Nanjing, June 20 2012

The train to Nanjing leaves two minutes before its scheduled time. Apparently there is no such thing as being late for a train.

In this socialist country, not even silverware and plates are free at restaurants.

The high speed rail skis through countryside fog. Or is that pollution? No one seems to know the difference around here.

Confucius Temple area at night.

Nanjing is an old Capital, the southern capital to Beijing’s northern capital, but now it is mostly a college town. It is bordered by the oldest city wall in the world, a remnant of the 14th century Ming dynasty. The city has a spectacular mix of architecture, from the Ming-era walls, to the 2,500 year old Confucius temple, to the 1912 district where Sun Yat-Sen set up the Republic of China, to the contemporary shopping districts and artsy Nanjing library.

It pays to be a flaneur in Nanjing.

Nanjing Library

The artful look of the Nanjing massacre museum is enough to lay waste to Singapore’s urban “environs”.

Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, or “The Memorial for compatriots killed in the Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Forces of Aggression”

The Nanjing Massacre Museum is part recovered history, part stacks and stacks of official documents that apparently prove that the Nanjing Massacre actually happened. Japan, typically, still denies the massacre, though on occasion the government admits that around 3,000 people may have been murdered. Chinese researchers estimate the total at around 300,000, about half in mass massacres, and about half in random slaughtering, looting and rape.

“My dear poor wife!/The devil raped you, killed you…/I’m right after you!”

This is not the first massacre and war museum that I’ve been to that spends half its time speaking against Japanese official history. There seems to be one in almost every city that the Japanese occupied.

Shopping district, Xinjiekou

The student-heavy night life districts and night markets are merged with the ancient sites, creating areas that are sacred during the day, and then at night, are inhabited by Chinese electronic music, buzzing lights, and wasted students. For anyone wondering what Chinese electropop sounds like, consider SingerSen.

KTV

For their lack of any internationally famous tourist spots, Nanjing is more for students than travelers or tourists. Perhaps that is why the people here seem so playful, vibrant and helpful.

Underground stalls and lights are like the shopping district in A Clockwork Orange

A kind avuncular Chinese professor living in America shows me around the city, announcing proudly that Nanjing is “my city!”

City Wall Modal

Thus I experience Chinese KTV (karaoke) for the first time, which is quite similar to KTV in Taiwan. Perhaps because the KTV companies are Taiwanese, and all the lyrics are in traditional Chinese script.

“We paid so much for that room, those KTV girls would have done anything we wanted.”

—Anything? As in, fix our cable?

Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum. One of the only places in China that the Republic of China (Koumintang) flag still stands.

Many of the foreign (white) students I meet are Sinophiles, who study Chinese history, culture and language, just for the hell of it. Their love for the culture and the scripts is shown in every polite gesture they make with the locals, every laugh and piece of barbecued kebab they share. It is a fascination that for many of them, began with films of Zhong Yimao, Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai.

View from the City Wall

Check this city among one of the places I wouldn’t mind spending a year in.

view from Xianqwu lake, at the train station.

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Travel: Manila – Not a Roots Story

Rusty, the metered taxi driver, takes me from Manila airport to Malate, the karaoke/club district. On the way he says something just so typical of taxi rides in Southeast Asia: “You want a girl? I teach you how to get one.” I respectfully decline, armed this time with the “I have a girlfriend” excuse. His humor holds as he passes off my carefully executed excuse with a laugh, as if it were a joke. “Every visitor have girlfriend. Doesn’t matter. You just get temporary girlfriend in Philippines, like other tourists. Your girlfriend is not here, is she? I know a good place for you.”

San Agustin Church, the oldest in the Philippines

I wonder why Anthony Bourdain never has to go through this. Or why he doesn’t at least show it.  When I was in Korea and taxi driver’s started offering me girls, I thought it was just a Korean thing. Then I thought it was just an “East Asian” thing when it happened in Japan and China. Then I thought it was an “Asian thing” when it happened on the cab ride from the Bangkok airport, and the countless approaches in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Then I thought it was just a “that side of the world” thing when it happened in Mumbai and New Delhi, as cab drivers and hotel managers started quoting prices at me with ruthless tenacity. I guess it’s just a thing that happens in taxis and hotels, and I should stop being surprised.

