The free ride in a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw from the Varanasi train station to the Scindhia Hotel was far and away the wildest I’ve ever had in my 73 years of traveling the world. It was a real live version of the roller coaster that many know as “The Mouse.”
The driver was the most aggressive I’ve ever seen, passing on the outside of curves at full speed against oncoming cars, trucks and rickshaws. At some places along the way, the opposing streams of traffic were divided by a low, narrow wall of concrete – which we ignored. At some intersections we crossed over and went against the oncoming stream – and then at the next, if traffic was lighter on “our side,” we went back where we belonged.
Typical of taxi and rickshaw drivers I’ve encountered here, the horn was blown constantly. I don’t mean frequently. I mean one unrelenting pounding, rendering it totally useless as a signal of emergency or danger. Al the horns around were blowing in the same unrelenting way, so none of them meant anything other than, “I have a horn!”
The careening auto-rickshaw suddenly stopped amidst a tangled cluster of other rickshaws. I’d been so disturbed – and genuinely frightened – by the wild ride that it took me a moment to realize we were not just caught up in the welcome respite of a traffic jam, but we’d come to the point beyond which vehicles could go no further. I’d survived.
It’s not a traffic ordinance that enforces that prohibition. Beyond the mess of haphazardly parked rickshaws there was a narrow opening, perhaps 4-feet wide, between two buildings. It was the opening into a maze of passages too narrow to be called streets and too populous to be considered alleys. My still silent guide waved me forward.
I brushed away offers to carry my baggage – after all it had wheels and how far could the hotel be? Major mistake.
If you go there, decline that offer of asssitance at your own risk.
From that point onward to the ghatts and the hotels that hang on the edge of the cliffs on the west side of the Ganges River, the “streets” are a narrow, tangled, winding 15-minute, fast-paced hike, lined with shops and paved with cowshit.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock – T. S. Eliot
After two or three sharp turns where one alley crossed another, I became uncharacteristically disoriented. The “guide” who had picked me up at the train station by announcing one word – a mangled version of my last name – never paused or even slowed down. Had I not keep his pace, I’d have been abandoned and lost.
Virtually every doorway along the tortuous way was a tiny shop, so small that the proprietor was packed in behind his goods and could reach his entire inventory without moving from the spot. Pots bubbled over low flames, giving off smells I could not identify through the stinging haze of spices. Small shrines with burning votive candles were set as bas-relief or even deep niches, into walls.
All of this was for the local people. There were no tourist goods, no tee-shirts, no junk jewelry, no plastic crap; just things needed in daily life by the people.
We wound on and about through this maze. The only orientation I was able to sustain was that we were definitely going forward. Every zig was zagged.
Omni-present cheerful children shouted, “hello.” The older ones, called out, “hello, mister.” Most offered me the traditional clasped hands “Namaste.” Dragging my wobbling bag across the bumpy stones, I could only nod and repeat the words, not the gesture.
Why is it that the poorest children in the world, no matter where you go, are always the most beautiful, happy and gregarious?
The poetic song, “Suzanne” came to mind. Although I know most of the personal story behind the first stanza, the allegorical second stanza has stuck in my mind ever since I first heard it in 1963 and returns at unexpected moments like this. I wondered if its poet Leonard Cohen had been here and saw these same children in the morning, leaning out for love?
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers.
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love.
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror . . .
It’s true; they’ll lean that way forever. The children in the lanes of Varanasi this morning are not the begging urchins of Delhi. These are uniformly a bit shy, notwithstanding the bravado of shouting a few words in English. Their smiles and grins have a hint of what I can only describe in contradictory words as innocent impishness. It’s clear they have parents whom they love and who in turn have given them the life-long gifts of loving discipline and irreverent self-respect that are needed to survive.
During my days in Varanasi I encountered fewer beggars than you’ll find on a walk through Manhattan. The few I did see in Varanasi were adults. If there are beggar children here, I never saw one.
Beggars that I saw last week in New Delhi have an aggressive technique that I hope is never adapted in Manhattan. Instead of the humbly extended, re-cycled paper coffee cup common in New York, India’s beggars carry a small but loud drum. They will stand outside a shop pounding loudly with a stick until someone comes out and gives them a donation big enough to cause them to go on to the next shop.
I struggled on, dragging my suitcase, dehydrated, out of breath, a bit dizzy from the heat and humidity, laughing to myself that were I to drop dead now of a heart attack, my death at the banks of the Ganges would release me from the Wheel of Life. I wouldn’t have to return as a cockroach or a registered Republican or some other lower life-form. My soul would be set free of The Great Mandala.
Suddenly, in one brilliant moment, immediately after yet one more sudden turn, it all came to a stunning end. Until now, the way had been narrow and dark, cut off from the sun. Here, the path ended on a platform at the edge of a cliff, high above the Ganges River.
It was spectacular. Awesome. I’m aware of the architect’s trick of delivering you through an increasingly confined space until, just as it starts to become uncomfortable, you are popped out into a space made even more overwhelming by what has led to it. The entrance to the balcony area in the Landmark Loews Jersey Theater in Jersey City is an an example of that trick. The Auditorium in Chicago is another example.
But here it was, unplanned, undesigned, totally organic – and even more the thrilling for that.
The glare of the morning sun, directly east at eye level, bouncing off the flat water, was like a slap in the face, sudden, harsh, painful.
Directly ahead of me, a few hundred feet below, was a broad bend of the Ganges, curving in on my right and curving back that same way on my left. I was at the apex of it’s western curve as the river turned away from the cliff on which I now stood.
This was worth all that had preceded. It was a moment that I shall never forget.