"Graffiti from Varanassi"

Text author : Revital Cohen

Les vaches sacrées

The veins and arteries of Varanassi pulse beneath one’s feet. The stench of excrement, like the digestive system of some primal animal, is overtaken by the pungency of incense, which in turn yields to the scent of the withered flowers that adorn every little shrine along the way. Who is the traveler along this road, trodden by so many before? A tourist? A pilgrim? A student of sitar or Sanskrit? The medieval spell of the old town and its narrow winding alleys seduces all who come to her, and compels the wanderer to understand the only meaning that time has here, the transition from the life of the ghat* to the dense maze of shady lanes. From intense heat to terrible cold. Varanassi knows no compromise.

The smell of expended lives rises to the heavens in a triumphant dance of those who will not be reincarnated. The heart refuses to shut its eyes, the suffering consciousness clamors for release, and chai continues to be poured as if all this is nothing out of the ordinary. Kingdoms are but clay after all. But before all, what? There is a perfume trail. He who sits on the road every morning insists on rubbing wrists with an intoxicating, sometimes cloying oil. The enchanted children, dressed in royal rags, sell bits of life as souvenirs on squares of colored cardboard. One day that postcard on the refrigerator will remind you of another world.

Blessed are they who walk in the path of the thousands that went before. Blessed are those who lie down, those who stand up, those who dance leglessly, those without fingers who wait with their empty tin plate for a portion of rice. Empty tin plates, small clay cups, leaves which only recently held sacred food slowly masticated by bovine teeth. The smile of lepers along the river beseeching alms. Sometimes, when the emotional weight becomes unbearable, one’s eyes lift naturally to the monkeys and the cows and the great buffalos that amble unhurriedly down to the river for their midday wallow. Only you are in a hurry. In a rickshaw traveling cross-town, the eye is suddenly caught by a dying dog, its entrails spilt out. Time indeed stirs all creatures.

And suddenly it’s a game. Time plays hide-and-seek, like a little boy stealing butter, hiding among the jars, pretending he was never there. Only the human rustle of shells shucked and skins sloughed on the ground tell that winter is past, and the tiny night-time fires along the Ganges will come back to life at the end of the great heat, the monsoons and the sickness. The mornings are smoky with the mist of the frosty river, the cheeks pink with cold. Frozen fingers refuse to believe how, every morning, those joyful women, Indian pilgrims, family and all, stand in the cold water, hands raised in a prayer of thanksgiving to the sun, wet saris clinging to their cold flesh. The river calls out to you only in the very early morning. Brahmins sing prayers to pilgrims whose eyes shimmer with emotion. Now the shaded lanes, once so mud-treacherous you slipped on them countless times, call you to seek comfort. There is no way to impose order on things. You suddenly understand that everything is relative.

The longing for long scarves is replaced by monsoon fever. Soon the clouds will come laden with songs of love set to sitars and spill its seed on the steamy town, Shiva will burst into his frenzied dance, the tiny votives of light that bob and dip on the river mark a song of parting. Long sashes of saris lie on the ghat to dry. Every step along the river-bank among the flapping sashes reminds you that the water will soon rise to this point. You are shown the little shrine that will soon be inundated. There is an excitement to do it all, to leave the lanes quickly, to anoint yourself for an instant at Mother Ganges before she bursts her banks. But a casual sacred brown cow stops suddenly. Her tail swishes lazily, dreamily. What fly dares disturb my repose? The surge in the lane comes to a standstill. You recall that there is no reason for haste.

* The broad steps that descend to the river


"On parallel axes"

Text author : Revital Cohen


Ceaseless chatter, shouts, tied-up baskets, frayed bundles, little vendors of all kinds, a maelstrom of sound all inform you that you are about to embark on an experience unlike any other: a train journey in India. Hundreds of people lie about the platform, indifferent to the flies and the oppressive heat. Some are really sleeping, you note with surprise. They have obviously never heard the hair-raising tourist tales of Indians with concealed skin-irritant sprays, whose only purpose is to get you to put your bag down for a moment, enough time for it to vanish. An old man sleeping at your feet suddenly turns over, studies you with dark wrinkled eyes, like a tracker sniffing the wind, and closes his eyes again. No need for a timetable or excited shouts. He sits up, his eyes still closed, his quiet movements conveying something to the swarms of people coming back to life. The train enters the station.

