One nice thing about not having any particular program in Varanasi is that I’m free to tag along when other people have things to do. When they say, “It might be 3 hours or 4 hours or 5,” I shrug and say, “Okay, whatever.”
A few days ago, this meant that I got taken to see the sister of my friend S. and her very fat baby, along with her in-laws and other misc. friends and relations. S. is the younger daughter-in-law in the house where I lived when I was here in 2001-02, and I’m not naming her because when I’ve written about living in that house, I’ve used different names for people, and I don’t want to compromise that.
S. and I, along with her two children (the elder of whom was a baby when I lived in the house) took an auto rickshaw out to her sister’s in-laws’ house, in a part of Varanasi where I’d never been before. The house is in a partially built colony, so while there were houses next door, in the front of the house was a large open space—there were a few patches of mustard and other vegetables, space for cow dung patties to dry and a makeshift cricket pitch.
The neighbors on one side had two placid water buffalo.
What I liked about this visit is that I wasn’t the center of attention. The friends and relations asked a few misc. questions about me, beginning, as always, with my marital status (different from my actual marital status), but mostly they gossiped with each other, alternately in Hindi and Bhojpuri (a local Benares dialect). Just when I thought I sort of knew what they were saying, they would switch to Bhojpuri, and I’d be lost again. The kids ran around with their cousins, shrieking and laughing and running up and down the stairs to the roof, and the fat baby was passed around the room, though his grandfather had him most of the time. At some point, the bread pakoras I mentioned in my last post were served.
In the late afternoon, we went upstairs and a mini photo-session commenced. I still don’t understand why people here are so committed to staying solemn when they’re having their pictures taken when they look so much nicer when they’re smiling.
When we finally left, after maybe 3 hours there, S.’s sister and the fat baby joined us. I think it may have been my first experience of being in a rickshaw with 6 people (and the driver). Luckily, three of those people were ages 7, 5 and 6 months, and the other two (besides me) were slight Indian women. The baby had been fussing before we left the house. But he was silent and big-eyed in his grandfather’s arms as we walked to the main road, and once we were in the rickshaw, he fell asleep.
Today’s outing was of a different sort. On New Year’s Day in Delhi, I’d gone to my friend Rasil’s house to drop off a bag to leave there while I was here. (No point in bringing nice clothes to Benares, not to mention the rather bulky magnetic spice rack I’d brought for Sunil.) She introduced me to a friend of hers, a German-born, Paris-based photographer named Diedi Von Schaewen who was in India working on a book on sacred trees.
Diedi turned up in my hotel in Varanasi a few days ago, and we had dinner together last night. She told me she was going to take more photos of trees here and then in Sarnath, which is not far from here (and is where the Buddha did his first teaching of the Dharma) and asked if I wanted to join her. I said sure. So, we set out in the late morning. She took photos of lots of trees. I also took photos of some of the coolest trees.
And sometimes I took photos of other things.
(I’m kind of curious how that traffic light melted.)
Sarnath is usually a sleepy little town, but it is crazy at the moment because the Dalai Lama is in residence, giving teachings for a week. We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get in, since you have to register ahead of time, but we figured it was worth a shot. It seemed silly to be so close and not try to see him. I think it helped that we arrived in the middle of the afternoon teaching, and the gate wasn’t crowded. It also helped that I had a photocopy of my passport with me. We left a bag with our cameras and phones at the gate and went in. I was sad about the cameras—it was a wonderful scene. A massive maroon and orange striped awning, the poles holding it up also covered in maroon and orange. Probably about 80% of the people there were Tibetan, many of them monks, but many families as well. I loved the picnic atmosphere of it—people were very well prepared, with cushions, food, dishes, notebooks. People had their own cups, and teenaged monks served as chai-wallahs, swooping around with these huge aluminum tea pots with rope handles. (I really wish I had a photo of the teapots, not to mention the teenage monks, especially the one in the mesh shirt underneath his robes, which seemed not entirely appropriate for a monk, teenage or otherwise.)
The whole thing was amazingly well organized—the entrance, the bag check, the seating, everything. We stayed for a little while and listened, but the teaching was in Tibetan. All the Westerners we saw had headphones and little radios, so they must have been listening to a translation. I had headphones in my bag but no radio, so while it was nice to listen to the Dalai Lama, not to mention be in the same space as him, we didn’t understand a word he said. (The radios were apparently available outside for 100 rupees or so, but it didn't seem worth it since the session was almost over.)
On the way out, we went to the main gate, and I handed over the photocopy of my passport along with two photos (taken by an enterprising fellow across the way—he offered 9 photos for 30 rupees—maybe $.65—which seemed like a deal too good to pass up), and I now have an official entry pass if I decide to go back. (The teachings go for 3 or 4 more days.) I just might—it was a scene worth revisiting, even if I can’t take any photos.
We did nearly get backed into by a truck on the way back—our rickshaw-wallah clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to the warning on the back of the truck that said “keep distains”—but we got out of the way in time. Perhaps it was the benevolent presence of the Dalai Lama in the area that did it, or maybe it was something else. Anyway, we arrived back in Varanasi safe, if extremely dusty. And after this past week of fog, the sky was clear enough to be able to see the lights of the city down the river for the first time since I arrived. That seems like a good sign--for something, even if just better weather--as well.