Rizal Monument

But the question haunting my mind as Rusty pulls into my $7 hostel, isn’t “am I going to succumb to that most ancient of temptations?” but how I, as a part-Filipino traveler, will react to visiting the country of my forefathers–will I take the path of many “othered” seedlings, and proclaim myself a member of my kinsmen, own the “Filipino” heritage by wearing the Philippine flag and learning to cook pancit? But I am determined that this trip not be a “roots” story. I already have the guilt of never living up to my Hawaiian and Irish cultural heritages, and there’s no room in my identity for another mutated seed.

Manila Seafarer's Booths

But things change as I walk through the crumbling streets of Manila. As I board the crowded jeepneys, laugh with the locals, and gape at the museums and statues portraying the ilustrados, suddenly this identity seems promising. My Ilocano blood starts fuming, and somewhere in that collective memory sparks the dispersal of my people, the vague memories of Spanish and American violence, of my grandfather on Hawaiian sugarcane fields, of the desire for some Cosmopolitan escape. Suddenly the Hawaiianess and Irishness I was familiar with melts away in the Manila heat, and I decide that my dyed hair is really a lie perpetrated by American television. This IS a roots story!

The historic Intramuros, also a golf course

The next day–it must have been–I decide to take a walking tour of Intramuros, to see where the hero of my people, Jose Rizal, was executed, and to see the walled-off city where the Spanish attempted to convert my people and use Catholicism to rule over them. However, Ivan, the walking tour guide, doesn’t give Intramuros tours on Mondays, so instead he leads me with a group of Cebuanos through Binondo, Manila’s historic Chinatown.  It’s a food tour, so I figure it couldn’t hurt to try out some Dim Sum.

Typical Fast Food Dish

But then, as Ivan describes the trials and tribulations of the Chinese who came to the Philippines, how they were all lower class peasants, how the Spanish really took more pains to control and convert them rather than the Illocanos, how they had lived incredibly rough lives in mountainous regions, oppressed on all sides by their own Kingdom, by the British, Spanish, and Filipinos, and that it was the Chinese who were responsible for the growth of many staple Filipino foods such as pancit and lumpia–after this gross historical lecture, suddenly the over-charged Filipino identity in me is consumed away with each bite of delicious Chinese eggroll, and I remember now that my Grandmother was in fact part Chinese, part Hokkien, and therefore this tour guide was not only talking about some oppressed peoples, but MY oppressed peoples! I am a descendant of the Hokkien Chinese, in the land of my roots! My blood boils, infused now with the Quipo massacre of 1650, the Indonesian massacres of Hokkien Chinese, the racial riots against my people in Singapore and Malaysia!

Chinatown (Binondo)

As the tour guide rambles on, I begin to wonder how I came from not just one, but two diasporic peoples (well, three, counting my Irishness). The gold stalls and markets in Binondo hardly sway my mind from this suspicion, and I find it incredibly hard to reconcile my Ilocanoness with my Chinese Hokloness. Both peoples are from barren, mountainous lands. Both became merchants and workers in a foreign land, and both peoples are known to be tough, thrifty survivors.  Both groups dispersed to so many different areas so rapidly that there are more living abroad than in the “homeland.” Can these mixed identities be so easily reconciled? Rizal too was part Chinese, as well as part Spanish and part Japanese. So how did he choose one nationality and stick to it? Why was he not, simply, confused?

Binondo Church

In the Filipinas Heritage Library in Makati, the financial district that looks alarmingly like an American city, I read Sionil Jose’s book The Pretenders, his most translated work. In the book, Tony Samson, an Illocano descendent in Manila, has lived his life wanting to search for his roots in Northern Luzon, but dies before he ever gets to go, having sided with the nepotistic upper class, who despise Ilocos people. The ending is moving and I wonder if I would pass on with similar regret.

