Photos by Sashwa; Words by Ann; Experienced by both
We (Suzette, Jay, Sashwa and I), had just walked through the matrix that is old town Varanasi in search of a beer. The stone isle ways are as wide as Sashwa’s wingspan, separating shops from lodges, yoga centers from bakeries, and peoples’ homes from alters to Ganesha. They are dark and dripping. They are exciting and scary all at the same time. Especially at night it feels as though you shouldn’t be walking here, but yet the adventure of it all keeps you out until the later hours, running into milling cops around some corners, men offering hash and opium around others.
We’d followed a guy who offered us cocaine thinking he was leading us out of the maze. Instead, wide-eyed and talking incessantly, he led us to the main burning ghats. Varanasi is “The City of Death.” Varanasi is a major pilgrimage site for the dying. Being burned at the Ganges ensures Hindus a more blessed crossover from this incarnation into the next. On the Ganges some 200 bodies are burned 24 hours a day. The reality of how much death happens in the world is conspicuous here as body after body is walked on men’s shoulders down to the various fires where they are laid. The men are wrapped in white cloth, the women are adorned in red silks lined with gold color – it’s apparent that a gentle woman’s touch is present in the decorating of these women even if the woman is not present herself. I imagine this job to be the daughter’s. The elderly travel for days to die at the banks of the Ganges. This is all for the purpose of being closer and therefore getting the opportunity to be burned at the river’s side.
We stood above it all. The smell of campfire and burnt hair was rising to our nostrils. Below us were lit fires numbering way up into the late teens. Suzette and I were the only women as even female family members are not allowed at the ghats due to the expectation that they will cry, and this is bad luck (or so they say). Our coked friend explained that Suzette and I were okay here because we were not Hindu, so we did not fully understand or feel what was happening, therefore we would not cry.
I did feel what was happening; the shadow of death not a stranger to myself or my family. I thought of my high school friends who had died, and many of my friend’s parents who had already passed. There is also my sister-in-law who escaped death because of the luck that the cancer had not spread from her chest to the rest of her 33 year-old body. I thought of my grandparents mostly gone to smoking, and my aunt whose body had wilted before our eyes at the stake of lung cancer. Aunt Terri had never had an easy life and the memory of her bald head, her bitter sadness, the way my father catered to her, how Dad was always adamant about me never smoking cigarettes, and how I had done it sometimes anyway…here at the Ganges amongst the smoke these thoughts floated through my private mind while dead bodies went up in flames in front of my face. I wasn’t that far from crying as we watched a head explode in the fire, bursting beautiful white light and blue. This explosion was the most beautiful moment for me. I imagined that this was the moment where soul met spirit, where those who had traveled so far were finally free.
It’s also wedding season here in Varanasi. Weird techno music plays as wedding parties parade down the streets, men carrying large flashing rave lights on their heads. An Indian wedding would make a good theme camp at Burning Man with its glitz, costumes, and loud music. The wealthiest weddings include decorated horses, the bride and groom sometimes carried on men’s shoulders in a mock carriage, the women are dressed in their best saris, jewels and things that sparkle are everywhere. The mood is celebratory. All but the bride and groom look happy.
Often in arranged marriages the bridal viewing is the first time the bride and groom meet each other. Sometimes in villages they don’t meet until the wedding itself. Weddings are planned and arranged by the parents, a dowry is paid, and the typically teenage girl is whisked off to live a life with the groom and his family – sometimes working to serve the family as a mock servant.
There are also many stories of a happy union. Divorce isn’t like it is in the United States. Men sometimes fall madly in love with their wife when she produces a son for him. Then of course there are the romantic tales of the gentleman who lets the woman take her time with things like sex, he buys her beautiful jewelry, treats her with tenderness and respect, with or without a son.
At the wedding celebration in Varanasi the bride has her face covered with red silk. Her sari is the finest item she owns and it is as vibrant red as her attentive sister’s lips. The bride shuffles behind the groom. The groom is wearing beige pants. In his hand is also a beige scarf. The scarf is connected to his bride’s hands pulling her behind him like a leash for a dog. Tonight this young girl will sleep with a complete stranger.
