My journey began as a means of escape. I had lost a large part of what made me “me” and I hated having to realise that. It’s like those autograph and slam books during school… the thoughts and advice people leave for you as well as you for them: “never change”, “stay the same”, “be yourself". We wrote them with such innocence without understanding or knowing the reality that is life and emotion. If only we do stay the same. If only we stand our ground. Always, always.
For most of my life, I did heed this ‘advice.’ I was my own person, driven by my own dreams and beliefs and I stood up for what I felt was right. But for a brief few years, I succumbed to compromises and I lost a spark. I didn’t question my life and I didn't I go through a crisis. I just lost the essence of myself and I let go willingly. But here’s the beauty of the self and the subconscious. When the time is right, it slowly wakes you up from this nightmare of a reverie. I didn’t weep for my heart but I was happy to return to myself. Everything I loved, everything I thought and deemed worthy, everything I was willing to fight and struggle for came back and I become the person I was and the person I am today during. Varanasi was chapter one. It became the first stop in the endless and unending celebration of the self.
I still don’t know how I settled on Varanasi but as soon as I did, I called upon the one person I knew would say yes and she did. It was January 2015 when we put the wheels in motion and with three days to go before our trip in February, Urvashi told me that her friend too had coincidentally decided to go so we planned to travel together. Little did I know that Varun and Long would not only turn out to be great travellers but also good friends today. Side note: Long has an actual name but this is a nickname that Urvashi and I will continue to stand by. We lose track of what his real name is to be honest.
The 13-hour train journey was enough for all of us to get to know each other and I think it was clear that we all felt at ease with each other.
We reached Varanasi in the early hours of the morning and checked into Shanti Hotel. At Rs. 800/- per night, you get what you paid for: A bed and a bathroom. A bathroom without a sink in our case. In Shanti Hotel’s defence though, they had a wonderful roof top restaurant that became a daily haunt for us. We started and ended our days with their paratha and lemon ginger honey tea with a view of the still-flowing Ganga and by the end, the chef/waiter knew exactly what we wanted.
Shanti Hotel was closest to what is known as “the burning Ghats”, the place where the dead are burned. Photography is prohibited and while not many people will adhere to this, I wish they would out of sheer respect. Before we heading out of there, a man approached us. With words dripping in honey, he led us to a rundown half-constructed building with a bad stench. He told us that this is the house where people come to await their death. While we aren’t gullible people by nature, Urvashi and I were perfectly conned by the banks of the burning Ghats. There were two old ladies sitting on the floor, not even old, not even close to the ‘D’ of death and they urged us to give them money. Clearly giving them a 100 note wasn’t good enough. They had the nerves to ask for more and shouted at us. we made a hasty exit only to have this man follow us for a good 15 minutes asking for a ‘donation’. I managed to get a picture of our con man with my SLR and when I got the film back, it captured the man perfectly for who he was. In contrast, we had a chat with a very sweet panwari who told us about the Ganga floods and how there is a marker for each time it rises in one of the buildings near his small shop on the lane way stairs.
You will face it everywhere but in Varanasi, begging is disguised as ‘donations’ and men will even paint themselves as a Sadhu Baba and when you take a photograph, he will expect money in return (as we learned the hard way). Either that or you are shouted at for photographing them. It’s a loss – loss situation.
Varanasi is a maze of winding alleys closely linked together. There will probably be an unrelenting fear of getting lost but as we learned, you wouldn’t. You will eventually make your way through the maze and end up in one of the 97 Ghats. With the cow traffic, it’s not easy to manoeuvre especially when you need to dodge the cow dung. The cows roam free and they are privileged because of their holy status. Cows seem to have the authority to barge into people’s home. A real life scenario we were privy to: A scared and crying child ignored because the cow that barged into the house needed to be fed first. Holy Cow right?
Living and knowing Delhi, there’s always a need to look over your shoulder no matter where you are. That city makes you paranoid. I expected Varanasi to be the same if not worse in terms of being rigid but it wasn’t so. Varanasi was too new age for a Holy place. I suppose the influx of tourists have made the locals in tune with the world in a broad sense. Apart from people trying to sell you drugs, people left you to your own devices. Well, drugs and boat rides. But the boat ride needs to be done for the sake of the ultimate Varanasi experience.
By the banks of the Ganga (along all the Ghats) will be people sleeping, washing and drying clothes, taking a dip, doing yoga and several barbers shaving and cutting hair. There is a burst of colour from time to time and there are sections of buildings and lanes that are reminiscent of European scenes. We took one afternoon to solely hunt for a palmist. This was Urvashi’s guilty pleasure and she wasn’t passing up a palmist reading her future in Varanasi. We did find one but he unfortunately did not live up to her standards within the first few minutes. He had already stated random and false facts. Not that we were expecting a holy intervention, but we were charmed by the prospect of a magical happenstance by the banks of the Ganga.
We decided an evening boat ride to witness the Aarti, a nightly puja performed at the Dashwamedha Ghat. The boat ride was surreal. As you floated on the calm waters, the other boats passing by slowly, the lights and diyas, floating flowers… I felt transported. It didn’t seem like the world I knew. I was carried away to some form of after world. This dreamlike state was furthered by the Aarti. The endless sounding of the bells during the Aarti presented me with an out of body experience. I had closed my eyes, focusing only to the sound of the bells and I fell into a trance. What felt like a brief second was almost half an hour (?). I think no one noticed or cared because everyone there seemed to be under a certain spell. All I heard, all I still hear when I cast my thoughts back are those bells. It was an insane moment of peace and I have never felt so perfectly empty and clear in my mind. I thought of nothing yet I realised everything that was going on. My mind felt free. The smoky apparitions of the priests up on the stage and the resounding bells… I wonder if I am romanticising these events but it made the trip worthwhile and so special. I don’t think there will be a reverberation of that moment and yet, I still wish I knew where my mind was carried off to that night.
On our last morning, I was overtaken by a cold wave. I was obligated by a visit from the past. A past that had slowly chewed away bits of me without my realisation. I remember being hurt. I remember the feeling of being pulled back inside a hole. My mental framework was falling apart and the trip and all its goodness was slowly being chipped away. But I suppose it is in these moments that you decide the kind of person you want to be. I wasn’t trying to be strong. I wasn’t. Not at all. Not at that point. I was just trying to be because that was the best I could do for myself. These new places and faces… it was a way to just be. That's all. I didn’t realise that these choices I made back then would save me again this year. It was a dress rehearsal for the worse. I don’t think much of signs but over the course of the last two years, there have been too many coincidences for me to overlook them and shake it off. I reckon it could’ve happened anywhere but it was in Varanasi that I came to a realisation that I had lost so much time away from myself. It’s something I am still trying to make up to myself. I owe it to myself that's for sure.
By the end of the trip and also in retrospect after many trips, I realised that you will never forget the people you travel with. You are bound together by an experience that no one else can ever be a part of. Perhaps you’ve each been there before, on another occasions or maybe a thousand times before but neither you or them will have been present during that precise moment. Like when a monkey pushed Varun, Urvashi realized she only packed one pair of pants for the whole trip or when we witnessed the old man in a balcony enjoying the view of Varanasi (best seat in town, hands down). Or the mother of all, when we had to wait 10 hours at the station in the freezing cold for our train. The train was due to depart at 8:25PM but that changed every hour and it finally decided to show up at 6:55AM. But it was all alright. Through the laughs, through a safe but dingy hotel, through a freezing cold night and and endless train ride, it was all alright.
Here. This was the journey where I just decided to be.
February 13 - 17, 2015