Saturday, July 19, 2008

Life Fragment

Personal Journal From Last Summer --- 24 years old --- Varanasi, India

i guess it has been about a week since i've written. So much has happened. It's always been difficult for me to keep a journal. i suppose i get wrapped up in daily life, forgetting to pause and record it once in a while. My first day in Varanasi was pretty relaxing. i felt compelled to think about death, with the recent death of my friend and Gutter's baby and all, but i rarely did.

i woke up in the morning to a blazing hot sun and went to an internet cafe to figure out train schedules with my father-in-law. After looking online for a while, he left and i stayed behind. After using the internet for a while longer, i called Marissa and walked back to meet them. On the way back i got stopped by a guy around my age. i was confused by what he was saying to me, but gathered that it had something to do with respecting the burning corpses. Our travel guide had warned us against guys who offer to show "a better view of the corpses," but i didn't understand clearly what he was saying to me. i followed him down a path then up to an overlook that peered down on the ritual cremations. i watched the corpses burn as he explained to me, in detail, the different cloths and woods associated with different genders and castes. As he explained, the smoke from the corpses filled my eyes, temporarily blinding me. i walked away from the burnings, eyes filled with tears from the smoke. While i was rubbing my eyes, he cornered me and asked for 500 rupees. He said that he was a hospice worker and needed the money to buy wood (of course, this was ridiculous since he had just told me that the higher castes have better wood). i knew he was lying. There is a great deal of manipulation that the tourist must deal with in India. i told him i'd give him ten rupees; he complained saying it wasn't enough to "buy wood." During all of this, my eyes were still burning and tearing from the smoke. i gave him 100 rupees and basically told him to get out of my face. i felt pretty salty about that 100 rupees the whole day, most because his manipulation stripped value from a potentially poignant experience. i suppose i still took some things away from the experience.

i quickly met back with Ris and family, my eyes still tearing. We grabbed a bite to eat, and then i went shopping with them for a bit. After an hour or so, i parted them and walked down the busy streets and alleyways, back towards our hotel. i decided not to go up to my room and, instead, sat and talked with a very nice guy named Madan. He explained more about the burnings and pointed to a corpse floating down the river. He explained to me that certain types of people are not burned, but let loose to float down the ganges river. Some of those types are:

- small pocks
- leperse
- holy men
- pregnant women
- the incredibly poor
- people bitten by snakes
- children

He explained all of this in detail as a corpse slowly floated passed us. Our conversation was interrupted by the screams of a cow. The cow's new owner was trying to bring his reluctant cow down the steps to bathe in the ganges. It was extremely amusing. They tried dragging it, blindfolding it, breaking a bamboo stick over it, pulling it down by ropes, but nothing they did could convince the cow to go down the steps. The cow won in the end. As a side note, there are cows everywhere in India. You have to step and drive around them daily. i felt Madan's good spirit. He was a nice guy and our conversation felt honest and real. He told me about his arranged marriage and why he loves Varanasi. The people who live in Varanasi feel blessed. After our conversation, i sat on our balcolny for a while and watched people bathe in the ganges. Our neighbor's red thong underwear had fallen from the bannister onto the floor in a puddle of water made by the air conditioneer. i wanted to help but decided not to at the fear of her looking out and seeing some strange man holding her thong. i played out the whole scene in my head and decided against it.

After relaxing on the balcolny, i took a great nap. i awoke to two reese's monkeys walking on the balcolny. i didn't dare go out. i can't stand, nor do i trust, reese's monkeys.

When Ris got back we all went to eat at a Korean joint. The food was good. We sat and talked with a kid named Himal for a while. He talked about his love for Varanasi. He was of the Brahman caste. He taught us the phrase: "Raam naam sathe he." Or "God is truth" (something like that). We'd heard men chanting this as they carried the corpses to the pyres. They chant this with every corpse. He said that he loved this chant --- that he wasn't afraid of death. He said "so many people want to get to heaven, but they don't want to die." i thought about what it would be like to live around death like those who live in Varanasi. After eating, we went home and slept after staying up and talking for quite some time.


Grabloid said...

that is an amazing entry/story
sometimes i forget that i live in the most 'modernized' part of the world and stories like this make me think for hours about how sheltered and alienated we are in the west (america especially) from raw, real human/animal experience makes me think how fragile we close we are to we try so hard to defeat death and disease by turning away from it, or trying to hide, but how it really is our fate...the way we even treat corpses, we try to preserve them with chemicals, we only let special/trained people handle bodies...

it is strange that something like this can turn your world upside down: just hearing about, seeing, or experiencing what to most people/creatures on the earth is a normal thing - seeing death every day, seeing dead bodies, dealing with it, burning them, burying them, on a daily basis...

munish said...

Nice post about your experiences in varanasi india.