Typical Hoklo Dish

Frustrated and perhaps fearful, I turn to one of Nick Joaquin‘s plays in a 1975 version of the magazine Goodman, called “Fathers and Sons.” Joaquin too struggled with mixed identity, famously portraying Connie Escobar as a girl with “two navels,” one representing Spanish colonization and the other, American imperialism. How did she fashion identity from the two? Is it different if my navels are of oppressed diasporas, rather than of oppressive regimes? Are these differences only circumstantial?

Ongpin Market in Chinatown

In the small library I try to take it easy. After all, this trip is many things: a research expedition, a vacation, an adventure and another debt-increasing mistake. Definitely not a roots story. So I pick up a journal published by ASEAN, the regional and economic block of Southeast Asia, and calmly read about the Filipino people. I am shocked, as the Chinese and Ilocano blood in me seems to fade into some ungraspable mist. According to ASEAN, my people are not Chinese, nor are they even Ilocano! The journal is pretty clear: it defines Filipino descendants as, in fact, Malays, who are actually part of an ancient regional network of migrated peoples from Malaysia and Singapore, and whose food, ancestors and cultural norms–like most of Southeast Asia–can all be traced back to the mainland. The punchline: everyone in Southeast Asia is a part of a large family, and we should start acting like one.

Did I mention I’m also going to Singapore and Malaysia on this trip?

The original Lumpia?

The Art of Plunge

This blog has now begun. Initially created to log my reading for the English Literature Exams, “Plunging” is a blog dedicated to the Art of Plunge in three meanings, all of which are summoned in every reiteration of this term: (1) plunging, as in diving headlong into (2)  a plunger, painfully sucking up thick, insalubrious detritus from a dark chasm unspoken of in our day to day existence (3) plunging a bet, as in, speculating highly upon,  foregoing practical logic for extravagant intellectual breakdancing.

All of these forms of plunge will be tried at once, with bitter hostility and an increasing anticipation of my own resentment towards the faculty who will take me through this. My list is comprised of American Literatures of Race, Class and Immigration, 1882-1965, Literatures of Asian Diasporas, 1965-2009, and Theories of Political Economy/Globalization, Ideology/Subjectivity and Cultural Production.

An audience for this is meant to be none other than myself, though I leave this blog open for any curious minds who might seek summaries on the readings involved, other points of views, or an honest, reader-response account of what it us like to read these texts in accordance with one another. Since anyone reading these blogs will be uninvited, I take into account no “hurt feelings,” offensive language, fallible logic or my own tendency to misread texts. Any comments will be appreciated and responded to.

My personal goal is to write for about an hour at the end of every day, reflecting on the reading accomplished.

 

Delhi II

In the two months since I left Delhi, the city has already become unrecognizable. Perhaps this is due to the commonwealth games, which two months ago forced squatters from their tarpauline homes. Now those homes have become smooth concrete, shiny as glazed donuts. Even the backpacker district of Pahr Ganj smells a bit less like piss, and I am able to stroll through the main Bazaar without having to leap over puddles of mud.

Palika Bazaar

Palika Bazaar

In the Gem bar I spend a night drinking with a BBC director. He abuses the United States, calling us “a bunch of Imperial assholes.” He fancies himself a fan of Shakespeare, and when I continue to win bets over which character is which, and “what year did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?” his distress turns to ire and he returns to reprimanding the United States, expecting to get a rise out of me.

As if I have any emotional investment in a country that refuses to help pay for my medical bills or subsidize my medication. The pills I buy in India for $8 a pack are about $350 in the United States, for the same active ingredients.

Er...crowded train station

Er...crowded train station

As the BBC dickhead proceeds to offend any American in the room, I begin to wonder why there is no American in the room. Even in the backpacker’s mecca of India, I have yet to meet a single American, and the only familiar accents come from Canadians.