Everything is awash in noise, swamped by it. The din is a tangible presence, like a hot spice, you can smell it through your fingertips. The decision which carriage to climb into seems as random as a lottery ticket, and a quiet embarrassment seeps up your spine. Hundreds of people in motion, pushing, passing parcels through windows. A large woman in a yellow sari holds a little girl in her arms, two small children clinging to her skirts. An old baba carries his whole life in a tattered bundle. Vendors cry their wares. A young woman with a gold nose-ring in the shape of a flower shouts to a gray-haired man. Strong odors. And you aren’t even aboard yet. Tightly you clutch your ticket, a ticket to a train-ride in the most colorful amusement park in the world.

Tiptoeing erratically between other passengers brings you to a window-seat, only the window is sealed shut. No matter, you console yourself, at least it’s a window. You have not yet discovered that the best views are on the train itself. When the journey begins, your neighbors loosen up. A young man with a mustache and a serious look quickly introduces himself. He has just returned from his teacher in Delhi, a renowned homeopath, if you ever need treatment it’s important to know where to go. He goes on about the qualities of his guru. You listen politely but it’s hard to divide your attention between his gush of information, the inquisitive glances of the family opposite and the motion of the train as it picks up speed. Somehow you find yourself jotting down the homeopath’s Delhi address in your notebook. You never know. Someday you might be back in Delhi, too sick and terrified to go to a hospital.

The scenery through the window is a blur. It’s hard to keep track of time. The mother of the family opposite holds a marvelous silver tower, which she dismantles plate by plate. With a smile she offers you some cooked vegetables, and her laugh gurgles behind her hand as your face reddens from the hot spices. For the next hour, the entire life of the smiling couple and their children is laid before you.

Unlike railway journeys elsewhere, the real events here happen not outside the carriage but within it. It is almost tempting to say there is no reason to leave the train. One can travel among the dialects, the customs and the colors of the sub-continent without leaving one’s seat. Talking excitedly, answering wearily, looking amazed at the colorful rabble. Lounging, sitting in groups playing cards, standing in the aisles, leaning comfortably on bedrolls and smoking, chattering incessantly, asking where you’re coming from and where you’re going with wide-eyed innocence and curiosity, as if your reply will fill a void they have been burdened with since the beginning of time. It is hard to reconcile that bottomless curiosity with the ease with which they turn away, carrying with them your most intimate secrets like yesterday’s newspaper.

Your eyes return to the family opposite. Going to a wedding, explains the father in broken English. By the amount of baggage you would have thought they were moving house. At least. How the Indians carry around such vast and heavy baggage with their characteristic ease and charm remains a riddle. You recall a family you saw on a small motorbike, the rider holding a goat between his legs, strings of parcels in all directions. How you blushed when two lean, dusky women passed by with a dancer’s gait, one with a large clay jar on her head, the other with a heavy pile of fabrics tied with string, while you pummeled your travel bag, cursing every item over 10 grams you felt you simply had to buy. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’re never alone, always in groups, sometimes two men holding hands, or families, like here in the train. Here, though, you yourself are a participant in this journey beyond time. The differences between locals and strangers dissipate, and the boundaries of your own body have expanded to encompass the whole carriage. The tea-vendor comes through and is welcomed excitedly by everyone. Any time is time for chai.

They indicate you should throw the small cup out the window. It’s hard to bring yourself to do it the first time, but later you get used to it, throwing away the cups, but sheepishly, like a well-mannered child in the rambunctious company of urchins. At the same time you look with wonder at the goings-on outside. In this world on wheels, in a time out of time, a person can almost forget the world beyond the window. Perhaps because the story the train tells is more interesting. Thoughts are interrupted by a vendor moving through the carriage selling idli, steamed rice dumplings. “Idli-i-i-i, idli-i-i-i,” he shouts, but your belly is full of the peanuts Indians love eating to pass time.

The book you packed especially for the trip remains deep in your small bag. Your eyelids are heavy with fatigue. A roughness in your throat reminds you of every cigarette you’ve smoked, the butts all crushed on the floor of the carriage. Your whole body craves and cries out for a shower. Your skin is taut from the cramped sitting and the curious looks. You leaf wearily through a colored booklet the boy opposite insists on showing you. He points to a chubby, smiling boy: That’s Krishna. He mimics a flute and laughs. The smoke floats in the air and infuses the body like a liquid time-bomb.

Only when you’re off the train do you notice Krishna’s picture peeking out of your bag, but the small boy who remained behind with his family already belongs to another time. A dream-time when you learned to play an invisible flute, to toss tiny cups through a small crack in the window and to forget that you once wanted to get to a place with a certain name. Now you remember.

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