Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Parallel Life

I have been in India for more than 3 weeks now, and what I like to say is that for these brief weeks here, I am living my parallel life. It’s as if my life is proceeding along two parallel tracks, like those people movers at the airport, each moving along at the same speed, simultaneously and 10,000 miles apart from each other. Most of the time, I’m in the US, with house and cats and job, with Alex and gardens and friends. But every year or two, when I can, I travel the 10,000 miles to India and it’s as if I’ve stepped sideways onto the other people mover, stepped into my parallel life.

This is true in Delhi, where the streets are familiar to me in some kind of fundamental way. When I lived in Delhi on my Fulbright, I carried a map around with me for months. The day I realized that I’d forgotten my map—and that I didn’t really need it anymore—was a joyful one. That knowledge has stayed with me, mostly. If I were plunked somewhere in north or east Delhi, I might have a problem, but in south and central Delhi, I know my way. I can give directions with confidence. I don't hesitate. Sunil actually called me in Benares to ask me about how to get somewhere on the metro. I told him, of course, but only after a certain amount of gloating.

I stayed for a few nights in Sunil's friend’s apartment in Green Park. The friend was an academic, off to Toronto to teach for a semester. Her apartment was small but comfortable, and the rent was reasonable. “I could live someplace like this,” I found myself thinking. Not that I have any plan to move back to Delhi anytime soon. But it was comforting to know that there might be possibilities, that even though the price of Delhi real estate now trends toward the astronomical (the rent on the much nicer apartment I visited was more than five times that of the first), there are still places in Delhi where I could see myself living, see myself happy.

This sense of a parallel life is even more striking in Benares. It’s been more than 8 years since I lived in Benares, and still I have a social life here. This is, in part, because of the people who live here, who I have known all these years—the family whose house I lived in, Rakesh at Harmony Books and Govindababa the western sadhu, Ramuji. All I need to do, it seems, is show up, and I am sitting in Harmony, drinking chai and chatting, eating lunches and dinners out and in, falling into a fluid group of people, some who come and go and some who stay. I've made new friends this week, and I've reconnected with old ones. This happens whenever I come here, without exception.

I've been having breakfast every morning at the Aum cafe, partly to take advantage of the wireless and partly because they make nice porridge. Because it is a cafe run by a spiritually-oriented American named Shivani, it attracts many people here on some kind of spiritual quest. I've met a number of people who are in India for the first time. When I tell them that I've been coming for 20 years, that I've lived in Varanasi and Delhi and Jaipur, several of them have paused and then said, "Sweet." And, of course, it is sweet. I am so happy not to be in India for the first time. But there is no question that I earned my contentment here. I put the time in, I stuck with it, and this is my reward.

I've also discovered that I'm not actually envious of westerners who have lived here longer than me, or those who basically live here permanently. I'm happy for them, that they've been able to do it, but it's not actually what I want.

Which brings me back to my parallel life, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time. The blessings are obvious. My life is infinitely richer because part of it has been lived in India, because my life here continues. I can't imagine my adult life without it. But the problem with a parallel life is that you can't be on both sides at the same time. Wherever you are, there is always something missing, and there is nothing, really, that you can do to change that.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Walk along the River

Please note: I'm skipping right over the fact that I haven't posted in months, and I'm just going to jump right back in. So here goes.

Whenever I’m in Varanasi, I walk along the river, from Assi Ghat, where I stay, up to Dassaswamedh Ghat, the Main Ghat near Godolia. When I realized that I’d been in Varanasi for a week and basically hadn’t ventured further than Shivala (maybe halfway to Godolia), I decided that the time had come for my walk.

I’m going to use today’s walk to illustrate what I often tell people at home when they ask what it is that brings me back to India over and over again. Sometimes, if I’m trying to be brief, I say that it is because it’s always interesting, because I never know what I’m going to see. (And, in fact, I wrote an essay about this very thing a few years back.)

That remains true in other places in India, but it is especially true for me in Varanasi. Here are a few of the things I saw in the maybe 4 hours that I was out.

First, there was the man having his picture painted. A small crowd had gathered by the time I got there and remained after I left.

Then, when I got to the main ghat, I heard singing, and it turned out to be coming from this boat. Notice the men with drums and the man with the horn in the back. I’d never actually seen a singing boat like this before. They stayed by the main ghat for quite awhile and then set off into the river.

There was a lot of activity on the main ghat getting ready for the evening’s grand aarti. Platforms (for the priests) were set up, and people were preparing flowers and other offerings for the stands. Right near the ghat, many of the shops sell items related to devotion and puja.

Slightly farther away, though, the wares turn to more worldly goods. I’m contemplating a larger series entitled “Unattractive Underwear Displays.”

I had a late lunch and wandered through Viswanath Gully, which is always part of my routine. No pictures from there, alas.

The walk back down was especially lovely, almost as lovely as the other night’s stroll down the nearly empty ghats after 11 p.m. under the full moon. (If anyone is wondering if this was safe, the answer is, I’m not entirely sure. But I had Rakesh from Harmony Books serving as my gent escort, so I wasn’t worried. Our only threat came from some extremely loud and not-happy-to-see-us dogs who barked at us until we left the road and walked onto the ghat.)

Partway down, I stopped for a cup of chai. It was still and quiet, and I watched the lights on the river. In what was perhaps a first, I turned out to be sitting next to a vendor (of beads and malas) who didn’t ask me if I wanted to buy something. He called me "didi" (sister), which I prefer to “madam,” which I get called most of the time, and said I looked like I was enjoying the shanti (peace). I said I was. He said he would leave me to it, and I said thank you.

I saw these dogs sitting attentively next to the chai wallah. I wondered if they’d developed a taste for tea, but it turned out that when the chai-wallah cleaned out his milk pan, he gave them what was left and that was what they were waiting for. As it happened, I had a packet of biscuits in my bag and while, generally, I don’t approve of giving dogs people biscuits, I figured that with most likely hungry street (well, ghat) dogs, it probably didn’t matter. Where there had originally been 3 dogs—mom, pop and pup—lined up for biscuits, word spread quickly, and soon I had an extended family, including 3 or 4 very earnest puppies, surrounding me. Once the biscuits were gone, they returned to the chai-wallah in the hope that they could have more milk to wash down their cookies.

One thing that didn’t surprise me: I was asked 10 or 12 times on the way up the river, and almost as many on the way down, whether I wanted a boat. One man announced, proudly, “I have boat.” To which I replied, in Hindi, “Well, that is a very good thing for you, but right now, I don’t need a boat.” I think one of his buddies laughed, but I’m not sure he did.

I will be very sad to leave tomorrow.