From the Gandhi Museum, Delhi
Where Gandhi spent his last days...
Gandhi's last steps
I’d arrived stomach-sick to Delhi and swiftly picked up a sore throat and sinus infection. Delhi will make any environmentalist give up hope for saving the trees and take a seat next to the fires made of plastic kindling burning all over the streets. The streets of Delhi are consistent with taking an outhouse and dumping it on the sidewalk; add in landfills without any garbage can in sight, and ten times the LA smog – this is Delhi. I was literally choking in the streets.
Sounds like a bad place, but I don’t hate Delhi; the ruckus makes it a fascinating city too. And it is progressive. Women aren’t frowned upon for wearing jeans, and some of them are getting college degrees and driving cars. India boasts the richest men in all of the Asia’s, Delhi has a plan to build up the downtown area with skyscrapers; but the poverty was some of the most extreme we’d seen yet.
A woman came asking for rupees as we sat at a stoplight in the back of a rickshaw. Her face was sad and dirty, she had a wild look in her eye that I’d seen elsewhere our first night in Delhi – the look of desperation that is harder here than in the villages. Her hair was short and knotted. We sat feeling horrible and helpless; in India it is impossible to give money to all the people you want to. When her begging didn’t work, her son (maybe 4 years old) held up his finger to show me that it was bleeding. Then her infant also held out his hand. The infant didn’t have any pants on and his penis was infected and cracked, maybe from the dirty streets I’m guessing.
Delhi speaks do or die, hustle or starve. It also speaks boutique shops and Gandhi museums – too many people who need help…and a weirdly nice place. If I hadn’t felt like I was losing precious years off of my life by just breathing the air, I would have stayed a while to wrap my head around what had the makings of being the wiliest city I’d ever been in (and we lived in Oakland).
We were in Delhi to meet Suzette and Jay, Sashwa’s parents who will be joining us until mid March. We were excited to explore India with them, and Suzette and I were eager to shop! A friend of a friend of Suzette’s met us at an emporium, showed us around, bought us lunch, and invited us to come visit her home and meet her daughters next time we were in Delhi. Her name is Kamal and I liked her immediately. She is a classy and kind woman. We had a wonderful day with her, then that night a heavy rain hit Delhi and I ended up in tears.
We were having dinner after a long and wonderful day with Suzette and Jay, and we’d lost track of time. We weren’t in the part of town where rickshaws and taxis are at every corner. Suzette lent me her poncho and well wishes as we headed out into the rain for our hotel.
The problem was that I was wearing flip-flops.
When the rains hit in Delhi, there is no place for the water to go but into murky little puddles. Burning Man’s toilet was lapping at my ankles and caking between my toes. We found a taxi stand but the two guys sleeping didn’t wake no matter how much Sashwa screamed and banged on the door.
I wasn’t always like this – a mild germ phobic. I can rough it in the wilderness for days without a shower or a toilet. It’s the human nastiness that I get scared of, and people in India piss and shit all over the streets. I was horrified as we waded home to a hot shower and a half hours worth of soap and sterilization for my feet and flops, and for Sashwa’s shoe laces that had untied midway. Sashwa had the ability to laugh it off, but soaking my feet in Delhi was enough to make me weep as hard as the rain. I thought of the begging woman and her two small children and wondered if she was under a tarp in a tent city somewhere (homes made out of bricks and a blue tarp-roof, seen everywhere on the sides of main roads), or herself walking barefoot through the same streets. A feeling of guilt washed over me as I washed my feet.
The next morning we boarded a plane to Varanasi and I met a woman on the plane. She lives in Italy and coincidentally enough she also lived in Northern California and happens to know people that we know in Ohi and Sebastopol. It is a small world.
“This must be a good omen,” I said to her, heart-warmed by the sense of familiarity and feeling, ready for Varanasi.
“Varanasi to me is hell on earth,” she said. She was on her way to Varanasi for the second time.
I grew suspicious. I’d heard from many that Varanasi was one of the most awesome places in India full of chaos, ritual, spirit and splendor. We were committed to staying in Varanasi for a week.
Varanasi is also the “city of death” in that it is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus; because being burned on the banks of the Ganges helps them transition into their next incarnation. People come to Varanasi to die. In Varanasi you see around 200 bodies being burned a day within 24 hours. When the woman on the plane was in Varanasi last she was going through menopause. She said she related the death inside of her to the death she was seeing everywhere. She was even seeing dead puppies. Then she got a phone call from home that her own dog had just died.
“The outside experience is a reflection of the inside experience,” she said. “I felt like something was dying inside me, and so I was seeing death everywhere.”
I thought about this statement – my outside experience is a reflection of my inside experience. Did that mean my insides were filled with rain and Delhi shit? I was sure that my insides were at least confused. I loved India, but I wasn’t in love with India yet, and I also hated it here too. In one moment I would have the most beautiful interaction, and in the next a woman would hiss at me when I smiled at her in the streets. Was I watching myself? Because here men stare Western women down without any shame no matter how many scarves we wrap ourselves in. Or were my insides as shallow as pashmina shawls, glass bangles and silk sellers? I knew I felt drenched by the things I still could not fully understand in India. The dynamics of class and religion, the dynamics of men to women, the rules of society, the code of dress, why no one was cleaning up the streets, and why there wasn’t help for that poor woman and her bleeding and infected kids.
As the plane landed I sent up a silent prayer to the gods that I’m sure float through the night skies of one of the most pulsing places on earth, burning Varanasi – I told them that I wanted to understand my outward experience in India, and my inside one too. I was ready to mesh things together and for deep understanding to take over. I wanted this to happen now.