I have only been home for a week or so and already the norms of life in Aotearoa have begun to creep back in. I do love it here, so I never fight the inevitable closing down of senses that occurs in your home surroundings, I enjoy the smaller world that drew me home, but I do find myself daydreaming of my time in Varanasi when a memory comes to mind, and I don’t fight that either.
It’s the everyday things of Varanasi that I have noticed lacking here like standing at fruit stands outside dairies I miss the fresh juniper berries piled high smelling earthy and sweet and at the same time savory and aromatic. Missing are the jackfruit and the guava or coconut, freshly cut to enjoy the cooling liquid inside. I miss the commotion of small shops selling only padlocks or prayer mats or metal kitchen ware. I carry on down an urban Auckland street trying to smell for the hot coals placed in the chambers of antique clothes irons, working on business shirts being crisply starched after their wash in the river. No one stops to offer you chai with its sweet and spicy sugary kiss. No one is hanging around chatting or passing comment on the world that passes by, it’s as if everybody is too busy here to care about observing ourselves.
On the main streets, in tuk tuks or on the boats of Banaras* men sing to themselves, many different songs that I will never learn, their voices surprisingly good and betray their weathered position in life; yet here, silence. No ringing bells, or honking of horns, no calling out to tourists, Indian and Western, “where you going!?”, “Where you from?!” “Youwantboat?!” in a single word. Their nuanced language always beginning with hello was reinforced with a smile and open hand. Broken English is the common tongue in the city of travelers and pilgrims in a country of 22 official languages and many more dialects to consider. It was always a joy to chat to school children with astounding English skills who always wanted selfies and to practice conversations and taxi drivers who knew no English and couldn’t read Hindi who would often drop you off in the opposite direction to where you wanted to be. Never in my life have I checked my privilege so regularly and been confronted with my own ignorance so frequently.
I miss the broken buildings being kind-of-repaired and wondering if the underlying structure was demolished or restored before being over built and painted over. Much of the city was destroyed and rebuilt throughout its volatile and dynamic past. There is something about the hazard of buildings in this place with its severe lack of health and safety regulations that reminded me of more honest times of personal responsibility that I’ve never lived through.
This captivated me but barely fazed the nonchalant young men and women of the city. They navigated the busy streets and narrow alleyways like fish in a stream, the young men with fresh haircuts and women with determined attitudes that have affected a drastic change in the community structure and power of women in contemporary Indian society. Their Royal Enfield motorcycles lining the streets as they participated in the abundant nightlife while they discussed the future of the city and country while also streaming a news channel on their smartphones. There is such a vast difference in wealth and income in the city that I could barely even brush the surface. But the growing middle class of India seems be embracing a western world view with their desire for all things western, clothes, style, food and technology which is quickly replacing ritual and customs and subduing identity. It was strange to be in a place that seemed to have nullified colonization so thoroughly be so easy swayed by western ideologies. As with anywhere I’ve travelled, people are aware of the way globalization creeps into the small sacred spaces of life and distorts it for its own purpose. Time will tell how Varanasi combats capitalism and greed in the Hindu city.
I had a conversation with a student from BHU** and he wouldn’t be convinced of how cool it was when Indian men wear all white Sherwani or Kurta for special occasions and temple responsibilities. He reminded me that (traditional) Indian clothes are from history books and western clothes are from television, he was 19 and I couldn’t convince him about the importance of the past nor should I, his future looked bright. Conversely, when I tried the sherwani on I looked like a disappointing substitute member of the Backstreet Boys (circa 2008) which he’d never heard of. Another astounding pastime that me and the other guests of Kriti Gallery artists in residence all played, was watching sari-draped women riding sidesaddle on the back of motorbikes as they wove through traffic and never once got snagged on the cities always loose wires, car parts, tree branches or other vehicles. The blur of coloured saris will stay with me as I return to Auckland’s drab fashion aesthetic of black on black with a hint of navy to add colour. I now long to see sadhus praying and reciting sacred texts or men in carts selling raisins or pomegranates in tidy piles. Auckland motorbikes seem boring now with only one passenger, don’t they know you can fit three or four people on one bike, you just have to hold on tighter.
I’ve since wandered along the Waikato, the regions own sacred river. But there was no one there. Some tourists stopped to use the public restrooms and granted it was a Tuesday but any day of the week the Ganges flows with souls, both living and dead. There is life to be lived down by the river. Maybe this is the sign of contemporary life in Aotearoa, where nobody has time to keep the river company maybe that’s why our rivers get sick or maybe this is why the river stays clean. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world owed almost entirely to chemicals and pollutants from factories and agriculture as well as the cities struggling sewage treatment system which looked more like a Wes Anderson set piece than a functioning facility. This did not deter sons and daughters in their mid-fifties guiding their elderly parents to the water’s edge. I watched their cautious steps across the submerged stones just under the water where they appear for a moment to walk upon the surface of the oily sun licked ripples, and in this way every magical thing seemed ordinary. They bathed and washed away sin in the holy river that only a few meters away received the ashes of newly cremated bodies of the departed, all are blessed, all are made clean.
What I’ve missed most is the people, looking past the sales pitch, which wore off once they were convinced you were not interested in buying yet another necklace of prayer beads or brass pitcher. Once you got through that the people of Varanasi were really interested in what you were about, they were inquisitive and would stare without embarrassment at this bearded, European looking traveler with long hair tied in a knot, with arm tattoos, photographing broken steps and sleeping goats.
There is a warmth to the Indian way of being, avoiding harm and living simply, prayerful in greeting and grateful of exchange, yet sadly things are beginning to blur in my memory. Like I said, my real life is returning to me like waking from a dream. But you cannot return from India unchanged. It altered something in me, something that, like the place itself, is hard to describe. Under the umbrella of the Asia New Zealand Foundation I did not “discover myself” but maybe uncovered a part of myself in a place entirely new and exceptionally old and this is where the real richness of the program resides. The opportunity of an extended period of time held within the relative safety of the city and the residence was an experience that is hard to describe or fathom in this writing, but one that will be long lasting and slow to reveal its true impact. I swung from being overwhelmed and broken to being thoroughly at home and at peace, walking the small alleyways or dodging bikes on the main streets, holding quiet space in temples and laughing as a tuk tuk drivers tried, unsuccessfully, to double the price of a journey you’ve taken many times. I followed the path of pilgrims and sat drinking chai while vendors fixed a bicycle under a swastika sign. I encountered the profound and ordinary all in one place, outside of time and within ceremonies in temples, shop floors and doorways.
*Local/common name for Varanasi in the city
**Banaras Hindu University