Old watercolor not previously published:
Category Archives: Varanasi
The India Post
My first week in India, I walked around Mumbai for two hours trying to find milk. From that point forward, I understood that every routine deemed a ‘task’ should be more appropriately redefined a ‘project.’
Yesterday I mailed 30 drawings and six paintings. Origin: Varanasi. Destination: New Hampshire.
I left Kriti Gallery at three thirty in the afternoon with the goal of being back by nightfall. I knew that was ambitious; but I’m a go-getter.
Benares is a place where buffalo herds start traffic jams, whole families ride on the same Honda Hero motorcycle (I’ve seen 5 humans on one), and corpses proceed towards the river on bamboo stretchers from all corners of the city. There’s a tension between life an death that vibrates through the landscape. Everyday is a celebration of existence. Wedding parades, religious drumming, incessant honking (I am not exaggerating when I say that one in ten people doesn’t take their hand off their horn) as if their horn has almighty power to clear the gridlocked traffic provide the city’s soundtrack. Meanwhile, the burning ghats are ablaze around the clock throughout the year.
Varanasi brings the bi-polar out in me. Some days I’m enamored by the wealth of sensations; other days the place destroys me and daydream about getting my teeth pulled out to get myself into a more pleasant state of mind.
Thankfully I was in a good mood when I set off for my shipping tasks; here’s what unfolded:
I left with three cardboard packing tubes and a roll of canvas. I cradled them awkwardly as I crossed the waves of bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, and cars on the street. Step by step towards an autorickshaw.
Rather than asking the tuk-tuk driver what the price would be, I told him. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that before.
I took the auto rickshaw for twenty minutes to the area of the city with a trusted connection with DHL shippers. India post would have kept the drawings to themselves or sold them unless I offered up a significant baksheesh bribe. Even still, it would likely never leave the country.
On the tuk-tuk ride, I spotted the customary orange an gold cloth thats draped over a dead body in the corner of my eye. I’ve started to notice more and more. It feels like everybody is dying in Varanasi; the place is grounding. There was a funeral parade. We were about 6 kilometers from the river, so they had quite a considerable distance to transport the body before it would return to dust.
The man leading the way towards the cremation ghat at the Ganges was leading the carriers in the customary chants. I saw him turn around and snap a picture of the body with his digital camera. He spun around right as I sped by him in the tuk-tuk and he continued ahead with a satisfied smile, as if he took a great picture that could feature as the final post on the deceased’s facebook page. It was a strange, but poignant snapshot. The action seemed at odds with the rituals of death. But I guess it was a momentous moment to remember. In Hindu tradition dying here in Varanasi sets the body free from their belief of Moksha, the endless cycle of death and reincarnation. Nirvana.
I got to the ‘post office,’ a small stationary shop that sells an impressive array of postcards. It had no signs of having the capacity to do trans-continental shipping, but I was sent there by Petra, the administrator at Kriti. I nodded at the man behind the desk and shrugged showing the sizable tubes. He nodded back as if to say get comfortable from his post behind the desk.
I later discovered he suffered from Polio. He moved very well, despite the decrepit condition of his boney legs and was an especially helpful man throughout the process.
My first task was to get a passport copy. At the beginning, I was not yet trustworthy of the establishment, so continued to awkwardly juggle my four tubes of art around the chaotic streets, sweating through my shirt in the high 90 degree heat.
Indians give directions assuming you know the place as well as they do. I ask ‘Copy?’ pronouncing the word like a Brit so it doesn’t like I’m asking for coffee. A wave in one general direction is the go-to response and I continued down the street using my best judgement to assign distance to the gestured wave. This process continued in a fashion similar to the childhood favorite of ‘warmer, warmer, hot, hot, hot, toasted!!!’
The photocopier works out of a hole in the wall. He sits behind an empty desk and sells no other product besides black and white copies. I waited in line behind a nerdy twelve year old kid who wore his athletic shorts up to his bellybutton. He spoke pretty decent english but was quite bashful which added all-star character to his all-star dress. He was photocopying social studies pages that explained longitude, latitude, and the earth’s location. We chatted about his homework for a bit. One of the questions had me stumped: find the geographical location of these three cities. A. Shanghai B. London C. California.
The photocopier didn’t have change for my 100 rupee note, so I walked down the road, bought a pen, and returned to pay him for the copies. He invited me for a chai, but the way he asked it sounded like wine. I inquired, wine? Quite curious that a man like this was inviting me for wine at 4pm. I didn’t even know wine existed in India! He said wine? At this point I realized he actually asked if I wanted chai. Then he continued, “come back in 2 hours, we drink wine.” I wasn’t brave enough to join him, so told him I had a train to catch but thanked him for the gesture.
Back at the shippers, I handed over my passport and visa photocopy and got an initial quote for the shipment. 24,000 rupees. I didn’t even bother to ask if he accepted visa cards. I set off on an adventure around the locality to collect the cash. I had 185 rupees in my pocket. ATMs give out 10,000 rupee limits, and many aren’t replenished with cash for weeks. Hopping around from ATM to ATM, I had enough time to do my long division and figure out what his quote was in dollars. The quote he gave me was for close to 400 dollars; I was going to get him to talk me through exactly how he came up with that and I questioned whether the work was even worth sending home.
I trudged back to the shop strapped with cash, I was an even more ideal candidate for a mugging.
Before I had time to demand a re-analysis of the shipping cost, the attendant explained he very badly guessed the dimensions of the box he needed to make and his quote was double the actual price.
He craftily built a box around the tubes.
Some kids ran up to the shop to ask whether any of the foreign coins that had been given by tourists along the river were dollars. There was a globe behind me and I showed the bashful kids where the coins were from: Russia, Poland–much to their disappointment–and Bolivia–South America cheered them up.
