Thursday, October 4, 2007


"I don't even know the word for yes." Abby spoke the words bitterly, walking back to our hotel this afternoon along the ghats that line the Ganges River in the holy Hindu city of Varanasi. "'No'. 'None'. 'I don't want'. Everything I know is negative." We were both confused, upset, frustrated, helpless, and it was evident in our conversation. We were having a very heated argument, in a very public place, surrounded by people who live their entire lives in public, and the lack of respect for our space and privacy and selves was adding to all the negative emotions that were already spilling over.
It had been a very difficult afternoon.
The argument stemmed from our inability to deal with India. More accurately, it stemmed from our differing opinions on how to approach our inability to deal with India. We've been here for more than three months, and still feel completely apart from what's going on around us. I can't figure this place out, and it's driving me crazy. Things here are different. People are different. The values and social mores that bind the country together don't make sense to me. For that matter, I can't figure out if anything at all binds anyone together. The country is such a mishmash of cultures, religions and history that no two people are the same. Common culture? The closest thing I've been able to find is love for the glorious sport of cricket bound loosely together by Britain's finest legacy, the railroad.
We'd spent the previous hours at Assi Ghat, a large, open area on the banks of the holy Ganges, where long rows of sandstone steps lead down to the murky river. It's a fascinating place, a chaotic, vibrant mass of people and colour and commerce and confusion. Life and death mingle and merge, with thousands upons thousands of people using the dirty, silted steps to wash their bodies, to wash their clothes, to cremate their dead, to wait for death. Pilgrims and locals, young and old, devout and irreverent; all join together to create the absolutely world class people-watching.
Sitting on the steps, in the midst of the press of people coming and going, we were completely immersed in a swirl of colour. Most of the people were female, and the women's bright saris turned the world into a living rainbow, the colours and textures combining to create an impossibly complex pattern I tried in vain to capture through the lens of our camera. We found out afterwards it was a festival to honour Laxmi, the god of wealth. They believe bathing in the river on this specific day increases the likelihood of their children becoming wealthy; why this only works for mothers was never explained, and I never asked.
I can't believe how dirty the Ganges is. It's astonishing. It's filthy. Hindu's holiest river, a living incarnation of the religion's most important god, is a hopelessly polluted limpid green cesspool that flows sluggishly across the breadth of the country, collecting the waste of a billion people on its way. Watching people immerse themselves in the opaque sludge makes me cringe; I find myself flinching and looking away involuntarily. At the same time, I've realized I'm jealous of their carefree, ignorant frolicking. I'd love to join them. The heat and oppressive humidity wilts you, and it would be glorious to splash and scream along with them, to swim to the middle of the river and let the current carry me downstream. Unfortunately, my western obsession with hygiene and fear of infectious disease won't let me. Abby has tried to encourage me but I've remained unconvinced. "A billion Hindus can't be wrong...", she's reasoned. Instead I watch from the banks and dream of the cool, clear lakes at home. Indians are upfront about their pollution, and unashamed. They discard anything, anywhere, with such a casual disdain, a barely concealed "Fuck off", that leaves me feeling shrill and self-righteous in my indignant astonishment.
At the ghat, we watched an emaciated man be ridiculed and tormented by a pack of preadolescent boys. The river floods annually, and leaves behind huge banks of loose, fine silt that clog the ghats. It forms a thick mud that's too soft to walk on, and since it takes month before it's all cleared away, people create pathways around the worst spots to get to the river. The man was laying in the middle of one of these silt bogs, and was obviously unwell.
Almost naked, he was dressed in nothing more than a discarded funeral shawl normally used to cover dead bodies on their journey down to the crematation ghats. His body was skeletal, with gruesomely protruding ribs. He was writhing slowly on the ground, singing loudly and incoherently to himself, and smiling and giggling at a world only he could see. His impossibly thin arms scratched deep gashes in the soft mud with surprising strength.
The boys were clustered together to one side, provoking themselves to bolder and bolder feats. They quickly progressed from laughing and pointing to throwing balls of silt at their helpless target. One of the boys soon pulled out firecrackers, and they set them off closer and closer. Through it all, the crowds were silent accomplices. Mothers and fathers stood idly by with half smiles on their faces, pointing and gesturing every time the man made a particularly sudden or spastic movement. A boy ran up close and let fly a large clump of mud, hitting the man aquarely on his naked back. He made a feeble swat of protest then buried his head in the dirt. There was no doubt that the boys behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly nothing to be stopped. The crazy man was worthless.
