As bats flutter and glide over Assi Ghat and the full moon rises through the filter of pollution and dust, which seems to be merged into the word “haze”, I’ve been thinking about how I no longer feel lost in this familiar place. Granted, it is only one small corner of Varanasi but it is familiar now, even certain street merchants and sadhus are familiar all interesting men with beautiful faces but rough hands and dusty toes.
Kids from a courtyard above the ghat kick a football over the edge and people below encourage each other to throw it back to them. The circus of nearly making it over the wall entertains the families gathered for the beginning of the Hanuman festival.
It is now normal to sit and watch the goings on of people down by the river, the people in bright coloured clothing alighting boats, a sound tech, checking the mic on a thrown together stage and watching teenagers who just hang out like they do the world over. Hanging back and not talking to girls while the girls wishing the boys would talk to them.
Also getting normal is men holding hands, linking pinky fingers or leaning on each other. This form of male affection is made by good friends and is normal behaviour in this religious and conservative state. They are normally sharing headphones plugged into their smart phones or just playing music out loud as they huddle in and enjoy the tinny rhythmic beat of Indian pop.
So before I forget the particular joy of being lost and finding it all very strange, let me elaborate.
Getting lost in Varanasi is a strange achievement because you are never really lost in this relatively small, ancient city; you may have just wandered too far down a different alley way than last time but there are very few dead ends here. This in a way, adds to the confusion. The labyrinthine layout of “streets” seems to be ingrained in the psyche of the locals but to a stranger it’s a vast matrix of interconnection that we don’t have the codex for.
And it should also be noted that you are never far from something which will captivate you so intensely that you may forget for a moment that you were trying to find your way out. Wandering, lost somewhere in a section of laneways in the Chowk region we happened upon a pristine courtyard, we spied through the gates a beautiful family temple which was a collection of tower spires painted in ash pink that stretched two, three and six meters into the sky. This was a momentary reprieve from the dark and dingy section of our journey.
There are very rarely directional or navigational signs and if there are they’ll be in Sanskrit which all looks like Sanskrit to me. However, way finding is made by remembering that in one area items like jewellery or brass blend slowly into spices and sarees. There is even an entire lane that supplies the area with all the milk curd they need for sweet treats, sitting in muslin sacks and brass trays on the cobbled walkway.
Looking on google maps isn’t much help either, though main road and lanes are mapped there are always paths and passes that are unmarked and it is a strange pleasure to look down at your phone and find that you are nowhere. You are outside of current technology and it always makes me smile knowing that there are people living their whole lives in lanes uncharted by google. This special lane where old men gathered to drink chai, endless chai, may have had the same action repeated uninterrupted by social media for centuries.
The lanes however small don’t seem to deter the casual motorcyclist. Always winding up smaller and smaller spaces these motorbike or scooter drivers will either yell “side” or just honk their horns. In the narrow walkways this can seem impossible but again like occupying a space that doesn’t exist people adapt. The smallest spaces are filled with life here and it makes the lonely streets of home seem like vast canyons to traverse from one side to another. There seems to be great community here, each family or group of families, often separated by caste live intergenerational lives among the ruins of temples, the too close cows and the constant passing by of tourist, but more often pilgrim and worshipper.
Great pride is taken in the presentation of shop fronts and entrances to homes even in the dark and dusty streets that are somewhere in the middle of destruction or construction, doorways are painted bright colours and shrines are adorned with fresh flowers and someone must have just left because the incense is still burning.