"Graffiti from Varanassi"
Text author : Revital Cohen
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.
"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.
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