Flashbacks: Varanasi

At first glance, the mighty Ganga struck me as quite small. Having seen the Brahmaputra in Assam, I expected this river to span a seeming infinity. But, it was mid June and monsoon was coming late this year: maybe Al Gore was onto something. Riding from the airport, I sensed a distinct vibe that permeated the city’s outskirts. Although the the placeless aesthetic remained pervasive, the whole area exuded some intangible subtlety that I remain unable to put into words. Down a few more intersections, my driver pulled up to an obscure alleyway. Outside, the host of my guest house greeted me. Pointing down the dimly lit crevice, Sonu instructed me to follow. We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, shuffling down one tight corridor after the next. These were streets, not alleys, I soon realized. Cars weren’t allowed – because they wouldn’t fit – and only the occasional motorbike made its way through the musty cobblestone breadth. I kept imagining a young Steve Jobs roaming down these streets, drawing influence, affirming good taste. After unpacking at the guest house, I departed and found my way to the closest ghat. Down the staircase and across the concrete steps, I ambled between strangers coming from all directions. Before, behind, beside, between, every next local propounded a boat ride. Past another flight of stairs, there it stood before me: the river of legends, the key to Moksha, the Mother Ganga. Crouching down ten feet from the water, I looked across to the sandy banks exposed on the opposite side. I didn’t know what to think. Is this the medium of a holy goddess or is the semantic notion of holiness just an extension of economic importance, one, in this case, that bears on millions? When I was younger, my father would spout mythology to me, recounting the river’s sacred aura and divine importance. Yet, I now stared into its depths, and all my mind could do was go blank. I felt something, but no words could articulate clairvoyance. To my right, a group of teenage boys jovially waded into the water, yelling and shoving another into the shallow depths, like boys at the neighborhood pool. To my left, an elderly man and two women alternated between bathing, prayer, and washing their clothes. The raggedy, aged fellow particularly caught my attention, him methodically scrubbing each centimeter of cotton dhoti. Every minute or so, he muttered to himself, sending an embittered glance to the boys playing off to my right. From the distance, a boat veers off towards us. Painted red and white on its side: Airtel 3G & 4G. Even the Ganga has a weakness for the banknote, all the watercraft reflecting the familiar corporate landscape. While a shirtless local cranked the paddles in cyclical succession, one man laid stretched out on the canoe, sprawling in the sunshine. Yet, instead of looking out across the water or observing the masses along the banks, his eyes were glued to his phone, taking selfie after selfie, searching for the angle of his face that would generate the most traction on social media. It was disgusting. Yet, the more and more boats I looked out to, the more I saw of people trained on their phones instead of embracing the aquatic serenity. Continue reading

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