India: I see, but I don’t always understand. And I see so much.
We walk the back alleys of the bazaars in Old Delhi, and it is stepping around doves and pigeons crammed in flat metal cages, children pumping brown water into a bucket from a rusted pump, women in bright patterned saris with gold rings in their noses who stare at our pale skin, men driving green and yellow Tuk Tuks pulling up and calling out, “Spice market? Red fort? Very cheap!” It is tattered colorful tarps strung over piles of trousers, T-shirts, and flip flops. It is heaps of corroded electrical parts and trash strewn about the ground. It is vendors selling sharp smelling oranges and cold fresh-squeezed lime juice and bunches of bananas on a wooden plank. It is the heat, relentless and full, and the sun ever shining. It is cows lumbering idly, eating scraps from metal bins. It is the smell of sweat and urine and exhaust, and then, suddenly, spicy curry.
A man dressed all in white beckons us into his crowded restaurant, and in a steamy booth crammed upstairs beneath a rickety fan, we tear apart chunks of freshly baked roti and dip it in hot curried vegetables. We lavish praises over this fabulous meal, which will cost us each less than fifty cents.
Loudspeakers on the minarets of the Jama Masjid Mosque, one of the largest in India, echo forth the call to prayer. I wrap my floral scarf around my head and follow the mass of people up the stone steps. Below me, Old Delhi is tin roofs glinting in the sun and dust and smog billowing upwards, horns honking and thousands of people clambering over each other in a mad rush to get where they have to go. We sit in the shade of the mosque and Indians approach us, asking, “Photo?” Or they don’t ask at all, and sidle up for a selfie. A little girl in a white and purple chiffon dress prances back and forth in front of us, smiling and laughing. In all my traveling, this time and the times before, I have never felt farther away from home.
We would be lost without Shabhu. Or at least, navigating Agra would be much more difficult.
When the train from Delhi pulls into Agra, we look for a Tuk Tuk to drive us to the Taj, and Shabhu, mustached and skinny, in a pressed yellow shirt and clean white pants, steps out of the crowd, beckoning for us to follow. “Welcome to my Indian helicopter,” he says, helping us into his green and yellow Tuk Tuk. It is spotless, inside and out. For 500 rupees each, Shabhu will take us around Agra for the day: the Taj Mahal, the Black Taj, the Agra Fort, a traditional Indian lunch. He shows us his guest book, where tourists from around the world have written recommendations. We look at each other, tired and hot, and put our trust in Shabhu.
He does not fail, and within half an hour, we are walking through the main gate of the Taj. We can see her marble base through the dark entry. She is more beautiful than I ever imagined she would be. All the hype: it’s true. She stands tall and magnificent in the sun, a marble testament to love. We walk around her, touch her cool side, look in wonder at the inlays, florid curls and wisps of vines and words carved in a language secret to us.
Next up, says Shabhu, the Black Taj. He explains meticulously what this Black Taj is, with one arm draped over the back of his Tuk Tuk, the other shooing away a child who comes up to ask, “Chocolate?” But in his thick Indian accent, we don’t understand what he says. We catch words here and there, phrases occasionally: “black marble shipped by boat from Italy”, “too expensive”, “money given to the poor.” We ask questions for clarification, but still don’t understand, and in the end, let him lead us down a quiet, dusty road toward a booth, where we shell out 200 rupees and enter a hot garden where orange blossoms drip from shimmering green trees and the sun bakes our skin.
We see the Taj Mahal again, this time from across the river and without the throngs of tourists and whistling guards. We see a pile of old red brick ruins. We see a cow with a large metal bell clanking around its neck gallop along the shore. We whisper earnestly to each other, “Where is the Black Taj?” We want to see it, this dark mirror of the mausoleum across the way.
As it turns out, the Black Taj does not exist. We look it up on our iPhones and find it is a legend made popular by the “fanciful writings”, according to Wikipedia, of an obscure British writer. In other words, we paid to see the supposed location of a mausoleum that was never built and may never have been planned.
We sit on a crumbling wall in the shade of the trees, and with the real Taj across the river, we laugh. For the rest of the trip we will be looking at each other and asking, “Remember when we saw the Black Taj?”
We return to Shabhu and he takes us to a lunch of mushroom masala and fried rice and lassis. Once again I think, I’d come to India over and over again just for the food.
I find a book on Hinduism in our hostel in Varanasi, and flip through the pages on the rooftop terrace, lounging on colorful cushions and plush pillows beneath a fan that stirs the hot air. It is 106 degrees, and I fall asleep reading, the heat filling me until I am a heavy weight that could lie there forever.