Afterwards I walk the Main Bazaar, the night market’s cunning aiming for me in all directions. Passing by other travelers, I see stereotypes so true and untrue, always laughable. Japanese girls wearing tight white masks to protect them from H1N1. Scottish blokes in ripped jeans and gigantic earrings. French families who stare apprehensively at their bottled water, clutching the pages of their guidebook as if it were a Bible. Australian boys always in large groups, perhaps intoxicated, pulling boyish pranks on any passerbys. Koreans giggling somewhere. Chinese men watching the Indians, noting down any foulplay. Israeli hippies looking for marijuana. British men in long dresses and smoking cigarettes, absorbing the shit around them. German men in extremely short shorts. Canadians in the corner, reading books.

And the Americans. The Americans are nowhere. Do you want to hear the confession of a traveling American? The most insulting part of belonging to this global Empire, one that not only believes that we know the world and what’s best for it, but that we somehow deserve to operate as its global police force–that our opinions should matter the most, that our IMFs and World Banks somehow “enlighten” the rest of the world? Are you ready? Here it is:

In nine weeks of traveling around India, I never met another traveling American. Not once. Not in the gigantic international festivals of Bangalore, not in the thrilling train rides packed with young backpackers, not even in the wondrous Taj Mahal, perhaps the most visited monument on the planet. I never even met a “Non-Resident Indian”-American.

The small amount of Americans in South-east Asia made me suspicious, but the complete absence of my countrymen in India seems totally unbelievable, considering the amount of western youths trying their luck in South Asia. For a country like the U.S. that insists on acting like a world leader, this is abominable. As I watch the other travelers in Pahr Ganj, I begin to realize that the vitriolic criticism  that the BBC Director was spewing about the United States was by no means an uncommon diatribe. In bars all across the world, America is being denounced as an “Empire in denial,” and what’s worse, there is a deep nostalgia for the way the British Empire ran things.

As my Indian friend, Phillip, once told me: “at least the British built bridges and trains, what the hell is your Empire doing to help out? Trying to make us all Christian?”

Delhi Gate, again!

Delhi Gate, again!

When it comes to defending the United States, I am lonely and alone. I do what I can to break the stereotype, but there are far too many American soldiers in third world countries sprouting districts full of prostitution and drugs, and too few (if any) American travelers to showcase a more approachable kind of American. We travelers love to laugh at the Japanese for wearing those absurd masks, and the Australians for being obnoxious drunk assholes, but we forgive them because they are here, among the world, experiencing it and letting the world experience them. But there is no redemption for young Americans. We refuse to see the world eye-to-eye, and the world only sees us through our bureaucrats, our corrupt politicians, our soldiers depicted in their newspapers when, as in Afghanistan last week, our airstrikes end up killing the civilians we are meant to protect.

Americans as a people are in absence, but as a world power we are ever present. Is it fear that holds us back? Our fear of what–stomach aches? India, at least, is ready for us. The Obama charisma has yet to wear off on its people, and as an American, I am greeted and shown respect in every capacity (most Indians are simply bewildered to see an American traveling at all). I have never lied about my nationality, not in communist Laos, not in the long lines of Beijing, not in Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi, not in the knife-happy bars of Phenom Penh, nor in any part of “second-world” India.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Last year, when the protests in Bangkok were at their most crucial, I followed the events with an astounding amount of care and dedication. This is perhaps what backpacking is, what makes it more than simple summer trips, brief outings into the limin, or inexpensive vacations. Because I had been to Bangkok, and knew the people, and had a cognitive map of the city, I could not help but empathize with the protesters, I could not help but care, and root always for the people trying to change their corrupt government. If, like the Europeans, every American spent their youth traveling to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, India, would we still be where we are now? Would we have been so quick to ignore the number of Iraqi civilians we continue to call “collateral damage?” Would we have been fooled for a moment when they told us we were there for “liberation?” Would we have sat by watched our soldiers destroy those great monuments, those astounding mosques, those museums, those countless homes and so many lives, whose deaths we barely even keep track of?

