â€œOlder than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.â€ That is how Mark Twain described Varanasi. Peter Matthiessen goes deeper: â€œâ€¦in Varanasi there is hope of life that has been abandoned in such cities as Calcutta, which seems resigned to the dead and dying in its gutters. Shiva dances in the spicy foods, in the exhilarated bells of the swarming bicycles, the angry bus horns, the chatter of the temple monkeys, the vermillion dot on the womenâ€™s foreheads, even in the scent of charred flesh that pervades the ghats.â€
I read this passage, in The Snow Leopard, on the same morning that I arrive in Varanasi â€” yet another stunning alignment between the seemingly random pages that appear before my eyes and the real life that swarms around me. Of course, it is no accident â€” on this trip, my books have chosen me more than I have chosen them. The Snow Leopard had been calling to me from various bookstall shelves since Calcutta and I finally picked it up in Bodhgaya; exchanged for my consumed copies of Siddartha, Life of Pi, and a Bengali language phrase book. Matthiessen continues:
â€œâ€¦to the dark temples that surround the ghats, to those hostels where the pilgrim waits his turn to join the company of white-shrouded cadavers by the river edge, waits again to be laid upon the stacks of fired wood: the attendants will push this yellow foot, that shriveled elbow, back into the fire, and rake his remains off the burning platform into the swift river. And still enough scraps will remain to sustain life in the long-headed cadaverous dogs that haunt the ashes, while sacred kine â€” huge white silent things â€” devour the straw thongs that had bound this worn-out body to its stretcher.â€
By the end of my first day in Varanasi, I have observed every last detail from Matthiessenâ€™s description. He composed these paragraphs 35 years ago but could just as easily have written the same thing 350 or even 3,500 years ago, and they would have been just as vividly correct. What more could I add?
Only another ten thousand details: the shining gray flanks of dolphins as they break the riverâ€™s surface; the play of paper kites above the roofs; the cricket match in dust and sand on the opposite bank, directly across the river from my hotel balcony aerie; the rich, butter-colored sunlight that lingers all afternoon, painting the buildings and bathers, before disappearing behind the temple spires; the endless pastel dusk whose slow fade into night is punctuated by floating candles on the riverâ€™s surface, like so many yellow eyes; the odd angles of boats in the water, each darkly outlined by shadow, as if drawn in with thick but precise colored markers.
The list goes on, but my time here is short, so I must go back into the lanes, back to the ghats to see what else there is to be seen.