As I was showing them where these places were on the map, something big swiftly moved through the gap between my legs and my stool. It was bigger than a cat or a dog. But any animal, besides cows, are unwelcome visitors indoors in Varanasi. I looked up and to my shock was face to face with a monkey. It wasn’t the vicious type, but a much bigger ‘black face’ monkey–as they’re called locally by the Indians. The monkey was scared of something and went into the back room, pulling boxes off the shelf as if to draw a curtain (real stealthy bud) and hid underneath a cabinet.
Here’s a picture so that you can get a sense of their size.
The shopkeeper, who I respected after his impressive box construction and honest reassessment of the shipping cost, was unable to swiftly move around due to his medical condition. He told me to go buy the monkey some fruit.
I bought two bananas at the cart down the road and stood outside the store on the busy street waving bananas around. The thrity+ people at the tea stand across the road who didn’t see the monkey run in must have gotten quite a kick out of me jumping around with two bananas. Who’s the monkey now?
The furry fella sat on the front porch of the store for a while, and took no interest in the bananas I tossed on the street for him. The bananas were run over by a rickshaw, trampled by a buffalo, then eaten by a street dog. At least they were used.
I went through a whole book of logistics and forms which had to be copied and recopied. I paid the man and that was that. I rewarded myself my own banana smoothie, wrote some postcards, and made it back for dinner. Lets hope nobody opens my box and uses it to ship drugs out of the country. That has happened, and I would prefer to be spared of six months jail time, even if it is a solid opportunity to start a memoir.
Around the corner came two men. A bamboo stretcher was wedged in between them. I could see the strain on their faces. The physical and emotional weight on their load. The dead weight. I then saw the orange and gold tapestry. A common sight in the city where Hindus travel to to die. I knew that I had come across a funeral procession. I looked behind me to move out of the way, but there was nowhere to go. I had wandered too far astray into the thinning labyrinth of Varanasi, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
The man leading the body to the Ganges with a trail of incense was already next to me in the thin alley pushing the procession forward with an indelible thrust as if directed by death itself. I squeezed into a pocket and hugged the wall, between a doorstep and a city cow.
The men carrying the body looked stoic, either as if they were trying to hide their emotions behind a curtain of masculine strength or because they were struggling underneath the weight of the corpse
I pushed my left ear, my spine, and my heels against the brick wall trying to make myself, already too big for the infrastructure of India, as small as possible. With my ear against the wall, my right ear was brushed by the tapestry covering the newly deceased next to me. We were nose to nose. I was closer to this body, this person that was no longer, than I have been to many other humans throughout this year. Any closer and I would have been kissed.
It turned out that the body had just been brought out of the house moments before I arrived. After it passed, a young boy carrying a terracotta vase of water tripped out of the house, took a few shuffle steps as an attempt to try to balance the ceremonial water jug, then dropped it right at my feet. The water splashed over my ankles.
I passed the door of the house, where the women, who aren’t allowed to leave to go to the cremation ghats were sitting. A few were wailing in mourning, the rest comforting those who were suffering most.
Completely by accident, I felt as though I stumbled into the personal life and trod over the emotions of strangers.
In Varanasi, it seems like everybody is dying. But perhaps that’s just because the culture is so much more open about it. I wondered how often I walked by an apartment building in Buenos Aires, Rotterdam, or Mumbai where there were corpses waiting to be disposed of. It must have been occurred, it’s just hidden.
Varanasi is an auspicious place to die in the Hindu tradition. Dying here breaks the soul out of it’s continuing cycle of rebirth. There are hospices set up along the riverbank where elderly come and wait to die. The fires at the burning ghats never go out.
I’ve started a section in my notebook titled ‘Along the Ganges’ where I keep notes about things I think about, people I meet, or situations I stumble into.
Here are two worth sharing with you:
I was walking along the river with Tayla from Colorado. Tayla had pet snakes as a kid so saw this tout making music for his cobras and went and stuck her face in the wicker basket. She picked up a baby anaconda and started cuddling it.
We both knew that nothing comes free, especially in India. But since I was staying a yard-sticks distance from the cobras, it was on her. But still, from a distance I had a great sign-language conversation with the snake man. We hit it off. He’s a really friendly looking guy with a rockstar beard.
Tayla the snake charmer left for Agra and the rest of her India tour, but I’ve kept on running into snakeman. I’ve seen this guy every single time I’ve been out walking along the river. We give each other a head nod, smile, and a look of recognition. He’s always sitting down, each time in a different spot, with his snakes in front of him. After the fourth or fifth encounter, I thought to myself, “alright, we’re becoming friends.”
Today, I saw him walking along the river in the other direction. I was surpised to see him up and moving and gave him the ‘oh hey!’ look. He was happy to see me to. As he blessed me by touching the top of my head, I thought, “Awesome, I’ve got a buddy.”
He gave me a friendly hand-shake, then stuck out his hand and asked for money.
No fast friends in Varanasi. There’s only one thing people want from me.
This fella, is 6 or 7. He looks taller because I bent over to take his portrait, but he stood at about my hip level. He was a truly remarkable young entrepreneur. This morning, he decided to make some money, so rallied two of his cronies and piled up debris left over from a festival to build a roadblock and gate to control the traffic along the public riverfront way by the ghats.
Whenever a westerner would come by he’d put the gate down and ‘you shall not pass’ until they coughed up change.
I encountered him for the first time with Petra, the German gallery manager here at Kriti who speaks elementary Hindi. We started chatting with him and he, like all Indians, loved to argue. In a country where remarkably few people are fully conversational in english. He entertained us in argument filled with laughs and wit. We ended up giving him 5 rupees, but I thought he deserved an award for coming up with money-making tactics that were more successful than every other person along the river.
As Shawn Carter says, you can’t knock the hustle.