It was Valentine ’s Day.
We were on our way to Bodh Gaya – the place where the Buddha received enlightenment under the Bodhi tree thousands of years ago and a peaceful spiritual practice began. A clone of the original Bodhi tree still stands in Bodh Gaya, splaying pretty leafed arms out in all directions across the back of a grand temple built in Buddha’s honor. We were running late at 6 AM on February 14th. It’s a 5 hour drive from Varanasi, but the journey is well worth it to be able to sit at the same foot, of the same tree, and offer up our prayers. Spiritual intensity was what our week had been all about in Varanasi; Bodh Gaya would be another spice on our already decadent plate.
It was the day for romantics. The streets were fully awake at 6AM as Sash and I walked at a fast pace down the long path off the main ghats. Men were already offering rickshaws as we walked, possibly having slept there waiting for the first pounding feet of tourists across the wet and cow filled pavement. It had rained a decent amount in Varanasi already. Men were gathered in small circles drinking chai. Stray dogs were milling and looking exactly the same. We noticed a group of Asian men with big tripods and cameras walking towards us from the opposite direction, most likely a film crew.
Then we heard the screaming.
I saw the toddler first sitting upright on the pavement and I thought it was him. He was next to a vegetable stand and at the opening of an alleyway that led back into the matrix of other skinny alleyways that all connect together in one dark but quaint maze of shops, spices and bangle sellers at the bazaar.
The scream was deeper than a toddler’s whimper. It was more wicked, throaty, like a big cat in an unearthly amount of pain.
There was a shocked look on the film crews faces, their eyes pointed me to the source of the sound, unmovable from what they were seeing as they ascended upon the scene. The child was looking at his mother, too. She was sitting on the ground farther out into the middle of the streets. Her arms flailing in front of her face, her clothes drab and falling all around her, her chin pointed to the sky as she screamed continuously while a man was beating her with a stick. His face was angry and sweaty. He turned at a fast pace fleeing as the film crew ascended.
Happy Valentines Day.
Happy Valentines Day.
I couldn’t get the sounds of the woman – pained and humiliated – or the face of the man – eyes rabid – out of my mind as we drove away in a 5 speed, 6 seat diesel Toyota. A cup of chai greeted me. Everything about this journey had been pre-arranged to make us travel safely and with ease to Bodh Gaya.
We were late and the film crew seemed in the position to handle the situation so we didn’t stop to help the woman screaming. The fact that we didn’t stop grew into a fist punching me in the stomach as I sipped on my chai.
I realize that horrible things happen everywhere. Much worse even than what we saw in Varanasi. I also realize that in India there isn’t much you can do for a woman being beaten by a man. There aren’t accessible homeless shelters to bring her to, or a place where she can go to escape this man. She looked very poor, and the way the class system works here, she most likely was born into her situation without much hope for improvement. He could have been her husband. But most likely she worked for him and had pissed him off, maybe not bringing home enough money on any given day.
“We should have stopped,” I kept saying to Sashwa as we skipped between each Buddhist temple representing a different country – my favorites being Tibet and Japan. She probably didn’t speak any English, but I could have it least stopped to ask her story. We had trusted the group of film makers to do the right thing. A group of all men. They might have scared her. She may have responded easier to a woman. Then again, most of the hateful looks I’ve received in India are from the women. Maybe I would have scared her too. But it least I would have given her the decency of trying to hear her story.
I sat beneath the Bodhi tree where Buddha had sat. With my mala made of sandalwood, one bead at a time, I prayed for wisdom and compassion to grow within me equally. I said this 108 times. I made a pact with myself to always stop in the future no matter who is there to help. I will never walk by again. Under the Bodhi tree I was transported through time and space back to that street in Varanasi at 6AM. It was still dark there. Any number of stories could have been hers.