India is 80 percent Hindu, and Varanasi is the holy city on the banks of the holy river, the Ganges. Later, we wind our way through the narrow, bustling streets until we see the ghats, the steps leading down to the river, and the green water of the Ganges herself. We walk along the concrete embankments, and see the smoke from the cremation fires and the holy men in their matted dreads and saffron-colored sashes and the wooden boats with their orange and pink and yellow flags flapping gently in the wind.
Young children splash about in the water. Old men lather themselves with soap. Young men come alongside us asking, “Boat?” Women selling bright yellow marigold flowers and candles in silver trays to float in the river hold up their baskets for us to see. Water buffalo, huge and slick, lumber out of the river and barrel past. Looking absently this way and that, we see a dead body wrapped in cloth and swarming with flies in the trunk of a truck.
“Varanasi is life and death together,” an Indian man tells me as we look out over the river, and I feel like I’m witnessing something important, something vital that I don’t understand, that I am separate from, that is closed off to me.
Holy men with ash smeared on their bodies smiling and waving, a child with a lame foot leaning on a wooden staff disappearing down a narrow alleyway, an Indian man telling me, “Go to the burning ghats now to see the bodies. It is very lucky.” Crumbling red and mute brown stone temples, metal vats of square white paneer, the sweet smell of yogurt and so many flies I cannot breathe for fear of inhaling them. The surprising flick of a cow’s tail on my hand. A little boy diving gracefully into the water, splashing me as I leap back.
In the late morning, we walk along the ghats until we find a spot beside a few bobbing boats where a boy is swimming and washing his clothes. I take off my shoes and step ankle-deep into the cool water. The concrete is slick with moss, and I don’t think about what else. Upstream, another boy rides a water buffalo while men who’ve just taken a dip squat in the shade playing cards. As the water laps gently at my feet, I try not to think about the bodies dropped ceremoniously in the center of the river and the 80 bodies a day cremated on its shores. I don’t think about the ashes. I don’t think about how the Ganges is the second most polluted river in the world. I don’t think about my sins being washed away or good luck or pleasing Shiva.
I stare out at several new friends from my hostel who have gone in all the way, and I feel confused. At peace, yes, but aware that I’ve stumbled upon a place that is so different from me, a beautiful place that ignites my imagination and jolts me out of myself, but a place that feels far away even as I sit with my feet in the middle of it.
In the evening, we wind our way down the streets from our quiet, air-conditioned hostel to the ghats. The river is a hazy blue, and a soft breeze blows across the water. Every evening at 7, there is a ceremony called arati on the ghats, a ritual of worship to the river and the god Shiva, and a prayer for mankind as a whole. We reach one of the main ghats and find the water just off the shore crowded with wooden boats full of Hindu worshippers come to see the ritual. Some light candles and send them floating off into the dark. Many more crowd the steps leading up to a platform, where bells clang and men in brilliant orange sing, burn sticks of incense, wave huge gold cups shaped like serpents filled with fire, and toss petals of marigolds into the air.
One of the men in orange speaks in Hindi into the microphone at the dense crowd, and I ask an Indian fellow who accompanied us from the hostel what is being said. I expect something profound, something highly holy, but instead, it turns out the man is simply instructing the crowd to watch their belongings and to speak with the administration if they would like a ritual performed in honor of themselves or a family member or a loved one.
And suddenly, on the banks of the Ganges, seated beside an Indian man with the mark of Shiva on his forehead and several old women wearing saris and a gazillion sparkly bangles on their wrists, I break through a barrier to familiarity. This enchanting, colorful ritual may be unusual to me, but the aim is the same as any ritual I’d see at home: prosperity, health, and happiness for us all. As a man walks around jotting down requests for the ritual on a pad of paper, I’m reminded of prayer request cards at the backs of the pews in my church at home and the prayer teams available during communion. So much of the form of this religion is different than my own, but the desires in the hearts of these people are the same. For a moment, as clouds of sweet incense billow over my head and the bells clang and the music arches into the night sky over the water, I am moved on the inside, and my heart gives a little flutter.
On the way back, the river is quiet again, and we pass the fires on the burning ghat near our hostel. I hear children laughing and playing cricket in an alleyway. I see a mother and father and baby step out of a pharmacy and climb onto a motorcycle. I see a body wrapped in saffron cloth and a man in a matching tunic waving incense over it. I see two mad dogs going at it in the street. And I think, this religious city is a living metaphor for all of humanity, for the mystery of birth and growth and death, and everything therein.