Now we are on the verge of more violence, more occupations, more bad intelligence, and most of us have never even been to the regions under our country’s vast influence. But we are still young. Our backs are still ready to sleep on park benches, our lungs, still willing to inhale the toxic fumes that await us, our hands, still ready to reach out to the unknown, to be grasped by whatever lurks there. Our spirit and enthusiasm, our openness, our efflux of our soul, our willingness to accept the world, this will not last forever. Let us go! As Americans, let us be rid of our fake certainty, of querulous libraries and our ivory, panopticon towers. Let us go! Into the world to break this stereotype so ingrained in the eyes of the world, which puts us always in an antagonized position of dominance and power, as the exploiters of the third world. Let us go! Let us see and be seen, let us act and be acted upon. Let us plunge! Let us plunge!

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Where I went in red, where I stayed in blue.

Hadiwar, Rishikesh, Dharamshala

The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.

Rishikesh

Rishikesh

After a week of running to the embassy, the regional foreign officers, the police, and so-called “cultural centers,” my stubborn performance of the wandering back-packer begins to collapse. Whether or not there is an authentic “India” to find, when one goes looking for it, they don the guise of the backpacker, one who struggles to find an authentic travel experience, who fluctuates between a constant fear of the unknown and a constant fear of the same old known. Backpackers are the natural enemy of the tourist. We gaff at the “fat white old men” like punk rock kids at a football game claiming that the jocks all look the same, while we, in our ripped black T-shirts and converse, high-five against conformity.

In backpacking, a similar game is being played. We all wear photogenic props: backpacks larger than our bodies, unkempt flock-of-seagulls hair, stubbled beards. We are known to “toke up” when the time is right, we are promiscuous, adolescent milkers of our youth; with adulthood just over the horizon, we are not-yet ready to hand over the world for the cage we must one day crawl into. When we get diarrhea on the road, we are grateful for it. When we get Dengue fever, we obtain bragging rights. When we get a cut or shiv, we stand-by for infection. We don’t mind used needles, we like things being shit and the shittier things are the better. We seek to hide within the grime, the seediness; we straddle between the whatever, and the why not? We get our passports and credit cards stolen. We get bit by rabies-infested monkeys. Our narrative grows and grows.

That is why, on my first package tour, riding through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, I feel something of a coward. How has it come to this? How have I so easily exhausted my resourcefulness, letting the whim of the tour guide shepherd me from one ugly religious monument to another? It is clear I have betrayed my people, my self, my dignity and the overly romantic self-image in my head, where I appear as a brown Brad Pitt. My only redemption is when the air-conditioning on the bus leaks freezing water onto me all night and we have to sleep with the windows open, inviting all types of disease-ridden mosquitos. See, my backpacker companions, this is still travel, right?

Hadiwar Temple

Hadiwar Temple

Besides being famous for the Beatles and their drug-induced Enlightenment, Rishikesh is mostly just a beautiful city and not much else. Adjusting already to my role as a package tourist, I sneer past the low-life British backpackers with their dreadlocks and smell of piss and pot.

Dharamshala

Dharamshala

Dharamshala is by far the most interesting place along the Himachal Pradesh route. The home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetian exiles, this is perhaps the one place in India that does not bargain for prices. At least, this is my first impression, until I run into all the Hindus who had moved into Dharamshala just to sell “authentic Tibetan” knick-knacks at extremely high prices. I do my good deed for the year by dealing only with the Tibetans–it is their cultural heritage isn’t it?

