urine was horrible. As I came to the end and broke free onto a platform atop the steps, I entered into a silence. The Ganga lay before me, revealing her self. Though there were people everywhere, engaged in a wide variety of activities, there was an eerie stillness. It was death.
I was not mistaken. I was sure it was the spirit of death that I felt. This was well before anyone had told me about the cremation grounds. The air was heavy. I felt oppressed. As I stood on that platform looking down on the river, it was as if she was asking for my soul. I shivered as I wondered if I was strong enough to resist the Ganga. She was hungry. She had been waiting, waiting for me.
I took a deep breath through my nose and looked around again. No one was watching me. No one was approaching me. I was alone. I moved forward slowly to the edge of the platform, lowered my feet to the first step below me, then sat myself down on the cool stone steps. I collected my thoughts and tried to order my emotions. I was scared, and I wanted to leave, to leave the river, to leave the city. I had no obligations here, no one was expecting anything from me. I could get out of the hotel booking. I could get a train to somewhere else, anywhere else. I could leave quietly, or leave loudly. I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave.
Before I knew it, I was running back down the corridor, slipping as I slowed at the end of it before I came out into the alley. I scampered into the hotel lobby and quickly approached the desk, breathing heavily. My mouth was dry as I coughed up my request to have my stay at the hotel refunded. I had paid for three nights.
“Not possible, sir,” the man at the desk replied. “I will refund two nights only. Tonight is non-refundable.”
“Why is tonight non-refundable? Where does it say that? No one told me that.” I said in a desperate tone, as if I cared deeply about the money.
“It is hotel policy,” he stated plainly. “You don’t like the hotel?”
“I don’t like Varanasi,” I snapped back.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” he said with a broad smile.
“You’re not sorry,” I judged as I turned my back and walked aimlessly into the center of the small lobby.
Across the room was a travel desk with no one attending to it. I turned back around to the man at the front desk who was already on his way. As he took his place at the travel desk, he smiled again. As if he was seeing me for the first time, he asked politely, “You need the train?”
“Yes, I want to go to Goa. Sleeper class. Tonight.”
“Nothing is available until Friday,” he said happily.
“How do you know that? Shouldn’t you check first?”
“I am checking daily, sir. I am doing many train bookings daily. I know you can go back to Delhi tonight by First Class, but not Sleeper. Sleeper is now booked for most trains going out.”
I was biting my lip. The man before me was proud of his thorough knowledge of the train bookings, and I probably would have been impressed also, if I had been in a different mood. At the moment, I was irritated. And because I knew that he knew I was irritated, I was irritated all the more.
“Is there a bus?” I squeaked out between clenched teeth.
“Yes, sir, there is bus, many buses,” he went on, his head wagging incessantly. “But to Goa takes long time. I don’t know. Maybe two, three days. Maybe four. Train is much better. Or by flight.”
Without a reply, I turned and set out for my room.
“Thank you, sir,” he called out after me in a caustic tone. In my mind, I could still see his smile, and behind his smile I could see the dull image of another smile, the sullen smirking face of Ganga.
I am the church
I am the church
I am a big building, a stable institution
I am a program for kids, and a committee for adults
I am a well-oiled machine, a theatre for the one-man show
I am a place to be, and to be seen, on Sunday mornings
I am the Church
I am the Body of Christ, the Family of God
I am a People Gathered, a Believing Community
I am a Refuge for the weak, a Shelter from the storm
I am the Salt of the earth, and the Light of the world.