You want coolie? asks a man in a red vest, his teeth stained yellow with paan and his eyes in some uncontrollable blitzkrieg. Before I can answer he lifts my bags onto his head, straining his neck, marching up flights of stairs, his aged body nearly giving out under the weight of marble nick-nacks stockpiled among my belongings.
It’s difficult to spend a moment in India without immediately thinking of A Passage to India, and the intense guilt that comes along with Forster’s parable.
Varanasi (also called Benares) is India encapsulated; the diversity and multitudinous lifestyles that make the sub-continent more-or-less absent of ideology is well represented in the stunningly multicultural holy city. Here Muslims make statues of Ganesha for Hindus, while Hindus build mosques for Mulsims. Every Ghat bordering the sacred river Ganges is devoted to a different religious sect or region of India, so that any type of identity one chooses to align with is represented upon this sacred river.
The owner of my hotel is a bald Indian whose Japanese wife teaches yoga, while their children, a fat-Buddha looking boy and eight year old girl, are raised mostly by the hotel staff, who speaks to them in simple Japanese. Along the road I am met by East Asians, Nepalese, Indians from Bangalore and Madras.
Whatever you can say about India, says Amartya Sen, the opposite is also true. After two months of traveling in India, one must succumb to the absence of understanding. For Whitman, to travel is to rid yourself of certainty, to know nothing and take pleasure in not knowing. In trying to conceive of India, no mental picture appears, no one city, no style of dress nor even a ubiquitous pop-song (the Tamils still refuse Bollywood). As Arundhati Roy puts it, in one category or another, every Indian belongs to a minority. One must learn to conceive of a people without the golden thread of normalcy.
As soon as I arrive at Gai Ghat, a mustached Indian man commandeers our boat and gives me a fulsome explanation of the purposes of the Ghats. He says that old people come here to die, that they need very special wood to burn their bodies with, that this kind of wood is extremely expensive for them—around a thousand rupees a kilo—and that if they do not have a proper burial they would not go to enlightenment (as he calls it).
Then, almost comically: If you give, you go to Enlightenment too. So how much do you want to help those in need? One, two, three kilos?
My eyes meet his with stern execration—an immediate sense of loathing for such a man, any man, who twists the goodwill of others to their own purposes. The smoke from the burning bodies pinches our noses, the requiems of lamenting families reach out to us in a choral yearn, the garlands of brightly colored flowers upon the dead bodies still submerged in the Ganges set our eyes into sudden still. I know the man is a scammer, with the audacity to scam so shamelessly in front of the mourners–such a capacity I can not believe! And though I shake my head and tell him no, there is still that rattling of a guilty conscience, that suffering of imprecation, the fear that after refusing the chance for redemption, one might never breath an anxiousless breathe.
His riposte: You will remember what you have done here today. You are a very very bad person, with very bad karma. You will remember what you did.
All the families of India come to the Ganges, that river too toxic for most wildlife, where there is a spot for each region, a place for each religion, a time for each prayer, a chant for each caste. They are all, equally, offered the chance to reach Enlightenment (depending on the kilos of wood they purchase).