Tibetan Temple

Tibetan Temple

After three days in Dharamshala, the bus back to Delhi breaks down, one day before my flight back to the States. The toxic fumes of a nearby factory and the swarm of mosquitos make this especially unbearable. After hours of watching the Indians weld together parts underneath the hood of the bus, I am in need of a restroom, and two minutes later I am accidentally mooning a family of shop-owners who speak no English and perhaps have never seen an American, let alone an American returning to nature in their fields. When the bus starts running again, the Israeli traveler next to me shoves his legs in front of my seat, and the entire night becomes a battle for more personal space, of which there is no clear victor.

Package tourism. I don’t see much of a difference.

Kolkata

A man with a flaccid penis drifts by me in the train station of Varanasi. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment beginning to cross my path, it then plummets into the railroad tracks, falling towards the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long day at the office.

When I am on the train I can think of little else but the fall. It seems he was…I’m not sure what to insert into this slot. Drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? My imagination takes off, pondering the man’s fall the way Sherlock Holmes might ponder a crushed hat lying in the street (though with far less finesse): During a routine parachuting, this elderly adventurer’s loosely worn dhoti was yanked from him by the elements, and due to the pre-jump elevation sickness, found himself in a nude daze, his head bopping to Purple Haze, resulting in what seems to be..what certainly was, it seems…it seems…

a fall.

I am so benumbed in my memory of this event that I barely kick my feet off the side of the train, or bother to look out the window, so that when my traveling companion’s bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping saris searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, when the police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding uzis and AK-47s, when we are sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, nearly a day after the fall, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without a valid passport and we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline, waiting for pity, our tears never showing through the pouring rain, I am still in that Varanasi station on an otherwise normal day, watching a nude man plummet into the train tracks. The police did nothing, everyone else was paralyzed in a state of shock. I am now beginning to remember someone does leap in, kicking away the giant rats who had come to explore a new piece of roadkill, pleading with the guards to find a pair of trousers, ordering a clerk to bring some chai, sitting the old man near my luggage.

How does an entirely nude Indian man get all the way from the platform staircases, the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station without anyone giving a damn? That is, until it happened?

As we are walked off the plank of our fifth hotel, back into the waters of the monsoon with my laptop already permanently damaged from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths, finally beaming in, we just have to keep our heads in the right place, I repeat, and repeat. I even have an adage: The greatness of a man is not in their achievements, but in the way they react to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliche’ and overdone song lyric that comes to mind.

Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we wetten the floors of an internet cafe. As my traveling companion calls her loved ones, reliving the moments again and again, I cannot forget that we are still in a place of abandon. No proof of identity whatsoever. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Nepal or Myanmar, that I am trafficking her across the border after promising to marry her. We are already on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.

am in Kolkata.

We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.

I have left her in the internet cafe. I am back in the river in the street, heading towards that intersection where the current is pushing against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms laugh gayly in the rushing flood, surrendering themselves to the rush of waves. I take slow, careful steps; I cannot see where my feet are in the brown river. With every step I hear the crunch of an enervated body, the exhausted succumbing of a man onto thick iron rails, a man who, it seems, must have, it seems…

In the water I begin to lose it, and as my body gives out, all those things on the tip of my tongue shoot into my brain. There was a time, years ago, in a bar somewhere, someone asks me what the title of my research paper is on, and I cannot think of a quick and humorous response. He is short and has a smug smile, I’m not sure if he’s serious. Meanwhile I am watching my body in some berserker, screaming at the flood, thrashing its arms about in redundant paroxysms. The title of my paper? I say, returning that smug smile. Isomorphic Agrarianism and the Half-life of the Hyphen. That’s what I should have said!

At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache and wearing tucked in plaid. As I tell him what perhaps has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my avatar, he can feel my anger and rage and I can sit placid in numbness. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right, is already waking up the old cliche’s in his mouth. Just do not worry now, you must keep your head. He has relieved me of so many duties.

An hour later I bring my companion to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?

It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.

Varanasi

Shivatha Ghat

Shivatha Ghat

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.

VaranasiIV

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.

Dasashwamedh Ghat

Dasashwamedh Ghat

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).

VaranasiV