When the last firecracker expoded so close to the man's face I thought it would blind him, I couldn't watch any more. I was livid. I walked down to the crowd of boys and angrily waved them away. Now I was the entertainment, and the adults focus all turned to me. I glared at them, all of them, moving from face to face. I wanted them to be ashamed. I glared at the boys. I glared at India. I asked a passing man why no one made a move to stop the boys tormenting, and he said simply, "That man crazy", and waved his finger about one ear.
The situation infuriated me. The same questions that have been bouncing unanswered around my head for the past three months came back once more. How could I possibly understand a society that allows a person to be treated this way? How am I supposed to integrate myself into a community that has no respect for life? I can't help but feel a sense of moral superiority that gets driven home time and time again as I watch Indians treat each other like shit as they go about their daily routines. To survive in their world, aggression needs to be an instant response - to board a train, to walk through a crowd, to make your way down the road. There's no backing down, there's no deferring to others. It's a cut throat world.
We left the crowds, my rage unchecked. I was almost shaking, unsure about how to deal with it. I wanted to beat those kids to a pulp. I wanted to shake each and every person who had stood idly by while it happened until their teeth shook out and their noses started to bleed. I wanted to yell and scream and curse. I hated them all, at that moment. I hated India.
Abby wanted to leave, to be gone. I wanted to understand what I had witnessed. I wanted to make people understand why I was so angry. I wanted to teach India a lesson. We started to argue.
A quarter mile downstream, Abby turned to me and started speaking, her voice quivering with emotion. "I don't like the person that India's turning me into. I can't be myself. I'm not a mean person. Every time I shove someone out of the way to walk down the street, I'm shoving myself. Everytime I walk by someone and avoid eye contact out of fear of being sold something, it hurts. I don't like ignoring people. I don't like brushing people off. I hate that I have to assume that everybody's wants my money. I can't trust anyone. I know that there are nice people here, but I'll never meet them. I can't say hi to everyone, to answer the same three questions time after time, only to be asked if I want to buy a scarf, or need a hotel. I have to be mean to everyone to survive, and it's making me a bad person. I just can't do it." She was in tears, the pent up frustration and pain escaping with each drop streaming down her cheeks. "Acting like this tears me up inside. It makes me feel like I'm rotting from the inside out. I'm surrounded by negativity, and it affects me. I don't like this place."
I was still angry, but no less affected. It's impossible to escape the incessant scrutiny and attention, to avoid the never-ending touts who hassle you wherever you are, wherever you go. The pressure never relents. Instead, it builds gradually, daily, with every "Where from?", or beggar's hand in your face, or plea for "One pen". I find it ironic that a country that swallows you whole refuses to digest you, to incorporate you into the fabric of its being. You are always a tourist, a gora, a fact Indians will never let you forget. It's not malicious, and taken individually it's harmless. The problem is, it adds up. Business is business, unless you're everybody's business. Then it becomes difficult not to take it personally.
For me, the aggression has the reverse effect. It makes me feel alive. It heightens my senses, and brings out my competitive element. It makes me want to win. Win what, I'm not sure, but I can beat these Indians, every last one of them. If it's a game, then I'm playing. Except it isn't a game, not for them. For them, it's their life. The sense of futility and helplessness is one that pushes me. I want to figure this place out. I'm good at that. I'm good at fitting in, at mixing with crowds, at landing on my feet. Why not here? What is it that I'm not getting? Why am I perennially an outsider? I'm consumed by India, but for all the wrong reasons. I can't beat her, but I feel like if I don't, I'll be failing. The issue, I think, is control. I have none, and I fight it. I want to solve India. Except a country can't be solved.
I'm having trouble finding a way of presenting this all in a nice neat package. There isn't one. It's hard to share things that you don't understand yourself, in a way that others might. All I've written here doesn't tell the whole story, not at all. Some things are incredible. It's an unforgettable place, and highly worthwhile. It just confuses the hell out of me, and makes my whole being question everything around me. It's a good thing, but it's a hard thing. I travel to push myself. I travel to challenge myself, my opinions, my perspectives, my identity. I travel because it changes me. But what Abby said made me think about my interactions with this place. Change, sure, but for the better, or for the worse? India is India. I'm not going to change it, but it's going to change me.
I'm going to leave it there, before my brain dissolves into a puddle of that same Ganges silt I walked through earlier today. Fear not, brave armchair travellers, our intrepid hero and heroine are doing well, and fine, and are handsome and strong. They will survive. They will persevere. They will return with Good Memories. Most importantly, they really are having a fantastic time. Not an easy time, but a fantastic time.
Life is good.

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