AM NOT SITTING DOWN AT THE GHATS looking at the sunset on the Ganges River because I couldn't stand the thought of a) negotiating the transport there and back; b) the traffic during the transport. . .Could and would have overcome these (the better air and peace in the Cantonment area seem worth the distance and expenseyesterday it occurred to me to rent a cheap room down by the river just to have as a base for an overnight stay but then I ran into that "holy man" or whatever he was just as I was looking up the Scindia Ghat steps towards a recommended guest house and he started going on about the selfishness of Westernersreally not in an aggressive way going on but just mentioning it, as something he'd noticedat which I discarded the thought as if this were some kind of sign not to take up two hotel rooms in Varanasi merely because I can, for the sake of merely possible convenience. . .) and gone back for another afternoon ramble were it not for the increasingly certain (with the passage of every hour, it seems) prospect of being set upon by Holi revelers, doused with colored dyes (which I could handle) and assaultedas in groped, maybe slapped, certainly pushed and threatened and mockedwhich I could do without having to handle. Somehow I pictured Holi as being frenetic but gentle and fun. I don't know when my impressions started to changeit was gradual, as I became more aware of the male behaviors here, their patterns and clear potentialitiesbut by about two weeks ago I was dreading Holi and thinking it might be dangerous to be in Varanasi at this time; the communal violence here on Shivatri, reading about it in the Indore papers, gave me pauseas lot of pauseas I recall. . .Now that I'm actually here it just feels like a terrible inconvenience, one compounded by the fact that I couldn't get a day train out on Thursday and had to settle for Wednesday instead. . .so I'm losing two daysmore, reallyon top of a day lost to travel, while several million thousand boys ("of all ages" as Diane Eck truthfully, if disingenuously, in the most irritating Brattle Street of styles, puts it) run wild all over the cityall over the countryin a religious riot timed to coincide with the first full moon of spring. On the way back from the train station today a group jumped in front of and tried to stop the autorickshaw and the driver (not Papu) didn't stop, and they didn't move, and finally there was diving and brake-slamming and something awful occurred in the engine, but we escaped.
I'm becoming more and more awarethis enforced pause, this cantonment weekend of house arrest, is emblematicof the paradox that in the midst of this journey to the other side of the world I am finding my freedom of movement, my freedom to control the use and tone of my own timemy liberty, in factto be more restricted than it has ever been. In Soviet Russia, one needed permission to do everything; I suppose that would have been hard, travelling there. . .here it's not a matter of permissionit's a matter of possibility. . .time, reality, clamp down and assume defensive, threatening postures in response to every inquiry, much less complaint. . .There really is a feeling that if one had only thrown a marigold mala and ten rupees at that last vermillion-smeared lump of a Shiva linga, then the guy in the railway office might have come across with a reservation in first class A/C: superstition lives here.
Glorious sunrise from the river, though, looking up at the city towering over the ghats, the multitudes of bathers at its feet, splashing, shivering, spitting out mouthfuls of water back into the Ganges; pigeons wheeling in the smoke over Manikarnika Ghat, above the pair of shirtless wood-splitters sledgehammering in metallic tandem, the huge black logs stacked on the steps and in the arches of the disused temple, the black ash carpeting the water and the bank, the shore disguised, the loitering of mourners near the flames, the discarded flowers and gold-threaded wrappings. . .Brahmins singing greetings to the sun from their blue puja platforms; the souvenir-sellers' skiffs stuck like lampreys to the big two-rower tourist group boats; the flat, hazy, pastel sketchiness of the further shore where there is nothing, only sand and strips of green and a few boats groundedthe view left empty of anything but water and skyno earth, just air. . .the view from one insanely crowded shore.
Hotel de Paris, Room 161, Varanasi
DAY 1 |