Today we were hoping Varanasi would live up to our expectations, that every scene would make for a postcard, that people would leave us alone to explore the ghats and the temples, and that we’d be able to eat well and relax. I was wearing a white linen suit which earned me more Namastes and head nods from the locals, but still a woman with a baby followed us along the ghats, showing me her baby’s genitals, ass, and touching her mouth smiling, blabbering Hindi and dotting it the with words, milk, market. Even after Dad gave her some coins and we walked into a red and white striped temple, she was outside, picking up the pen Dad had given the baby, which it was now throwing repeatedly to the ground. Dad was reluctant to enter the temple because he knew they’d want money but I wanted to see. We removed our shoes and entered and a young man tried to act as tour guide and led me to a side shrine, teaching me to touch his sacred phallic stone where carnation rings were laid as offerings, and to repeat a mantra. He asked me for donation but I didn’t bring money since Dad took me out for lunch, so he led me into the temple to find Dad and ask him for money. A woman pointed to the direction Dad had gone and took over for the boy, leading me around the temple, which had a thin layer of brown filth swept to the sides, and past crudely hewn statuary with many arms, heads and always two white painted eyes. We paused at one shrine and she tried explaining to me what it meant but I couldn’t make it out through her broken English. Then she hung a wreath of hibiscus around my neck, and rubbed her finger on old carnation leaves, then on my forehead, making a little brown dot for good luck, telling me to make a donation of 500, 1000. The whole time I’m like, yeah, I’ve got to ask my friend, knowing he wouldn’t budge, not after all those “gifts” he bought last night, which he’d planned to buy, and which are a fairly good deal, considering how much they’d cost in the U.S. but which he’d still paid too much for, since he’s white and the Indians make their living ripping off tourists, not only whiteys, but also other Indian pilgrims who come to Varanasi, putative oldest living city in the world, holiest, even though after what I’ve seen today and what I saw in Jerusalem there’s no comparison. So today he’d resolved not to fall into any traps, and so there we were, me offering to give the hibiscus necklace back, the little fat lady with her hand outstretched, the boy repeating “donation,” and a couple of Hindus watching the spectacle. Dad gave her 2 rupees and she almost didn’t take it. We walked out, me apologizing, him standing on the steps, looking back at her pleading, sending bad energy our way for walking through her temple and not leaving her with what most white people must leave her, Dad thinking about whether he should give her any more, but her continual nagging, 100, 500, 1000, dissuaded him and we walked on with the beggar lady and her half naked baby she’d wrapped in her own sari following behind.
She finally gave up when she realized we were going to walk all the way down the river in the sun. We watched a monkey climb a telephone wire, and passed a guru in orange walking barefoot. Dad couldn’t believe it and touched the ground, it was that hot. The ghats were empty. A herd of cows bathed in the Ganga. A couple of kids did too. And old men sitting in covered boats hawked at us to float for a ride. Children played in drain pipes. I was getting cranky and my fingers felt bloated with salt; I needed water.
We sat in an ice cream shop and I drank a liter of water and dad drank yogurt. We walked on through the dusty streets, past the lazy bulls and sleeping dogs, the quiet of midafternoon, back to our hotel we guessed, there wasn’t much else to see. A man in a took-took followed us, telling us he knew Mughal architecture, about the Monkey Temple, which the guide book had mentioned. I hate guide books, but at least they have background information on the Indian religions and cities, somewhat replacing our need for Wikipedia since internet is expensive and finicky on the subcontinent. And of course they have the sights to see in the city and the havens for white people which we try not to frequent. The guy kept following us, fifteen minutes, letting us walk ahead and then zooming up and telling us about somewhere else he’d take us, trying again with the Monkey Temple, which had two thousand monkeys, and since it was so hot and all we were seeing were the same crappy little shops, piles of sand, cows, and turbanned men, I said let’s go.
The little monkeys were cute and disgusting. Or rather, it was the people who were disgusting. That they prayed to monkeys made me feel like I was stuck in the past, in some pagan realm long forgotten. We had to store our cameras in lockers outside and enter through metal detectors– as though anyone would waste their time destroying a temple for monkeys. Again we had to take off our shoes, and again the temple was filthy– flies buzzing, crushed monkey shit, crude statuaries; being inside made me feel as though culture had stopped progressing three thousand years ago. There was a sweet shop for people to buy treats for the monkeys. They climbed trees and walked in front of us, red asses high in the air. Dad was disgusted; we left quickly.
Dad had wanted to walk back to the hotel, like four miles away. So we compromised and our took-took driver took us back to the main ghat. Dad wanted to get some coconuts to rehydrate and offered the guy to join, but he said, no sir, I don’t want, when you drink, it will be like I drink. So we got out and paid. And even though earlier we hadn’t settled on a price, he had said, no sir, give me what you think from the heart, one rupee, it does not matter, as long as you happy, when Dad gave him a hundred he questioned that’s it, and Dad gave him another twenty and he shot him a look of death from over his high cheekbones, one of them bulging from a sickness or a fight…And we started walking to the hotel.
It was past four now and people were coming out of the woodwork, motorcycles with men and women riding on the back, SUVs honking, silver rickshaws ringing bells, hawkers selling on the side of the street, untouchables sweeping under them dirt from one corner to the next, one great confluence of movement and energy and filth and people and the sun still high in the sky making you sweat after walking a hundred yards, the horns constant and loud enough to ring your ears, the men walking with their heads wrapped, fabric around their waists, flies buzzing on open fruit, all, everything, and me still thirsty, hating Dad for wanting to walk, to accomplish something and him leading me past a truck with a thousand white chickens and a man taking them out one by one, still living, holding them upside down in his hand, the chickens clucking in fear, knowing it’s all over, and past the abattoir where a young man said hello and smiled as he sat over hundreds of chicken feet, pools of chicken blood and freshly feathered carcasses…
We hailed a cab, the guy didn’t know where he’s going, I’m sneezing the whole time, trying to cover my face from the dust, coughing even, a dry tubercular cough from the bottom of my thorax, and sitting in the cab for twenty minutes, refreshed after having bought a bottle of water and drunk from a large coconut, but still eager to get back to the hotel, anything to get away from the honking and the dust and finally we get back to our hotel, oasis in the desert, and too lazy to find my bathing suit in my bag, just take the red mesh shorts I have and downstairs into the pool, frolicking like a polar bear, throwing a yellow dodgeball high into the air, watching the fat white people read and try to ignore me, hairy youth I am, kicking and swimming and splashing in the warm water, the faint honks sounding in the distance and here comes Dad totally disheartened by Varanasi, saying that it’s overrated and Kolkata is underrated, which I agree with entirely and he’s somewhat upset we’re spending two and a half days here in what he calls, “A dump, a facade of religiosity, an excuse for making this city the tourist trap it is– it should be wiped off the map.” So…no postcards.